As some longtime readers might remember, I got my start on this site about two years back by jumping up and down screaming about how everyone was misbuilding their Green/Black decks in Standard. It's been awhile, and I'm sure my lungs appreciate the break, but everyone needs a good scream now and again, right?
So here's the thing. Last year, Shlomi Mir posted an article about G/B, and it set the standard for almost all the G/B decks that season: play Kodama's Reach, play Death Cloud, play Plow Under, play Kokusho, and so forth. From that point on G/B was considered at least a Tier Two deck, and then... proceeded to remain a Tier Two deck for the rest of the season. Two years ago G/B was also merely a Tier Two deck, and I would hardly be surprised if it ends up being Tier Two again this year.
What bothers me about this is that despite the fact that G/B keeps coming up short of Tier One, nobody seems to want to do anything about it. The design philosophy behind G/B decks in the last couple of years has remained almost entirely unchanged. Stagnant, even. The plan has been to "get lots of two-for-ones, then do something expensive and fairly powerful."
I have a problem with this strategy. Do you know what it is?
It's not making you Tier One.
It don't work! It's broke! Fix it!
This strategy will make you a strong Draft deck, an insane Sealed deck, and a Tier Two Constructed deck. Something needs to change if G/B is to dig itself out of this hole it's become stuck in.
And now, to the readers that don't want to change the way they play G/B, who don't mind playing a Tier Two deck, and who will stick to their guns no matter what else I have to say on the subject, I bid you adieu. Article's over. Head home using the nearest convenient exit. Because I'll be damned if I'll settle for Tier Two status when I'm playing as wide-open an archetype as G/B.
A reasonable question at this point might be - why bring up this topic now? Well, there's a new Standard season around the corner, and anyone who's seen the Ravnica spoiler will know that G/B is receiving a plethora of goodies to add to its arsenal... so you can understand the sour taste in my mouth when the first Kamigawa-Ravnica-9th Standard article I read told me to play G/B exactly the same way as it always has been.
While the article itself was fine and entertaining, nothing in it did anything to convince me that this will be the season where G/B finally becomes one of the Decks To Beat rather than one of the Decks To Maybe Consider Playtesting Against. The cards in the suggested lists were the same stuff we've been seeing for years.
Yup, still there. Expensive and fairly powerful effects?
Grave-Shell Scarab, Gleancrawler, Kagemaro.
Check, check, and check. Same old story.
It seems people have gotten so locked into the mentality of what a G/B deck "should" look like, they have lost sight of G/B's core strategy.
Do you know what that is, by the way? It's quite simple.
Against control, you attack.
Against aggro, you block.
That's it. That's all you need to know about G/B.
It's a classic case of "Who's The Beatdown?" You're too slow to race aggro, and less powerful in the late game than control is. Even if you claim to be playing a "G/B Aggro" deck, there is no way you are going to consistently outrace a speed-tuned White Weenie deck; to win that matchup, you are going to have to dig in for the long game. Likewise, even if you call your deck "G/B Control" and get paired up against Gifts Ungiven, you will find yourself turning your men sideways every turn, windshield-wiper style. There's no way you can sit back and have a card advantage contest with a deck that can recur Cranial Extraction every turn of the game if you give it time to set up.
But all of this is perfectly fine, as long as assuming a control posture against aggro will make you beat aggro, while assuming the beatdown role against control will make you beat control. If you design your deck in such a way that this dual strategy is possible, you have crafted a fundamentally successful G/B deck.
However, G/B decks in the past few years seem to have lost sight of this. The mantra of G/B deck design has somehow "evolved" into simply, "Card advantage is good, expensive game breakers are good." This is a problem because... well, card advantage isn't always good, and game breakers don't always break games when they're really expensive.
Look at Carven Caryatid, for example. (1GG for a 2/5 Defender, draw a card when it comes into play.) Let's say I'm playing a traditional G/B list against a Gifts Ungiven control deck, and I just drew this card.
Me: "Hey there. What can you do for me in this matchup?"
Caryatid: "Cycling 3. Sorcery speed."
Me: "I don't want Cycling 3. I want to spend my third turn playing a threat. Are you a threat?"
Me: "Why are you in my deck?"
Caryatid: "You aren't supposed to draw me against control. I'm going back to sleep; wake me up when you get paired up against aggro."
Carven Caryatid is great at blocking, but Holy Chicken And Waffles is she ever abysmal at attacking.
I realize how happy you are when you draw her against aggro, but do you see how bummed out you are when you draw her against control? You aren't going to get paired against aggro decks all day, I promise.
This is G/B. You need to be able to attack and block, and Carven Caryatid is only good at one of these. She's gotta go.
What about Kagemaro? As we all know from watching him do his thing in Gifts Ungiven, he's quite the brick house when your hand is filled up. But in G/B? Not so much. Spending the early game curving out with creatures so I can drop a five-mana 3/3 with the optional ability to blow up all the creatures I just played is not why I get up in the morning. Nor is the prospect of holding onto all my early drops so I can play him like an expensive Wrath of God, hoping the aggro deck I'm facing won't kill me before I can reach the necessary mana, play a Pithing Needle before I can activate him, or just drop a Hokori on me right after I spend all my entire early game setting up a single board sweep.
So what kind of creatures should G/B be playing instead? As a general rule, low-casting cost utility creatures with two or three power are solid inclusions. Graverobber, Hyppie, the Guildmages... bears and Gray Ogres with relevant abilities are exactly what let G/B successfully morph from aggro to control in different matchups.
If worst comes to worst, these cheap utility creatures can just block and trade with cheaper attackers from aggro decks. (They are actually better removal than Cruel Edict when they do this.) Against combo and aggro, they create enough of a clock that the opponent can't sideboard out his answers to cheap creatures despite the fact that, unlike ordinary aggro decks, your deck actually gets better in the late game.
Two years ago, I ran two copies of Withered Wretch in my Green/Black deck for Regionals. The Wretch was intended to take out Eternal Dragons and neuter Patriarch's Biddings, but when I drew him in my opening hand against Goblins, you know what he did? He jumped in front of Goblin Piledriver, and I couldn't have been more pleased with him for doing it.
Having said that, remember that you can't go all trades against aggro. They will have a more aggressive curve-out than you will, plus removal for some of your blockers, so expect them to be well ahead of you in the damage race by the time you finish playing out your respective hands. For this reason it is essential that you are able to turn things around and establish board control in the late game; if you cannot, you will either be burned out by direct damage or unable to attack with your own men for fear of a lethal counterattack.
This is why you need good blockers. One 4/4 blocker can hold off a group of two or three 2/2 attackers as long as your life total is high enough to make alpha striking unproductive. A good blocker essentially "trades" for two or three attackers once you've stabilized, allowing you to start beating down with an evasion guy or anything else that cannot be blocked and traded for on a one-for-one basis.
(Creature combat: it's not just for Limited any more!)
But what about against control decks? You gotta hit those guys hard. Your creatures aren't as cheap as the dedicated aggro decks out there, so you can't rely on speed alone to secure a win. You need guys like Hypnotic Specter and Nezumi Graverobber that beat down while screwing with the opponent's plan, so that when the late game rolls around you have both knocked a good chunk out of the control player's life total, and also thwarted his usual methods of achieving late game dominance against regular aggro decks.
Threats that beget other threats are quite desirable, though be wary of utility creatures that merely "get card advantage." Civic Wayfinder, for example, (2G for a 2/2 that tutors a basic land into your hand when he comes into play) nets you an extra land on top of his 2/2 body. Technically that makes him a two-for-one, but remember that the extra land he provides will not explicitly help you beat control decks unless you happen to have some expensive back-breaker in your deck that he will allow you to play earlier.
Compare him to, say, these guys.
Shambling "I'm The Stone Cold Nuts" Shell
Creature - Plant Zombie (best creature type ever?)
Sacrifice Shambling Shell: Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.
Dredge 3 (If you would draw a card, instead you may put exactly 3 cards from the top of your library into your graveyard. If you do, return this card from your graveyard to your hand. Otherwise, draw a card.)
Grave-Shell "I'm Huge And I Never Die" Scarab
Creature - Insect
Dredge 1 (If you would draw a card, instead you may put exactly 1 card from the top of your library into your graveyard. If you do, return this card from your graveyard to your hand. Otherwise, draw a card.)
1, Sacrifice Grave-Shell Scarab: Draw a card.
The members of Team Dredge Guy, though they do not explicitly generate card advantage, guarantee that you will never run out of gas. You know those times when your board is clear, your hand is empty, and you're praying for a topdeck? Dredge lets you "order up" just such a topdeck any time you need it. Just when it looks like you're on your knees, up springs a zombie that starts throwing punches before the crypt dust has even fallen from his fingers.
Also, while I'm at it - for those not yet intimately familiar with the Ravnica spoiler, here's the text for a few of the other new cards I've got my eye on for G/B.
Svogthos, the Restless Tomb "Where Wealthy Plants Are Buried"
Tap: Add 1 to your mana pool.
3BG: Until end of turn, Svogthos, the Restless Tomb becomes a black and green Plant Zombie (!!!) creature with "This creature's power and toughness are each equal to the number of creature cards in your graveyard." It's still a land.
Putrefy "That Jitte Off My Table"
Destroy target artifact or creature. It can't be regenerated.
Overgrown Tomb "Which Looks Like a Bayou"
Land - Swamp Forest
(Tap: Add B or G to your mana pool.)
As Overgrown Tomb comes into play, you may pay 2 life. If you don't, Overgrown Tomb comes into play tapped instead.
Elves of Deep Shadow "'The Best Elf Ever' - Jamie Wakefield"
Creature - Elf Druid
Tap: Add B to your mana pool. Elves of Deep Shadow deals 1 damage to you.
So I've got a decklist for you, to get you thinking about what a Ravnica-Kamigawa-9th G/B deck could look like. It ain't tested, it ain't tuned, it ain't pretty. It's a prototype. A starting point. I came up with it in my Operating Systems class.
Here it is.
This list embodies most of the principles I just discussed. You've got guys that trade, guys that block and don't die, recurring threats, disruption, the whole nine yards. And an aggressive mana curve, to boot.
As I mentioned earlier, this is list is untested. With no kind of established metagame to throw it up against, much less a precise gauntlet of expected decklists, testing at this point in the season seems to me an exercise in futility. However, for those interested in taking this deck for a spin (or perhaps looking for something to take to States), I'll take a few minutes to go over why I included the cards I did.
Against aggro, the list has the following game-breakers:
Umezawa's Jitte, Manriki-Gusari, Putrefy, Shambling Shell, Isao, Grave-Shell Scarab
We all know how Jitte works when you draw it and they don't. However, those who never experienced aggro mirror matches in Kamigawa Block Constructed might not be quite as familiar with Manriki-Gusari, so here's a quick lowdown.
"Manriki-Gusari means that I now have a huge blocker that you probably can't attack into. Also, I can now blow up any Jitte, Manriki-Gusari, and O-Naginata you try to slip in from here to the end of the game. Finally, one of my guys per turn can temporarily become big and swing in to make sure I'm still ahead on the damage race." It's not something any aggro deck wants to be on the receiving end of.
Putrefy stops Jitte and Manriki-Gusari, and in the event that you're not worried about either of those, it switches gears and takes out the opposition's biggest guy instead.
Isao is a 4/3 blocker, and if you happen to have extra mana lying around, he can even stave off 3/3s and 4/4s with the threat of regeneration. (By the way, please don't fall into the trap of thinking Isao has to regenerate every turn. Develop your board, take some beats or just trade with him if you have to, then start leaving mana up for regeneration once doing so will actually let you take over the game instead of merely saving you a few points of damage at the expense of your board position.)
Grave-Shell Scarab is completely absurd. Everything short of a five-toughness creature is a chump blocker (though blocking 4/4s do make you pay one mana and mill a card to bounce him back to your hand), and even five-toughness creatures drop to pumps like Manriki-Gusari, Shambling Shell, and Jitte. And if they do find a removal spell for him, you can sacrifice him in response to get some easy card advantage, plus - oh yeah, you can Dredge him right back to your hand at the earliest convenience. As late-game finishers go, there's not a whole lot more you could ask from this guy.
But notice how the rest of the team, although more impressive against control, is still solid against aggro.
The two different Elf-flavored accelerants are actually just straight-up mana sources against aggro, since you can expect a complete and total lack of board sweepers. That means you'll be able to plow out your curve at maximum speed, all the way up to your five-drop Grave-Shell Scarab. As 1/1s, they are unlikely to trade with anything but Hearth Kami and Savannah Lions, but Shambling Shell and Manriki-Gusari team with the Elves to make them battleworthy in no time. If you really don't need their mana in the late game, you can gang up with two Elves on a two-toughness guy and trade, or sac one to an incoming Ogre Marauder and use the other to block it. Or if you're racing, you can just chump block to get ahead on the damage race and feed Svogthos, The Plant Zombie Land. There are plenty of uses for these little guys beyond just mana.
Nezumi Graverobber trades with most two-drops all day, and shuts down opposing Dredge action. Plus, if you are quick about setting up a midgame stall, he might even flip and start going crazy like he does in Limited.
Hypnotic Specter can crash in a few times to set you up for the late game with some spicy card advantage, then stay home and trade with a two-drop once he's three-for-oned the opposition. Also, next to Putrefy and Jitte, he's your best answer to incoming flyers.
Shambling Shell trades with most creatures in your average aggro deck, and does so while pumping your own men. With combat damage on the stack, that could turn into a two-for-one. Not to mention the fact that his Dredge action all but guarantees you will win any kind of topdeck war you might happen to get into.
Against control we have a different set of game-breakers.
Elves, Elves, Nezumi Graverobber, Hypnotic Specter, Shambling Shell, Grave-Shell Scarab, and Umezawa's Jitte
The Elves offer you just the kind of jump-start on board development that will force control decks to pause in their development and deal with your threats, rather than setting up for the long game your card advantage generators are going to contest later on down the road. These guys go a long way toward eliminating the deficiency in your mana curve when compared to a more streamlined beatdown deck.
Hyppie, especially on turn 2, can get out of hand pretty quickly by himself. He even has the potential to knock out the removal spells that were supposed to deal with him once the control player had acquired the necessary mana to cast them.
Graverobber can randomly flip on turn 3 or 4 and start swinging for four much earlier than any creature should be able to, but more importantly he answers graveyard recursion in the late game. Exile into Darkness, Kagemaro recursion, and even opposing Dredge cards in the G/B mirror are all out of the picture once Graverobber hits.
Grave-Shell and Jitte are obviously both amazing threats. If unanswered, each one represents a minimum of four damage to the dome each turn, and control decks have to go considerably out of their way to adequately answer either one of them. Jitte requires either artifact removal or enough creature kill to keep the board completely clear, which is no mean feat against a deck with eight Dredge creatures. Grave-Shell has to be killed and removed from the game, or else a huge blocker of some sort has to be put in front of him. But blocking is a poor solution to GSS, as he can just swing into the defender alongside a team of smaller guys without fear of repercussion. (He essentially "regenerates" for six mana and a card off the top of your library.)
Finally there's Shambling Shell. A 3/1 beatstick that comes down on turn 3, makes your other guys more threatening when he dies and keeps coming back for more. His Dredge has the nice side benefit of pumping Svogthos and sometimes dropping a Grave-Shell Scarab into your graveyard, giving him an built-in pseudo-tutor effect.
Again, notice how even the non-game breakers are solid against control as well.
Putrefy takes out Pithing Needle on Jitte and trades with finishers such as Kagemaro and Meloku. (Granted, shooting Meloku when the opponent has mana open to make Illusions is not the most exciting play ever, but it sure beats letting him churn them out for the rest of the game.)
Manriki-Gusari adds resilience to mass removal, as it continues adding power to your side of the table even when all of your creatures are repeatedly destroyed. It also puts your three-power guys outside of Exile Into Darkness range, and lets small fry attack into Sakura-Tribe Elder when doing so normally would result in a very poor exchange.
Even Isao's abilities can prove useful; his uncounterability is quite relevant against permission decks, and his ability to hold off a rampaging Kagemaro or North Tree when you're on your heels is useful as well. (For the record, I considered Mortivore for Isao's slot, and only recommended Isao in this build because Mortivore is pretty awful against combo decks, and I don't know yet if combo will end up a part of the metagame.)
But this deck is just a prototype. Its primary purpose is to illustrate the kinds of things you should be looking for when constructing an effective G/B deck. Fill out your curve with creatures that are good at attacking and blocking (and if combo is a factor in the metagame, make sure they can provide disruption as well), and make sure all the cards you play come together to give you a strong late game.
If you rely on generic two-for-ones and expensive effects that may or may not actually break the game open, you will get plenty of draws that are too slow to handle aggro ("could you stop attacking for awhile so I can hit Kokusho mana, please?"), or too non-threatening to race combo and control. ("Fear my ruthless Solemn Simulacrum beatdown!")
I can't promise G/B will be a Tier One deck this season. No one can. But the least we can do is give it a shot at the title by recognizing what has made it fail in the past and avoiding those mistakes this time around.
Until next time, may you overrun the opposition with a horde of rampaging Plant Zombies!
Team Check Minus