This is the best Standard format I've played since the last Ravnica was legal and it may simply be the best I've ever played.* Since original Ravnica we've seen Standard formats dominated by decks like Faeries Jund Caw-Blade and Delver. The last two years have also seen oppressive Primeval Titan decks ensure that even if you could manage to beat Caw-Blade or Delver there was still a powerful deck willing to go over the top of what you wanted to do and smash your face in.
Now that's not to say that there was no room for fun or innovation during any of those periods. I still thoroughly enjoyed playing Magic and was more than happy to try out a variety of different strategies. However there were many more strategies and decks that simply could never compete with the big guns of that era. As powerful interactive or fun as they might have been "loses to Caw-Blade" or "can't beat Jund" was the death knell for them.
Right now we have a bit of a different Standard environment. Rather than a single deck being dominant Standard has a single card being dominant. That card is Thragtusk.
The big difference is that unlike Primeval Titan or Stoneforge Mystic Thragtusk isn't a "deck." You don't build a deck around Thragtusk. Rather Thragtusk is just the perfect card to go into a lot of different decks to bolster their strategies.
What this means for Standard is that your Thragtusk deck can be Bant Control Junk Reanimator Jund G/W Midrange etc. A wide variety of decks play the card and they all utilize him in different ways to push them toward their ultimate goals for winning the game.
Beyond that there are plenty of decks that put up solid numbers without even touching Thragtusk. Zombies both B/G and B/R U/W/R Midrange U/W/R Control W/U Humans and Esper Control are all examples of decks that don't need big sexy to survive. On the far end of the spectrum are some wacky combo decks like Epic Experiment and Burn at the Stake that both don't play Thragtusk and are capable of ignoring him to win the game.
The point I'm driving at is that Standard is very healthy right now. No clear deck has emerged as a frontrunner strategy and the format is wide open. You can play almost anything you want to play because instead of having to make sure you play a deck that can beat a tuned Delver list or a Valakut deck you simply have to ensure that you have a plan against a single card: Thragtusk. That makes things so much easier for deckbuilding and leaves the door open for so many cards to be viable.
On the topic of viability there's a certain card type that simply wasn't viable in the last Standard format thanks to Delver Primeval Titan and cards like Bonfire of the Damned. Planeswalkers were simply no good when a Geist of Saint Traft could easily pick them off without you being able to get any value out of them. As much as I love planeswalkers they simply sucked during that time.
That was then. Times have changed. Wanna know what card type is pretty damn good right now? I'll let you fill in the blank.
I posted a Junk Midrange deck in my article a few weeks ago. That deck was originally built after seeing how good Jace Architect of Thought and Tamiyo the Moon Sage were for me when I played the U/W/R Control deck at SCG Standard Open: Cincinnati. I realized that those two planeswalkers were by far the best cards in my deck and it made me wonder how good some of the non-blue planeswalkers were. The deck was designed with the purpose of preying on control decks by using Sorin Lord of Innistrad and Garruk Primal Hunter to provide difficult to deal with planeswalker threats to beat the planeswalkers in the U/W/R deck.
The more I played the deck the more I fell in love with it. Not only was it extremely effective against control strategies but it also donkey stomped a number of the hyper aggressive strategies. The 1-2-3 punch of Centaur Healer Restoration Angel and Thragtusk ensured that red decks and Zombie decks were at a disadvantage trying to plow through all the life gain. Unlike other decks that would gain a bunch of life with Centaur Healers and Thragtusks but still eventually lose to Zombies this deck was actually capable of closing out the game with help from the planeswalkers and lands like Gavony Township and Vault of the Archangel.
Since that article I've been playing updated versions of this deck as often as I can. I simply can't get enough of the deck. I played a version of it at SCG Standard Open: Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago and ended up losing round 1 to Junk Reanimator rattling off seven straight wins and then losing my win-and-in round to Jund to miss out on Top 8.
That tournament taught me a number of things about the deck. For one it was very powerful and definitely capable of contending with the myriad of different strategies present in current Standard. Secondly the Jund matchup wasn't very good. Although I went 2-1 against Jund on the day I never felt favored. The matchup felt very 50/50 or even 55/45 in their favor.
Since Indy I've been playing the list on Magic Online to good results. I've 4-0'd or 3-1'd almost every single Daily Event I've played with the list which inspired me to play and tune the deck even more. Ultimately my efforts led me to the following list:
How Does the Deck Win?
The key plan of this deck is still the same as it was when I first put it together. You want to ramp from one to three to five mana and play a Thragtusk or a Garruk on turn 3. This typically looks like a turn 1 mana dork into a turn 2 Keyrune. I've occasionally lived the dream of turn 1 mana dork turn 2 Keyrune and mana dork and turn 3 Armada Wurm which is about as backbreaking as it sounds.
One thing I really love about this deck is its versatility. It can play a quick and powerful game where you ramp into Thragtusks Garruks and Armada Wurms and quickly bury your opponent under huge threats but it can also play a long game where you gain incremental advantages from Gavony Township planeswalkers Sever the Bloodline Lingering Souls and Restoration Angel to grind through whatever your opponent is doing.
The other thing that makes the deck versatile is that most individual cards also provide a level of versatility simply on their own. Thragtusk is good on both offense and defense as is Restoration Angel. Lingering Souls can be a very difficult threat to beat especially when combined with Sorin emblems or Gavony Township but it can also serve as a stream of chump blockers for aggressive creatures trying to damage you or your planeswalkers. Garruk Primal Hunter serves as a giant roadblock to aggressive decks and provides a constant stream of threats and cards against control or other midrange decks. Even Selesnya Keyrune doubles as ramp and a threat later on.
Junk? I Disagree. The Cards are Actually Quite Good.
A few weeks ago I would've agreed with that. Matt Eitel convinced me to play some Armada Wurms in my list at SCG Indy and I haven't looked back since. Although it may come as a surprise Armada Wurm is much better in this deck than Angel of Serenity.
On a very simple level it's cheaper to play and gets along well with Restoration Angel but even beyond that I find I like it more. Too often Angel of Serenity would just rot in my hand. I either was unable to cast it due to its restrictive mana cost or it simply wasn't particularly effective when I did. Without Mulch and Grisly Salvage to populate my graveyard most of the time when I cast Angel of Serenity I was exiling just one or two creatures rarely any of my own. If my opponent killed the Angel I didn't come out ahead especially without Unburial Rites to repeat the process.
I found that against a deck like Jund Armada Wurm was very tough for them to beat whereas Angel of Serenity wasn't quite the same. They'd often just kill it and go on with their lives. Most of the time I had to exile their creatures and it was sometimes be painful for them to be able to recast a Huntmaster or Thragtusk. Armada Wurm is much tougher for them to kill. It dodges Mizzium Mortars and can typically attack through anything. It also ends the game very quickly which is a very useful benefit. The trample on Armada Wurm means that it plays very nicely with Sorin emblems Gavony Township and especially Vault of the Archangel. With Vault both tokens gain deathtouch and can assign one damage to each blocker and trample over for the rest.
The final point is that Armada Wurm is a huge threat on a naked board which happens a lot against decks like Jund and Control. Angel of Serenity can't do the same thing and pigeonholes you into playing a long game which you may not be as favored in.
Selesnya Charm is a card I added to the deck after the popularity of the U/W/R Midrange decks skyrocketed. It provides an instant speed removal spell for Thundermaw Hellkite creates an instant speed blocker that will trade with a Geist of Saint Traft and can also let a Thragtusk trample over for lethal in racing situations. It also has some benefit in other matchups by letting you exile Angel of Serenity (sometimes with the trigger on the stack if they're targeting their own cards so that those cards will be permanently exiled) and getting rid of an Olivia who has outgrown her britches.
I originally started with two Charms but I've gotten fairly mixed results from them so I'm currently just playing one copy.
While the well-documented and powerful interactions between Restoration Angel and Thragtusk are the foundation of the deck the hidden source of power comes from the two planeswalkers: Sorin Lord of Innistrad and Garruk Primal Hunter.
Sorin may seem a bit unassuming at first. He did a great job of warming the bench during his first season in Standard. Sorin didn't match up well against Titans Gut Shot Geist of Saint Traft Zealous Conscripts and Bonfire of the Damned€”all cards that saw a lot of play in the last format. With the exception of Geist of Saint Traft none of those cards are really doing much in Standard right now and as a result Sorin really has a chance to shine.
Sorin was a key player in Innistrad Block Constructed before Avacyn Restored was released. That format had a lot of really grindy games where both players looked to gain any kind of incremental advantages they could to start to take over the game. Sound familiar? That's a lot like the Standard format we're currently in.
In grindy matchups Sorin does a number of things. He provides a steady stream of blockers or attackers depending on the situation. His emblem powers up your team and lets your weaker guys trade up for their stronger guys. He also threatens to ultimate and completely swing the game in your favor by stealing their three best threats and turning them into your three best threats. If those are cards like Angel of Serenity Thragtusk or Restoration Angel this ability will probably just win you the game on the spot. My favorite Sorin ultimate thus far was targeting two Dreg Manglers and a Geralf's Messenger. I've seen worse.
One thing I really like about Sorin is that he's good against decks at both ends of the spectrum. Against aggressive decks he provides chump blockers and gains life with his +1 ability which are both super relevant abilities. Against control decks he negates Jace's +1 with his emblem and constantly pressures their planeswalkers and then their life total if left unchecked. The only matchups he's weaker against are the midrange decks but even in those matchups his emblem is usually still very good.
One thing to note about playing Sorin and it took me a while to learn this myself is to make emblems early and often. In Innistrad Block Constructed before Avacyn Restored Sorin didn't immediately die as often so you'd typically want to +1 him and milk him for as much value as you could. In Standard right now if you suspect he's going to die before your next turn it's generally right to make an emblem. A 1/1 token isn't going to do much to affect the game in the long run but an emblem can turn all of your Lingering Souls and mana dorks into much bigger threats later on.
The other planeswalker in the deck is Garruk Primal Hunter. There are a lot of Junk decks that opt to play Garruk Relentless instead but I personally think Primal Hunter is far superior. Relentless is very good on turn 3 against other Avacyn Pilgrim decks but is much more marginal in other matchups. Control decks can ignore Garruk Relentless for a period of time but the same cannot be said of Primal Hunter. 3/3s are big game as they trade with a Thragtusk and Centaur Healer and the threat of drawing three to five cards means Primal Hunter has to be immediately answered or will bury your opponent in card advantage.
Garruk breaks open the midrange matchups and might as well be unbeatable on turn 3 barring an immediate Dreadbore. It may be worth it to have a third copy in the SB just for those matchups.
Garruk also loves it when you call him Big Papa.
Time for 'Boarding School
Green white and black offer a number of really awesome sideboard cards and one of the big advantages of this deck is the ability to add in powerful cards to shore up any matchup you're playing.
Deathrite Shaman is a great tool against Reanimator decks as he serves as a threat disruption and occasionally acceleration all in one neat package. For one mana you can't ask for much more.
Underworld Connections is a really underrated card right now. It's awesome against Jund and control decks alike and one neat interaction is that you can use Arbor Elf to draw extra cards with it if you cast Underworld Connections on a Forest something you should essentially always do.
Ray of Revelation's stock keeps going up. Originally this was in the deck mainly to fight Detention Spheres and Intangible Virtues but if Geist of Saint Traft decks start adopting cards like Spectral Flight and Ethereal Armor then it's going to serve double duty in making sure their Geists still get eaten by your Thragtusks.
Angel of Serenity is really awesome against the G/W aggressive decks that I see a lot of on Magic Online. They don't have much removal to kill it and even if they do all you typically need is to just buy some time anyway. Usually this is a one-sided Wrath and the game typically ends the turn after you cast it against them. Angel is also pretty solid against other midrange decks like Junk Reanimator and Jund.
Unburial Rites is a new addition to the sideboard and this card is purely for the Jund matchup. It does some neat things like makes Rakdos' Return less good against you and completely invalidates all of their one-for-one removal spells like Dreadbore. This matchup is very card advantage and attrition based and Unburial Rites gives you the best of both worlds in that regard. The only downside is they might side in otherwise useless graveyard hate against you expecting you to be on Junk Reanimator and get some actual value in blanking your Unburial Rites in the process.
The miser's Vault of the Archangel comes in against decks where Vault outperforms Gavony Township. This is typically the case in matchups against Geist of Saint Traft decks or aggressive decks. I also bring it in as a 26th land sometimes when I side out some mana dorks as I do in some matchups.
Rather than providing a sideboard guide that looks like this: "Take out 4X. Bring in 4Y" I'm opting instead to discuss some key matchups and explain which cards matter most. The reason I don't like providing an exact guide is twofold. For one I don't have one or use one personally. I like to sideboard on the fly based on the cards I saw from my opponent game 1 and sometimes on how game 1 played out and how I think they will sideboard against me. Secondly there are so many different viable card choices for all the popular decks right now that a sideboard strategy against one version of Jund might be terrible against another.
Here's an example of what I mean: Lingering Souls is really bad against a lot of Jund builds. Those builds play Bonfire Olivia Sever the Bloodline and Thundermaw Hellkite. I side out Lingering Souls against those decks since it's often more of a liability than anything else. However other Jund decks don't play Hellkite play Mizzium Mortars over Bonfire and don't play many copies of Sever the Bloodline. Against those decks Lingering Souls is actually a very viable threat.
For reasons like that I think it's important to think on the fly and not blindly follow pre-tournament notes.
Let's start with the worst matchup Jund.
If they're on Bonfires and Hellkites then Sorin and Lingering Souls aren't very good. Otherwise they're fine. I like Underworld Connections Angel of Serenity and Unburial Rites a lot in this matchup and I sometimes bring in Centaur Healer when I have too many cards I want to cut.
I pretty much always board out my Avacyn's Pilgrims and bring in Vault of the Archangel as a 26th land to compensate. Vault is also surprisingly good against them anyway often better than Gavony Township especially with Underworld Connections in the mix.
I don't like Avacyn's Pilgrim in this matchup because outside of the very specific scenario of ramping into a turn 3 Garruk the card doesn't do much. Jund has so much removal and life gain that you're rarely going to win by being faster than them and late in the game Avacyn's Pilgrim is almost completely dead. Olivia Bonfire and Huntmaster make it a huge liability.
Unburial Rites seems good if they're on Supreme Verdict but bad if they're on Terminus. Underworld Connections and Ray of Revelation are the only cards that really excite me to bring in from the sideboard here but you don't need much to bring in anyway since these matchups are usually extremely one-sided in your favor. They can't profitably deal with planeswalkers Lingering Souls and Thragtusk.
I typically cut down on two to three Avacyn's Pilgrims especially against Bant Control decks that can play upwards of seven sweepers. This game isn't a race and the one way you can lose is not drawing enough gas. Since the mana dorks tend to get swept away as collateral damage when they Supreme Verdict your bigger threats I don't want to have too many of them but in the same regard you want to have some number so that a turn 4 Jace doesn't wreck you.
The game plan here is fairly similar across the board. You want Centaur Healers to get your Healer->Resto Angel->Thragtusk on and you want to bring in a Vault of the Archangel for a Gavony Township. As for what to side out that depends a lot on the matchup. If they have Rancor then it's often Lingering Souls and Sorin that get the axe. For what it's worth Armada Wurm is pretty fantastic against almost every aggressive strategy (with the exception of Mono-Red Aggro).
Against G/W Midrange I sometimes keep in Lingering Souls and don't bring in Centaur Healer since the few points of life typically don't matter too much Centaur Healer doesn't profitably trade with much in their deck and Lingering Souls can be awesome at protecting planeswalkers and combos well with Vault of the Archangel. I also bring in Angel of Serenity here because they struggle to beat that card.
Geist of Saint Traft Decks
Centaur Healer is awesome here and Ray of Revelation is sometimes good if they have Detention Spheres and/or Spectral Flights. Armada Wurm typically isn't great against their wall of counterspells and Sorin can be weak as well since he doesn't profitably fight Geist.
This is where Deathrite Shaman really shines. I also like Angel of Serenity against them so you can help fight against their Angels. The other Sever is also awesome since it's a great tool to deal with their big finishers and ensures that they can't just Reanimate them again. Although this is typically a grindy matchup much like Jund I don't like Underworld Connections here because they can sometimes be very aggressive with mana dorks Lingering Souls and Gavony Township backed up by an Angel of Serenity to clear out your blockers on the last turn. You typically don't have time to mess around with drawing a few cards.
It's tough figuring out what to cut in this matchup. I typically don't want Selesnya Charm as it's really only effective against Angel of Serenity and sometimes Thragtusk if you can do it in response to a Restoration Angel from them. I also think Oblivion Ring isn't that great for the same reason€”it's only really effective on an Angel of Serenity.
Armada Wurm can be hit or miss. Sometimes it wrecks them but sometimes it ends up just falling victim to their Angel of Serenity. Typically I side out some number of these Selesnya Charm and Oblivion Ring for Deathrite Shaman and my own Angel of Serenity as well as the Sever the Bloodline.
That should cover most of the prominent matchups you'll face.
In closing I want to say that I think this Junk deck is the strongest all-around deck in Standard. I'd play it in any upcoming Standard tournament without a doubt. It has very powerful matchups against control and aggressive strategies alike. Its only weak point is the other midrange decks especially Jund but I've spent a lot of time working on making those matchups better and have been winning much more against Jund now that I have cards like Unburial Rites.
Give the deck a try. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Thanks for reading
BBD on Magic Online
@BraunDuinIt on Twitter
* This is obviously an opinion not a fact. While I really love long and interactive games of Magic the true can't be said for everyone. I know there are some people who prefer short and decisive games and that's the kind of Magic that doesn't really happen in a format where Thragtusk is king.