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Building Black Green for the Field: Grand Prix Milwaukee Reflections

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Building Black Green for the Field: Grand Prix Milwaukee Reflections

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all! This week I’m going to be talking about Standard and how the Golgari decks I’ve been playing have been built in the field. From what I have heard, what I’ve read, and who I’ve talked to, Standard is in a unique place. Standard has been something of complaint for so long that we have to wonder if we even know what a good format would look like. Well, I think that standard as we have it is actively great. I think that there’s a lot to love about this format. Firstly, I think it challenges a lot of assumptions and lazy assumptions about how the format would fall. Black Green Midrange is full of card advantage, but, it is not close to the most inevitable deck in the format. Jeskai Control is succeeding by moving away from Teferis! Arclight Phoenix and Mono Red are not single-minded aggressive strategies, but, in fact play for the long game and inevitability. I would even argue that Arclight Phoenix is the most inevitable deck in the format. Moreover, the deck that won the Pro Tour is pretty clearly the worst deck I’m going to talk about in this article. That said, I am only going to be talking about five decks in this article because the potentially frustrating part of Standard is that while it has lots of options, it is oriented towards five decks: Green Black Midrange, Blue Red Arclight Phoenix, Mono Red, Jeskai Control, and Mono White Aggro. Each of these decks can offer a reasonable matchup against the other four decks if it utilizes their flex slots correctly. There are still so many versions of all of these decks and because of the diversity of versions, other decks have not been able to break through. Traditionally, the format is focused on one or two decks and the other metagame share is made of decks built solely to prey on “the best deck” but when the format is open on this level, it’s hard for decks like Mono Blue or Green White Tokens to break through because they can’t reasonably prey on a deck they might not even play in an event. For example, I have played against Green Black Midrange at Competitive REL all season. The format is open to a degree and I would say that has to do with one central thing: the power level of individual cards is quite low.

Mono White is trying to get there on the back of 1/1s for 1 and its best draws are propped up by a four of Mythic and an anthem that requires you to tap your team in order to profitably cast it. Mono Red must feature several anemic Wizards in order to support a Lightning Bolt impersonation and uses a punisher card to close the door. Black Green has to play often embarrassing explore creatures in order to hit their land drops on time and make Wildgrowth Walker look incredibly powerful, lest it stay as a 1/3 creature with very little board impact. Phoenix features a 3/2 for 4 and several expensive cantrips in order to trigger this synergy. Cards like Tormenting Voice and Radical Idea have “upside” in their card disadvantage, but, are still a cut below what you’d want to be playing. This is not to say that there is no power to Standard, but, it is very clear that the decisions you are making in deck building feel more constrained when examining the top tier strategies. This is my conflict with Standard. Because the power level is relatively uniform amongst the top five decks, the games that you play feel close and interesting. Your decisions matter and because the of the low power level, plays that can’t maximize the weaker cards will often cost you games. This leads to a lot of lines that can be complex and leave you feeling smart which I absolutely love. However, in the deckbuilding stage, you just want to smack yourself over the head. I feel like I’m making huge deckbuilding mistakes by consciously registering 1/2s and 2/1s and 1/3s for 2. It’s frustrating that when I look at my two drops, I have no options. Gone are the days of Scrapheap Scrounger, Heart of Kiran to start off games. Removal spells like Magma Spray, Fatal Push, and even the Defeat cycle are long gone. This makes the games the best part of the format, not the deckbuilding. Which, hilariously enough, is exactly my opinion on Guilds of Ravinica drafting.

With the context of this format in mind, I’d like to break down how I brought myself to the Green Black strategy that I registered at GP Milwaukee. After the Pro Tour, it was clear that Mono White was in the spotlight. Whether it was a good deck or not, White decks featuring a few red cards were all over the camera at the Pro Tour and the decks championed by several well-known professional players. Going into Milwaukee, I expected people to realize that Mono White was not very good, but, it was certainly going to be present in the metagame, but, it was not going to be the most played deck and people would certainly be prepared. The natural predator of Mono White was very much Mono Red in the days after the Pro Tour. With these details in mind, Phoenix did not look good to me. In my testing with Phoenix, I did not like my positioning versus the mono colored aggro decks. This left me with Jeskai Control and Black Green as viable options. I quickly dismissed Jeskai Control because of its reliance on Defeaning Clarion or bust to race the White decks and the fact that Teferi did not seem will oriented to the field. These two factors meant that Jeskai looked less like an Expansion/Explosion control deck and more like a bigger Crackling Drake deck. If that was my option, I’d rather aim for the true midrange deck that seemed to have a reasonable Red matchup and a new plan for White from crowd favorite Matt Nass.

Matt’s 8-2 Black Green strategy was touted by my podcast co-host and new Legit MTG content producer Joe Dejoy as basically perfect. Joe spent the week racking up wins on MTGO which led me to lean into “golgari cards I own.” It’s not so much that it took much convincing to get me to play Green Black. I had been playing Green Black shells all season. However, after my worst GP performance ever in GP New Jersey just two weeks before, I was very low on the Black Green strategy and was very grumpy about having to sleeve up explorers that I’d condemned all season and the incredibly variant Wildgrowth Walker. That said, if that package was the best plan for Red and White, I would play it. I started by going hard into the Wildgrowth plan, choosing to register Gruesome Menagerie up until about Wednesday. Menagerie went so far over the top of Red and White it was comical. I’d end games at 55 life after my opponent had thrown everything they had at me. Moreover, I had great counterplay to the uptick in sweepers. Gruesome Menagerie and Midnight Reaper essentially forced my control opponents to lean back and spend their resources on my board letting my final plays be absolutely back breaking. The real problem with the deck was, unsurprisingly, the low power level I had to play to make the most out of my most powerful cards. Playing 12 explorers or playing Glowspore Shaman and Stitcher’s Supplier made my draws inconsistent and incongruent. Doom Whisperer was how I liked filling my graveyard, not the milling creatures or the extra explorers. Side note, if you do choose to play a Wildgrowth package in Meangerie, make sure to play Tishana’s Wayfinder in order to set up more turns where you can play Wildgrowth + a 3CMC explorer.

With Doom Whisperer impressing me, I returned to Matt’s deck. I was pretty low on Carnage Tyrant given that I was expecting a downtick in Phoenix and a downtick in the mirror. Additionally, with most Black Green players taking up the Wildgrowth mantle, Carnage Tyrant + Finality actually seemed to be worse than it had been several weeks ago. Additionally, I was not interested in maxing out on a clunky removal spell like Vraska’s Contempt if I was focused on beating Red and White as well as the 2nd Vivian that seemed to improve the matchups I was not expecting so I cut those three cards for a Midnight Reaper, a Vraska, Golgari Queen and a Vraska, Relic Seeker. Midnight Reaper was a hedge for the mirror as I was cutting two cards for Jeskai and Black Green. Additionally, Reaper was instrumental in combatting Defeaning Clarions out of the Jeskai decks. The two Vraskas insured that I was going to be well positioned against Red. Vraska 4 on six loyalty almost garuntees that you’ll win the game. If you’re playing Vraska 4, please please do not minus first. If you plus, she is so far out of range that she will assuredly gain you several life and then win you the game. Vraska 6 is the same story but even more potent. I think that it is never correct to minus Vraska 6 as three turns with her in play will win you the game unchecked. The sideboard featured a few changes in the 11th hour. Matt’s sideboard was basically perfect. The Brontodons, Tyrants, Trophies, and two of the Duresses and Demises were locks all throughout testing. I swapped Deathgorge Scavenger in for Blood Operative and actually ended up adding a 3rd Scavenger over the 3rd Golden Demise because I believe it to be the most powerful tool for GB against the Phoenix decks. The way the matchup breaks down is that you absolutely need to be able to race them and being able to attack through four toughness creatures is essential. Because you are the beatdown, I’m not impressed with Duress against them and wanted to find more potent plans against Jeskai and Esper than Duressing them. The move away from Teferi created a wide number of diverse noncreature threats which diminished the power of the 3rd and 4th Duress in my mind. I believe it’s absolutely correct to cut the 4th Duress and I believe that 2 might be even more correct. However, I’m not 100% certain either way.

As for the tournament itself, I started off 5-0 (which led to a friend letting me know my name was on the standings page in between rounds) and finished 10-5* (I conceded to my opponent in the last round for pro point considerations). I went 4-0 versus Mono Red (in large part to the Golgari Queen). I was undefeated versus Jeskai Phoenix but was winless against pure UR. I lost to Green White Tokens after 12 Doom Whisperer activations managed to find 0 copies of Find/Finality. I did not play any games against the mirror or against Mono White. I’d recommend playing a very similar list to this in the future, but, could see the 3rd Carnage Tyrant being a correct call over Vraska 6 moving forward.

My final list for the main deck looked like this:

Sideboard Guide:

I don’t usually attach sideboard guides to my articles and I’m especially wary of doing so in this Standard climate. Because of the variety of decks and the multitude of ways to build them, it’s hard to pin down how to board specifically for every matchup. I would change the cards that I board in and board out based on a variety of cards. Therefore, I’ve discussed below which cards I look for to change my plans:

Jeskai Control:
I usually cut all of my Cast Downs and Ravenous Chupacabras regardless, but, I’ll also trim a Vraska’s Contempt unless I see Crackling Drake or Niv Mizzet in Game 1.
I bring in Assassin’s Trophy to address Teferi and creatures primarily while Thrashing Brontodon comes in to address Ixalan’s Binding, Search for Azcanta, Seal Away and Azor’s Gateway.
Duress and Carnage Tyrant are also usually coming in for this matchup as well as the card advantage engines of Vivien and Midnight Reaper.
Because I expect Defeaning Clarion, I usually like to board out all of my Llanowar Elves, but, I’ve found others do not like this approach.

Izzet Drakes:
If I do not see an Enigma Drake in the first game, I like to bring in Carnage Tyrant and play for a quicker game. All the Deathgorge Scavengers come in always and the Trophies are generally acceptable as well. Duress is really a question of playstyle here. I think it is actively very good for your Wildgrowth games, but, is very lacking as you go longer and should be used to swipe Lava Coils and development pieces as well as Dive Downs to shut the game down. In general, I try to save Contempt for Arclight Phoenix, but, if you have a Scavenger you can also spew off a Cast Down to eat the Phoenix. More to the point, I will slam Deathgorge whether it eats a Phoenix or not. It’s a four power attacker so make sure to be beating down whenever possible. Find/Finality is pretty mediocre here, as are the Vraskas (Vraska 4 especially) and the Midnight Reaper. I’ve heard people disagree about Reaper so I’d suggest you try for yourself before following my advice.

Mono Red:
If you see multiple Risk Factors in Game one, I like to bring in all the Deathgorge Scavengers. Otherwise, I’m bringing in 1-2. Experimental Frenzy is a card I want to answer, but, unless I see indications that my opponent is playing Big Red, Viviens are usually out of my deck and I’m answering Frenzy with Trophy and Brontodon. Play this matchup as the control deck and don’t run out Wildgrowth Walkers for no value. It feels very much like how the UW Gift players are supposed to play the Abrade matchup. If your opponent has to respect Walker, they will be mana inefficient and you’ll win the long game with Vraska 4 or 6 ticking up to victory. I cut all of my Find/Finality here because I don’t plan on running out Wildgrowths and they’re bad at killing things. However, if you think your opponent is on Big Red, you can basically ignore everything I said and play the match the complete opposite way I’ve told you to. Standard is weird.

Mono White:
This matchup is not particularly complex. They cannot beat the 2nd sweeper you play, generally so I try to milk the value out of them as much as possible. They’re also a lot worse at answering Wildgrowth Walker so I’m comfortable running them out here. I don’t bring in Trophies or the Deathgorge Scavengers but I will bring in Brontodon for keyword Big. Vraska 4 and Vraska 6 shine here as well. Because they can’t burn the creatures out and have more enchantment removal, I suggest minusing with walkers far more. If you see basic Mountain, I’d consider respecting Aurelia with an Assassin’s Trophy. CFBs sideboard strategy boards out all of the Conclave Tribunals against Black Green which is likely outdated against Doom Whisperers, but, playing larger threats that don’t get Baffling Ended is a smart idea regardless.

Finally, the mirror match is something to spend time on. The key to the mirror match is to never attack and rarely block. You have to mitigate the value of Find/Finality and make sure you’re leaving your opponents optimal recursion targets on the table. Cards like Ravenous Chupacabra often read as unblockable, because I don’t want to accrue more value. Once my opponent sees that, they often leave the Chupacabra back to block, which makes you less inclined to want to attack without value. Leaving creatures back and not trading off improves your planeswalkers and making sure you have creatures that survive Finality allow you to have a plan for their Carnage Tyrant. Bring in the card advantage spells, bring in ways to address walkers and cut the Cast Downs. I also dislike Seekers’ Squire for similar reasons. Make sure you have some respect for opposing Doom Whisperers, which is a large reason the 2nd Vivien still made my 75.

Moving forward, I plan to play a very similar Black Green deck in events while spending some time learning the complex Arclight Phoenix deck and toying around with abandoning some of the explore packages to see if removing the constraints of it can offer you more options in addressing matchups that will be more prominent as the format shifts away from aggressive strategies. If you have more questions or interest in another article, feel free to message me on Twitter @mtgzach or speak up in the comments. Until next week!

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