“Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years.”
– LL Cool J (1990)
It really has been quite a long time. I rejoined the Magic community back in 2010 when I discovered that a random store draft had activated my rating and qualified me for Nationals (RIP), which would take place literally five blocks from my apartment. Following a somewhat respectable finish of 14th at that tournament, KYT asked if I’d be interested in writing for Mana Deprived. I guess my 2-3 years spent in Jeff Cunningham’s Pro Tour Hell* were sufficient to make me a person of interest. I wanted to help out, but didn’t feel like I had anything worthwhile to write about. The Standard format was set to rotate and a 4-2 record in Core Set Draft hardly branded me an expert. Was anyone really interested in strategic advice from someone who missed Top 8 and basically hadn’t played Magic in four years? I politely declined but promised to reconsider if I was able to replicate any of my earlier success.
*not to be confused with the much more lucrative Pro Tour Heaven, Pro Tour Hell is the state of perpetually grinding your way to Pro Tours by achieving the minimum number of Pro Tour points, splitting the finals of PTQs, qualifying on rating, etc. and earning just barely enough prize money to convince yourself that real success might be just around the corner.
Fast-forward through two years of grinding the PTQ circuit and I feel like I might finally have something relevant to say about the current format. At the recent PTQ in Ottawa, I managed to cap off a string of four consecutive Top 8’s with a win, and will be make my official return to the professional ranks in October at Pro Tour Seattle.
First was a Top 8 in Syracuse at the tail-end of Modern season. Since then, I’ve piloted various incarnations of RG Aggro to a combined record of 22-4-4 in my last three events, with all four draws being intentional. Over the course of these tournaments, I faced almost every archetype in Standard and managed winning records against Delver, RG Aggro, Naya Pod, UB Control, Esper Control, Solar Flare, Spirits, Wolf Run Ramp, UW Control, Lich combo, and even Frites. The only deck I broke even with was Zombies, losing in the Swiss at the WMCQ to eventual champion Jamie Blanchette but evening things out with a win in the 3-1 bracket in Ottawa last weekend.
Going into the WMCQ in Montreal, UW Delver was widely considered to be the one and only best deck, much like it is now. RG Aggro, however, was just one of several Tier 2 anti-Delver strategies that had achieved a small amount of success in a few GPs and SCG Opens, and was still more or less under the radar. I knew early on that I did not want to play Delver. I’ll play the best deck if I think it gives me the best chance to win, despite the always-present claims of foil strategies. In this case, though, testing seemed to show that many of these claims were valid. In particular, RG Aggro, UB Zombies, and UB Control all seemed to be significantly favoured against the most popular Delver lists. The addition of Restoration Angel and main-deck Sword of Feast and Famine certainly muddies the picture, but I’m confident that a tuned RG list will still be favoured over the insectile menace.
A solid Delver matchup was a great starting point, but what really convinced me to play RG Aggro was how dominant it was in testing against the other anti-Delver decks. With four Green Sun’s Zenith contributing to eight virtual Huntmasters against the other aggro decks or Strangleroot Geists against control, UB Zombies and UB Control both seemed close to unloseable. Even mid-range creature decks like Naya Pod were testing well thanks to their vulnerable mana bases and sideboard plans that seemed to take the aggro matchups for granted. Not everything was good news, however. The Glimmerpost Wolf Run deck that materialized in the week leading up to the tournament seemed like a real problem. I considered switching to UB Control at the last minute when it seemed like Wolf Run might be popular, but in the end decided to stick with the deck I had put the most work into.
With everyone scrambling for last-minute tech and worried about beating the best deck or avoiding mirrors, I’m convinced that the best kept secret on the PTQ circuit is that an intimate familiarity with your deck and its various matchups is worth way more than the surprise factor of a rogue deck or a few extra percentage points against the expected field.
I played the following deck to a Top 8 finish in the WMCQ and 2nd place in the PTQ the following day:
RG Aggro – Jon Stern – WMCQ Top 8 and 2nd at PTQ Montreal
Going into the tournament, I really liked Hellrider as a way to punish control decks that would be forced to tap out on their turn, and to provide reach against Ramp decks that would inevitably land a Titan. Thrun was great against UB and even tested well against Delver decks trying to force a Geist of Saint Traft through on the back of Vapor Snags and Mana Leaks.
Following the release of AVR and a shift in the metagame towards more creature-oriented strategies, I decided to cut the Hellriders for Wolfir Avengers to provide more ammunition against decks that wanted to hold up Mana Leak or stabilize with Day of Judgment. I also felt that an increased reliance on mana dorks set the stage perfectly for Garruk’s return to the main deck. Thruns were shaved as a nod to the control decks leaning more heavily towards Sun Titans and Phantasmal Images. Here’s the list that took down the Ottawa PTQ:
RG Aggro – Jon Stern – 1st at PTQ Ottawa
I wanted to run three Avengers but couldn’t decide on the last card to cut. Daybreak Ranger still seemed worth playing as a 1-of since an early Nightfall Predator can really dominate the Pod decks. The options were really to cut a Garruk, a Sword of Feast and Famine, Thrun, the fourth Galvanic Blast, or possibly an Acidic Slime which would be searched out less frequently now that I had access to a Wolfir Silverheart. In the end, I was probably closest to cutting Garruk or Thrun, but decided it was better to have cards that would occasionally be great rather than something that would always be good. In retrospect, Thrun was probably the card to cut based on the matches I played, though I would definitely have wanted access to it against the UB Control deck that made Top 8.
For the removal slot, I tested Pillar of Flame and considered Incinerate and Brimstone Volley. In the end, I felt that Galvanic Blast was just the best removal spell. You want to be able to kill mana creatures for one mana which ruled out Incinerate and Volley, and I absolutely hated Pillars in testing. You don’t really care about Strangleroot Geists in the mirror and it’s really useful to be able to tap out in the face of a Huntmaster, often for a Huntmaster of your own. They have a lot of incentive to just pass the turn in order to flip their Werewolf first, and the resulting blowout if you have a Galvanic Blast in your upkeep is often too much for them to overcome. The ability to kill an Inkmoth Nexus also comes up every once in awhile.
I was very happy with my sideboard at the events in Montreal and, aside from moving the Garruks to the main, most of my sideboard changes were simple 1-for-1 replacements.
The Silverhearts replaced the Increasing Savageries and came in against all the green decks and occasionally against the control decks that weren’t playing Mana Leak. They were very good for me on the day and are probably a strict upgrade.Triumph of Ferocity seemed like a sweet card and replaced one copy of Manabarbs. I felt like both would be good against UB with Triumph being less vulnerable to some of the cards the white control decks might board in like Timely Reinforcements and Celestial Purge. Unlike Silverheart, Triumph was actually terrible and definitely does not deserve a place in the sideboard. I never wanted to cast it instead of an early threat and, by the time I did, it was irrelevant as they died to whatever I already had in play or completely blanked by a stabilizing sweeper. Zealous Conscripts were not boarded in very often, but were great in my match against Wolf Run. I don’t like them in the mirror or against Naya unless my opponent’s version or play style makes him particularly vulnerable to it. As long as they have creatures to block, it’s rarely more than a 5cc Hill Giant. It’s usually worth bringing in against the Planeswalker control decks, but good control players will either board out the especially vulnerable planeswalkers like Gideon or do their best to play around them. Tamiyo in particular is fairly resistant to being stolen as long as they’re careful not to tick it up too high. Conscripts obviously shine against Wolf Run decks or any sort of Reanimator strategy though. I’ll probably continue to play two copies until I see concrete evidence of Ramp decks fading as I expect they might.
Although I know some people swear by it, Bonfire of the Damned was a card that underperformed for me. The theory was that the creature matchups would eventually stall out until one person was able to draw and miracle a Plague Wind. Aside from a blowout in the semifinals against Spirits, however, I was very unimpressed. For the most part, it was completely dead when drawn in my opening hand since I’d always have something more relevant to do with my mana. Unless I drew it on very specific turns, the miracle effect wasn’t nearly as powerful as the hype would suggest. A paired Silverheart, for example, would almost certainly survive, and killing Birds, Elves and Pilgrims any time after turn 3 or 4 didn’t seem all that relevant. They weren’t horrible, but I think Arc Trail is the better, more consistent card.
I won’t be playing in the WMCQ or PTQ this weekend in Kitchener, but for those considering RG Aggro, here’s the list I would play now that Gerry’s Delver is all the rage.
RG Aggro – Jon Stern – Suggested for WMCQ/PTQ Kitchener
I was really happy with the old Delver matchup and, while the Feast and Famines and Restoration Angels are good, I don’t think they’re substantially better than Pikes and Dungeon Geists; at least not to the point of completely reversing a good matchup. What’s more worrying is his sideboard strategy of boarding into a control deck with Consecrated Sphinx.
The good news, however, is that with all the Delver lists converging to a single configuration, adjusting should be fairly easy. Enter Plummet.
Like Combust, Plummet provides an efficient answer to Delvers and Dungeon Geists, but also handily takes care of Restoration Angels and Sphinxes. I also like being able to board them in against UB Control decks that often try to stabilize post-sideboard with Consecrated Sphinx and/or Bloodline Keeper. The only downside is that you can no longer take out Fiend Hunters and Hero of Bladehold. Most of the Naya decks seem to be shying away from these cards, but if you expect them in significant numbers, keeping one Combust is reasonable.
While I agree that some players place too much emphasis on sideboarding notes, I do think it’s helpful to think about your post-sideboard strategies against all the major archetypes. I usually write out some brief notes before the tournament to use as a baseline so that I can start sideboarding mechanically while I think about any deviations I want to make based on my opponent’s version or play style. With that said, here’s how I’d approach the most common matchups I’d expect to face:
Most Delver players will board out Geist of Saint Traft and some might try to strand your Grudges by shaving pieces of equipment. I still think you need to hedge by boarding in Grudges unless you’re pretty sure that’s what they’ll do. Sword of War and Peace is the exception since they aren’t great against you in the first place. It’s also worth noting that they usually have to board out some number of Mana Leaks in order to fit all their sideboard cards, and because they aren’t amazing in the matchup. For that reason, you have to be a little more willing to run a Huntmaster or Green Sun into untapped mana.
I was originally shaving some number of Green Sun’s and keeping in all four copies of Strangleroot Geist, but with all the Silverhearts floating around, Geists rarely do more than attack once or twice before being completely outclassed. They are pretty good against Garruk though so I might consider keeping some in if they’re running him. Despite the phyrexian mana symbols, Act of Aggression is actually pretty important since you can steal their Huntmaster in your upkeep as it’s about to flip, and can also blow them out by stealing and blocking with their Wolfir Silverheart. The bond will break as you steal it, often making it possible to kill two of their most dangerous creatures with a single spell. It’s a little easier said than done, but try to play around Bonfire when you can. For example, casting or searching for a Huntmaster the turn before they have five mana available might not be ideal if you have an alternative line of play.
vs Naya Pod:
-3 Sword of War and Peace, -4 Strangleroot Geist, -1 Wolfir Avenger, -1 Green Sun’s Zenith +1 Garruk Relentless, +2 Act of Aggression, +2 Ancient Grudge, +2 Arc Trail, +2 Wolfir Silverheart
You don’t really want to cut the Avenger or Zenith, but the cards you’re bringing in are just better. If you didn’t need all these cards for other matchups, I’d say you were overboarding and could probably use some of the slots for something else. Strangleroot Geists are even worse in this matchup since they run into Blade Splicers and the like. Grudge is probably the only card that requires explanation. It’s not great or anything, but some Naya players will leave their Birthing Pods in, and killing two Golem tokens is probably worth a card anyway. If you see Oblivion Rings, you may want the Naturalize as well, but I’d want to be sure since it’s hard to find something to cut. Once again, play around Bonfire if you can, and also keep Zealous Conscripts in mind. They usually have access to several copies and might keep some in. They’re very situational, so try to manipulate the board into situations in which their effect is minimized. Restoration Angel is another card you want to avoid walking into if at all possible.
This matchup is actually more about their fragile mana base than anything else. You really want to kill their mana creatures whenever possible and don’t be afraid to pass the turn to flip a Huntmaster or Daybreak Ranger. They rarely have any way to prevent you from doing so.
Grudges kill Spheres and eventually Inkmoths, and everything else seems pretty straight forward. If you don’t play Manabarbs, keeping in an extra Galvanic Blast to kill Huntmasters is not the worst. A lot of Ramp decks are now playing or boarding into Beast Withins to deal with Silverhearts, so try to bait those out or cast your Silverhearts when the bonded creature will hit at least once. You also need to worry about Slagstorms and Whipflares, so it’s not always great to play your second and third mana creatures if you don’t need them immediately. You do want to get enough early damage in to make your Conscripts and Acts of Aggression lethal once they tap out for a Titan, so you sometimes have to Green Sun for a Strangleroot early on. Eventually, you want to start saving them for Silverhearts. Although your Huntmasters are awful, theirs are very good, and the Acts can once again be used to steal them as they’re about to flip in your upkeep. Swords are not great if you know they’re bringing in Grudges, but they might not bother since your equipment is not quite as backbreaking against them. You could board out 1 or 2 Sword of War and Peace instead of Galvanic Blasts if you think that’s the case.
vs the control decks:
Unlike the other archetypes, control decks have not really had enough success for there to be any consensus on the best versions so coming up with a baseline sideboard strategy is difficult. You almost always want to board out the Huntmasters, Galvanic Blasts and Arc Trail. Daybreak Ranger or Wolfir Silverheart occasionally come out as well depending on their version. Daybreak is reasonable as an extra early threat against the Lingering Souls decks, and Silverheart is actually good the Sun Titan decks that don’t run Mana Leak.
As for what to board in, you’ll usually board in Garruk Relentless, Zealous Conscripts, Manabarbs, and Ancient Grudges. Most control decks rely on Pristine Talismans or board into things like Batterskull that you really want to answer. The white decks often have some number of Oblivion Rings as well, making Naturalize a good choice. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll board Plummets in the dark against UB in anticipation of Consecrated Sphinx or Bloodline Keeper. The extra Silverhearts pretty much come in whenever there’s room.
With Plummet taking care of Consecrated Sphinx, the two control cards I’m really scared of facing are Terminus and Grave Titan. What I really like about RG is how so many of the threats had to be dealt with in different ways. Terminus, unfortunately, deals with all of them. If you can, you might want to save the Avengers as a post-Terminus threat. But if you give the white control decks enough time, you’ll probably end up facing a legion of Angel tokens. Grave Titan is not seeing much play right now, but it laughs at your Conscripts and Act of Aggressions. If people start boarding him in, you may need access to more copies of Sword of Feast and Famine.
I don’t really like shaving Green Sun’s, but Zombies is not really popular enough for me to worry about the fact that I have a few too many cards to bring in. Maybe you only want to board in one of the Silverhearts. Act of Aggression is often more of a defensive spell to steal one creature and block another. Stealing and blocking with an Obliterator is probably fatal, and Act can be used to kill Falkenrath Aristocrat in a pinch.
Well, I hope that leaves you in good stead for the tournaments this weekend. Delver might be the flavour of the day, but this is the deck I’d be sleeving up. I’ve had good success with it and, as long as you adjust for Delver’s new look, I’m not convinced that it’s time in the sun has passed.