Beating Thragtusk Standard

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The Standard format creates philosophies among players that can be drastically different from one player to the next. When playing at a local event or FNM, my idea of fun is usually to play a different deck for every tournament. This does a couple important things for my game. The first is it helps improve my deck building skills, which is something I always strive for. The second thing it does is expose me to a wide range of cards and how they play in the format. It’s one thing to play against certain powerful cards, but you gain a new respect for them when you cast them yourself. Being familiar with both sides of matchups makes learning how to beat different strategies an easier process.

My philosophy does not suit all players though. Many players follow the one deck routine. This play style is great for those players who don’t have enough money to invest in more than one deck, but it also has other merits as well. If you always play the same deck, naturally you will become more proficient at it. That experience is one of the most valuable parts of the game. Playing the same deck does not mean making no changes to your list. In fact, it may be that you play a different version of the same deck at each event. You should never ignore new developments in the format. Even if you play the same deck the whole season, your list should be constantly evolving.

Same deck people have another advantage that I figured out this week. Standard in the past few years has become somewhat circular. For example, at the beginning of the Return to Ravnica format, Jund was one of the most popular and powerful decks. While it never disappeared from the format as a whole, for a while it was not well positioned. Other strategies which left Jund struggling to find answers became prevalent. This caused many players to abandon the deck altogether, but some of them stuck with it.

Reid Duke is a great example of this as is my friend Josh Millikin who just won PA States. Both of these players understood that Jund was a powerful shell to work with and so they never gave up on the deck. They both played the deck at almost every Standard event and were constantly improving their lists from week to week. At one point, Josh even had a bunch of white cards in the deck. Because they stuck with the deck, the format has come back around again to where it is one of the best options available.

Thragtusk Back on Top

Standard has come full circle once more and the dominating presence of Jund and Junk has solidified Thragtusk’s place in the spotlight again. For me, the realization that Thragtusk is the best card in Standard right now really helped me hone my angle of attack. If Thragtusk is the best card in Standard and the two best decks are utilizing it to great effect, then from my perspective, I need to focus on beating that card.

My strategy for beating Thragtusk decks has been to play Aristocrats. Unfortunately, this is not as good as it once was because there is much more instant speed removal than previously. If you go for your Boros Reckoner plus Blasphemous Act combo to kill them, it is likely they will just kill your creature in response. Jund vs. Aristocrats is very winnable for either side so defaulting to Jund is still a great way to attack the format.

What other strategies can we develop that will beat both Jund and Junk? There are three decks I want to talk about today that are aimed at achieving that goal.

G/W Aggro

The first deck I have been working on is G/W Aggro. The goal of this deck is to exploit the power of both Voice of Resurgence and Advent of the Wurm. These two Dragon’s Maze cards change the way the game is played. Not only can you play your threats on your opponent’s turn, but they can no longer interact with you on your turn.

The other card I wanted to include that would shape the deck was Ajani, Caller of the Pride. The three-mana planeswalker is great at dealing more damage and the ability to surprise-kill your opponent with the double strike and flying option seems appealing. Here’s the list I have at the moment.

For an aggro deck, this list does a lot for us. The first thing to note is that it is quite resilient. There are many hard-to-deal-with threats and cards that replace themselves. Both of these qualities are excellent against control decks. With Jund not running Pillar of Flame, your creatures become quite hard to kill.

One problem this deck has is a lack of evasion. The second problem is that it has no way to deal with Fiend Hunter or Olivia Voldaren, two big parts of Jund and Junk right now. Not being able to interact with them seems like it would cause issues for a deck like this. There may be a way to address this issue, but I have not found it yet. G/W Aggro is a solid deck and you will definitely win some matches with it, but it is not quite powerful enough to attack the format the way I am looking to do.

B/W Zombies

The next idea that I have been exploring is the second coming of Zombies. There was a small zombie theme in the Varolz, the Scar-Striped deck I tried out, as well as my most recent version of Aristocrats. In both of those decks, I liked the aggressive zombie parts and how they functioned in the current format.

If your goal is to beat Thragtusk, you need to do one of two things. Either you need to play bigger and better spells to render it obsolete, or you need to be fast and beat them before they can stabilize. Utilizing the one-cost zombies is a great way to race them. With the available cards, I think pairing white with the undead tribe will work the best, but if not, we can always go back to red.

Take note of the twelve one-cost creatures. One of the best ways to beat Jund is to play a one-drop on turn one and two more on turn two. In addition to the aggressiveness of the deck, you also have added resiliency with cards like Restoration Angel. Even Cartel Aristocrat makes the deck harder to beat because instead of your zombies getting removed from the game with a Pillar of Flame searing their brains, you can sacrifice them instead. I also think the ability to sacrifice all of your creatures with a A-Blood Artist in play is a powerful interaction in Standard right now and one that should not be overlooked.

One card I wanted to add which didn’t end up making the deck was Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. Both the token making ability and the emblem fit well in this deck, so that could be an idea I return to later.

Burning Them Out

The final strategy I want to discuss today is the result of many hours dedicated to beating the Thragtusk decks. I spent much time trying to figure out the format by researching available card options and talking to players about decks. My first question was, what is the absolute best card for an aggro deck to have in hand if they want to beat Thragtusk?

My conclusion was Skullcrack. Not only do they not gain the five life they need to stabilize, but they also lose an additional three more. Previously, we have not played this card because there were too many other decks that it was ineffective against. However, we may have arrived at a place in the format where maindeck Skullcrack is not out of the question.

The other theory I have been working on is that Ghost Quarter is almost the same as Wasteland in Standard right now. That might not be quite true for every deck, but it is for a number of them, and most of the matches where it matters. If a deck is playing Thragtusk, Ghost Quarter should punish them for their greedy manabase. After analyzing data of the successful green-based decks, it is apparent that many of them do not have any basic lands.

If they do have basics, they are all Deep Forest Hermits. What this means is that Ghost Quarter can still be effective against midrange decks by allowing us to cut them from certain colors. If possible, use Ghost Quarter to target a non-green land, or their only land with a certain color. If their only red source is Rootbound Crag, hitting it is fine because they will either be able to replace it with a Forest or nothing.

Here is the list I’m starting with.

There are some important things to note about this deck. First is its similarity to Naya Blitz. The comparison is obvious because they function with the same colors and they are both decks based around Burning-Tree Emissary. The difference is that this deck is built in the style of Mono Red and Blitz is built after decks like All in Red and Kuldotha Rebirth decks. There may be green and white mana in this deck, but it is more like Mono Red splashing those two colors.

The maindeck Skullcrack would be sideboarded out against other aggressive decks, along with the Boros Charms most likely. The sideboard would start with Boros Reckoner and Domri Rade as the package to bring in for the anti-Thragtusk cards.

Regardless of whether you prefer to stick with the same deck for the entire season or you would rather play a different deck each week, prepare for the metagame you expect to play against. Look at the successful decks and base what you play on them. Other players will be adjusting their decks to play the new cards and if you don’t also adjust, your deck will become outdated and poorly positioned.

Tournament Tips: Overthinking

At the last PTQ I attended, I was playing Aristocrats. My board was Gravecrawler and Cartel Aristocrat and his was Avacyn's Pilgrim and three lands. On my opponent’s turn, he played a shockland untapped but did not use his mana. This signaled he had Restoration Angel in hand.

When it came time for my attack phase, I pondered which line of play was the correct one. There are two choices here. Either I think he has Restoration Angel, so I shouldn't attack, or he was bluffing in which case I should punish him for taking the damage. After working on the problem mentally for a moment, I arrived at hidden option three. Even if he had Restoration Angel, I could attack and sacrifice my Gravecrawler before blocks to give Cartel Aristocrat protection from white. Ultimately I decided to take the more cautious line of play and didn't attack.

In this instance I believe not attacking here cost me the game. It's hard to tell that it was a misplay, but I think attacking is just better in this situation. My opponent did play Grisly Salvage by the way, but he also had Restoration Angel this game, although I have no way of knowing when he drew it.

There are three take aways from this game. First, don't out-think yourself. Attacking was not that bold of a play because I had Cartel Aristocrat in play, but at the time it seemed like suiciding my guys. Second, make plays depending on the matchup. I should have determined that attacking was worth the risk because as the game progresses, my chances of winning lessen. Finally, analyzing your plays will help you become a better player. My friend and I had a long discussion just about this game and this series of plays. Trying to break down where the game went wrong is a huge factor to improving your game.

Until Next Time,

Unleash the Thragtusk crushing Force!

Mike Lanigan
MtgJedi on Twitter

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