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The bigger the tournament, the bigger the creature?

Giant Monsters Win Major Championships

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The letter T!he Onslaught doesn't begin this week, but after seeing the finishes from both United States and Great Britain National Championships (and the Magic Scholarship Series!), my only impulse is to quote the Bard, ("the Bard" being onetime Grand Prix coverage prodigy Josh Bennett) and say that Giant Idiots Ruin Games.

The most appropriate fit is of course the deck played by US National Team member-turned-US National Champion Luis Scott-Vargas.

I actually had no idea that this was the weapon of choice for both last year's and this year's National Champions when I first saw it in action, watching MSS Day One competition. A young master in the Scholarship Series was surrounded by all manner of Ravenous Rats, was being beaten down by a Stromgald Crusader, and had his back against the wall... make that against The Rack. At the end of the opponent's turn, he calmly tapped a stack of lands and his Wall of Roots, added that signature G, and queried "Chord of Calling for six?" I had no idea what could get him out of the spot (by his lands, I assumed he was U/G/W Blink, deck of the hour since the Kentucky Open)... then out popped Crovax, Ascendant Hero. Everyone on the other side died, and the opposite of the Ascendant Evincar quickly fielded a fine comeback.

The next game was crazier. How do you get out from under an oppressive tsunami of discard spells? How about drawing four cards per turn? Arcanis the Omnipotent came to play via the same Chord for six.

While these singletons are flashy, situationally advantageous, and potentially dominating, we would be lax in our duties if we didn't point out the deck's Pickles pedigree. Much like the best deck in Time Spiral Block Constructed, Scott-Vargas's Standard deck can lock the opponent down with a Stasis-like lock, and thanks to Chord of Calling, can do so at instant speed. The Pickles combo is of course Brine Elemental plus Vesuvan Shapeshifter. Flipping Brine Elemental up steals an untap; flipping Vesuvan Shapeshifter up, pointing at Brine Elmental, accomplishes the same, but will do so every turn as Vesuvan Shapeshifter can turn face down each upkeep.
One of the really great things about this deck is that, like Project X, it doesn't have to play for its combo strategy to win a fair fight. Luis's deck has superb card drawing, arguably the best card in Standard in Remand, and a great set of creatures. You can beat Red Decks simply by laying Wall of Roots into Loxodon Hierarch, sitting behind a couple of permission spells, and beating or blocking as the individual game situation dictates.

If you want to talk about giant idiots ruining games, it is hard to imagine a more gigantic idiot -- or more idiotic giant -- than Greater Gargadon.

Greg Poverelli

Main Deck

60 cards

Karplusan Forest
10  Mountain
Pendelhaven
Stomping Ground

20 lands

Greater Gargadon
Keldon Marauders
Martyr of Ashes
Mogg Fanatic
Mogg War Marshal
Scorched Rusalka
Tarmogoyf

24 creatures

Char
Incinerate
Rift Bolt
Seal of Fire

16 other spells

Sideboard
Cryoclasm
Manabarbs
Martyr of Ashes
Threaten
Tin Street Hooligan

15 sideboard cards


Greg Poverelli, the reigning New York State finalist in Constructed, walked away with the big trophy and the bigger scholarship at this past weekend's MSS Championship piloting an update to Steve Sadin's Tarmogoyf Red Deck. Greg made room for the obvious Mogg Fanatic by splitting similar drops Martyr of Ashes and Scorched Rusalka, and replaced Volcanic Hammer with the obvious update Incinerate.

This Red Deck is deceptively strategic and methodical. It can play a straight game of creatures, trading, and jockeying for board position, but is almost a different deck in any game where it opens on Greater Gargadon. The ostensible fight is the one on the board, with reasonable Red creatures -- joined by the inimitable Tarmogoyf -- press the opponent's life total, but what is really going on is that the Red Deck player is looking for a spot to stick that Gargadon and strike for 13 or more damage in a single turn. Tap out for Wrath of God when you're behind? You might just be dead.

Greater Gargadon, despite being probably the most gigantic giant idiot to define the present Standard format, is actually quite a cunning foe. Its presence in this deck essentially blanks key anti-aggressive spells like Tendrils of Corruption and really takes a lot of the tooth out of obvious foils like Lightning Helix. When the opponent points a life gain elimination spell at one of your creatures, you can sacrifice it to Greater Gargadon, speed up that giant's appearance, and prevent the opponent from gaining life.

This site's own The Professor, Craig Jones, won the top spot in Great Britain with a similar deck, albeit slower and composed of ostensibly -- some would say obviously -- better cards.

'The Professor' Craig Jones's Red Deck Wins

While Craig still played two Gargadons, it's probably not fair to say that his deck was all about them the way Greg's was. For one thing, The Professor slows the game down with Treetop Village, bumping the land count from 20 to 24. The additional Green mana gave Craig the option to play the GG Troll Ascetic as well as Tarmogoyf. Craig's deck runs numerous mid-game offensive and disruptive cards in the sideboard, rare for Red Decks... But it's not like we haven't seen Troll Ascetic + Loxodon Warhammer elsewhere.

The Rest of the US Nationals Top 8

Thomas Drake:

Drake's U/R/W Blink deck abuses the synergies between 187 creatures, Aethermage's Touch, and Momentary Blink. For example, he can play Aethermage's Touch at the end of the opponent's turn after "at end of turn" triggers have been put on the stack, flip up a Bogardan Hellkite, nail the opponent for five, refuse to return the Hellkite to his hand (see The Legacy of White Lightning! to see why this giant idiot refuses to return to hand), fly over for another five come the next combat, then before the delayed Aethermage's Touch trigger fires, Momentary Blink the Hellkite, essentially untapping it and braining the opponent for five, never having to fulfill Aethermage's Touch's now turn-old return condition. That would be one example. If you had enough mana you could just flash the Blink and end it.

Drake's deck has numerous cute synergies. For example he can play Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and then get away with Numot, the Devastator for only four total mana.

Michael Bennett:

Project X remained one of the most underrated decks of the format this past weekend. Numerous commentators have stated that Mogg Fanatic blanks this combo deck, but from what I have seen, Project X can beat such decks "fairly" with Hierarchs, Walls, and the like without being forced into a game where everything depends on keeping an Essence Warden in play versus a recurring Mogg Fanatic (thanks Crypt Champion!).

This doesn't have to do with Bennett's listing specifically, but is something I saw while wandering around over the course of the weekend... G/W Glare is typically considered to be a dog against Project X (similar deck matchup, one deck can gain infinite life, the other has little-to-no relevant disruption), but just playing Saffi Eriksdotter seemed to buy a fair amount of time. The Project X engine will return Glare's Saffi Eriksdotter every turn, and The Legend Rule will make Project X Saffi recursion impossible.

Michael Jacob:

Troll Ascetic fans will love taking this deck for a spin. Michael packed his deck full of things that can be put on a Troll Ascetic, from Cloaks to Hammers to Invocations. It was called the perfect metagame deck. Jacob had himself a 4-1 favorite -- or better -- against essentially any Blink deck... and this past weekend, there were quite a few. Scryb Ranger is hell on two for a Riftwing Cloudskate, and Silhana Ledgewalker didn't get any less scary since the last time we took a pass on straight Green.

Besides a strong palette of efficient creatures at essentially every drop, Jacob's deck can play positively Red with its hasty Solifuges, Timbermares (Lava Axes), and of course Ball Lightnings (Groundshakers). While Michael still technically had to close in combat, the presence of so much haste made it difficult for removal decks to be able to sit back and play scripted elimination strategies.

Craig Krempels:

The former US National Champion came to play with last year's deck of choice, Solar Flare. This build was designed specifically as a reaction to the popular Blink decks, introducing an interesting tension to the tournament. Skeletal Vampire... Very good against Blink, not so good against Incinerate. Craig's choice would have been a poorer one in Great Britain Nationals, but was a fine read on the immediately relevant American metagame.

Conrad Kolos:

Conrad's deck was another superb metagame choice, even if it looks a bit outdated for the format. He benefited greatly from the lack of Detritivores in the room, losing only one game in the Swiss portion, and opening up 2-0 against Michael Jacobs's Green deck, though testing showed the first game to be close to impossible. Conrad's deck features numerous one-ofs, Silver Bullets appropriate to specific circumstances (though he eventually concluded that the lone Dimir Signet should have been a 27th land).

The Kolos take on B/U can answer essentially anything, and can get ahead with Haunting Hymn, but what might not be immediately obvious is that it lacks a hard counter. The Rune Snags get progressively worse, and especially in the first game, the deck will have problems with something along the lines of a recurring Moldervine Cloak even if the coast seems otherwise clear.

Thomas Huteson:

Thomas Huteson

Huteson's deck is a half-step between vanilla Gruul and the Sadin Gargadon build that came out of US Regionals (see Greg Poverelli's deck, above, if you've forgotten already). Like Craig Jones, Huteson played slightly more mana, including a pair of Treetop Villages, and could justify the higher curve therefore.

Antonino De Rosa

The former winner came in with a crazy Rakdos deck that looks more like some of the recent Gruul builds, making numerous decisions centered around Greater Gargadon. The most obvious switch between major archetypes is Dark Confidant over Tarmogoyf. Kher Keep plus Greater Gargadon is at least medium exciting. Fatal Frenzy on the Gargadon will almost always be game. Gargadon plus Epochrasite is one that I hadn't seen before... but seems kind of obvious if you think about it.

Before you ask, the answer is yes. Ant got a little unlucky and flipped giant idiot Greater Gargadon with his clever little Bob Maher to lose his quarterfinal match. Lest you start wagging your fearful finger, though, don't forget that the potential non-bo got the 2005 Champion back into the Top 8 for the third straight year.

Some interesting notes from the rest of the MSS Top 8...

Peter Montalbano

The only non-creature spell in this Pickles variant -- main or side -- is Chord of Calling. Is it better than the Scott-Vargas Pickles / Chord deck? I'm not sure, but it's awfully cool that Montalbano's Heartwood Storyteller knows exactly what side he is playing on.

Ryan Ward

Ward's deck seems like a pretty basic U/R/W AngelFire deck. The Incinerates in the sideboard are redundant over Lightning Helix, and a good illustration of the Volcanic Hammers we discussed in Some Thoughts on Defensive Deck Speed.

You can check out the rest of the MSS Top 8 decks here.

And from the Great Britain Top 8...

Finalist Stuart Wright

Sti seems to have perfected the Dan Paskins zen sloughing of The Fear. Dredge? Really? And in Great Britain, epicenter of all things Red Deck? Dan got past numerous Mountains, and beat Rakdos in the quarterfinals (Rakdos is even worse than any other Red Deck for Dredge, combining the Bridge from Below-cancelling power of Mogg Fanatic and especially Martyr of Ashes with the strategy smashing Withered Wretch), before eventually falling to The Professor's Red Deck-splash-Troll Ascetic in the big game.

The strategy behind post-Future Sight Dredge hasn't changed. It is still about dumping a good deal of your deck into your graveyard, piggybacking Narcomoeba to set up a fast Dread Return flashback targeting Flame-Kin Zealot, and killing with a thumb thick wedge of Zombies... The only things that have changed are 1) Mogg Fanatic, thanks to X, is here to make the deck's worst matchups even worse, and 2) (more importantly, and perhaps because of the previous point) Tormod's Crypt and Extirpate are no longer the two most popular sideboard cards. Let this deck go unmolested for four turns and you're almost certainly dead.

Daniel Godfrey

The "Aussie Storm" deck seems to be the inheritor to the previous breed of Hatching Plans decks. The big combo here is Pyromancer's Swath + Grapeshot... Together a relatively discreet Storm 7 will generally prove lethal; moreover, the strategy is no longer reliant on Ingnite the Memories, and won't therefore pack to cards like Bottled Cloister.

Three Rakdos decks and the rest of the Great Britain Championship Top 8 can be found here.
Whew.

Now this is a compelling mix of top decks. We have any number of viable strategies with every color represented, all the way to mono-Green... But at the same time, there are clear market inefficiencies that can be exploited by talented deck designers. It will be interesting to see how the card pool morphs and adapts as the summer Standard season continues.

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