Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Standard Deviations #7 - Joining the Dark Side: Playing Valakut Ramp In Standard

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch; a blog about playing "competitive Magic with a casual attitude".  First let me apologize to those of you checking back for another SoM Draft Archetype article.  Unfortunately I simply haven't been drafting very much recently; partially due to illness and partially because I'd be the 9th player.  While it's possible to write on theory and past drafts alone I really prefer to be actively working with the archetype I'm talking about during the writing process; that's why I usually post a recent deck I drafted as an example in the comments section.  If the truth be told my Magic experience recently has been "limited" to play-testing Standard with a bunch of my friends and customers.  Of course I say limited in quotations because I've actually managed to get about 200 or so practice games in during the past 5 days and it's hard to imagine having time to test much more than that.  It truly amazes me how many times an exasperated friend will fall for the line "just one more game" when it's delivered through a weezy cough by an obviously ill person.  *evil grin*

So what has playing all this Standard accomplished for me?  For starters I now have 7 viable tournament decks with no proxies; 6 of them even have full 15 card sideboards.  This of course means I'm roughly 90 cards away from being able to run tournaments by myself in a back alley with random hobos.  (This is a joke; although being fair hobos are more likely to show up than my Magic friends sometimes.)  Playing this many games against a varied field has also allowed me to tweak my deck-lists to perform better in my local environment; after all the meta-game for a 5K event in New York may well be *very* different than the meta-game at your local FNM event.  One of the most insightful things I've read about Magic all year was penned by Nick Spagnolo in his regular Star City Games article; "There is no best deck for a format – there is a best deck for a tournament."   In my local environment that means building your decks primarily to beat Blue control decks built around Jace and making sure you don't lose to turn 3-4 "aggro-combo" decks like Kuldotha Goblins, Assualt Strobe RDW or W/x Quest.  While Primeval Titan based "Ramp" decks are present they are nowhere near as popular as they are online for example.  With this meta-game in mind let's take a closer look at one of the best decks I've been testing/playing with recently; Green-Red Valakut Ramp:

T-Dot Valakut Ramp:

Creatures - 12:

4x Overgrown Battlement
4x Primeval Titan
2x Avenger of Zendikar
2x Gaea's Revenge

Spells - 21:

4x Lightning Bolt
4x Explore
4x Khalni Heart Expedition
4x Cultivate
3x Growth Spasm
2x Summoning Trap

Lands - 27:

5x Forest
12x Mountain
3x Evolving Wilds
3x Terramorphic Expanse
4x Valakut the Molten Pinnacle

Sideboard - 15:

3x Naturalize
4x Pyroclasm
3x Acidic Slime
2x Summoning Trap
1x Avenger of Zendikar
2x Gaea's Revenge

Overview:  Valakut Ramp is one of the more straightforward combo decks in the history of Magic and versions of this deck have been performing exceptionally well in Standard since the moment Primeval Titan was printed.  If you've never seen this deck in action the experience can be quite disturbing; it essentially ignores it's opponent for the first 3 turns while forcing out ramp spells before unleashing a hellacious barrage of huge creatures and Valakut fueled "Lightning Bolts" on turns 4-6.  The end result can be quite overwhelming if you are unprepared for it; when Valakut Ramp wins it wins quickly and with ruthless efficiency.  I originally threw this version together after reading about 8 days' worth of MtGO daily event results and 3 or 4 decklists that had recently won some larger cash events (1-5ks).  I specifically chose to focus only on tournament-winning decks; I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel here and if you want to practice against an archetype you might as well practice against the very best, right?

What I think it's good at:  To be fair it's pretty hard to think of things this deck  *isn't* good at.  It's a huge part of the current Standard meta-game for a reason and even though it isn't as popular as it should be here in Toronto *every* single Standard deck I build starts with the question "so how do I avoid just losing to Valakut?"  Where this deck really shines however is against Blue-based control decks that run Mana Leak.  In particular the inclusion of 2 main-deck copies of both Summoning Trap and Gaea's Revenge combine with Valakut's inherent inevitability against Blue decks to make for a 75-25ish game 1 match-up.  After all you can't counter *every* spell they cast and once they start triggering their Valakuts for "Lighting Bolts" it doesn't matter how many counters you have at all.  Like most versions of Valakut Ramp this deck is also very strong against traditional aggro builds like Boros, Vampires, White Weenie and anything with Fauna Shaman/Vengvines.  Typically these decks can't kill before turn 5 without disruption and by that time the Valakut deck has probably dropped a Titan/Avenger and at least one Lightning Bolt; in other words a whole lot of "disruption".  Finally of course due to issues of both speed and consistency Valakut Ramp decks tend to perform exceptionally well against other Ramp decks; including Mono Green Eldrazi and RUG (Red/Blue/Green) Titan.  Simply put the lands these decks ramp into don't turn into 3 damage each in the mid-game and that typically makes all the difference in these match-ups.

What I think it's not good at:  Again being the prohibitive favorite in the entire format means there really aren't a lot of things Valakut decks aren't good at.  In fact in my opinion of the major reasons to choose Valakut Ramp as an archetype is that it has such amazing match-ups with all the other top decks in Standard.  There are essentially only two ways to beat this deck; you can try to win the game before it beats you (turn 5ish) or you can remove/control every single potential game-winning threat before it can kill you.  In terms of decks that can do the former we're basically talking about turn 3-4 "aggro-combo" builds like Kuldotha Goblins, W/x Quest (on a good draw) or Assault Strobe RDW builds.  While Pyroclasm can help alleviate some of the pressure post board many of these decks can easily play around Sorcery-speed mass removal with "Haste" creatures and faster than instant speed equip effects.  This can get particularly frustrating if the opponent sideboards in Mark of Mutiny without you realizing it; there's nothing more embarrassing than losing to your own Primeval Titan when your opponent Marks it to his side and then fishes out 2 copies of Teetering Peaks.  As for decks that aggressively go after your win conditions the primary offender is U/B Control.  Typically this will mean some combination of Duress/Inquisition of Kozilek, counterspells, Frost/Grave Titans and Tectonic Edges in the main-deck and possibly cards like Memoricide, Volition Reins and Brittle Effigy in the sideboard.  The trick with either of these strategies is that they don't always work; if your opponent stumbles or the Valakut deck simply "goes off" sometimes it doesn't matter how much meta is involved.  Finally it should be noted that this version can tend to be weak against land destruction strategies; particularly since it chooses Growth Spasms over Harrow as a protective measure against counter-magic.  It's tough to ramp into 6-7 mana if you're opponent is destroying 1-2 lands a turn from turn 3 on and with 6 main deck crack-lands his Roiling Terrains add up pretty quickly.  Ultimately however land destruction decks are not very popular in the environment overall so I'm not really sure how relevant this weakness is. 

What the Sideboard does:  Just like the rest of the deck the beauty of a Valakut Ramp's sideboard is that it's both ruthless and simple.  Every single card is designed to directly attack another top tier strategy or cards that specifically meta against the deck itself.  4 copies of Pyroclasm helps close the deck's hole against early aggro; just don't make the mistake of taking out Lightning Bolt in the process since it's also an effective "time sink" against aggro.  2x Summoning Trap and 2x Gaea's Revenge help you max out game 2 against counter-control builds; both cards are exceptionally difficult for Jace decks to play around in the current format and going up to 8 copies total almost feels unfair unless your opponent is exceptionally skilled.  Naturalize is included to help against key problem enchantments like Leyline of Sanctity or Spreading Seas but can also be effective against random annoying artifacts; Eldrazi Monument, Brittle Effigy and Mimic Vat all come to mind instantly.  3x Acid Slime are primarily included as counter-meta against other Valakut decks; if your Valakuts stick around and his don't it's possible to simply kill his Titan/Avenger and outrace him with yours for example.  The Slime also doubles as secondary enchantment/artifact removal and can even function as the worst creature removal spell ever simply because it has Deathtouch.  Finally the singleton Avenger of Zendikar is included for games 2 and 3 against aggro decks; the simple truth is that an Avenger on turn 4 or 5 stops most creature based aggro decks in their tracks.   Typically I'll side him in place of a Gaea's Revenge if only because he's way stronger in that match-up. 

How to play it:  While I'm certainly not trying to be rude in my honest opinion this deck could be piloted to a 50/50 tournament record by a drunken howler monkey who'd just picked up Magic last week.  Okay it's not *THAT* easy but it's absolutely fair to say that this is the most forgiving Tier 1 deck-type in all of Standard.  First you check your hand for a Forest or one of the 6 crack-lands that can go fetch a Forest; if you don't have one you should take a mulligan.  Once you have access to a Forest you play some lands and cast some cheap "Ramp" spells to help you play more lands.  This rapid stockpiling of mana allows you to cast a turn 4 Titan/Avenger at which point you play some more lands and win the game.  While I may be simplifying things slightly I am in fact being 100% serious here; winning with Valakut Ramp is that mechanical.    If there's anything at all about this deck that can be tricky it's learning to play cards in the correct order depending on what your opponent is doing.  Good examples include playing Overgrown Battlements on turn 2 instead of Explore against aggro decks or playing Growth Spasm instead of Cultivate when you're trying to bait out a counterspell.  Always remember to cast the Khalni Heart Expedition *before* you start playing land for the turn; ditto for Avenger of Zendikar.  Another way in which timing can be important for this deck is when jumping from 4 to 6 Mountains simultaneously with 1 or more copies of Valakut in play.  This is because multiple permanents that enter the battlefield at the same time "see" each other entering the battlefield (Ruling), thus allowing you to trigger each Valakut twice as if both Mountains were your 6th in play.  While it takes a little practice to learn to set it up properly learning to do so is incredibly important.  The ability to squeeze an extra 3-12 damage out of the deck on the turn you cross from 4-6 can be the difference between winning and losing against both super-fast aggro decks and sloth like control builds.  Remember folks at the end of the day you only have 12 Mountains; you'd hate to lose a game with your opponent at 3 life simply because you gave away an early "Lightning Bolt" by using Primeval Titan/Khalni Heart incorrectly.  Finally try and remember to be flexible; this deck excels at winning both long and short games.  You are almost never under pressure to force the game towards a conclusion simply because eventually you'll win just by playing Mountains!  For example don't cast fatties into open Blue mana without a Summoning Trap.  Alternately feel free to take a turn off the Valakut plan and drop an Avenger of Zendikar against aggro; you aren't likely to lose the game with so many free blockers in play and it gives you a good chance of surviving a Mark of Mutiny when you do finally play the Primeval Titan.  Of course the opposite side of this coin is that you shouldn't waste time when facing against slower or weaker decks; one of the major reasons Valakut destroys other Ramp decks is it's sheer speed.  Don't give this advantage away by puttering around in the early game unless you have to (read except vs Blue).  

Well folks it's quarter to 5 in the morning and I have a holiday shopping retail sales shift at 11 AM tomorrow so I think I'd better wrap this up right about now.  Hopefully this article has been useful in helping you to understand a little more about one of the most dominant deck-types in the post-SoM Standard environment.  While the version presented in this article is tweaked slightly against control the simple truth is that at the core virtually all Valakut builds are identical.  Whether you're playing against it or rocking it like the Imperial Deathstar, Valakut Ramp is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the tournament environment.  Until next time folks may all your Summoning Traps hit and always remember to keep it weird.


  1. I remember playing against this deck and I can say that it is completely ridiculous. The only things I have to say about it are, 1. It did 36 damage to me in a single turn and 2. When the Avenger came into play it made about 18 tokens. Crazy deck to play against, especially in the hands of a skilled opponent.

    And on a side note, I had no idea anyone was even alive other than me at 5 in the morning.

  2. Yeah, I stayed up too late gold-fishing Standard

    Playing against this thing is a lot like having a root canal imho; I don't think it's broken but I'm not exactly sure why it's "fun" either.

    And this is coming from someone who LIKES control decks.