Sunday, July 10, 2011

Standard Deviations #19 - The Calm Before the Storm Part 2: G/R/b Valakut

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you are all having a great week getting ready for this weekend's M12 Pre-Release events and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Since we've last talked all of M12 has finally been spoiled and while a few of the cards are starting to grow on me I still stand by my statement that this is a "slow and steady" caretakers set designed specifically *not* to include too many environment defining/game warping cards.  This isn't meant to imply that I'm not excited by some of the cards in the set but all in all I still think we're looking at a very similar environment post M12 to the one we're all playing in right now.  In light of this I've decided to continue looking at what I consider the "better" decks in the post-ban Standard environment.  In order to hedge my bets however, and to allow more time for playtesting I'm going to keep focusing on the decks I feel change the least post-M12; last time it was B/r Vampires and today we'll be looking at G/R/b Valakut built around Green Sun's Zenith.  As long time readers of this blog may be aware I actually have quite a bit of experience piloting this deck; having run it at a number of FNMs and the TCG Player Toronto Open.  In fact I'd say I was playing Green Sun Valakut from the moment they previewed Green Sun's Zenith until the moment they previewed Batterskull and the idea of playing Valakut in Standard became comical.  While I won't necessarily say writing about Valakut is a labor of love for me I'm probably the only person on earth who's happy that this deck is back in the Tier 1 rotation.

Now before we get started I'd like to talk a little bit about deck-building theory as it pertains to Valakut builds.  There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to designing Valakut decks: either you sell out entirely to try and play Primeval Titan as fast as possible (turn 3 usually) or you adopt a slower but ultimately more stable posture that focuses on playing the Titan on turn 4 or 5.  This distinction is important because it *will* ultimately influence about half of the cards you choose to put in your deck.  Personally after hundreds of playtest games with various versions of Valakut I'm of the opinion that the slower more stable version of this deck is simply better.  While in a vacuum the concept of a turn 3 Primeval Titan is pretty exciting it generally forces you to use more vulnerable and ultimately weaker cards in your deck to do so.  The truth is that Chancellor of the Tangle isn't even a playable card let alone good and while Joraga Treespeaker and Lotus Cobra are certainly "real" cards they aren't exactly reliable options in a format full of Lightning Bolts, Searing Blazes, Arc Trails and off-color Dismembers.  The obvious problem is that if your opponent simply kills the ramp creatures you're actually much *slower* than "normal" Valakut; let's not even bring up the 1-3 in hand Chancellors you'll probably never cast, because it would be too embarrassing to rub it in like that.  This is however neither my only or even most serious issue with the more "explosive" versions of Valakut; what I find most disturbing about this deck is that even if it does sell out for the turn 3 Titan doing so doesn't actually guarantee a win!  Typically these decks will fire off a Primeval with 3 actual lands in play which in turn will only allow them to climb up to 5 total lands; assuming you kill the Titan before your opponent attacks with it he's still on finding 2 more sets of Titan triggers to win the game.  This is of course exactly how many triggers the "slow" version of Valakut normally uses to win the entire game which essentially means you've used up a Titan in your deck to get to the exact same point as you would if you'd just played ramp spells and aimed for a turn 4 Titan.  Basically the faster versions of Valakut only wins a turn quicker if your opponent is unable to kill that first Titan; in which case Valakut triggers are actually pretty incidental and you're going to win with the 6/6 Trampler anyways.  Alternately I've found that the "slower' version of Valakut is both far more consistent and allows for way more versatile builds with the ability to both attack and endure attacks from decks that "explosive" Valakut would typically fold against.   To this end my version of Kut uses a primarily 4+ toughness creature base and avoids "dead" cards like Chancellor of the Tangle in favor of more versatile options like an additional Avenger of Zendikar and maindeck copies of Thrun/Obstinate Baloth.

Okay so with that out of the way let's take a look at the most recent version of Green Sun Valakut my playgroup and I have been working on.  While I'll post the pre-M12 list here first the simple truth is that the only card in the entire set I see that *needs* to be worked into this build is Rampant Growth; later in the article we'll talk a little bit about what cards might be a good candidates to replace with this card.  For now however this is the list we've been running:

"Green Sun Valakut Ver 3.5 - Standard G/R/b Valakut the Molten Pinnacle"

Creatures - 13:

4x Overgrown Battlements
1x Obstinate Baloth
1x Oracle of Mul Daya
1x Thrun the Last Troll
4x Primeval Titan
2x Avenger of Zendikar

Spells - 22:

3x Lightning Bolt
4x Explore
4x Khalni Heart Expedition
2x Cultivate
2x Dismember
2x Harrow
4x Green Sun's Zenith

Lands - 27:

4x Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
3x Evolving Wilds
3x Terramorphic Expanse
6x Forest
11x Mountain

Sideboard - 15:

3x Nature's Claim
2x Combust
2x Mark of Mutiny
1x Obstinate Baloth
1x Act of Aggression 
1x Inferno Titan
3x Summoning Trap
1x Wurmcoil Engine
1x Gaea's Revenge

Overview: Once again long time readers of this blog will recognize this build as a "modernized" version of the same Valakut build I have been running since Mirrodin Besieged was released.  As usual this version is built as much for endurance as power and pairs a rock solid game 1 against aggro with a diverse main-deck designed to survive *significant* disruption.  Although this deck will primarily win through Valakut triggers it certainly doesn't have to; the presence of two main-deck Avenger of Zendikars and value beaters like Thrun/Baloth can let you easily win games when your opponent takes away your Molten Pinnacles.  When building this deck I tried to use high-utility cards that would be good in a variety of situations while still stressing the mind numbing redundancy necessary to make Valakut work in a metagame focused on hating it out of existence.  To put it in the words of one of the guys I play-test with "this deck is a freaking tank".  Let's break down the individual cards that form the deck and talk a little bit about why they ultimately made the final cut:
  • Overgrown Battlements: One part super efficient ramp spell and one part 0/4 blocker; Overgrown Battlements is the embodiment of this deck's "stability and durability" over "speed and explosiveness" philosophy.  While cards like Lotus Cobra and Treespeaker are capable of producing more mana in the early game they aren't very good blockers; moreover they lose tremendous value when played any time after turn 3.  Battlements on the other hand is pretty much always a good blocker and the ability to chain multiples together for extra mana typically means it will retain value well into the mid-game; long after you've played the lands in your hand for example.  Outside of "Prime Time" and Valakut itself I don't think it's an overstatement to say this is the most important card in the entire deck.
  • Obstinate Baloth: The "anti-aggro" third of this deck's Green Sun Zenith toolbox; the Baloth is all about buying time/life against very fast, aggressive decks that try to outrun your Titan/Valakut combo.  While the important part here is definitely the 4 life you shouldn't discount the Baloth's value as a blocker in these match-ups; a 4/4 Beast for 4 mana is actually pretty difficult to play around for most aggro decks and will typically demand unprofitable trades when attacked into it.  At very worst the Baloth will leach extra removal from your opponent's hand that might otherwise be used to kill your Titan/Avenger or just "dome" you out.  This isn't meant to imply that Obstinate Baloth is some kind of magical talisman against aggro but when played properly it can win you games you would otherwise lose; the keys here are timing and expectations.  The timing part is really simple; if your opponent is playing aggro, you are at 10 or less life and immediately casting a Titan or Avenger to "just win" is not an option you should Green Sun's Zenith for Obstinate Baloth virtually every time.  Playing the Baloth too early makes it easier for your opponent to play around the life gain while waiting until you're almost dead (5 or less life) is good way to lose anyways when your opponent dumps his hand and swings.  Additionally I find that it's important to manage your expectations when tutoring for this card; Obstinate Baloth is unlikely to actually beat a good aggro deck all by itself and more often than not he's going to gain you 4 quick life before eating an enemy Dismember.  This will typically buy you a whole turn with which to win the game using *other* cards in your deck; most notably Primeval Titan or Avenger of Zendikar.  If you are *not* in a position where buying an extra turn is likely to win you the game it's probably a better idea to Zenith for something else; Thrun is a better value as a grind out blocker while Oracle can help you get to 6-7 mana for a last ditch Titan/Avenger when nothing else will do.   
  • Oracle of Mul Daya: Whereas the Baloth and Green Sun'z Zenith combine to help this deck win game 1 aggro matches the singleton Oracle is included to give you extra gas in the combo or mana-ramp mirror.  Unlike the Baloth however this card is actually pretty simple to use properly; if you're playing against another combo or mana ramp deck you Green Sun Zenith for her as soon as you have five mana available to do so.  While I won't waste a lot of time going over all of the neat things you can do with an Oracle of Mul Daya in play it's important to understand "the basics" of how to play this card to gain real value from it.  Firstly, both the ability to play an extra land and the revealing of your top card take place immediately when you put Oracle of Mul Daya into play.  This means that at no time will you be required to pass priority *before* you could use the play an extra land ability from the Oracle that turn.  Thus it often behooves you to use this ability immediately after casting her if your opponent has open mana for a removal effect; preferably using a land on top of your library in the process.  You may be tempted to stop and cast a Khalni Heart Expedition first but this will give your opponent the opportunity to send the Oracle to the bin and with her your free "mana ramp" effect.  Naturally this presupposes that you've already played your normal land for turn *before* casting the Oracle; you can not choose to use up the "extra" land play first after all.  The other basic point to remember when using Oracle of Mul Daya is that you reveal the top card of your deck at all times; including during draw effects and most importantly after you fish through your library for a card.  This allows a smart player to save his "fish effects" until the Oracle reveals a dead card or something you have no desire to draw on your next turn.  This "extra" library manipulation is vital for squeezing out tight games with this deck and one of the "tells" I use to estimate a Valakut opponent's skill level is his degree of mastery over Oracle of Mul Daya effects.
  • Thrun, the Last Troll: The final piece of the deck's "Swiss army knife" Green Sun's Zenith package; Thrun is primarily included to combat control decks packing heavy removal.  Naturally of course his "can't be countered" trait is irrelevant if you're tutoring him up with a Green Sun's Zenith but a 4/4 regenerating beater with Shroud is no laughing matter for your average blue deck; he blanks key spot removal effects like Dismember, Tumble Magnet and (soon) Oblivion Ring, executes 0/4 Walls in combat and can even regenerate in response to most Wrath effects.  Naturally of course there *are* answers to Thrun (Black Sun's Zenith, Infect creatures); they just aren't very efficient in my opinion.  As an added bonus Thrun serves double duty as a premier blocker against aggro if you're stalled out and your opponent has already chewed through the Baloth.  I've even made solid use of him in the Valakut mirror; at the TGC player in March I won a key game 2 primarily because Thrun couldn't be locked down with Tumble Magnet and my opponent was forced to chump block with his Walls while we took turns killing each other's Titans.
  • Primeval Titan: While it's certainly true that Valakut was a deck-type before the release of Primeval Titan it's also true that it wasn't a "great" deck until "Prime Time" came along and dragged it kicking and screaming into the top tier.  Since then Primeval Titan has become the centerpiece of every successful Valakut build in the format and is easily the most powerful card in the entire deck.  Essentially this deck has been designed to resolve a Primeval Titan and use it to set up lethal damage through some combination of Valakuts and Mountain-Bolts; the fact that it's a 6/6 Trampling beatstick is helpful but frankly somewhat incidental to the deck design.  This is important because by now your opponents will have learned that they must kill the Titan before it can turn sideways and give you "free" Valakut triggers; they *are* going to do so and in most cases you will be required to play two copies of this card to produce the "dome out" auto-win it's most famous for.  In addition to winning you the game in combination with Valakut, "Prime Time" is also pretty good with a previously cast Avenger of Zendikar in play.  It only takes about 3 landfall triggers to turn a swarm of 0/1 Plant tokens into a lethal "alpha strike" and obviously the Titan giving you *two* such triggers is a great way to end the game quickly.  Finally, while I'm sure most of you are aware of this by now I think it's important to mention the unique interaction between Primeval Titan and Valakut when going from 4 to 6 Mountains in play.  Due to the the wording on Primeval Titan both lands enter the battlefield at the same time which in turn causes the Valakut to "see" both Mountains as they enter play and thus trigger the effect on the Molten Pinnacle twice; even though you've only played 6 Mountains total.  This is true of any card that brings two Mountains into play at the same time (Khalni Heart Expedition, Harrow) and often squeezing this extra "Lightning Bolt" out of your deck in the early game can be the difference between winning and "almost winning"; particularly against aggro or control.
  • Avenger of Zendikar: When your deck is built to force a whole bunch of lands into play and then cast big monsters it's pretty hard to argue with a big monster that rewards you for having/playing a pile of lands.  One part back-up finisher and one part "super" Wall it's a very rare match where a mid/late game Avenger won't suddenly swing the game in your favor.  In fact there are a number of situations where it's probably *better* to Green Sun's Zenith for an Avenger instead of "Prime Time"; most notably when you're facing down too many attackers to kill with Valakut triggers, your opponent has a Leyline of Sanctity in play or you suspect that he may be slow rolling a Mark of Mutiny type effect.  Once again I should mention that after the Avenger has entered play on your side priority passes to you again and you should almost always use this opportunity to play or fetch a land(s) if possible.  This ensures that you get at least "some" potential attacking value out of the plant tokens as nothing your opponent can do will stop the Avenger's first Landfall trigger from going on the stack.  (Editor's Note: Well this is sort of embarrassing; while the above statement is technically true as it turns out there *is* a way to stop the Avenger from giving +1+1 to the plants.  Basically the actual making of the plant tokens goes on the stack and in that window you can kill the Avenger before the plants ever come into play.  To be fair nobody has actually tried this on me in 6 months of playing Valakut but I figured I should clarify here regardless)  Naturally of course your opponent can then respond to the trigger; it's quite common in my experience to have my Avenger Dismember-ed in response to playing a "crackland" to prevent me from getting *two* +1+1 counters for all of my Plants. In fact this is the major reason I include two copies of Avenger in my Valakut builds; so I can Zenith out the 2nd copy and "hulk out" my army of plant tokens out of nowhere after my opponent kills the first Avenger.  
  • Green Sun's Zenith: Even though GSZ isn't actually a creature spell I've decided to include it in this part of the list because it's only function is to fish creatures out of your deck and drop the little monsters into play. The basic rationale here is that by running 4 copies of Green Sun Zenith you effectively mimic having 4 extra copies of every green creature in your deck; at least for the purposes of finding the 1st or 2nd copy anyways.  While naturally there are physical limitations involving the the actual number of any given green creature you run this mostly works as advertised and in my experience it's pretty easy to get as many as 3 copies of Primeval Titan into play over the course of a game with this card.  I should also mention that while you'd rather save GSZ to fish out a creature that will win you the game there are times where trading it for a 3 mana Overgrown Battlements is the correct play; remember you can't win if you are already dead and Battlements makes a fine blocker well into the mid-game.  Finally of course the Zenith plays a vital role by allowing  us to "toolbox" 3 separate 4 casting cost "answer" creatures against aggro, combo and control respectively; there is simply no way you'd even try that with Summoning Trap in the main.  If GSZ has a downside it's that it's a pretty terrible card against blue based control decks and it isn't exactly great shakes against black either; it goes down to both Inquisition of Kozilek (remember X=0) and Duress unless you pull it off a top-deck.  In my opinion however being slightly weaker against blue and black control decks than a typical Summoning Trap build is an acceptable downside for a card that literally makes the deck better against *everything* else.

Mana Ramp Spells:
  • Explore: The heart and soul of every Valakut deck lies in it's various "2 drop" mana ramp effects and in many ways Explore is the most versatile of the lot.  Simply put combo decks want to draw cards and this combo deck in particular wants to force extra land into play as quickly as possible; Explore can do both of these things at the low cost of G1 and I intend to play a full rack of 4 until they pry them from my clutching hands at the Innestrad release party.
  • Khalni Heart Expedition: Another card that's useful as much for it's versatility as it's raw power, Khalni Hear Expedition is an automatic 4 of here in Valakut; at least in my opinion.  While moderately clunky this spell acts as a super mana ramp in the early game while simultaneously working as a "broke man's" Primeval Titan later on; at least for the purposes of fishing out Mountains and setting off Valakut triggers.  Additionally it's pretty easy to minimize the waiting time on activating this card in a good Valakut build; 6 "cracklands", Harrow, Explore, Primeval Titan, Oracle of Mul Daya and even additional copies of Khalni Heart itself can all help add multiple counters at once to "charge up" this powerful enchantment.  As previously mentioned because this card brings two lands into play at the same time it can be used to "double trigger" any Valakuts you have while going from 4-6 land; this can be particularly effective when you already *have* 4 Mountains in play because it let's you use the Titan to fish out 2 additional copies of Valakut before you cash in the Khalni Heart for two Mountains and 12 extra damage.
  • Cultivate: With the release of M12 this card is the primary candidate to be chopped for 2 copies of Rampant Growth so I won't waste a lot of time explaining it's value in the build.  Since I don't like publishing decks I haven't properly tested however I listed the "pre-M12" build here, which included two Cultivates.  I've recently started testing with Rampant Growths in this slot however and I can confidently say it's just a better card overall.  The drop from 3 to 2 mana *is* significant and since most of the time you couldn't actually play the second land you'd fished with Cultivate the loss of utility is pretty negligible.  Otherwise both cards fill the same role; even right down to being an excellent way to bait out early counterspells against control decks without losing too much value later in the game.  To be fair I see myself eventually moving to 3-4 copies of this card but not at the expense of either Explore or Khalni Heart Expedition; for now I've been getting by fine with 2 copies.
  • Harrow: To be honest I have something of a love hate relationship with this card; the vast majority of the time I am absolutely in love with Harrow's instant speed and raw power.  In a world without counterspells I would most certainly run 4 copies of this card; but therein of course "lies the rub".  Unfortunately the sacrifice a land part of Harrow is a cost, so if you *do* cast it into a counterspell you'll not only lose the Harrow but you've lost a land for nothing.  I probably don't need to tell you that this is a disaster for a combo deck that relies on playing lands to win the game but in case you were wondering; it is.  Naturally of course there are ways to play around this and the fact that Harrow is an Instant makes it at least possible to avoid enemy counters by casting it as soon as the blue mage taps out.  In terms of upsides however Harrow has many and it's one of the few ramp spells in Standard that brings the lands into play untapped; which allows you to cast another 2 drop ramp spell automatically that turn.  It also brings both lands into play at the same time and thus interacts with Valakut in the same way that Primeval Titan and Khalni Heart Expedition do.  Finally even the requirement to sacrifice a land can be a blessing in disguise because it answers meta cards like Spreading Seas and can at least mitigate land destruction effects (Acidic Slime, Goblin Runeblaster) if you have 3 mana open to respond.
  • Lightning Bolt: Recently it has come to my attention that a number of people on the "internets" are suggesting that Valakut should no longer main-deck Lightning Bolt.  The basic argument is that Valakut itself is the most efficient form of removal in the entire deck; why waste slots on Lightning Bolt when every Mountain in the deck is a potential "free" Bolt?  Additionally in order to combat Exarch-Twin you will probably have to run at least 2 Dismembers in the maindeck anyways, which theoretically lessens the need for Bolt.  While there's generally no consensus opinion on what to replace Bolt with the most common choices appear to be Slagstorm, Pyroclasm, additional ramp spells or Lotus Cobras.  Needless to say I think this is "bull pucky" and you'll understand why the very first time you lose a die roll and watch your opponent drop a Goblin Guide, Treespeaker, Lotus Cobra or some other ridiculous enabler before you've played an untapped land.  You will want to kill these creatures before you'll be setting off Valakut triggers and while yes Pyroclasm can take care of the job why use an inefficient 2 mana sorcery when you could just Bolt it?  How do you Pyroclasm a Creeping Tar Pit, a creature with Haste, a Planeswalker or even just a random 3 toughness dork like Vampire Nighthawk?  The answer is of course that you don't and since it's *incredibly* risky to maindeck 4 Dismembers in a deck with no way to make black mana, Lightning Bolt still finds a home here in Valakut.  With this having been said however I have been toying with the idea of dropping down to 2 Bolts and using the slot created to add a Rampant Growth; the deck would definitely miss the extra removal spell but since aggro is already it's best match-up it might not matter as much as the "gas" from Rampant Growth would help.
  • Dismember: Despite my overwhelming love affair with Dismember here in the "new" Standard I'm actually not overtly fond of it in Green Sun Valakut.  Any deck running Mountains has access to a plethora of wonderful removal spells that *don't* cost you 4 life a pop; a price which can be especially significant for a deck that uses it's first 10 points of life as shield while it works to combo off and win the game.  Unfortunately as previously mentioned Exarch-Twin remains a popular deck in Standard (for now) and on it's best draws is capable of comboing out on turn 4; in other words "faster than you can".  Of course Dismember has other uses in the deck besides breaking up the Exarch-Twin combo; killing Lotus Cobras, Phyrexian Obliterators and Urbrask, the Hidden all come to mind instantly for example.  Despite it's utility however I likely wouldn't be main-decking this card if Exarch-Twin did not exist.  I should also mention that I would often flip-flop the number of Lightning Bolts and Dismembers in this build during testing as the environment leaned more heavily towards either aggro (3 Bolt) or combo/ramp (3 Dismember).  This may no longer be an option if the 3rd Lightning Bolt becomes a Rampant Growth but I have to admit having the choice was nice while it lasted.     
  • Forest:  If Valakut has a weak-point from a deck design perspective it's that for a deck that *has* to run 10+ Mountains and 4 copies of Valakut it's awfully dependent on seeing an untapped green mana source by turn 2.  In fact one of the very first things new Valakut players learn is to mulligan away any opening hand that doesn't have at least one green mana source inside.  To this end this deck runs 6 Forests and 6 cards that can go fetch out a Forest; albeit a tapped one.  To be perfectly honest I'd actually rather have more sources of green mana in the build; maybe as many as 15.  Unfortunately as previously mentioned space is an issue and you can really only run so many "lands", even in a combo deck that revolves around playing lands.  This naturally brings me to my second point; why Forests and not something more interesting like Rootbound Craig, Khalni Garden or Raging Ravines?  The answer is actually pretty simple; my opponents are *also* aware that this deck desperately needs green mana to function and as such often trying to destroy my green mana sources in the early game.  While the two most commonly used cards are Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge I've also faced down maindeck Goblin Runeblasters, accelerated Acidic Slimes and on one unforgettable occasion a game 1 Roiling Terrain. Choosing to run basic Forests doesn't blank all of these cards but it *does* screw with many of them and thus significantly reduces your chances of being "green locked" out of the game.  Let's just put it this way; do you really want to try and beat a U/x deck packing Spreading Seas *and* Tectonic Edge with Raging Ravines?  Exactly.
  • Mountain: Okay so I'm going to assume that nobody reading this has a hard time understanding why you would include Mountains in a deck built around Valakut the Molten Pinnacle; if you *are* confused by the concept just read Valakut itself over and over again until it becomes obvious how broken playing Mountains is in Standard right now.  This really only leaves the number of Mountains in question and while some people swear that Valakut requires only 10 to function properly, in literally hundreds of test games I have never agreed with this opinion.  In a perfect world where you never have to waste early Valakut triggers to stay alive or your opponents never bother to nuke a Valakut itself to render each of your Mountains less painful, 10 would probably be fine.  Unfortunately this is not a perfect world and in my experience running only 10 Mountains is a pretty good way to run out of "Mountain-Bolts" when you'd win the game otherwise.  As always, mileage may vary but I wouldn't even consider running less than 11 Mountains at this point in Valakut.
  • Terramorphic Expanse/Evolving Wilds:  In a deck that desperately wants to play Forests early and Mountains later it's pretty hard to turn down a "crackland" that can fish out either one on command.  Naturally of course this comes with the downside of said land coming into play tapped but since there's no R/G Zendikar "fetchland" we're forced to make due with what we have.  As an added bonus both Terramorphic and Evolving Wilds help feed our Khalni Heart Expeditions by giving you essentially 2 counters for playing a single land once you crack and fish the basic out.  Finally I should mention that I've included these cards under the same heading because functionally they are the *exact* same card; the fact that they have 2 different names simply allows you to run more than 4 copies in this deck.
  • Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle:  While Primeval Titan is probably the most powerful card in the deck there is absolutely no question which card is the most important; there is after all a reason people call this deck "Valakut" or simply "Kut" here in Standard.  I would estimate that roughly 60% or more of your wins with this deck-type will come from stacking "Mountain-Bolts" with Valakut and as such including any fewer than 4 copies would be pure lunacy.  Additionally your opponent's *will* aggressively attack this card so while you really only need two Valakuts in play to win the game it's very important that you still have 2 to fish out when it's "winning time".  In fact I would go so far as to state that learning to properly play and protect your Valakuts is one of the most important skills you can master while playing this deck; slapping it down turn 1 so you can tap it for red mana turn 2 is not always the right answer and a good player will learn to slow-roll his Valakuts to ensure a lethal combo later in the game.  
  • Nature's Claim: While primarily included to destroy Splinter Twins and Spellskites in the combo mirror, Nature's Claim is actually a pretty good "catch-all" answer for a number of problematic cards people will play against Valakut.  Good examples include Tumble Magnet, Leyline of Sanctity, Phyrexian Metamorph, Torpor Orb, Spreading Seas and the occasional Mindslaver.  Probably my favorite trick however is using it to destroy Journey to Nowhere (or soon; Oblivion Ring) and get back my Titan/Avenger; reaping a whole new set of "enters the battlefield" triggers in the process.  To be fair this card could probably be Naturalize but in my testing I found that I cared quite a bit less about giving them 4 life than I did about being able to slide my Nature's Claim under a Mana Leak or Spell Pierce.    
  • Combust: One of the more interesting things I discovered during the play-testing process is that despite the fact that Spliter Twin combo decks are faster on paper than Valakut, game 1 is actually about a 55/45 spit in *favor* of the Valakut deck.  While I'm at somewhat of a loss to explain why I think it's likely caused by the Twin deck's general lack of game 1 disruption; most current Exarch-Twin combo decks pack very few actual counterspells in the main deck, relying more on card draw and Spellskite to "get them there".  Unfortunately this is simply not the case in games 2 and 3 where the Twin deck will usually bring in more disruption and a significant number of additional counters; most notably Flashfreeze.  In light of this 2 Dismembers and saving your Khalni Heart triggers aren't enough to win sideboarded games against this deck and 2 copies of Combust have been included here to directly respond to this problem.  When combined with 2-3 copies of Nature's Claim, the 2 maindeck Dismembers, double "Mountain-Bolts" at instant speed from Khalni Heart Expedition or Harrow and the singleton Act of Aggression it's actually kind of hard to lose a match against Splinter Twin decks with this build.  I should also mention that while Combust is included in this deck entirely to meta against Twin combo decks I will occasionally board it in against U/W running Baneslayer Angel; it's not really necessary but it's much easier to beat an opponent who's not gaining 5 life a turn than it is to beat someone who is.  
  • Mark of Mutiny: In a format dominated by Titans in all 5 colors it's often the last person who resolves come into play/attacks triggers that wins the day.  This is especially true in the Valakut on Valakut mirror and one of the *easiest* ways to win this match-up is to steal your opponent's Primeval Titan and alpha-strike with both his and yours for fatal damage.  In fact in the Valakut mirror this play is actually one of the few ways to "snatch victory from the claws of defeat" if you lose the roll or otherwise fall behind your opponent in the match.  I choose Mark of Mutiny over Act of Aggression in this slot primarily because I *want* to attack with my opponent's Titans and thus would be playing AoA as a sorcery all the time anyways; no need to give away 4 life for nothing after all.  There are however an *extremely* limited number of situations where AoA would be straight up better than Mark of Mutiny so I eventually settled on a 2/1 split respectively.
  • Obstinate Baloth: Personally I find the sheer number of anti-aggro sideboard cards people are playing in Valakut right now to be somewhat confusing; weenie aggro decks are by and large Valakut's best match-up as far as I can tell and wasting slots to "win more" in game 2 seems like a questionable decision when you consider just how *bad* Valakut is against blue based control decks.  Despite this however there's no real harm in packing a *little* extra insurance in the form of a 2nd Baloth here in the sideboard; it makes a pretty easy swap for Oracle of Mul Daya against anything with burn for example.  In addition to helping you secure a match-up you typically win anyways the Baloth also serves the additional function of letting you beef up your threat ratio when you're boarding in Summoning Traps.  While I realize that you aren't exactly hoping to land a Baloth when you cast the Trap it's still a legitimate beatstick against a control deck and including it gives you 12 threats to Trap into; Walls and Oracles don't count as threats by the way.
  • Act of Aggression: Basically this card is in the deck for all of the same reasons as Mark of Mutiny is; it's excellent Titan meta and it's particularly effective in the Valakut mirror match.  Additionally however there are a few situations where Act can win you games that Mark of Mutiny can not simply because it's an Instant.  The most common of these situations I've encountered is against Spliter Twin where Mark of Mutiny is useless (and remains in the SB) but Act of Aggression can win you the game on the spot.  The key is to wait until your opponent has attached the Splinter Twin to his Exarch and has tapped his creature to make a copy of itself.  Once this ability is on the stack you can steal the Exarch (and the Splinter Twin) before he can finish the infinite loop; he gets 1 hasted copy of Deciever Exarch and that's it.  What's more because Act of Aggression untaps the Exarch you now control you can simply wait until the beginning of your opponent's end step has passed and make your *own* pile of infinite dudes.  The wording on Splinter Twin exiles theses creatures at the *beginning* of the next end step, which will be during your turn so you simply untap, attack and kill your opponent with his own combo.  The other situation where I've found Act of Aggression more useful than Mark of Mutiny is when I'm am so far behind in the Valakut mirror that I need to use my first 2 Mountain-Bolts just to kill the enemy Titan.  This doesn't work with Mark of Mutiny because the +1+1 counter will allow my opponent's Titan to survive the experience unless I somehow find another Bolt/Trigger along the way.  This is of course a *very* rare situation but it will occasionally come up and having the option to cast AoA has won me a game or two during testing.  To be completely honest I have *never* used this card to snap ambush one of my opponent's creatures with his own monster in a constructed game; it just doesn't come up.
  • Inferno Titan: Much like the extra copy of Obstinate Baloth, Inferno Titan is included primarily to help against aggro decks while simultaneously giving you another legitimate threat to snag with a Summoning Trap.  Of course the Inferno Titan is a little worse against aggro (slow-ish) and significantly better when you Trap into it but otherwise the cards serve a very similar purpose.  Additionally I should mention that I often bring the Inferno Titan in against black based control decks simply to give them something else to throw Go for the Throats at instead of my Primeval Titans; it's not ideal because you can't Green Sun's Zenith for it but Inferno Titan will definitely end a stalled out game VERY quickly if your opponent can't kill it.
  • Summoning Trap: Despite my previous statements to the contrary it would appear that blue based control decks are most certainly not dead in the "post-Jace the Mind Sculptor" Standard environment.  This isn't to say that *I* personally am sold on U/x control as a good choice right now; I think it's a horrible dog against the two best aggro decks in the format (RDW, Vamps) and anything even vaguely resembling a RUG Titan/Lotus Cobra build.  With that having been said however people are playing and winning with blue based control decks in Standard so pretending they don't exist isn't going to get us anywhere.  This is especially bad news for Valakut because to be completely honest this deck just doesn't test out very well against good counter/control decks in the format.  Casting giant fat monsters into counterspells is a pretty good way to lose games and every single blue deck in the format is packing at least 4 Tectonic Edges and sometimes 4 Spreading Seas as well.  Thankfully of course Summoning Trap is around to give us at least a hope of fighting through our opponent's counters and it's particularly effective in game 2 when blue mages will almost always bring in 3-4 copies of Flashfreeze.  Naturally Summoning Trap is only an effective answer to counterspells if you actually hit a threat in your top 7 cards so the sideboard also includes 4 extra "beaters" to board in along with your traps.  For whatever it's worth this card is pretty much the worst Green Sun's Zenith ever against a deck that isn't going to counter your creatures so if there's still no blue decks where you play use these slots for cards that will help you win the mirror; Tumble Magnet comes to mind.  Finally I should note that in my experience this card is *way* better against U/B control than U/W control because typically the Dimir player will *have* to counter at least some of your creatures to win while the Azorious player can rely on Day of Judgement, Tumble Magnet and Oblivion Ring to deal with your creatures without ever dropping a counterspell that triggers the Trap.
  • Wurmcoil Engine: Primarily included to serve as part of the "Summoning Trap" package, Wurmcoil Engine also fills a number of other useful roles here in the sideboard.  It's great against most types of Aggro, makes a for a decent answer to Day of Judgement type effects and literally blanks any copies of Go For the Throat your opponent might be running. In particular it's probably my favorite card to sideboard in against Red Deck Wins because they simply do *not* have a legitimate answer for it 95% of the time.  Unfortunately it's actually a pretty horrible card against Vampires once they board in Mark of Mutiny so either leave it in the sideboard or make *absolutely* certain you can kill his Viscera Seer in response to the Mark in this match-up.
  • Gaea's Revenge:  Have I mentioned that Valakut is kind of bad against blue based control decks?  One part Summoning Trap target and one part uncounterable hasty menace; Gaea's Revenge adds up to a world of hurt for most control builds in the format.  To be completely honest I'm actually leaning towards adding a second copy of "the Angry Green Man" as I test more against good blue decks because he's just that good in the match-up.  While primarily a target for Summoning Trap I will also often bring Gaea's Revenge in against any deck relying heavy on spot removal effects to control my monsters.  It certainly doesn't hurt that you can Green Sun's Zenith for him and I've found this to be a particularly effective play against heavy black removal decks in the format so far.

Playtest Results: As previously mentioned I think it's fair to say at this point that I've played more matches with Valakut in the last 6 months than any sane person should consider playing; including another couple hundred or so games in the post Jace/Mystic Standard format.  Through it all I constantly find myself impressed with both the sheer power and almost unshakable durability of this decktype.  It is my opinion that at this exact moment Valakut is absolutely the best "game 1" deck in the format; it has very few bad matches in Standard and there are a number of popular decks that simply can "not" beat it before sideboarding right now.  Unfortunately "very few" bad match-ups is not the same as "no" bad match-ups and because Valakut is such a focused linear deck it's pretty hard to play yourself into a win against an opponent who's deck is dedicated to stopping you.  What's more there are roughly 4 effective ways to attack the Valakut strategy here in Standard: counterspells, aggressive land destruction, Memoricide/Extraction effects and simply outracing it with Splinter Twin or Mark of Mutiny for example.  In my opinion it is easy enough to build an effective sideboard against any 2 of these 4 strategies but I've found it's impossible to properly address all 4 concepts in the same deck.  This is an issue because without direct "meta" cards to answer them, each of these strategies can effectively destroy you if your opponent knows what he's doing.  Making matters worse by *trying* to address so many problems in a single sideboard you leave very little room to help you win the mirror match; if your opponent decides to aggressively meta the Valakut mirror in games 2 and 3 you're probably toast with this build.  Despite these deficiencies however there is absolutely no question in my mind that Valakut is one of the most powerful decks in all of Standard right now and a legitimate contender for best deck in the format; you just have to "guess" right with your sideboard choices to win a given tournament.       

Good Match-ups: First and foremost this deck excels at tearing aggro decks to shreds; even the fastest RDW and Vampire builds are literally no match for what Valakut brings to the table. The combination of spot removal, Walls, giant Titans, "free" Mountain-Bolts, tutorable 4/4 life gain Beasts/shrouded Trolls and a deck that typically wins on it's 5th attack phase is just simply too much for most aggro decks to get over right now.  This is of course the primary reason why I no longer run maindeck or even sideboard "board sweep" effects here in Valakut; if you already beat the snot out of weenie aggro decks why bother to meta more cards against them?  These matches aren't even really that hard post sideboard because all most aggro opponents can bring in against you are Mark of Mutiny or Surgical Extraction type effects; the first one is pretty easy to play around as long as you don't cast a Primeval Titan into an empty board (hint cast Avenger first!) and the second option is addressed by replacing a Prime Titan and an Avenger in game 2 with some of your 4 "extra" creatures in the SB.  Believe me the look on your opponent's face when he Memoricides naming Primeval Titan and only finds 3 copies is literally priceless and against black extraction decks it doesn't actually matter *which* big giant monster you stick, just that you eventually stick one to win the game. In addition to face stomping aggro I've also found this build to be remarkably effective against other combo decks; I've consistently notched easy victories against a variety of Splinter-Twin and Lotus Cobra decks over the past couple of weeks and oddly enough I have no trouble with the more "explosive" Valakut decks in the mirror because I'm running more spot removal than they are at the moment.  Finally of course Valakut has always been a "homebrew assassin" and post Jace/Mystic ban nothing has really changed; this deck still rolls through FNM brews like they aren't even there unless they are *specifically* pre-boarded against Valakut.  While this may not seem important knowing that you're almost an automatic lock against anything "random" at a tournament is an incredible source of confidence and strength when your opponent starts dropping "weird" cards in game 1.

Bad Match-ups:  To put it bluntly this deck is an absolute game 1 "dog" against any well designed U/x control deck, including: U/W tapout control, U/B discard control and even rogue strategies like Mono U Architect or Grixis Tezzeret control.  Regardless of type the basic fatal combination for Valakut is an opponent who runs counterspells, draws more cards than you do, runs powerful Planeswalkers to dominate long ground out matches and packs enough spot removal or discard to make your first 2-3 "finishers" mostly irrelevant.  To be completely honest these match-ups are actually tilted so far against you in game 1 that I am legitimately tempted to just scoop before playing my first land and head immediately to sideboard.  Naturally I don't actually do this in case my opponent finds a way to lose the game but against a competent pilot you should *not* win very many pre-sideboard games at all against these decks.  Thankfully this match-up does get considerably better in game 2 because Summoning Trap is kind of broken and cards like Nature's Claim and Gaea's Revenge tend to help tremendously against these types of opponents.  Still even post sideboard you're looking at a 60/40-ish match-up against U/x control at best which means that mathematically you are still not the favorite to advance against these decks.  In addition to U/x control I've also found that this deck struggles against mono black builds that run a pile of hand destruction and Surgical Extraction type effects.  While certainly not as dangerous as counterspell based control decks this *can* lead an unwinnable game 1's very quickly if your opponent draws IoK/Duress in the early game and then backs it up with a Memoricide or Extraction before you're able to resolve your first Titan.  As previously mentioned this is actually pretty easy to sideboard around but that doesn't exactly help you in game 1 and it's hard to call yourself the "favorite" in any match were you have to win games 2 and 3 just to advance.  Finally I should mention that this deck is not particularly good at winning mirror-matches against a dedicated opponent who's tricked out to dominate the mirror.  Typically "faster" Valakut decks will be running a bunch of very vulnerable meta creatures and it's pretty easy to win matches against these decks simply by killing those creatures.  If however the other player is running a more stable Valakut build like this one but with more ramp effects and mirror-breaking cards like Tumble Magnet and Urbrask this will be significantly more difficult.  Naturally you an always run these cards yourself but as I mentioned above you simply *can't* meta against every potential problem with this deck and I've gotten by primarily by assuming that my Valakut opponents will either be running the wrong version of this deck or simply make more mistakes than I will during the match; so far it's been working but as always "mileage may vary".
Conclusions: At this point I have no real problem saying that Valakut is likely the best deck in Standard as a whole; it destroys so many of the best decks in the format so easily that there really is no way to diminish it's position as *the* format defining deck at this exact moment.  Unfortunately being "the biggest, brightest target" in Standard is a great way to attract unwanted attention in the form of pre-sideboarded enemy decks designed specifically to beat Valakut.  This essentially means that while I think Valakut is likely the best deck in the format I would also be very hesitant to play it at a large event right now simply because I fully expect to encounter 9 rounds worth of decks that hate Valakut.  What's more even this tenuous position at the top of the metagame is somewhat dependent on aggro decks being a part of the format as a whole; if nobody is playing aggro because it loses to Valakut than you can most assuredly expect natural foils like U/x Control and Mono Black Discard to rise in popularity as the format develops.

Well folks, that's just about all my fingers can handle for the moment; when I sat down to start this article 4 days ago (yes, 4) I intended to write a definitive guide to playing Green Sun Valakut here in the "new Standard".  Naturally I assumed my familiarity with the deck would be an asset but ultimately despite knowing it like the back of my hand I was still forced to leave out many of the finer points I wanted to discuss as the word count piled higher and higher towards the article you see now.  Unfortunately Valakut suffers from the lamentable stigma of being considered an "idiot's deck" and many players assume that if they can read Valakut and resolve a Prime Titan wins will ensue automatically.  This is of course completely false and  
hopefully this article helps in some small way to disprove this shockingly common perception; that is of course assuming anyone is still reading it roughly 10 pages later.  As always thanks for reading and remember that it's rarely the guy who casts the first Primval Titan who wins the game; it's the "last" Titan trigger that does the killing here in Standard.

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