How to Defeat Valakut and Other Linear Strategies

Feature Article from Conrad Kolos
Conrad Kolos
1/27/2011 9:57:00 AM
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In retrospect, I suppose it makes sense that Valakut, and pure RG Valakut specifically, supplanted Jund at GP: Atlanta as the “second” deck to sit aside Faries at the top of the Extended metagame. It has a similar game plan against Faeries (postboard only), using uncounterable spells like Volcanic Fallout and Great Sable Stag, while absolutely crushing Jund with a combo kill that Jund can't interact with. Also, whereas Jund is the prototypical “fair” deck, Valakut decks have the added bonus of getting free wins against the variety of decks people will play on the fringes of Extended.



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Until things shift again (as Magic metagames are wont to do) you can expect to play against lots of utterly non-interactive, broken Valakut decks at PTQs. These decks will mostly replace the Jund decks that have to this point been very successful. This follows the same logic that scared Five Color Control decks away as Jund and Faeries became very popular. In a word, Valakut beats Jund so if Valakut is popular Jund won't be, at least at the top tables. The good news for the prepared player (read: you, hopefully) is that Valakut decks in all their forms (Wargate, UG Omens, Manaramp, RG Standard Port) are the easiest decks to beat in Extended.

This isn't hyperbole. If you want to, you should never lose to getting Lightning Bolted from a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. This is because Valakut decks by definition are very linear. By this I mean that they have one and only one line of play (or line of attack). All Valakut decks focus on getting six Mountains into play along side the namesake card. Whether this be through Scapeshifting, abusing Prismatic Omens, or simply making six basic Mountains by ramping, the idea is the same. And since we only start Magic games with seven or fewer cards, there isn't much room for Valakut decks to do much else than make land drops. The same thing that makes Valakut decks very hard to interact with (all they do is play lands, and sometimes basic lands at that) also makes them very vulnerable. Because if you figure out a choke point that can actually stop Plan A from killing you, they don't have much room in their sixty (or sixty six I guess) to have a viable Plan B. Once you understand this basic rule about linear decks, its an easy principle to apply to beating any specific linear deck, Valakut included.

The first thing to think about might be all the typical combo hosers that don't stop a Valakut. And because the deck is so specific, and partially because Valakut does colorless damage, this list is long. Cards like Ethersworn Canonist are pretty worthless, since mostly Valakut mages are playing one spell a turn anyway. Meddling Mage is a bit better, but the problem is that just natural Valakut damage happens all the time, as since playing lands is what Valakut decks are good at anyway, its no problem for them to amass a natural Lightning Bolt, freeing the Scapeshift or Primevil Titan in their hand from winning the game. Leonin Arbiter is even better than a Meddling Mage, because it also slows down cards like Rampant Growth, Harrow, Khalni Heart Expedition, etc. But since they need seven lands or more in order to create a Scapeshift kill, sometimes its actually no problem at all for them to sidestep a two mana surcharge. (Mana Leak suffers from this same problem.) Memoricide is a pretty good answer in Standard where players lean on Primeval Titan, but is obviously half as good when players also have Scapeshift. Countermagic kind of works, especially if you have a half decent clock, but since their plan is just to play lands anyway, a savvy Valakut player can just put eventual Lightning Bolt pressure on you with naturally drawn Molten Pinnacles and set up a massive mana advantage for a double Scapeshift turn or the like. Point discard is likewise only half effective, because a typical RG Valakut deck has about ten (4 Scapeshift, 4 Primeval Titan, and 2ish Primal Commands) and at least eight cards that can come off the top of the deck and win the game immediately or the equivalent.

As you can see, this is the big advantage of linear decks. Because there aren't alot of moving pieces, it can be hard to interact with them. In contrast, a combination like Pestermite/Splinter Twin can be disrupted with creature removal, enchantment removal, countermagic, or point discard. Luckily for us, Magic is a complicated game and Wizards has been kind enough of to give us lots of options. The absolutely best way to beat Valakut decks at the moment (maybe someone smarter than me will come up with better technology soon) is with the cards Leyline of Sanctity and Runed Halo. The Valakut decks have almost no way to remove an enchantment (we will get to Cryptic Command later) from the battlefield and while its annoying that they have an almost unlimited amount of Strafes to mow down your creatures, its completely irrelevant because they can't actually kill you. The other big plus to these enchantments is the amount of general utility they have currently. Leyline of Sanctity prevents Vendillion and Mistbind Cliques from targeting you, as well as Thoughtsiezes and Blightnings. Runed Halo just happens to be a perfect answer to hard to answer threats like Demigod of Revenge, Vengevine, and Anathamancer.

Both of these cards are perfect for control decks because not only do they help keep you alive (free game one wins against Valakut decks are a nice plus) but they also gain value over time. Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which nearly every nonland card in your deck was a Runed Halo. Every time your opponent plays a creature, you counter it by turning off all copies of that creature. From this point on, every time she draws an additional copy of that creature from the top of her deck, its a dead draw. This is a perfect position for a control player to set up because as long as he is not actively dying, he is bit by bit getting ahead. But like I said, Runed Halo is also the perfect card to make sure you aren't actively dying!

Here is a very different take on a once popular control deck that I recommend strongly in the next week or two to pick on all the people who will jump on the Valakut band wagon:

5C Control by Conrad Kolos
Main Deck
Sideboard
2 Mulldrifter
2 Plumeveil
3 Wall of Omens
2 Wall of Reverence
Creatures [9]
3 Cruel Ultimatum
4 Cryptic Command
4 Esper Charm
1 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Lightning Bolt
2 Mana Leak
1 Negate
2 Path to Exile
1 Preordain
3 Runed Halo
3 Volcanic Fallout
Spells [25]
3 Cascade Bluffs
4 Creeping Tar Pit
1 Island (148)
3 Mystic Gate
4 Reflecting Pool
1 Sunken Ruins
1 Swamp (150)
2 Vivid Crag
4 Vivid Creek
3 Vivid Meadow
Lands [26]
Deck Total [60]


2 Flashfreeze
2 Great Sable Stag
1 Hallowed Burial
2 Jace Beleren
1 Lightning Bolt
2 Negate
1 Runed Halo
1 Scepter of Fugue
2 Vendilion Clique
1 Volcanic Fallout
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!


Take notice of a few unique aspects of my ultra passive Five Color Control brew. First, because I am leaning so heavily on Runed Halo, not only to get free wins from Valakut players but also to protect myself from Demigods (from Jund) and Mistbind Cliques (from Faeries) I can't play any Jaces. This is because if you have a Runed Halo naming a creature they can't attack you with it effectively but they can attack your Planeswalker. The other thing to notice is that I am playing Path to Exile in numbers in place of Lightning Bolts. Because I am expecting the game to go very long (I have no way to win quickly), I need to make sure that I have flexible answers to whatever Titan or other big threat an opponent might have. I also don't expect people to be able to make much use out of their seventh, tenth, or twelfth land, whatever it might be, especially in a relatively fast format like Extended. Path is also much more useful in control mirrors, where you can Path your own Wall of Omens to gain a mana advantage. I also doubled the typical number of Creeping Tar Pits, maxing out at four, because I refuse to dilute my deck by playing a real way to win, which seems like dead weight. By committing to Runed Halo, I have already assumed the position at the slowest, most controlling position possible in the spectrum of viable decks. If linear strategies are popular and predictable, then you don't have to win, you just have to not lose. Their deck is a just a pile of lands when you are sitting behind two Runed Halos both naming “Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.” Strangely, the same tactic is used against Faeries. If you name Mistbind Clique with a Runed Halo, every other card in their deck is solved with a well timed Volcanic Fallout. And every duplicate Bitterblossom and Thoughtsieze becomes more and more painful to cast. They do you the favor and kill themselves. Jund is somewhat trickier of a matchup because they are always threatening to Maelstrom Pulse your Runed Halo away, releasing their Demigods of Revenge or Anathamancers. But they have a very small window of turns to accomplish this counter, because of the overwhelming card advantage of Cruel Ultimatum, which is one of the safest spells to tapout for, simply because of what a wide range of effects it has. I am also in a much stronger position to battle straight forward attack decks like Jund because of how many walls I am able to play because of my willingness to be a pure control deck.

Speaking of walls, let me Gush for a moment about Wall of Reverence. Every now and then a situation arises in Magic where an otherwise mediocre creature card rises to prominence because of how perfectly placed it is. In the past this creature has been Ashenmoor Gouger, Crimson Acolyte, even Wildfire Emissary. Right now is Wall of Reverence's time. It wouldn't seem like 1/6 flying wall that gained you one life (sometimes four if you have a Plumeveil, another pretty awesome Defender) per turn would be very good but it just happens to do exactly what you need. A single Wall of Reverence holds off an entire Faerie army, is perfectly sized to block a Demigod of Revenge, and comes down fast enough to give you plenty of margin against the aggressive red decks that simply won't go away. Its almost irrelevant that it is outclassed by a Wurmcoil Engine or a Primeval Titan because you are otherwise perfectly setup to beat slow sorcery speed threats like that.

The basic game plan with this deck is laughably simple. You just match their creatures with Walls or Runed Halos, and then Volcanic Fallout. At this point, they have to commit two or three more creatures to the board before they can even Threaten to get past your defenses. But since you have card advantage (Esper Charm, Mulldrifter, Cruel Ultimatum) and have planned for the late game, every turn the game lasts you get further and further ahead. Eventually the game state gets pretty laughable, even if you aren't able to put them away because many of your cards will answer multiple threats (as in a Wall of Reverence sitting across from a Spellstutter Sprite, a Mutavault and a Vendilion Clique) and because you will have fewer dead draws (the reason for shaving down some Mana Leaks). Against a combination deck the plan is even simpler. Just do nothing. They have to figure out a way to kill you. Don't be shy about playing duplicate copies of Runed Halo on the same card, especially against UG Prismatic Omen decks that have access to Cryptic Command. Once you resolve the first Runed Halo on Valakut, their only realistic out is to bounce the Halo and then combo you before you can play it again, so there is no reason to get cute with the second Halo. They don't have any room for another way to kill you because they are all in on making lands.

It says a ton that I am not advocating a UW Sun Titan Control deck, as Tectonic Edge is actually my favorite card in Extended right now, and all the cards I really care about (Cryptic Command, Runed Halo, Walls) don't require an awkward Vivid land manabase. I just haven't had any success beating Faeries without access to Volcanic Fallout. The path those decks are taking is actually the opposite of the one I like. They have chosen to be pretty aggressive and to try to race Faeries with cards like Kitchen Finks but I would much rather put up with some comes into play tapped lands for the luxury of being able to fully commit to the role in the matchup that I want.

The big draw to playing a deck like this is all the free wins you get from planning ahead, knowing what decks you are likely to face. Like usual, as the format has evolved, less and less decks have proven themselves to be worthy of consideration and you aren't likely to play anything “rouge” at this point. In fact, you should pretty much know what they are playing from their first few land drops. Its not like Runed Halo is a bad card in general or a liability against decks in which it doesn't happen to read “Win the Game”.

Like all Five Color Control decks, this one is very customizable, and I strongly suggest that you do just that. Not only is it important to keep your opponent's guessing about what you might have and to stay ahead of a changing metagame, but its also important to figure out what works for you especially since the games go very long and you will see every single card in your 75. For instance, I have had alot of success with my singleton Scepter of Fugue harassing other slow decks, but its a card that no one else has adopted. As long as it keeps working, I could care less if other people choose to play one. You have the manabase for it, so you might as well be flexible and creative. With this in mind, I am not going to give detailed sideboarding advice, but instead just some tips I have picked up while playing.

- The most threatening card in the Jund match up is actually Raging Ravine, because it will eventually grow big enough to attack past a Wall of Reverence and you don't have lots of way to interact with it. If you have to, you can always play a Runed Halo naming a manland. This also comes up against Faeries but obviously Creeping Tar Pit is the culprit there.

- You aren't obligated to play an end of turn Plumeveil just because you have mana up. Its often correct to wait to Ambush a Bloodbraid Elf or just to hold it to discard to an opposing Esper Charm. A resolved Cruel Ultimatum actually isn't that big of a deal if you have to been hoarding useless Fallouts, Walls, etc.

- Jace and other Planeswalkers are the biggest dangers when playing other control decks, because you really can't beat one if they are smart enough to pump its loyalty out of Creeping Tar Pit range. Preventing a resolved Planeswalker should be your entire game plan. Lean on a superior deck composition (maximum Creeping Tar Pits, no Wurmcoil Engines, etc) in order to actually win the game.

- Don't get too excited about Great Sable Stag against Faeries. You aren't that well set up to get into a racing situation and will often lose games where you are tapping out for 3/3s instead of defending yourself. Its nice to put them under a little pressure, but I am only playing two because of how easy it can be to get caught in the incorrect role.

Good Luck in your PTQs and here's hoping you play a Valakut deck every single round,

Conrad Kolos



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