Tha Crossroads: The Passing and (Potential) Rebirth of Jund in Modern
“I still remember the very first time I saw her. It was the spring of 2009 and I was headed nowhere fast. In fact, you could say I was two thirds of the way into a shallow grave. My Shards pack was awful and Conflux had provided no respite. Going into pack 3 I was staring at a bunch of random Naya cards that weren’t going to win me the draft. Then she came into my life and nothing would ever be the same again. To be honest, she wasn’t much to look at. Not only was the card art comically ugly but her 3/2 body did little to impress me at the cost of four mana. She could run like lightning however and the beautiful promise of Cascading into a second threat made it clear that I needed Bloodbraid Elf to be a part of my life, then and forever. She didn’t let me down either; the very first time I cast her she rewarded me with a Woolly Thoctar and a quick win against my bedazzled opponent.
She was special folks, and I took her for granted. I assumed Bloodbraid Elf would always be with us and when she started tearing up Modern as part of a hyper efficient Jund build, I was right there with her. I should have known things were going just a little too well but I was blinded by a lust for power and victory. Today, all of that changes as we lay Bloodbraid Elf to rest in Modern by order of the DCI Banned and Restricted list. It’s over ladies and gentlemen; the end of an era has arrived and there’s nothing to do now but pray for Bloodbraid Elf in the hallowed halls of Legacy. I will not tell you pretty lies my friends; this may be the death of Jund in Modern as well. The darkness is closing in; may Darigaaz, the Igniter have mercy on our souls.”
Theatrics aside ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that this banning puts Jund at a significant crossroad for the first time in its existence as a deck in Modern. To understand why, we need to examine both what is “Jund” and what role Bloodbraid Elf currently serves in the deck. There are a lot of people out there claiming that Jund will easily adapt and dismissing Bloodbraid Elf as merely the 3rd or 4th best card in the deck. In my humble opinion these people are wrong and the loss of Bloodbraid Elf will be incredibly difficult to overcome because she’s not only the best card in the deck but she also defines Jund as a deck concept.
First and foremost we should clearly define what a Jund deck is before we go any further. In a purely literal sense Jund is a 3 color deck built with G/B/R cards. The term comes from the Shards of Alara block where Bloodbraid Elf was originally printed. In this respect it is easy to say that “Jund” will adapt to the loss of the Elf simply because you can plug in another G/B/R card like Huntmaster, Olivia or Falkenrath Aristocrat and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, this literal definition does little to describe the distinctive style of play that traditional Jund decks have adopted and this is precisely where the loss of Bloodbraid Elf is felt most. Any old fool can throw together a bunch of good G/B/R cards and call it “Jund” but experienced pilots will tell you that the deck is more than the sum of its parts. At its core Jund is a slow, control-ish midrange deck that utilizes the early game to either disrupt its opponents or set up later plays. Once this is accomplished the deck switches into grind out mode on the back of a tremendous number of 2 for 1′s and card advantage effects. The entire deck is built around the idea that it’s nearly impossible to beat in a topdeck war and it’s this resiliency that makes it possible to combine spot removal, discard effects, man lands, tremendous creatures and the occasional Planeswalker into a cohesive deck that wins matches (and tournaments).
In this context it’s very hard to see how Bloodbraid Elf is not the best card in the deck because she performs multiple roles while simultaneously serving as the glue that enables so many different cards to come together successfully. No other card in the build does this much this often. In my experience as long as you had access to four mana sources in play, you were pretty much never unhappy to topdeck a Bloodbraid Elf. The simple truth is that casting Bloodbraid Elf made it acceptable to “waste” your first two to three turns disrupting your opponent and generally falling behind on life and board presence. You simply gritted your teeth, bore down and hung on for dear life until you could cast Bloodbraid Elf and with any luck she’d cash you into another 2 for 1 effect and all would be right in the world. Frankly, this is probably why she ended up on the banned list in the first place. Bloodbraid Elf allowed you to go from slightly (or significantly) behind in the game, to notably ahead and demanding your opponent find both answers and additional pressure of his own! This “slingshot” effect is not replicated by any other card in Jund and its absence represents the single biggest obstacle to playing “Jund” in Modern after this banning. Of course Bloodbraid Elf was also completely repulsive when you were actually ahead on board-state and she also represented the best answer to sweeper effects in the entire Modern Format. This is why I don’t have a real problem with the DCI’s decision to ban Bloodbraid Elf in Modern but it’s fair to say that any Jund brewer going forward has his work cut out for him. You don’t replace Bloodbraid Elf with a single card and I’m not entirely sure you can make Jund’s mish-mash of card types functional with the pool we’re working with today. In many ways, Bloodbraid Elf is Jund and without her you’re just playing a G/B/R mid range/control hybrid.
While I personally suspect this banning will spell the death-knell of Jund in Modern it’s clear from the many page discussion on my Twitter feed yesterday that not everyone agrees with me. For the sake of argument I’d like to take a quick look at some of the cards people proposed as a “replacement” for Bloodbraid Elf and what they would and wouldn’t bring to a Modern Jund build. It’s important to remember that while we’re discussing these cards as a direct swap for Bloodbraid Elf, even the most die-hard Jund jockeys on the internet know that you can’t just plug in another 4 drop and call it a day. Jund is going to change so I’ll do my best to talk about how it might do so as we discuss each of the potential “replacement” cards:
Huntmaster/Ravager of the Fells: In many ways this is the most obvious suggestion to replace Bloodbraid Elf in Jund simply because of its casting cost. It’s a 4 mana card that gives you two creatures, gains you some life and promises to potentially grind out long games by flipping back and forth. Unfortunately in the world of Tarmagoyfs and 8/8 Slippery Boggles wearing many pairs of pants neither of those two creatures is very exceptional. The two life is nice but with Modern’s frightening array of cheap instants I’m unsure how you’ll ever actually flip to the Ravager Side. Theoretically this card has reasonable synergy with Raging Ravine but if your opponent does actually have the Bolt/Path/Terminate you’re going to be pretty upset about losing your Ravine AND failing to flip. Huntmaster does manage to fulfill some of the same roles as the Elf; he’s essentially a 3 for 1, he makes a reasonable response to boardsweepers and if by some miracle you can control his flipping back and forth he can take over a deadlocked game. He doesn’t slingshot you back into a game you are clearly losing however, his lack of haste makes him weaker against sweepers himself, and how amazing is a 3 for 1 effect when none of the 3 effects is all that impressive in its own right? In my opinion the card is fragile and the conditions required to take full advantage of his power border on “Magical Christmasland” in the format as it stands. I’m sure many brave individuals will attempt to brew with Huntmaster but I honestly doubt he’s strong enough to keep Jund relevant in Modern.
Falkenrath Aristocrat: This is one of the more “techy” suggestions I encountered yesterday and on some levels it has merit. The Aristocrat has haste, four power, and flies so when you are ahead she’s probably better than Bloodbraid Elf as often as not. Remember guys, you don’t always Cascade into something sweet and I’d wager there’s plenty of times you’d gladly trade a BBE and a worthless Thoughtseize to have Aristocrat on your side. The problem of course comes with Aristocrat’s fragility. She’s a 1 toughness creature in a format with plenty of answers to such. Of course she can eat another creature to make herself indestructible for a turn but that’s not quite as appealing in Modern as it is in Standard. Most of the creatures you currently play in Jund aren’t the kind you want to be sacrificing; she has amazing synergy with Kitchen Finks and that’s about it. It’s theoretically possible to switch over to a more Zombie based deck in Modern but cards like Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger face serious obstacles in Modern. Deathrite Shaman is everywhere and creatures who can’t block don’t work so well in dedicated midrange decks. More to the point, how exactly is Aristocrat viable in a format with easy access to Disfigure, Dismember, Tragic Slip, Zealous Persecution, and enough instant burn spells to force you to sacrifice your whole team to keep a measly 4/1 flyer alive? Let’s not forget just how many decks run Lingering Souls in Modern; although Illness in the Ranks may ultimately make this a non-issue. Once again, some brave soul is going to try this but that brave soul will not be me.
Olivia Voldaren: In my opinion if there is any hope for Jund at all in the post BBE format it probably lies in Olivia Voldaren. Of all the various 4 mana replacements that were suggested to me yesterday she’s by and large the most powerful and the card that best replicates what Bloodbraid Elf brought to the table. She isn’t a perfect fit of course because she’s way more vulnerable to spot removal than the Elf ever was. This may seem like a misnomer when you look at the stats but remember by the time your opponent could kill BBE you’d already cashed in. If he casts Lightning Bolt on your Olivia while she’s still a 3/3 it’s all downside my friend. What Olivia does do, if she survives, is allow you to quickly claw back from a losing game position and eventually put the final screws in your opponent. In this way she’s more of a “Control” card than Bloodbraid Elf but as long as you’re winning the game it’s hard to care. The downside here is that she’s much slower than BBE and probably demands you run even more discard effects so you can protect your significant investment. I’ll probably try Jund with Olivia in the maindeck but my hopes aren’t high; she’s easy to kill with how the format stands now and people will likely run more spot removal if she becomes a problem.
Obstinate Baloth: Maindecking this traditional Jund sideboard card was suggested to me by a very experienced Jund pilot I often find myself arguing with on Twitter. He’s a smart guy but fundamentally we have different play styles so it leads to some spectacular “debates” on social media. While we rarely see eye to eye on most subjects in the game of Magic I think he might be on to something this time. With traditional Jund decks taking a big hit post Bloodbraid Elf it’s not unreasonable to assume the format will shift heavily towards aggro. There are a number of completely viable decks currently being suppressed by Jund that will come out of the woodwork in the early going and they will likely be unprepared to deal with maindeck Baloths. This isn’t a sexy choice and ultimately I feel like it will be easy to metagame around the Baloth but for the first little while I doubt anyone is going to. Your millage may vary and if it works you should thank Phil Samms (@psamms on Twitter).
Geist of Saint Traft: Yes, this is a Blue/White card. While this presents something of a problem the very existence of Haunted Zoo proves that you can accomplish damn near anything with Fetchlands, Deathrite Shaman, and Shocks if you put your mind to it. Geist is at once cheaper, harder to kill and every bit as good of a slingshot mechanism as Bloodbraid Elf. The downside is you’ll probably start every game at 10 life just from your own shocklands, your manabase will become more unstable and frankly dropping a Geist into a board state where you’re significantly behind will not bring you back on its own. This is a point where Zoo and Jund begin to meet and it will likely take an exceptional brewer to perform the transition seamlessly.
Batterskull: Much like Olivia Voldaren this idea probably requires you to rebuild Jund as more of a controlling deck to make it viable. Batterskull is pretty good at grinding out long games if you can afford to protect it. This requires a tremendous investment of mana over the course of multiple turns but unlike Olivia you won’t have to run “extra” cards to protect the Skull; just play out 8 lands and you’re good to go. This is of course easier said than done in a primarily turn 4 format however and I suspect that while Batterskull will provide some succor to Jund players it’s not going to fill the gaping hole in the deck that Bloodbraid Elf leaves either.
Thrun, the Last Troll: This is another relatively “techy” idea that came across my Twitter feed from multiple sources yesterday. While in truth he performs virtually none of the same roles as Bloodbraid Elf there is some merit to considering Thrun in post-banning Jund. He is extremely hard to kill and with some minor tweaks it would be fairly easy to build a grindy midrange deck around this card. You’d probably be talking about including Kessig Wolf Run and Lotus Cobras but it’s fair to say that this wasn’t a real problem for the deck that won GP Toronto doing just that. The downside is that Phantasmal Image has always eaten Thrun’s lunch and it’s also legal (and strong) in Modern. Additionally without Kessig Wolf Run, Thrun is just a hard to kill regenerating man who can’t enter combat profitably with a full sized Tarmogoyf and gets chump blocked by Spirit Tokens all day.
Boggart Ram-Gang: I’m using this card as a proxy for all of the cheaper hasty creatures people suggested yesterday because it’s one of my favorite cards of all time. Truthfully Goblin Guide, Ball Lightning, Chandra’s Phoenix and a host of other cards that said haste were also suggested. The problem of course is that most of these cards only help you when you are ahead and as Jund is presently constructed it’s rarely going to be in the pole position on turns 2 or 3. These are aggro cards and while I’m sure it’s possible to re-imagine Jund as a quick beatdown deck I have no idea why said deck would be better than the aggro choices already in the format. It won’t be faster than RDW, Infect and Affinity. It won’t be as resilient as White Weenie Martyr-Proc, Junk or even Kibler Bears. Frankly this doesn’t seem very promising to me but I admit I haven’t exactly tried it either.
Thragtusk: Everyone’s favorite Standard villain could theoretically port over to Modern Jund quite nicely. Once again you’re probably talking about incorporating Lotus Cobras and Kessig Wolf Runs like Willy Edel did in Toronto but the idea is not without merit. For one thing, at least Tusk is still effective against Path to Exile and it can trade off with the most common size Tarmogoyf in the format (4/5). The life gain is not irrelevant although it may not amount to much if you start flipping Tusks off a Bob. Once again the downside involves playing an essentially blank Green man who will struggle to deal with chump blockers without the aid of Kessig Wolf Run. This is essentially the same card as Thrun with different options under the hood and thus has many of the same problems in Modern.
As you can see from the examples above, Jund is going to be extremely hard pressed to find a legitimate replacement for Bloodbraid Elf post banning. Virtually every potential replacement fails in some way to replicate the Elf’s overall power, which in turn demands additional changes to the form and structure of Jund decks going forward. This then calls into question the very viability of the deck as other color combinations are much better at playing “fair” than Jund is. For starters every Jund brewer is going to have to look himself hard in the mirror and ask; “Why am I still playing Red exactly?” Once you strip away Bloodbraid Elf the basic core of the Jund deck starts to look something like this:
In other words, all of the important cards here are Green and Black, not Red. Lightning Bolt, Raging Ravine and even Terminate can all be easily replaced in either BUG or Junk Shells and are likely to simply be better decks overall than Jund variants. Who doesn’t want to play with Path to Exile and how much worse is Go for the Throat than Terminate in 95% of your matchups? While you will lose some versatility in the sideboard it’s not like White and Blue are particularly short on strong answer cards themselves. Some of the smartest people on my feed were already over Bloodbraid Elf by yesterday afternoon (Jon Johnson and Scott MacCallum notably) and on to Junk decks rocking Doran and Spellskite. These men aren’t foolish ladies and gentlemen; they can feel the wind blowing as a great change sweeps over the Modern format and they’re already preparing for war. Whether it’s Junk, BUG or some form of Dark Naya there appear to be some new Sheriffs in town and any Jund deck hoping to show its measly hide in the top 8 bracket had better come prepared. Without the crutch of Bloodbraid Elf I fear that it’s more than a fair fight now and that Jund has been utterly destroyed for the moment. This is the price of dominance and I expect few to shed tears for the demise of Jund. I will however and most of my tears will be for the wondrous glory that was Bloodbraid Elf in a Modern Jund shell. I’ll also probably cry a little bit when I’m forced to buy Junk/BUG cards I don’t already own but I guess that’s the price of doing business in an eternal format. Until next time folks, always remember that Bloodbraid Elf shook the pillars of Modern so hard they threw her out of the format. Also, if possible try to remember the alternate art promo because she was just much prettier then. Keep it weird.
PS: Some other Storm card (Seething Song) got banned but nobody likes Storm so boo fucking hoo. Suck it combo player.