When everyone expected Nekroz to win the North American World Championship Qualifier, Burning Abyss took not just a surprising win, but the runner-up spot as well: Noah Greene and Chase Cunningham duked it out in the Finals in a Burning Abyss mirror match that saw Nekroz shut out of the tournament, and when the dust settled Noah Greene emerged victorious.
Noah explained the Reasoning behind his deck choice in his tournament report which you can read here on TCGPlayer, but today I'd like to really dissect some of his individual choices and some of the things he did to set himself apart from the pack. By examining both of the Finalists' deck lists from the WCQ we can see patterns and places of agreement that demonstrate why these two players were so successful, and we can also get a feel for some of the unique decisions that made Greene's winning build so good.
For the past six months, Burning Abyss has been one of the most individualized, varied, and innovated strategies in the format. Cards like Absolute King Back Jack and Secret Village have created distinctly different takes on the theme, while the dichotomy between high monster counts and high trap counts have created vastly different pacings and play patterns. Meanwhile all versions of Burning Abyss often hinge on strong openings involving two or three copies of Dante, Traveler of the Burning Abyss, but alternative openings have been a quiet holy grail, offering more options when a Dante play doesn't come together, or isn't right for the situation.
Choice is a big factor here, so today I want to investigate the choices made by the two most successful Burning Abyss duelists in North America. Let's get to it!
A Monstrous Consensus
You can read Noah Greene's deck list below, but I'd suggest pulling up Chase Cunningham's list as well for side-by-side reading and comparison. Keep it in another window and pop back to it as needed so you can see what I'm talking about.
DECKID= 103226Cunningham and Greene both made several of the same decisions in their monster line-ups. Both played Barbar, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss, and Greene made post-event remarks about its power level. With higher ATK than any of the other Malebranche monsters and an effect that can deal 900 burn damage, Barbar was proven to be a must-run; it lets you make wins that just wouldn't be possible otherwise.
While we've seen a lot of successful duelists talk about how Barbar raises the danger level for Number 47: Nightmare Shark from 2000 Life Points to 2900, Greene was quick to note that Barbar's remarkable in part for its unique place in competitive metagames; it's not just a burn card in an era where burn hardly exists, it's a repeatable source of damage. With the recycling abilities of Cir, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss and Dante, Traveler of the Burning Abyss, an ambitious player can reuse one copy of Barbar repeatedly. Xyz with easily activated effects, chiefly Mechquipped Angineer, make it possible to trigger Barbar's ability once on your turn, then again on your opponent's. That level of repeatability actually makes it an even bigger threat than it seems, adding a level of followup to game-crushing moves that would make Gagaga Cowboy blush. Both Finalists ran one copy each.
They both ran double Mathematician with a single Peropero Cerperus, too. Cerperus has garnered a lot of attention lately anywhere Mathematician is played, but it shines in Burning Abyss largely because it's an alternative opening. When something like a double Dante opening isn't possible due to the shape of your hand, or simply isn't desirable in your match-up, Mathematician steps in to drop Peropero Cerperus to the graveyard. At that point your opponent has to eliminate Mathematician by committing effect removal – costly and generally wasteful– or simply run Mathematician over in battle.
If they do that, you draw a card with Mathematician's graveyard trigger to break even on the exchange, and then destroy a card of your choice with Cerperus as a free plus. You block aggression, shape your opponent's Main Phase 1, and likely pop a card for free; all of that softens up your opponent for the kind of fast win Burning Abyss specializes in. It's easy to see why Mathematician was so good here, and why both competitors ran two copies each with the single Cerperus to back it up.
While we've seen a handful of successful builds running double Peropero Cerperus, that seems excessive – not only do you not want to draw it, the odds of drawing two Mathematicians in any one game are pretty slim. Even if you did, you have lots of other monsters to send to your graveyard for effects. That second Cerperus is clearly excessive when you frame the Mathematician combo as an opening turn play and nothing else.
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Cunningham and Greene didn't agree on everything. Greene ran double Farfa, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss to Cunningham's single copy, which was an uncommon choice. While a lot of Top Cut players in recent tournaments have gone on record saying that they only played one Farfa because it's searchable and recyclable, Greene placed more priority on it. In post-event comments he mentioned that Farfa was just a stellar random mill off Dante's effect, but I imagine the second copy also made a great option for a mid-game Mathematician. Burning Abyss is all about the fast win, and a second Farfa lets you clear a key monster and get at your opponent's Life Points more reliably. This was a hugely aggressive build.
And while Cunningham played two Rubic, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss and Libic, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss, Greene ran one of each and played one more monster card overall, running triple Effect Veiler. It was a key choice against Nekroz and in the Burning Abyss mirror match, stopping Lavalval Chain plays for Djinn Releaser of Rituals just as easily as it halted an early game Tour Guide From the Underworld. Triple Veiler was a bit of a Gamble since it's not very good against decks like Qliphorts and Shaddolls, but since Nekroz and Burning Abyss largely dominated the North American WCQ it certainly looks like that risk paid off.
Spell And Trap Philosophy
While there were differences between Cunningham and Greene's monster lineups, their spell and trap choices were even more different. Again, you can see Greene's focus on damage and securing fast wins reflected in the uncommon choice of Dark Hole; Greene Main Decked two copies, while Cunningham didn't play any save a single sided copy. The Burning Abyss deck can play Dark Hole a little more freely than others since it has so many graveyard trigger effects if you ever have to destroy your own monsters. That makes it easier to wipe a field, clearing the way for damage and costing your opponent resources.
It's been said several times before in this format: a well-timed Dark Hole usually costs your opponent three cards, and not even Nekroz can survive repeated losses like that. Dark Hole opens up the potential for faster wins, but it also capitalizes on grind games where you successfully defend your position, draw out opposing plays, and then punish them with mass removal. Double Dark Hole was a really great call here since the card synergizes nicely with the monster line-up, and accomplishes two very different goals in differently paced games.
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Both Finalists ran triple Mind Crush, a phenomenal call against Nekroz and a useful card against other decks. Greene went so far as to run a copy of Mistake too, throwing a little more hand disruption his opponent's way and offering a third floodgate to attract 1-for-1 removal. But note that beyond Mistake, Vanity's Emptiness, and Skill Drain, notice that Greene's entire backrow is chainable and can be activated at any time.
While Cunningham played the popular Solemn Warning, Greene passed on it, letting him free up his backrow and outplay Mystical Space Typhoon in almost any situation. That's a subtle point, but once you notice that decision it really stands out. Answering a Space Typhoon is great, but Greene also ensured that he could make the most of his Malebranche Special Summons, never locking himself out of a win unless he was controlling the game with a floodgate anyways.
Finally, both competitors played with an emphasis on Karma Cut over Phoenix Wing Wind Blast and Raigeki Break: they each ran two Cuts, with Cunningham running two Wind Blast, and Greene split between one Wind Blast and one Break. Again, this was in large part a metagame call that prioritized Nekroz and Burning Abyss over other match-ups: banishing cards means they can't be revived, recycled, or banished for Nekroz effects. By chipping away at your opponent's options and taking certain moves out of the game, you make it easier to outplay them; you limit their range of motion, so the actual list of things you have to outplay is shorter. Meanwhile, Wind Blast and Raigeki Break run into a variety of problems against particular cards, none of which are an issue when you're just banishing stuff.
Over in the Side Deck I think the most interesting point was Cunningham's continued focus on aggression; it's common to see a Burning Abyss duelist running three pieces of general backrow removal, and Cunningham demonstrated that with his triple Galaxy Cyclone. Greene went further, playing five removal cards total – two Cyclone and three Mystical Space Typhoon. Cunningham did run two Fairy Wind for a bigger advantage against Qliphorts and Continuous floodgates, but Greene's choice was much more flexible, and neither of his removal spells would conflict with his own floodgates.
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Finally, Greene's use of Number F0: Utopic Fusion instead of a second Virgil was huge. We've seen F0 played in a few recent Burning Abyss lists, but the deck's pilot remarked that they thought F0 turned out to be a total waste almost every time.
Greene's experiences were different, suggesting that he approached the card from the right perspective to unlock advantages other Burning Abyss players didn't have. Greene focused on it in his post-event interviews, describing how he could Summon it with two Dantes or two copies of Downerd Magician. He described it as being useful as a defensive wall, and an out to cards like Leo, the Keeper of the Sacred Tree that he couldn't defeat otherwise. He actually described one of those precise scenarios in his tournament report, discussing how he skilled around a Leo.
At one point he also used F0 in combination with Breakthrough Skill to play around an opposing Downerd Magician that would have detached a game-winning Barbar, taking control of the Downerd and swinging for game. Greene was running F0 as an out to several specific monsters, but he seemed to have a deeper understanding of the card's abilities. I think that was key to his performance over the weekend, much like how a superior knowledge of Nekroz's options helped Galileo Mauricio De Obaldia Soza capture the Central American WCQ. Both competitors just seemed to have a preternatural awareness for what they could do with their cards.
When experienced players talk about how to prepare for a World Championship Qualifier, time's always a factor that gets a lot of emphasis. You want to make your deck choice as early as possible, not just so you can innovate and define your strategy from a standard build, but so you can achieve a level of perfection, mastery, and understanding that lets you see options less practiced players won't. There are a ton of lessons to be learned from the Top Cut decks in all four WCQ's this year, but taken together they demonstrate player trends that transcend deck theory for any one format. Practice and testing always pays off, but nowhere is it more important than at a WCQ.