Standards and Practices: Back in Black (and Blue and Red)
It’s been awhile since I last graced this space with my words. I’d like to say I’ve been busy with things far more important than a silly little blog, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve just been lazy and not felt the urge to write about anything as of the past few months.
I think it’s time to change that.
For those of you who’ve read this blog in the past, welcome back to Friday Night Malafarina. For those of you just joining us, I hope you enjoy your stay. Now let’s talk about Standard.
Return to Ravnica
Since I’ve been away, the Magic world has been shaken up by the yearly rotation of expansions. It seems like only yesterday we had turn-one Delvers flipping Mana Leaks over into the faces of defeated opponents, while Birthing Pods tapped to turn humble Blade Splicers into savage Ravagers of the Fells. Players were still Pondering the merits of Blue-White midrange versus Delver while Primeval Titans trampled over all who opposed them. Now we live in a strange new world filled with giant, tusked beasts that require two spears to kill, the Return of the demon lord Rakdos spelling doom for opponents, and the triumphant second coming of a four-mana Jace that can claim to be somewhat near He Who Shall Not Be Named in power and versatility. It is a format where a card like Bonfire of the Damned is too costly and inefficient while Mizzium Mortars is just fine at two or six mana, and Geist of Saint Traft isn’t the scariest thing one can face (though it is still pretty scary!)
Welcome to the tier 2 metagame, my friends.
For those of you new to Magic who don’t know what a tier 2 metagame is (and have a premium account on Starcitygames.com), I refer you to Mike Flores’ article from last week. The key point to take away from the article in question is that there are three conflicting models for deck design: the linear model, the tier-two metagame, and the haymaker model. With the linear model, Wizards has more or less designed the deck from the ground up and the players simply fine-tune the intricacies of said deck. This is the case with tribal decks like Zombies and Goblins, or Affinity in Modern. The deck exists because Wizards intended for it to exist.
The haymaker model is the model to which we have grown accustomed in the past few years. While most people would point to the obvious example of Primeval Titan, Flores chooses to point out Tarmogoyf as one of the first indicators that constructed Magic had moved to a more haymaker-based strategy. Before Tarmogoyf, it was perfectly reasonable to expect a game to be won off Meloku, a 2/4 flier for five mana that needed a certain board state to actually take over a game. After Tarmogoyf, we saw decks being built on the backs of the inherent power of each card rather than synergies and card advantage. Planeswalkers are guilty of contributing to this style of deck building, as are the myriad of powerful enters-the-battlefield creatures we’ve been seeing in recent years, most notoriously the Titan cycle.
However, I agree with Flores that Standard has regressed back to the second model of deckbuilding not seen since we last visited Ravnica. While haymakers still exist in the form of Angel of Serenity, Thragtusk, Geist of Saint Traft, and other ridiculous creatures, games have become less about individual threats and more about having a solid game plan, whether it be extreme aggro, total control, or out-valuing your opponent. There are a greater number of viable decks in the current Standard format than there have been in quite some time, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be accomplished if we think outside the box.
Living in a Brewmaster’s Paradise
One of the biggest pitfalls for any Magic player is conflating a previous constructed format with a post-rotation format. Many people entered into the new Standard environment expecting Zombies to be the top deck and expecting Delver to still exist in some form (I mean, the card is still legal and all!) However, in a format devoid of Mana Leak, Vapor Snag, or Primeval Titan-into-Kessig Wolf Run, games tend to go longer and players are not punished for taking time to set up their game plan. As such, control is an actual presence in the metagame and Cavern of Souls is more or less relegated to dedicated tribal decks.
Reanimator, a fringe strategy in the era of Delver, is an actual contender for the “best deck” in the current Standard format, having usurped Jund and Raka Midrange as “the deck to beat” in the last few weeks. While one could consider such a strategy to be indicative of a haymaker format, when a deck like Reanimator becomes the boogeyman it means the format is very receptive to new ideas, as its “unfair” strategy is easily hated out and thus can be forced to play a fair game against any deck in the field.
This is the kind of format that rewards innovation and punishes complacence, as relying on a deck that did well in the previous week can have you hated out the following. All of the “top decks” we’ve seen over the past few Grand Prix or Star City Games Opens have all been very near in power level, with no clear frontrunner in sight. Eventually, the metagame will reach equilibrium, but hopefully Wizards’ recent policy change of not posting Magic Online Daily Events decklists will have the intended effect of slowing down the evolution of the format enough that it won’t grow stale before the release of Gatecrash.
It is important to keep this in mind when brewing control for the new Standard. While your local metagame will vary only slightly from week-to-week, you have to be able to anticipate the next big deck at higher-level events and be able to figure out the answer to last week’s winners, then either play that deck or be prepared to beat that deck (or, as Patrick Chapin calls it, finding Level 2).
With Reanimator on top for the past few weeks and aggressive strategies like mono-red and Zombies on the downturn, the format is ripe for a control deck to take the gold at the next big event. Most of the top players are on Reanimator, Selesnya Aggro, Raka Midrange, or Bant Control, meaning our main offenders are planeswalkers, Geist of Saint Traft, Angel of Serenity, and what is more or less a glorified White Weenie deck. With this in mind, I believe I’ve found a deck that can go toe-to-toe with any and all of these titans of the format:
The Legion of Doom
1x Cyclonic Rift
2x Forbidden Alchemy
2x Izzet Charm
3x Think Twice
1x Ultimate Price
4x Blood Crypt
1x Desolate Lighthouse
4x Drowned Catacomb
4x Steam Vents
4x Sulfur Falls
2x Essence Scatter
2x Olivia Voldaren
3x Rolling Temblor
4x Pillar of Flame
1x Slaughter Games
1x Bonfire of the Damned
2x Mizzium Mortars
2x Rakdos’s Return
2x Sever the Bloodline
3x Jace, Architect of Thought
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
2x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
2x Rakdos Keyrune
1x Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
2x Snapcaster Mage
2x Thundermaw Hellkite
My love of Grixis Control may not be as well-known as my love of Mono-Black Control, but I’ve been known to cast my share of Cruel Ultimatums, or resolve a Nicol Bolas or two (not two at the same time, mind you!) While this deck seems to be a “sit back and react to everything my opponent does” sort of control deck, it is more proactive than it appears. The deck is packed full of answers to the various threats in the format, but subscribes to the concept of “the best defense is a good offense,” as is the case with the most substantial new inclusion to the deck:
2x Thundermaw Hellkite
I wasn’t initially sold on this card in control, opting to play Olivia Voldaren in its place at my local shop’s most recent Standard tournament and keep the hasty dragon in the sideboard. Then, I took Steve Campen’s advice (always a risky move!) and sided in this card against control decks, regardless of whether or not they were packing Lingering Souls.
I did not give this card the credit it deserved.
Having an opponent drop a Jace onto an empty board on turn four, only to chomp down on it with a 5/5 hasty dragon and leave him having to find a way to deal with this new threat sans his draw engine felt almost like casting Cruel Ultimatum. Going into the second round of a recent Grand Prix trial, I played against a hybrid Grixis-reanimator list that replaced planeswalkers with Lingering Souls and an Unburial Rites package. I realized in hindsight that, had I been playing Thundermaw Hellkite over Olivia Voldaren, I would have easily stomped my opponent in spite of his repeated recursion of Angel of Serenity, simply for the fact that I would get the dragon back to my hand and immediately smack him in the face for five, Lingering Souls be damned. On top of that, I realized that I was winning most of the games where I continually put pressure on my opponents before finishing them off with a Rakdos’s Return, and a 5/5 haste flier is a great way to put an opponent on the back foot.
Suffice to say, I used my winnings from the tournament to pick up two more of this guy and happily switched Olivia to my sideboard.
2x Rakdos Keyrune
By the same token, my closest games were the ones involving Strangleroot Geist, Rancor, and Silverblade Paladin. With Pillar of Flame in my sideboard, I was more or less a dog to the super-aggressive Selesnya strategies going into the tournament, mising a match win off a Selesnya beatdown deck in round three only to lose to a similar deck the following round. While Rakdos Keyrune may not have won me those games, it would have helped stem the bleeding against Thalia or Silverblade Paladin long enough to let me come back. The fact that it curves into Thundermaw Hellkite is just gravy.
1x Ultimate Price, 2x Izzet Charm
There were games where I would drop a Jace and activate his +1 ability, thinking him safe to my opponent’s assault on the following turn, only to have him eat a Rancor, Wolfir Avenger, Silverblade Paladin, or any other haste creature that could have been avoided had I been packing instant-speed removal. The presence of such cards in the format requires me to include removal which is narrower like Ultimate Price or less efficient like Izzet Charm, with the added bonus of Izzet Charm being able to counter planeswalkers, making the loss of a Dreadbore less painful.
2x Dreadbore, 2x Sever the Bloodline
I have been very impressed with Sever the Bloodline in current Standard, where exiling has become a very important mechanic to combat Reanimator and where token swarms are common. Dreadbore is a solid card, but I don’t think I need to run more than two to reliably deal with my opponents’ threats.
1x Bonfire of the Damned, 2x Mizzium Mortars
The miser’s Bonfire of the Damned is more theory than practice at the moment, as I added it after the tournament and only was able to test it against hybrid Reanimator, where it is basically dead. The logic on this card is threefold. Against Geist of Saint Traft, it kills the problematic creature a turn sooner than Mortars. It also provides an early board wipe against weenie swarms, but can come into play against control as well by taking out a planeswalker or doming them for lethal.
This used to be three Syncopates. What happened?
Control is a major presence in my local metagame, and Syncopate isn’t a good card in those situations. Sure, it’s great when you’re trying to counter a Geist of Saint Traft on the draw, but it’s better to have a way to force through a planeswalker when you’re playing the draw-go mirror. With the addition of Izzet Charms as the cheaper, “soft” counter, I’m comfortable main decking three of this card.
1x Cyclonic Rift
Grixis is notoriously soft to enchantments, and the widespread use of Detention Sphere and Oblivion Ring means that having a single Cyclonic Rift is a necessity. I had the pleasure of overloading this against a control player when they were at ten life, tapped out, and I had two Thundermaw Hellkites hidden under his enchantments.
It’s also super sweet to end-of-turn this into…
2x Rakdos’s Return
No Grixis control list is viable without this card. I considered running a one-one split between this and Devil’s Play, but testing has shown that this card is the game-ender against any control or midrange deck, and it is the most reliable way for this deck to actually win the long game. Nugging an opponent for four with this, then using Snapcaster to finish off their hand is completely reasonable, and actually won me a game in the top eight of the recent Grand Prix trial.
1x Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, 1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
For those times when Rakdos’s Return simply won’t cut it. It is impossible to lose a game once you’ve untapped with either of these cards in play. I won a game off Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius without ever activating his ability, simply using him as a 5/5 flying Ophidian while leaving mana up to counter or kill all of my opponents spells.
3x Jace, Architect of Thought, 2x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
I originally ran four Jaces, but testing has shown this deck is very good at protecting a Jace for more than a few turns. It may still be right to run four, as he is one of the main reasons to play blue right now, but I think cutting the last one for Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker is entirely reasonable, as this deck already has very few win conditions to speak of.
Side note: Rakdos Keyrune allows for a turn-four Tamiyo, which is awesome!
2x Forbidden Alchemy, 3x Think Twice, 1x Thoughtflare
I am happy with this combination of spells for my draw engine. Forbidden Alchemy is an all-star alongisde all the flashback spells and Snapcaster Mage, and Thoughtflare is almost as good as Sphinx’s Revelation when you can bin excess lands and spells with flashback. I’ve been wavering back and forth between Think Twice and Desperate Ravings. Each has its merits, but I’m erring on the side of caution and running Think Twice at the moment. This deck already has a lot of card draw and very few win conditions, so randomly discarding said win conditions can be brutal.
2x Snapcaster Mage
Originally a three-of, he’s a solid card that I found stranded in my hand one too many times for my comfort. He almost always does something and I may bump the number back up to three in the future, but he’s a two-of for now.
1x Desolate Lighthouse
This card has never been bad for me, but I would never run more than one as it becomes much, much worse in multiples and strains the mana a tad too much.
3x Cremate, 1x Slaughter Games
Cremate inevitably comes in against Reanimator and Zombies, with Slaughter Games pulling double duty against Reanimator and control. Having a cantrip answer is always preferable in a control deck, but Angel of Serenity can be a real beast against this strategy and Slaughter Games naming Angel of Serenity makes any matchup involving that card a lot easier to win.
2x Essence Scatter
As stated in my explanation for the main deck Dissipates, this deck has a problem being on the draw against Geist of Saint Traft, so boarding into Essence Scatter seems like a reasonable answer when it can also deal with Restoration Angel, Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, or any other problematic creature in a pinch.
3x Rolling Temblor, 4x Pillar of Flame
Rolling Temblor is included in the sideboard to deal with Geist of Saint Traft (to which this deck is somewhat weak), but also serves as an answer to Selesnya Aggro and Zombies. Pillar of Flame comes in only against Zombies and Selesnya Aggro.
2x Olivia Voldaren
As previously stated, this comes in when facing down Selesnya Aggro. It can also come in against Geist of Saint Traft decks, as it stacks up reasonably well against Restoration Angel and Moorland Haunt.
Playing the Deck
As with any control deck, the key is to know what is or isn’t a threat, and properly sequence plays. There are times where it is correct to counter a planeswalker (such as when you’d need the mana up on your turn to drop a threat of your own), but sometimes it’s equally correct to let it resolve, then Dreadbore or Thundermaw Hellkite it the following turn. It all depends on which planeswalker it is, and whether or not allowing the opponent to activate any of its abilities is too threatening.
By the same token, do not run out your threats unless you know you can protect them. This deck is relatively threat-light compared to a lot of other strategies, but has the necessary tools to keep its threats on the table. The only time when you can be liberal with casting spells is after resolving a Rakdos’s Return for your opponent’s entire hand, as you will almost always be ahead of them on cards for the rest of the game and as such can lose one or two threats to their answers. Just don’t get cocky.
Jace, Architect of Thought is probably the most difficult planeswalker to play optimally outside of Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Against any non-black creature deck, it’s almost always right to use his +1 ability unless you have to dig for an answer, as he will buy you a nonzero amount of time while your opponent repeatedly bashes creatures into him. He is there to blunt the assault so you can force your opponent to over commit, or simply lock creature strategies down in tandem with Tamiyo. He also makes Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius very good against most creatures in the format.
The most important part of playing control is to never get too cute with your plays. In the quarterfinals of the Grand Prix trial, my opponent was facing down a tapped Thundermaw Hellkite and Snapcaster Mage with his Tamiyo at a reasonable five loyalty. Rather than keep my Thundermaw tapped while he waited for an answer, he chose to use her -2 ability to try and dig for that answer a turn early. This ended up costing him the game, as I had a second Snapcaster in my hand to swing in for lethal on the following turn. When in doubt, always go for the safer play; it is always preferable to put yourself behind to make sure you survive another turn rather than hope your opponent doesn’t have you dead to a risky move. This deck can out-attrition most other attrition-based decks, as it has plenty to do with its mana in the late game between flashed back Forbidden Alchemies and Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius activations.
This Standard format is far from solved, and as such this list is far from final. As the metagame continues to shift, so too must its answers. Now is the best time to be a brewer like myself; the current trend of SCG Standard Open results and Grand Prix finishes have shown that innovation is rewarded with a trophy and a write-up by Conley Woods or Patrick Chapin. Whatever your preference, make sure you know what you’re setting out to accomplish and know what obstacles lie in your way.
It’s all one big Epic Experiment; now is the time to don the white lab coats and get to work.