A Railbird’s Eye View

Ari Lax breaks down all that he learned from doing SCGLive commentary in Cincinnati; don’t miss this incredible review of Standard and Legacy, especially if you plan on playing in Seattle this weekend.

This past weekend, I joined Gavin Verhey in the SCGLive booth for commentary at the SCG Open in Cincinnati. Playing in a full event certainly gives you experience in the format, but commentating is also great for this. Not only do you get to play through both sides of a match every round, you get to see the full spectrum of decks and matchups. This is essentially my tournament report from this event. Instead of one deck being analyzed down to the 75th card, notable bits and pieces across the format jumped out over the course of 13 rounds of Standard and 12 rounds of Legacy. Here are my thoughts from before the event, during coverage, and retrospectively after everything wrapped up.



Tempered Steel, Mono-Red, and RUG Twinpod. These are the decks you should be playing.

Main Deck Options: Phyrexian Revoker
Sideboard Options: Revoke Existence, Divine Offering

This deck was unbeatable in Block Constructed. Now imagine it in a format where things aren’t much better for everyone else, your deck gets a big upgrade from Steel Overseer, and no one is gunning for you. You are faster than everything else in a goldfish, have removal, have a full spectrum of disruption, and don’t have to commit many threats into sweepers to win. It’s easy to see why this deck should be the front-runner early on before people start adapting to it.

Specific Cards and Matchups:

Spellskite isn’t great in the main deck, but it just happens to be good against the other two good decks. Splinter Twin has to deal with it before comboing out, and it eats multiple burn spells against Red.

Spined Thopter isn’t good, as the ground doesn’t clog with Viridian Emissaries as it did in Block. The plus-one damage from Porcelain Legionnaire is significantly better.

Origin Spellbomb is basically the best filler. You just want more of the good cards in your deck, and Gitaxian Probe doesn’t do enough.

Going along with the trend of maximizing the chances of drawing the good cards, I don’t know how I feel about splashing blue for Preordain, but splashing for Unified Will seems like a reasonable choice. It is somewhere between marginally obnoxious and a complete free roll, and if the format turns more to blue control, it is definitely the place to be.

As for the board, I’m not the biggest fan of Shrine of Loyal Legions, but against the Mono-Black and U/B Control decks floating around, it does the job extremely well. Most of the time, the concern is it dies if you play a spell, but if they don’t have removal for it, Shrine gets out of hand.

In the mirror, the key card is Steel Overseer and behind that Tempered Steel. You just want the bigger guys, and Overseer quickly trumps a Tempered Steel in a heads up fight. Out of the board, you probably want Revoke Existence to hit both. If you can lead on Spellskite to protect Overseer (and possibly Tempered Steel post-board), it may be worth doing so in order to make sure yours sticks.

Against Red, you just need a Tempered Steel in play. If that happens, they have no reasonable way to trade for your creatures. Spellskite can also set up a Steel Overseer, but that takes a little more work. Post-board you can lean pretty heavily on the obvious cards, as Kor Firewalker is still a huge beating against them, and Refraction Trap isn’t too shabby either.

Against Twin, you are just racing them with removal and Spellskite backup. Not much to consider here besides whether you tap out to make a better clock or keep removal up to not die.

If you want to beat this deck, look to the powerful sweeping effects that weren’t in Block. Day of Judgment is a solid upgrade, especially alongside the “classic” aggro hoser Gideon Jura. Black gains a good option in Consume the Meek, which most importantly hits Glint Hawk Idol and Inkmoth Nexus unlike most other mass removal. Titans are a huge upgrade on the Block Constructed threats because they immediately help stabilize the board even if removed with a Dispatch.

Just a reminder for everyone: You need four lands to be Tectonic Edged. Too often Inkmoth Nexus swings for lethal through that card because the Tempered Steel player only needs three lands to win.

Main Deck Options: Elemental Appeal, Koth of the Hammer, Furnace Scamp, Spikeshot Elder

Light. You. On. Fire. That is all. I really don’t want to be messing around with random attackers in a world of Tempered Steeled blockers. Just all the best burn, all the time. The only reason you have Ember Hauler and Chandra’s Phoenix is that you want more repeatable damage sources, and Koth requires you to run a bunch more Mountains and no value lands, as you won’t have enough creatures to Teetering Peeks. Those two creatures just happen to be able to turn directly into damage almost regardless of your opponent’s board. It is possible a more Furnace Scamp—style build is good, but I just hate playing cards like Dwarven Pony and Spikeshot Elder.

I don’t know how big of a fan I am of a Goblins-based build. On one hand you get Goblin Grenade, which is one of the best burn spells ever in terms of card and mana efficiency. On the other, you have to cut other burn spells for bad creatures, which in turn makes you more vulnerable to Pyroclasms and similar overlap from Tempered Steel. I’m sure someone else or the tournament results will make this rapidly clear in the next few days.

There isn’t good play advice I can give here. Maximize your damage with every spell, and ask yourself WWPSD.

This list is straight-up copied from the deck’s creator, @Smi77y. While I don’t agree with all the choices, he has put a lot of work into it. I most notably would want an Inferno Titan somewhere for Tempered Steel and don’t think that Vengevine really does that much in a deck like this. There also might be a bit too much acceleration for the current threat density and curve, but that is easy to fix. Ponder vs. Preordain is debatable and likely depends on how often you are using them to fix an early curve and get bad cards away from your hand (the fair way) compared to how often you use them to just find Splinter Twin or Birthing Pod to end the game (the unfair way).

I tested some of the straight U/R Twin decks, and while they were solid, I felt a backup plan would not only give the deck some depth but help it cut down on the number of “bricks” it had. Too many cards were Dispels or Mana Leaks that just made you lose a bit less as opposed to helping you win. If you play U/R Twin, try to find the right balance between those cards and things like Jace Beleren or Consecrated Sphinx that can actually put you in the driver’s seat.


Hive Mind, Reanimator, Dredge, Affinity, Zoo, and Bant. These are the decks you should be playing.

These are your standard, run of the mill, degenerate Underground Sea decks. Storm isn’t here, as I wouldn’t advise it to anyone who isn’t an expert with it or making a concerted effort to become one. In the world of Mental Misstep, these two decks are much higher EV assuming you are playing at below 90% proficiency, after which point Storm starts gaining edges.

The Lotus Petals I had in Hive Mind turned into two Gitaxian Probes, an Ancient Tomb, and a Lim-Dul’s Vault. The deck felt about a tutor short plus a bit, which Probe and Vault cover. Tomb replaces the Lotus Petal mana, and Probe replaces the functionality of Petal as a free spell to target with Pact of Negations for the win.

In Reanimator, Blazing Archon has been replaced by Platinum Angel, as it has more utility against combo and as a way to keep a Jin-Gitaxias in play without losing. Terastodon was upgraded to Angel of Despair, which has real finishing power with flying, though this may change more in the future. The mana base also changed slightly to be very fetch heavy. You go off fast enough the life is almost completely irrelevant, but don’t want to draw an Underground Sea as having to expose it to Wasteland is a huge problem for casting future spells. The second Island also disappeared, as it doesn’t seem necessary with only ten cantrips and very few turns of chaining them, but that evaluation may change after a few more rounds of play.

The sideboard incorporates some of the upgrades I talked about previously like Pithing Needle to Stifle. Personal Tutor is just the fifth Show and Tell, and it is probably reasonable to play another as the sixth. Sheoldred is just another powerful card to have access to, especially in mirror matches to trump whatever they respond with.

Each of these decks has their ups and downs. Hive Mind has more issues with Fish decks while Reanimator is a bit weaker against Rock-style decks and even just Zoo due to some of the life loss. They are both fairly easy to play and very fun, so just choosing based on personal preference isn’t unreasonable.

These are the other class of unfair decks: the linear aggro deck. Apparently, these days people aren’t really able to beat them. Sideboards don’t have the cards to deal with them, as they aren’t usually around, and the more degenerate combo decks are living in fear of blue decks and Mental Misstep. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate these decks but won’t play them. You are too much at the mercy of what hate people show up with that day and don’t necessarily have the raw power of some combo decks to bash straight through. You also can’t afford most of the interactive cards, as you don’t have the filtering and draw to reliably find them and still have the rest of what you need.

The Dredge list is a bit refined based on my experience with the deck. More Careful Studies adds explosive power as does Sphinx of Lost Truths, and the sideboard variance has gone way down. The Winds of Change are Seattle advice from Gavin Verhey, an occasional Padawan of Dredge master Max McCall. I don’t know about Winds in a Lion’s Eye Diamond list, but everything I’ve been told about the card makes it seem like a huge help against the real combo decks.

The Affinity list here seems a bit less linear than most with Stoneforge Mystic, but in reality getting a Cranial Plating is all you ever want to do. You only have so many haymakers, and Stoneforge is an extra four copies of the best one. The sideboard needs some work and possibly the main deck as well, but I know very little about the archetype and wouldn’t even begin to trust in my ability to accurately alter it based on my past experiences playing it.

Finally, these are the best fair decks against the other fair decks. Why is that? They have a higher threat concentration and a lower density of situational answers like Spell Snares and Mental Missteps.

This Zoo is a bit less burn heavy than similar lists I’ve played in the past, but it packs more one-drops to make up for it. Wasteland, a card that fell out of favor in the past couple of years that Patrick Sullivan brought back, lets you randomly win games. Now that Steppe Lynx is bad due to Mental Misstep making it unreliable on turn one, you can afford the lower fetchland density even if it does cost you the ability to play four Fireblasts.

The Bant main deck might be a land short, a blue card short, and short Pridemages somewhere in the main deck, but the idea is still the same. Knight of the Reliquary is a beast and trumps most things other decks can do. Not only is it bigger than every other creature, it lets you turn your lands into cantrips or Wastelands to push you further ahead when it untaps. You can play the Forceless build, but I still think that is a mistake at an Open. At the Grand Prix you could afford a couple losses to unfair decks, but at an Open I would expect to play against more decks you want Force against than you can afford to lose to. You are also the beat down against U/W and want the ability to counter a few of their key trumps.



Round one we featured Kuldotha Red, which I had dismissed based on my experience with it in Indianapolis right after it premiered. Turns out the deck is reasonable and crushed Drew Levin. It definitely punishes people harder for having basically no interaction than Tempered Steel, but seems a bit less resilient to people having some, but not enough, interaction.

On the flip side of that matchup, we saw Pyromancer Ascension. The deck, as I expected, seemed less combo and more control, and which eventually turns on Ascension to become a Tome. I’m really not sure why that is better than Consecrated Sphinx or a Titan, but maybe dodging Go for the Throat is very important.

After watching it in play, I’m fairly sure Urabrask in Valakut is better for the Kismet and that the haste is only a marginal benefit. The reason is you are curving 2-4-6, and casting Urabrask usually just competes with casting Titan unless you are Zenithing for it. Solemn Simulacrum was also better than I expected, but still just filled the “worst ramp card” slot that Cultivate previously did.

Splinter Twin was very impressive when Jon Medina played it. It really had filtering velocity the whole game with Ponder and Preordain, and Dispel is beyond awesome. I’m not sold on the Pyromancer Ascension sideboard, but Gerry’s logic about wanting a way to win that doesn’t die to removal makes some sense. It’s also possible you just want to use it as a Tome to set up a perfect eight-card-or-larger hand and just win through everything.

Tempered Steel was awesome when it didn’t just stumble early. Talking to people, almost everyone with the blue splash was sick of drawing Glacial Fortresses that came into play tapped. The deck was a lot better than everyone who wasn’t playing it expected, and it really showed in sideboards. Maybe after this event, people will start to have some respect, but it might take another good showing or two for it to happen.

Caleb Durward’s Puresteel Paladin deck was also a lot better than I expected based on my first experiences with it. Turns out people have started cutting removal, meaning you can reliably have Puresteel active for at least a turn. In just that time frame, it generates huge amounts of mana and probably cantrips. Paladin was also a lot better as a late drop than a two-drop. The mana from equipping for free was much more relevant than a couple extra cards, and in retrospect I was playing the deck the opposite way. One card he did not play that is worth discussing is Swiftfoot Boots to assure Paladin sticks around, but it might just be worse than having the right Sword for the matchup.

Caw-Blade is still a deck, and it feels fairly similar to how it was before New Phyrexia, only minus the turn two Mystic games. People don’t really think about it, but the deck still won a lot without that card. Hero of Bladehold and Blade Splicer against Gravitational Shift and Emeria Angel is an interesting debate, but I like playing the more individually powerful cards. Hero just ends games immediately if not dealt with. Shift as an answer to Splinter Twin is cute, but I think if this deck and Tempered Steel start rising in stock, it might no longer be the time to play that card.

Moving to Top 8, the Jund deck looks awesome but unrefined. It doesn’t seem like it has enough ways to gain card advantage, and the removal spread looks a little too heavy on creatures. Maybe there isn’t a good way to kill other permanents in those colors, but I haven’t checked yet. Watching it play Grim Lavamancer doesn’t seem too impressive. Not enough graveyard fuel for it, though that might just be matchup dependent.

Tempered Steel performed as expected, only missing out on going further due to some rough breaks. Had it not been paired against the Vampires deck with a full sideboard round one, it would have cruised through a few decks easily; having watched the Puresteel match before, Tempered Steel just seemed like the faster, more resilient, more consistent deck.


First off, this format still seems wide open contrary to what we’ve seen in the past couple weeks. People are finding ways to beat U/W Stoneforge and Mental Misstep.

Hive Mind looks as awesome as I thought it was. It’s fast, consistent, and resilient to hate.

Knight of the Reliquary in the Junk Depths deck feels like a new Survival of the Fittest. You can just get all the value off Wastelands and other tutor targets, or you can just make a 20/20 similar to Loyal Retainers. It gives you a huge edge over the other fair decks, as does Dark Confidant, while you still have access to a broken plan.

Speaking of Dark Confidant, card advantage is notably missing from this format. Even the mono-blue deck only had Jace and a Cryptic Command as two-for-ones. I would not be surprised if given the decline in Dazes, a real control deck with Fact or Fiction starts making rounds. Standstill and Ancestral Visions are great, but if Stoneforge Mystic starts getting worse, they may no longer be the best option. I’m waiting for the Eternal Dragons and Decree of Justices to show up again.

Comparing Visions to Standstill, the latter seemed much better. When Standstill was good, it was immediate in giving you the cards, while Visions didn’t give you much control as to when you got them. When they were bad, either one would have been a blank. Once again, Brian DeMars is right on card drawing effects in blue control decks.

Caleb’s Aquarium/Blue Zoo deck seemed really good in fair mirrors, but it really had absolutely nothing against unfair decks. Real Zoo can at least hope to race; Caleb just has to hope Misstep and Red Blast do enough.

Speaking of new decks, Manaless Dredge was featured in one of the most lopsided matches I’ve ever seen. Howling Mines don’t fare well against Dredge; Runeflare Trap can’t be trapped if the draws are replaced; and even if you get to cast it, Manaless Dredge will bin its hand to Phantasmagorian.

Looking at the top tables later on, there was a bunch of U/W control, but there was also everything else. Dredge, Zoo, Affinity, Stax, multiple Junk Depths, Reanimator, even B/W.

On the subject of B/W Do Nothing, I’m still calling it that. Kenny Mayer’s deck tech has a good quote from GerryT on this when he was talking about just playing normal Junk. You can’t just durdle around in this format; you have to do something powerful.

The lack of U/W Stoneforge in the Top 8 is hardly surprising. People came prepared for a long game with answers to Stoneforge Mystic, and it really showed. 6/8 of the Top 8 decks trump the deck on some fundamental level. Dredge ignores everything it does; Hive Mind blanks the situational counters: and the Zoo and Junk decks just have better threats than it is able to deal with. Only NO RUG and Mono-Blue come close to letting it fight how it wants to.

Watching Top 8, Manaless Dredge is a lot scarier than I expected. The one double Street Wraith game showed the deck being very fast and resilient to hate. I would want some Gitaxian Probes to help with that plan, as even though they get Misstepped, you don’t have to cast them if you don’t want to. That said, even without cantrips it goes off reasonably fast. Nether Shadow is just awesome and is something regular Dredge really has no ability to play without 45 creatures and Phantasmagorian.

Most of these anti-U/W decks seem really weak to true stack-based combo too. Whether that means Storm makes a comeback or Hive Mind just smashes, I’m not sure. I just know Manaless Dredge is a joke when you are casting Dark Rituals.



Caw-Blade winning isn’t a sign of the end of times; it’s just that deck is still good. It’s fair, it’s beatable, and it still rewards good play.

Tempered Steel is the real deal. On top of this event, it 11-0ed the Standard of Japanese Nationals. Play it or plan for it.

Garruk, Primal Hunter is very good with Lotus Cobra. I think the Jund deck may have been better served with white for Oblivion Ring, but the basic premise is the same and the full eight manlands was very nice. There is something there in that shell; it is just a matter of finding it.

Also in the semi-rogue realm, we didn’t see a lot of Birthing Pod. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good. The card is strong and just waiting for the right list.

Splinter Twin and Valakut are both very strong, but you can interact with them or even just race them. They aren’t quite the boogeymen people expected with the bans, but they are out there.

Mono-Red is good. The hate is also good. Other decks are also better. I might be wrong come Saturday when PSulli shows us the truth here, but the lack of results from this deck means it isn’t as unreal as everyone says. It’s still something you have to expect to play against and can’t be ignored, but think twice before you sleeve up Mountains.

Finally, the format is wide open. Six decks made the Top 8; U/B Control made Top 8s everywhere else; and people have only really begun exploring some strategies like Tezzeret. There is definitely room to win with anything if you try.


Manaless Dredge will not be good next week. Or the week after that. To quote Gavin: “Dredge is only good when it isn’t.” Manaless Dredge is even more so, as it is the same every game, meaning the hate needs to be exactly the same every game to win.

Hive Mind is the real deal. It works almost entirely off the stack, kills very fast, has a lot of backup, and most importantly doesn’t get Spell Snared or Misstepped. More people need to play it, and more people need to understand how to play against it.

Reanimator probably gets worse due to Dredge doing well, but it still finished in 12th place in the hand of Christopher Walton, the person whose local performance with the deck inspired me to take a look at it. It will be very good again, and that time will be before Dredge is good again and might even still be now due to Show and Tell.

Knight of the Reliquary is now the creature to beat, not Stoneforge Mystic. Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile are going to rise in stock, as is Jace due to how well it matches up against three-drop creatures. Looking forward, I expect to see more off-color Mental Missteps to protect Knight.

Natural Order quietly crushed this event as a full quarter of the top 16. Progenitus goes bigger than Knight and Stoneforge, and Daze is not something people are considering like they were when Merfolk was king. This deck is very good right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did even better next week.

As of now, I would expect all the decks I said were good before except Dredge and Reanimator to stay that way. They might need minor tweaks to the sideboards and possibly the main deck for the fair decks (more Path to Exile in the Bant deck comes to mind), but the same principles hold.

If you want to win right now with something unique, remember three things.

  1. Make Misstep as bad as possible. Don’t rely on a specific one-drop, don’t play one-drops that are very bad if you draw them later on like Steppe Lynx.
  2. Have answers for Knight of the Reliquary, Stoneforge Mystic, and Jace. Those are the premier threats of the format.
  3. Do something powerful. Have some broken synergy or have powerful card advantage. You don’t just want to be a Rock deck, trading one-for-ones and maybe two-or-ones and hoping your opponent runs out of things to do.

Overall, commentary was an awesome experience. I definitely learned a lot about both metagames despite not playing a single game. I look forward to seeing everyone in Pittsburgh in two weeks. If you have any questions about either format, ask via the new feedback system or contact me via Twitter @armlx.