A Serious Look At Theros Standard

Prepare to play Standard this weekend at the SCG Open Series in Columbus, Ohio by joining Josh Ravitz as he takes a serious look at the current metagame.

Standard PTQ Season!


Belated Happy New Year to all my readers. I hope you enjoyed my last two articles, including my first foray into the video format. I know I learned a lot from doing that series of videos, and the next one is sure to be even better.

As for us right now, we’re thrust into the midst of a somewhat stagnated Standard format.

It isn’t surprising to me that the decks we’re seeing now are mostly the best versions of the decks that existed at Pro Tour Theros. When Wizards was "creating this format" if you will, they wanted to push monocolored decks—the coolest part of this is that now Frostburn Weird is in my mono-red deck and my mono-blue deck, Nightveil Specter is in my blue deck and my black deck, Boros Reckoner can be in a bunch of places, and maybe even Arbor Colossus is suddenly Constructed playable. That’s the good part

The bad part of all of this is that there isn’t a lot of choices. Burning-Tree Emissary is obviously insane, as there’s nothing even close to as good for a deck with Nykthos, and just as Nightveil Specter shines in blue and black devotion strategies, there simply isn’t another Thassa enabler like it available even if we wanted an alternative.

The last piece of the puzzle that is the Standard format is that we have Pack Rat looming large, ready to chew you up and spit you out if you are not ready. That sort of takes the fun out of things, but it’s hardly insurmountable like it was in Limited. Each deck has been field tested at countless Grand Prix and SCG Opens as well as now two SCG Invitationals and the Pro Tour itself, so there isn’t much ground to break here. Luckily the current PTQ season spans the new set’s release so the format will get shaken up, but for now it is indeed a very well-known format.

So the question is what to do when you can’t gain an edge by finding some secret tech for your deck. The answer is simple. You play the best version of the deck that you know the best. You play Owen Turtenwald’s list rather than your own pet cards because sadly, my friends, this is not a time for creativity in deckbuilding. Your edge must be experience. It has to be because I don’t think there is anything else. Your experience and Owen’s or Brad Nelson’s or Sam Black’s. They’ve done the hard part—now you just need to let them help you.

In a tournament as long as a PTQ or a Grand Prix, you’re fighting on many axes. Not only is there deck selection and playing well, but there’s also stamina. I’m not going to talk about health and fitness in this article, but it doesn’t hurt to be healthy when you’re trying to be the last person standing in a twelve to eighteen-round event. However, it’s important to note that playing a deck that you’re well acquainted with can save you in the later rounds or can keep you sharp by taking some of the strain off the early rounds. In a tournament where your first game with the deck is game 1 round 1, you’re working a lot harder to deal with the easy decisions:

"Do I want to play Mutavault on turn 1?"

"Do I want to try to induce a trade on turn 2 or to keep my devotion high?"

"Is his devotion important?"

"Is his devotion important against me?"

These and many other questions currently need to be answered on a game-by-game or turn-by-turn basis. Playing something you’re at least stylistically familiar with (have you played a U/W Control deck before? okay, this one isn’t much different) can make answering the small questions easier and faster. When your early rounds aren’t running you down, the later rounds are going to be easier for you because you simply have more gas in the tank.

Really, though, you can always hear people saying knowing your deck is just as important as playing a good deck, and of course it is true. Not switching decks week to week and learning the ins and outs of one of the top decks pays off. You need only look at tournament results to see that it is true, but it applies to you as well as it does to Owen Turtenwald, who has won two major events with Mono-Black Devotion, or Sam Black, who has made the Top 8 of three premier events with Mono-Blue Devotion.

So with all of that being said, let’s now define the metagame and the decks that you should be looking at along with the deck I will be playing in a PTQ this weekend and perhaps even Grand Prix Vancouver in a couple of weeks.

This format is defined by devotion strategies. If you cannot defeat them, your deck is probably best left at home. There are both blue and black varieties at the forefront, and while the individual lists vary by a card or two, the strategy and the key components are the same throughout.

Mono-Blue Devotion is a very lean and efficient deck and hasn’t really changed much since Pro Tour Theros. In Dublin there were a few versions of the deck that originated during States or Champs the prior week. It took me by surprise and won the event. Since then it’s done well at just about every Standard event that I’ve seen coverage of. Thassa and Master of Waves make the deck tick, and the supporting cast is the same rag-tag group of enablers you’re used to seeing by now.

For consistency’s sake I wanted to post one of Sam’s lists, but he didn’t go to the last Standard GP given its location so I will give you these two decklists to ponder:

You’ll look at them and think they’re very similar, and they are. Like I said, it’s not time to mess with the recipes for success here, dear reader. That being said, one interesting thing that some people have been trying is to maindeck a Domestication or two. This would presumably give you a leg up in the mirror and maybe even against Mono-Black Devotion where you can steal a Nightveil Specter to good effect. The downside is that this card is bad against control decks, and if you draw it, the slim chance you had of stealing game 1 has almost certainly been reduced to nil. Neither of these lists features a maindeck Domestication, but I do think it’s worth considering when you’re gearing up for a tournament.

My personal preference would be to sideboard four Gainsays and four Dissolves to help shore up the miserable matchup this deck has against the Sphinx’s Revelation control strategies. I like hard counters over expensive threats because I think a sort of "CounterSliver" type strategy is very viable, especially if you can protect a Thassa and control your land drops—that is to say, make sure you don’t flood out. I’d sideboard the rest of the Domestications if I maindecked some, and I’d like to see additional anti-control cards so that I don’t have to keep in anything I hate against them for the post-board games.

The other elephant in the room (it’s a pretty big room) is Mono-Black Devotion. This time I can show you Owen’s list:

Owen has consistently advocated for a list within a card or two of this one, and despite everyone having access to his list for the tournament, he still managed to win. I asked him what to change for this weekend, and he recommended removing an Erebos for a Doom Blade. I think I might just do that myself. I’ve played this deck both online and in real life before, and I quite like it. While the blue deck also cannot get color screwed or really fall too far behind with come-into-play-tapped lands, this deck just feels better to me. Something intangible I guess. This deck does have a large target on its head since everyone feels like it’s one of the top two decks and trouble permanents like Assemble the Legion are very scary to play against sometimes, but I’m still excited to play it in a PTQ.

The final devotion strategy worth mentioning is the red one originally played by Team CFB, although someone thought to add white for Chained to the Rocks as a way to deal with Master of Waves.

This deck is fiercely powerful and can be scary to play against. Nykthos is probably the single most powerful thing to do in the format, and any deck that cannot disrupt the devotion this deck is trying to achieve is going to be in for a world of pain. The mix of noncreature threats and Stormbreath Dragon really puts a hurting on control strategies, and the fact that Nykthos makes so much mana means that if Mono-Black Devotion deck falls behind they’re probably never going to be able to catch back up.

Any difficulty this deck might have with Mono-Blue Devotion is more than made up for by the fact that it trounces all the U/W/x Control strategies and has a nice game plan against any deck that you might not have prepared for. There aren’t really any ways to go over the top of this deck because there is nothing better than Nykthos.

Moving on from there we have both U/W and traditional Esper Control strategies. These decks are full of the cards you either hate or love to see depending on where you fall in the spectrum. Jace, Architect of Thought; Detention Sphere; Dissolve; and Sphinx’s Revelation are the backbone of these strategies. These decks offer a strong matchup against Mono-Blue Devotion while losing ground against decks that came to the forefront later in the early parts of the season.

Did you catch all that?

The Mono-Blue Devotion was first, and it made the biggest splash. Not soon after that Esper and U/W Control started cropping up, as they always do. It’s hard to succeed with control at a Pro Tour because the field is unknown, but once the format is more solved (as it is now) these strategies are quite viable. So these decks came out in response to Mono-Blue Devotion. You saw Stanislav Cifka playing with four Last Breaths maindeck at Grand Prix Vienna to combat Mono-Blue Devotion, and lately you saw William Jensen playing a deck with only one Elixir of Immortality and one Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to win with—and no maindeck Last Breaths—to fight the mirror.

So any decks that have come out since around that time might be able to gain an edge against these control strategies unless they have adapted, but chances are they can’t beat everything and they know it so they can’t really open themselves up to having a weak game against Mono-Blue or Mono-Black Devotion just to try to compete with Thea’s deck (above) or Chris VanMeter and Brian Braun-Duin’s new take on the G/R Monsters deck:

On any given day you can get paired against no copies of the "best deck" and no copies of the "most popular deck" on your way to winning a tournament, but you should still be as informed as possible about what you might face and how they might try to beat you (if they can) or how you could possibly lose to them.

I’d like to show you two more decklists before concluding:

This one is interesting to me because I think Andrew Shrout picks good decks and I’m sort of hankering for some combat. I also think Voice of Resurgence is underplayed right now, and Boon Satyr is just an excellent card. However, you have to have a pretty strong stomach to play Guildgates in this Standard format, certainly one stronger than my own. I played the B/R Aggro deck that won a Grand Prix last season, and I had to swear them off for good right there and then. They are miserable.

I’m also not convinced that this deck really beats Mono-Black Devotion. I know the matchup is close, but I feel like I’d rather be playing close matchups where the better player will prevail and not have to hope to get super lucky to win. Of course, if there isn’t a lot of Mono-Black in your locale and perhaps you think you will be well served by some maindeck Mono-Blue hate, then yes, I would say this is probably a good choice.

Finally, we have this, of which I do not know how to feel:

To me this deck looks incredibly unfocused and does not impress me on paper, and to my great discredit I have not played it online yet so it could very well be a great deck. However, I would recommend that you thoroughly test it if you are interested and you have time. I am guessing that a bunch of random ones, twos and threes is not the optimal list.

What’s that single Cartel Aristocrat doing anyway?

At first glance it does appear "finely tuned" but really I don’t know what’s going on here, which is setting off almost all of my alarms. The problem is when your deck is unfocused and you run into someone who has practiced—put in the time—and is playing a finely tuned version of one of the best decks you can’t afford to not draw one of your two-ofs that are designed for that matchup; rather, you want to have all your cylinders firing from the get go.

My best estimation is that the seven Temple lands is what’s propping this deck up. Ordinarily a three-color aggro deck in these colors would fail, but the addition of the Temples might be keeping it afloat. I know Brad Nelson is working on this deck on the Premium side, and I’m excited to see what he comes up with. I hope it will be more streamlined than the original, and I hope you’ll take a look.

I do find it interesting that perhaps the best approach to tournament preparation is to play a lot of different decks at the beginning of a season and then buckle down and focus on the one that is doing the best or the one that suits you the best. Unlike the "best play"—of which there can only be one—I do actually think there are decks that are better suited to one player or another. I will certainly keep this in mind going forward.