They actually did it. There was a 1K Open here in Moscow. I finished decoding my Top 8 coverage notes at 3 am, and the last words in my forum post were
“3 a.m., time to go to sleep. Don’t wake me up, even if they ban of Stoneforge Mystic” [sic].
I did not love Jace and Mystic (despite the fact that they were a wonderful couple: a movie star and a girl from the working class…), but I
always considered them powerful yet fair opponents, not the paragon of Eternal Evil. Anyway, what’s done cannot be undone, so let’s look
behind, onto the necessity of this ban, and ahead, into the brave new world without Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic.
Aside about unexpected problems
Nationals in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are scheduled for three consecutive weekends: 19-20 of June, 24-26 of June, aaaand… 1-3 of July! At the
time you’re reading this article, I’m probably sleeving up Vampires for the first day of the last battle against Caw-Blade, while Ukrainian
mages are hysterically testing Standard without Caw-Blade.
Was this ban necessary? Sad to say, but yes, it was. Were they too powerful for Standard? I do not know. Seriously. I mentioned in my previous article
that the key to Caw-Blade’s dominance was not just the power of the deck, but also the great amount of attention it received from the best
players. I mentioned a 1K tournament in Moscow at the beginning of the article, so it’s time for a few words about the results.
Forty-seven players participated (this is a usual size for a PTQ in Moscow). The metagame was full of Caw-Blade and, surprisingly, Mono Red. The Top 8
contained a pair of Caw-Blade, a pair of Mono Red, a pair of Vampires, one Puresteel Paladin / Birthing Pod deck, and one Grixis Twin combo (that won
the entire tournament). Both Caw-Blades lost in the quarterfinals.
From this point of view, the format doesn’t look gravely ill. But actually it is. There is a quote from MTG R&D director Aaron
In the days of the firstÂ MirrodinÂ block, we weren’t using the Standard format at any Pro Tours or PTQs. There wasn’t an
independent weekly series of Standard events with constant live-streaming video coverage. There wasn’t a web page of winningÂ Magic
OnlineÂ decks updated daily. And we didn’t have the number of players we do now.
Formats are reaching their equilibrium points faster now than ever before. Deck lists today are more tuned than at any point inÂ Magic’s history.
Information is traveling faster and being processed better than ever before.
Two or three years ago, Standard evolved from one Grand Prix to the next in a couple of months, with various relatively small tournaments being the
main source of the fresh decks between GPs. The Standard metagame was never completely established, even when Faeries and Jund were the nemesis. There
was great reward for breaking a formatâ€”just recall Lorwyn-Alara season: B/W Tokens at Worlds, Cruel Control and Boat Brew at PT Kyoto, Seismic
Assault/cascade combo at GP Barcelona, Doran and Faeries at GP Seattle, and even combo Elves after M10 release.
Today we have weekly large tournaments with great payout and a powerful field. What would you do if you succeeded once? Yes, you’d sleeve the
deck with minor changes for the next tournament. And the story repeats week after week… This is how we discovered Alex “RUG”
Bertoncini, Edgar “U/W Caw-Blade” Flores, Larry “U/G Vengevine” Swasey, and many others. SCG Opens are wonderful, but they are
naturally encouraging players not to innovate, but to tune their decks. This matures the format quickly into stagnation.
Normally such a situation leads to the format being broken open by some skilled player (and I believe that this break was possible if somebody wanted
to do it), but now the real problem is that stagnation satisfies good playersâ€”they have an established metagame, the best deck with a mirror full
of skill (the Caw-Blade mirror is far more demanding than, say, the Jund one), and the tournaments to win.
This is very fairâ€”good players’ chances of winning improveâ€”but it makes the game far less attractive for new players because they
have literally no chance of winning against a skilled player with the best deck. A year ago, a newcomer could easily acquire a Jund deck and cascade
into a win (even a single win against a better player is very encouraging, and the fact that such a situation was very likely encouraged pro players to
brew other decks just to avoid mirrors). Now they have basically no chance, which is very dissatisfying for newcomers.
Are SCG Opens the main reason for the ban? No, obviously not. They are like a catalyst for the reaction that was, probably, inevitable, but the way to
stagnation would have been much slower. Faeries were, in my opinion, more powerful than Caw-Blade, but Bitterblossom was never banned. Would Jace, the
Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic be banned in the world without SCG Opens? Probably notâ€”just because Caw-Blade wouldn’t be so good.
Let’s look at SCG Legacy Opens. Yes, Survival of the Fittest was banned because of SCG Opens, but after that, the format constantly evolved and
grew under the same pressure as Standard, and it still grows today and regularly provides new, powerful, and interesting decks (see NO RUG or Hive
Mind). So, SCG Opens and a broadband internet connection are actually good for Magic, despite some minor disadvantages, and I’ll be very happy to
see live coverage of the growth of newly established formats over the next weeks.
But what should R&D do to avoid such imbalanced cards and future bans? I don’t know; I’m not a developer. But I definitely know what
should players do to avoid such a stagnation of a format. Recipe is simple: try to innovate instead of surrendering to the best deck. This is how we
players affect the game! But, as I said, what’s done cannot be undone, so it’s time to move on.
The World without Caw-Blade
Time to remunerate my Primeval Titans for a period of prolonged unemployment! I don’t want to be considered a “Valakut geek,” but I
really enjoy the deck in any format where it is viable. So, time to brew it again for Standard. Without constant pressure from Caw-Blade, Valakut will
stop playing maindeck hate (Nature’s Claim and Summoning Trap) and start punishing aggro decks with cards that would be appropriate for such a
job. Comically, “fair” beatdown decks that are supposed to rejoice in the light of the ban will just be enslaved by an old tyrant.
More good news for the deck is the return of Rampant Growth in M12, but I’ll definitely speak about that when it’s appropriate. I expect
the pre-M12 list of Valakut to look like this:
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Avenger of Zendikar
- 3 Overgrown Battlement
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
The deck has everything to beat any aggressive deck, the mirror, and Jace-less Splinter Twin combo deck. We don’t want to play Summoning Trap
anymore (but I’d keep them in the sideboard at least for some time), so there are free slots for considerably large amounts of fast acceleration
leading to turn-4 Primeval Titan, which would race even Splinter Twin (whose turn-4 kill is pretty rare).
The sideboard includes all the necessary options (with Acidic Slimes and raw speed as a plan for the mirror match). There are no Raging Ravines in the
list because I expect the comeback of Spreading Seas.
Precise tuning is subject to testing, but this deck would be a fine starting point to return the format back into stagnation. Is a Valakut-dominated
metagame better than one that is Caw-Blade dominated? No, I think not.
How to solve this problem? The simplest way is to assemble a combo faster than Valakut. Splinter Twin lost its main search engine, but deck will still
be viableâ€”an all-in combo version that is powered, in my opinion, by Jace Beleren (he is actually good if you forgot about it) and cheap
cantrips. I posted a sketch in one of my recent articles, so I just
updated it according to the format changes.
Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge are for Valakut — old decisions work well against an old enemy. Every other card allows us to combo as fast as
possible and to outrace both Valakut and aggressive decks. The post-board plan will often include siding the combo out in favor of Calcite Snapper,
which is almost a perfect defender that allows you to attack and finish your opponent.
Will aggressive decks have a chance between Scylla and Charybdis? I hope that they will, especially when Valakut and Splinter Twin are busy fighting
each other. But if you want to be aggressive from the very start of the format, I recommend you play Mono Red: it is fast enough to outrace both decks.
I am not sure about the list, but at first sight, classic Mono Red without Batterskull as a nemesis looks good enough to play. An additional argument
is that it’s the last chance to play Lightning Bolt before it’s out of M12.
The deck is pretty straightforward and powerful. The nine best red spells are maindeck, and the next four best red spells are in the sideboard. Arc
Trail will become necessary, but right now I prefer to have solid plans against Valakut (Act of Aggression + Vulshok Refugee), Splinter Twin (Kiln
Fiend + Combust), and the mirror (Vulshok Refugee). We use Kiln Fiend against combo because the matchup will probably look like a pure race where Kiln
Fiend is unsurprisingly powerful.
These three decks are the starting points of the format, but I hope that Standard will be better and more diverse than just that. My brewing for you
will start immediately after Russian Nationals; my battle against Caw-Blade is unfinished business. Wish me good luck and see you in two weeks!