Big Fish & Reevaluating Standard

If you’re looking for a deck to play this weekend at Grand Prix Miami, read about the U/W/R Geist deck that SCG Invitational winner Todd Anderson thinks might be a good choice.

Big Fish

I often find myself thinking negatively. When I’m losing or life seems to be falling apart around me, the lights go dim. Grim. For lack of a better term, I fume. I know that these terrible things shouldn’t be happening because I am smart enough to keep them from happening. I continually make poor decisions in spite of what I know to be right or true, and for what reason?

Self-sabotage is a hell of a thing. If you know me, then you know I do some crazy stuff for basically no reason. I act on instinct because that’s how I’m wired to act. But that also means that I don’t exactly plan ahead or think things through before I do them. This is one of the reasons that most of the professional Magic community thinks I’m a giant joke. And maybe they have a good reason to think this, but maybe social media tends to blow things out of proportion.

Maybe just a little bit.

But I am smart. Or at least I think so.I work hard, and it pays off on occasion. I just have my priorities in a different place than most people who would be in my position. Working for StarCityGames.com has changed my career and ultimately changed my life. My wife works for the company too, which is an added bonus. I make videos and write articles all the time. I just recently started writing for the newsletters. On top of all that, I might also get to do a ton of commentary for the Open Series next year! Kali and I recently bought a house in Roanoke, VA, so things are looking up! And it is almost entirely due to StarCityGames.com!

I haven’t had much reason over the last few months to be sad. I’m a particularly emotional guy, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. A lot of you have seen this when I’ve gotten excited on camera or even at an event. When I lose a match, I just fall into this hole. If I can snap myself out of it, I usually do well at the tournament. Other times, I stay there for a few hours until I can finally cleanse with some sort of Philly cheesesteak.

I’ve written a lot in the last few months about being in a slump. Until recently, I had not made Top 8 of an Open or Invitational all year. Then, maybe things around me started to look up. I got settled into my new house. We had a good few weeks where Kali and I didn’t fight about anything. I made a good deck choice and finally played well, and the chips just fell into place.


What speaks to you when you’re happy?

Contentment isn’t a feeling I have very often. Being content, to me, is like drowning. When you’re happy with where you’re at in life, that’s when you know something is actually wrong. Discarding contentment doesn’t mean you can’t stop and be happy for a little while, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be satisfied when you know you could do better.Human nature drives us to improve, constantly seeking perfection when there is actually none to be had. Perfection is a pipe dream, but it is still what motivates us in whatever craft we decide to embark upon.

For me, this craft is Magic.

But no matter how hard I try or how much I play, I know I will probably never win a Pro Tour. Hell, I would be incredibly lucky to even make Top 8 of one. At the moment, I would just settle on being qualified for one. But there is one huge, glaring problem.

I would rather play in a StarCityGames.com Open than a Pro Tour Qualifier.

I think the math is pretty simple here. Over the last two years, I have made approximately $30,000 in the Open Series and Invitationals. In my entire lifetime, I have made exactly $2,000 playing on the Pro Tour. Can you see the difference? The hours of playtesting, drafting, and travel just didn’t pay off for me in the same way. Of course, this is definitely due to the higher skill level of Pro Tours. It’s obviously much harder to succeed at that level unless you are outstandingly good at the game. I know that my Limited game is not as strong as my Constructed game and is easily one of the contributing factors to my failings on the Pro Tour.

The tournament setup and structure for Pro Tours is also much harder than Opens or Invitationals. At the Pro Tour, a new set is released about two weeks before the big event. This gives you so little time to prepare that it is actually baffling how unequal the playing field is. Teams set up weeks in advance to begin playtesting for the event, building various decks and honing their drafting skills. They know exactly what cards and decks are going to be good and how to beat them. They know the best commons and uncommons in Draft and how to play around all the combat tricks. They even know the fringe decks you can draft that will always be open because no one really knows about them yet.

But what about the average PTQ winner? Who is their team, and how can they get more than two or three drafts in before the event actually starts? This doesn’t even take into account if that person holds a regular job or has a family to take care of! To say that you are going into the event as a big underdog is a major understatement.

While I could probably form a makeshift team if I did end up qualifying for the Pro Tour, I know where I stand. At the moment, I probably wouldn’t be accepted on to any major team for the Pro Tour, and I actually just don’t care. For me, playing in these StarCityGames.com tournaments is some of the most fun I’ve had playing Magic. I get to meet a ton of new people every week, and I get to inspire some of the games up and comers. They were even as nice as to give me my own token!


I get to be the big fish in the pond.

I know I’m not as good of a player as Josh Utter-Leyton, but I also know that the skill disparity isn’t as great as many people think. There are good players, and there are great ones. I know where Jon Finkel sits—atop his throne. And even now, my pride makes me struggle to type out this sentence:

I’m just barely one of the good players.

So at the moment, I’m satisfied with where I am. I’m content. But that’s honestly one of the most frightening things I could ever write. And I realized this just a few weeks ago. Now, I’m preparing for a two-week trip to multiple Grand Prix, and I’m looking to find my drive to get higher. Maybe, just maybe…

This fish is about to swim out to sea.

Standard Revisited

Standard is a wild animal. From week to week, nothing seems to stick. We see similar decks fill the Top 8s, but nothing is consistently coming out on top. We regularly see a different deck win the tournament each week, and I honestly can’t pick a direction and stick with it.

I know that certain cards in the current format are powerful and worth building decks around. I also know that each of those cards has a specific weakness that is also prevalent in the current metagame. This has always been the case, but I’ve been having a difficult time finding a deck that can solve those problems.

Before, I would take a deck I liked and alter it each week as I predicted how the metagame would change. Now, I find myself hopping between colors and archetypes every single week just hoping that something "feels right." So far, nothing really has. My good friend Bard Narson won an Open recently with Junk Aristocrats, but we both fell out of the tournament by round 4 the next week playing his updated list. Even he abandoned the deck this past weekend in Philadelphia, deciding on a "bigger" Naya Blitz deck. I played my "standby" U/W/R Control deck to an embarrassingly mediocre 2-2 performance and quickly found myself heading to Reading Terminal Market.

And then Robert Seder won with this deck:

Why hello, Terminus! I see you’ve brought some friends! Ever since they printed Voice of Resurgence and Brad Nelson won a tournament with any sort of Aristocrat in his deck, all I’ve wanted to do is cast Think Twice into Terminus on my opponent’s turn. Undying was the first straw, and Voice of Resurgence was definitely the last one. While Pillar of Flame is cute, it just doesn’t have the problem-solving power of a sweeper effect.

While you don’t have a lot of creatures, which is a great start, you do have a lot of planeswalkers that can handily dodge the overarching wrath. Terminus may be a bit slow to hard cast, but drawing one off a miracle trigger makes up for it quite nicely. You have the standby win condition of Nephalia Drownyard to team up with Jace, Memory Adept and friends to actually win the game, but are you being proactive enough?

One of my problems with the way current control decks operate is that they lack an aggressive win condition. Gerry Thompson would probably throw something at me for saying that if he were in the room with me right now, but I just don’t think Nephalia Drownyard is good enough when the graveyard is such a ripe place to gain an advantage. With Junk Reanimator dipping in popularity a little bit, this could end up being a reasonable option again, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet.

I want to be proactive. I want to put my opponent into positions where they aren’t comfortable and will make multiple mistakes over the course of just a few turns trying to play around the bevy of spells at my disposal. I don’t want to have a linear form of attack because that is easy to hate out. I also want my win conditions to be strong on their own. I want removal that can deal with the majority of threats being thrown at me, and I want topdecks that will win the game on their own.

Does this just mean I should play Jund? I’m honestly not sure if I’m ready to go down that road just yet, but I can definitely understand the sentiment. Do you know how hard it is to beat Olivia Voldaren and Thragtusk out of the same deck alongside powerful removal and potent discard effects? It just hits so hard from so many different angles, and that is what makes it one of the best decks in the format. It is just a "rock" deck, and nothing beats rock.

While Jund is likely a fine choice, I….just can’t do it. I need some inspiration. I need my cards play nice together. I need synergy. I need…Geist of Saint Traft.

Geist for President!

I haven’t picked up too many copies of Geist of Saint Traft in Standard as of late. For one, it feels a little underpowered against some of the more aggressive decks in the format, but there is a lot we can do about that! Pillar of Flame is pretty big game at the moment. Some of the best potential blockers for Geist of Saint Traft just get annihilated by Pillar of Flame and all the subsequent Snapcaster Mages flashing them back.

On top of that, I think that Essence Scatter is primed for a comeback. With so few decks in the format playing more than one or two Cavern of Souls, it seems only fair that we get a hard counter for two mana with such little resistance.

The major problem?

This thing, along with Flinthoof Boar, provides some major roadblocks for Geist of Saint Traft. Fortunately, we have a ton of removal at our disposal to help take care of these problems. Along with Pillar of Flame, we have Unsummon, Searing Spear, and a slew of other spells to clear the path. These spells are fairly easy to flashback with Snapcaster Mage, making the duo quite compelling.

One of the better arguments for this deck is that on occasion you can just morph into an actual factual U/W/R Control deck. This means sideboarding two or three copies of Supreme Verdict and changing your deck significantly between games. While Geist of Saint Traft is one of the better threats you can have in game 1, having the option to slow down is awesome. There are a lot of matchups where it is much better to play the control role and Geist becomes much worse.

Alex Blackard made the Top 8 of a recent SCG Standard Open with this version of the deck, which I will be looking to improve on:

For starters, I really like Ral Zarek. I’m not sure he has a place in this deck just yet, but he forces the opponent to attack it, which I love. When your opponent is forced to attack when you have a Geist of Saint Traft in play, things are going to get awkward. His ability to remove blockers while provoking attacks is definitely a positive for a deck like this.

I also very much like Syncopate in this particular strategy. In a lot of games, you’re going to be looking to use Syncopate to clear the way for an early Geist of Saint Traft. If you can interact with the opponent in the early game and keep their board light on threats, Geist of Saint Traft will shine. Syncopate is also decent in the mid-to-late game since it can counter bigger threats and stifle answers like Terminus and Clone from the opponent.

What I don’t like is Sphinx’s Revelation. I know why it’s there. I know that it’s probably necessary. I also know that an aggressive deck doesn’t usually have an entire turn to waste drawing a few cards. In this deck, Sphinx’s Revelation will likely be acting as an overrated Divination for the majority of the game and will only help you crawl back into a game when they have actual answers for Geist of Saint Traft.

If we had access to Sphinx’s Revelation when we were playing Delver of Secrets and Ponder, do you think it would have made the cut?

The answer is almost assuredly no, which is why I question it in the first place. But these are different times; we don’t have Ponder anymore, and sometimes you just need raw power to finish off the opponent. This is why there are only two in the deck. This is also why we’re playing Thundermaw Hellkite. While Lingering Souls and other fliers do exist, it isn’t the primary reason to be playing Thundermaw, plain and simple. You want it because it has haste, high power/toughness, relatively cheap cost, and is insanely hard to kill before it does major damage. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Delver of Secrets is no longer reliable enough to get the job done.

I also want most of my removal spells to cost one and two mana, if not all of them. Warleader’s Helix is actually quite good and might be an exception to this rule, but I don’t think that Turn // Burn is good enough. Sure, it can take care of a Thragtusk or Angel of Serenity on its own, but counterspells do a fine job of that too. Five mana is a lot to ask for a hard removal spell, but I understand the reasoning behind it. I just think the deck is going in the wrong direction. I’m also a fan of trying out Spectral Flight in the sideboard if it comes down to it.

Mizzium Mortars actually fills an incredible space in the deck. At times, you need a big sweeper to reset the board, which is great for the late game. However, just Flame Slashing an early threat is solid too. While you won’t be able to throw the last few points of damage at their dome with Mortars, the versatility it provides can be invaluable.

I’m not a big fan of Azorius Charm in Geist of Saint Traft decks, though I do love that all three modes are now usable. Even though it does work on defending creatures, it is a defensive removal spell that won’t help you bust through a board stall too easily. I want aggressive answers, but it might be too good not to play.

Let’s break it down and see exactly what we want to play and how much room we have to work with:

4 Geist of Saint Traft
4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Thundermaw Hellkite
3 Pillar of Flame
2 Unsummon
2 Syncopate
2 Essence Scatter
1 Mizzium Mortars
2 Searing Spear
2 Sphinx’s Revelation
2 Ral Zarek

That’s only 26 cards so far, so we have some room to work. I don’t like Restoration Angel all that much and would love it if we didn’t have to play it, but it is a strong body with versatility. The problem is that I rarely find myself attacking with Geist of Saint Traft and using the blink effect after they block. At that point, I would rather keep open mana for counterspells or just kill all of their blockers (if possible).

The current numbers are not locked in just yet, as I would love another Unsummon and potentially the full four Syncopates. Three Restoration Angels would get us to 31 cards, leaving about four more slots along with 25 lands or so.

Without Think Twice or Thought Scour, we might end up wanting Azorius Charm as a way to churn through our deck. I’m still not sold on Sphinx’s Revelation, but we do need a way to draw into it more smoothly after sideboarding if we decide to alter the basic functionality of the deck. Azorius Charm also plays great defense if we do end up sideboarding into a control deck.

With all of these thoughts in mind, here is where I want to be:

While the sideboard isn’t exactly transformational, we do have a lot of bad removal spells against control decks. We need a lot of things to bring in against them, as cards like Mizzium Mortars and Pillar of Flame are quite weak. The extra counterspells and Jaces will hopefully help a reasonable amount, but I can only hope that they do more than their fair share of the work.

The rest of the sideboard is dedicated to fighting matchups that could be a bit rough. Junk Reanimator is notorious for not caring about Rest in Peace, but it is quite absurd against Junk Aristocrats. It turns off most of their deck, and Izzet Staticaster will hopefully wipe up whatever mess is left behind.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve felt quite lost in Standard lately, but I think this deck has a purpose. My plan was to mold this Geist of Saint Traft deck into a killing machine, but I don’t think it is quite there yet. The sideboard could definitely use a tweak depending on how weak or strong certain matchups are, but my biggest fear is that I’ve lost my grip on the format entirely. I think Geist of Saint Traft is good, but it might just be in limbo between Supreme Verdict and Burning-Tree Emissary. At the very least, this isn’t just a bad control deck, so I’m fine experimenting with it some.

I will be in Miami this weekend for the Grand Prix hosted by StarCityGames.com. We will be having a Meet and Greet for the new set of tokens, so please stop by and say hi! I might even sign your token if you’re lucky!

I’m looking forward to meeting you guys, so don’t be scared to ask me questions. This isn’t just a chance for you to meet me, but for me to meet you as well. Oh, and there’s going to be an awesome Standard tournament too!

Thanks for reading.

Todd Anderson
strong sad on Magic Online
@strong_sad on Twitter