Black Magic – Exploring Standard

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Minneapolis
Wednesday, November 11th – With the StarCityGames.com $5000 Nashville Standard Open in the books, and a selection of other op Standard Open tournaments recently completed, Sam Black takes a detailed look at the current state of the metagame. He collates all the recent results and presents a comprehensive thirteen-deck Gauntlet, along with thoughts on each deck.

Standard appears to have opened up substantially in the last few weeks from the sea of Jund it once was. Jund is still an excellent deck, but now there’s a lot of competition. To understand where Standard is right now, I’m going to look at a cross section of decks as represented by 4-0 decks in MTGO Daily events in the last week, Game Day 1st and second place decks, and decks from the top 8 of this weekend’s Star City Games 5k.

Here’s how the raw data looks:

MTGO 4-0 decks:
Jund – 12
Boros – 5
Vampires – 4
GW – 2
Mono Red – 2
Mono Green Elves
RG Elves
Mono Black Control
RWU Baneslayer, Ascension, Planeswalker control
4cc Baneslayer Ultimatum
Crypt of Agadeem

Game Day:
Jund – 15
Naya – 3
Boros – 2
Bant – 2
RW Control
Mono Black Control
4 Color Control
4 Color Cascade

SCG $5K:
Mono Green – 2
5 Color Cascade – 2
Jund – 2
Green/White Elves
Emeria Aggro

That’s too many decks to process, so let me try grouping them a little better, with an example decklist of each archetype. All lists are lists that have reported success, not necessarily lists as I would build them:

29 Jund Decks

11 GWx Midrange Decks

4 Forest
1 Graypelt Refuge
3 Marsh Flats
3 Plains
4 Sunpetal Grove
2 Swamp
2 Terramorphic Expanse
4 Verdant Catacombs

3 Baneslayer Angel
1 Birds of Paradise
3 Borderland Ranger
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Putrid Leech
3 Ranger of Eos
3 Scute Mob
2 Eldrazi Monument
3 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Maelstrom Pulse
1 Martial Coup
2 Path to Exile

1 Behemoth Sledge
3 Celestial Purge
3 Dauntless Escort
3 Duress
2 Identity Crisis
1 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Martial Coup

7 Boros Decks

7 Mono Black Decks

4 Marsh Flats
13 Swamp
4 Verdant Catacombs

4 Bloodghast
4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
4 Malakir Bloodwitch
4 Vampire Hexmage
4 Vampire Lacerator
4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Disfigure
4 Feast of Blood
3 Marsh Casualties
4 Quest for the Gravelord

3 Blade of the Bloodchief
4 Hideous End
4 Mind Sludge
4 Sadistic Sacrament

5 Eldrazi Elves Decks

3 Cascade (12+ cascade spells) Decks

3 Control Decks with Blue

4 Arcane Sanctum
1 Arid Mesa
4 Crumbling Necropolis
2 Drowned Catacomb
3 Glacial Fortress
2 Island
1 Marsh Flats
2 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Rupture Spire
2 Scalding Tarn
2 Swamp
3 Baneslayer Angel
4 Ajani Vengeant
3 Burst Lightning
2 Courier’s Capsule
3 Cruel Ultimatum
2 Day of Judgment
2 Double Negative
4 Esper Charm
1 Essence Scatter
3 Lightning Bolt
2 Negate
3 Path to Exile

1 Baneslayer Angel
4 Celestial Purge
1 Day of Judgment
2 Double Negative
2 Duress
1 Lightning Bolt
1 Negate
1 Obelisk of Alara
2 Pyroclasm

2 Mono Red Decks

4 Arid Mesa
12 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Teetering Peaks
4 Goblin Guide
4 Hell’s Thunder
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Plated Geopede
1 Banefire
4 Burst Lightning
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Mark of Mutiny
4 Quenchable Fire
4 Volcanic Fallout

1 Banefire
3 Chandra Nalaar
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Magma Spray
3 Pithing Needle

1 Valakut Deck

2 Forest
12 Mountain
3 Naya Panorama
4 Terramorphic Expanse
4 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Expedition Map
4 Harrow
4 Khalni Heart Expedition
3 Lavaball Trap
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Rampant Growth

2 Bogardan Hellkite
4 Caldera Hellion
4 Demolish
1 Eternity Vessel
2 Pyroclasm
2 Volcanic Fallout

1 Crypt of Agadeem Deck

4 Crypt of Agadeem
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Island
1 Marsh Flats
2 Misty Rainforest
2 Scalding Tarn
3 Swamp
1 Verdant Catacombs

4 Architects of Will
3 Corpse Connoisseur
4 Extractor Demon
2 Fatestitcher
4 Hedron Crab
2 Kederekt Leviathan
4 Monstrous Carabid
4 Rotting Rats
4 Viscera Dragger
4 Grim Discovery
4 Traumatize

4 Deathmark
4 Duress
4 Infest
3 Negate

1 Emeria Aggro Deck

1 RW Control Deck

1 Arid Mesa
2 Jungle Shrine
8 Mountain
15 Plains

1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
4 Ajani Vengeant
3 Armillary Sphere
3 Chandra Nalaar
4 Day of Judgment
2 Earthquake
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
4 Goblin Assault
2 Martial Coup
2 Obelisk of Alara
4 Path to Exile
3 Scepter of Dominance

2 Celestial Purge
4 Kor Sanctifiers
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Oblivion Ring
4 Pyroclasm

1 RB Discard Deck

4 Akoum Refuge
4 Dragonskull Summit
7 Mountain
7 Swamp
4 Guul Draz Specter
4 Hypnotic Specter
4 Nyxathid
3 Obsidian Fireheart
4 Bituminous Blast
4 Blightning
3 Doom Blade
2 Earthquake
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Terminate
2 Volcanic Fallout

3 Duress
2 Earthquake
2 Haunting Echoes
4 Thought Hemorrhage
2 Vampire Hexmage
2 Volcanic Fallout

That’s still thirteen different decks, but it’s much more manageable. Jund is 40% of this field, but I still think that number is on the decline. I don’t want to try to worry too much about the legitimacy of each of these results (or the trends in results over time) at this point. The metagame was definitely developing over the course of the time from which these results were gathered, so it’s not exactly representative of any single real metagame. It is a set of results that allows us to see what kinds of things people are doing/having success with in Standard.

Jund is extremely well known, and well explored. It is going to be one of the best decks in this format no matter what happens. 40% may be inflated because other decks aren’t as well explored, but it’s not a fluke. The deck has most of the best cards, good mana, and a reasonable game plan. Everyone already knows this. One recent development that I’ve seen, borrowed from the elf decks, is the inclusion of Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, which I think is an excellent addition. The cost is fairly low, and the payoff is insane with Bloodbraid elf or Sprouting Thrinax.

The next most common strategy is to play a bunch of very good Green and White creatures, usually including some combination of Knight of the Reliquary, Ranger of Eos, and Baneslayer Angel, with Path to Exile and other support cards. The idea is to play creatures the opponent has to deal with until they’re out of removal, and then, ideally, to stick a Baneslayer Angel and win the game, but any creature can do. These decks trade Jund’s built-in card advantage to just have the best creatures. Any one of them that goes unanswered will probably win.

Given how common both of these strategies are, and the fact that Jund has been performing better, I would guess that most of the time card advantage from Blightning combined with enough versatile one-for-ones leaves Jund with the last threat more often than GW, and Jund is generally somewhat favored here. As any Jund deck shifts to play more creatures and less removal, GW probably gets better against them, since Green/White should win if it can stick a creature, even if Jund also has creatures, since GW’s creatures are better.

Boros, or RW Landfall, is an extremely fast, explosively powerful deck that can win out of nowhere in the mid to late game. It suffers from needing a correct balance of lands and spells that is particularly picky, because the creatures don’t work without a good flow of lands, and many of the cards don’t do enough by themselves. When it draws well, or even reasonably, it can often be too fast for any other deck in this fairly slow format. Part of the deck’s early success was based getting wins when people weren’t prepared for it and didn’t know how easily Goblin Bushwhacker could steal a game. These days I think sideboards are more prepared and people are less likely to leave themselves exposed, and I expect the deck to get a little less successful.

Vampires is a deck that I’ve heard isn’t very good, and I can’t really understand why it would be. It doesn’t seem to me like it does anything special or hard for other decks to deal with. It’s slower than Boros and has less raw power than other midrange decks, so I’m not really sure what it’s hoping to accomplish. I guess Mind Sludge gives the deck a different dimension than other decks, but I’m not sure how different it is from casting two Blightnings. I can only imagine this deck getting less popular because I don’t understand its place in the metagame.

Eldrazi Green, the elf deck that might splash Red or White, seems like an extremely good deck to me, and I think its relatively low numbers are a result of it not being as known at Games Day (or earlier in the period from which these results were gathered). Its performance at the StarCityGames.com Nashville $5000 Standard Open was impressive, and people will notice. I suspect it was the best deck for that tournament, and its continued success will depend on how well it can survive being hated and how well people can hate it, but its status as a deck to watch certainly makes it a little less appealing. That said, the deck is doing a lot of extremely powerful things, and it has a ton of internal synergy. I’m not entirely sure what people can do to really hate the deck, as it’s not like a combo deck that you can just put four copies of a dedicated hate card in the sideboard and ignore the problem. As the format continues to shift, this deck will be one of the driving forces.

Cascade is known deck from Block Constructed that’s been resurfacing lately. It takes Jund’s plan of casting two-for-ones every turn to the extreme, and tries to take full advantage of a relatively slow format in which one can actually live long enough to recover while never making a play on turn 1 or 2. It seems like it should be too slow for something like Boros, and if this deck somehow got out of control, I could start to see a place for Vampires again (pressure plus Mind Sludge seems like a good recipe to beat this deck), but if everyone is just trying to out-midrange each other, this deck will out-midrange any other midrange deck.

The three Blue control decks are the last holdout of Five-Color Cruel Control decks. Baneslayer Angel, Planeswalkers, cheap removal spells, Esper Charms, and some Cruel Ultimatums, with mana that barely works. The consensus seems to be that this strategy just can’t keep up in the current format, and I’m inclined to agree. The mana is just too greedy. It gets even worse if people start playing more Goblin Ruinblasters to deal with the rare land-based decks that I’ll discuss below. I’m not sure that a Blue control deck can’t exist in this format, but I think it needs to be a little more conservative with its mana and stick to two or three colors.

Mono Red: On Magic Online, I’ve been playing against a fair number of Ball Lightnings, so I was surprised to see that these decks weren’t playing it. Regardless of which specific cards are in the deck, the goal is just to damage the opponent quickly and consistently. I still like it as an approach to dealing with Jund, to punish them for their inability to gain life, but I’m not sure that I’d want to play the deck against most of the rest of the format. I also don’t actually know how good it is against Jund—I just like the theory. It seems like a good way to exploit a perceived weakness.

Valakut Ramp is a cute Red/Green deck that splashes Green for Khalni Heart Expedition and Harrow to trigger Valakut and cast big spells. It plays only a few Forests, and plays Terramorphic Expanse and Panoramas so that it can always find exactly one Forest and then stop, to maximize Valakut, and Harrow can even get you back down to no Forests / all Mountains if you’re done casting your Green spells. Thanks to Expedition Map, the deck can consistently plan to find Valakut. As with so many other decks in this format, the end-game plan is very good, but I’m a little worried about whether it has the tools to survive to get there. Also, Goblin Ruinblaster.

Crypt of Agadeem is an innovative combo deck designed by Japanese Master Shota Yasooka, made famous by his online alias Yaya3, the MTGO POY. The combo is Mill plus Crypt plus unearth, and it feels very similar to early Ichorid decks. It’s not especially fast, but most other decks at the moment aren’t prepared to interact with it, and it can often win faster than others decks in this format, so it is well situated to trump unprepared opponents. There are a number of different strategies to ensure that the combo comes together, and the deck makes Grim Discovery look completely insane. It only appeared once in the set of decks I looked at, but if the games I’ve played in the last few days on Magic Online are any indication, this is a deck we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the near future. The first time I played against it, it looked like a cute niche combo deck that was hard to attack, until he unearthed a Kederekt Leviathan for the first time, and then it felt like he was doing something completely unfair. The deck has no other way to deal with permanents, so cards like Baneslayer Angel might be a problem, except that once the deck gets going it can just unearth a Leviathan every turn until it wins, and that’s good enough to trump most other decks.

If this deck grows in popularity, as it probably will, given the attention it’s already received from Aaron Forsythe, Bill Stark, Patrick Chapin and others, it is, fortunately, relatively easy to prepare for. Relic of Progenitus is the obvious, and extremely effective, answer to any graveyard strategy, but it’s not the only approach. As mentioned above, the deck is relying very heavily on Kederekt Leviathan to deal with permanents, so something like Pithing Needle or Thought Hemorrhage can cause problems for them, especially if it’s supporting something like Baneslayer Angel. Also, the deck really needs Crypt of Agadeem to generate the amount of mana it intends to use to operate properly, so cards like Goblin Ruinblaster, Acidic Slime, and even Demolish or Spreading Seas are potentially effective answers to the deck.

Emeria Aggro is a White Weenie deck that accepts that there are too many awkward creatures to try to attack through in this format, so a straightforward plan of attacking with White 2/2s generally won’t be good enough. Instead, this deck keeps options on attacking decks that aren’t prepared for aggressive creatures, while also perfectly happy to use those creatures defensively so that the games goes long and it can win with inevitability generated by Emeria, the Sky Ruin. This is a reasonable plan, but at this point I’d be worried about incidental hate from people who are trying to prepare for any of the other lands in the cycle, and I wouldn’t want a deck to rely so heavily on one of them right now.

The Red/White control deck looks like an update of Mark Hendrickson’s U.S. Nationals deck, complete with Armillary Sphere and Goblin Assault. The deck gets to take advantage of the embarrassingly underplayed Day of Judgment, a card that so few decks support that people are barely taking the card into account when building for the format. Aside from that, I don’t really think I like what this deck is doing. The token generation theme doesn’t seem all that impressive at the moment. Basically, I don’t know why this deck would be competitive with Jund, and I think we’re still at the point where you can’t play a deck that doesn’t have a better plan than this for dealing with Jund.

The last Red/Black deck is a deck I’m not really sure what to do with. I don’t think it’s really worth considering too much, because again, I just don’t know how it’s beating Jund. It has a bunch of creatures that are very good if they stick, but I don’t think any of them are expected to, and it has 3 Doom Blades main, with no good way to deal with a Sprouting Thrinax.

So that’s where the format stands as of last week. The direction it seems to me to be headed leaves Jund on top, but not alone there. Eldrazi Green and potentially Crypt of Agadeem, followed by Boros and Cascade, are the next decks I’d really worry about. I would entirely dismiss anything that’s winning less than 45% of its matches against Jund, and if it’s less than 50% it would need to have something really significant going for it in other places.

There are a lot of other decks on my radar, and at the moment I’m hoping not to play any of the above decks at Worlds, but for now I wanted to understand what is and what has been, rather than speculating too much about what might be or what I want to work. Let’s just say that I think this format still has a lot of room to grow.

Thanks for reading…