Black Magic – How to Beat a Standard Deck

Friday, August 13th – The Standard format is awash with a multitude of strategies, so everyone can find a deck to enjoy. With such a vast metagame, there will always be a foil to your strategy… and Sam Black is here to help!

When I first saw Wafo-Tapa’s UW deck, I wasn’t sure how best to approach trying to beat it. It looked like it had all the answers. Clearly, this was short-sighted. Every deck is beatable. It’s not uncommon to find oneself frustrated trying to fix a particular matchup and not knowing the best approach. I’m going to try to go over the major weaknesses of each deck in Standard, and the best ways to attack them.

Let’s start from the beginning: Jund, the deck this Standard format has always been about, even if it isn’t necessarily the deck to beat anymore. Jund, as we know, wins based on card advantage generated primarily by incidental spot removal backed by a persistent clock that tends to keep ticking even while it feels like you’re just making trades. The solution used to be to try to blank some portion of Jund’s cards by building decks that didn’t care about removal, most exemplified by Mono-Red’s matchup against the strategy. By giving up on permanents, you end up playing a game where you’re both directly attacking the opponent’s life total, but you have slightly better tools for the job. The problem with this approach is that Jund sideboards very well to minimize the utility of blanking some of their answers. They can easily side out those answers for whatever answers are appropriate to your deck.

This leads to the current more popular approach, which is to beat them at their own game. Jund has to let all of your cards resolve and then deal with them. This means that you’re guaranteed any enters-the-battlefield effects on your cards. Everything from Wall of Omens up through Primeval Titan will give you the benefit they advertise. This also means they need to let big sorceries like Destructive Force and Martial Coup resolve. Jund is the reason ramp decks are worked so well immediately after M11 hit, and ramp decks are the reason Jund isn’t working so well now. Sun Titan is another huge hit against Jund, which is part of what allowed UW decks to beat the strategy. Finally, the decks that really need it have Obstinate Baloth, the man that was printed to stack up just right against them.

The next deck to beat was Primeval Titan ramp, or Turboland, which are largely beaten in the same ways. Both decks play “far too much mana” and use it to cast game-winning spells. The most obvious way to beat this is by countering their few game-winning spells, but that’s not the only way. One problem with this solution is that the ramp decks are evolving to prepare themselves for it. This deck, played by Pol Uros at Spanish Nationals, is a ramp deck that doesn’t want to lose to counterspells:

Eldrazi have always been good against countermagic, but backing them up with 4 Summoning Traps that have a huge number of extremely solid cards to hit pushes it way over the top. This means we probably have to look for another way to beat them. This deck is reminiscent of ZWR Block decks that couldn’t beat Mono-Red. This deck has some significant precautions in the form of 4 Obstinate Baloth main and 4 Pelakka Wurm in the sideboard, which is certainly a big help, but if I had to guess, I’d say the Red matchup is still a little shaky. Continuing to view this deck through the eyes of Block, this strategy was also weak against our Mono-Green Beastmaster/Eldrazi Monument deck, and I can only imagine it would be even worse against a dedicated Overrun strategy in Standard. In Standard, we have several other ways to try to kill an opponent outright, which is definitely the best way to trump an end game as powerful as the one utilized by this deck. The most obvious, and the deck I’d most like to play against this deck, is probably Mythic. Yes, they could side in Nature’s Claims to try to destroy Eldrazi Conscription, but that only deals with a very small part of the problem. Of course, this deck is prepared on that front too, with All is Dust to combat these strategies, but it can be a little slow. Overall, part of the reason I’m posting this decklist is that I definitely think it warrants a closer look, as it’s done an excellent job anticipating and counteracting a lot of its own weaknesses while pursuing a strategy that inherently trumps a lot of others.

That said, even this strategy can be trumped in late game power, most obviously by what I’m currently seeing as the king of such late game strength, Mass Polymorph. Another approach that similarly trumps late game decks is Pyromancer’s Ascension, which this deck matches up against very poorly in game 1. After game 1 it gets a lot of Disenchant effects, which definitely make life a lot harder on the Pyromancer, but which can be played around.

Pyromancer’s Ascension is a deck that’s been exploding in popularity due to both the fact that it’s relatively cheap to build and the fact that’s extremely powerful. The most natural way for people to attack the deck seems to be to attack the Pyromancer Ascension itself. This is a strong plan that does set them back a lot, but it’s not the best solution. Note that I’ve seen some people turn to Leyline of Sanctity, which I don’t recommend. Yes, if they’re unprepared, they will flat out lose. However, most of the time they’ll have access to Into the Roil, and finding it once they’ve started going off will be entirely trivial. If you want to resolve a single trump card and win, I recommend Thought Hemorrhage or Telemin Performance. Graveyard hate slows them down, but is only effective if it’s backed by real pressure. Leyline of the Void seems like it would be quite effective (it can get Into the Roiled, but they have to do it before they set up, rather than after, and then they don’t have anything in their graveyard to work with from the early game while they were digging for the Into the Roil). Relic of Progenitus will make things awkward for them, but it can be overwhelmed if they get the right draw. Bojuka Bog can put them back several turns if it’s timed perfectly, but that’s hard. Generally, I’d want to play it the turn after they play an Ascension, but that’s not a hard rule.

UW decks, as I mentioned earlier, were less obvious to me in their weaknesses at first. Apart from the obvious answer of Eldrazi, which Wafo-Tapa’s deck was prepared for with Gather Specimens, the deck looked like it could deal with anything. Since then, the card I’ve been most impressed by against them is Fauna Shaman. It’s cheap and easy to sneak under a counterspell, and it doesn’t need to attack, which would expose it to Condemn, and it doesn’t require the kind of commitment to lose to Day of Judgment, and can often basically win before the UW player has time to play Day of Judgment. All of this is as simple as finding 2-3 Vengevines and then casting two creatures. Summoning Trap is also huge against them, particularly if it’s finding Primeval Titan, which in turns finds two man lands. Day of Judgment won’t save them, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to find solutions to the free extra mana and attackers in time. Outside of Green, decks that don’t really give them anything to react to and/or blank a large portion of their cards like all Howling Mine decks are still very effective against them. Playing Wafo-Tapa’s deck against Runeflare Trap felt like an absolute nightmare.

Turboland used to be a great way to beat UW, but additional countermagic makes the matchup much closer. However, tools like Summoning Trap almost certainly allow the Turboland deck to regain that edge if it chooses.

Mythic is well positioned right now because it outraces the late game decks like Turboland and sometimes Pyromancer’s Ascension, and it can play Fauna Shaman to beat UW, but it’s still vulnerable to having its mana attacked. Cunning Sparkmage and Pyroclasm in particular are often very difficult to recover from, and Day of Judgment can also be a huge hit. Dedicated bullets like Linvala, Keeper of Silence are still very effective, and if a Ramp deck wants to win, all it should have to do is resolve a Destructive Force to end the game. In general, it’s best not to try to do anything complicated against Mythic, since they give you very little time and can have access to just enough countermagic to disrupt a combo. Cheap removal will slow them down enough that any realistic end game should be able to win. Burning them out with Mono-Red counts.

Naya has similarly vulnerable mana creatures, but the deck is a little less weak to having them killed because it’s not trying to cast spells that are as expensive. Instead, its weakness is that it doesn’t kill as quickly or ignore defenses the same way. Obstinate Baloth is a reasonably effective roadblock against Naya, but against Mythic, it’s almost blank. Mass removal is excellent against them, but for the most part, I’d rather take the extra turn or two they give you compared to Mythic and use it to present an overwhelming end game like Mass Polymorph, Martial Coup, or Destructive Force. Often they can have a huge amount of trouble with something like a single Baneslayer Angel, Primeval Titan, or worse yet, Grave Titan. Really, any Titan is likely to get it done. If your plan isn’t just to go a little bit over their range, and is instead to play a long control game, which is extremely effective game 1, be sure to watch out for Manabarbs in game 2, as that can often just end the game on turn 3.

Mono-Red feels like a deck that is always just barely off of most people’s radar, and I think that’s largely because the deck is somewhat inconsistent. Mostly, I think this is because it’s an excellent deck when you have a turn 1 Goblin Guide, but if you don’t, it’s just a little underpowered across the board. Cheap one-for-one answers are the best way to beat Mono-Red. You can ignore a certain number of their spells in the process of stabilizing, and that means you shouldn’t need to work to achieve card advantage if you can find a way to stay alive and run them out of threats. This means that Lightning Bolts and counterspells are excellent against them. If you can back something like that with a big finisher that stops them from killing you, like Obstinate Baloth or Baneslayer Angel, things will get really hard for them. Kor Firewalker or Leyline of Sanctity are available to people who really need something serious to beat Mono-Red, but for a lot of decks, I don’t think you have to go that far. Wall of Denial is also great against them.

Runeflare Trap has become a real deck with the addition of Temple Bell. As with any Howling Mine deck, the best way to beat them is to destroy their Howling Mines. Despite the fact that they have more Howling Mine effects than Pyromancer’s Ascension has Ascensions, I think attacking the Howling Mines here is more valuable because the rest of the deck functions less well on its own. That said, the same cards that attack their library, Telemin Performance and Thought Hemorrhage work just as well here. Beyond that, I’d want to be playing a deck with a lot of cheap threats like Mono-Red, Mythic, or Naya, rather than a deck with expensive spells that you won’t be able to cast more than one of in most turns anyway, or a deck that’s all answers for things other than artifacts. Again, I wouldn’t want to count on Leyline of Sanctity because it’s just too likely to get Into the Roiled as part of their natural game plan. Llanowar Elf seems like one of the best cards you could ask for against them, even if they can just kill it.

Polymorph is essentially a Mono-Blue control deck that wins very suddenly. Given its number of cheap counterspells, I wouldn’t want to try to play a long game against it. Mono-Red is very well positioned, as is something like Mythic, especially if you have an answer to Emrakul like Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Oblivion Ring, so that you don’t have to worry about keeping mana up to respond to Polymorph. Again, cards like Telemin Performance look like they should be effective here, but remember that you need to resolve a five-mana Sorcery for that to work, and that’s just not the plan I want unless I can at least support it with something like Duress. (Duress, incidentally, is a card that deserves more credit above, as it’s excellent against all the strategies that revolve around cheap non-creatures like Howling Mine and Pyromancer Ascension, as well as reasonable against any deck with counterspells, but I don’t think very many decks are in a good position to play it right now other than Jund.) I’d probably rather have Cunning Sparkmage against them than Telemin Performance, if that tells you anything.

Looking through recent Top 8s, I think that basically covers the decks you need to worry about right now. I hope this has given you something to work with on how to approach whatever matchup may be giving you trouble, or whatever deck happens to be dominating your local metagame.

Thanks for reading…