Black Magic – Primeval Titan in Standard

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Thursday, July 22nd – Recent Standard results from Japan show that the hype surrounding Primeval Titan is certainly well founded. Today, Sam Black explores the Standard format with the Big Green Monster, and suggests how things could develop in the coming weeks and months.

The first Standard-with-M11 results are in, and they’re largely confirming what I’ve been assuming since it was spoiled: Primeval Titan is going to be a huge force in Standard. The questions are: what does this mean for the format, how it can best be adapted to an advantage, and what are the best strategies to beat it?

Primeval Titan is so powerful because it takes less setup than the other Titans, and it provides an advantage that is more flexible and harder to deal with using a single answer. It’s easy to build a deck with a reasonable toolbox of options for Primeval Titan. A single Mystifying Maze is very powerful, because once you’ve cast Primeval Titan, the mana shouldn’t be too much of an issue. A couple of copies of Tectonic Edges can put an opponent who happened to stumble completely out of the game. Manlands give a resilient threat if you’re just trying to finish the game. These options are obvious, as is Valakut, another reasonable option, or Eldrazi Temples and Eye of Ugin. There are so many different amazing lands in Standard that it’s hard to build a deck that doesn’t do something ridiculous when it plays this guy.

Moreover, he’s Green, which is the color that’s best set up to take advantage of extra lands and an expensive creature. This might actually be the best card in the set against Jund, not Obstinate Baloth. How can you really expect to play a midrange deck that’s trying to grind out a win on incremental card advantage when this guy can just come down and put you so far ahead? The strategies he encourages are all very well suited to beat Jund anyway. He just wants you to play the same kind of thing, but bigger. Sure, you could just put him in Jund, but then you’re a worse Primeval Titan deck than your opponent.

If the format was about Jund, and Jund loses to Primeval Titan, and Primeval Titan is as intrinsically powerful as it is, and the early results have as much of him as they do, I think it’s reasonable to approach the format by looking at how it would be if it was all built around him from the ground up.

First, you’d have your decks that are trying to exploit him. Eldrazi Green with Titan for Temples and Eyes, R/G Valakut, a Destructive Force deck that may or may not also be a Valakut deck, a Garruk deck that might have other planeswalkers and might have any of the other elements, and a Turbo Land deck that tries him out, but may eventually fall back to just not using him, while still operating in a way that is relatively similar strategically. From there, the question is which of these decks beat each other – which is the “real” Primeval Titan deck. I suspect there won’t be room in the format for very many Primeval Titan decks, because they’re all trying to do relatively similar things, and one or two will probably just be better and doing those things than the others.

Others will have to try to beat the Primeval Titan decks. Letting your opponent cast Primeval Titan and going from there seems like a terrible approach. I’d say maybe you could do it if you just wanted to go even bigger, but how do you go bigger than Primeval Titan without getting destroyed by Tectonic Edges? Maybe Turbo Land counts, but again, strategically I think it’s basically a Titan deck. This means you have to either kill them before they can play the Primeval Titan or counter it.

Alternatively, a theoretical answer is discard. I mention this because the Titan decks we’ve see at the moment are often relatively threat light – just a bunch of acceleration, and I wish I could just Thoughtseize their Primeval Titans. Unfortunately, I don’t really like the discard options available to us at the moment, and I’d be afraid of relying too heavily on discard here because their powerful spells are so powerful that they could easily just draw one off the top and win anyway, but it’s POSSIBLE that this will be the angle that opens the format up to Mono Black Control – not that I really want to encourage the people who are always trying to make that work.

The other two options are much more appealing to me.

The most obvious ways to kill them first, based on the format as we know it, are Mono Red and Mythic.

Mono Red might have an interesting Dredge-like relationship with Leyline of Sanctity. You can’t really beat a Leyline, but the card’s existence in the format means no one actually bothers to play it until people demonstrate that they’re actually going to play red even though it might happen to them. Red isn’t as good as Dredge, which works for it, in that it means people are less likely to be scared and put the Leyline in just to be safe, but it obviously works against it in that you’ll lose to some Obstinate Baloths sometimes anyway. I suspect that there will be times when Red is a reasonable choice in this format, and other times when it’s a terrible choice. Personally, I’ll never risk it.

Mythic is a much more appealing option to me. When people devote their entire decks to accelerating out a Titan to get ahead of the other Titans, they’re left with no answers, and you can just kill them before they really do anything with Mythic. Moreover, you can also have options on the plan to just counter the big spell. The option for counterspells is particularly important, because otherwise you’d probably just lose to Destructive Force every time they drew that. Mythic’s ability to play an aggro control/disruption plan against what essentially amounts to other combo decks can be extremely valuable here. The deck can easily play some pressure while the opponent is setting up, and then have mana for Deprive, Flashfreeze, or Mana Leak up by the time the Titan deck is ready to play a big spell.

If no one can play cheap removal spells because they’re blank against ramping into Titans, how can they contain Mythic?

This question is what will lead to the situations where Red is the deck to play. When Mythic is big, and Red isn’t being played, so the sideboards aren’t properly prepared (Let’s not forget that Mythic can easily sideboard an enormous number of hate cards for Red, ranging from Obstinate Baloth to Leyline of Sanctity to Kor Firewalker, Flashfreeze, or any number of other cards), Red could be huge.

When Red takes off, punishing Mythic or forcing them to adapt do beat Red, but while Titans are still good enough against the field to be a major player, that’s when the option to just counter the Titans becomes extremely promising.

Blue/White Control may not be ideally situated to beat Turboland, to put it mildly, but Mana Leak is a significant card, and the acceleration decks that don’t have Jace are a very different opponent. Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge answer Valakut well, and a few counters can easily break up the acceleration into a Titan or Destructive Force plan. If the Primeval Titans end up being used largely as a ramp to Eldrazi, Blue/White becomes much less appealing, since their options to fight Eldrazi are pretty limited.

It’s important to remember though, that Blue/White is not the only deck that can play Mana Leak and try to counter these high end mid-range style cards. Esper looks pretty similar, but Esper Charm on discard can be devastating to these strategies, and Grixis could easily be a real deck.

I’ve seen Grixis described as a bad Jund deck, and I can certainly see that point, but when counterspells are the best removal spells, there becomes a very strong incentive to play Blue instead of Green. Grixis’s top end of Cruel Ultimatum is very good, but sometimes the board is too crowded, and you’re under too much pressure at that just won’t do enough to stabilize things. Those situations are often the exact situations where Grave Titan would do exactly what you need, and that’s another huge boon for Grixis. Specifically, I’d been disappointed by Cruel Ultimatum’s performance against Jund, but Grave Titan is excellent against them. The mirror has already shown that Jund often has trouble dealing with a 6/6 Black creature in the form of Abyssal Persecutor, but when you throw in 2 extra bodies just in case they have the Maelstrom Pulse, things can start to look pretty grim for them.

You may notice that the format I’m describing is very different from the last time I described Standard. It’s not about four-mana spells. Primeval Titan is a card that’s powerful enough to go over most four-mana spells, which is something that I mentioned didn’t really exist before. He’s potentially the perfect amount bigger than 4 to push people back down to cheap spells to deal with him.

Elspeth, Jace, and Vengevine are still powerful cards, but I can imagine them being in play without being the entire show. Elspeth does nothing to hold off a Primeval Titan, it has to race, and if Primeval Titan grabbed a Mystifying Maze, Elsepth won’t be all that useful at doing that. Vengevine can potentially just not be big or fast enough to matter. What’s the point of being immune to removal if no one’s trying to kill you? And Jace is good, but it doesn’t really match Primeval Titan in card advantage.

Basically, decks like Next Level Bant just don’t seem to have a place in the metagame I’m imagining here. Your cards need to do something; just grinding out a small advantage and beating removal isn’t nearly enough, which is too bad. I like cards that don’t do anything.

The last elephant in the room, to my way of seeing the format, is Fauna Shaman, an awesome card that has already shown some of its potential in the first PTQs. This card does the exact opposite of what Next Level Bant does, potentially in a shell that looks very similar on the surface. It’s a card that’s extremely powerful if it hangs around, but vulnerable to removal. I’m assuming, without having much experience with Fauna Shaman, that it functions essentially as an alternative to Lotus Cobra and the rest of Mythic. It wins the game if its early creatures aren’t dealt with in a timely fashion, along a slightly different axis, but I think strategically and archetypically it’s very similar to Mythic. It’s well positioned to take advantage of a format without a lot of cheap removal, and it’s interesting because it’s often with Vengevine, which is good against decks with a lot of removal. This can make trying to beat it hard, since neither removal nor non-removal works.

The problem it faces is that it’s less explosive than Mythic. It doesn’t try to instantly kill the opponent with the creature that lives, it tries to build up an insurmountable advantage. This is a problem because I think Primeval Titan can overcome that advantage. My inclination is to assume that Fauna Shaman decks are building to an endgame that is trumped by the other end game decks.

This is not to say that they don’t have a place in the metagame. I think Fauna Shaman is probably the best way to beat the decks that are trying to counter the big spells. While those decks are busy cycling their Spreading Seas to hit their next land drop and get set up, you’re sneaking a threat that will win the game into play, and they won’t have enough answer to it, since removal is so weak in most other places. Day of Judgment may come at the perfect time to save them from the offense Mythic is mounting, but a few Fauna Shaman activations can easily put you in a position to shrug off a Day of Judgment.

Also, Fauna Shaman has a lot of range, and combining it with Primeval Titan is in no way out of the question. It is definitely possible to build a Fauna Shaman deck to have a sufficiently powerful endgame, but I’m not sure that that will help compete with other decks that are just accelerating to that endgame instead.

The conclusion is that I don’t think M11 will break the healthy, diverse Standard format we had. I think it shifts the balance and changes a lot of the modes of interacting, but I think we’ll continue to see at least as wide a range of decks at play. The pool of cards may not be changing by a huge percentage, but I think M11 will bring a dramatic shift in what the format is really about.

It’s a great time to be a deckbuilder. Trying to figure out new ways to use and attack these up and coming cards will certainly be pivotal as Nationals and the end of the PTQ season approach.

Thanks for reading.

Sam Black