Black Magic – The First Days of Zendikar Standard

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Tuesday, October 13th – The Standard metagame is currently forming thanks to tournaments like the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open. Sam Black looks at the current state of Standard, with reference to last Saturday’s Open in Philadelphia. He suggests that the demise of Blue is greatly overstated, and believes that lifegain is a much maligned resource…

The results from the first large Standard tournament with Zendikar – the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia – are in, and they send a pretty clear message about the format. Seven of the Top 8 decks were Red, and six of them were Black. None of them contained any Blue cards. I’m not prepared to believe that’s just what this format is going to be like. I think this indicates fairly clearly that we are still in the beginning of this season, and people haven’t had a chance to tune new decks. I don’t think the results in two months will look anything like this.

I don’t mean that I think Blue is good now or anything, but a lot more Resounding Thunders were played than I expected, considering how little the card was played even in Block Constructed (is that card really better than Burst Lightning?). Anyway, the point is that the format looks unexplored and narrow at the moment, which means that it’s perfect for breaking.

The best argument for this claim is probably just to look at how few Zendikar cards were actually played. This is typical of a tournament after a new set is out because people don’t know which cards in it are good, but they do know what’s good in the other sets. Cards with obvious potential, like Lotus Cobra, were barely played. I think in Lotus Cobra’s case, the problem is that the card won’t live up to the amazing prerelease hype, but there are definitely Zendikar cards that will see a lot more play in the future.

I haven’t been working on breaking it, given the Pro Tour next weekend, so I’m not going to give you the deck that beats this field. What I am interested in doing is working through what’s going on in this format, and what kinds of things might answer it.

I noticed sometime around Kamigawa block that every good deck always had some way to gain life. Life gain actually seemed like a fairly important component of Magic, even if it was only ever good when it came attached to something more generally useful. In this Top 8 there was a huge amount of direct damage, most of which went to players, and only one of the decks could gain life. Additionally, every deck damaged itself, and none of them could counter a spell. This meant that every game was a race in some ways—the philosophy of fire was always in effect on some level.

It’s interesting to me that this coincides with a Limited format in which life gain feels more important than it ever has before because the creatures are generally great at attacking and pretty bad at blocking. If you want to be able to stay alive to win with late game synergies like allies, you’ll need some Ondu Clerics to live long enough for your other allies to grow. If you want to win by paying a kicker on a game-winning rare or by attacking with giant Green monsters, you’ll probably need a Grazing Gladehart to get to the late game before getting killed by landfall creatures. After a few Zendikar drafts, we started calling the Antelope Grazing Gurevich after a local player who always had a ton of them in his deck. Then it turned out he wasn’t overvaluing them; he just knew something we didn’t. Since then I’ve had discussions about whether a successful control deck is possible in Zendikar Limited without a significant life gain element, and I’m not entirely sure what the answer is.

All the decks in the Top 8 take advantage of the absence of life gain in the format by playing aggressive cards and having some kind of reach. It seems to me like there’s a lot of value to be gained by putting more effort into finding ways to gain life in control decks in this format. I’m a little surprised that the Mono White Control deck in the Top 16 wasn’t interested in gaining 2 life for each plains with Landbind Ritual, even after sideboarding, for example.

I understand that the inherent card advantage of the cascade mechanic is hard to overcome, but it doesn’t seem like it should be as oppressive as these results make it look. For the most part all you’re getting out of it is two creatures in one or a Flametongue Kavu variant, and both of those things should be beatable.

On a different note, I love the RW landfall deck that finished second. Using Kor Skyfisher as a way to hit additional land drops, especially with Teetering Peaks, rather than playing more lands is great, even before taking into account its ability to get additional value out of Goblin Bushwacker and Ranger of Eos. I think the deck should consider Adventuring Gear, but other than that I think it’s much better than the three-color version I suggested last week. I have no idea what I’d want to cut for Adventuring Gear, since all the cards in that deck look very good together, but it’s possible that you may need fewer one-mana creatures and could drop some of the Elite Vanguards or something. The card seems extremely explosive to me.

The Mono Red deck should probably consider Zektar Shrine Expedition, since it looks pretty easy to connect with if they don’t Lightning Bolt it, and their Bolts will already be stretched trying to take care of your Ball Lightnings and Elemental Appeals. Overloading on that effect seems relatively safe once you already have some of them. I guess it’s less consistent because it can be Maelstrom Pulsed, but it still seems efficient enough to try to take advantage of it.

Given the lack out countermagic in the format, one would expect big finishers and non-Blue control decks to be very good. Think decks like Astral Slide and Tooth and Nail, which both started in formats where Blue was very weak. I think Blightning is the only thing keeping decks like this in check—it’s very hard to play lands while keeping enough cards in your hand to not have to discard the big spell, especially if you get hit by more than one Blightning.

Armillary Sphere might end up seeing a lot more constructed play than one might have expected in the past as a way to combat this, even if Kodama’s Reach would have been much better at it. If you can protect it, Jace is another way to avoid being forced to discard a late game spell you’re relying on, which is what leads to the Planeswalker control option.

Similarly, Howling Mine might be good in this format, particularly given how high the average casting cost in Jund is, but you’d need enough life gain not to be burned out by all the Lightning Bolt effects. I’m not exactly sure what one can do with Howling Mine in the format now. There aren’t enough burn spells to want to Howling Mine into Lightning Bolts, Sanity Grinding is gone, but it could be replaced by Archive Trap and Hedron Crab. Any time you could play Archive Trap for free it would actually be a lot better than Sanity Grinding, and Twincasting it is potentially much easier. Without Cryptic Command it seems much harder to stay alive, and without Shelldock Isle there’s less incentive to mill them to begin with.

Empty the Vaults is another approach that might be good now. Countermagic (Cryptic Command) leaving is great for it, it’s good against Blightning, and the Jund deck doesn’t seem fast enough to beat it consistently, but I can imagine it being too slow for the R/W Landfall deck. I’ve never really worked on the deck, but unless I’m forgetting about an essential component that rotated out, it seems like a reasonable answer to this specific metagame.

A White-based Turbo Fog/life gain centric Howling Mine deck also could be reasonable, with a game plan based on gaining life and preventing damage until you had enough plains for Iona backed by Emeria. Perhaps something like:

This deck doesn’t actually have any Fogs, but on further consideration, I think playing Fogs makes the deck rely too heavily on the Howling Mines it has no way to find or protect.

Warp World is the kind of big spell I’d be looking for, but I think it requires too much to go right in terms of not getting hit by discard or a sweeper at the wrong time and drawing the Warp World. Lavaball Trap doesn’t seem game-winning enough. Baneslayer Angel is the kind of expensive card that can win a game that wants to play against a field without countermagic, but Path to Exile and Maelstrom Pulse make her a little too vulnerable to rely on.

I think Cruel Ultimatum will be back soon, since it’s the easiest game-winning spell to set up. It might be more trouble than it’s worth to play more than three-color Ultimatum these days (but I’m not sure it is, 4-5 could be fine), but Grixis Control with Cruel Ultimatum could also be good. I’d like more lifegain, enough that I find myself wishing I could play Ribbons of Night or something, but Cruel Ultimatum can help get you out of range if you can live to cast it. I think the countermagic in this format is also probably still good enough to play, even if it isn’t great, and I think we’ll see a mix of Essence Scatters and Negates in a lot decks in Standard fairly soon. The trick, of course, is that you can’t play it with Cascade, but it’s not that hard for me to imagine in being more important than cascade, and if people keep playing decks with Bituminous Blast and Bloodbraid Elf, Mindbreak Trap starts to look pretty good.

Looking just below the Top 8, it’s interesting to me to see how much play Luminarch Ascension saw in maindecks even in a field where Maelstrom Pulse was heavily played. Apparently the payoff of winning the game almost immediately from almost any realistic game state is good enough to work for. Beyond that, Vampires seems to be a real deck, even if not the deck to beat. It’s worth noting that all of the vampire decks were almost the same, so I assume the lists all came from the same place (they’re pretty similar to the list Patrick Chapin suggested, but still more similar to each other than to that list). It will be interesting to see how similar vampire decks look to that list as the season develops. There are a lot of very reasonable choices for the second removal spell after Tendrils of Corruption, and I’m a little surprised that Disfigure is the best option, but it’s not unbelievable.

Ultimately I would say this tournament has shown us very little of what Standard will look like as it develops, and I still wouldn’t worry about us falling into a format that is barely different from Pro Tour: Honolulu. I also don’t expect the format to be as dominated by creatures as it was at this event, in the long run.

Up next is Pro Tour: Austin, where we’ll get to see how well Dark Depths can make the transition from Legacy to Extended without Living Wish, and whether Yuuya Watanabe is unstoppable in everything these days, or just Limited GPs. I’m hoping, I’ll have some good news to report next week. Wish me luck.

Thanks for reading…