Born Again Standard

In this week’s article, Brian shares his thoughts about what happened in the new Standard format last weekend. Take a look before your next tournament!

Last weekend marked the debut of Born of the Gods on the competitive stage. The biggest event was the SCG Standard Open in Nashville, but across the country in Seattle the first Sunday Super Series Championship went down at Wizards of the Coast headquarters. While the latter was a small event and wasn’t entirely Standard, it did feature a number of big names, most notably finalists Owen Turtenwald and Makihito Mihara.

So after one week of results, what does Born of the Gods Standard look like? A lot like Theros Standard, it turns out. #SCGNASH winner Eric Gray played a deck that was 100% legal a month ago.

One of the almost universal truths of Magic is that the period immediately following a new set release is a good time to play a streamlined aggressive deck. Time and time again people show up to tournaments right after a new set comes out playing untuned and inconsistent decks featuring fancy new cards. Building and tuning a deck takes time, and that time is magnified when complicated mana bases and the like are involved.

Literally every card in Eric’s deck could have been played at the last Standard Open prior to the release of Born of the Gods. This is a classic example of not messing with a good thing. One of the most common mistakes a lot of players make is changing cards in successful decks simply for the sake of playing something different or new.

While I’m the last person to criticize card choices out of the norm, the important thing is knowing why you’re making changes. Players frequently ask me, “What do you think about card X in this deck?” without suggesting what to replace and why or talk about their “version” of a deck that has some unusual and frequently not very well thought out card choices. If your goal is to win a tournament, you should have a reason for every change you make to a deck, and that reason shouldn’t be just because you want to play with something new. Especially in the early days of a format, players don’t do that. Eric Gray took advantage of these bad habits and piloted the tried and true Mono-Blue Devotion to a trophy.

At the same time a similar story was unfolding across the country in Seattle. There is no more tried and true deck for Owen Turtenwald than Mono-Black Devotion. While Owen’s actual finals win came over Hall of Fame hopeful Makihito Mihara in Modern Masters Draft, half of the Swiss rounds were Standard, and Owen is certainly someone who spent time thinking about the changes he made to his decklist:

Not a lot of changes here and certainly nothing terribly unexpected. In fact, Owen’s list is pretty much card for card what many players suggested Mono-Black Devotion would look like moving forward. The big change is Bile Blight, which is certainly an upgrade from the two copies of Pharika’s Cure it replaces entirely and more reliable than the two copies of Devour Flesh it squeezes out of the maindeck. Other than that the only Born of the Gods cards to make their way into the deck is the pair of Drown in Sorrows in the sideboard, which helps shore up the deck’s chances against aggressive decks.

The biggest difference in how Mono-Black’s games play out now is in the mirror match. While previously the optimal play in virtually every situation was to play Pack Rat and activate its ability at every opportunity, the introduction of Bile Blight makes that a much riskier strategy. Rather than games being decided simply by who can untap with a Pack Rat first, they are now much more likely to go to whoever can win the Underworld Connections fight. That said, Pack Rat remains an absolute monster against other decks, so despite its reduced effectiveness in the mirror it’s unlikely to be going anywhere any time soon.

The fact that these two decks were so successful with so few changes certainly shouldn’t come as a shock. Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion were two of the three consensus top decks in the format prior to the new set. While they certainly differ in their specific approach, they’re both powerful and proactive strategies.

The third “best” deck toward the end of Theros Standard was U/W Control, which did not have the same strength of showing in the first week Born of the Gods was legal. Reactive decks are much more sensitive to the metagame than proactive ones, and the success of U/W Control later in Theros Standard was very much a result of the appropriate tuning against a well-defined field. When things majorly shift, such as with the release of a new set, it’s harder to position a control deck effectively for success.

Then again, if the champions of last weekend’s events are any example, things didn’t really change that much, did they? You have to dig a bit deeper to find decks that are significantly different from what we saw in the last Standard season, but they’re there. One list I find particularly interesting was played by Makihito Mihara:

Esper Humans came out of the Japanese Grand Prix scene toward the end of last season, but it never really caught on or had a ton of success outside of its breakout event. Mihara’s deck clearly looks to change that, as it features many of the same elements of the original deck alongside a number of powerful new cards from Born of the Gods.

Mihara moves away from the Xathrid Necromancer build to branch out a bit in his creature types and replaces the ousted three-drop with a new ruler: Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Brimaz was the most hyped card in the new set, and he has a powerful supporting cast here. Soldier of the Pantheon and Precinct Captain let this deck get out to some fast starts and can notably sacrifice themselves for their new regent if Devour Flesh comes calling. Both Brimaz and the Captain can generate armies and win games by themselves if left unchecked, and as such they both have excellent synergy with Spear of Heliod.

The card that really excites me in this deck however is Ephara, God of the Polis. As we’ve learned from their Theros incarnations, the abilities that a God has when their devotion threshold isn’t hit is what really makes them worth their slot in a deck. Sure, it’s great when you’re able to attack with Purphoros or Erebos, but you’re really keeping them around to get value out of their abilities—the rest is just gravy.

Ephara’s ability is one of the best around. One of the biggest dangers a creature deck faces in the current Standard format is running out of gas against opposing removal. As a mechanic, devotion encourages players to deploy a lot of permanents to the board and similarly gives players an incentive to play lots of cards that can kill those creatures. It’s no surprise that a pile of black removal and card drawing is an effective deck in such a world! Ephara however means that your opponent can’t simply trade one for one with your creatures and pull ahead with Underworld Connections or wipe your board with Supreme Verdict and leave you with no way to recover.

With Ephara in play, your opponent is the one playing catchup. Every time you play a creature and your opponent kills it with a removal spell, you’re up a card. And if they run out of removal and you’re able to keep a bunch of creatures in play? Well, Ephara gets to clock them in the head for six damage. And if you have some way to generate creatures on your opponent’s turn, like the divine tag team of Heliod, God of the Sun that shows up in Mihara’s deck, your opponent is in some serious trouble.

I also really like the fact that this deck gets to play with some pretty great removal spells. Detention Sphere is an extremely powerful catchall answer that happens to match up very well against the annoying Pack Rat, though it is unfortunately not a great way to keep your opponent from Sphereing your own key permanents like Ephara. It isn’t particularly efficient, but it happens to count for devotion for Ephara as well, which is a pretty nice perk against decks that don’t have a good way to remove either of them.

Speaking of which, have we gotten to the point where decks should be playing maindeck enchantment removal? A few copies of the newly reprinted Revoke Existence showed up in U/W and Esper builds last weekend, which seems like it might be a good idea given the proliferation of Underworld Connections, Detention Spheres, Bident of Thassas, and Gods in the format. I really liked Golgari Charm as a maindeck card in my G/B Midrange deck in the last format, and one of the most common modes I used on it was to destroy an enchantment. Unravel the Aether is a less versatile but more powerful option that’s now available if that’s the effect you’re in the market for. #SCGNASH finalist Kent Ketter found room for the second coming of Deglamer in his G/R Monsters deck, albeit in his sideboard:

This list is remarkably similar to the one I suggested in my article a few weeks ago, and I’m glad to see that Kent was able to find success with it. As I mentioned then, Courser of Kruphix is perhaps the most compelling card to me in the new set for its ability to provide value and information, not to mention some extra life here and there. Kent chose to run both the full set of Domri Rade and a singleton Chandra, Pyromaster to take advantage of the Courser’s ability to see the top of his deck. He even played an additional land compared to most G/R decks, which helps to marginally improve the value of Courser, and it’s an off-color scry land no less for that little extra bit of manipulation and value. Sometimes it’s the little things.

I’m a little sad but not surprised to see only a single copy of Xenagos, God of Revels in here. Xenagos is certainly powerful, but a five-mana card that only immediately impacts the board if you already have a significant board presence is tough to play, particularly in multiples. The saddest part about Xenagos to me is that you can’t use his passive ability to target himself to give him haste if you happen to have a big board presence when you play him.

Thassa can make herself untargetable—why can’t Xenagos go aggro right away if you have seven devotion the turn you play him? What’s twelve power’s worth of indestructible haste damage between friends? Okay, maybe that would be a bit over the top, but it’s still a bit silly that the blue god not only costs less than all of the rest but also has perhaps the best abilities of the bunch.

All told, Born of the Gods hasn’t really done much to change the landscape of Standard just yet. Granted, it’s still the first week so people are likely still collecting the cards they need on top of tuning the decks they want to play, but so far the outlook seems somewhat bleak for any kind of major shift. I’m definitely hoping to see some sweet Brimaz/Ephara decks pop up—I really like the look of Mihara’s deck overall, and it seems like it has the tools to compete with the top dogs.

Mostly I’m just hoping I can find an excuse to play Brimaz in a tournament so I can sing along to the Lion King soundtrack each round though.

What do you think? Will Born of the Gods have a bigger impact on Standard than we’ve seen so far? What cards do you think are waiting to break out and change the face of the format?