At the SCG Season One Invitational a few weeks ago in Charlotte, I overheard a distressing conversation, and the sheer shortsightedness of it has stuck with me ever since. Two players who will go unnamed were discussing Theros Block Constructed since they are both qualified for the upcoming Block Pro Tour in Atlanta.
Player A: “I really hope they do something about Elspeth, Sun’s Champion before the Pro Tour.”
Player B: “Yeah, it’d be nice if it gets banned the same way Lingering Souls did. It’s in every single deck.”
There are a lot of things wrong with this sentiment, not the least of which is that it is factually incorrect. If you take a moment to browse the results of Theros Block Constructed Daily Events, which for now are essentially the only sources of data about the format, you’ll find a handful of different Elspeth strategies and at least as many non-Elspeth strategies, including notably a B/W deck that could certainly support Elspeth if it wanted but generally chooses not to. These players are not the first and will not be the last to inaccurately assess a metagame, so I’ll give them a pass on that.
More concerning to me is the overarching attitude of defeat, as both players were already concluding that there was no way they could crack the code in time to fight through the sea of Elspeths in Atlanta. Most alarming of all though was the underlying assumption that led them there: that all of the decks were already known and that the intrepid Magic Online grinders had already ciphered out all possible playable configurations and the Pro Tour competitors could only choose one of these available “real decks” and spin the wheel with it.
This is complete nonsense. As a reformed Magic Online grinder myself, you can trust me when I tell you that almost no one makes any attempt to innovate in Block Constructed Daily Events. Patrick Chapin wrote what is probably the most significant Magic article of the modern era a while back about this very phenomenon, but I’ll just cliff note it here. For the average player, it is way higher expected value (EV) to simply look at what other people are playing and use that information to figure out “what’s good” than it is to attempt to figure it out from scratch. Because Block is usually a new environment in which they have no background, players tend to dip their toe in by copying a decklist that already did well in a previous event.
You see this dance play out every time a large fall set is released. Writers and strategists put in a lot of the work figuring out what Standard decks might be good during spoiler season, so Standard Daily Events are firing off from the moment the new set is legal online. In Block however no one has any idea where to start, so it frequently takes two or three weeks before a Block Daily gets the requisite players to actually fire. Once it does players see the results of that event, find a decklist that piques their interest, and slowly start to filter in.
That B/W deck I mentioned earlier? You’ll find several people playing it to 3-1 and 4-0 finishes in Block Daily Events, and every single one of their decklists contains two copies of Springleaf Drum. Doesn’t that seem like a bizarrely specific number? Do you think every B/W player playtested, tinkered, and arrived at the same conclusion that their B/W deck should be built with 23 lands and two copies of Springleaf Drum? Of course not. One player put it together and cashed a Daily with it, and then everyone else copied their list. Now two copies of Springleaf Drum is simply “how B/W is built.” It could be the correct number for all I know, but I guarantee that 90 percent of the people playing the deck today could not tell you why their list plays exactly two copies of Springleaf Drum if you asked them.
Fundamentally this was what I found really disappointing about the above Elspeth conversation. There is no way they could know that “every single deck” contains Elspeth because it takes a dangling carrot like the Pro Tour to get players to actually put in the work to figure out what “every single deck” even is. Furthermore, if the field actually is mono-Elspeth from the outset, isn’t that a fantastic situation for the hungry player? The target is known! Figure out what beats it! You have access to every card in the block, not just the five tier 1 and 2 archetypes currently circulating in Daily Events.
I don’t mean to disparage people who play a known archetype or copy a decklist; it’s a valuable shortcut and as mentioned earlier is often the highest EV choice. But if you’re going to sit around bemoaning your lack of options because none of the known archetypes suit you, you’re only kidding yourself.
Deck Selection Animal Style
One of the simple pleasure highlights of any trip to the West Coast for a tournament is a stop at In-N-Out Burger. For those uninitiated, In-N-Out is a fast food chain with a deceptively simple business model. Whereas most other chains have an expansive menu full of obscure options, the printed menu at In-N-Out is comically sparse. You can order a hamburger, cheeseburger, or double cheeseburger. You can order French fries. You can order a vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry shake. That’s it. There is no hint in the restaurant itself that anything else is available to you.
If you listen to locals placing their orders, however, things get weird. The first customer orders his fries “animal style,” and they arrive smothered in Thousand Island dressing. The lady behind him asks for a “three by three protein style” and receives three slabs of meat and cheese wrapped in lettuce. Her son asks for a “Neapolitan” and is given a milkshake that swirls all three of the possible milkshake flavors together. What’s going on here? None of these things are officially on the menu, but they’re all awesome and are readily available if you know the right thing to say, the right question to ask.
Deck selection works the exact same way. If you’re out of the loop and have a big Standard tournament coming up, you can pull up the results of the most recent Standard Open or Grand Prix and order a deck off of the menu. You can order Sphinx’s Revelation. You can order Master of Waves or Master of Waves with
cheese Detention Sphere. You can order G/R Monsters with or without black sauce, and you can order Underworld Connections plain, with white sauce, or with red seasoning! If any of those options suit you, you’re good to go.
The “secret” menu is absolutely limitless though. If one of the tier 1 decks isn’t exactly what you want to be doing, you can customize your experience by asking the right questions. Maybe like Reid Duke you think that Abrupt Decay is incredibly well-positioned and want to find the best shell to support it. Maybe like Mason Lange you think that one of the tier 1 pillars will be absent and want to build a deck that might have been vulnerable to that one missing deck but can beat up on everything else. These two players thought critically about the metagame, and it took them somewhere new and exciting that paid off.
That’s a great way to build a sweet new deck, but you don’t need a metagame-specific reason to play a deck. Maybe you want to order your deck “Wescoe style” because you always play white aggro or “Aintrazi style” because you love all the colors equally along with nine-drops.
Or maybe plain Mono-Black Devotion is right up your alley. There are plenty of resources available to help you settle on a list and learn to play it, and that could even be your best option! Just don’t be the guy bumming around and whining about how “they should really do something about Standard” because you aren’t happy with any of the archetypes that are already seeing play.
Deviation In Action
I’ve always wanted to write an article about the sweetest Standard brews I’ve ever played because I enjoy reminiscing about cool decks almost as much as I enjoy tooting my own horn. The intent would be to showcase what a little kernel of creativity can do in a known and sometimes “stagnant” Standard environment. I’ve basically never played the “best deck” in Standard, so I’ve got plenty of experience to draw from. I’d love to write that article someday, but for this week I’ll just focus on a few more recent examples of metagamed brews from past Standard formats as case studies.
How did I arrive at this deck? This one was a collaboration with Bobby Graves, a criminally underrated deckbuilder I’ve discussed in previous articles. The Spreading Seas and cascade shell had been previously developed by Gerry Thompson in a deck he called “Spread ‘Em,” which was excellent at disrupting the comically shaky mana bases of the era but had a little trouble closing. Bobby and I hoped to distract our opponents with the land destruction plan and then blindside them with a Polymorph into Iona, Shield of Emeria.
A brief aside on deck names: I’m normally a staunch critic of cutesy inside joke deck names, but this one has always stuck with me. The first time we proxied up the deck and played a game with it, we came to the awkward realization that when you cast an Ardent Plea or Captured Sunlight and start cascading, you invariably reveal conspicuous combo pieces in the process. The first time this happened someone said “well, the jig is up,” and someone else immediately snapped off “the news is out.” We promptly started singing Styx, and somehow the name stuck. I’d be a lot more sheepish about it if the more descriptive alternative of “Polymorph Spread ‘Em” wasn’t already completely ridiculous.
Anyway, Spread ‘Em was already a known fringe deck that preyed on Jund, and we were gearing up for a Standard Open and expected Jund to be wildly overplayed, so this was just a matter of shoring up other problem matchups. Jace mirrors at the time were generally all about mana (and man land) advantage, and we gained a huge edge on that front with the Spreading Seas package to turn off Celestial Colonnade and Tectonic Edge. The other tier 1 deck, Vampires, didn’t care much about the traditional Spread ‘Em shell but unsurprisingly could never beat Iona naming black.
The one blind spot was Knight of the Reliquary decks, which weren’t super popular but had the mana acceleration to get out ahead of our Spreading Seas and thrash us while we were durdling around. Both of us ended up finishing X-2, losing once to a G/W/x deck. We also both beat Jund several times and lost to the eventual winner of the tournament, James Bush, who was playing Jund. Sometimes the best deck is the best deck for a reason.
What was the metagame like? Post-ban Caw-Blade Standard was actually quite healthy. Powered-down U/W aggro-control decks still existed, but they shared space with Primeval Titan, Goblin Guide, Vampire Lacerator, Birthing Pod, and of course Splinter Twin.
How did I arrive at this deck? This one is more subtle, as the maindeck doesn’t look much different from the stock Splinter Twin decks of the era. The only notable difference is Burst Lightning over Flame Slash and an omission of Shrine of Piercing Vision for other spell-based deck manipulation.
The spice here is in the sideboard. I boarded out Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch for every post-board game and became a Pyromancer Ascension control deck. The transformation gimmick wasn’t new; Adam Prosak had made a splash the first week Splinter Twin was legal by playing an Ascension deck that boarded into the Exarch combo. Late in the season this had become common knowledge, and pretty much everyone knew to expect the Twin combo and to keep in Dismember if they saw Pyromancer Ascension in game 1. Many players didn’t even have to adapt their plan at all, as they were bringing in cards like Nature’s Claim and Celestial Purge to answer Ascension anyway and conveniently could also use them on Splinter Twin to break up that combo.
For whatever reason, though, not as many players considered the same swap going the other direction. People would overload on Dismember or Spellskite and bring in Exarch-specific hate cards like Torpor Orb or Combust, and the Ascension into Lightning Bolt plan completely caught them with their pants down. How did I figure this out? I just really wanted to play with Pyromancer Ascension and began the brainstorming process by asking what the best shell was for that card. It turned out the answer was the one that tricked the opponent into playing a bunch of useless creature removal.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 3 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 3 Angel of Serenity
- 3 Prime Speaker Zegana
- 4 Farseek
How did I arrive at this deck? Tomoharu Saito and Gerrard Fabiano had brewed up a shaky looking Master Biomancer deck as a sort of Twitter thought experiment, and a buddy of mine had the deck built at Friday Night Magic. I asked to play it on a whim and didn’t do very well, but I found that while the shell needed a lot of work, the package of Prime Speaker Zegana; Garruk, Caller of Beasts; Thragtusk; and Restoration Angel basically allowed you to draw a new hand every few turns, which gave you the gas necessary to trump other midrange decks. A night’s worth of tinkering shored up the other matchups, and I took the deck to the Classic Series in Louisville the next day and won the whole thing.
Because this deck was the king of Thragtusk mirrors, I only needed to worry about aggro and control and was essentially playing Rock/Paper/Scissors all day—except I was winning every Rock mirror. That’s a bit of an exaggeration since the three archetypes were relatively even against each other, but having one of the three already checked off was certainly a huge edge. No deck with Thragtusk and Restoration Angel was ever going to be too big a dog to red aggro, and I gained a big edge against control simply by being something different that they didn’t have a game plan for. In one of my later rounds, for example, Christian Valenti carefully steered the game to a point where he could gain infinite life with Azorius Charm, Boros Charm, and Boros Reckoner, only to be milled out by Jace, Memory Adept.
Stepping outside of metagame considerations, there was zero chance I was going to play anything other than this deck once I discovered it. It was and still is the most fun I have ever had playing Standard. That wasn’t the only reason I played it, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Some of these decks were good for exactly one tournament, and some of them had a slightly longer shelf life. But they were all decks I’d be happy to play again, and all of them came about by looking at the metagame and asking some questions about where its weak points lie. Can this trick be done in Standard today? Certainly. All you have to do is ask the right questions.
What are the right questions? That’s for you guys to figure out.