Deconstructing Constructed – Standard In Motion

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Tuesday, March 25th – Right now, Standard on Magic Online, at least as far as 8-mans go, looks to be 90% composed of four specific decks: Faeries, Elves, Red Deck Wins, and U/W Reveillark take up a huge portion of every single one I enter. Perhaps this will change as the high cost of Morningtide cards has dropped down to the normal Magic Online flow, i.e. anything that isn’t utterly ridiculous costs between 1-3 tickets.

Right now, Standard on Magic Online, at least as far as 8-mans go*, looks to be 90% composed of four specific decks: Faeries, Elves, Red Deck Wins, and U/W Reveillark take up a huge portion of every single one I enter. Perhaps this will change as the high cost of Morningtide cards has dropped down to the normal Magic Online flow, i.e. anything that isn’t utterly ridiculous costs between 1-3 tickets. In addition, the two other decks I see when not playing against the top four decks are Mana Ramp and Merfolk. That last entry… I kid you not, I’ve played against a few Merfolk decks. I guess because it’s dirt cheap to build, and Islandwalk takes care of Faeries soundly.

* I would have the PE results as well, but god forbid the replays work for those. One of three things tends to happen whenever I try and run the replays:

1. It takes 5-10 minutes to boot up and randomly appears when I may or may not be doing something else.
2. Magic Online crashes.
3. The replays are disabled.

On that note, has a program in the past five years ever been so non-functional, yet make so much money because there’s absolutely no competition? I mean, you have to really try hard not to fix things like, “The software is too stupid to properly split when a new set comes out,” or the 3rd game replay glitch, or any of a million other small bugs.

I’m willing to venture a guess and say that other than a bit of an upswing in Doran and Rock-esque decks, you’ll generally see the big four as the majority in Standard pretty much everywhere, which means you have a baseline of what to prepare against. However, how much can you really prepare for decks that attack you in such a varied fashion? Well, there are a few commonalities the decks share of which you can take loose advantage.

1. Every deck runs a large compliment of creatures
Okay, so this isn’t entirely true if the Red player you’re facing has strictly stayed with the 12-16 creature principles the Japanese builds followed. That said, even those decks run over 20 men when you take the manlands into account, and since nearly every single deck runs 4 Mutavault, they pretty much need to be. The point is that right now there’s no overly popular deck that contains less than 1/3rd men, and most are closer to forty-ish percent. The other particular thing to note here is many of these creatures are small and weak on their own, and instead mostly rely on the swarm strategy to get the job done. This means cards like Pyroclasm, Sulfurous Blast, both Wrath effects, and Sudden Spoiling get ridiculously good, since people stop playing around them except in the most obvious cases.

Decks like Elves and heavier-creature Red builds have no say in the matter… they absolutely have to play into the hands of opponents or risk getting bottlenecked if they don’t draw a steady stream of threats. Obviously Faeries, with its instant speed offense, can be a bit more picky about what it lays on the board, but if you can get a removal spell through (or Spoiling), you can still ruin a board position from which it’ll take them 2-4 turns to recover. Reveillark isn’t bothered by creature removal or sweepers in the traditional sense; rather, it simply becomes something you can exploit if you have an aggressive enough deck. The fact that they only have a few non-five-drop spells to play defense or remove creatures means a fast assault plus removal is enough to topple them with any fast swarm deck, like RDW, Kithkin, Elves, etc.

What this also means is that a large number of decks are relying on creatures to get the majority of the heavy lifting done damage-wise. This means life-gain like Feudkiller’s Verdict or the Martyr of Sands recursion engine becomes even better in dealing with them, and in fact, if you include ways to beat Reveillark, a heavy White control deck can stomp all over practically any creature-based offense. For example, a simple splash to Blue for card-draw and possibly Black or Green to help deal with ‘Lark and Faeries, and you have a potential anti-metagame deck.

Alternatively, the popular Skred Red strategy could return as a potential option, packing enough sweepers and burn to hold up against Faeries and Elves, while having enough LD and long-game options not to get rolled by Reveillark decks. An early threat and Manabarbs, or some Cryoclasm plus artifact removal just completely rolls that deck up. Or there’s the potential for a splash; Blue offers some interesting choices such as counters and real card draw from Ancestral Vision or Mulldrifter. This archetype is largely overlooked right now, but it seems situated at a prime spot in the current metagame until Mana Ramp returns en masse (if it can, since Faeries and ‘Lark tend to beat it up something awful).

Remember, Red Deck Wins is doing well in part because of this very commonality. People are running tons of small dorks that can be easily burnt away or you can trade with at minimal cost. The same goes for the free blow-out wins you get for running enough land to cast Sulfurous Blast or Martyr of Ashes successfully. Other decks can take advantage of this flaw of non-Vintage decks… they just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

2. Stack control has largely gone away
Right now, hard counters and discard are at a bit on the low side in the current metagame. Oh sure, you’ll see Thoughtseize and Cryptic Command floating around, but it isn’t like the second coming of Rack decks or Pickles. The days of 16-counter decks are over, and as a result it makes non-interactive strategies very difficult to stop as it stands. Even Faeries, my baby deck, has problems stopping decks that are focused on just doing their own thing until they’re ready to win. Dragonstorm-esque storm decks are a major pain to deal with at the moment just because they have so much free rein over when they can cast their various effects. Typically, Blue is only going to be capable of one counter on turn 4 or 5, which leaves the door wide-open for a multi-pronged attack. It doesn’t hurt that Sulfurous Blast now decimates half the field when it resolves, or that casting a Dragonstorm for two is likely to end the game against non-Black decks.

The point I’m trying to make, however, is that any deck that can win around ground combat or set up a situation where it’ll inevitably win that isn’t stopped by a single counter is set-up to take advantage of the gigantic hole in the current metagame. In a sense, Mana Ramp also seeks out this same hole, but at the moment Reveillark just seems to do it better, and if the French builds are any indication, it may be moving more toward the combo sense as well. The idea behind abusing Smokebraider and Greater Gargadon to help the combo out is pretty interesting against non-Red decks, and being on the wrong side of a Smokebraider start can end the game in a real hurry.

This principle is why Faeries enjoys such a natural edge against other decks in the current metagame. Not only does it run four solid catch-all counters in Cryptic Command and four pseudo-counters in Spellstutter Sprite, but it can run up to 12 cards that say ‘counter target spell’ with Rune Snag and efficiently use Thoughtseize as well. Combined with Pestermite and Mistbind Clique to help mess with mana (see below) this creates a flurry of potential mishaps for the opponent’s mana and spell production over the first few turns before they can even play a real game against you.

On that note, Vendilion Clique is a card in Faeries that sees almost no play right now and I expect that to change as the format evolves to become more midrange and especially if combo comes back. Obviously Clique isn’t exactly what you want to see in a mirror involving billions of 1/1 flyers, but in a number of other matches I’ve found the neo-Duress ability to be more useful than Pestermite taps/untaps.

Or if you want an abuse of discard engines, then perhaps Rogues is up your alley. Noggin Whack and Oona’s Blackguard combining with Thoughtseize to form Cripple-tron is a great way to end a game on the play before it ever truly gets started. In fact, a good Rogues hand just dismantles most non-Red decks before they have a chance to do anything relevant that is very reminiscent of old Suicide Black decks with Dark Ritual, Sinkhole, and Hymn to Tourach. Although getting plowed by entire sub-sections of the metagame isn’t all that fun, you do the same to about half the popular decks and can just demolish people on the play with ease.

3. Manabases are very susceptible to disruption
… Yet there’s not a whole lot of good LD to take advantage of it. Anyway, the basic idea is at this point everyone is running just enough lands to successfully function, and in the case of some decks, maybe one or two too few considering they don’t want to miss the first four land drops. Right now Elves, Faeries, and Mono-Red all live and die on curving out successfully. Meanwhile G/R Mana Ramp and Reveillark both want to hit at least the first four lands and preferably some additional acceleration or land search.

Blink Riders may be easily maligned as not having enough focus or being unable to handle an all-out aggro attack, but dealing with Boom/Bust, Avalanche Riders, and Riftwing Cloudskate earlier seems like an awkward situation I rather not have to deal with. This is doubly true knowing that the deck happens to be in the same colors that pack many of the most annoying hosers for both my Red and Faeries decks. Even if you don’t intend to go all-out with land destruction, Mwonvuli Acid-Moss is not something I want to see coming from Mana Ramp if I’m on the draw, and similarly Volcanic Awakening is such an utter beating on slower decks that it’s baffling how nobody likes cards that say ‘one counter does jack against me’ with Lotus Bloom and Rite of Flame still legal.

With cheap burn-proof mana acceleration, Leaf-Crowned Elder to actually gain card advantage and the sheer power of Chameleon Colossus, Cloudthresher, and possibly Tarmogoyf. It wouldn’t be a big shock to see a Mono-Green deck rise again. It features two of the most capable LD spells in the format in Acid-Moss and Creeping Mold (which has gained great secondary targets in Bitterblossom, Obsidian Battle-Axe, and artifact mana), some of the best P/T to cost ratios we’ve seen in a long time and a bunch of cheap ‘crush target Faeries player’ cards in the board. You even have the easy splash into blue if you’d like to gain Aeon Chronicler or Mulldrifter in the cards department, or a different color to gain sweepers to crush Elves.

Obviously this is a bit idealistic, but if you ponder it the general game plan seems to be in place for a big mana deck to succeed that isn’t based on just trying to fight and overpower the opponent on the ground every game.

4. Make sure you wear protection
This is more of an ancillary note than the other three points covered, but it seems like many decks have a fatal flaw against “protection from X” color cards. Chameleon Colossus makes Doran decks fall over and play dead while also punching through one color of the Faeries defenses. Blood Knight has dealt more damage through Aven Riftwatcher than I can remember and is one of the most pleasant ways I’ve had to get by the life-gaining annoyance. Scryb Ranger mocks the non-Bitterblossom Faeries and completely shuts the entire deck’s offense down if coupled with a Pendelhaven or other enhancement. Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender makes such a mockery Red Deck Wins we’re all lucky nobody plays the card, save the occasional Kithkin deck. A one-drop that can block Countryside Crusher all day and counter a burn spell is not my idea of fun.

All of these examples lead to the simple concept that your top tier deck is by and large inflexible. You need to be ready games 2 and 3 with a sideboard that can accommodate seemingly narrow answers against your deck past the obvious mass sweeper effect or Extirpate. A silly Kithkin deck crushed a number of decks I threw at it game 1 simply because my Red decks couldn’t trump Pro-Red dorks along with the typical swarm policy. Faeries had problems, because Bitterblossom could be taken out by Ronom Unicorn and Oblivion Ring, which meant I had to try and fight on a ‘fair’ playing field against better and more combat-worthy creatures. Obviously if you’re a filthy Reveillark player, only the Blood Knight anecdote is noteworthy, but the point remains that the Knight is a card that’s good enough to see maindeck play and blows right by the normal ‘Hah, gotcha!’ plan you use against Red.

Most likely you’ve noticed the dropping of a number of decks that have either fallen out of favor or simply been pushed aside due to lack of updates. I bring these decks up not necessarily as great sleeper decks with which to ruin people, but rather to show that pieces of these decks overall strategies can be taken and adapted. In some cases, such as with Snow Red or U/R I think the overall design is powerful enough to be worth considering and looking into to take advantage of the popularity of certain archetypes. In the case of the possibility of a return of Stupid Green or Blink Riders, the more likely spawn would be a piece of old tech (Avalanche Riders in ‘Lark) that fits into an already successful deck.

Or you could be like me and suddenly think that the new answer to the metagame is Kithkin with a Red splash. I mean you have the best early game aggressive creatures in ground combat, maindeck answers to Bitterblossom, Wrath of God and Sulfurous Blast, and post-board Cryoclasm and Manabarbs to beat up Reveillark. Of course, that still leaves dealing with the Elven hordes… but hey, nothing is perfect.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

PS – Grats to Derek and Dave for Q’ing at the City Champs… nice 2-0 split.