Deep Analysis – Scratching in Standard

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Thursday, September 11th – With a Limited PTQ season looming large, it’s time for those players with a purely Constructed bent to retreat into their shells and cook up some sixty-card excitement. Continuing his promise to pilot the tricky and interactive, Richard dissects the more troublesome strategies in Standard in the first of what should prove to be an entertaining series.

Ah, Limited season. Time to go play Standard!

Although in a Constructed PTQ season I will happily run with the top deck if I think it’s the best choice, when Limited season rolls around (off-season for me; I haven’t been to a Limited PTQ in years), I approach Standard with a desire to challenge myself as a deckbuilder. I don’t want to just play the top deck, or play it and modify it, I want to invent something Standard has not seen yet.

I do this for two reasons. One is that I always learn a lot from doing this, but don’t really have time to scratch-build when an actual PTQ season is in progress. (As a matter of fact, Adrian Sullivan just lamented the perils of the new-deck gambit last week.) Don’t get me wrong, I do not inherently hold anything against scratch-building for tournaments – I have, in fact, made Grand Prix prize money doing exactly that – but it’s a big risk. You can put in a ton of time on a deck and end up with something that is barely Tier 2 by the time Registration starts for the tournament.

If you care about winning, you’ve got to be really sure before you walk down that path. Granted, some people will insist upon it on principle, and will scratch-build for every tournament simply for the love of forging their own weapons from molten iron. I get that; I share that love, even if I don’t always act on it. For my money, there’s nothing more rewarding than scratch-building for the Pro Tour (and collaborating with others who are doing the same), and I’ll play whatever it takes in a Qualifier season to get me back there again.

The other reason I insist upon inventing something new each Standard season is, well, you guys. Many of you who are reading articles about Standard right now are playing in local tournaments like FNMs where the stakes are lower, so you can just exhale and play something competitive yet fun, even if it doesn’t squeeze out every last drop of expected tournament result for you. I’m sure you would prefer if I wrote about something new rather than presenting yet another take on Five-Color Control. Others of you are avid Constructed PTQers in search of insights that will apply when Blue Envelopes are on the line, meaning “here’s why you should play the top deck” is not exactly valuable information.

So let’s get to Standard. The first thing I want to get into is five-color.

No, not Five-Color Control – just the simple concept of playing five colors. I literally cannot think of a Standard format where it was easier to play five colors through lands alone – without relying on Green or artifact mana fixing. These days we’re seeing five-color decks playing Wall of Roots over color-fixing accelerants because they flat-out don’t need help with their colors. Between the Vivid lands, Reflecting Pool, the Tenth Edition painlands, and the various Lorwyn tribal lands, you can get away with color-mixing murder in this format.

Even without the benefit of Tenth painlands, I just got done playing a Block deck featuring UUU, BB, GG, and W costs in the same 25-land deck with no mana fixing or card draw (besides Cryptic Command). That said, if you can make a four-color manabase, you can almost certainly make five colors work if you’d like access to something from the final color, because it generally takes Vivids and Reflecting Pool to make four colors work. In other words, if you’re going for more than three or so colors, you might as well give yourself access to the full five.

So why not play a five-color deck? There are three big reasons.

1) Speed. You really can’t play five-color without a number of Vivids and Tribal cards, which imply that a decent chunk of your lands will come into play tapped. That in turn implies a slower deck, which gives you a deficit from the outset coming into a format featuring several beatdown decks and two different combo decks.
2) Manlands. With access to four flavors of playable manlands (some better than others, but all potentially playable except for the Black and White ones), it’s a big deal to choose a manabase that does nothing but tap for mana when so many others are playing lands that pull double-duty.
3) Magus of the Moon. Playing five colors in a format with a successful Red Magus of the Moon deck around implies that you are either playing Slaughter Pact or putting your neck on the chopping block.

So if you play five-color, you are signing up for a slower manabase, almost certainly zero manlands, and vulnerability to Magus of the Moon. On the other hand, you’re opening up all sorts of exciting doors for yourself.

Then there’s the attack vector. As I understand it, the most successful decks in the format (some more so than others) are Faeries, Merfolk, Mono-Red, Elves, Swans, Reveillark, and Five-Color Control.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach scratch-building: “I’m going to attack decks X and Y with a new approach and try to make it beat deck Z along the way” and “I’m going to try a crazy new strategy that seems potentially broken and see if it’s any good.”

My most successful collaborations with Zac Hill have been a mix of these two; Zac will say something like “I really want to play Chalice of the Void in this environment,” something that will not have occurred to me, and I’ll frame that premise into a list that attacks certain specific top decks. Then we refine that frame together and end up with something that is (when it succeeds) both strong against the top deck and powerful against the environment as a whole.

This has become my approach of choice for scratch-building decks, but alas, inspiration is not a faucet I can turn on at will. I’ll send Zac a Facebook message try to think of something saucy in the next few days.

I do know that I want to extend my requirement from the Block season that I play something tricky and interactive. If I (or Zac and I) come up with something that wouldn’t be playing Cryptic Command, I’m going to first ask “why not?” and – assuming I’m okay with the resulting answer – will then settle for nothing less than numerous lesser tricky cards to make up for the loss of Cryptic.

That might be tougher in Standard, as many of the best cards unique to Standard (compared to Block) are very straightforward. Tarmogoyf, Ancestral Vision, and Terror, are all fairly blunt instruments, though Rune Snag is more up my alley. I might try a Counter-Elves update for Standard as a starting point, but I admit I’m not sure if I could get the numbers to work out the way I’d like.

Finally, for my usual PTQ readers, I want to examine some of the major differences I observe when transitioning from Block to Standard.

First is Ancestral Vision. This is a huge deal if for no other reason than that Faeries has it in Standard and didn’t in Block. You have to remember that Standard Faeries is not a deck you can expect to outlast on card advantage as long as you Disenchant their precious Bitterblososms. Racing is now the default option – unless you can deal with both the Blossoms and the Ancestrals – and just because Faeries did not make Top 8 in Copenhagen does not mean people have miraculously stopped playing it.

Second is Magus of the Moon. I’ve already covered him plenty earlier in the article, but his presence bears repeating.

Third is combo. Swans may have stolen the show at certain Nationals, but Reveillark continues to put up top finishes. Fortunately, both decks are reliant on the graveyard to win, but unfortunately, their respective suites of supporting cards are very different. While Swans has more disruptive elements, Lark has a legitimate Plan B that means it poses a legitimate threat without executing its graveyard-based combo at all. I didn’t list Zur as one of the format’s most successful decks (sorry, Enchanter fans), but it is out there as well, and operates altogether independently of its graveyard.

Fourth are the bonus cards that are not Ancestral Vision. Though many archetypes exist simultaneously in Block and Standard (Demigod Red, Faeries, Merfolk, Five Color Control), each of them has additional powerups in Standard. Red has Skred over Tarfire, Incinerate over Lash Out, Magi of the Scroll and of the Moon, Blood Knight, and Keldon Megaliths. Tarmogoyf and Rune Snag are in this format, and Merfolk have Lord of Atlantis. Five-Color has Condemn, Mystical Teachings, Careful Consideration, Wall of Roots, and Slaughter Pact. Watch out for all of these, and then some.

I’m sorry that (by necessity) much of this article was not all that helpful for those of you already immersed in Standard, but I know whenever I’ve transitioned from the current PTQ format to Standard, I’ve always wished someone would give me a quick refresher on what has been happening since I stopped following it. I hope those of you in that spot found that part of the article helpful, and I hope that if I missed anything important, you’ll chime in on the forums and tell me what it was!

Next week: the deck.

See you then…

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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