Evolution Or Death

Find out how you should be preparing for Standard at SCG Open Series: Charlotte featuring the Invitational from 2012 Florida State Champion Mark Nestico!


"Humanity is now faced with a stark choice: evolve or die . . . If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up recreating the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction." –Eckhart Tolle

One of my favorite theories in Magic is that of a constantly evolving format and how those who are ahead of the curve are rewarded while those stuck on last week’s tech are left in the dust. Occasionally there are exceptions to the rule, but the ever since Theros joined Standard it’s felt like things have been in a constant state of shifting and evolution.

Get used to that word today: evolution.

For those of you competing this weekend at SCG Open Series: Charlotte featuring the Invitational, you are tasked with the nearly impossible duty of anticipating what the metagame will look like, and believe me, your tournament life depends on it. The same rules apply all the way from the top to the bottom, even at something as innocuous as FNM.

In order to see where we need to go, we need to see where we’ve been.

This is where things get tricky.

Luckily, I’m here to help you navigate the maze in order to aid you with what deck you’re picking up this weekend.

Since Theros came out, a hierarchy has been established, with Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion at the top of the heap along with U/W/x Control as the best decks in the format.

We’ll start with Mono-Black Devotion, as it’s the most recognizable deck to come out of Standard and in the eyes of many players is among the most powerful things you can be doing.

When this deck burst on the scene in the hands of Kentarou Yamamoto, it was almost scoffed at as a one-hit wonder. Pack Rat? Is that card even real? Gray Merchant of Asphodel? He’s too expensive!

What started as a joke slowly rippled into a powerhouse. Pack Rat was outclassing everything while backed by multi-format fun police all-star Thoughtseize. When backed by removal, Desecration Demon was putting a clock on people as early as turn 4. Gray Merchant of Asphodel, the little draft trash that could, was doing a damn good imitation of Corrupt and proving that size and cost aren’t everything.

When the wins started mounting, it became clear that we had an all-star deck that was going to be around for a long while, and so it came to pass. Eventually the deck sported the full set of Pack Rat, streamlined more, and became this monster.

Owen Turtenwald took this deck and made it his, crushing every event he played in and even demolishing Grand Prix Albuquerque with it. Owen’s approach was simple: do more with less. Notice the amount of four-ofs in the deck? His matches could be won with stinging consistency because every game was scripted from what to board out to what to cast when due to the sheer amount of undeviating cards he chose to play.

This set the stage for almost all Mono-Black Devotion decks going forward until people started to get sick of Pack Rat and its shenanigans. Decks started to pack more hate for the black menace, and it eventually had to do what? Evolve.

B/W Midrange was a great deck from Pro Tour Theros piloted by the likes of Paul Rietzl, but the approach he took quickly became outdated and faded away. Months later B/W Midrange decks started to pop up all over Magic Online, and players immediately took notice.

What card beats Mono-Black Devotion if it goes unchecked? Blood Baron of Vizkopa!

Hey, why don’t we just play Blood Baron? We already play Temple of Silence, right? Then we get white cards too. Last Breath takes care of Master of Waves as well. All upside, baby!

And so it was that Mono-Black Devotion had to contend with a version of itself that was meant to prey on the old decks that refused to grow along with the rest of the format, but the growth process didn’t stop there.

Eric is a deckbuilder that I always keep an eye on because he’s brilliant at working on existing strategies and making them better, and this deck shows a lot of power with cards people seemingly forgot about.

Rakdos’s Return? Remember that guy? From staple in Return to Ravnica Standard to sideboard fare in Theros, Eric identified the growing number of Esper Control decks out there and locked onto them with a bullet in maindeck Rakdos’s Return, supplemented by four copies Thoughtseize as well as Duress in the board and even more Returns.

Dreadbore is insane right now. It’s another card that people kind of cast off when the format changed that has only been adopted by Jund Monsters.

Drown in Sorrow is back! As a card people lamented when it was revealed but have since put on the backburner, Eric can blow people out with this mini-sweeper that comes with scry attached to it.

Slaughter Games and Sire of Insanity? Is this Mark Nestico Christmas? My fingers are shaking as I type this because my inner Jund player is just dancing in the streets. Two of my favorite cards from last year are back to make control players miserable, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them since this deck put Eric in thirteenth and his teammate David Ochoa in fortieth at Grand Prix Cincinnati. Quite impressive.

Keep in mind that no Mono-Black Devotion deck cracked the Top 8 of Cincinnati or SCG Standard Open: Los Angeles but multiple B/W Midrange decks did. Food for thought.

Next we have very reliable standby Mono-Blue Devotion, a deck that I am very fond of. Breaking out at Pro Tour Theros the same way Mono-Black Devotion did, this deck featuring Master of Waves has had a lot of pieces remain in place simply because of the way devotion works, powering big Masters and turning on Thassa, God of the Sea.

Shortly after conception, the deck dropped Omenspeaker in favor of cards like Rapid Hybridization; more Bident of Thassa; and sometimes more Jace, Architect of Thought or Domestication.

The deck remained the same for a very long time, continuing to win without ever really changing much.

Temple of Enlightenment changed all that.

Every now and then a new color found its way into the deck, but white always seemed like a great match for Mono-Blue Devotion. Detention Sphere is a great answer to anything problematic for the deck, and new deity Ephara, God of the Polis adds the element of consistent card draw to it. Temple of Enlightenment is a way to filter unneeded cards to the bottom while also fixing your colors.

All the new pieces began to unfold what’s now known as U/W Devotion.

While this deck isn’t necessarily better than just straight Mono-Blue Devotion, it has nonetheless become a pillar of the metagame and must be accounted for.

What’s another deck that was hot on the radar after Pro Tour Theros? Look to none other than SCG Premium provider and lifetime Grand Prix Top 8er Brad Nelson with his G/R Monsters deck.

Builds of G/R today feature a very similar approach to the groundwork Brad laid at everyone’s feet. You play big creatures and planeswalkers and kill your opponent before the game ever goes late. This strategy worked very well for months, and the deck continued to have tournament success until this pretty little devil opened up some new doors:

Domri Rade just #&[email protected] his pants.

Together these two cards ushered in a new age for G/R Monsters, giving the deck more manipulation to always have Domri hit, not to mention that a 2/4 body for only three mana that gains one life for every land you play isn’t insignificant at all, especially in a deck that features Elvish Mystic.

However, G/R Monsters painted a target on its forehead, and adaptations were forced.

Cedric Phillips broke out Jund Monsters, and the deck has been putting up numbers ever since. Two Jund Monsters decks even cracked the Top 8 of #SCGLA this past weekend.

Brian Phelan’s build is a great example of what a black splash can do for you, providing great removal tools like Ultimate Price, Dreadbore, Golgari Charm, Vraska the Unseen, and Rakdos’s Return to eliminate your opponent’s hand. The splash comes at very little cost, as Blood Crypts replace Mountains, Overgrown Tombs replace Forests, and Temple of Malice is a red and black source on top of being another scry land to work with Domri Rade and Courser of Kruphix. All of these tools enable this deck to attack from multiple angles, from being aggressive early all the way to the late game with Return.

While G/R still shares the spotlight with Jund Monsters, it has been the evolution of this archetype that spawned an entirely different life form.

Next up are the U/W/x decks that have maintained the dominance of Sphinx’s Revelation. The premise is extremely simple yet difficult to execute at times. You seek to control every aspect of the game and use your powerful haymakers late in the game to beat your opponent. Your big cards are better than everyone else’s big cards, and Sphinx’s Revelation does its best to make sure you see as much of your deck as possible.

One of the earlier versions of this deck that I feel encompasses it the best is the one created by William Jensen, which I played to a 3-1 record in the Standard portion of the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas as well as ninth place the following day in the Standard Open.

All credit to Huey for this deck because it showcases the sheer strength of reoccurring Sphinx’s Revelation, Supreme Verdict, Divination, and all your planeswalkers with Elixir of Immortality.

Elixir was a hedge against all the Mono-Black Devotion decks out there causing you to discard your best cards. What can be done about that? Shuffle them back into your library and draw them again with Divination of course!

The deck excelled at beating Mono-Blue Devotion unlike anything else in the format and never seemed to have any trouble against anything except multiple discard spells—and even those could be overcome.

Eventually, though, decks like G/R Monsters with their abundance of planeswalkers and B/W Midrange with cards like Glare of Heresy for Detention Sphere started to put the brakes on just being U/W Control.

It was slow at first. U/W decks began adopting Doom Blade and Dark Betrayal off the splash they were already afforded by both Temple of Silence and Temple of Deceit, and then the addition of Temple of Enlightenment meant cutting the Guildgates for more of the already extremely important scry lands. So not only could you splash black far more effectively than before with Esper decks, but the tools you get from being Esper could help you devastate the format.

Jason Janasiewicz (nice last name, dude—I almost just decided to call you "the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem") along with Kyle Boggemes both took home trophies battling with rather similar versions of Esper this past weekend.

Proclaimed by Nelson as "the best deck in the format," Esper Control does everything that U/W Control used to do, only it does it better and with the insane additions that cards like Thoughtseize; Blood Baron of Vizkopa; Sin Collector; or even Obzedat, Ghost Council can add to your deck with incredible consistency. That’s the other word I should have warned you about: consistency.

Esper has now positioned itself as the best control deck in the format without question. I’ve been taking it through the paces online this week, and the games play out very much how you’d expect them to—drawing a ton of cards, killing everything, and winning with Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Aetherling. I can say that the deck has made me a lot of tickets this week. This isn’t the flash in the pan Esper anymore that wins an event and then quickly disappears.

This deck is officially in my humblest of opinions the new public enemy number one.

So how do you beat it?

If you’re planning on gaming this weekend, you have to be ready for these decks.

While other decks out there like Naya Hexproof, Mono-Black Aggro, R/W Burn, and G/B Dredge (congrats, Ari!) are showing up at tournaments and putting up great finishes, the decks I talked about earlier in this article are the most egregious offenders and must be accounted for.

What are they going to do to stay ahead of the curve?

Usually the argument "if you don’t know what to play, play the best deck" is applicable, but in this case things are mutating at such a high rate that what won this weekend might be entirely obsolete next week.

What should you expect?

First and foremost, I believe R/W Burn is going to make a surge in numbers due to boasting a very positive win percentage against Esper Control and Mono-Black Devotion variants. The Invitational is a smaller tournament, and in these circumstances players are able to plan for a more constricted metagame. A lot of people are going to pick up decks like Esper because they reward playskill and do some insanely strong things across the game. The same rule applies for black-based decks.

If I were trying to anticipate a field, I would certainly come with R/W Burn in tow.

Ari Lax’s G/B Dredge deck is another great option, as Shadowborn Demon is outrageous against the G/R and Jund Monster decks while also having a lot of applications against Mono-Blue Devotion. Whip of Erebos is another card that format feels soft to right now, and sometimes you just Fireball someone for a million by flinging a Nighthowler at them with Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord.

What would I play?

I’ve been pretty adamant that if you’re playing in this Invitational, you should be playing Esper Control with modifications to beat the mirror match. Unfortunately, since a lot of my group will be playing this deck, I can’t share all of the technology with you right now, but a few cards I am very high on at the moment are:

Jace, Memory Adept has slipped a lot in popularity recently, but I’ve been experiencing amazing results with him, winning a whopping 80% of my online mirror matches with him being a huge factor in why. While a resolved Aetherling is often game over, a Memory Adept in play with you untapping feels unbeatable a lot of the time, as milling your opponent makes their copies of Sphinx’s Revelation worse and gives you a huge edge in the long game. I would absolutely play one copy in my board.

This card has fallen out of favor in almost all Esper lists, but as a singleton copy in the main I’ve been very impressed. Anything that lets you kill their Domri Rade early in the game while also being an effective weapon against Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; Stormbreath Dragon; and an on the draw Pack Rat can’t be bad.

No matter what deck you choose this week, make sure that you’re not just copy and pasting a list you saw on this website no matter how easy it sounds. Build it, test with it as much as you can, and tweak the cards you play. Don’t be afraid to innovate.

Hell, be the Charles Darwin of deckbuilding.

What I’m getting at is don’t let what you play be influenced by old hats and make sure that you go into this tournament no matter what it is—Invitational, FNM, Game Day—with the mentality that only the strong survive and the weak get culled.

Evolve or die.

It’s always been my mantra.

I hope you see why it should be yours.