Feature Article – Analyzing the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open Top 16

States is coming!
Thursday, October 30th – The Top 16 decks from the recent SCG $5K Standard Open make interesting reading. While some things stay the same (congratulations Chris!), some things are wildly different. The target for States may firmly be fixed on the Big 3 decks in the metagame, but there are many other options available for the fearless spellslinger. Let Billy lead the way!

The results from the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open are in! I’m sure you’ve seen them already; if not, you can check them out here. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably trying to figure out what they mean for the next Standard event you will play in… States, maybe?

First, the big picture. The Top 8 featured two Five-Color Control decks (the Cruel variety), two White Weenie decks (one straight Kithkin, one without the “got Kithkin?” spells but with the explosive Painter’s Servant/Chaotic Backlash combo), two Faeries decks (both restricting themselves to blue/black), with a Merfolk and a Reveillark deck rounding things out. I’ll get to the bottom half of the Top 16 in a moment, but first I want to talk about what kind of conclusions a superficial glance at these decks might entail.

Given a cursory look, the kind you can expect from most of your opponents, the current metagame is the same one that GerryT and Chapin and Feldman and everyone else has been writing about for the past few weeks. That means that if you play one of those decks, you should expect to face more sophisticated and targeted (at you) opposition. But it also means that if you’re looking to attack the weaknesses of the top dogs in the format, you don’t need to start from scratch.

Over the last two weeks, I designed a couple of decks with the goal of beating Five-Color Control while not being too one-dimensional; part of my work was prompted by Gerry’s suggestion that Reveillark could probably be built to beat both Five-Color Control and Kithkin. The Reveillark deck that finished in 7th had a maindeck that looked like my final list would if it was already sideboarded for Kithkin. BPM has been working the Reveillark angle almost religiously, while Feldman has been looking for a Merfolk build with the tools to fight each of the Big 3. Among other things, he decided that Knights of Meadowgrain could be a difference maker. Jarret Taylor finished 5th with Rich’s build from last week.

Interestingly, those who take the time to look past the Top 8 find signs that the format is actually wide open. None of the Big 3 make another appearance in the next 8 but there are two elf decks (both GB – one with Paragons, one without); two junk-type decks sporting an aggressive, exalted-fueled curve backed by the format’s best burn spells and Ajani Vengeant; a second Reveillark deck (yet another build); and a couple of throwbacks (Demigod Red, Quillspike Combo, and Token Aggro). How do these decks match up against the presumptive kings of the roost, and how will the lean, mean, Five-Color-Control-and-Fae-killing machine you’ve been busy perfecting fare on a day where you end up never playing against your intended prey? Let’s look through the lists and see what answers we can come up with.

Starting from the top again: Chris Woltereck Cruel Control list, having all the momentum of winning a major event, should be noted for it’s differences from Oliver Russ’s 8th place build as well as from the decklist Chris recently finished 2nd with at another event. Interestingly, Russ’s list is much closer to Chris’s old one (a notable fact that points out the inertia of successful decks), so we can pretty much knock out two birds with one stone.

Over two weeks, Woltereck settled on the changes that can be found here. Across the board, the changes are concessions to aggro match-ups (probably) and to creatures in general. The more flexible Bant Charm is replaced by the sleeker Condemn. The deadlier Firespout gets swapped out for the sleeker Pyroclasm. The largely irrelevant (in those matches) Negate trades out for Remove Soul. Mind Shatter gives way to Esper Charm for a number of reasons, I’m sure, but a relevant one is that it lets Chris do relevant things early like draw to a fourth land or to Wrath itself. There’s even one less comes-into-play-tapped land in his most recent build, an obvious recognition of the need to do stuff on turn 2. Importantly, not only does the mana efficiency in this build save Chris life against Kithkin and any Red decks that pop up, it better positions him to fight Faerie’s counterspells.

Russ’s minimal update preserves the original manabase entirely, while replacing a Finks and a Negate with a Cloudthresher and a Glen Elendra Archmage. This deck anticipates a field where Kithkin and other beatdown decks still haven’t figured out how to beat Cruel Control, so minor adjustments are made to improve the mirror and pick up ground against Faeries.

For the Five-Color Control player working on his States build, these lists give an outline of the different kind of tweaks you can make depending on what metagame you expect. But it’s important to remember that even if you focus on the information in these two lists (ignoring GerryT’s very different ideas about how Five-Color Control should look (at your own peril)), there’s still a gradient of decisions to make. Pyroclasm over Firespout is almost definitely correct, but maybe you feel like that and a few less comes-into-play-tapped lands will give you enough breathing room to be comfortable.

If you’re looking to beat Five-Color Control, you can’t let yourself be distracted by the shell game of support cards. Don’t watch your opponent’s hands, keep your eye on your wallet (so to speak). All of the builds of Five-Color Control can still be attacked in the same ways — Gaddock Teeg still takes out their lynchpin spells (Wrath of God and Cryptic Command); hand disruption does the same; counter-backed aggression (a la Faeries and Merfolk) exploit the decks relative ponderousness; so does Fulminator Mage into Reveillark. If there’s one thing you can take away from Chris’ winning list, however, it’s the fact that Five-Color Control can have the tools to function on turns 1 and 2. I wouldn’t assume so the second I saw a Vivid land, but I would be aware of what adaptations I needed to make if they showed Condemn (maybe the Teeg you stuck on the play doesn’t attack into an untapped vivid) or Remove Soul.

One final note on the Five-Color Control decks: there’s not a single Runed Halo between them. Condemn is a great answer to Demigod, if it wasn’t already used to stop a Stigma Lasher from turning off your short (Finks) and long (Cruel) game plans.

In order to have some idea of the evolution of these decks, I’ve been taking advantage of SCG’s deck-comparison tool. An interesting tidbit, Daniel Samson’s 2nd place build is an exact copy of a White Weenie build suggested by BPM in a recent article (possibly speaking to the influence of writers on tournament metagames). Another nugget, BPM lifted his decklist from the Top 16 of the $5k, citing his preference for using winning builds in his testing gauntlets (maybe indicating that I should research before I start typing, but also reinforcing my earlier statement about the inertia of high finishing decks). Success breeds envy, a truth played out in every meta-smashing home brew. But success also inspires imitators, those people who trust that generally success is earned and deserved.

Samson’s list is a standard Kithkin build, a Block Constructed export except for three Elspeth’s in the sideboard. It’s almost reactionary in its standardness; there’s a full set of Forge Tenders main despite the premier board-control deck generally playing only a single Pyroclasm or Firespout to supplement its Wraths, and the Red aggro deck being widely ignored because of its current ineffectualness. The mirror and Faerie’s swiss army knife, Stillmoon Cavaliers, is left in the board. Still, the deck is no-nonsense and plays to its strengths (strong one-drops, an aggressive lord, the blow-out potential of Windbrisk Heights, and the Wrath-resilience inherent in Spectral Procession and Cloudgoat Ranger). If you played in Block, you know how to play against and/or with this deck. I’d rather look at the alternative builds and see what strategic adjustments they demand.

Where Samson’s archetypical list hinges on the Kithkin creature type, Justin Bartlett’s 4th place Backlash deck (a 74-card copy of Marsh Usary’s Standard update to his Block version) focuses on all things colored. Stillmoon Cavaliers, Oversoul of Dusk, and Chaotic Backlash (and Forge Tenders and Guttural Responses in the board) are glued together and taken full advantage of by Painter’s Servant. While the pro-X creatures mainly become more annoying with the Servant’s help, Backlash is actually part of a two-card combo that can win games from left field. I imagine that if you can fight the combo kill (and race two guys that may be impossible to kill), Kithkin Backlash probably just plays less efficiently than the traditional build. Big ifs, and important ones, because the deck has been performing well lately and garnering a lot of attention for its coolness. I’d be willing to bet that it wouldn’t hold up in a reasonably-prepared field; at the same time, I warn you that it’s worthwhile now to be reasonably prepared yourself.

The Vengeant Weenie decks excite me. Two 75-card copies of an aggro deck with a great curve and great burn finished high in this event; the metagame will have to adjust. First, David Russ (10th) and James Hess (11th) filled out their curve with a brand new set of creatures… Figure of Destiny, obviously, was the only Kithkin in sight. Besides Akrasan Squire, who still does a great job attacking, all of the creatures in the deck shrug off Kitchen Finks as a mere roadblock. Exalted allows the deck to attack effectively even when there’s a Chameleon Colossus trying to hold down the fort. The single Elspeth helps mightily in that regard as well.

The spells in the deck are pretty awesome… there are three sets of big, mana-efficient burn backed up by Ajani Vengeant. This is not a groundbreaking idea… most people know that burn is good because if you’re not killing guys in an aggro mirror then you’re chucking cards at your opponent’s face. Burn is never dead. Ajani, doubly (not?) so. If you’ve played with Lightning Helix you know how swingy the effect is against other aggro decks. Against control, however, Ajani not only has the ability to finish the game, he also stunts the control player’s ability to take over. Possibly, you even fire off his ultimate ability and take them completely out of it. It’s okay that he doesn’t seem that great against Faeries because they should have their hands full with your aggressive curve and instant-speed burn.

It’s worth noting, however, that there’s nothing special about the relationship between the creatures in the deck and the spells in it (besides Elspeth). Russ’s and Hess’s menagerie might be the better one, given that you’re replacing Windbrisk Heights, Spectral Processions, and Cloudgoat Rangers with Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forges[/author] and burn spells, but it seems perfectly reasonable to build this deck with a 20-kithkin core.

On to Faeries. After comparing the lists, I noticed the two builds in the Top 8 play all of the same cards, with the exception of a single Loxodon Warhammer in Alex Bertoncini 3rd place list and two Vendilion Cliques in Dan Boucher’s 6th place list… I’m sure that’s why he finished three places higher than Dan. They aren’t otherwise identical, they disagree on numbers all over the place, but they do agree on what spells should be in the deck and what colors. During Block, people worked on Five-Color Faeries lists that incorporated Firespout. With the release of Shards, there’s been a lot of ink on three-color lists featuring either Grixis or Esper Charm. I still suspect that (especially with Faeries and Five-Color Control proving themselves again) the Esper build will end up being the best one, but the results of the $5K prove that, at the very least, Agony Warp provides enough of a power boost to otherwise sacrifice power for consistency.

The final new wrinkle to take away from these Faerie lists is that your Faeries opponents will almost certainly be maindecking Jace Beleren. I can ignore the planeswalker because I always play attacking creatures in my decks, but you Five-Color Control players need to be ready to deal with him. Kitchen Finks isn’t enough, and that’s one of the reasons why Resounding Thunder has been working its way into maindecks (see GerryT’s and Sanchez’s articles from this week).

Feldman has been talking a lot about UW Merfolk, and is in fact responsible for the list that finished in 5th place, so I won’t actually go over things he’s said already. And I’m loath to steal his thunder by accidentally stumbling on something he just hasn’t gotten around to yet. If you want to know how to play with or against it or what choices you have when building it, just keep an eye on Rich’s weekly column.

Christian Sachse’s 16th place Red Deck Wins is worth looking at more because of the seeming abandonment of Runed Halo than because of anything special about the list. There is one important Shards update to the deck; having Magma Spray to deal with Kitchen Finks means that Stigma Lasher can be replaced by Vexing Shusher, giving the deck a more relentless endgame against Cryptic Command decks. I’d look at this list anytime I suspected that people would be leaving their Halos at home, stop looking once they noticed I was looking, and almost always (Halo or no) move on to something else because I don’t like the idea of playing Fanatic and Shusher, because Gouger becomes much more awkward cardboard when WoG is the mass removal du jour, because I’d rather be able to ignore Kitchen Finks than to play a fake burn spell to beat him, because Demigod bites it to a Condemn, and because sideboarding Everlasting Torments and Naturalizes to deal with things like Halo makes me want to gag (no offense to Christian, you do what you gotta).

The Quillspike-combo deck and the Token aggro deck in the Top 16 may seem kind of random, but if you pay attention to the cards that overlap between them you’ll notice quite a few similarities. Basically, there’s a lot to be gained by the card advantage inherent in persist creatures with relevant abilities, or more generally, creatures that provide something when they die. The token deck gets max value out of its Finks and Redcaps by running a full set of Nantuko Husks, setting up impenetrable board positions against other aggro decks and threatening massive damage or a post-Wrath presence against control. The combo build glues its guys together with Quillspike, giving it something to do besides go infinite. The value of Husk is noted with a single copy showing up in the combo deck. Some number of Quillspikes seem like they could slide in to the token deck. The Profane Commands sported by both seem much better when powered by Devoted Druid, as does Garruk. He isn’t in the token deck but he does love Bitterblossom. Basically, I think there are so many synergies between the distinct cards in the two decks that people looking at them could start spinning off all kinds of hybrids. I’m not ignoring what I said earlier about the inertia of proven builds, but I know that’s the direction I would go after seeing those two lists. I was already comfortable with the playability of GBR tokens; seeing Quillspike combo succeed gives me the incentive to explore it more fully.

After the $5K, as an inveterate brewer, I’d still consider my targets to be the Big 3. And if I found something I was comfortable taking into a room filled with nothing but Kithkin, Faeries, and Five-Color Control I wouldn’t be worried about anything else that might show up (especially considering what a wide range of strategies those three decks cover). But I also think that the Backlash deck, the Vengeant Weenie decks, the two BG decks, and the Reveillark build give us a lot of clues about how to beat the current metagame.

Good luck at States!