Feature Article – Standard in Focus

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Thursday, March 5th – Now that the Pro Tour is mixed-format discipline, specific format specialists such as Quentin Martin are opening their minds to the other side of the game (whatever it may be). Today, Quentin examines a few of the Standard decks that caught his eye from Kyoto. The first? Black/White Tokens…

I was hoping to get this article out there before Kyoto, but I’ve been a busy man recently and writing has had to take a back seat. Unfortunately, focussing on the WB Tokens deck, very similar to the one that LSV piloted to the finals, is now not as revealing as I had initially hoped for. So rather than exclusively focus on that, I’m going to look at three other decks that featured at the Pro Tour to spice things up later. For now, let’s think about making tokens larger:

WB Tokens

First off, the deck really needs a better, catchier name. We are, however, too late into the season to come up with one, the only real contender now is probably the inaccurate ‘LSV’s deck’ (one opponent today even bitterly complained I’d ‘copy/pasted’ it as he lost after his nth misplay). A quick racking of my coffee addled brain can only come up with ‘Army-in-one,’ which definitely isn’t going to go the distance. Sigh…

Everyone in the world will know LSV’s list by now. There’s a reason the guy came second, and it’s not just to do with his quite obvious phenomenal play skill — his list was nothing if not fantastic. I have one niggle with his main deck and a couple of tweaks to his board, but other than that I will leave it quite alone.

I’ve been playing this deck for months now in Constructed queues, and I have a very good win ratio. The deck has a few problems, but once you’re aware of them and play to maximise their non-existence, you should be good. The most important thing in the deck is to try and get three guys to stick around. It sounds simple, but the games where you get to activate Windbrisk Heights are hard to lose. To top this off, it’s the basic combination of lots of guys and Crusade effects that makes the deck win. The cards that dump multiple guys into play negate one-for-one removal; you have to ensure you’ve a follow up to the board sweeper, so don’t be greedy and over-commit. The thing is, decks like Five-Color Control have lots and lots of board sweepers to compensate for this, so you have to maximise your army-in-one cards (and discard) to compensate for their plethora of removal. It’s a little causal loop that I’ll be talking about in a minute.

A quick word about the land. If it could, the deck would love another land so that it would curve out more reliably, but the deck has few sources of card advantage save for its army-in-one cards and has nothing to do with excess land in the late game; twenty-five is the correct amount. Two Mutavaults is the perfect number, as any more screws up your curve of heavily coloured cards.

The other cards in the deck fill necessary purposes. Tidehollow Scullers are simply awesome cards that fill all the requirements and need no explanation. Knight of Meadowgrain is an efficient filler card, killing time until they print a better replacement.

Terrors are the most efficient removal around. The other options are Path to Exile, Unmake, and Oblivion Ring. I like Rings: they solve problem cards like the big enchantments out there, planeswalkers, and Chameleon Colossus (and even the rare, but deadly, Loxodon Warhammer), but the loss of instant speed trickery is too much (killing manlands, Mistbind Cliques, Plumeveils and anything they drop in during their turn). Unmake fulfils a lot of these requirements and even deals with Demigod of Revenge and Broodmate Dragons, but the versatility gained by these options isn’t enough to compensate for the additional mana. Queue the Terror versus Path to Exile debate.

I’ll begin by saying I am intrinsically not a fan of Path to Exile. I’m a Limited player at heart, and it’s a two-for-one for your opponent (I also intrinsically dislike Thoughseize (even though it is a much needed card for some decks/matchups/purposes). I also don’t have too much experience with the card, but I know that almost all decks in the format have their fair share of basic lands to fetch. It costs one less than Terror and deals with all those cards its rival does not — these are big factors; but just as big is the free land your opponent gains. The free land is a huge drawback in the early game which practically negates the Path’s cheapness (it can also be a bonus, Pathing your own Sculler with its come into play trigger on the stack (skills to Matteo for pulling it off under the glare of the lights)), and even in the late game it is still important.

I’m really only going through the argument to assuage/educate the masses. Terror is better, but there is a time and place for Path to Exile, and LSV was probably correct to play them in his board.

If we analyse Matteo Orsini Jones’s list, I’m afraid I’ve a few criticisms. We know by now that I dislike Thoughtseizes, but even more so in a deck where it’s really hard to cast them on the first turn with all those tap and filter lands. We also know that I prefer Terror to Path. Instead of the discard, LSV played Kitchen Finks, and it is here that I have the maindeck objection.

Finks are fine. I started with them in the deck instead of my alternative when testing for Worlds. They come back from mass removal (very important), they fit the curve very well, and they might well have a cute interaction with Ajani Goldmane, but they don’t tick the box the deck wants — army-in-one cards. The deck already has the full compliment of Crusades effects (I prefer Cloudgoat Ranger #4 to Ajani #4, as first you need men before you can pump them) and the slot very much wants to be a creature. The thing to be wary of is the curve as the deck is full of fairly clunky cards already. The perfect answer to all these problems is Marsh Flitter. It, like Finks, also survives Infest and Volcanic Fallout (the new kid on the block (though not just a one hit wonder)). They give you another card that just turns the game around by itself; another card that turns all your Crusades on; another card that can singlehandedly activate Windbrisk Heights; another card that help break the causal loop by giving you an additional post-Wrath refill.

This brings us back to my final version. It is the same version that I’ve been playing since Worlds, and although I’ve tinkered with it many times, it keeps returning to this list:

Once again, my grievance with LSV’s sideboard is minor. Where he played 3 Path to Exile, 1 Wispmare and 2 Wrath of God, I play three Wrath, two Path and an Oblivion Rings. Once more let my highlight that I have little experience with Path and have already admitted a bias against it. Path is necessary to deal with Fae, because it kills the problem kid of Clique when you need to and you are more likely to have the mana open for it than the alternatives.

The singleton Wispmare is random and often sits in your hand with no targets other than your own Glorious Anthem (which makes you look even more stupid if they save their Bitterblossom with a Scion of Oona or Clique in response, meaning you have to nuke your own card), and Oblivion Ring does more jobs even better.

I like having the additional Wrath, and would play the fourth if I could play a sixteenth card, as there are several matchups where consistently being able to draw them is an important factor to how you play the game. Lots of Wraths also work very well with the deck with the addition of Marsh Flitter (you have one more additional way to come back from your own Wrath strongly). I also love Wrath in the mirror and versus the Boat Brew for all the tokens and Siege-Gang Commanders out there, not to mention the Elf deck I’ve played against several times online.

The Forge-Tenders are a concession to how good Volcanic Fallout is right now, whilst performing double duty against the various Red Deck Wins variants out there. The Celestial Purge is a great card that is just too narrow to warrant the inclusion of more, especially as lots of other cards in the board perform similar roles. The fourth Ajani is a nod to the mirror where whoever has the bigger men wins (he also KOs their Ajanis). The Elspeth and Head Games are for Five-Color Control, representing game-winning tricks to punish them for tapping out.

I won’t go through a match by match analysis, but I’ve found that it’s generally quite easy to identify the cards you want to bring out in each matchup. More often than not, if your opponent is of the more controlling nature, the Knight of Meadowgrain are the first to go, as well as a few shaved Terrors; if they are more aggressive then I find the Ajani volunteer their services and often the odd goat tender feels charitable too.

Other Standard Nic-Nacs

I know Nassif’s fantastic deck has already been covered by Patrick, so I’ll leave it at that save a list for posterity’s sake and a nod of respect to the master. My hat off to the Hat:

Moving on…

I just don’t get the Boat Brew’s popularity/success. I’ve played the deck a ton, and just don’t think it’s very good. Volcanic Fallout is a great addition, but I think that if you want to play a more controlling deck then play Nassif’s, if you want to play midrange then play WB, and if you want to play beatdown play Kithkin or Red Deck Wins (I think the Brew is probably better than both of the aggressive options, but I felt like giving them nonetheless). That’s all I have to say on the matter.

Three decks caught my eye at Kyoto. One of them for personal reasons, and the other two for innovation. First off we have the Japanese Swans deck, which I played against a few times in the build up to the PT and can confirm it’s pretty good (it definitely gives WB problems). I’ve no idea exactly how it fits into the metagame or exactly how good it is, but it looks a lot of fun! The maindeck is solidly built, and the Goblin Assaults in the board look like genius if nothing else (hehe!). Here’s Shuhei Nakamura list:

Mark Herberholz played a great looking Blightning deck. Now, much like with Swans, I have no clue as to the strength or exact place it fills in the metagame, but I recognise it for a good build. It is the decisions he’s made that I love:

• He has Ashenmoor Gouger over Shambling Remains, which is probably a correct call right now (genius or madness, etc.). Almost everything that deals with the first also deals with the latter, rending Unearth unexciting, whilst four toughness dodges Incinerate and Finks.
• The deck is all about direct damage, which is probably why Boggart Ram-Gang is better than the other three-drop alternatives.
• Likewise Siege-Gang over Demigod.
• The biggest thing I love about the deck is the complete absence of Incinerate. The card is almost always an unquestionable mainstay in such decks, but Mark picked up that it does little in the metagame right now that the cheaper Tarfire can’t accomplish if it’s removal you’re after, and the other cards in the deck deal more damage to the face anyway.

My last Standard titbit is brought to us courtesy of Johan Verhulst, purely because it looks like a new take on a deck I invented for Nationals last year; I have no idea whether it is based on my deck, I just hope it is! The cool thing about the deck is the combination of Demigod and Cryptic Command in the same sixty cards. Now, I think a lot of the other card choices leave a lot to be desired. For example, there are far better cards than Telling Time, Unmake, and Flame Javelin (Jace Beleren, Terror and Volcanic Fallout respectively). The deck is almost certainly inferior to Nassif’s build of control, as Broodmate Dragon is like two Demigods already and the Esper Charms and Mulldrifters are probably better than Telling Time and the Mind Shatter/Springs.

I find that when you look at the deck like this, by breaking it down into card roles (threats, card draw, mass removal, spot removal, counters), you can compare it to other existing decks and see whether it is superfluous. Rogue deck builders often criticise the mainstream decks for lack of originality, but it is more often the case that their decks are just trying to do exactly the same thing, but in inferior ways. This is a case of exactly that. Often there are good reasons which tend to involve the manabase, concessions to the curve or squeezing in silver bullets. However, in the current world of the best-manabases-ever, these excuses lack oomph.

I hope all that’s been helpful and that you’ve enjoyed the ride. I’ll be back next week with more strategic insights, looking at a new take on Extended Fae and talking about some little green men.

Until then…