Feeling Lost In Standard

With this much shifting around in the Standard format, Sam Black feels lost – when will the dynamic changes stop and the format settle into one place? While he waits, he has a few ideas for what the next gyration might look like in order to get out ahead of it.

I’m not off to a great start this year. After crashing and burning (or, more accurately, crashing instead of burning) in the second day of Pro Tour Magic Origins, I’ve failed to make Day Two at both of the first two GPs of the season. Despite very recently having spent all of my time preparing for a Standard Pro Tour, then playing in that, playing in a Standard GP, following Standard coverage, and beginning my preparation for Worlds… I feel completely lost with regard to Standard. I’m not even sure how that’s possible.

As I’ve said many times, this is as diverse as Standard gets, and it keeps changing every week. Apparently, these days the world belongs to Hangarback Walker and Tragic Arrogance.

This is quite the pair, and it squeezes things in an interesting way. Hangarback Walker is resilient, and while it does something fairly powerful for a two-drop, it’s not terribly hard to go over the top of it – but Tragic Arrogance punishes people for trying to go big on the board to overwhelm Hangarback Walker. Theoretically these pressures should push people to play control decks that win with big spells, or better yet combo decks that don’t care about a creature that’s hard to attack into or a sweeper… but we still have a very diverse format, and these are far from the only constraints. Even before this past week’s Grand Prix results, both control and combo decks have had a rough time recently.

The strength of Hangarback Walker in this format feels very bizarre to me. We still have all of Theros Block in Standard, and in that Block Constructed format, creatures that did something when they died barely felt like they had text. Between Banishing Light, Chained to the Rocks, Last Breath, and Silence the Believers with the occasional Ashen Rider, everyone was exiling creatures. Beyond that, Unravel the Aether and Bile Blight both seem like they should make life miserable for someone playing Hangarback Walker.

Somehow, we’ve added Abzan Charm, Utter End, and a wide variety of other ways to answer a creature without destroying it to the mix and Hangarback Walker is still successful. The tools are here, so I’m skeptical about Hangarback Walker’s future and curious about just which ways will end up being the best to fight it. Chained to the Rocks is tempting. It’s a great card that’s fallen off the map, so people are playing a huge number of cards that are bad against it, but it has a weakness to Dromoka’s Command, Tragic Arrogance, and Unravel the Aether, and all of those cards are also up in popularity.

It’s possible that the best solution is Last Breath, which is one of the few answers that’s both cheap enough not to set you back on mana and relatively versatile in the format at the moment. Throughout its time in Standard, Last Breath has been one of the most volatile removal spells in terms of power level. When Nightveil Specter was the creature to kill, Last Breath was among the best answers in the format; after rotation, when Fleecemane Lion and Siege Rhino were on top, Last Breath lost its place. Adding Dragons to the mix only hurt its position, and we see now that creatures are so large that even Bile Blight has all but disappeared… and yet, as with Searing Blood, the Magic Origins flip-Planeswalkers (along with Hangarback Walker, of course) have offered new life to Last Breath.

Of course, you also have to wonder about Bile Blight. The major drawback to Bile Blight when compared to Last Breath, aside from failing to exile, has generally been its failure to kill Courser of Kruphix. But the ability to kill Den Protector, a fleet of Deathmist Raptors, Fleecemane Lion, and many Thopters at once may bring people back to Bile Blight at some point.

Finally, the last big player from Theros Block that feels like it should keep Hangarback Walker in check is Doomwake Giant, which we saw in the second-place Abzan Constellation deck at Grand Prix San Diego but which hasn’t penetrated more broadly into the format yet despite continuing to be an excellent answer to Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Presumably it’s kept somewhat in check by the push to play answers to Ensoul Artifact, but as that deck loses ground – which we’ve definitely seen happening – things could easily come around for Doomwake Giant.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the results of GP London was Martin Juza’s success in a field of Hangarback Walkers and Tragic Arrogance by leaving Dragonlord Atarka out of a shell that’s traditionally included her. The reason this is perplexing is, of course, that Dragonlord Atarka is another of the best ways to beat a large number of Thopters in the mid- to late-game, and combining it with Haven of the Spirit Dragon offers a solid plan against Tragic Arrogance. I think the explanation to this lies in the fact that Hangarback Walker is actually relatively easy to go over the top of – sure, Dragonlord Atarka is great against Thopters, but if you just play cheaper fliers in a deck with a good amount of reach you can kill them in the air while they’re trying to get counters on their Hangarback Walker. They’ll have to find a way to kill their Walker themselves if they want to even be able to block your Dragons! Maybe the real lesson here is that evasion is the best way to beat Hangarback Walker.

The last time G/R Dragons was the deck to beat, right before Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, U/B Control and Esper Dragons rose up to dominate the Pro Tour.

If we believe that the world is about Hangarback Walker, Tragic Arrogance, and 4/4 Dragons, maybe a deck like this would be well-positioned to beat those things while piggybacking on their strength:

I’m not sure how well this would work, because I think getting the mix of answers right in U/W Control is really hard in Standard, but the creatures are chosen to match up well against opposing Hangarback Walkers, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and as well as possible against the red Dragons while pairing excellently with Tragic Arrogance themselves. Still, I’m always skeptical of a deck that’s this reactive in a diverse field – I’d prefer to be as proactive as I can.

Another angle I wonder about is G/W Devotion. G/W Devotion has suffered greatly from poor positioning against G/R Devotion, but I wonder if Tragic Arrogance can turn that around. Playing your own sweepers in a deck that plays as much to the board as G/W Devotion is an odd way to go, but Tragic Arrogance has shown itself to be a very powerful card and between being able to keep your best creature and Whisperwood Elemental taking a lot of the sting out of it, it may not be too bad. I know Hangarback Walker is the exact kind of card I’d want my opponent to be playing if I were playing G/W Devotion.

I’m really conflicted on Courser of Kruphix. It’s great with Mastery of the Unseen and it’s great at buying the deck time, which it definitely wants. It’s also a good source of Devotion as well as some slow card advantage, but it competes with Deathmist Raptor for space when doing that kind of thing. Mostly the tension is with Tragic Arrogance. I like that I can keep it and another creature, but I don’t like that it lets my opponent make me sacrifice Mastery of the Unseen rather than forcing them to let me keep Mastery of the Unseen and a creature. I think I want to be able to side it out when I expect my opponent to have Tragic Arrogance, so I’ve decided to start relatively few copies compared to the obvious four-of it used to be.

One card I’m not playing that I’m very interested in is Rogue’s Passage. I really like the idea of being able to make a creature unblockable to attack Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, but I think this deck makes such good use of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx that I can’t really imagine cutting one, which would require me to either drop a colored source or add a 25th land. I could certainly see playing it over the second Plains, but I like to be able to find it to activate Mastery of the Unseen more often and it makes it a lot easier to cast Tragic Arrogance.

Another question in this format is, “What happened to red?” At the Pro Tour I felt like it was a great deck, it felt well-positioned and powerful… and then suddenly I don’t want to touch it at all. It’s not Hangarback Walker and it’s not Tragic Arrogance. While Hangarback Walker can be fine against red, overall I don’t think it’s really a card to worry about because the creatures in the red deck attack into it pretty well. I think what happened is that red was well-positioned to take advantage of a format built around Languish, where some people would be expected to have Languish as a key component of their deck and others were expected to still respect the card. As the format’s evolved, Languish has dropped off, replaced as a sweeper by Tragic Arrogance instead – and the effect that it’s had of minimizing two- to four-mana creatures has largely worn off. As a result, trying to attack with 2/2 red creatures has gotten a lot harder, and people are much more likely to be able to punish you for playing Eidolon of the Great Revel by attacking.

Martin Juza’s deck is basically the height of disrespecting Languish. The deck is ten burn spells, four of which can’t target players, some lands and 26 creatures that all die to Languish. No Whisperwood Elemental to try to minimize the damage, no planeswalkers to stay on the battlefield, no way to get a 5+ toughness creature outside of a monstrous Stormbreath Dragon.

With decks being built like this suppressing the red decks and Abzan playing more and more creatures on average with the rise of Abzan Aggro, maybe the format is ripe for Languish to reassert itself. If we assume that it will, the question is whether it will come out of Abzan Control, U/B Control… or somewhere less expected, like Jund Delve.

The other place to look for ideas may be the less-successful decks from the Pro Tour that were suppressed by to metagame forces that don’t exist now. Presumably most decks at the Pro Tour were selected because they’re solid in some way, or against some metagame their players expected, but may have lost due to the metagame that showed up being something they hadn’t anticipated. For example, I think Jeskai likely suffered from a bad matchup against Mono-Red Aggro, which was likely present in much greater quantities than the people who chose Jeskai expected. Jeskai might be a great way to attack the format now, as it can both pressure people who play Hangarback Walker with evasive threats and go over the top with high-impact spells. Of course, this explains why Jeskai has had a relatively good couple events after a largely unsuccessful Pro Tour.

So where does all this leave me? Sadly, still at a loss… but at least I feel like I have some avenues to explore.