Figuring Out Standard

Ari’s got the big picture information you need to know about cards and decks in Standard to be successful at this weekend’s SCG Open Series in Columbus.

In preparation for Grand Prix Atlantic City, I’ve started the long process of figuring out Standard from the ground up. Until about two weeks ago, the only matches I had played of the format were from the Wednesday after the set became legal.

While I’m not going to go too in depth on any one deck, this is most of the big picture information I’ve managed to learn about the format.

The Cards

Standard right now is mostly about positioning against game breakers. The following cards are all things decks consistently do that are easy to be colded by if you build your deck incorrectly or play something bad. Contrary to popular belief in many cases, almost all of them are possible to play straight through.

Thragtusk (and Friends)

You would think people are done folding to Thragtusk, but for some reason they keep letting it happen to them. To be fair, the decks that have Tusk issues can beat a single Thragtusk, but none of the Thragtusk decks are throwing it out there and doing nothing else. Even if they were, most of the time the nothing but a Tusk deck would easily win with a second copy of the card.

The Mono-Red Aggro deck that won the recent MOCS? Cold to Thragtusk and another blocker. Humans? Sometimes they can beat the first one, but again another creature or relevant card is usually too much.

One of the shocking things to me when I first played the format: the U/W Flash decks aren’t quite cold to a Thragtusk, but they are very bad against the card if they can’t Dissipate it. While they can easily fight out of one with a few removal spells, the amount of effort they have to devote to doing so opens them up to just dying to almost anything else. The exception is if they draw Runechanter’s Pike, which lets them put up a relevant clock over Tusk and prevent it from attacking, but that often requires a specific set up. They only have one Pike usually, and the Tusk decks can answer the Pike or all the targets for it.

It’s not like the ways to beat Tusk have changed: you have to be able to ignore it. People have been slipping lately since it isn’t as big of a portion of the metagame as before. Make sure your win condition actually goes over a Tusk with backup before you commit to a deck.

Falkenrath Aristocrat + Thundermaw Hellkite

If Thragtusk was the problem two months ago, this is the issue from one month ago.

While last year it was the hyper aggressive section of the Zombies deck that caused the most problems for its opponents, 2/2 bodies become irrelevant much sooner and life totals stretch in the other direction with Thragtusk replacing Phyrexian mana. Instead, the giant flying guys that let the deck ignore Thragtusk are the all-stars, and both are very difficult to deal with. Beyond the fact they are each a burn spell, one dodges removal, and the other dodges blockers. There’s even a bit of synergy where one bricks Lingering Souls while the other is awkward at best against it.

Unlike the previous section, when you lose to these cards it is more due to individual card choices than your deck being fundamentally cold to them. Instant speed removal, random flying blockers that aren’t 1/1s, and the ability to keep yourself above "burn range" including a hit from one of these are things you should tune your non-game-breaker spells to do.

Sphinx’s Revelation + Supreme Verdict

If your deck just sits around, Sphinx’s Revelation will bury you in card advantage. 

The best way to beat a Sphinx’s Revelation is to race it. For X = 3 or less, it really doesn’t do that much, and it is very possible that even higher numbers don’t gain enough life to get them out of a really big disadvantage.

Of course, you have to race through an uncounterable Wrath. The majority of your creatures should have haste, flash, undying, or some other sweeper immunity. Costing one or two mana also works to ensure they get pre-Wrath value, but only if you can close out after their sweeper without them. Terminus is also a card, but the two mana jump between the two is big enough that almost anything is good enough to race it. In the case they miracle it, whatever. It happens to the best of us.

The other way to beat Sphinx’s Revelation is punish your opponent for leaning on a seven-mana spell. Counterspells work (see: U/W Flash), as do effects like Nevermore and Slaughter Games. Worth noting with the last two options: sometimes you can get better value by naming a card that isn’t Revelation, and sometimes a Detention Sphere can punish you for assuming you will play a fair long game. Sometimes Cabal Therapy is all you need to win the game.

Angel of Serenity

While the hype on this card peaked a while back, I assure you it is just as good as it was previously.

Angel of Serenity is actually the same card as Sphinx’s Revelation, only it always draws the card you wanted it to. Need the sweeper against aggro? You get a free one. You want more gas against control? You get a 5/6 and three of your best threats. You can even mix it up if you need to. The best part? Unlike Sphinx’s Revelation, this one is uncounterable.

The same principles apply to beating Angel that I mentioned for beating Revelation. The only changes are that counterspells are generally worthless and two-mana instant removal spells are good. Control decks can Ultimate Price an Angel in response to the exile trigger to "counter" the Raise Deads on death, and aggro can clear out an Angel and immediately reestablish the same board as before.

Snapcaster Mage + Dissipate

We already lived through a year of this. Snapcaster Mage plus counterspell makes high drops unplayable.

There really is only one good answer to this: Cavern of Souls. Well, Cavern of Souls or jamming guys that trade profitably with Dissipate on mana, but the latter has issues with Thragtusk and often means you just want Cavern of Souls anyways. 

Izzet Staticaster

Most of the below is directly from the ranting of DarkestMage aka Michael Jacob.

If you looked at recent Grand Prix decklists, you would have noticed something somewhat odd: four Thrill-Kill Assassin in one of the B/R Zombies lists from the recent Japanese Grand Prix.

Izzet Staticaster is a huge reason for this.

Got an x/1? Nice job, it’s dead. Got a 2/x you are trying to attack with? Nice job, it’s blocked. Think your x/2 is safe? Restoration Angel, try again. 

Don’t play x/1 creatures if possible. You have been warned. Gravecrawler is fine because it doesn’t actually die and in theory mana dorks might be a necessary evil, but if you have Knight of Infamy in your deck, you should really consider why it’s there.

The Decks

B/R Aggro

The incentive to be base red with Ash Zealot over base black with Geralf’s Messenger is a debate between whether you want to soundly beat the pseudo-mirror (red) or be slightly better against Supreme Verdict and Centaur Healer (black). Personally, I think we are almost at the turning point where base black is considerable as people are moving off of Blood Crypt, but it’s still a decision.

In the red deck, Stromkirk Noble is straight up embarrassing. You in theory need the one-drops, but the card is always terrible and doesn’t deal a real amount of damage before dying. Hellrider is also very bimodal and usually leans towards being a one over a ten. Making profitable mass attacks gets very bad at around the time you want to cast Hellrider, and it’s simply a matter of if you are far enough ahead to spike the win off of it. Mark of Mutiny, however, is nothing short of awesome if you draw exactly one with the second being blank or awesome.

Also, if your opponent wants to beat you, they will. This mostly applies to various G/W decks that will curve out Centaur Healer into Huntmaster of the Fells into Thragtusk into Restoration Angel, leaving them ahead on board with a life total that rounds to infinity instead of zero. Just hope they mulligan a bunch and you steal a win from them.


Don’t play this deck. Look at the big game cards I listed. This deck can only beat Dissipate, and even that is a joke as their Snapcaster Mage will target Azorius Charm instead, making you draw irrelevant one- and two-drops for days while they sit on seven cards in hand off a Revelation for five. I thought Thalia might be enough. It isn’t because turn 4 Supreme Verdict off Farseek on turn 3 is just as bad as it would be off normal lands. Champion of the Parish isn’t even good any more since tons of removal simply ignores power and toughness increases.

Bant Control

Blood Crypts are still a bad matchup for this deck. If you want to play it, you need to work on this issue.

The mirror is also a giant mess. Every game is going to end with someone at zero cards in library. Permanents like Witchbane Orb that stall this do some work but may come too late to equalize or get Detention Sphered in time for them to win. Being proactive with Jace, Memory Adept is likely the best answer backed by Dispels and the like. I would consider maindecking one, and it might be time to go back to the old tech of playing smaller Jace to preempt big Jace. Geist of Saint Traft is on the table as well, but people are still going to Thragtusk in the mirror.

That said, pretty much everything else is beatable. Bant is good, but you need to work hard on the above issues if you want to play it.

U/W/(R) Flash

Leaning on Snapcaster Mage and counterspells isn’t going to work against people anymore. I would start with Matt Nass’s list leaning on Geist of Saint Traft if I wanted to try to make this archetype work. Keep in mind that Inaction Injunction and Crippling Chill are cards that can beat Thragtusk, though both fold to Restoration Angel.

G/W/(R)/(B) Dudes:

Don’t play bad creatures in the maindeck. For example, Centaur Healer is pretty bad because it loses to Restoration Angel. Whether you want Angel of Serenity, Thundermaw Hellkite, or neither is up for grabs, but I personally like Angel since it gives you a big dumb card to win with.

I’m not sold on Bonfire of the Damned. I can’t imagine wanting it outside the mirror, and even then most of the time it’s not great when not in miracle mode.

Also, don’t play Lingering Souls. 1/1 fliers suck at blocking and attacking right now.

Know the functional differences between Garruk Relentless and Garruk, Primal Hunter.

Garruk Relentless is very bad against control. 2/2 Wolf tokens lose to Augur of Bolas, Snapcaster Mage, Thragtusk, and Beast tokens. Three loyalty gets one-shot by Restoration Angel. The big draw to this Garruk is the ability to immediately flip him and use him to Survival up a bunch of good cards. He also eats Izzet Staticasters, which makes him semi-relevant in certain matchups.

Garruk, Primal Hunter survives a Restoration Angel hit. 3/3 Beasts fight everything but 3/4 fliers fairly well, and even those lose when Gavony Township hits play. His ultimate is a trap since the -3 is usually a draw five, which is good enough. In fact, the -3 is usually enough to beat most control decks. They Sphinx’s Revelation, then so do you. It’s a five-drop when under pressure that doesn’t do much to impact the board, making it bad against Blood Crypts and Chronic Flooding.

Chronic Flooding

This deck is absurdly good for how little respect people give it. It just takes a whole lot of courage to run into Rest in Peace in half or more of your rounds. That said, people will likely be tricked into keeping non-Rest in Peace hands that look good enough but aren’t against you, and few people have more than two copies. The odds are definitely in your favor, but not by much.

Esper Control

I have no real experience with this deck, but I don’t think I’ve lost to it. That sums up my opinions of it quite well.


I think that a lot of the things this deck does are really awesome, but it has issues with Dissipate and Blood Crypts. If you can solve one of those in the maindeck, this deck is likely close to playable. The biggest issue is that it doesn’t have good threats to Cavern of Souls into a sweeper, so I would suggest looking into playing more than one Griselbrand. You also aren’t locked into Omniscience and Increasing Ambition, even if it is a cool way to win.

Of course, you could try to Cavern of Souls people only to find out they have Geist of Saint Trafts, which would be quite embarrassing.


I’ve seen this deck popping up on Magic Online. Despite it not having many real life finishes, be aware that Olivia Voldaren is still kind of a thing. That card is the only draw I can see to Jund, so if you don’t find that card to be good I would stay away from this deck.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to play at GP Atlantic City. So far, a ton of things have felt fine with nothing seeming to be unreal, which is a sign of a healthy format. There certainly is a ton of ways to configure every deck, which means with enough work that most of the good decks can fight anything. Hopefully, I’ll find a deck I want to play and the right cards to make it playable.

Ari Lax

@armlx on Twitter