Maybe Standard has been figured out.
Maybe the format is about midrange decks built to be able to survive aggro assaults involving Burning-Tree Emissary or Voice of Resurgence. Maybe if you want to play something at all controlling, you have to play UWR and it has to be built around Restoration Angel and Sphinx’s Revelation. Maybe Junk Reanimator, Jund, Naya, and The Aristocrats are the types of decks that are supposed to be good.
But maybe not.
I remember about a year and a half ago getting on a plane to a mature format Grand Prix in Florida. The format seemed to be about U/W Delver, R/G Wolf Run, and U/W Humans. No question, there was diversity though. Showing up in small numbers, we saw Infect, Mono-Red Aggro, Tempered Steel, G/W Tokens, Puresteel Paladin, and a variety of control decks. The format was hardly "boring"; it just seemed to be about two U/W decks and a R/G deck.
You know what’s good in a known metagame?
Building a deck that beats that metagame.
On the flight to Florida, I set to work brewing. I started by reflecting on the Grixis Control list I went 5-1 with at the last full-on World Championship.
Remember when people used to think Olivia Voldaren was a bad card? Yeah, yeah, they said the same thing about Thundermaw Hellkite and the same thing about Aetherling. People can be so dismissive when they are playing the game of convincing themselves they "have it figured out" instead of playing the game of "figuring it out."
The format had moved quite a bit. No longer was G/W one of the cornerstones of the format, having been replaced by R/G Wolf Run Ramp as a result of the World Championship being won by it. Illusions had morphed into U/W Delver and was running away with the format. Still, the exact card pool legal was the same. After a lot of sketching, a lot of sideboarding mental experiments, and a lot of isolating what was important in each matchup, I arrived at the following list for Grand Prix Orlando:
While I always follow the tournament scene closely, I had not actually played Standard since the World Championship. This meant I was rusty, but as far as brewing new decks goes, sometimes it can be a boon to be able to step outside of the preconceived notions of those that have been playing the format non-stop.
You generally can’t beat everything, and sometimes the best thing you can do is decide who you want to lose to. For Grand Prix Orlando, I determined it was worth losing to Wolf Run if it meant beating Delver. As a result, I tuned the list to be able to exploit small creatures, equipment, tempo-based decks, and decks without a lot of removal.
Well, I didn’t win.
As a matter of fact, I lost to Wolf Run.
However, that wasn’t until the finals, and it was against Conley Woods, no stranger to the brew himself. He had built an unusual Jund Wolf Run deck that also hit the metagame from an angle it wasn’t expecting.
"It’s a brewer’s world. Everyone else is just living in it." –Conley Woods
I beat Delver over and over and over. Going into the tournament, it had been nearly a quarter of the field, but in Orlando it absolutely blew up. Grand Prix Orlando’s field ended up consisting of a whopping 44% Delver! The moral of the story? If you can correctly anticipate the field, you can often tune your deck in ways that may look unusual but are actually exactly perfect against those specific opponents.
Today I am flying to Grand Prix Miami, and it’s about time we got to play some Standard on a big stage. This Standard format has been allowed to just hang out in midrange world for far too long. While the Standard format has been fluctuating week to week, it appears to mostly be cycling through existing archetypes at this point rather than new and unexpected archetypes.
There is a rhythm to this cycling, and if one can determine what note will be hit this weekend, they can position themselves one step ahead. If you know the level everyone else is on and what beats that—well, that is the definition of Next Level.
As much as I love all-in aggro decks or midrange green creature decks, I was thinking of playing control for a change. It’s a little underrated in the format in my opinion, largely because almost everyone seems to have forgotten that you can’t just play the same control decks week after week. Control decks have to keep evolving; otherwise, the non-control decks adapt and grow resilient.
As hostile as the format is for Sphinx’s Revelation, the real issue is that few people are taking control in new directions, mixing up their removal suite, or throwing out yesterday’s models and starting from scratch. The aggro and midrange decks have adapted.
U/W/R and Esper are both decent, no question, and might be the best way to play control. They are the natural ways to build control given that they get to play Sphinx’s Revelation to beat midrange (U/W) and cheap removal to beat fast aggro (R or B). The thing is, they are very known elements. They are certainly strong enough to win tournaments, but I am not so sure they actually give you better chances than just playing Naya, Junk Reanimator, or Jund. I don’t want to play control for kicks (at least not this weekend). I want to play it because of the ability to play the right combination of reactive cards and proactive ways to gain an advantage to capitalize on a known metagame. If we aren’t actually getting an edge on deck, why aren’t we just playing a deck with the best numbers (Naya, Junk Reanimator, Jund)?
That said, I might still play U/W/R. I think I can do better, but Sphinx’s Revelation in a deck with Pillar of Flame and Boros Reckoner is very appealing. Here is the list I would start with for U/W/R:
I love the Aetherling endgame, but Boros Reckoner and Restoration Angel do such a good job of playing the midrange game that we don’t need to rely on Aetherling in full. Still, having access to one gives us a valuable inevitability against removal-heavy decks like Jund or various control decks without much permission.
Speaking of permission, I very much agree with Gerry Thompson that Essence Scatter is underrated right now. It is a removal spell that stops comes into play or leaves play abilities (like Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Augur of Bolas, Snapcaster Mage, Huntmaster of the Fells, Burning-Tree Emissary, Voice of Resurgence), kills creatures with haste (like Thundermaw Hellkite, Falkenrath Aristocrat, and Hellrider), and kills hard-to-kill creatures (like Aetherling, Geist of Saint Traft, and Blood Baron Vizkopa). You have to be careful to not rely too heavily on it since Cavern of Souls is still a card, but a lot more people should be making room for a couple in their lists.
Gerry is one of the best in the world at tuning control lists, and I have to say that I am completely on board with his love of Warleader’s Helix. The card’s rate isn’t exactly breathtaking, but it does what you need and gives you what you actually want.
An instant speed removal spell that can kill Loxodon Smiter or Restoration Angel with upside is already appealing. Once you factor in that it isn’t the first spell you play against aggro (ideally), it becomes easy to see that it can actually be a kind of Cryptic Command against aggro, doing two big things at once. If you can play two reactive cards in the first three turns, you shouldn’t be too far behind. Warleader’s Helix a creature on turn 4 and now you might have actually undone all of the aggro deck’s progress
Maybe I am behind in the times, but I still like Thought Scour in these kinds of decks. It isn’t just that your deck is a bit smaller. Obviously, it makes your Augurs and your Snapcasters more reliable because of a higher instant count, but it also lets your Augurs help get you out of mana screw as well as gives you more potential options to flashback with Snapcaster.
Going hand-in-hand with Thought Scour, I still like a single Harvest Pyre for the surprise wins with Boros Reckoner. This one I am a lot less sure of, as many of the decks slow enough to lose to the combo are going to have instant speed removal, but it is just such a powerful dimension to add to the deck and as a removal spell is really not that bad.
The biggest weakness of my current build is to Geist of Saint Traft decks, and it is quite possible I need to adopt janky defenses like Renounce the Guilds (despite Boros Reckoner), Rolling Temblor (which kind of sucks against Geist decks but is good against Burning-Tree Emissary), or possibly my own Geists (taking advantage of the last few weeks of legend ruling people).
I like U/W/R a fair bit better than Esper, by the way. Voice of Resurgence is everywhere, and the card is so brutal for Esper. The black removal you gain isn’t substantially better than the red removal, so what are you really gaining to make up for Pillar of Flame and Boros Reckoner? Far // Away is great, but it isn’t better than Pillar. I guess you get Nephalia Drownyard, which I still like despite how fast the format is, but Esper just seems a bit slow. You are so reliant on Supreme Verdict, and a lot of people have a lot of tools against that strategy.
If I were going to Esper, I would want to go in a bit of a different direction than existing Esper decks. I’m not sure what that looks like, but it might involve lots of creatures like Sin Collector, Blood Baron Vizkopa, and, most importantly, Lingering Souls. Now that is a powerful card that might be able to make me forget about Boros Reckoner.
Of course, I really do want to see if it’s possible to escape the U/W/R / Esper dynamic. One of the most promising avenues I am considering is Reid Duke Bant deck:
Reid builds his control decks very much akin to his ramp decks. This isn’t a deck trying to control every element of the game. It is, however, able to produce some very powerful effects, attempting to obliterate opponents with brute force.
It kind of bothers me that this list doesn’t really have a good answer to Voice of Resurgence. Yes, you can Oblivion Ring it, but that is hardly good. Your Azorius Charms and permission being hurt aren’t the only problems. It’s also just one more threat that gives you another threat if you deal with the first.
Additionally, with 30 mana, nine cantrips, and four Sphinx’s Revelations, this list is full of air. That is to say that there really aren’t all that many cards in the deck that actually do things. If you get hit in the right pressure point, you can be pretty clunky (and that pressure point is usually Sphinx’s Revelation).
Personally, I would want to see more of a Terminus theme maindeck, as it is just so risky to rely so heavily on Supreme Verdict. I would also want to see if I could get away with a second Plasm Capture. Greedy? Yeah, obv, but that card is so powerful and so good with cards like Aetherling, Sphinx’s Revelation, and even Thragtusk.
As many risks and challenges as Bant faces, Farseek and Thragtusk are powerful tools for playing a tap-out game and are currently underrepresented in the format. People are tuning their decks against U/W/R and Esper (as well as Naya, Jund, Junk Reanimator, and The Aristocrats), and Bant lets you change the rules of engagement. No one has built more successful Bant decks over the past year than Reid, so I definitely consider his build the starting point for Bant.
There is, as you might have guessed, one other strategy I am considering. It is a tough two years to run it, as Sphinx’s Revelation has really messed things up, but Aetherling may have thrown us a curveball.
What about Grixis?
In considering Grixis, we have to overcome the natural hurdle of justifying no Sphinx’s Revelation. That is no small feat. Additionally, we lose Supreme Verdict, Boros Reckoner, Warleader’s Helix, and a few Esper cards like Lingering Souls and Sin Collector.
The primary draw to Grixis is the combination of Aetherling and Olivia Voldaren, an idea suggested by Gerry Thompson. The theory is that everyone loses to one of the two of them. While Grixis enjoyed mild success a month ago, it has since fallen by the wayside. The problem?
"The small amount of Grixis out there has largely disappeared. As it turned out, despite Olivia Voldaren and Aetherling being well positioned against the format, the lack of a good drawer, good sweepers, and life gain meant that it couldn’t compete in the format." –Gerry Thompson
This hits the nail on the head, as the real Grixis dilemma is that you have the best endgame in the format (Aetherling / Olivia Voldaren) but you don’t have Sphinx’s Revelation (tier 1 card drawer and life gain) and don’t have good sweepers (like Supreme Verdict and Terminus). What can we do?
To start with, we need to ask the question "are Olivia and Aetherling even good?" I believe the answer is definitely still yes; however, we need to keep asking ourselves this because if our answer ever changes we might as well just go back to U/W/R.
I actually would take it a step further. I don’t just want Grixis for Olivia and Aetherling; I want Nephalia Drownyard. The majority of people don’t lose to Drownyard, but Nephalia Drownyard and Cavern of Souls support the Aetherling plan and give us a plan against slower decks that can theoretically win even if we devote the majority of our deck to faster decks.
As for Olivia, she is going to beat a lot of people, but she can’t be the first one to the party. This means we need lots of cheap interaction to let us survive long enough for her to work her magic. That we are short on good options for life gain and sweepers puts even more pressure on us to defend ourselves early and often.
Each of these challenges calls for some creativity, and it is possible that they are just too hard to overcome. Still, playing the game of "if Grixis could be made to work, what would these answers look like?" takes me down some unusual paths.
The first major challenge is the lack of a tier 1 card drawer. This has been the longest running problem (as long as Sphinx’s Revelation has been legal), but ironically seems the easiest to me to solve. In testing for Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze in San Diego, I was reminded of just how incredibly strong Jace, Architect of Thought is. It’s not as strong as Sphinx’s Revelation, no question, but it is better than most of the other cards in the format.
Interestingly, one of Jace, Architect of Thought’s great strengths is against aggro. His +1 ability giving all opposing creatures -1 power is actually a little bit of a sweeper of sorts. It doesn’t actually remove all the threats, but it can effectively neutralize multiple creatures’ worth of attackers in a turn. If you can combine it with a true sweeper or blockers, it starts to become a potentially game-winning play against aggro.
Is Jace alone going to be enough card draw? Not remotely. But it is at least a good start, and it is a card drawer that is legitimately powerful in its own right capable of winning games and not just another Divination. To further bolster our card drawing capabilities, I next turn to the card-smoothing slot traditionally held by Think Twice. Of course, this slot often used to contain Desperate Ravings; however, the printing of Sphinx’s Revelation has all but killed Desperate Ravings since the thing you want least with Desperate Ravings is to be reliant on a single key card. Most decks with Sphinx’s Revelation care so much more about it than their other cards. They can’t afford to risk discarding it at the wrong time even if they are getting greater power in exchange.
Let’s consider Grixis’ plight for a moment. The exact thing we are looking for is more power. What do we have? We have lots of reliable early removal spells, and we have two different types of situational endgames (that we are not going to need against half of our opponents).
More power? Desperate Ravings definitely delivers there. When you have what you need in a Grixis deck, you generally use it. Desperate Ravings gives you more of what you don’t already have yet. If you are short on mana, it gives you more than Think Twice. If you are long on mana, it gives you more spells than Think Twice. If you already have a perfect balance, well, those aren’t the games you need the help! Have too much removal? Desperate Ravings decreases the average amount in your hand. Don’t have a removal spell? Desperate Ravings has better chances of finding you one.
Of course, Desperate Ravings is not without a price. Obviously, you need red mana, which rules out some possible pilots. Second, it clashes with miracles, which rules out most people with Terminus or Bonfire of the Damned. Finally, most importantly, it punishes those that rely on a single card. Generally, Ravings decks need more victory conditions than their Think Twice brethren since you can risk losing any one of them.
The Olivia Voldaren / Aetherling Grixis deck we are working with here is not completely immune to these risks. Aetherling is really good when its good, and the same is true for Olivia. Risking discarding these cards is a very real cost, and they are the types of cards you don’t just play the first chance you get. This is a major strike against Desperate Ravings but not necessarily a deal breaker.
The other side of the coin is that we are going to have an abundance of victory conditions. Sometimes, we are going to want Olivia, but Aetherling and Jace can still get the job done. Other times, we are going to want Aetherling but will be willing to settle for Jace and Drownyard. Drownyard even gets to sit in play safe from Ravings, and an uncontested Jace can find our other Aetherling (and possibly even our opponent’s). With so many cards that can take over the game, I am a lot less worried about the risks of Raving than I have been over the past year.
The other big factor is that I have the benefit of knowing that Gerry was not satisfied with his Grixis decks. He certainly talked about Ravings and has used it on occasion, but I know he is biased, preferring consistency to power. Additionally, I very much got the impression from my conversations with him that he never actually tried full-on Ravings. Maybe Ravings will turn out worse than Think Twice, but I’m not going to just do something that he already found didn’t do enough.
On balance, it is also possible that a mix is better. In the middle of the game, it is often better to have one Desperate Ravings and one Think Twice in your yard than two of one of them. If you already have what you need, you can still advance your game and Think Twice without the risk. If you don’t, you can Ravings and potentially save Think Twice for a later spot. Ravings is still the more powerful card (and an option that hasn’t failed as much as Think Twice has for this approach), so I want to start there. I’m just not against some kind of a hedge if testing this evening suggests the risks are a little too great.
As for the life gain, I have to admit this is a tough one. Lots of cheap removal helps, but I am going to really miss the cushion Sphinx’s Revelation and Warleader’s Helix provide, particularly with Augurs and Snapcasters increasing their frequency.
Essence Drain is just too expensive. Disciple of Bolas is unwieldy without green creatures. Griselbrand is too slow. Gift of Orzhova isn’t ideal to pair with Olivia and Aetherling. Extort is just not reliable without Blind Obedience. As far as I can tell, the best options are Vampire Nighthawk and Tribute to Hunger. Man, I sure to miss Pristine Talisman!
As for sweepers? I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, you can use Rolling Temblor, Barter in Blood, Bonfire of the Damned, Magmaquake, or Mizzium Mortars, but what if you didn’t really rely on sweepers? So many of those have so many holes, and Barter is my favorite but doesn’t work well with Nighthawks. Magmaquake would be reasonable but is not as great a combo with Jace as we would like. It’s a little wacky, but we could consider Curse of Death’s Hold. It is sort of a sweeper, and it is actually a pretty incredible combo with Jace.
Man, I can’t wait for Ratchet Bomb to be back in M14!
Ok. Admittedly, I haven’t really solved the sweeper issue yet, and the life gain solution is dubious at best. Still, let’s take a look at a possible list:
I would love, Love, LOVE to be able to take better advantage of Augur of Bolas. Blockers make Papa Jace a happy man, and it helps give us more much-needed draw. Sadly, twenty hits is not the high end, and without Revelations Augur is really not that good against decks where you don’t want removal. It is very possible the last remaining Augur should just be another Snapcaster.
I am pretty excited about the Vampire Nighthawks, particularly since Cavern of Souls can help cast them while still putting us on track for Olivia. A Vampire Nighthawk that lives is just the absolute dream creature to block for Jace. Odds are he continues to live and you are just shredding the potential attacking army.
I am not really sold on Tribute to Hunger. I do need life gain, but there are far and away better options for three-cost edicts. Actually, one of the big reasons I would like to make Augur work better is to be able to capitalize on sending it away against decks where removal isn’t at its best. Against aggro, Far // Away eventually becomes a two-for-one removal spell, but even against a slower deck the ability to continue to dig is much appreciated given our card drawing deficiencies. Of course, having the miser’s Tribute gives our Snapcaster Mages a lot of added utility late and can be the difference between losing to a Searing Spear or not.
I want all four Pillars maindeck to be faster and because Voice of Resurgence really is everywhere. The rest of the removal is much more up in the air, but there does need to be a lot of it.
Turn // Burn is the most dubious removal spell here, but I want at least one in the first test deck to get more experience with it. I could see it being a sort of card drawer since it can be a two-for-one, plus it solves hard problems. That said, it’s a little clunky.
I prefer Counterflux to Dissipate here because in the matchups where you want permission it is super valuable to be able to force your permission spell through. Whether you are countering Sphinx’s Revelation or Elixir of Immortality, you can really reduce the value of opposing permission spells by not letting them counter yours. Meanwhile, Cavern of Souls and Nephalia Drownyard ensure you don’t actually need to ever expose yourself to permission to win.
One weakness of the maindeck is the vulnerability to other Drownyard decks, particularly if they are more dedicated. I am not sure there is much worth doing since Cavern is probably more important than the extra Drownyards and Vampire Nighthawk / Jace, Architect of Thought / Mizzium Mortars is not the easiest on the mana. That said, Prophetic Prism is actually not out of the question and could make supporting more colorless lands a real option. Even if we don’t up the number of Drownyards (since how many people do you really need them against), it is worth considering a couple Prisms (and perhaps a few more basics). My main hesitation here is that the shockland/M10 land synergy is just incredible.
Can we really get away with almost no sweepers maindeck? I am looking forward to finding out on Friday, as I am flying in early to hang out and get some games in. If you see me on site, hit me up for a game!
It’s possible that the Curse of Death’s Holds should just be maindeck. The Jace combo is sweet, and they really do make edict effects better (since opponents will sacrifice less Avacyn’s Pilgrims and the like). Amusingly, you will even get to hit the occasional 0/0 Elemental from Voice of Resurgence. The Izzet Staticaster sideboard plan also combines well with Curse of Death’s Hold and is not out of the question as a replacement to Nighthawk (though I do want to be proactive).
I think Reap Intellect is a better option than Rakdos’s Return, but that is far from clear. As for the exact mix of anti-control cards, that’s going to take some experimenting. It’s possible we just want more Drownyards, as there have been plenty of formats where that’s the only thing that mattered. We might not actually even have this kind of room since we might need a bunch of Cremates or Pithing Needles.
One card that is loudly missing from the maindeck is Rakdos Keyrune. This is another one I am not at all sure about because it is pretty fantastic and playing Olivia or Aetherling earlier sounds pretty sweet. What I have been finding, however, is a glut at the three spot. There are so many edicts I want to play (and we haven’t even mentioned Liliana yet), not to mention creature options like Vampire Nighthawk and Izzet Staticaster. I kind of want to make sure I am affecting the board on turn 3. Of course, playing a Keyrune on 4 and then a two-drop might be enough, so there is a good chance I put one or two back in.
This weekend’s Grand Prix in Miami is going to be a pretty amazing experience. While Grand Prix Las Vegas was a festival of the absurd and awesome just in terms of history and the sheer quantity of gamers in attendance, not to mention Modern Masters mania, Grand Prix Miami promises to be much more about a great tournament, a great Constructed format, and a lot of great Magic. I have a feeling I’m not the only one that might bring a rogue deck to Miami, so this is going to be a good one to keep an eye on and to keep your eyes open at if you can make it there.
As I said, if you see me Friday and you’re looking for a game, hit me up. This Grixis deck isn’t going to tune itself! See you then!