Innovations – Cracking Standard and the State Championships

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Monday, November 9th – Patrick Chapin reflects on his victory in the Michigan State Championship some eleven years ago, before turning his gaze to the current Standard metagame. He suggests an intriguing Gauntlet as Worlds looms large, and it seems he’s finally put down the Ultimatums and picked up the two-mana beatsticks. Or has he…?

State Champion…

I remember when I won a hard-fought mirror match final to be crowned the Michigan State Champion, eleven years ago. The format was one of the craziest Standard formats of all time (when I was your age, we called in Type 2…), which bears little resemble to the game we play today, but it takes all kinds of formats to make Magic. On that day, I was crowned the champ with the help of Tolarian Academy, Time Spiral, Stroke of Genius, and Windfall.

I do not have my exact decklist, but it was almost identical to Chris Warren’s deck, who played in the Illinois State Championship that same year.

Chris Warren

4 Twiddle
4 Brainstorm
4 Intuition
4 Windfall
4 Time Spiral
3 Stroke of Genius
3 Mind Over Matter
1 Rescind

4 Lotus Petal
4 Mox Diamond
4 Mana Vault
1 Voltaic Key
1 Scroll Rack

4 Tolarian Academy
4 Remote Isle
4 Blasted Landscape
2 City of Brass
1 Ancient Tomb
4 Island

Although it should be noted that I had the additional technology of Hurkyl’s Recall. It could be used to generate mana, but it was also particularly amazing in the mirror, since I would just Hurkyl’s my opponent each time either player played a Time Spiral or Windfall, and honestly, why not tech out for the mirror when no one else has a chance?

The weirdest part of that format was how Academy worked under the old legendary land rules, making it really important to go first. In the final match, my opponent was the die roll and killed me turn 1. Game 2, I killed him on turn 1. It all came down to the final game, with him unfortunately on the play.

He played turn 1 Academy, played a few draw 7’s then had to pass the turn. I simply played out some artifact mana and an Island, shipping the turn back to him. He tried a Time Spiral and I answered with Hurkyl’s Recall, destroying the card advantage he had built from his first turn. He play out some more artifacts and passed the turn. I continued to develop mana and passed back.

On his turn, he tried another Time Spiral, but was met with yet another Hurkyl’s Recall, setting him even further behind. When I got the turn back, I Rescinded his Academy, played my own, and started to go off myself. I know it is hardly the most riveting battle, but it felt good to win, despite losing the die roll, thanks to the technology that I knew all too well from my Vintage Hurkyl’s Recall decks.

Let me just tell you, Long.dec may be the strongest Vintage deck of all time, but if you are going to count Type 1… Well let’s just say, back when gas was 5 cents a gallon and we had to walk 10 miles, uphill both ways, in the snow, barefoot, on broken glass to the coal mine to play Type 1, we played with Type 1 decks that would beat the Blue out of these modern Vintage decks.

On the play, if you didn’t kill on turn 1, you usually took a mulligan. If you were on the draw, you mulliganed to Force of Will every time. You kids today don’t know how good you got it.

The point is that I was the winner, and it felt really good to be the champ. Despite no Pro Points being awarded, there was a simple level of prestige that went along with being the State Champ. Non-Magic friends of mine would ask how I have been doing in the game, and being able to answer, “Well, I just won the Michigan State Championships,” is something that they certainly understand.

Flash forward 11 years, 2 minutes, and 17 seconds.

Today, we are blessed to have a State/Provincial Championship series that lets players all over battle for the true local titles. Magic is a tough game with millions of players, hundreds of thousands of die-hard active tournament players fighting for the coveted 400 slots at a Pro Tour. It can be really tough to make it to the very top of the pyramid. The State Championships are a great stepping stone goal in a player’s quest to qualify for the Pro Tour, as it is a challenge, but one that is certainly realistic and in the same league of difficulty as qualifying for a Pro Tour.

This year, the State/Provincial Championships have a little bit of a twist. They are being held AFTER the World Championships in Rome (which take place in two weeks). This means that the World Championships will lay the foundation for the Standard format that is currently emerging.

While there are no Tolarian Academies, the format does have its defining decks that will set the pace for everybody else. To start, let’s take another look at these decks, since every tournament player’s gauntlet should start with these two, and if you can’t beat them, you probably want to consider adjusting your strategy.

The Gauntlet:

This is a pretty standard Jund build, and it makes a great first deck to run all your new brews up against. We have talked about Jund a fair bit over the past month, so I will not dwell on it too long, however I would like cover a few points.

First of all, the manabase is a little different now, with more Red mana, taking into considering how important it is to have Goblin Ruinblaster mana. I have also moved away from Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, because though it was cute and had some reasonable plays associated with it, the games lost from it entering the battlefield tapped were greater than the number of games it won on account of it. I am not 100% sure this is right, but at least with the decks that I have been testing, I think it is probably better not to play it, as the Jund manabase is just not as good as it should be, especially when you have to play mirrors full of Ruinblasters.

The Great Sable Stags and Garruk Wildspeakers are not great, but we need more guys, and these seem to be the best of the rest. Vampire Nighthawk is an interesting option, especially if you use Mind Rot and Jund Charm, but that is the kind of spicy brew that you should spend time with if you think you might play it, whereas your gauntlet deck should probably be a bit more traditional.

Some people have been playing Jund Charm main deck, which I like with Nighthawk or as answer to Boros and Dredge, but it is obviously sketchy versus a lot of people. I could totally see it as a main deck card, if you can make the curve work, but that is one of the classic problems of Jund since you have no shortage of good three-drops.

Another important part of testing with Jund is to make sure you play post sideboard games. Jund’s sideboard is strong, and it is particularly important in match-ups where Jund has a lot of dead cascades game 1. You don’t know how many Cruel Ultimatum decks I built that crushed Jund game 1, yet once we moved to sideboarding, I got wrecked. It was not really the fact that Ruinblaster and Duress are sweet (though they are), it is that they are slightly better to reveal to Bloodbraid Elf than say Terminate or Lightning Bolt.

Up next, we have the Boros Bushwhacker.

You ever notice how Plated Geopede is a Red card?

Plated G.O.P. is Red…?

For our non-American friends, we use the color Red to denote the G.O.P. which is the Republican Party (the Democrats are Blue). I wonder if this is someone’s inside joke, or if it is mere coincidence.

Regardless, this deck is a killer. A lot of people still sleep on it, but it is actually pretty sick. In fact, most decks that are not built with this specific deck in mind will get crushed by it, since it wins turn 4-5 almost every game. A quick assault of Steppe Lynx and Goblin Guides make racing generally an unrealistic proposition, and the killer play of Ranger of Eos fetching Steppe Boy (Steppe Lynx) and Pretty Boy (Goblin Bushwhacker) is ruthless, since it generally means that on turn 5 you play a Steppe Lynx, a random guy, and a Bushwhacker, then attack for 15-20 damage.

If you don’t have another land, there is nothing wrong with fetching Elite Vanguard. Also, one thing I have learned from playtesting with the Run Good Club is that the most important part of playing this deck is when they ask you who you are getting with the Ranger of Eos, answering “Steppe Boy… and Pretty Boy,” (though honestly, if you need to, you can just get “Nappy Boy,” a.k.a. Elite Vanguard, or you can just sing this stuff to your opponent regardless of what creatures you get). If you currently do not have Chris Brown and T-Pain’s song, “Kiss Kiss” stuck in your head, you might want to check it out, as it is a great example of people singing “Nappy Boy… and Pretty Boy.”

Outside of how best to sing to your opponent, I can offer some other suggestions for piloting this Boros deck, which is not actually as straightforward as you might expect. First of all, it is often right not to crack your fetchlands just to get two points of damage through, since you can often wait and get four points later. Now, if you need the mana then you need the mana, but if you are about to play another landfall creature, do the math. In addition, it is often nice to leave a fetchland in play to protect your guys from a sweeper, if you can afford to do so, since most of the sweepers deal exactly two damage.

Kor Skyfisher is an important card to use correctly, and it does a lot more than just resetting Teetering Peaks. Goblin Bushwhacker is actually a great target, and if the game goes long, you can just grind people out by bouncing a Ranger of Eos.

When trying to figure out the order to play your creatures, try to walk through the next several turns in your head. How much damage will you deal this turn each way? Next turn? The turn after? This can give you an idea of what would have to happen in order to make you want to choose one line of play over another.

In general, Steppe Lynx comes before Elite Vanguard, which comes before Goblin Guide, though it is often important to choose the order based on your mana since you don’t want to lead with Elite Vanguard if you have a Plains, a Mountain, and two Goblin Guides.

Keep in mind that a common use of Path to Exile in this deck is as a Symbiosis. If they block one of your guys, you can Path that one to make others deal an extra 4 or more damage. Once in a while you can even get the greedy opponent that waits for you to play a land before Bolting your Geopede. If you played a fetch, you can crack it in response and Path your Bushwhacker to grow the Geopede out of Bolt range, then attack for 7. As a corollary, if you play against Boros, think carefully about when is the correct time to use your spot removal. It is nice to catch him when he uses a Peaks, but don’t be ashamed to main phase your instants. They are instants, meaning they can be used whenever, not just during the opponent’s turn.

Whatever deck you are playing should be thrown vigorously against these two before you are truly ready to play this format. Are these the only decks, though? No, surely not.

Three lists comparable to this made the Top 8 of the Nashville StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open this past weekend, piloted by Kali Anderson (winner), Andrew Shrout, and Todd Anderson. The rest of the Top 8 was two Jund decks, two Five-Color Cascade decks, and a Mono-White Control deck (Emeria). The StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Opens have been steady gaining a reputation for setting the metagame just before Pro Tours, and it appears that this Worlds is no exception.

This is obviously a big development in the format, since the deck reputedly has a great Jund match-up. Will the deck have staying power? It is hard to say, but it does seem well equipped for fighting creature battles. I definitely recommend testing against this brew, since it attacks the format in a different direction from Jund and Boros.

Various attempts at Dredge have also been surfacing, which is interesting, since they also try to fight from a different angle, but thus far the traumatize/unearth/crypt decks seem a little slow, since they are pretty well set up to be turn 6 kill decks in their current form.

The idea is obviously to Traumatize yourself, then next turn Grim Discovery a Crypt, Fatestitcher it, then make enough mana to attack with a bunch of Unearth creatures, using the Leviathan to clear the way if need be (since attacking into Baneslayer is rough).

In execution, the deck is probably a little too slow without some serious changes, since it can’t possibly race Boros, and sideboarded games against Jund are a disaster thanks to Goblin Ruinblaster and Jund Charm.

If you can figure out a way to speed the deck up significantly, or actually have a reasonable plan to defend yourself, you might be on to something since it is unlikely that people will want to waste slots on dedicated graveyard hate, beyond Jund Charm. As is, this is basically the eleventh deck fighting for the “Warp World/Summoning Trap/Pyromancer’s Ascension” niche in the metagame, as in slow combo deck that beats the other slow combo decks and bad mid-range decks or slow control decks.

It has been a while since anyone did well with Cruel Control, so many are speculating that it is finally dead, stretched too far between trying to fight the card economy and resilience of Jund, but be fast enough to keep up with Boros. Add to this the nightmare of Eldrazi Monument; Emeria, the Sky Ruin; Luminarch’s Ascension; Mind Sludge and more, and you are starting to paint a pretty grim picture for control.

You know me, I am certainly going to try a lot of ways to make it work, but there really are a lot of incentives to a more aggressive strategy right now. Besides, I kind of like attacking. Why would you NOT beat down…?

People keep telling me Vampires can work, but I have yet to see a good Vampire list that can actually beat Jund. Suggestions?


This deck is obviously pretty brutally aggressive, and can be very good at punishing opponents that are not well prepared. It has a nice anti-Jund element to it, as Jund doesn’t interact with it very well. The problem is that it struggles with White cards of all sorts, ranging from Baneslayer Angel to Steppe Lynx, plus Celestial Purge and Flashfreeze are pretty popular sideboard cards. It is not the hardest thing in the world to beat Mono-Red, but it is worst testing against, since if you sleep on it, it will roll over you.

Long story short, if you are testing for the State Championships, you really want to get yourself familiar with the format early. Waiting until after the World Championships will set you behind, since everyone else will have access to those lists too, plus many of them will have extra weeks of experience. In addition, you can only brew untainted by the perspective of others so long. Once you see the Worlds decks, you will be biased by them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is nice to be able to brew with a clean slate to start. Once you get locked into the format as the world sees it, you are less likely to come up with crazy ideas like Eldrazi Monument or Summoning Trap.

Alright, I am out for this week. Craig is already going to kick my butt for being a bit behind this week, but I will be back next week with stories from Grand Prix: Minneapolis. The organizers of the Magic Cruise (which I will be helping host again, this time in Jamaica) Legion Events will be there in force, and they always put on great events, which will be nice.

I hope to see you guys there!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”