Keeping Tabs On Standard And Looking Ahead

Standard PTQ season is here! Sam Black, who made Top 4 of PT Philadelphia last year, takes a look at the metagame and provides an Esper Control list that those going to Birmingham this weekend might want to take a look at.

The Standard PTQ season has begun in full, complete with two Magic Online PTQs. On top of that, several countries have had their first Magic World Cup Qualifier tournament. To the best of my knowledge, little has really changed. It would be awesome to see some sweet new decks break out now that the PTQ grinders are brewing, but with only a few weeks until Avacyn Restored is legal and with the format looking so explored already, it’s hard to imagine a radical shift before AVR comes out.

It’s worth noting that when it does come out, it will be the PTQ grinders rather than the pros taking the first crack at it, which is somewhat unusual these days. But with PT Barcelona being Block and a Standard PTQ season in progress, that’s how it will be, which should offer a huge reward for good deckbuilders or anyone who can find some hidden gems in AVR.

Meanwhile, Delver continues to put up dramatically more Top 8s and wins than any other archetype, but it does have some competition. There’s still no consensus on how to build Delver, although everyone seems to play Geist of Saint Traft and three-to-four pieces of equipment.

Spirits has fallen entirely by the wayside despite an all-time low in Corrosive Gales (only two total in each Magic Online PTQ Top 8). I’m not sure if this is more because people are just defaulting to the equipment build if they want to play Delver or if it’s because the Spirit build is much worse against Esper Control (or any deck with Day of Judgment), which has been one of the more popular competitors recently.

I’ve heard some rumblings on Twitter about enchantment based Delver strategies picking up some ground (winning in Germany), reportedly backed by a lot of Mental Missteps, but I don’t think that’s about to become the common approach here.

There’s an interesting development happening within Esper Control, which is new (at least to me). Two of the three Esper Control decks to Top 8 Magic Online PTQs this weekend had absolutely no countermagic. This makes sense, since it’s terrible against Delver and presumably weak against R/G, but this does mean that the expected control deck at the moment is most likely relatively soft to ramp or other control.

I can only assume this will have to change once AVR comes out if Griselbrand sees any play, as relying on letting him resolve and then killing him means fighting through seven extra cards. In the meantime, these players are presumably giving themselves a significant advantage against the aggressive field they face by switching to a board control oriented strategy. Amusingly, this would also be a big help for a burn heavy mono red strategy, if such a thing were viable in this format.

The second biggest contender at the moment, though that could easily change from week to week, is probably R/G Aggro, which won one Magic Online PTQ and the SCG Open Series: Phoenix Standard tournament. The Magic Online deck even featured two copies of Garruk’s Companion, who, like Skinshifter, is great at connecting with Swords but has less vulnerability to Gut Shot.

Zombies is a strategy that has not been having success lately. Presumably, R/G’s access to cards like Arc Trail combined with threats like Strangleroot Geist and Huntmaster of the Fells, which Zombies has to use too many resources to compete with, leaves R/G as the better undying aggro deck when they fight. Zombies’ additional vulnerability to Celestial Purge holds it back against all the white decks (basically every other deck in the format) after sideboarding.

I think it’s possible to beat Delver, but the advice I would give to anyone looking to win a PTQ who doesn’t have a strong bias against Delver based on familiarity with another deck is to pick up Delver, play a lot, and try to find a way to get a real edge in the mirror. I think the best way to do that is to find a sideboard strategy that goes over the top of whatever they’re doing without getting run over if they get ahead. I think you have less control over getting under the other player and trying to be the aggressor, but if you can take control with cheap answers and deal with all of their threats, it can be pretty easy to get into a long game. The trick is just to make sure you can win once you’re there.

The other difficulty with taking the control route is that all of their threats require different answers. Mental Misstep and Gut Shot are best against Delver of Secrets; Phantasmal Image, Timely Reinforcements, and Geist of Saint Traft are the best answers to Geist of Saint Traft; and Divine Offering or Steel Sabotage are the best answers to equipment, but none of those cards do anything against the wrong kind of threat.

Snapcaster Mage and Ponder try to give the deck enough card selection to mitigate this problem, which is why I think the Delver shell is the best deck to start with when trying to build a control deck against Delver. If you start with traditional control spells like Mana Leak and Day of Judgment, your curve will be too high, and it will be too easy to fall behind and lose to their counterspells.

The most important step to controlling Delver is to play answers that don’t cost more than their threats, which is hard to do since their threats cost one-to-three mana. Fortunately, this format has even cheaper answers.

The easiest way to beat R/G is probably to be a bigger R/G deck, especially a ramp deck like Wolf Run, but there are other options. Grave Titan (or any other Titan really) is amazing against them if you can live to cast it. Phantasmal Image is the best answer to Strangleroot Geist, but white cards like Timely Reinforcements and Blade Splicer are also excellent.

I wonder if what I’m really getting at is that a low curve Esper Control deck could beat both of these decks. Something like (off the top of my head):

This deck is built to have just enough expensive cards to have some semblance of inevitability against aggressive decks, while maximizing its cheap answers to operate in a curve that’s more realistic to the format as defined by Delver. Without having played it, I suspect that it’s basically like a pre-boarded Delver deck that gives up a huge number of free wins for a potential edge in the mirror.

If the deck actually has a real edge against Delver, it’s possible that it’s actually playable, because a real edge against Delver might be worth giving up a lot of free wins against the field. I haven’t tested it; it’s just an attempt to put the theories I’ve been discussing into some kind of list. Dungeon Geists also might fit well here, incidentally.

Negate is played over Mana Leak because I’m generally planning to go long and looking to counter cheap spells, so Mana Leak just doesn’t really do much. Also, in my experience sideboarding for Delver mirrors, I sometimes want Negate in my deck but never Leak unless they’re Spirits.

The problem with this deck and with giving up Delver’s free wins in general, is that despite the dominance of Delver this format is actually very open. After Delver, there are a huge number of "second tier" decks. This deck is designed to just barely go over the top of Delver, but any kind of tokens strategy with Anthems of any kind will just go over me. I suspect I’d lose to all the other Lingering Souls decks.

I’d also be hopeless against basically any deck with a significantly higher curve. If you’re trying to use cheap spells to get to a long game but you don’t have expensive spells to win there, all that happens when you play against a deck that does is you make sure they get to beat you with their more powerful cards.

This is why I never actually build decks by looking at a metagame and trying to find the weaknesses of key decks. Instead, I prefer to look for synergies that exist that people haven’t really explored and see if I can find something there. That said, I think when looking to incorporate Avacyn Restored cards, it makes sense to look for cards that you would expect to perform well against existing strategies and try to build around those cards, rather than merely trying to slot new cards into existing decks.

The most obvious example would be Griselbrand’s application against counterless board control, as I mentioned above, but I suspect there will be other cards, hopefully with less narrow applications. Unfortunately, looking at the spoiler right now, I don’t see anything that stacks up especially well against Delver, but this might be because it feels like most of the cards are expensive creatures that aren’t especially good against Vapor Snag. Bonfire of the Damned is actually among the more interesting cards, as even without miracle it can be a reasonable answer to flying tokens.

Maybe I need to look a little deeper. Wheel of Fortune is an extremely powerful effect if you can empty your hand faster than your opponent, and five mana isn’t even unreasonable for it in the right circumstance. The miracle on Reforge the Soul is better than the miracle on most other miracle cards because the savings actually does something for you when you draw it late, in that you can immediately use the extra mana to cast the spells you drew.

While Reforge the Soul itself might not seem amazing against Delver, it’s possible that the strategy that wants to be built around it (something with a lot of cheap, proactive cards that we can slam into play as quickly as possible) might actually stack up well. I’m not a big fan of Vexing Devil, since I think it’s a bad Lava Spike, but Lava Spike becomes a lot more interesting to me with Wheel of Fortune.

Reforge the Soul doesn’t even have to go in Mono Red specifically. Historically (ok, in Cube), I’ve been a huge fan of green mana acceleration with Wheel of Fortune so that you can play the new cards you draw as quickly as possible as well. It’s possible that this is the extra push G/R Aggro needs to really take over this format, since it’s already a top contender.

It’s possible the deck would want to be rebuilt slightly with a lower curve; maybe another early creature and more Hellriders over Huntmaster of the Fells, especially if we get something that makes the mana a little easier. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that G/R Aggro might be able to get even more aggressive with another set. Maybe Champion of Lambholt could even find a place as a way to get through tokens, trumping Timely Reinforcements even with an Anthem (unlike Hero of Oxid Ridge).

The important thing is to remember to keep an eye open, because the value of discovery in Standard will be at a relative high without teams of pros spending weeks finding all the new synergies for you. This will be a very interesting PTQ season in a few weeks.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter