Learning In The Lou

SCGLive commentator Patrick Sullivan talks about what he saw from the booth at #SCGSTL and what direction he thinks Standard might move in at #SCGATL.

It feels good to be back. After nearly a month off of doing coverage, I finally got to return to the booth last weekend in St. Louis. Standard was the format I was most interested in watching—Legacy is cool, but there’s almost no chance of a significant metagame shift in response to a small set being added to the card pool. These fluctuations occur all the time in Standard, especially since it takes players some time to wrap their heads around all the possibilities of the new set. The fact that the winning deck from Nashville played no cards in its 75 from Born of the Gods added to the intrigue. Had players just not had enough time to figure out what the new set had to offer? Or had the doom and gloom scenario I discussed a little while back about the state of Standard already come to pass?

The answer is "a little bit of both," at least for the time being. The dominant deck after Nashville and St. Louis is absolutely G/R Monsters. The deck had five of the slots in the Top 16 in Nashville and a finals appearance, while it made up five of the decks in the Top 8 in St. Louis and won the entire event. This is no small feat, and while G/R Monsters was a deck prior to Born of the Gods, it was certainly nothing like this. So what happened? Let’s take a look at some of the Top 8 decks from St. Louis.

We’ll get to Jonathan Habel’s winning deck in a bit, but for right now I’d rather focus on Chris VanMeter’s and Kent Ketter’s, as they are the ones utilizing the most new content. VanMeter and Ketter are both playing the full playset of Courser of Kruphix, presumably at the expense of something like Boon Satyr. Courser fits so naturally in the deck’s core strategy that this is no small upgrade.

The deck is in the market for more mana (to deploy large threats), life (to have time to deploy large threats), solid early blockers (same), and information about the top of the deck (for interactions with cards like the scry lands; Domri Rade; and Chandra, Pyromaster), and Courser provides all of this in one card. The fact that Boon Satyr is so bad against Mono-Blue Devotion and Courser is much better there might be enough to flip that matchup, which was the worst one for G/R Monsters prior to Born of the Gods in my opinion.

While VanMeter is incorporating new content into the old shell, Ketter is taking the next step by going into a third color. Our esteemed content coordinator Cedric Phillips wrote about Jund Monsters last week, and part of the logic here is to get an edge in the mirror. If you have any familiarity with the mirror, you know Polukranos, World Eater is the most important card there. It’s outside of Mizzium Mortars range, can’t be profitably blocked, and interacts very well with Domri Rade. Ketter is trying to play Polukranos number five through eight with Reaper of the Wilds, which has the same characteristics as Polukranos in the mirror, alongside Dreadbore and Ultimate Price to kill the opponent’s Polukranos.

I’m not sure I agree with the exact spread of removal (Ultimate Price might be a better maindeck card when instants are at a premium and Dreadbore can’t kill Master of Waves), but the logic is sound. It’s worth noting that you could do the same thing with white instead of black, with Advent of the Wurm replacing Reaper of the Wilds and Selesnya Charm or possibly Chained to the Rock replacing Dreadbore (plus Unflinching Courage or even Aurelia’s Fury as an additional tool in the mirror).

So if all of these new cards and splashes are so good, why did Jonathan Hable win the whole thing with last month’s list? For as good as Courser is against the field at large, it’s the worst card either deck is playing in the mirror match, and winning the mirror is clearly at a premium at this stage of the metagame. Both VanMeter and Ketter told me this is the first card they sideboard out, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Incremental card advantage doesn’t matter that much when the games are over so fast, gaining a life here and there doesn’t matter when you’re getting hit for ten a turn, and Courser is so small relative to the other creatures that it might as well not be in play. Boon Satyr can attack through Sylvan Caryatid, more efficiently attacks opposing planeswalkers, and gives the deck another high-impact draw if the game drags out. I’m not sure you want to cut Courser altogether though. It’s possible the best configuration is a mixture of Satyr and Courser, as the cards do work in different matchups and both are poor to draw in multiples.

So what’s going on with everyone else? Anecdotally, I would say people have been a little slow on the uptake to adapt to how powerful and prevalent G/R Monsters is. Mono-Black Devotion has been especially slow to react, with Devour Flesh and Bile Blight being the maindeck removal in lieu of cards like Doom Blade and Ultimate Price and Lifebane Zombie still lingering in the sideboard. Mono-Blue Devotion plays one or two Cyclonic Rifts in the 75 total. Some U/W Control lists are still playing Last Breath main.

These deckbuilding decisions were correct before Born of the Gods and might become correct again at some point down the line, but I don’t think they’re correct now. I anticipate more maindeck copies of Lifebane Zombie, Celestial Flare, and Cyclonic Rift in Atlanta next week and fewer copies of Pack Rat, Last Breath, and Bident of Thassa (and I think something like Sudden Storm could even be a decent one-of sideboard card).

Lost in the shuffle of all the Monsters was a coming-out party for Ephara, God of Polis. Ephara hasn’t received nearly the same amount of hype as Mogis, God of Slaughter or Xenagos, God of Revels, but that might be changing soon. On camera, we saw an Esper Control list utilize Ephara alongside Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Obzedat, Ghost Council to draw cards while incidentally getting to devotion with cards like Detention Sphere and Jace, Architect of Thought. The really intriguing application that I saw however was moving into blue instead of red or black in a white aggro shell. James Bush fell a little short of making the elimination rounds but had a deep run, including a victorious feature match on camera against Andrew Tenjum.

This deck makes a ton of sense to me structurally. Ephara, God of the Polis gives you staying power against more powerful decks, and devotion is fairly easy in a deck playing so many quality double-white permanents. There’s also a lot of ways to build the deck since there are a lot of powerful three-mana cards (Banisher Priest; Detention Sphere; Ajani, Caller of the Pride; Spear of Heliod; Brimaz, King of Oreskos) and you can only play so many of them. The deck we saw in St. Louis played no copies of Ajani, Caller of Pride, which seems insane to me. Ajani is so powerful in this type of deck to begin with, and flying + double strike to Ephara is a sweet synergy.

If I were going to play this deck myself (and I do plan on getting the cards for it on Magic Online if my enthusiasm wasn’t clear), I would probably start with:

Because the deck is a tad bit on the slower side, I decided to cut Boros Elite for Judge’s Familiar. It’s possible that swap is just correct for white aggressive strategies for the time being, as G/R Monsters is soft in the air and an overloaded Mizzium Mortars is a thing you’re trying to beat. Rapid Hybridization is very impressive in this list, dealing with challenging creatures or fizzling removal spells on your own creatures as appropriate. And like I mentioned before, there’s plenty of room for changing around cards in this list, with a plethora of good options in the three-mana slot especially.

Heading into Atlanta, it’s very clear that G/R Monsters is the deck to beat in Standard right now. Working with full information, I anticipate players moving toward different removal spells to handle cards like Stormbreath Dragon and Polukranos, World Eater. I also think we’re in the infancy of trying to win the Monsters mirror, and I expect players to try different cards or even colors to try to get an edge there.

The minor breakout of Ephara, God of the Polis could be a sign of things to come too, as players are still trying to wrap their heads around how to best incorporate the new content from Born of the Gods. If Dreadbore is a card players are willing to splash, maybe a deck with a lot of removal and Mogis, God of Slaughter could be well suited for Atlanta. I think this weekend has the potential to move Standard in a very different direction as players react to the dominance of G/R Monsters.