Magical Hack — The Biggest Losers, or: Learning How To (Lor)Wyn Again

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Standard always does an interesting dance this time of year. Old favorites from the past two years march off into the mists of time to be forgotten with the rest. Old problems disappear just as abruptly, showing that even the most aggressively dominant decks come with an expiration date… I’m looking at you, Arcbound Ravager.

Standard always does an interesting dance this time of year. Old favorites from the past two years march off into the mists of time to be forgotten with the rest. Old problems disappear just as abruptly, showing that even the most aggressively dominant decks come with an expiration date… I’m looking at you, Arcbound Ravager. New gems start to emerge as we start thinking of “Standard” in the context of a somewhat larger version of the last Block Constructed format, and brand-new cards get a chance to shine. We haven’t even shuffled off that new cardboard smell yet, and much like Tom Lehrer’s spring, life is Skittles and life is beer for October is our favorite time of the year.

We all know what we’re losing from Standard; those who have invested in their Ravnica-block dual lands have a keen awareness of the difference between Ravnica Block Standard and post-Ravnica Standard. We can’t pretend that nothing has changed, and just keep bleeding on the floor as we stumble around trying to make three-color manabases work as easily and as smoothly as they did just a moment ago. We get to rebuild from the ground up, and for that we’ll want to start with the decks that don’t have much in the way of Ravnica cards to begin with, before deciding what they can live without.

One such obvious deck is Tarmo-Rack, the most recent inheritor of the “Viridian Rats” legacy and sort of Rock-like style of play. Presuming you can live without Overgrown Tomb (and you can, really) the deck loses really nothing at all with the rotation of Ravnica Block out of Standard, relying very little as it did upon cards like Cry of Contrition when you think of what happens to be around to replace it. Amusingly, the rotation of Ravnica Block theoretically drops the expensive manabases from your requirements to play in Standard… which makes this a good start for “most expensive deck in Standard,” what with its four Thoughtseizes and Tarmogoyfs. New cards for the deck range from the incredibly obvious to the merely intuitive, and are more or less as follows:

Eyeblight’s Ending
Nameless Inversion
Liliana Vess
Garruk Wildspeaker
Gilt-Leaf Wood

Admittedly if you want to take the deck more along the lines of an Elf theme you can use more of your replacement Overgrown Tombs, and start packing in cards like Wren’s Run Vanquisher to sit in your two-drop curve. However, even at its greenest this deck still doesn’t seem to want Elves; a solid first draft update of the Tarmo-Rack deck might just look like this:

Four Lorwyn cards get introduced to the mix here… one awesome discard spell, two removal spells and the next generation of Call of the HerdsGarruk Wildspeaker, a.k.a. Three Stupid Elephants. That we happen to add Tribal and Planeswalker to the card types in the deck, pumping up Tarmogoyf, is pleasant but not necessarily crucial. This deck has a very specific bent to it… it uses discard to cherry-pick away your late-game cards, stunting your development after the first few turns to just whatever you can pluck off the top of your deck, while using creature-kill and regenerators to mop up or just ignore whatever is left and eroding your board position with quite a variety of amazing creatures. Treetop Village and Garruk Wildspeaker provide your Wrath-protection, if somehow they manage to wipe the board after you’ve wiped their hand; otherwise, Garruk’s horde of elephants, Troll Ascetic, and Tarmogoyf can win the day by being absolutely amazing creatures for their cost.

Of all the things to be sketchy about this deck, though, it’s The Rack that seems most out of place… the other cards work very neatly in a specific strategy, but choosing The Rack as your finisher is something that at least some prior iterations of this deck have been moving away from. Many more still may choose to do so in the coming weeks of playtesting as they see how the deck works without Cry of Contrition knocking that second card away. The Rack asks to be put with Stupor, but Stupor has this annoying habit of not really fitting the rest of the deck’s objectives or space. Solve this problem and you’ve more or less tuned the deck, and it’s quite possible that you can dig into the 24 lands (others play as few as 21) or the full four copies of Garruk, or otherwise twist and tune the numbers around to fit an effective number of Stupors in to complement the discard strategy and thus help to justify the use of The Rack as a finisher. It’s likely three copies of Stupor, possibly at the expense of a Horizon Canopy, a Garruk, and perhaps the fourth Ravenous Rats, as successful lists over the course of the Nationals season have used three without the deck completely exploding.

Others have been experimenting with a similar core but finding ways to get Haakon, Stromgald Scourge into the graveyard, and taking advantage of the Changeling effect of Nameless Inversion to repeatedly cast a +3/-3 removal spell on the opponent’s creatures. Overall this concept is weak, as it requires not only the inclusion of cards to put Haakon into the graveyard but also has to both get Haakon working and have enough time to really benefit from the repeated casting of Nameless Inversion. It would be much easier to just include Damnation if what you wanted to do was kill all of the opponent’s creatures, rather than somehow protect a 3/3 against an Incinerate after you have to go to all this work to get him into play in the first place. The kinds of decks this would theoretically be good against are the kinds of decks that could either bust it apart or not give you enough time to set it up, making it just cute and kitschy rather than actually good. The kinds of decks that will give you enough time are the ones that aren’t likely to provide a target to kill even if you jump through the right hoops.

Okay… so that’s one deck we recognize, so far. What the heck are the other decks going to look like?

Following up on Block Constructed, we can reasonably expect G/W and G/W/R beatdown decks, similar in design to each other. We can expect U/G aggro-tempo designs similar in concept to the one that won Grand Prix: Florence as the highest-placing evolution of the “Donkey Pong” deck originally advanced at Grand Prix: Montreal and seen throughout the Valencia PTQ season. We can expect Mystical Teachings U/B/x/y/z designs, and Pickles-based designs either mono-colored or with a single splash, thanks to Tenth Edition pain-lands and either Future Sight’s Future-shifted lands or Lorwyn’s Tribal lands. There were some Red decks, too, but not ones we are likely to recognize so well once we add the rest of the card pool, as cards like Incinerate and Mogg Fanatic strongly overpower the cards we had to work with previously.

G/W and G/W/R all get to take advantage of one Mr. Gaddock Teeg, Legendary Meddling Mage. This is a significantly disruptive creature, as it more or less hoses entire strategies if they don’t accommodate for his existence, at least here in Standard where things that cost four are played with some regularity. G/W can either look like its Time Spiral Block predecessor or like a more traditional White Weenie deck, more like the Yokohama White Weenie deck splashing Gaddock Teeg and whoever else works out for the deck but gaining key contributions from the Kithkin team. Savannah Lions may have left Standard but we have a serviceable Isamaru replacement if we are willing to make use of him, and you can even splash “just” Gaddock off four Brushlands and four Horizon Canopies… so at least one cornerstone starting-point of the Standard format is the White aggro deck, as we have seen in numerous States formats so far.

Historically, this is the sort of deck everyone loves to talk about, but just doesn’t hold up against the competition. We’ve discussed playing White Weenie for almost as long as there have been Plains to cast them, and while it was certainly correct at some times it has in the end proven incorrect in many others… as if White beatdown is the deck first developed, ignoring the fact that you need to really be able to interact with the opponent (besides racing or maybe killing their creatures) if you want to have a realistic chance. Here, we see some fun elements that make life difficult for anyone whose plan is to race the White assault, and Gaddock as the sole disruptive element unless we’re able to Vindicate something with Oblivion Ring. We get a slight dash of long-game through Amrou Scout contributing both creature removal, a small horde of attacking creatures (even if most of them are named Amrou Scout as well…) when you need a greater number of men to push through, and tutor-access to that one Mirror Entity as a creature pump effect to mop up the board. It has a plan if its initial plan is blunted… it just doesn’t have any more interesting or unique angles of attack, if dealing 20 through the combat phase proves impossible. Even a true disruptive element would give the deck something special, which is why we’re always begging to see Armageddon… and will never get it back. Gaddock does a good job, but it’s a very specific job, and not one that is going to leave every opponent quaking in their boots… sometimes he’s just a 2/2 and doesn’t affect the opponent’s deck at all.

Leaving the White Weenie neighborhood for something more like the G/W deck that did well over the last PTQ season, we start to harness the power of Tarmogoyf… and that’s a Good Thing (TM). Surely you’ve seen this one by now:

This is already somewhat tuned to compete in a format where Pickles and UB Teachings are popular decks, and while these sorts of decks certainly gain tools (like the nifty Shriekmaws we’re starting to see pop up all over)… so does the Predator deck if it wants them. After all, Gaddock Teeg is clearly within these color combinations and clearly quite a vicious beating against the right decks. What you could get away with in Time Spiral Block, though – not having one-drops – doesn’t quite cut it in a Standard format where it looks like Isamaru might be a four-of in Kithkin decks, and one has such powerful cards as Mogg Fanatic to think about. Arguably you might end up with a deck focusing more on this school of thought (shown to us around Regionals or so and built by Steve Sadin), which (like TarmoRack) was one of the better decks of the prior Standard format… and which likewise loses not nearly as much as everything else in the rotations.

Trade Stomping Grounds, Scorched Rusalka, Seal of Fire, and Char for other cards, and overall weaken the rest of the format… yeah, sounds like a deal. Seal of Fire is clearly replaced with Tarfire, which has a similarly beneficial effect on the size of Tarmogoyfs, and if needed you can swap at least some Stomping Grounds for Groves of the Burnwillows to have the same excellent mana consistency without nearly as much life-gain for the opponent as you’d first think. After all, you’re predominantly using it to tap for Green to cast Tarmogoyf and colorless otherwise, but want something besides basic Forest in case you really, really need another Red source for your predominantly Red deck. Perhaps fewer than the full four copies, though I see no great cause to be concerned with that… but still, you can imagine that this deck can more or less work just fine after the rotation. There are, after all, a few worthy Goblins to consider… and another quality burn spell in Lash Out to at least think twice about before completely dismissing, as a potential replacement for Char.

To fill that last creature spot… Soulkin Flamebright is a two-drop that attacks acceptably well, and can grant Gargadons and Tarmogoyfs trample, which is an ability not to be despised. If it’s a one-drop we’re wanting, Karplusan Wolverine has been played (and laughed at) to reasonable success, over the Nationals season, and serves at least some reasonable purpose. It trades with two-toughness blockers and can’t be blocked effectively by a one-toughness creature, while always getting in for that one point of damage when he attacks. Magus of the Scroll has a reasonably relevant ability, though you’d likely have to add a land before you could expect it to ever hit, and Martyr of Ashes has been in and out of this particular decklist numerous times. He could easily go back in, when Scorched Rusalka leaves, as the far less embarrassing Red one-drop from Coldsnap.

If you want to insist on staying White/Green/Red, you can; I don’t see the benefits as being especially apparent, compared to a very successful two-color list that has most of the same benefits and is only lacking in the ability to play Gaddock Teeg.

As far as Teachings decks, they are about the most uniquely customizable deck in the format. It has the greatest desire to have “odd” numbers like two-of and three-ofs, alongside its array of silver-bullet one-ofs and all too powerful fours. Earlier this week Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin put the following deck up… and if you’re not already reading StarCityGames.com Premium, this is the place where I feel I am obligated to shill it to you, as Patrick Chapin’s articles alone make it well worth the annual price for a Premium subscription and you get bonuses like the works of Richard “The Lumberjack” Feldman as well. If you’ve not already subscribed, I would consider it strongly… after all, we can’t absolutely, positively promise that I’ll just repost his Monday decklists on the Friday before States!

I would want to borrow a slight bit of Feldman technology to marry with the Chapin creation and look for a Logic Knot in with the rest of this deck, because you can’t always guarantee you’ll have UUU1 when you need to counter a spell and be able to pay for Pact of Negation on the following turn. While it would take a lot more testing than I’ve put into this nascent format so far. I for one am far more interested in focusing on the upcoming PTQ season than “just” States, when I’m pretty sure if I had to play States this weekend I’d just play the Tarmo-Rack deck with the hopefully-tweaked-and-tuned number of Stupors and expect to take very strong advantage of the fact that most control decks are relatively incapable of removing a Planeswalker card from play.

What interests me most, personally, is what a Pickles deck would look like in Standard as it translates over. I’m thinking it might just go a little something like this:

Whether this stands up to the fast aggressive decks in the format is the key question on my mind… and just what kinds of tricks you can get away with the manabase, as you want to keep some very obvious things available to you on demand:

1. U on turn 1, to go with Ancestral Vision. This means we limit the lands that don’t tap for Blue on turn 1, in this case to less than 50% of the lands. We want an Island or at least an Underground River if there’s an Ancestral Vision in our hand.

2. Access to UUU for Teferi and Cryptic Command off four or five lands. This likewise limits our non-Blue lands, in this case to 6 of the 26 lands, with the sincere hope that the 16 that tap for Blue painlessly will cover most of this triple Blue cost.

3. Access to BB at or around turn 4, with a willingness to work for it if we have to. We have eight UB dual lands, three chargelands that can get two counters by turn 4, two Urborgs and two Tolarias to transmute for Urborgs, which hopefully can give us plenty of Black mana when we want it.

4. Sufficient lands to make our first five land drops without a card drawing spell used, then hopefully resolve Ancestral Vision to get us up to six mana and above as the game goes longer. Kenji’s list had 27; others I’ve seen had 26 and 4 Prismatic Lens. This has 26 but might want to shave a card to make room… which card, though, is clearly open to debate, with only the fourth Brine Elemental suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it can wait until later in the game to start going crazy.

Can the addition of Damnation to the main-deck of the Pickles deck give it that nudge above the aggressive decks, with a sprinkling of Shriekmaw goodness to help out? I’d think so… but also expect to see more Urborgs and perhaps some Tendrils of Corruption in the sideboard to help out, to really hammer things home for creature decks. Cryptic Command is amazing, countering a spell and bouncing an early play against the beatdown decks, but you need a little more oomph to really blunt the aggressive push. Tendrils comes with some obvious perks while adding more Urborgs makes those Damnations far, far easier to cast “on time.”

If you’re looking at what Lorwyn does by itself, however, I don’t think most of the cards really stand by themselves. I think a Reanimator-based strategy is completely possible, marrying Evoke cards with Dread Return and Body Double, and would expect to see some iteration of the Red-White-Blue control deck rise to the forefront once again, perhaps on the strong shoulders of Brion Stoutarm. You need a strong justification to use the White Wrath instead of the Black Wrath, and the latest inheritor of the mantle of Loxodon Hierarch might help to provide just such an excuse… that and the fact that the White Command is actually absolutely bonkers as well can’t hurt, seeing how it does have this nifty ability to Wrath selectively around Brion if needed or destroy artifact mana, giving it a use against the UB decks like Patrick’s, above.

Lorwyn is very easily overshadowed by the full Time Spiral block, and doesn’t provide good mana fixing like the Future Sight or 10th Edition dual lands except in only a few extreme cases. Its tribal theme, lacking the full block’s worth of cards blending in with that theme, are readily overshadowed by the more potent cousins we’re seeing in other sets. It is possessed of a few very powerful cards, and more than a few of them deserve – nay, demand – attention… but for the most part the change to the coming Standard format seems to feel like Time Spiral Block Constructed plus a little, with Lorwyn providing some role-players but otherwise seeing the greatest effect of Lorwyn being what it displaces, not what it provides.

We’ve got a lot to learn again… after all, we have basically dismissed one of the better Block Constructed decks entirely, the GW and GWR aggressive decks, and blatantly not mentioned the UG aggro-tempo decks in our discussion so far. I think that UG is a good approach to the format that deserves some further attention, however, so I’m saving my thoughts on it for a more fully developed article… one where we might just see Tarmogoyf growing fins and hanging with the Merfolk, since we have an entire tribe of fishy friends to explore and it seems to be one of the more powerful ones if Lorwyn Limited is at all an indicator of these things…

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com