On Grand Prix Houston

Sam Black learned a lot about Standard this past weekend. Standard is still pretty wide open, with G/W Hardened Scales and Grixis Dragons performing very well. Where is this format going? Sam Black guides you!

My preparation for #GPHouston began Sunday at #SCGLOU with the SCG Classic, where I finished in the Top Four and learned that I didn’t like the G/R Ramp matchup with that deck… but that it still felt powerful, and advantaged against most of the field. I also learned about the colorless ramp deck that I played in my video last week.

I played Four-Color Rally in that event because I still had the deck in my suitcase from when I played it at the Super Sunday Series. Since then I’d been playing Bant Company on Magic Online, but I felt that the decks were similarly powerful so I followed the path of least resistance.

After I got back from Louisville, I tried building new things. When I was playing Rally I’d almost always sideboard into a more aggressive deck, bringing Anafenza, the Foremost in against a wide variety of matchups and deemphasizing my combo finish, almost always siding out 2-4 Rally the Ancestors. When I realized that thanks to Reflector Mage and Anafenza I was even trying to play a tempo game rather than combo in the mirror, I decided I wanted to try to build a deck around doing that.

I went 5-0 in the first league I played with my new deck and 4-1 in the second, then posted to Team UltraPro that I thought it was great and I’d probably play it. Several others picked it up and started working on it, and one of our 5-0 results got posted, and Gerry noticed and wrote about the deck in his article last week.

The idea behind the deck was that the format at this point was defined by Reflector Mage: all the games come down to tempo, and the board will usually littered with 2/3s. If tempo is what matters playing a one-mana hard removal spell is great, so I used my “miss slots” for Collected Company on four Murderous Cuts and played creatures like Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, Snapping Gnarlid, and Eldrazi Skyspawner that are good at attacking into opposing 2/3s.

In my initial testing, that went great. I’d built a deck that did what I was trying to do, and it felt like I’d gotten ahead of the Reflector Mage metagame. Then I started noticing a shift on Magic Online. Maybe it was just variance, but I started playing against a lot of control decks that didn’t play many creatures and weren’t in any way interested in a tempo game. They just had a lot of removal instead, and without Bant Company’s access to Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor I couldn’t go long against them. I’d explicitly traded away resilience for tempo, and I ran into the portion of the metagame that punishes that exchange.

I briefly experimented with trying to Collected Company into Mantis Rider, but the core problem was the same. It felt like I was attacking the previous week’s metagame, so I moved on.

I briefly experimented with W/B Warriors, cutting some removal and Wasteland Strangler for some more Warriors and Reflector Mage. It felt fine, but didn’t impress me enough that I felt like it was worth putting a lot of time into.

Next I tried the Colorless Eldrazi Ramp deck, and I had some very good results with it. Andrew Baeckstrom played it at #GPHouston, where he was mocked for playing cards like Atarka Monument. I moved away from it because I didn’t think it was a good choice for the Grand Prix, but when it looked like most people were playing control decks the colorless ramp deck had a lot going for it. The fact that so many of its mana sources are also threats and the fact that Mage-Ring Network lets it get to large amounts of mana even if its ramp spells are being attacked makes it much harder than other ramp decks for control decks to fight against. Infinite Obliteration is the weapon of choice in that matchup, and being able to counter that with Warping Wail was devastating – but even if they got it through, the deck was still so threat-dense that it didn’t matter since they weren’t well-positioned to beat the Scions tokens generated by From Beyond or Spawning Bed.

The cheap removal into Thought-Knot Seer plan was very good against the red aggro decks, and the deck generally played a lot better than it looked. I was actually pretty sure I was going to play it on Thursday. Then word about Hardened Scales got out.

The first mention I saw of it was Todd Anderson listing it among decks he expected to see in the future of Standard during a Twitter AMA, then someone saw a 5-0 result from a league that got posted and rumors started to circulate about various pros who’d been playing it on Magic Online. Justin put it together, went 9-1 in his first two leagues and started pulling cards to build the deck, saying he loved it after he’d been losing with everything else. At this point I had to start traveling to Houston, and I hadn’t played any games with Hardened Scales. When I left, I knew I’d play either Colorless Ramp, Hardened Scales, or Four-Color Rally. I planned to play a league on Magic Online with Hardened Scales when I got to Houston, and I left knowing I’d be making my decision based on that trivially-small piece of information.

As it turned out, finding food in Houston proved incredibly difficult since we got in fairly late, and thanks to several misleads from Yelp (which was wrong about the hours of several restaurants) my attempt to grab something to eat quickly before getting to test took a miserable three-plus hours instead. So I started testing at around one in the morning, played three matches with Hardened Scales on Magic Online and about four games of Hardened Scales against Colorless Ramp with Justin to determine that Colorless Ramp just couldn’t possibly keep up with size and speed of Hardened Scales and thus it was actually a complete non-option for a GP where all the pros were likely picking up Hardened Scales. Not a lot of testing be damned, I was now on the new hot deck.

Early on in the tournament I talked to some other players who were playing it and reported exceptional results testing the deck, which fit with the little I’d seen, and I reported back to my friends at home that I strongly recommended the deck for the next day’s RPTQ.

At the end of Day One, Justin was 8-1 and I was 7-2. My losses felt very unlucky and I liked the deck a lot, but most of the other pros who were playing the deck also had two or three losses, far below expectation if they’d actually found a great deck. I worried that I’d led my friends at home astray, but the deck still felt great to me. I’d lost almost all my die rolls, taken a lot of mulligans, and had very few of the deck’s nuts draws. I think I’d slightly under-drawn the best cards, Hardened Scales and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar.

I went 5-1 on Sunday, and I still felt like the deck was a pretty good choice despite the fact that the other pros seemed fairly disappointed with it. Ultimately the deck put two players in the Top Eight, as much as any other archetype, and it was the most-played deck in the top 100 player archetypes after Day One. I don’t know if that’s because it was the most-played deck among people with three byes, which I’m fairly confident it was even though I don’t actually have the numbers on that, and I have no idea what portion of the field was actually playing it so its relative success it hard to measure. I’d guess it overperformed, but I don’t know if it overperformed in comparison to its pilots’ expected win percentage.

While Hardened Scales was the breakout new deck of the tournament, I think there’s a good chance that only happened because word got out just before the tournament and so many players picked it up. In a slightly different timeline, I can imagine Cody Lingelbach absolutely being the talk of the tournament.

Cody posted an undefeated record on Day One, and I think his list looks great. All of the creatures except Hangarback Walker are excellent against Reflector Mage, and the deck makes outstanding use of Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury. The blue and colorless splashes give the deck more good fliers and his sideboard looks great, full of really high-impact cheap spells that are good in a variety of matchups. Flying has been great in this format, and I think Cody found the best way to put the most fliers to good work.

Moving forward in Standard, Four-Color Rally will continue to be the best deck but it will also continue to occupy a relatively-small metagame percentage. Hardened Scales and Grixis Dragons are both fast enough to make life very difficult for Eldrazi Ramp, so I’d expect a decline there as well. That in turn is slightly good news for Four-Color Rally, which I think has a favorable matchup against Hardened Scales but I’d guess an unfavorable matchup against Grixis Dragons.

I’d expect Grixis Dragons to pick up the largest portion of the metagame share following this event, so it’s worth noting that Cody lost in the Top Eight to Brock Mosley’s Mardu Green deck in a matchup that looks terrible for Cody. Brock has removal, lifegain, and card advantage including Chandra, Flamecaller, Languish, and Radiant Flames in the maindeck to answer the tokens and Crackling Doom to answer the Dragons without taking damage. In the sideboard, Cody adds another Chandra, more Radiant Flames, plus Virulent Plague, it even has access to Pia and Kiran Nalaar to battle Cody’s plans to go wide.

This Mardu Green deck isn’t flashy but it’s likely the best deck against Grixis Dragons and Hardened Scales, making it another deck to watch and seriously consider. However, I think it has a somewhat unfavorable matchup against Four-Color Rally. Their removal-based plan of putting all opposing creatures in the graveyard is just too weak against the card Rally the Ancestors, and while Mardu Green has access to Hallowed Moonlight, Anafenza, the Foremost, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, Infinite Obliteration, and Tainted Remedy to fight that I think Rally is actually positioned to fight through those cards, leaving the matchup still favorable for Four-Color Rally.

That point really reinforces just how good Rally is. It’s a known quantity and everyone tries to have a deep plan against it, but Rally’s counter-play is just as strong as the answers and hate cards aren’t terribly effective. The Rally deck has so much built-in card advantage as well as the ability to shift strategies somewhat freely, so it can wriggle out of a lot of decks’ plan to beat them. If I’m attacking Rally I’d much rather focus on a plan that’s fundamentally sound against them, like Grixis Dragons, rather than trying to shore up a structural weakness like Mardu Green’s with narrow cards dedicated to trying to answer the matchup. Four-Color Rally just gets to trump the answers with cards like Dispel, Duress, and Reflector Mage.

My first instinct in thinking through this is that I’d want to play Rally, and where I’d previously advised trying to find a way to shore up the Ramp matchup now I’d just ignore it. I mostly like Owen’s list, although I’d cut the Grim Haruspex for a second copy of Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, and might even try to find room for a third. I also still prefer the second Prairie Stream to the second Canopy Vista, although playing the fourth Elvish Visionary over the third Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim makes is closer and I’m undecided on whether I’d do that. My first instinct would be to cut the two Despises in Owen’s sideboard for two copies of Anafenza, the Foremost, and probably the second Duress for a third Anafenza, but I’d imagine I could be talked out of that if I knew exactly what Owen’s sideboard plans were and why.

Given the other decks that look good after this event, I don’t think I’d want to play Hardened Scales. I think it matches up somewhat poorly against Four-Color Rally, Grixis Dragons, and Mardu Green, which is part of why I’d want to play one of those. Grixis Dragons would be my second choice after Rally, but I have the least information about it so if I had a Standard event to prepare for in the near future I’d start by putting the focus of my playtesting efforts there and see where it leads.