One Step Ahead – Grand Prix Musings and New Ideas for Standard

States is coming!
Tuesday, October 28th – Constructed maestro Gerry Thompson posted a fine result at Grand Prix: Kansas City, making Day 2 in an impressive field. Today, he discusses his ideas concerning Shards Limited in general, before moving on to fresh Standard ideas that spring from the Top 16 decks at the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open. States is fast approaching… be prepared!

This is an extremely hectic time for me. I’ve PTQed every weekend, I‘ll be on a plane to Berlin by the time you‘re reading this, States is on the horizon, and Shards just came out on MTGO. I know I should just focus on Berlin, but I can’t help myself. When you start treating a format like work, that is exactly what it becomes. Anything looks like more fun, even losing round one of a 4322.

Extended just seems stale to me. In my opinion, banning Sensei’s Divining Top was about the worst thing they could have done for the Pro Tour. Without the threat of Counterbalance, combo is free to reign over Extended. There also happen to be many different flavors of combo, and most of them goldfish on turn 4 consistently. Hopefully, combo gets hated out of the PT, which would make more people willing to participate in upcoming PTQs without fear of losing every game before they get to play a fourth land.

At least with Counterbalance, there was a healthy rock/paper/scissors metagame with Zoo and combo, Counterbalance decks that beat them, and the big mana decks that beat Counterbalance. Current Extended has three top dogs: Zoo, combo, and Affinity. It is very difficult to design a deck that soundly defeats all three, and even if you manage to do that, you might just run into someone who refused to put their Tron lands away.

I guess that would qualify as the same rock/paper/scissors metagame I was talking about earlier, but it’s much more extreme than that. Modern big mana decks have an extremely difficult time dealing with either Zoo, Affinity, or combo to the point where playing big mana is probably a huge mistake. It also makes the format very unfriendly to people who enjoy playing control decks, like myself. The format is just too fast, the cards are too good, and the lack of Counterspell means your defenses aren’t what they used to be. Losing Sensei’s Divining Top as an engine is another crushing blow.

So what’s a control player to do? I figured that with four Stifle to fight combo, four Threads to fight Zoo, and a healthy amount of sideboard cards for Affinity, I would be well positioned. For the most part, I was wrong. I would take a walk through a MTGO queue, destroy TEPS like I was supposed to, have a lot of close matches with Zoo, and then get utterly destroyed by anyone with Overgrown Tombs or Tron lands.

Not only did everyone else’s decks get upgrades, blue got a ton worse. In addition, you’re forced to play these narrow cards to compensate, which are just terrible in other matchups. Ancestral Visions is too slow, and Thirst for Knowledge doesn’t dig deep enough. It was a disaster.

Grand Prix: Kansas City was a welcome reprieve from Extended. I don’t think I will get tired of Shards Limited any time soon, as it is just so refreshing. Formats with gold cards often come attached with a lot of variance, but it also rewards intelligent players who figure out ways to reduce it. Sometimes you don’t draw the right mana to cast your bomb, or maybe you just put too many lands in your deck. Either way, the smarter player is going to win the majority of the time as their decks run smoother on average.

Sure, sometimes you can just get run over by the five color deck who drew perfectly, despite having no fixers, but the amount of times that happen is few and far between. Also, sometimes you have to run that sort of deck yourself if your pool doesn’t leave with you with any other way to win. Sometimes, you just have to plan to get lucky, as that is the only way you are going to win anyway.

The tournament started off well enough for me. I opened a pretty awesome five color deck with plenty of fixing, card drawing, removal, and good creatures. Variance defeated me twice, but I wasn’t disappointed because for the most part, I wasn’t playing well that day. I finished the day in 43rd, and was excited to start the draft day, as I had spent a lot of time drafting on Magic Online Beta. My tentative plan was to just go with the flow, as I knew exactly how I needed to draft each archetype to be successful.

My first table had Herberholz, Cheon, and a bunch of other ringers. I opened Blood Cultist, Crumbling Necropolis, and a ton of weaker cards. BR was the deck I wanted to be in, but at the same, I didn’t want to move in pick one, pack one for a simple Blood Cultist. I felt like the Necropolis wouldn’t be a wasted pick either way, and I could mostly keep my options open.

Second pick was another weak pack, with only a Jund Panorama of interest to me. Normally, I don’t like taking Panoramas that high in draft, but I was perfectly fine with having two fixers this early, which meant I didn’t have to value them as high later. Third pick was another Blood Cultist, a Savage Lands, and some more mediocre cards. At this point, I felt like I was kind of committed to just seeing what was open in the next few picks.

Seventh pick was very awkward, as there was another Crumbling Necropolis still in the pack. I was under the assumption that most of these players would value the trilands higher, as they are the best fixers in the block. Apparently I was wrong, and had wasted my early picks when I didn’t need to. Lesson learned.

Naturally, I ended up in BR with two pingers, and certainly wished that I had four. In the first round I defeated a very awkward five color deck with some of the best draws my deck was capable of. In the second round, I had a “fake” feature match against Mark Herberholz, who I had heard from numerous people that he was the favorite to 3-0 the table.

I knew his deck was a very aggressive UW Exalted deck, so I happily kept Swamp, Mountain, Vithian Stinger, and plenty of other solid cards, including numerous two drops, on the draw. Sadly, I missed my third land drop once, despite having 18 in my deck, but got there the next turn. However, Mark’s Call to Heel on my Stinger put me too far behind.

Second game, I basically had the nuts while Mark stalled on two Islands, and eventually started discarding. He definitely should have mulliganed, but even then, I think he would have still lost that game. For the third game, I mulliganed two hands that were very similar. The first one was Executioner’s Capsule, Shore Snapper, and lands, whereas the second one was Shore Snapper, Undead Leotau, and lands. If my five card hand contained one of my two pingers, I would be very happy. While my five card hand was solid for what it was, without a Stinger I couldn’t beat his draws.

Cheon was 2-0 in this pod as well, so than meant that he and Mark had to face each other. If I had four pingers, I would have had a much better chance against Mark’s deck, and then I probably would have faced off against Cheon’s terrible deck. At that point, I’m on my way to making a run at another Top 8. Instead, I 1-2ed my pod, 2-1ed my second pod with a mediocre five color deck, and ended the day roughly where I began.

I cannot wait to correct my mistakes at Grand Prix: Atlanta.

The StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open results are in, and Chris Woltereck adds another Star City trophy to his mantle. The Top 8 contained two Five-Color Controls, both still packing Cruel Ultimatum, two Faeries, two WWs, a Reveillark, and a Merfolk. Two Elf decks made Top 16, and RDW scraped in at 16th. Bant and Doran decks didn’t seem to place well. This might mean that Story Circle and Runed Halo might not be worth slots in your five color decks.

Overall, there seems to be a lot of diversity. You can probably play whatever deck you are comfortable with and expect to do well with it.

As you might have noticed, I prefer slow, grinding control decks. It didn’t take much to convince me to run Gaea’s Blessing in my Mystical Teachings deck, and I would gladly play it again. Part of this comes from the fact that I hate cards that do nothing except win the game in my control decks. Early on, when you’re fighting off aggro rushes, your win condition is going to just rot in your hand. At least when you have something like Kitchen Finks or Mulldrifter, they serve other purposes.

I usually decide to forego playing something like Oona if I can help it, since it usually comes down too slow to matter. It will die to whatever removal spell your aggro opponents were holding, at no gain to you, where you still got value out of your Finks and Mulldrifters.

I want cards in my deck that are both good early and late and sometimes you do have to make sacrifices and play an Oona or two. However, with all this talk about Resounding Thunder being a tech card against the Five-Color Control mirrors and Faeries, I decided to see if I could build another Blessing-Go style deck. Obviously Blessing has long since rotated, but there are other options available. You might be thinking, “Primal Command is like the worst Blessing ever,” and you would be right. That’s why I turned to the inconspicuous Mistveil Plains. I’m actually a little ashamed that I didn’t think of this in block, as a lot of games in the Five-Color mirror came down to decking.

So what exactly does Mistveil Plains do for you? It allows you to fearlessly tear through your deck, without fear of ever running out of cards. It also lets you play without terrible six or seven casting cost win conditions that will do nothing but clog up your hand early, and win the game once you’ve already established control. At that point, you could win with anything. Something like Tidings instead of Oona would cement your victory during any close game, in addition to just be better more often.

Sometimes time is an issue, but if you decide to play Five-Color Control in a tournament, you must have already decided that you are competent enough to play it correctly, and quickly. If you can’t play fast enough, you shouldn’t even bother in the first place.

Here’s the list I threw together:

The mana is rougher than I’m used to, but I wanted to give Thunder and Jund Charm a try, especially after Reveillark placed two decks in the top sixteen at the Star City tournament. It’s pretty obviously that Reveillark still has a place in Standard, and so you should prepare for it.

Kitchen Finks is kind of out of place in this list, but I kept him in mainly to get in some extra early damage against Faeries, so that a couple Thunders would be lethal. The format is becoming increasingly resilient to Finks. Red decks have Magma Spray, guys with wither, and 4/4s. WW has exalted dudes and first strikers. The mirror even has Condemn or Bant Charm to turn Finks into a mild annoyance. The life gain isn’t very relevant as there aren’t any true burn decks in the format.

In a perfect world, this is something that I would consider playing, although I am somewhat demented. I would much rather reduce my opponents to no cards in hand and no permanents than actually win the game. That is the definition of fun.

The thought of Resounding Thunder also led me down a different path. Michael Hetrick winning Cruise Qualifier decklist inspired me to build a better, beatdown oriented control deck. The Colossus sideboard plan was solid at GP: Denver, and Treetop would compliment them nicely. Thunder put me in GBR, so I decided to simply try that color combination rather than bother with blue cards.

There were a few RGB Ramp deck lists posted on this very site, but most of them were too controlling for my tastes. They just didn’t seem like they knew what they wanted to do. You have to be aggressive to beat Five-Color Control and Faeries with a deck like that, as you aren’t going to win the long game against those decks, especially after losing something as key as Harmonize.

Here is what I would play:

I played a few games in between rounds with this at the PTQ last weekend. While this isn’t really the type of deck I’m a fan of, I can see where this would have potential.

As I said earlier, Kitchen Finks is getting worse and worse. His two toughness doesn’t have much synergy with Jund Charm. Thrinax is a bigger threat, and can block a 2/2 first striker. Overall, it seems much better, as the mana isn’t much of an issue.

WW was a close matchup, although I won almost all of the games I drew two Jund Charms. Having some Firespouts in the board, in addition to some more black removal to deal with Forge Tender would go a long way to solidifying your matchup against them.

You are a dog to Five-Color Control, but what you lose there, you gain in the Faerie matchup. Faeries will find it hard to deal with all of your threats, and even if they do, you have cycled Resounding Thunders to finish it.

A lot of people are saying Broodmate Dragon should be in this list, and they could be right. I would rather have Cloudthresher at this point, and possibly side in the Dragons against creature matchups.

The rest of the sideboard should have some way of fighting Five-Color Control. Thoughtseize, Fulminator Mage, Mind Shatter, and Profane Command are some cards that come to mind.

As always, thanks for reading.