One Step Ahead – Pitfalls in Standard

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard open Comes to Philadelphia!
Wednesday, November 19th – Grand Prix: Atlanta finalist Gerry Thompson lays down the law in today’s One Step Ahead… he tears through a selection of the more successful States decklists and strategies, offering sage advice and expert tips with an acerbic “take it or leave it” wit. With the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open on the horizon, let Gerry guide the way!

I remember a time when someone could play a land and you would know their entire decklist, give or take a few cards. The major innovations were usually in their sideboards, because almost everyone could agree upon what was the correct main deck. The only time people changed cards was for metagame considerations, or because they’d figured out something that no one else had.

I miss those days.

These days, it seems like everyone assumes they know more than everyone else. If you take a tournament-proven deck and change ten cards, you’d better have a very good reason to do so. Most people do it for reasons I cannot fathom, and end up playing with vastly inferior decks. Honestly, the worst thing is when someone who does this wins a tournament anyway, thus proving they were correct after all.

Obviously, just because a deck wins one tournament doesn’t mean that it is the best possible list. This is why you shouldn’t just assume that, because you won a tournament, the changes you made were correct. It doesn’t even prove that the list that was copied in the first place was correct. This is known as being results-oriented, and is a very bad thing. Whether you won or lost is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is that you made the right play. If you did, you have nothing to be upset about, as losing was out of your control (unless you take deck building and other factors into account, which you should).

Just like poker, anyone can win a game of Magic, and that is what keeps the dream alive for the Pro Tour hopefuls out there. Anyone can even win an entire tournament if their deck is reasonable. Having the perfect main deck might not allow you to win every match you play, but it’s a great start. Tim Aten would have you believe a few different card choices doesn’t matter, but I disagree. Why wouldn’t you want every edge possible?

Recently, the States results were posted, and I couldn’t be more disappointed. There seemed to be a distinct lack of true innovation, and most decks I saw had several flaws that were obvious to me. It was like everyone took the same boring stock decks and made changes that they thought were great… except that I know the truth.

I know that I am not perfect, and I can certainly be wrong about things, but I play a lot of Magic. I understand deck building better than most, and I can spot something that is out of place. If you are reading my articles, I shouldn’t really have to explain myself, but I feel like I need to in order to not come across condescending. I usually feel like everything is black and white.

Ponder in Faeries is wrong.

Faerie Conclave in Faeries is wrong.

Fewer than 26 lands in Five-Color Control is wrong.

Now, I’m going to tell you why.

Watching Faerie decks evolve last season was very interesting. Most players agreed that several slots were a given. 4 Mistbind Clique, 4 Scion of Oona, 4 Spellstutter Sprite, 4 Bitterblossom, 4 Rune Snag, 4 Terror, 4 Ancestral Vision, and 4 Cryptic Command were present in almost every single list. Those cards were so obviously powerful that no one could deny their presence.

Obviously, later on, players decided to branch out, mostly due to metagame considerations. Scions were consistently being caught in the line of fire from Cloudthresher and Squall Line, so some people cut those. The manabase had to change to account for the presence of Magus of the Moon, and so on.

While it might not be obvious, there is always a correct choice. There is no reason to play two Terror and two Agony Warps. One is almost always better, and therefore you should play four of one and none of the other. If there is a matchup you need additional removal, or you really need Terror to destroy bigger creatures, feel free to bring them in at that point.

Ponder is a trap. It seductively lures you in with the promise of deck manipulation. It promises to find your best card, Bitterblossom, and set you on the path to victory. That is all a clever ruse. Ponder’s true intentions are to waste your mana, negatively influence your mulligan decisions, and ultimately cause you to lose games while you sit there wondering, “What happened?”

First of all, you put a card in your deck to help you find a Bitterblossom when you would almost always be better off mulliganing rather than keep a mediocre hand with a Ponder. Mulliganing is like casting a Ponder for six cards, and is more likely to find you a Bitterblossom. You just can’t bank on this card that does so little to accomplish so much.

I have played with Ponder in some decks, but never Faeries. In something like Merfolk, you have a deck that lives or dies by its curve. If you cast Ponder on turn 1, you are attempting to set yourself up for turn 3 or 4 when you can do sick things with Merrow Reejerey and Stonybrook Banneret. Ponder can also find a Merfolk to turn on Silvergil Adept. Ponder is much better at finding your 25-outer than your four-outer.

Ponder is obviously fine in Eternal formats as well, but that is largely because the power level is higher. Faeries has exactly four cards that are insane on their own, as Cryptic Command, while arguably the best card in a vacuum, isn’t going to win you the game by itself.

Decks like Merfolk are all about synergy, so you want to find these multiple pieces that fit together, make sure you find the land or three-drop you’re missing, and continue piling on that pressure. Faeries has no such luxury. Eternal decks are more of the same, although in a different manner. Some decks, like Threshold, have a ton of powerful cards which also happen to have decent synergy.

Faeries also has a pretty sick curve that it needs to maintain if it hopes to keep up. Usually, Faeries is casting a two-drop on turn 2, using Spellstutter Sprite plus Mutavault, or just running out a Scion on turn 3 and casting a Cryptic or a pair of two-drops on turn 4. When do you have time to cast Ponder in there?

Faeries is a deck that is always behind, until the turning point of the game, where it finally pulls ahead. It is also very good as maintaining leads, should it get into that situation. Ponder doesn’t play well with Faeries’ curve unless you cast it on turn 1, and you normally aren’t digging for something specific, so filling out your deck with good spells is usually a better alternative.

Faerie Conclave falls under the same category. Comes-into-play-tapped lands can be suicide in Faeries, as a good Fae player will use his mana every turn. Ponder is effectively a comes-into-play-tapped land, as it is negative one mana for whichever turn you cast it.

If Conclave did something really powerful, or made up for a huge weakness, I could certainly see the merit of playing it. However, Conclave isn’t worth the risk of skipping your turn because that was the land you peeled. I see some players simply ignoring the risks and only considering the rewards.

What are the rewards of playing Faerie Conclave? Late in the game, when you’ve either lost or the game is close, you get to use two mana (three if you attack) to get a 2/1 flier. How is that worth completely skipping an integral turn in a game of Magic? Risk versus reward isn’t a hard concept to understand, and I live by it.

Conclave can be nice when you are flooded, to at least give you something to do. Lands are great when they do stuff, and Mutavault is a prime example. That is an amazing land you should have in your deck if will help you accomplish your goal, and won’t impede your mana development. Faerie Conclave is simply third rate trash that should never see the light of day.

I have suggested adding a third color (or even a fourth, because that’s how I roll) to some people, and the response they usually give me is, “Well, card X would be nice and everything, but I’m worried about the amount of comes-into-play-tapped lands slowing me down.”

That is a great argument. Consistency versus power is the eternal struggle. However, those same people will ship me their UB Fae list with Ponder and/or Conclave, which basically means they have the same problems as a multicolored Faerie deck with none of the benefits. Sometimes people get caught up in certain things and don’t think of the ramifications of adding two Faerie Conclaves to their deck, which I certainly understand.

One thing Faerie players need to play more of is Infest. That card is simply amazing against some of your bad matchups. Kithkin is obviously the biggest reason, but even Elves has had some modest success as of late. Infest, if cast early enough, is the single greatest card you can have when you want to stabilize. Why would you play any less than four? If you are feeling frisky, you could even splash something like Wrath of God (among other cards, naturally), but you definitely want some mass removal in your sideboard. Any deck that just vomits permanents into play isn’t a good matchup, but Infest goes a long way to fixing that.

Puppeteer Clique is a holdover from Block Constructed that is no longer necessary. It is just downright terrible now. The average Mulldrifter and Cloudthresher count in Five-Color Control is roughly three, and it’s only a matter of time before that number dips even lower. Those cards are just weaker than their Tenth or Shards counterparts. At that point, what good is Puppeteer Clique? It’s embarrassing to think that you would ever be forced to cast that and return nothing. I would rather sideboard in Tidings or Fathom Trawl.

You should simply stop and think about every card you put in your deck, and ask, “Why?” “Why Terror? Why not Agony Warp? What am I trying to kill? Does one or the other help my bad matchups?” Once you start getting in depth on your card choices, you are going to understand deck building on a completely different level than you did before.

Jonathan Randle asked why, and ended up with a very unique, but clever, Faerie deck. He had Eyeblight’s Endings for giant Black animals like Ashenmoor Gouger and Demigod of Revenge, basic Swamps to lessen the impact of the then problematic Magus of the Moon, and, most importantly, a national championship title.

So what else is there? For starters, I’m not a huge Jace Beleren fan. I understand why it’s there; Faeries desperately needs a secondary engine, but Jace doesn’t seem like the right one. I experimented with Tidings, and even Fathom Trawl, and was pleasantly surprised. Tidings seemed great at first, although, as Zach Sievers pointed out, when you don’t really care about hitting land drop number six, Fathom Trawl might be better.

In the end, the Trawl ended up being better. I cast Tidings and drew enough blanks that Trawl seemed much more attractive. I also had 26 lands in my deck to ensure I got to five mana more consistently. I also like being able to make my land drops, as missing even one can be deadly against some of the fast decks in this format.

Jace is just too hard to protect if you don’t have Bitterblossom, and if you have Bitterblossom, you don’t really need Jace. You need a certain type of card in that slot, the type that will help you win the game regardless of if you have Blossom in play or not. Tidings and Trawl are the cheapest for what they do, so I fully endorse playing one or two or those, depending on your preference.

Speaking of lands, what is up with Five-Color Control players having less than 26 lands in their main deck? That is extremely greedy, and I don’t see how people can get away with it. One example that springs to mind is the Texas States list that not only has a very low 25 land (thirteen of which came into play tapped, over half), but six Ultimatums. That is extremely counterproductive, and simply proves that even if you build your deck poorly, you can still win tournaments.

The winner even included the almost strictly inferior Hallowed Burial instead of Wrath of God. When you cut two lands (which is the standard for most Five-Color Control decks), have half your lands come into play tapped, and add a bunch of expensive cards to your deck, what exactly do you accomplish? You are worse against Kithkin and RDW because your Wraths now cost five; you are worse in control mirrors because they will most likely outland you; and your deck just ends up more inconsistent as a whole.

I don’t mean to single out Chris Poff (this year’s Texas State Champ) or attempt to insult his deck building skills, but his list was simply the most prominent example of taking things to the extreme, often for the worse.

If I were to play Five-Color Control, I would recommend at least 26 lands, and 27 if you value consistently making your drops. In my experience, that is the most vital part of success for Five-Color Control.

Attention Kithkin/WW players: Ranger of Eos is the actual nuts. Why aren’t you automatically running four of that guy? He is straight-up better than Cloudgoat Ranger, yet you still play that card (I would play both, but still). The army-in-a-spell cards are the ones that make this archetype so strong, and Ranger of Eos is the king of army makers.

He is great against Five-Color Control, often eating a removal spell by himself, and allowing you to have plenty to do with your mana for nearly the entire game thanks to Figure of Destiny. Against RDW, he can fetch up Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders (most likely post-board) to basically take away any shot of a chance they had at winning the match, barring any off-color or Everlasting Torment shenanigans.

From what I have seen, Kithkin sideboards have been fairly weak. Sideboard cards are supposed to be absolute bombs in certain matchups. You only get to play fifteen of them, so you might as well make the most of it, right? The problem is, what white card in Standard could be considered an absolute bomb? Maybe you should start looking for other options and dip into another color. It should be easy enough on the mana with the various dual lands.

Sure, your deck becomes a little more inconsistent, but Kithkin is probably the most consistent deck in the format already. It’s all about balance. While you might play some games where you don’t have your splash color, or you take some important damage off a painland, those will pale in comparison to the games where your Five-Color Control opponent is drawing dead to your turn 4 Manabarbs.

While I complained about the lack of innovation at states, clearly there was some. The piece that impressed me the most was Lucas Duchow’s brainchild from Wisconsin. While his list was a fairly standard GBR Ramp deck, his one-of sideboard Foxfire Oak was simply genius. It was key in dispatching his round 3 opponent, Vintage superstar Chris Nighbor. Sadly, the Duke lost in the Top 8, but his legacy will forever live on.

A couple of articles ago, I said that I would seek vindication at Grand Prix: Atlanta, and I believe I accomplished that. Thanks for everyone who cheered me on (and slops to LSV for not watching my matches… what a jerk), and as always, thanks for reading.