Peebles Primers – Winning in Standard and Block

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Wednesday, April 2nd – In the current Standard format, it appears that most decks look to start their game before that of their opponent, or they repeatedly throw enough game-winners into the mix that one of them will eventually stick. Today’s Peebles Primers sees BPM share his approach tactics for the current Standard format, before asking some pertinent questions on the role of Aggression in Lorwyn Block Constructed…

It seems to me that there are two big ways to win a match of Magic in the current Standard format. The short versions of these ways are that you want to start playing the game before your opponent and that you want to play enough game-winners that one of them will eventually stick and win the game. With the Extended PTQ season finally over, many people will begin to cast their Magic glances in other directions, so I’d like to cover how I look at the current Standard format.

I feel as though the defining characteristic of Standard Magic is that different decks start playing the game at different times. Faeries may Suspend an Ancestral Visions on the first turn, but their gameplan doesn’t really start until the second turn, when Bitterblossom and Rune Snag will start hitting play. Reveillark Combo decks might similarly Suspend a Riftwing Cloudskate or Evoke a Mulldrifter early on, but their gameplan doesn’t come online until the fourth or fifth turn, when Vensers and Reveillarks start to come out of the gates. This is why the Reveillark deck runs Mind Stones and Prismatic Lenses, as well as why 99% of players have added Rune Snags to their lists. After all, if you aren’t planning on doing anything until you cast a 2/2 on turn 4, things are pretty well stacked against you. Even faster than the Faerie decks, Green/Black Elves have multiple first-turn plays and quite a few real threats that hit play on turn 2.

The other big element that I’ve found important in Standard is the idea that every deck can only handle so much. There’s no longer a prominent Pickles or Sonic Boom deck that can actually out-last every threat thrown its way. Faerie decks usually have between eight and twelve counterspells, though it can be hard for Spellstutter Sprite to actually get everything, and it can be similarly difficult for a Faerie pilot to cast two Cryptic Commands in one turn. This means that decks that plan to just hammer game-ending threats at the opponent until the answers are gone actually have a good shot at winning matches. This is, I believe, the main reason that people have found success with Red/Green Big Mana decks; they can just keep putting Tarmogoyfs, Siege-Gang Commanders, and Cloudthreshers on the stack, and eventually one of them is going to kill the other guy. This is also the reason that I think Ancestral Visions is too good not to play; your opponent either must stop the Visions itself or stop the extra gas it’s going to feed to you.

Aside: Yesterday, Tom LaPille wrote a piece on why he believes Constructed decks should be playing with good cards. My understanding of his point was that the payoff for running a suboptimal or underpowered card just because it sometimes interacted well with the rest of your deck was not high enough to justify not playing the cards that are good all the time, even if the “good” cards at their best are worse than the “bad” cards at their best. I agree with this, but only somewhat. I look at it like this: you want to have multiple cards that can win you the game these days. Nightshade Stingers are just not going to get the job done on their own, though Bitterblossom certainly can. Scion of Oona is probably not going to finish the deal on its own either, but it is so much better than Nightshade Stinger when you have a handful of other Faeries that it justifies its slot. In other words, I think that you do need to value your deck’s synergies highly, but I also think that you can only afford to run so many cards that need things to be proceeding according to plan. This is just another way of saying that answers are in short supply these days, so you’d like to have enough cards that demand answers that your opponent is going to run out. End aside.

It would seem, then, that if you want to play a completely new deck that happens to have good game against the format, you’d want to pick a deck that both starts the game early and is jam-packed with legitimate threats that the other guy is going to have to deal with. I think this is why the entirety of Star City Games was swallowed up in Merfolk frenzy last week. Merfolk starts the game early, either with Ancestrals of their own on the first turn and then heavy-hitters coming out on the second, or with utility Merfolk hitting play on the first turn and then playing Isamaru on the second. The deck also has plenty of must-answer threats, as well as answers of its own that often cantrip. The end result is a deck that comes out fast, hits hard for the entire game, and can protect itself from anything thrown its way.

Other decks that fall into this category are Bill Stark new favorite ELVES! Deck, and even the Mono-Red Burn deck that is popular on Magic Online. It’s hard to call the Rift Bolt that takes you from twenty to seventeen a “must-answer” threat, but the Shard Volley scheduled to take you from two to dead certainly is. And, of course, there are decks that seem to defy my two ideas of how to win in this format, such as Dragonstorm. With Lotus Bloom not coming in until turn 4 at the earliest, and just a handful of actually dangerous cards, it’s hard to say that Dragonstorm starts the game early or has a lot of threats to fight an attrition war with, and yet the deck does consistently well in Magic Online Constructed queues.

If you don’t want to apply these two ideas to building an all-new Standard deck, I suggest applying them to your sideboarding strategies. The most extreme example I can think of, of course, is my own Reveillark sideboard, but using it as an example also allows me to go into detail about why I made the decisions I did. I decided long ago that I was going to devote nearly the entire thing to fighting the Faerie deck. I tried some hare-brained ideas to try to get my game started on turn 2 instead of turn 5, like boarding into a small Rebel chain, but eventually settled on boarding in more high-impact threats:

Out: 3 Aven Riftwatcher, 3 Riftwing Cloudskate, 3 Momentary Blink, 2 Wrath of God
In: 3 Wispmare, 3 Pact of Negation, 3 Sower of Temptation, 2 Crovax, Ascendant Hero

Faeries is going to get the jump on you every single game, so your best way to beat them is to overpower their defenses. While the whole Faerie machine is an absolute beauty when it’s running at full speed, it can crumble at any moment if just a piece or two fall apart. The problem with the cards I board out are that they just don’t do enough to affect the game. Aven Riftwatcher is a great flying blocker, but only for three turns and then it goes away all by itself. Cloudskates can harass the opponent but often can hit only Scion of Oona or a land. Momentary Blink, without those six targets, is now much worse, and Wrath of God isn’t going to save you from Bitterblossom or a Mistbind Clique chain. Wispmare blocks just as well as Aven Riftwatcher, but it lasts forever and kills a Bitterblossom to kick things off. Sower of Temptation is great when you get in a mainphase war, but mostly just a dangerous Reveillark target. Crovax is a complete beating, and absolutely a must-answer threat for the Faerie deck. These cards all make your deck more resilient and able to machine-gun threats at the Faerie deck, hoping to outlast their Rune Snags and Cryptic Commands. Pact of Negation preys on the fact that it’s hard for them to field two counters in one turn, backing up your Reveillark, Crovax, Sower, or even Wispmare. It’s still a hard fight, but it lets you make an honest effort to overwhelm the opposition.

Hopefully sharing these ideas of mine will help those who are new to the format understand it that much quicker, and help those who are veterans inform the decisions they make. If people agree or disagree with either of these themes, I’d be more than happy to discuss them in the forums.

With my thoughts on Standard out of the way, I want to quickly cover Block Constructed. As you might know, I have been in love with Block since it was Lorwyn-only, so I’m extremely excited to see the format when it’s fully filled out. Even the Lorwyn/Morningtide/Shadowmoor format will be bigger than previous Block formats due to the fact that Shadowmoor is a large set. The thing that baffles me is how the mid-point, the Lorwyn/Morningtide format, seems to have defied the rules that were established when it was Lorwyn-only.

Back in “the day,” the best cards in the format were control cards. You had Mulldrifters, Naths, Shriekmaws, and Lilianas ruling the day. The people that wanted to get an edge on this found that they wanted to run Fertile Grounds and Leaf Gilders to get their Planeswalkers and Legends into play that much faster, allowing them to put control opponents on the back foot and shut down aggro opponents before they got run over. When the last Magic Online Lorwyn-only Block Premiere Event finished, the top four included three of the same Fertile Ground control deck. These days, real-life Grand Prix Trial Top 8s are jam-packed with Goblins, Kithkin, and other aggro decks. How could it be that the aggro decks have gotten so much better?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer. The finals of the most recent Grand Prix Trial had Goblins beating out Kithkin, with only one control deck in the entire Top 8. Both finalists had Mutavaults in their deck, which is an extremely hard threat for the control decks to deal with in the absence of blockers. They also both had a few Bannerets, allowing their Surge of Thoughtwefts and Squeaking Pie-Sneaks to come out for just one mana, which clearly helps win the race against time. However, these decks seem extremely vulnerable to the best control cards of the Lorwyn-only format. Shriekmaw isn’t too amazing when the opponent is playing all Black Goblins, but Nameless Inversion is as good as ever and Shriekmaw goes from expensive blocker to amazing game-winner when you’re playing against Kithkin. Wydwen, Doran, Horde of Notions, and especially Nath are all huge legends that the aggro deck will have a very hard time getting through and can buy you the time you need to set your Mulldrifter game rolling.

One suspicion that I have is that people simply don’t enjoy playing the Nath of the Gilt-Leaf deck as much as the Stenchskipper deck, and so the good control decks just aren’t represented at these tournaments. People who play Magic for the camaraderie, and therefore also for the fun, are probably much happier swinging with Goldmeadow Stalwart or regrowing Tarfire with Wort than they are sitting on Broken Ambitions. It might also be that the Faerie decks are knocking the control decks out of the tournament, while the Goblin decks knock the Faerie decks out of the Top 8. After all, Faeries is good at rolling slow Standard decks over, so you’d better believe it can run the slow Block decks over.

The other possibility is that people have just gotten much better at constructing the aggro decks. It wasn’t uncommon to see Adder-Staff Boggart in the old Goblin decks, and I don’t think that there are too many people out there who will adamantly defend Adder-Staff as a Constructed bomb. Not only was it “just a guy,” it gave the control player a target for his otherwise-dead Shriekmaws. These days, the only Red Goblin I see in decklists is Wort, Boggart Auntie, and she doesn’t suffer from Shriekmaw problems. Kithkin decks no longer feature the Cenn’s Heirs that were extremely unimpressive against the all-removal control decks. The aggressive archetypes now have enough good options that they don’t have to round out their solid fifty-two card deck with eight duds.

Hopefully replays will become re-enabled on Magic Online soon, so that more information will pour into the system. For now, though, the safe thing to do is make sure that you can handle a fast assault from the format’s best aggro decks.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM