Post-Pro Tour Theros Standard

Get ready for Standard at SCG Open Series: Indianapolis featuring the Invitational this weekend by reading Josh’s thoughts about the current format.

You, dear readers, are probably sick of hearing the phrase "it’s an exciting time" in an article about Standard, which is typically not an exciting format, but here I am a few days removed from the Pro Tour and all I can think is how excited I am to play this format. Previous readers of mine know that I am not typically a big buyer of the Standard format; I play it when I have to or occasionally for fun online, but in general I don’t care for the low power level and high variance.

However, this is a different kind of Standard. The power level is low, and your options are varied. I think for now as long as you are able to beat a few strategies, you more or less can do as you please in this format, and to top that off monocolored decks provide me an opportunity to play with sick basic lands and not get color screwed at the same time. Admittedly, if you try hard enough (play a Nykthos in your mono-blue deck instead of a disciplined Island), you can still accomplish this. But for my part, I’m going to try not to get color screwed in the near future. I can honestly say that I wish I had played with my StarCityGames.com compatriots in Dublin since the blue deck looks like a ton of fun (mirror aside)!

When I began preparing for this article, I didn’t know what I wanted to play in the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Seattle. Now I think I’ve got it narrowed down from about five decks that all look great to me. Mono-Red, R/G, and Mono-Black Devotion are all real decks and may make a showing at any event, but they don’t interest me. I don’t think the red decks can really compete when the world is full of Master of Waves (as it is now), and I don’t think the black deck is appreciably better than the B/W Midrange deck piloted by Paul Rietzl and Patrick Chapin of Team StarCityGames.com. Anyway, let’s dive in.

To understand this format we must first start at the very bottom, which in this case is the first two weeks of SCG Opens post-rotation. In these weeks we saw the domination of rough strategies. Aggro decks in all colors but blue and black ran rampant while the rest of the field tried to figure out which cards are worth playing and which strategies are more fun than good. It’s normal to want to explore a format when it comes out, and I fault no one for trying to have a good time with the format before it was established. Kudos in fact for succeeding with Mono-Green Aggro, as it was a deck I liked the looks of at the time.

Of course, just one week later there was a Pro Tour. That means the best and the brightest gathered to defeat the established metagame. Just as our goal now is to beat the Top 8 decks from Pro Tour Theros, theirs was to break it wide open with a strategy that could decimate the decks from the Top 8s of those Opens and any States decks that may have been reported. This may sound like a lot of work, but again the Pro Tour brings people together. Teams from all manner of websites formed and went to work; in the end it was the French who won, but the Team StarCityGames.com came up with three excellent versions of three strategies and performed quite well overall.

That leaves us today with the task of figuring out what to do with the new information that is available to us. Obviously we cannot go back to the first two weeks of the format, as those decks are no longer relevant to our interests. For our purposes, I want to start with Mono-Blue Devotion.

Jeremy’s winning decklist:

This deck won the Pro Tour, so anyone who wants to be competitive and has no attachments to any cards new or old will probably begin here. Without a doubt they are doing themselves a favor by doing so. This deck is beatable, but it also has proven itself with a dominating performance at the Pro Tour that culminated in victory for the French. Reid Duke called it a board-presence deck, and I’m inclined to agree. After board you can tune it to play in a variety of ways, be it a more "aggro-control" strategy or even a more aggressive strategy. It doesn’t take long to kill once your devotion is high enough, so it’s probably important to keep Plan A in your sights at all times and not try to make the deck too controlling overall after board.

There are different versions of the deck, and if you do some research, you can see the differences are small but real. Jace, Architect of Thought is a point of contention among the lists present at the Pro Tour for example. It seems to me that it might be one of the strongest ways to fight the strategies that might crop up in reaction to the success of this blue deck. I know that Esper Control, which we will get to next, can cast a Hero’s Downfall to kill a Jace and you’ll lose a mana in the transaction, but if their Downfalls are stretched among your other targets, they can’t exactly fight Jace with creatures.

Similarly, if you have some dorks in play already (i.e. Judges Familiar, Frostburn Weird), you would be better off casting a Bident of Thassa if you think it will resolve rather than another creature which will simply get Supreme Verdicted with the rest of them. If Esper’s shields are down and the Bident resolves, you’ll draw your two cards, and then they’ll be in a terrible position of needing to deal with the Bident or your two creatures. If they can’t remove the weapon, then what hope have they got? You can sideboard in your Gainsays to help enact your plan or more to the point to fight their Gainsays, a play which I recall fondly from Invasion Block Constructed.

I also feel like Tidebinder Mage is something that is going to want to be replaced in the comings weeks, as G/W strategies will be on the decline. Admittedly, it can tap down a Frostburn Weird in the mirror and is great against outdated decks, but until something new crops up—a new kind of G/W or red deck—it seems like its applications will dwindle quickly. If we increase our Bident count, perhaps we should also look to Galerider Sliver to replace Tidebinder Mage, and, of course, don’t forget that Mutavault is a Sliver.

For ideas, I would look at Matej Zatlkaj version—especially his sideboard, which seems very strong with three Domestications—or Joel Larsson’s:

This deck is slightly different obviously, and while I don’t think I like splashing right now, if no deck crops up to stop the blue deck, then perhaps splashing the green hate cards becomes a reasonable strategy (rather than black disruption). I also don’t like Syncopate main and feel like playing three Thassas is foolhardy, but that stuff can all be fixed in the wake of our new knowledge.

From the other side of the table, there is an Esper Control deck to be built; that is for sure. I don’t know if Wafo-Tapa’s list is well suited for the new field, and I’m inclined to think it isn’t. He is an experienced player of the finest caliber, and if I were forced to pick someone’s Esper deck to play, it would be his. But I think the danger of playing control is not knowing exactly what battles you need to fight. For Guillaume to succeed where no one else really did is not surprising in the same way a new Esper list succeeding in the next few weeks would not surprise me. You can’t Doom Blade or Hero’s Downfall Thassa, but you can Gainsay and Annul her. I think it’s possible to rebuild Esper Control now since we know what battles to fight.

Here is Guillaume’s decklist from the Top 8 of the PT for reference:

None of the maindeck cards seem weak to me, and because we’re no longer trying to beat G/W decks for the moment, I’m sure the sideboard needs to be adjusted. Perhaps moving the other Thoughtseizes to the maindeck to keep indestructible permanents under control is the right approach; perhaps increasing our Detention Sphere count and reducing the other removal in the deck is the way to go. However, if we increase our Detention Sphere count, then Annul becomes potent against us, and Renounce the Guilds’ stock also goes up, so it’s hard to figure out exactly where to be!

His sideboard definitely needs to be reworked to take the blue deck into account. More Gainsay, more Annul, maybe even Domestication of his own. I suspect that after the Grand Prix and the Open this past weekend we’ll have an idea of what Esper Control should look like going into the Invitational and the following weeks of online play.

This brings us to Makihito Mihara’s deck, which is perhaps the most exciting of the decks featured in the Top 8. I saw Mihara lose to Jon Finkel on camera, and I’m sure I laughed at Voyaging Satyr as Jon trounced him despite missing all of his Cloudfin Raptor triggers in game 2 of that match. Voyaging Satyr alone though is fairly telling. Mihara dug deep with this list, and I don’t know if he created it but the focus—the sheer devotion (groan)—is impressive. Thea Steele told me it reminds her of a deck from the last Standard format, which is certainly true. It reminds me in a way of drafting Slivers in M14 Limited but not taking any creatures other than Slivers for your deck. Going all in, if you will.

It’s splashy, big, and powerful, and if Mihara’s sideboard had contained more Mistcutter Hydras and Skylashers, he likely would have run away with the tournament. It’s quite likely that he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame after this, his fifth Top 8, and that he will still live happily ever after. Skylasher and Mistcutter Hydra have been on my radar for a while, and I think this is a good home—at least for the Hydra. Skylasher is a great option for decks with less mana I think. I asked Sam Black what changes he’d make to the blue deck if he were going to play it in Louisville, and he told me he was too scared of Skylasher to play it but figured Ratchet Bomb to be an important card going forward for the blue deck to remain competitive in a hateful environment.

Regardless, any reasonable draw from this deck will put up a good fight, and if you can ration your hateful sideboard cards through theirs (try not to let them kill two of them with one Ratchet Bomb), the games should be favorable. We may need to look at some green "fight" cards to kill Master of Waves since Mizzium Mortars is unreliable in this context.

Brad Nelson G/R deck is another interesting approach to the format. I think of Mihara’s deck as a Tinker deck (even if I’m wrong), while Brad’s deck really evokes the image of the Rock decks of yesteryear. I suspect it has to do with the match I saw him play on camera where he dismantled his opponent’s U/W deck with a slew of noncreature permanents, and it may not actually play as a Rock deck would. He had Domri Rade; Xenagos, the Reveler; and Hammer of Purphoros all in play with replacement planeswalkers at the ready. I believe he eventually Domried into a Mistcutter Hydra to close it out, but at the time it looked like an extremely grindy deck to me.

Of course, in reality this is just one of the beautiful parts of playing a midrange deck. You can tune it post-board to play a grindy game or to assume the beatdown role and go all out. I think like Mihara’s deck that this deck could be a contender. I know it can win—Brad did quite well for himself, finishing in 30th place—and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him adjust the board to include more anti-blue and more anti-anti-blue (noncreature permanents like the aforementioned Hammer and ‘walkers seem best to me against Esper Control) and have continued success in the early weeks after the Pro Tour.

Here’s Brad’s list for reference:

Obviously the card that might stand out the most from this decklist that we haven’t already talked about is Flesh // Blood. For two mana Blood will create a Fling or Soul’s Fire effect, which we saw used to good effect in some Atog Affinity decks circa six years ago. This deck can do similar things with four Ghor-Clan Rampagers and lots of actual monsters, and that’s kind of an exciting "burn you out" angle missing from other decks in this vein. Brad was ready for the blue decks with four Hydras in the sideboard, and you could easily go above and beyond by jamming some Skylashers into this deck as well if you wanted.

That brings us to the final deck I’d like to speak about: B/W Midrange. Paul Rietzl made the Top 8 of the tournament with this deck, and Patrick Chapin finished ninth with it, so most of you are probably already familiar with it. Patrick wrote an excellent article about the deck on the Premium side that further cemented my position of wanting to be on B/W for the Open. [author name="Paul Rietzl"]Paul Rietzl[/author], again for the Premium side, also talked about his experience with the deck on this very website. I highly recommend reading those two articles if you’re interested in playing the deck, but anyone who is playing Standard right now could glean a lot of insight about playing against the deck from reading the articles as well, not to mention they’re both just enjoyable articles if you are looking for some good Magic writing after finishing this article. 🙂

Here’s the list they used at the event:

It qualifies for beating a wide range of strategies (favorable against Mono-Blue Devotion and Esper Control, competitive with some tweaks against G/R), and if someone shows up with some new format-warping, metagame-crushing beast they’ve been keeping in their proverbial basement, well, I have Thoughtseize, Doom Blade and a proactive creature strategy, which is pretty much where I want to be against an unknown opponent in Standard.

In talking to Paul and reading from Patrick, I was convinced regarding the necessity of the Soldier of Pantheon in the deck. To me the card doesn’t really fit since the multicolored spells not named Xenagos, Frostburn Weird, Domri Rade, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Supreme Verdict will probably be waning. That also means the creatures it can block will likely also be on the decline, even if only for a couple of weeks.

However, in conjunction with Precinct Captain, the Soldier can present an actual clock against Mono-Blue Devotion and Esper Control, which can change the dynamic of a game. If you can’t pressure these decks, hope is lost. Forcing Esper to react in a big way on their main phase may open the door for a Ghost Council to make an appearance, and while there’s always Hero’s Demise now, they only have so many draw steps and so many life points. If Paul is to be believed, Esper Control and Mono-Blue Devotion are among the best matchups for the B/W Midrange deck, which sounds like an excellent place to be.

Finally, as for their sideboard, it sounds like Fiendslayer Paladin isn’t even enough, so why bother? I’d much rather win the important matches that I can actually effect than try to "mise" with three cards that might or might not do anything against my worst conceivable matchup. The deck needs more Lifebane Zombies and maybe more Banisher Priests or an extra Whip of Erebos, and this is probably where the space should come from.

This coming weekend is SCG Open Series: Indianapolis featuring the Invitational, and the metagame will be even more clearly defined with yet another weekend of high-profile events. I don’t know what I’m going to write about in two weeks, but I do know that I’ll be enjoying Standard for the time being.

Until next time,

twitch.tv/jravitz (I promise I’ll stream again soon!)