PV’s Playhouse – Catching Up On Standard

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Minneapolis
Thursday, November 12th – Worlds is approaching, and Paulo is looking to break the Standard format. While he’s having scant success thus far, today he takes us through the strongest contenders in the build-up to the Big Show, and shares some ideas and insight along the way!


For the past few weeks, I’ve been breathing Standard. I decided I was just going to push all my other obligations to the end of the year and focus on Worlds. I haven’t played a lot of Extended since Berlin, and that is because I’ve just played a Pro Tour in the format. Though I am probably not playing the exact same list, and perhaps not even the same deck, I know enough about the format that I can theorize most of it, and I can pick up a deck, play it for two days, and “get a grip” of it, so to speak. Standard, however, I had not really seriously played since Faeries was legal, so I had some catching up to do. This is what this article is about.

My first Standard testing consisted of me building the most awkward things, only to lose to all the established decks in the format. To me, this seemed to be the perfect format for Mana Ramp, since the control cards are just so much worse than everything else and Blue is basically nonexistent, but I tried multiple incarnations of Ramp decks and nothing really worked. I put a lot of effort into that early on, for pretty much the same reason I was playing Standard and not Extended; if I find out that I want to play any of the “famous” Standard decks, then I’m not going to need more than one week to learn how to play it and to perfect my card choices (at least I hope so, since I have not yet found something I like, and I have pretty much a week left). However, if I find out my Warp World deck is good, then I’ll probably need more than a week to work on that.

Speaking of Warp World… this was the deck I thought had the most potential. It seemed good. It would ramp up big creatures, and at some point resolve a game-winning eight-mana spell. It did not matter much what cards you played (I tried Broodmate Dragons, Ob Nixilis, Rampaging Baloths, even Sphinx of the Lost Truth for chaining World Warps), resolving Warp World would usually win against any deck (unless you happen to play against that Jund deck with Ob Nixilis; in that case, they might just flip one and kill you with it). Decks weren’t fast enough to kill you before you Warp Worlded, and those that were (Boros, pretty much) were based on creatures, which you could block and trade with Borderland Ranger and Elvish Visionary. In practice, it didn’t really work like that, as you’d just get Blightninged to oblivion, or they would play Vampire Nocturnus and kill you long before you got to eight mana, or you’d draw only mana sources since you play so many of them, etc. Warp World was out.

One thing I did take out from the Warp World deck, though, was that Oracle of Mul Daya was awesome, and not just because it looks like my Invitational card. The advantage it provided was great, and coupled with Fetchlands and other shuffle effects you could usually ensure that you were getting lands for him, as well as not drawing what you didn’t want. After that, I tried sneaking him in all my decks that could fit — RG Valakut, GW Ramp, Jund Ramp, UG Planeswalkers, etc — but all of them had basically the same problem as Warp World, in that they wouldn’t even beat the decks they were supposed to beat.

Then I moved to control, and everything was simply terrible. As appealing as Sphinx of Jwar Isle is, 56 lands and 4 Sphinxes is not going to beat anyone, and that’s what the decks looked like. Most control decks would just fold to Mind Sludge, or to Blightning, or to the multiple Planeswalkers in the Green decks. In the end, nothing really worked as I hoped, and I turned to the popular decks. If I had to give one piece of advice to someone about this Standard format, it would be “don’t try to be cute.” Of course, there is always the chance you’ll be missing the breakout deck of the tournament, but, really, I think in this format that this is above most people’s level, and you are better off perfecting yourself with one of the established decks than trying to find a new one that beats them. Chances are, you will not.

For the popular decks, I’m going to use the recent StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open results as my base:

Mono Green!

I’ve always said that Mono Green Aggro was the worst deck ever, for three reasons. It was Mono, it was Aggro, and it was Green, none of which are particularly appealing… but this deck is actually good.

This deck is powerful right now, and its cards are incredibly synergistic. Though it can be argued that Nissa Revane or Eldrazi Monument are the most important cards in the deck, I would say the card that really makes the deck is Oran-Rief, the Vastwood. Without it, there would be no Mono Green. It’s the card that makes your Nissa’s Chosen bigger than Sprouting Thrinax / Great Sable Stag / Bloodbraid Elf. It makes Stags immune to Lightning Bolt. It makes your Archdruids survive Pyroclasm effects. It really just glues the deck all together. I’ve seen many versions without Monument, and I think that is wrong. Monument is the other difference between this deck and just any other creature deck. Even if you only have one creature in play, that is probably enough unless you are under severe pressure (okay, and they have a Path to Exile). You block anything, sacrifice that on your turn, and then play any of Garruk Wildspeaker, Ant Queen, Master of the Wild Hunt, or Nissa Revane, and go “infinite.”

The reason this deck wins is not that it is superfast, but because is resilient. Most of its permanents will provide card advantage in one way or another if left unchecked, and the deck is full of cards to prevent them from getting unchecked: Nissa’s Chosen and Great Sable Stag to protect the Planeswalkers, and Eldrazi Monument to protect the creatures. There is only one thing I really don’t like in this list, and that is only three Garruks. Garruk fits the theme of the deck perfectly, and if there was ever a deck that wanted the Overrun ultimate, this is it. Something must leave for the fourth Garruk, and that is the third Ant Queen.

The sideboard is (in my opinion) pretty bad, but that is usually the case with Green when Naturalize effects aren’t good. Acidic Slime is not terrible against the Five-Color decks with all enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, but it’s not really stellar either. Mycoloth is good for the mirror and other GR decks, Stag against Jund and Vampires. Windstorm is probably good against Vampires, Wrathing them if they ever hit with Nocturnus and answering Nighthawk and Malakir even if they don’t, but it’s too narrow to bring in against anything else. I mean, sure, you do have problems with fliers, and that deck cannot beat a Baneslayer Angel or Broodmate Dragon without Eldrazi Monument, but are you really going to board in Windstorm for one card in their deck, that might not even be a four-of? Mold Shambler is a pitiful attempt at a fifth copy of the already substandard Acidic Slime, and Pithing Needle seems to be one of those cards that are a reason for celebration if you ever use them — like when you play a very narrow card, like Mana Tithe, and then they manage to tap out and play Llanowar Elves on turn 9 and you scream “MANA TITHE IT, YEEEAHH” because you finally had an opportunity to use the card that you have been holding since the beginning of the game, even if it’s actually not doing anything.

The solution? Well… I’m not sure there is one. Sideboarding with mono-colored decks is usually very difficult. One card that might be good now is Master of the Wild Hunt for the mirror. He is a key card there. Other than that, I don’t think there is much Mono Green can do.

One alternative is to splash a color. Preferably something that helps deal with Baneslayer Angel, as that is the single best card against you. Common options are White for Path to Exile (and then you get Celestial Purge in the board, but not much else) like the third-place deck, or Red for Bloodbraid Elf and Chandra Nalaar (and if you do that, you should play Druid of the Anima over Noble Hierarch, and you’ll have to remove some of the token makers, like Master and Ant Queen, and a Monument too). Red gives you the option of going with a full LD plan, with Demolish and Goblin Ruinblaster, and while that probably beats the slow Five-Color decks, do you really want to dedicate twelve slots in your sideboard to a deck that hardly exists? I don’t think so. Seems to me you are better off with Manabarbs.

In any case, for what is probably the first time since you Rogue Elephant was Standard legal (and it wasn’t even very good back then), Mono Green Aggro is actually a viable deck. This is one of the decks that I would not be surprised to see in a Top 8 of a major event. Worlds is not really a good parameter, since one can go 2-4 and then 12-0… but let’s say there was a Standard Pro Tour. I would not be surprised to see this in the Top 8.

This deck is just bad. Yes, I have tried it. First off, the manabase is awkward, and you will lose games because you can’t cast your spells. Second, it’s just so slow… I don’t see this beating any deck on the draw. I like the deck a lot more with the sideboard and maindeck switched — that is, Blightnings and Esper Charms in the board, or maybe just Blightnings — and it seems to me that you have to really misunderstand this format to play this configuration. Imagine you are playing against an aggressive deck, one that doesn’t even have to be very aggressive. It could be Elves, Vampires, Jund, Boros — basically the entire Standard format – and they have a couple of creatures in play by turn 4. Then you play Bloodbraid Elf, your first spell of the game, and hit Blightning. Then next turn you play Deny Reality… and hit Esper Charm. Then you are dead. Or they just play Mind Sludge on turn 5, and you are dead. Or they play Eldrazi Monument, and you are dead. And God forbid they play Goblin Ruinblaster

Seriously, this deck is inconsistent, slow, and with a bad manabase. I have no idea how it got two copies into the Top 8. And Enigma Sphinx is a pretty bad card too. If you really want to play this deck, don’t play Sphinx. Also, play Kathari Remnant over Deny Reality. But really, I don’t like this deck.

Everyone’s favorite deck!

I must admit I was slightly off in my analysis of Jund the last time. I said Jund had done well because it was tweaked and other decks weren’t, and while this is very true, that is not the only reason it does well: the deck is just good. People will tune their decks, but Jund will still be good. The reason Jund is good is that it has a lot of card advantage, while at the same time not being a slow deck. It is very well equipped to take the aggressive role in a match, since its creatures are big and its advantage goes directly into play, and not to hand. Its cascades are very powerful, and they very rarely miss. Sometimes you cascade into Terminate and they have nothing, but given the nature of this format, they will have something. If they don’t, they are probably dead. Then, after sideboarding, everything gets much better, because you take out everything that is bad against them and replace it with powerful cards to Cascade into. The best they can do is something like Celestial Purge, which is great but not game-breaking.

As to what build of Jund is best? Well, now that’s harder. Jund is a little like Faeries in that you have 56 or so core cards that everyone plays, and then the next four are up to you. In Jund’s case, those slots can be Garruks, Stags, Ruinblasters, Mind Rots, Jund Charms, sometimes even an extra Oran-Rief as the 26th land. I myself don’t like the Ruinblasters maindeck. I am not even sure they are good in the sideboard, since they seem to be good only on the play unless you play versus what I consider are bad decks, but a number of anything else seems fine.

The sideboard is a bit puzzling to me. Magma Spray, for example, over two strictly better cards, Pyroclasm and Burst Lightning. If you really, really must play it for one Red mana, then why not Burst Lightning, that also hits players, planeswalkers, and kicks? You don’t care about removing Bloodghast against Vampires, and Bloodghasts shouldn’t even be in their deck after boarding. In the mirror, you could remove Sprouting Thrinax, but you aren’t boarding this in the mirror. So what do you want to remove exile?

The card I like best in that slot, though, is Pyroclasm. I’ve heard arguments for “you want to stop their early development, you don’t care about hitting many guys, you just want to kill the turn 1 Lynx / Llanowar / Hierarch / Cobra / Vanguard / Whatever,” and this seems to be just another case of “your cards don’t have Provoke,” or, in this situation, a variation of it. If your opponent has Steppe Lynx and you have Pyroclasm, there is nothing that’s stopping you from playing that and killing it! Pyroclasm doesn’t read that you must kill two creatures at least. You control your cards, not the opposite. The scenario where you play a turn 1 removal spell on their creature is very rare, since there are only two Mountains in the deck, so you are going to kill it on turn 2 anyway. I really see no advantages of spot removal over Pyroclasm.

Deathmark is another card that I don’t understand. I think I would rather just have Terminate, though the one-mana cost here actually has merits because there are far more Swamps than Mountains. I’ve already talked about Goblin Ruinblaster — I don’t particularly mind having him, but I don’t like him on the draw in most matches. Of course, you don’t have to board him in if you are on the draw, but then is it worth it having them at all?

The other Jund deck seems to be simply worse than this one:

Ob Nixilis doesn’t really add anything to the deck, and is worse than Broodmate Dragon. Lotus Cobra also doesn’t add much, as Jund is a deck that starts to play on turn 3, but its three-mana spells are very powerful. Ramping to four or five doesn’t really accomplish much, and the 2/1 body is irrelevant in this deck, so I don’t think you should play it as it merely makes all your cascades worse. I think this deck is just trying to be different, and, as I’ve already said, that is unlikely to work in this format.

As much Standard as I have played recently, I have not play anything like this. I did build White Weenie and Mono White Control with Emeria, but this is a mix of the two, and in my experience that just doesn’t work well. But then again, neither of my two builds was very good, so it’s not like you are losing much by trying a different approach. I also had a UW deck with four Devout Lightcasters and four White Knights, but when that wasn’t even beating Vampires very well (which it was supposed to smash), I figured it wouldn’t really beat anything.

This deck is a bunch of 2/2s for two, and it seems to me it cannot beat anything, from Pyroclasm to Stag to Baneslayer to Master of the Wild Hunt… unless it draws Honor of the Pure. I don’t like that. It might be that this deck is much better than I think it is, but I just don’t see it.

The sideboard was obviously thrown together at the last minute, but, again, there isn’t much choice since this is mono-colored. I would not spend too much time here.

Next, a deck that had no Top 8 finishes, but placed three in the Top 16:

It seems this deck is better than I thought. It still doesn’t float my boat, but I respect it as a player in the metagame. They are all pretty similar, but some details I dislike:

First, I think you should play 4 Ranger of Eos. Why would you not? It’s your only slightly late game card, and it’s better in this deck than it has ever been. Second, two Scalding Tarn doesn’t make much sense to me — the only explanation I can find is that the person only had two. Even if you feel like not playing 12 (which you should), you should cut a White one, not a Red one, because you would rather have a Plains on turn 1 (since you have better and more White one-drops), and you always want to save your fetchlands for when you actually have something to do with them — in simple terms, Mountain + White Fetch + Lynx deals two damage, whereas Plains + Red Fetch + Lynx deals four.

In the sideboard, the card I like the most is Manabarbs, as it simply beats a lot of decks by itself. One player plays Magma Spray, which I don’t understand — he could be playing the fourth Burst Lightning instead, for example — and the rest is almost the same.

If you are going to play Boros, you need to keep in mind that this is not an easy deck to play. Most people have the idea that Aggro is “mindless,” but with this deck there are a lot of choices to be made. The greatest skill, in my mind, is when to sacrifice your fetchland for maximum damage. Sometimes you just do it as soon as possible, so you don’t risk them killing your landfall guy next turn, but sometimes it’s better to wait. For example, if you have turn 1 Lynx, turn 2 Lynx, it’s better to save fetching for a turn. If you have a Lynx/Geopede and your opponent has a 4/4 on defense, you often want to leave the fetch there. It’s effectively preventing your opponent from blocking as long as you have any other land for the turn, and in the long run it’ll generate more damage than just sacking it for instant damage output. It’s also instrumental in preventing utter blowouts from Pyroclasm and Jund Charm – basically, as I’ve said, your cards don’t have provoke, and you don’t have to fetch. And don’t even think about “deck thinning.” Just leave all your fetches there until you have to use them.

One deck that I think is a player, and one that was not represented, is Vampires. I talked about them in my previous article, so I won’t dwell on the topic, but I think 4 Malakir Bloodwitches is a must, and I still see people playing three. I also see some people without Mind Sludge, and that’s just wrong.

Another deck that seems to be gaining in popularity is the UB “Dredge” thing, but I don’t really like it. I played something similar, long before Shota Yasooka popularized it, and it felt completely slow and vulnerable. If undisrupted, you will kill on turn 6, and that is just too slow since the decks that don’t disrupt you will have you dead by then. I don’t see how you can conceivably beat a deck like RDW (which is to Boros what Burn is to Zoo in Extended, i.e. strictly worse) or Boros, and the deck just folds to Jund Charm. Not a great choice.

So, that’s basically it. In my eyes, the good decks are Boros, Vampires, Jund, and Elves, and the other decks really do not have what it takes to compete with those. As I said, if you want to try to build something better, be my guest — and please PM me the list if you succeed — but I’ve tried for a long time and I just failed over and over again. My suggestion is that you pick one of the strong decks and perfect both the list and your play. That should be enough for you to do well at even the most professional of events.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you in Minneapolis!