Removed From Game – A Last Look at Standard

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, January 25th – With Worldwake looming large in our rear-view mirrors, Rich completes his series on Standard, looking at the ins and outs of Runeflare Trap, Valakut, and Vampires, with a fine supporting cast featuring Mono-White Control and Boros Bushwhacker. Get yourself ready for what’s next, by refreshing yourself on what’s now.

In our final whirlwind tour of Standard, we get to play with Runeflare, Valakut, and Vampires, with a quick check-in on Mono-White Control, and Boros Bushwhacker. You may be wondering why it pays to spend time on a non-PTQ format when a new expansion is lurking just around the corner. I offer you two reasons. First, not everyone is in the PTQ world of Extended, important though that Format and prize is. But it’s the second reason that keeps me coming back to Standard pre-rotation. Simply, new cards don’t exist in a vacuum. Every choice we make is, or should be, informed by what else is available, and what else is being played.

It isn’t enough to know that a new card is ‘good’, whatever that might mean. It’s not even enough to know that a new card ‘is meant to help Vampires’. In order to understand the new pieces of the puzzle, we need to see the bigger picture. Most likely, you’ll need to see what hole in the deck that new card fills. You’ll only know that there’s a hole that wants filling if you have an understanding of what everyone else is doing in Standard, and why you have a weakness against the Metagame. In that sense, Standard is a gigantic dance, with everyone trying out their moves, working out how much time and space on the dance floor they need, and praying that they don’t look an absolute idiot when the lights go on at the end of the evening.

Once Worldwake actually exists in the full glare of an actual set list given out by an actual company that makes the game, rather than the sometime-twilight world of Spoilerville, we’ll revisit the Twelve Decks of Christmas, and see how Worldwake applies to them. In other words, we’ll build towards an understanding of the New Standard. And that brings us to these five decks, starting with Runeflare…

3 Flashfreeze
4 Font Of Mythos
4 Howling Mine
4 Into The Roil
3 Jace Beleren
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Runeflare Trap
4 Time Warp
4 Twincast
2 Whiplash Trap
14 Island
5 Mountain
1 Reliquary Tower
4 Scalding Tarn

4 Double Negative
2 Earthquake
2 Pyroclasm
4 Swerve
3 Wall Of Frost

Match One — Runeflare versus Mono-Red

I love matchups like this, because they’re so easily identifiable as a race. What’s more, we get to give our opponents a speed burst with which they may very well kill us, so dropping the Howling Mine and Font Of Mythos regularly becomes a heart-in-mouth affair. I win the opener handily, but discover something weird about the deck in game two. I’m in complete control, have reached seven mana, which is the critical juncture for Time Warp + Twincast, and I embark upon a total of five turns in a row. Then I die.

This shouldn’t really happen, since I’m drawing many cards every turn. However, this is an unusual Combo deck in that it has no way to Tutor for the pieces themselves. It simply arrives at them by sheer weight of card draw. Most of the time. On this occasion, however, I ended up with an assortment of counterspells, bounce spells, burn spells, buy one pizza get one free spells, and insufficient cards that actually did anything when it counted. So I lost, weirdly.

Game three was excellent fun, with him having a turn to kill me with a ton of cards in hand, and me at perilously low life. Thankfully, I win on 1 life. I know it’s just one win in the results column, but winning on 1 is one of life’s little pleasures.

Match Two — Runeflare versus Bant

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the absence of Tutors, since they make room for all the spells that keep me from dying. Against Bant, they have no early threat of meaning, and once they started trying to play more exciting monsters, they found them right back in their hand, which is of course one of the reasons that Whiplash Trap is so much fun, since you actively get them to the point where they try to play more than one creature a turn.

Match Three — Runeflare versus Finest Hour Domain

I wish I could give you a better name than this for my third opponent, but the fact is that you can probably tell from the clunky title that he was playing all five colors, and attempted to win with Finest Hour plus a guy. This proved less than possible for him. In Game One, I was able to keep Finest Hour off the board with Flashfreeze, and in the second he never got a creature on board for more than a few moments. A thoroughly routine victory, where the deck behaved impeccably.

Match Four — Runeflare versus Eldrazi Green

To be honest, the Eldrazi deck kind of passed me by. It came to prominence just before Worlds when I was up to the eyeballs in preparation for Rome. At Worlds itself it wasn’t a big story, and by the time I came to look at Standard for these columns, there wasn’t a lot of it about in the Tournament Practice Room. That, and I just don’t like playing Green decks featuring 10,000 monsters that are almost all utterly rubbish unless one specific card is around to make them awesome.

That said, I was therefore more than pleased to actually play against it. I was smashed to smithereens in no time at all in the opener, and was reminded of Antoine Ruel facing Craig Jones at the first Pro Tour Honolulu. Ruel was playing the Owling Mine deck that relied on Jones having a ton of cards in hand. Since Craig was playing Zoo, that was next to impossible, since everything was so cheap that Jones could just empty out his hand.

This felt like that, but worse, since everything was unbelievably cheap, and if I wiped the board, the cards he got back were an army coming down in a single turn. Still, I found some Pyroclasms in game two, and managed something very sneaky, when he had three monsters and an Eldrazi Monument in play. Whiplash Trap dealt with two of them, Into The Roil got the last one, and the Monument then died in his upkeep, with no monster to sacrifice. Even then, I barely clung on to get the victory and force a decider.

The last game was the best of the bunch, with me desperately trying to get him to start the turn with a meaningful number of cards in hand. Eventually, I crafted a hand where four was enough, casting Runeflare Trap, Twincast, Runeflare Trap, Twincast, and Runeflare Trap, making five lots of four, which conveniently enough was exactly twenty. A fun match.

Match Five — Runeflare versus UB Zombies

Unlike this one. It felt like pretty much everything he tried was essentially meaningless, and overcosted, and I had ample time in both games to naturally find the Traps and Twincasts, and win without breaking sweat.

I confess that at this point curiosity got the better of me, since I hadn’t lost yet with the deck. Really? So I tried a couple more, against Mono-Red and a Black-Green Ob Nixilis Landfall deck. I got beaten 2-0, and felt that was a much fairer reflection on the merits of the deck. I was sorry to put Runeflare away in its virtual deckbox, but excited by the deck that was up next, Valakut:

4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Expedition Map
4 Harrow
4 Khalni Heart Expedition
3 Lavaball Trap
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Rampant Growth
3 Forest
2 Jund Panorama
12 Mountain
4 Terramorphic Expanse
4 Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle

2 Bogardan Hellkite
3 Caldera Hellion
4 Demolish
4 Magma Spray
2 Pyroclasm

There are plenty of reasons to like this deck. It attacks from angles that many decks don’t, you get to play with Bloodbraid Elf without feeling like a traitor to the human race, like all those depressed-looking Jund players do, and you regularly feel that you’re cheating as your mana goes to the stratosphere.

Match One — Valakut versus RG Allies

I think Allies are a great part of the Limited landscape, not least because the challenge is making the right call about what/how many colors you’re going to try and shoehorn into your deck, in order to turn what are basically average to below-par monsters into unfair beaters. This is no mean challenge, and wasn’t something this RG version managed, at least against Valakut. In game one, a pair of Bloodbraid Elves helped me build towards eight mana, and a Lavaball Trap left his RG deck as a mono-Green deck. This was not good for him.

In game two, things threatened to get out of hand briefly, but his clincher that would have sent him over the top was Kazuul Warlord, and with all the triggers waiting to happen, I was able to flash out one of my favorite cards of all time, Bogardan Hellkite. I can confirm it continues to feel dirty, which is just the way we like it.

Match Two — Valakut versus Vampires

I say Vampires, but that’s misleading, as it was only his creatures that were Vampires. He’d paired that Vampiric chunk up with some red burn and Blightnings, plus a sliver of Blue for comedy counterspells at crucial moments.

Blightnings, two of them, were more than enough to leave me in tatters in the first. I discovered exactly what the underwhelming Magma Jets were doing in the sideboard in game two, when they removed Bloodghast rather more permanently than a Lightning Bolt would have managed. Having ramped up to the critical point, a Khalni Heart Expedition killed two Vampire Nighthawks, and that was pretty much that.

In game three, I made a stupid mistake. It didn’t cost me the game, but that’s not the point, and it’s never the point. I have an aversion to Goblin Ruinblaster. In ways I only dimly comprehend, it irritates me that there’s a 2/1 for four mana out there that’s so authentically obnoxious. So, fearing the Ruinblaster, I laid a Mountain, and kept my Valakut in hand. Of course, he cast Blightning and stripped it from me. You might be thinking that, for all my reasoning was wrong, the math was 50/50, since if I drop it, it dies to Ruinblaster, and if I keep it, it dies to Blightning. Thing is, he may easily have Mind Rot, and that’s rather more likely than Demolish. Basically, I allowed prejudice to defeat reason, and that’s never good.

Match Three — Valakut versus BR Discard

I like to play against decks that I know, and in that I’m like most players, especially bad ones. We like to have our decisions planned out in advance, and are easily thrown by cards we weren’t expection to have to deal with. You will doubtless recall that our route to victory involves us drawing lots of cards. Can you see how Underworld Dreams might be a problem?…

Rather fortunately, I ended up with a triple Valakut draw, and for all I won on low life, I still won. At this stage, Underworld Dreams was almost the only card I’d seen of note, but in the second the rest of his strategy came into sharp focus, with the comedy combo of Megrim and Burning Enquiry. Still, we know that Runeflare can win pretty quickly, and it did so here, allowing me to return to more familiar territory in match four.

Match Four — Valakut versus Cruel Control

By far the most dangerous spell to cast in this matchup is Harrow, since sacrificing your land is part of the cost. Setting yourself down a Mountain to no good effect is extremely depressing, and can often give them exactly the extra turn they need to reach Cruel Ultimatum manner. Against a deck that can deny your creatures with Essence Scatter, and then Double Negative after boarding, you really do want Valakut to get the job done. Even getting your creatures past the counters doesn’t get you very far, as Earthquake soon sweeps the board clear again.

Having seen my Siege-Gang plus chums plus a Bloodbraid Elf all bite the dust, a second Bloodbraid regained the initiative, and Valakut was able to dole out the last points, without a tricky Harrow decision in sight. I had a great draw in game two, and double Expedition Map contributed to triple Valakut. Doing nine points when you lay a Mountain is one of the reasons that Valakut is such an appealingly powerful proposition.

Match Five — Valakut versus Open the Vaults

I think we can all understand that when we get great draws, that’s part of the game, and when they get great draws, life’s unfair. I cast Rampant Growth, and he had Flashfreeze. I cast Goblin Ruinblastedr, and he had Flashfreeze. I had Khalni Heart Expedition, and he had Flashfreeze. It’s worth saying that I had Harrow throughout, and as each Flashfreeze went by, I was thinking ‘is it safe to cast Harrow now?’. Logically, after two I should have been fine, but I was glad I waited.

As you imagine, with all this counterspell action going on, it took a while to assemble my package, and he cast Open The Vaults, returning Sphinx Of The Steel Wind amongst others, and that’s never fun times. However, by that time I had a pair of Khalni Heart Expeditions in play, plus a Siege-Gang and chums. I still needed help, though, and found it in the much-unloved Terramorphic Expanse. When you need it early, it’s so clunky it reverberates across continents, but in the end game it shines. Here, it fetched Mountain number five, triggered both Expeditions, which sacrificed for four more Mountains, dealing him twelve, and leaving me just enough mana to sacrifice a Goblin for the win. Phew.

That was as good as it got, unfortunately. More counterspells more or less took game two for him, with an early Negate for Rampant Growth and a late Flashfreeze for Siege-Gang Commander high on the irritant list. Spreading Seas on Valakut snuffed out any hope. In the decider, everything I did was rendered moot. He ran out a Sphinx Of Lost Truths on turn five, and made a virtue out of a vice by putting Sphinx Of The Steel Wind into the bin. Next turn, Open The Vaults put the hideous enormity into play, and there was no way I could race it.

Despite that last round loss, this deck feels really powerful, not least because it bypasses so much of the field at large. While there’s probably more land destruction around simply because of the perceived weakness of the Jund manabase, which means you’re going to face Goblin Ruinblaster more than you’d like, for the most part you’re left in peace to do unfair things with Mountains, which makes it very reminiscent of Fireblast.


4 Bloodghast
4 Gatekeeper Of Malakir
3 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Vampire Hexmage
4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Vampire Nocturnus
2 Consume Spirit
4 Disfigure
4 Duress
2 Sign In Blood
4 Tendrils Of Corruption
1 Crypt Of Agadeem
3 Marsh Flats
2 Verdant Catacombs
17 Swamp

2 Black Knight
2 Deathmark
2 Doom Blade
1 Liliana Vess
1 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Marsh Casualties
2 Mind Sludge
2 Ravenous Trap
1 Vampire Hexmage

There are some kinds of deck you instinctively know that you’re playing wrong, and that your results are therefore close to meaningless. Only when you talk to someone much better, or watch them play the deck, do you understand quite what the deck is really meant to be doing. I find it frankly astonishing that Vampires won the SCG 5K recently, since, as far as I can tell, Vampires in Standard is a nonsense. Still, maybe you can tell me what I’m doing wrong…

Match One — Vampires versus BR Vampires

Another variation on the Vampires + Terminates + Blightnings. In the absence of Vampire Nighthawks on my side, he cast Earthquake, Wrathing the board. Then he played the Vampire Nighthawks that I’d been looking for, and won comfortably. I went first in game two, but had a slower opening, and found myself on the back foot. Not exactly in trouble, but definitely behind. Then he cast Manabarbs, and in case you don’t know, Manabarbs is bad news when you’re behind.

Match Two — Vampires versus Jund

Hmm, maybe I’m wrong about this deck. In the decider, he casts Broodmate Dragon turn six, Broodmate Dragon turn seven, and Siege-Gang Commander turn eight, and they all bring friends. I still win. Vampire Nocturnus was incredibly obliging, serving up a procession of black cards rather than Swamps on top of my deck. Tendrils Of Corruption for eight gave me the time to find answers for all those blasted tokens, and a flying Gatekeeper Of Malakir teamed up with Disfigure to put the final Broodmate out of commission.

Match Three — Vampires versus Cruel Control

It strikes me that Vampires is exactly the kind of deck that Cruel Control should feast on. It isn’t especially quick out of the blocks, has relatively few threats (Vampire Nocturnus) and a stack of basically dead cards (Tendrils, Disfigure, and so on). There was one little ray of sunshine, when he dropped a Sphinx Of Jwar Isle, and couldn’t stop me kicking Gatekeeper Of Malakir. My subsequent Gatekeepers had less positive impact, however, as I decided to discard them to Cruel Ultimatum. And another Cruel Ultimatum.

I’m actually wincing as I read my notes for game two, which featured Nicol Bolas, and then Liliana Vess tutoring up a Cruel Ultimatum, and then tutoring up another Cruel Ultimatum, and then me being dead. Ergghhh.

Match Four — Vampires versus Mono-White Control

This was more interesting than I expected, and what I expected was to get hammered. He opened with Mark Of Asylum and Sunspring Expedition, but I came out fairly quickly and got him to low life. He recovers with Emeria Angel, and begins to take control, but Malakir Bloodwitch is a serious issue for him, being Pro White and everything. That’s his cue for Day Of Judgment, but I have Bloodghast ready to start the beats again. I whittle him down from six, to four, to two, and then he finds his Path To Exile.

Remember those ‘basically dead cards’ I talked about earlier? Yeah, the utterly pointless Tendrils Of Corruption, that’s about to win me the game. I respond by killing my own Bloodghast, which therefore gets to visit the graveyard, where he’s very much at home, as opposed to Exile, which is far less appealing. Next turn, he crashes over for the win.

In game two, I have a malfunctioning Vampire Nocturnus, who insists on showing me land, and a Gatekeeper Of Malakir doing not very much. He has double Emeria, and triple Wall Of Reverence, and that’s more than sufficient. The decider goes very long indeed, and that should tell you all you need to know. Why? Because in the very long game, Emeria, The Sky Ruin takes over, and renders any plans I have utterly moot. World Queller comes back every time I try to stave it off, and we’re done.

Match Five — Vampires versus Mono-Red

Frankly, I think that four mana for three damage is a pretty poor deal. Six damage for four mana is a rather different proposition, and against mono-Black Vampires, Quenchable Fire is exactly that. Frankly, it murderised me. Much to my surprise, because I value the Mono-Red deck highly, I won game two. Vampire Nighthawk got taken out of Lightning Bolt range with Vampire Nocturnus, and a handy Mind Sludge took away two Quenchable Fire and a Pyroclasm, which could have put him back in it.

With him back on the play for the third game, there was little room for error. Everything I did simply had to come off, and as I looked at a creature-light opener with triple Tendrils Of Corruption, that felt like just the lifegain buffer I’d need. This turned out to be faulty thinking, as the stunt I’d pulled just a few games ago (shooting my own man to deny their Path To Exile) got turned against me, as they used Burst Lightning on their own man to deny me critical Tendrils lifegain.

I’ll not lie, my expectations were minimal. In that context, some of the games were surprisingly good fun, and I can certainly see why flavor fans would take Vampires out for a quick bite. Sorry.

You might wonder why I would spend my time playing with a deck that I don’t really like. I could talk about providing you a service, which is indeed part of it, but there’s more to it than that. With a new set on the horizon, it pays to have an eye on so-called Tier Two strategies, to see if Worldwake has cards that can push them towards excellence.

Before I go, I want to share a few quick notes from Mono-White Control and Boros Bushwhacker. The Mono-White deck, which to my mind is pretty schizophrenic, only lost to Cruel Control on the way to a 4-1 record. It beat a fairly underwhelming Goblin deck, against which Guardian Seraph was really unkind. It beat Eldrazi Green and a Bant deck that didn’t do much, but most critically it gave Jund an absolute lesson.

As for Boros Bushwhacker, I regard this as the first deck you should test yourself against. Why? Well, for one thing, I found it unbeatable, but that’s only in the Tournament Practice Room. In any Metagame, there’s a deck that occupies a space that’s utterly unforgiving to poor decks. You could argue that Mono-Red is like that, or possibly the Runeflare Trap deck, but both these decks are one-dimensional.

The Boros deck comes at you in waves, and in waves that feature very few cards. You think all is well, and suddenly there’s a Kor Skyfisher returning Teetering Peaks and adding 2 damage for free. Then you think you’ve stabilized again, and Ranger Of Eos goes and fetches a killer turn featuring an Elite Vanguard and a Goblin Bushwhacker.

In short, although this isn’t necessarily a deck you Must Win against — that title probably remains with Jund if you’re taking Standard super-seriously — it’s absolutely a deck that will expose any weaknesses your deck may have. I found it silky smooth in execution, full of longevity, tricks, and raw power.

Until Worldwake comes on stream, that’s it for Standard from these parts. Next week, I begin a three-part series that will take us from Pre-Release to Pro Tour Qualifier, to the Pro Tour itself, as another exciting season of top-level Magic begins.

Until next week, when I’ll be reporting from the most exclusive Pre-Release in the world, as ever, thanks for reading…