Resetting The Standard

Get a glimpse into 2010 Player of the Year Brad Nelson’s brain as he takes you through what he learned about the Standard format this past weekend in preparation for #SCGBALT.

There comes a time in every Standard format where I lose my way. I am no longer able to find new and exciting strategies, and my win percentage suffers because of it. Each and every time this happens, I take a step back and try to relearn the format through new eyes. Throw away everything I thought I knew and start over. This week’s article is going to be a little glimpse into that process. I hope you guys enjoy your trip into my brain! Bring a flashlight—it gets a little dark.

Pop quiz time ladies and gentlemen! Please take your fingers off your mouse to refrain from skipping ahead. Take your time and really think about this!

What does every Standard card on this list have in common?

Ethereal Armor
Dreg Mangler
Selesnya Charm
Madcap Skills
Ghor-Clan Rampager
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Boros Charm
Gruul Charm
Simic Charm
Rubblebelt Maaka
Varolz, the Scar-Striped
Profit // Loss
Warleader’s Helix
Turn // Burn
Unflinching Courage
Ash Zealot
Rakdos’s Return
Legion Loyalist
Aurelia, the Warleader
Spike Jester
Brimstone Volley
Geralf’s Messenger
Strangleroot Geist
Falkenrath Aristocrat
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
Gavony Township
Slayers’ Stronghold
Kessig Wolf Run
Blood Artist
Druid’s Familiar
Craterhoof Behemoth
Wolfir Silverheart
Revenge of the Hunted
Lightning Mauler
Pillar of Flame
Zealous Conscripts
Bonfire of the Damned
Burn at the Stake
Silverblade Paladin
Knight of Infamy
Knight of Glory
Sign in Blood
Flinthoof Boar
Thundermaw Hellkite
Flames of the Firebrand
Mark of Mutiny
Searing Spear
Volcanic Strength
Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Sublime Archangel
Chandra’s Phoenix
Chandra, Pyromaster
Brave the Elements
Spectral Flight

I spent this past weekend just playing Magic Online. Almost everyone I knew was out of town for one reason or another, which made it a great time to get my game on. I really wanted to find the perfect 75 for Junk Reanimator to be able to write about this week and show everyone that the deck still has game. That’s not exactly what happened though. I lost almost 50% of my games!

That may not sound like that a big of a deal, but I rarely go below a 75% win percentage on Magic Online. Not cashing in a Daily is an oddity, yet I found myself dropping before the final round three out of five times. I guess Junk Reanimator isn’t as good as I thought!

I did this exact same thing with The Aristocrats, Bant Hexproof, and Junk Aristocrats. In fact, the only deck I was doing well with was my new go to, B/G Midrange. I cashed both Daily Events in which I played it but still only scraped together a couple 3-1s.

In frustration, I decided to do something I thought I would never do; I picked up Jund. I didn’t do exceptional with the deck, but I did well. In fact, my win percentage was barely over 60%, but that was much higher than the other decks I was playing. I wasn’t emotionally happy while playing Jund, but at least I was feeling good about winning.

I don’t remember the last time in Standard where I wasn’t able to win without having to play a tier 1 strategy. I have recently made a career out of playing something new and innovative, yet now could only win with Jund. That got me thinking.

I made a list of questions that I had to find the answers for.

What am I missing?

Why is this format the way it is?

How can I attack it?

What hair product does Reid Duke use?

All strong questions that needed to be answered, but I had no clue where to start. I spent hours just staring at my Magic Online collections looking over every single card in Standard. There has to be an answer in their somewhere, right?

This is when I made the list.

Are you ready for the answer?

They kill all the people!

Every single card on that list has the potential to increase the damage output the turn they are drawn. In a sense, they all have "haste."

It’s not like this is a new thing to Magic or anything. Obviously this game has always had cards that have the potential to win a game if drawn. We have all had "outs" that if drawn would decide the results put on the match slip. We all felt Olivier Ruel pain as Craig Jones miraculously came out of nowhere with the $10,000 Lightning Helix.

What we haven’t ever had is the staggering volume of these types of cards. Standard is currently littered with cards that are not only powerful but also deal damage the turn they’re played.

With such a high volume of hard-hitting cards, it is very difficult to be reactive. It is almost impossible to answer every threat an opponent presents when many of them deal incidental damage the turn they’re cast. This makes it much more profitable to play cards that complement these spells as opposed to disrupting them.

Power vs. Consistency

There is always a struggle between these two axis points. On one hand, we want to make sure our decks are powerful enough to compete with opposing strategies, but on the other hand, we need to make sure the deck functions almost all the time. After all, you wouldn’t play a deck that can win on turn 2 5% of the time but does nothing the other 95%.

I’m talking to you, Naya Blitz!

The struggle between power and consistency is amplified during Summer Standard. The card pool is at its highest, allowing the amount of playable archetypes to be almost double any other time of the year. Not only are there more decks, but the decks themselves are always extremely powerful and efficient.

Things are a little bit different this year, however. Not only are the cards much more aggressive than they have ever been before, but the mana is at one of its all-time highs since we are in a Ravnica block and Wizards gave us ten shocklands and ten buddy lands to go with them. Everyone is able to play very aggressive three-color decks and not suffer the usual consistency issues that decks normally have when they play a third color.

Or so we think . . .

This took me a long time to realize, but the three-color shockland mana base is one of the sharpest double-edged swords I have ever come across in my ten years of playing Magic. It looks like you are able to play a handful of powerful cards at the cost of two-to-four life per game. This isn’t the biggest cost in the world since the cards being played these days are so aggressive that it is more important to get on the board without stumbling than it is to preserve those four life points. The fine print that no one seems to read is that shocklands only make the cards on the list above even more powerful.

If everyone is playing aggressive strategies that all have the ability to draw cards that can win the game on the spot along with starting each game at fourteen-to-eighteen life, then you have the perfect storm of inconsistent Magic.

All of this is why G/R Aggro has been the best deck in the format since Brian Kibler played it at the World Championship.

I initially didn’t think this deck was anything more than just another Kibler deck—I mean, the man does like attacking with Dragons no matter how good they actually are. Little did I know that he is in fact The Dragonmaster his nickname claims him to be and had broken the format wide open with his updated version of Ross Merriam G/R Aggro deck from a couple Invitationals ago.

For starters, this deck runs five different cards from the list at the top. 33% of the deck is cards that could win the game the moment you draw them. Instead of trying to interact with an opponent, this deck just tries to kill everyone and has a good chance of doing it.

Its two-color mana base allows it to be a little more consistent than the three-color decks and also gives it a higher starting life total. This is important since the best way to play this deck is to race, so starting with two-to-four life more than the opponent is always a bonus.

Supporting Roles

To be able to get into a position where the cards from the list above are able to win games, every deck has to play support spells. This is where cards like Doomed Traveler, Arbor Elf, Farseek, Gather the Townsfolk, and many others come in. These cards are essential. Not only do they come down early to help their respective decks start interacting with the opponent in the early turns, but they also help make the powerful cards better. They add consistency to powerful strategies by filling both of these roles.

It is extremely important for a deck to get on the board as early as possible, making it essential to play a high number of these types of spells. The downside to this is that you usually are never happy if they arrive fashionably late. These cards are also terrible topdecks when the game has gone long and both players are down to very few resources. The best example of this is The Aristocrats.

This deck only runs four cards that have a big impact on an empty board. It tries to build a good board positional early and maintain it throughout the entire game. Once the game goes too long and they have run out of creatures, the deck can barely function anymore.

Aggressive decks have always had this inherent flaw of getting attritioned out the longer the game goes. This has been magnified due to the fact that the aggressive decks play a higher density of support cards, weakening their overall draw steps. This makes it much easier for control-style decks to attrition out their aggro opponents by simply surviving long enough.

This is another area where G/R Aggro doesn’t suffer as much since it is packing four Domri Rade to help with the transition to the late game.

The problem is that control decks are few and far between. I know I’m barking up the wrong tree when I say control is dead, but every blue-based strategy is just bad right now. The numbers are there to back up my statement. They all suck!

It’s just too difficult to play six-drops in Standard with how fast the format is, and that is exactly what the first Sphinx’s Revelation is. The card is only as powerful as the amount of land you have in play, and the only way to fire off the first Revelation for more than two or three is if the opponent stumbles. We will get to stumbling a little bit later in the article, but for now let’s just say Revelation is bad, mmkay!

A reactive deck is not a bad place to be as long as you can find one that can survive an early onslaught. Being able to attrition out aggressive decks by simply making it to turn 8 is a great place to be if it is possible. This is why B/G Midrange is the second best deck in the format.

I never thought this deck would take off like it has. I decided to give it a shot after Jeff Hoogland and Przemek Oberbek both made Top 8 of different tournaments with it on the same weekend. I have to say, I liked it. I didn’t think I would, but I enjoyed playing it. I didn’t think it was as good as the emotional attachment I had to it, so I dropped it. This is something I had a bit of a problem with in the past, but lately I have been controlling myself to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore. If I feel like I am at a deck disadvantage, I drop it for something new or more powerful.

Boy was I wrong! This deck is great, and it’s because it’s the closest you can get to a control deck and still survive in such a volatile format. If you are one of those players that I constantly see on the Internet talking about how you want Mono-Black Control to be a thing again, you better be playing this deck. I know it isn’t entirely black, but it is the closest you are going to find when we are on the plane of Ravnica.

The Achilles Heel

Have you ever played a game of Magic where you mulligan, miss a couple land drops, and do nothing for a couple of turns but still win due to your opponent’s deck being too reactive to capitalize? I bet that wasn’t in this Standard format!

It’s too difficult to get into a winning board position after color screw, missed land drops, flooding, or bad mana curve. Every deck is not only aggressive in nature but also has cards that get stronger with each passing turn when unimpeded.

Velocity is the word of this format. Every deck is designed to go bigger and bigger with whatever resource they are trying to exploit unless you disrupt the key elements of the deck. That makes it very difficult to get back into a game where an opponent did not also have consistency issues.

There are only two decks that I have found that are consistently able to come back from a stumble. The first is B/G Midrange, which makes it even more powerful in my eyes, but the second is the boogeyman. Jund has been dominating for a very long time, and until I played with it, I never truly understood why. The deck not only has the ability to cut the head off of any strategy, leaving it to try to win with all of the utility cards, but also can come back when fortune hasn’t been on its side.

Jund also runs very few support spells. Besides Farseek, the deck has removal spells, powerful creatures that help stabilize, and a slew of X spells that can finish games on the spot. This means that every card off the top is often relevant, making it difficult to attrition out Jund without a steady stream of card advantage.

When the deck misses a land drop, it most likely has a cheap removal spell to at least interact with the opponent. When it draws too many lands, it has powerful cards like Rakdos’s Return, Olivia Voldaren, Bonfire of the Damned, and Kessig Wolf Run that help find ways to win games. I don’t even want to get into what happens when a Jund deck finds a bed that is just right!

This deck is hard to attack because it plays a bunch of low synergy spells. It doesn’t really care how it wins the game. Every creature in the deck does relatively the same thing, so no matter how many of them get disrupted, sooner or later one of them will end up on mop-up duty.

Jund also has such a high density of removal spells that it has a relatively easy time disrupting the key element of every other deck in the format.

This advantage is also shared by B/G Midrange, but it does not make it the overall superior deck. The advantage that Jund has over B/G is in their heads-up matchup. Jund has more trumps like Garruk, Primal Hunter; Kessig Wolf Run; and Rakdos’s Return that give it the free wins, whereas B/G has to work for every single victory. This is pretty much the story of B/G Midrange. It works hard for its wins, while Jund can sometimes just crush any matchup with its higher density of powerful permanents and Kessig Wolf Runs.

The Juggernaut Effect

Even though the colors and spells are all different, aggressive decks share many things in common. They all have a relatively low curve of aggressive creatures that curve out around turn 4, a way to deal damage through an army of defenders, and a small handful of removal spells.

These cards all line up differently, but the general game plan is always the same. This makes approaching these "mirror" type matches very interesting.

I like to use the term "throw a wrench in their plans." I am pretty sure I am mixing metaphors, but this has become so ingrained in my thought process that it is hard to break. The same goes for pronouncing Mother of Runes as if she birthed a post-apocalyptic world and my enraging addition of the letter x to especially. I am well aware of these things but have yet to find a solution. I quite possibly might need to find a chalkboard and a big box of chalk.


What I mean by this is that it is crucial that winning the game is in your sights. You can’t win a game in an aggro mirror if you are too defensive unless your opponent becomes flooded. Take aggressive lines and have faith in the top of your deck. That is exactly what your opponent is doing, and it is the correct way to do things.

Rarely is it important to kill a mana creature since they play more and have a low curve. Wasting removal early means you will have less for the more relevant creatures your opponent plays. It also means that you are doing this to capitalize with an already present board state, meaning their removal might be more important since you already have you creatures in play while they are patiently waiting theirs to arrive.


Even with this information, Standard really is just a wide-open format. The edges that these decks have are minimal at best because of how powerful the individual cards are and how high variance the games play out. The most important thing to take away from this article is that you should have a coherent plan to kill every opponent. There are too many proactive cards and game-winning spells on top of the library to justify playing a control deck that doesn’t run Thragtusk.

I don’t know where I am going to go from here, but I do know that this is the foundation I am going to work from. I hope you guys enjoyed this article. Leave me some responses in the comments!

Brad Nelson