SCG Open: Cincinnati And Japan Nationals

Brad Nelson is glad to be playing Standard again, as this past weekend has proved the format to be diverse and fun! Which decks would Brad recommend playing right now, and which would he recommend avoiding?

It seems that this last weekend was a huge success for the new Standard. The format looks great, and all types of decks are pouring in with the results. I almost forgot what it was like to talk about actual metagames and results. Thank you, bannings!

This last weekend showed off two big tournaments: StarCityGames.com Open: Cincinnati and Japan Nationals.

Both had very different results except they agreed on one thing: Mono Red is not the deck people thought it was going to be.

Mono Red

There are so many reasons for Mono Red’s poor performance this last weekend. The first and most obvious is people came prepared. Most decks had Kor Firewalker, Obstinate Baloth, or Timely Reinforcements. The rest of the field played other aggressive decks that have good matchups against the red deck. This made the deck a bad call.

To make matters worse, Mono Red really didn’t have any decks to prey on as they usually do. Most decks are well positioned for the matchup, and those that are not have enough answers to make it at least a contest. There are no decks in the field that are straight free wins, as the deck is used to having.

Looking at the decks in the format supports this thought.

Valakut: Mono Red has a great chance of winning if it is on the play with a Goblin Guide. Without this start, the matchup leans towards Valakut. Sideboarding improves the matchup for Valakut more, since it has more universal spells that can come in.

Mono Red can sideboard in spells like Act of Aggression and Mana Barbs, but both of these cards are much more situational than Obstinate Baloth and Pyroclasm.

Caw-Blade: Mono Red has the advantage game one. This is not true post sideboard. Most Caw-Blade decks are running 7-10 spells that can come in, and four of those tend to be Kor Firewalker.

Vampires: I recently was testing Vampires online and was very surprised how good this matchup was for Vampires. It is very aggressive, but Vampires has life gain and Bloodghasts that really turn the tide. Other players may have different results, but this was the case for me.

Tempered Steel: This matchup seems very poor for Red. The ability to drop a ton of creatures on the board really fast puts red on the back foot. Tempered Steel is also an absolute blowout. Mono Red doesn’t have an equivalently powerful trump.

The list goes on, but the thought doesn’t change. There just aren’t enough good matchups to justify playing this deck. This might not always be the case because Magic is always fluctuating, but for now I would not pick up this deck. I don’t think we’ll see more red decks this weekend, since it didn’t perform well, but we’ll just have to wait and see what Patrick Sullivan has to say in Seattle.  

Tempered Steel

Another thing the two tournaments had in common was a strong finish by Tempered Steel. This deck has been putting up great finishes on MTGO in the last couple weeks and proved it’s still good with M12.

The thing I like about this deck is that it can have one of the most powerful starts in the format. Even without the busted draws, it still gets to play good games of Magic with removal, evasion, and hard-to-deal-with threats.

Its low curve lets it punish any hiccups an opposing deck might make in the first couple of turns. Preordain helps those hands that are on the slow side, digging for spells like Tempered Steel and getting rid of unneeded cards. Preordain helps smooth out inconsistencies decks like this normally have.

This deck made Top 8 of both tournaments, and I think this deck will get even bigger. It won’t dominate the format or anything, but it should be a very popular choice for a while. Tempo plays a huge role in Standard right now, and this deck can generate a ton of it.


Now for the differences. The biggest one is how much Caw-Blade was in the top 16 of Cincinnati. I am really not surprised by this one.

Before the bannings, this deck broke many fundamental rules of Magic. The biggest one was how infrequently it got flooded. The deck generated tons of card advantage with many of its spells. The Equipment were all mana sinks; even eleven of its lands could be “activated” using excess mana. Drawing more lands than your opponent never seemed to be a problem.

The next unfair thing was how well the deck mulliganed. Most decks are crippled by going to five, but some draws with this deck were broken at five. It just had too much card advantage.

The reason this deck is still very powerful is Sword of Feast and Famine. Being able to untap lands is something that very few cards in the history of the game can do, yet almost all of them have played a huge role in Constructed tournaments. Some have even been banned.

Control decks should never get this ability, as controlling the opponent while progressing their own strategy is something no deck has ever mastered like Caw-Blade. Even just playing Sword, attacking, and then casting more permanents is a tempo boost that ruins other decks.

The banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic did not do enough to hold this deck down. It is not the powerhouse that it used to be, but it still plays very unfair.

I am in love with Tim’s decklist down to every card. I was playing a version close to this on MTGO last week (obviously without M12) and was very happy with Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold. These cards get the job done on their own, which is important.

Some Caw-Blade decks are running Gravitational Shift and Emeria Angel, which seems cute and very powerful, but at the same time not needed. Sure Gravitation Shift has other applications, but it’s slow and sometimes does nothing. Sometimes it is dead because it actually helps the opponent. U/W does not need to play cards like this to win. Playing solid guys with removal, a few planeswalkers, and countermagic is enough to get the job done.

The sideboard was also very good for this tournament. Stave Off is the cutest and most inventive card in his deck. I think it was a fine one-of for a sideboard, but is not something I would end up ever running. Sure it does what it is meant to do, kill Splinter Twin and protect Hero, but that doesn’t seem like enough to merit a sideboard slot.

That being said, cards like this can be blowouts that can help win a tournament. I have played very strange one-ofs in sideboards before to great success.

I don’t know why Caw-Blade had such a small percentage of the field in Japan. It is not as if this version is a secret. It has been doing very well on MTGO, so it comes down to people not respecting it. One country is wrong however, and only time will prove which one that is.


This deck took three slots in the Top 8 of Japanese Nationals and two top 16 finishes in Cincinnati. These finishes are closer to equal than they appear. Japanese Nationals was only eight rounds of Standard and six rounds of Limited. One of the pilots was none other than Makihito Mihara. He is a much-respected pro that has been playing this deck for almost a year now.

Valakut does not get that kind of love in the US. Many of the best players won’t touch this deck. Only Ben Stark will sing this deck’s praises, and I don’t think he has been wrong yet.

This is probably the best time to be triggering Valakuts. The deck has gotten new spells to make it more consistent; shifting metagames are always good for defined decks; and there is less Splinter Twin running around. The real question to be asked is what the best version of the deck is.

I personally think that Solemn Simulacrum is a much better fit in this deck than Oracle of Mul Daya. Oracle is more powerful when it works but makes the deck more inconsistent, which has always been the deck’s biggest problem. I like that Solemn Simulacrum makes you want to chump block with it instead of wanting to keep it around. Oracle of Mul Daya is better in the mirror match, but those cases are rarer.

Rampant Growth also gives the deck a third acceleration spell for turn two. Having so many means the deck will always be ramping on two, which is very important.

The Americans like Urabrask the Hidden, while no one in the Top 8 of Japanese Nationals had them. Cards like this help a deck have more powerful draws, but also can hurt them as well. Valakut does not seem like a deck that should be worried about being cute game one, and it doesn’t seem like many games will be won because of this creature in the first game. I would much rather just have more spells that either kill things or help me with my proactive strategy. I have not played and attacked with a Primeval Titan in the same turn yet, though, so I could be wrong.

This is the version of Valakut that I’ll be initially testing for Nationals.

Decks I Wouldn’t Play

Pyromancer Ascension and Splinter Twin did not prove to be as good as projected. Many people thought the addition of Ponder would make both much better, but this was just not the case.

Let’s start with Twin.

Splinter Twin was at its best during the Caw-Blade season because of how well it preyed on this matchup. It also had Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which worked very well with its strategy.

Things have changed, and creature removal has become more popular. This means most decks are very aggressive and have removal for the combo. Having the combo for the turn-four kill is still insane, but the deck crumbles without it.

People have started to play Spellskite because of its power against Splinter Twin and to protect their other creatures.

All of these reasons make Splinter Twin a poor choice, even with Ponder now available.

Pyromancer Ascension is an even worse choice. Combo decks have always thrived on being faster than the format. This deck was sweet when it could go infinite with Time Warp, since it had a way to break a game. Without it, this deck tends to be slower than opposing decks.

There are also many other problems with playing this deck. It gets hit by all the artifact and enchantment removal people are playing. Nature’s Claim and Celestial Purge are common sideboard cards. It seems difficult to simultaneously protect Pyromancer Ascension and yourself from the opponent’s threats. Mana Leak and Lightning Bolt only go so far.

I would not touch either of these decks in any upcoming events.

There are a couple other decks I would not play but that I think are still good. U/W Control seemed to put up some results in the US, as did U/B in Japan. These decks will only get better as the weeks progress, and the decks will be easier to refine. However right now I would just play a deck with a more proactive strategy out of fear of incorrectly evaluating the metagame.

This does not make these decks a poor choice. Great deck designers have shown us the way so far, and the decks seem to be powerful enough to get results.

Puresteel Paladin

The last deck I want to talk about is Caleb Durward’s Puresteel Paladin deck.

This archetype has been a powerhouse in Block and seems to be making a decent transition over to Standard. I can’t really answer whether this deck is the real deal (I don’t think it is, but at the same time it has such a powerful engine that it could be).

It probably has a great Caw-Blade matchup, which will be important, but at the same time it looks like it rolls over to Valakut. It might have some countermagic, but all of the aggressive spells cost too much mana for them to be effective. Keep an eye on this deck in the coming weeks. I don’t know if there’s a way to tech against it, but there’s great value in learning how to play with/against it.

So that is all I have about New Standard. It seems like it is going to be a great format, with many decks, and many versions of those decks, being viable.

The next month is littered with National Championships and SCG Opens, which will make it very fun to find out how everything settles. All I know is I am happy to be playing Standard again.

Brad Nelson