Shake Ups In Seattle

This week Patrick discusses the exciting new strategies that emerged in Standard at #SCGSEA which people will need to take into consideration for #SCGLA.

Standard metagames usually go through a few cycles when a new set is introduced. First people incorporate the new content into preexisting decks or sometimes don’t incorporate the new content at all unless it’s overwhelmingly powerful and obvious. Given enough time players eventually move on to the second phase, which is finding and exploiting new cards that enable entirely different decks, and players are forced to adapt preexisting strategies to the new decks. Then players move on to the last phase, which is when all the information is on the table and players know what the "good" decks are, and then a new set comes out to restart the entire process.

Depending on the quality of the metagame or the new content, certain parts of the cycle can last for more or less time. Phase II happened even during the reign of Caw-Blade, but players soon found that trying to do anything else was a foolish endeavor. Some Standard formats stay in Phase II for a really long time, assuming the threat/answer dichotomy is robust enough that players are continually swapping different cards in and out of decks. But some variation of this is always happening, and the exploration of Born of the Gods has been no different.

The first SCG Standard Open with Born of the Gods was won by a Mono-Blue Devotion deck playing no new cards. Early on the first thing that could be considered an "innovation" was adding Courser of Kruphix to various Monsters strategies. Slowly but surely people continued to make Phase I adaptations, like adding black to G/R Monsters or white to Mono-Blue Devotion or various aggressive white strategies incorporating Ephara, God of the Polis. But I feel last weekend in Seattle represented the first signs of a fully Phase II metagame appearing, with Pain Seer and Herald of Torment having a breakout in a variety of decks.

Jackson Knorr’s deck is the most exciting to me, as it moves very much into "new deck" territory. Pain Seer and Herald of Torment are significant additions to this style of deck, and something like this would have been a non-starter before Born of the Gods. Pain Seer gives this deck another powerful opening after a Thoughtseize and another synergistic play with Mogis’s Marauder, a card that was on the very fringe of the format a few months ago. A quick comparison of Herald of Torment to Boon Satyr (no Constructed slouch itself) highlights how good the card is as both an individual threat and a hedge against flooding.

What is possibly more significant about this deck is how it fairs against the popular removal in the format right now. Lifebane Zombie doesn’t touch this deck of course. Devour Flesh is at its worse against decks with lots of interchangeable cheap threats. And Doom Blade is a dead card outside of Mutavault.

Esper Control has started to incorporate Doom Blade to fight against G/R Monsters, Mono-Blue Devotion, and others, which is a huge bonus for Jackson’s deck. Esper already encounters this problem with Doom Blade against Mono-Black Devotion, but those are slower games that generally come down to Underworld Connections and discard against Sphinx’s Revelation and planeswalkers. Yes, drawing a dead card is always painful, but it’s a survivable thing in a matchup that comes down to overwhelming the other player with card advantage. Against attacking decks it’s critical for Esper to have its removal line up correctly and on time, so a deck this aggressive picks up a huge edge there.

Donovan Hammond’s deck is called Mono-Black Devotion for lack of a better term, but this is a much more aggressive take on the deck, removing Desecration Demon and Underworld Connections altogether and adding Pain Seer and Herald of Torment. If I knew I was going to be playing in a room full of Esper and U/W Control, my 60 might look like something very close to this. Faster threats are easier to slide under counters and maximize the disruption of Thoughtseize, and this deck is capable of winning the game before Sphinx’s Revelation takes over, a big problem for traditional devotion builds.

Donovan’s deck is also making much better use of Gray Merchant of Asphodel than other builds, as the early damage his deck can deal makes Gray Merchant much more threatening. I think Gray Merchant is an incongruous part of the traditional build of the deck and among the worst cards in the deck against many opponents, but it’s so powerful in the mirror that it’s essentially uncuttable. Donovan is solving the problem by being much more aggressive, which is a logical direction to take the deck.

We’ve seen W/B Humans before, but Mitch Yunker’s deck is a white and black Human deck, not just touching black for a couple of choice cards. Pain Seer essentially replaces Precinct Captain as your "when this goes uncontested, I win the game" two-drop of choice, which makes sense when Doom Blade is escalating in popularity. Every creature in the deck is a Human, which really maximizes Xathrid Necromancer.

Since Brave the Elements is off the table in such a build and because Mitch is playing so much black mana, he gets to add Thoughtseize to the deck, which is hard to argue with. Mitch’s deck is about as exposed is it gets to Blood Baron of Vizkopa (which eventually ended his run in the elimination rounds), and I would actually consider moving some copies of Renounce the Guilds to the main (which has utility against nearly every opponent and doesn’t hinder Mitch in the slightest).

All three of these decks represent logical adaptations in a world where people are playing slower decks with lots of Doom Blade in them. This is the critical part of constant metagame adaptation—as long as the removal and the threats interact appreciably different from one another, the metagame should continue to evolve. Players are still discovering new decks and threats to play with, which is making it more challenging for control decks to play the right mixture of answer cards. This is the first Standard Open I can recall (and maybe ever) where both Sphinx’s Revelation and Polukranos, World Eater were legal and neither appeared in the Top 8. Doom Blade was all over the place, suppressing the latter and being inappropriate in conjunction with the former.

Of course, I would be remiss in multiple ways if I didn’t talk about the winning deck.

I played various R/W Burn decks prior to Born of the Gods and discussed it a few times in previous articles. My list started out something similar to this, but eventually I decided to move all the player-only burn (like Skullcrack and Boros Charm) to the sideboard and play a removal-dense maindeck (Chained to the Rocks, Mizzium Mortars). The reason I did this was because it was too hard for me to cobble together winning plans against either opponent when I had a mixture of pure creature removal and pure burn in the deck. Put simply, the deck wasn’t nearly powerful enough to beat both types of opponents, so I decided to try to beat the majority of opponents game 1 and sideboard to try to beat the rest.

Searing Blood is such a huge injection of overall power to R/W Burn and allows it to play both a "removal + creature" game and a "burn" game since the card does both. You can play Boros Charm and Chained to the Rocks together when you have a powerful card fulfilling both roles at the same time, and Searing Blood allows you to execute such a hedge.

Speaking of hedges, Neil’s winning list doesn’t have to play a pure burn game. Ash Zealot, Boros Reckoner, Chandra’s Phoenix, and Stormbreath Dragon allow Neil to play something of a normalized game, dropping quality threats and backing them up with removal or burn as appropriate. I’m not sure how much I like Ash Zealot in a world flush with Sylvan Caryatid, but it may be a necessary concession to get enough "normal" draws and is a powerful threat against most non-Monsters opponents.

I’m a really big fan of Fated Conflagration in Neil’s sideboard. I thought it could have some legs as an answer to Blood Baron of Vizkopa; Polukranos, World Eater; and Jace, Architect of Thought when I saw the card previewed, but four mana is a bit high of a price for most of the decks I play. It’s excellent here, as Neil is already intending on getting to five mana for Stormbreath Dragon and scrying is probably more powerful in burn than in any other Standard-legal strategy (as the lands/spells polarization is more pronounced when you’re trying to assemble a lethal combination of burn spells—this is why Magma Jet is so powerful in this deck as well).

There’s also a lot of room for adaptation. Since Neil is playing a healthy number of creatures, casting his spells on time is at a premium, and he has a relative paucity of Temples compared to most versions of this deck. Ash Zealot hitting the bench could open up room for Temple of Silence, and Temple of Malice could allow for Toil // Trouble to appear somewhere in the 75. Given how powerful scrying is in this deck, these are changes I would consider if I was to play the deck myself (and who am I kidding—I will be playing this deck sometime soon).

For the first time since Born of the Gods was released, Standard feels flush not just with adaptations on old stuff but actually new stuff as well. With Pain Seer, Herald of Torment, and Searing Blood as key components of some of the best performing decks, #SCGSEA clearly implies there’s a lot of undiscovered territory in Standard. If nothing else, players are going to have to strongly weigh the threats and answers that they’re playing as we approach the SCG Invitational in Charlotte, as what was getting the job done the last few weeks got a rude awakening in Seattle.