Something Old, Something New

Valeriy talks about where shifts in the Standard metagame as a result of the weekend’s events may take him in deck choice for Grand Prix Vienna this weekend.

Do you know why I love Japanese Grand Prix and kinda dislike American ones? Because my deadline is around when the Top 8 decklists of Japanese GPs are posted so I can share some thoughts about them (I was excited to see such a busted Top 4 for Grand Prix Kyoto), whereas the second day of Grand Prix Albuquerque will just be starting when I send this piece in. Nevertheless, I can make some conclusions and eventually answer in the comments why I didn’t say a word about [insert good deck from the Top 8 here].

What saved me from true embarrassment this morning is the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Providence. Last weekend was a tough one due to the lack of a large Standard event, but the Standard Open in Providence was a good reward for my patience. Mono-Blue Devotion is still at the top despite a general understanding of its greatness, but the metagame is already shifting, as the results of both Providence and the first day of Albuquerque prove. So let’s start from the beginning and then get to the current metagame reaction.

Four Mono-Blue Devotion decks made the Top 8 of Providence. All of them had nearly identical maindecks; the only difference was a third Bident of Thassa over a second Jace, Architect of Thought or a second Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx over a fourth Mutavault. The tenth-place finisher, Kevin Jones, shockingly cut the fourth Judge’s Familiar to have three Jaces and two Bidents. This maindeck stability is just fantastic and indicates that the deck is very good as is. Some changes are possible, but why would you change the best and most well-tuned deck in the format?

A way to gain an edge in the Mono-Blue Devotion mirror match is to gear the deck toward having more aggressive draws. You can find an example of this in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros, where Pierre Dagen used this approach in both his mirrors against Sam Black and Jeremy Dezani. Another example and the one I’m going to highlight is the Mono-Blue Devotion list used by the team Danube Monarchy. I was encouraged to investigate this by a friend (whose surname is even more complicated than “Albuquerque”) wanting to have an edge in mirror matches during our trip to Grand Prix Vienna. He wanted to give Vaporkin a try, so Danube Monarchy’s list looked like an interesting starting point. Here’s the list for reference along with Matej Zatlkaj deck tech.

The first thing to notice is the lack of Nightveil Specter, which you should surely play to make Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves truly devastating. However, I’m certainly happy about the twelve two-mana creatures and Vaporkin’s ability to fly over annoying blockers. Welkin Tern’s descendant is bad against Nightveil Specter, but even in this case applying enough pressure will put your opponent on the back foot. Mono-Blue Devotion has no way to gain life, so every point of damage matters. After some tweaking and speaking, we came to this version of Mono-Blue Devotion:

This version is much more streamlined than the conventional one. I would be truly happy with it if some Mana Leak variant were present in this format, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist. Note that Matej’s PT list actually included two copies of Dissolve, which reflects how deep one can go while trying to build a good tempo deck. Standard would be completely different with any good two-mana counterspell, but our funky countermagic toolbox from the sideboard may still be useful in some matchups.

The bitter pill to swallow is that this list isn’t really better than the conventional one and doesn’t solve the randomness problem of the Mono-Blue Devotion mirror. I tried to gain advantage in the mirror match, but I couldn’t overcome the inherent randomness. So why try this one? My reason to do so is that Mono-Blue Devotion isn’t really my kind of deck and making it more streamlined helps me to play it better. It’s not like I’m making the deck simpler and decreasing the number of decisions to make. This build is a bit simpler to play; the point of adaptation is that I’m making some types of decisions better than others.

I can recommend this build of Mono-Blue Devotion if you think that it could fit your play style, but I’m still not sure whether I will play it myself, not because the deck isn’t good but because I dislike being targeted by everyone’s hate. An additional reason is another great performance by Mono-Black Devotion at Grand Prix Albuquerque. Paul Rietzl, Todd Anderson, and Owen Turtenwald had a fantastic first day with the deck, but Paul Rietzl beating White Weenie with Mono-Black in ninth round was when I really thought it was time to give the deck a serious look.

The top tables of a Grand Prix are usually a little bit ahead of comparable SCG Open top tables, and while we see four Mono-Blue Devotion decks in the Providence Top 8, a quick peek at the top tables of Albuquerque showed that Mono-Blue Devotion was seventh most popular deck.


And it’s not shocking that the two best-performing decks featured both Thoughtseize and a ton of removal. The first one was Mono-Black Devotion, and the second one was Brian Kibler G/B Aggro. If you look at the Top 16 decks in Providence, you’ll find a fair share of these decks there too alongside two more “Thoughtseize plus removal” decks.

Brian Kibler deck is good, and I was surprised that it didn’t become popular when he first wrote about it. However, a good deck can’t be under the radar forever, and this weekend was a breakthrough. The reason is simple—whenever you want to be good against both Mono-Blue Devotion and those who beat it, you need Thoughtseize, removal, and resiliency to Supreme Verdict. Lotleth Troll and Varolz, the Scar-Striped are incredibly resilient threats, so many players decided to try Golgari this weekend.

The bad news is that this weekend was probably too early for this deck due to a notable lack of Esper Control. I expected Esper to be very common since Mono-Blue Devotion has been ridiculously popular since the last Open. Exactly zero blue control decks made the Top 8 of Providence, and it seems that Albuquerque wasn’t friendly to them either. Two things are possible—nobody played Esper Control, or they did and got crushed.

The Top 16 in Providence featured seven aggressive decks (not counting Mono-Blue Devotion), so it’s not surprising that Esper didn’t perform well there. When that happens, Mono-Blue Devotion is able to thrive as long as it survives the early rounds. However, there is another consequence to this happening: powerful midrange decks may be very successful if the pilot is lucky enough to avoid facing control early on.

That’s why we saw three Mono-Black Devotion decks start 9-0 in Albuquerque and more interestingly why different kinds of midrange emerged in Providence. The most successful “Thoughtseize plus removal” pilot was Matt Costa. Matt not only adopted Brian Kibler approach of using Abrupt Decay as the best two-mana removal spell in the format but also went further and combined all the best removal and best creatures in the same deck.

The colors? Even if you didn’t watch the coverage, you may have guessed that “best creatures plus best removal” means Jund. Years may come and go, but Jund remains. The commentators’ first reaction to Matt’s choice was, “How many Thragtusks does he play?” but Jund may be good without Thragtusk. Moreover, the only life-gain source in Matt’s deck was Scavenging Ooze, while the list featured both Thoughtseize and Read the Bones (and even Underworld Connections in the sideboard). You can check out Matt’s deck tech below:

Five two-mana removal spells, six three-mana removal spells, and the format’s best threats make up this Jund deck. All you need is to survive long enough to cast them all. It’s not trivial in a deck with twelve shock lands and four scry lands, but if an opposing aggressive deck doesn’t have a great draw, they’re in a pretty bad position. Jund has all the ways to keep Thassa from turning into a creature, to deal with Master of Waves (especially post-board), and to beat the opponent in a few turns after stabilizing. But again, it’s all about survival.

Personally, I think that playing three colors is too risky in this format. However, Matt’s deck wasn’t the only one to challenge my opinion; Reid Duke posted a reasonable 6-4 record with a unique Prime Speaker Bant deck, and Ben Hatch posted a Top 16 finish with a Junk Midrange deck.

We see the same shell of Thoughtseize and removal, but Ben backed it with a variety of early creatures and very effective life-gaining threats to allow him to survive massive early damage. Moreover, Ben has the unique opportunity to smash Mono-Black Devotion (which is very well positioned now) with the full four post-board copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa.

I’m still afraid of three-colored mana bases in this format, but as long as Esper Control keeps losing to aggro and fast aggro keeps losing to Mono-Blue Devotion, this kind of deck may be very attractive. I’m not sure if this will stand for long, but I certainly think that next week will be fine for removal-based midrange decks too. The problems with a complicated mana base are still here, as are the problems with drawing the wrong half of your deck, but the presence of Mono-Blue Devotion and fast aggro gives midrange a fair chance to shine.

Reid Duke Bant is a completely different story. I hope he’ll write about it, but my early thoughts aren’t positive.

This deck looks super sweet. I can just imagine what happens when you resolve Plasm Capture with Prophet of Kruphix on the battlefield and how devastating casting Sphinx’s Revelation is with the ability to use all your mana twice. However, Sylvan Caryatid and Detention Sphere as the only reasonable ways to interact with an early swarm are not enough.

I talked about decks with Thoughtseize and a ton of removal earlier, and that seems to be the worst nightmare for this type of deck. You may comfortably overpower a Mono-Blue Devotion deck that is trying to build up a board presence, but life will become miserable when your opponent lands a cheap threat like Nightveil Specter and then casts removal spells every turn. Reid’s deck could be described as a devotion to mana deck, but it shares other devotion decks’ weakness to disruption.

Nevertheless, various devotion decks are good in Standard, and even if they’re not so good right now (see G/R Devotion), the metagame shifts quickly. When you think that playing a devotion deck is good, you should consider Reid’s Bant deck.

What would I personally play this weekend? Or more precisely what will I play at Grand Prix Vienna? The metagame has shifted towards disruption more and more, but Mono-Blue Devotion is still great. I’m considering it myself and would certainly recommend it to anybody, but I’m not particularly comfortable with the deck so it’s a sort of “Plan B.” “Plan A” is something with a good matchup against Mono-Black Devotion and with a reasonable (but not mandatory) matchup with Mono-Blue Devotion. Jund versus Mono-Black Devotion is a thing to test, but if I overcome my fear of three colors, I could play Brad Nelson Naya Control from the Invitational a few weeks back. This deck is a fine metagame solution that isn’t universally good, but this weekend seems to be the right time for it.

If I don’t play three colors this weekend, I will probably use some version of Red Devotion, especially if there are some signs of Esper Control gaining popularity. I tried many different builds and finally came to following conclusions:

1) Fanatic of Mogis is a great card, but Ember Swallower offers more value when you’re behind and don’t have a lot of devotion. Moreover, Ember Swallower is a pain for Mono-Red Aggro, Mono-Blue Devotion (they can’t overload Cyclonic Rift), and any three-color deck.

2) Chained to the Rocks is great in any matchup aside from Esper Control. Just play four copies maindeck.

3) The deck has all the tools to beat those who are good against Mono-Blue Devotion and is reasonable against it itself. There are no overwhelmingly good matchups, but very bad ones are also rare.

4) The deck can work without a high devotion count just like a normal deck of threats and removal. This is important due to the presence of Thoughtseize.

My current list is the following:

I’m not sure about some of the sideboard cards, as Firedrinker Satyr may be worse than two copies of Pithing Needle and two copies of Wear // Tear. Having early pressure against Esper Control and Mono Black Devotion is great, but we’re not as fast as Mono-Red Aggro anyway so attempting to sideboard into it may not be worth it. However, I’m fairly happy with the rest of the list, and I recommend you giving it a try if you’re looking for something different.

Good luck in whatever you’re playing in this weekend!

Valeriy Shunkov