Speculations on the New Standard

This week michaelj puts on his fortune teller garb and peers into the future in an attempt to divine what the Standard format will look like come next Tuesday. In addition to showing you not one, but two new decks that may already have broken the upcoming Type Two season, he prognosticates on all the scenarios from the March 1st Banning announcement, and tells you just what each of them will mean to your upcoming Friday Nights, Regionals, and Nationals tournaments.

Extended is really diverse blah. This is the best format of all time because there are so many viable decks blah blah. Extended is the worst format I can think of because you can’t prepare for all the decks which makes it really random blah blah blah. Please sir, can you write about my GrowATog deck I know that the mana base isn’t anything to look at but it’s really good and I know you love Quirion Dryad blah blah blah blah.

That’s all I’ve got to say about Extended for the time being (the “time being” being defined as “this article”). However, with the fairly sedate release of a new set that will prove a significant component to the ahem Standard format in a couple of months, there is a perfectly good other format to write about right now, and Teddy Cardgame asked me to do so.

Now despite the fact that I already told Jon Becker this week that I had broken Type II, I must now step away and re-evaluate that statement as We Don’t Really Know What Standard Is Going To Look Like. I started testing against stock States era decks (minus Affinity of course), but there will be waves of JSS events before most of us actually start caring about Standard (which will in turn inform our so-called “Decks to Beat” for the Summer Championship season); more importantly, the March 1 announcement looms over our heads. What will be banned? What will be changed? In what way will Ravager Affinity be eviscerated? The way R&D chooses to deal with the dominant deck will have implications far beyond that one deck.

1. Aether Vial

To be honest, in my testing thus far for a format that has no defined decks including Betrayers of Kamigawa and no clear decision on how the format will be changed by the March 1 announcement, I never considered that Aether Vial would not be banned. I talked to Becker this week and he sort of chuckled that of course Aether Vial will be banned, but in speaking to some of my other friends I am now not so certain. The path for Standard, with or without Ravager Affinity is very different keying on this card.

Aether Vial is banned:

Around States and PT: Columbus, Brian David-Marshall and Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2 agreed that if they could guarantee they could always go first, there was only one deck they would consider playing: my mono-Blue deck from the 2004 Champs Challenge. The reason is that if they could go first, they would be able to Annul Aether Vial on turn 1 but if they didn’t go first, they would tend to lose to turn 1 Aether Vial.

Said in another way, the mono-Blue deck was more or less the best deck if the opponent didn’t have Aether Vial; if Aether Vial were banned, Even If The Ravager Affinity Deck Were Otherwise Left Unchanged, I think that mono-Blue would end up on top. Though difficult to play, though without a consensus best build, Annul, Mana Leak, and Hinder would lead a parade of cheap and agnostic answers to everything short of Isao, Enlightened Bushi… with Echoing Truth to clean up any stragglers.

Would another deck rise up to hate out mono-Blue? Probably. But also probably not in time. Right now you might be saying to yourself “mono-Blue would not be the best deck if they banned Aether Vial; why my Beacon deck blah blah blah,” and you would just be proving my point. Don’t forget that while mono-Blue is an extremely homogeneous and mana efficient answer deck that is quite difficult to hate out with a single sorcery, the reprinting of the Urza’s Destiny Eradicate cycle greatly affects decks based on Tooth and Nail, the Fifth Dawn Beacons, and to a lesser extent, Kiki-Jiki and other Soulshift builds.

Aether Vial is not banned:

Conversely, I think that if Aether Vial is not banned, mono-Blue not only doesn’t go to the top of the class, it gets much worse. The reason is that there are certain creatures that can circumvent the entire mono-Blue game plan that are also synergistic with an existing viable deck that is quite quick enough to mug a ponderous control deck… so long as its threats hit the table. An example (assuming Aether Vial is left intact):

4 Aether Vial

4 Chrome Mox

2 Sword of Fire and Ice

4 Sword of Light and Shadow

4 Hokori, Dust Drinker

2 Isamaru, Hound of Konda

4 Kami of False Hope

4 Lantern Kami

4 Leonin Skyhunter

2 Samurai of the Pale Curtain

4 Shining Shoal

4 Suntail Hawk

18 Plains

This deck probably needs tuning… but then again we have a pretty good chunk of time until Regionals. If it gets a flyer, Sword of Light and Shadow, and Kami of False Hope (and ideally Aether Vial with one counter), it more or less can’t lose to a deck without dedicated board control elements. In a very Nate Heiss frame of mind, I think that Gold Myr might actually be better than Samurai of the Pale Curtain, and as a four-of. It might be better to run a Steelshaper’s Gift suite, Skyhunter Skirmisher, and Umezawa’s Jitte; don’t know and it doesn’t matter yet. Point is, with Aether Vial in the mix, mono-Blue will have no long-game persistent answer to Hokori… bouncing him will do nothing, stealing him will just tap a bunch of mana, and countering him will never come up. With Sword of Light and Shadow, the White deck will just fly right by and it will be a big mess. Thanks Chrome Mox!

I am actually going to write a couple of pieces on Hokori down the line, but White Weenie/flyers seems like an obvious place to start. I actually think that with Kami of False Hope, Hokori, Lantern Kami, and Shining Shoal, Faithful Squire is a reasonable cast, and would fill in the currently absent three spot (animals-wise, anyway), but that card isn’t exactly a combo with Aether Vial.

As I’ve been saying for months, the Vial makes all the creature decks better, and I think that beyond the soon-to-be-deceased Affinity and White Weenie, it will end up in decks like G/R Kiki-Jiki, just like it helps out in Extended Kiki-Opposition and other such board control decks.

2. Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault

Arcbound Ravager and/or Disciple of the Vault are banned:

I kind of like the idea of banning Affinity’s bombs, neither of which have Affinity for Artifacts, and leaving the cards that were actually engineered to exploit the mechanic. There is almost a struggle of rivals between Myr Enforcer and Somber Hoverguard, contentious lions jockeying for the same spots on the team, forced to work together by the absence of their onetime captains, that feels very much to me like the gathering of eagles you sometimes see in a made-for-TV movie or perhaps new Sci Fi program pilot. That, and the fact that a Ravager-minus Affinity deck might still be pretty good.

If stopping the machine that is Affinity comes from banning the mightiest cards, then what we are left with is probably a powerful but ultimately fair deck. My friend Josh Ravitz says that the reason the current Ravager Affinity is too good is that it is a tier one beatdown deck and arguably the fastest combination deck in the format, capable of turn 3 kills with some versions. Removing Arcbound Ravager and/or Disciple of the Vault would excise the second problem but leave an aggressive deck of some merit.

If this path were followed, former Affinity players would fall into one of two groups. Either they would defect to another established archetype or they would try to play a different Affinity deck. Remember that players ran Affinity at States 2003, prior to the release of Arcbound Ravager and before most players adopted Disciple of the Vault. Adrian Sullivan called last year’s States version “unfair” for some reason, and the deck did have some merit, though it was more of a power deck than a speed deck, running such cards as Future Sight or Temporal Fissure. Perhaps we will see cards such as Qumulox rise to join Somber Hoverguard for Blue Skies 2K5, alongside has-been Broodstar and never-was Chromescale Drake.

I don’t think that the hate factor in other decks will drop significantly, which is not to say that they won’t change. For example there are some decks that, while remaining potentially competitive in the absence of Ravager Affinity were made viable in the first place due to their robustness against that deck (e.g. G/R Freshmaker). That said, some G/R decks chose to main deck Electrostatic Bolt and sideboard Oxidize; they might now change that around because Oxidize is more important in a half-artifact Standard when fighting Vedalken Shackles, Duplicant, and so on now that they don’t need a flexible answer to both Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault wrapped into one card.

Arcbound Ravager and/or Disciple of the Vault are not banned:

As we know that R&D’s goal is to take out Ravager Affinity, the only way that the Stockton and Malone, the Magic and Kareem, the LaBron and Z, as it were, of the Affinity deck – the only way that that Ravager and Disciple would be left untouched would be if something even more radical were done. Speaking of which…

3. The Artifact Lands (Ancient Den, Great Furnace, Seat of the Synod, Tree of Tales, Vault of Whispers… and possibly Darksteel Citadel)

The Artifact Lands are banned:

Personally I think banning the Artifact Lands would be terrible. Seriously, what has Ancient Den ever done to anyone? Brian David-Marshall thought it clever when Ben Dempsey played a couple of artifact lands in his U/W Temporary Solution deck in Boston, but that was actually one of the first applications I thought of for the lands, over a year ago (“So you’re using Enlightened Tutor to get… a land? That’s awful,” –Jon Becker). Then again, my first “Affinity” deck had Crystal Shard, Solemn Simulacrum, and Duplicant.

The reason I don’t like banning the Artifact Lands is that they go in a lot of “fair” decks. Great Furnace let Big Red fight against Affinity with Furnace Dragon and put the nail in Tooth and Nail’s coffin with Shrapnel Blast. U/W decks have played Ancient Den and Seat of the Synod to power up Thirst For Knowledge and as protection against Boil or Flashfires.

It’s pretty clear that if the Artifact Lands went, Affinity would be completely unplayable. Frogmite gets a lot less sexy when you have to spend mana on it, and Myr Enforcer is even more clunky. No one would play Arcbound Ravager or Disciple of the Vault because, honestly, what are you planning to sacrifice?

The Artifact Lands are not banned:

Should Artifact Lands not be banned, the biggest winner in Standard has got to be Ironworks combo. Long overshadowed by the faster Ravager Affinity, held in check by Disciple of the Vault (nice mechanic there, b), Ironworks would put a true combo deck squarely in the ranks of the decks to beat.

Though fast, robust, and capable of protecting itself, my testing says that G/x decks would still be able to resist Ironworks, racking up better win percentages than they typically would against Ravager Affinity. I actually wouldn’t mind a Standard where Ironworks were the fastest deck, where turn 1 Seat of the Synod didn’t automatically signal 52 of the cards in the opponent’s deck.

In any case…

The removal of Ravager Affinity is going to give us a brand new Standard metagame. My opinion is that the format is going to end up a shootout between the top control decks, with a smattering of competitive tier two decks racking up tournaments as everyone tries to dominate the middle turns of the game.

As I said before, how high on the totem pole mono-Blue sits is going to depend on whether or not Aether Vial is legal, but look for mono-Black to perform as a real threat. Packing eight new Arcane cards out of Betrayers of Kamigawa, mono-Black should be a nightmare for the average creature deck. Mono-black is going to have to beat mono-Blue on the mana (probably Chrome Mox and Guardian Idol), because other than Distress, I don’t see most Black decks packing enough relevant threats to get through Condescend, Mana Leak, Hinder, and card advantage.

Green will probably turn to Birds of Paradise for its initiative. Birds of Paradise has probably proved Green’s all-time best man over the years, but recently, the 0/1 flyer has taken a backseat to acceleration like Sakura-Tribe Elder and even Vine Trellis in dominant Green decks like Tooth and Nail. Birds of Paradise will be necessary to combat Hokori, Dust Drinker. What could be more embarrassing for the color of mana and sharing than to have a board full of Kodama’s Reach and Sakura-Tribe Elder driven basics… but left dusted by the operating mana of a White deck’s Chrome Moxes?

I don’t have the highest opinion of Disrupting Shoal, but in the absence of a top aggro deck that mixes mana costs between one and seven, the new Spell Blast might just be the card to free up Blue’s operating mana in the midgame.

The big winner, though, is probably going to be Red. Red has literally nothing exciting and new, but with about 3000 playable instants that can all kill Hokori, Dust Drinker (and enough free mana to successfully dodge Shimmering Shoal), Red will probably do what it’s done for the past ten years or so. While Blue will probably hover near the top of the tiers, Red will make a strong move from a low-to-middling deck to somewhere in the 80th or 90th percentile.

With Sowing Salt, Red can reign in Tooth and Nail… and with no Affinity, the deck won’t have to be embarrassed spending four mana for an answer to a land. Red has the most dominant “fair” creature in Standard (Arc-Slogger), as well as great drops from Genju of the Spires to Hearth Kami all the way up to Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Really the only thing holding an aggressive Red deck in check has been the fact that there was another, much faster, infinitely more powerful aggressive deck in the format. It’s hard to argue with the deck that can answer Thirst for Knowledge with Boil, Death Cloud with Guerilla Tactics, and Hokori with a Magma Jet that digs up Flashfires.

Well, I guess we’ll have to wait for next week to see. Before I go, here’s the deck I’ve been testing. I really like it but you’ll probably say that Molder Slug sucks (like I said, it never really entered my mind that Aether Vial would go untouched):

1 Cranial Extraction

4 Echoing Truth

4 Gifts Ungiven

2 Meloku the Clouded Mirror

4 Thought Courier

4 Eternal Witness

4 Molder Slug

4 Oxidize

4 Plow Under

1 Rude Awakening

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

13 Forest

6 Island

4 Salt Marsh

1 Swamp

Depending on how the metagame shapes up, I might go the Birds route that I mentioned earlier, but the deck seems pretty good against Tooth, Ironworks, and control so far. Until next Flores Friday,