Standard Changes, Only The Duke Is Constant

Patrick Chapin finishes his analysis of SCG Open Series: Los Angeles featuring the Invitational with a look at how Standard shaped up over the weekend.

Reid Duke is not a real human being.

Let’s just be clear about that from the start. This is important to take into consideration because most people that play in Magic tournaments are human beings, not cyborg killing machines sent from a future where everyone is very polite with incredible hair.

Grand Prix Charleston: 5th
Grand Prix San Antonio: 4th
SCG Invitational Los Angeles: 1st

I’d say it’s been a pretty good month for Reid Duke.

His most recent success, of course, was walking off with the Invitational trophy, dominating yet again with Bant Control. However, Reid crushing another major event is hardly news at this point. The biggest story of the weekend has to be the downfall of Rakdos. After nearly a month straight of domination, Rakdos was brought to its knees. I guess people decided they’d had enough.

The Invitational was a two-format event, as always, and you can read about the Legacy portion here. As for Standard, below is a breakdown of the metagame from the SCG Invitational and the SCG Standard Open in LA, as well as how it compares to the previous few weeks and what to prepare for going forward.

This data is weighted by finish from the Top 16 competitors of the Invitational, as well as anyone that finished 7-1 or better in the Standard potion and the Top 8 from the Open.

To start with, Rakdos was nearly blanked this weekend. While Rakdos/Zombies has 5.5% on the weekend, that came at the hands of a B/G Zombie deck. With absolutely zero Rakdos in the Top 16 or with a top record in the Standard portion of the Invitational, it was just a lone Rakdos player that managed to Top 8 the Open, and he was playing Rakdos/Red. Of course, he did win the entire event, so there is that…

Still, Rakdos has plummeted from the castle in the sky it used to reside in. Its first week, it caught people by surprise. Then, people didn’t give it enough credit. Then, they didn’t actually know how to beat it yet. Now, we are finally seeing a metagame that is sick of losing to Rakdos. If we’re not careful, Rakdos’s Return will be swift, as there is a very real possibility of people toning down the hate next week.

Here is SCG Standard Open: LA Champion Ian Kendall’s winning list:

While the basic formula is tried and true Rakdos Red, Ian makes use of a number of exciting new cards. To start with, Hellhole Flailer is an exotic choice, hitting like a bag of trucks, as well as providing a nice anti-sweeper element (just holding up mana, instead of playing more guys). It’s not at its best against Searing Spear, but sometimes you can actually "go long" and hold mana up when you play him.

Vampire Nighthawk out of the sideboard is medium ambitious, particularly given Ian’s complete lack of Rakdos Guildgates, however, getting to name Vampire with your Caverns does make it a lot more doable.

This isn’t too bold a departure from recent Rakdos Red decks, but this is the list I’d use when preparing for this weekend. It may be tempting to neglect Rakdos, but the strategy is real strong.

While I don’t expect B/G Zombies to be a major player in the weeks to come, here is the list that Leon Kornacki made Top 8 of the Invitational with:

The most interesting feature is the use of four maindeck Deathrite Shaman, giving Kornacki fifteen one-drop creatures that can potentially deal two damage a turn. With Rancors on top of that, we are talking about an awful lot of games starting off one-drop, one-drop plus Rancor, and other similar blisteringly fast starts.

If Rakdos was the big loser (despite winning the Open), then it was U/W/R Midrange that was the big winner.

The credit for U/W/R’s resurgence has to lie with Izzet Staticaster’s rise to stardom. After Yuuji Okita’s win in Nagoya last week, where he added Izzet Staticaster to Human Reanimator, everyone has been asking themselves if they might be able to take advantage of the Staticaster. In fact, Izzet Staticaster appeared 27 times in the Top 16 of the Invitational alone!

Izzet Staticaster is an absolutely fantastic answer to Knight of Infamy decks and gives U/W/R Midrange a valuable sideboard option. U/W/R is hardly the only strategy that has adopted it, but it does serve to remind us that we don’t actually need Nightshade Peddler for it to be good.

Another interesting advancement in U/W/R decks is the adoption of Counterflux. Initially, people were keener on Dissipate because of its ability to interfere with flashback. With so many people packing permission these days, having access to uncounterable counters changes the dynamic of any matchup revolving around Sphinx’s Revelations.

I like the move away from Unsummon. There just aren’t enough good targets out of opponents and bouncing your own guy is supposed to be a backup plan. Feeling of Dread and Burning Oil make sweet replacements, and I think we could see more Feeling of Dread in a number of different decks. Basically, if just want to buy some tempo, Feeling of Dread is a better way to do it than Unsummon at the moment.

Another stronger performer on the weekend is Naya Midrange, such as the list piloted to an undefeated record in the Standard portion of the Invitational Swiss by Jonathan Job.

It’s interesting to see just how big a comeback Huntmaster of the Fells has made. It may not be the best-positioned card in the format, but it its raw power level is certainly top tier.

Why not use Rhox Faithmender in Naya? Naya decks are built very differently than Bant decks. While Bant just wants to live long enough to take over the game with Revelations and sweepers, Naya is in a slugfest that needs to stay toe-to-toe with Rakdos in card quality. Rhox Faithmender could be ok (and you certainly have a fair bit of life gain), but there is real risk that if you play a Rhox Faithmender on turn 4, you aren’t going to even keep up with the Hellrider or Falkenrath Aristocrat your opponent plays.

Amusingly, it seems the biggest question facing Naya players is whether to splash Sphinx’s Revelation. For instance:

As you can see, Kikes is not content with a mere Sphinx’s Revelation splash in his Naya deck. He also sideboards Drogskol Reaver! It is not clear how many folks have had the pleasure of Kessig Wolf Running that bad boy…

We already saw the big uptick in popularity for U/W/R, but what about straight U/W? People have been scared off of it for weeks on account of a rocky Rakdos matchup. If Rakdos is nowhere to be seen, does U/W have a possible niche again?

Against all odds, Matt Nass actually played non-combo decks in both formats, a feat I can’t get confirmation has actually ever happened before. Nass’s U/W Flash deck looks a little like a relic from an earlier era. The most interesting twist is the use of Feeling of Dread instead of Runechanter’s Pike.

Now that graveyard hate is common and removal is everywhere, Nass didn’t want to be stranded with a worthless Pike. The use of Feeling of Dread as a tempo play is bold, but it does play very nicely with Sphinx’s Revelation.

I don’t love the Knight of Glory in the board since opponents will have no shortage of burn. Supreme Verdict can actually go a long way here. The use of three Jace, Memory Adept is aggressive, a plan I suspect would not be quite as effective against control now that everyone knows about it.

Purify the Grave is quite the throwback graveyard hate, but I like that it doesn’t interfere with Matt’s Snapcasters or Moorland Haunt. U/W Flash is not well equipped to actually take control of a game against a Reanimator deck, so rather than investing two mana on a permanent that disrupts you, you can spend just one mana to effectively "counterspell" your opponent’s Burial (making them waste all the mana instead of playing another creature).

Speaking of Reanimator, Corey Paxton reached the finals of the Open in LA with his take on Angel of Glory’s Rise Reanimator:

While Okita made waves by adding Staticaster and Nightshade Peddler to Angel of Glory’s Rise Reanimator, Paxton is actually taking it all the way back to Block Constructed. Fiend Hunter + Falkenrath Aristocrat + Angel of Glory’s Rise = a loop that makes an arbitrarily large flier (at the least) and lets you trigger all of your comes into play abilities as many times as you like.

An interesting feature of Paxton’s list is his clever anti-sweeper/anti-graveyard hate plan: planeswalkers. He can already power through sweepers and hate with Falkenrath Aristocrat, but Sorin and Vraska change the field of battle in a very potent way. It is worth noting that Zealous Conscripts has a very different meaning in a deck containing Falkenrath Aristocrats.

Paxton wasn’t the only Reanimator to put up a finish this weekend. Cody Lingelback finished 10th in the Invitational with a four-color Human Reanimator deck cut from the same cloth as the GP Nagoya winner.

Interestingly, Cody has opted for zero Goldnight Commanders in his 75, instead choosing to just ignore Supreme Verdict (and focus on beating Rakdos).

At last, we come to Bant Control! First, the champion himself:

As you can see, Reid has not strayed far from the formula he made Top 8 of the last two Grand Prix with (and why would he since he keeps winning?). Augur of Bolas and Think Twice are still in effect, though Reid has benched his planeswalkers.

Rhox Faithmenders in the sideboard are industry standard at this point, but it warms my heart to see Silklash Spider getting his due.

Perhaps the most radical change in Reid’s list is the removal of Elixir of Immortality. Personally, I would probably sideboard it if not maindeck, but I play fast enough to actually win a three-game match coming down to decking all three games. A second Drownyard helps fill the void, but according to Reid, "The four Drownyard matchup is unwinnable."

Of course, that was right before he 3-0’d Nick Spagnolo, who was playing Esper with four maindeck Drownyards…

Another player to cut the Elixir was Lauren Nolen, who 8-0’d the Standard portion of the Invitational:

As you can see, Nolen went with a much heavier Angel theme, reminiscent of the Bant decks from two months ago (though he still found room for the full suite of Revelation).

How did he make room? No planeswalkers or Elixir, just two Dissipates, and none of the cute stuff like Rest in Peace or Amass the Components. Nolen’s approach is certainly more aggressive, getting extra mileage out of his Cavern of Souls.

Again, we see Rhox Faithmender and Silklash Spider in the board, but we also see a Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice. Trostani has many similarities to Rhox Faithmender, and if your mana supports it, I think it is a totally reasonable swap to replace a Faithmender with one. I still lean towards Faithmender, but Trostani does let you make some plays that Faithmender can’t make (particularly populate and gaining seven from the Spider).

As we mentioned earlier, Bant wasn’t the only control deck to put up a good finish. Nick Spagnolo made Top 8 of the Invitational with his creature-less Esper Control deck:

The return of Curse of Death’s Hold was to be expected, but it is particularly effective with Jace, Architect of Thought and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad.

I am not so sure I buy this deck’s plan against Rakdos, but Curse might have been what the Esper decks were missing before. I do like his move towards creature-less since too many have removal at the moment.

Four Nephalia Drownyards and a Ghost Quarter should theoretically beat other control decks, but I guess Reid’s 3-0 win reminds us why we actually play it out.

I like the use of Lingering Souls as a potential tactical blocker without being slave to the need to play four copies. Decks with a lot of card draw often benefit from having a lot of ones, twos, and threes, and this one is no exception. Finding the first copy of Lingering Souls can be nice, but drawing several could lead to Esper throwing away too many cards chump blocking.

I’m a little surprised to see no Drogskol Reavers in the board. The ability to completely take over every element of a game against an opponent that can’t remove it is especially valuable when trying to get by on just Sphinx’s Revelation and a Sorin for life gain.

Perhaps the most novel deck to Top 8 this weekend was Corey Burkhart’s Four-Color StatiShade deck:

Corey’s deck literally looks like a Jund deck and an Angel of Glory’s Rise Reanimator deck got shuffled together and he kept half the cards from each. Corey doesn’t just make use of the Izzet Staticaster / Nightshade Peddler combo, but he also has Olivia pair with the Peddler to lock creatures out of the game. Add to this the ability to soulbond with the Huntmaster (also capitalizing on deathtouch) and you are talking about an awful lot of ka-ka-killer combos with Tracker’s Instincts to set them up.

I am a little wary of playing basically no removal aside from the creature combos, but I do like the angle Rakdos’s Return provides, particularly with Deathrite Shaman and Farseek to accelerate it out.

Looking at the big picture, it appears, at least for the moment, that the format is far from solved. New technology continues to emerge, and the metagame has taken yet another new turn. Some speculate that the format is cyclical, which is partially true, but the system is more complex than that.

Still, if we can anticipate what will rise up to combat U/W/R Midrange and Naya, we can be one step ahead of the game and ready to beat them this weekend. Personally, I think it looks like a fine time to play Bant Control (though I would be sure to not underestimate Rakdos, which is probably going to make a modest comeback).

The format is probably too wide open again for a Grixis deck. If we had just a couple decks to prey on, no problem, but with so many potential threats of so many varieties, we almost surely need Sphinx’s Revelation to overpower them.

I do think we can take some elements of Grixis and merge them with Nick Spagnolo deck. I wouldn’t mind messing around with Esper, rocking four Drownyards and a couple Curses. I imagine the biggest hurdle will be defeating Rakdos, but maybe we aren’t that far behind, anyway.

Three months in and the format is alive and kicking. Standard is a lot of fun right now, but I can’t wait for Gatecrash to completely turn the format on its ear. What kind of card do you want to see most from Gatecrash?

And can you believe spoiler season starts in just a couple weeks?

See you Monday!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"