Standard Everyday Value

Three-time GP Top 8 competitor Ari Lax highlights two value engines in Standard: Restoration Angel + Blade Splicer and Birthing Pod. See if value town is where you want to be at the Standard Open in Columbus at the Origins Game Fair.

If you can beat a Delver, Hexproof creatures, and a Titan, Standard is a format heavily based on value.

Once you get past the overpowered core of the format, you find a shell of poor answers and awkward threats. Have your second level down trump theirs and your first level match, and you can easily come out ahead.

This is the principle Esper Control operates on, but that can often just stumble and lose to its own clunky self. Still, it plays the grind really hard, and when it gets rolling it looks amazing.

What if we take this idea and extend it to other decks?

Value Engine One: Restoration Angel and Blade Splicer

Restoration Angel has already found a new home in Delver lists almost directly ported from pre-Avacyn Restored. Invisible Stalker just felt like a blank when it wasn’t suited up, while Angel is a real body that also sneaks through equipment. Beyond that, it lets you rebuy Snapcaster Mages for even more Vapor Snags, acts as a way to protect Geist of Saint Traft and force in extra swings, and as a flash threat gives you a greater range of reactive-proactive options midgame ala Faeries. It isn’t quite Mistbind Clique, but it’s close. Here is Gerry Thompson latest StarCityGames.com Open Series winning list for reference.

That said, I’m still not happy with only eleven creatures that can actually attack. No matter how much people compare Delver to Faeries, you can’t get past how fragile the threats are in comparison. You can ride a Delver to victory like a Bitterblossom, but Bitterblossom never died to a Galvanic Blast. Killing without one of the real threats is also much harder with Delver than it ever was with Faeries, but I won’t go too in depth there. Just trust me, Delver chip shots opponents much worse.

So where to look next for good threats? My snap reaction was Blade Splicer. Not only is it high power and beats all the low cost ground threats due to first strike, but it makes Restoration Angel that much better.

I played some, and Blade Splicer was nothing short of amazing. Part of what matters the most is that the part they don’t want to kill (the 1/1) is the part that makes your later Restoration Angels so good. The other part is that you have a way to actually get to a huge board advantage with Golem tokens; something old Delver decks often struggled at doing.

In the mirror, the Vapor Snag issue does come up, but the card is already good against you via bouncing flipped Delvers, equipped creatures, and even Restoration Angels just to eat four mana. Making it a little better by letting it bounce a 3/3 token is not the end of the world, especially when having the actual Blade Splicer in play is perfectly fine.

If I was going to play Delver, this is what I would start with:

A quick breakdown of the minor details:

Geist of Saint Traft is either a zero or a ten. With the addition of more three-drops, you don’t have to jam four to have enough threats and can board the number up appropriately. Going up to four and down to two Blade Splicers is perfectly reasonable if you expect you will need it.

I prefer Mutagenic Growth to the other cheap tricks because of how it works in terms of mana expenditure with Restoration Angel on Snapcaster Mage. This is easily adjustable to personal taste.

3 Gitaxian Probe, 2 Thought Scour is another mana issue. You would love to play all Thought Scours, but with the additional three- and four-drops from prior lists you can’t always fit them into a normal curve. The “free” spell is a necessity.

Twenty instants and sorceries is the absolute minimum. I wish I could fit more, but the creature base is already bare minimum. I tried the deck without the equipment because of this, but you lacked the late game reach.

This lack of reach is why I chose the long game superior Runechanter’s Pike over a Sword. I don’t care about pushing early as much as I do about making my late game threats end the game fast.

Tying into the above, 21 lands is pushing it a bit. Again, all the numbers are so tight I can’t figure out what to do about it.

Divine Deflection was tried as a miser’s trick. It was too expensive for the little it did. If you could reasonably cast it as a four damage plus Blaze it would be great, but that’s not how it works.

The sideboard is tunable as desired. You need the six-drop to side into as a trump, but it could also be Frost Titan. Everything else is negotiable. I have Dungeon Geists as a catchall, but it isn’t necessary against the usual suspects of the format.

Now, let’s say you don’t want to play Delver. As much as the current results suggest this is silly, there are reasons. Delver can still just fold to a stack of answers and threats like any other tempo deck.

Maybe you just want to smash, with a small amount of finesse. Why not use Blade Splicer plus Restoration Angel as an answer to removal in a deck that should be weak to it?

This is just one idea of where to take this engine. Your backup cards aren’t the best threats, but they all end the game on their own.

Some more ideas? Maybe you move away from Delver of Secrets to a more controlling shell, using Restoration Angel as a Plumeveil alongside Blade Splicer as just another body. Maybe you make something similar to the Humans deck I played in Block at the Pro Tour, using Champion of the Parish as your primary threat with Angel-Splicer again as a way to break through removal.

The important thing to remember here is that both Restoration Angel and Blade Splicer are good cards on their own. This isn’t just a cute trick. It’s legitimate synergy.

Value Engine Two: Birthing Pod

If you want pure value, there’s no better place to look than Birthing Pod. If you aren’t finding a combo with the card, the only thing it does is generate mounds of value.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to brew a list from scratch. Not only did a list pop up last weekend in the hands of Todd Anderson, but a group I know took the deck to Grand Prix Minneapolis to solid results. With relatively few byes and despite no keynote finishes, the group had well above expected conversion rates to Day 2 and money finishes. I grabbed their updated list and some notes on the deck from them, as can be seen below.

First things first: why now for RUG Pod? What did the deck gain from Avacyn Restored that makes it suddenly playable?

A good three-drop in the form of Borderland Ranger.

This was always the missing link in previous Pod lists. Without white for Blade Splicer, there weren’t any three-drops you wanted to play multiple copies of. Daybreak Ranger was the closest option, and it was mediocre at best. Borderland Ranger is a card that you don’t really mind just casting that can help bridge the gap between Strangleroot Geist and your powerful high-drops.

Answers to Ramp in the form of upgraded five-drops.

If you look back at previous Pod lists, such as Max Tietze that won the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Baltimore a couple months back, you will notice a distinct lack of good five-drops.

Acidic Slime, Geist-Honored Monk, and Archon of Justice. Which of these actually wins a fight against a Primeval Titan? I guess they all kind of can, but none of them trump it. Slime delays it and trades after two triggers, Archon again trades after they get four lands, and Geist-Honored Monk has to hope they don’t have a sweeper for your overcommitted board to match it.

Zealous Conscripts. Now that’s a card that beats a Titan. Tap out for a six-drop, take nine? And this happens almost every game because of Birthing Pod? People leaned on Mark of Mutiny last year, and Conscripts is a huge upgrade to the same plan. In addition, Conscripts also helps against planeswalkers, something midrange decks like Pod can struggle against.

Wolfir Silverheart is yet another monster that plays a similar role. Sometimes you need more than just one massive swing to kill them. That’s where the 8/8 tags in. You get an immediate attacker that breaks through the Titan, a giant body to brick wall their swing back, and what should be lethal the next turn.

With multiple ways to turn the tables on a resolved Titan, what once was a rough matchup is now workable at worst.

Bonfire of the Damned

Pod lists are notably short on support spell slots, but the ones they play matter a lot. Last year, the card of choice was Forked Bolt as an answer to the various small guys floating around that threatened to clog the board or kill you before the Pod engine got online. Pillar of Flame would be perfect for the job in this format. It takes out the real problem one-drop in Delver and handles Gravecrawlers and Geralf’s Messenger from the one real hyper aggressive deck as well. It even breaks through Huntmasters and Strangleroot Geists in the G/R pseudo mirrors.

The thing is that Bonfire is just that Damned good. For all of these scenarios where Pillar would precisely handle the issue, Bonfire just blows it out of the water. It is usually still perfectly castable for the same purposes but has a much higher upside in the cases the exile isn’t necessary. It kills both halves of a Huntmaster and takes out an entire fleet of Zombies’ one-drops. It also kills Lingering Souls at value, something that is extremely hard to do.

Bonfire scales very nicely. When you need the low end, it does a great Marsh Casualties or Lavalanche impression. For those who never played with either, they were absolute blowouts against the decks you wanted them against (history aside: Lavalanche would have been one of the best cards in Standard if Bloodbraid Elf didn’t just kill them better). When you need the high end to break giant board stalls in drawn out games, it functions on the miracle side. For those who haven’t played with that mechanic much, once you pass the early stage of the game you can rely on any miracle card to function at its “alternate” cost. Watching the Pro Tour Coverage, games could bog down, and a sudden Bonfire would just immediately end things regardless of prior standings.

Bonfire also handles the Hexproof side of Delver exceptionally well. Geist of Saint Traft isn’t so much of an issue with all of the Clones in the RUG Pod lists, but Invisible Stalker is no fun when your deck is trying to grind and be interactive like Pod. You have a couple answers to equipment after it hits you once, but with Bonfire you can answer the non-‘hasty’ half of combo.

The TL;DR version: Bonfire provides you a low end sweeper to cool aggression and gets significantly better as the game extends ,unlike prior sweepers. Everything you need, and then some.

You might notice that all of these reasons also apply to Naya Pod. That deck also gets a full eight Scars duals and Avacyn’s Pilgrims to support the mana, so why play blue?

The short version is that Phantasmal Image is the man. He matches Titans, handles Geist of Saint Traft, and backs up a beatdown plan extremely well. None of the white cards are remotely close in quality now that you have a real three-drop to replace Blade Splicer.

Let’s run down the comparisons.

Gavony Township is the nuts, but Kessig Wolf Run synergizes better with Strangleroot Geist and still makes each of your mana dorks a threat.

Sun Titan gets value, but Frost Titan does what you need. Which, of course, is beating their Titans.

The random five-drops are now outclassed by their red and green counterparts, as mentioned above.

Fiend Hunter versus Aether Adept probably comes out in favor of Fiend Hunter, but only by a small amount given the saturation of removal in the format.

Hero of Bladehold is a good sideboard threat against Ramp, but again Conscripts locks that down.

So the argument is basically Oblivion Ring and better mana against Phantasmal Image, and I know which side of that I want to be on. Images away!

The next issue: what about Ponder? Why not play a cantrip to dig for your best card when the games with and without it are almost night and day? In the past, the card selection was the big reason to play blue; what changed?

Let’s take a look at last format’s RUG Pod list, as championed by StarCityGames.com own Patrick Chapin.

The first thing to notice is the mana. The fetchlands represented a full eight early, untapped blue sources to fit in a Ponder with. Not only did you lose those, but you lost Lotus Cobra to let you freeroll the blue mana and want to lean even heavier towards green early for Strangleroot Geist. Fitting in an early Ponder is hard, making the “dig for a Pod” plan even clunkier than Podding normally can be.

The second is actually looking at what your backup plan is. The easiest way to do this is line up the two-drops.

Lotus Cobra. Strangleroot Geist.

Lotus Cobra implies a ramp backup plan. You want Ponders to filter through to your big threats and hit land drops.

Strangleroot Geist implies your plan B is to play G/R beats. You don’t want Ponder if you are just trying to apply pressure. It’s not like you really have any end game spells to dig to; the closest thing I can think of that is remotely playable would be Brimstone Volley.

The one reason I would consider playing Ponder is actually Bonfire of the Damned. I don’t have experience with how well Ponder and miracles work together, so I can’t judge exactly how much better Ponder makes Bonfire. It doesn’t seem that exceptional, as the random shuffle plus draw part isn’t synergistic with the miracle ability, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find something new. If the interaction actually is good, I could easily see just playing Ponders to upgrade one of your better cards to being more insane.

Looking specifically at the first list I posted, I had a few questions for the group who played it.

My first one was why no Green Sun’s Zenith. I answered that one myself before asking: your toolbox isn’t accessible to it. The only cards you can Zenith for are the backup, reliable ones: Strangleroot Geist, Borderland Ranger, Huntmaster of the Fells, and the non-Zealous Conscripts five-drops. Zenith doesn’t actually add to your game if you’re Podding around, and it only adds marginally to your backup plan. Until you have shaved enough from the toolbox to max out on Huntmasters and then some, I wouldn’t start adding Zeniths.

My first actually asked question was why they have zero Hellrider. The answer was mana. The card is in theory insane with the beats plan and all the Clones, but the mana can’t support drawing it. I’m still slightly skeptical, but I had heard second-hand complaints about casting the card even in the actual G/R deck with four more sources.

The second question tied into this: why not make the mana cast Hellrider? The answer is Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. This is the most important sideboard card, allowing you to perform a mini-transform post-board. No matter what their answer is to your game 1 plan, it doesn’t overlap with answering Tamiyo. Whichever bullets are bad in the matchup turn into Tamiyos, and you have more real threats to take over the game with.

I also questioned Vorapede. To me the card seemed like a worse Wolfir Silverheart, but it plays an important role against aggressive decks. Silverheart is easier to handle for Zombies whereas Vorapede just doesn’t die. It also lets you Pod up to a Wurmcoil Engine or Titan while maintaining its board presence. It isn’t always better, but the body is big enough to never be bad and it sometimes is an upgrade. For a toolbox deck, that’s more than enough for a slot.

The last question was why Tormentor Exarch when you don’t have a full set of Huntmasters. The response I got was simple: Delvers have to die. Tormentor Exarch does that on the spot; Huntmaster does not. Delver can manage the Huntmaster flip easily, while the things that beat an Exarch trigger would also trump a Huntmaster flip. Sometimes, you just need bring a swatter.

RUG Pod doesn’t have some of the raw power other Standard decks possess, but it has a lot of strength and more value than anything else bar Esper. It probably isn’t going to be the dominant best deck, but it is a contender.

I’ve still got a lot to work on for Standard in the week between now and the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Columbus, but I think value town is a good place to start. There are a lot of powerful cards in Standard that decide games on their own, but it’s the backup that counts. Win the face-offs with weak cards, and you can gain a decisive edge.