Stale. Boring. Solved. Repetitive.
These are words people sometimes use to describe Standard. I hate those words. Luckily, this format is anything but stale, boring, solved, and repetitive.
I’m not here this week to say "play my rogue deck and you’ll win!" Let’s face it—that’s not something I say very often. That said, I think there are some really valuable lessons to be learned and perhaps some insights from past formats that can help us better understand this one.
This an article for those of you who are launching into a new PTQ season fresh off of Theros Limited. It’s time to dust off those Pack Rats . . . and play some Constructed.
Let’s start with one of the pillars of the format: Mono-Blue Devotion. As a starting point for the deck, I would look no further than Sam Black most recent list—he is a veritable master of the archetype.
- 4 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
- 4 Master of Waves
One of the most interesting things about Mono-Blue Devotion is how little the deck has changed since its inception at Pro Tour Theros. This is certainly a function of monocolored decks—there just simply aren’t enough playable blue cards in Standard for this deck to have a ton of room customization. This is compounded by the fact that Mono-Blue Devotion is a threat-heavy linear deck. It plays the best blue creatures at each mana cost and has very little room left for interactive spells. The only areas of dissent among lists are non Master of Waves four-drops and your choice of either Rapid Hybridization or Cyclonic Rift. Typically whichever of these cards don’t make the cut are relegated to the sideboard, making most 75s nearly identical.
Mono-Blue Devotion is at its strongest against red and green creature decks, particularly Mono-Red Aggro and G/B Aggro (notably any matchup where Tidebinder Mage is more than a 2/2). These decks struggle with Mono-Blue’s defensive creatures and answering problem cards like Thassa and Master of Waves. Shahar Shenhar would tell you that G/W is great against Mono-Blue, but I certainly disagree—G/W is exactly what this deck was designed to prey upon.
In theory Mono-Blue should struggle against decks with sweepers or plenty of black removal, like U/W Control, Esper Control, and Mono-Black Devotion. Let’s first take a look at the evolutions of these decks and reevaluate that theory.
Mono-Black Devotion is possibly THE boogeyman of the current Standard format. The deck continues to put great results despite being public enemy number one.
Let’s take a look at Owen Turtenwald most recent list for reference.
Mono-Black Devotion is a well-oiled machine complete with removal spells, disruption, card-advantage, and powerful threats. It’s very much a "midrange strategy" but has some dynamic differences from traditional midrange decks. Over the course of history, I would describe midrange as preying on "smaller" creature decks while being weaker against control. This is not so true of Mono-Black Devotion, which has a solid matchup against Esper and U/W Control but may struggle against hyperaggressive strategies like red and white aggro.
Learning From The Past
This is particularly interesting because it continues a trend established in our last Standard format. Let’s draw some comparisons to a deck from just a few months ago. The deck? Junk Reanimator.
Junk Reanimator was similarly a midrange deck with great control matchups stemming from plenty of card advantage and difficult-to-answer threats. Like Mono-Black Devotion, it had access to multiple forms of life gain. Like Mono-Black Devotion, it still struggled against aggressive decks.
The aggressive decks that cropped up to combat Junk Reanimator were heavily creature focused and capable of deploying three or more creatures in the first two turns of the game. In particular I’m thinking of Naya Blitz, a punishingly aggressive strategy. There are significant comparisons between the Naya Blitz deck and the white aggro (with a splash) decks that fill a similar role in today’s metagame.
The aggro decks that beat up on these midrange decks are capable of dealing significantly more than twenty damage—they are not burn decks of days past. Instead, these decks create a massive board presence in the early turns (and are therefore extremely weak to cheap sweepers, which the midrange decks don’t possess).
Getting back to Mono-Black Devotion, another interesting trend is the rise of Devour Flesh and decline of removal spells like Doom Blade and Ultimate Price. This makes perfect sense because of how important it is to answer Pack Rat and Nightveil Specter in the early turns of the mirror match. However, an unintended consequence of this change is that Mono-Black now has a significantly harder time answering Master of Waves, leaning hard on Hero’s Downfall and maybe a Pharika’s Cure or two. It’s also worth noting that while Devour Flesh is a great answer to Nightveil Specter in the mirror match it is not nearly as effective an answer to Specter against a creature-heavy Mono-Blue opponent.
The Mono-Black Devotion versus Mono-Blue Devotion matchup is certainly the most important matchup in Standard and also seems to be a pendulum that swings week to week. Mono-Blue players don’t have much room to customize, but Mono-Black players do. Where will they choose to get an edge?
In my opinion, U/W should be the premier control deck in Standard as opposed to Esper. Last Breath has proven itself to be a better answer to Nightveil Specter than anything black has to offer, and U/W’s mana base gives it advantages against aggro decks that Esper is too inconsistent to match.
The best starting point for this deck is the list piloted by William Jensen to second place at Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth courtesy of friend and teammate Andrew Cuneo.
I love everything about this decklist—it’s no-nonsense, doesn’t waste space on win conditions, and doesn’t mess around with too many "enters the battlefield tapped" lands. The lack of Aetherling makes me so happy—that card has to be among the most overrated in Standard.
As much as I love this deck, it could definitely struggle with Mono-Black Devotion. The combination of Underworld Connections and Erebos and lots of disruption in the form of Thoughtseize and Duress can be absolutely backbreaking for a control deck like this one. Ironically, U/W is also the only of the major decks that is "good" against a Pack Rat.
However, one of the huge advantages of U/W is a great Mono-Blue Devotion matchup. Supreme Verdict is unbelievably good against Mono-Blue, and sideboard cards like Last Breath really help. Bident of Thassa is by far the best card for Mono-Blue, so control players should prioritize dealing with it. In general, I’ve found the sideboard plan of Jaces and Aetherlings (which Mono-Blue typically has) to be ineffectual against control.
The most recent development in Standard has been the rise to prominence of white aggro decks. For reference, the lists below show off two different takes on the archetype.
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Banisher Priest
- 3 Imposing Sovereign
- 2 Xathrid Necromancer
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 2 Azorius Arrester
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Frontline Medic
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
As I stated before, aggressive creature decks are probably the best way to attack Mono-Black Devotion. The matchup is typically great for aggro in game 1 due to the ineffectiveness of cards like Underworld Connections, Erebos, and Desecration Demon. Both decks also use splash cards to exploit the Mono-Black matchup—either interaction/reach in the form of Boros Charm or powerful sideboard spells like Dark Betrayal.
One of the things that white aggro has going for it is a reasonable Mono-Blue Devotion matchup. Other aggro decks like Mono-Red and G/W struggle to beat Mono-Blue’s defensive creatures (as well as Master of Waves). The aggro decks that have risen to the top are heavily white based because of Brave the Elements, which is a fantastic tool at pushing through damage against a strong defensive board position.
You might have noticed a theme with the above five decklists. They all play Mutavault (even the creatureless control deck!). Mutavault is easily one of the best two cards in Standard (competing only with Thoughtseize).
One of the most common mistakes in this format is forgetting to consider Mutavault on the list of important threats you need to answer. Mutavault gives the aggro decks reach, control decks a way to pressure planeswalkers, and midrange decks a tool with which to use their extra mana. Mutavault is frustratingly good with Pack Rat, allowing Mono-Black Devotion players to turn the corner very quickly when in a race.
The Big Picture
I’ve outlined what I believe are the four most important archetypes in Standard, three of which have a great degree of customization available (sorry, Mono-Blue Devotion). On any given weekend these archetypes can present a 75 that is advantaged against one or two of the others. I think a scenario like this really benefits sticking to one deck, developing plans for each of the "big four" matchups, and then hedging in the direction where you need the most help.
Outside of the pillars of Standard, the next deck I would try would be the GP Dallas-Fort Worth-winning B/W Midrange deck. The deck debuted in the hands of Andreas Ganz at GP Vienna and attempts to approach beating Mono-Black by playing Blood Baron of Vizkopa (and adding Last Breath). I would certainly consider messing with the list and playing a three-drop like Nightveil Specter or Lifebane Zombie, but in general I think the deck is a fresh take on the very effective Thoughtseize / Pack Rat / Hero’s Downfall archetype.
I’m excited to see how Standard develops, but I do have a sinking feeling that we’ll all be looking back in a few months and thinking "how could I possibly have been playing a deck without four Pack Rats?"