Staying Ahead Of Standard Trends

This week Michael takes a break from the Golgari kick he’s been on lately and looks at what we can do to get ahead of the latest trends in Standard.

Pop Quiz: What type of creatures do you play when everyone’s trying to jam as many Last Breaths and Dimir Charms into their decks as they can?

Answer: [Insert something clever about creatures with power greater than two.]

Today we’re going to take a break from the Golgari kick I’ve been on lately and look at what we can do to get ahead of the latest trends in Standard.

Take a second and look over these decklists from the Top 8 of Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth

These are the dictionary definition of durdle. Win conditions are overrated anyway.

With “concession” as the primary mode of victory, these decks are built to grind you down into the dirt. The card that has historically given control decks problems, Mutavault, seems to be a card that these decks would have a really rough time with.

Until you notice a little card called “Last Breath.”

Then it all makes sense.

Between the two decks, you see seven total copies of the white instant, with Seth opting to play the full playset maindeck. There are more cards than Mutavault that this card deals with, but the simple fact that this deck has an answer to a historically problematic card is something people in Standard should notice. Whereas before you could simply say “I have Mutavault, so I have protection from their sweeper effects” (I’m simplifying of course), now the dedicated control decks actually have a very clean answer to the problematic land.

They’re not the only ones trying to make sure they have an answer to creatures with power two or less. Todd Anderson wrote about splashing blue in his Mono-Black Devotion deck in order to play Dimir Charm. His list:

While Todd didn’t have the success he was looking for with this deck in Dallas, the mere fact that he was splashing blue just to play this card tells you the mindset of Standard players. Here’s what it boils down to: Standard isn’t like what it’s been in the past couple of years. Back then you could look to Delver or Valakut or Caw-Blade and know the threats you needed to answer. You could confidently stroll into a tournament with your Dismembers, Go for the Throats, Lightning Bolts, Doom Blades, or Gut Shots. All it would take was some research into what people were playing.

Nowadays Standard is incredibly diverse. While it may not seem like it when you see Mono-Black Devotion winning or when you see Sam Black Top 8 his eleventeenth Grand Prix in a row with Mono-Blue Devotion, Standard is as diverse if not more so than I’ve ever seen it. Every time I think it’s calming down, that there’s a deck that should be heads, shoulders, knees, and toes above everything else, something else wins the next week, and people declare the previous best deck “dead” due to the prevalence of some new deck.

And they’re doing so with a variety of threats (or none at all). It’s really difficult trying to come ready to battle everything. Standard is probably as close right now to Legacy as it’ll ever be in that regard. That’s why you see U/W doing well this week and then you see it underperforming the next. There’s just no way to be ready for every possible threat because there are really powerful cards to be played in Standard if you’re just willing to commit (or devote) yourself to a specific strategy.

If you look at Standard decks these days, you see a veritable cornucopia of removal suites. Mizzium Mortars, Doom Blade, Chained to the Rocks, Detention Sphere, Ultimate Price, Abrupt Decay, Lightning Strike, Hero’s Downfall . . . they’re as varied as can be. They do vastly different things and answer vastly different cards.

What answers each of these: Nightveil Specter, Soldier of the Pantheon, Desecration Demon, Boros Reckoner, Reaper of the Wilds and Stormbreath Dragon?

Supreme Verdict.

Ok then, how about Thassa, God of the Sea?!

Detention Sphere, Chained to the Rocks, Domestication (with legend rule).

Sounds good, seems we’ve got our affairs in order. Wait, there’s this pesky Mutavault card . . .

Last Breath, Dimir Charm, Hero’s Downfall, Doom Blade, Ultimate Price.

Ok, but now how are you going to handle Blood Baron of Vizkopa?


Elspeth, Sun’s Champion?

Assemble the Legion?

Ok, I give up.

You see, there’s no one removal spell that can cleanly answer every issue you come across. Heck, even the control decks that are trying to achieve complete control have to dedicate their entire deck to nothing but removal and ways to draw more removal. Other decks don’t want to control the game; they just want enough removal to prevent their opponents from doing their thing long enough to present lethal. That’s why Last Breath and Dimir Charm have started picking up—because the list of cards that these two cards answer cleanly is a veritable murderer’s row of Standard powerhouses:

Master of Waves
Pack Rat (early)
Ash Zealot
Burning-Tree Emissary (devotion)
Nightveil Specter
Frostburn Weird (for the most part)
Cloudfin Raptor (for the most part)
Soldier of the Pantheon (only one of these cards hits this)
Voice of Resurgence
Lotleth Troll (if you’re lucky)
Gray Merchant of Asphodel (exile prevents future Whip of Erebos shenanigans)
Precinct Captain
Xathrid Necromancer
Chandra’s Phoenix

Obviously, I could keep going, but this is a pretty diverse group of creatures. While much of these can be answered by any one of the removal spells I talked about before, none of the removal spells listed can hit them all.

And to be fair, it’s not like Last Breath answers everything either. We already touched on some, like Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Stormbreath Dragon, and Boros Reckoner, but you need more than just Last Breath / Dimir Charm if you’re looking to control anything in Standard these days.

However, with the push towards these two spells, I want to take a look at other options that invalidate Last Breath and Dimir Charm. What else can we run to leave those spells stranded in our opponents’ hands?

The first place I started was G/W, a deck that aims to power out big (in other words, more than two power) creatures quickly. I talked about trying to work on G/W over a month ago before I ended up trying out Brian Kibler’s B/G Aggro deck.

The issue here is that I just don’t like how vanilla the deck feels. While the deck was surely doing powerful things, none of them felt like they were overwhelmingly powerful. In a format where you have such a variety of decks you may see from round to round, you better have an overwhelmingly powerful plan that can power through whatever your opponent presents.

So I wanted to look around at other options. While there are decks using G/W that we could feasibly look at (Bant and Naya), what I want to do today is keep on the Golgari train a bit and look at the last color combination that I didn’t work on my last article: Junk.

Earlier in the season in Cleveland, Ohio, Dan Musser took second place in the SCG Standard Open with a Junk Midrange list that is a stellar starting point for what I’m going to try to work on today. Here’s that list for reference:

What I Like

1. Whip of Erebos & Obzedat, Ghost Council

This combo was all the rage when Theros was first released; Brian Braun-Duin was a big proponent of running it. However, the format moved away from Obzedat completely, with almost no one running the shadowy council.

With U/W seeing a ton of play these days, a resolved Obzedat should be good game against them. Additionally, since the primary counterspell is Dissolve (and not Dissipate), even if Obzedat gets countered you can easily bring it back with Whip later in the game, meaning you can easily jam it into open mana with little concern. Syncopate is a thing but not nearly as much as Dissolve out of U/W.

Even against the midrange decks Obzedat just provides such a huge swing by itself, and Whip’s lifelink is incredibly relevant for a deck that has a great late-game plan like this one does. Obzedat isn’t stellar against aggro decks, but Whip is an all-star you can use to stall them long enough to start attacking with your fatties.

2. The Creature Suite (For The Most Part)

I’ve already covered Obzedat, but I like the creatures available to G/W players. Turn 2 Loxodon Smiter is still a powerful play that puts an incredible amount of pressure on your opponent, and the “can’t be countered” text has a ton of meaning right now with all the U/W decks running around. Voice of Resurgence isn’t as amazing as it usually is against control decks due to Last Breath, but it’s still a real card. Plus sometimes they just won’t have the Last Breath. While it’s true that they have Detention Spheres, we have Abrupt Decays to answer that right back.

Sin Collector is a beating against the U/W decks since taking a powerful instant or sorcery spell like Sphinx’s Revelation or Supreme Verdict not only prevents the opponent from playing it now but the exile prevents them from shuffling it back into their deck with Elixir of Immortality. I don’t know if I like them maindeck right now, but I do like having them somewhere in the 75.

Advent of the Wurm, while not “technically” a creature, is a great card that really needs to see more play than it does. Against faster decks it’s the same thing as an ambush Restoration Angel was last season, and against control decks when you play the first Advent, they have to play around the card for the rest of the match. In this day and age, people seem to forget how powerful a 5/5 trampler with flash really is.

3. The Golgari Spell Suite

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, so I’ll just leave these here.

What I Don’t Like

1. Thoughtseize In The Sideboard

This deck was played early in the season, so I understand the desire to put Thoughtseizes in the board when Mono-Red Aggro had just won a Standard Open the week prior. Don’t consider this a criticism of Dan’s deck. Instead, think of this as “what I don’t like about porting this deck to a tournament today as is.”

Today instead of a ton of red-based aggro, the majority of your rounds will be played against either Master of Waves, Gray Merchant of Asphodel / Blood Baron of Vizkopa, or Sphinx’s Revelation. Thoughtseize is great against all of those decks. I can’t imagine a scenario right now that I would play less than four maindeck.

2. No Golgari Charm In The Maindeck

Again, trying not to beat a dead horse, so I’ll simply state that I want a Charm or two maindeck here; I’m close to 100% to run one maindeck, with more being a possibility due to how incredibly versatile it is right now. The best part? No one expects it maindeck, making it an absolute blowout against white-based aggro decks and Supreme Verdict.

3. Doom Blade

The format has changed quite a bit, and Doom Blade is more of a liability than a solid removal spell. This is a prime spot for more Hero’s Downfalls / Abrupt Decays. We could run Last Breath, but the only card that makes me want to move away from the aforementioned two spells for Last Breath is Master of Waves since playing against Mono-Blue Devotion has shown that your Hero’s Downfalls are already taxed quite a bit, making Master a huge card against you. However, playing another Downfall and Decay covers almost all of our bases, so I want to go with that.

4. Blood Baron of Vizkopa & Boon Satyr

Two things about Blood Baron: first, I don’t like how this deck doesn’t have a great answer to the card like Devour Flesh. Second, I don’t like how the deck is missing the card completely. There should be at least one copy in the deck somewhere, possibly over the third Obzedat. Similarly, I think the deck could really use Boon Satyr in some capacity simply because it’s both a powerful card and an answer to Blood Baron. I wouldn’t include four, but having a couple as a surprise combat trick is acceptable.

So how would I work on this deck?

First, I want to establish what my game plan is going to be. I want to play an aggressive midrange deck aiming to keep the opponent off balance with the removal suite just enough to push through lethal. This is going to mean putting a big threat on the board early and backing it with Thoughtseizes, Abrupt Decays, Golgari Charms, and Hero’s Downfalls. While this is the plan of the G/B Aggro deck, I think you get better card selection by playing the additional color.

The biggest question for me is Sylvan Caryatid. Right now I’m running some, but I could easily be talked out of it since I’ve always hated having a 0/3 wall in a deck that wants to pressure its opponent.

Here’s where I’m currently at:

While I covered some of my thoughts before the list, I want to talk through some specific choices and ideas. The singleton Ajani, Caller of the Pride may look odd, but I can easily see this deck getting to a board state against Mono-Blue Devotion where the board is completely clogged up. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion presents the same problem as well. I wanted something that gives an out to those clogged board states since this deck is a bit short on evasion if the removal/disruption isn’t enough to push through lethal damage. The Vraska is essentially a catchall answer to any threat your opponent could present.

23 lands may seem a bit low, but with the six mana dorks and the desire to keep our opponent off kilter with disruption long enough for our creatures to crash for lethal, I wanted a higher spell density. This deck is one that can easily run into mana flood since there aren’t any decent mana sinks; in order to preempt that, I only run 23 lands.

At first I had the Scavenging Oozes in the sideboard. Then it hit me that they might just be the best possible card against U/W. While that may seem counterintuitive, remember that Ooze can hit any card in the graveyard, allowing us to snipe the powerful cards out of U/W’s graveyard before Elixir of Immortality shuffles it all back in for a second go.

This deck is a good start, but it’s hardly the only direction we can go right now. Does anyone else remember the B/W/R “good stuff” decks that were going around when the format was fresh? Gerry Thompson was working on a version of the deck for a while before eventually moving towards a pure B/R deck. However, if we’re looking at running an Obzedat deck, we could definitely look toward red instead of green as our third color.

What does that give us?

Sire of Insanity Rakdos Charm Chained to the Rocks Mizzium Mortars Anger of the Gods

The first two cards are the ones I want to point out specifically. Sire of Insanity against U/W after playing a couple of Thoughtseizes, Sin Collectors, and/or Duresses puts you pretty far ahead. At that point your opponent needs to topdeck Supreme Verdict or Detention Sphere or eventually succumb to your 6/4 Demon.

Rakdos Charm has some cool modes that are actually all relevant at one point or another. First, you have the ability to take out artifacts like Whip of Erebos, Bident of Thassa, and Hammer of Purphoros. That’s fine and all but nothing to write home to momma about like the ability to blow up enchantments. Next you have the ability to deal damage to each player equal to the number of creatures that player controls. Have you noticed how many creatures U/W Control and Mono-Blue Devotion can accumulate?

The biggest deal to me is the ability to take out the graveyard of a targeted player. Since U/W wants to grind out their opponents by recurring their graveyard over and over again, one angle we can attack their deck at is by simply responding to Elixir of Immortality by removing a big graveyard. Sure, they gain the five life, but they’re not filling their deck up with a large density of spells.

A deck with Sire of Insanity, Obzedat, Ghost Council, and the ability to fight on the graveyard axis?

And we get to play all the powerful cards like Hero’s Downfall and Chained to the Rocks? And Mizzium Mortars to answer Blood Baron of Vizkopa?

What happened to this deck?!

Aside: I went back to look for Gerry’s decklist for B/R/W, and I found this article. I think we took Gerry’s ideas for granted, as many of my ideas for fighting the metagame as it stands now are actually present in Gerry’s article from a couple months ago. He has a Junk Midrange list, he has a U/W Control list (complete with Last Breath), he has a B/R/W list (in which he questions having Blood Baron over Obzedat, Ghost Council) . . . I get that times change and his lists aren’t what they would be today, but I wonder how much Standard might stagnate later this season without the mind of Gerry keeping it fresh with his deck ideas. The format rotates all the time, but for some reason these decks fell out of the rotation; anyone think Gerry would have made sure they were inserted back into the rotation when necessary?

Here’s an early iteration of Gerry’s B/R/W deck:

Like the Junk list, this is obviously using outdated technology for the current format. However, Gerry points out that this deck is like Jund from last season in that it just jams all the powerful cards. If we take a closer look, we see that we would be completely immune to Last Breath, stranding a key removal spell in the hands of both our U/W and B/W opponents who choose to play the spell.

Even Rakdos Keyrune, our closest relative to Mutavault, is immune to Last Breath, though it is vulnerable to Detention Sphere.

Dreadbore is a bit risky as a four-of with Master of Waves prevalent right now (with an honorary mention going out to Soldier of the Pantheon); we would probably want one or two, but the rest would need to be Hero’s Downfalls. While I feigned ignorance as to why Gerry moved away from this list, I remember his disappointment in Anger of Gods versus the format he was fighting was his chief reason for moving away. Right now Anger isn’t stellar either, but it has its uses against some decks.

In a deck with Read the Bones (in some number), I’d want at least one Anger maindeck. The presence of Blood Baron of Vizkopa just makes me want to run more Mizzium Mortars right now.

Here’s the direction I’d go:

I don’t like Desecration Demon with the amount of token producers being played in Standard right now, so that bites the dust in favor of a couple of Blood Barons. This version could definitely use some more tuning, and if I can get away from playing Mono-Blue Devotion long enough to give this some more time, I’ll definitely update the list in the future.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I’ve jumped on the Mono-Blue Devotion bandwagon for now. I’d post a list, but right now I’m playing Sam Black’s latest and can honestly say I’ve got no changes since it seems quite spot on. I wish the U/W matchup could be fixed more, but it doesn’t feel unwinnable by any means, which is something I couldn’t say before.

Before I go this week, I want to give a shout out to a dedicated reader of mine who I promised to feature his deck a month or so ago and forgot all about it. Jeffrey Onley sent me a version of Jund a week before Matt Costa posted his win with the deck, showing that he was a step ahead as well. Here’s the updated list he sent me a week or so ago:

While I would definitely look into more lands with this (22 lands, even with Caryatid and Keyrune, is really ambitious), it goes to show that my readers continue to impress with their insight into what decks are going to be good in the format.

If you’re playing B/W/x (and not in a devotion sense), let’s get a discussion going in the comments. Post your list or ideas so we can get the discussion started. I always love hearing the ideas you all put out, as we’ve had people come up with early lists for Mono-Blue Devotion, R/W Devotion, Jund . . .

Let’s keep that great track record going!