Tons of great storylines from Standard this past weekend . . .
Not satisfied with his first Grand Prix win after so many Top 8 opportunities, Owen Turtenwald put together the oh-so-rare back-to-back set of victories.
Paul Rietzl continued to feather his potential Hall of Fame resume with another premier event Top 8, riding the same format that gave him his most recent Pro Tour Sunday appearance.
The home team continued to do Pete Hoefling proud, with Todd Anderson climbing back onto the Pro Tour and Sam Black never looking back . . . back-to-back-to-Back-to-Back Top 8 appearances, never wavering in his personal devotion to blue.
This is a Standard of particular qualities, where an understanding of its limits and possibilities can—nay will—yield substantial promises for the prepared. Consistent finishes like Sam’s—as well as a quick perusal of the Top 8 decks from Grand Prix Albuquerque—can give you a hint as to how the format works at a macro:
More than once [here] I’ve expressed surprise at the continued legs evinced by Mono-Blue Devotion. Not really a boogeyman, Mono-Blue Devotion is simply a powerful offensive deck that takes advantage of a particular format built-in mechanic.
- 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
This is "the" initiative deck of the format. It comes out quickly, essentially on turn 1, and pushes not just offensively but its core advantages by commitment to the battlefield. The combination of low curve and an insane level of redundancy encourage a "same"-ness to games that we have not seen in Standard—at least not so fervently—for some years.
It kind of doesn’t matter if you start on Cloudfin Raptor or Judge’s Familiar; one is more scary on offense when followed up with basically anything, while the other can proxy a Time Walk given the correct opponent. It’s about having something to start (neither one hits particularly hard in and of itself). It’s about getting the ball rolling and getting a pip in play. So then you have Frostburn Weird or maybe windmill slam a Tidebinder Mage. Once you have Nightveil Specter, the cards actually start having not just raw power but contextual power.
Thassa, God of the Sea is a legitimate bomb that can turn a game on its ear. It profits substantially by the devotion to blue mechanic’s core incentive of pouring more and more pips onto the battlefield.
Bident of Thassa does too.
The two bomb Thassa cards do quite different things. The God itself helps to turn devotion into race situations. You can’t block; you can’t [directly] kill Thassa, at least not easily. Ergo damage pours in and perhaps the game ends like so. Certainly the scry will help the blue deck tumble strategically forward.
Bident of Thassa does a very different thing; rather than shortening a game by nigh-guaranteed damage, Bident of Thassa snowballs a tonnage of commitment to the battlefield into more and more tonnage. It blunts mass removal by giving you a reload . . . even though you are kind of obligated into playing into it. Of course drawing tons and tons of cards is just generally accepted to be expressly powerful in Magic.
You see there are these two cards (both named Thassa) that do completely different things but exploit the deck’s same plan and encourage the same behaviors. The redundancy between these kinds of cards helps the deck to play out in the same kind of way many, many times in a row across many, many tables to your right and left every round.
Mono-Black Devotion encourages the same philosophical thrust as Mono-Blue Devotion.
- 4 Pack Rat
- 4 Desecration Demon
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
- 1 Erebos, God of the Dead
If Mono-Blue Devotion is offensively redundant and wants to deploy to the battlefield, commit creatures, and then either turn those creatures into offense in the abstract or just draw more and more creatures, Mono-Black Devotion wants to blunt/batter/bash everything with even trades, break parity with Underworld Connections or Nightveil Specter, and clean up via Desecration Demon or Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
It wants to do this more or less regardless of opponent.
Together, decks like the current format’s two most reliable archetypes create a particular structure.
The games develop along very similar lines over and over again predictably.
A year ago we saw decks that played second-turn Farseek into . . . who knows what? There were Overgrown Tomb Farseeks into the next black source for Vampire Nighthawk or Farseeks into Huntmaster of the Fells. There were Farseeks that made Fogs or Farseeks that found just the one Overgrown Tomb to operate the one Nephalia Drownyard sometime in the distant future. The presence of Farseek at all allowed decks to blossom into more and more colors (usually at least three), and the casting of a Farseek itself was an opportunity to either gain value or make a mistake.
I once saw Reid Duke secure an Open money finish by not casting his Farseek to bait an opponent into overcommitment (though he did cast it the following turn). Even if there were many Farseeks, what came after was not set in stone, and the same deck could string together a line of Thragtusks or build towards a Sphinx’s Revelation. Later we might have been surprised that a deck like B/G didn’t have a Farseek.
A year ago a Pro Tour was won by a deck that could either come out with an avalanche of linear Human offense starting with Champion of the Parish a la White Weenie . . . or cut Champion of the Parish entirely after board. It fell somewhere between crushing you with haste creatures like a Mono-Red Aggro deck or combo killing you with a three-drop and the world’s most awkward Wrath of God. It could play the control with removal and on-table card advantage or grind you out inevitably two points at a time with a five-drop that never attacked.
This was all the same deck.
The current format at a macro doesn’t operate like that. Instead of decks having many different ways they can go, the top performers want games to develop more or less one way over and over and over again, which by the way makes it a good format for strong and prepared players. The less variation we see over the course of many, many games, the less likely it is for a top player to lose a match because there are less ways they can lose.
Oh, you know.
By the by I don’t think that a format like the present one is "bad" necessarily (in fact, I tend to like formats like this), but it is particular. If you’re going to be successful in the face of good players all choosing consistent development, you probably have to do something really different (like Brad Nelson and his three-color deck at the Invitational), and there are no signs at this point that Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion are going to stop being powerful in the abstract.
The lone multicolor deck from the Top 8 of Grand Prix Albuquerque was played by Andrew Hanson, a Naya variant:
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 2 Fleecemane Lion
- 2 Boon Satyr
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
I know I just got done talking about how the bulk of this format doesn’t play out like The Aristocrats, but Hanson’s Naya does have the ability to play many different kinds of games.
It can come out quickly with Soldier of the Pantheon on turn 1 and play a game potentially predicated on creature quality. Voice of Resurgence is a star on two, Boros Reckoner is (at least sometimes) insane on three, and Advent of the Wurm is pretty much always very good on four.
It can also play a Chandra, Pyromaster game or in the proper matchup a game based on attrition and removal with all Lightning Strikes and overloaded Mizzium Mortars and pinpoint Chained to the Rocks. In some games the two non-offense lines will converge, with Chandra, Pyromaster playing Underworld Connections and helping Naya to get ahead while trading cards one-for-one.
While the Grand Prix—and I think the format from the top—was very devoted to devotion, Naya wasn’t the only three-color deck to perform on the weekend. Pro Tour superstar and fellow StarCityGames.com columnist [author name="Matt Costa"]Matt Costa[/author] took down SCG Standard Open: Providence with his take on Jund:
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Polukranos, World Eater
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 3 Reaper of the Wilds
Like so many decks packing the colors red, black, and green, the masterful Matt Costa new take on Jund Midrange is a flexible one capable of competing on multiple fronts.
Sylvan Caryatid does essentially a Farseek impression; it helps accelerate out threats like Polukranos, World Eater or Stormbreath Dragon more quickly and also to fix colors. Sylvan Caryatid can help a deck with only one basic Mountain overload Mizzium Mortars, provide the finesse mana for Reaper of the Wilds operation, or push the tonnage of mana required for bigger, faster (longer, harder) Mistcutter Hydras or Rakdos’s Returns.
Jund is a deck that aspires to take on all comers. Abrupt Decay is a two-mana removal spell; against fast decks it can play proxy to the many point removal cards used by Mono-Black Devotion to defend against aggressive red or white decks. Like that big winner, Jund can use cards like Thoughtseize to rob an opponent of their most explosive draws. But better than Mono-Black Devotion, the ability to hit red for Anger of the Gods gives Jund a "catch up" capacity that is not predicated on having an unending stream of one-for-one removal.
Also unlike the more popular one-color decks in the format, having lots of colors allows this deck to stick particular kinds of threats that are hard to handle, many of which can win a game outright. While lacking white means that this deck can’t overload on Assemble the Legion against black control decks, it can play Stormbreath Dragon against W/R Aggro, side in Mistcutter Hydra against permission, and Sire of Insanity against decks looking to stockpile resources [also check the pocket combo between Sire of Insanity and Underworld Connections!].
And then there is Reaper of the Wilds . . .
While Reaper of the Wilds lacks Aetherling’s resilience against mass removal and nigh-guaranteed evasion, its conditional deathtouch makes combat highly unattractive for most opposing creatures and activated hexproof can keep it on the table against most everything south of Supreme Verdict. Reaper of the Wilds of course costs only four mana to begin with while boasting Erhnam Djinn’s base stats relative to cost. Of course the scry ability is highly synergistic with all that removal that Costa played.
Though fully half the Providence Top 8 was Mono-Blue Devotion decks, there were a couple of additional new-ish/different-ish decks of note:
- 4 Chandra's Phoenix
- 4 Gore-House Chainwalker
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 1 Rubblebelt Maaka
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
This is a bit different from a straight red deck, with four copies of Chained to the Rocks main.
Chained to the Rocks is a deceptively easy splash. It’s kind of like Flinthoof Boar was in G/R decks last year; you have this cheap card that seems to be white (or green) but actually rides the presence of lots of Mountains. In Butcher’s deck, the white splashed removal card gives a red deck a way around giant creatures like Desecration Demon or a cheap and soul-crushing way to handle Thassa, God of the Sea or Erebos, God of the Dead.
While most of the cards in this red deck are recognizable, it does feel a mite at odds with itself.
Playing Firedrinker Satyr—especially maindeck—is a statement in and of itself. "Hello world, I am the beatdown" is pretty much the only possible reading. But even beyond Chained to the Rocks (which can potentially handle blockers but itself does not damage), Butcher played a ton of cards that you might not guess would be in a declaredly offensive deck; Chandra, Pyromaster and Mizzium Mortars both have more than a little "control" to them.
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Polukranos, World Eater
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 3 Reaper of the Wilds
I’m very interested to see how sustainable Dustin Brewer’s G/B Aggro deck is going to prove over time.
The natural synergies are there (Elvish Mystic into Dreg Mangler is just obviously good and pretty hard to handle), and tons of the cards in this deck are just solid cards. I mean there was a time when River Boa was knocking down every Extended Top 8, and Lotleth Troll is like three times as good as River Boa. Several of the individual cards in the deck can be hard to handle in fair fights, and to a degree (if a degree less than Matt Costa Jund deck maybe) the Golgari can play a flexible game around removal or disruption.
But its Plan A is unambiguously a level down from Mono-Blue Devotion and Mono-Black Devotion.
The deck doesn’t have a ton of natural card advantage, and its breakers are fairly mana intensive.
That said, this deck can potentially dictate the terms of a game and is fast enough—with a varied enough palette of interaction thanks to Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall—to use the clock as an ally against opponents that rely on key cards.
So . . . what next?
As with the last several weeks of Standard Open results, we see a fair amount of potential variation in the current Standard. There are different flavors of red decks, the odd White Weenie crushing it some weekend or other, and a smattering of viable but not oppressive green variations. But the consistent performances by top players in especially big tournaments seems to indicate that the center of this format isn’t moving. Devotion to black. Devoted to U.