Straight Outta Combat

Challenging your base assumptions about a format can be difficult, especially when you’ve been winning regularly. But Todd Anderson has noticed a distinct headwind between him and success with Bant Heroic, so he’s aiming to shake it up for the Season Three Invitational!

One tournament can change everything.

One result. One new card in an existing archetype. One more win or one more loss can change your entire perspective, for better or for worse. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won three tournaments in a row with the same deck and the format hasn’t itself changed one card.

Sometimes, you need to know when to throw in the towel and start looking for something new.

This is the deck (or close to it) that I’ve been playing exclusively for the last five or six weeks. I kept telling people how insanely good I thought the deck was, but time and time again the response was always the same:

This deck looks bad.

It does look pretty terrible on paper, and ultimately it has some of the worst draws of any deck in the format. It mulligans more than most decks in Standard, since you can’t really keep a hand without white mana or a creature, but I win the majority of the games I mulligan because the deck doesn’t need that many resources to function on all cylinders.

But what I always tell them is “Give the deck a try. And don’t quit after the first few games.” If you don’t know what you’re doing, some of the situations you get into can be frustrating. It is often the case that “doing nothing” is correct, and doing anything will result in you losing the game. There are other times where you have to find the right situations to be aggressive, or the right time to have patience. Some games can start to feel impossible, as you fall further and further behind. But then, a Treasure Cruise or Ordeal of Thassa off the top leads to some ridiculous blowouts and impossible fights for your opponent.

If you play Bant Heroic for the first time, you will likely lose. If your opponent knows more about the matchup than you do, you will likely lose. If you make one small mistake in a lot of different situations, you will likely lose. And that is something I find very rewarding but that other people absolutely despise. Having very little room for error is always the type of Magic I want to be playing because that type of Magic always keeps me on the edge of my seat. The adrenaline rush when your opponent has one window to draw a removal spell, or you draw the Treasure Cruise from the top ropes that could bury your opponent or help you get back into an unwinnable game. You always have outs, and sometimes you will have draws that leave your opponent without any.

It can be exciting. It can be addicting. But it can also be incredibly frustrating when things aren’t falling your way.

Many who are fans of Heroic opt for the W/U build, which is much more static in its plans. Instead of trying to interact with the opponent via Dromoka’s Command or combat, it instead opts for playing battleship-style Magic. Playing an Aqueous Form on a large creature and using all of your resources to protect it (Gods Willing, Stubborn Denial, etc) is definitely a recipe for success in a format full of Hangarback Walker. And over the last month and change, the little Thopter-generator has seen more and more play.

One of the worst scenarios I can think of for Bant Heroic is that the opponent plays a Hangarback Walker, and then proceeds to play removal spell after removal spell after Den Protector after removal spell until you’ve run out of ways to protect your threat. In the meantime, Hangarback Walker has blocked your big creature five or six times, which gives them more than enough time to find that last answer they need to stabilize.

Against most midrange strategies, all of the removal spells and Den Protectors wouldn’t be such a big deal. Treasure Cruise is a powerful Magic card after all. But most of the time, your Gods Willing is supposed to counter their spell while you’re clocking them with a big Favored Hoplite. Through this exchange, you’re supposed to gain tempo and a board advantage. But Hangarback Walker just sucks all the wind out of your sails, leaving your opponent with more resources on the battlefield than you, more cards in hand than you, and a better chance to win the game.

If you wanted to continue playing Bant Heroic, I could tell you that it is still a viable strategy. Hangarback Walker can be beaten a number of ways: Revoke Existence, Aqueous Form, etc. The problem here is that our infrastructure in Bant Heroic isn’t set up in a way that helps us beat Hangarback Walker consistently without making major changes to the deck. Aqueous Form has been a great sideboard card against decks that gum up the ground and don’t play a ton of removal, but your plans fall apart rather quickly when you have to play an early threat, put an Aqueous Form on it, protect it, and keep protecting it until they’re dead.

And I’m not even including what happens when Thoughtseize gets thrown into the mix.

Long story short, I’m advocating for drastic measures. If you want to continue playing Heroic, I highly suggest trying out the W/U Heroic decks that put up great finishes in the StarCityGames.com Standard Premier IQ in Charlotte last weekend.

Death Row

In such a hostile metagame for the Bant style of Heroic, this one seems more aptly positioned. More protection, fewer lands to get flooded, and more ways to invalidate Hangarback Walker. While the two decks don’t play out all that similarly, I will say they are enough alike that it shouldn’t be too hard to transition.

Four of my last five losses in major events have come at the hands of Hangarback Abzan, for the reasons mentioned above. Stubborn Denial and Aqueous Form are solid cards in Heroic in general, but both are much more effective when you can afford to play four Battlewise Hoplite. In the Bant version, Battlewise Hopelite is pretty awkward on the manabase, making Seeker of the Way in higher numbers much more appealing. But the inability to maintain a large creature to attack for more damage each turn, or to keep Ferocious turned on, is a huge drawback arguing against trying to play Stubborn Denial and Aqueous Form in the maindeck of Bant Heroic.

This version also stays completely away from Hangarback Walker, which I think is correct. Hangarback Walker shines in a strategy that needs to gum up the ground. In Heroic, it feels a bit… forced. I don’t think it is a bad card in the deck, but it certainly adds to the whole “every creature is pretty small on its own” vibe. It does some neat things with Dromoka’s Command, and is particularly strong against red decks, but I don’t know if it should even be in the deck over another Lagonna-Band Trailblazer.

If the metagame decides to shift back towards G/R Devotion and other non-Hangarback Walker decks, Bant Heroic will likely be good again. But with Hangarback Walker being the flavor of the month across multiple formats, I can’t exactly advocate for a deck that has a lot of trouble beating the card. I don’t think Hangarback Walker is a bad card, but I do think it has diminishing returns in decks that can’t trade it up or put a lot of counters on it. A lot of the time, it just ends up being a big brick wall. That isn’t a bad thing, and you can even find a way to destroy it to make a ton of Thopter tokens eventually (Elspeth, Hero’s Downfall), but I’m under the impression that too many decks are trying to make fetch happen.

I’m all for playing Hangarback Walker in basically any sideboard to help out against Mono-Red Aggro decks, because the sticky body allows for multiple blocks or trades with removal and creatures. I could end up being very wrong, as a modal, colorless spell might be versatile enough to make the cut in anything slower than Mono-Red Aggro. But I just don’t see the appeal of trying to play Hangarback Walker in every single deck. It combos well with Dromoka’s Command and even makes Shrapnel Blast look like a dream come true. But it’s just another “value creature” that is pretty slow and clunky in stuff like Mardu Dragons.

But enough about Hangarback Walker. We all know by now that the card is good, and we may see just how good it is over the next few weeks. So let’s figure out how to beat it, and I mean really beat it. I don’t mean Revoke Existence or Unravel the Aether. I mean: how can your deck be built to invalidate a card like Hangarback Walker?

The above W/U Heroic deck is a great start. The major issue I was having with Bant Heroic is that, by nature, the deck is more schizophrenic than its W/U counterpart. Instead of having one plan where you build a giant creature and protect it, you have an alternate route to victory in killing their creatures with Dromoka’s Command and Valorous Stance while beating them down with marginally-sized creatures. You have the ability to get really big with a few copies of Ordeal of Thassa, and you can protect your creatures every now and then with Gods Willing, but there is a pretty big difference between the two.

When Dromoka’s Command is bad in a given deck against a certain type of enemy (Hangarback Walker), you need to learn how to adjust. I don’t know if I can bring myself to suit up Battlewise Hoplite with Aqueous Form, but I certainly think the combination is strong. Stubborn Denial is particularly annoying for many decks to deal with, both because it can be a hard counter in the late game and because it acts as a pseudo-Force Spike at every other point in the game. Playing around Stubborn Denial is a little bit easier than playing around Silumgar’s Scorn, but the idea behind the two is the same. At two different points in a given game, they will either be Force Spike or Counterspell.

Figuring out how to leverage that in your Heroic deck will be difficult at times, but it shouldn’t be too hard to create a four-power creature. Once that happens, Stubborn Denial should close the door on most decks trying to play some big sweeper or planeswalker to get back into the game. It obviously doesn’t solve problems like Fleshbag Marauder or Merciless Executioner out of Abzan Rally decks, but what does? If Abzan Rally is a popular deck, then this version is basically useless. Your protection spells don’t do anything against those two creatures, which is one of the reasons why this version of Heroic fell off the map when Rally won the Standard Open in Richmond a month or so ago.

And such is the nature of Standard, and Magic as a whole. Everything can change in a week. Everything can change in a day. One person finds the missing link, but that deck gets trumped by two others waiting in the wings. And the next week, those two get trumped by three others until the original is good again. Just look at the decline of G/R Devotion over the last month, which also contributes to the lower stock of Heroic. At the beginning of the Magic Origins Standard, G/R Devotion was an absolute powerhouse, putting three players into the top four slots at the Standard Open in Chicago. To say that Standard is cyclical would be a hysterical understatement.

So if W/U Heroic is good again this week, and G/R Devotion is still on the downswing, what would be the best choice for an upcoming tournament? In all honesty, I have yet to see Abzan be a bad choice, in any form. Abzan Aggro, Hangarback Abzan, Abzan Rally, and Abzan Control have all been great choices at one point or another in the last few months. And right now, I’m currently under the impression that Hangarback Abzan, in some form, will be one of the best decks for the Season Three Invitational this weekend. It has nearly all of its bases covered and is easily the best deck if both G/R Devotion and Abzan Control come out in smaller numbers.

Every deck has a weakness, and figuring out how popular those weaknesses are should help you determine the best deck. Heroic is weak to Abzan Rally. Abzan Rally is weak to Mono-Red Aggro. Mono-Red Aggro is weak to any deck coming overly prepared. It can be tough to find the sweet spot every week, and it is even harder to switch between strategies on a regular basis. I find that tuning your existing deck to cater to a hostile field is a much better play than switching archetypes regularly. But when a deck is genuinely bad against the majority, sometimes you have to know when to pack it in.

Bant Heroic is no longer good in Standard, and I’m having trouble coming to terms with that fact.

The Aftermath

With Hangarback Walker running rampant, any deck that is built to win the long game is probably in a great position. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is still very good, and any control or midrange deck built around utilizing it to its fullest extent is likely a good choice for your tournament. Languish doesn’t seem bad right now, as I fully expect a resurgence of Stormbreath Dragon in the coming weeks. With Martin Juza making Top Eight of Grand Prix London with the good ol’ CVM G/R Dragon special, it wouldn’t surprise me if that deck started to regain some of its lost traction.

I do like moving away from Courser of Kruphix. I think that Courser of Kruphix, in most decks, is a holdover from a time long past. With Dromoka’s Command getting my vote for best card in Standard, Courser of Kruphix just feels like an oddity. For months it was common to see green Devotion decks playing Courser of Kruphix when it had better options for the given metagame. If you expect to play against a lot of red decks then Courser is probably fine, but I would much rather my three-drop creature be something like Deathmist Raptor or just another two-mana accelerator.

G/R Devotion doesn’t win games by hitting extra land drops. It wins the game by playing an early Dragonlord Atarka or a big Genesis Hydra. Courser is much better in a deck that wants to hit land drops while killing creatures so that it has enough resources to win the long game. But even still, Courser of Kruphix falls prey to a lot of splash damage, including your own Languish.

Sacred cows, or cards that people will never cut from their deck, really annoy me. I understand that you’ve played a ton with the deck and this specific card has always been there. And really, it’s never been bad, but has it been good? In what situations does it specifically put you farther ahead, or help you catch up when you’re really far behind? The answer isn’t always a simple one, but it always warms my heart to see certain cards get the axe from a deck that have been there for so long. Courser of Kruphix slowly being phased out of G/R Devotion makes me very happy. Similar to Goblin Rabblemaster in various Jeskai decks, seeing more and more sacred cows being cut from established archetypes leaves me with a satisfied feeling that people are trying new things.

And with the Season Three Invitational this weekend as well as the World Championships at PAX, we’ll see just how many people are willing to take a leap of faith and venture away from the known. I, for one, am looking forward to doing it myself.