Sullivan Library – Solving the Current Standard

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Friday, August 22nd – Standard is constantly evolving, with a plethora of diverse decks occupying the top slots across a number of high-profile events. Faeries, Red, Swans, Elves… as always, the question is What To Play. Adrian answers some of the questions posed by the format, talks more on his Hall of Fame selection process, and presents a new take on Kithkin in Block Constructed!

I’ve had a couple of people ask me about what they should do for the upcoming Standard. With some Nationals tournaments left to be had, Grand Prix: Copenhagen around the corner, and just the occasional small local tournament, there is still a lot of life going on in this Standard format. The next set isn’t going to be around to kick things out for quite a while. The question of what to play is actually an incredibly hard one. (And just for those people who have asked me about Block, I have a bonus Block list at the end of the article.)

When it comes right down to it, I have to say I think it is a very hard question. So much of it has to depend on the variance of the local game play. Even in a Grand Prix event, it will matter what people are excited about at that moment. The same will be just as true in a Friday Night Magic or anyone’s respective Nationals.

Previous to U.S. Nationals, I absolutely felt like the best choice, without question was my Elf list. “Sullivan Elves” (or “Chevy Elves,” if you prefer Zac Hill giving it that moniker) had incredible matchups against a ton of the field. I’ve already written some about it, but I don’t think there is more to be said as we consider the current metagame. It easily qualified GP: Indianapolis Top 8 player Ben Rasmussen for Nationals at the Chicago Regionals. It had seen excellent play in testing in online queues. Live testing for everyone that touched it was very, very promising. Unfortunately for the Madison folk, several of them managed to play each other at Nats, and many, many others fell horribly to various versions of Zur decks. The Zur matchup is so wretchedly bad as to be laughable. Worse yet, as can be seen by Sam Black finals results against Michael Jacob, the new style of Red deck can be incredibly problematic.

Part of the issue was a question of expectation. In the post Eventide world, Figure of Destiny had pushed people all the more deeply into Demigod of Revenge decks. Partly because of previous playtesting, and partly because of a lack of access to good data, I don’t think I nearly gave enough credence to the amount of Demigod-style Red decks that ended up being played at Nationals. I know that when I won a Grinder with Sullivan Elves, I spent a lot of time watching the Red decks in the field. There were almost no Demigod decks to be seen, and those that were there were quickly gobbled up, by – get this – Faeries.

So, not only my sideboard, but also my plan versus various Red decks was insufficient for dealing with Demigod decks. A part of the awful plan that I advised Sam to go with was Sudden Spoiling. If you think about this, though, it’s actually pretty awful. In order for the Spoiling to work, you have to have mana open, and men, and not get blown out by a burn spell. Otherwise, you’re essentially playing Fog. Hrrmm. Not so exciting.

Still, though, I think that there is something to be said for potentially playing the deck in the current Standard, albeit with a few changes. Sudden Spoiling, while absolutely incredible tech in the creature wars that you are liable to get into in Elves mirrors and near-mirrors, is underwhelming when dealing with the new wave of Red decks that seem descended from Shuhei Nakamura Grand Prix: Buenos Aires deck. Note that Shuhei and Jacob were both essentially playing the same core, with Jacob updating Mogg Fanatic to Figure of Destiny and upgrading Shock to Skred. Whatever the version, the fact remains that, at its core, Spoiling does little here.

What is it for a poor Elf deck to do, then? Spoiling is amazing versus Elves and Swans, and okay against Reveillark (if sometimes weak and sometimes incredible). If you were to change this sideboard card to Sudden Death, however, it really doesn’t do anything bad to the Swans matchup, and it does suddenly provide you an excellent critter kill card against all manner of things. Sure, it means that your Elf matchup is suddenly not incredibly over-advantaged, but is that so bad? At least you can kill a Zur or an Ashenmoor Gouger or a Demigod, right?

The incentive to play the Elf list is that you can absolutely wallop pretty much anything, have a huge game against Faeries, and even if you are disadvantaged versus Reveillark-style decks, you still have a shot at making things happen. And, then, of course, there is the question of Red.

Ah, Red. Sam seemed convinced that this match was unwinnable, and it certainly shows in the difference between how he played versus Paul Cheon and Michael Jacob. However, at running three different playtest sessions, I had some really surprising results. On the play, the Jacob Red list won 19 times, and lost 11. Conversely, when the Elf list was on the play, it won 18 times, and lost 12… i.e., it was a statistical coin flip. Game 1 went 60% to the person who got to play first. This was actually pretty surprising.

Sideboarding, the plan became just stay aggressive. In came 3 Sudden Death, 3 Kitchen Finks, and 2 Primal Command. Out went 4 Thoughtseize (sorry, Mr. Lauer, I tried it your way, and Thoughtseize still wasn’t good enough), 2 Imperious Perfect, 1 Nameless Inversion, and 1 Slaughter Pact. It wasn’t exciting. Only about 40% of the games came back in the win column.

Still, it’s not so terrible. Do the math, and you’ll see that if you win the coin flip, you have a 45% chance to win the match. If you lost it, you still have a 35%. That’s actually pretty respectable.

In many ways, then, it just seems like the Shuhei/Jacob style of Red is the newest thing going. Gaudenis Vidugiris put it really well when he said that he thought that it very well might be the best Red deck he’s ever played.

Maybe it is exactly the deck you want to be playing, right?

Well, while I’m sure that Gau’s statement is true for him, I don’t know that I can get behind the statement as a whole. I think the deck is fantastic, but I’m still concerned about some things. The biggest one though springs back to that earlier concern. Faeries.

Color me crazy, but I don’t know what people are talking about when they claim that Red beats Faeries. NO. Red backed by heavy burn beats Faeries. In my testing, that did not include Demigod lists. Demigod lists, back in the prep for Hollywood, could compete with Faeries. But beat it? No. And it only gets worse, in my not so humble opinion, when we look at the Jacob version.

What is the problem, exactly? Well, just play against this spicy little number and see for yourself…

Jonathan Randle UK winning decklist absolutely manhandles the Jacob list. Part of it is Randle’s low curve. Part of it is his choice to include Remove Soul. But a huge part of it is that Bitterblossom is a terrible card for the Jacob list to handle. Essentially, it hopes to run Demigods into them. With only 12 burn spells, and then, only 8 that can go to the dome, jamming Randle versus Jacob again and again felt like an exercise in futility. Randle’s deck doesn’t really mess around. It just plays out like Accelerated Blue against a deck that’s reach is, essentially Flame Javelin. After board, it just gets worse, with Damnation, Razormane Masticore, and Flashfreeze battling it out against… Sulfurous Blast. Not so exciting.

Faeries seems like it might be a great call, in so many ways. It eats up the new-fangled Red lists. It beats most of the lists that are built trying to beat Red (like these Reveillark decks). It’s the deck, right?

Well, enter the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, we saw not one, not two, but three different versions of Swans lists make the top of the field. First, you have the Champion, Tom Van Lamoen, riding high on a new/retro build of Swans, running off Skred, and having no access to pure combo. Instead, it is just a Blue/Red control deck that can use Swans to cast Ancestral Recalls galore. This, in and of itself, doesn’t look to scary to me as a threat to Faeries. But the other two lists definitely do.

Ruben Snijdewind’s Zur/Swan crossbreed was able to get a 4th place finish, and it shares some of the strengths that it’s more traditional cousin has against Faeries. It’s called One Big Turn. Check out access to 4 Thoughtseize after board joining Pact of Negation, along with Glittering Wish for Vexing Shusher or Guttural Response. Jacob Van Lunen told me that his plan against Faeries essentially ended in a flurry of Thoughtseizes and Pacts sometime late in the game, and lo and behold, it would all be over.

God, Ruben’s deck is really exciting! Still, though, even a traditional deck plan with more Pacts and without Glittering Wish have got to be difficult for a Faeries player. Even without that, Hugo De Jong’s plan, which seems to be boarding in Vendilion Clique, and perhaps Extirpating relevant countermagic (maybe?) is likely to be a sufficient threat that Faeries might seem silly.

Good lord, what to play, what to play?

If I had my choice, it really would be between an update of my Elf list, a revision of Jacob’s Demigod Red, or card-for-card the fantastic Faerie deck by Randle. It’s really a question of what it is you expect to play against.

In a world full of Faeries and Swans, without question, I’d go with Elves. You can expect to tear them apart. Reveillark, your natural enemy, is liable to be hurt by the Faeries players. Red should also be hurt by those players. But, the larger the tournament, the less chance there is going to be that the good Red players are going to be forced into those matchups, and even if it isn’t god awful, it is still an ungood matchup.

In a world full of Red, it would be easy to go with Faeries. You can prey upon all of these Demigod decks, and also on the Reveillark decks that will tend to rise to the top in such a field. Faeries is generally going to be a solid choice against any unknown opponent, just as Elves might be, and there is always something really nice about having access to Thoughtseize and Cryptic Command when you walk into any matchup.

But still, there is still the call of Red. In a mixed field, Red can just win so many games against just about anyone. The real problem with Red is only that you can build to beat it. The first thing that you probably have to do is recognize a statement that Michael Jacob made about the list he played: his sideboard sucks.

Oh, man, do I agree. At this point, though, there are so many Demigod sideboards out there, which one you go with seems a hard call. Whichever one you do, I think that I’d recommend that you don’t do what Frank Karsten did, and run eleven singletons. And, good lord, don’t bother with Dragon’s Claw in your board. For that matter, I don’t think you care to bother with Dragon’s Claw in any of the sideboards, unless you are a Storm Combo deck.

If it were me, I’d just playtest my Elf list into oblivion. But, then again, I’m biased by the fact that I’ve invested my energy into the deck and want it to get the chance to shine again.

More on the Hall of Fame

I’m glad that I got more e-mails than I saw responses in the forums to last week’s question about how I should vote in the Hall of Fame. I think that this is a critically important question for all of us, and I’m hoping that everyone pays attention to the comments of the many other writers and thinkers who are sharing their concerns. I’m very much interested in hearing any more opinions as people give them.

My first pair of cuts for my consideration on the Hall of Fame is essentially one of basic worthiness. This means that the player in question has both the resume and the integrity to represent the game into the future. Yes, this means that players like Mike Long and Trey Van Cleave and Casey McCarrell will only be on my joke ballot of people caught cheating, and never on my real ballot. It also means, though, that really amazing players like Mattias Jorstedt, Neil Reeves, and Osamu Fujita are not going to be on the list either. Yet! There is always next year!

Here are the people that I’m still considering:

Dirk Baberowski
Marco Blume
Sigurd Eskeland
Justin Gary
William Jensen
Scott Johns
Mark Justice
Benedikt Klauser
Masashiro Kuroda
Nicolas Labarre
Matt Linde
Eivind Nitter
Steven O’Mahoney-Schwartz
David Price
Michael Pustilnik
Carlos Romão
Kyle Rose
Ben Rubin
Brian Selden
Alex Shvartsman
Jakub Slemr
Michael Turian
Tom van de Logt
Tomi Walamies
Jelger Wiegersma

Good god. That’s still 25 names. I’m going to be looking for any and all input from anyone in making this decision. The vote deadline is coming up. Who are your favorite people on this shortened ballot and why should they get my vote?

Special Bonus Block Deck Section

I was trying to figure out how I could possibly give Kithkin the edges that I wanted to give them in a ton of matchups. With Figure of Destiny and Stillmoon Cavalier, it didn’t seem to me that the deck really needed to necessarily be as fast as it once was, and still be a powerhouse. This list is in late-beta, but initial testing is somewhat exciting. Let me know what you think, and how I can improve it!

In my experience, one of the only reasons that the deck really needed to go with Cloudgoat Rangers and Windbrisk Heights was that it wanted to have a potential for a late game when faced with resistance. This deck lowers the curve and fits in more spells by packing in burn. In addition, both Figure and the Cavaliers have the ability to go all the way all by themselves.

This deck’s response to Firespout, rather than Burrenton Forge Tenders, is to run those pair of singular cards that can end the game, forcing the Firespout, and to run Swell of Pride. Both as a massive Overrun to weakly counter Firespout, or, more commonly, as an uncounterable permanent Howl from Beyond, it can make real mischief for someone expecting to be able to get mileage out of a Firespout. Swell is also really exciting as a response to Nameless Inversion. Of all of the cards in the deck, though, this is the one that is most likely to get axed by the final version of the list.

It’s the removal package that I really like in the deck, though. With seven cards that are rough for a Kitchen Finks and seven cards that can simply go to the dome, you play out much more like the classic PT Jank of old rather than the White Weenie plus Overrun — err, Mirrorweave — that characterizes the rather Stompy-esque typical Kithkin lists. Overall, I find that extra reach to be scary in a deck that is also packing potent singular threats from these new Eventide cards.

I’ll be heading out to Indianapolis this coming weekend. I’ve got a crazy new super-secret list that I’m working on. Maybe the 75 cent rares that I bought for it will get me a blue envelope. Wish me luck!

Adrian Sullivan