Sullivan Library – Standard and Extended Fireside Chat

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard open Comes to Philadelphia!
Friday, November 28th – With Worlds on the horizon, plus the upcoming StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open, all eyes turn to Standard and Extended. Each format has a particular powerhouse that threatens to overshadow the field… today, Adrian Sullivan discusses what it takes to bring these giants down.

This is a busy time indeed. For those of you who are in my neck of the woods, Thanksgiving has just passed you by, and I hope that yours was great. I’m still sitting on this side of the holiday, though, and there is much to do.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I like a whole hell of a lot when I don’t think about it too closely. Despite the ways that one could critique it or mock it (“Oh, just a little bit of Americana for Drug Awareness Week. It’s the Battle of Miami — Columbus here, fighting the pilgrims as they attempt to land…”), it’s a part of the year that I love. My own menu for the holiday will take a lot of work, but I’m excited about it, nonetheless. Turkey, Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Honey-bourbon Carrots, Curried Butternut Squash Soup, Green Beans with Shallots and Vermouth, Jellied Cranberry Sauce, a Pickle and Cheese Platter, Mixed Greens Salad, and three different pies (oh, my!)! It’s a lot of work, but ends up being so, so worth it.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a difficult time. I’m prepping for the GRE, working on papers in a multitude of subjects (Twin Peaks and the auteur, Barack Obama and Desiderius Erasmus, and more), and trying to keep my eyes on target for my many friends with thoughts on Extended and Standard as Worlds comes closer and closer to the fore. There is a lot to do this time of year… a lot to do…

The Dance of Elves

Elves, Elves, Elves. Whether it’s in articles or going onto MTGO to check out matches in progress, Elves seems to be omnipresent when thinking about what to do in Extended. Clearly the dominating deck of Berlin, some voices shouted out pretty quickly that the dominance of the deck was based entirely on the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top, and urged a quick unbanning of the card to stop the elf menace.

Thankfully, a lot of voices have called out for restraint. Elves is a deck that has clear strength in a format that isn’t ready for it. A ton of the people that walked into Berlin quite obviously didn’t realize that they were going to need to be prepared for the deck. For some people, this was a simple underestimation of the power of the deck. For others, it was an expectation that the deck was still tech enough that they wouldn’t need to think about opponents running it as well. This isn’t as crazy a thought as you might imagine, when you think about the ways that many people operate with regards to tech.

If you have something that is truly new technology, it simply isn’t useful to go about imagining that everyone has figured out that the high-tech choices you’ve made are good. If, for the sake of argument, Hoofprints of the Stag is the right card for 5cU to be playing, but you aren’t sure if 5cU is the deck that you should be playing, it does little good to test entirely against Hoofprints of the Stag-built decks when you are probably not going to see anyone else in the room running the card at the actual tournament. At the same time, you don’t want to underestimate the capabilities of your opponents to figure out what is good, especially at a very high level event like Worlds. One of the things that Randy Buehler and Brian David-Marshall both attribute to Matej Zatlkaj very excellent runner-up finish in Berlin is simple and important: Matej respected his opponent’s abilities to find the deck as well, and he planned appropriately.

In a lot of ways, the entire Pro Tour is not similar to Pro Tour: Rome, as Randy Buehler proclaimed, but instead incredibly reminiscent of Pro Tour: Kobe 2004, where Masashiro Kuroda took the big prize. The “Elves” deck of that tournament had to be Affinity — the difference is, everyone knew that they had to beat Affinity. What did you have? Five anti-Affinity Mono-Red decks, two Affinity, and one Tooth and Nail deck. Randy Buehler was surprised at Tooth and Nail, but as William “Baby Huey” Jenson and I discussed with Buehler, both of our playgroups had discovered much more aggressively anti-Affinity versions of Tooth and Nail and still couldn’t beat Affinity regularly. As Nassif himself said of the glumly of the Affinity matchup, “He wins.” The deck that did beat Affinity was Red. (I don’t blame Randy for his coverage, he was just towing the company “star-building” line…)

Kobe, then, is Berlin where everyone walking into the event knew about Affinity. This isn’t any old Affinity that we’re talking about, either. This is supercharged Disciple of the Vault/Skullclamp Affinity, a deck that is easily arguably on the level of a deck like Elves. It didn’t matter, though — in the end, the cards that Red packed could sufficiently punish Affinity to make that matchup strongly favored for Red. The analogy flips, though, when we talk about performance. The metagame’s domination by Red is clearly analogous to Elves — Red had far fewer players playing it than Affinity, yet like Elves versus Zoo, was much more represented at the top end of the scale. Tooth and Nail’s counterpart has to be Tezzerator, although Tezzerator is by far and away more techy than Tooth and Nail, comparatively.

That “analogy flip” moment is key to understanding how to go about attacking the new Extended. Elves has clearly become the deck with the target on its face, arguably in the way that Zoo was going into the event. Methods of attacking Elves vary wildly. Some will try to stop the comborific elements of the deck with cards like Chalice of the Void and Trinisphere. Others will try to overwhelm the deck with elimination. Some will attempt other means of taking the deck out, like Night of Souls’ Betrayal. And some will just focus on ignoring the deck entirely, and just “outracing” (some Swans players are certain to go this route).

It becomes a game, then, off counter-measures, and counter-counter-measures. If Artifacts are overwhelmingly used to fight Elves, then moving to more Viridian Shamans is an easy answer. The more Viridian Shamans that enter into the deck, however, the slightly slower that the deck becomes, even as it gets more resilient to the hate being shoved at it. Similarly, Zoo or Goblins decks can come to the fore with more elimination and Night of Souls’ Betrayal can try to lock things up, but both can find themselves potentially turboed out by the appropriate fast draw or hindered by Elvish Champion. For the Elf player, Zoo was always a potential challenge simply because it could keep the board clear until it had sufficient damage on the table and/or in hand to finish the game. Now, knowing that that is the way they should be built to play can make things all the harder for Elves, and its answers cannot help but slow things down.

Important, too, in this metagame calculus is the consideration of multiple placement on the tech curve. For every answer that you have to someone who is techier, you become semi-paradoxically less strong against the player who just simply isn’t prepared for you! This is basically just because the resilient builds are simply slower than decks that pretend that they are sitting across from a goldfish and don’t consider what will really be there.

This is part of what makes Luis Scott-Vargas deck such a great build. As Brian David-Marshall describes it, it plays out like old-school High Tide: make mana, draw cards, and then finish! Stroke of Genius #1 is probably Grapeshot, while #2 is probably Eternal Witness. After board, slowing down to add in four Thoughtseize is an incredibly way to try to sidestep the whole metagame dance: you don’t much care about the two life, but you can blunt any opponent who is trying to go off super quickly, as well as stop any countermeasure that someone can attempt, “just ‘cause.”

This deck, essentially, has two of the common ways to win in it: it can swarm and it can Grapeshot. It doesn’t have access to the big ‘ol Dragon. As such, without Thoughtseize in the mix, it pretty much can lose to a lot of situations. A double Essence Warden can be damning in the extreme. A Stifle followed by a Wrath can make things miserable. An untimely Orzhov Pontiff or Brain Freeze can tear away a game that was “won.”

The place to go, perhaps, is to find room for those sneaky Thoughtseizes main. LSV’s sideboarding in of 4 Thoughtseize tended to have one of the following configurations:

-3 Weird Harvest, -1 Viridian Shaman
-2 Weird Harvest, -2 Viridian Shaman
-1 Weird Harvest, -2 Viridian Shaman, -1 Llanowar Elves

Weird Harvest, while clearly the card the gets cut in some number from his main to accommodate the Thoughtseizes is also a card that partly makes the deck as fast as it can be. At the same time, we can see from his report that he acknowledges leaving in a Viridian Shaman when he’s playing against artifact hate (a thing we can all but expect from almost any deck). It seems fairly crazy to not leave one in. As it goes, then, the “best” configurations in an Elf-heavy and anti-Elf metagame would probably be one of the two lists, off of LSV’s initial list:

+4 Thoughtseize
-3 Weird Harvest
-1 Llanowar Elves


+4 Thoughtseize
-2 Weird Harvest
-1 Llanowar Elves
-1 Viridian Shaman

Once we’re down to a single Weird Harvest in that second version, it almost becomes reasonable to considering a return to a single Chord of Calling, but that is contestable for a number of reasons.

It is obvious that this deck is slower. Playing it in a vacuum (the top list), many games that might have been converted into turbo-wins simply wait around an extra turn or more. Conversely, though, the deck’s 4 Thoughtseize pull out all kinds of problems from the mix. Games that would have been won by a “faster deck” turn around completely, as Thoughtseize rips the key Elf piece from the opponent.

Again, we come to a lesson from history. Back in Combo Winter, High Tide wasn’t the best deck because it was the fastest. Far from it. That honor belonged to Memory Jar. No, it was the best deck because it was the most resilient. Of all of the metagame viable decks that supposedly beat the most honed versions of High Tide, only Brian Schneider’s Suicide King deck really did.

This option will work well against nearly any opponent. Thoughtseize doesn’t care what your answers are. I know that my own update to Baron was doing really well against non-Thoughtseize packing Elves lists of all stripes. I could simply ignore the Elf deck while it went off, and Voidslime, Stifle, or otherwise counter the finisher, with cards like Engineered Explosives, Spell Snare, holding the fort until that point, and a Wrath of God wrapping things up afterwards. The Thoughtseize turns this plan to crap. Instead, I actually do have to fight the combo as it is going off, and simply end up mana short in the fight, just like Ophidian decks always would against High Tide.

The loss of consistent speed is still something I struggle with. The real answer may be somewhere in between. Perhaps two Weird Harvest need to remain, with less Thoughtseize, but my gut says that the full four Thoughtseize are the way to go, regardless of the cost. Anything else puts you square back into the metagame dance of beating the people trying to beat you, but potentially losing to people that don’t know that they should be caring about Elves.

Standard Five-Color Blue

Ah, good ol’ 5cU.

This deck is still a big part of the metagame, clearly, but it also seems to be seriously on the decline. While clearly very powerful against certain foes, it just seems to be underperforming against a very big opponent, Faeries, not to mention having random problems now and again with less common decks, like Merfolk or other miscellany like Brian Kowal’s rogue Midrange Red/White deck that I spoke about last week.

What’s the problem?

A part of the problem is the deck’s purely passive nature. I’m definitely in Gerry Thompson camp when it comes to the Faeries/5cU matchup — “A particularly easy matchup [for Faeries].” As he says, “Think ahead, plan out your turns, use your mana wisely, and you should beat them.” Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I know that Patrick Chapin disagrees, but in all of the times that I’ve played the matchup, it commonly boils down to 5cU needing to drop a clock quickly, and then pound it home. Absolutely, 5cU can win, but they are just such dogs, and if they ever start to fall behind, and Faeries begins shifting gears as a Hybrid Control deck can, 5cU struggles like hell to keep up. It just doesn’t have the pressure. Faeries simply has the luxury of being able to tweak itself to try to beat other decks, and still beat on 5cU.

What 5cU needs to do more than anything is begin by being able to take down Faeries. Yes, yes, there are other decks in the metagame. Yes, the mirror exists. Yes, White Weenie exists. And, yes, yes, Demigod of Revenge is running around out there, but the real threat is Bitterblossom.

If we look at some of the decklists from the States that I pay the most attention to (sorry, other States Tourneys), I think some enlightening results come out:

California –
Winner: Faeries
Top 8: No 5cU

Illinois –
Winner: Faeries
Top 8: No 5cU

Iowa –
Winner: Demigod Red
Top 8: One 5cU

Massachusetts –
Winner: G/B Elves
Top 8: One 5cU

Michigan –
Winner: White Weenie
Top 8: No 5cU

New York –
Winner: 5cU
Top 8: One other 5cU

Ohio –
Winner: 5cU
Top 8: No other 5cU

Wisconsin –
Winner: Feldman Merfolk
Top 8: Three 5cU

Eight events, two winners, and only eight 5cU out of sixty-four competitors.

If we try to start by taking the amalgamation of these two lists, what can we get?

There is some common ground…

4 Mulldrifter
2+ Condemn
4 Cryptic Command
4 Esper Charm
2 Negate
2 Remove Soul
1+ Cruel Ultimatum
2 Pyroclasm
2+ Wrath of God

After board, they each have access to 3-4 Cloudthreshers, a third Negate, and 2 Resounding Thunder. Stephen Carpenter adds in access to 3 Jund Charm, and Steven Grueshaber a single Firespout.

The Jund Charms are particularly interesting. The Pyroclasm-like effect seemed full of potential, as well as strong with the pair of +1/+1 counters on a Kitchen Finks for a reset. If we combine some of these thoughts with those from my previous 5cU article, maybe we can get somewhere:

Bant Charm is there to try to sweep up the bigger guys that a Jund Charm can’t handle, and Naya Charm and Resounding Thunder are there to help out on the small guys. But, essentially, you’re trying to move your deck to a stage where it is far, far worse than usual against the most aggressive decks, and has a better chance against Faeries.

Being far worse than usual isn’t so terribly awful, though. 5cU is routinely, in its most basic form, walloping on the poor aggressive deck. Losing a few percentage points there to gain some in the Faeries matchup is well worth it. Remember, we can always go to the sideboard and find more ways to patch things up there, if need be. The power of 5cU is that you can cast anything, so why not actually start getting to it?

Resounding Thunder is actually a particularly wonderful card in a long game against Faeries. Combined with Naya Charm for Regrowth, it can be a great way to get in all of the damage that you might need.

This list is still in beta testing, obviously. The mana has more than a few kinks that I’d like to work out. I do, however, think that it takes the fight to Faeries in a way that 5cU hasn’t before. Like Faeries, it can largely operate on its end step. It has some key cards that really can be very potent, and it has tools to win in a control war. While it has lost a card like Mulldrifter, Esper Charm is still there, and Bant and Naya Charm make it all the more likely to help get the card advantage out of it. In generally, a five-drop, in this day and age, really out to do more for you than the poor Mulldrifter seemed capable of.

Standard still strikes me as a deeply wide open format. Worlds is going to be a very exciting place, I think. It’s a shame that I won’t be able to make it this year. I’ll be buried, head first, in a pile of books, as I prepare to finish up the semester. In the meantime, though, I’m still plugging away at every format I can get my hands on.

Until next time…

Adrian Sullivan