Sullivan Library – Standard, in Three Borders

The StarCityGames.com Open Series comes to Seattle!
Thursday, June 10th – Adrian Sullivan returns to writing after a scholastic break, and takes a long and hard look at the current Standard metagame. He suggests a number of intriguing approaches to the format – including a Red deck – and provides some excellent food for thought for those playing the StarCityGames.com Open Series events in Seattle this weekend!

It’s been a long damn time since I’ve put pen to paper, as it were, and shared my thoughts about Magic. A part of it has been just an incredible amount of scholastic busy-ness — my writing time has been occupied by writing about Aliens fans, Kristen Schaal’s comedy, and Sliders and Quantum Leap. Another part of my time has been taken up by recovering my machine from catastrophic death (and by recovering, I mean, buying a new computer and finding someone to help me get my data off of the old one). But, thankfully, there has also been Magic.

A lot of the time, some people often reduce Magic to Rock, Paper, Scissors. Even when this is nominally the case, it is usually not exactly so simple. Right now, for example, the Rock, Paper, Scissors would probably be described as Jund, Bant, UW(/x) (which, for simplicity, and for classic feel appeal, I’m going to call Weissman for the rest of the article). The problem, of course, is that describing things like this seem to break down much more radically than this. For a Bant deck, it can either crush or be crushed by a Weissman deck based on the subtle decisions and priorities that both decks make. If the Bant deck chooses to invest more effort in the lower end of the curve and a few counters, it tends to do better against Weissman, though it will often have a cost: Jund is likely to be harder. Similarly, if Weissman decides to invest more energy into suppressing the board, and less in card advantage, it will tend to do better against Bant, but surrender ground to Jund.

In many ways, Jund is the current limiting factor of the metagame, even if it isn’t still the bogeyman that it once was. A part of the reason for this change is the emergence of so many powerful decks. Faeries went through the same evolution, from a metagame perspective — it was clearly the strongest deck until it wasn’t, but at that point, it still retained its raw power and was laying in wait for its opponents to forget about it, so it could pounce. Jund’s raw power is such that if you don’t respect it enough, it will overpower you.

Take my old Red deck:

This deck beat Jund pretty well. It wasn’t a 100% total blowout, but it was a matchup you welcomed. The metagame shifted around and some new cards were printed, and I’ve since modified my Red deck to look quite a bit different:

Of course, one of the first things I notice about this deck is that it is much, much weaker to Jund. A part of that has to be the increase in the value of their Maelstrom Pulses. I give them solid targets to go after, where otherwise, they weren’t too concerned about my targets. Another issue certainly has to be the lack of a card like Ball Lightning to just punish them. I’m sure that I moved in this direction to accomplish some purpose. It was probably a good one. But I know I’m dissatisfied with the results. Conjecture leads me to believe that this might be a better Red deck (though I haven’t tested it yet):

4 Goblin Guide
4 Plated Geopede
4 Kargan Dragonlord
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Hell’s Thunder
4 Ball Lightning

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Searing Blaze
2 Earthquake

4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Teetering Peaks
4 Smoldering Spires
10 Mountain

This might be closer to where the deck needs to be. I still don’t like the looks of it in a lot of situations, though. Gideon, for example, makes a fair amount of work of the deck, though a Ball Lightning helps that fight a fair amount. I could see the Earthquakes doing more work as Forked Bolt in certain matchups. I still worry about the raw power of fighting against Vengevines. It could just be that this is no longer the time for Red to be given the kinds of serious consideration that I’d like to give it. I certainly hope that this is not the case, though.

A part of the issue is the squeeze between the three decks. If I just wanted to beat Jund, and only vaguely cared about the other decks, it would be nearly trivial: I’d cut the Quakes and a Dragonlord and fit in 3 Quenchable Fire. Done. But I can’t do that and hope to do well — too many Islands are running around to do more than sideboard Quenchable Fire, if one does that much.

If we look at the evolution of the metagame over the last couple of weeks, we see that it has a very distinctive pattern, pushed between the Big Three (Jund, Bant, Weissman), at least for the most part.

Brad Nelson took things down with his pure Blue/White version of Weissman, eschewing the third color that many prefer. He faced off against Owen Turtenwald with Jund. This matchup pretty much boils down to one thing: playing control until you are overwhelming Jund with powerful cards and card-drawing. Mind Spring or Jace, the Mind Sculptor aren’t very good cards when you are on the ropes, but they are much better if you’re not, and they can be game breaking when you’re in a comfortable position and you use them.

Brad’s deck took out what has become the most common current build of Jund for Standard; I’m not sure if Owen’s version is one that he came to on his own (or with playtesters), or if it is one that he borrowed from someone else, but whichever the case may be, it seems like, at least a few weeks ago, it had become the baseline, largely as a result of having 4 Maelstrom Pulse and 4 Bituminous Blast. (You see all of the Top 8 from GP: DC, including Owen’s second place list, here.)

The next weekend, it was a veritable revolution of Bant. Whether it was Next Level Bant winning Grand Prix: Sendai in the capable hands of Brian Kibler, or Mythic Conscription smashing the field at the Philadelphia StarCityGames.com Open Weekend, it was a world of Bant, exploiting, respectively, Sovereign of Lost Alara or Vengevine.

These are two wildly different decks.

Kibler’s deck is at once both more ponderous and more explosive. A Sea Gate Oracle is not exactly what you’d call vicious, but it does help smooth the deck out such that it is all the more likely to drop a 4/3 haster onto the table on turn 3 and ensure that latter moments of the game will nearly always include it as well. At the same time, lacking the Lotus Cobra/Knight of the Reliquary combo means that it does not have access to the crazy kind of mana acceleration that more traditional Bant is capable of. While the Mythic Conscription lists don’t have the access to the crazy turn 3 kills that more “traditional” versions of the deck can manage, they do have the scary “out of nowhere” +10/+10 possibilities that are often too much to handle unless you’re prepared at that very moment. Each of these decks basically dominated the top of their respective events, perhaps in part because they were able to take advantage of, in addition to simply being powerful decks, more people trying to beat Jund and Weissman style decks instead of thinking as hard about Noble Hierarch and friends.

Of course, some other decks peeked their eyes out a smidge. Jund was represented several times over, just not in the overwhelming numbers that the other decks were. Perennial tournament player Ben Wienburg showed up with a Jund list that was a wee bit different than the rest, with Lotus Cobra and a heavier selection of threats at the top end (doubling the “usual” numbers of Siege-Gang and Broodmates) at the expense of a few answers.

And, of course, Red was also represented.

Now, maybe I’m just wrong, but I’ve been basically feeling as though the Goblin Bushwhacker / Devastating Summons combo is underwhelming. Perhaps it is because all of the decks that I am playing are so solid against it. Perhaps it is because when things go wrong with it, they go so wrong. Essentially, my basic feeling is that the combo gives you more “free losses” than free wins. But I could just be wrong.

I know that I’ve tried it many times, and just never felt satisfied with it.

I do like that Phillip’s deck doesn’t mess around with a lot of crappy, underwhelming cards like Dragon’s Claw. This sideboard is very straightforward, and very reasonable. Manabarbs is the only card that I quasi-question; I know just how incredibly powerful it is, but it is also one of those cards that I often find myself wishing was something else. It could be that there simply isn’t a more versatile option. I’ve generally loved bringing in Siege-Gang Commander and Obsidian Fireheart against Weissman-style decks, but this does let their Day of Judgments do a lot of work (though, generally, in that matchup, my goal is to demand that they have a Day or else).

I’ve spent the last few weeks playing so many different decks, my head is spinning. For some of you this weekend is going to be all about the StarCityGames.com Open in Seattle (I hope you play, Travis Woo!), but for me, I’ll be dueling it up at the Midwest Masters Series in Madison this weekend, with a $4K on Day 1 and a PTQ on Day 2. I still haven’t settled on my deck, but there are just so many options these days, it’s hard to privilege any one of them!

Speaking of Midwest Masters, I’d been thinking a bit, as of late, about Green decks for the current Standard. I haven’t really had the chance to test this at all yet (largely because I don’t have the cards online), but here’s the brew I brainstormed thus far:

This deck basically takes some of the decks from Japanese National qualifier tournaments and the Midwest Masters Chicago, applies some of the conversations I’ve had with Jamie Wakefield, pushes them all together, and tries to be as aggressive as possible short of using Eldrazi Monument. It’s possible the deck might want Monument, but as it’s built, the deck basically tries to be able to throw down singular threats that are potent. With fifteen cards that supply a four (+) power, it can smash through a Wall of Omens like nobody’s business. Some potential openings are just brutal: going from a turn 2 Baloth into a turn 3 Vengevine is pretty sick. While this deck isn’t as well built to exploit Vengevine’s return, only really running Elvish Visionary to power that up, it is built so that it doesn’t need to be; so many threats are so potent, returning a Vengevine is just a kind of gravy.

Much of this is just theoretical, of course. I plan on tossing it into the fire, tonight, to see what the deck is capable of. It’s likely the deck isn’t good enough, but trying to break out of the three walls of this format means thinking outside of the box, and I’m more than willing to do that.

Until next time…

Adrian Sullivan