Testing Standard For Nationals

Nick took a methodical, structured approach to Standard testing for the 2006 U.S. Nationals. His article today shares his process, step-by-step, with his thoughts behind a number of decks in the current metagame. He shares his test decks, and the list of his final weapon of choice, alongside some practical tips on preparing for large events. Invaluable advice for those working toward upcoming Constructed tournaments.

This article has been a work in progress since I started testing Standard for U.S. Nationals back in June. I guess you could essentially call this a Playtest Diary, though I wasn’t too good about recording match results, and instead switched decks whenever I found that the current one wasn’t doing so well in the online metagame. I do want to go over each of the decks that I worked on, even if I only do so briefly, and then finally tell you which deck I decided to play and go into more detail on the reasoning behind this choice.

The first thing you should know is that I approached testing this format with a very positive attitude and willingness to work. However, it didn’t take long for me to become frustrated with the openness of the environment and start to lose interest. The fact of that matter is that while this may be the best Standard format ever in terms of number of possible archetypes, it is possibly one of the worst formats for those of us who want to put in the time to not only find the best deck, but also find the best solution to what other people will likely be playing. When you have a metagame with four or five Tier 1 decks, you can then create something rogue that is strong in most of these matchups… or at least tune one of the existing archetypes in such a way that you create give yourself a big edge against the expected field. This is simply not possible in the pre-Coldsnap Standard, environment as there are too many possibilities.

After qualifying through Regionals with a modified Dovescape list originally designed by Cymbrogi’s David Crewe, my first attempts at Standard were focused solely on updating that deck. It was around this time that U/R/G or straight U/R TronWildfire decks were starting to become very popular on Magic Online, and my Regionals list was getting completely smashed. Something had to change.

A few days later, Japanese Regional lists were posted on MagicTheGathering.com. and I learned that a version of the Dovescape deck had claimed the title there. However, the Japanese had some interesting modifications of their own, specifically adding Black for sideboard options. I latched onto the idea of siding in Okiba-Gang Shinobis almost immediately, but felt that the rest of their sideboard was very confused. Splashing a fourth color into the deck was something we had talked about in testing before Regionals, but never actually had the time to try out. Working on the regular three-color version was already hard enough.

I talked to Mr. Crewe on AIM quite a lot over the next few days, and we theorized about some changes. I then decided to test these changes on Magic Online. My initial results were mixed, as the deck kept changing around… and it still wasn’t doing that well against Tron, even after boarding up to four Shining Shoals and four Okiba-Gang Shinobis. We needed something else. Then Dave came up with Watchwolf. It put them on a clock while also being helpful with the Okiba plan. The bonus here was that Watchwolf was actually good in a number of matchups, and therefore a flexible sideboard slot rather than something dedicated to only a single matchup. I did a ton of 8-mans online, as well as playing in the Casual Room and against some friends, before I decided to scrap the deck. Here’s the final list I was using before I decided to move on to something else.

As you can see, the deck now features a lone maindeck Okiba, since most of my opponents playing permission would often let Congregation At Dawn resolve and plan to counter the important creature(s) instead (and let Hierarchs resolve). Okiba was a good counter to this plan, and you could also use it to good effect if you randomly drew it without the help of Congregation.

In the end, the main thing that was wrong with the deck was that it wasn’t fast enough, and Supply/Demand and Grand Arbiter are both clunky. Josh Ravitz wrote an article on this deck that said a lot of things that were true, but he also said that Dovescape is good. This is no longer the case. While it’s excellent to have the tutoring versatility of Demand and build your deck around that, this is a Standard format built around Remand and Mana Leak. Putting in all of this effort to search up a spell and then having it Remanded only helps your opponent, giving them the time they need to set up a Fatty plus Wildfire, or to keep countering your stuff while outdrawing you with Tidings. The threats just aren’t strong enough in the deck, since Arbiter doesn’t put much pressure on the control decks. Hierarch, while strong, is not enough to get the job done on his own.

One would think that boarding up to four copies of Watchwolf, Shining Shoal, and Okiba-Gang Shinobi would be enough to thwart the Wildfire Tron decks, but it just doesn’t play out that way. My testing showed 50/50 at best after board, and a dismal matchup in game 1. Because of this, I decided to move on to another deck.

This list was initially designed by Marcio Carvalho (kbol on Magic Online). After losing to the deck a few times in casual matches, Marcio gave me the list and we worked together on tuning it. The deck did play Spell Snare for a while, and the Trade Routes was a new addition before I stopped working on the deck. The nice thing about this deck is that you already have a game 1 advantage in any Tron mirror match… you can Gifts for Life from the Loam and Ghost Quarter to keep them off of Urzatron pieces. In no way is this deck in final form. I ended up moving on to other decks because I got bored with this one, and I also figured that people who were testing would know that Tron was one of the top decks, and therefore they’d be ready for it. I wanted to play something that was good against Tron, but also slightly unexpected and good against the wide variety of other decks I was likely to face.

Since my first attempt at beating Tron with Okiba-Gangs had proved unsuccessful in the updated Dovescape list (which doesn’t even contain any Dovescapes anymore, so the name is pretty silly), I decided to try some ninjas in other decks. I had a week-long obsession with Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni before we both decided we should be seeing other people. Let me show you what I mean by “week-long obsession.”

Yep… Mono-Black in Standard. Rizzo would surely approve.

This deck looks like it should tear up Vore or Tron, right? Well, it doesn’t exactly play out that way as often as it should. What usually happens is that you will empty their hand and still have a little gas left, and then they will cast Tidings and take complete control again. The deck also suffers from a slightly lower power curve, being a mono-colored deck in a format where most of the good cards are gold. I’m sure there’s some potential here, but after playing the deck for a couple days without any stellar results, I decided to move on. The sideboard is also still under construction – as I was testing out Akuta – and some of the numbers should be different.

This is a deck that I put a little more work into. The inspiration came from a G/B/W Chord of Calling deck that was doing well in the 2x Premiere Events on Magic Online. My problem with this other deck was that in my testing Chord of Calling was just too clunky on its own, and the deck had single copies of cards like Ghost Council that were simply impossible to cast if you drew them and not even that great to tutor up. If you take a closer look, you’ll see that this deck is a lot like the Dovescape deck except it plays better threats and also gets things done more efficiently. Oh, and yeah, you have Ink-Eyes, who I was (and still am) in love with in this format. She really is good in almost every matchup, with the possible exception of Vore.

This deck was originally piloted to a Nationals invite at Ohio Valley Regionals by John Swearingen. The first thing I noticed when playing John’s list was that the deck had a tendency to “run out” of basic lands to search for with Reach and Elder. This led to me constantly increasing the basics, and then eventually deciding that this deck too was poorly suited for the U/R heavy metagame. I did try some stuff out in the board to a degree of success, as the Parallectric Feedbacks were good against Tron and the single Sudden Impact could catch Vore off guard with the help of Sunforger. This deck is much better suited to beating aggressive strategies, and that’s simply not the metagame at this time.

Some other decks I tried out included Sea Stompy, Boros with Azorius Guildmages, U/W Owl, and Snakes.

After all of this testing and switching from deck to deck, I became frustrated with the format and actually stopped playing it for an entire week. This was probably the best thing I could do, because when I did eventually come back to it, I did so with a completely open mind. Thus, when Jake Fling messaged me on AIM with a Critical Mass list, I didn’t immediately write it off as trash. Instead, I decided to get the cards on MTGO and give it a whirl. Here’s the initial list that Jake sent me.

4 Llanowar Elves
3 Coiling Oracle
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
4 Remand
4 Vinelasher Kudzu
4 Wood Elves
4 Plaxcaster Frogling
4 Cytoplast Root-Kin
2 Kodama of the North Tree
2 Keiga, the Tide Star
2 Simic Sky Swallower
4 Simic Growth Chamber
4 Breeding Pool
4 Yavimaya Coast
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Miren the Moaning Well
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Island
6 Forest

After a few games, I could already see that some things needed to change. First off, the Sky Swallowers were just way too slow, and every time I drew them I wished they were Meloku. Meloku is absurd with Graft, which is something I’m sure I don’t have to explain. The Coiling Oracles were also awful for me, and I had no idea why they were in the deck over Elders. After some work, I ended up with the following.

In the maindeck I made the changes I suggested above, while also adding a fifth one-mana dude in the form of Birds of Paradise. The bouncelands kept proving to be a liability and therefore changing into Forests, though I think the optimal number is in fact the two that I ended up with. I used a lot of Jake’s initial ideas on the sideboard, such as Iwamori, Repeal, and Spell Snare. Repeal is the better Carven Caryatid, as Caryatid doesn’t help you out when you’re on the play as much as Repeal does. Repeal is just as good in other situations, and sometimes better — for example, when you use it to buy a lot of time by bouncing a Jitte. You may be skeptical of this at first, but I suggest you test it before making any assumptions. I tried both of these cards in this slot, and I was much happier having Repeal. It will be the nail in the coffin when you are on the play, and still very good on the draw.

As usual though, the metagame shifted again. And again.

By the time Nationals actually rolled around I was contemplating a few different decks, and then got a bad cold while I was in St. Louis for the Grand Prix. I was strongly considering playing Solar Flare or Heartbeat, but decided against it because of my head cold, coupled with the fact that I would probably misplay since the cold left me feeling dizzy. In the end I went with an updated version of the U/G that was suited more towards the control metagame.

This version of the deck took out the Elders, Wood Elves, and Keigas in favor of Mana Leaks and Trygon Predators. The mana acceleration isn’t very good in a field full of control, and so we decided this list would be better since Predators are good at smashing Signets. I ended up running this deck over U/B/W because I wasn’t feeling great on day 1 of Nationals, and ended up going 0-3 largely due to bad matchups and unlucky breaks. I still think the deck is a contender in the format, but if I could go back and do everything over again I really wish I’d ran with Vore. The metagame was prime for it to dominate.

I realize that Coldsnap will now be affecting the format, but hopefully something useful can be gained from this article. I did put in a lot of time testing Standard, and I do feel like I have a good handle on the pre-Snap environment… despite the fact that my performance at Nats would say otherwise.

I should have my GP: St. Louis report up soon as well, so keep and eye out for that.

Nick Eisel
[email protected]