The Brave New World Of Standard

Find out why you may want to choose Esper over U/W Control for SCG Open Series: Las Vegas featuring the Invitational this weekend as Adrian takes a look at the Standard metagame.

We’re at that point yet again where we’re marching into a new Constructed PTQ season. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been paying attention to every little detail that you can find access to about the format. Right now that means Standard.

This past weekend there were two pretty large events: the Grand Prix in Dallas by Legion Events and the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Oakland. A quick breakdown of the two events, weighted for their size and with heavy weight toward final finish, shows something surprising—Esper Control has been knocked entirely out of the metagame and seemingly replaced by U/W Control.

Here is the weighted results data:


For simplicity’s sake, I combined the W/B Aggro and W/R Aggro lists into "White Weenie/x" (WW/x); similarly, all of the Red Devotion decks are collected together even though some are R/Wand some are R/G. I almost put B/W Control and Black Devotion together into the same archetype list since they are basically incredibly close (Blood Baron of Vizkopa substituted for Gray Merchant of Asphodel being the primary non-mana difference), but in the end I listed them as two separate archetypes.

What is to be made of this incredible shift toward U/W Control though? If you ask me, this is a hugely significant shift. As I wrote a few weeks ago in Getting Back In Control, “Really, the reason to play U/W Control is that your mana is better enough than Esper that you can expect to have fewer problems due to your own deck when you’re facing other decks.” YES (emphasis on “yes”), it’s true that you’ll be weaker against Esper because of their ability to be a similar deck that can also run Thoughtseize, but against every other more aggressive deck, your stability will really make a huge difference.

In some matchups that really can take their time, like for example versus the Mono-Black Devotion, the mana difference is unlikely to matter all that much. But on the other hand, against Red Devotion, the various white-based aggro decks, or Mono-Blue Devotion, that mana difference can make all the difference. This is least pronounced in most of the draws in the Mono-Blue Devotion matchup, but it can make a huge difference against the blue deck’s strongest draws. In the Mono-Blue matchup, though, the extra black removal actual can make a positive swing towards Esper in most games, so that might be a wash.

We can imagine the list of the Top 16 breakdown like this:

U/W Control: ~30%
Black-Based Control: ~30%
Blue Devotion: ~15%
Red Devotion: ~15%
White-Based Aggro: ~10%

Rounding up like this does end up knocking out the "other" category, but c’est la vie.

So what does U/W Control look like?

Here is my version from an article a few weeks ago compared with the second-place deck piloted by Hall of Famer William Jensen (designed by Andrew Cuneo). Our versions are pretty close—67 of the same cards in our 75.

The differences are actually pretty small and somewhat break down like this:

1 Jace, Architect of Thought for 1 Divination
1 Celestial Flare for 1 Azorius Charm
1 Essence Scatter for 1 Syncopate
1 Cyclonic Rift for 1 Ratchet Bomb
1 Aetherling for 1 Dissolve
1 Mutavault for 1 Island

This is a very minor set of differences, particularly when you consider that the one Aetherling in the deck is included as a way to hedge against the clock on Magic Online and isn’t something that I view as particularly integral to the deck. Time can be an issue for slower controlling decks on Magic Online, especially if you are a comparing the crisp play that I prefer in in-person Magic. For examples of this, watch Reid Duke and Nicholas Spagnolo’s play of control decks in the archives of SCGLive.

The mechanics of playing a control deck can be accomplished very quickly. Set up your lands for activations; don’t deliberately untap or tap land. If you do all of these things, you can play a control deck quite quickly. Online, on the other hand, every action is deliberate. Tapping out for a Sphinx’s Revelation takes much longer online than in person. The clock just gets eaten away.

This is particularly the case for me. I admit it—I’m a distracted Magic Online player. I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report while playing; I talk with Magic friends about decks we’re working on; I pause while I talk with my girlfriend; at the most horrible end of the spectrum, I cook dinner or am writing an article simultaneously, trying to fill my belly or collect more data for the next article. These things can make a card like Aetherling a godsend in finishing games.

The differences between the two decks are essentially questions of nuance. For example, I think that the deck wants to have a card that can be as devastating as Cyclonic Rift in the mix of the initial 60 cards. I ran Cyclonic Rift in the Esper Planeswalkers deck that I took to several major event Top 8s earlier this year; it is one of those cards that continues to impress a great deal. In essence, this deck can really get to a point where it is recycling itself aggressively.

Properly played by protecting the Elixir of Immortality and waiting until the exact right moment to play it, you can expect to see even your one-ofs several times in a match. What does “properly played” mean? Well, in essence, trying to do your best to wait until you have good cards in your graveyard and active card drawing (more than Azorius Charm) available before you pop the Elixir. Each activation of the Elixir fills your deck with more goodness, so making sure you can actually draw into it is important.

Beyond that, I think the deck can actually be a little greedier with its mana, so I’m running another Mutavault than Cuneo’s design. When Jensen played Cuneo’s deck, you could see the smoothness of the mana; this mirrors my own experience pretty greatly, and quite a while ago, I added in the third Mutavault and haven’t looked back. Recently, I’ve started toying with a few Temples to see how that influences the deck; the real cost of the Temples is that you start slipping towards the problems that Esper decks sometimes have with mana but without enough consistency to truly gain the payoff that comes with true commitment to the color.

I still haven’t decided how I feel about the Temples or how many I should run. Melissa De Tora talked with me about my deck before GP Albuquerque since she was planning on playing something that was quite similar, and since then we’ve both been testing out Temples. At this point, I know I like them, but I’m unsure how many I want to run. I can tell you that it’s between one and six though.

Joe Lossett’s take has the number at four. Here is his SCG Standard Open: Oakland-winning deck:

The two major differences in Lossett’s deck and the ones from me and Cuneo/Jensen are the larger count of finishers (three Elspeth, Sun’s Champion) and the maindeck choice to use three Last Breaths (found in both my and Cuneo’s sideboard). The cost to find room for these cards is ultimately pretty minor: a little less card draw, the removal of two Quickens, and a tiny shift in the removal package.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is actually a really nice dodge on this though. If you’ve played Elspeth, you know just how incredible the card is against most non-control opponents. Essentially, if you’re not playing against U/W or Esper Control, Elspeth is just incredible. Both of the initial modes of Elspeth, whether it’s nuking the board of big creatures or gumming up the ground with little ones, are very good at helping the deck establish control. Against Esper, this reliance on Elspeth is simply not as good as going towards Aetherling as the kill, but in a world where Esper has been marginalized, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is just a superior card overall. The threat of Elspeth means that this little guy might not make that many friends:

If that Pack Rat makes another friend and doesn’t kill you as a result of it, Elspeth can be yet another answer to the Rat problem, joining Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere. Personally, I think that while the answering of Pack Rat isn’t something that actually happens that often, the fact that it can is a really big deal. In a deck with good removal and access to life gain, the threat of a potential Elspeth can keep a player from making that fourth Rat. Then if they don’t make that Rat, an Elspeth making three Soldiers can hold off a group of Rats all on its own.

I’m currently not doing what Joe Lossett is doing, but I can completely respect going to three Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in U/W Control.

So why is it again that we’re seeing this upsurge in U/W Control?

A huge reason is that the truly aggressive decks are able to capitalize on the decks that stumble. Take a deck like Patrick Sullivan’s awesome Mono-Red Aggro deck—this version was piloted by a non-Sullivan to a great finish:

Since that finish in Los Angeles, there have been three SCG Standard Opens and three Standard Grand Prix. That makes for 48 Top 8 finishers, and only ten of them are dedicated aggro decks. That makes for about 20% of the "winner’s" metagame being the deck that punishes a player for being Esper over being U/W Control. That actually isn’t so much.

For the most part, Esper and U/W Control can perform very similarly against the vast majority of decks. The truly aggressive decks make you prefer to be U/W Control, but versus the rest of it you really don’t care if you are U/W or Esper—except in the near-mirror. In the blue-based controlling matchups, there is a real advantage to being Esper: essentially the discard.

When I look at the chart at the top of the article with the weighted Top 8 from the last season, what I find myself seeing is this:

11% dedicated aggro
29% U/W Control
60% the rest

Metagames change from week to week; that is certain. If you want to go with what was good yesterday, essentially just choose from any deck that placed in the top of the field at #GPDFW or #SCGOAK. Just choose what you like.

But if you want to play to the "next level" and you love counterspells, you might want to shift over to Esper Control. The aggro matchup against U/W Control is mostly neutral, so I don’t expect to suddenly see an increase in aggressive matchups. If the metagame stays close to the same, Esper seems to me like it would be a better call than U/W. Speaking of "next level," here is a vetted deck you might want to consider that did well at GP Dallas:

While Chapin does describe why he might change the deck, I do prefer listing the vetted decks than those that haven’t been battletested. If you happen to get into the control war, you are armed with the following important cards:


1 Aetherling
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
4 Divination
3 Thoughtseize


1 Aetherling
3 Gainsay
1 Thoughtseize

Now, I still like seeing Elixir of Immortality in here and wouldn’t mind seeing a few counters in the maindeck, but in a meta that is still fairly diverse (five decks making up 88% of the weighted winner’s metagame), this deck is well armed for the fight. I strongly recommend reading Chapin’s rationales for the card choices in the deck, though I’d still try to find a way to fit in one Cyclonic Rift, one Dissolve, and one Elixir of Immortality in the main (with only removal making sense to cut, though there is an argument to be made for one of the three Thoughtseize). Chapin’s deck isn’t explicitly an Elixir deck, but I’m kinda in love with Elixir right now, so perhaps I’m shoehorning it in.

Personally, I’m not sure if I’ll be playing U/W Control right now or some form of red deck. I’m still not settled on the specific land mix of my U/W Control deck. Currently, my list looks like this:

This is pretty similar to how I had the deck last month, with only the tiniest tweaks. Again, I’m still not sure how many Temples are correct; feel free to dial them back if you feel conservative and to tack them on if you wanna feel lucky.

I’ll be in the Detroit area this weekend PTQing. It was a hard call for me to choose the PTQ over the SCG Invitational. I have friends in Las Vegas and in Detroit, and there are good reasons to go to both. I actually had a good discussion about it on my Facebook, but in the end Patrick Sullivan, John Shuler, and Bob Maher convinced me to PTQ. The Pro Tour is where my heart is.

So the PTQ it is! I’ll see some of you in Garden City, Michigan this weekend. Best of luck to everyone playing everywhere! Wish me luck!

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter