The Decision, The Star City Effect, And Valakut

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz is known for finding the most powerful mana-abusive strategies early on in a format’s life span, and Standard post-bannings is ripe for him to do so. He optimizes the Valakut list for the quick kill.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are dead. Long live Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. Long will they rule!

There are a lot of different angles to tackle when something this impactful happens. If some interest you but not others, by all means skip around.

The Decision

I for one welcome the fall of our old Jace and Stoneforge overlords. Aaron Forsythe and Wizards of the Coast made the absolutely right call when they
chose to swing the ban axe and in choosing to ban both cards rather than only one of them. I particularly like the War of Attrition exception, which is
a nice touch.

At this point, those of you who follow my Twitter feed (@TheZvi) may remember that when the first serious calls came out to ban Jace, the Mind
Sculptor, my response was that it would never happen. My reasoning was not that Jace shouldn’t be banned, but rather that it wouldn’t be.
Jace was and still is the face of not only Worldwake but all of Magic. He’s on the marketing materials and the Pro Tour shirts and will probably
be the star of the Magic cartoon show if they ever get their act together. If there was one card that was untouchable, this would have been the card.
Wizards has been very cautious with the ban axe and had avoided banning anything for a long time, which is an impressive and valuable track record and
promise to players. Jace was already due to rotate out within three months, and my prescription to those who claimed that Something Must Be Done was
that they would have to suffer for a while, but there was nothing anyone could do.

With all that going against the ban, if the ban happens anyway, it’s a fair assumption that not only was this the right decision, it wasn’t
even remotely close.

When a decision isn’t close, it’s no decision at all. Decisions are only real decisions when there are legitimate reasons to go both ways,
and it’s not clear which way is best. In those situations, a good rule is to ask what biases are in play. Suppose the two plays were equally
good. Which one would you be more likely to choose? What biases do I have? What outside influences are trying to change my decision?

Whichever choice you would make in that situation, make the other choice. The reason you do this is that if you think the two choices are close enough
that you’re not sure, there’s a good chance you’re thinking that because of the biases that you have. If you know that you usually
play too many lands and you’re not sure whether to play 17 or 18, play 17. If you know you tend to use removal too soon, and you’re not
sure whether to use it now, don’t use it, and so on. This works in life too, not only in Magic.

Similarly, when someone you respect makes a decision that they usually don’t make even when it would have been the right decision, it’s
time to listen up because chances are they’re right; when LSV is playing the small white creatures, you should have been playing small white
creatures, and when Nassif is playing someone else’s deck, you should be afraid. Be very afraid. Wizards banning cards is like that, a decision
that they wouldn’t make unless they felt that in the end it wasn’t a decision at all.

In the end, the reason was lowered tournament attendance, which is a damn good reason to ban a card. Magic exists to be played and for people to have
fun. When people aren’t having fun, they vote with their feet and stop attending. We can note how skill testing the format was as much as we
like. We can note all seven viable decks until we’re blue in the face from facing off with Jace all day. None of that matters. People looked at
the prospect of facing an array of Caw-Blade deck after Caw-Blade deck, and Jace after Jace, and gave the same response that they gave to Affinity:
This is not how I want to spend my weekend. So they didn’t. The people who say these players were scrubs who were complaining because they
couldn’t beat Caw-Blade are missing the point. It’s not that those players couldn’t win; it’s that they couldn’t have fun

As for those who would have banned Stoneforge Mystic but not Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Aaron said it best when he noted that it would be terrible to ban
Mystic and then find out that not much had changed. It would open things up somewhat, but Jace might well have been almost as dominant as it was before
and the decks involved were not likely to be in any way original. I also think it’s clear that no additional cards needed to be banned.

I would recommend that going forward we use a two-fold criteria for banning. Complete strategic dominance of a format should of course be sufficient,
but I also think that if there is a big drop in tournament attendance, that should be sufficient to trigger a ban or two as necessary to shake things
up. I also think this will happen more often in the future, because of the newest version of the old Dojo Effect. Today, we might call it The Star City

The Star City Effect

The Star City Effect is what happens when people play the same format week in and week out with large fields and high-quality coverage at a highly
competitive level. It is also the Pro Tour Qualifier Season Effect, and to some extent the Magic Online Effect. It’s the Dojo Effect on steroids
and a lot of caffeinated beverages with a supplementary sugar rush. Every week, some of the best and most focused minds in Magic play Standard, and
massive amounts of statistical knowledge and new innovation is pulled from that and analyzed, and is then combined with all the other sources of
information regarding Standard. The result is a vastly faster pace of development than we’ve seen in the past, and this process is likely only to

It is greatly to Wizards’ credit that they’ve been able to develop Legacy to the point where there is a balanced and interesting strategic
equilibrium in place, but that equilibrium comes largely from the fact that, as Patrick Chapin puts it, much of the field has an agreement to play bad
decks. It’s not that they got together one night and signed a pact, but rather that card access and format knowledge are huge barriers to deck
switching, and thus the format has a background field filled with variety that adjusts its marginal decisions and sideboard cards but has highly sticky
core deck choices. This in turn prevents the kind of feedback loop that can wipe out deck diversity in a format, provided a decent job is done keeping
the top-level interactions roughly in balance.

Standard doesn’t work that way. Standard gets the benefit of a complete card rotation every two years and many major card shifts within that
period, but the format isn’t crafted carefully over a long period, and few people are locked into their deck choices. Standard gets more
attention on every level from casual to professional than it ever has in Magic’s history, and that attention is backed by record amounts of
statistical data and quality writing and analysis. It is no surprise in this world that the pace of progress has quickened, that the Magic world has
converged on largely correct choices shortly after the release of each set, and that more players are willing to embrace those correct choices than
ever before.

These are all happy problems, in the sense that they occur because so many more people are playing so much more Magic, but they do constitute a problem
nevertheless, and to solve it we are going to need to accept more frequent banning of cards in the future or come up with other means to keep formats
fresh and new.

Caw-Blade: The Scrub Crusher

I have my own perspective on how Caw-Blade managed to get as dominant as it did, rather than being one of several decks that adjust over time, and I
think it’s a factor that is greatly overlooked. Caw-Blade is an excellent deck for beating bad players and bad decks. It severely punishes those
who aren’t up to speed, and any tournament short of a Pro Tour is going to largely consist of such players. If you want to reliably make the Top
8 of a StarCityGames.com event or a Pro Tour Qualifier, half your matches are against such opponents before they are filtered out. There are plenty of
decks that can beat that field, but the difference between beating and crushing that field is the difference between being in contention a quarter of
the time and three quarters of the time. That’s a big deficit for other decks to overcome.

Financial Impacts: Falsifying the Efficient Market Hypothesis

Ted Knutson of past StarCityGames.com editing fame made some quick cash buying up Primeval Titans on Magic Online in advance of the banning
announcement. The moment I heard about this, it struck me as brilliant. It was easy to see that Valakut specifically and Primeval Titan in general
would be the biggest winners if a banning were to go down, so Ted put himself in a position to capture a lot of upside. When the ban came down, the
Titan surged. The interesting thing is that in advance of the announcement, Primeval Titans didn’t get more expensive. If there had been no ban,
it is unlikely they would have declined in value by more than a nominal amount. 

That meant: The value of a Titan the day before the ban on Magic Online was far smaller than the expected value of one the day after, more than enough
to overcome transaction costs if you had the time to do the trades involved and the liquidity to make them.

People want what they want, and they want it now. They don’t think too carefully about the future and what prices are likely to go up or down,
and those who do don’t generally take too much action. In an efficient market, the prices of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic would
have dropped somewhat in anticipation of the ban, and cards like Primeval Titan would have risen, as would all the creatures people are harping about
being able to play again. It should also happen gradually over the course of two years in Standard that cards should decline in price, rather than
crashing right before they stop being legal. This is clearly not the case to the extent you would think, and this case of cards going illegal three
months early drives home what is likely happening anyway.

The argument that the ban was so unlikely as not to be factored in much has a point, but by the end, I think it was clear that there was a lot of
pressure to do something, and something was likely to be done.

If you’re good enough at Magic to understand what is likely to be good in the future, you should be speculating. You can’t sell cards short
in any reasonable way, so better to focus on buying up the future. Think of it as providing a service to the tournament players, the same as the
regular dealers, only you don’t have to lug around gigantic binders to do it. Ben has a far better understanding of this stuff than I do,
I’m sure, and I hope he looked at this before it was posted to make sure I didn’t make any obvious mistakes.

Right now, it’s clear to me that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are both strong buys. The crash was large, at least from what I
could tell, and neither is going anywhere. They’re going to be with Extended, Legacy, and Vintage for a long time. Even with the extra supply
from the Event Deck, Mystic trading online at $2 the day after was obscene. As expected, the panic subsided as cooler heads stepped in to stock their
permanent collections while the stocking was relatively cheap.

New Standard by Star City

We’ve had the benefits of seeing a lot of pros brew up decks new and old for us. As usual, each source has its own strengths and weaknesses. My favorite so far was from Mike Flores because he did his homework and included
not only sideboards but full sideboarding strategies for a variety of interesting decks. Gerry Thompson had a solid overview of some places to start looking but had clearly not yet put in
the legwork. Patrick Chapin spends a lot of time on a strong defense of
Wizards’ actions, as I do here, and offers some more jumping off points but is clearly setting the stage for the future. I’m sure
he’ll report back in with good stuff soon. Drew Levin seems to have dived
most enthusiastically into the new world, with lots of unique card choices, which is great to see. From the free side, Todd Anderson offers some good data points as well.

Here are some lists that I saw that I found to be worth trying:

First, from Flores we have his latest Twin incarnation, which can do some dirty things with Birds of Paradise and may or may not need a third Vengevine
and likely needs someone to fix its mana base:

He also presents a mono-red deck that looks like a solid base to go forward from, and allows him to continue his suspiciously close relationship with
Basilisk Collars:

If you’re considering playing either of those, make sure to check out his article for sideboarding guides.

Gerry Thompson suggests this is a good base for U/W control. It’s not where I’d want to be, but it’s good to have something to work

Meanwhile, Drew Levin has some original ideas about what matters, such as advocating Augury Owl (and yes, he explains what he’s thinking):

He also has a similar approach to U/B to Gerry’s approach to U/W:

Of course, no reason to forget the old standards, such as:

Together these give a good idea of some (but by no means all) places where everyone is likely to start looking, with most looking first at Valakut.
Can’t say I blame them. I’ll choose to make this my deck focus:


The original Valakut decks existed in a world where dodging creature removal was worthwhile and thus played no early men, but that hasn’t been
practical for some time, with the mirror being one good reason you can’t do that; you end up with a slower deck at what would seem like a massive
disadvantage. It also yanks away the ability to get the creature of choice with Green Sun’s Zenith. I would keep the old possibility in the back
of my mind in case Dismember starts to show up everywhere and removal in general makes a comeback as more players pull out previously unplayable
creatures. Valakut’s creatures early were excellent against Jace, which meant that the most important removal out there didn’t sting, but
if that removal changes, they start to look poor. The other side of that same coin is that Harrow and other creature accelerants are going to face
vastly fewer blue decks in general and copies of Spell Pierce in particular.

More generally Valakut divides into four broad categories of non-land things: Big Stuff, Creature Accelerants, Non-Creature Accelerants, and Removal.
The removal category clearly should be either Pyroclasm, Slagstorm, or Dismember, with Lightning Bolt being the sucker’s choice, and the other
option being to leave it all in the sideboard.

In terms of the creatures, even if you’re trying to be largely creature-free early, I feel strongly that not having a single copy of Joraga
Treespeaker is a clear mistake given Green Sun’s Zenith, then Overgrown Battlement comes next, then Lotus Cobra, then Oracle of Mul Daya. Gerry
Thompson pointed out Jason Radabugh’s idea of Chancellor of the Tangle, which like Green Sun’s Zenith doubles as both acceleration early
and big threat late. His also had four copies of Khalni Heart Expedition.

Chancellor allows Valakut to start the game with two mana rather than one. With one mana, the only relevant play is Joraga Treespeaker, but two mana
opens the door to Lotus Cobra, Overgrown Battlement, Explore, or Khalni Heart Expedition. If you start with one of those first three, you’ll have
three mana on turn 2, allowing you to chain two more accelerants (one of which can be Harrow) or a Joraga Treespeaker into a six mana turn 3, or go all
the way to seven if a Lotus Cobra is involved or you have multiple copies of Overgrown Battlement, which can also be achieved by using Green
Sun’s Zenith for a second copy if you played the first copy on turn 1.  If you start with Khalni Heart Expedition, you can cast Explore into
a fetchland to activate the Expedition on turn 2, which also gets you to six, or you can play a Lotus Cobra and then use the third turn Expedition
activation to get to six instead.

With so many scenarios that involve hitting six mana but not seven mana on the third turn and four extra cards that already cost seven, it makes sense
to follow in the steps of the original prototype and play a full set of Summoning Traps while setting up as many six-mana scenarios as you can:

Did I just cut Cultivate? Yes, I just cut Cultivate. I also cut Oracle because this deck doesn’t hit four pretty much ever in a way that
isn’t awkward. You’re faster than that on both counts, and the Expeditions shore up your mana base to compensate. A third Zenith is around
for the mirror or other situations where you need consistency or a bigger high end. This list is all about turn three and hitting six. This gives you
the mirror edge by being faster and lets you race other decks that would otherwise be too fast for that to be a viable plan. You don’t get to
activate Valakut off the Titan on turn three, but on turn four you very much do and will often have a second Titan to send things into overdrive.

In the mirror you’re essentially pre-sideboarded except for moving up on Green Sun’s Zenith. The fourth Expedition is out because I
don’t want to be stuck with two at the wrong time especially in Treespeaker hands. Those two don’t always play well together,
unfortunately, but with no removal spells as whammies such hands should still work fine.

The removal brings up an interesting point. People who sideboard such decks tend to pick the one removal spell they love and play three or four copies,
but that seems transparently wrong if it is close. Sometimes you will want some but not all of that removal, and you would benefit from having the
choice. Other times they’re all good, and you can keep your opponent guessing. It’s nice to know which card you might draw, but that seems
to pale in comparison to opponents not knowing what will come next, especially if it’s Dismember versus Slagstorm or Pyroclasm. That goes out the
window if one is clearly better than the other, but for now that is plainly not true. I’m using six slots because I don’t see that many
other pressing needs for my sideboard. You’ll likely want to cut either Expedition or Treespeaker whenever you’re bringing in removal to
avoid this becoming a problem, with which one depending on the matchup and which removal you’re putting in.

An alternate path is to make the deck more focused on hitting seven mana rather than six, sacrificing Summoning Trap for a full set of Green
Sun’s Zenith. This opens up more chances to go double Battlement through Zenith, hitting seven on turn four and solving the problem you’ve
created. However, Joraga is not good at getting you to seven mana on time given the other things you’re up to, although he all but assures it by
turn four, so with both Chancellor and Zenith de facto sevens you’ll need to focus on him a lot less. You’d end up like this:

Again I’ve cut Cultivate because again I think you simply can’t afford the time right now. I’m keeping one Oracle in the sideboard so
I can search for it in the mirror now that I have four copies of Zenith and I need more help. Harrow reopens up more explosive Titans and more routes
to making it to where you want to go on time.

It’s entirely possible that the deck doesn’t want to go here, but I think that given the speed advantage you get from such strategies it
probably does, and that you want to press that advantage. Stripping away the removal from the deck gives you maximum chance to be fast enough to drive
it home. One key question will be when you’re bringing in removal what you want to do to your list to make that happen. A lot of what’s
going on here is based on the robustness of the mana, and on knowing the choice is get there fast or don’t get there at all, but Chancellor into
anything but Lotus Cobra doesn’t get much in the way of such plans as much as it provides another way to utilize the early speed advantage.

You could also go without Expedition, and go back to Cultivate, or of course back to the old versions, the theory being you will be a turn-four deck
but a damn reliable one. I do tend to undervalue that sort of thing early on, but most people vastly underestimate the value of pure speed.

What Will Be Out There

This is more speculation and survey, since exploration time is always limited.

Splinter Twin will be alive and well in a variety of forms, including R/U, W/R/U, and G/R/U. U/W Control will be a natural fallback for a lot of people
whether the motivation remains or not. I suspect it’s gone. One underappreciated worry is how silly the mirror fights may start to become once
people start trying to proliferate. My instinct tells me Tezzeret is going to be the right control deck once it is tuned. He is the heir to Jace, the
Mind Sculptor, not the old wimpy Jace Beleren. There’s nothing wrong with little Jace, but he was played largely to kill the big version, and
people are forgetting that Tezzeret can take Jace’s true role in a control deck if the deck is built around him, whether it’s the old decks
that got abandoned or the recent U/B innovation from Kibler. Vampires, Mono-Red, Quest and Hawkward are all strong candidates for quality
straightforward aggression. I’m not sold on Boros without Mystic being viable, but then I’m never sold on Boros early on.