The Decks To Beat At #SCGBALT

Does #SCGBALT already have a Standard metagame? Ross Merriam believes so. Here, he lays out the groundwork for the format he expects to rumble against this weekend!

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease April 2-3!

The prerelease has come and gone and we have finally had a chance to get our hands on some Shadows over Innistrad cards. That means that the first tournament of the new Standard format is this weekend and everyone is scrambling to make their final preparations, tuning various lists or continuing to brew like mad scientists hellbent on world domination (or, in this case, Baltimore domination).

But in the race to find the best deck or the perfect shell for your favorite cards, it can be easy for this early testing to become inbred. We have very little outside information, so we all have to rely on the data we gather, whether alone or with a testing team. This leaves each isolated individual or group vulnerable to biasing their decks to beat what they think is good.

Most of the time, doing so is advantageous, but early in the format our ideas about what is good and what is not are much less grounded than in an established format. A card you dismissed as bad after it underperforms early could break out when someone else finds the right home for it, whereas you gravitated towards cards whose ideal home you found much earlier in the process.

The other issue that arises is players testing their brews against other brews. There is no established metagame and everyone wants to play with the exciting new cards, but this leads to everyone’s decks looking better than they actually are, since these brews are rough and untuned. With the little information we do have, it is important to make your best attempt at figuring out what the early metagame will look like and prepare with that metagame in mind.

Obviously, if you find a deck or two that crush your established metagame, then you can add them to the list with the idea that other players will find those decks as well. The important part is that you have a metagame to work from that serves as a litmus test for your decks and keeps you from straying too far into the deep end of the brewer’s pool.

To that end, here are the three decks that I expect to be popular this weekend at #SCGBALT.

This deck has been getting a lot of chatter, and for good reason. It’s loaded with powerful cards, a solid curve, all the best removal in the format, and the best addition from Shadows over Innistrad in Archangel Avacyn. This is a classic “good stuff” deck, and the stuff it plays is definitely good.

White has the best removal in the format with Declaration in Stone and Stasis Snare. They are versatile, cheap, and let you cleanly deal with anything from Sylvan Advocate to Reality Smasher. The instant speed on Stasis Snare is important for opposing Archangel Avacyns, while the singletons round out the removal suite with answers to planeswalkers and other nonland permanents like Evolutionary Leap or Cryptolith Rite.

The threats in this deck are varied enough that it will be a struggle for most decks to deal with them all, since Hangarback Walker; Archangel Avacyn; Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; and Secure the Wastes demand vastly different answers. The latter two form a devastating combination that we saw in the last Standard format and will end the game quickly if you are not prepared.

With such a wide selection of powerful cards available, you might expect this deck to make sacrifices in its manabase, but that is not the case. With only two colors and a relatively undemanding curve, you can play plenty of two-color lands and even find room for two copies of Westvale Abbey, which has been getting plenty of hype in the last few days. In combination with Hangarback Walker and Secure the Wastes, Abbey represents a very powerful threat when you and your opponent have exhausted your removal spells. Utility lands are very important in high-land-count midrange decks like this, and between Abbey and Shambling Vent, the best creature-land, this deck has excellent flood insurance.

I expect this to be the most popular archetype at #SCGBALT, and even with a high variability between lists, it is important that you prepare against it. While it is full of powerful cards, it can be vulnerable to decks that get ahead on the battlefield early. This doesn’t necessarily mean playing a hyperaggressive deck, especially one that is vulnerable to Flaying Tendrils, but coming out ahead early makes many of the cards in this deck worse, notably Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Secure the Wastes.

Archangel Avacyn is an important tool for this deck to catch up when behind, since it can generate some devastating blocks, so you should be biasing your removal package toward instants like Grasp of Darkness, Stasis Snare, and Lightning Axe. Not having to fear an opponent who passes the turn with five mana available is going to be key for many decks in this new format, so do not get left behind.

You can also exploit this deck by preying on its heavy removal suite with a creature-light control deck. Doing so requires you to be prepared for the planeswalkers in addition to the creatures so you can make the game go long and leave them with plenty of dead removal spells in hand over the course of the game. A deck like U/R Madness fits this bill nicely, since your few threats are so high-powered that the B/W player is forced to keep removal in and leave themselves under-equipped to overpower Pyromancer’s Goggles.

For a more traditional control deck, I would look to Virulent Plague as a clean way to neutralize Hangarback Walker, Gideon, and Secure the Wastes. Having a single card that can handle all those normally hard-to-answer threats is very important in midrange matchups, since taxing your answers is typically how they exploit reactive strategies.

The next deck is perhaps the most obvious deck for Shadows Standard, since it seems like the archetype exists in some form or another in every Standard format: G/R Ramp.

The exciting addition for Ramp is Traverse the Ulvenwald. It looks innocuous but it does two very important things for the archetype:

First, it gives you a critical mass of ways to find a Wastes on turn 1. Between Evolving Wilds, Oath of Nissa, and Traverse, you should consistently be able to play a Wastes by turn 2 if you want to, and that enables Ruin in Their Wake. The difference between ramping from turn 2 and turn 3 is enormous, especially when Ruin naturally curves into Explosive Vegetation to set up a seven-drop on turn 4. This makes the new versions of Ramp much more explosive than they have been in the past, which is critical for a deck that is so light on interaction.

Second, it improves the deck’s consistency. The tragic flaw of Ramp strategies is that they need to draw the right mix of lands, ramp spells, and threats for their deck to operate effectively, and even slight changes in your draw can cause significant problems for development or allow your opponent to easily break up your draw. Having a second one-mana card alongside Oath of Nissa that allows you to find lands in the early-game or threats in the late-game is excellent, since you alleviate both of those issues at a very low investment.

The lower land count from Traverse and Oath means that Shrine of the Forsaken Gods has to be cut, but with a renewed focus on cheaper threats rather than Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and four copies of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, the two-mana land is much less necessary. In fact, this version of ramp will often stop ramping on six mana to use Chandra as a sweeper and then clean up the remainder with Dragonlord Atarka or World Breaker.

Of course, alleviating these issues does not mean they are solved completely, and Ramp decks will forever be vulnerable to fast clocks and appropriate disruption. In this case, you need to ensure that your deck does not fold to Kozilek’s Return, especially since Flaying Tendrils should also be a popular sideboard card. Often you can put them so far behind that a single removal spell for their first threat will seal the game, but if your battlefield gets swept by Return, Chandra, or a Dragonlord Atarka trigger because you’re focusing on small creatures, then eventually they will run you out of removal and the remaining threat will end the game, even if it’s simply a Sylvan Advocate.

As for disruption, discard spells like Duress and Transgress the Mind are still good, and that is why I included so many in the B/W list above, but the rotation of Ugin makes it easier to simply answer the threats as they come, provided you have the right removal. World Breaker is another card that incentivizes using exile effects over traditional removal, and having cheap removal that can handle large threats is important so you can answer Atarka as well as something like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.

The focus on smaller threats means that often the Ramp deck will need to land multiple big cards to take over the game, although Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger still provides some inevitability, so I would not want to be too reactive against Ramp, but there is a bit less pressure this time around to close the game before their big spells come online because the tools exist to answer them straight-up. This will likely pose an issue for Ramp as we progress further into the format, which is why I am not very high on the deck, but just because you do not think it is a good choice does not mean you can ignore it. Plenty of players are going to sleeve it up, so cover yourself.

These last two decks represent two of the aggressive strategies that I expect to be popular, starting with G/W Megamorph.

G/W Megamorph made an impression early in Battle for Zendikar Standard and was among the most popular decks at that Pro Tour. While it fell off later on as the tricky Abzan Aggro manabase became tuned, it remains a solid aggressive strategy full of powerful cards. With two planeswalkers, this deck is not going to fold to strong early disruption, but it can certainly punish players who stumble early with untuned decks or greedy mana.

Moreover, this is an ideal home for Archangel Avacyn. You have plenty of creatures to protect, making the threat of her on turn 5 very powerful, often completely invalidating opposing creatures in combat. The added pressure of a 4/4 flying creature is welcome as well in a deck that can so easily clog the ground. Flipping Avacyn is fairly easy to recover from, especially if you are able to use a Nissa -2 or Dromoka’s Command to get a few more creatures above three toughness.

Simply being a great home for Avacyn is enough to make this deck popular, but it also gets the great white removal spells so it will not fold to big threats, as well as Dromoka’s Command to help fight against opposing Silkwraps and Stasis Snares.

The white cards are so obviously good that I wonder if the traditional green pairing is even the best option. Deathmist Raptor is going to get caught up in all the exile effects people naturally want to play and Sylvan Advocate has no creature-land to pump, so I expect there is a better color pairing for an aggressive white deck unless Dromoka’s Command proves to be too important.

That being said, my goal is not to find the absolute best decks; it is to ensure I am prepared for what everyone else is playing, and I expect this deck to be very popular even if it is not optimal. Given how good this G/W deck is at playing through disruption, I would not want to try to attrition it out, so have a plan to turn the corner if you fall behind early. That plan should likely involve attacking in the air since this deck is so good at clogging the ground, which makes answering Avacyn even more important than it already is. But G/W does not play that many removal spells, so if you are able to stabilize the battlefield with some presence in the air, you will be in fine shape.

The last deck I am preparing for is the one I am least confident in, but I think it is ultimately the best home for powerful Eldrazi cards, and it has been visible enough that I think most players will arrive at that conclusion before this weekend.

The Mono-Blue Eldrazi deck may end up being more popular, but I think that version is going to lose too much from the rotation of Ghostfire Blade, so the more robust red list is a better option moving forward. Kent Ketter’s run at #SCGINDY brought the deck some much-needed coverage, and even though it does not gain much from Shadows, it is very powerful.

Chandra, Flamecaller is one of the best cards in the format and this deck uses it very well as the top end of its curve. The deck can attack early with its Thopters and then push through most battlefields with the power of Chandra and Reality Smasher. Both are big threats that end the game quickly or knock out an opposing planeswalker, and both are quite difficult to answer. The same Thopters that get in key early points of damage can defend Chandra from most attacks, often bolstered in their effort by an innocuous early Hangarback Walker.

I noted above that the midrange decks have plenty of powerful removal, so the aggressive decks have to match that power with their threats, and this is a deck that can. It can also sufficiently clock the Ramp deck without folding to sweepers because of its high end and has staying power since most of its threats are hard to answer cleanly.

The key addition I have made to the deck is Outnumber, which has been impressive in my testing in G/R decks built with Arlinn Kord and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar but fits well here with all the Thopter cards. The downside of playing only one color means your removal options are limited, but Outnumber is a cheap and often flexible removal spell for this deck, and I would not play this deck without them. I know the exercise was to look at stock lists as I expect them to appear and Outnumber may not be visible enough yet, but if this deck lasts past the early weeks of the format, I would be shocked if Outnumber were not a staple of the archetype.

There are plenty of other archetypes that have potential, and my list lacks any blue to showcase Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Thing in the Ice, but you cannot spread yourself too thin. These are the decks that I am most focused on beating this weekend, even if I do not expect them to survive past that, at least in their current form. Competitive Magic, due to the existence of metagames, is an exercise in timing. You have to find the right deck for the right weekend, and early in a format it is easy to outthink yourself and end up too far ahead for your own good. Stay focused on what matters for this weekend. There will be plenty of time to explore further when the format begins to take shape.

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease April 2-3!