The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Standard After Pro Tour: San Diego

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Friday, March 5th – With Standard Grand Prix tournaments looming on the horizon, Brian Kibler examines the decks he believes will be the best choice for the format going forward. He suggests how the metagame might adapt to the threats presented, and offers hope for those of us who are sick to the back teeth of Jund.

Pro Tour: San Diego may have been the first Standard event with Worldwake, but if you just looked at the two decks in the finals of the last two major events you’d barely realize anything had changed. Despite all of the new toys for every other deck in the field, Jund took both places in the finals of the Pro Tour and followed that up with an identical performance at the StarCityGames.com Open in Richmond just this past weekend! The world may have woken up, but from the looks of things, it seems like Savage Lands is one piece of real estate that survived the bubble. Thankfully, despite Jund’s monopoly on finals appearance of late, there are some legitimate challengers to the ruler of the roost.

The top performing deck at the Pro Tour by the numbers wasn’t Jund, but rather Naya. Granted, the numbers can be misleading based on differences in sample size and skill level of the players behind the different decks, but swiss records are generally more indicative of a deck’s strength than the results in elimination rounds. LSV may have lost in the semifinals, but he was 11-0 in Standard up until that point, with many of his fellow Boss Naya players right behind him in the standings. According to Paul Jordan metagame breakdown on the mothership, Boss Naya topped the results with a 60% match win rate. That’s impressive over any significant sample. The one problem is what seems to be the chink in Naya’s armor, which is the one deck that managed to stop LSV’s remarkable winning streak: Jund. Jund was the only major deck against which Boss Naya posted a sub-50% winrate, coming in at 43%. That’s certainly bad for your bad matchup, but being any kind of dog to the most popular deck in the field is somewhat rough.

On top of that, it’s hard to evaluate just what percentage of the wins came from the surprise factor of the deck, in particular the sideboard plan. The combo of Cunning Sparkmage and Basilisk Collar pretty clearly gave the deck a significant edge against other creature based strategies like Junk and Bant, especially those who were not prepared for it. It’s not entirely clear what sort of gameplay or sideboarding adjustments those decks might be able to leverage to combat the Sparkmage plan, but I would not be surprised to see cards like Pithing Needle showing up in creature decks that might otherwise be hard pressed to beat the combo. Harm’s Way is another idea I’ve tossed around as a potential solution — it can kill the Sparkmage without letting it take out any of your creatures, and has the additional upside of possibly letting you punk your opponent out by making them deathtouch one of their own creatures before you remove either the Sparkmage or Collar in another way.

It’s very important to remember that its shifts in information like this one that can lead to the best deck for a tournament dropping out of favor shortly thereafter. That being said, Boss Naya isn’t some kind of gimmick deck that relies entirely on surprise factor to win. It has perhaps the highest concentration of the best cards in the format of any deck. Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, Bloodbraid Elf, Ranger of Eos, Baneslayer Angel — all of these are incredibly powerful. The question isn’t whether Boss Naya is still a good deck now that the cat is out of the bag, but rather how much of its edge on some of the field will be lost. Boss Naya is certainly on the short list of decks I’m considering for the upcoming Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur, and a big part of my decision is whether I can find a deck that performs better against Jund and also has an edge on Boss Naya, since I’d expect those to be the two most played decks in Standard in the near future.

The next best finishing deck by the numbers was, interestingly enough, White Weenie. Craig Wescoe version of the deck was a bit different than the average version of the deck, replacing the typical Honor of the Pures with a Stoneforge Mystic plus equipment package, but the basic plan of the deck is the same — get in damage quickly with fast creatures and then finish the game with hard-to-handle protection from color threats.

White Weenie’s results seem to be more or less the opposite of Naya’s — a stellar record against Jund, but an unimpressive showing against much of the rest of the field. This isn’t terribly surprising when you consider the strategy relies fairly heavily on creatures like Kor Firewalker and White Knight, which are clearly fantastic against decks with Sprouting Thrinax, but are clearly much less exciting against Knight of the Reliquary and friends, or even just against Jund decks with Garruk and Master of the Wild Hunt. Kyle Boggemmes used his strategy of “going Green” – taking out his Sprouting Thrinaxes and boarding into Great Sable Stags — to take down Wescoe and his pro-color army in the semis of the Pro Tour. I imagine that plan will become much more widespread among Jund players in the future, which does not bode well for the continued success of this strategy.

White Weenie isn’t a deck I feel like I would play in Standard right now. The results of my own testing were very similar to what the numbers from the pro tour show, and also mirror the results of semifinal match between Boggemmes and Wescoe — when the impact of the pro-color creatures is minimized, white weenie just doesn’t have the raw power to compete. In particular, the Naya matchup seems terrible. Not only are White Weenie’s creatures completely outclassed, but a Mono-White creature strategy is especially vulnerable to the Sparkmage plan, especially in a matchup where removal effects are tremendously stressed dealing with things like Knight of the Reliquary or Baneslayer Angel. Additionally, while Wescoe’s version with Dread Statuary and four Elspeths seems well suited to fighting against control decks, Honor of the Pure decks are especially poorly set up to handle U/W Control with Day of Judgment and Jace.

Speaking of UW Control, the obvious place to look for a list is to Patrick Chapin, who finished in 14th place with the deck. As a part of Patrick’s playtest group, I got a lot of experience playing with and against UW Control, and while my personal finish in the Standard rounds of the Pro Tour was 2-3, I did go undefeated the next day in a side event for foil sets. Despite (or perhaps because of) those experiences, I’m still not sure quite how I feel about the place of UW Control in the metagame, particularly one that is prepared for the deck.

The problem I found in testing with this deck was that it suffers from the classic control problem that Dave Price put best when he said “There are no wrong threats — only wrong answers”. The deck has a great deal of raw power thanks to Jace and Everflowing Chalice-powered Martial Coups and Mind Springs and answers to just about everything between its counter suite, Wrath effects, Oblivion Rings, and Tectonic Edges, but can very easily draw the wrong combination of cards to have the proper answers to the threats the opposing deck presents. In particular, I think the increased number of manlands that are showing up in the top builds of a lot of decks puts significantly more pressure on the UW Control deck’s few spot removal spells and Tectonic Edge. Most of our testing data for the Pro Tour came against Jund decks with maybe three manlands and I’d be surprised if the deck holds up nearly as well against the post-PT builds with Lavaclaw Reaches on top of a full complement of Ravines. Sure, sideboarding Kor Firewalker can help stop the Red manlands, but informed opponents who know what your sideboard plan is will certainly have at least Great Sable Stags and possibly Master of the Hunt to get past Firewalkers, and certainly won’t be cutting their removal to give you free wins with Baneslayer Angel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if people boarded in Deathmark with Jund against UW Control.

That being said, I think this deck still has a lot going for it. If you’re looking to play control, this is the deck for you. The ability to blank a significant number of cards in your opponent’s deck game one has a lot of value — in fact, part of my decision to play this list at the Pro Tour had to do with the fact that I felt like some opponents would keep heavily anti-creature hands in the dark against me due to my history of playing Green decks. It is capable of extremely powerful plays thanks to Everflowing Chalice, and has the ability to punish opponents for poor draws in a way that most control decks historically have not, thanks to Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Against any opponent who stumbles on mana or threats, Jace can put the game out of reach surprisingly quickly by denying them the draws that they need. If you do draw the right mix of answers to your opponent’s threats, the deck can often feel overwhelmingly powerful. It’s certainly one of the best decks against Boss Naya, since you have Wrath effects to deal with their creature rush and countermagic to stop Ranger of Eos when they go to reload.

If you’re looking to beat UW, I suggest looking toward playing an aggressive deck and including cards like Dauntless Escort, Negate, or Duress to deal with wrath effects, as well as playing a heavy manland count. Other cards that are particularly good against UW are Elspeth, Jace (old or new!), Manabarbs, World Queller, and Luminarch Ascension. Pithing Needle is probably a very solid choice as well, particularly in a manland heavy deck, since it can be used to shut down both Jace and Tectonic Edge, which puts a serious damper on the UW deck’s game for the low, low cost of one mana.

The fourth and final deck that I feel is a potential challenger to Jund for the Standard throne is Bant, or more specifically Zvi’s “Mythic” deck. One of the challenges I found in all of my Green creature decks was the tension between playing mana and threats. The deck needs enough lands and mana creatures to be able to quickly play out its threats, which means it has a significantly higher overall mana ratio than other creature decks. This puts such decks at significant risk of drawing hands heavy on mana and light on action, which can make it difficult to apply pressure to an opponent.

Zvi’s solution to this was twofold. First, he stripped the non-mana cards in the deck down to consist entirely of threats. Every single card in the deck is a permanent, and of those only the three Finest Hours do not produce mana, attack, or both — and while they may not themselves attack, those enchantments certainly facilitate whatever threat the deck might have in play. Secondly, he loaded the deck up with manlands. We saw this in Goertzen’s winning Jund deck as well — a strategy that is extremely mana hungry. Both Jund and big creature decks generally want to play more mana than they reasonably can without suffering from flood. They want both the color fixing and the raw amount of mana that comes with playing additional lands, and the Worldwake manlands let these decks do that without sacrificing threat density. It is largely for this reason that I think this particular build is the most compelling of the various non-Naya Green creature decks out there, since Junk and the other Bant lists I’ve seen are quite vulnerable to running out of steam.

I haven’t had enough of a chance to test this particular build, but I definitely like what I see and feel like the deck has the tools to compete with all of the top decks in the field. The biggest problem I see for this deck looks to be Cunning Sparkmage. With twelve one-toughness mana creatures, Mythic is vulnerable to even a naked Sparkmage, to say nothing of one wearing a Basilisk Collar. While Zvi’s list had Bant Charms in the sideboard, I don’t feel like those are likely to be sufficient to contain Sparkmages before they do their damage. As I mentioned earlier when I was talking about Naya, I would want to try sideboarding either Pithing Needle, Harm’s Way, or both to give the deck a shot to at very least trade with the Sparkmages before they wipe out your board, if not lock them out entirely. I’ve also heard some rumblings that this particular build may not be quite as solid against Jund as Zvi attests, but I can certainly see how a deck full of nothing but creatures might potentially struggle against a deck full of creature removal. That being said, there are a lot of potential options to fight back against removal — most notably Thornling, which borders on impossible for Jund to beat once it hits play. I could see trying Sphinx of Jwar Isle, as well — despite the fact that you’re giving them plenty of targets for their removal anyway, the fact that Sphinx shuts down their entire offense against you and can’t be stopped short of Broodmate Dragon gives it some appeal in my eyes.

If you’re looking to play Standard and want to steer clear of Jund, I think any one of these decks is a reasonable choice. My own leanings are between Naya and Mythic, but that probably has as much to do with my unhealthy love for Noble Hierarch and Knight of the Reliquary as with the quality of the decks. With GP: Kuala Lumpur coming up, I only have a few weeks to figure things out — I’ll keep you posted when I do.

Until next time…