The New And Old Of Standard

Reid Duke examines the results of the StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati. What are the new decks that people will have to answer this coming weekend in Seattle? Should you run any of these decks yourself?

Years ago, there were open Standard formats, where people actually bothered to ask what deck had won on a given day. This time last month, I was afraid those days were nothing but fond childhood memories, never to return again. Today, I can take heart! This weekend saw the first tournaments of New Standard, and the StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati showcased a format full of possibilities. There were ten distinct archetypes in the top sixteen, and the top four finishers all used different decks.

If there was a theme of the Cincinnati Open, it was fresh approaches to old strategies. The format is sure to change a lot as new ideas emerge and existing decks become more finely tuned. However, looking at this weekend’s top finishing decks will give an idea of where things are headed.

Puresteel Paladin is one of the popular strategies in Scars Block Constructed. I would argue, in fact, that it’s the best one. Equipment forces the opponent to answer every creature you can produce, and Puresteel Paladin, along with the living weapon mechanic, makes for endless streams of threats. Part of the deck’s appeal, too, is its strength against Tempered Steel—an appeal that’s not lost in the jump to Standard.

The most important thing Paladin gains from Standard’s larger card pool is the simple addition of extra dual lands. Between Seachrome Coast, Glacial Fortress, Celestial Colonnade, and Mox Opal, Caleb Durward reached a critical mass of blue mana sources, without slowing down his deck in a significant way. For a deck built around a single card—and this particular build is very reliant on Puresteel Paladin—Preordain is a more than welcome addition. Trinket Mage, the poor man’s Stoneforge Mystic, can wind up producing a three or four-for-one advantage when Puresteel Paladin is involved. The 2/2 body, as well as the Germ it can make by way of Flayer Husk, can become huge threats in a deck that packs a whopping eight Swords between maindeck and sideboard.

The other important thing about the blue splash is the permission in the sideboard. A fast clock means exactly nothing against Valakut and Eldrazi Green. Primeval Titan decks prey on aggro, and most creature decks are significant underdogs against them. However, a fast clock backed upby permission is the perfect way to beat up on ramp decks. They’re generally built to play one powerful spell per turn, so if that spell is stopped, they may not have enough time to get back on their feet against a weenie deck.

Compared to the Block version, what Standard adds to Puresteel doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t really. What’s equally important, though, is what the jump to Standard takes away from the rest of the decks. It’s rare to see Standard decks packing four Divine Offerings in the sideboard, while in Block they’re almost always there, in addition to maindeck Leonin Relic-Warders! Standard is simply a more hospitable home for metalcraft strategies because it’s too wide open for people to afford to play much artifact hate.

It’s hard to comment on Mr. Durward’s numbers without extensive testing, but I can say that I really like the way he utilizes protection creatures—Kor Firewalker and Etched Champion. Puresteel Paladin already puts pressure on the opponent to have the right answers at the right times, so narrowing the number of effective answers is exactly the thing to do. The harder the creature is to answer, the better it is to hold a Sword. We might have seen a Kor Firewalker with Sword of Feast and Famine doing some work if the brackets had been a little different…

Lotus Cobra decks have been a force to be reckoned with in Standard for a long time. R/U/G and B/U/G had the most terrifying nut draws of any deck in Old Standard, but with Jace, the Mind Sculptor out of the picture, there’s little reason to pair the Cobra with blue anymore. Korey Fay utilized a rarely seen color combination, but maintained a lot of the strengths of the old B/U/G deck.

Garruk, Primal Hunter and Liliana Vess may be the very best cards to ramp into with Lotus Cobra. Both cost five, which means it only takes a Cobra and a fetchland to have them in play on the third turn. More importantly, both are more powerful and harder to answer the sooner they enter the battlefield. Liliana Vess “starts” with a colossal six loyalty, making her nearly impossible to kill so early in the game. Typically, if you can’t kill her, you try to empty your hand, but when she’s accelerated out, there’s little choice but to lose multiple cards to her +1 ability. I’d like to see her moved to the maindeck in Jund. Garruk, however, may be even better. His ability directly affects the board and puts unmanageable pressure on other planeswalkers and any opponent that has a slow start. Jace isn’t the only planeswalker that can take over a game on turn 3.

Jund is a green deck at its core. Green supplies the mana acceleration and Garruk, Primal Hunter. Black is a natural choice for a support color because of its all-purpose removal and discard spells. There’s no better way to force through a fast, game-ending threat than to clear the way with Inquisition of Kozilek or Duress. It’s critical to be able to strip permission in this style of deck, so I’d change the one Despise to a second Duress. I’d say that Jund could run fine without red, but it’s basically a free splash with the nonbasic lands in this format. In fact, it’s better than free; even if I wanted to cut every single red card from this deck, I’d still play red lands just to have access to Raging Ravine and Lavaclaw Reaches!

Vampires is a tried and true deck that even stayed afloat when it had to deal with turn 3 Batterskulls every game. Now, with Stoneforge Mystic gone and other creature decks being on the level, Vampires is in a great position. Matt Farney kept it simple and elegant with his decklist for this tournament, although he utilized Surgical Extraction and the new Sorin’s Thirst in his sideboard.

Vampires is a humble deck; it uses appropriately costed cards and some simple synergies to win, but it does it very, very well. It has recursion, reach, and tons of card advantage and tends to make things very hard on any opponent who’s also trying to play fair. In particular, those advantages shine in creature mirrors, which is apparent in the fact that Mr. Farney defeated a Tempered Steel deck and Caleb Durward’s Puresteel Paladin deck on his way to the finals.

Everybody knows that if it ain’t broke, you shouldn’t fix it, and you could do a lot worse than to play B/R Vampires at your next Standard tournament. However, a mono-black version has potential as well. With the addition of Dismember as efficient removal, Lightning Bolt may not be needed, especially considering it falls short against Deceiver Exarch. Where you lose burn, you gain Lashwrithe as an excellent curve topper that provides a different kind of reach.

Having an M12 dual land come into play tapped usually doesn’t matter to a deck like U/B Control, but it does to Vampires. Matt Farney was apparently so apprehensive about tapped lands that he declined to play the full set of Lavaclaw Reaches. Vampires is at its best when it curves out smoothly; I especially like playing a one-drop or discard spell on turn 1 and two more on turn 2. Why not make all your lands Swamps and up the discard count to facilitate that?

Finally we have the modern Caw-Blade deck that won the whole thing. Tim Pskowski proved to us that it wasn’t just unfair cards that made Caw-Blade good; it was the general strategy of creatures that can’t be answered one-for-one backed up by Equipment and permission. Unlike Caleb Durward, Pskowski only played two Sword of Feast and Famine, simply as value cards, not integral parts of his game plan. There’s no complicated synergy and no risk of being clogged by too much Equipment, simply a solid deck full of card advantage and powerful creatures.

Caw-Blade is a nightmare for other control decks. Before the bannings, there was always at least the hope of sticking a Jace, the Mind Sculptor to keep up with the army of creatures spilling onto the opponent’s board. Now, however, there’s virtually no way anyone can answer every creature this deck plays.

A crucial lesson about current Standard is that you need to have a clock. Even with control of the game, there are too many risks involved with letting things drag out. Vampires can burn you out with Kalastria Highborn; Ramp decks can get enough mana to resolve threats through Mana Leak; Tempered Steel can start cycling through 7/7 Origin Spellbombs. Tim Pskowski deck has a beautiful mana curve and can go toe to toe with even the fastest aggro decks. Prince or pauper, Valakut or Vampires, everyone dies to Hero of Bladehold.

For those who missed the chance to watch the Cincinnati Open live, take my word that this article was, at best, a poor substitute. This format is full of potential and, as good as these four decks are, we’re liable to see new ones at the top tables next week. I, for one, can’t wait to tune in for the coverage in Seattle next Saturday and also to try my hand at solving the problems that Pskowski, Farney, Fay, and Durward have presented for us.