The State Of Standard: November 2013

Start preparing to play Standard at the SCG Open Series in Providence, RI next weekend by reading World Championship finalist Reid Duke’s analysis of the current metagame.

The last month has been a flurry of one Standard event after another. From the birth of the format the weekend of the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Worchester to explosion of devotion strategies at Pro Tour Theros to the most recent SCG Standard Open in Dallas, I’ve been following every twist and turn that the format has taken. Some new strategies are still coming into the light, but other aspects of Standard have come full circle.

Blue Control

U/W and Esper Control were by far the most successful decks in the period between Theros’ release and the Pro Tour. They took a temporary dip in popularity but are now back in force—particularly Esper.

Esper Control has natural strengths against other slow strategies, which makes it a great choice in a metagame dominated by devotion decks. The list I suggested above does not give up those natural strengths, but it is geared towards having a fighting chance in the aggro matchups as well.

Guillaume Wafo-Tapa set a precedent with his Pro Tour Top 8 performance for Esper decks being split equally among the three colors and playing the full complement of twenty dual lands. For weeks players took that mana base as a given—until savvy red players turned to an old weapon to punish them:

Burning Earth is not a generally good card in current Standard like it was before Theros. Today there are plenty of one- and two-color decks, and even three-color mana bases are forced into playing basic lands just to have something that comes into play untapped. That said, Burning Earth is an excellent card against the twenty-dual Esper Control decks. Trimming two shock lands for two extra basics has a surprisingly large impact on your ability to operate under a Burning Earth and generally makes your deck faster and smoother against opponents trying to quickly attack your life total.

The consequence, however, is that you need to be more conservative about the number and kinds of black spells in your deck. Thoughtseize is no great loss from the maindeck since it’s awful against aggro anyway. Hero’s Downfall hurts a little more, as a versatile answer to planeswalkers is important to Esper functioning properly. I still included one copy even though you can’t cast it on turn 3 with the level of consistency that I would like.

Beyond that my black removal is simply three copies of Devour Flesh, which is unique among the two-mana removal in its ability to answer all of the problem creatures in Standard . . . sometimes. Devour Flesh is not Doom Blade, but with this deck all you typically need is to do something in the early turns to defend yourself. I’d rather just fire off a Devour Flesh to kill their second-best creature than be holding Ultimate Price unable to kill Mutavault or Doom Blade unable to kill Desecration Demon. In particular, I find neither Ultimate Price nor Doom Blade acceptable when the single most important creature to kill right now is Nightveil Specter.

I sometimes feel like a relic of the past because I’m one of the last players still holding onto Divination. However, I do so with conviction! I cut down to one copy for last Saturday’s Magic Online Championship and immediately found myself missing the smoothness and consistency that I was used to. Now, perhaps I just had an unlucky day and am attributing too much to a small change in my decklist, but either way I’ve always been happy with Divination and am not willing to risk playing any number other than two. Mulligans are infrequent with Esper Control but are quite deadly when they do happen because the deck requires so many cards just to defend itself and make land drops. When you go below seven cards, Divination is the one you’re looking for most in order to climb back into the game.

With natural strengths against devotion and a specific list that gives it respectable game against aggro, I consider Esper Control to be among the best choices for a Standard tournament. However, Esper is also a victim of its own popularity. For one thing, having to worry about the mirror pulls Esper players in one extra direction and spreads them too thin. It’s a frustrating experience to gear your deck against aggro and then lose to other Esper players packing more Thoughtseizes, Sin Collectors, and counterspells than yourself. Also, everyone has Esper on their radar and will be packing sideboard cards specifically for you. As time goes on, I find my Detention Spheres violently exploding in my face more and more often . . .

Red Devotion

If the tone of the Esper Control section was more negative than usual, it’s in part because my Esper deck and I got smashed in the MOCS last Saturday. One of my losses was Red Devotion.

There are several flavors of Red Devotion, and the one I happened to lose to splashed white for Boros Charm and Wear // Tear out of the sideboard. However, I believe that the version with the green splash is the strongest overall; it’s certainly the most hostile to control.

This deck closely resembles what Team CFB played at Pro Tour Theros. Indeed, AtogAtog10 is CFB’s own Ben Stark. This deck has more explosive potential than any other in Standard. The combination of Burning-Tree Emissary and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx can allow Red Devotion to flood the board with creatures in an alarming way, and Fanatic of Mogis can frequently hit for six, eight, ten, or more unblockable damage in one shot!

Forge[/author]“]Purphoros, God of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] and his legendary Hammer along with a huge arsenal of hasted damage gives Red Devotion a great plan against control decks. The Domri Rades in Mr. Stark’s list push the advantage even further.

If there’s a weakness to Red Devotion, it probably comes in the form of the other devotion decks. Blue has the protection-from-red Master of Waves. Black has a plethora of efficient spot removal to knock Dragons out of the sky and prevent the red player from reaching a critical mass of devotion.

That said, all devotion decks offer a wide range in terms of the power level of their draws, and these matchups will be swingy no matter what. When so much is going to depend on the die roll, on which player misses a land drop, and on which player has an explosive start, there are plenty of ways to overcome what might be a small disadvantage on paper.

All things considered, Red Devotion isn’t the deck that I’d point someone towards if they were just getting into Standard. However, I do think that it’s perfectly competitive, and if you have experience with the deck or are just looking for something off the beaten path, it can be a fine choice.

Blue Devotion

I played Mono-Blue Devotion at Pro Tour Theros and loved the deck. It was colossally powerful, and I felt like a big favorite in any game that I kept seven cards and hit my land drops. That said, I thought the Pro Tour field was particularly favorable for Mono-Blue Devotion, I was also fortunate in my pairings, and I had good draws when I was forced to play mirror matches.

Let’s begin with the mirror match, where I have some (but not all) of the same complaints that I did about the Esper Control mirror. In general, I very much dislike playing top decks, in part because when you have to devote slots to the mirror match your deck becomes worse against the field at large. Mono-Blue Devotion is no exception. I’d be unhappy to put four Gainsays in my sideboard, as I believe the deck is much more well-rounded and versatile when you can split your permission among Negate, Dispel, and Dissolve also. Nonetheless, it’s probably appropriate to play four Gainsays right now so as to not fall behind in the mirror match.

What I really dislike about the Mono-Blue Devotion mirror, however, is that you might come prepared with your four Gainsays, you might have Domestication, and you might even have some creative new mirror tech that nobody has thought of, but you might lose anyway! When both players have good hands, this is a matchup that can be quite interesting and can reward players who plan carefully and are good at complicated combat steps—I don’t want to take anything away from those who have played well and had good results in Mono-Blue Devotion mirrors. However, as I mentioned above, there are also a lot of ways to get smashed in the mirror.

When your opponent has an explosive draw, there’s little removal to help you come back from behind. Losing the die roll or missing a land drop can hurt so much that I feel frustrated entering a tournament with Mono-Blue Devotion knowing that I might have to survive three mirror matches (and that’s not to mention the non-Blue Devotion decks!). The mirror is the first matchup that makes me hesitate to pick up the deck.

The second is Esper Control. Now, it’s not as though you can’t win the matchup or that it’s something to panic about. In fact, there’s quite a lot of play to the matchup, and I would not be surprised if some expert Mono-Blue Devotion players win over half of their control matches. That said, I do think that Esper is a small but undeniable favorite in the matchup. The combination of Supreme Verdict, spot removal, and superior card drawing just makes it difficult for the Mono-Blue Devotion player to come out on top.

The third iffy matchup is Mono-Black Devotion for a similar reason. They may not have Supreme Verdict, but they certainly have no shortage of spot removal. The problem comes down to the fact that the Mono-Black Devotion player can disrupt you but you cannot do much to disrupt the Mono-Black Devotion player. But again, I think this is only a slightly unfavorable matchup that can certainly be won. Mono-Blue Devotion is more explosive, and with a good draw you could easily just run them over.

While I consider Blue to be an underdog against two of Standard’s top decks, it’s only a small underdog and has no truly awful matchups. On the flip side, it’s absolutely stellar in many matchups, including against Mono-Red and G/R Aggro decks. In general, it’s just a very high power-level deck! With the diversity of the Standard metagame right now, Mono-Blue Devotion may be among the best choices. It’s a deck that I could see myself returning to at some point in the future.

Black Devotion

Of the all the devotion decks, Black is the least explosive but probably the most consistent. Its cards are individually powerful, and it even has a card-drawing engine in the form of Underworld Connections.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Mono-Black Devotion except that I consider it the top deck—the best deck—in Standard right now. It has no clear weaknesses among other top decks.

However, the fact that it’s both a slow predictable strategy and the top deck in Standard is a dangerous combination. It means that smart players might find ways to absolutely dominate you if you choose to play it. Brad Nelson proved this when he won the SCG Invitational by turning to Assemble the Legion to prey on opposing black decks. So whether it’s Assemble the Legion or some card no one has even thought of yet, there’s always the risk of finding yourself walking into someone’s trap if you pick up Mono-Black Devotion while it’s the most popular deck!

Fast Aggro

We’ve discussed the slow late-game Esper Control, and we’ve discussed the explosive devotion decks that are geared to create a dominant board in the midgame. However, you don’t necessarily need to play these games at all. You can just win before things get to that point!

Ben Lundquist W/R Aggro deck is probably the most brutal aggro deck the format has to offer. It starts with 22 creatures that cost one or two mana and represent two or more damage each. Add a huge collection of ways to force through blockers: Brave the Elements; Ajani, Caller of the Pride; and Azorius Arrester. Finally, top things off with reach and insurance against Supreme Verdict in the form of Mutavault and Boros Charm! Most opponents will find it difficult to stem the bleeding.

As an Esper player, my critique of this particular list is that it has few ways to beat Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I recommend Imposing Sovereign in the maindeck and at least one copy of Mizzium Mortars in the sideboard.

Of course, there’s also plain old Mono-Red Aggro, B/R Aggro, and various forms of G/R Aggro, all of which are respectable decks with their own set of strengths.

These aggro decks sometimes struggle against devotion strategies, in particular Mono-Blue, but they’re quite potent against Esper Control and the slower builds of Mono-Black.

The fast aggro decks aren’t for me personally, but I do have a lot of respect for them. Turn to them if you expect to face a lot of blue control.

Tying It All Together

I haven’t covered every deck in Standard, but the decks above are a good representation of the format and are the decks I’d recommend to anyone still searching for something to play.

By now Standard is a pretty mature format, and there aren’t a ton of surprises left. Performing well seems to be largely about predicting what your opponents will be doing on a given week and adapting accordingly.

I’ve discussed the benefits of dodging mirror matches and the dangers of wearing a big target. Patrick Chapin in this week’s article offered one more appealing alternative:

"Going rogue for rogue’s sake is generally not advised; however, when formats are allowed to settle into a balance, it leads to an environment that is especially rewarding to those that can attack it from a completely different paradigm. It is the point in which people have focused and tuned their decks in the most predictable fashion since they all know what they need to beat."

Naturally, such a thing is easier said than done. After all, if everyone had a great and original idea every single week, articles like this wouldn’t be very helpful!

Nonetheless, the point stands that there may be more to Standard than we’re seeing. Use the decks above as a starting point, but keep your eyes open for new ideas as well!