A man sits up in a hospital bed, covered in a messy patchwork of bandages. He is attended to by a nurse, who is busily removing his IV and monitoring devices.
“Are you sure they’re ready to come off? There’s still a little blood that I can see,” he said, grimacing uncomfortably.
The comely nurse blinked. “Yes, you seem to have made a miraculous recovery. In fact, I’ve never seen someone take so many bullets and come through alive. You must be a man of steel,” she giggled.
“Maybe more like the Terminator,” he offered. “It hurts, but the wounds close eventually. I just hope that he didn’t take one, you know… I couldn’t have that on my conscience.”
“You did the right thing. You did your duty.”
“He lived, right?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “He’s doing just fine.”
Since diving in front of a January 31st assassination attempt that would have ruined the Hoefling Empire, I haven’t been doing a whole lot of card slinging, save the odd foray into the world of Type One and concocting fruitcake decks on Magic Online. In the few months that followed, I had played all of the major archetypes to death and none of them seemed to be appreciably more fun than the other. Most of my efforts to design something new and creative hadn’t worked out at all, and I was beginning to really acquire distaste for the post-Affinity Standard metagame. I couldn’t really explain it; the format was supposed to be more wide open that it had ever been, which is something that I traditionally have enjoyed. Not one to rest easily in the face of such a conundrum, I tried my damndest to figure out precisely why I wasn’t enjoying this new Renaissance of Magic. In the course of doing so, I discovered what I feel are the Universal Truths of The Format [tm]. Yes, it’s trademarked this time – so don’t gank it, Michael J.
To preface the discussion of these Universal Truths [tm], we must first examine the actual cards which are defining Standard at present. Hell, I’m a man who enjoys lists – let’s make a list. I can’t even resist the foul temptations of gibberish such as “The Top 10 Most Disgusting Habits of Single Men” at a magazine stand. It’s not something I’m proud of. Oh yeah, the cards.
10) Kokusho, The Evening Star
It’s sad when the best card in Black is usually only powered out with the help of Green cards. Still, a 5/5 flier that represents half of an opponent’s life total if it gets one swing in and then dies is strong like bull. Koko-puffs is the best of the dragonkin and scratches the list at number ten.
9) Sword of Fire and Ice
In the contest between Umezawa’s Jitte and Sword of Fire and Ice, all of the votes are in and even the dangling chads have been accounted for. At approximately twice the MODO ticket cost of its legendary pal, Sophie has been voted by nine out of ten players as the equipment of choice for decks that like to win via the attack step. +2/+2, two damage, and a card? If it’s good enough for Vintage and Extended, it’s most certainly good enough for Standard.
8) Vedalken Shackles
Although I couldn’t be forced to play Mono-Blue Control without peeling my fingernails off one at a time, everyone knows that Vedalken Shackles is the straw that stirs the drink. It creates massive card advantage if it stays on the board against a creature deck and is generally a huge pain in the ass to deal with if the Blue mage can protect it.
7) Kodama’s Reach
It’s just a Journey of Discovery that puts one of the lands directly into play – what’s so great about that? In this format, it’s plenty great. This topic will be discussed at length later, so I’ll take a pass for now.
He’s big, he’s Red, he kisses a little longer, and your fresh breath goes on and on while he’s in play. Oh yeah, he also smashes for four, clears the board of blockers, goes to the dome, and has an Oprah Winfrey-sized butt on him (the older model). Don’t listen to the Slith; Big Slogs is largely what makes the Mono-Red archetypes viable.
5) Plow Under
I didn’t quite know where to rank this card as it’s been around for quite some time and has alternated between quite relevant and not relevant at all, depending on the level of aggressive decks in the format. To run Plow Under as a maindeck option in the heyday of Affinity would be foolhardy, but indeed these are different times. There is no dominant beatdown deck as before; an early Plow Under can grant a swing in tempo from which the format’s largely mid-game / controllish based decks can not recover. A lot of Green based mirror matches simply come down to who casts this spell first – with that in mind, even though it doesn’t really affect the board position or provide any kind of broken effect, it has to make the list somewhere. The mere fact that Plow Under is in the right color bumps it all the way up to number five.
4) Tooth and Nail
I suppose a card that makes an entire archetype has to be considered as a format definer, especially one that usually wins the game outright when it’s cast. Although it wouldn’t be possible without the help of many other cards, Tooth and Nail provides a hugely powerful effect and must make the list.
3) Sensei’s Divining Top
Flores caught enough flack for his bashing of this card, so I’ll spare him any further ire. The fact that every Pithing Needle in a block tournament will name the Top first should speak volumes about its power level in a limited card pool. Surprise! It’s just as good in Standard. Tooth and Nail forever lived at the mercy of the top of the deck until this card was “discovered” as the solution to that problem. Even Red decks with at little as 4 Solemn Simulacrum for shuffling started tossing in a few copies. Sensei’s Divining Top gets exponentially better with every shuffle effect and is a card that rewards the skilled player, I believe, more than any other card in the current format. I like anything that gives players choices and for one mana, I can choose the card best fitting the game state in the top three. In a pinch, it can draw an extra, too. For proactive decks like Mono-Green, the Top can find the cards needed to keep the pressure on or keep the opponent off of their next two draw steps. Or, it can simply “dig for bombs” in Tooth and Nail or B/G Control. Did I mention – it’s nigh impossible to get rid of, too.
2) Eternal Witness
People generally feel that Eternal Witness is the most powerful card in the format, and I can’t really dispute that. However, as my chief Universal Truth will illustrate, there is one card in Standard that’s even more important than Regrowth attached to a 2/1 body.
1) Sakura, Tribe-Elder
Yes, this little runt is the number one format-defining card at present. There isn’t a single deck with Green in it that doesn’t run four copies, and most of Standard’s best archetypes are Green-based. I can’t understand it myself – who ever thought that Rampant Growth on legs would be so good? A 1/1 land fetcher that can attack or block and shuffle the library whenever needed is just flat out amazing. If he wasn’t the major reason that green decks started to beat Affinity more often around the time of States, then I don’t know what was. Some time later, people figured out that the elf was particularly good with card number three. Derf.
So with those ten cards in mind, here are the Universal Truths of the Format [tm]
Green, for lack of a better word, is good
Six out of the ten cards on the list above are Green. Tooth and Nail, B/G Control, Mono Green Aggro, U/G Control, R/G Toolbox, and other Forest based decks will fully comprise more than half of the field at Regionals. All of the decks listed above run most of the cards contained in the list, including Sensei’s Divining Top, which has honorary Green status. Green, for lack of a better word, is good. Green works. Green is Right. Green clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of Magic’s sprit… and I don’t know how other colors can be made to compete with the power of the Forest. When nearly all of the format’s best cards are present in one color, it’s pretty tough to play anything else and expect to do exceedingly well.
Accelerate or lose to decks that do
For a long time I couldn’t figure out whether the post-Affinity Standard was a fast format or a slow format. Was it slow because most of the powerful cards had hefty mana requirements, or was it fast because of all of the acceleration present? Think about the decks that are successful in Magic right now, and then think about the ones that don’t contain acceleration. Please don’t bring White Weenie up; it doesn’t exactly qualify as a successful deck. Give up? I thought as much. In all seriousness, it doesn’t take much playtesting with decks not containing acceleration to see that they’re totally and utterly outclassed by decks that do accelerate. Even Mono-Blue Control has to run Wayfarer’s Bauble and Solemn Simulacrum to keep up the pace. I thought Aether Vial might help decks that eschewed these and the Green cards to stay in step, but it really doesn’t. When your opponent can do something better than you can many turns earlier, it doesn’t make sense to play at a deliberate disadvantage.
Disruption, in its varied forms, is dead
Hand and mana disruption strategies are essentially void at present. For reasons why, I will refer the reader to cards one and two on the top ten list. Black disruption is weaker than it has ever been; after all, what good is discard when Eternal Witness is present in most of the field’s decks? Black’s control cards such as Barter and Blood and Death Cloud are far better than any of its aggressive cards. When an entire color is relegated to 1/1 and 2/2 Rats as core components of an offensive strategy, things have gone to pot. Red land destruction is even more atrocious right now. Stone Rain has already gotten the axe, and I maintain that the only reason Mono Red decks are even still running Molten Rain is because it deals two and (sometimes) breaks up the Urzatron or kills the occasional Blinkmoth Nexus. Between Birds of Paradise, Chrome Mox, Wayfarer’s Bauble, Sakura Tribe Elder, Kodama’s Reach, Solemn Simulacrum, and hell – even Sensei’s Divining Top because it can look for land let alone fetch one, a mana disruption strategy is a flat out loser. At least when Saviors of Kamigawa becomes legal, it’ll get Thoughts of Ruin to help. As for Black, we’ll have to wait a while. Wizards must know that Black is terrible right now, because I heard about a tasty little reprint on the horizon that I never expected. Don’t ask me, cuz’ I ain’t tellin’.
Burn is better than you think
One counter to all of the acceleration present in the format is to use fast and efficient burn spells to bring the opponent down before he can get his big guns online. This is best exemplified in Mike Flores‘ modified Red deck that eschews staples Slith Firewalker and Vulshok Sorcerer in favor of Shrapnel Blast and Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. I discovered how “hot” burn was when I put Shrapnel Blast and Volcanic Hammer into a R/G deck that I was working on, but trust me – it is way better in the Flores Mono Red build. Give this deck a whirl and be amazed by how many times it does twelve to fourteen damage in the end step, untaps, and then puts the rest in the opponent’s eye. With White missing in action, you don’t even need to have a shred of The Fear either.
Blue is worse than you think
The other answer to all of the acceleration in Standard is to ignore it and to just counter anything that matters. This would be a great solution… if there weren’t so many cards that matter. Oh yeah, and a little innocent land called Boseiju, Who Shelters All. That one kind of seals the deal. I wouldn’t touch Mono Blue for these reasons, and I haven’t even mentioned hosers like Boil and Choke yet. Spectral Shift, you say? Sorry, but Blue can’t Spectral Shift its way past a Troll Ascetic or a bunch of insect tokens. Also, every deck’s sideboard is liable to be better against Blue than the Blue deck’s sideboard is liable to be against the field. The same is true of Tooth and Nail, but Tooth and Nail plays with far superior cards. The only way I’d touch a deck with Blue cards in it is if it had a fair share of Green ones to go with it.
White and Black are almost unplayable
I think this is part of the reason why I wasn’t enjoying Standard at all to start and still have my reservations about it. It’s essentially a three-color format, like it or not. White and Black simply lack the power of the other colors. White has been totally neutered ever since Onslaught Block rotated out, and I can’t quite pinpoint when Black became so bad… I think it just gradually happened over time. There are some okay cards in Black, (Distress, Persecute is a sleeper with all the single colored decks floating about, Cranial Extraction is a solid sideboard card, Death Cloud, etc.) yet the only cardboard that really stands out as Powerful (with a capital P, folks) is Kokusho, The Evening Star. I think I’ve just been bitter ever since Cabal Therapy rotated out. It was such a fantastic card that rewarded skilled players; I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be a staple card in a basic set. Sadly, my dreams are doomed to remain unfulfilled – like the one I had about me, Jolene Blalock, and a big tub of butter.
The non-Affinity cards from Mirrodin Block are pretty ridiculous, too
If it isn’t apparent by now then it should be – Mirrodin Block was grossly overpowered. There are so many cards in Kamigawa Block that are never going to see play until their more potent cousins rotate out. That’s not happening for a while. I’m thankful that the Affinity problem was solved via a round of bannings, but that’s not going to change anything else. It really puts a damper on creativity and the excitement of trying to incorporate cards from a new set into existing archetypes. With that said…
Unfortunately, Saviors of Kamigawa won’t change much
Now, I don’t want to hate on the set before it has even had a chance to grace the format, but I don’t see a whole lot here that’s going to make a huge impact. Green got some more undercosted fat and a sky-clearing Legend (as if it needed further help), Black and White got a couple of knights, Blue got a Fork and an excellent draw three / discard three spell (while obviously great in Vintage and Extended, it doesn’t really have a home yet in Standard), and Red got Armageddon (but in reality its closer to Tectonic Break). Pithing Needle will definitely see play, but I’m not sure if it’s a card one can maindeck and feel good about. The Epic spells are all kind of a bust, unless I can break them with Spellweaver Helix – which I promise is a work in progress. If I had to pick one card that will affect the format, it’d be Thoughts of Ruin.
There are a few other Universal Truths [tm] that I have left out, but none as chief as these. I think the reason why I’m not enjoying Magic as much recently has to do with some of these discoveries. I’ve grown just as tired of Forest / Birds of Paradise, or Mountain / Wayfarer’s Bauble, or land / land / Sakura, Tribe-Elder, as I was of Seat of the Synod / Ornithopter / Welding Jar / Frogmite / Frogmite. Two entire colors are effectively MIA from competitive play and Green is just off the charts insane. For this player, the next block can’t come quickly enough. I’m not saying innovation is impossible right now, as the format is certainly healthier than when the artifacts were running the show, but I believe that the new technologies will tend to be more incremental in nature and done in the context of existing archetypes.
As for what I believe the current best deck in the format is… yes, it has Green in it. In fact, it’s all Green and Adam Grydehoj talked about it for an entire week. I’ve got a build of it that’s markedly different from anything else that’s been posted, and I’ve been kicking ass with it on Magic Online lately. It even made a former Pro Tour champ and veteran whiner (his nickname rhymes with Slammer) weep like a schoolgirl when his Tooth and Nail deck was on the receiving end of it. Maybe I’ll tell ya’ll about the build sometime, but for now, I’ve got to put some fresh gauze on.
Dobbs on Magic Online