The Way Things Work

Ari Lax lays out the Standard format; he goes through each deck, tells you its role, his opinions on the deck, and how the format/other decks should react to it. His perspective is invaluable for upcoming SCG events and Nationals.

With Nationals and Grand Prix Pittsburgh on the horizon, Standard is the format on everyone’s mind. Since the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, a number of different decks have put up solid results with the format still largely being in flux and open to new archetypes.

These decks are the ones I’ve found to be the most prominent, what I’ve seen work for them, and most importantly what playing against them means for your deck.


Role This Deck Plays:

You can go on a weak aggro plan, but the non-Hero builds are pretty much pure control. This is the Standard U/W Control deck that exists all the time in Standard. Instead of a more traditional hard-to-kill finisher, you have Squadron Hawks, which actually do something early game. The other threats are also chosen with this in mind, with three- and four-drops usurping Titans.

Opinions on the Deck:

Play Hero of Bladehold. You need a way to kill them in a real time span. Hero is just a Titan that costs four. You swing; they die. Without it, you are relying on random Hawks and manlands to get there. Big Jace made this reasonable, as you could just kill them with him, but neither Gideon Jura nor Jace Beleren is particularly good at this. I prefer Hero to Emeria Angel as it gives them much less time to hit an out and often immediately puts them into Colonnade range.

What This Deck Means:

If you are attacking, one-toughness creatures are a liability. If you don’t have a way to clear Squadron Hawks without losing card advantage or tempo, your X/1s will be unable to attack without making unprofitable trades. The same thing applies to Timely Reinforcements tokens (Cute Play: Spellskite can target Reinforcements, letting you pay life and prevent them from gaining six). You also need a way to beat Gideon Jura, even if it is just from your sideboard. Here is a list of options: Oblivion Ring, your own Gideon Juras, Spell Pierce, Mana Leak, Into the Roil, Duress / Despise, burning them out if they play it, Beast Within, Acidic Slime on their lands to stop them from hitting five, Phyrexian Revoker (admittedly also an X/1, so it isn’t especially good).

You also don’t want to draw blanks. They will try to make a bunch of trades, but you can often just win if all you have are threats. A couple removal spells are fine as you can clear blockers to make some awkward turns, but you especially don’t want situational answers, as that is the game they are trying to play.

If you are control, you can’t let their Hawks turn into a threat. Once that happens, you can start playing a traditional control mirror, but if you let yourself get into a position where you are Doom Blading a Squadron Hawk, you are losing. The best way I’ve found to do this is to play the aggressor. They can play the waiting game better than you, as their threats only cost two mana. You need to have some game ending threat that is impossible to one for one with a Dismember or Oblivion Ring. Consecrated Sphinx, Grave Titan, and Sun Titan are the obvious ones. You also need a way to make these threats resolve. The discard spells in UB are one option, but Green control can just out mana them, and other colors can attempt to just pack more threats than Caw-Blade has answers.

Regardless of what you play, you need to ensure Swording you to death is not easy. Either have good blocks and counter attacks to make it impossible for them to profitably connect with Sword or have removal that makes playing Sword a poor tempo play. Just like back in the Stoneforge days, letting Caw-Blade trigger Sword of Feast and Famine is basically game over.

Tempered Steel

Role This Deck Plays:

This is the best White Weenie deck I have ever seen. You have explosive draws, the biggest creatures and evasion in aggro mirrors, and eight Wrath resistant threats on top of the card Tempered Steel letting you out topdeck anyone.

Opinions on the Deck:

A couple Shrine of Loyal Legions in the main is solid. They aren’t the fastest, but they provide inevitability. In terms of two-drops, four Spellskite is too much, and Phyrexian Revoker was not impressive as a random 2/1. Porcelain Legionnaire is where it is at for a bunch of reasons. It swings through Squadron Hawks or Soldier tokens, doesn’t die to Ratchet Bomb for two, and triggers Shrine.

Don’t splash. Core Set duals are miserable and make your deck more inconsistent than playing without whatever you are splashing just by entering the battlefield tapped. The only splash I would consider is Gitaxian Probe off of Seachrome Coast and Mox Opal, but that seems fairly marginal.

Don’t board situational answers. You draw blanks and die with them in hand too often.

What This Deck Means:

You cannot mess around with this deck. You need to kill everything they do or kill enough that you live to race them or play something that trumps anything they respond with. Both of these are very difficult, as Tempered Steel is all threats, besides a smattering of what is basically unconditional removal. Very few decks in this format have reasonable game one plans against Tempered Steel.

Moving on to what you can do to with your sideboard, Manic Vandals and similar cards are very good, as they give you a clock to capitalize on setting them back. In terms of sweepers, they are fine but not nearly as backbreaking as against most reachless aggro. Consume the Meek, Ratchet Bomb, and Creeping Corrosion are the best, as they kill the animating creatures. Even if you sweep them, you have to do something about Tempered Steel, as if they have it, all of their topdecks are easily lethal. The amount you need is proportional to how much maindeck removal you have and how explosive your deck can be.

The real takeaway is you need to respect this deck more than the initial opinions on it suggested. It exists and has the most raw power of anything in the format.

Splinter Twin

Role This Deck Plays:

This is a real turn-four-to-six combo deck with interaction. You can die if you tap out against Twin’s three open mana. If you wait, they can sit and collect more counters or a second copy of the combo.

Opinions On The Deck:

Shrine of Piercing Vision is insane. Play them. You see so many cards, and shipping the irrelevant cards can add large percentages to your other cantrips.

This list might be a bit land light, but you can cheat on lands with the full cantrip suite.

You need access to some alternate finisher in the sideboard. I’m fairly convinced either Sphinx of Jwar Isle or Consecrated Sphinx is the right card for this slot. Jwar Isle is impossible to kill, but Consecrated has the greatest immediate impact of any of the options and makes removal irrelevant very quickly.

What This Deck Means:

Midrange do-nothing is never going to beat this deck. They can beat a Dismember. You need a clock to force them into a scenario where they don’t have time to assemble the counters or mana to kill them or need a ton of interaction.

The goal against this deck should be to punish them for not being able to reliably kill until turn five or so. Put them on the ropes and have enough disruption to stop them when they go for it.

Mono Red

Role This Deck Plays:

This is a Red deck. Hit them, hit them a bit more, burn them.

Opinions On The Deck:

I don’t like Koth. It makes you run more blanks in the form of Mountains in exchange for a card that beats up on control in a format where there isn’t much around.

I don’t like Furnace Scamp. There are too many random blockers flying around, and he is terrible to draw after the very early game. I want my Red deck to have the most live topdecks going “late.”

I do like Chandra’s Phoenix. It is a reliable recursive source of damage, and I’m not even talking about the graveyard trigger. Just being able to have one card generate four or more damage is critical to winning with Red. The rebuy if it dies is just a cool bonus that might come up on the rare occasion you go super late in this format. I don’t expect it to trade often, and I expect most removal to exile it, namely Oblivion Ring and Dispatch.

What This Deck Means:

Most decks want some form of Red hate somewhere. Unlike Tempered Steel, the hate can be fairly broad. Kor Firewalker is the obvious one, but even something like Timely Reinforcements or Obstinate Baloth can let a deck with a solid endgame hit it in the face of burn spells and win.

Make sure you don’t die to Shrine. Don’t board Naturalizes just for it, as you need your cards to trade for life when they don’t have it, but it’s another threat that makes Oblivion Ring or Into the Roil the right choice. Ratchet Bomb is also fine as it takes out a Goblin Guide or Lavamancer when you don’t need it to deal with Shrine.

The important thing with Red is always to understand that the game is all about them trying to trade their cards for as much of your life total as possible and that you should return the favor. Trading your cards for life, typically discouraged, is often fine against Red, as that is all the extra cards they will have compared to the ones you are going to trade for.


Role This Deck Plays:

Sixty percent of the time it works every time. You are favored to just jam a Titan into play on turn four, which is close enough to a win.

Opinions on the Deck:

This deck feels like Jund did last year. You have a solid plan, but all the other decks have a much higher cap on how powerful their hands can be. This time around, you probably don’t have consistency on your side.

If you want to play this deck, try to make Lotus Cobra work. That card was the key against old Caw-Blade, and I can’t imagine things being much different this time around.

What This Deck Means:

If you are a dedicated beatdown deck, you can race Valakut. Win the roll and their turn four Titan often isn’t much more than a blocker. Be aware they can board removal, but that isn’t too much different than a ramp spell in terms of how much time it buys them relative to when Titan drops.

If you are a control deck, you can just grind them out given the right set of answers. Mana Leak is not good here, as it rapidly becomes a blank, but you can Doom Blade down their Titans and Spreading Seas or Tectonic Edge down their Valakuts fairly easily. It is not a terrible game plan to end the game with Valakut no longer having any way to actually win in their deck while you wait for a random planeswalker to win, especially now that Summoning Trap is less prevalent due to Green Sun’s Zenith. You just need solid answers that trade for their threats at any point of the game.

If you want to play the middle ground, that is possible. Just look at how old Caw-Blade chased Valakut out of the metagame. You disrupt their early mana, keep your Leaks live through the midgame, and close with a Hero or Sworded Hawk.

What won’t beat them is midrange. Just playing solid cards is not enough when your opponent is playing the biggest single bomb in the format, which negates almost any amount of value you have generated when it resolves.

You need to be swift, rock solid in the long game, or actually be leading somewhere by briefly delaying them to beat Valakut. They do the same thing almost every game; just have a plan for it.

Black-Red Vampires

Role This Deck Plays:

This is the other Red deck. You are more creature-based and less burn-based, but the concept is the same. Play some dudes, bash, bash some more, clear some blockers with removal, and go for the dome.

Opinions On This Deck:

I have not played nearly enough with this deck. It seems very well positioned right now, especially given that Tempered Steel is making Doom Blade the popular removal spell over Go for the Throat.

I like how all of the creatures don’t trade with Squadron Hawk, except Viscera Seer, which is admittedly mediocre and there just for curve reasons. I would almost want to try Goblin Guide in that slot.

Vampire Hexmage is awesome. It beats one of the traditionally difficult cards (Gideon Jura) and is even better when facing down Hawks or Soldiers.

I’ve seen little reason to stray too far from Matt Farney list. I cut Surgical Extraction and the singletons to make room for more focused cards in the board, and Go for the Throat became Doom Blade.

Matt Landstrom was also playing Hero of Oxid Ridge this past weekend, which seemed insane against Timely Reinforcements and Hawks. I know he ran three, but I don’t know what else he was on or how his mana worked. I would try very hard to fit Heroes in if you want to play this deck at Nationals.

What This Deck Means:

If you are control, you still want some element of traditional removal for this deck. Worlds last year was a great example of how Vampires can be beat by removal into a Titan. If this deck starts seeing more play, you are going to want to change from Doom Blade to probably Grasp of Darkness or something similar.

As a beatdown deck, you are in a tight spot. I’m not really sure what the trump here is. You can try to nut draw through them, but that isn’t reliable. The best option is some long-term source of card advantage, but the best option is Dark Tutelage, which means you are also Vampires.

Birthing Pod

Role This Deck Plays:

You resolve a Pod, activate it, and win. The deck is comparable in style to the Legacy Survival decks. If you don’t have the namesake card, you just do some random green stuff until you do.

Opinions on the Deck:

I am not providing a list, as this deck varies far too much to be defined by a single sixty. I don’t even know what my ideal 60 for the deck would come close to being. I know I would be UG based, but the third color could be anything. I’m not sure if Twin is right or wrong or how land destruction heavy I want to be.

I like Fauna Shaman as additional Pods. I like two maindeck Spellskites, but no more as you want enough threats to draw. I would strongly consider four Pods even though the current lists are leaning three. I would want at least four Ponder or Preordain, if not five or six of that effect. I would for sure play Lotus Cobra, as the mana doesn’t seem to work with Overgrown Battlement. If you are Bant, don’t play Stonehorn Dignitary (but the rest of the deck looks sick).

What This Deck Means:

You need a way to stop Birthing Pod from getting online. This includes killing them. The first activation is definitely something you can survive and possibly even the second if you attack them hard enough.

Most notably, the card Birthing Pod is what beats Caw-Blade in its current configurations. Just play to stick the card and you will quickly bury them in card advantage. If you are playing Caw, have a plan for Pods that preferably interacts well with the rest of their deck. Flashfreeze is a solid start.

The Takeaway:

— Every deck except Caw-Blade and possibly a control deck that can beat Caw is too linear for situational answers. You want all your cards to proactively help your primary plan. This is most prominent in aggro where you often get into attrition fights in mirrors or against Caw, and drawing a blank costs you valuable damage.

— Being proactive is the best way to beat Caw-Blade. Trying to be the control against the card Squadron Hawk is not especially efficient, unless your plan is to match their Hawks with your own and out planeswalker and Titan them.

— You need powerful interactions or effects to win. Caw-Blade will not fall to midrange decks full of just solid cards; Tempered Steel and Red will bowl you over if you don’t push back; and the combo decks are not forgiving to people light on interaction.

— This is more or less the same as above, but you need powerful cards to win. Control can’t afford to sit around and try to run someone out of cards anymore. You need a Titan or other powerful sorcery speed effect to lock the game up. Same with aggro. You can’t expect control to die to a bunch of random dorks most of the time. Cards like Tempered Steel and Shrine of Burning Rage provide must-answer threats that otherwise will win the game.

— Green is the hardest color to build with and play with in this format due to the repeatable tutors. The cards also all mesh together. Whereas the other colors have very linear archetypes (you aren’t playing Squadron Hawks in Tempered Steel or Goblin Arsonist in Shrine Red), Green has a lot of blur. The core of any Green deck is going to be Lotus Cobra surrounded by either Garruk, Primal Hunter or Birthing Pod. From there you can make other decisions about secondary colors, Fauna Shamans, and a million other things. The exceptions are Valakut and Elves, which both just do their own thing and do it well.

— Respect the Tribal aggro decks: Goblins, Elves, and Vampires. They all kill very fast and punish you for missing steps. And yes, Elves is a real deck and should be playing Garruk, Primal Hunter instead of Lead the Stampede. It’s nice to have card advantage that also presses board advantage and creates an endgame trump.

If I had to choose a deck right now for Nationals, I would play Tempered Steel with Caw and Pod being the two next closest. I’ve had the most positive experiences with Steel and think that the lack of results in StarCity events from the deck is in large part due to the people who can play it proficiently without missing a ton of damage each game all play Pod or Caw instead. That said, I can’t argue with the results Caw has put up or the tutoring power of Birthing Pod, which often feels like playing VS System for those who played that game. I would not fault anyone for those choices or for playing any Mono Red deck too fast to play Koth.

Either way, I will see everyone at Gen Con this weekend. It’s going to be a blast. If you have any questions about decks for the format, ask in the feedback for this article or contact me on Twitter @armlx.

Ari Lax