There And Back Again – The Standard Gauntlet

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Tuesday, April 15th – For many of us the next big tournament will be a combination of City Champs and/or Regionals, and while it’s true that Shadowmoor’s imminent release will no doubt shake up Standard as we know it, today we’re going to look at a few of the top decks in Standard as they are right now, where they win, where they lose, and what they might benefit from in Shadowmoor. Buckle in…

It’s that time of the year again. You know the one. Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the newest set, there’s no PTQ season running in the background, and Magic is pretty much running slower than thick molasses in the middle of February. In Arkansas.

I went there.

For many of us the next big tournament will be a combination of City Champs and/or Regionals, and while it’s true that Shadowmoor’s imminent release will no doubt shake up Standard as we know it, today we’re going to look at a few of the top decks in Standard as they are right now, where they win, where they lose, and what they might benefit from in Shadowmoor. Buckle in…


Deck Name: ELVES!
Deck Designer: Bill Stark

19 Forest
1 Pendelhaven
4 Mutavault
4 Heritage Druid
4 Boreal Druid
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Bramblewood Paragon
4 Gilt-Leaf Ambush
4 Hunting Triad
4 Elvish Promenade
4 Coat of Arms
4 Overrun

4 Spike Feeder
4 Harmonize
4 Door of Destinies
3 Squall Line

ELVES! debuted in this very article space a few weeks ago and has picked up some steam in the tournament queues of Magic Online. This is probably due to the fact that it’s relatively cheap to build online, provided you have a playset of Mutavaults or aren’t concerned about not having them. There’s also little that’s more fun than swinging with a million 34/34 Elf Warriors with trample. Of course, the fact that you can do that as early as turn 4 provides a certain level of appeal beyond the casual Elf tribe fan…

So when should you play ELVES!? The deck has a favorable matchup against most of the other creature decks in the format. In fact, the only way the deck loses against BG Elves, Faeries, and Fish is when your opponent manages to swarm you with their own creatures nullifying your Coat of Arms and/or using it to their advantage. Provided you don’t have a slow draw, and your opponent doesn’t pull the opposite with an exceptionally swarmy and fast draw, you’re favored. You’re also favored against Ramp decks despite the fact they have Wraths in the form of Sulfurous Blast and Pyroclasm. The first game in that matchup is a bit of a toss up, a race between their pseudo-Wraths and your Coat of Arms/Overrun hitting play, but the combination of Door of Destinies and Harmonize from the sideboard improves the matchup significantly particularly considering it’s not terrible to begin with.

Of course, there are some struggles. Control decks with actual Wraths in the form of Damnation and Wrath of God are much worse, as their board control elements are unaffected by Coat of Arms/Door of Destinies. Currently Reveillark holds that honor, and after considerable amounts of testing nothing seems to be able to tilt the matchup in ELVES! Favor, even before considering the fact that a 15 card anti-Reveillark sideboard weakens your game against the rest of the format. 9-0 Red is also a rough matchup as they often have a Sulfurous Blast type Wrath maindeck, and they’re not concerned about the red zone. They handily destroy your early mana Elves and Paragons, making it difficult for Coat or Overrun to impact the game Then they mop you up with Countryside Crusher. And if you do manage to stick a bunch of Elf Warriors backed up by Coat? The Red deck simply sends its spells straight to your head outside the combat phase racing you quite effectively.

So what could Shadowmoor bring to the deck? A Wrath solution would be wonderful, and if a Caller of the Claw type creature were reprinted it would actually push the deck over the top. Barring something like that the deck would benefit from a better solution to burn spells as Spike Feeder, Luminescent Rain, Primal Command, and Elvish Eulogist, all of which have been tested for that purpose, fail to impact the matchup significantly. Still, not receiving anything might actually be a big boon for ELVES! Because the deck is so linear it’s easy to beat if a format really wants to. If it loses out on a new set’s worth of cards while other decks like Faeries pick up more tools for beating Reveillark diminishing its presence in the format, ELVES! might actually be able to return to power in the constantly evolving Standard metagame.


Deck Name: UW Fish
Deck Designer: Gerry Thompson

4 Adarkar Wastes
11 Island
4 Lord of Atlantis
2 Remove Soul
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Cryptic Command
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Ponder
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Sower of Temptation
4 Wanderwine Hub
4 Mutavault
3 Sage’s Dousing
4 Stonybrook Banneret

4 Reveillark
3 Teferi’s Moat
4 Dragon’s Claw
1 Remove Soul
3 Flashfreeze

Another tribe gaining steam online is Merfolk, and one of the designers responsible for popularizing the archetype is Midwestern son Gerry Thompson. Its popularity is in part because of the deck’s strengths against everyone else playing Islands in the format. When you consider Faeries is the default “best” deck after winning Grand Prix: Shizuoka and that Reveillark isn’t far behind, it’s easy to see why Fish has become such an attractive option. While Faeries prefers to flash creatures into play after keeping counter mana up on its opponent’s turn, Fish is content to play out its creatures for free via Merrow Reejerey and/or Stonybrook Banneret. The former allows you to untap the lands you spent playing your additional threats while the latter straight up reduces the cost of most of them as well as reducing the cost on Sage’s Dousing. All that adds up to plenty of mana access to disrupt your opponent when it’s their turn.

Of course, not all is rosy in the Fish kingdom. Gerry is the first to admit the deck has problem matchups and Elves, Ramp, and 9-0 Burn are all potential problems. The reason, as Gerry explained, was that those three decks could potentially kill every creature Fish could manage before overrunning with a large threat of their own. In addition ELVES!, while not possessing the ability to kill all your Merfolk, is still a challenge because they can out race you though you can occasionally mise wins off the back of their Coat of Arms and a timely Cryptic Command Fog.

So what should Fish look forward to from Shadowmoor? A new crop of counterspells is sure to whet some appetites and we may very well see a solid Merfolk-dependent counter. A one-drop would also be a nice boon as that’s a hole in the deck’s curve to some extent right now. The type of card that would be MOST exciting is something that would allow Fish to overcome or more directly challenge the “one for one you” plan. A Patriarch’s Bidding retread is unlikely to be on color or would force a color shift, but we can keep our fingers crossed.


Deck Name: Reveillark
Deck Designer: Kazuya Mitamura

4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Mutavault
3 Nimbus Maze
7 Snow-Covered Island
5 Snow-Covered Plains
4 Mulldrifter
4 Reveillark
3 Sower of Temptation
2 Riftwing Cloudskate
3 Venser, Shaper Savant
3 Careful Consideration
4 Coldsteel Heart
2 Mind Stone
3 Momentary Blink
2 Pact of Negation
4 Rune Snag
3 Wrath of God

1 Ajani Goldmane
1 Sower of Temptation
1 Pact of Negation
3 Crovax, Ascendant Hero
3 Condemn
2 Body Double
4 Aven Riftwatcher

The dominant control deck in the format, Reveillark comes in a number of different flavors. The UW version like Mitamura’s from the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Shizuoka is certainly the most prevalent ,though the question on the minds of those playing the deck is “To combo or not to combo?” For those who haven’t been paying attention, the combo involves sticking a Body Double and Mirror Entity into play with a Reveillark in the graveyard. With BD copying the Lark you set up a number of activations on Mirror Entity of 0 creating 1,000 opportunities for your Body Double to die. When it does, it will trigger as a doppelganger of Reveillark and be able to return up to two creatures with power 2 or less from the graveyard to play. Those will be itself (it’s a 0/0 in the graveyard) and any creature that does something relevant, usually Cloudskate or Venser. Because you still have 999 triggers on the stack you wind up killing all of your creatures again, after bouncing an opponent’s permanent, of course, and repeat until they’re out of cards and you have enough creatures to win handily.

Of course the big development out of the GP was the idea that the deck didn’t need the combo to actually win. Turns out Reveillark is a fine creature for traditional UW control builds as is and Mitamura’s deck reflects that by cutting the combo from the maindeck entirely. Doing so saves him the trouble of worrying about anti-combo hate or versions of the deck which run things like Makeshift Mannequin off of a black splash to return a bounce critter of their own targeting Body Double with the billion Mirror Entity activations on the stack stifling the combo. Which is better? That will naturally depend on the environment and how badly people want to beat Reveillark but for now, let’s take a look at how it pairs off against the field.

The deck has a great matchup against ELVES!, Elves, and Ramp but for different reasons. The ELVES! deck is weak to actual Wraths, as opposed to the kind which simply aim to deal “enough” damage to creatures a la Sulfurous Blast, and Reveillark is the format’s Wrath deck. Elves and Ramp, on the other hand, seek to control other creature decks and non-counterspell board control decks are notoriously weak to counterspell control.

When it comes to bad matchups, Reveillark continues to stick to historical precedent by being a dog to the other Island decks in the format which happen to be aggro control: Faeries and Fish. Decks which can’t counter Lark’s creature removal and other critical elements, like its namesake, are cake walks. Unfortuantely both Faeries and Fish can do that and you’ll struggle against them while packing the ‘Lark. I will also put forth the claim that 9-0 Red is also a bad matchup, but unlike the others in the format both favored and un, 9-0 Red is HIGHLY deck specific in determining whether or not you’re favored. Players willing to play Aven Riftwatchers maindeck and/or who include Dragon’s Claw in the sideboard significantly increase their likelihood of winning and push the matchup to favorable. For the sake of this piece we’re using the “stock” lists of the big decks, but both will have to keep that in mind headed into Regionals and the inevitable arms race will include one figuring out how to beat lifegain while the other figures out how to trump that trump.

What does the deck stand to gain from Shadowmoor? Swans of Brynn Argol have been getting a lot of notice from players and are quickly being paired with burn spells and turned into combo pieces while being an attractive combination of both Blue and White mana. Unfortunately Reveillark isn’t looking for a 4/3 finisher (a quick check reveals it already has one). What it DOES want is some type of protection from Bitterblossom and hordes of cheaply costed aggressive blue threats. A card like Rout would be perfect giving the deck its own way of sneaking in a relevant spell through a counter wall when a greedy Faeries player tries to drop a Mistbind Clique into play. With a Wrath already in Lorwyn block in the form of Austere Command that seems unlikely as it might negatively impact the Block Constructed format, but you can bet UW players the world over will be praying.


Deck Name: Faeries
Deck Designer: Yuuta Takahashi

3 Faerie Conclave
4 Mutavault
4 Underground River
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
4 Snow-Covered Island
4 Secluded Glen
4 River of Tears
4 Nameless Inversion
4 Cryptic Command
4 Bitterblossom
4 Ancestral Vision
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Pestermite
4 Scion of Oona
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Spellstutter Sprite

4 Bottle Gnomes
4 Deathmark
2 Familiar’s Ruse
2 Razormane Masticore
3 Thoughtseize

The 800 pound gorilla of Standard won Grand Prix: Shizuoka and its prevalence online has all but eradicated Reveillark. Bitterblossom creeps ever upward in price on the secondary market and all types of decks are taking Faeries into account as the deck to beat. Is it reasonable to be that concerned about the puny Fae, or are players over reacting to a single tournament during a slow time of the Magical year?

The answer lies in the matchups. Reveillark, 9-0 Red, and Ramp are all favorable matchups for the tempo oriented play of UB. All three decks have problems with Bitterblossom, and Reveillark and Ramp suffer the fate of being control decks to Faeries aggro control, generally a favorable matchup for the A/C deck. 9-0 Red on the other hand struggles to get enough threats through to actually get there even when the opponent contributes to the cause with Bitterblossom. Sulfurous Blast is a potential problem child, but between Spellstutter, Cryptic Command, and Ancestral Vision it is rarely enough.

Three favorable matchups, and big players in the format, aren’t enough to make a deck however. The Fae are outmatched by their seafaring cousins the Merfolk and those image conscious ELVES! The more traditional BG Elves decks are generally not considered favorable though I have it on good authority (aka Gerry Thompson told me) that the matchup is certainly going to be close. In fact, its matchup against ELVES! is also close as a timely series of Cryptic Commands backed up by a sizeable force of Faeries benefiting from an opponent’s Coat of Arms can take occasionally get the job done against the Forest wielders. When you’re favored against half the format and only a slight dog to two thirds of your “bad matchups” you know you’ve got a winner on hand, and because Faeries is able to do that it seems the idea of over-hating the deck has some merit.

Naturally the deck still stands to benefit from Shadowmoor. An instant speed mini-Wrath like Hideous Laughter or, heaven forbid, Perish (which technically is a sorcery) would be outstanding in shoring up the Elven matchups with the former actually being a great tool against Merfolk as well. Of course an instant speed pseudo wrath capable of taking out weenies whether they were flying or not is also going to hurt Faeries so it may be the case that the cards that might “help” the deck actually hurt more than anything.

BG Elves

Deck Name: BG Elves
Deck Designer: Taischi Fujimoto

4 Forest
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Llanowar Wastes
4 Mutavault
1 Pendelhaven
4 Swamp
4 Treetop Village
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
3 Garruk Wildspeaker
4 Nameless Inversion
3 Profane Command
4 Thoughtseize
1 Boreal Druid
4 Wren’s Run Vanquisher
2 Wolf-Skull Shaman
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Imperious Perfect
3 Civic Wayfinder

4 Hurricane
2 Primal Command
3 Seal of Primordium
4 Shriekmaw
2 Wren’s Run Packmaster

It would appear that the Japanese just love their Elf decks. They used them to deftly maneuver multiple members of the Worlds Top 8, and Taischi Fujimoto managed to follow his countrymen to the single elimination rounds in Shizuoka. Since then the ELVES! deck has shown up on the market, but BG Elves offers up a chance to shine in a different portion of the metagame.

It does that by consistently beating Ramp, Fish, and Burn and running very closely with Faeries. Profane Command, aggressive creatures, and Garruk all provide ample removal protection and sufficient reach against Ramp. The oversized creatures and removal are problematic for the Burn deck which struggles to lower Elves’ life total enough to seal the deal with its instants and sorceries. Fish simply falls to plans that involve carefully removing each of its relevant Lords before they’ve had the chance to do their damage.

Reveillark is problematic, however. Counters are sufficient answers to the threats that make BG Elves so resilient to Ramp and Wrath answers the threats that do stick. ELVES! is also an uphill battle despite the fact your Elves are actually superior. It’s really a case of quantity over quality, and ELVES! has quantity in spades. Your creatures with special abilities simply don’t pass muster when your opponent has a horde of threats clocking in at 20+ power a piece thanks in part to tribal synergies with your team.

A solution to that problem might be an Elven Pyromancer type effect in Shadowmoor or even for the Elves to begin boarding Damnation to beat ELVES! The Reveillark matchup is a bit more challenging though current tools may already exist to improve the matchup. Thoughtseize to nullify Reveillark and Extirpate to deal with it permanently are certainly considerations and Fulminator Mage might be able to keep the ‘Lark players manabase disrupted long enough to allow for your Elves to get the job done.


Deck Name: RGb Ramp
Deck Designer: Chris Woltereck

3 Cloudthresher
4 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wall of Roots
3 Incinerate
4 Skred
2 Garruk Wildspeaker
4 Harmonize
4 Into the North
1 Molten Disaster
2 Search for Tomorrow
1 Void
7 Snow-Covered Forest
4 Snow-Covered Mountain
1 Snow-Covered Swamp
2 Mutavault
4 Treetop Village
3 Highland Weald
2 Mouth of Ronom
1 Tresserhorn Sinks

4 Chameleon Colossus
1 Molten Disaster
2 Akroma, Angel of Fury
3 Extirpate
3 Pyroclasm
2 Void

Ramp was a big player early on in the Lorwyn Standard environment but a rough patch at Worlds led to a drop in its numbers after. That trend has started to change thanks to the addition of the black splash for Void and sideboard hate and the prevalence of Faeries rooting out Reveillark in many online queues. As recent as last week, StarCityGames.com own Luis Scott-Vargas was writing a piece about the deck’s resurgence in viability.

Beating creatures is what Ramp decks want to do and they do it well. Fish, and Faeries are counted as good matchups though Faeries can occasionally squeak wins out by keeping you off of your removal and sticking a Bitterblossom early. The critical elements to the matchup are using Sulfurous Blasts wisely and saving spot removal for Scions, Reejereys, and Lords of Atlantis.

Unfortunately a number of matchups are bad for Ramp, moreso than the other big decks in the format. Naturally things can be tuned to tweak things one way or another, but Reveillark, 9-0 Red, ELVES!, and Elves are all unfavorable. The ELVES! matchup is only a slight dog, however, as they are dependent on resolving Coat of Arms to nullify your wraths. Versions of Ramp with black have extra protection against that plan in the form of Void and sideboarded games are closer to even. Reveillark is simply a struggle as you have little to disrupt them and they have answers to your relevant threats. BG Elves can rely on a combination of beefy creatures, Profane Command, and Garruk to nullify removal, wraths, and reach through the red zone for the win. 9-0 Red is all about reach and doesn’t rely on its creature base as heavily to get the damage job done meaning Ramp is often hard pressed to keep up.

What can be done to help? Just like 9-0 Red, Ramp would benefit from some good old fashioned anti-Blue hate for Red or green in Shadowmoor. Efficient spot removal for Elves and an additional wrath or useful artifact removal spell would go a long ways towards improving the ELVES! matchup as well, but with four potential bad pairings amongst the top decks in the format, Ramp might be back on the down swing for the second time in six months.

9-0 Red

Deck Name: 9-0 Red
Deck Designer: Hiromasa Imagawa

3 Ghitu Encampment
4 Mutavault
2 Horizon Canopy
15 Mountain

4 Incinerate
4 Lash Out
4 Rift Bolt
4 Shard Volley
2 Shock
4 Sulfurous Blast
4 Countryside Crusher
2 Greater Gargadon
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Mogg Fanatic

3 Manabarbs
4 Magus of the Moon
4 Dragon’s Claw
4 Cryoclasm

One of the decks that turned heads post-Shizuoka despite not making the Top 8 was this mono-Red deck played by Hiromasa Imagawa and allegedly designed by Tsuyoshi Fujita. The deck does what any good Red deck should by beating down with some early creatures, most of which are also burn spells, and throwing heat in the late game. Sulfurous Blast, a Wrath type effect generally reserved for sideboards, has proved itself relevant enough within the context of the format to merit an inclusion as a four of. So how does the deck face off against the format?

We’ve covered the fact that it starts as a favorite against Reveillark but that remaining ahead in that matchup will be entirely dependent on Reveillark players’ willingness to take the threat seriously and/or 9-0’s ability to adjust to hate in the form of Aven Riftwatcher and Dragon’s Claw. This is also the case for Merfolk which is currently favorable but can be challenging when they reach for their sideboards and add the aforementioned hate from Reveillark as well as or as a replacement Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender. ELVES!, however, is a straight up favorable matchup and it’s very difficult for the token generators to get the job done against superior forces, burn, and Sulf Blast. The deck is also a favorite against Ramp decks which don’t have many means of disrupting the “burn you” plan.

Faeries and BG Elves are bad matchups unfortunately and in some ways counter intuitively. It seems like the puny bodies of the Fae would be no match for Red cards particularly when you take into account the backbone to the deck actually works against your own life total but in practice the results are the opposite. The Red deck jumps out to an early lead but the disruption of Mistbind Clique, Spellstutter Sprite, and Pestermite eventually lead into a mass of creatures taking it home with a counter or two to make sure the UB player isn’t dead. The Elves deck on the other hand throws up enough large creatures and backs them with removal that can take down even the largest Countryside Crusher, as well as a burn spell of its own in the form of Profane Command.

Addressing those problems with Shadowmoor could be done with some good old fashioned anti-blue hate. While Pyroblast isn’t likely to come back, it seems probable SOME type of hate will have made it through design and hopefully bear fruit for the Faeries matchup. As for Elves? Hopefully the usual assortment of random burn spells will be enough to shore up the matchup.

The X Factors

This list of decks features some of the top performers from the past few months. We have yet to see the types of decks that Shadowmoor will bring, and it seems likely it will spawn a number of interesting archetypes or power some that already exist. One has to imagine Gabriel Nassif and Patrick Chapin are just itching to stick Manamorphose into a deck with Spinerock Knoll and storm spells.

Speaking of Dragonstorm, that is just one of many decks quietly lurking just outside the public’s eye, waiting for the right moment to shine. Doran, reigning world champion thanks to Uri Peleg, is another such archetype which has already seen success over the past six months and may be primed to see more if a few things fall the right way in Shadowmoor. Whatever may come, it’s definitely going to be a heck of a ride.

Bill Stark
[email protected]