Grand Prix: Oakland is only a week away, and yet I don’t have a great deal to bring to the table. Granted, I won’t be attending the event myself (Cali is awfully far from Michigan), but even so I still feel like Extended has definitely been put on the backburner. Heck, there’s even a PTQ next weekend that I won’t be attending, and that’s only a few hours away! I mean, sure, next weekend is Valentine’s Day (the girlfriend asked me to not go play Magic for a weekend, so it’s not as though I’m overly crushed about it), but I still want to battle!
Where am I taking this? The short version is that since one of my good friends here in Grand Rapids is qualified for San Diego, I’ve spent very little time on Extended and a good deal more on Standard. It’s been a nice change of pace (Standard sure it more fun when Islands are good again), and I’ve learned a lot about the post-Worldwake format in a short amount of time. I haven’t really had time to work with any Worldwake-inspired ideas for Extended (at least in the “break the format” sense of the phrase), but I do know the exact list I’d played in Oakland if I were attending. Look for it at the end!
Anyway, Standard. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? Pre-Worldwake, Jund was reaching critical mass and was responsible for nearly half the metagame in a number of large events. Yeah, we’ve been through this time and again: that’s unreal, it’s absurd, shouldn’t happen, etc. Why do I bring this up? Well, I think this is going to change in a big way. The meta was already growing towards the model I’m about to present, and testing so far has proven it to be true.
The way I see the new format, there are three core decks: Jund decks, Vampire decks, and Jace decks. Now, that doesn’t in any way mean that other decks don’t exist. Red decks still exist, White Weenie is good, and GBW decks are still strong choices. But at the end of the day, if I were to head to, say, a Standard $5K, I’d want to be packing one of the “Big Three.”
Jund beats Vampires, Vampires beats the Jace decks, and Jace decks beat Jund. I firmly believe that these “roles” aren’t absolute — for example, a Jace deck that has not covered all of its bases will not fare well against a Jund deck, but in general we can assume that some number of Jaces, Flashfreezes, Permafrost Traps, Celestial Purges, Double Negatives, Paths, Wall of Denials, and Baneslayer Angels will be able to come out on top in the face of even Bloodbraid into Blightning. The only case I think is potentially absolute is the Vampires and Jund match-up, which I think is more or less always going to be slanted quite a bit towards Jund. In an all-Black deck (and possible even Red/Black), just how much can you do to shore up your match-up with a deck like Jund? What kind of options do you really have? Even your best spells are a lot weaker against their deck, from Mind Sludge to Gatekeeper of Malakir.
Everything else in Standard falls somewhere in between these decks. Much like Legacy, we’re talking about a Rock-Paper-Scissors format that still allows for a plethora of varied and fringe decks. In Legacy, the format is more or less a circle consisting of Zoo, Merfolk, and CounterTop, with some varying interpretations (Stephen Menendian discusses it in his wonderful article here). Interestingly, the article in question is talking about the 50 decks of Legacy, which is testament to how a format structure like this is still very healthy. Pre-Worldwake, as I said, the Standard format was evolving toward this model, but Vampires didn’t make up enough of the meta nor did it perform well enough to truly make Jund less than 45% of the meta. Now, however, we’re likely going to see a drop in Jund’s numbers to around 35% or so, where it becomes less of a dominant deck and instead becomes merely a “piece of the puzzle.”
Why? The Jace decks are, in essence, far more powerful than the Jund decks. That is, a single Jace, the Mind Sculptor is better than a Bloodbraid Elf into a Blightning. I understand that this is quite the statement, but think about it: do you just scoop when your opponent plays Bloodbraid and hits a Blightning? No, of course you don’t. It’s a huge tempo play and probably among the most powerful plays in Standard for some time (a second-turn Bitterblossom is all that comes to mind), but it’s beatable. You can either respond the following turn with similar play, or just swallow the six damage and play your Baneslayer and be golden. However, if your opponent plays a Jace and you can’t remove it within a single turn, it is my experience that you will lose the game nearly every time. Think about that. Jace is so good that you can end games just because he stayed in play for two turns. What other card has that kind of impact? Ajani Vengeant? No, certainly not — I’ve won games in which I was Armageddoned, even! Baneslayer Angel? It may be very hard, but you can take three swings from her and not lose. Jace activations, though? Not so easy to win through.
Alright, so maybe you’re finding this a little outrageous and you think I’m up-playing Jace too much. Fair enough — after all, saying that Jace is good enough to eradicate an entire deck’s chokehold on the format is a mouthful. So instead, humor me by thinking about the following: how do Standard Blue decks win games? That is, how did they do so before Worldwake was released? Luis Scott-Vargas UWR Control deck defeated Jund again and again through the use of powerful Planewalkers like Ajani Vengeant, well-chosen removal, anti-Jund technology, and card advantage. Blue typically just wants to counter spells and draw cards, but countering spells has been one thing it hasn’t been able to do well since Cryptic Command rotated. That being said, Blue’s strengths aside from countermagic are still heavily at play in even the old Standard environment, and that alone was what made UWR a big contender in the last three months. So, readers, now what? What happens when you give an already-powerful deck a card like Jace? This isn’t the same as giving Vampires Urge to Feed or Jund manlands. No, this is like giving Faeries Bitterblossom. Starting to get it?
Last week I had a list for a Grixis deck packing the new Jace, and despite some of it being theoretical and more of an examination of potential options rather than a tuned and fleshed out decklist, the concept of the deck is what I’d like to bring to light here. In the Grixis deck, you can play Terminate, Smother, and Lightning Bolt maindeck to great effect as a removal package. Those 10+ cards are enough to hold off literally any creature deck in the format, including Jund. Add to those a slew of counterspells, sweepers, and card-drawing tools, and you have yourself a cookie-cutter example of a “good” control deck. Now, if our Grixis deck had a late-game spell that could just end the game, how would we feel about that? How much would you pay to literally just win the game? Cruel costs seven mana, and by now we’ve learned that seven mana is about right for such a powerful effect. Cruel won’t win the game 100% of the time, but traditionally in anything aside from the mirror it meant game over a very large number of times. Now, what if Grixis could play more spells like that? That is, another spell that just “won the game,” a spell that would be even better in the mirror?
Yeah, that’s where Jace comes in. Jace isn’t Cruel Ultimatum, but he’s as close to that card as you’re going to get without spending the seven mana, folks. I’ll go on record as saying that overall Jace is a much better card than Cruel, but that’s hardly fair: one is a permanent, and it also costs about half as much to cast. Even so, let’s really stop and think about this. What does the Grixis deck want to do? It wants to draw cards, control the board, and cast Cruel Ultimatum on turn 7. Can you think of any better card for this than Jace? I mean, Grixis has an absolutely superb manabase, and so Jace will normally be able to come down on turn 5 or 6 with full protection (since your removal is so cheap and efficient), and from there he will either solve on-board threats like Baneslayer long enough to get to the tools to remove it permanently or he will let you dig for the Cruel and/or seventh land you’ll need to cast it via Brainstorm.
Essentially, we’re looking at a deck where Jace can find a perfect home. I’m pretty sure that Grixis might end up just being better than UWR, and it’s not overly difficult to see why. Like I mentioned last week, Basilisk Collar could make Wall of Denial a lot less effective for the UWR deck, and Mysteries of the Deep and/or Mind Spring just absolutely pales in comparison to Cruel Ultimatum. Terminate is also a heck of a lot more efficient at killing creatures than Path is (not mana-efficient, but efficient in the sense that we aren’t ramping our opponents), and Smother is performing even better than I’d hoped. The URW deck is great, certainly, but it just isn’t building towards anything. There is no urgency to get to the late game, and I’m not very fond of that. In the Grixis deck, your job is merely to make it to turn 7, and from there you’re just going to win. And since now I have a card that almost ensures that for me, how could I play anything else?
The Grixis deck is probably the favorite versus Vampires, though slightly less favored against Jund. It is far superior against other blue decks, though, since Cruel just trumps whatever they do. I’m excited to play more Grixis mirrors, though, as Cruel Ultimatum seems a bit weaker than it was before because of Jace. That is, if Player A Cruels Player B, Player B can untap and either Cruel back or cast a Jace. If he decides to cast Jace, I’m inclined to say that Player B then actually has the advantage, despite just being hit by a Cruel. Beyond that, though, there’s still the idea of Cruelling and then playing a Jace afterward (obviously late game). Wow!
Here is my updated list, which is what I’ll be playing in Standard for the foreseeable future:
- 4 Lightning Bolt
- 2 Earthquake
- 3 Smother
- 4 Terminate
- 2 Flashfreeze
- 3 Cruel Ultimatum
- 2 Traumatic Visions
- 3 Double Negative
- 1 Essence Scatter
- 4 Treasure Hunt
I know that last week I included Abyssal Persecutor in my Grixis list, and even when I did I mentioned that I wasn’t totally sold on the idea. The reason I’ve excluded it this week is that I’m showing a list exactly as I would play it, and until I’m 100% for an idea I’m not going to play it in events (that’s what testing is for!). I still think Persecutor could work in this deck, but for now I’m going to rock the deck without him. His body is impressive, but I’m just not so sure that Grixis needs a faster clock. After all, turn 7 is fast enough, isn’t it?
So, am I right about Standard? It’s hard to say, but I’m certainly pretty confident that Jund won’t be as dominant as it was. Blue has found its way back into the format (in a real way), and Jace is leading the charge. It will be interesting to see how much more play Vampires gets as a result, and even more so to see how Jund adapts. For the first time since Bitterblossom rotated, I’m positively thrilled to play with Islands in Standard.
Before I take off, I have a decklist for Grand Prix: Oakland. If I were attending, I would play this exact 75:
- 3 Umezawa's Jitte
- 3 Smother
- 4 Mana Leak
- 3 Spell Snare
- 4 Ancestral Vision
- 3 Cryptic Command
- 4 Bitterblossom
If Jace isn’t fatesealing combo decks or keeping Tarmogoyfs and Baneslayers off the board, he’s Brainstorming or exiling entire libraries. Chapin spoke earlier this week about Jace’s applications in Extended, and although he never mentioned Faeries it’s hard to ignore what a deck like Fae can do with a tool like Jace. Jace gives you a stupid edge in mirror matches (both of the Fae variety and just control mirrors in general), and does a number on decks like Scapeshift.
I’ve moved away from maindeck Doom Blade and instead decided to play Smother, as I feel that Smother is better against almost all of the field. It kills Doran, any creature in Zoo that isn’t Baneslayer Angel, Dark Confidant (which is probably the most important creature that it has to kill), and even fringe creatures like Tidehollow Sculler. You can’t kill Baneslayer with it, nor a Bloodbraid Elf, but the sideboard decks a good job of taking of those creatures and their respective decks. Beyond that, I’ve included Threads as a means to better the Zoo match-up and also to steal Marit Lage tokens, though I’m not convinced that the Damping Matrix plan (which involves boarding out a number of cards that become dead under one) is that much worse. Extirpate is a very good card against Thopter Foundry, and with Jace it becomes easier to outsmart the Thopter player (as you can hide your Extirpates on the top of your library with Jace until you need them, which saves them from Thoughtseize and Vendilion Clique). I think it’s still a fine plan, personally.
Anyway, that’s it for this week. Good luck at Oakland everyone, and have a good Valentine’s Day!
Until next time…
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