Thirst for Knowledge – Nationals In Review

Wednesday, August 25th – We have a full weekend of Nationals to talk about. Standard season may be over, but Standard won’t stop seeing play until Scars hits, so let’s dive in and see what went down this past weekend.

Ah, it’s that time again. You know, the period after the PTQ season is over and before we have much in the line of spoilers for the next set. These are usually the times where we write about theory or whatnot, and I have some of that planned… but right now, we have a full weekend of Nationals to talk about. Standard season may be over, but Standard won’t stop seeing play until Scars hits, so let’s dive in and see what went down this past weekend.

First of all, let’s look at the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals:

2 Dredge
1 Mythic
1 Naya Force
1 Ascension Combo
1 Mono-Red
1 Mono-Green Summoning Trap
1 UW Control

Considering the usual pedigree of U.S. Nationals, this result is actually somewhat surprising. In the past, U.S. Nationals is often filled with control decks, but this time we see combo being the dominant archetype by a landslide. Mythic is hardly “combo,” but it contains a pseudo-combo, and I’d count Summoning Trap as a simplistic combo deck, leaving us with five of the eight decks being somewhat combo-oriented. I suppose that speaks more of the format’s shift than it does of the players, however, as Dredge had literally no hate against it going into this event, and Ascension Combo is just very powerful and resilient (some even considered it the “deck to beat” for this tournament).

Mono-Red’s presence here isn’t very surprising, however. Mono-Red is fine against Jund (not that that was a huge perk in the U.S. Nationals from the data we have, but even so), it’s favored against any sort of Destructive Force deck, and also any Noble Hierarch. Josh Utter-Leyton (congrats!) managed to defeat it in the finals with his Mythic deck, but most of the time Mythic struggles in that match-up unless it can land an early Baneslayer Angel (which Josh wasn’t even playing). Mono-Red is also fast enough to beat most of the combo decks, not to mention that it is favored against any form of ramp deck. It’s only bad match-up is UW, but even that match-up is winnable with an aggressive Goblin Guide draw and smartly-placed burn spells.

What is interesting to me, though, is how UW was played at not only U.S. Nationals, but all three of the weekend’s events: the absence of Sun Titan. While there WERE two Sun Titans in Florian Pils’ UW deck from the German Nationals, he also was playing 4 Baneslayer Angels. The other UW decks, including GFabs’ UW list from U.S. Nationals, were all playing zero Sun Titans and Baneslayers instead. While it is true that Sun Titan locks the game up most of the time, there are times where it just draws you a few cards with Jace or Wall of Omens and then doesn’t actually win you the game. With Baneslayer, as always, it will simply run away with the game if you don’t do something to it quickly. I am actually fond of Florian’s approach, though I’d probably play a 3/2 split of Angels to Titans, since this not only ups the threat density of your deck from the 2 Sun Titans or 4 Baneslayers, but also gives you two different types of threats that are both good in their own rights. This usually means you’re indecisive, but the bottom line is that Sun Titan is honestly a very powerful play against most of the field in UW, and I feel that without 3-4 Baneslayers you actually can’t end games quick enough. Most of the time in 2 Titan UW you spend a fair amount of time digging for a way to win (aside from Jace), and I’d much prefer to win with Baneslayers than with Gideons (the only other alternative in standard Titan lists).

Gerard was also playing Preordain, and it’s probably worth talking about. Preordain allowed him to play fewer lands, and fewer business spells overall since he could get to them easier. He also was playing zero Wall of Omens, and he was the only one to exclude that card from his list. For reference, here is the list:

The question you have to ask yourself is: what is Wall of Omens good against? The answer is honestly just Jund and Mono-Red. It has uses against other decks, of course, but in general it only impresses in those two match-ups. Preordain is actually relevant in the mirror, against combo (of which U.S. Nationals had a lot), and against decks like Mythic (whose creatures almost always overrun Wall anyway, save the Lotus Cobra beats). Preordain is so much better than “draw a card” that I don’t really blame Gerard for playing it over Wall, but I’d wager that if you’re expecting any form of aggressive decks in your metagame, it’s probably a poor cut. The thing about Wall of Omens has always been that even in the match-ups where it’s bad, it still at least just cycles, so it was always a fine card to have maindecked. Is Preordain so much better than “draw a card” that you’d be willing to cut a card like Wall of Omens? I personally think it actually is, but what do you guys think? I’d like to hear some forum responses on this particular issue, so drop a line and get some discussion going!

Next, let’s talk a bit about Dredge:

The “deck with the most broken draws in the format,” Dredge has hardly received any recognition as a deck since Rise of the Eldrazi gave us Vengevine, but Team Channelfireball clearly thought more of it heading into Nationals, and two copies of the deck in the Top 8 means that the work paid off (10-4-2 combined). Dredge has very little hate for it, currently, which is impressive given that cards like Leyline of the Void not only shut it down, but also damage decks like Ascension Combo. If people are prepared for Dredge, as has always been true with decks of its nature, it simply will not win. On the other hand, if the field isn’t ready for it, it becomes difficult for it to fail. Ochoa and Nelson were fortunate that their opponents weren’t prepared, but they obviously played the deck with that knowledge.

Dredge is pretty hard to pilot, and my short time with the deck has not given me the proficiency to do well with the strategy. However, proper preparation and testing would probably give one quite a big upper hand in the meta, so this deck seems like a solid choice for any future Standard play. It’s quite a bit more resilient than, say, Ascension Combo, since if you are Hemorrhaged you don’t just lose and you always have a beatdown plan to fall back on. I’ll admit that Dredge’s beatdown plan sucks compared to its main plan (like, bad), but at least it’s a viable way to win. Extractor Demon is a 5/5, after all — and even if you must Unearth him to beat at least you have some other way to win. Heck, I’ve seen Dredge decks win in a number of ways, and often you can mill THEM out if you can’t find an Alchemist to bounce a Leyline or whatever is hindering your assault.

Beyond Dredge, Ascension Combo gave up a set of Top 8 slots, and even Polymorph made an appearance. Valakut Ramp won German Nationals, and although the deck has moved away from just being a “combo deck,” it still can run on that explosive plan 90% of the time. Avenger of Zendikar is a bit more consistent against the Blue decks (since those decks can stop your Primevals and can Tectonic Edge your Valakuts), and is a bigger threat due to its inevitability. Even if they can kill it right away, you’re still looking at dealing with an army of plants afterward. Further, the winning list had maindeck Summoning Traps, so his match-up against Blue was actually really good — even better if you note the Gaea’s Revenge in the sideboard.

The Top 8s also featured a number of Fauna Shaman decks, finally proving (again) that that card is the real deal. Not only is it a focal point of Dredge, but Fauna Shaman put several players into the Top 8 in both a Naya shell and a Bant one. Here is the winning list from British Nationals:

Joseph packed all the best bullets into his maindeck, and more or less built the ideal Fauna Shaman deck. Not a whole lot of innovation has been happening in these Shaman decks, but then again I suppose no one really expects there to be: after all, the best creatures in this format have all been discovered by this point anyway (Frost Titan took a while, but we got there!). The only thing I really want to mention about this list is that Sun Titan is, as I have said before, simply invaluable in Shaman decks. I know that when I play this style of deck, I very often go for Sun Titan before anything else, and if your list isn’t packing one, you need to be. I played one in my sideboard in a Bant Shaman list at a PTQ a few months back, and I wish I had maindecked it. Admittedly, the card is much better in Naya decks, since you have Collars and Sparkmages to get back (since they tend to be big targets for removal), not to mention Knight of the Reliquary. Getting back 10/10 Knights in mirror matches where there is almost no removal? Pretty amazing, since you can never lose blocking wars, even if the Titan has to die. If you can recur two Knights with the Titan before it has to die, it has done more than enough for the mana you paid to play it.

At this point, Standard has somewhat evened out. Jund is “just a deck,” combo has finally become a “pillar of the format” again, and UW has evolved to a point where other decks can actually interact with it. Fauna Shaman has proven itself to be an amazing facilitator of midrange decks, and M11 has shown its true impact. Considering how much we all loathed Standard earlier this year, I’m actually impressed with where things have gone. When Bloodbraid Elf isn’t dominating anymore and Jace, the Mind Sculptor isn’t in EVERY deck, I’d say Wizards actually succeeded. Magic (and especially Standard) has become very expensive to play competitively, but at least the format is balanced and the decks are varied. The decks don’t all just play those same expensive cards. I suppose it’s true that most of them play at least one expensive mythic, but at least they aren’t all playing four Vengevines, four Jaces, and four Primeval Titans. It could be worse, right?

I’m not sure what to write about next week, so feel free to offer suggestions. Until then, take some time to enjoy a format that FINALLY came into its own (took it long enough, in my opinion).

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO