Thirst for Knowledge – The “Best Deck Conundrum” and Mono-White in Standard

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Wednesday, November 18th – Think back, if you will, to Standard a year ago. Shards of Alara had just come out, and the format was still largely dominated by Lorwyn Block. Faeries was the undisputed champion if the format, and even more so before Time Spiral ripped Ancestral Visions from its despicable hands. Now I want you to think about what happened whenever someone pitched an idea for a new deck.

I’ve only been writing for a little over a year (well, on a weekly basis anyway), and in that period of time it’s become very clear to me that certain things hinder one’s performance in the art. It should come as no surprise to hear that writing Magic articles during set transitions can be rather rough, especially just before Standard rotation. It’s a time of awkwardness and uncertainty, as often our initial reactions to cards and the first few rounds of playtesting end up being horridly off-base and ultimately false. And, as I quickly found, there is no cure — the only thing a good writer can do is try his best to get as much data about new cards as quickly as he can.

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Being wrong about a card that ends up being very good isn’t the best feeling in the world, but no one is going to string you up and make an example out of you for it. No, the more pressing issue still lies ahead. There is still one thing that can make writing an absolute nightmare, and that thing is the “best deck conundrum.”

Think back, if you will, to Standard a year ago. Shards of Alara had just come out, and the format was still largely dominated by Lorwyn Block. Faeries was the undisputed champion if the format, and even more so before Time Spiral ripped Ancestral Visions from its despicable hands. Now I want you to think about what happened whenever someone pitched an idea for a new deck. Go ahead, take a second.

That’s right. It was the same every time. “Does it beat Faeries?”

Every single deck concept of that time period needed to be able to beat Faeries. It needed to attack the format in a new way and do something that other decks didn’t do better, sure, but ultimately it just had to beat Faeries. Often it wasn’t even enough to be 50/50 with Fae: you literally had to have a deck that could just smash it in order for it to make the cut into Tier 1. Fae’s existence in that Standard format totally stifled the deckbuilding potential of two year’s worth of sets. Every format has a deck (and sometimes two or three decks) that is just a cut above the rest, certainly, but not like Faeries. It was simply too synergistic, too good. It got to play outside its own turn with easy, and could switch from control to aggro at the drop of a hat. It was an unhealthy deck, and Standard suffered because of it.

I bring this up because, as ridiculous as it sounds, something similar is taking place once again. Jund is a far cry from Faeries, but it having a comparable effect on the current Standard format: whenever a new deck idea is brought to the table, it is met with the “does it beat Jund” inquiry. While beating the best deck is ultimately priority number one, it is important to keep in mind that Jund is not Faeries. It does not play outside its own turn, and it does not completely negate entire strategies. If your deck doesn’t beat Jund, you don’t have to scrap the idea. Jund, unlike Faeries, can be beaten through creative use of a sideboard and careful planning. Jund simply plays lots of good cards which are interwoven by cascade spells like Bloodbraid Elf. Granted, few decks can truly keep up with a deck that gets nothing but 2-for-1s, but maybe they don’t have to.

It isn’t that I’m suggesting that we should focus all of our attention on decks that don’t beat Jund, but rather that we need to keep our minds and options open. A few weeks back I caught wind of the Summoning Trap deck, which quite honestly was a very interesting concept to me. Although somewhat reminiscent of Dramatic Entrance, the idea of making all my deck’s fatties only cost six mana and tacking flash on them was exciting. It also avoided the “bad card” syndrome that plagued Dramatic Entrance, since the card you got to put onto the battlefield was from your deck, not your hand. The problem? Dropping an Iona and naming Black against Jund was like a walk in the park, but the Boros deck just steamrolled it. After all, dropping a Sphinx of the Steel Wind against the Jund deck ends exactly the way one would expect, but how good is the same strategy against a deck like Boros? While it’s true that a turn 5 Iona against Boros would be awkward, I can’t honestly say that that would spell good game, which is pretty impressive if you think about it. The lesson here, though? The reason the Summoning Trap deck doesn’t really work is because it loses to something other than Jund, which means that all is not lost.

To make a long story short, Jund is losing ground. Jund struggles against a number of decks making their place in the format, and as a result its numbers will begin to diminish enough to where less pronounced, fringe decks stand a chance at making an impact on the format. And with both Worlds and States on the horizon, this shift in the format couldn’t have come at a better time. Jund will still absolutely be at the forefront of everyone’s Standard gauntlet, but it should be noted that including as many different decks as possible would make for the absolute best testing and preparation.

That being said, today I’m going to talk about one of those “fringe” decks. Once I got the idea out of my head that I didn’t have to throw out ideas that couldn’t beat Jund, many more decks became focal points for me. I still believe that your deck should be able to beat a Sprouting Thrinax, but I don’t think you have to rework an entire archetype or totally scrap it if you have to squeak out wins when they cascade into Blightning off their Bloodbraid Elves. Generally, if you have strong match-ups with the other good decks, you can afford to be weaker against Jund. Back in Time Spiral/Lorwyn Standard, Faeries was the clear-cut best deck but Reveillark was still winning more events, despite having an absolutely abysmal match-up with Fae. The same can be true now, but we need to get around the mental block first to get a grip on it.

Although there are many decks that I could speak about in this space, today I’m simply going to talk about Mono-White. Here’s the list from the Top 8 of the recent SCG 5K in Nashville:

There are a lot of good things happening in this list. White is a very strong color right now, since Baneslayer Angel itself is a White card. Baneslayer is still the best creature in the format, despite not seeing as much play as she was when the format was brand new, but nevertheless any deck that can take full advantage of her definitely should. And, as luck would have it, a Mono-White deck playing four copies of Emeria might just be such a deck. Few decks can deal with recurring Baneslayer Angels, especially Jund — with no way to access Path to Exile, they will simply lose to this combination of cards. Every time.

In addition to Standard’s leading lady, White also gives us Path to Exile, the best removal spell in years. Keeping to Mono-White also bolsters the effectiveness of Honor of the Pure, which is a card that needs no introduction. Ajani Goldmane is probably a bit weaker these days due to all the copies of Blightning roaming around, but when he gets online versus most of the field he makes your smaller guys into monsters pretty quickly. The deck features sixteen 2/2 first strike creatures in the two-mana slot, which is a little much but also pretty efficient at the same time. White Knight can be a roadblock against Vampires and such, and all of them are strong against the Mono-Red decks loaded with their 6/1s and 3/1s. Knight of the White Orchid is slightly awkward without Borderposts, but a lot of times you won’t need to concern yourself with his ability since he really is just another first striking 2/2, which is what the deck wants in the first place.

The Mono-White soldier deck failed pretty miserably, as it hasn’t posted any results (that I know of) since Zendikar has been legal. Kazandu Blademaster is a fine card, and more than makes the cut in this deck, but he was a man among mice in the soldier deck. The fact is, creatures like Veteran Armorsmith are just unimpressive on their own, and in a format with Bloodbraid Elf and Ranger of Eos your men need to pull their own weight (with the exception being the Eldrazi Green deck, as that deck seeks to make those pathetic creatures into real threats). Some of the ideas from the soldier deck shine through, however — for example, where is Brave the Elements? It’s quite clearly in the sideboard of this deck, and I think it definitely needs to be maindecked. Basically, if you even save one man with it (and you should be saving multiple most of the time), you’re living the dream. I think there’s certainly room for it, too, as I honestly hate the idea of Kor Cartographer. While I think it’s interesting, playing a four-mana 2/2 just doesn’t do much for me if it isn’t doing something really game-breaking. The deck is rather light on lands, and I think that more or less is why this card is present, but let’s be honest here: wouldn’t it be better just to play more lands? The deck features both Ajani and Baneslayer Angel, both which needs four or five mana to be cast. That typically calls for twenty-four lands, and I think that’s the number I’d like to play. The Kithkin deck played twenty-five, but it also had to make room for “spell lands” like Rustic Clachan, although that card was more like a way to “recycle” unneeded lands rather than being played to actually be nonland cards.

So if we cut the Cartographers to make room for two more lands and two Brave the Elements, where does that leave us? I really like the idea of Devout Lightcaster in the maindeck, as that is one of the cards from Zendikar that I truly love, but I’m unsure about how practical that really is given that in some match-ups it is a horrible creature. Also, this is an aggressive deck at its core, and it seems like skipping out on the one-drop is such a mistake. I might be missing something, but was there really a reason that Elite Vanguard wasn’t included in this list? The deck has nothing to do on its first turn but play Emeria and pass, which makes me believe that Vanguard would make a fine addition. I’d try something like this:

Although the maindeck takes a slight hit against Jund since we’ve moved the Purges and Lightcasters to the sideboard, it leaves us with a much more refined maindeck that has few dead cards against any of the decks in the format. The deck is faster with the new addition of a one-drop, and also a tad more resilient thanks to Brave the Elements. The original sideboard made little sense to me, since I don’t know why you’d want to mise an Iona. I guess the idea was to discard her to Blightning versus Jund and hope it got there, but that seems very awful. Instead, we can borrow the Kor Sanctifiers idea because it’s very good in the Eldrazi Green match-up, and of course the Vampires/Jund hate remains present. Ethersworn Canonist is another strong card against Jund, mostly because it’s just another “annoying 2/2” that must be dealt with in order for Jund to function correctly. In the later turns, it combined with Emeria effectively means that the majority of Jund’s card advantage will be severed, which will make picking them off with Baneslayer Angel relatively simple.

Overall, I think these modifications to the deck make it a reasonable contender, and just the kind of deck you’d want to insert into your testing gauntlet for States and even Worlds. Remember, beating Jund is important, but so is finding a deck that strikes a fine balance with the rest of the format as well. No matter how it feels sometimes, you aren’t going to be up against Putrid Leech in every round. And, as such, you’re going to want to have all of your facts straight, and you’re going to want to be sure that you didn’t overlook something that could have real potential because it “doesn’t beat Jund.” This deck isn’t the best deck in the format (quite clearly), but it needs to be tested against if absolutely nothing else. In short, keep an open mind. Standard isn’t as bad as it seems, honest. You just need to know how to look at it.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
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