After all this, I’m pretty sure the public was right on Day 1. W/B Midrange, Control, Eldrazi. It doesn’t really matter. Some variant of W/B should always be the best deck or close to it in this Standard format.
Right now, I would play the extremely obvious version of the deck. Seth Manfield designed a planeswalker-based Control list of W/B and won #GPNY with it in early May, and the metagame has not changed significantly enough to make it wrong. This was the list Team East West Bowl was testing prior to Grand Prix Minneapolis, and the only card I would consider changing in the maindeck is Hallowed Moonlight. Of course, even if the metagame shifted, odds are I would still be playing W/B because the colors are just that good.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Standard right now is a heavily threat-based format, where specific high-impact cards end up unilaterally deciding most games. Decks mostly consist of their big hitters and a solid amount of filler. Some cards fall in the middle of being unbeatable half the time and mediocre the other half. The reason W/B is so great is that all the best filler and all the best threats are in those colors.
A big part of this is that enemy-color pairs are much better than allied ones in this Standard format due to their lands. Battle lands and Scars lands are just not good. The biggest issue is they are super-variable on your mana curve, making it hard to plan out plays both in deckbuilding and in-game. When your dual lands add inconsistency to your deck instead of reducing it, something is horribly wrong.
The enemy-color fixing, on the other hand, is absurd. The Battle for Zendikar creature-lands aren’t as overpowered as their Worldwake counterparts, but they are still great. W/B also benefits relative to tri-color decks by being able to fit in even more value lands in. Westvale Abbey making tokens isn’t great and Blighted Fen hasn’t had the highest profile, but they are batting well over replacement. Instead of requiring work to get going, your lands carry weight.
The even bigger thing might be that enemy-color pairs in Standard are also Eldrazi-color pairs due to the painlands. Seth Manfield wasn’t playing even a creature deck, let alone an Eldrazi deck, in New York, but his access to them as sideboard threats was still huge. Just having access to such high-powered threats to adjust when needed is a huge asset, as you can put pressure on all sorts of decks. Even the Collected Company decks are soft to you curving into Thought-Knot Seer on the play.
Worth noting: Yes you have eight enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands in these decks. You can build around this easily. W/B tends to build around this by being mostly even-cost cards. Your curve is “tapped land, two-drop, two-drop plus tapped land, four-drop.” This is what I’m talking about when I say planning for your mana. You can build a deck around this consistent stipulation. You can’t build around your lands randomly deciding to be tapped or untapped depending on your draws.
So you have better mana than everyone else. What about the rest of the deck?
Not only does white have all the absolute best cards, as it has all the main characters (aka the current Magic design equivalent of plot armor), but W/B has access to all the best flex threats. If people think Hangarback Walker is good because there isn’t much Eldrazi Displacer or Declaration in Stone, W/B has Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim to be the best deck to make and break a Hangarback Walker. If there aren’t many Reflector Mages to punish fat creatures, you can be the Reality Smasher plus Thought-Knot Seer deck. If everyone is playing Cryptolith Rite, you can Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet them out of the game. Every week you just get to choose the right lineup to crush the metagame.
The same is true for the answer side. Not only does W/B have the best single answer in the format in the blowout-causing Languish, but they have all the ones that are…. I can’t say good, as answers are weak in the format, but the least bad ones? You have the tools to stop anything at reasonable value if needed. Anguished Unmaking in particular shines as a way to leave up removal and still have it matter against a planeswalker without a big tempo less, and your good mana lets you play enough copies of Grasp of Darkness to not die to opposing creature-lands not named Lumbering Falls.
I can’t really stress this enough, but the removal in this format is bad because each piece lines up poorly with the huge spread of threats in some way. W/B has answers that cover most things, but you still need to ensure you have them line up well. Being stuck with Anguished Unmaking for their Needle Spires or Grasp of Darkness for a Reality Smasher is basically instant death. Be very careful to identify their problem threats and save the kill spell that handles that card for that card alone.
Also, just don’t play Hallowed Moonlight. This is a tap-out deck, not a counterspell deck. It is way too hard to line that card up with the small subset of things it hits. I would only ever consider it if I was also going down the Eldrazi Displacer path for the backdoor combo of making Displacer permanently exile their creatures.
There is one answer that has been actually good, and guess what, W/B gets it too: Transgress the Mind. The traditional drawback of discard being tempo-negative is mitigated by the fact that so many of the good threats in the format produce immediate value. It may have cost you two mana to your opponent’s zero, but you didn’t let them get that planeswalker activation, Tireless Tracker or Thought-Knot Seer trigger, double-hit off Collected Company, or extra card discarded to answer Reality Smasher. The planeswalker one is a huge deal, as so many other black midrange and control lists I’ve seen are just assuming Ruinous Path is good enough. It isn’t; you are still too far behind on anything but a single Plant token to make the exchange worth it.
The only real threat that comes in under Transgress the Mind is Secure the Wastes, which is another bump in W/B’s favor. You aren’t quite as effective at using it as G/W Tokens, but the card is still good with “just” Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Westvale Abbey to boost it. The worst-case scenario of Soldiers protecting a Sorin, Grim Nemesis or Ob Nixilis Reignited isn’t even bad.
For the planeswalker lists, the information off Transgress the Mind is also key in avoiding one of the big threats W/B can’t play: Dragonlord Silumgar. Despite it being possible to remove the Dragonlord to end its effect, many planeswalkers have minus loyalty abilities that let the Dragonlord player cash them in for a ton of value and avoid that drawback. Transgress the Mind lets you answer or plan for a potential Dragonlord Silumgar.
W/B also a ton of tools decks like Sultai might not have the same access to for this worst-case scenario. If you Anguished Unmaking in response to the Dragonlord Silumgar trigger, the planeswalker never leaves your control, as the duration of controlling Silumgar is already over. Sultai doesn’t have a similar removal spell, just misses like Ultimate Price or sorceries like Ruinous Path.
The W/B planeswalkers are also fairly resilient to theft activations. A Gideon, Ally of Zendikar emblem really isn’t a big gain for a lot of the Dragonlord Silumgar decks, and you can often plan to have Gideon on five if you suspect that is going to happen, so you get back the relevant 5/5 part of the planeswalker. Ob Nixilis Reignited can go on hold after already delivering two cards and basically never becomes threatening to steal if you lead on the -3 ability. Sorin, Grim Nemesis requires the most balancing, as a stolen Sorin can break a double planeswalker advantage. Sometimes you will have to use the –X ability for a little more than optimal to ensure your Sorin has less loyalty than your other planeswalkers to prevent this.
Even outside of the Dragonlord Silumgar situation, all of these planeswalkers are amazing. Ob Nixilis Reignited is easily the worst despite the -3 being very welcome in this deck, mostly because -3 leaves him open to death by Hissing Quagmire. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar really shines here, allowing this deck to rapidly close out a game. The thing that sets W/B apart from other Gideon decks is that it is so good at making sure the coast is clear for him. The consistent complaint about Gideon early in the format was that he wasn’t good when played from behind, and between all the spot removal and Languishes, W/B makes having an uncontested Gideon look easy.
Of all the filler in the deck, Read the Bones has to carry the most weight. I’ve described this Standard as being filled with conditional threats and conditional answers and Read the Bones is pretty much the only card that filters between the two. It honestly might be better than Painful Truths, as raw card count only matters if everything leading to the end lines up. It blows my mind there aren’t more Read the Bones decks in this Standard format, and Anticipate may be a card people are missing on. Note that this requires the selection to be real: Gather the Pack doesn’t give you a lot of options and Oath of Nissa doesn’t help if the spell you often want is an instant or sorcery kill spell.
If you are going to rebuild a new version of W/B for a different metagame, I would consider these to be the core five cards that need to be represented in some number. There may be times where some of these are relegated to the sideboard, but these are the most powerful or unique effects that make the W/B shell work.
The rest of the cards are all package deals, where a couple of key shifts make everything else fall into place. Archangel Avacyn is mostly correlated with Hangarback Walker being good, due to the Steve Rubin-esque “Hangarback for zero to flip” setup and the fact that other W/B decks are going to be creature-light with higher curves. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet also is at its best in this build, as it is less likely to fight for space with Thought-Knot Seer and you have other targets to soak up removal, unlike the planeswalker list.
The removal you play depends largely on the prevalence of Eldrazi and Dromoka’s Command pushing between Stasis Snare and Ultimate Price. Secure the Wastes becomes good if you have other tokens to fuel Westvale Abbey or if you want bodies to block for planeswalkers, but it is bad in Eldrazi-heavy lists.
If you don’t want to join the W/B side, it’s far from unbeatable. You just have to catch this week’s list off-guard. Non-Languish lists struggle against Thalia’s Lieutenant. Eldrazi lists have problems with Reflector Mage. If Ultimate Price and Grasp of Darkness are popular, playing your own Eldrazi is a strong counter, especially if Stasis Snare is being repressed by Dromoka’s Command. And regardless of the list you play against, Tireless Tracker and Collected Company are good enough to make it a fight.
In general, this points towards Bant Company as a solid counter. This is really what we saw around the #SCGINVI in April and Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, where W/B was pushed to the side by Bant Company. Still, I think W/B has refined itself to a point where even that natural deficit may be surmountable. The options are so plentiful and the cards are so good that I would be shocked if picking the right 60 cards to go with your Shambling Vents each week wasn’t a solid-to-great play.