Warning! Standard Endangered Once Again!

What happens when everyone starts to remove the artifact removal from their maindecks in Standard? Adam shares his thoughts on this topic today, including an Isochron Scepter deck that could be very problematic in the end.

Now that we’re through celebrating the downsizing of Affinity, it’s time to take a close look at reality again. The Standard bannings didn’t just make a lot of previously Tier 2 decks Tier 1, they also made us more than a bit blasé about maindeck artifact removal. And if you go into a tournament with that attitude, you might well get burned by a deck like this:

U/R Scepter

4 Isochron Scepter

4 Peer Through Depths

4 Glacial Ray

4 Magma Jet

2 Guerilla Tactics

2 Shatter

4 Boomerang

3 Fabricate

4 Serum Visions

4 Pyroclasm

4 Chrome Mox

12 Island

9 Mountain

None of this should come as too much of a surprise. A year ago, plenty of Isochron Scepter decks were floating around the Standard periphery, but metagame pressure (Affinity and Goblin Charbelcher hate) forced them into oblivion. Those early versions ran Shrapnel Blast, a spell now easy to exclude since the exclusion of Artifact Lands, and although they lacked the library manipulation of the above build, they were still powerhouses. Isochron Scepter + Chrome Mox + Land + Boomerang (a combination I wrote about recently) could create rare but nearly undisruptable Turn 1 lockdowns- Until Darksteel and its Oxidize came around. If it seems odd that a Scepter-lock deck is now playable in ultra-fast Extended but never had much of a chance in Standard, it’s because the Extended metagame isn’t nearly as focused on killing artifacts as the Standard metagame was a few weeks ago. In Extended, Ravager Affinity is just another playable deck, and if players pack sideboard hate, it’ll be in the form of something huge like Meltdown or Energy Flux; Oxidize doesn’t exist at all.

Imprinting Magma Jet, Boomerang, or Peer Through Depths on Isochron Scepter in the early game will virtually guarantee victory against everything that isn’t Mono-Blue Control. Now, the interesting thing about Standard Isochron Scepter decks is that – though amazingly consistent and powerful in themselves – they’re terrible if something as innocent as Naturalize is peeking out from an opposing hand. The decklist offered above has just enough burn in it to kill an opponent (assuming you’ve rummaged through your entire deck and don’t aim the burn at any creatures) without splicing Glacial Ray. In a practical sense, Isochron Scepter decks need Isochron Scepter in order to survive. Of course, the artifact could be a clever addition to many decks playing cheap instants, but in those situations, it will rarely win the game on its own. While it may be great to imprint Otherworldly Journey on Isochron Scepter while you control an Eternal Witness, unless you’ve dedicated your deck to Scepter tricks, the artifact will often be just a dead card in your hand.

Oxidize, Naturalize, Viridian Shaman, Viridian Zealot, Shatter, Echoing Truth, Cranial Extraction, and even Terashi’s Grasp will wreck Isochron Scepter decks. But will these cards see play? Although artifact removal is still a sideboard staple, the majority of Green-based decks posted on Starcitygames.com post-banning have removed it from the maindeck entirely, and if Green (which does the job so efficiently) has begun ignoring the threat, what are the hopes for White Weenie, Mono-Black Control, and Mono-White Control?

Nor are the possibilities for Isochron Scepter still limited to Blue/Red like they were a year ago. Now that there isn’t as much reason to aim for a soft-lock, the deck is conveniently adaptable. If White Weenie becomes as huge as it promises to, we could end up seeing more creature control-oriented versions running Black instead of Blue. Lose Hope, Echoing Decay, and Terror would allow players to save their direct damage for their opponents.

On the other hand, if Tooth and Nail, B/G Control, Mono-Blue Control, or combo decks become dominant, Isochron Scepter could find a place in a Mono-Blue deck of its own. Annul, Mana Leak, Remove Soul, Echoing Truth, Boomerang, Consuming Vortex, and Reach Through Mists are all eminently imprintable.

Even without artifact destruction, Mono-Blue Control has a big advantage over Isochron Scepter decks which aren’t running counters themselves, primarily because (as in the old Obliterate/March matchups) there’s only one spell which Mono-Blue Control truly needs to counter. Another of the imprint artifacts, however, doesn’t suffer from this same disadvantage. Just as Isochron Scepter is capable of wrecking certain artifact hate-free metagames, Panoptic Mirror could mutilate others.

Panoptic Mirror’s power is, like that of Isochron Scepter, rather self-evident, as is the factor which holds it back. At five mana, it’s significantly more difficult to play than its smaller predecessor, and it was never worthwhile to spend that kind of mana on a threat that could be undone with Oxidize. Even now, Panoptic Mirror appears troublesome. After all, what could you imprint on it? One possibility is Wrath of God; a White deck that can attack with Genju of the Fields could well appreciate Wrathing every turn. Still, in the start, Wrath + Mirror is inherently worse than Wrath + Wrath (which costs one less mana, takes place a turn sooner, and is less difficult to disrupt). Furthermore, Aether Vial could be problematic, since (absent instant-speed creature destruction) MWC will be prone to damage no matter how often it plays its sorceries.

Panoptic Mirror is, perhaps, a better fit in a Green land destruction deck. With Trinisphere on the board, Panoptic Mirror + Land Destruction is even more solid a soft-lock than Isochron Scepter + Boomerang (which is susceptible to Chrome Mox). Turn 1 Land, Birds of Paradise, and Chrome Mox, turn 2 Trinisphere, turn 3 Panoptic Mirror, and Turn 4 imprint isn’t spectacularly unlikely and is almost undisruptable once it gets going. More significantly, all of the cards work on their own. Don’t forget Creeping Mold as an answer to opposing Aether Vials.

So heavily has Magic been pushing Green mana denial (Plow Under and Creeping Mold reprinted, Reap and Sow, Rootrunner, and the unplayable Feast of Worms and Uproot), that the deck could be just as redundant as traditional, Red land destruction. Eternal Witness, while not precisely designed in conjunction with mana denial, is also a great help. Such a deck could have great chances against Tooth and Nail, Rude Awakening, Meloku, Beacon of Creation, and B/G Control decks.

On a rather more mundane level, Panoptic Mirror could make use of Beacon of Creation or even One Dozen Eyes in a Blasting Station/Fecundity deck. This is hardly rocket science; find a dangerous instant or sorcery, and you’ve probably found something which could work well with Panoptic Mirror.

Another artifact-dependent deck that could flourish without Ravager Affinity around is Goblin Charbelcher. The old versions of the deck were fast and consistent but just couldn’t cope with a hate-filled metagame. From here, we could go on and mention any number of minor combo decks that could win tournaments if players don’t take the appropriate precautions. Even something as simple as Mycosynth Lattice + Furnace Dragon starts looking scary once decks lack the ability to remove the artifact. It would be difficult for artifact-fueled Combo to ever make up a large percentage of the metagame because, once such decks started winning regularly, there’d be a hateful reaction, yet I can certainly imagine a Standard of see-sawing Top 8s where Aggro and Control alternate with Combo/Prison.

The point of all this isn’t that smart players should start playing Combo or imprint decks. In fact, few things would disappoint me more (But then, my soul’s been numbed. Bush was re-elected.). The lesson here is that all of these decks are easily stopped if only the majority of players keep maindecking artifact hate. If you unpack those Naturalizes again, you won’t just be doing it for the metagame’s health; you’ll be helping yourself as well. And you know what? Oxidize still probably won’t be necessary. You can let that rest in peace. You can even start playing Creeping Mold and Viridian Zealot for maximum versatility.

Unfortunately, a specific course of action isn’t easy to chart at the moment since those few decks that “cheat” and avoid playing artifact removal (White Weenie, I’m talking to you!) will have a definite advantage over non-Combo opponents that have worked on keeping artifacts down. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons all over again. Some form of Green/Red or Green/Black Control could provide the field-wide versatility necessary combat Combo while still fighting off White Weenie, a fast deck which, just by existing, makes our fight for an interactive metagame considerably more difficult.

To this end, I foresee Kiki-Jiki Control gaining a good deal of relevance and acting as a sort of savior for Standard. Although not automatically a better choice than G/B Control when Combo isn’t considered, it can better support cheap artifact removal. Viridian Zealot and Hearth Kami can provide both beats and reusable artifact destruction while Magma Jet and Pain Kami can shoot down White Weenie’s airborne threats. Commune with Nature makes it easy for the deck to dig after its removal, and the deck is actually much more capable of weathering a Cranial Extraction than many players suspect.

Again, I’m not suggesting any kind of knee jerk reaction. The days of artifact removal-filled sideboards are over; unlike Ravager Affinity, the new crop of artifact decks will be simple for the properly prepared player to disrupt. I’ve been as guilty of ignoring the coming threat as anyone. Just take a look at the lack of artifact removal in my previous article‘s decklist.

Well, if I were to write that article again today, I’d include some Viridian Shamans.

-Adam Grydehøj

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