What Makes Standard Tick

Seven-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Ari Lax shares the main principles of Standard that he gathered from playing a lot recently so you can be ready for your next PTQ.

For the amount I plan on caring about it in the future, I’ve been playing way too much Standard lately.

It’s not that I don’t have other things to do. Drafting more just to play more Limited, starting to play Modern, organizing various team things, or just my backlog of video games on Steam would all be higher-value ways to spend my time.

It’s also not that the format is amazing. There is a decent amount of interesting sequencing decisions, but there is also a ton of runaway non-games. It’s good enough to keep playing but not one of the best of all time.

The thing that keeps me coming back is that the format is hard to win a lot at. Like I said, there are a ton of runaway non-games regardless of what you are playing with or against. The decks that pop up from week to week as winners aren’t things that are just better than the rest of the decks but instead are minor tweaks to existing shells that attack that week’s metagame.

I have traditionally done my worst at this kind of format. Specifically, I have bad memories of the post-Jace and Stoneforge Mystic ban Standard format, where all the decks were equally terrible and I won with none of them.

So now is as good a time as any to learn. These are the main principles of the format I’ve picked up for future application.

1. Removal is terrible but necessary

Ever since Shards of Alara brought us half the removal used in Modern, Wizards has been turning down the dial on removal. We aren’t at an all-time low, but the removal in Standard is quite bad.

It’s strange to say this after Return to Ravnica brought us so many multi-format standouts in this category (Detention Sphere, Abrupt Decay, Supreme Verdict), but the threats also play a huge role in this equation. Between protection from various colors, the restrictions on two-drop removal, and the must-answer nature of a ton of threats, it’s very easy for a deck leaning on reactive cards to end up in a mismatch scenario.

Let’s use the suite of threats from B/W and Mono-Black to illustrate this: Desecration Demon, Pack Rat, and Nightveil Specter or Blood Baron of Vizkopa depending on version.

If your opponent plays a Pack Rat on turn 2 and you aren’t a base U/W Control deck, you are obligated to kill it. As we learned in Return to Ravnica Limited, this means that half the time your three-drop “good versus everything” removal like Hero’s Downfall or Putrefy isn’t going to cut it.

The three-drop removal is also all black (Hero’s Downfall, Putrefy) or white (Detention Sphere, Banisher Priest), meaning Blood Baron of Vizkopa is going to cause massive headaches. While Baron isn’t something you have to immediately answer in a control deck, against a large chunk of the format taking a hit or two from a 4/4 lifelinker will turn a game from close to near unwinnable.

So your “universal” three-drop removal is not great. What about the two-drop (or cheaper) removal? Is there something that lines up with the format?

Well, Doom Blade is off the table.

Ultimate Price hits Pack Rat and Desecration Demon but not the flex threat of Blood Baron or Specter.

Mizzium Mortars hits Rat and Specter/Baron but not Demon. Lightning Strike is similar but now misses Baron as well.

Chained to the Rocks hits all of the Mono-Black guys but not Blood Baron. The same issue applies to Dreadbore, which also can’t hit Master of Waves as I very nearly learned at Pro Tour Theros.

Devour Flesh works wonders up until the time it gets bricked by a Mutavault.

None of these cards handle Underworld Connections, and Abrupt Decay has obvious limitations.

And this is just playing against one deck (albeit the most important one in the format). These pinches exist with the other archetypes. In Red Devotion, it’s the trio of Stormbreath Dragon, Boros Reckoner, and cheap threats that can actually kill people. In Mono-Blue, it’s mostly Master of Waves with a little Nightveil Specter.

Not playing removal isn’t really an option though. Every single threat in Mono-Black is kill or die, as is Master of Waves. If you let Mono-Red set up a board, it will run you over. The various white aggro decks can be stopped to an extent with blockers, but at some point if you didn’t interact with them early a mix of Brave the Elements and Ajani, Caller of the Pride will close the game out.

As a result of this, there are two options:

  • Play the bare minimum amount of removal to cover the threats you care about and hope to draw it when you need it. This is what basically every devotion and aggro deck does. R/W Devotion creeps up on the removal count but mostly because Mizzium Mortars is a thing to Nykthos into and Chained to the Rocks is required to beat Master of Waves. Chained and Mortars also conveniently answer more things than most removal, including Pack Rat.
  • Play a lot of removal, a few powerful proactive threats, and a powerful card-draw engine and hope everything works out by lining up your removal as necessary. See Mono-Black and base U/W Control. Note that even these decks aren’t super all in on removal and tend to see the same suspects show up over and over—Hero’s Downfall, Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, Devour Flesh, and Doom Blades scattered across the 75.

The other side effect? Reid Duke went in depth on this one in his article last week, but non-planeswalker, non-creature permanents are a pain to deal with. Aside from Detention Sphere, there aren’t many double-up answers that hit creatures and random stuff like legendary weapons or Primeval Bounty. The Gods also fall into this list, but only if their inactive body has an effect that matters. There’s no point in Nylea, God of the Hunt dodging removal if they just kill all your other creatures and leave you with a pump enchantment and no targets.

In the context of the Red Devotion decks I’ve been playing a lot of lately, this last point applies to a few cards. Hammer of Purphoros is the big one and has been shockingly awesome against everything but white aggro. In a different format I could see that card going full-on Fires of Yavimaya, but for now it will have to settle for its current role of nut-draw enabler and control killer. Purphoros, God of the Forge also satisfies the above line about “Gods that work when turned off,” extracting extra value from creatures that die to removal and allowing the occasional Firebreathing trick. The real killer is Assemble the Legion out of the sideboard, which is basically unanswerable for the various black decks.

2. Most of the issues you are going to have with a given deck are predictable by what colors you are playing.

There are a ton of different decks you can build within the same single color, but almost all of them have issues with the same cards.

Part of this ties in with what I was talking about earlier. Threats like Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Master of Waves, and Stormbreath Dragon make removal bad because they have protection from a color. Protection is a pretty blanket ability in terms of being good against a color, but there are hoops you can jump through. For example, Mono-Blue often beats Mistcutter Hydra by racing with a horde of Elemental tokens and blocking with Mutavaults or other Frog Lizards.

Similarly, there are threats that just line up poorly with a color’s removal. White and green have more removal than usual in this format, but Pack Rat is still a pain for them to deal with. Same with red and Mizzium Mortars being poor against Desecration Demon and Advent of the Wurm.

Another part of this is the M14 hate-creature cycle. While only Lifebane Zombie and Tidebinder Mage are major players here, they create specific constraints on all white, green, and red decks. White and green creatures that cost three or more are liable to get you two-for-oned, and Tidebinder Mage trumps all of the clunky red and green creatures unless you need them solely for devotion (think Boros Reckoner).

A few other odds and ends tie this all together. Nightveil Specter is nearly irrelevant against decks that aren’t blue or black, but a 2/3 flying Ophidian that enables devotion is a game breaker against fellow Dimir Mages.

What do we gain from this? Identifying which cards you need to be afraid of is easy and as a result building to include answers to them is as well.

You have a lot of near monocolored decks in this format splashing for the answers to the problems the main color has. This is why Red Devotion splashing white is a better choice than Mono-Red or splashing green. Chained to the Rocks covers the missing answer to Master of Waves and Desecration Demon, while the otherwise amazing Domri Rade does not.

There are also in-color decisions that are very dependent on identifying what you need to beat. The best example is Devour Flesh in Mono-Black Devotion as a way to handle Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but Last Breath out of G/W as a specific answer to Master of Waves and Pack Rat is another good one.

3. Maximum card efficiency matters.

When battling against the devotion and aggro decks, a plan of action is pretty simple. For aggro, you just have to go over the top of them like every other format. For devotion, you stop their incentive card that matters (Master of Waves) and do whatever to clear up the smaller threats so their devotion-thresholded cards don’t get online (Thassa, God of the Sea; Fanatic of Mogis).

It’s the other decks that are harder to plan for.

Let’s ignore the threat scenario set up by Mono-Black for a moment. Even if you have some answers to handle those, you need a string of solid threats to break through their spot removal and Thoughtseizes. Anyone who has played Mono-Blue against Mono-Black can attest to how miserable the games where you are trying to carry a Frostburn Weird and a 1/2 Cloudfin Raptor to victory are.

You need to constantly add real threats to the board to beat the control decks. It’s not that this hasn’t always been true of the control versus aggro/midrange matchup, but in this format there are a lot of distractions. The concept of enabling devotion is a big one, as there is a huge incentive to try to have the bigger trump in the board-based matchups.

It’s actually quite easy to hit the control decks hard and fast enough that they fold. At the start of the format, the new and improved G/W Aggro decks gave control fits, which was contrary to what Block Constructed suggested. Andrew Shrout’s G/W deck from the Invitational Top 8 this past weekend is clearly skewed toward less efficient threats that beat Mono-Blue, but it still has the ability to curve out into flash creatures and crush a fumbling control deck.

This is part of why green decks like Makihito Mihara’s deck from Dublin have fallen off the map. In my Pro Tour Theros testing, there was a big debate between Experiment One and Elvish Mystic in various green decks. While there are clear benefits to each one in different scenarios, both suffer against the removal-heavy decks. Elvish Mystic is just a blank when you are trying to attack, and an Experiment One cast after turn 1 is approximately as bad. Sylvan Caryatid, Voyaging Satyr, and Omenspeaker are some other cards from that first Top 8 that Mono-Black and Esper eat for breakfast.

This was one of the big reasons I was promoting Red Devotion last week—the enabler creatures require no other set up to win. You don’t have Judge’s Familiars or unevolved Cloudfin Raptors. You have Frostburn Weirds in a position to attack for four, Ash Zealots, and at worst the free 2/2 of Burning-Tree Emissary. You also have Hammer of Purphoros to convert your actual dead draws into more threats.

4. The above point defines what is and isn’t a viable mana base.

Why are we not discussing B/R Devotion as an option? Or R/U?

Well, aside from the fact that Doom Blade and random Izzet cards are all worse than Chained to the Rocks and Domri Rade, the loss of the scry lands is a huge hit.


Return to Ravnica and Magic 2014 were both shorted on good card filtering in large part because of what Snapcaster Mage had done the previous year. Theros reintroduced scry, but the spells it is attached to aren’t actually good enough to see significant play.

On the spell side, there really isn’t a good way to correct for bad draws. Seriously, the control decks are playing straight up Divination, and it’s not because the format is about counting two-for-ones.

That leaves the lands to pick up the slack. On the above note of maximizing your threat density, lands are the big concession. The majority of the time a land drawn either lets you cast a spell or is a blank. No more, no less. While a scry land drawn late is still a blank on the spot, it’s worth 40% of a card on your next draw step. That is way better than nothing and strictly better than the next best thing of Guildgates.

The other option is Mutavault, which is actually worth a full card of threat value but comes with a large number of constraints. Mutavault plus a multicolored two-drop that wants to be cast on turn 2 is a big no-no. See also why G/W Aggro has zero of this card. You can’t play Mutavault and Nykthos in significant quantities together either, which is the low point of R/W Devotion. Being prone to flooding out is not a fun way to lose.

There may be a power-level tradeoff where it is worth not having Mutavault or scry lands to buffer your threat count, but I’m not sure it has been found yet. G/W’s stack of undercosted creatures is the closest I’ve seen, and that has its own set of huge issues.

The Takeaway

– There are two kinds of decks. One has a handful of 10s (out of 10), a lot of 5-6s that support them, and scry lands or Mutavault or both. The other has all 8s and probably still has scry lands and/or Mutavaults. Playing actually bad cards is not an option regardless of which you choose.

– Picking your removal should happen early on in deckbuilding because the relevant threats are so obvious. If you’re playing six-to-eight removal spells, you’re probably not playing enough or playing way too many.

And the big one:

– The B/W Midrange deck is the best example of “breaking it” I can think of for this format. It found a niche to improve on and ran with it. If you want to break this PTQ season, start with similar concepts and be sure to move from week to week.