[Editor’s Note: This piece was completed and published just prior to the announcement that there would be a Modern Pro Tour in 2015. Because a significant portion of this piece doesn’t pertain to OP changes, the author’s original work has been left in an effort to preserve his sentiment on the matter.]
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen several important things happen both in and to the Standard format as we know it. We’ve had a Standard Pro Tour, and
we’ve had several announcements that will affect and shape the Standard format going forward. Given my publishing schedule, this will be the last article I
get to publish before the Season Three Invitational in New Jersey at the end of the month, so talking about Standard now in an effort to help you prepare
is how I feel this article is best spent.
First, the Organized Play Changes.
All Pro Tours are Standard going forward. Who knows how long this will last, but I’m guessing it’s a good move by WotC given that Standard is the most
accessible format. It makes sense to publicize it the most and spotlight it as much as possible. Hopefully this will get more people involved and sell more
cards. Ideally this will spawn additional Pro Tours or pro-level events. Any hopes I have of competing in the World Championships are somewhat
pipedream-esque, but if they make an intermediate tournament, it might be more realistic. The way to do that is to sell more cards.
In practice, I expect that if all the professional Magic players in the world have to play the Standard format at least four times a year for pro points in
a big way, then they’d be best served playing in events like the Open Series. I expect to see a big uptick in “pro” attendance for the Open Series which is
exciting! I think this is good for everyone, and with more big name players in events, the feature matches will be even more exciting to watch. I, for one,
am always looking for a higher level of competition (thus the draw of the Pro Tour itself).
Next, it seems PTQs as we know them are no more. For those of you who know me, you may know that I hold the record for most PTQs played in a lifetime (this
is an unofficial record, mind you). However, it seems that my record is safe since there are no more PTQs in the sense that I can simply enter an event one
day, win it, and go to the Pro Tour. I haven’t delved into all the details yet, but my understanding is there is one more season of regular PTQs and then
the switch to the Pre-PTQ into PTQ format, or the “Fixed MTGO PTQ Format.” I think these are for the most part good changes, and it likely means that
anyone who “should” qualify for the Pro Tour has a pretty good chance of doing so. Doing well enough to top 8 a PTQ, assuming average luck and an
average-to-good deck selection should not be an unreasonable expectation for a player who “should qualify.” In my mind, the Pre-PTQs will be relatively
easy, especially as the cream rises to the top and thus disqualifies itself from playing in the rest of the season’s pre-PTQs. We’ll see how it goes, but I
have high hopes.
Now we can get to the event itself. The Pro Tour was held in the great city of Portland, Oregon. Had I qualified, I would have played a black devotion deck
with Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Why do I make that distinction, you may ask? Well, the alternative is certainly not playing Gray Merchant, perhaps in favor
of other five-drops such as Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Obzedat, Ghost Council.
Let’s look first at the deck The Pantheon used to put two members each in the Top 8 and the Top 16 respectively:
Now I understand the theory behind this deck, and I understand the draw of Banishing Light–it deals with “everything.” Blood Baron is also quite good in
theory against the black decks if you think the black decks are going to be light on Devour Flesh. I know Owen Turtenwald has recently changed his take on
Devour Flesh, citing its weaknesses against Master of Waves and perhaps even Jund Monsters. (You’ll be hard pressed to actually kill a good creature, but
in my experience killing even a bad creature can be good here.) So, if they had Owen touting the mediocrity of Devour Flesh and felt that others would come
to the same conclusion, this was a good direction to go.
However, I think this is flawed logic. For one, it’s easy to outrace Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and it happens fairly frequently. Second, everyone still has
bloody Lifebane Zombie, which has the distinct pleasure of nabbing every Blood Baron of Vizkopa I’ve ever bothered to draw. Finally, playing Blood Baron of
Vizkopa means you can’t play Gray Merchant of Asphodel for “curve reasons.” A deck with as many as eight five-drops would be prone to losing to its own
draws much too often.
To me, Banishing Light screams mediocrity. It dodges Judge’s Familiar which may have been relevant, but as they figured out, it’s a three-drop. It takes
your entire third turn and can only deal with one permanent. The deck already had plenty of ways to deal with one permanent. It’s not any better to
Banishing Light a planeswalker that’s already gotten value than it is to Hero’s Downfall one, and similarly, Abrupt Decaying an activated Underworld
Connections sounds about the same as Banishing Lighting one except maybe I didn’t use my entire turn doing it. Finally, if I Abrupt Decay something, it’s
going to stay dead and won’t get resurrected by a Planar Cleansing.
I can’t say anything bad about Elspeth because she’s great. They wisely played a 26th land for her, and I have always been unsure about 25 versus 26 lands
in these decks, but without the Sign in Bloods I used last time, playing 26 makes sense. They also have the temples to help prevent mid-game flooding.
Color me unimpressed. I can honestly say that I was expecting more, deck-wise. Maybe this speaks to the format itself being stale since the release of
Theros and maybe there truly isn’t another way to go. Getting to play Elspeth would be good if there were more Jund Monsters decks around, and maybe The
Pantheon members themselves batted down the Jund Monsters menace, but I don’t think there was much Jund Monsters around. Instead it seems that the Jund
Planeswalkers deck was more successful.
Here are the two lists of Jund Planeswalkers that made Top 8 of the tournament:
Their colors are the same, and their strategies are the same, but the difference between playing four copies of Nissa, Worldwaker and zero is probably
pretty palpable. Admittedly, my own experience with Nissa has been limited to some sealed deck and some draft preparation for GP Portland, but she is
As I’ve written several times before, until the October rotation banishes it to languish in the land of Modern, Lifebane Zombie is perhaps the best single
thing you can do in the format and what always pushes me towards wanting to play Mono-Black Devotion. The reason I mention this now is because this
archetype doesn’t play anything that the Zombie can really aim for. In a normal game, a Lifebane Zombie can usually snatch a Polukranos from your
opponent’s hand because that’s just how the cards are costed. This deck avoids the problem by playing no targets that cost more than the zombie, and
instead, in this case, makes great use of Nissa, Worldwaker as sort of a big green creature that can’t be Lifebane Zombied.
Fundamentally, the strategy employed by both decks is the same: simply grind the opponent down to a nub. The rest of the (non-planeswalker) cards are mana,
disruption, and removal to support the strategy, and it works. The biggest difference between the two decks is the inclusion of Nissa versus the inclusion
of Read the Bones. I’m assuming that Yuuki tested a lot, and not that Pierre didn’t, but his list looks a lot less innovative. One thing that is very
interesting to me is that–as was mentioned in the coverage–most of these planeswalkers essentially have no ultimate for the purposes of this type of
deck. Vraska can make assassins, but Xenagos and Chandra are sort of blank here. Nissa, however, is the exception, with her ultimate most likely winning
the game more often than not.
Ordinarily, I’d want additional copies of Rakdos’s Return to “ramp out” with Xenagos, but the lack of creatures makes that slightly less likely to happen.
Overall, I’m left wondering if this deck plays Mono-Black Devotion’s game better than Mono-Black Devotion does. Right now, I’m leaning towards yes.
Underworld Connections has been Black’s go-to source of card advantage since the deck debuted, and while Pack Rat is a great card, between Bile Blight,
Mizzium Mortars, and a slew of instant speed wraths, it isn’t as impressive as it must have originally been. But with just Underworld Connections to draw
from for repeated card advantage, it would be pretty easy to compete by simply overloading on planeswalkers. Each one essentially simulates the effect of
connections, not necessarily granting you a physical card but often drawing a “card” one way or another each turn. Planeswalkers are, of course, more
vulnerable than Underworld Connections is, but since Connections is no longer safe in light of Banishing Light and Abrupt Decay being easily splashed into
decks, I see no real edge to simply relying on Connections, especially if you’re going to abandon Gray Merchant of Asphodel (which will be very difficult
for me if I can do it at all).
Had Jackson Cunningham not played spoiler, I really do wonder if we would have seen a different champion altogether. That being said, perhaps Jund Walkers
cannot be the best deck in the format if G/W Aggro is a major player in the Standard scene.
- 3 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Boon Satyr
- 3 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 2 Sunblade Elf
This deck in various forms has seen some success of late, especially in the hands of Andrew Boswell at the Open Series in Baltimore and Scott Lipp at the
Open Series in Kansas City. This deck is not new, and it’s pretty similar to Pat Cox’s deck:
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 2 Precinct Captain
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
Frankly, I don’t know what to think. The decks play such similar cards, but Cox’s seems much more explosive. The cost of this is playing a third color
worth of mana. Jackson plays sixteen basic lands and Pat plays zero, so obviously against other aggro decks, assuming both players can cast their
spells, Pat is going to be at a lower life total from the get-go just by trying to cast his spells and playing his shocklands untapped. I like Boon Satyr a
lot as a card, but with Golgari Charm playing spoiler I think the Satyr will have to wait for its time to shine.
I suppose I am a bit biased, since Ajani, Caller of the Pride has been giving me fits in both Limited and Standard since it was introduced. The card wins
games, there’s no two ways about it. The fact that both decks play Ajani makes me want to give the slight edge to Cox’s three-color deck because Rampager
synergizes so well with it. Ajani already has a huge bullseye on it, but the combo of Ajani + Rampager is only five mana, which I think is doable, though
perhaps not reliably so with only twenty-two lands. I’d like to know who wins between Brave Naya and Jund Walkers; perhaps that’s something for me to test
before the Season Three Invitational.
Originally I had wanted to write that I favor playing Advent of the Wurm, but given the position of Abrupt Decay and Azorius Charm in the format, I don’t
think I like it. The card is great, and it traditionally matches up very well against a sorcery-speed control deck (such as a traditional U/W Control deck
sans Quicken), but with access to four Quicken and four Azorius Charm, Advent seems weak right now.
That leaves us with two lists to look at, let’s start with Ivan Floch’s UW “Do Nothing” Control deck. Why do I call it that? Well, it should be obvious:
While watching the coverage, Ivan was featured numerous times, first making his run to Top 8 and then finally winning all of his elimination matches and
smiling when being crowned champion. He played conservatively but well, and as far as I can tell he always maxed out his Revelations. One turn sticks out
in my mind where he had to play an Elixir of Immortality from his hand to protect it from a potentially disastrous Thoughtseize. Now he essentially had an
Emrakul’s worth of mana but still played with the robotic precision required to maximize his deck’s strategy. Watching him, I thought I’d have Sphinx’s
Revelation-ed in his spot, and when he didn’t, I felt bad for his opponent which is a funny reaction.
In a nutshell, this deck looked better than the other decks. Had he played against a deck full of planeswalkers, Thoughtseize, Duress, Slaughter Games, and
Rakdos’s Return in the finals, he may very well have lost, and I’m guessing this deck is absolutely susceptible to that strategy, but people will still
play and win with the deck because of how good the engine is. There’s not much you can threaten this deck with when it’s firing on all cylinders. Planar
Cleansing is expensive, but ironically adding a U to the mana cost of 3WWW actually makes it a whole lot better. It’s brutal. Nothing is safe.
So, to be fair, this deck doesn’t do nothing in the strictest sense, it does nothing more like Null Rod does nothing. With 4 Quicken, 4 Azorius Charm, 3
Divination, and 4 Revelation (and 3 Jace, if you like) to draw cards, finding a one-of from your sideboard is not going to be difficult. Ordinarily if I
was expecting a lot of this strategy I’d just jam more Erebos, God of the Dead into my sideboard but getting them all Deicided at once means that it
doesn’t really matter how many you’re playing, and frankly just playing one and drawing it is ideal in that spot. Indeed, this is troubling.
The biggest problem with this deck is that if you do lose a game you need to make sure you lose it fast and continue to play quickly throughout each and
every turn. In addition to needing to understand the deck’s strategy and your opponent’s strategy, it’s also paramount that you physically untap your lands
quickly. Not many strategies will really punish you for doing this slowly, and ordinarily I think round time is sufficient–even generous–but it can feel
scary if you lose game 1 with this deck. I’ve lost game 1 with similar decks, and the fear is real.
It’s nice that playing Planar Cleansing means you don’t have any targets for Abrupt Decay or Golgari Charm out of B/G Devotion, and you get to make all of
their removal dead with careful Mutavault play. This deck barely even has targets for Banishing Light–and has answers to it just in case. I think I want
another copy of Deicide in the sideboard, and if mirrors are going to be a thing, I’m guessing the rest of the sideboard might have to change to include
more anti-blue cards as well, but I do like this deck going forward.
Finally, there is Matt Sperling’s Burn deck:
You know how sometimes when you’re playing against a burn deck, you’re just dead to Warleader’s Helix? Well, this deck has eight of those. Stoke the Flames
is perhaps the biggest boon to burn decks from M15, with Battlefield Forge in an obvious but important second-place, providing much needed white mana to
the everyman red mage in need. The thing I dislike about this strategy is the lack of a nut draw. There’s no Thoughtseize into Pack Rat, and there’s not
even one card in particular which sticks out to me as being the best one to draw. I’m sure some of you will say Young Pyromancer is the most important card
in the deck, but to me it seems that about half the time you’d be better off not letting your opponent cash in their removal spells for any value
whatsoever. It was funny to me that Ivan used Supreme Verdict to kill just Young Pyromancer repeatedly in their match but won anyway. Matt was the
unfortunate recipient of negative variance here, but I think the deck might choke on four-mana spells a bit too much for my liking. It’s a seemingly fine
line between I always want to have the four-point burn spell to finish my opponent off, and drawing more four-point burn spells than lands.
Notably missing from Matt’s list is Magma Jet which I had previously thought to be perhaps the most important card in the list given the deck’s inability
to deal with a mana flood of any kind. He says that Boros Charm is better when you have access to temples and creatures that might die to a Supreme
Verdict. I do like Eidolon of the Great Revel, but I wonder how good it was given that he played just one copy and just one more in the board. I can’t
pretend to be a burn expert, but the blue player in me does like Magma Jet.
Frank Karsten made a few good notes before their match, as he had helped Ivan test the night before. He said specifically that while people think of the
Burn strategy as mindless, it is in fact anything but. Playing it poorly might be easy, but maximizing both your own mana and tempo advantages is not as
easy as simply playing your cards when you draw them. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of Matt’s timings and plays, but I’m sure he had his reasons and
if not, we all make mistakes.
I think I might want to play Burn in some MTGO 8-mans or something just to get my fix. It’s quite possible that I might be too much of a coward to play it
in a big event. It seems like you’re disadvantaged against the regular sideboard strategies a lot of experienced players employ, and you get hit with so
much random splash damage it seems almost hopeless at times, but to his credit Matt managed an 8-1-1 record, losing only to Ben Friedman’s Whip of Erebos
before intentionally drawing in the last round to secure his spot in the Top 8. All that being said, it can definitely be one of the scarier proverbial
barrels to be looking down.
Where does all this leave us? That’s a good question. The Season Three Invitational in New Jersey is a mere three weeks away, and between now and then I
suspect we’ll see an uptick in DNC (Do-Nothing-Control) decks, followed by a sharp increase in the success of both Jund Walkers first, and then G/W Aggro
to follow (possibly Brave Naya as a proxy, but they’re both Ajani, Caller of the Pride decks at heart). All the while Mono-Black Devotion will be toiling
away as a strong choice with a pretty versatile sideboard that could let it win a tournament on any given weekend.
Heading into the Pro Tour, I was expecting Black Devotion to win and not much to change, but I’m happily interested in trying at least a few of the
successful strategies from the Pro Tour. Do you guys feel the same?