Whispers of My Muse: Dissecting Standard

My aim is to give a broad overview of the current Standard format with an eye towards some of the general concepts that I believe to define the environment. I also want to talk about what decks are likely to be successful for Regionals in light of these same concepts. Why should you listen to me? I mean, who am I to say what’s what? Well, I’ve designed a successful metagame deck for almost every iteration of Standard that I’ve ever played in. If there’s anything that I know how to do, it’s how to come up with a plan of attack for the Standard environment.

This is going to be a fairly non-traditional article for me, since I’m not going to actually discuss a specific deck or strategy. My aim is to give a broad overview of the current Standard format with an eye towards some of the general concepts that I believe to define the environment. I also want to talk about what decks are likely to be successful for Regionals in light of these same concepts. Why should you listen to me? I mean, who am I to say what’s what? Well, I’ve designed a successful metagame deck for almost every iteration of Standard that I’ve ever played in. I designed one of the earliest incarnations of Madness for 02′ Regionals, I had B/W Control pegged as a top deck before any of the pros (Ralphie predated classically accepted builds by months), and I’ve had excellent results with decks that only had short periods of viability due to format changes (DNA). If there’s anything that I know how to do, it’s how to come up with a plan of attack for the Standard environment.

And then… there was Skullclamp.

[whimpering noises]

[sighing, wistfully kicking at some pebbles]

The absolute most important thing to realize is that the median power level of a competitive Standard deck is much higher up the meter than last season around this time. We’re not talking Necropotence level power. I knew Necro; I played during the Black Summer. Necro was my friend. You, Ravager Affinity, are no Necro. The bar is definitely set much higher this season, and you only really need to quickly compare this format’s fastest deck with its most recent ancestor to see what I’m talking about.

U/G Madness

  • Ran a 2/2 creature that you could discard a card to for +1/+1 until end of turn.

  • Made a 4/4 creature for three mana, given the right circumstances.

  • Drew two cards for 3U, or for 1U and three life.

  • Used four economical, one-mana counterspells to keep tempo and pressure on the opponent.

  • Contained a one drop-creature that could be pumped up to 3/3 for 1G.

Ravager Affinity

  • Runs a 1/1 creature that you can sacrifice an artifact (in an all artifact deck) to for +1/+1, permanently. If it dies, you get to move that largeness on to another creature.

  • Makes a 4/4 creature for zero mana, given the right circumstances.

  • Draws two cards for one Blue mana, or one colorless mana and the death of a 1/1.

  • Uses a stream of free creatures and two-mana/five-damage burn spells to always keep the pressure on the opponent

  • Contains a one-drop creature that causes the opponent to lose a life whenever you do anything whatsoever.

There’s no real need to continue, is there?

Successful decks for the new Standard must inherently possess one of these three”qualities” in order for me to consider their viability:


The format’s speed is the key concept to understand right now, thanks to the existence of the two tier one decks: Ravager Affinity and Goblin Bidding. No, nothing else is tier one right now. You’ve heard about them time and again on this site and to be honest, I’m sick of both hearing and talking about them, but the fact remains that they are the two best piles of sixty out there. Each can beat the opponent with a flat out bum-rush. Nothing fancy – just twenty to the dome in the most economical way possible. Yet, what is truly amazing about both of these decks are the backup plans that each maintains. It used to be that decks that aimed to kill as fast as these two degenerates had some sort of critical weakness about their game. Usually it just meant that they didn’t have a mid-or end-game strategy, and had to beat you within the first six or seven turns, and if they didn’t, it wasn’t going to happen for them at all. That logic is out the window, now.

Thanks, Skullclamp!

[picking up the pebbles, admiring their smoothness]

Disciple of the Vault is arguably the most infuriatingly synergistic card present in a Standard deck these days, and the fact that it’s even gross in Limited speaks to this as well. When I showed J. Sawyer Lucy (freshly returned from PT: Kobe) the cleric present in my deck at a recent Sealed PTQ, he groaned,”I never ever want to see that kid again, he makes me so sick.” That pretty much sums up my feelings, too. Ravager Affinity finishes off the opponent with either five-damage uppercuts or from incremental Disciple life loss that accrues over time (or in a big chunk – thanks, Arcbound Ravager!). This reality makes the other critters in the deck that much more effective, since they don’t have to do as much swinging. Ravager’s combination of cheap or free direct damage and fast creatures in a consistent, explosive deck is extremely difficult to contend with.

Goblin Bidding’s backup plans are similar; it too has the ability to deal a bunch of direct damage with Goblin Sharpshooter, but its best alternate (Can it really be called an alternate? It’s more like plans 1 and 1A) win condition is naturally Patriarch’s Bidding. It is unique in that the deck can play the classic Goblin beatdown game against most opponents, but when pressed it can settle into a board control role, shooting down threats and drawing cards with Skullclamp until tapping 3BB to end the game. It can also go the combo route, simply Clamping up 1/1 guys each turn and pitching key combo pieces (Siege Gang Commander, Goblin Warchief, Goblin Sharpshooter) during the discard phase with the eventual aim of casting Patriarch’s Bidding on turn 5 and wrapping things up.

I don’t know about you, but I think that decks that can kill consistently on turn 5 or 6 are pretty tough to contend with. If you’re building a rogue deck for Regionals, you have to be able to withstand this kind of attack. Otherwise, it’s unplayable. Unfortunately, the approaches that both decks take towards the same end (your death, silly!) so disparate that it becomes a challenge to build a deck that successfully metagames against them both. More on this in a bit.

Big Mana

If you’re not playing something that either possesses the same speed as its tier one brethren or something that can withstand it, then you must play a deck that can generate a ton of mana. Usually this means playing four copies of Cloudpost and the eight spells that can fetch it in Reap and Sow and Sylvan Scrying. In certain builds, old Onslaught block mainstay Temple of the False God makes cameos too, as do the various slabs of Urza real estate. Although these decks sometimes have problems with their consistency (in that they simply lose if they do not accelerate), it is undeniable truth that with ton of mana at your disposal, you can do some ridiculously powerful things. Twenty-five point Fireballs? Sounds good. Platinum Angel and Leonin Abunas popping out together like Laverne and Shirley? Sure, why not! Cast and activate Mindslaver on the same turn? Very fair; an excellent play, sir!

The decks that make a lot of mana seem to have game against a wide range of tier two decks in the environment, but because consistency is an issue, they can never really post excellent win percentages against the format’s top two decks… yet. In particular, the Tooth and Nail decks are at a crossroads right now – they’re powerful enough to beat most other strategies, but lack the ability to have immediate answers to threats presented by Ravager and Bidding since so much of the deck is devoted to ramping up. Yes, they win when they get the perfect opening sequence of putting a few Cloudposts into play and can cast Tooth and Nail early. What about when this doesn’t happen, or when the deck doesn’t draw any”business” spells? A strategy like this puts a lot of pressure on your library’s top card to be what you need it to be. When it does come together, the power is intoxicating. Big mana strategies also tend to avoid a lot of the sideboard and now maindeck hate intended for the format’s four-hundred pound gorillas. And hey – let’s face it – they’re a ton of fun to play.

I think that the deck that can run the”big mana” engine with improved consistency and early game defense against the top two is a definite tier one contender. I don’t think that that deck has been found, yet. I don’t know yet if it’s Tooth and Nail based, but that seems to be the prevailing direction.

A Single Game Winning Spell Or Effect

If your new pet deck doesn’t have great speed, and doesn’t make obscene amounts of mana… then it must be centered around one particular spell or effect that is so powerful that when it resolves, it’s almost impossible to lose. Goblin Bidding has both speed and a game winning spell at its behest. That’s why it’s tier one, sillies! In a counter-free environment, cards like Death Cloud, Obliterate (not that counters ever deterred this spell), and Patriarch’s Bidding become game enders when entire decks are based around their resolution. In the pre-Skullclamp environment, Mind’s Desire probably could have been included in this category, but not anymore. Since Blue is essentially dead, you now can crank up a single-card-based strategy like your name was Bennie the Smith.

Right now, it’s all about Death Cloud. Everybody, me included, is desperately trying to figure out the best deck for the card, since it seems to have the ability to trump every single opposing strategy out there. I wrote about it in a B/G Cemetery-style strategy a couple of weeks ago. Kibler later tried to sabotage the archetype by including terrible cards like Bane of the Living in a Brainburst Premium article a week later. Finally, the Heiss weighed in earlier this week with a good common sense build. Unfortunately, through some heavy testing of my own, I can no longer really endorse the B/G version of these decks.

Their major attraction is that the deck’s design is very modular and offers the greatest selection of artifact hate and other quality sideboard choices against Goblin Bidding and the odd White control deck. The downside is that every time I touch a B/G deck, it feels so much lower on the power curve than anything else that I’m currently testing. Games are frequently reduced to: Can I Death Cloud for enough? No? Okay, I guess I lose. Oh, I didn’t draw a Death Cloud? I guess I lose again. The mana has been a nightmare too, often forcing the use of trash like Twisted Abomination as a fixer. I’ll be the first to offer a mea culpa on my assessment of the Ravager matchup in my prior article, but I can honestly say that Ravager decks during the time of its writing (late February) were not as tuned and deadly as they are now.

I think that there is a Death Cloud deck out there, but it’s probably not the builds currently being tossed around. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind though that the effect is powerful enough to compete in the Standard environment. Hell, it’s Mind Twist, Armageddon, and Wrath of God rolled in to one card – how could it not be?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Skullclamp alone usually generates a game winning effect if left unanswered. The fact that so many decks start with”4x Skullclamp” should be evidence enough of its power. To combat it, the tide of hate is rising rapidly as Damping Matrix and Oxidize start finding their way into more and more starting lineups.

For my money, a deck has to have one of the three qualities discussed above to be competitive in this, the Age of the Clamp. Speed, the”big mana” engine, and uber-powerful game winning effects are what win right now. If you don’t have any of these qualities inherent in the deck you’re playing, you’re fighting a losing battle against the decks that do.

So what then can be done about this dilly of a pickle? What rogue decks are likely to be decent metagame choices for Regionals? Before opening that can on worms, I think it makes sense to discuss what the major weaknesses of the top decks and what strategies are liable not to have success. Aww… and you were hungry for a decklist by now, weren’t you? Sorry chums, this article is about feeding your brain and recognizing some of the global defining concepts of the format so that you’ll have a better grasp of things – it is not about hawt t3ch.

First and foremost, decks that pack a ton of dedicated hate for one or two particular matchups simply are not going to do well in a field as varied as Regionals. I must read at least three articles a day where someone purports to have the list that defeats Ravager Affinity eighty percent of the time and”holds its own” against the rest of the field while packing four copies of Shatter, Echoing Ruin, and Detonate straight up. Come on. I know you readers are smarter than that. Don’t believe this nonsense. If you maindeck a ton of hate for Ravager Affinity, you’re going to end up in an 0-2 hole after facing off against Zombie Bidding and R/G Land Destruction in the first two rounds. It makes perfect sense to dedicate some of your deck to the perceived most common matchup, but remember that Regionals is not a Pro Tour. It’s like a five hundred person Friday Night Magic replete with ten rounds of pure punishment. The cards you choose to maindeck should be maximally flexible vs. a diverse field. That would mean something like if you felt the need to”hate,” maindecking four Electrostatic Bolts instead of Shatter is better, because Electrostatic Bolt is likely to be useful against a wider range of decks while serving almost the same purpose against Affinity.

Second, and very quickly – don’t feel like you can play with counter magic in this format. You can’t. Standard does not favor the reactive deck right now, save Mono-White Control, which still has some game, as I understand it. I know that I won’t be playing it, but I hear MWC still has a few fans. So do Aerosmith, but I can’t understand that either.

I also believe that it’s smart to try and avoid hate intended for another archetype in the design phase. I have always subscribed to this concept in almost all of my rogue creations. Mike Flores discussed this in a piece called,”Splish Splash” and discussed the concept of”splash damage,” which I will distill here:

“The applications of Splash Damage are very subtle. It is typically not something that comes up in the design phase of deck building, but in the execution phase, as you finalize sideboard cards and agonize over the last cards of your main deck. It is something that you have to keep in mind if you are serious about playing your own deck in a wide and competitive tournament like Regionals. It demands that you know your opponents’ deck lists well, and that you understand the strategies that they will bring to a matchup to counter decks like yours, if not specifically yours. You may know in your heart that your SedentaryArcboundRavagerNeglectedInsufficientAffinity plays differently than the aggressive version, hoarding Mana Leaks to protect your Broodstars, but at the end of the day, the turn 1 Oxidize intended for the Disciple deck may be even more lethal for your development.”

I saw a pretty good G/U Charbelcher deck on Magic Online about a month ago. It ran about eight lands and gave me a sturdy thrashing the few times I played against it. It was impressive how quickly it accelerated and how easily it could thin out what few lands it had and then belch for a ton. It was also the first decent deck that I ever saw running Serum Powder. So, this build definitely had concept number one down cold – it had the speed needed to compete in Standard. Would I consider this deck for Regionals? Not a chance. It ran eight talismans, four Chrome Mox, and four Serum Powder for mana development. In a field full of artifact removal intended for Affinity, choosing this deck would be suicide. Damping Matrix, which is present in just about every deck not running Skullclamp and the like, also hoses it completely. This is a harsh example, but a good one; you have to know what’s out there and dodge the hate – the”splash damage” – to succeed at Regionals.

I’d like to change gears and talk about a few weaknesses that I perceive of the format’s defining decks. I’ll confine this discussion to just Ravager Affinity and Goblin Bidding, since these are the two that everyone is focused on beating. Most builds, between the main and the sideboard, do not have any way to remove an enormous creature. I’m talking Darksteel Colossus huge or amplified Kilnmouth Dragon huge. There’s huge, and then there’s Huge. A good deck needs the latter. Affinity builds are pretty much limited to Shrapnel Blast, and there’s only so much Goblin Sharpshooter and friends can do about a creature with toughness of seven and higher. If Buried Alive were still in print, I think that a reanimation strategy could do very well against the current field. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What’s the best way of getting out a Huge creature right now, then?

[wait for it]

Biiiiiiiiiig mana! [dun dun dun!]

The deck that achieves the proper balance of early game defense, acceleration, and Huge creatures to combat the two top decks in the format will end up a real contender. Stop lookin’ at my gut, will ya; I’m workin’ on it!

Another weakness is that both Rav and G-Bid (I despise the RAffinity moniker) don’t really deal with enchantments. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many enchantments outside of Worship and Ivory Mask in tandem that excite me right now. I even tried to build an Enchantress’s Presence deck with these in mind but quickly came to my senses. I think I was just looking for an excuse to play Zur’s Weirding, to be honest; I have a tendency to try and make cards that treated me right in the past playable again. Teddy K could speak tomes about my Thieving Magpie obsession. [Commence rolling of eyes… now. He tries to play it at least once a Standard season, and I have to flog him every time. – Knut] Now that I’ve fully discredited myself… go forth and design a bad deck with huge creatures and enchantments!

I don’t know what to do with the enchantment bit; there probably isn’t anything to be done there. It definitely is a noted weakness, I just haven’t thought long enough about how it could possibly be exploited. I needed to pass it on to cleanse myself.

[swallowing the handful of pebbles]

Dedicated hate is the solution that many are opting for against Ravager Affinity, for better or for worse. But how are you supposed to effectively hate Goblin Bidding? Include one-for-one kill cards to off a bunch of Goblins so they can come back later and beat your face in? That’s why the deck is so good, folks. Withered Wretch is about all I’ve got on the dedicated hate front for ze Goblinz. Yes, I’m so revolutionary that you should all call me Paul Revere. Still, the most obvious weakness is that neither deck deals with Damping Matrix, but we knew that already. In truth, it’s not even that effective any more, since most builds are already starting to maindeck answers to this nightmare hoser.

So… yeah. I haven’t got it all figured out yet. It’s still more than a month until Regionals, though. Hopefully I’ll have ruminated enough by then and distilled these musings into a pile of cards that I can shuffle. Maybe it’ll be good enough to put me back at Nationals, but I don’t know. Hopefully someone will learn something from this little window inside my head, and I hope it’s not all for naught. Ravager Affinity and Goblin Bidding are pretty degenerate. I’ve never been one to say that”if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” but players and designers better than me have already reached that point.

But I’m stubborn.

Jim Ferraiolo

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