White Standard

White has positioned itself far above its color competitors in the first week of the new Standard format. Sam Black analyzes the tilted color balance of the format he expects to see at #SCGINVI this weekend in Columbus.

SCG Invitational in Columbus April 15-17!

It’s been a while since we’ve had a Standard format where White Weenie was the best first-week aggro deck. Lately, that’s been Mono-Red. Much like when Mono-Red is the best deck the first week, I don’t expect white aggressive decks to have a stranglehold on the format, but there are a lot of factors going into why white is so far ahead at the moment, and while we’ll probably learn better ways to build control decks and the format will slow down a little, I don’t know that we can expect white as a color to see substantially less play.

This weekend at #SCGBALT, 27 of the Top 32 decks were white (fifteen were blue, twelve were green, eleven were black, and six were red by my count). I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s very hard to avoid playing white in this format. Ormendahl, Profane Prince and Archangel Avacyn’s indestructibility join Hangarback Walker in punishing removal spells that don’t exile, which white nearly has a monopoly on (black, red, and green can all do it, but at horrible rates).

To some extent this problem solves itself; people don’t play Hangarback Walker as much if most people are building their decks to deal with it well, which mean decks that don’t have good answers can just hope to avoid playing against it. However, even ignoring the exile ability, white just has better removal than other colors.

Black’s primary removal spells are Ultimate Price and Grasp of Darkness. Neither of these can interact with World Breaker, Dragonlord Atarka, Dragonlord Dromoka, or Dragonlord Silumgar. There aren’t as many gold creatures as there used to be, but Ultimate Price can’t kill animated lands, and it’s occasionally blank or nearly blank against Eldrazi decks. Grasp of Darkness is a bit better, but costing BB is a very serious restriction. Ruinous Path is still available, but as we saw in the previous format, that card just isn’t very good; three mana is just too steep for sorcery-speed removal.

Red’s removal is just embarrassing if you’re not playing a madness package to support Fiery Temper and Lightning Axe. For whatever reason, red has almost entirely lost the ability to target players with its burn spells, so it’s hard to justify playing them because they just won’t do anything against decks that don’t use small creatures. If you happen to play a lot of Dragons, Draconic Roar isn’t a bad card, but it’s very narrow.

Red’s options for dealing with Archangel Avacyn or Archangel of Tithes are just horrible outside of Lightning Axe, which is great (it’s really hard to put Tears of Valakut in a maindeck). Burn from Within and Fall of the Titans actually look relatively good, which says more about how bad the situation is, given how rarely people are generally looking to play X-spells in Constructed.

And then there’s Declaration in Stone, a cheap answer to any creature with one-sided Maelstrom Pulse bonus text that offers an easy way to sweep up tokens. Yes, you give your opponent Clues, but if you’re playing an aggressive deck, you can often use the window gained by removing their creatures to kill them before they can use the Clues, and if you’re a control deck playing against aggressive decks, you often don’t care about the cards they draw after you’ve established control, as they can be easily dealt with once you’ve pulled ahead.

There are midrange matchups where the cards can matter, but even then, that kind of deck is usually so good at grinding that both players will always have something to spend their mana on anyway, so giving them the Clue isn’t that big of a deal. The drawback is like Path to Exile or Goblin Guide where it sounds pretty bad, but in practice, what the card does is more than worth it.

The biggest problem with Declaration in Stone is that’s a sorcery, so it won’t usually be able to answer lands or properly deal with Archangel Avacyn, and sometimes Collected Company will be a problem, but if you want good instant-speed removal, white offers Stasis Snare, and it’s required to cast Anguished Unmaking, so white also offers the most versatile instant removal spells.

As for threats, white’s basically on top there too. Red doesn’t have anything on the level of Monastery Swiftspear, black’s creatures are basically all bad, blue’s power is almost all tied up in Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Reflector Mage (which is also white) because it barely even has any playable fliers, and green’s lost Llanowar Elves or equivalent, replacing it with Loam Dryad or creatures that cost two mana; these things are serviceable, but a huge hit to Green’s power.

Meanwhile, white has the best aggressive one-mana creatures, the outstanding Thalia’s Lieutenant, Knight of the White Orchid, and then Archangel of Tithes and Archangel Avacyn up the curve. It also has the best planeswalker in Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (which I’m not quite as down on as others).

White has the best threats and the best answers. It doesn’t need any other colors, though other colors are easy enough to splash that we don’t just see mono-white decks. None of the other colors have the versatility to stand on their own the same way, with Mono-Red Eldrazi coming closest.

If everyone has to play white, what’s the best white deck? That feels like the heart of understanding the format at the moment. We’ve seen the early lead taken by Bant Company and Human Aggro. Bant Company is the easiest deck to port from the old format, though I will note that I think Jim Davis did a great job updating with new cards, and Duskwatch Recruiter in particular is excellent in that deck. Still, an updated deck from the old format is an obvious starting place, which gives it an advantage over new strategies that have had less time for tuning.

The Human decks aren’t ports, but they’re about as obvious as decks get. Thalia’s Lieutenant is one of the strongest cards, and building around it restricts your options enough that the final product is very straightforward. That said, I’m really impressed by Kellen Pastore’s second-place mono-white deck.

It’s very easy to splash blue or green into this deck. Port Town / Fortified Village and Prairie Stream / Canopy Vista have very little cost if the rest of your lands are Plains and Knight of the White Orchid can find your splash color, so you essentially get 12 sources without even needing to play an off-color basic land, but the splash isn’t entirely free. You don’t always draw the right mix of lands, and a single land entering the battlefield tapped can be devastating for the deck’s ability to curve out, which is essential to its success.

Kellen kept to a very low curve and stayed white, allowing for an extremely low land count and higher threat density, which is very important in a deck where all of your cards are better if you have more creatures.

Kellen’s mix of one-drops looks arbitrary and bad, but Kellen recognized the importance and power of Declaration in Stone and doesn’t want to lose two creatures to the spell, even if they’re one-drops, because raw creature count can be crucial when you have so many cards that pump all of your creatures and Hanweir Militia Captain counting creatures.

The only creatures Kellen plays four of are creatures that do something when they enter the battlefield, so it’s not quite as bad if they get killed (and they’re just the best cards anyway, so you wouldn’t want fewer than four). The other creatures are more interchangeable, so where there’s value in having a mix, there’s very little cost to doing it. Reflector Mage is another threat that pushes you toward wanting a mix of creatures so that you don’t get multiples stuck in your hand when one gets bounced, and another reason that it’s more acceptable to play four copies of creatures that do something when they enter the battlefield, as those are less appealing to bounce.

I also love the use of Gryff’s Boon, a card I don’t think a lot of players had on their radar for Constructed. This aura is from the Rancor school of Auras, where it will play something like a piece of Equipment, except that, unlike Equipment, it doesn’t have a high initial cost, and unlike Rancor, it’s not gone forever if your opponent kills the creature you target while it’s on the stack.

Gryff’s Boon is great for getting Consul’s Lieutenant through or for making sure that your Incited Rabble connects with the opponent rather than suiciding into their blocker, and it also allows your potentially huge Thalia’s Lieutenant or Westvale Cult Leader to connect unexpectedly.

Playing only three Always Watching looks very odd to me, but it is a lot of mana for the deck and I can understand that Stasis Snare is likely necessary to answer opposing Archangel Avacyns.

The small change I’d be most likely to make is cutting a 2/1 (I can see arguments for cutting any of the three) for a fourth Town Gossipmonger. While I respect building to beat Declaration in Stone, I think you can potentially flip one and not another if you need to play around it, and I think it plays so well with Gryff’s Boon and Always Watching that I’d want the full four because I think it’s just better than the other one-drops.

The White Weenie mirror between mono-white and white with a splash is interesting. The decks that are splashing have to play a higher land count, which means they get to play Archangel of Tithes, which is great in the mirror, but there’s a catch. If they come out slower because of the Archangel and then it gets hit by a Declaration in Stone or a Stasis Snare, it’s a huge tempo hit that will likely cost them the game.

Dwayne Graham’s take is interesting. Splashing Tireless Tracker over Reflector Mage seems insane to me, especially with only 22 lands in the deck, meaning it will be hard to trigger Tireless Tracker. On the other hand, green offers some interesting sideboard options. The interaction between Evolutionary Leap and Ulvenwald Mysteries is slow but incredibly good at doing what it does, and Ulvenwald Mysteries even makes a Human for Thalia’s Lieutenant. Also, Dromoka’s Command is excellent, especially in the mirror, where killing Always Watching at instant speed is a huge blowout.

Outside of Bant and Humans, the other major white archetypes are W/B Midrange and Esper Control. The big divide in W/B Midrange is whether or not to play Thought-Knot Seer and Eldrazi Displacer, but the core of either deck is very good. The higher land and more controlling position of this deck allows the use of Archangel Avacyn, and black allows you to pair it with Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, which, outside of being a great card on its own, allows you to force the issue and flip Archangel Avacyn whenever you need to.

The biggest advantage of adding black to the deck is probably just that you have Shambling Vent in your deck, but the ability to attack opposing hands is great, especially as people develop a better understanding of what they need to be prepared for and how to do it, where a timely discard spell can negate their plans.

Esper is a trickier deck to build, as being three-color opens a lot of options. Finding the right mix or removal can take time, and it’s easier to do when you know what you’re trying to answer. Ali Aintrazi had the highest finish with Esper, and his take makes heavy use of Foul-Tongue Invocation and Ojutai’s Command to offset life lost by Anguished Unmaking and Painful Truths. I’m not sure that I like leaning on black removal over Declaration in Stone here, but it does help maximize the amount of instant-speed plays in the deck, and because this deck’s relying on Painful Truths for card advantage, the gains are relatively incremental, so the cards given to your opponent by the Clues from Declaration in Stone would have a relatively high chance of being costly.

As for the non-white decks, the only one to make Top 8 was Todd Anderson’s.

While Todd lost to Kellen’s White Weenie deck, I can imagine that his deck might generally have a good matchup there, as it’s a spot where Thing in the Ice really shines. On the other hand, Todd’s deck is capable of some clunky draws that take time to sift through, and, as always, a timely Declaration in Stone can break Todd’s big trump. I’m sure he’ll discuss the deck in detail, but I like the core of cheap red card draw with Drownyard Temple and Pyromancer’s Goggles, and this deck gets to make good use of Fiery Temper.

I love Fall of the Titans here, but I wonder if it wants Burn from Within as well so that it can answer Hangarback Walker and Ormendahl. While Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Thing in the Ice are great cards in this deck, I’m not actually sure if it’s worth splashing blue to expose yourself to creature removal rather than playing a creatureless mono-red Pyromancer’s Goggles deck, though it likely is, especially because a lot of the gains of going creatureless are mitigated after sideboarding when your opponent gets to remove their dead cards.

Historically, the first week’s aggro deck does a lot worse after people build their decks testing against it, so we should see a decline in this deck’s success in the upcoming weeks, but I’m not sure what the next predator will look like. It’s hard to compete with the speed of White Weenie and the resilience of Bant Company at the same time, so what I’ve seen suggests that the solution is to find a stronger proactive plan that may be less obvious, rather than to try to build a deck to react the metagame we’ve seen.

There are a lot of powerful things you can set up in this format later in the game, but for now, the first task appear to be getting out of the early turns without losing to huge white creatures out of a deck with so many ways to pump its team that it can play out like Modern Merfolk.

SCG Invitational in Columbus April 15-17!