You Lika The Juice? – New Standard, Same As The Old One

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Thursday, October 30th – There’s a brand new “large” expansion to explore, chock full of new cards, themes, and mechanics. There’s also a huge hole that’s usually significant, where the oldest block has rotated out. The maelstrom of new cards rushing in to fill the void of the old cards leaving is normally an exciting time. Only this time… nothing seems to be changing.

(A random thought I had after reading The Ferrett recent article while being immersed in the last week of the U.S. general election… how cool would it be to have a futures market like Intrade for archetypes in the Top 8 for big events in Magic? The Ferrett pointed out it would likely be an outrageous amount of work to set up, but a man can dream…)

I have to admit, this week’s YLTJ has been a tough one to write, and not just because I’m suffering from the mother of all head colds, the kind that feels like it’s giving your entire skull a never-ending squeeze, and the only way you can breathe through your nose is if you stand up and let everything drain… which makes getting a good night’s sleep a challenge. Nope, what’s sucked away my usual joy in writing about Magic is this sorry, sorry state of Standard.

The fall season is usually the peak of Magic excitement for me. There’s a brand new “large” expansion to explore, chock full of new cards, themes, and mechanics. There’s also a huge hole that’s usually significant, where the oldest block has rotated out. The maelstrom of new cards rushing in to fill the void of the old cards leaving is normally an exciting time. Some deck archetypes crumble, some adapt, and new ones rise from the ashes to have their time in the sun.

Only this time… nothing seems to be changing. After the release of Shadowmoor, Standard seemed to settle into three power centers: Reflecting Pool decks, Cryptic Command decks, and tribal-themes. The most successful and powerful decks straddled two of the three power centers: Toast and its various Five-Color Control descendents are Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command decks; Faeries and Merfolk are Cryptic Command/tribal decks. Notice though that all three power centers reside in Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block, and those power centers really lose nothing in the Standard rotation. It’s almost as if Coldsnap and Time Spiral Block never really existed for the past 8-12 months outside of Tarmogoyf and Ancestral Visions.

Just as a quick exercise, let’s go back to U.S. Nationals, pretty much the apotheosis of “old” Standard:

Red Deck Wins – 1st place – *(anti-Reflecting Pool aggro)
Chevy Elves – 2nd place – Tribal
Faeries – 3rd place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Red Deck Wins – 4th place – *(anti-Reflecting Pool aggro)
Reveillark – 5th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
G/R Goyf Aggro – 6th place – *(anti-Faerie/anti-Reflecting Pool aggro)
Quick n’ Toast – 7th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
U/G Control – 8th place – Cryptic Command

Half the Top 8 employed Cryptic Command, with an additional utilizing the strong tribal Elf theme, and the other three built pretty much as foils to the Cryptic Command decks. Demigod of Revenge works well against regular graveyard-centric removal and counterspells.

Okay, now let’s move forward a couple months, to the release of Shards of Alara and a rotation to the “new” Standard, as initially explored at the StarCityGames.com Win-A-Cruise tournament:

Faeries – 1st place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Cruel Control – 2nd place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Cruel Control – 3rd place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Merfolk – 4th place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Kithkin Backlash – 5th place – *(anti-Reflecting Pool aggro)
Reveillark – 6th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Justice Toast – 7th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Red Deck Wins – 8th place

Six of the eight decks fall firmly in the power paradigm, suggesting that nearly nothing fundamentally changed with the Standard rotation. Still, the format is new, still unexplored, let’s see what the subsequent tournaments show us…

A week later we get the Neutral Ground 1st Year Anniversary $1000 Standard Event:

Faeries – 1st place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Faeries – 2nd place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Reveillark – 3rd place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Faeries – 4th place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Quick n’ Toast – 5th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Quick n’ Toast – 6th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
U/W/G Control – 7th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
W/U/G Midrange – 8th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command

Good lord, this is even worse news, all eight fall inside the same old paradigm. And this was a relatively small tournament where you’d hope that some rogue strategies had at least a decent shot at making it through!

That brings us, finally, to this past weekend’s StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open, otherwise known as “Chris Woltereck House Downpayment Tournament Series.” What’s with this guy? Can somebody get him on the PT gravy train already and let some of the small fish have a shot at the big money?!? Seriously though, Chris is a super-nice guy, and if someone’s got to be dominating the Virginia tournament scene, I’m glad it’s Chris!

Anyway, I’m sure you’ve checked out the results in the deck database, but here’s a summary of the Top 8:

Cruel Control – 1st place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
White Weenie – 2nd place – Tribal
Faeries – 3rd place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Kithkin Backlash – 4th place – *(anti-Reflecting Pool aggro)
Merfolk – 5th place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Faeries – 6th place – Cryptic Command/Tribal
Reveillark – 7th place – Reflecting Pool/(anti-Cryptic Command)
Cruel Control – 8th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command

Premium writer Gerry Thompson had this evaluation of the format: “Overall, there seems to be a lot of diversity. You can probably play whatever deck you are comfortable with and expect to do well with it.” Really? Are we looking at the same results?

Granted, he was likely also including the 9th-16th place decks in his consideration, and you could certainly find some interesting variance to the power paradigms there:

Quillspike Combo – 9th place – *(mechanic-driven: Persist)
Vengeant Weenie – 10th place
Vengeant Weenie – 11th place
Reveillark – 12th place – Reflecting Pool/Cryptic Command
Token Aggro – 13th place – *(mechanic-driven: Persist)
Elves – 14th place – Tribal
Elves – 15th place – Tribal
Red Deck Wins – 16th place

The point, though, is this – nothing much seems to be shaking the power paradigm of the old Standard as we move into the new. It’s a format dominated by Cryptic Command, Reflecting Pool, and Lorwyn tribal synergies — most notably ones that can run Cryptic Command. If you read all the premium guys, just about every serious Standard deck they put forth runs four of that ridiculously broken Blue instant. It’s depressing.

Now, I knew this dynamic intellectually going in to the $5K, but thought I could be clever. For one thing, as lots of other people postulated, Gaddock Teeg seemed primed to wreck house, especially since Firespout seemed to be benched for the more reliable Wrath of God as mass removal of choice. For another, no one seemed to be using too many of the new cards, and when you can play cards people are unfamiliar with, you can often steal games out of nowhere. I had finally settled on two decks, and decided on Clarity as my “A-game” deck because I thought it had more raw power and would be a better choice in a long tournament. If I ended up playing in a side event, I’d give my more janky “B-game” deck a try.

I was a little worried about land destruction decks that might be out there gunning for Reflecting Pool decks, so I added a 25th land and worked to reduce my overall casting cost (which is why, sadly, the Glen Elendra Archmages ended up getting cut). I took some heart that Billy Moreno non-aggro anti-Five-Color deck had evolved very close towards what I had been working on, with Teeg, Reveillark, Doran, and Sculler. Only my deck featured the awesome new Stoic Angel with Silkbind Faerie technology (and a 3/3 flier with Doran out there)! Surely that had to be good.

Ehh… or not. Seems that, Teeg or no, what I really needed was just a good ol’ Wrath of God or three in this deck. So many times my opponent would just build up far more threatening a board presence than I was capable of controlling or matching and eventually punching through.

Another annoyance – you really don’t want to get into creature combat with your early drops; too often, Teeg and Sculler couldn’t attack or block because the consequences of the unleashed spell would be worse than the points of damage I was taking. It was like I was playing with Walls of Hats.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow details of my 2-3 performance; it was a cringe-fest of bad breaks, mana flood, and dumb mistakes. Here’s a quick run-down. I started the day against a more traditional Reveillark deck and lost the two games he drew turn 2 Sculler, turn 3 Sculler, turn 4 Sculler (ripping the 3rd one off the top in the third game and played it apologetically). Round 2 I managed to stay ahead of a Grixis LD deck, play some spells and get some beaters that stuck in for lethal. It didn’t hurt that he got mana screwed one game. Round 3 I got stomped by a weird Goblin/Cryptic Command deck that boarded in Stillmoon Cavaliers; when he dropped his third one on turn 5 of the second game, I realized with horror that just about my entire army was made up of White creatures, and he destroyed me as I dug furiously for the Bottle Gnomes or Sowers I boarded in. Round 4 I managed to stay ahead of the burn against a Demigod Red deck thanks to some pretty good draws involving Doran of the large toughness. Round 5 I got steamrolled by Kithkin despite stranding multiple Spectral Processions and a Mirrorweave in his hand with Teeg. This was the match I decided that I really did need those Wraths of God.

So I dropped at a miserable 2-3 and decided to try out my Plan B deck. Here’s what I had cooked up:

Those who’ve been following my column in the past weeks will recognize some elements of my previous mana-control decks here; the inspiration for this particular hybrid came from the suggestion of Soul’s Fire in the deck to combine with Deus of Calamity, which lets you dish 6 points of damage at instant speed and destroys a land if you target your opponent; not bad for three mana! Since I’ve also been considering the Quillspike combo deck, it struck me that Soul’s Fire was also a kill card for the combo if you can’t get through with the infinitely large Quillspike. So I decided to merge the two decks together and try it out. Reveillark was a late addition when it occurred to me that all my creatures outside of the Deus and Finks could be brought back with Reveillark, and that gives a nice way to re-establish the combo if you opponent, say, kills a Devoted Druid early on.

I get matched up against another Reveillark deck, and I managed to steal one after he mulligans and I play a turn 2 Fulminator to nuke one of his lands. He doesn’t draw a second land and I finally drop a Deus of Calamity and he scoops. The other two games he does what Reveillark does and owns the creature fight, adding insult to injury by Sowering my Reveillarks and then casting Wrath of God.

Since this is an 8 man side-tournament, it’s single-round elimination. I’m done.

I end up leaving very disappointed in my ideas, my deckbuilding skills, and the format as a whole. The most exciting time of the year for Standard and it already feels stale and boring. I contemplate skipping States altogether, a tournament I’ve only missed once since 1998 and that was involuntary.

A few days pass and my foul mood has passed. Of course I’ll be at States! I take some heart from the Reveillark deck by Michael Scheffenacker, who placed 7th at the $5K; it has a lot of the same elements I had in my deck, namely the Teegs and Dorans, only he also had the Wraths of God I so desperately needed. I imagine I’ll retool my deck to be more in line with this one:

In closing, here’s a thought experiment: what if the DCI banned Cryptic Command and Reflecting Pool? What would the metagame look like? Not that I expect any action of that sort, and I’m not even sure if that would be a good thing, but it’s interesting to think about…

See you next week!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

Listening to:
Be OK, by Ingrid Michaelson
Kool Thing, Sonic Youth
It’s Alright, by Dar Williams
Letter from an Occupant, The New Pornographers
Shadrach, Beastie Boys