You Lika The Juice? – Standard: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Saturday, June 13th - SCG 5K Atlanta!
Friday, May 29th – Windbrisk Heights shows up in 45% of all Top 8 decks at Regionals. Forty-five percent! That’s just insane. Used to be when formats grew so warped around a particular card or strategy, the Magic Community would let out a howl and Wizards would listen and react in some way…

“I wonder how Wizards is gonna have Tom LaPille spin Standard as a diverse format this time?”

This is what I asked Adrian Sullivan once StarCityGames.com dumped all the Regionals Top 8 decklists into their database and cranked out its awesome Event Summary feature. If you click on the Card Summary, the story from Regionals is clear – Windbrisk Heights decks are overwhelmingly dominant.

Check it out – Windbrisk Heights shows up in 45% of all Top 8 decks at Regionals. Forty-five percent! That’s just insane. Used to be when formats grew so warped around a particular card or strategy, the Magic Community would let out a howl and Wizards would listen and react in some way. And yet because Windbrisk Heights comes across as a fair card, surely not “broken,” when Spectral Procession (42% of all Top 8 decks) seems perfectly fair, Cloudgoat Ranger and Ajani Goldmane (both pushing 40 percent), they’re just really good cards, nothing to be worried about… it’s like everyone just shrugs and instead gleefully points out the few notable exceptions that managed to struggle through the choking kudzu of W/x token decks. Or they get distracted by the relatively large number of “distinct viable archetypes” and feel satisfied in the health of the format, yet ignore the fact that Standard is simply dominated by a handful of powerful Lorwyn cards that show up over and over and over and over in various mix-n-match configurations.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the top cards (outside of basic lands, painlands, and filterlands), with the cut-off being cards that showed up in at least 1 in 5 of all Top 8 decks:

Reflecting Pool — 52%
*Path To Exile — 52%
Kitchen Finks — 50%
Windbrisk Heights — 45%
Spectral Procession — 42%
Mutavault — 41%
Cloudgoat Ranger — 38%
Ajani Goldmane — 37%
**Treetop Village — 30%
Bitterblossom — 27%
**Glorious Anthem — 25%
*Zealous Persecution — 25%
Tidehollow Sculler — 23%
**Wrath Of God — 23%
Cryptic Command — 22%
Figure Of Destiny — 21%
*Volcanic Fallout — 20%
*Noble Hierarch — 19%
Wilt-leaf Liege — 19%
Murderous Redcap — 19%

We’ve got 4 cards from Alara block (*), 3 cards from 10th Edition (**), and a whopping 13 from Lorwyn/Shadowmoor. But it’s not just a disparity of numbers here; it’s how these cards are used. Of the four Alara cards, three would hardly be considered anything more than utility cards (with Noble Hierarch the exception). For the lynchpin, flagship, game-winning cards of the format, it’s all Lorwyn/Shadowmoor all the time. And as we see by the percentages, it is literally all the time.

That’s truly the heart of my dissatisfaction with Standard – seeing the same cards played against me over and over and over again. One of the central hooks for playing Magic is its ever-changing nature, yet now Standard is the very antithesis of that.

For comparison, let’s take a look at the most played cards at 2006 Regionals (again, from the StarCityGames.com deck database), what do we see?

Mortify — 36%
Umezawa’s Jitte — 36%
Dark Confidant — 29%
Mana Leak — 27%
Remand — 26%
Ghost Council Of Orzhova — 26%
Castigate — 24%
Isamaru, Hound Of Konda — 21%
Compulsive Research — 21%
Plagued Rusalka — 20%
Wrath Of God — 20%
Kami Of Ancient Law — 20%

Check it out – Umezawa’s Jitte, an artifact universally recognized as overpowered (“broken” even) and format-warping, barely cracked 1/3 of the Top 8 decks. To put it in perspective, even Ajani Goldmane and Cloudgoat Ranger are showing up in higher percentages than Jitte was! Also, the list of cards showing up in at least 1 out of 5 Top 8 decks is much shorter here for 2006, because there was a much wider variety of cards being played in successful decks.

(Though it is weirdly interesting that B/W decks were at the top of the heap 3 years back, only just not quite as dominating.)

So what do I want? What’s the point in my constant complaining? I surely don’t expect a ban-hammer to come down and fix things, but what I do hope is that someone over in Wizards’ R&D gets the point that things really, truly are not healthy in Standard, and that realization leads them to investigate why and learn from it. I’m certainly no professional game designer, but I suspect the why can be found in how Magic’s sets tend to fall along a “power cycle,” with some blocks being stronger than the ones before or after it. The idea being, you make one block’s power level strong, you pull back on the next block’s level to avoid power-creep. Why don’t they just keep power levels constant? Or at least try and better gage how a set’s power level measures up to the set that comes after it, even though that set would just be in its beginning stages. I’m sure that’s not easy to do, but it seems like a worthwhile goal.

GP: Barcelona does perhaps bring a glimmer of metagame hope with a truly potent combo deck powering onto the scene. I’m no fan of combo, but traditionally combo decks tend to even out the metagame by weakening aggressive decks (assuming they’re slower at winning than the combo decks) and thus making counter-based control decks more powerful. Right now the aggressive decks are just too powerful. While getting pounded by W/x Token decks in the PTQs, and then doing the pounding with Finest Hour Bant at Regionals, I noticed that if an opponent stumbles just a moment on their land draws or gets a touch of mana screw, the aggressive deck just runs them right over. Now I realize that’s what aggressive decks are supposed to do, that’s one of their strengths, but I’ve noticed it’s even more pronounced these days. In a lot of ways, it seems to me that having aggro be so powerful, to have their nuts draw so overwhelming, it really pushes luck into being a much more prominent factor in the outcome of games than it should be. There’s simply no time for tight or clever play to overcome even just a modest series of bad draws.

Having a deck like Cascade Swans doing well in the format might help shake things up a bit, cull the aggressive decks somewhat and give positioning strength to slower, controlling strategies that have been struggling against the aggro hordes. What do you think? One can only hope…

On a different note, the Card Summary report isn’t a complete cause for gloom and doom. I’m generally a glass half-full kinda guy, and it bothers me to be bothered. So in the spirit of looking for the silver lining, let’s take a look at some of the unusual cards appearing in just 1 or 2 Top 8 decks to honor those brave mages who broke from the herd and found success anyway.

I ran across this deck searching for Wooly Thoctar, a card we all know was truly pushed on the power scale, and yet hasn’t seen much Standard success of late. As a fan of Ancient Ziggurat decks, I found this decklist fascinating – Mike loaded this deck chock full of nearly every beefy three-drop creature in the format, perhaps to maximize the odds of Bloodbraid Elf Cascading into something huge. There’s no Rafiq Exalted silliness going on here – Mike is looking for pure beatdown, boosted across the board with the Lieges.

I ran across Daniel’s deck looking for who was running the four Mycoid Shepherds, a card alongside Spellbreaker Behemoth that is obviously pushed on the power scale for four drops, and yet hasn’t had a breakout performance on the metagame stage. Maybe Daniel’s deck will change all that? We’ve got another Ziggurat deck here chock full of creatures, including a ton of them with 5 power, from Woolly Thoctars to Behemoths of the Cliffrunner and Spellbreaker variety. Which of course makes the Shepherds’ special ability a bit more relevant. The lifegaining plus Naya Charm (a card I’m liking more and more) gives the deck more time to race if need be.

When I saw Viashino Slaughtermaster on the list of Top 8 cards I knew I had to investigate… and so I found this gem by Zachary King. Double Strike is a potent ability, and it’s always exciting to find it on an inexpensive creature, and King makes fine use of
it with the new powerhouse pump spell Colossal Might. The spell’s trample ability makes it particularly useful for punching damage through a world of token and persist chump blockers.

The Heat Shimmer in the sideboard is very interesting… I’m guessing it’s mainly being used as Anathemancers number 5 and 6?

I ran across this deck while searching under Etherium Sculptor, and as someone who’s had a ball with Master Transmuter and Thousand-Year Elixir it certainly made me smile! One card in here immediately struck me as clever – Elsewhere Flask. Sure, it combos nicely with Esperzoa as a card-drawing engine, but what’s even better is how nicely it serves as Anathemancer insurance. Draw some cards in the meantime, and when that pesky Zombie Wizard rears his ugly head… look ma, all I have are Islands in play! [Not sure this works, fella. – Craig.] I’m surprised Tezzeret didn’t make an appearance – perhaps there was card availability issues? The Guile in the sideboard is odd considering there are no counterspells in the maindeck and only four Negates in the board. Sanity Grinding insurance, maybe?

This is certainly not one of the B/W decks you’re familiar with! When Christopher opened on Fetid Heath and Tidehollow Sculler, his opponents figured they knew what was going on until they started getting hit by Raven’s Crime, Mind Shatter, and then a huge Nyxathid came down! Also, I think a lot of people forget that Demigod of Revenge isn’t just a Red card, so when five Black mana becomes available – WHAM! I imagine the discard-synergies of the deck benefited nicely from the opponent misunderstanding just how different this B/W deck is from what else is being played.

I ran across this deck looking for Lord of Extinction, an undeniably powerful card from Alara Reborn that has yet to really find a competitive home. David Castro’s Doran deck invited a couple copies to come play, and it’s got a great home in this list. As I wrote about when developing my B/G Neo-Elf deck, Lord of Extinction operates best when your opponent has been forced to burn precious removal spells on hard-to-deal-with creatures lower on the mana curve. Do you hold your removal spell for Lord while facing down Doran? Chameleon Colossus? Wilt-Leaf Liege? What about Dauntless Escort? I really like Scepter of Fugue in the sideboard as well; not only does it help stock the graveyard to make the Lord larger, but if you can force your opponent into top deck mode he’s going to have an even tougher time finding a solution to Lord or any of the other heavy hitters.

Speaking of Dauntless Escort, I’d really like to see a deck take the step of playing Wrath of God in the maindeck as mass removal that doesn’t touch your (temporarily) indestructible army. If you’re playing out a ton of creatures (alongside Escort) the last thing your opponent is going to expect is a one-sided Dauntless Wrath.

Okay, that’s it for this week. Next week I’ve got a Lord of Extinction deck I’ve been working on that I’m hoping to give a run at Friday Night Magic that I think some of you might find interesting. Also, EDH fans – if you’re in the area Richmond Comix will be holding a big Elder Dragon Highlander game Saturday, June 13th, just two weeks away. I will of course be recording the big deck shenanigans and covering my deck choice for you all.

Take care!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

P.S. I just wanted to extend my heartfelt sympathies to the Top 8 players from the Mid-Atlantic Regionals; if you guys were hoping for some fame and fortune with your decklists being highlighted by a Magic columnist, it’s sad those hopes were crushed somewhere in the pipeline between Dream Wizards and Wizards of the Coast. “Props” and “Slops” used to be a common feature of Magic columns and tournament reports, and whoever was “responsible” for getting those decklists sent in and/or put up on the Wizards home page deserves some serious slops. Epic fail, y’all.

P.S.S. For Dave Meeson and other Warped fans… this deck went 6-1-1 at a recent PTQ in Illinois and made Top 8:

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Mulldrifter

4 Siege-Gang Commander

4 Murderous Redcap

4 Elvish Visionary

3 Keeper of Progenitus

1 Broodmate Dragon

1 Hellkite Overlord

2 Nucklavee

4 Warp World

4 Fertile Ground

4 Trace of Abundance

12 Forest

9 Mountain


4 Thought Hemorrhage

3 Vithian Renegade

2 Vexing Shusher

2 Pithing Needle

4 Bloodbraid Elf

I believe the guy who played this deck plans on posting a tournament report on TheStarkingtonPost, so keep your eyes peeled!