With the fresh wave of previews, rotation is nearly upon us. I’m filled with an excitement while pondering the upcoming metagame of Standard, a format that I wrote off long ago. No matter how bad it gets, Standard has been the most consistently popular competitive format in the game because of this safeguard. Cards that make playing Standard miserable and are a plague to the format’s health have an expiration date. That date is right around the corner and my body is ready.
I have been playing a ton of Commander and Modern lately due to the state of my favorite format. These two formats have been consistently wonderful for getting my Magic fix in, but I miss casting my three-mana countermagic, overpriced sweepers, and suspect win conditions. Standard, with its limited range of sets, is the best when the format’s health is strong. Control feels great, preparing for just a handful of decks and having the tools to easily defeat them.
In Modern, or any older format, control players must get lucky with the pairing variance. It’s nearly impossible to prepare for every flavor of aggro, midrange, control, ramp, combo, and prison deck out there. The variety of decks in the current Modern is great and control is viable; however, I miss the controlled chaos which is what control typically experiences in competitive Standard play.
The backbone of control in Standard is the efficacy of its removal. There are no shortages of good removal spells in the current Standard, but their ability to remove creatures before the damage is done is where we fall short. You will see spurts of control success in Standard events, typically behind the Dimir Control shell.
This is due to the strength of the black-based removal spells, even in a metagame filled with cards that never should have been printed. Banning after banning took place over the last year and a half, nothing putting a dent in the format’s health. It seemed that the cards continued to get pushed past the acceptable power boundaries, especially creatures, overloading the removal capacity of Standard control decks. These few breakthroughs we’ve seen were few and far between, prompting me to hang up my Cancels until this highly anticipated rotation.
Once I saw previews for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, the set that will trigger rotation, my deck-creator mind started racing. I’ve been building control decks since the early 2000s and the euphoric experience of post-rotation brewing has not lessened since. I still break out the spreadsheet, plot which cards are staying and which are going, and determine the best course of action for the newest frontier.
There will be earth-shattering losses for Azorius-based control strategies; however, I have some hope for what Dimir has to offer once the dust settles.
The black-based removal that’s leaving is notable, even though it does not spell doomsday for control fans. With the loss of Throne of Eldraine, Theros Beyond Death, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and Core Set 2021, we will lose Heartless Act and Eliminate. These two removal spells are very popular, especially the former, seeing play in aggro, midrange, control, and ramp decks since their release. I wrote piles of love letters that praised the creators of Heartless Act, giving it the coveted title of Doom Blade early on. It has been the closest we’ve had to the iconic removal spell and gaining more strength with each passing month as creatures with counters on them have dwindled in the metagame.
Heartless Act seemed close to irreplaceable, until I saw the preview for Power Word Kill. That removal spell may have been created as the heir to Heartless Act’s throne, giving all archetypes the boost in black-based removal it would have desperately needed. Black decks draw success from their removal spells, and often their reason for existence.
I tend to gravitate toward Azorius-based control in most situations, mainly drawn to the better sweepers it offers. If the two-mana removal from black is close to Doom Blade, it’s an entirely different story. Heartless Act had me abandon my favorite guild on multiple occasions in Standard. I’m not sure if Power Word Kill on its own could do that to me, but that was not the only gift that recently unveiled itself for control enthusiasts.
Infernal Grasp is the clean supplemental removal replacement for all black-based decks in the future Standard. Eliminate played this role for months, giving users an additional option after four copies of Heartless Act. This is another vital trait for control decks, especially those that spawn after rotation. Having just four strong removal spells is often not enough to slay the initial wave of aggro decks that players gravitate to in an unknown field.
The accepted truth of post-rotation competitive play is to choose the safe aggro deck and not attempt to craft a control deck until the field has settled. The most success I’ve had in the game occurs in the early stages of the metagame, stomping primitive aggro decks with powerful control elements before they can adapt to control. I’ve always flipped that logic, and with the possible return of live play, I hope to do the same in Roanoke very soon.
Infernal Grasp may take a primary role if Power Word Kill has too many targets it cannot defeat. This will depend on the upcoming previews, what’s rotating, and what will rise to the top in the creature category. If the new Standard is full of Angels, Demons, Devils, and Dragons, Infernal Grasp becomes the removal champion for control decks. There will be clear indicators if this is going to be the case, especially with the talented folks we have here that plan on spending countless hours in preparation as well. Luckily for me, my colleagues spend a lot of time with creature nonsense, giving me the perfect view on what the metagame will look like and what I must do to defeat it.
The life loss on Infernal Grasp is the sole downside. This removal spell eliminates a creature without preconditions, taking it off the battlefield as quickly as it arrived. I love to see this design on removal spells, especially with as liberal as they have been with their development over the last couple of years.
There was a time where Doom Blade was a bad word for the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) team, and they swore to make us pay dearly while attempting to remove a creature on Turn 2. The spells that came after Doom Blade left were comically bad, often ruling black-based control decks out of the question for competitive play. It’s likely that the increased power level of creatures embarrassed the capabilities of removal, prompting the folks in charge to up the ante for black decks. If that’s the reason, control players soon will see strong dividends.
Standard is about to drop in power level, more so than we have seen in a long time. This is good for a host of reasons, but removal may be the biggest winner in this exchange. While the creatures have continued to drop in strength over the last couple of sets, the black-based removal has stayed strong. This means less devastating enters-the-battlefield triggers, less resiliency, and less punishment for creatures left on the battlefield too long. Removal that can cleanly take out most targets, even those that have been on the battlefield for a bit, is as good as gold. Infernal Grasp has a two-life cost attached to it, but that seems like a small price to pay to kill anything.
Removal is at its best when the creatures are weak, and control’s success is tied to that scenario. I often yearn for better card draw, countermagic, and win conditions when preview season hits, but this upcoming rotation is a completely different ballgame. I’m positive that the carryover of Power Word Kill, united with the release of Infernal Grasp, will give Dimir Control the advantage against most powered-down creature decks in the new Standard. It’s tough to say what decks will be dominant this early; however, it’s advantageous to begin to identify the strong cards that will remain. Looking at the creatures that are sticking around gives me high hope in control’s Standard success, especially with the death of Sultai Ramp, a deck that has tormented control for months.
With the Simic-based big mana deck dead, control’s natural predator has vacated the habitat. Looking at the top decks in recent SCG Tour Online events, the rotation will have a bigger impact now than ever before. All that will remain are scraps, easily targeted by black removal spells that control decks can use on Day 1.