Adapting To Smuggler’s Copter

The results are in! Smuggler’s Copter is flat-out crazy good! But is unbeatable? Ross Merriam gives some professional insight into the strange ways the Standard format is going to wrap around this flyer and the ways you can get ahead of it in the weeks to come!

#GPAtlanta October 7-9!

I was all set to play a G/W Tokens deck at #SCGINDY, since it seemed like the best shell for Verdurous Gearhulk, is quite powerful, and can punish unrefined decks in a Week 1 metagame. But the rest of the Roanoke crew was high on a G/W Aggro deck that looked like G/W Tokens but played quite differently. The key addition was Smuggler’s Copter, which was the other card in Kaladesh I was high on.

Everyone else seemed dismissive of the classic G/W Tokens and ultimately I asked a prescient question:

“Is Smuggler’s Copter just that good?”

A resounding yes convinced me that I would be making a mistake by not playing it, and I audibled.

And as we found out last weekend, Smuggler’s Copter is indeed that good. Every person in the Top 8 was playing the card, and all of them were maxed out on it.

That’s the full 32 copies, a feat that I don’t think has been matched since Grand Prix Dallas in 2011, where Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Preordain put 32 copies each into the Top 8.

Even archetypes that don’t look like natural homes for the vehicle, Grixis Emerge and G/B Delirium, found ways to use it, while those that didn’t failed to perform. Right now, it’s Smuggler’s Copter’s world and we’re all just living in it.

In a way, that makes our job in the coming weeks easier, since we can narrow our focus significantly and target aggressive decks with Smuggler’s Copter while ignoring lots of other decks. Sure, Smuggler’s Copter may be broken with players who remained obstinate looking back on this time with regret, but it’s important to temper the excitement and worry generated by a single tournament, even if this level of dominance on opening weekend is unprecedented.

There’s a clear next step to take, and it’s figuring out how to gain an edge in a format that is going to be warped by a single card at least for the foreseeable future.

The first and most obvious edge to gain is in Smuggler’s Copter mirrors. Many players are going to be joining the dark side this week, if they haven’t already, and that means a lot of midair collisions and fiery wreckages as their poor Thraben Inspectors and Sylvan Advocates are forced to throw themselves into other Pilots, only to miraculously survive and fight another day.

It’s not going to be pretty, but fortunately there is a better way, and Team Cardhoarder found it. R/W Vehicles was the top deck of the tournament, and it’s clear why. Veteran Motorist and Depala, Pilot Exemplar give you two ways to break Copter symmetry and attack with a 4/4.

Veteran Motorist’s scry ability also smooths out your draws in the early-game, which is very important in aggro mirrors, since both decks will likely be poor at playing from behind.

The rest of the deck is just window dressing, a smattering of solid creatures with a low curve and the best removal spells available in those colors. It all follows naturally once you start from the supposition that Smuggler’s Copter is the card to beat. And it is that realization that led to Cardhoarder’s dominance in the tournament.

As long as Smuggler’s Copter is the dominant card of the format, R/W Vehicles is going to be a deck to beat. But this doesn’t mean that other decks are without recourse. Most people expected Smuggler’s Copter to show up last weekend, but no one could have predicted how prominent it would be, and as a result most lists were simply underprepared. The Dwarves provide a natural advantage with cards that you want to play anyway, making it the most obvious choice. Other decks are just going to have to work a little harder.

As I noted in my article about Vehicles, instant-speed removal is going to be particularly important. That means prioritizing cards like Grasp of Darkness, Harnessed Lightning, and Skywhaler’s Shot over other options.

But there is a more fundamental problem with trying to answer Vehicles with one-for-one removal spells. Even when you have the Grasp of Darkness, you’re forced to commit to holding up mana on your opponent’s turn, at which point they always have the option of just attacking with their other creatures and forcing you to fall behind or use your valuable removal on something else. Players will only become more adept at this dance as they gain experience with Smuggler’s Copter and other Vehicles, and the advantage lies squarely with the driver.

Natural State and Fragmentize will of course be popular sideboard cards, but they are going to be problematic against decks that aren’t playing other targets, and if you’re overzealous in bringing them in, you will be stuck with dead cards too often.

The only answer is to be proactive. If you put pressure on your opponent, they are going to be less apt to use a valuable blocker to Crew a Vehicle. But we don’t want to trade against Smuggler’s Copter, Veteran Motorist, and Depala, Pilot Exemplar, all of which can provide card quality or card advantage. That means I want to play creatures that can dominate combat in the air and on the ground. A quick search yields two promising options:

Archangel Avacyn hardly needs an introduction and should be on everyone’s radar, given how well it matches up against Smuggler’s Copter and how powerful its transform trigger is in such an aggressive metagame. Even without transforming, it can pressure your opponent while completely nullifying their Smuggler’s Copters and is generally a nightmare for any opponent trying to get into combat, which is basically everyone.

There are plenty of good five-mana plays in this Standard environment and finding the balance between them is going to be tricky, but I expect Avacyn to reclaim her place at the top of the heap very soon.

Mindwrack Demon, on the other hand, has thus far failed to live up to the expectations placed on it during spoiler season. A very efficient, hard-hitting creature that enables one of the core mechanics of its set is obviously appealing, but as a four-mana play that didn’t affect the battlefield with anything other than its body, it matched up very poorly against Spell Queller and Reflector Mage and was thus a non-starter in a format dominated by Bant Company.

But times have changed, and Reflector Mage and Spell Queller barely made an appearance in Indianapolis. Mindwrack Demon survives Grasp of Darkness and trumps most other creatures in the air, making it quite appealing. It even stops Depala, Pilot Exemplar and Veteran Motorist from getting Smuggler’s Copter through, provided your opponent does not have both on the battlefield.

Abe Schnakes G/B Delirium list is a natural home for the card, provided you make one significant change:

Cutting Sylvan Advocate may sound sacrilegious, but Servant of the Conduit jumps into a Copter just as well, and accelerating out your powerful threats is a great way to gain an early battlefield advantage.

This list is 61 cards right now, which is not something I mind when testing, since the goal is to learn the most you can before refining any given list. That said, I’m hoping that Mindwrack Demon coupled with Grim Flayer gives you enough to enable delirium consistently, at which point you can cut Grapple with the Past and focus entirely on cards that affect the battlefield.

Scrapheap Scrounger is another solid option for this deck and gives you a way to gain value from your enablers so like R/W Vehicles you can play an attrition game on occasion. However, as it’s currently built, the deck has such a powerful high end and great topdecks because of Traverse the Ulvenwald that I would expect that aspect of the deck to take over in longer games.

The other adjustment you can make to adapt to Smuggler’s Copter is finding the cards that match up poorly against it and reevaluating them in light of that. For me, that card was Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. A card that helped to define Standard over the last year was among the worst cards in my deck, since it so often was four mana for a 2/2 and four life.

Smuggler’s Copter is great at pressuring planeswalkers, and in combination with Veteran Motorist and Depala, Pilot Exemplar, it can cleanly answer Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; Nissa, Voice of Zendikar; and Liliana, the Last Hope. Even without an Anthem effect, two activations of these planeswalkers will not provide a worthwhile advantage for the investment. And this issue only gets worse as more fliers like Mindwrack Demon and Archangel Avacyn make their way into the format.

All of these cards, and planeswalkers in general, are significantly less effective as long as Smuggler’s Copter dominates the format. They certainly aren’t unplayable, but they aren’t significant draws like they used to be. They will still be very good in midrange and control matchups, making them at worst great sideboard cards, but that change is significant.

And if you want to overwhelm your opponent with planeswalkers, it’s going to take more effort than simply casting them on-curve. Keeping your opponent’s battlefield clear with cheap removal or stabilizing the battlefield with defensive creatures will be paramount.

Take Chris VanMeters winning list from the weekend. Weaver of Lightning in the sideboard pairs with the removal and Gideon, Ally of Zendikars to let him transform into a control deck if he wants to. Weaver of Lightning looks to me to be the premier card for that role, since its ability is great against the many aggressive decks of the format and it can also lock down Smuggler’s Copter.

We’re used to planeswalkers being marquee cards in Standard and right now they may be as bad as they’ve ever been. It’s going to take some getting used to, and as the format changes and people adapt to Smuggler’s Copter, we will likely see them increase in number before reaching equilibrium, but Magic is played in the short-term. Every week is a new puzzle and it does you little good to build a deck that is going to be great a month from now if it can’t win today.

As I noted earlier, this is only the beginning of Kaladesh Standard. The oft-repeated wisdom of aggressive decks dominating Week 1 has stayed true, and I fully expect the midrange and control players to react in kind. For those people that enjoy bucking against the norm, there were some interesting decks that did well in #SCGINDY and could become top contenders with a little work.

The one I am most excited by is the G/B Graveyard deck Ryan Hovis took to a 33rd-place finish.

I lost to Ryan on Day 1 of the tournament and oftentimes during the match felt helpless. He is attacking from a very different angle as a dedicated Dredge deck. It’s very difficult to attack on the ground against this deck, and trading in combat is a losing proposition, since most of his creatures come back from the graveyard.

And racing is difficult, since he has plenty of ways to find Decimator of the Provinces and cast it on four or five mana by sacrificing Haunted Dead or Ghoulsteed. That means this deck can conceivably win on turn 4 with a strong draw. Smuggler’s Copter may be the best card in the format, but it is playing a decidedly fair game of magic. Synergy-laden decks like this one or perhaps something built around Aetherworks Marvel can overpower these aggressive decks that don’t have good ways of interacting with them.

Building these kinds of decks is particularly difficult, since small mistakes in design can make a huge impact on how effectively the deck operates. As we have more time with the cards, the best versions of these synergy decks will emerge and the metagame will become better-rounded.

But for now, the enemy is clear. It’s man vs. machine, and the race to find John Connor is on.

#GPAtlanta October 7-9!