Shifting Standard

In this week’s article, Brian tells you about the changes to the Standard metagame in the wake of #GPDFW that you need to be ready for this weekend at #SCGINVI in Las Vegas.

I wish this article were about my own experience at Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth this past weekend, but unfortunately I was among the many whose travel plans were upended by the ice storm that struck the area. When I woke up on Friday morning, I checked my flight status, which said that it was still running on time, so I was hopeful that I’d be able to make it. When I was about to head out the door, I checked again and saw that my flight was cancelled. I got on the phone immediately with the airline, and they rescheduled me for a flight at 5 PM that evening that was still supposed to make it out—a few hours later and that flight was cancelled too.

Everything out of San Diego leaving in time the next day was sold out, so I thought I was out of luck until I searched online and found a flight out of the Orange County airport on the same airline leaving early enough to potentially get me to the event. I called and made the switch (at no small cost), then I started talking with fellow delayed traveler Christian Calcano about looking into a car service to pick us up in order to beat the inevitably terrible cab lines that I expected at the airport when we arrived. My flight was scheduled to get in at 12:30 PM, and I expected round 4 to start around 1:30 or 2:00 with the weather delays, so it was cutting it close in any case. I went to bed early on Friday night to wake up in time to make my early morning flight and hopefully still be able to get to the tournament.

When my alarm went off at 4 AM, the first thing I did was check my flight status. I was disappointed but not surprised to find out that it too was cancelled. With no other options to get me to Dallas in time, I was going to have to sit this tournament out. This was a particularly frustrating event to miss since I’d been working on a new Standard deck for the past week that had been performing very well online. Thankfully, I still have the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas as an opportunity to play it, so not all is lost. Because of that, I’m going to keep the details of the deck under wraps until after that event, but expect an article and videos next week.

This week I want to look at the state of Standard going into that event. We’ve seen three Standard Grand Prix in as many weeks between Albuquerque, Vienna, and Dallas-Fort Worth, with very different looking Top 8s in each of them.

The story of Grand Prix Albuquerque was clearly Mono-Black Devotion with Pack Rat, as Owen Turtenwald won the event as one of four representatives of the deck in the Top 8. That tale might have been somewhat different if the very close third game of the finals had gone the other way, and that’s the story we saw the following week in Vienna. Mono-Blue Devotion made up nearly half of the Top 8 in Albuquerque and did similarly in Vienna, this time taking the title. Interestingly, Gray Merchant and friends were nowhere to be seen across the Atlantic, with not a single copy of the black devotion card making the Top 16.

However, black was not totally absent from the top finishers. Finishing in twelfth place was Andreas Ganz with a new take on black control that eschewed the devotion mechanic entirely in favor of a white splash for Blood Baron of Vizkopa.

The deck went largely under the radar in part due to finishing outside the Top 8 and in part because it looks so similar to the existing Mono-Black Devotion decks. The addition of white and the elimination of the deck’s reliance on devotion allow this build to play out differently, however, and Blood Baron in particular gives it a powerful tool against not only other black decks but also the aggressive white decks that have been growing increasingly more popular

The deck from Vienna that got much more attention was Pro Tour Return to Ravnica winner Stanislav Cifka’s take on U/W Control certainly due to both the pedigree of its pilot and the fact that he managed to break the Top 8 threshold.

The major innovation in this list is the inclusion of Last Breath. In a format characterized by the devotion mechanic, most decks have cheap creatures that function as the cogs in their color-symbol machine. Last Breath is great against not only the Ash Zealots and Cloudfin Raptors of the world but also against powerful higher-cost creatures like Master of Waves. One of the weaknesses of U/W Control has typically been its early game interaction, which is a big reason many players dip into black for cards like Doom Blade and Devour Flesh. Last Breath allows the deck to remain just two colors and still deal with problematic early creatures, even some that Doom Blade cannot kill like Pack Rat and Nightveil Specter.

Many people question playing U/W Control over Esper due to the latter’s access to a broader swath of cards, but those people have apparently never been mana screwed. There’s a lot to be said for having a stable mana base. You’re inherently stronger against aggressive strategies thanks to taking far less damage from your lands, and you’re far more likely to actually be able to have the appropriate colors to play all of your spells on time. You also get to play with Mutavault, which may not be quite as good as it is in the aggressive decks but still provides an excellent tool both on offense and on defense. It’s particularly good at brick walling small creatures entirely when combined with Jace since a 2/2 blocker is hard for a lot of creatures to get through when they’re being given -1 power when they attack.

Fast forward a week and these two decks are the stories of Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth. Well, the biggest story was the storm that left countless players and staff members unable to make it to the event, but the success of U/W and B/W Control are a close second. Last Breath and friends seem to have kept Mono-Blue Devotion down, as Dallas marked the first premier event since Theros has been legal that zero copies of Thassa showed up in the Top 8.

Or maybe it was just because Sam Black’s flight got cancelled.

The deck with the most representatives in the Top 8 was U/W Control, with two versions quite similar to Cifka’s list from Vienna both falling in the quarterfinals. William "Huey" Jensen piloted an even more controlling version to a finals appearance (you can read about that here), his second so far this season:

This deck has designer Andrew Cuneo’s touch all over it. With only a single Elspeth as a true win condition, this build of U/W is focused on doing everything it can to extend games as long as possible. If the game goes long enough, you can actually start casting Sphinx’s Revelation for nearly your entire deck each turn and reshuffling with Elixir of Immortality to both keep yourself from running out of cards and gain a truly absurd amount of life.

It is Elixir that enables this deck to play so many control elements and so few ways to actually win the game. Most control decks in Standard right now typically play some number of Elspeths, Aetherlings, and Blood Barons. While these cards are powerful, they are also very expensive, and they can easily clog up your hand in the early game and keep you from being able to defend yourself if you draw multiples. This deck doesn’t have that problem since at most your hand is "clogged" with a single copy of Elspeth.

While Elixir may not have actual impact on the board, it can at least serve to keep you alive when you’re under significant pressure and short on mana, something which cannot be said for more traditional win conditions. With Elixir, you don’t have to worry about your limited win conditions running out since you can ultimately win simply by shuffling until you run your opponent out of cards.

Huey’s dominating performance—his second straight Grand Prix Top 8 and fourth of the season overall—ended in the finals against relative newcomer Marlon Gutierrez of Mexico playing a B/W deck nearly identical to the largely overlooked list from Andreas Ganz in Vienna.

Gutierrez did not have an easy road to his championship. Not only did he have to overcome Huey in the finals, but he also defeated Ben Stark in the semis. Back-to-back victories over members of the 2013 class of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame is no small feat. If B/W Control were overlooked before, it certainly won’t be any longer.

Marlon’s final match against Huey helped illustrate the power and flexibility of this version of the deck. The plethora of removal certainly leaves B/W well positioned against opposing creature strategies, and Blood Baron offers a lot of power in the pseudo-mirror against Mono-Black Devotion. It’s not without game against control decks either. While Huey decisively won the first game, Marlon came back to win the next two on the back of a huge amount of disruption. Thoughtseize, Duress, and Sin Collector combined to tear Huey’s hand apart and left him helpless against Marlon’s onslaught.

It’s worth noting that not only does this list sideboard that much disruption but it also plays a huge amount in the maindeck—two copies of Duress and a Sin Collector in addition to the ubiquitous quarter of Thoughtseize. Six one-mana discard spells gives this deck a much higher chance of the often unbeatable start of discard spell into Pack Rat. I know I have faced down that opening more times than I’d like in the past few weeks, and it’s incredibly frustrating to have your lone removal spell plucked from your hand while your opponent builds a larger and larger army of Rats to overwhelm you. As if ruining countless games of Ravnica block Limited weren’t bad enough, Pack Rat is apparently here to stay in Standard as well.

These are new decks that you should certainly be prepared for if you’re looking to play Standard in the near future—if not at the SCG Open Series featuring the Invitational in Las Vegas, then wherever your gaming might take you. You can’t assume that the same plans you had against previous incarnations of similar decks will work. I watched several W/R Aggro decks fall to U/W Control over the weekend because they were leaning on Burning Earth against Esper, which is nearly a blank against U/W. Similarly, Blood Baron and the plethora of disruption that the B/W deck can bring to bear can significantly change the dynamic of the way a deck can match up against it compared to Mono-Black Devotion. What may seem to be small changes can bring about big shifts in how games play out.

Be ready.