Spreading Standard

Pro Tour Champ Ari Lax spent his weekend with a deep run at the latest Standard battleground! The format is starting to shrink down to just a few decks at the top…or is it? Ari provides what he believes to be the force secretly driving the format and what it means about its future!

Seven W/U Flash, four R/W/x Vehicles, four B/G Delirium, one R/B Zombies.

Despite what Grand Prix Providence and Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur seems to insinuate with only four archetypes between sixteen top decks, this is a very open Standard format. I chose to play Mardu Vehicles, not because I thought it was the end best deck in the format or even the absolute best deck for the week, but because four days post-Pro Tour wasn’t enough time to refine the more raw ideas I had and Mardu was simply good enough.

Standard right now is secretly driven by mana. There are a lot of strong cards in the format with small synergies that boost them up, but at the same time there aren’t a ton of full-deck build-arounds that force you to play a ton of raw synergies. When you account for the number of Spell Quellers floating around, the number of these all-in decks falls even further (Aetherworks Marvel can’t beat W/U Flash, to give one example).

Once you realize your deck is a combination of packages without a true linear gameplan, the reason mana matters so much becomes clear. You aren’t tied to any given configuration of spells. You can pick and choose what spells beat the flavor of the week and go for it.

Let’s lay out the rules of the mana:

The allied-color core of Battle land plus Shadow land has a very specific place. You have to want to be playing specific allied-color cards, but also be very much based in one color and not want to splash the enemy of that color. You also have to have good reason to not want to play Aether Hub, which usually is not having energy production on-color and also having basically no use for colorless mana.

Enemy colors…. that’s a completely different story. There are multiple configurations here.

The first is similar to what you see in Mardu Vehicles. If you commit to being able to function off three mana, you can get completely wild. You effectively have untapped two-color lands in the fastlands, allowing you to pull off decks like Lee Shi Tian’s R/W double splash Vehicles easily.

Playing the Battle for Zendikar creature-lands limits your mana a lot more than the “Mardu Vehicles” style of mana. You can still get three colors, but it isn’t completely free. You actually need to do work on your numbers to make it happen. The Pro Tour Kaladesh finals were perfect examples of this. You can either be base-allied color and splash the third enemy in a wedge like Carlos Romao or base-enemy colors splashing the middle to make a wedge like Shota Yasooka. Also worth noting is that you can’t expect to perfectly curve out with either of these configurations, but you can make untapped mana at specific times to cast early spells.

Now let’s talk about some of those powerful cards and the synergies between them. These are all definite good things, but they all have unexplored ground that the mana in the format opens up.

At least for this weekend, the biggest driver of the Standard metagame was Selfless Spirit plus Archangel Avacyn. As we saw basically all last rotation, being able to transform Archangel Avacyn is absurdly powerful.

While W/U Flash looks like a clunky midrange deck in the face of one-mana 3/2 Toolcraft Exemplars, Archangel Avacyn is the card that lets you eventually catch up. Once it transforms, you have control. While it looks like a deck that would struggle if the battlefield starts clogging up with Spider tokens or similar cards, it can break through.

There’s no reason a similar but different deck can’t do the same.

Archangel Avacyn’s transform trigger also plays well with threats that survive the three-damage sweep. Foremost of these is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, with Smuggler’s Copter not far behind. I’m also interested in Scrapheap Scrounger as a threat that comes back from the dead post-transform to crew your lingering Vehicles.

Scrapheap Scrounger brings us to black. Black is the actual direction I wanted to discuss, because there is an amazing black card that plays very well with a three-damage sweeper.

That card is Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. Kalitas is not only a massive blowout if you transform Archangel Avacyn via making tons of Zombie tokens and surviving, but it is also another way to transform Archangel Avacyn by sacrificing a previous Zombie token. This might be a bit of a win-more, but sadly I couldn’t find a natural Zombie or Vampire to sacrifice that I actually wanted to play. Asylum Visitor is close but also quite bad.

This list is definitely a bit off on some numbers like land count, artifacts, and removal count, but there’s some weird stuff that is really interesting. The one I like the most is that you can transform Archangel Avacyn via the legend rule with your multiple non-Angel legendary creatures. These aren’t quite as immediate as the free sacrifice of Selfless Spirit, but an end-step Archangel Avacyn into “untap, set up a trigger” isn’t that terrible. It is very possible three or even four Kambal, Consul of Allocation is right in large part because of this interaction. Also worth noting is that you can +1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; attack; and then cast another Gideon and keep the new one to get a trigger.

There is also the sideboard Fumigate plus Selfless Spirit setup. This is transplanted from the W/U deck but is fairly under-the-radar because of all the flashier interactions in that deck. Plague Winds are really nice.

I’m also not stretching the mana to a third color. I think the payoff of double black spells and double white spells is high enough that I don’t want to get too crazy, and there are only so many tapped lands leading to four- and five-drops that I can expect Cultivator’s Caravan to carry. Cultivator’s Caravan is also why I want to play Toolcraft Exemplar and why I’m sure I’m short on Scrapheap Scrounger. You actually need three power creatures to crew your “crew 3” Vehicle.

If I would consider a third color, it would be somehow fitting Reflector Mage in. While Reflector Mage isn’t as dominant as it was last year, it serves a very important role that you can borrow from the W/U deck: establishing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Gideon is absolutely dominant as long as you resolve it when the battlefield is stalled or you are ahead, but it’s basically a blank when you are behind or Smuggler’s Copters are crashing through. Reflector Mage is your card that ensures parity for Gideon to take over, as by the time their threat can be recast, Gideon has already established and the game is over.

Aside: This is another draw to the allied-color mana. You actually have fewer tapped lands going up the curve. While I think enemy colors can support four- or five-drops fairly easily, if you start stretching to six- or seven-drops you will notice a significant drop-off in how often you can cast your spells on time due to drawing a Hissing Quagmire or Blooming Marsh as your last land.

Realistically, this is just Blossoming Defense plus creatures your opponents want to kill. Spell Queller, Smuggler’s Copter, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet just happen to be cards that push the timing on spells as much as possible. You can choose when to make them kill Smuggler’s Copter, Spell Queller naturally plays into them tapping down for a spell so you can untap it, and Kalitas forces an immediate response you can plan for by leaving up a single green.

B/G Aggro is already established as a deck with most of these cards, but there are a lot of other ways to go down this road. Adrian Sullivan played a really interesting Bant deck at Pro Tour Kaladesh that goes down this road with a different set of cards that inspired me to look closer.

This deck has all the pieces I want and then some.

Tamiyo, Field Researcher is insane if you can cast it. Not a lot to it beyond that. While it does work well with Sylvan Advocate, I think that two-drop should probably be Selfless Spirit if you want to cast Archangel Avacyn or your five-drop should be Verdurous Gearhulk.

It also starts down another interesting road of mana. You can play base one color, double-splashing the ally and enemy in a wedge. You are base-green up the curve, lighter white and blue for interaction as needed.

And another, more interesting road of mana: if you play Servant of the Conduit, nothing is stopping you from going buck-wild.

You may notice this deck doesn’t actually have actually have any Blossoming Defense, but I feel like that is a mistake. Longtusk Cub and Woodland Wanderer aren’t as good at forcing action as the threats I started off listing, but they both come very close to that top must-answer tier. Woodland Wanderer also really wants to be protected from Reflector Mage, and the amount of trample you have plus a pump spell means you are very capable of knocking out Gideon on the spot. Also note that Blossoming Defense makes Spell Queller one-shot Gideon and go over the top of a Smuggler’s Copter, even through a Depala, Pilot Exemplar or Veteran Motorist.

Aside: There is nothing wrong with casting Spell Queller as a 2/3 flier if you need a body. Sometimes you have to beat down.

One last card that dropped off a bit after the Pro Tour but is also secretly a winner is Attune with Aether.

You may have identified a different energy card as the most powerful synergy here. Aetherworks Marvel or Electrostatic Pummeler certainly feels more broken, and Longtusk Cub feels like it has the best “fair” exchange rate.

But at the end of the day, we are talking about resource conversion. None of the energy outlets is a Yawgmoth’s Bargain that really breaks everything. It’s the Dark Ritual that really enables any energy deck. That said, calling Attune with Aether a Dark Ritual isn’t exactly correct. It’s a bit less freeform, and honestly the best energy outlets are good because they pay you a tangible item. You get a bit of Dark Ritual, as most energy effects don’t cost mana to activate, but your payoff is in the form of a fractional card and not just mana.

The synergy that has me the most interested with Attune with Aether is gaining you four energy toward a Lightning Bolt with Dynavolt Tower. This is one of my favorite combos in Kaladesh Draft, and Dynavolt Tower has certainly shown it has legs in Standard. The issue I have is I can’t figure out what other green cards a Dynavolt Tower deck would want, and it seems like your mana can’t get better by splashing for a fixer.

Just the fact that I’m talking about this with no idea where to go with it is basically indicative of this entire format. People fell back on the known good decks this week, but there is too much going on for that to be the end-game. Kaladesh looked like a linear Inventors’ Fair at first with Metalwork Colossus and other oddballs, but in reality, even the fair decks are about building your dream. Just try new things and you will be surprised what comes out of it.