Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Standard Deviations #17 - Starting Over

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you all had a fine weekend and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  When last we talked I was having a little trouble getting over the recent banning of Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic.  At that time I promised that I'd get back to writing about Standard more seriously once I'd had some time to test a few more decks and wrap my head about the "new" format.  Naturally I felt this process would be pretty easy; break out and update some old decks, try a few new ideas based around cards Jace/Mystic were keeping down and break the resulting decks down into proper tiers in the post-ban Standard.  When I finally sat down to start building/testing however I was faced with the stark reality that I had absolutely no point of reference for this new environment.  You see I've spent at least the past *year* looking at every single card in Standard in terms of how it interacted in a world dominated by Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic simply because I *had* to.  With the Caw Blade boogieman finally exiled to other formats I suddenly found myself having to re-evaluate each card in Standard and what's more I needed to do this in the context of an undefined "new" environment!  As you can imagine this was, and remains a time-consuming process but I think I'm starting to get a handle on where the format is likely to go from here. Of course these are only my opinions after roughly 6 days of building, testing and theorizing; there's still a bunch of decks I haven't even tried yet but I've noticed several emerging trends that I feel will help define the "new" Standard format.  

"Standard is a much faster format now; don't blink or you'll be dead by turn 5." 

Let's face it; Jace the Mind Sculptor may not have been the most beloved card in Standard but he was certainly doing a good job of slowing the format down.  Simply having to play around the various Jace decks in the format forced combo and aggro builds alike to adapt their builds towards winning long ground out games featuring the now infamous blue monster.  With Jace gone and the 4 early contenders for "the most popular decks in the format" firmly locked into the aggro or combo categories this is simply no longer true.  Sitting down to build in a Jace free world is like shedding a twenty pound leg-weight for combo decks like Valakut and Exarch-Twin who can now devote main-deck space to tricky aggro matchups and even combo mirrors.  They've also become faster and more streamlined towards achieving the respective game winning combos; not having to waste extra slots on "control meta" will do that for you.  In my early testing both of these decks can now "combo out" consistently by turn 5 even through moderate disruption, so if you were just planning on packing 4 Mana Leaks and 3 Dismembers to call the match a win you're in for a pretty big surprise.  On the other side of the coin, RDW and Vampire players couldn't be happier that Stoneforge Mystic and her turn 3 Batterskulls are finally gone and while the loss of Jace is less relevant to these decks it at least gives them a fighting chance if the long game comes down to top-decks now.  In my experience this helps both on the deck-building and the in-game strategic levels; not having to maindeck a bunch of artifact removal lets you focus on going faster and actively metagaming against turn 4-5 combo decks while not having to play around Spell Pierce every single game allows you to play *far* more aggressively than before the ban.  While I'm certainly not suggesting these are the only 4 decks in Standard the fact that all 4 are already well known, popular and *more* than capable of eating your face on turn 4 or 5 if you can't stop them from doing so will help shape and define the"new" Standard format.

"If Control isn't dead it's most certainly on life support."

While I realize that this will be neither a welcome observation or a popular opinion for you blue mages out there I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that Control as we know it is simply not a tournament winning strategy right now.  This is of course partially affected by the speed of the environment but in my opinion the major problem is a lack of efficient, reliable card draw to replace the recently departed Mind Sculptor.  Think about what Jace allowed a control deck to do for a moment; first and foremost he was a card drawing, hand-refilling engine of destruction.  Need another answer for your opponent's top deck?  Just brainstorm again and find the card you need amongst a myriad of creature control/counterspell options.  Running out of cards to play?  Grab the top 3 cards of your deck and find something that draws you even *more* cards.  As if this weren't enough Jace's "Unsummon" ability acted as de facto creature control and combined with his "Brainstorm" effect allowed you to build decks with answers to literally *any* potential opposing strategy all within the same 75 card pile.  In short Jace let you have your cake and eat it to by facilitating removal light decks with 2-3 main-deck metagame cards for every key match-up in Standard; I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Jace was the single most important card in virtually every good control deck prior to the ban.  You see where I'm going with this don't you?  In the "new" Standard a successful Control deck is going to have to at once replace the mid-late game card draw aspect of Jace while simultaneously packing more creature control and more meta cards against two completely separate combo decks that require different answers.  What's more they are going to have to do this with cards designed to co-exist with Jace the Mind Sculptor; do you honestly think that every single card draw effect printed since Worldwake wasn't designed with Jace's existence in mind?  How do you replace a card as awesomely powerful as the Mind Sculptor with Preordains, Jace Berelens (worst Divination ever btw) and Consecrated Sphinxes?  So far in my testing the answer is quite simple; you don't.  Once again while I don't profess to have tried every single deck in the new standard I can say that virtually all of my attempts to make a blue-based Control deck post-ban have met with abject failure; either I can make a deck that wins long games through Planeswalkers/Titans but can't beat aggro or I can make a deck that disrupts the enemy very well in the early game but loses on late top-decks because I can't refill my hand.  I *have* had some success with U/B and U/W mid-range/tempo style builds but these decks are running far too many creatures (14-18) to be called traditional "control" decks.
"Black is the new black."

If there is any hope for control decks in the new format I'm almost 100% certain that they will heavily feature black mana sources.  This is because out of all 5 colors in the format as far as I can tell black is the only one with legitimate answers to both of the major combo decks *and* both of the popular aggro decks at this early stage of the format.  Need to kill a giant Titan?  Go for the Throat is here to solve your problems.  Getting bull-rushed by weenie aggro decks?  Toss down a Hexmage and a kicked Gatekeeper and let your opponent spend some time trying to deal with your minions.  Is a Deceiver Exarch about to tap out your last land and combo off in your face?  Just toss 4 life and Dismember the bastard before he can cause any more trouble.  Tired of combo running a train on your well laid plans?  Hit him with an Inquisition of Kozilek/Despise and then Surgical Extraction the offending combo pieces right out of his deck!  Even traditional answers like Memoricide and Duress are back in vogue now that your opponent can't just "brainstorm" his way into more combo pieces with Jace.  Black's creatures also shine in the new Standard with former "binder-bait" cards like Phrexian Obliterator, Vampire Nighthawk and especially Abyssal Persecutor finding various degrees of life in a format without Jace/Mystic.  Naturally of course like every other color in Magic right now black is still woefully poor at drawing cards; Sign in Blood and Phyrexian Rager really aren't very good options in a 5 turn format and frankly I question if Magic as a whole hasn't passed cards like these by completely.  This lack of card draw will likely preclude black from forming the basis of an effective control deck but there's no question that this color now has all the tools to excel at mid-range or tempo based strategies; particularly when combined with either blue or red using the 12 friendly duals + 12 Swamps or Cracklands mana base for awesome support cards like Preordain/Mana Leak or Lightning Bolt/Arc Trail.  If nothing else the format hasn't changed so much that you don't want a "man-land" or Tectonic Edges and with so many BBB or even BBBB spells in this color the Tec Edge becomes a pretty hard sell.  Regardless of how you build the deck the sheer quality and variety of playable black cards in this "new" format means that it's a great time to be tapping Swamps.

"Right now, Dismember is the most important card in Standard."
Do you remember the "Jace Test"?  Do you remember looking at every single creature in Standard with the question "if I cast this card into an enemy Jace and he simply untaps and bounces my guy have I been timewalked"?  Are you happy to be playing in a world where the "Jace Test" is no longer relevant?  If you answered yes to any of these questions I have some very unfortunate news; there's a new test in the format and in many ways it's actually *harder* for a creature to pass than the old "Jace Test".  Naturally of course I'm talking about the effect Dismember has on the "new" Standard and in particular it's role in deciding what is and what isn't a good creature in the format.  The simple truth is that there isn't a deck in Standard that can't make use of a 1 colorless mana instant speed removal spell, even at the cost of 4 life off-color!  While I've heard the speculation that brewers will be taking Dismember out of their builds because they no longer *have* to answer Stoneforge Mystic, I've actually found the effect to be the exact opposite; I'm seeing more game 1 Dismembers post-ban than I ever saw before in my local environment.  This makes a certain amount of sense when you realize that Deciever Exarch/Splinter Twin *is* a legitimate deck and one of the best ways to kill it is to Dismember their Exarch before he can combo off.  Trust me this card is and will remain quite popular in the "new" Standard and as such you're going to have to choose every creature you play in the format accordingly; in other words you'll want as many of your creatures as possible to pass the "Dismember Test".  To subject a creature to the Dismember test simply ask yourself: "if I cast this creature and at end step my opponent taps 1 mana, loses 4 life and targets it with a Dismember how much do I care?"  If you're rocking a 6/6 Abyssal Persecutor the answer is probably "very very little" and thus the Persecutor passes the "Dismember Test" with flying colors.  Additionally most low drop (1-3cc) creatures in the format automatically pass the "Dismember Test" simply because trading your 2/2 "hate bear" for 4 life is actually a pretty good deal most of the time.  On the other hand if you've just tapped out for a Phyrexian Obliterator, Urabrask the Hidden, Hero of Bladehold or a Moltensteel Dragon an end step Dismember is likely to bother you a great deal; leaching away your tempo and trading away a "finishing" type creature for 4 life and a trivial amount of mana compared to your investment in said "beater".  These creatures all clearly fail the "Dismember Test" and despite my high hopes for each of them at the beginning of the testing process most of these bad-boys have now found their way back into my trade binder despite the banning of Jace/Mystic.

"The most popular decks in the format right now are Valakut, Exarch-Twin, Vampires and Red Deck Wins."

Now before you jump all over me and say "but you forgot deck X, it's super sweet against 3/4 of those decks" let me remind you that I didn't say they were the "best" decks, just the "most popular".  I will say that all 4 of these decks are *very* strong in the current format.  All 4 decks are also very easy to build and are somewhat "proven" commodities as each of them existed in some form or another pre-ban.  I am more than willing to accept that there are other "contenders for the throne" out there in Standard but right now the vast majority of tournament grinders are locking into one of these 4 decks.  As such it's *incredibly* important that every deck you build in the "new" Standard have good or at least acceptable match-ups and sideboard options against all 4 of these "top tier" decks.  Far too many people out there are building decks that "beat Vala and Twin but always lose to aggro" or "destroy the aggro mirror but have no game 1 answers to Splinter Twin/Valakut".  Even if you don't think these are the best decks in the format the simple truth is that your opponent's *will* be playing them and tournament survival will depend on having a viable strategy for coping with all 4 decks and their many variations.

Well folks that's about all we have time for now; unfortunately I don't have any deck lists to include this time but I assure you that they are in the works.  I'm still in the middle of the testing process and I'm doing everything in my power to play as many games as possible to further my understanding of the "new" Standard format.  At the moment I have fully functional versions of Vala, Vampires, and RDW in the lab and I'm putting the finishing touches on U/B Midrange, Grixis Twin and several interesting "homebrews" (like Leon's pet Pyromancer Ascension deck) I'd like to try in the format.  The sideboards for these decks however are still in a state of flux as the environment shakes out and I try to avoid publishing unfinished deck-lists whenever possible.  I promise that as each deck is finished I'll give them their own separate articles in due course and yes, this means I'll be writing a lot more about Standard than Limited for the next little while.  Until then gang thanks for reading and always remember that paying 4 life isn't really a cost unless you eventually hit zero.  Keep it weird.


  1. Interesting article...Black has definitely caught my eye, but I'm a red mage at heart and I just don't enjoy anything other than slinging mountains. Speaking of - I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on current RDW. Patrick Sullivan's deck list was posted recently and I found it...bizarre. No Koths??! WUT.

    I went 3-1, earning 2nd place at my last FNM with a RDW that i was playing for the first time that night. On top of that, I only had one fetchland along with my four searing blaze! I also fought two caw blade decks...Beat one, and lost to the other because it was a splinter twin hybrid.
    Point is, RDW is fun and very effective right now! Without Jace/Stoneforge pressuring RDW as much, I'm sure it will blow up in popularity, especially with the new tricks M12 is bringing.

    I know I'm just a random poster on your blog and you've never replied to any of my posts before, but, I'm really interested in talking to other red players to try to step up my game so if you ever want to have a few matches on MWS or whatever or add me on AIM let me know :)

  2. This... this is the culmination of everything I set out to achieve eighteen years ago. I can now die a fulfilled and contented man.

  3. Lol, thanks for the comments guys; savage burns.

    @Lifeless; actually I replied to your last comment on Of Limited Interest #31, it just took me 3 days. Unfortunately my upstairs/home computer won't let me comment on Blogger (not kidding) so I have to wait for my work computer to be free to comment. Sometimes that takes a while; sorry.

    As for social networking; I'm @cardboardwitch on Twitter. I don't use any other forms of online chats/etc. Just not my style. Are you on Twitter? I recommend taking a look at it the online MtG Community on there is FREAKING AMAZING.

    Again thanks for all the kind words guys.

  4. Oh, didn't notice you posted. Thanks for the good advice!

    Are you excited about the new Chandra? She's receiving very mixed reviews ("She's BROKEN!" to "Welp, another unplayable Chandra, what else is new")

    What do you think about her?

  5. Well at the moment I'm not exactly thrilled with her. I mean it's not that she's awful but I can't see any reason I'd include her over Koth in either RDW or Big Red type builds. I do like that she's "splashable" but I'm still not entirely sure what type of deck I'd be trying to splash her in. Definitely a card I would have to test before I could offer a firm opinion on her but at my opinion is "meh that doesn't seem like it'll be very effective in actual games".