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The State of Standard: March 2014

After a flurry of high-profile tournaments in Modern and Limited, I’m beginning to turn my sights back to Standard. Personally, I’ve only played in one major Standard event since the release of Born of the Gods—the Sunday Super Series Championship in Seattle. Nonetheless, I’ve been following the movements of the format in Grand Prix, on Magic Online, and in independent tournament series. I’ve also developed a few of my own opinions on where the format might be headed.

In the Super Series Event, I played a very controlling U/W Control deck with the only Born of the Gods additions being Temple of Enlightenment and Brimaz, King of Oreskos as a sideboard card. My overall experience with the deck was positive, and I can say for sure that Sphinx’s Revelation is still a good strategy in Standard.

Esper -Patty Robertson, 2nd Place

Esper Control and plain old U/W Control are very similar; in my opinion it’s a toss-up which is better. On the one hand, U/W is a complete, well-balanced archetype and does not necessarily need any black cards in order to function. On the other hand, adding additional scry lands adds to the consistency of the deck, and U/W players should consider adding off-color scry lands anyway (personally, I played three additional scry lands beyond Temple of Enlightenment). In short, the costs and the rewards of adding a third color are both quite low.

Grand Prix Melbourne’s runner-up, Patty Robertson, splashes into black for only two maindeck cards: Doom Blade and Thoughtseize.

Doom Blade plays an important role. First, it offers one more much-needed early defensive play; my experience is that Azorius Charm, Detention Sphere, and Supreme Verdict alone are not quite enough. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it provides an answer to flash and haste creatures. When I play straight U/W Control, a disturbingly high portion of my losses come as the result of a single card: Stormbreath Dragon.

Thoughtseize, on the other hand, strikes me as strange. I view Thoughtseize as a hate-card for control mirrors. Granted, it’s passable against Devotion decks and slower builds of R/G, but it’s still worse than a counterspell in those spots, and doesn’t fill a role that needs to be filled. It’s completely unacceptable against fast aggro. In my opinion, Thoughtseize is not worth splashing for (at least not in the main deck).

On the topic of counterspells, it’s worth noting that the value of Syncopate drops off substantially as you add more enter-the-battlefield-tapped lands to your deck. It’s a card that I’m comfortable playing one or two copies of in straight U/W, but I would probably leave it on the bench if I was to play full Esper.

Finally, a quick word on win conditions. In the early days of this Standard format, I played an Aetherling, but I’ve since become a firm believer in Elixir of Immortality. I believe it to be better in control mirrors and to fit better with the Sphinx’s Revelation strategy. Whichever you pick, you should have one copy of either one of these cards, not both. They’re both bad to draw early in the game, but it’s important to have one reliable win condition in your deck.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is an excellent card, and is particularly great against R/G Monsters. That said, it’s not especially great in control mirrors, since she causes you to tap out at awkward times, and will frequently just turn on otherwise-dead Detention Spheres and Hero’s Downfalls. The bottom line is simply that she’s a six mana card in a deck that will frequently win the long game regardless. I played one copy in the main deck and a second in the sideboard, and that felt pretty reasonable—I think three in the main deck is a little much. When in doubt, err on the side of more early defense, since Sphinx’s Revelation control is much more likely to lose as a result of falling behind in the early game than it is to lose a long, stalled-out game.

Finally, I feel that it’s a mistake to not play the full four Azorius Charms. It cycles, and is never really bad to draw. Beyond that, it’s probably the best answer to Nightveil Specter and Desecration Demon, which remain some of the most played creatures in Standard.

RG Monsters – Huang Hao-Shan

R/G Monsters seems to be the format’s hottest, most exciting deck right now. It plays many of the individually best cards while maintaining a focused, aggressive game plan that’s hard to stop. It makes full use of the powerful Domri Rade to attack control decks from multiple angles at once, but also has strong game against fast aggro.

Though there’s stiff competition at the 5-drop slot, Xenagos, God of Revels  excites me. It’s one more threat that does not die to a Supreme Verdict (or Fated Retribution for that matter) and makes every single one of your creatures a deadly threat that must be answered. With Ghor-Clan Rampagers and Flesh // Blood to make sure you won’t be thwarted by a stream of chump-blockers, that leaves few ways to effectively answer a Xenagos.

That’s Xenagos, God of Revels, but note that according to the rules of Magic, you can have both the God and the planeswalker in play at the same time, and both cards are quite strong in this strategy. I especially like that the presence of God of Revels threatens to make the Reveler’s ultimate ability instantly lethal.

Jund Monsters – Ash Webster

Ash Webster reached the top four of Grand Prix Melbourne with an exciting twist on R/G Monsters: Jund Monsters! In the main deck, the only addition is Dreadbore, but much like the U/W versus Esper dilemma, splashing a color is largely a question of adding more scry lands, which are good anyway!

Dreadbore gives Webster a powerful tool in the mirror match, wiping out Polukranos and other big creatures that Mizzium Mortars can’t. Also, though this type of deck can frequently attack planeswalkers to death, it’s nice to have insurance against opposing Domri Rades and Elspeth, Sun’s Champions for those situations where you might not be far ahead on the board.

However, what’s most exciting about the black splash is the sideboard options. Rakdos’s Return is an old favorite capable of really decimating a control opponent. A healthy amount of mana acceleration and the possibility of plusing Xenagos, the Reveler can make for some pretty insane Rakdos’s Return nut-draws!

Golgari Charm blows up Detention Spheres, wipes out Elspeth tokens, and saves your guys from Supreme Verdict—quite the utility card against control. Beyond that, a variety of black removal spells can shore up whatever weaknesses might worry you about R/G Monsters.

Mono-Black Devotion – Nam Sung-Wook, 1st place

 

Mono-Blue Devotion – Luke McGlaughlin

Of course, there’s still old reliable Devotion decks. In fact, Luke McGlaughlin Top 8’d the Grand Prix with zero Born of the Gods cards in his seventy-five! As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

The most important additions to Black Devotion are Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow, generally improving the deck’s matchup against fast aggro.

Mono-Red – David Jones

I’ve chosen to highlight David Jones’s 6th place SCG Open decklist because, quite frankly, that’s all I could easily find in the way of fast aggro! Fast aggro isn’t exactly dead, but it has quite a few obstacles to overcome.

Before Born of the Gods, aggro held its own as a respectable portion of the metagame, but it was never exactly dominant. However, the Mono-Black decks which used to be a close but favorable matchup for Mono-Red and White Weenie now have Bile Blight in the main deck and the backbreaking Drown in Sorrow out of the sideboard!

R/G Monsters also poses a challenge in the sense that it has inherent strengths against aggro (the biggest being that its creatures are simply bigger and harder to kill), rather than needing to devote defensive cards to beating it. Courser of Kruphix on its own is a big problem. It’s a quick, efficient blocker that doesn’t die to aggro’s more common removal, and offers incidental life gain to boot!

Finally, there’s the fact that Born of the Gods generally increased the power level of the format, without giving aggro many new tools. Players have better mana, more scry lands, better options for midrange creatures, and better options for removal. While in old Standard you might count on a win or two against players showing up with rogue decks, now I no longer think that’s the case. Who is to say your Mono-Red deck will have a good matchup against the R/U/G or Jund homebrew you face in round three if its packing Courser of Kruphix and some good removal?

In short, aggro players have their work cut out for them. That said, it’s still a powerful and effective strategy and it gets even more potent when people start to forget about it. Perhaps if people ignore my advice and we continue to see Esper decks with greedy mana and maindeck Thoughtseize, red aggro and White Weenie might become excellent deck choices once again.

Bonus Section: U/W Tron in Modern

Last weekend at the Modern Grand Prix in Richmond, Virginia, I played U/W Urzatron. Since I’ve had a number of questions about the deck, I’m happy to post my list here.

 

I put up a 6-3 record with the deck, which was not good enough to make Day Two—an unspectacular finish considering my first three wins were byes. I don’t believe this to be the best deck in Modern, and primarily played it for a fun change of pace. However, it does have a number of things going for it.

I turned to U/W Tron because I felt that Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites is a very effective play in Modern right now. With Gifts, you can choose to only search for two cards—Unburial Rites and either Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or Iona, Shield of Emeria—and they’ll go straight to the graveyard. Against nearly every popular deck in the field, one or the other of these creatures will lead to a win.

The first appeal of this reanimation package is that Deathrite Shaman is now banned, which means one less popular card that can interfere with you. The second is that getting Elesh Norn into play is an extremely reliable way to beat Birthing Pod, which is a huge deck to beat right now.

The greatest thing about U/W Tron, though, is the number of tools at its disposal, and the wide variety of ways to turn a close game into a win. This is not an Unburial Rites deck, it’s simply a control deck that happens to have one copy of Unburial Rites in it. If my opponents bring in a bunch of Tormod’s Crypts against me, I couldn’t be happier! Any time the Unburial Rites package isn’t the best tool for the job, you can simply Gifts “for value,” searching for more card drawing, or any combination of the versatile answers contained in the deck.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn serves the same role that Elixir of Immortality might serve in a Standard control deck, but it’s a lot faster and more effective at actually closing out the game. The presence of Emrakul (and Mindbreak Trap off the sideboard to exile any opposing Eldrazi) means that U/W Tron has the best late game of any deck in Modern, which is a comforting quality to have. The big mana and the presence of a lot of one-ofs make it a very effective long-game control deck, and one that can be extremely challenging to play against.

U/W Tron is quite good against Birthing Pod decks, Affinity, and opposing control decks. It’s solid against Zoo and midrange decks like Jund and B/G. It has an unfavorable game one but an excellent sideboard against combo decks like Splinter Twin, Storm, and Scapeshift. The only truly awful matchups are the faster builds of Urzatron like R/G Tron.

As I mentioned, I don’t believe that U/W Tron in its current form is a top-tier Modern deck. That said, it’s extremely complex and challenging to both build and pilot, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have room to improve with the deck. It’s certainly possible that someone who dedicated a lot of time to the deck, had a good list, and a razor-sharp game plan for every important matchup might do very well.

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