I played at Wednesday night Standard at Superstars last week. This mid-week tournament is a nice evening break, sort of like a real-life Standard Daily, with four rounds of play and prizes award on match wins. I ended up playing against one Jund deck and a whopping three GWx Midrange designs, two of them favoring Bant colors and the third Naya. I won two of those matches, but it was my opponent’s summary of the match I lost that really struck me. He said something like this:
“It was dumb. I drew four angels, he didn’t draw any, so I won.”
That pretty much summed it up. In the two games he won, he drew some combination of two angels in each game, be they Emeria Angels, Baneslayers, or the final Battlegrace Angel that killed me in game three, and I did not draw removal in time to kill them, or my own angels in time to kill him.
That is, indeed, a pretty dumb match.
Dumb matches, those where we can’t make a lot of active decisions to control the outcome, are a problem. This isn’t the same concept as the skill-intensive mirror, where we can’t overpower the opponent through better deck choice and are instead forced to outplay them. Instead, this case occurs when we just have to hope that our cards come up in the right order, and if they don’t, we just lose. For a lot of contemporary GWx Midrange decks, this is what the mirror match looks like.
Below, I’m going to outline what I think of as the three core approaches we can take to facing down this increasingly common mirror. I have a favorite that I think is the best, and that coexists well with a strong Jund matchup – since the mirror is rather less likely than Jund, and depending on your metagame may be less common than Boros or RDW matchups as well.
But first, I have a quick remark
One of the potential draws of this column is the fact that I tend to stick with one or two core designs for a while. Consequently, if you choose to play the In Development home game, you’re not going to be stuck swapping out entire decks from week to week. I’ve previously addressed the value of buying complete common/uncommon playsets as a means of cost-effectively increasing your flexibility in deck design and tweaking. Now I’m going to suggest that it’s worth your while to collect good lands.
The deck lists included today use four of the five available Zendikar fetchlands. This means fluidly shifting between them is a touch on the expensive side. However, I think that if you can afford it, you want to collect all of the fetches. They are clearly important in the current Standard, as they power out landfall effects and provide appropriate mana fixing that interacts correctly with the M10 duals. In addition, you’ll want to use them for the coming Extended season and, unlike other lands, they’ll also maintain their utility – and thus their resale value if you don’t play in formats outside of Standard – for near-perpetuity.
More generally, I tend to prioritize lands first when I’m building up my collection of cards from a new set. While we can debate over the specific value of other cards when we’re building deck lists, lands are the structural base that lets us build those lists in the first place. If you have to choose between an “action” card such as some random rare creature and a land, I’d tend to pick the land. It pays off in the long run.
Lawyers, guns, or money?
In addressing the GWx Midrange mirror match, we have three concepts we can try. We can attempt to simply run more good threats than the other guy, hoping to overpower them. We can run more removal than the other guy, hoping to take down all of their game-winning threats while they fail to knock down all of ours. Or we can hope to augment our threats, meaning we have the same threats as the opponent, only better.
Let’s take a look at them in turn, and focus on the ramifications of each approach.
Lawyers (more threats)
The “threat overload” approach is one I’ve already recommended for the Jund matchup. Josh also recommended it in his excellent article on fighting Jund. It might seem natural enough to simply keep applying this approach for the GWx mirror, on the principle that if the other guy has three Baneslayers in his deck to your four, you’re statistically more likely to have a spare one in play at any given moment.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with how this plays out, and they center on how problematic unanswered threats are in this matchup. Imagine that you have four Emeria Angels and four Baneslayers in your deck. The opponent has three Emeria Angels and four Baneslayers in their deck. You play out an Emeria Angel. They kill it. You play out a Baneslayer. They play out a Baneslayer but they happen to have a Noble Hierarch on the battlefield. They now have the “better” Baneslayer, and despite your massive threat being in play, they can start swinging with theirs. The best you can do is swing back and try to slow the bleeding while you hope to peel another good card before they do.
The basic problem here is that the occasional extra threat, even on the board, is not a trump in the mirror. Sometimes, this is an interaction issue. In one of my games last week, we both had a roughly equal number of significant threats out. However, mine were randomly two [card]Emeria Angel[/card]s and a Knight of the Reliquary, meaning that I could churn through my land to generate a massive horde of Birds. The threats on the other side were equivalent on a one-to-one basis, but were no match for the synergy I happened to draw into during this particular game. However, if the opponent had perhaps drawn a removal spell in place of one of their threats, they could have killed my Knight, and the situation would be closer to a bunch of one-to-one standoffs between the remaining threats.
Guns (more removal)
In this approach, instead of trying to pack in more threats, we opt to side out some of our threats in favor of removal. This avoids the “standoff, but I’ve got the better guys” issue above, but does present the problem of ending up with an entirely reactive hand.
The case against packing more removal is clearly the “actionless hand” problem. The case for it, however, is that you aren’t going to randomly lose to your opponent’s topdecked threat. To put that another way, if two GWx decks simply randomized their threats and played them out one per turn, one of the decks would randomly lose to a better threat order from the other (again, consider my happenstance of random synergy, above). In contrast, if one of the decks gets to have some subset of those threats be replaced by removal, it can selectively kill the opponent’s threats that are most problematic, and then win based on having not just more threats on the field, but having the best combination of threats on the field.
Money (making your threats better)
This is the approach I favored in last week’s deck list. For the GWx mirror, I planned to bring in Behemoth Sledge and two copies of Ajani Goldmane. Similarly, many other GWx decks run Honor of the Pure, Vines of Vastwood, or Brave the Elements. The overarching principle here is that if you’re both going to be running basically the same threats, then you can have the “better” version of each threat. Do they have a Baneslayer? Well, you can have one with a +1/+1 counter on it from Ajani.
The case for this approach is that it tends to not just make your big threats better, but to also make your utility cards into threats. This is why I’ve liked Ajani in these decks, since Ajani makes your Hierarchs, Birds, and Elves into legitimate concerns for your opponent (not to mention what he does with all those Emeria-summoned birds). This helps prevent stalemates. If both sides are stuck with a handful of Noble Hierarchs but you also have a Behemoth Sledge, then you just win.
The case against this approach, however, is that these augmentation cards are even deader than removal in many cases. If your threats are all gone, a topdecked Honor of the Pure is depressing. Similarly, Ajani may be able to pump your Hierarchs incrementally, but he won’t last long with a Baneslayer on the other side, and your opponent isn’t going to care that you can swing with some 1/2 vigilant Druids. It does no good to have the better Birds of Paradise if your opponent has an active Emeria Angel.
Guns, guns, guns
My preference at the moment is to pack more removal. In a mirror match where you can randomly win or randomly lose based on threat order and concomitant synergies, I think the easiest way to improve our chances overall is to buffer against random loss. As a consequence, I prefer to have more available removal to take out key threats.
A major consequence of this approach is that you need to actually pay attention to what matters in each individual game. You don’t just want to try the Jund approach of killing your way through all your opponent’s threats, only to find that you could have been chump blocking that Knight with soldier tokens all day long, but that their topdecked Baneslayer is going to murder you. Be aware of your current threat synergies and how that interacts with your opponent’s threats. If you can clog up the ground and rule the skies, then absolutely kill every major flyer they cast. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to swarm them with Birds off your Knight-Angel engine, then make sure you don’t let them get an Emeria Angel up and running to gum up the air.
The downside here is that this means you have to pay a lot of attention during the game. The upside is that you now have the flexibility to outplay your opponent, instead of just hoping your topdeck is better than theirs.
Three variations on GWx
With this new mirror-match concept in mind, here are three GWx deck lists I’m favoring at the moment. As always, remember to tailor your builds to your local metagame.
GWB Emeria Knight
This deck is the closest to the one I discussed last week and ran at Wednesday Standard. Note that I’m giving Nissa a rest for a bit, not because she’s bad, but because I like to explore my options.
This deck, like all the ones I’ll discuss today, features a core threat package of four Knights, four Emeria Angels, and four Elspeths. I feel like these are your big-time game winners, and the Angels and Knights are never sided out (and Elspeth only rarely). I’m experimenting with Ant Queen at the top of the curve, on the basis that Jund is especially bad against “threats that generate threats.” You can, of course, just directly port in Baneslayers in that slot.
Naya Emeria Knight
In the Naya build, we gain Ajani and Thoctars, both of which are awesome threats. I choose to run Burst Lightning over Lightning Bolt following Tom Ross’s reasoning. Although they’re saddeningly slower than the Arid Mesas, the Terramorphics are there to stabilize the mana base and help power the Knights and Angels.
Bant Emeria Knight
At the moment, I’m fondest of this design. Rhox War Monk is a tremendously powerful three-drop, and [card]Bant Charm[/card] is a near-universally useful piece of removal, especially against things like Thornlings from opposing GWx decks.
Any time a matchup feels essentially random – to the point where we can’t even outplay the opponent – it suggests an opportunity to introduce useful asymmetries that will give us an edge. You can watch this development process in action in Jund lists right now, and it’s going to be increasingly important to put some real thought into it for the other major archetypes as they become more established. After all, the only time we really want to be running without decisions is when we’ve engineered a matchup to be crushingly in our favor. The rest of the time, the more handles you give yourself to make choices that let you actively win the game, the better.