My birthday celebration started a bit early this year when I found out the new banned list was coming out on the 20th and I was excited to see any potential changes come to Standard to stop utter Caw dominance. While I had expected a ban based on the information mined by a good many people across various sites and forums (and I even sold my [card]Batterskull[/card]s and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]s as a precaution), I knew there was a still a chance nothing would happen. One was the most expensive card in the format by a fair margin, so you risked alienating anyone who dropped bills on it… Oh and the other was in an event deck you just released. No pressure.
I hammered on the server like a good many other people at 9pm PST and saw that [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] and Stoneforge Mystic were both banned.
Now I’ve already laid out why I felt bannings should occur and felt there was strong data correlating to a stagnant and awful format. The attendance numbers from recent PTQs and New Phyrexia Game Day show a pretty steep decline from a year ago and while I can’t speak for FNM numbers, Forsythe’s article mentions there was a noticeable shift at FNM as well. I’m still surprised they went that far and took what felt like the culmination of everything I previously discussed in my bannings over history article. They nailed both of the major engines in the format for reasons related to power level, dominance and general affect on attendance and ‘fun’.
So while I was hoping for bans, I honestly thought they would only ban Stoneforge Mystic and data and dominance be damned. Instead they took that extra step and wiped the slate clean of the most powerful blue engine ever printed. By removing both cards at once they theoretically opened up so much deckbuilding space in one swoop it’s only matched by a few other decisions in the history of the game. Of course Valakut still exists and people are worried that will step right in and take over as the new head honcho, but I’m skeptical of this for reasons I’ll outline later in the article. Right now I want to focus on the immediate backlash over banning JTMS.
People complaining about Jace being banned who are actually good at Magic are largely complaining about one aspect of the banning and just covering it up in different ways. To quote my friend Zaiem Beg, “God, the deck that lets me exploit my skill edge more than any other deck in any PTQ format in the last five years is gone?” and the card with the most options of them all? Jace. If Jace were still around they could go ahead and watch Stoneforge Mystic be sacrificed to all the heathens and dead money who cried out for a ban. Meanwhile they just switch over to RUG, UB or rebuild UW as another variation and continue with a slightly less powerful deck and just keep abusing people with one of the top five blue cards of all-time.
News flash, there were control decks before JTMS existed and there will be ones after as well. Every time someone says the color blue is dead as a color either ignores the less dominant blue decks or within six months is enjoy a brand-new absurd blue deck. Now I’m a fan of Jace, just as I’m a fan of Preordain or any other efficient card that let’s me lower the amount of variance in the game. However I can also take a step back and say, “Gee, maybe from a balance perspective this is just a bit over the line.” That seems to be the sticking point for a lot of the ‘OH WHY JACE, GOD WHY!’ commentary.
Here’s the thing about variance, without it this game wouldn’t exist and with only a small amount it would have maybe 1/20th of the audience it does today. Quite frankly if it was 90% skill, I would just play go back to full-time fighting games or RTS or other forms of competitive gaming, because at that point I might as well play and have a 99% skill threshold involved. You need to have the “scrubs” and “dead money” happy to a degree, otherwise they’ll vote with their wallets (as was seen with the attendance drop-off) and soon your high-end tournaments are going to get smaller and less lucrative until you become disenchanted with the game.
Obviously you don’t want to balance entirely for the lowest common denominator or a casual level of play, but the same goes for only aiming at the very highest of levels. The fact is those people will put up with a lot more regardless and at some point you’ll be doing such minute balance tweaks you’ll wonder what the point is when the vast majority of players will never even notice the work you do. Low level players will always complain about what they have problems with and ignoring all of them while catering to 1% of your player base isn’t going to do you any favors in the long run.
As for the elephant in the room post-banning, Valakut isn’t the super power some people like to claim it to be. Let me clear up a common talking point I see everywhere, Valakut was the best deck for roughly a month and there were multiple other decks below it in terms of success and metagame presence. These discrepancies were not anywhere near the numbers of Caw Blade vs. other decks even when you only compare the first month of Caw success compared to every other deck in the format. Let alone post-Batterskull, in which the numbers would not even be remotely close to the pathetic success to percent of metagame Valakut had by comparison.
Caw had the best performance of possibly any Standard deck ever made and the closest relative numbers-wise was Affinity. These decks do not exist every format and people need to stop acting like Jund or Faeries was in the same league, and especially not the few months Valakut was a solid deck. There are very few points in MTG history where you could make this type of claim about dominance and some of you are already talking about it as if it’s a done deal before a single post-ban game has been played. This is ridiculous and just perpetuates the idea that many Magic players just whine about everything while throwing any pesky obstacles like logic or factual evidence right out the window.
With that said it wouldn’t surprise me if the first major Standard tournaments post-banning were headlined by Valakut. The deck isn’t bad; it just isn’t historically remarkable or anymore broken then other top decks were, based on the evidence we have before it fell out of the metagame completely. It does have a solid aggro match-up and it’s possible new control decks will need a few weeks and a clearer sense of the metagame before they emerge. The general builds of Valakut have changed very little over the past months so putting together a list for that isn’t as difficult as say engineering a post-ban [card]Splinter Twin[/card] or [card]Birthing Pod[/card] deck.
By default [card]Primeval Titan[/card]/[card]Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle[/card] and [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card]/[card]Splinter Twin[/card] are the most powerful interactions left in the format. People will naturally be drawn to them and attempt to get the most out of them while the metagame is open and Johnny players fall back into brewing and many spikes are left trying to figure out a deck to play. While some will jump to Valakut, there’s a reason many of them refuse to play the deck on principle and it all goes back to the aforementioned variance involved. However there’s a very high chance the metagame will end up rather open-ended for the first few weeks while people find their bearings. Valakut could very well be the top of the mountain, but I simply can’t imagine everyone throwing away whatever else they could be doing to play the deck, especially with such a terrible mirror match.
So almost by choice the metagame won’t be all Valakut all the time and the fact is even if it makes a huge impact Valakut has a clear course of action it needs to execute every single game. There’s only so much room you can make for answers against people trying to challenge you and there will be a variety of these until people have a good grasp of what works. Just off the top of my head you’ll need cards to protect yourself against Splinter Twin, anti-red setups and probably still have Summoning Trap in your 75 to deal with the people that will have countermagic. People may be declaring it the end-times for blue but if you honestly expect a green combo linear deck to dominate; you will see aggro-control or full on control decks return to the scene with [card]Mana Leak[/card] and [card]Flashfreeze[/card].
Three basic strategies and if you actually want to prep for all of them, your board is going to look something like this:
4 [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card]
4 [card]Nature’s Claim[/card]
4 [card]Summoning Trap[/card]
It won’t be precisely like that and we’ll see a different mix of cards; maybe some [card]Spellskite[/card] here, some [card]Wall of Tanglecord[/card] there, and a dash of [card]Beast Within[/card] to cover all our bases. There are certainly valid options and you could even maindeck some of these cards without significantly weakening your deck. However you will have to make sacrifices in certain matches and even if you spread your 75 out to cover every base, then you could find yourself lacking in certain matches.
For example, based on what I’ve seen so far of RDW / Burn against Valakut, I’m reasonably sure Valakut has no real chance in the match without god draws or an 11-card board against red. For those wondering how I could make this type of proclamation so quickly you may have noticed Valakut never really went away on Magic Online. In fact a good number of people kept it around purely for budget reasons and play in the queues and PTQ’ed with it before realizing their utter futility against the best UW players. Of course that didn’t stop them from moving back into the 2-man and 8-man queues and battling a good chunk of opposition trying to play other budget decks like RDW and Vampires. So that’s where I come in, I played both my own and Patrick Sullivan’s brew of red for quite some time in the queues when I wasn’t drafting partially for fun and partly for more Scars packs.
I ended up with a fair amount of experience with the red vs. Valakut match-up and what I discovered was that the move back to a goldfish deck and the addition of [card]Dismember[/card] completely hosed Valakut. What frequently was happening was that by removing the worst creature in the deck ([card]Plated Geopede[/card]) with a more aggressive creatures like [card]Furnace Scamp[/card] or [card]Kiln Fiend[/card] made hands without [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] practically unkeepable. They simply couldn’t afford to take the four or more damage from a turn one Scamp or seven off a Kiln Fiend attack and expect to win the game. A [card]Shrine of Burning Rage[/card] on turn two instead also could accomplish the same goal of knocking them off a normally safe life total of 7 or more life. Now throw in the usual [card]Mark of Mutiny[/card] shenanigans and the fact that [card]Dismember[/card] makes it easier then ever to take out an [card]Overgrown Battlement[/card] or [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card] with the bare minimum of investment.
Suddenly just saying you have Lightning Bolt and Obstinate Baloth doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Sure sometimes you’ll still lose with slow hands or Valakut just killing you on turn five, but the additions to RDW just tilt the match further in red’s favor. I fully admit that with tweaking this could change and with a strong enough maindeck and sideboard it could even be a bad match for RDW however the players who believe Valakut will waltz all over everyone would do well to keep that in mind. I’d certainly be worried about someone with multiple walls, Bolts, Baloth, [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] and a way to deal with Shrine, but at least then I know they’re committing themselves to trying to win the match.
Other than the linear decks getting better with the best aggro-control and pure control strategies out of the picture, let’s take a quick look at what also gets a genuine boost with Stoneforge and JTMS gone. First off all the creatures that were first ballot hall of famers in a Jace-less Standard world: [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card]*, [card]Mirran Crusader[/card], [card]Kargan Dragonlord[/card], [card]Moltensteel Dragon[/card], [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card], [card]Phyrexian Crsuader[/card], and [card]Phyrexian Obliterator[/card] all rejoice. There are a number of other creatures that get better and even in the new world of fast combination decks there will likely be places for these creatures to at least have a shot at relevance.
*As she’s already shown in block constructed
Another key to remember is that while Valakut and Splinter Twin are combo decks that in the traditional sense ‘beat aggro’, you need to keep in mind that this comes with a number of conditions attached to it. By no means does Valakut or Twin measure up to what older combo decks did to aggro even as recently as [card]Dragonstorm[/card], where even average hands would handily crush them. Consistency is lacking in both decks and while they have their own unique ways to downplay it and remain viable, I could honestly never see giving them a 70-30 match-up against any deck in the field due to their own internal issues. Back in the day even with decks like Mono-Green Tokens which was soft to [card]Pyroclasm[/card] and losing on turn five, but I still would race Valakut a fair amount of the time. And if my opponent stumbled at all on mana or [card]Primeval Titan[/card], I would often win the game. Twin felt the same way in the sense that if everything is firing on all cylinders I’ll be dead on turn four or five and not even a Dismember will help, but even with nearly zero interaction on my part I could still race them with some consistency.
Other decks and strategies worth a look now that Stoneforge is down are [card]Eldrazi Monument[/card] and [card]Quest for the Holy Relic[/card] strategies. Neither one could compete with the power level of SFM and Swords while backed by [card]Spell Pierce[/card], but with the key engine KIA they have a shot at making a return. As above with the previous example Valakut and Twin should, on paper, completely demolish these strategies. I can’t speak for Twin, but I’ve done better than 50/50 with Quest against Valakut before I got better one-drops and potentially Puresteel Paladin. Meanwhile Twin also has to deal with Dismember from pretty much every single non-Valakut deck in the format and who knows, maybe even from there as well.
As for green, [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] and [card]Birthing Pod[/card] decks would’ve been in prime position if only Stoneforge Mystic had gotten the axe. Sadly it looks like their day hasn’t come yet, but I would at least give Birthing Pod Twin strategies a once-over as a potential engine swap for the lost Jace. Fauna Shaman strategies are traditionally too slow to compete with Valakut, but it could still be a useful tool and continue to give green decks actual tutor opportunities. What may happen is that playing a few early creatures and powering out Swords could be the ticket for green decks in the future. Speaking of artifacts that could have an impact, Tezzeret and his artifact minions say hello and I’m sure Kibler is at work somewhere on a fresh take on UB now that his former ally and enemy is dead and buried.
Honestly I suspect the metagame will be a bit top heavy with Valakut and various Red, Vampires and Twin decks to start with. After that I could easily see it expanding to Red / Vamps / Valakut / Twin / UB with Fauna and UW Control being real possibilities as well. Even if the worst comes to pass I can’t see the format becoming any smaller than Valakut / Twin / Red and people feverishly working on other strategies. I know Travis Woo will be loving life with Genesis Wave and going OVER THE TOP again, while GerryT and Conley both have excuses to brew again. As with anything fresh and exciting like this, I recommend giving it a chance before automatically declaring everything the worst ever.
Besides if you really miss powerful cards that much you can always play the event deck until Standard rotates. ^^ File that one under weirdest exemption ever. I understand why they would loathe to make their Event Deck unplayable but the solution they ended up with is absurd. With that said, I’m saddened it was never released on Magic Online where I would gladly troll two-man queues with it.
Here’s hoping for a fun summer of Standard and Magic!
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom
(P.S. This article was written in the immediate wake of the Standard bannings. This means the article was a snap judgment and the same goes for leveling on the criticism made hours after the bans. So while at this very moment I feel this is accurate I reserve the right to be wrong about the latter half of the article or if I’ve misunderstood some of the arguments against the Jace ban. Just a friendly heads-up if the article or opinions are a bit scatter-shot at times.)