The most important element of today’s Standard is the way the red decks match up against the control decks.
It’s not that Standard is a two-deck format. Green creature decks, white creature decks, God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Ramp, Mono-Black Control, and a handful of other strategies are all solid and can get plenty of wins in the hands of strong players. But they aren’t oppressive in the way that red Goblin Chainwhirler decks and blue Search for Azcanta decks are. Those are the two strategies that will definitely beat you if you show up unprepared. They’re the strategies that cause the entire format to warp around them. Just as importantly, the way red decks and control decks change to beat one another will determine the future of the format.
What it Takes to Beat the Red Decks
For reference, here is Wyatt Darby’s Pro Tour winning Mono-Red deck. But when I refer to “red Chainwhirler decks,” this also includes R/B Aggro and even some slightly slower decks that include Karn, Scion of Urza and Vraska’s Contempt.
Wyatt Darby, 1st place at Pro Tour Dominaria
The red decks are fast and punishing, and feature single cards, Heart of Kiran and Rekindling Phoenix, which win the game on their own when they go unanswered. On top of that, they can bleed you to death with incidental damage from Goblin Chainwhirler, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and haste creatures, even when you do a good job keeping pace with their threats. These elements make red decks efficient killing machines, and force everyone else to work hard for a chance at beating them.
You won’t beat the red decks by accident. You’ll need to be ready right from the first-turn Fatal Push, to your midgame board presence, to your finishers that are resilient to Unlicensed Disintegration.
Here are the most important things you’ll need to do if you want to have a fighting chance against Mono-Red and R/B:
- Cheap spells, including quick answers to Heart of Kiran. You won’t win many games where you get hit by that card on turn 3.
- Removal that exiles, so that you can beat Scrapheap Scrounger, Rekindling Phoenix, and Hazoret the Fervent.
- A way to stabilize your life total—life gain, permission, or a fast clock.
- A resilient plan for winning the game. Red has too many ways to remove creatures at a profit—think Unlicensed Disintegration, Chandra, and Glorybringer. If you’re casting one creature per turn and falling behind these cards, you’re playing into their hands.
What it Takes to Beat the Control Decks
Just like with the red decks, there are a variety of ways to build control decks. U/B and Esper Control have been picking up steam lately, and may prove to be stronger in the long run than the traditional U/W Teferi decks. But Javier Dominguez’s U/W Approach from Grand Prix Copenhagen is a perfect deck to use as a reference.
Javier Dominguez, 4th place at Grand Prix Copenhagen
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is undeniably one of the strongest cards printed in the new set, and is probably the best thing to happen to control players since Sphinx’s Revelation. These decks are consistent and inexorable, and the combination of Teferi and Settle the Wreckage basically invalidates the strategy of attacking with creatures.
Most importantly, these decks can—if they choose—play with no creatures in the main deck. This means that U/W Control will play close games that become less and less close each time the opponent draws a Fatal Push, Abrade, or Unlicensed Disintegration. These cards can be completely dead in game 1, and are huge liabilities.
Here are the most important things you’ll need to do if you want to have a fighting chance against control:
- Be fast. You won’t beat these decks if the game gets to turn 10. And if your opponent is ready with Disallow by the time you’re casting your first spell, you have a tough road ahead.
- Have answers to Teferi that don’t involve attacking. No matter how strong your board is, you’re likely to lose if your opponent assembles the combination of Teferi and Settle the Wreckage. Instead, you need to turn to cards like Duress, Disallow, Vraska’s Contempt, or Cast Out.
- Have a very, very small number of dead cards against creatureless decks. If your deck has more than four dedicated creature removal spells, it’s almost impossible to be a favorite against control in game 1.
Making Tough Decisions
As you can see, deck building in Standard is quite complicated. Depending on your pairings, you’re liable to greatly regret your choices, no matter what those choices might have been. On one day, six of your eight matches will be against red decks, and you’ll feel naked without those Abrades and Magma Sprays. On another day, you’ll play against three or four control decks, and you’ll be carrying cinder blocks against fully half of your opponents.
Here’s the deck my teammates and I played at PT Dominaria:
Reid Duke, 15th place at Pro Tour Dominaria
Our goal was to construct a deck that was as strong as possible against control, while still being smooth, powerful, and well-rounded. This is why you’ll find no Magma Sprays in the main deck, and only two copies each of Abrade and Unlicensed Disintegration.
Lightning Strike is an excellent option if you want to keep your removal count high while keeping your number of dead cards low. While Strike isn’t exactly a good card against control (I do sideboard it out in favor of Duress), I found that a small number in the main deck improved the matchup by keeping my opponents honest. They can’t let their life total go too low when you have burn, and you can finish off a Teferi if they leave it too vulnerable.
Along the same lines, we chose Chandra, Torch of Defiance in the main deck over Rekindling Phoenix. Phoenix is merely okay against control where Chandra is excellent. On the other hand, Chandra is merely okay in the mirror match where Phoenix is excellent. Finally, Bomat Couriers were a huge part of being sleek and efficient against control, despite the fact that I sideboarded them out in eight of my ten matches.
The deck was good for us, and for the most part we had winning records. But red Chainwhirler decks were both the most popular and most successful decks at the PT. Once we made it deep into Day 2 and were playing mostly mirror matches, we would’ve rather had those Magma Sprays and Rekindling Phoenixes. When it’s clear that Mono-Red and R/B are the decks to beat, can you really afford to be an underdog in the mirror match?
The Balance of Power
Most Constructed formats have a best deck. But it’s sometimes the case that once that best deck emerges, it’s no longer the best choice for a tournament. Red might be the best in today’s Standard, but I’m not sure if I want to play it in a world where everyone’s gunning for me, and where I have to work so hard to win the mirror match that I’m losing what I liked about the deck in the first place.
Javier Dominguez reached the Top 4 of GP Copenhagen with U/W Approach the week after Pro Tour Dominaria. It’s unlikely that Dominguez and his fellow control players looked at the PT results and said, “I think control is the best deck!” More likely, they identified that people were going to be working hard to beat the red decks, and that the balance of power might therefore shift back toward control.
Standard is not a two-deck format, and it’s most certainly not a one-deck format. Control is strong enough that when people forget about it, it’s capable of dominating tournaments.
What You Can Do
Improving against red and improving against control typically require opposite deck building decisions. The best you can do is consider each card on its own merits.
Rekindling Phoenix, for example, is probably a good card to play with. It’s one of the absolute best cards in the red mirrors. It doesn’t shine against control—it’s pretty vulnerable to Settle the Wreckage and Vraska’s Contempt—but it’s still a 4/3 flying that demands an answer and can win you some games.
On the other hand, I’m still skeptical of Magma Spray. It’s an efficient 1-for-1 card that you definitely want in your deck in red mirrors. But how many percentage points will having Magma Sprays in the main deck really give you? It’s not going to make you a 65%-35% favorite, and possibly not even 55%-45%! A low-impact card that’s completely dead against control doesn’t seem worth it.
Here’s the most basic test that you need to employ as a deckbuilder: Consider a card, and ask yourself, “Do I want to draw this card?” Don’t use a cop-out answer like, “sometimes,” or, “it depends.” Just imagine yourself in round 1 of your tournament playing against a stranger with an unknown deck. Do you want this particular card to be in the top 15 cards of your library? Or don’t you?
That’s the test. And for me, as long as control remains a real threat, Magma Spray does not pass the test. Vraska’s Contempt passes the test because it’s great against red while at least threatening to kill Teferi against control. Lightning Strike (at least in small numbers) passes the test because it gives me insurance against that Winding Constrictor or Kari Zev while still being useful in a close game against U/W.
Bomat Courier and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are trickier, and might depend which way the balance of power is tipping at a given moment. So long as you respect both decks and understand the forces that are driving Standard, you can make those choices case by case.