More than any other color, blue has usually occupied polar ends of the spectrum on the “love it or hate it” scale. This has led to some interesting decisions by R&D as they have to choose whether to make the “casual” crowd happy by limiting the counterspells in a certain format or to make the “competitive” crowd happy by printing good draw spells and counterspells in each and every format.
Blue’s slice of the color pie is so powerful that older formats tend to be dominated by the color. Sure there are other strategies and other colors have powerful tools, but in general, the power level of any randomly selected blue card is going to be more powerful than any randomly selected card of some other color.
Recently, Standard has gone through a drought so to speak, where blue was almost unplayable. Control decks have begun to emerge on the back of some not so powerful spells like Divination, which is a testament to the power of drawing cards and does not imply that Divination is in any way good. Similarly, the counterspells we have been given are efficient from a mana standpoint, but not very versatile. We have not had a Mana Leak effect that was playable since [card]Rune Snag[/card] a few years ago. This has led to an interesting trend.
Typically, control decks are only able to emerge as “good” decks once a metagame as been firmly established. This is because the deck needs to know exactly what problems exist in order to determine which answers it must run. When a control deck has versatile answers like Mana Leak, Cryptic Command, Faith’s Fetters, and Path to Exile, it is able to emerge much more quickly, for obvious reasons of course. However, with the current suite of answers we have in Standard, the exact opposite has come true. Let’s look at LSV’s winning UWR control deck from the L.A. 5K.
Ignoring the bad draw spells, what is different from this deck than say, Angelfire control decks from the days of Ravnica?
[deck]4 Wrath of God
4 Lightning Helix
2 Mana Leak
4 Compulsive Research
4 Rune Snag
4 Firemane Angel
3 Lightning Angel
1 Urzas Factory
2 Calciform Pools
2 Flagstones of Trokair
1 Battlefield Forge
1 Shivan Reef
1 Azorius Chancery
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Steam Vents
4 Hallowed Fountain
1 Izzet Boilerworks
1 Boros Garrison
1 Adarkar Wastes[/deck]
Where one deck has counterspells like [card]Mana Leak[/card], [card]Remand[/card], and [card]Rune Snag[/card], the other uses [card]Flashfreeze[/card], [card]Negate[/card], and [card]Double Negative[/card]. Given the current metagame, Flashfreeze acts pretty closely to a Rune Snag, as it is effective against a majority of the decks, while being not as effective against a minority of the field. This has developed over a long period of time however. At the beginning of the new format, Flashfreeze would never see maindeck play, as its variance is too large.
Essentially, what has happened is that due to the very specific functioning of blue cards recently, control decks have had to develop as a sort of “pre-sideboarded” strategy. This makes them good once they emerge, but requires a very well-established metagame for that to occur, meaning control decks early on for a format have been bad or altogether absent. Months into a season we may end up with a good control deck, but as soon as the metagame shifts, the control decks will suffer a long lag period again and fall out of favor. This is even apparent in the removal choices, as [card]Earthquake[/card] is much less effective than [card]Day of Judgment[/card] for a new format, but after a metagame develops and [card]Wall of Denial[/card] shows its strength, we can see why Earthquake gets the nod.
Again, this is not unusual for control decks, as they generally take some time to be developed properly, but the current states of blue has only extended the lag time, exponentially. Without Jund rising to such popularity though, cards like Double Negative, Flashfreeze, and Wall of Denial become worse. Look at the Wall against a more traditional aggro deck, like [card]Boros Bushwhacker[/card] for example, and you quickly realize that it doesn’t offer enough against them to be overly valuable.
So where does all this talk of blue lead to and why did I bring it up in the first place? For that, we must turn to Worldwake, and the reinvigoration of blue that awaits within those 145 cards. Here we are less focused on the individual applications of cards, but rather looking at to what the cards do for blue as a color, and therefore what blue does for Standard as a format.
There are some cards found in blue that have applications among the aggro fan or even combo fan, such as Sejiri Merfolk or Quest for Ula’s Temple but we are primarily focused on the control cards of the spectrum, of which there are plenty:
First and foremost, we should get it out of the way up front that Worldwake did not deliver the counterspells we would have hoped for. While both Dispel and Spell Contortion are playable, one is better at protecting a combo while the other can’t be played in large numbers as it just is not powerful enough. This said, Standard does have some counterspells that are appropriate enough as is; we just were not able to utilize them due to a lack of good card draw and manipulation. To explain further; a counterspell is typically a 1-for-1 trade off. Because of this, and the slower win route that control decks utilize, without some sort of card advantage, a control deck runs out of answers faster than the opponent runs out of threats. Usually trading 1-for-1 early is fine, as you have a fully stocked hand and your opponent is restricted in their resources. Around turn 5 or 6 however, you want to be recouping some of the lost cards while keeping counterspell mana open. This allows you to continue utilizing 1 for 1 methods of containment while you allow your other spells to generate the card advantage for you.
Contrast this to a deck like Jund, which has naturally built-in card advantage in most of its spells. This allows the deck to avoid running the sub-optimal card draw spells of the format and instead just pack its confines full of good spells. It should go without saying that the reason instant speed card draw is preferred for blue control strategies is that this allows you to keep open counterspell mana and still use a draw spell at the end of your opponent’s turn if all of your mana is not used up, therefore letting you maximize your mana usage for the turn.
This brings up what blue has gotten out of Worldwake: deck thinning, manipulation, and card draw. With good card advantage engines, bad counterspells suddenly become that much better as you are more likely to draw them when they are at their best, and are able to recover from the blank draws they become when they are at their worst.
The new class of blue:
Jace the Mind Sculptor
Mysteries of the Deep
Between these four gems, blue-based control strategies should take a firm place in the upcoming metagame. I am not here to go over each individual card and its applications since everyone and their mother has already done so, but rather the larger implications for Standard as a whole. Although one thing I would like to point out is that all the talk of turn 1 Halimar Depths, turn 2 Treasure Hunt sounds like a pretty bad idea to me. You’re talking about on the play, turning that sequence into your discard step for anything beyond 2 cards from Treasure Hunt? Seems like that is a bit of a waste for the true control player, but that’s just me.
With the rise of blue, the metagame shifts from what currently exists. Typically, blue decks tend to weed out all but the best of the midrange strategies in a format. It turns out that slower creatures are more susceptible to counterspells and thus cannot compete in the same fashion that a more aggressive deck can. Jund will be the obvious exception here, as cascade breaks the rules and gets around most countermagic pretty easily. I could see [card]Mindbreak Trap[/card] finally getting some love in this regard, as it may have now found a home.
For those midrange decks that do wish to exist, specific steps must be made in order to stay competitive. Rather than the control deck warping its every card choice to accommodate itself in a hostile environment, midrange decks will likely have to turn to things like [card]Great Sable Stag[/card], [card]Duress[/card], or Dispel (counter target instant spell for U) as ways to resolve its threats.
Meanwhile, as the midrange decks try to adapt and figure out how to thrive in a new environment, the hyper-aggressive decks should find a nice home. [card]Day of Judgment[/card], [card]Path to Exile[/card], and [card]Earthquake[/card] offer some nice removal, but these aggressive decks aren’t those from the days of old, as they have card advantage engines like Ranger of Eos backed by hasty threats and solid burn spells. While the control decks have the tools to fight these strategies, any stumble and they probably fall too far behind to recover.
A real life example of this is something along the lines of Eldrazi Green. People seem to be excited by Joraga Warcaller to be some heaven sent catalyst for the deck, but how can such a deck exist when counterspells are back on the market? Sure, your [card]Llanowar Elf[/card] or [card nissas chosen]Nissa’s Chosen[/card] will resolve, but that is nothing that a Wrath can’t clean up. Meanwhile the card advantage planeswalkers of the deck have little shot at seeing the light of the battlefield, and the few that do will probably just be flushed back [card]Into the Roil[/card].
As you can see, the exploitation of control decks leads to faster aggro decks, meaning we now have decks that occupy the outer ends of the spectrum (very fast and very slow) and have less decks falling in the middle. Combo decks, if they come to exist, would generally fall in the faster side of things as well, otherwise they can’t compete with aggro decks.
This simple shifting of speed levels also shifts what cards become more or less valuable going forward. We already mentioned [card]Duress[/card] and [card]Great Sable Stag[/card], but along the same lines, as a tool for control decks to fight the mirror, [card]Banefire[/card], and subsequently [card]Swerve[/card], both should see an increase in play. Swerve can win counterwars against everything but [card]Essence Scatter[/card], while redirecting those pesky [card]Blightning[/card]s and [card lightning bolt]Bolts[/card] at the same time.
If a green deck is to have any impact in the future Standard, I expect [card]River Boa[/card] to be a big part of said deck. Not only is regeneration going to trump everything this side of [card]Path to Exile[/card], but walking right past Calcite Snapper, [card]Wall of Denial[/card], and [card]Sphinx of Jwar Isle[/card] is sure to be a huge bonus. While his islandwalk is irrelevant when attacking planeswalkers, that is only a small chink in the armor of a very powerful but oft overlooked bear.
Lastly, [card]Traumatic Visions[/card] might see a spike in play. Obviously as a counterspell, Visions is not too exciting, but the ability to shuffle your library after a Halimar Depths or Jace activation can end up being crucial. Of course fetchlands will be used here as well, but having a versatile counterspell that acts in the same way will probably end up being a good call. I don’t expect this to be a 4-of anytime soon, but 1 or 2 of them seems like it should be fine.
There are of course other cards that will rise in value as well, not to mention the influx of new cards that are bound to be tried out. The takeaway from this is that with the reinvigoration of an old archetype, the entire framework of a format changes. Jund will still be Jund, as its cards are too powerful to hate out, but beyond that, expect drastic shifts around the corner.
The set looks to have a huge impact on limited, Standard, Extended, and even Legacy, so I expect to see a lot of new faces at the Denver Prerelease this weekend, where I will be gunslinging alongside Ken Nagle. See you guys there!