Can’t Stop the Rock

Guilds of Ravnica Standard is proving to be one of the most complex and interesting formats I’ve ever played. Seriously, EVER. It’s a wonderful mix of diverse strategies that, when combined with an exciting new platform like #MTGArena, is highly replayable. Not only that, but it rewards repeat play with strategic depth and variation. I want to play more games, and when I do I continue to expand my understanding of the format.

Standard is everything I want Magic to be. We are currently in the thick of a moment in history that we will one day reflect upon with fondness. “Remember GRN Standard? Now THAT was a format!”

One of the most attractive qualities of the format is that like Modern, there are many viable options, but unlike Modern the options don’t create a bunch of uber polarized, linear matchups. It’s not a slight against Modern—the format does the best it can with the tools it has—but Standard is a work of art.

I did an article last year where I ranked every format. I had Standard dead last. If I recreated that list today, I’d rank it first by a wide margin. It’s a dramatic bounce back. What a difference it makes when a block of pure nonsense rotates out and they stop printing multiple unreasonable planeswalkers in every expansion! It really is a case of sometimes less is more when it comes to design.

There are options a-plenty in Standard, but I’ve entrenched myself in the sick, thick midrange of Golgari, a.k.a. The Rock.

Like a Rock (Oh, Like a Rock…)

Just like how Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band sold us Chevies in the ’90s, I’m going to try and sell you on the Golgari…

Just kidding. I’m not big on talking others into playing something I like. The choice about what to play is absolutely the most important decision you make every time you sleeve up. The decision should be the sum of all your playtesting, article reading, and personal insight. Every article you read is one piece of evidence that informs the decision.

“What should I play?”
“Also would be an awesome Wheel of Fortune alter.”

Here is what led me to The Rock:

1. Results

First, The Rock has put up consistent results and appears to be improving its stats late in the season as pilots continue to refine and enhance their builds. The way I view the narrative has changed as the season has played out.

At the start of the season, Golgari was by far the most played deck and its conversion rate in the winner’s metagame was mediocre at best. I don’t make a habit of apologizing for a deck’s results but I believe sub-optimal or untuned variants were being played en masse, i.e., jamming a million Assassin’s Trophy because the card was #Hype.

Weak builds earned The Rock a reputation as an archetype with a pedestrian conversion rate in the first few weeks as the straightforward aggro decks like Boros and Mono-Red easily bested untuned midrange.

2. I Don’t Want to Lose to White Weenie

My testing leads me to believe that Golgari is one of the few decks that beats the White Weenie shell with consistency (also, Mono-Red). It’s a huge selling point for me. While all of the commonly played decks have draws that can line up to beat anything (which is a great feature of this format!), Golgari simply has more paths to victory than most against WW.

Myth: You can outplay White Weenie. Cards, not savvy play, beat White Weenie.

3. Increasingly Inbred Jeskai Mirrors

Another factor that led me to Golgari is the corruption of Jeskai lists. Adrian’s list from #GPMKE is the Mona Lisa of GRN Standard. It’s beautiful. He was on another level when he registered that 75.

Instead of getting bogged down in the middle with Crackling Drakes he focused on the top and the bottom of the curve—the early game before the Ionize standoff and being better at accelerating into and jamming Niv-Mizzet down an opponent’s throat.

Now, finding the edge in the control mirror has become even more absurd. I’m simply not prepared to sacrifice what is necessary against the field to play a game of control mirror chicken against increasingly mirror-centric lists.

“Inbred control mirrors, you say?”

I’m not judging (ok, judging a little…) Jeskai players for doing what is necessary to seize those percentage points in the mirror, but I’m looking for an alternative option and Golgari works for me. I tend to follow an unwritten code of not playing midrange when control is good, but the circumstance is such that I’m willing to amend my rules. I believe the Jeskai matchup is very close, and slightly favored with four Duress post-board.

4. I Like Consistency and Interaction

I don’t know how exactly to quantify this metric (or if it is even a metric) but Golgari has a ton of play to it. I get to make a lot of decisions. The abundance of early explore creatures provide not only pressure but a way to smooth out my draw steps, thus negating many potentially non-functional hands.

When you keep a two-lander with a Branchwalker and use it to bin a Doom Whisperer, freeing up that draw step is a tremendously impactful play. Golgari also has a wide array of threats and answers to dig for and play to, which means it can win games that look hopeless.

Plague Wind is fair, right? But, what if they don’t have creatures? It’s also Divination. 5/5 stars: would play again.

Rock decks have a well-deserved reputation for having a lot of close-to-50% matchups because they are consistent and pack interaction.

There isn’t a clear paper deck that presents a truly bad matchup. Mono-Red is the deck I struggle with the most in game 1, but my sideboard dramatically swings that matchup.

Channeling My Inner Svogthir

I started with Rudy’s list from Vegas and have been tweaking it (especially the sideboard) as I play Leagues.

The Rock

Brian DeMars

I feel good about the list. The main deck tweaks are minor. I swapped a Forest for a Swamp. I cut a Llanowar Elves and a Seekers’ Squire for a Midnight Reaper and a second Carnage Tyrant. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel. I merely want to use the best information available to craft a wheel of very high quality.

I spent all day Sunday on my stream playtesting Leagues with Golgari (feel free to drop in anytime for live playtesting or to watch my published Golgari videos here), and I feel like I’ve really gotten the deck exactly where I want it (for now).

The Nut Draw

I also love that Golgari Midrange has a nut draw that is pretty common to assemble:

It may not look like much on paper but curving into these cards presents a tremendous amount of pressure across a wide array of matchups. The six points of life gain also takes racing off the table for most opponents.

It’s turn 3 and we’ve got two fat threats and 26 life. Aggro can’t race it and good luck grinding out a Golgari opponent when you are starting out being dominated on the battlefield!

It also creates a board that Deafening Clarion can’t rectify. While Jeskai fumbles to answer threats 1-for-1, the pressure forces them to tap out, which opens the window for Doom Whisperer to resolve and tutor up Carnage Tyrant, or for Vivien Reid to run amok. One of the few things I find more enjoyable than dismantling an opponent with a control deck is picking apart a control matchup with sequences of threats that they simply cannot efficiently interact with.

Is Wildgrowth Walker into Jadelight the most broken nut draw in the history of Magic? Nay. But it is a common sequence from an already powerful deck that is well above the average opening an opposing deck will produce. People call these types of sequences free wins for a reason…

Sideboarding with Golgari

I don’t love sideboarding guides, especially for this Standard format, because there is so much variance with regard to how any given deck is constructed. If we take an archetype like Jeskai and compare Adrian’s list to another Pro’s list, they would sideboard differently.

I don’t mean to continue to gush over this Standard format, but I really enjoy the fact that players are rewarded for putting thought into the sideboard cards they choose and how they use them in a match, rather than just spamming the same stale plans from articles.

One reason there is so much parity in Standard (any deck can beat any other deck) is because individual cards carry a lot of clout in certain matchups. For instance, Carnage Tyrant is very problematic for a Jeskai deck to answer because they are trying to play a long game and can’t target or counter the beefy, trampling Dinosaur.

When you are playing a format like this where those “trump cards” have so much sway and can beat you almost single-handedly, it makes sense to focus some of your sideboard on being able to navigate these types of cards better after board. It makes even more sense when we know that many popular decks will be overloaded on these types of cards at that point.

Duress is a pretty straightforward sideboard card. I want to bring it in against decks that are not creature-based like Jeskai Control, Grixis Control, and Izzet Drakes. Duress answers cards that would have a profound effect on the game for 1 mana before it can do its damage. It’s great for picking off Wrath of God effects like Cleansing Nova, counterspells, and Teferi.

I love Fungal Infection against White Weenie, Mono-Blue Tempo, and Mono-Red. I’m a big fan of having access to 1-mana removal in a control or midrange deck for these fast aggro matchups. It’s the best way to stall their early pressure and can often be a 1-mana 2-for-1 (trade the spell with a creature and the token with a creature).

Against White Weenie I try to make flipping Legion’s Landing as slow and painful as possible. It’s also relevant that most of their flyers (a.k.a. best non-Marshal creatures) have 1 toughness. Flipping a Landing is not impressive when they have to suicide two creatures on the ground to do it! Mono-White often relies on the mana from flipping Landing to be their third land drop so stalling that can often buy you a free turn of tempo when they can’t play a 3-drop on turn 3.

Against Mono-Red, I’m happy to trade 1 mana with either of their 1-drops or the Viashino Pyromancer. I’m just trying to slow them down until my large creatures can dominate the battlefield in a few turns. The key is to keep them from getting under you too quickly and Infection makes that difficult to do.

Long live the king! I want this card against blue decks of all shapes and sizes, as well as the mirror.

I want this card primarily against Red Deck Wins and White Weenie.

1GG for a 3/4 is a tremendous early blocker. Brontodon blocks everything, including Adanto Vanguard, without blinking an eye. But the true calling of this beefy Bronto is eating Experimental Frenzy.

The primary way we lose to Red Deck Wins and White Weenie after sideboard is when they go crazy with an unchecked Frenzy and so I want lots of answers to take that route away. The fact that the Dinosaur is effective at doing multiple things (blocking and disenchanting) makes it one of my most utilized sideboard slots.

The white decks also have enchantment-based removal such as Conclave Tribunal, which means that later in the game a Brontodon is often able to free a Doom Whisperer or Vivien Reid from exile.

I also feel out my Jeskai opponents and consider some number of the card there as well. Brontodon survives Clarion, but it also frees up Vivien and Doom Whisper from Ixalan’s Binding, which is a very swingy play.

I don’t mess around with White Weenie or Mono-Red. Both are popular decks, no matter where you play. I played against these decks a ton at the GP. I see them all over at my LGS. I see them all over the place on #MTGArena.

It doesn’t make sense to say “people don’t play these rush decks.” Control and midrange may be a growing segment of the metagame, but aggro is still a robust piece of the pie at every level of tournament play. My main deck has a lot of insulation against control and midrange, which means that I’m not willing to skimp on aggro sideboard cards since I’ll often need to get two with my sideboard.

Demise is insane. It eats most aggressive creatures and is survived by most of your creatures. It’s perhaps the easiest way to flip a game in Standard. Plague Wind.

You’ll also want to make sure you bring your Elves out when you are bringing Golden Demise in. #NONBO. The fact that I do utilize Demise often was a factor in cutting the 4th MD Elf.

I’ll admit this is kind of an Arena concession… people play Mono-Blue Tempo on Arena and I don’t typically see it IRL, and that is one of the major reasons why Harpooner lives in my board. To be fair, I bring the Harpooner in against Drakes, Jeskai, and White Weenie as well.

There is nothing more fun than fighting a Hawk for value! I wouldn’t play the card if I wasn’t concerned about Blue Tempo online, but I do think it’s among the best possible cards against Blue Aggro and adds reasonable depth against other matchups for the slots it takes up.

What to Board Out?

Again, I don’t like set plans because things are not cut and dry across archetypes, but we can make some useful generalizations about cards that tend to be weak or strong in certain scenarios.

I view Carnage Tyrant as a sideboard card for control and midrange that is basically played in the main deck because those matchups are very popular right now.

On the other hand, Tyrant is pretty unnecessary for defeating burn and weenie opponents. Rex is slow and expensive, so I’m likely to board it out against fast aggro.

I don’t want Elves against people who play sweepers or when I bring in more sweepers. Elves are a generically powerful 1-drop, but I cut down to three in the main deck and would listen to advice about making further cuts. I don’t want Elves in matchups where they are likely to die for free.

It’s important not to be overloaded on dead removal against Jeskai Control. Cast Down only hits Crackling Drake (which we are already great at answering with Vivien and Vraska’s Contempt). I also enjoy the Harpooner in the board since it allows me to have lots of removal for Jeskai’s creatures. It comes up more frequently than you’d think that a 4/2 Harpooner eats a 1/4 Drake. Also, Harpooner is another clean answer to Bolas in the late game.

These are the basic building blocks of playing Golgari Midrange at a high level. The more you play the deck and the more games you get under your belt, the more I believe these ideas and interactions begin to take shape and make a lot of sense.

Black-Green isn’t going anywhere. It’s one of the most consistent performers in Standard and a great choice for any event ranging from Arena to an LGS to a GP. Whether you decide to sleeve up Jadelight Ranger or not, it’s important to recognize that the deck is a major player in the metagame and to prepare with it or against it.

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