It’s a controversial claim that has drawn a lot of debate over the years. Generally speaking, you’d get different responses depending on who you asked, and when you asked them.
Personally, I’ve never before subscribed to such a claim. I love to attack, I love to block, and I’ve done well for myself by attacking and blocking in a wide range of formats. But today I have to change my tune. Creatures suck.
Sometimes I can be a slow learner. It took hundreds and hundreds of sound beatings across a huge range of matchups, but I finally understand why trying to win with creatures is a flawed strategy in Standard. I understand why Jund Monsters has evolved into Jund Planeswalkers and I see why Burn and control players choose to sidestep creature battles altogether.
Standard is a removal format. You see Pack Rat decks stuffed to the brim with 16 removal spells after sideboarding, and they’re only one part of the problem! Supreme Verdict and Planar Cleansing decks are also responsible, as are the Jund Planeswalker decks, and—yes—even Blue and Green Devotion too.
In Standard, it’s rare to untap with a creature that costs four or more mana. If it doesn’t die on sight, you can be sure it’s dying to a sorcery-speed removal spell once your opponent untaps! It has to be this way because Blue and Green Devotion are so powerful once they get going that the only way to combat them is to completely take them apart with removal spells. You can’t beat these decks with creatures, and you also can’t beat the decks that beat these decks with creatures!
I learned that creatures sucked through trying out a variety of homebrew decks. Usually green ramp decks in various color combinations, featuring mixes of creatures, planeswalkers, and removal. Invariably, what I learned is that I liked my planeswalkers and removal, and was thoroughly unimpressed by my creatures. Rather than delve into my history of failed deck ideas, though, let’s examine a more recognizable example.
Jund Monsters and Jund Planeswalkers
Three months ago, Jund Monsters was all the rage. It was a powerful, proactive deck that ramped its mana and played all of the most powerful haymaker cards available in the format. It featured Stormbreath Dragon, Polukranos, World Eater, and enough other creatures to support Domri Rade.
Flash-forward to Pro Tour M15 in Portland. Two Jund decks made the Top 8, but there was nary a Polukranos or a Stormbreath Dragon to be seen! Instead, Pierre Mondon and Yuuki Ichikawa leaned on planeswalkers, card drawing, removal, and Rakdos’s Return to pull ahead in their games.
“Polukranos, go,” is simply a weak play against many of Standard’s best decks. The Supreme Verdict decks will clean it up in the collateral damage of a sweeper later in the game. The black decks (and even a lot of white decks!) will just remove it immediately, for less mana than you spent on it. The problem is that Polukranos provides no lasting value if it’s answered. So in a format where it’s going to be answered such a high portion of the time, it’s just not worth it.
Why Planeswalkers are Better than Creatures
Instead, Jund Planeswalkers prefers the play of, “Xenagos, the Reveler, make a Satyr, attack you, go.” This play cannot be undone by Supreme Verdict. If Xenagos is answered—say by Hero’s Downfall or Banishing Light—it leaves behind a Satyr token. What’s more, while taking one hit from Polukranos before killing it might not change the outcome of a game, every turn that Xenagos remains in play, he provides irreversible advantage. If multiple planeswalkers are ever in play at the same time, things spiral out of control, and it becomes very difficult for the opponent to claw their way back into the game.
Planeswalkers are better than creatures because they have an immediate impact on the board, offer the potential for value even if they’re answered right away, and provide lasting value each turn that they survive. Putting multiple planeswalkers onto the table tightens your grip on a game, while putting multiple creatures onto the table might just make you more vulnerable to a board sweeper.
Khans of Tarkir features two planeswalkers, both of which look to be quite powerful.
Sorin, Solemn Visitor’s first ability seems to be his selling point, and that requires having lots of creature in play to be effective. Let’s put him on the shelf until the circumstances are right.
It’s easier to be excited about Sarkhan. He can come into play and shoot down a creature (while remaining in play himself), or he can turn into a dragon and potentially shoot down an opposing planeswalker! A great addition to existing planeswalker decks that passes the test of guaranteed value.
Ironically, the all-but-extinct Jund Monsters deck actually did find ways to get value out of many of its creatures, even if they wound up biting the dust soon after hitting the battlefield. It was in the form of haste damage.
I remember clearly playing U/W Control against Jund Monsters. My opponent would play a Stormbreath Dragon or Mistcutter Hydra and I’d take a hit. “No problem,” I’d say, “I can untap and answer this with Supreme Verdict, Planar Cleansing, or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion,” and that’s exactly what I’d do. Unfortunately, we’d repeat this process a few times and I’d find myself at 0 life, packing up my cards for the next game.
In a deck (or matchup) where you’re aggressively pressuring your opponent’s life total, getting hasted damage can be comparable to the immediate value that planeswalkers provide.
Powerful haste creatures aren’t limited to just one wedge in Khans of Tarkir. Who knows what the real heir to Jund Monsters will be in new Standard, but guys that can unload a lot of damage quickly are always worth paying attention to.
As illustrated by the U/W vs. Jund Monsters example, haste creatures often get better the more you have of them. In a deck of mostly haste creatures, your opponents simply have no breathing room.
In testing for the Pro Tour, I built a variety of green decks and got repeatedly smashed by the Thoughtseizes, Lifebane Zombies, and Hero’s Downfalls of Owen Turtenwald and Matt Costa. I got repeatedly smashed, that is, until I started building my decks to support Genesis Hydra.
Genesis Hydra is an example of a creature that actually is good in a removal format like Standard. The creature itself is only half of the effect—what it does when you cast it is the other half. Creatures that have big impacts the turn you cast them are good for exploiting opponents who lean too heavily on their removal.
See how long your opponents can keep up when you force them to spend two removal spells on all of your creatures!
Earlier, I mentioned Burn and control decks “sidestepping creature battles,” but this isn’t an entirely accurate description. They don’t “sidestep” the battle, they just don’t fight fair!
Aetherling and Chandra’s Phoenix are more examples of creatures which are perfect for removal formats. You’ll play a long game where your opponent is sitting on a hand of all Hero’s Downfalls and Bile Blights. Their mouth is watering as you tap your mana, hoping that they finally get a chance to use their removal. And then… Aetherling with three Islands left untapped!
Removal spells cannot beat these cards. They might slow them down, but no number of Hero’s Downfalls is really going to be enough to get the better of an Aetherling or Chandra’s Phoenix.
“Well, do you have the Hero’s Downfall?”
Remember, sometimes creatures suck and sometimes they don’t. It all depends on the context of the format. I don’t know yet what decks and strategies will be best in Khans of Tarkir Standard, but the new set certainly doesn’t seem to be short on efficient removal.
In the early days of the new format, it can’t hurt to build your deck with a bit of resiliency to removal. You can always reevaluate things as new standard takes a more firm shape.
That said, I’d like to leave you with one last tidbit of wisdom.
The Baneslayer Angel Phenomenon
I first learned about the Baneslayer Angel Phenomenon around the time of—well—Baneslayer Angel. At the time of its printing, Jund was the best deck in standard. In terms of removal, Jund was comparable to the Pack Rat decks of today, if not even more oppressive. At the same time in extended, the best decks were Zoo—which featured Path to Exile, Tribal Flames, and sometimes even Bant Charm—and a variety of U/W and U/B combo/control decks with plenty of removal themselves.
To make a long story short, these were removal formats and all signs pointed to a five mana, sorcery-speed creature with no haste, no resiliency, and no guaranteed value being unplayable. On paper, Baneslayer Angel should have been awful! But it wasn’t.
The more I added Baneslayer Angel to my decks, the more I was winning. At first, it was a frustrating experience because it just didn’t make sense to me. “My Baneslayer Angels should be dying, and I should be losing because of it,” I would think.
The reality of the situation was that, often, my Baneslayer Angels would die. However, in some portion of the games my opponent wouldn’t draw a removal spell, or they’d have used it on something else, and Baneslayer Angel would come down and immediately dominate the game. Playing with Baneslayer Angel meant free wins, and having it in your library meant there was always a card you could topdeck to turn things around.
The science behind the Baneslayer Angel Phenomenon is that sometimes, in spite of everyone’s expectations, your creature is going to live. If a creature is powerful enough, sometimes it’s simply worth taking the risk of it dying because of the easy wins it gives you when it doesn’t.
Does Khans of Tarkir feature a new Baneslayer Angel? I’m honestly not sure. However, I’m always on the look out for one!
Respect removal spells. Understand their limitations. Build your deck to win in spite of them.