It’s interesting to look at a format that has been previously defined, and speculate about what a new set will do to it. How much will the ‘best decks’ benefit from the new set? Which new archetypes will emerge, and how will they stand up to the old guard? Will a particular card threaten to extinguish an archetype (like Kor Firewalker vs Mono-Red, or Kataki vs Affinity)? Will another card promote a new archetype (Jace, the Mind Scupltor, Bloodbraid Elf, Sprouting Thrinax). This is the sort of question we were asking ourselves in preparing for Standard at Pro Tour San Diego.
For reference let’s look at the deck I played at the Pro Tour- Pat Chapin’s UW control:
Twenty cards from Worldwake– and there were more in the sideboard! We believed that Jace, the Mind Sculptor, especially in concert with Treasure Hunt and Halimar Depths, would have a major impact on the format. Recall that Luis Scott-Vargas won the 5k Starcitygames tournament with a UWR control deck- one of the last Standard tournaments before Worldwake became legal. It seemed a forgone conclusion that control strategies profiting from the Worldwake deck manipulators would be a major force in San Diego.
But a perusal of the winningest decks from San Diego (records 6-4 and better) tells a very different story. Pat Chapin is up there, Gab Nassif is up there, Mark Herberholz is up there, but they all played this very same deck (which Brian Kibler, Brian Kowal, Matt Sperling and I did not fare as well with). Did other teams not appreciate Jace? And how did Jund still fare so well after adding hardly any new spells?
It would be tempting to formulate some post-hoc explanation of why control really wasn’t as good as we thought; or perhaps contort some psychological explanation for why teams like Channel Fireball went with creature strategies where one might’ve assumed they’d be eager to put the new control cards to work. But I don’t have much of an explanation on either front. Nor do I have much doubt, as it turns out, that Jace-based control decks were tier one in standard. My interest is in an idea that’s a little less concrete.
Let’s start with semifinalist Craig Wescoe’s deck:
It’s fast, focused, and got a lot of help from the new set: Kor Firewalker to annoy Jund and wreck Mono-Red, Stoneforge Mystic to find equipment for breaking stalemates or augmenting evasion/protection creatures, and Dread Statuary as a land/spell that’s awkward for control decks to remove, and allows Craig to reliably cast Elspeth.
But I can’t help wondering: is this deck that much better than the Boros decks of old? It feels like we got better mana, and more durable creatures, while losing the power of Lightning Bolt, Plated Geopede and the Ranger/Bushwacker setup. Indeed, this feels like a skillfully constructed metagame deck to me- streamlined to handle the expected decks, but hardly a scary, format-warping, deck. Yes, it takes advantage of lots of new cards, but I think this really just brings it up to (and perhaps just past) par. This is not to take away from Mr. Wescoe, who I was very happy for in finally cracking the PT top 8.
Luis Scott-Vargas, seminfinalist
If this next deck reminds anyone of the Naya-Lightsaber deck that Andre Coimbra won Worlds with, I think that’s a fair comparison to begin with. Luis’ setup takes advantage of all the new lands for Knight of Reliquary to fetch (manlands, Tectonic Edge, and Sejiri Steppe), while also lowering the curve by putting in Stoneforge Mystics and Equipment instead of Baneslayer Angels. Here we can see a formerly successful deck succeed with some new tools alongside old ones. But again, I think the upgrades are not as vast as it might appear. Knight of the Reliquary may be better when all is said and done, but Woolly Thoctar in a Naya deck is nothing to sneeze at. It’d be hard to make a 5/4 any faster, and at the 3-mana monster slot, he did a pretty good job. And as far as Stoneforge Mystics, I still wonder if they’re better than Baneslayers. I’ll take the results from the tournament as evidence in favor of the 1/2s, especially considering the way they took advantage of Cunning Sparkmage equipped with Basilisk Collar. But it’s worth noting that they took out a very powerful set of 5/5 first strike, lifelink, flying, pro-dragon/demon Angels to do it.
This is Simon Gortzen’s PT San Diego winning Jund list. No Worldwake spells- deck, or sideboard. You mean regular old Jund won the Pro Tour, the same deck we’ve been trying to beat for a year? Maybe he got lucky? Probably not – there were two more Junds in the top 8, and plenty more around the top tables.
So”¦ were these other decks merely, as I’ve implied, shuffling in new cards for very little net gain while Jund remained the best deck? Or did Jund decks remetagame to get an edge? Maybe Savage Lands is just what people were accustomed to playing on turn one?
I’m not the sort to point to a single cause and insist that “that’s IT! THAT’S the reason Jund is still good in this otherwise different format!” There’s a lot going on here. And I do think some of these new decks end up gaining less than it looks from Worldwake (although the Naya/Collar deck I described has an impressive number of people at 7 wins or higher, and factors like old-habits, and metagame-readjustment are not completely out of the question. But let’s digress for moment.
Sometimes two decks both get the same new card, and are equally rewarded. For example, I don’t think Boros was any happier to upgrade Incinerate to Bolt than Mono-Red was. Both were happy to play Incinerate, and were subsequently thrilled to turn it into Lightning Bolt. Contrast this with a control deck like Grixis or UWR. Incinerate would not have cut the mustard for them (unless the metagame was particularly skewed to Sable Stags, regenerators, or low-loyalty Planeswalkers). But with the arrival of ‘Bolt, they take out Doom Blade or Terror, or Earthquake or Path to Exile or Pacifism, and put in R: 3 damage because it does the early-removal job a little bit better than did the other options. Both Grixis and Mono-Red ‘gained’ Lightning Bolt – but Grixis (by dint of being 3 colors) already had a suite of options available (all of which were better than Incinerate), whereas Mono-Red is getting a pretty strict upgrade on a spell that fits perfectly into the deck.
Now let’s talk about manlands. While the jury is still out on which is the best manland (I think Lavaclaw Reaches is the worst, and Creeping Tar Pit the hardest to get into a deck), it’s fair to say they’re right up there with Mutavault and Treetop Village – in fact, I think their status as duallands-to-boot makes them even better. But this doesn’t answer the question we really want answered: who benefits most from them?
Mono-colored decks seem like they get the shaft- but I’m not so sure. Tectonic Edge and Dread Sanctuary (as part of the Worldwake family of lands) are very serious cards which do not come into play tapped, and give Mono-color decks great flexibility outside of the early turns. The Edge saw less play than I expected, but I think it will be seen more as the format ages.
What about beatdown decks like Naya? Hard not to like the manlands if you’re playing an aggressive strategy with mana acceleration and a fairly heavy landcount anticipating Ranger of Eos, Ajani, Baneslayer, and other powerful 4 and 5 drops. However, I think Ranger of Eos somewhat mitigates the usefulness of manlands, because it spreads out your use of mana over more turns than usual. Stoneforge Mystic with Sledge and Collar also acts as a mana sink in the late game – which will somewhat conflict with lands who want that mana to activate them as creatures. All that said, Knight of the Reliquary assures the presence of the right Manland at the right time, and the proliferation of equipment means that the once dormant creaturelands will likely have Sledges or Collars around to help them when they decide to break through. So Naya’s pretty happy.
You know who’s not happy? Decks that draw cards. See, decks that draw cards (like those using Mind Spring, Sphinx of Lost Truths, Divination, or Jace(s)) hope to live through the early game while taking any slack on your part as a chance to invest mana in new cards. These new cards mean that as the game drags on, they will still have spells to cast, while you’re left twiddling your thumbs. While it’s true that they will now have Celestial Colonnades to activate in the lategame, they already had stuff to do at that stage of the game. You, on the other hand, have these awesome manlands which all of a sudden become a very annoying (unwrathable, unboltable, unringable) way to utilize your otherwise underused mana to deal damage. And who are You? For the sake of this discussion, let’s say you are Jund.
When I started playing Jund back in Alara Block, it was a weird (if very powerful) deck. It could go aggro, and it could play control. It made economical trades, but it had hardly any draw smoothing, or ways to use its mana once it ran out of spells to cast. There is a frequent lament that when playing against Jund, you are at the mercy of their draws- if they curve out and have the right answers, you stand little chance because their spells are so powerful. But frequently enough, the Jund player draws too few spells, or too many- too few early drops, or not enough late ones. Jund is inconsistent.
Remember when people started playing Borderland Ranger in Jund? I think the ‘ranger’s use is attributable to just this issue. If you’ve got a deck that can catch up quickly with cards like Maelstrom Pulse, Lightning Bolt and Bituminous Blast, it might be worth putting on the brakes and letting turn 3 go by without committing a card from your hand- instead getting a 2/2 and putting a basic into your hand. This would feel horribly clunky in most decks, but with a deck like Jund that has so little to replenish its resources (and can be so devastatingly reactive), this casual wading-in makes a lot more sense.
Enter Raging Ravine. What could be a more convenient use of late-game mana than this 4-to activate, grows each time it attacks, monster? Not only is it a powerful finisher, it also means Jund can play extra lands to ensure it gets up to Bituminous Blast, Siege-Gang Commander and Broodmate Dragon. Note that Gortzen played 2 Rampant Growths, to go with 27 lands (over Jund’s usual 26), 4 of which were Raging Ravines. Hilariously enough, he even played 2 Lavaclaw Reaches just to make sure he’d have a land-based threat to activate as the game went on – a redundancy that hardly any other Jund players made use of.
As I alluded to earlier, I don’t want to make it seem like a Gortzen’s appreciation of manlands preordained him to win the Pro Tour. He did not have the best record in standard, nor did any Jund player finish with more than 24 points in the Standard portion (something six other players did manage). But as far as how a deck that gained no new spells managed to stay atop the Standard heap, I think a second look at manlands goes a long way.
While we’re at it, let’s think about other aspects of playing these new damage factories. They certainly hinder your ability to make a turn one play (they are often best laid as pseudo-one drops). They also mean that cards like Wild Nacatl and Plated Geopede are in for a disappointment; for all their undercostedness, these creatures long for basics and sac lands – some of which must be cut for manlands. Also, for their respective reasons, manlands won’t do much good to decks uninterested in dealing damage (say, turbo-fog), and they also won’t help a deck dedicated to cross colors (like Boros)- because, of course, there is no Red/White manland.
Note that none of these disabilities matter much to Jund. It has no one-drops (other than Savage Lands), only a mild need for basic lands (Dragonskull Summit and Rootbound Crag, many of which are replaced by Ravines), and no landfalls to activate. On the other hand, Jund is as hungry as any deck to deal damage. It also has enough reactive cards to mean that the game can go long enough that the manlands don’t just do the last few points – I’ve seen plenty of empty Jund-boards where a Raging Ravine ends up dealing all 20.
I don’t know where Jund, or Standard as a whole, will go in the year to come. I was impressed with decks like Chapin’s that cut back on other colors and eccentricities to make room for extra manlands and Tectonic Edges (he even played Everflowing Chalice so that his bounty of mana would come out faster and make for efficient Colonnade activations as the game went late). Still, it’s not clear that this sort of land-centric thinking will come to predominate. Perhaps Standard will continue to speed up, and Ravine activations will only be an afterthought in the rare war of attrition. But as the format oscillates, and control decks find their way into the mix, it would be hard to imagine manlands not figuring prominently into the later turns of the game. We’ll have to wait and see.