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Pardee Time – 2014 World Championships Preview

The Magic World Championship is coming up next weekend and I could not be more excited. While I’m still hopeful that someday I’ll be there competing, I’ll have to content myself with watching from home this year and rooting on young Jacob Wilson. I thought I’d write up a little primer on the four formats that the competitors will be playing: Standard, Modern, Khans Draft, and Live Vintage Masters Draft!

Standard

This Standard format is pretty awesome so far. The top decks have been constantly shifting and we’ve seen people be successful with their own brews fairly often. That being said, there are definitely still a few decks I’d say truly define the parameters of the format.

Abzan Midrange

This is the deck that Rookie of the Year Ray Perez Jr. took to a Top 8 finish at the TCG 50k and boy oh boy is it powerful. Abzan is pretty much just the next deck in the fine tradition of GB rock decks—nothing but the very best removal and threats mixed with some additional cheap hand disruption in the form of Thoughtseize. In terms of play patterns, you can generally expect long, grindy games, both pre- and post-sideboard with the Abzan pilot not really trying to change strategies in post-board games, instead swapping in cards that happen to match up particularly well.

While it’s probably not possible to have a truly great Abzan matchup because of the power of Thoughtseize and their incredibly efficient removal, I would be surprised if any Worlds competitors brought anything to the table that didn’t at least have a passable matchup here. I also would not be the least bit surprised if a fair number of players decide to be the ones doing the Sieging themselves.

Jeskai Aggro

This is Kevin Jones’ Jeskai list from the most recent SCG Open. Jeskai is a really interesting deck because it has so many options. Game 1 most lists are pretty similar, stick one of their extremely powerful 3-drop threats, hit you a few times, and then burn you out with their eight-pack of 4-damage burn spells. However, the sideboard is where I think these decks tend to really get their edge. Often, a cunning Jeskai player will be able to board into a nice control package, transitioning their burn spells into removal, bringing in sweepers like Anger of the Gods, and using more resilient finishers like Keranos or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to close the game out.

The key card for really making this transformation work is actually Dig Through Time, which helps give the Jeskai mage the fuel they need as the games start to go longer. I don’t think Jeskai is the best positioned deck right now; there’s too much incidental life gain running around these days in the form of Courser, Sorin, and Siege Rhino, but it’s the kind of deck that is extra scary when played by a world-class player, and as it happens the World Championship is chock full of those!

UB Control

This is the UB Control deck that ChannelFireball’s own Owen Turtenwald played to a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. From a strategic standpoint, UB has a relatively simple plan of answering everything that the opponent tries to do while drawing cards with Jace’s Ingenuity and Dig Through Time before eventually ending the game with Pearl Lake Ancient.

One of the defining features of control decks in this format are that they lack a true 4-mana sweeper. This means that most control decks turn to Perilous Vault to clean up problematic hordes of creatures as well as any planeswalkers that are left over. However, this generally takes 2 turns worth of mana until the very late game, meaning that swarms of creatures with different names (because of Bile Blight) tend to be a very effective strategy to combat the control deck.

Obviously, these 3 decks only scratch the surface of what is available in the current extremely diverse Standard format. In general though, the themes of the format are: powerful 3-color creatures (Siege Rhino, Mantis Rider, Butcher of the Horde), expensive but slow removal (Hero’s Downfall, Dissolve, Banishing Light) and sideboarded sweepers (I expect almost any white deck these days to be packing End Hostilities post-board).

Modern

Modern is currently a format in flux. The blue delve draw spells from Khans in addition to the cycle of ally-color fetchlands have dramatically changed the face of the format. Additionally, we don’t actually have a ton of tournament data to comb over because there has only been one Modern GP since Khans was released. Let’s start our overview of the format with the winning deck list from that Grand Prix!

RUG Delver

UR Delver has long been a fringe strategy in Modern, sometimes splashing either green for Tarmogoyf or white for Geist of Saint Traft. However, with the printing of Treasure Cruise, Delver strategies have really exploded in popularity. While the cantrips are not quite as good as they are in Legacy, nor are the counterspells quite as free, the strategy of combining Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer with an additional cheap threat (usually either Tarmogoyf or Monastery Swiftspear) is still very effective. This deck excels at deploying an early threat or two and using cheap spells to protect it, while also being able to play a longer game thanks to the raw card advantage offered by Treasure Cruise.

Delver decks tend to struggle against strategies that can cut off one or more angles of interaction. For example, Scapeshift decks manage to dodge a lot of Delver’s disruption by having no good targets for the various Vapor Snags and Pillars of Flame while Birthing Pod strategies try to present very few good Lightning Bolt targets. Despite these occasional weaknesses, Delver usually gets to look at so many cards in each game thanks to Serum Visions and the other cantrips that they can often sculpt a winning game-plan by filtering past whatever their weaker interactive spells are in any given situation.

Scapeshift

Scapeshift is one of the combo-control decks in the format, typically ramping in the first few turns, controlling the game with Remands and Cryptic Commands in the middle turns, and finishing the game with 7 or 8 lands and a Scapeshift. The way the Scapeshift combo works is that when you find Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle with Scapeshift, the Valakut also sees all the other lands you find with the ‘shift as well. This means if you find Valakut and 6 Mountains, you get six 3-point shots for a total of 18 damage. If you happen to have 8 lands when go off, 6 Mountains and 2 Valakuts result in 12 Valakut triggers for a total of 36 damage.

Scapeshift’s biggest weakness used to be to hand disruption. They only have 4 copies of their namesake card, and they also need their land drops all the way up to 7 or 8, so an unchecked Liliana of the Veil or a couple of Thoughseizes could set them back a long ways.

That has changed to some extent with the printing of Dig Through Time though; the new double-Impulse lets them look at a lot of cards for not a lot of mana, meaning that no matter how bad their hand was, they usually have a pretty large number of strong topdecks to put them right back into a winning position. Cranial Extraction effects also tend to be very strong. Because of that, most Scapeshift decks sideboard additional threats in the form of various Titans as well as Obstinate Baloths.

I discussed the various Pod decks from Madrid’s Top 8 last week, and I would expect Pod to be an important deck heading into Worlds week. Pod struggles against Anger of the Gods, as well as against the various “big mana” decks where grinding them out tends to be impossible (Tron, Scapeshift). However, it is similar to the Abzan midrange deck I talked about in Standard where, because of the power level of Thoughtseize and Birthing Pod, it’s impossible for any deck to claim a truly dominant matchup.

Junk

Junk is the new Jund of Modern, and I’d be extremely surprised if at least Wily Edel wasn’t playing it at Worlds.

The biggest innovation lately in Junk has been to cut Dark Confidant and add Siege Rhino. Removing Bob begins to make sense when you think about how the blue delve spells have changed the format—decks like Junk are no longer trying to win the extremely late game and instead want to disrupt people long enough for Tarmogoyf, Siege Rhino, and Scavenging Ooze to finish the job.

Siege Rhino also make a ton of sense as an addition if you’re trying to fight against Delver strategies. You want a creature that is resilient to Vapor Snag and takes multiple Bolts to kill while also not being a complete blank against various combo strategies. It even has trample, allowing it to break through Pod’s occasionally problematic Kitchen Finks and Voices of Resurgence.

Beating Junk usually involves sticking a permanent that they have a hard time interacting with; a resolved Birthing Pod or Karn Liberated tends to give them fits! Creatures that generate value are also typically very strong, such as Kitchen Finks, Wurmcoil Engine, or Voice of Resurgence. A lot of beating Junk is also guessing what they are prepared to beat—you can probably build a version of Junk that is favored against just about any one deck, but it’s very hard to build a Junk deck that’s simultaneously favored against big mana and Birthing Pod at the same time.

Again, 4 decks obviously don’t constitute a comprehensive list of the format, but hopefully they serve to give a better understanding of what’s really important and what to be watching for. If I had to characterize the main changes to Modern since Khans, I’d go with fairness. Blue card advantage and Delver in particular gaining a lot of tools has seemingly moved the format toward either more fair decks, or slower more resilient combo decks ala Scapeshift. It will be very interesting to see if this shift is permanent, or if it has created breathing room for some of the really unfair decks to operate.

Limited

The final 2 formats for worlds will be Khans of Tarkir booster draft and a live Vintage Master’s booster draft. Obviously it’s impractical to use deck lists to try to illustrate what’s important in a draft format, so instead I’m going to give a brief rundown of what’s important in each format.

Vintage Masters

The format previously only available on Magic Online is being recreated live specifically for the World Champs. If there was just one thing I would say that really characterizes VMA drafts as compared to other Modern draft formats, it’s how small the creatures are on average. No color other than green gets anything much bigger than a 3/3 until they are spending 6 or more mana. This has a few ramifications, first of which is that removal is actually slightly less effective than it typically is in most recent draft formats. Because the creatures are so small, the ones that end up getting played typically bring some other effect with them a la Beetleback Chief or Battle Screech meaning that 1-for-1 removal isn’t quite as good as it normally is. Even though the removal spells included in VMA are way above the power level we’d see in newer draft formats, such as Radiant’s Judgment, Swords to Plowshares, and Chain Lightning, some of the best decks in the format end up being proactive creature decks that can either create a swarm of creatures or make a big guy and protect it. For example, one of the premier archetypes in my opinion is GW Auras, a deck that uses small creatures like Phantom Nomad and Soltari Trooper along with cheap protection spells such as Shelter and Benevolent Bodyguard and Auras such as Empyrial Armor, Armadillo Cloak, and Armor of Thorns to create a large creature. Other favorite archetypes of mine include:

  • Nearly mono-red Goblins, taking advantage of old Onslaught block favorites in Ringleader, Matron, and Warchief along with newcomer Beetleback Chief and long-forgotten Portal all-star Goblin General to create a fast yet resilient aggro deck.
  • Uwr control, typically featuring two of the premier uncommons in the format in either Astral Slide or Lightning Rift alongside Counterspells, card draw such as Deep Analysis or Fact or Fiction, and a few finishers in the form of whatever happens to come along.
  • UB Storm, putting a real constraint on how long you’re allowed to durdle in the format without playing counterspells. This deck is a bit harder to get to come together because it generally requires an uncommon storm spell in either Tendrils of Agony or Brain Freeze to really work, but when it comes together well, it usually kills around turn 5 pretty consistently thanks to the blue library manipulation such as Frantic Search and Brainstorm.
  • Black/x Aggro, taking advantage of old powerhouses such as Carnophage, Sarcomancy, and Fallen Askari to create a very fast clock.

Overall, VMA has a very different feel than sets that use newer cards and I can’t wait to see how 24 of the best players in the world end up approaching the format.

KTK Draft

As far as I’m concerned, this is probably the most explored format that players are going to be playing in Nice this coming week, which is pretty exciting considering how much depth there is! One of the key questions that I think we’ll be seeing answered this week is how highly you should be taking the lands in the format. I know that Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion Ari Lax suggested that lands are among the best cards in the format while Frank Karsten’s pick-order article suggested that two-color decks are where you want to be in the format. The top archetypes in Khans draft are:

  • BW Warriors. This deck looks to abuse Warrior synergy cards like Rush of Battle while also maintaining a lower-curve to help punish people who stumble on mana.
  • 5-color good stuff. Turns out if you take all the lands, you can play basically any of the super powerful cards you get passed.
  • G/U Tempo. This deck tries to assemble some cheap creatures along with up-tempo plays such as Savage Punch, Force Away, and Crippling Chill to help push through the final points of damage.
  • Whatever clan happens to be open.

Typically, I would expect even a disciplined 2-color drafter to be completely willing to splash a third color for a powerful morph or a bomby 3-color rare. It’ll be very exciting to see the best in the world deal with a format with as much hidden information as morph.

I hope that this preview of the various formats we’re about to see has you as hyped up for Worlds as I am! Who are you rooting for? Which format are you in particular excited to see? Let me know in the comments!

Discussion

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