At this point in Standard, I expected to be a lot more surprised by the decks I’m seeing week-in and week-out. We’ve seen a full season’s worth of Standard PTQs come and go, and Born of the Gods had a minimal impact on the overall shape of the metagame, aside from perhaps shifting control into the position of “undisputed best deck” over Mono-B Devotion. To be honest with you, I kind of see them as the same deck.
While the specific strategies of the decks are quite different, the structure of the decks are much more similar than I think most people realize. In UW/x control, you have a few win conditions, backed by a bunch of removal spells and counters, tied together with draw spells intended to allow your 1-for-1s to trade up in the late game. In Mono-B Devotion, you have a lot of win conditions, backed by a bunch of removal spells, tied together by draw spells intended to allow your 1-for-1s to trade up in the late game. One deck uses more controlling elements, one uses more aggressive elements, but effectively the decks execute very similar game plans.
This is allowed by the existence of so many universal answers in the current Standard environment, which blank the text of many cards.
These cards all tend to ignore the abilities of the rest of the cards in the format, and allow the decks utilizing them to have a reasonable answer for anything presented to them. A Hero’s Downfall doesn’t distinguish between a Polukranos and a Stormbreath Dragon, or a Master of Waves and a Jace, Architect of Thought. It answers them all with equal prejudice, and moves on. These are very real constraints on the format, as they ask the spells being played to impact the board immediately, lest they be invalidated by the superior answers in Standard.
These cards ignore text boxes in a totally different way—but still manage it nonetheless. Pack Rat, though much more manageable in the current environment than pre-BNG Standard, is still a threat that allows the Mono-B deck to have zero bad draws, turning every card in their deck into a Glorious Anthem on legs. Sphinx’s Revelation is the only card in the format that allows a deck to be way behind on board and immediately get back into the game. No other card (with the possible exception of Supreme Verdict, which conveniently is also in any Sphinx’s Rev deck) allows you to swing so far on the scale from losing to parity or winning. While it doesn’t specifically blank any particular card, it invalidates whole turns of the game as it pulls its caster out of a hole and into the lead.
This is all known information, and has been since the first weeks of Theros Standard (or longer, in some cases). That’s why I find the current Standard format stale—the discovery all feels done, and now it’s a matter of tuning and tweaking, of metagaming and inches. It’s the point in the format where we would expect Gerry Thompson to start winning every event he enters, were he able to do so these days.
What can we expect the opposition to do? Where does the new Cinderella, Jund Monsters, fit into this paradigm?
The GR or Jund monsters decks are just jamming guys into play and attacking. They’re overloading the resources of the control decks to try and push through their limited resources in the early and mid-game. If the control decks can stem the early onslaught, they can often win simply by process of drawing more cards than the midrange aggressive strategy—that’s why cards like Domri Rade and Xenagos are so powerful, they require a different kind of answer and give the aggressive deck plays that don’t involve being on the losing end of a 1-for-1 trade (or worse).
Certainly, Detention Sphere and Hero’s Downfall are available as answers for the planeswalkers, but the decks in Standard that don’t run those spells are fundamentally constructed to force the Downfall or D-sphere player to be stretched very thin on those spells—they overload with spicy targets to ensure that the control player will be forced to burn their copies early, resulting in fewer available copies in the late game.
Every time I see a UW or Esper player trading off a Detention Sphere for a Rakdos Cackler I can almost feel their sigh as they think of all the value they’re giving up. It’s never what you’re looking to do, but sometimes it’s what you have to do—which is the position the aggressive deck is trying to put you into. This pressure is felt much more with Mono-B than it is with UW, which has Supreme Verdict to clear the board if it gets too clogged. Mono-B is left focusing on 1-for-1 trades and positive board presence to do the same tricks, and with the adaptation of the GR decks to include things like Ghor-Clan Rampager and real removal spells, this becomes a much more difficult prospect for Mono-B. Where the Devotion deck gets an edge, however, is in dealing with planeswalkers, as they have actual pressure to threaten the ‘walkers without relying as much on their sparse removal.
The dynamics of these matchups in terms of the actual games are very interesting. The dynamics of the metagame itself, not so much. We’ve reached the point in the format’s development where the best deck is the UW control deck, because we’ve established what questions it needs to answer, and it’s had the time to find the answer to those questions.
I’m ready for Limited season.
I was recently introduced by Jon Corpora and Brian Gottleib to a variant casual format known as “The Stack.” A bastard offspring of Cube and Mental Magic, Stack is a nice change of pace that gives a pair of players something to do in the downtime between rounds. I’ve had good fun with it, and thought I’d share.
The Stack is comprised of about 300 cards, and is intended to be played as a duel. The entire pile is shuffled up, and put between the players, who share the same deck—though they each have their own graveyard. Players begin with seven-card hands.
This list is the one I’ve been using, though there may be other variants on the format out there. It includes a few additions made by Jon and I to balance out a few of the more powerful spells and to include some cards we thought would be interesting.
The major gameplay difference between Stack and more traditional Magic is focused on your mana base. Since there are very few actual lands in the Stack, each card in your hand can be played as a land. There are two ways to do this. First, you can play any card face-down as an enters-the-battlefield-tapped nonbasic land that taps for any color of mana. Second, you can play any card face-up as a land that taps for any color of its color identity. These face-up “lands” enter play untapped, and count as basic lands of each type in their color identity. For example, a Grixis Charm played face-up would count as a Basic Land – Swamp Mountain Island, and tap for black, red, and blue.
This creates an interesting dynamic where you’re forced to decide between playing a card face-down to ensure you have better mana in future turns, or playing them face-up at the cost of constraining the spells you may be able to play further on down the line. These decisions have significant impacts on the game as it progresses, and you can often be far more mana constrained than you’d expect in a format where you’re guaranteed a five-color land drop every turn. The choices concerning your mana sequencing are some of the most difficult to adapt to for a player new to Stack, especially since so many of the spells are high-powered. Using an Inferno Titan as a land on turn 1 seems counterproductive, but it can easily be the least-impactful card in your hand, and you may want to leave up Spell Pierce and Lightning Bolt turn 2, without a UR card in your hand.
There are three fundamental interaction lines in the Stack. The first and most critical is the mana base. Beyond managing your spells and lands in the traditional fashion, mana development (and the impeding of your opponent’s development) is paramount. For these reasons, cards like Walking Atlas, Sakura-Tribe Scout, Summer Bloom, etc. are very good in the Stack, despite seeming weak on the surface. Ramp spells like Coldsteel Heart and the mana Elves are also excellent, and can set a good start apart from a great one. Turn 1 Sakura-Tribe Scout may actually be the best opening you can have in the format, so don’t sleep on these effects if you can avoid it.
Meanwhile, land destruction is a very real, and very important facet of the format. There are certainly times when a card like Molten Rain can’t get you back into a game, but they are excellent tempo plays—much like Turf Wound—that simply put you closer to the end-game portion of the duel than the opponent. Interestingly, I’ve found occasion to kill my own land from time to time—since all of your lands are actually spells, blowing up a flashback card as a means to get access to it in your graveyard can be situationally awesome. Tying together the “lands are spells” and “land destruction is good” concepts, you have a full set of the Ravnica Karoo lands in the Stack. These lands allow you to re-buy your spells at a later time, effectively storing them as lands until you need them further up the curve. Of course, as we’re aware from Cube, occasionally your Karoo gets Strip Mined and you’re just miles behind, but they are generally worth the risk, if you can buy back some of the great and expensive spells you needed to play as lands early-on.
The second line of interaction is the board, which is less obvious than expected to someone new to the format. In a world where Figure of Destiny and Goblin Guide exist, it’s hard to ignore that aggressive strategies are intended to be a valid way to play. Unfortunately, the structure of the Stack in its current form makes them slightly underpowered, because a truly aggressive start requires you to draw the right part of the Stack at the right time—a turn 4 Goblin Guide is nowhere near as threatening as a turn 1 Goblin Guide, and if the single Guide isn’t in the top 7 cards (hopefully with any other red card), you just don’t have the same kind of opening.
Still, the Stack could mostly be defined as a battle of midrange strategies, as the player who eeks out advantage during the fourth to seventh turns is generally the player who wins. Removal spells are not as plentiful as threats, so don’t use them aggressively if you can avoid it. Haymakers abound in this part of the game, and cards like Ruination or Armageddon can take a player from slightly ahead to overwhelmingly favored in a heartbeat. Counterspells, like removal, should be hoarded for game-winners only, because most things blank each other reasonably well on-board, and the stack is much more difficult to interact with.
The third line of interaction—and while not necessarily most important, certainly the most divergent from traditional Magic—is the top of the Stack. Aside from the mana, the single library is the change that impacts the way the game is played more than any other. With separate libraries, the game plays out much like any other game of Magic, without the possibility for a player to get flooded or mana screwed. With a shared library, a new facet of gamesmanship is introduced, and some cards go from clunkers to game-winners.
Consider Memory Lapse, for example. In traditional Magic, Lapse postpones a spell for a turn, but next turn you’re likely to need a more permanent solution. In the Stack, Memory Lapse STEALS the spell you’re countering. Don’t want that opponent to play a bomb like Heretic’s Punishment? No problem! Counter it with Memory Lapse, and then draw it on your turn! Cards that manipulate the top of the library in any way are particularly strong in this format, as they allow you to either set up your own draw or set up the opponent’s draw.
Some of the more unintuitive players in this line:
Noxious Revival – For free, at instant speed, you can take any spell from your own or opponent’s graveyard, and make it your draw for the turn.
Sylvan Library – One of the more powerful spells in the Stack, you get to select which of the top three cards you and your opponent will be drawing each turn.
Brainstorm – Draw three, put back one, and give your opponent the worst card in your hand. They skip their draw step next turn. DEAL.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor – Big Daddy Jace was in a previous version of the Stack. It was impossible to beat. Not only do you draw an extra card each turn, but the opponent never draws an answer to it, ever. I switched to Architect of Thought, and the games have been much better since.
Plow Under – In a normal game of Magic, Plow Under tends to win a game, as you put the opponent back two lands, two draws, and basically get a Time Stretch. In Stack, Plow Under typically ends a game because you put the opponent back two lands and you draw the best spell they’ve put down as a land. This is the ultimate combination of the first and third lines of interaction, as it serves as both resource denial and library manipulation.
When I’m playing a casual format, I’m looking for lines that are atypical from the normal planes of interaction that happen during Magic games. Sometimes that comes in the form of playing with cards I wouldn’t otherwise get to use (Cube drafting usually satisfies this urge) or playing powerful Magic spells that aren’t always viable due to format constraints (Commander fits this bill). Playing the Stack allows me to interact with an opponent in a new way, and makes cards that are OK-to-bad into very good-to-great. It doesn’t take three hours to play out, and it doesn’t ask that everyone be engaged in some implicit social contract. If this sounds appealing to you, I encourage you to put together a Stack of your own, perhaps with the help of a friend or two who are interested in playing as well, and bring it out to your next FNM. It’s interesting for players of all levels, and the first time someone plays a Foresee and realizes that leaving the bad two, rather than the bottom, is way better, you’ll have them hooked.
Fantasy Movers and Shakers
I want to touch on the fantasy league I’m running all year, hopefully without giving any fits of rage to Matt Sperling. I won’t regale you with details of who is winning or why my team is underperforming, but I’ll briefly discuss who I think has been performing above their pick level for the first quarter.
Our first-place team leader is in that position largely on the back of an excellent performance by his team at PTBNG, where he had both Chris Fennel and Shi Tian Li in the top 8. Shi Tian Li has been crushing the first quarter of the year, and his ranking of 17th in the top 25 standings is largely a product of this year (since it’s a 2-year aggregate, some of the other top Pros have a high standing based on their results prior to the calendar year). Our Points Leader also has Paulo Vitor Damo De Rosa on his team, who was taken in the seventh round – what I considered to be a little late, but about on par for the results PV has had in the past season or two. However, PV’s skill is undeniable, and his pair of GP top 8’s in the last month is a testament to the fact that you should never count PV out.
Alex Hayne is having the second best year of his career, putting up GP result after GP result. It’s tough to say a PT champion is an underdog, but I think most people gave little credence to Alex’s abilities, even after his PT victory. Now, with consistent finishes at the GP and Pro Tour level, I think Hayne has convinced the world that he’s no fluke.
For a calendar-year league, the first quarter is easily the least interesting, because many of the highest-level players are opting out of GPs due to reaching their cap early in the season. This opens a window for some of the later round draft picks to be big earners for their teams. Don’t sleep on the players on the verge, because they’re excellent ways to pick up extra points in the middle of the year. While the cap seems to be a net-negative to many of the Platinum Pros who are career Magicians like Huey Jensen and Owen Turtenwald, it’s a net positive for a Fantasy team owner looking to sneak some points in while no one is looking.
Good luck in your fantasy brackets.
Let’s Go Orange!