With week one Standard in the books, I want to take a look at the Island archetypes. Many of these decks are very similar to their pre-Journey iterations—there’s no reason that they need to change yet. Until Sphinx’s Revelation and Supreme Verdict aren’t in the format, these decks don’t need to reinvent the wheel to remain top choices.
Reprisal is the big gain, and while Deicide and Banishing Light are nice to have, neither does anything new for the deck. Reprisal on the other hand answers Mistcutter Hydra and Obzedat, Ghost Council at instant speed which previously required splashing a color to accomplish. I cannot express how much of a difference it makes that I now have a cheap, instant-speed answer against midrange green decks. It also incidentally takes out Desecration Demon, Reaper of the Wilds, and a handful of other creatures that Doom Blade could not.
Still, it has to be asked whether that makes UW better than Esper. Surely gaining a few minor upgrades and a better removal spell isn’t enough to fully shift back to UW Control? Well, in part it was the fact that Thoughtseize isn’t where I wanted to be against UW Control and the rest was the extra strain on your mana. While I believe Esper has a reasonable mana base, I can’t deny it has prevented me from hitting my three-drop on time on many occasions.
So instead I now have the room and mana curve to consistently cast Divination or Font of Fortunes early and gain a little more breathing room against discard. A lot of matches against Swamps come down to long grinds punctuated by one or two major power plays that shape the game in your favor. If you can help stretch their precious discard even further by playing cheap ways to refill, all the better!
I feel a little disappointed since the sideboard is one of the most basic iterations I’ve ever had in a UW deck. There’s little point in going cute until we see exactly where the metagame settles, and Archangel of Thune remains the best plan B against most decks in the format. If you jam enough Dispels, only Jace, Memory Adept arguably has a higher impact against black and midrange brews. Otherwise it’s hard to find anything better than mini-Baneslayer Angel against normal aggro or Burn decks.
As for Esper, while I don’t feel that it gained all that much it will remain a tier one strategy for as long as it exists in Standard. Right now we aren’t seeing too much of the deck and that’s great news for people who love playing decks soft to Supreme Verdict followed by Sphinx’s Revelation. As Sam Pardee put it on Facebook: This weekend there were very few decks that weren’t a dog to 20-Island.dec.
As for Esper entries, the Open this weekend featured quite an odd take in the Top 8.
Esper – Michael Belfatto, 7th place
This isn’t the Esper deck anyone is used to seeing and looks like a hybrid between normal Esper and the midrange builds floating around. The use of maindeck Brimaz is just strange, since it really isn’t backed up by anything and there’s still a lot of removal in the format. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is another unusual choice in the main deck since all the black control decks still have 3-4 Devour Flesh. Having that many maindeck creatures also strikes me as awkward since it encourages players to leave removal in for games two and three when Belfatto is also on the Nightveil Specter plan.
It isn’t all negativity though, I do really like the Mana Confluence setup for Hero’s Downfall. I may actually try one or two and go back to a Downfall build to see how it feels in practice. Hero’s Downfall is one of the few great cards in Esper colors the deck had real problems taking advantage of. If this can solve the mana issues that stopped it from working then I’m all for it. As we see more people playing BG cards that can destroy Detention Sphere, it becomes crucial to find useful alternatives.
I get that we’ve now entered the backlash phase against Mana Confluence and that slamming four in every deck isn’t correct. However I think it overlooks that, for many people, starting with four is the easiest way to find a comfortable number. Playing one is pretty much useless unless I know that I need a 5th or 9th land of a specific set of colors.
For example, in BW Midrange I’ve seen people tentatively suggest one and maybe two if you really want to live on the edge. “Four!? Are you mad?” Every single time I hear this I wonder if we had the same games with Orzhov Guildgate and Plains in the opener. BW was the best deck pre-Journey with the worst mana by a large margin.
I definitely think four is too many since drawing multiples is too taxing on a deck also running Underworld Connections, but two or three could be the sweet spot. Orzhov Guildgate is not an acceptable card for the deck and while we have to play it, nobody should ever forget we aren’t happy about it. Temple of Silence at least rewards your play with some additional stability via filtering, while Guildgate brings all the same drawbacks with none of the reward. Mana Confluence brings some drawbacks that I’d be a lot more concerned with if the metagame were any more aggressive than it is.
Look at the first Open Top 8. The only remotely aggressive deck is G/R Monsters. In almost every relevant match you would have played, the life is nice to have, but there are no decks that punish you for it. If you extend it out there’s still the usual GW aggro, Burn, and Mono-U decks to bash you, however these either aren’t particularly good at the moment or aren’t played in large enough numbers to make an impact. It remains a bonus knowing if you should care about Mono-U Devotion at a given tournament simply by looking up how many players named Sam signed up.
Mana Confluence was likely overhyped because lands are always among the most important aspects of any new Magic set. Even accepting this, the backlash feels forced in a format where players commonly play 10-12 scry lands. If the metagame were really that harsh to these types of lands, you wouldn’t be able to get away with that in the first place. It isn’t uncommon for a scry to cost you 3-6 life due to the delay, but that gets swept under the rug since it doesn’t have an explicit cost attached.
As with many things, the truth is in the middle. Use your best judgment with your mana base.
As for other varieties of Island, Bant Control remains underpowered and sad despite continually getting playables in the last couple of sets. American Control on the other hand got the key land it needed. While it occasionally made a splash before, it was largely regarded as a non-factor due to this inconsistency. With Temple of Epiphany, there’s a valid mana base and a good reason to Turn // Burn Down For What.
Christopher O. Bryant’s build isn’t where I’d start with my mana base, but if you want to take some cool knick-knacks off to fill out your remaining slots it showcases a lot of lovely tech.
While I think Izzet Charm isn’t great right now, it does provide a different type of angle. The obvious standouts though are Firemind’s Foresight, which provides a mini-toolbox tutor and a virtual 5th Sphinx’s Revelation. Resolving one of these is almost assuredly gaining you so much value it’ll be tough to lose the game, and unlike Revelation, you know exactly which two cards you plan on snagging. I would like something other than Quicken in the main deck though, even if it was something simple like a singleton Street Spasm. It definitely could be too cute, but being able to grab two removal spells and a Revelation feels very close to unbeatable. Nabbing a single removal spell feels like we’re still dead to a million things on board, especially without the ability to grab Cyclonic Rift.
Keranos, God of Storms is the other option we’re looking at and I have little to say about him that hasn’t already been covered. Keranos is the equivalent of a randomized planeswalker, you either draw a card or cast Lightning Bolt every turn. You’ll never get to attack with him, so is the enchantment side just better than your other options? While I’d say Assemble the Legion is stronger, it does get taken out by enchantment hate while Keranos survives Golgari Charm. Sadly for the God, almost all other commonly played enchantment removal spells exile, limiting how strong indestructibility is.
At the moment I can’t find enough good reasons to justify UWR over UWB outside of personal preference. The biggest game in town seems to be good anti-Voice of Resurgence cards and Counterflux, but everything else either has a direct analog or simply is worse than its counterpart.
While I hate Judge’s Familiar, I don’t think Hypnotic Siren actually helps in any of the matches you need help. A late-game Control Magic is sweet, but it requires the game either going exceedingly long, Nykthos the freshmaker, and the opponent not having a cheap solution. Basically I don’t see the new one-drops helping in any matchup where you’d feel good about having Judge’s Familiar.
Go find a Sam Pardee or Sam Black list and just battle with it if you still want to play this deck. If the metagame is still going to be mostly non-Rev decks and a handful of control players, there’s not a pressing need to switch decks. Some of the incidental hate may have gotten better like Banishing Light and Deicide, but that shouldn’t be a major factor in deciding to play the deck. Meanwhile you still have plenty of small aggro and clunky midrange builds to feast on.
That’s it for this week, best of luck to those battling and I plan on providing an updated Naya/Junk Hexproof list in the comments later this week.