Standard, Week 1: Vehicles and Aggro Start Fast

Week 1 of Kaladesh Standard was defined by curving out and adapting to the new end game that Vehicles create. The Top 8 comprised 32 copies of the best looter in Standard, drag-racing people to the end game of turn 6 while the traditional grind-y strategies fell apart. While week 1 is always a time where aggression is at its best, it’s been a while since we’ve seen such a dominant showing. Even when Atarka Red took down the first Open of the format, that was an isolated result compared to this Top 64 filled to the brim with R/x Aggro.

Before we go over some of the reasons for this, I want to quickly touch on a few of the decks from this weekend.

R/W Vehicles

Chris VanMeter played this to a quick victory, alongside a hundred other people playing the new aggro hotness. R/W Vehicles and aggro in general were by no means underplayed or underestimated. It rolled in and took down a bunch of established strategies by being faster than anyone was prepared for, while also being resilient to the removal from the non-red decks.

Seriously, look at the normal removal spells for these decks, and at which of them actually take down Smuggler’s Copter and Fleetwheel Cruiser. Red has enough Harnessed Lightning and Galvanic Bombardment to go around plus more niche removal. Play another color and you’re limited to expensive or narrow options. Black has Grasp of Darkness, and then you’re looking at all 3-mana options. White has Immolating Glare, and then a bunch of 3-mana options. And so on.

Part of the reason this deck is so effective against slower decks is because without blocker-into-Dromoka’s Command, players can’t get clean, mana-efficient trades. The 2-for-1 potential is also completely gone. Only ideboard cards like Fragmentize and Natural State trade at anything better than even mana efficiency, and that matters when you need to beat a deck full of 1s and 2s. Languish’s absence also helps this strategy, but the power level of Vehicles makes sweepers less of a factor anyway.

There were some other standouts from these events—Depala, Pilot Exemplar doesn’t look like a remotely fun or fair card to go up against if you’re playing midrange. Toolcraft Exemplar also showcased just how bad Sylvan Advocate can be when you can’t even stop a 1-drop anymore.

R/W and B/R Aggro are the level 1 of the format.

B/R Aggro

Jacob Hagen made it to the Top 4 with this deck and might’ve taken down the whole thing if not for some questionable threat prioritization. Unlicensed Disintegration is the real deal and one of the clean ways to take out Vehicles while not losing out on damage. You also have actual life gain in the board, which is a pretty sweet deal—you can go even further with cards like Alms of the Vein and Essence Extraction if you wish.

Oh and welcome to the introduction of Scrapheap Scrounger—expect that to be a main-deck card in way too many decks shortly. A 3-power artifact creature that rebuys at the same cost is one of the best deals in the format. It also means you don’t have to overload on Vehicles to hit the requisite amount of artifacts for your artificers and Disintegrations.

G/W Aggro

Tom Ross, 10th place

Hey, look! A straightforward aggressive midrange deck with a bunch of efficient monsters backed by Declaration in Stone and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar! This is the level zero of the format outside of Vehicles—a deck just playing all the good cards from the last format with a solid mana base and Verdurous Gearhulk. Now Verdurous Gearhulk may be omnipresent in green decks, but here it’s at its strongest with plenty of creatures to pump.

My biggest issue with this deck has to do with the reason I think Bant was bad for week 1. None of its early-game plays line up particularly well against W/R or B/R Aggro. There are no answers to opposing Smuggler’s Copters, nor good turn-3 plays to make up for missing a 2-drop. You don’t feel good about losing your Sylvan Advocate on turn 2 to a Harnessed Lightning. You feel worse when they follow that up with a card like Lathnu Hellion or Depala, Pilot Exemplar.

Even if they just play 1-drop, Copter, and another 2 or 3, it’s really difficult to keep up. They don’t need to run you over—hitting for 3 in the air and improving their hand for free while building up a board is plenty. There’s no Selfless Spirit into Avacyn trick or Overrun here where you win the game out of seemingly nowhere.

Otherwise, I’m not surprised the Roanoke boys did well with this deck—it plays nice straightforward Magic with powerful cards and the allotted amount of trickiness to take advantage of week 1. Blossoming Defense is a real card and I suspect pushed a little too far for having the word “hexproof” printed on it. Time will tell. If I were to play the deck next week, the first thing I’d do is find room for Gisela to take advantage of the life gain and massive blocker. Sure she only has 3 toughness, but watch people get crushed by Blossoming Defense on her.

Here are some takeaways for Standard pre-Pro Tour.

1) Life gain is important.

A card like Essence Extraction is suddenly far better than otherwise expected due to being an instant (able to hit Vehicles) and because life is at a premium. There’s no incremental life gain stapled onto creatures and spells like some formats in the past, which means you effectively pay 1 extra mana for the bonus. But with the sheer aggression we’ve seen early in the format, buying an extra turn with a card like this is all the more important.

Gisela certainly looks better than she would otherwise, and Kalitas is in the same boat. Sorin, Grim Nemesis as a straight Corrupt is fine if you take down a decent-sized creature. While you don’t want to go too far since mana efficiency is still important, if you can sneak in a life gain spell, you probably should.

2) Artifact and enchantment removal spells are relevant.

Smuggler’s Copter had 32 copies in the Top 8 of the Open and 52 copies in the Top 16. The number of main-deck ways to deal with it is quite low and even sideboards don’t provide a comforting number of answers. Cards like Fragmentize and Natural State nearly have enough targets at this point to be run in the main deck, especially if you have a looter ability of your own. You should probably have 3-4 copies in your sideboard at least.

3) Vehicles are the predominant threats, not planeswalkers.

Vehicles are good at closing out games in a few turns. None of them want the game to go longer, and while Smuggler’s Copter may help you out over time, it wouldn’t be seeing so much play if it didn’t also deal 3 a turn. This is a complete 180 from many recent formats where incremental advantage was the norm and cards like Tireless Tracker were the usual win conditions.

Now, you either need to fight early on for board control, or get into a race. Hanging back behind your usual walls is no longer effective. Cards like Sylvan Advocate and Tireless Tracker aren’t bad, but they’ve gotten weaker. A card like Gnarlwood Dryad looks far more attractive as a main-deck starter.

That’s all I’ve got for now, and since there are no PPTQs or Opens until the Pro Tour, we won’t see the same usual evolution of Standard of the past few years. For those of you with relevant tournaments coming up, it should be a fun time to try to get one step ahead. There are also a bunch of cool decks hiding just on the fringe that could be real players, such as the Aetherworks Marvel decks or U/B Colossus builds trying to slam an 11/11 ASAP. All of it is such a breath of fresh air from the last Standard.

Plus, with the pile shuffling rule change and the return of aggression, the games actually take a reasonable amount of time! That’s the best news of all.

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