Mono-Blue is running the format—that much has become clear now. It turns out that when enough influential personalities write, stream, talk about a deck, people will eventually come around. That may sound like how it’s supposed to work and this was bound to happen, but I can say there were definitely times in history when people simply would not have made the switch, no matter how good the Mono-Blue deck ended up being. It turns out we live in a new era, as the winner of SCG Dallas, Robert Wagner, adopted Alexander Hayne’s version about two days ahead of time.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about what you can do if you happen to be piloting a deck that struggles in the current field of Mono-Blue because it should be everywhere at Memphis and RPTQs this upcoming weekend.
First off, if you are playing a deck that’s soft to Mono-Blue, it’s probably time to devote a real sideboard plan to fighting it, or switch to a new deck altogether. So, Nexus players, good luck. Your early cards are eating a Spell Pierce, you have few ways to interact with the best draws from the blue deck (a.k.a. anything with an early Curious Obsession), and sideboarding in Crushing Canopy won’t magically make the matchup winnable. Your best bet is to take the Gates route and bring in cards that can race (Gatebreaker Ram being the best) since that minimizes the amount of counterplay the Mono-Blue player has and can cause some very awkward sideboard decisions in game 3.
While Nexus decks have a high power level, when so much of the format has counterplay with Spell Pierce/Negate, you lose a lot of value. A Nexus player’s best bet is to hope that the Mono-Blue uprising gets decks like Gruul into the metagame. Otherwise, all the freebie matches seem few and far between now. Taking a good long look at what the deck does well and transferring it to beat Mono-Blue doesn’t seem outrageous—such as becoming a big Niv-Mizzet deck.
Sultai players don’t have it nearly as bad, but I don’t think anyone except the best players are going to do better than break even. Some builds are moving away from the Wildgrowth Walker package and that’s one of the only ways to effectively race if you can’t stop Curious Obsession. Otherwise a lot comes down to how well the Sultai player leverages their kill spells against the early game Dive Down/Spell Pierce tag team. Post-board, when Sultai can shave their expensive do-nothings, the matchup gets trickier for the blue player, but often they just need to get one good Curious Obsession draw post-board.
Also as a side note for Sultai, enjoy being the #1 target due to the inherent slowness of metagame corrections. The deck still has widespread popularity and receives a lot of attention in the hands of pro players—so instead of players potentially pulling resources to refocus on Mono-Blue, odds are they’ll keep their game plan against Sultai intact.
Esper players are in an interesting position where the control deck probably has a better shot of winning than the midrange build as both are currently constructed. The control deck can configure itself into a way better 1-for-1 trade machine with ways to pull ahead later, which can overwhelm the Mono-Blue deck early and keep them from snowballing. Meanwhile the midrange deck has cool cards like Hero of Precinct One and Basilica Bell-Haunt, which are do-nothings in the matchup. Even so, the blue deck gets so many free wins from leveraging 1-mana interaction that if either Esper iteration stumbles, the game gets out of hand.
For everyone else, the usual applies. You aren’t playing enough early interaction against the blue deck and they’re one of the only decks in the format with a bunch of free win hands thanks to Curious Obsession. Until a card like Kraul Harpooner is playable main deck or people are willing to go to 1-mana removal besides Shock, you just accept it. The other reason Mono-Blue is living up to the hype is because secretly the deck stopped running bad cards. It took me a while to accept this as my preconceived notion was “well, it’s Fish, so it’s mostly Limited chaff backed by Curiosity and cheap countermagic.” Eventually people on the Spikes Discord got to me.
Oh sure, Mist-Cloaked Herald is still Draft chaff at best and sometimes Pteramander does a Flying Men impression (though it often pumps for lethal late game), but otherwise, what else is weak? Stormtamer is a fine card, Trickster was often not played due to metagame constraints and not for lack of utility, and Tempest Djinn is just a Drake with different restrictions. Spell-wise everything is a solid playable or better and Curious Obsession in this deck is arguably the best card draw engine in the format.
In a polarized metagame where Mono-Blue was considered the de facto best deck and people were just dedicated to trying to go off on a win streak, I could easily see a Gruul or throwback Mono-Green Stompy deck performing well. The problem is that you will run into Sultai and Esper players, and they will go ahead and dumpster you with 2-for-1s and a big card draw engine to put the game out of reach. It doesn’t help that the deck’s best 1-drops are both complete embarrassments in the mid-/late-game, meaning your relevant threat density actually drops dramatically every turn after the first three or so.
So what can you do to make up some ground?
Sultai players can add Kraul Harpooner as a way to interact early that isn’t hit by Spell Pierce and still clocks early. Plaguecrafter out of the sideboard is a passable way of limiting the value they get out of a single Curious threat backed by open mana, even though that performs better against Drakes. For Esper and Sultai players alike, Fungal Infection lines up fine against both white and blue aggro decks. In fact, in Esper it may be the best card nobody seems to be playing. On the draw you have Duress and Fungal Infection to buy time and burn off spells without throwing away your entire turn.
Likewise, Sky Tether is a nominally bad Magic card with a respectable niche right now, shutting down Tempest Djinn and any flyer with Curious Obsession. Just throwing that out there. Deep Freeze is somehow a playable card in this Standard but I’d much rather have a 1-mana iteration. While I’m normally against the concept of “just throw a bunch of removal at it,” in this case that’s exactly what’s good against the Mono-Blue deck, especially when they end up on the draw. As Ari Lax wrote, “They won’t always have it.”
Your other option is to pick a deck that’s naturally well positioned against the early game free win hands from blue and still able to threaten the slower midrange decks. Izzet Drakes hasn’t had a lot of success lately, but the blueprint of early red removal and Spell Pierce is a good starting point against Mono-Blue. At this point I think adding Niv-Mizzet, Parun to the main deck is necessary in the current format. Not only does it give you end game when jamming Drakes isn’t a palatable strategy, it also helps keep you from running out of resources when you trade 1-for-1 every turn.
Temur Drakes attempts to solve this with the addition of Hydroid Krasis, with Jonathan Job placing 14th at the last Open. But with the current land count in the deck and how mediocre a Krasis cast for 2 is, I’m not on board with the splash. Unlike Sultai or even Simic Climb builds, you can’t get any value out of an early Krasis and there’s no way to rebuy them for later. Niv-Mizzet, on the other hand, can flip the entire game toward you if it lives for a turn. If you can manage it on 7 mana with Dive Down up, even if it gets killed, you’ve gained a reasonable amount of resources in the process. A 4/4 or 5/5 Krasis doesn’t present the same kind of clock or utility, though the life gain can be nice in close games.
Azorius Aggro or even Mono-White Aggro are both good choices. They can race Mono-Blue and the addition of Unbreakable Formation gives it a solid combat trick/mass pump spell alongside the duo of Benalish Marshal and Venerated Loxodon. The decks that punish you for daring to fill up the board with creatures have dropped off to effectively just Esper game 1, though Cry of the Carnarium has seen an uptick.
I actually think some sort of Dimir or Esper Midrange deck would be good in this meta because Thief of Sanity occupies the same space as Nightveil Specter. It’s a threat that has to be dealt with in short order by other control and midrange strategies or it allows them to beat you with your own deck’s card quality. Meanwhile you still overload on removal against aggro and can win a late game with Teferi or one of the Angels (Lyra or Angel of Grace).
Personally I’d play Mono-Blue Aggro because I don’t think enough people are prepared for it, nor are consistently taking lines that remove your edge. If I wasn’t going that route, then I’d likely try something like this.
This essentially cashes in countermagic and extra draw game 1 and leans on Thief of Sanity and The Eldest Reborn to make up for it. Against normal decks you trade 1-for-1 and eventually slam the door shut. Depose // Deploy is probably a little too cute, but I wanted a cheap cycler like Revitalize and found that the fringe benefits of tapping a Drake or a Curious-Obsession-carrying creature made a bigger difference with red falling off. Casting Deploy feels good with Karn or after an early Thought Erasure for surprise blocks. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if swapping it for Absorb, Revitalize, or something else isn’t better.
If I ran countermagic I’d also heavily consider Angel of Grace and Chemister’s Insight instead, but this build is tapout based with Eldest and Karn, so it wouldn’t be as strong here.
Whatever you select, the top decks of the format look to roughly be:
- Mono-Blue Aggro
- Mono-White/Azorius Aggro
- Sultai Midrange
- Esper Control
Decks that will still show up in reasonable numbers:
- Izzet Drakes
- Nexus: Even though it shouldn’t be one at this point as blue grows in popularity, it likely will still have a fair number of players.
- Esper Midrange
It’ll be fun to see if perhaps some of the decks on the decline come out in force and prove to be competitors or if Mono-Blue has somewhat stabilized the format.