The State of Standard – November 2014

I thought we more or less had things figured out after Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. In that event, the Top 8 consisted of three Abzan decks and three Jeskai decks. We had a defined metagame where you could either play one of the top two decks, or you could try to build a deck to beat them. I didn’t expect many surprises.

Well, I’ve been surprised… The events of the last couple of weeks have featured brand new archetypes, a resurgence of old archetypes, and new spins on existing decks. It’s as though we were ready to close the book, and wrap up work for the day, and the boss comes and drops a whole new pile of paperwork on our desk! I guess we’d better get started.

Abzan Midrange – Eduardo Dos Santos Vieira

Eduardo Dos Santos Vieira won Grand Prix Santiago with his own take on the graveyard strategy that’s been so successful lately. While most players either go Sultai or stick to straight B/G, Vieira added white to the deck seemingly for two reasons:

The first is simply that the Abzan colors are home to many of the best cards in the format. Siege Rhino is an absolute monster, being a card that, with few exceptions, you always want to draw in as many copies as you possibly can. Its brutal efficiency makes it one of your best cards in almost every single matchup. Similarly, Banishing Light is a premium removal spell that goes perfectly with the constellation theme built into the deck. He rounds out his sideboard with a handful of white cards including four Fleecemane Lions.

The second reason for white is Soul of Theros. This card is so busted that I say shame on us, as a community, for not finding a home for it sooner. Activating it a single time, either from play or from the graveyard, closes the door on most creature decks from ever being able to kill you before you get your powerful late-game engines going. In a traditional Abzan deck, it’s probably worse than Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, for reasons like Abzan Charm exiling it. However, with a handful of ways to mill cards directly into the graveyard, Soul of Theros stands to add tremendous value to Vieira’s deck even if he never actually draws it!

Sidisi Whip – Willy Edel

An alternative take on the graveyard strategy is the Sultai deck featuring Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Willy Edel played the deck to a Top 8 finish, and he has an eye for great decks. I’ve come to play special attention to anything that Willy’s name is attached to.

This deck largely omits the constellation theme, swapping Eidolon of Blossoms for Sidisi, which has a larger immediate impact on the board. Most of the time, you have to choose between cards that either mill cards into your graveyard, or take advantage of cards being put in your graveyard. Sidisi is a rare intersection of both, and adds a lot of consistency to the strategy.

I’d say that, while being slightly lower in raw power level, the Sidisi Whip deck appears to have more reliable and concrete game plans against many decks in the field. Survive to cast a Hornet Queen, and you’ve beaten most creature decks. Assemble Sagu Mauler plus Whip of Erebos and there’s no longer any risk of being burned out. The deck also plays more removal and has a sideboard that can tailor you perfectly to whatever matchup you happen to face.

G/B Enchantress – Lukas Blohon

Let’s go back in time a little further and take a look at Lukas Blohon’s G/B Constellation deck. Since this is a hybridization of the G/b Devotion deck that I love so much, I’m very intrigued by it. In place of some of the expensive cards like Genesis Hydra or See the Unwritten, Blohon has a graveyard theme.

The rewards of using the graveyard are Pharika, God of Affliction, Whip of Erebos, and Murderous Cut. Pharika was already a great card in G/b Devotion but is even better here. Whip with giant monsters provides life gain that the deck was missing, which is particularly valuable in a format where Stoke the Flames and Jeskai Charm are two of the most powerful cards. Moreover, simply Whipping a Hornet Queen is a great way to steal an easy win against anyone trying to attack you with creatures.

Finally we come to Murderous Cut, which I consider to be the slam-dunk card of the graveyard strategies. When I play Green Devotion, I most often lose to Jeskai when they draw a single Mantis Rider and just let it pick away at my life total while they use the rest of their turns keeping my board under control. A small amount of removal would take away a lot of the wins that Jeskai steals off of a deck like this. It’s also a card that’s great in a Devotion mirror, and lets you come back from behind in the mid-game by casting two spells in the same turn.

The lesson to learn from all of these graveyard decks is that there’s a lot of depth to green and black in Standard. Picture three sliding scales:

  • How deep would you like to go into constellation?
  • How deep would you like to go into devotion?
  • How deep would you like to go into graveyard synergies?

Choose any point on all three of these spectra and you have yourself a competitive deck. The various ways to combine things means that the possibilities are virtually limitless. From my experience, this level of flexibility is the sign of a very powerful archetype that’s likely very difficult to attack.

Abzan Aggro – Rodrigo Soto

Slide all three of these scales all the way to zero and you have plain, old, boring Abzan. Plain, old, and boring, but still powerful and very difficult to beat!

Rodrigo Soto opted for an aggressive build of Abzan, but remember that there are also many possibilities even within Abzan. Some builds play Courser of Kruphix, some builds do not. Some mana curves only go up to Siege Rhino, others go up to Wingmate Roc, Elspeth, or even Hornet Queen. Some decks are creature oriented while others maindeck End Hostilities!

I think it’s hard to go wrong with Soto’s deck. Aggressive creatures with discard spells is a strategy as old as the game itself. It’s a strategy that’s very reliable and very hard to attack. After all, any card you might play to stop them could simply get Thoughtseized. This build also has a great ability to end the game before you can topdeck another.

After featuring so many successful graveyard decks, a card I’d like to focus on is Anafenza, the Foremost. When I first read this card I said to myself, “okay, it’s a 4/4 creature with a couple abilities that’ll rarely come up.” That’s what I thought at the time, and I thought the card was great!

Imagine now, when exiling creatures from your opponent’s graveyard is the difference between life and death! Anafenza is a very good card to have in your main deck in a world of Whip of Erebos‘ and Sidisi, Brood Tyrants.

Beyond that, Anafenza is easy on your mana (substantially easier to cast than a double-colored spell like Brimaz, King of Oreskos). It’s also very special in its ability to dodge both Lightning Strike and Disdainful Stroke. A turn 3 Anafenza will give a lot of decks a very hard time.

Temur Monsters – Pedro Carvalho

Moving out of the color black, we have the brutal and efficient Temur Monsters deck. Temur is like an Abzan or Green Devotion deck that comes out faster, smoother, and gives the opponent even less breathing room.

In my mind, the greatest rewards of playing Temur are Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Crater’s Claws. These are two of the best cards in Standard, and Temur is the perfect home for them.

Temur is the perfect intersection of a ramp deck (as always, getting a planeswalker into play ahead of schedule is a great way to earn easy wins) and a deck that can pressure the opponent’s life total. Both Sarkhan and Crater’s Claws are capable of unloading a lot of damage very quickly, and with the proper supporting cast of characters, they’re truly deadly.

So why play blue, if the main appeal of the deck is Crater’s Claws and red planeswalkers? Well, Savage Knuckleblade fits the strategy of pressuring the opponent’s life total, which is crucial for making sure your finishers operate at full potency. Giant haste creatures are hard to come by, and Knuckleblade is an important addition to the deck. Temur Charm and other counterspells in the sideboard give also give the deck a lot of play, and a good matchup against slower strategies.

Mono-Red – Daniel Gaete Quezada

In the background of Standard, in the background of all the wondrous possibilities of all the decks we might build, standing behind every clan and color combination, is always Mono-Red.

Mono-Red did not show up in large numbers at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. In fact, it hasn’t shown up in particularly large numbers in any tournament up to this point. Instead, it comes like a thief in the night, quietly and effortlessly picking off anyone that it can catch unprepared.

Mono-Red is a very, very good deck. It’s capable of getting draws (especially when it’s on the play) that are virtually impossible to beat with any combination of cards in the format. I find it unlikely that Mono-Red will ever become one of the most popular decks in Standard, but I believe that it will remain a noticeable presence for the entire life-span of the format. And it will keep winning. Make sure you have a realistic plan for beating Mono-Red, both for surviving the early rush, and for closing the game fast or otherwise making sure that you cannot be burned out.

Jeskai Heroic Combo – Ivan Jen

Finally we come to a recent breakout deck that’s very much off the beaten path. Jeskai Heroic Combo is a hybrid deck, featuring elements of both aggro and combo.

Perhaps it’s obvious to say, but Jeskai Ascendancy is the key card of the deck. Even without “comboing off,” Ascendancy can serve as a super-Glorious Anthem, providing substantial combat bonuses to your entire team, as well as a deadly ability to rifle through your deck and find more gas. With so many cheap cantrips, you have a higher-than-normal chance of finding an Ascendancy over the course of the game.

You can fully combo off if you assemble two creatures, Springleaf Drum, Retraction Helix, and Jeskai Ascendancy. Creature A taps with the Drum for mana, then Creature B taps to bounce the Drum, then you use your floating mana to recast the Drum, untapping your creatures and allowing you to repeat the process. Eventually your creatures become arbitrarily large and you can loot through your whole deck to find Gods Willing or whatever else you might need to win immediately.

The only thing that worries me is how the deck operates in the absence of Jeskai Ascendancy. It is a reasonable, aggressive heroic deck capable of stealing games against a slow draw. However, Springleaf Drum is a bit unexciting, as are cards like Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, which simply have a lower damage output than the creatures in, say, Mono-Red.

This certainly looks like an explosive and powerful deck, capable of very impressive draws. If the level of consistency is high enough, it could be a major player in the format. After all, it has a much more realistic “Plan B,” then other Ascendancy decks have had before it.

Though with admittedly broad strokes, I hope I’ve painted a picture of some of the options available in Standard. So far, no deck has shown itself to be oppressively powerful, and with the sheer number of excellent cards available in the format, deckbuilders have quite a lot of flexibility. I recommend trying a number of configurations of whatever deck you choose before you settle on a final list.


[Editor’s Note: This article originally said there were four Abzan decks in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. There were three.]


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