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Utter Beatings: Standard Highlight Reel

Windbrisk Heights is the best card in Standard.  Nothing in the format, not even Bitterblossom or Cryptic Command, is even close in power to an activated hideaway land, and the decks playing Heights can activate it very reliably. All the cards that the white decks want to play anyway – Spectral Procession, Ranger of Eos, Cloudgoat Ranger, Siege-Gang Commander, Bitterblossom, etc. – make activating Heights almost trivially easy, and an activated hideaway land is hideously unfair.  Consider a spell with the effect: “Look at the top four cards of your library, select one, and put the rest on the bottom of your library.  You may play the selected card without paying its mana cost.Draw a card.”  This card would be fairly costed at roughly six mana, and yet a hideaway activation does this for only three (coming into play tapped plus activation).  We are talking about a mana-generating Impulse that does not even cost a card; calling a hideaway activation broken is not an overstatement.  The hideaway lands themselves are kept in check only by being very difficult to activate.  In Standard, Windbrisk Heights is not kept in check.

Answers are Bad in Standard

Thoughtseize is terrible in Standard.  Every deck other than Faeries has a ton of redundancy in the cards played and pretty robust mana curves that are hard to disrupt.  Most games in the format end before either player runs out of things to do with their mana, so leaving your opponent down a card is pretty weak unless you are disrupting them in a meaningful matter.  These factors combine to make trading a random card (whatever you would play in place of Thoughtseize) for a specific card from your opponent’s hand just not especially powerful.  For every Thoughtseize that does disrupt your opponent, there is a Thoughtseize that takes a redundant spell your opponent wouldn’t have had time to use anyway. Then you have to factor in Thoughtseize’s very significant costs:  a mana and two life.  Additionally, you run the risk of drawing Thoughtseize late when your opponent has nothing in hand. Don’t get me wrong, turn one Thoughtseize is pretty good; it just isn’t good enough to make up for drawing it any time past turn one.

The threats in Standard are better than the answers, and thus most games devolve into players throwing their threats at each other and hoping theirs are better.  Note how even the format’s premiere control deck is not trying to grind out other decks, but is just trying to stall into its own massive threats in Broodmate Dragon and Cruel Ultimatum.  The result is what I consider an uninteresting format, though it definitely can have some interesting games.  Allow me to share some of my highlights from Pro Tour Kyoto and the Superstars 5k.

PT Kyoto

PT Kyoto went about as well as expected, though certainly worse than hoped. I played WB Tokens (the same 75 as LSV) to a 4-4 record in Standard and went 4-2 in draft.

Round Three, Game Two I’m feeling pretty good about my board of Bitterblossom, a bunch of tokens, and double Anthem.  My opponent has quite the plan though, and tutors up Wickerbough Elder with Treefolk Harbinger.  After untapping with Elder in play he drops Soul Snuffers, wiping out both Anthems and wrathing me.

Round Four, Game Three my opponent has one untapped colored land, four untapped filter lands, and a tapped vivid land.  I cast a spell with one mana up, and he floats five blue mana and counters my spell with Broken Ambitions for two. I pass and he plays Plumeveil.  A birding LSV calls for a judge, but not before my opponent untaps and draws for turn. The judge gives my opponent a warning, but rules that it is too late to reverse the game and that the Plumeveil will remain in play. This seems wrong to me, as nothing had happened other than the untap and draw, and we even knew the drawn card from the Ambitions clash.  Plus there had literally been only a few seconds between the Plumeveil being announced and my opponent drawing for turn.  I appeal, and the head judge eventually (but not before first declaring, “You can’t play creatures on your opponent’s turn”) reverses the game state to just after the Ambitions resolved, leaving my opponent mana burning for two with Plumeveil in hand.

Round Twelve, Game Two I have an Anthem-heavy draw facing down what appears to be a removal-heavy draw from Doran.  On my fifth turn the board is my opponent’s five lands (including a Treetop Village) to my Anthem and five lands (including a Windbrisk Heights hiding something saucy).  I play Cloudgoat Ranger, with Anthem and Ajani in hand.  This play is just terrible.  My opponent is sitting on four cards in hand; what could they possibly be?  He kept at seven cards and has not played a single creature all game.  It is pretty much impossible for him to be sitting on a bunch of spot removal here, as post-board he should have a minimum amount of it still in his deck, and he cannot possibly keep a mono spot removal hand against me. Based on how the game has played out, it is not just likely that he has Infest, but it is hard to imagine how he could NOT be holding Infest.  As Cloudgoat is the only action I have going on, it is worth protecting the Cloudgoat tokens from Infest by waiting a turn, and leading with the second Anthem first.  Even if there is a smaller chance that he has Infest, there is little risk to waiting a turn here, with pretty big rewards for playing around Infest if he has it. Clearly tempo is not what is important this game, as I am under essentially no pressure and will never be if the Cloudgoat and tokens stick.  I do give my opponent an extra turn to live, but he doesn’t really have relevant outs to Cloudgoat, double Anthem, and Ajani to worry about.  The only real risk is a topdecked Sculler or Thoughtseize, but an Infest in hand is so much more likely.  I just throw the Cloudgoat out there without considering any of this, and my opponent of course has the Infest to punish me.

Round Thirteen, Game One my opponent has been stuck on four lands with several five drops in hand.  He plays a Flamekin Harbinger and immediately shuffles his library. I’m not quite sure how to respond to this, as he should have no information on the order of cards in his library (as in, he had not played a Windbrisk Heights or any other such effect). Though his actions were completely legal, there is no reason for him to shuffle here that is both rational and legal.  I suspect irrationality more than foul play, but still call a judge.  The judge completely dismisses me, stating that my opponent’s actions were perfectly legal.  I try to explain the potential for abuse, but the judge does not seem interested.  I just make sure my opponent’s sleeves do not look marked when I shuffle for game two.

The CFB 5K

At the Superstars 5k I played Faeries (as it was the only deck I could justify playing Sygg, River Cutthroat in) to a semifinals appearance, going 14-4 on the weekend.

Round Eight, Game One my opponent mulligans to zero and we move on to Game Two once he sees I am playing Faeries.  On the draw against an unknown deck, I board out two Vendilion Clique for two Plumeveil.  This proves awkward when my opponent reveals himself to be playing Five-Color Control.  I draw a Plumeveil and double Peppersmoke over the course of the game, and oddly enough get pretty insane value out of all three cards despite how miserable they are in the matchup.  At one point the board is my Vendilion Clique and Jace to my opponent’s Mulldrifter.  I swing with Vendilion, hoping he will not block so that he could swing back at Jace.  The ploy works, transforming the Plumeveil in my hand from a blank to a Mulldrifter-munching monster.  Later in the game I have a Mistbind Clique facing down a Broodmate Dragon and token, and each Peppersmoke takes down a dragon while cantripping.

Top 32, Game Three against GB elves I ambush a Wolf-Skull Shaman with a Plumeveil, and the Plumeveil proceeds to completely shut down my opponent’s attack step. He is forced to commit four creatures to try and swarm around it, and an Infest puts the game away.

Top 16 I am up against the same Five-Color player from Round Eight and Game One is yet another odd game.  The game goes long and my opponent is able to stick Broodmate Dragon and multiple Wall of Reverence.  I assemble Loxodon Warhammer and Bitterblossom to hold off the dragons, but my opponent’s life total quickly rises into untouchable territory.  I counter his first Cruel Ultimatum, then move in on a second Bitterblossom, allowing Spellstutter Sprite to get his second Cruel.  I start chump-attacking with a Warhammer equipped token to gain a net of two life every turn.  He has one Volcanic Fallout left in his deck, but will need more than eight Fallout-proof power to hit me for the Fallout to be lethal.  He tries for a Cloudthresher, the last win condition left in his deck, but I resolve a Cryptic countering and bouncing a dragon token.  From here, neither of us can possibly deal lethal damage, and he decks well before I do.

The Top 4 match begins with two lopsided games against Swans, culminating in an incredibly tight third game.  On turn three I Vendilion Clique him seeing Pyroclasm, Volcanic Fallout, Seismic Assault, and lands.  I take the Seismic Assault, the Clique dies to Pyroclasm, and the next turn he resolves a freshly drawn Seismic Assault.  We play a few turns of draw-go before I rip a Bitterblossom, turning on the three Mistbind Cliques in my hand. The first Clique goes down to a Cryptic Command and the second dies to Fallout plus Seismic Assault, but the third Clique sticks for a turn.  After attacking, both of us are at ten life and the board position is my Mistbind Clique championing Bitterblossom, one faerie token, and six lands including a Mutavault, facing down his Seismic Assault and six lands including a Ghitu Encampment. In hand I have Spellstutter Sprite, Broken Ambitions, and Jace, and my opponent also has three cards in hand.  From this position, I make several decisions that end up costing me the game.  The mistakes are all due to misinterpreting the game state:  I believe myself to be very far ahead here, when in reality the Seismic Assault is so insane that I am under a ton of pressure to win the game quickly.  I play the Jace and incorrectly +2 Jace. It would be wrong for my opponent to go after Jace even at two loyalty, and giving my opponent an extra draw is extremely dangerous. I draw a Scepter of Fugue off of Jace, and pass the turn.  My opponent plays a Pyroclasm on his turn, which I allow.  My plan is to use the Scepter to blank any permission he is holding, so I don’t want to throw away the Sprite by running it into a Cryptic or Ambitions.  I am wrong to believe I have the luxury of playing in such a controlling fashion.  My opponent finishes off my Mistbind with Seismic Assault and passes the turn.  I draw my two cards (blanks), play a land, play and activate Scepter, and pass.  My opponent plays Pithing Needle, which I mistakenly let resolve for the same reasons I allowed the Pyroclasm. My opponent surprisingly names Scepter instead of Jace.  He then attacks with Ghitu Encampment, and I choose to chump with my Bitterblossom token. In hindsight, this play is wrong, as taking the hit would allow my opponent to kill me two turns sooner, but the attacking Bitterblossom token would allow me to kill him three turns sooner.  On my turn I draw my two cards (blanks), and attack with Mutavault. The sequence of Ghitu attack, Bitterblossom chump, Mutavault attack back continues with no other spells played for three more turns.  This leaves the life totals with my opponent at two and me at six. My opponent keeps back Ghitu Encampment to block Mutavault and passes the turn, leaving me with a Bitterblossom token that can attack him down to one.  If I do not kill my opponent on my next turn, I will fall to four life on my next upkeep, which is unacceptable as it allows him to kill me with just two lands. I am forced to run out the Sprite, which meets a Cryptic Command countering and bouncing mutavault, and I Ambitions. His two remaining mana won’t let him Ambitions back so I think I have him beat unless he has Negate.  He does not, but it turns out he does have Incinerate, which combined with the two lands in his hand is more than enough for lethal.Games like this one are what I play for, and this game in particular has invigorated my desire to improve as a player to an unprecented degree.

Sygg Faeries

The Faeries list I ran in the 5k is definitely what I would recommend as the deck to play in Standard:

4 Bitterblossom

4 Mistbind Clique

4 Cryptic Command

4 Spellstutter Sprite

The unmutable core of the deck.

0 Scion of Oona

0 Sower of Temptation

These long-time staples have fallen out of favor recently, and for good reason.  Scion has always been borderline due to its heavy reliance on Bitterblossom to be good, and the heavy play of cards like Volcanic Fallout and Mogg Fanatic make Scion especially bad. Sower of Temptation is also a casualty of Fallout, to some degree, but also gets significantly worse without Scion protecting it.  Scion and Sower are not very good against Five-Color or RW Lark and as a result are just poorly positioned right now.

4 Broken Ambitions

Broken Ambitions is not a good card. But in this deck, in this format, it is everything you ever wanted in a spell.  It plays early defense well, stopping problematic cards like Spectral Procession, while also teaming up with Cryptic to punish expensive spells.  When other decks, like five-color, play Ambitions it is fairly easy to play around by casting cheaper spells. Against faeries, however, this plays right into Spellstutter Sprite or another flash creature, and this synergy with the entire deck makes Broken Ambitions very good in context. Playing less than four is wrong.

4 Terror

Spot removal has a proven place in the deck, and it becomes even more important with no Sowers.  It used to be debatable whether Terror or Agony Warp belonged in this spot, and Agony Warp was largely winning that fight.  However, Agony Warp is trash against Five-Color, while the widespread adoption of Plumeveil and Wall of Reverence makes Terror quite good there.  The current popularity of Five-Color and the walls demands that you max out on Terror before adding any Agony Warps.

2 Jace Beleren

I was pretty reluctant to adopt Jace in faeries, as cards like Mulldrifter are abysmal in the deck and I thought Jace was comparable.  Boy, was I wrong.  One of the deck’s greatest strengths is its ability to render so many of its opponent’s cards worthless by killing too quickly.  The tempo loss suffered from a Mulldrifter makes your opponent’s cards so much better that the extra draws you get just aren’t worth it.  Jace, on the other hand, can give you so many extra cards that killing your opponent is irrelevant.

2 Sygg, River Cutthroat

This guy is definitely for real.  Against Five-Color, he is a very efficient draw spell, as you can reliably trigger him repeatedly and he is fairly difficult for them to deal with.  He is insane against Fallout, as he turns a modest amount of pressure into a very serious threat, gives you board presence post-Fallout, and can even draw a card if Fallout hits on your turn.  Against any aggressive deck, Sygg shines as a blocker, soaking up a ton of damage.  Getting even one card off of Sygg in a game where he also essentially trades with a two-drop is very good value, and he usually will deliver multiple cards.  He helps you both stabilize and put the game away when you are on the offensive.

1 Loxodon Warhammer

1 Wydwen, the Biting Gale

Two generally useful spells that are very powerful in long games.  Though a little inefficient, both provide effects that the deck definitely wants.  Note that the net effect of swapping Scions for cards like Jace and Sygg is that the deck gets worse at attacking but better at playing control, and these slots follow suit.

3 Vendilion Clique

Vendilion has a pretty short life expectancy with all the Fallouts, Fanatics, Bitterblossoms, and Processions running around, but at least its comes into play ability gives you some value even when it unprofitably trades on the board.  I dislike the card in the format, but it fits the curve and plays nice with Sygg.

2 Peppersmoke

Filler slots.  These are probably not optimal, but I wasn’t really thrilled with alternatives like Remove Soul or Agony Warp either.

4 Mutavault

4 Secluded Glen

4 Sunken Ruins

4 Underground River

5 Island

2 Swamp

2 Faerie Conclave

Sideboard:

4 Thoughtseize

A necessary evil for the mirror.

3 Scepter of Fugue

Turn two Scepter is harder for Five-Color to beat than Bitterblossom. In the mirror it is trumped by Bitterblossom (obviously), but Scepter is going to dominate any game with Bitterblossom parity.  Scepter is the best way to fight permission in the format, as it is cheap enough to slip through counters, and it single-handedly renders a full grip of permission worthless.

2 Plumeveil

3 Infest

I’m not sure how stock Fae lists have missed Plumeveil all this time, but wow oh wow is it good.  These cards punish the aggressive strategies and starts that faeries is soft to.

2 Persuasion

Primarily against Reveillark, but also awesome against random green creatures like Cloudthresher, Chameleon Colossus, and Doran. Snakeform might be better, or this slot may not be necessary at all.

1 Puppeteer Clique

A solid utility creature that you bring in against many decks.

Sideboard plans:

vs 5CC:

-4 Spellstutter Sprite

-2 Peppersmoke

+3 Scepter of Fugue

+1 Puppeteer Clique

+2 Thoughtseize

vs Faeries on the play:

-3 Vendilion Clique

-2 Sygg, River Cutthroat

-2 Mistbind Clique

+4 Thoughtseize

+3 Scepter of Fugue

vs Faeries on the draw:

-3 Vendilion Clique

-2 Sygg, River Cutthroat

-4 Mistbind Clique

+4 Thoughtseize

+3 Scepter of Fugue

+2 Infest

vs RW Lark on the play:

-3 Vendilion Clique

+2 Persuasion

+1 Puppeteer Clique

vs RW Lark on the draw:

-3 Vendilion Clique

-4 Broken Ambitions

+2 Persuasion

+1 Puppeteer Clique

+2 Plumeveil

+2 Infest

vs BW Tokens on the play:

-4 Terror

-3 Vendilion Clique

+2 Plumeveil

+3 Infest

+2 Thoughtseize

vs BW Tokens on the draw:

-4 Terror

-3 Vendilion Clique

-2 Spellstutter Sprite

+2 Plumeveil

+3 Infest

+4 Thoughtseize

vs Kithkin:

-3 Vendilion Clique

-2 Broken Ambitions

+2 Plumeveil

+3 Infest

Thanks for reading.

 

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