With the first Dragons of Tarkir Standard tournaments only days away, the format is wide open and ready to be explored. With no established best deck or metagame data to go on, this is an exciting time to choose a deck.
Choosing a deck for a new or unknown format definitely requires a different set of objectives compared to what I’ve talked about in the past. A huge part of Standard metagaming in recent years (where a huge percentage of decks fall into the midrange category) is about choosing the right threats to match up against commonly played answers, and vice-versa. Recent examples include Stormbreath Dragon against Abzan Charm, Chained to the Rocks against Siege Rhino, Brimaz against Lightning Strike, Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker against Murderous Cut, and even Mastery of the Unseen against Ugin. These specific decisions should still prove to be relevant in the coming weeks as the new shape of Standard emerges.
However, the first weeks of a new Standard are the wild west, where different rules apply. Let’s take a look at what those rules are.
This is easily the most common piece of advice you’ll see regarding a new format. It is definitely good advice—but often misinterpreted. Being proactive does NOT mean playing a single-minded linear aggro deck. Being proactive does NOT mean you can’t play control.
Linear aggro decks are always a viable option, but I don’t think they are necessarily better for a new format than an established one. The upside of playing a linear strategy like this is that you don’t really care about what your opponent is doing—beneficial for an unknown metagame where it’s harder to pick the right threats and the right answers. However, Standard is also inherently balanced such that there is always an aggro deck and always answers to an aggro deck. This is the week where people will have sideboard cards for aggro—because they don’t know what else to expect. Week one of Standard is when I would expect to see the most cards like Drown in Sorrow, Pharika’s Cure, and Wild Slash in sideboards, if for no other reason than people don’t know what to do with all of their sideboard slots. The time for hyper-aggro is when the format develops and people have a top 3 or 4 decks that they expect—and they start shaving their anti-aggro cards to make room for more pinpoint selections.
The Sphinx’s Revelation decks of Standard past are a good example of a proactive control deck. The deck didn’t try to choose perfect answers for the metagame, instead it played broad ones like Dissolve and Detention Sphere. Your goal was to get to 7 or 8 lands in play with Sphinx’s Revelation in hand—and then the game ended. It wasn’t pretty or elegant or designed with pinpoint accuracy. This was a brute force deck designed around an overpowered card. In modern-day Standard, a control deck that focuses on getting to Ugin might be the closest approximation of this strategy.
In my mind the best way to be proactive in a new format is with powerful individual threats in diverse packages. In general you want threats that are punishing and snowball out of control quickly, like Goblin Rabblemaster. One way to win in early Standard is to punish the inefficiencies of new and untuned decks. People will have bad mana, take too much damage from their lands, or have an inconvenient mana curve. You are much more likely to play broken games where one player mulligans or their deck doesn’t work as expected.
The way to punish these draws isn’t with a synergistic deck that requires everything to go right, but with cards that win the game on their own. They stumble, so you play a Siege Rhino into a Wingmate Roc and end things without expending many resources.
Prepare for Archetypes, Not Decks
I touched on this while talking a bit about the linear aggro decks. It’s unwise to prepare like you know what your opponent’s exact deck list will look like—but you can still prepare for the big picture.
This means playing broadly effective sideboard cards rather than more efficient pinpoint ones.
In an aggro mirror, the matchup is all about the board. Think about playing board-dominating creatures (like Brimaz) or one-sided blowouts (like Arc Lightning). Cheap spells along the lines of Wild Slash are usually great as well. Make sure you can play defense—and don’t enter a race you can’t win.
As a midrange deck, you just have to not get out-spelled in the early turns. Any cheap interaction or creature is going to be good—starting your curve on turn 3 is not. You would rather your cards be cheap and moderately effective rather than situational.
As a control deck, you should have complete inevitability and care only about your life total. Expensive card draw and counterspells are usually not great, but be wary of having too few win conditions. That inevitability goes away when you give them 10 turns to draw burn while you find your one Silumgar. Life gain to put the game out of reach once you’ve gained control is great here, and you’ll lean heavily on sweepers when you lack midgame stopgap threats like Siege Rhino that stabilize the board.
As aggro, tempo is the axis you care most about. They will have some interaction but also some creatures that threaten to stop you in your tracks. The best class of cards are spells like Roast and Valorous Stance that trade up on mana and let you keep attacking. Midrange decks close out faster than control, so relying on early damage plus burn usually isn’t as good a plan as early pressure and removal.
As midrange, card advantage is key. These matchups are defined by things like Read the Bones or Mastery of the Unseen, which are worth more than one card. For the most part, you want diverse classes of cards in midrange on midrange. A draw with all threats or all removal will usually lose to one with a good mix of both. Don’t over sideboard and lose to “the other half” of their deck. These matchups will come down to topdeck wars, so cut mana sources like Sylvan Caryatid or bad topdecks like Thoughtseize.
Control vs. midrange is the reason why I don’t like playing control in week one. They are often just a pile of big threats, and it’s very hard to choose the right removal spell when you don’t know what else they may have. Deciding between Hero’s Downfall, Disdainful Stroke, and Negate for their Elspeth is something that will come up time and time again—and you will lose the game when you get it wrong. When you don’t know what to expect, it’s much harder to make that choice correctly. The best way to beat midrange as control is to blank their removal spells and force them to have dead cards. If they stumble early, you can usually use card draw to make sure you have enough answers to never get overwhelmed.
As aggro, always start aggressively and try to have as few dead cards as possible. Against super-long game decks, burn is underrated—they will often give you time to have a few shots at topdecking the late game. For the most part there is very little you can do in sideboarding to really improve the matchup. Just keep as many threats in as possible and hope they don’t wrath early and often.
As midrange, make them use their mana awkwardly. Cards like Thoughtseize and Duress are the best at this. Stripping a key answer on a key turn will often help things snowball in your favor. If there’s something like Nissa or Mastery of the Unseen in the format that might win the game on its own, go for it, but be aware that their deck might have an answer you weren’t expecting. In sideboarding, try to have very few dead cards and a pile of threats. Especially in week one, there’s a good chance one of these threats will catch them off-guard and go the distance. In my experience most midrange players try to win the game too quickly against control, which plays right into their hands. Unless they have a win condition that you absolutely cannot beat, playing a more paced game is usually to your advantage.
Control mirrors should be relatively uncommon in week one, but they are all about land drops. Most players have more answers than you have threats, so sometimes fighting card draw is not the way to go. Not losing is very often just as good as winning in modern-day control mirrors. If you want, feel free to flip the switch and catch your opponent off-guard by sideboarding in cheap creatures—and keep this in mind if you are down a game with time running off the clock.
Prepare for Individual Cards
Playing Standard this weekend, I fully expect to play against Siege Rhino. The problem is, I don’t necessarily know what cards will be surrounding Siege Rhino. It could be near the top of the curve in an Abzan Aggro shell, as one of the only creatures in a control deck, or as a piece to abuse in concert with Whip of Erebos.
A good rule for early Standard is identifying the most popular 10 or so cards just to make sure you aren’t incredibly weak to them. If you are a midrange or control deck, be able to kill a Siege Rhino. Don’t play only Ultimate Price and Bile Blight as your removal spells. Another good example is Hero’s Downfall—creatures like Polukranos have been pushed out by that card, so you may want your midgame threats to have haste or some trigger to give you value before they die.
For this weekend, I think the following cards are all important to consider:
With these rules in mind, the beauty of week one standard is that you can pretty much play whatever you want. Plan for the big picture, but don’t worry too much about specific deck lists. I think the best strategy is to punish inefficiencies in deckbuilding or sideboarding with powerful and diverse threats. Think BOTH Goblin Rabblemaster AND Stormbreath Dragon.
The deck I’m considering the most highly for this weekend is RG Midrange, which looks something like this: