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The New Pillars of Kaladesh Standard

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Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 64 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8

The New Pillars of Kaladesh Standard

Hey everyone!

Pro Tour Kaladesh is just around the corner and as every Pro Tour, it's going to define the Standard metagame for months to come. Today, I'd like to analyze the Standard format heading into the PT - what are the things that we know about it, what are the strategies that have so far proved to be the most successful, what are the decks that seem to have a lot of unused potential?

The tournament that I'm going to use as the source for most of the data that I work with today is the SCG Open that took place in Indianapolis. Some things in a new format take less time to figure out than other things - in Indy, we saw a pretty good picture of what aggressive strategies can do with Kaladesh, but we haven't witnessed how more midrange and control decks adapt to that. Seven out of the top eight decks were purely aggressive (although using very different tools to get the damage in) and this trend continued throughout the top tables. Does this mean that Kaladesh Standard is going to be all about attacking? I'm pretty sure that's not the case. What we're seeing now is aggro being a lot better "mapped" than control. Nevertheless, even now, we can already see some of the first axes along which control strategies can emerge as well.

The Three Pillars

Cards don't exist in a vacuum, which is why rating potential staples from new sets is always so difficult - in order to be able to evaluate how good a single card or strategy would be in a format, you need to know what defines the metagame. I believe that several Kaladesh cards are going to be the crucial defining aspects of the Kaladesh Standard and every card from now till spring 2018, when Kaladesh rotates out, should always be evaluated with these particular pillars in mind. Some cards might seem powerful, but won't match well against what's going to be important in the format and thus simply won't be good. Remember Woodland Wanderer, for example? Although the card itself had a really solid power level, it never saw any competitive play because of Reflector Mage making it awkward and Collected Company being a much better 3G spell, which even greatly limited the number of other 4-drops in your deck. On top of that, there were some other problems for the Wanderer, like Eldrazi Displacer, etc. In a similar fashion, the new format-defining cards will make other otherwise non-related cards better or worse, based on how they fare against these. As of now, I think that the following are such new format-defining cards in Standard, each of them having big implications as to what the format is going to look like:

Smuggler's Copter
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

Verdurous Gearhulk
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

Cathartic Reunion
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

The first card on this list can hardly be a surprise to anyone who has seen any new decklists from a Kaladesh Standard tournament. The power level of Smuggler's Copter is definitely one of the highest in Standard - I've heard people refer to it as the "indestructible Jace" (it loots and dodges sorcery-speed removal) and I don't think this is a completely unreasonable comparison. Smuggler's Copter is probably the best cheap proactive tool in Standard right now and the fact that it's an artifact and any deck can play it is going to have vast implications for the whole format all the way until the Copter rotates out eighteen months from now. In Indianapolis, every single deck in the top 8 played a playset of Smuggler's Copters - and that means five different archetypes, which all had this one thing in common. Suffice to say, the card is incredible.

What does the presence of Smuggler's Copter mean for the format as a whole? Several different things: first, sorcery speed removal gets much worse and that includes mass removal like Fumigate. Because the Copter survives almost every kind of wrath, its owner can follow up with any creature and attack for three right away. As for instant speed removal, some of it does kill the Copter, but on the other hand, you're not forced to activate the Heli when the opponent leaves removal mana up, so it's not all that hard to play around spot removal in the early- / mid- stages of the game. Still, instant-speed kill spells like Harnessed Lightning or Murder will have an edge over sorcery-speed ones like Incendiary Flow or Ruinous Path as long as Smuggler's Copter remains highly popular.

Smuggler's Copter is also a great madness enabler and it replaced Jace in this slot as well. On his own, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy usually wasn't good enough to justify playing Fiery Temper as the default removal spell in U/R/x, so I don't expect the Copter to manage that without the support of other madness enablers, but it's definitely a good starting point.

The second card on my short-list of format-defining Kaladesh staples is Verdurous Gearhulk. Just like the Copter defines a big part of the new aggro identity, the green Gearhulk defines a lot of what green midrange decks will look like and - consequentially - the good and bad ways how to fight them. Verdurous Gearhulk is basically a vastly improved version of both Spectral Force (the good old "Broccoli") and Wolfir Silverheart - you can distribute the counters any way you like and they stay even when the creature dies. But what implications is the presence of such a powerful midrange card going to have on the format?

First of all, as long as the Gearhulk remains popular, it's going to mean that trying to outclass green creature decks on the board without having access to the Gearhulk yourself will be close to pointless. Some cards work especially well with the Hulk: Sylvan Advocate can go both on offense and defense, Grim Flayer can connect a lot more easily thanks to trample... Because of all this, you'd better either have a good removal suite, a way how to get under or around green creatures on the battlefield or ignore creatures altogether and play a different kind of game, perhaps with some kind of combo. This is, by the way, a big part of why red-green energy aggro hasn't been posting any decent results: unlike R/W, which has a lot of good one-drops and can go "under" the green midrange decks, R/G energy is a bit slower, which means that it necessarily bumps into the huge roadblock that is Verdurous Gearhulk plus random green creatures. Going "around" the Gearhulk means having some sort of evasion, perhaps with cards like Selfless Spirit, Archangel Avacyn, Spell Queller or even Pia Nalaar. As for ignoring midrange creatures, there seem to be several options for Standard-legal combo decks, but while these decks might blank some cards - like removal - completely, Verdurous Gearhulk can still be troublesome for them, simply for the fact that eight power, half of it essentially with haste, for only five mana, means a pretty brutal clock, which doesn't give combo decks too much time. While in Modern, combo decks can laugh at five-mana creatures that don't pack any sort of disruption, Standard combo decks are much slower and clunkier (fortunately, for the sake of the format), so the five-mana beatstick that the green Hulk is can still be an issue for combo archetypes.

The third card on my list is Cathartic Reunion and while so far, it hasn't posted as impressive results as the first two staples, I still believe it belongs to this very exclusive category of cards. The reason for this is simple: it's likely the best Standard "graveyard enabler" since Faithless Looting and will lead to all kinds of graveyard shenanigans being playable in Standard. And since there's not really any good graveyard hate in the format right now, strategies that use the graveyard as a resource can thrive, as shown by the second place finishing deck from SCG Open Indy, Grixis Emerge by Zach Voss:

Grixis Emerge by Zach Voss

2nd place at SCG Open Indianapolis

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Elder Deep-Fiend
Versions:
Eldritch Moon (Foil)

There are many things that I like about this deck: the perfect use of Smuggler's Copter as an additional discard outlet, the playset of Elder Deep-Fiends which can help you break through board stalls (Verdurous Gearhulk might have something to say about that), the Kozilek's Returns to fight creature decks and the ability to redeploy your creatures after they get swept, with Scrapheap Scrounger, Haunted Dead and Prized Amalgam all being able to come back from the dead very easily and Smuggler's Copter not even dying at all. Even the two Perpetual Timepieces in the deck make sense as a plan that gives you "inevitability" in the lategame: with fifteen cards that do something when they sit in the graveyard, you have a 50% chance of hitting something relevant with every activation.

However, "Dredge" style decks are by far not the only ones that can use Cathartic Reunion to do big things, which is why I think it belongs to the list of format-defining cards. Apart from being a centerpiece of decks like this, it also plays an important role in delirium and Emrakul decks that want to play red - pitching an artifact creature and a land, instant or a planeswalker can easily give you delirium on turn two and pave the way for a very early Emrakul. Additionally, some of the combo decks might use this card as means of achieving higher consistency. Two Temur Aetherworks lists posted a top 64 finish in Indy and they both used Cathartic Reunion to dig for the namesake card, without which the deck can't function. Since there seem to be several potential combo decks that rely on a key combo piece like Aetherflux Reservoir, Madcap Experiment or Refurbish and that play a lot of chaff which is useless without the key components, the Reunion is not far from "1R: draw three cards". In addition, some decks might also use the reanimation plan with Refurbish or even Ever After. Cathartic Reunion might seem innocuous, but it is a card whose power level has been pushed and that enables all kinds of crazy stuff. The one thing that it doesn't like is counterspells, but as long as the number of these remains low (which seems to be the case in the recent years) and you don't risk playing a card that says "1R: discard two cards, pass the turn", it should be a major role player in Standard.

As I've said, I believe that these three will be some of the most important factors in Standard and something to keep in mind when building decks and strategies. I'm sure that more cards will join this short list at the Pro Tour, likely those of the control or combo kind and once we have those, we will be able to see the whole picture and try to go for decks that are metagame calls. However, regardless of what the format will shape up to be, I don't expect Smuggler's Copter, Verdurous Gearhulk and Cathartic Reunion to fall by the sidelines for as long as they are legal in Standard.

Well, that's all from me for today. See you next time, when we know much more about Standard after the Pro Tour!

Adam

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