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Standard Challengers in a World of No Bans

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Last Monday, the update to the Banned and Restricted list was announced and despite many people expecting big changes, no ban or unban happened in any format. Normally, this wouldn't make the headlines, but a lot of people see the current Standard format as severely malfunctioning and it was not unreasonable to think that just like three months ago, Wizards would try to fix this state with a ban. However, the Standard pool is going to stay the way it is until Amonkhet is released at the end of April. In my article today, I'm going to have a look at what we have to work with till then and if there's any possibility for Standard to cease being a two-deck format.

Dynavolt Tower
Versions:
Kaladesh (Foil)

First of all, let's have a look at the current situation and why the possible bans were so anticipated, after years without necessity to ban anything in Standard up until January this year. The biggest problem turned out to be diversity. Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor and then Mardu Vehicles and 4C Copycat dominated the format to an extent that's almost unprecedented. For some time, B/G seemed to be the force that kept Mardu in check, but in the past couple of weeks, Mardu Vehicles adapted with a sideboard strategy of removal and planeswalkers, which could beat B/G consistently enough that all of a sudden, B/G was left with two bad matchups as the two most played decks. Temur Dynavolt Tower seemed to be an alternative at GP Utrecht, but I'm not sure if it's really on the same level as the big two decks, mostly because the Dynavolt decks are reactive in a field that requires very specific answers. With creatures, vehicles and planeswalkers, Mardu simply attacks from too many angles for any control deck to consistently defend against. Temur Tower might have a fighting chance against Mardu if it draws the perfect combination of answers, but with a single threat that you miss answering, the game can go downhill really fast. I think that what speaks the most against Temur Tower is the fact that even Petr Sochůrek, who played Temur Tower in Utrecht and was one of its biggest proponents, switched to 4C Copycat for GP Barcelona - and ended up winning the event.

It is in the nature of Magic players to brew and it is also said that when you know what enemies to focus on, it's much easier to actually beat them with a rogue deck. But the problem is that neither Mardu Vehicles nor 4C Copycat are the kind of decks that are easy to hate out. Both of them are capable of having several different game plans, based on what the situation requires: they can play long, drawn-out games thanks to their planeswalker package, go for a quick offense or even kill with a combo finish in case of the Copycat deck. The combination of power and flexibility is a dangerous one and the results of the last couple of major events confirm this. Among the sixteen decks that the top8s of GP Barcelona and GP New Jersey consisted of, we can find eight Mardu Vehicles/Ballista decks and seven 4C Copycats. That's right, there was only ONE non-Mardu, non-4C Copycat deck in either of the two GP top8s - and that was Ben Stark's Jundicles deck. The field gets a bit more diverse down the standings (I mean, it can hardly get any less diverse). Mardu decks represented 26 of the two combined top 32s, forming over 40% of the field at the top tables. 4C Copycat took 18 slots, giving it an almost 30% share of the field. The remaining 30% were split between B/G Constrictor of the Energy and Delirium flavors (12,5%), Temur Dynavolt Tower (6%) and Temur Marvel (5%) Jundicles, B/R Eldrazi and Esper Control each made it only once in either of the two top 32s.

I know that the top 32s of two most recent GPs certainly don't form a representative enough sample, but the truth is that the situation has been very similar at other recent events too. The top 16 of the SCG Classic in Dallas that took place the same weekend as the two GPs had seven Mardu Vehicles decks and three 4C Saheeli decks. Combined, these two decks have a share of way over 60% of the 5-0 decks on Magic Online in the recent several weeks. Granted, both of these decks are relatively interactive and especially if you throw them against one another, the games can be quite enjoyable and skill-testing, but Standard should definitely have more than two tier 1 decks. So the question we should be asking naturally becomes: is there any hope for Standard before the new set joins the fray? If you want to play Standard and aren't excited about the idea of going through infinite Mardu Vehicles or 4C Copycat mirror matches, can you actually stick to another deck without damaging your chances to win? Is this the format where choosing anything but the top two decks translates into lowering your win percentage?

Naturally, I would like the answer to be "other decks can be just as good", but honestly, I'm not so sure anymore. The evidence from the latest tournaments is overwhelming, even more so when you consider that a format this lopsided is the one that can be the most rewarding if you manage to find a solution to the problems in front of you. A deck with a combined 60% win percentage against Mardu and 4C Copycat would be amazing in this metagame pretty much regardless of what its other matchups would be, and I'm sure there are plenty of people trying to find such a deck. And while I can't honestly say that I've found this deck, perhaps other people can? Let's delve into the sea of Mardu and Copycat decklists and see if there are any innovative ideas - and if so, whether they seem to have been just flukes or actually capable of benefiting from the weird Standard metagame that we have right now.

B/R Eldrazi by Toru Inoue

20th place at GP Barcelona

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There were two Japanese players in Barcelona who played this deck, both advancing to day 2, with Toru Inoue finishing as high as 20th in the tough field. And while it's been some time since we've last seen Matter Reshapers and Reality Smashers in Standard, I can certainly appreciate some of the features of this particular list.

Why Should It Be Good Against the Top 2 Decks?

In short, the answer could be "because Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher are still amazing Magic cards", but I think I need to elaborate on this a bit more. As weird as it might sound, this deck is actually not that far from a stock Mardu Ballista deck - except for the fact that instead of the 1-drops and Gideon, we have the Eldrazi package. Giving up Gideon, one of the very best cards in Standard, might sound crazy, but there are certainly benefits in this approach. First of all, your mana becomes better once you cut white. In this particular build, the advantage is not as great, since we need to make room for a bunch of colorless-producing lands, but still, the manabase certainly is better. Second, right now, Thought-Knot Seer's discard ability is almost at its best. The reason for that is that against 4C Copycat, it is incredibly valuable to know when you can tap out without the fear of dying and when you need to keep mana up for a removal spell. The fact that you can take their combo piece and not worry next turn when slamming a Reality Smasher helps too.

What I also like about this deck are several cute interactions that might not be obvious at first glance. Ruins of Oran Rief as a playset can look like too much, but the card is actually really good here. Fatal Push and Unlicensed Disintegration are the only main deck cards that don't interact with the Ruins. All the rest are either colorless creatures (Scrapheap Scrounger, Matter Reshaper, Thought-Knot Seer, Reality Smasher), produce colorless creatures (Pia Nalaar) or are vehicles that can be crewed on the same turn when they come into play and thus will end up getting the +1/+1 counter as well, if you happen to have a spare pilot around. Lastly, there's the interaction with Walking Ballista: basically, the Ruins allow you to spend an odd number of mana on the Ballista and end up with an extra counter anyway. Thanks to the Ruins, three mana suddenly gives you a 2/2 Ballista, five mana gives you a 3/3, etc.

What Are The Deck's Weaknesses?

Above anything else, I would say "speed". Especially on the draw, a Mardu Vehicles player who plays a turn 1 Toolcraft Exemplar, turn two Heart of Kiran, turn four Gideon should be able to mount enough pressure to win. Luckily, not all Mardu Vehicles draws are like that (otherwise nobody would be playing anything else) and if the Mardu player doesn't come out of the gates this quickly, our Eldrazi package plus Ruins of Oran-Rief (which are amazing in multiples in the late game) should give us a deciding advantage.

Next, we have Andrew Davis's Esper Control, which he used to finish 12-3 in New Jersey, a score good enough for 31st place.

Esper Control by Andrew Davis

31st at GP New Jersey

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What is the "identity" of this deck? It's not a true Dynavolt Tower deck, as it only has two Towers and very few other ways how to produce energy. It's not a "superfriends" deck, playing only three planeswalkers. So what is it, actually? Above all, it's a Torrential Gearhulk deck that uses black for removal and white for several silver bullets - Authority of the Consuls, Fumigate and Anguished Unmaking in the main deck and a lot more post-board.

Why Should It Be Good Against the Top 2 Decks?

Generally speaking, the Torrential decks prey on G/B Constrictor builds, but are not as favored against Mardu or 4C Copycat. Andrew's list tries to change that with a lot of cards specifically meant against these two matchups. Four Fatal Pushes and four Grasp of Darkness should make sure you can survive against Mardu, while Anguished Unmaking is to a big extent a concession to 4C Copycat's planeswalkers. Another interesting thing is the relative lack of sorcery-speed cards - tapping out for a Fumigate or Ob Nixilis can be very dangerous against Saheeli decks and it seems that Andrew was fully aware of that. What I also really like is Andrew's sideboard plan of four Glint-Sleeve Siphoners and three Spell Quellers - most opponents are very likely going to board out the vast majority of removal against this deck and by the time they realize their mistake in game two, it might already be too late.

What Are The Deck's Weaknesses?

One weakness, I think, is the manabase. The deck needs double-black, double-blue and even double-white in some cases. The solution is to play a lot of lands that come into play tapped, but in a format as fast and unforgiving as the current Standard, this is a dangerous path. Falling behind against Mardu Vehicles is the most certain way to a quick loss. Also, I'm not sure if it's possible to compete with the big two decks simply in terms of power level. As much as I'd like Esper Control to be playable, trying to keep up with Mardu Vehicles is not an easy thing to do.

These were just two of the decks that could prove to be alternatives to the already existing - and dominant - archetypes. Now more than ever it feels nice to see someone going off the beaten path and I think that in the coming weeks, we should hopefully be able to see whether these two particular strategies can survive. If I had to pick a favorite, I would probably go with the R/B Eldrazi list, but I remain hopeful for both of these brews.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Adam

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
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