Hey all! Thanks in advance for reading my first StarCityGames.com article! There's a decent amount of text and not a lot of cool pictures, so I tried to label sections based on content for easy article traversal and to avoid comments like “too long, didn't read.”
Quick introduction: My name is Lewis; I'm from DC but currently live in South Florida where I go to college. My first event Top 8 was earlier this year at the SCG Legacy Open in Orlando playing a Bant tempo/control brew. I won the next SCG Standard Open in Atlanta playing the Super Friends deck that I created for the tournament, then Top 8ed one more SCG Open a few months later in Baltimore playing an unusual U/W list. I really like Islands, and I really like brewing, so I'll walk you through some of the stages of my deckbuilding process. I'll start with a brief analysis of the development of the current metagame, then move on to what I believe are the next steps to attacking the metagame. I'll also provide a decklist and finally my thoughts on the cards in the list and justifications for all of them. Buckle up.
When Shards block rotated, a lot of the top cards and decks went with it, leaving a huge gap to be filled in Standard. Generally when a new Standard season starts, people lean towards linear aggro decks, as playing control in an undefined metagame means that you're trying to answer problems that are largely unpredictable.
Have you ever tried answering a question without actually knowing what the question is?
Notable archetype defining cards that carried over from the previous metagame are Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Fauna Shaman, Vengevine, Primeval Titan, Pyromancer Ascension, and the rest of the Titan cycle. While Vengevine-based decks are resilient and extremely powerful, it's very unlikely for them to kill their opponents before turn 5 or 6 as they rely on a two-drop with summoning sickness and a four-drop as their engine. As a result, Primeval Titan and Ascension decks continued to run rampant (without Rampant Growth, mind you) as a carryover from the previous metagame—not only are these combo decks able to kill someone on the same turn as the Vine aggro decks, but they're even more resilient and are able to interact with the opponent's plan (using different variations of Lightning Bolt).
In the first SCG Open of the season in Nashville, eight of the Top 16 decks were slow combo decks based on Primeval or Ascension, supplemented by two Vengevine aggro decks, three monocolor, linear aggro decks, and three undeveloped control decks. Primeval Titan was the best card in Standard at the time because most of the aggro decks were too slow to kill ramp decks before they comboed, and the control decks weren't focused enough around Jace and conquering the relevant threats.
By the time Charlotte rolled around, control decks identified the problems in the metagame and adapted, resulting in only three combo decks in the Top 16 and eight control decks, completely reversing the ratio from the last Open, while the other five spots were a mix of Vengevine aggro and monocolor aggro again. What causes this kind of shift over a few short weeks? Did people just see the R/U/G and U/B Control decks and decide they looked cool?
U/B earned its spot in the metagame by using spells like Memoricide and Duress to leave the Titan and Ascension decks miles behind—a natural combo killer. U/B did a great job of beating bad decks out of the format by capitalizing on Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Frost Titan, besting other Jace-based decks with Creeping Tar Pit. Frost Titan effectively trumps any bomb the opponent plays, making it an ideal finisher in a world of six and twelve-mana creatures. The awesome part about Frost Titan is that its ability to nullify other bombs prevents people from just running a control shell and throwing in a “better finisher.” Therefore any deck that's trying to compete really has to present a higher volume of threats as opposed to a low volume of insane threats.
The next logical evolution in the metagame involved outdoing the new best deck, U/B. To conquer the Jace/Titan approach, you either have to kill your opponent before he gets his plan online or just do Jace/Titan better than he does, and that's the origin of the R/U/G deck—a brute-force control/tempo deck. This is an example of the U/B deck that Nick Spagnolo took Standard by storm with:
R/U/G abuses the format by playing cheap permission and accelerating into Stage 3 before other decks are prepared. Specifically, Explore and Lotus Cobra enable board positions in which the R/U/G player is casting Jace, the Mind Sculptor with Mana Leak or Lightning Bolt protection or Frost Titan when other decks are still in Stages 1 and 2 and don't have the resources to deal with that caliber of protected threat. Oracle of Mul Daya is also a key element to the R/U/G game plan, providing continuous card advantage by further accelerating your mana and therefore also your game plan; it also tears through the deck at break-neck speed, ensuring that nothing but gas will be found on any given draw step. The R/U/G deck's power comes from three things:
3. Residual Card Advantage
While speed and power are both explained by the fact that the deck drops Frosty, the Snowman on turn 4, residual card advantage is a concept that isn't talked about a lot but is exemplified by the R/U/G deck. The essential ramp spells, Cobra and Oracle, not only boost your mana significantly but also have bodies! Both of these cards would still be playable as enchantments, but the fact that they have bodies to defend your Jace or attack your opponent's Jace in what Kibler has identified as a Jace-based metagame make them even more ideal. Here's an example of the R/U/G deck via master Dan Jordan:
This brings us to the most recent metagame indicator, the Boston SCG Open. The Top 16 consisted of seven control decks, four of which were R/U/G, two of which were U/B, and one of which was U/W, along with one Vengevine-based aggro deck and eight linear aggro decks, seven of which were monocolor. The reason I group all of the monocolor aggro decks together as opposed to referring to them as Elves, Vampires, White Weenie (which isn't a real deck), or Mono-Red, is because they all have similar if not identical game plans—put a bunch of creatures with two or less power and toughness on the table and turn them sideways. Aggro decks use similar game plans but varying threats; whereas the control decks attack the format in a variety of ways but use similar win conditions. R/U/G and linear aggro are identifiably the top dogs at this point.
Building Something New
Based on this analysis of the metagame, I'd say that you want to be playing a tempo deck right now. What makes Jace and Frosty so good is that they continually disrupt your opponent's game plan while moving you towards victory—this is the same residual card advantage that makes manlands a defining part of the metagame. Shaheen Soorani pointed out in a recent article that as each new set comes out, spells (with the exception of Papa Jace) have retained or lost power level (citing the lack of Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven or the difference between Cancel and Counterspell as examples); whereas creatures have continually become better. Removing all your opponent's threats and then just dropping a stellar finisher isn't enough anymore—we need to be playing cards that are both solutions and threats.
The top dogs, R/U/G and linear aggro, play very little removal and succeed by sticking to their respective game plans—what if instead of having a traditional control deck that relies on one-for-one answers (Doom Blade) and card advantage (Jace Beleren), we built a deck based around the residual card advantage outlets available to us?
While R/U/G Control races to eight mana, leaving awesome and relevant permanents on the table as a consequence, we want instead to construct a deck that's slightly more controlling by finding the most powerful permanents and abusing them for maximum card advantage. We want to walk along the path of a typical control deck, answering our opponent's questions but with resiliency and gradual card advantage being the main focus, eventually leading to a position in the game where our accumulated advantage and board presence overwhelm our opponent. Because of our threat-based approach to staying alive, there will be a very fine line between being the beatdown or the defender, so the ability to change roles on a dime is a bonus for any card in our 75. Before you get too bored, here is a list:
Crafting U/W Tempo Angel Stompy Control (or whatever you want to call it)
In Standard, just about every spell requires a mana investment, making lands a crucial and necessary part of the deck (as is the case in any format); however, lands can also often be dead draws, not affecting the game state in any fashion beyond helping you cast your spells. With such a huge portion of any deck being lands, especially in a control deck, a great way to generate card advantage is to look at the area in which card advantage has the highest potential of being lost—the mana base. Aside from playing manlands and lands with cool "enters the battlefield" (ETB) abilities, we've been gifted with the landfall mechanic to help us cope with the fact that more than a third of our deck isn't spells!
Creatures I Chose to Play
Emeria Angel and Admonition Angel are both cards with obscene landfall abilities that are just crying to be taken advantage of. Emeria Angel produces a minimum of one 1/1 flier before it potentially eats a removal spell, and in a format with almost no mass removal, the residual card advantage adds up fast. The flying keyword is also a huge bonus, as other fliers in the format are limited to Abyssal Persecutor and Celestial Colonnade, making it a prime Jace-slayer. The tokens also trade with more than half of any given linear aggro deck, and if you remember the power of Elspeth, Knight-Errant's chumping ability, you know that 1/1s play very well with planeswalkers. By the way, Frost Titan is far less scary when a 1/1 is standing in its way.
Admonition Angel is similar to Frost Titan in that it attacks for six and removes a permanent from the game, but better in that it removes multiple permanents! If you've cast Oblivion Ring, you know the power of the Angel. Oh, and there's the flying keyword again. I don't think anything else needs to be said about her.
Glimmerpoint Stag seems like an unusual choice since we aren't playing Scars of Mirrodin Limited, but I can't say enough things about my new favorite unicorn impersonator. The entire deck is built around permanents with plus sides, whether it's our removal (Journey to Nowhere) or our mana base (Kabira Crossroads). The Stag's ETB ability has any number of uses that I'll briefly make an attempt at enumerating:
resetting Jace, the Mind Sculptor
resetting Jace Beleren
untapping an Island
vindicating a Volition Reins
flicking off opposing Gideon Juras
giving Gideon Jura +5
vindicating an Everflowing Chalice
giving another creature vigilance
reactivating a Sea Gate Oracle
killing a Goblin token
removing counters from Raging Ravine or a Bloodchiefed up Twilight fan
Oh, by the way, if you thought Frost Titan was cool, you should try blinking this guy with Venser and just removing your opponent's permanents from the game entirely during their turn. This means that not only can they not use the Papa Jace they fought to resolve and protect, but they can't even profitably cast another.
P.S. Nice Valakut/Ascension if you're still playing a bad deck.
Back to the point. The glimmer point that is. 3/3s are awesome. While the vulnerability to Lightning Bolt definitely decreases the value of both Stag and Emeria Angel, they'll always still share a little love. Other than Frosty, no creature in the format has three power or three toughness, making this guy a knight in a world of pawns. Vigilance only sweetens the deal, as the ability to play offense and defense is vastly underrated. Not only is this guy on full-time, Jace-protection duty, but the damage he provides isn't irrelevant when we can switch gears to offense so quickly with Gideon Jura and Colonnade and kill our opponents in a single attack step after factoring in early beats from a Stag, Angel tokens, or even a Sea Gate.
As much as I love Admonition Titan, Sun Titan definitely still has a home in U/W. Recurring Tectonic Edge is enough to make anyone feel sick to their stomach and lends an advantage that's completely unbeatable in the control mirror.
Creatures I Chose Not to Play
Wall of Omens is a sweetheart and provides awesome defense at the two-mana spot and even cantrips to foster the theme of the deck! Did I mention he has zero power? With no creatures having more than two power (save Vengevine who I'm dutifully ignoring), Wall of Omens really just doesn't make the cut. He was great when Bloodbraid was enemy #1, but this metagame needs a creature that sees more than one card when cast, kills something when it blocks, and plays offense on command. Sea Gate is my homeboy.
Frost Titan is a hard trump to any threat, but he really isn't good enough. Not only is he cold to multiple threats (I guess he's cold regardless), but he seems worse than Admonition Angel when you aren't actively depriving your opponent of resources. Without the obscene mana advantage the R/U/G deck creates, I don't see a home for Frosty.
Spells 'n Stuff
Journey to Nowhere is high-class removal. It answers Fauna Shaman, Lotus Cobra, and just about any other creature you'd want to kill. In addition, because of Stag and Venser, Journey becomes priceless on turn 2. Where you normally might be afraid to Doom Blade a 1/1 Goblin token or a Lotus Cobra for fear of what's coming next, the rest of the deck lets you rebuy the Journey, giving Frosty a huge middle finger when he shows up late to the party. I can assure you that Cobra is far less threatening when they have enough mana to cast spells without him.
Spell Pierce is awesome. One of the scariest things a R/U/G player can do on the play is cast Explore, and Spell Pierce is the perfect solution. It also helps prevent situations where your opponent has the Jace + Leak on turn 4 on the play, and I have dreams about Piercing an early Kuldotha Rebirth. With so many 4-6 mana threats, Spell Pierce is a great offensive tool in addition to its defensive utility. Punish people for trying to Bolt your Emeria Angel on your end step. Fetch before you Pierce for full value.
Preordain is a great way to increase consistency at a low cost as evidenced by the fact that every control deck runs four of them. Nick Spagnolo recently wrote an article about proper use of Preordain and the fact that its value increases as the game goes on, and I couldn't agree more. Casting it in conjunction with an Angel or Stag is much more efficient than casting it on turn 1 when you already have established plays for the next few turns anyway.
Papa Jace is my homeboy, but the prevalence of Jace hate in the current metagame and the functionality of the rest of the deck justifies running three instead of four in my opinion. Rather than running out the fastest Jace possible and making sacrifices to protect him at all cost, I think that this deck would prefer to reach a favorable board position, then use Jace to lock up a game that might otherwise be close. He obviously has applications when you're behind, but I think it's important to identify him as supplementary as opposed to him being the game plan like he is in a lot of other control decks in the current metagame.
Baby Jace could easily be a fourth Papa, but his power in combination with Venser/Stag/Sun Titan is undeniable. Not only do we not have Creeping Tar Pit to help battle early Mind Sculptors, but the rest of the deck has enough synergy with Beleren to include him, despite his being the only card in the deck without an immediate impact upon casting.
Venser. Venser, Venser, Venser. In a permanent-based tempo/control deck, I can't even think of a better planeswalker. Not only does Venser allow us to rebuy the ETB abilities of any of our cards, he turns Glimmerpoint Stag into a better Frost Titan, wins the game if not dealt with in two turns (as opposed to the six-turn clock Jace offers), and supplements our aggressive urges by making all our dudes unblockable. I talked briefly about the ability to go aggro in a pinch, and Venser is no exception to that game plan. His -1 can force-kill an opposing Jace or put an opponent in a situation where they're taking ten and their options boil down to killing Venser and hoping to have enough resources/untapped creatures to prevent the ten coming the next turn or just picking up their cards and going home.
Gideon Jura! Oh boy. I'd run more Gideon Juras if I could. Gideon is one of my favorite planeswalkers and is vastly underrated right now. When I debuted him in Super Friends in May, Jund decks had to move from one maindeck Maelstrom Pulse to a full set to deal with his ridiculousness. Gideon offers the following in one five-mana package:
● Protection for Jace while you Brainstorm and secure the game.
● Taps down all of your opponent's creatures, leaving him vulnerable for the counter attack.
● Absurd combat steps where your opponent is forced to walk his 2/2 army into your Stags and Angels.
● Makes Frost Titan a laughable inconvenience.
● Attacks for six. Yes, that's right, six. Yes, they still start at twenty. Yes, Colonnade + Gideon is a two-turn clock.
● Oh, did I mention you can count the number of solutions to Gideon Jura on one finger? Save Doom Blade, this guy is basically unbeatable. (Pro Tip: Gideon can't be Doom Bladed if you don't attack with him. Don't get overzealous.)
Gideon is coming back in an awesome way. Get on the pain train or get left behind.
Everflowing Chalice is also great in this deck. Twenty-eight mana sources seem like a lot, but this deck won't function properly on less than five mana. Chalice allows you to nullify the advantage R/U/G gets from the dreaded turn 2 Explore but also crushes the control mirrors. Being able to Tec Edge opponent's lands with mana to spare is vital in a control mirror, especially when other control decks are too threat-light to present a problem other than a manland. Chalice also enables you to cast Emeria Angel on turn 4 while accruing a token and having mana to Spell Pierce or Preordain. One of the ideal situations against aggro decks is also a turn 2 Chalice on the play, enabling you to cast both Journey to Nowhere and Mana Leak on turn 3 while you set up the heavy hitters.
As my obv bestie Nick Spagnolo expressed to me recently, “Do you know how good Day of Judgment is against decks that Day of Judgment is good against?” Even though this card isn't a permanent, lots of the linear aggro decks will have a lot of trouble recovering from Wrath of God as our high threat-density forces them to over-extend pre-Wrath. Money in the bank.
Emeria Angel is super powerful, and U/W and U/B will both have a lot of trouble dealing with this card. There's very little mass removal right now, and Angel does an amazing job of capitalizing on that, leaving anti-Jace friends on the board long after she eats a Doom Blade.
Baneslayer is still Baneslayer and is the bane of any linear aggro deck's existence. When she's bad, she's bad, but when she's good, she goes Jason Bourne on Demons, Dragons, Vampires, Goblins, Elves, and even Plant Elementals.
Tectonic Edge is a card that is the centerpiece of anti-control strategies. The fourth one in the board is an absolute necessity and should be brought in over a spell as opposed to another land in control mirrors. Sun Titan buys back Baby Jace in long Jace-attrition wars in addition to sealing the deal with a recurred Tectonic Edge.
While Wall of Omens isn't good enough for maindeck inclusion, the fast decks right now are really fast, as they have to be in order to beat up on the turn 3 Jace + Bolt plan. Wall of Omens still cantrips and blocks, helping you reach that next stage of the game with more than critical life, but it's still very possible that Contagion Clasp or another two-mana spell is better in this slot. Condemn is certainly a possibility, even though I could talk for days about how much I despise it.
Flashfreeze is a great catchall, which is ironic considering how narrow it is. It's certainly possible that three is too many, but if you get caught without an Everflowing Chalice and your opponent forces through a Goblin Ruinblaster, you're probably in dire straits. Ruinblaster is absolutely insane right now, and the day before the SCG Boston Open, I said “If I wanted to win this tournament, I'd play a deck with a full set of Ruinblasters main.” Granted, having foresight and actually acting on it are two different things, as Dan Jordan was able to take down his second consecutive SCG Open with the addition of three maindeck Avalanche Riders. If you can't beat Ruinblaster, you should probably be playing it.
Deprive is really good. It definitely deserves maindeck consideration over the third Spell Pierce, moving it instead to the sideboard, but it's a great catchall, even when Mana Leak isn't relevant anymore and does a great job of both protecting and supplementing your landfall Angels, giving them a last breath when you thought you were out of resources.
A lot of sideboarding comes down to how you feel about the situation as opposed to boarding according to hard and fast rules. Almost all maindecks will have a couple of changes from the lists you know (and probably don't love), and how you think your opponent will sideboard also has an impact on what cards you bring in or take out, but here's my general guideline:
R/U/G : On the play, Flashfreeze is awesome because it hits Ruinblaster, Cobra, and Oracle, but it loses value on the draw when they hit a turn 2 accelerator into a Jace or Snowman. If you're expecting them to board out all of their Bolts based on your game 1, then the fourth Emeria Angel can be devastating against R/U/G!
U/B : Emeria Angel is very difficult for this deck to beat when it gets online, so the third and fourth effectively replace the Stag. One Journey is still awesome because it hits Persecutors and Grave Titans if they're running them and resolve them. Sun Titan is also better than Admonition here, because an online Titan with a Tec Edge in the yard is close to a hard lock.
Vamps : Be careful to avoid getting blown out by silly spells like Mark of Mutiny. I tend to shy away from Mana Leak in this matchup since their only relevant spells are Dark Tutelage and removal. Emeria Angel is a total beating against this deck if they don't kill it the turn it enters the battlefield, so play around Gatekeeper of Malakir accordingly. Oh, and as nuts as Jace is, it is right to board him out sometimes. Casting Wrath into Gideon or Baneslayer will usually seal the deal here, and Wall of Omens is great at making people overcommit if nothing else.
Mono-Red/Boros : What an angry, angry deck! Wall of Omens is great here as a way to force your opponent to overcommit or to eat those landfall creatures with fetch bonuses. Remember that the Boros deck plays Journey to Nowhere, and try not to slow-roll your Wraths—the last thing you need is to be burned out with total board control. As much as I love Stag, he's a little too vulnerable to justify his mana cost in this matchup, especially when the expected lifetime of your Sea Gates is so low.
+2 Wall of Omens, +3 Flashfreeze (+2 against Boros), +2 Baneslayer Angel, +2 Day of Judgment
-1 Sun Titan, -1 Admonition Angel (-2 against Mono-Red), -2 Glimmerpoint Stag, -2 Venser, the Sojourner, -2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Elves : There are a lot of build of this deck, most importantly, ones with Vengevine and ones without. Jace will generally be weaker against decks with Vengevine because it makes him so much harder to protect. Otherwise, stick to the plan! This deck runs zero removal, so if you can keep a Monument off the board, Emeria Angel will keep the leprechauns at bay. This is also more of an explosive ramp deck than other aggro decks, so blocking isn't as important as keeping the opponent's permanents in check (this is why we keep Wall of Omens in the board). Also, we don't need all the Flashfreezes, since Monument is colorless, and most of their other spells are terrible. Also, keeping Spell Pierce in might be important depending on the opponent's planeswalker count.
Valakut : This is probably your worst matchup! Maindeck Spell Pierce goes a very long way in this matchup, as it's a one-mana hard counter until turn 6. Post-board they often have Gaea's Revenge and Avenger of Zendikar, which is why we bring in one Wrath. Don't forget that the Revenge trades with a Sun Titan and that it can be chumped by Sea Gates while Gideon keeps the team on offense. Quick draws backed up by a couple Pierces is the best way to win this matchup. Even though Cultivate is a very scary spell, it's more important to keep their Khalni Expedition off the table. Also, they only have four Valakuts! If you can get a live Sun Titan with a decent amount of life left, you can win the long game.
Pyromancer : While I haven't seen a lot of this deck recently, it certainly still exists. Try to keep Ascension off the table; don't be afraid to get one Brainstorm out of your Jace before they Bolt him, and try to race! Stag resetting an Ascension can be huge, but if you curve out with a turn 2 Chalice, you'll likely be able to kill them with some combination of Gideon, six-drops, and counterspells right before they're ready to kill you. They can't go infinite on turns now that Time Warp isn't in Standard, so buffering your own life by blinking lands and casting Baneslayer isn't a bad strategy.
One thing that you might notice while looking over my sideboarding strategies is that I never board out Gideon Jura. It's because he is that good. He'd be the first card in the deck to increase in quantity, and I'm rarely upset to draw him. Not only is he your largest and most resilient threat, he's probably the best defensive card in Standard right now. Watch out for bad-boy Gideon; he is coming back in an awesome way.
I've been playing this Angel Tempo creation a lot recently, and one of the things that I've noticed is its complexity. This deck is incredibly hard to play, and I can't emphasize that enough. I caught myself making suboptimal decisions as often as every turn when I first sleeved this bad boy up, as some of the interactions are confusing (to put it mildly). Because you're playing an aggro-control deck, knowing when to be aggressive/defensive can be very difficult, as it relies on not only your perception of the game state, but also your knowledge of how the next few turns will play out. This means that to be successful, you have to be conscious of how the cards in your hand will affect the game state, but also of how the opponent might affect the game state (where a combo or aggro deck might not care as much about how the opponent will interact). In addition, you're constantly removing and returning permanents from the game every turn, including on your opponent's turns, and the board can become visually hard to perceive very quickly. Practice up! When things start coming together, the potential interactions you can create are not only super powerful, but obscenely fun (which is the root of all Magic)!
That's all for now folks! This is a super healthy metagame, and I suggest you get involved in it if you haven't already had the chance! A lot of people were chased away from Standard when they got sick of watching Blightnings flip off Elves and Cobra crash for lethal with the help of a surprise Eldrazi Conscription (yes, Bertoncini, it's still considered rape when they exclaim “surprise!”). Things have changed. Start brewing and battling, because when the metagame stabilizes in a few weeks, you don't want to be caught casting spells that you don't like!
I think that forums are a very valuable tool for both the community and for writers, so make more use of them! If an article doesn't deliver what you want to hear from a writer, let them know so that future articles can be more directed towards what people want to hear. I'm also an avid Legacy player, so I'd love to talk about it provided people are interested. Anyone can look up results from the most recent SCG Open, but the reason I peruse articles is for insights on topics from people whose opinions I respect. While I've been playing a lot of Scars of Mirrodin, my tournament success is Constructed-based, so I won't ramble about why Calosso is wrong and Carnifex Demon is better than Contagion Engine until I have that qualification!
Find me at the StarCityGames.com Invitational (or failing that, find me online on the forums)!