Stoneforge Mystic and Jace the Mind Sculptor warped Standard through three major interactions. First Stoneforge Mystic into Sword of Feast and Famine was nearly impossible for a big deck to handle while many aggressive decks and attrition decks couldn't beat Batterskull or equipped Squadron Hawks; second Jace's Ultimate meant that one card could serve as defense resource advantage and win condition; and third Jace's Unsummon ability narrowed the list of playable creatures in the format to cheap creatures and strong 187 creatures. These traits have defined playability in Standard for the last five months and it's incredibly refreshing to have a new set of problems to address.
So what did a turn-two-44%-of-the-time Sword of Feast and Famine do to the format? For the most part it lowered mana curves by attacking an opponent's options. If you're going to have fewer and fewer cards in hand during the midgame you want to be able to cast what cards you do have. You don't want to get to the point where you start throwing castables away to keep your six-mana threat. Sure it's probably going to turn the tide of the game when you draw your sixth land but sometimes a plan doesn't come together. Sword made cards like Emrakul Karn Liberated Primeval Titan Venser the Sojourner and Everflowing Chalice worse. It also marginalized perfectly reasonable black and green creature-based midrange decks by denying them the ability to block turning Stoneforge Mystic into an unkillable Hypnotic Specter + Seedborn Muse.
Sword of Feast and Famine worked with a robust counterspell suite to give U/W decks a very real edge over green “big” decks—RUG Valakut Eldrazi you name it. They struggled to beat a turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic for Feast and Famine. Mystic would grind the big decks down to the point where they had to cast their Titan before they were really ready so if U/W had the Mana Leak removal spell or Jace to bounce it the game mostly ended on the spot.
More on Jace's unsummon in a bit since I believe that ability defined the format more drastically than any other aspect. Before I get to that I want to talk about Jace's Ultimate.
Jace's Ultimate was the demise of “do-nothing” decks. It is very difficult to play board control in a format where someone can resolve a card fateseal away your four to six relevant cards and kill you. The fateseal wouldn't be a huge issue if there were nothing incredibly game-breaking to do with all that loyalty. Certainly Jace would still be one of the best cards in the format but it wouldn't have had the same impact on the viability of pure control strategies. To demonstrate my point an example:
There are two ways to attack a Stoneforge Mystic: attack the 1/2 or attack the Tinker target. U/B tried to do both and occasionally succeeded. It could Duress and Inquisition away the Sword but U/W decks adapted by playing a second. It could overload on its ability to kill Mystic but U/W would eventually cast Squadron Hawk pick up Sword of Feast and Famine and brain U/B. U/B adapted by playing Black Sun's Zenith Ratchet Bombs and even more discard. Some versions dropped Grave Titans altogether opting for Creeping Tar Pits Jaces and Karn Liberated as their only ways to kill an opponent. Karn an ostensible Grave Titan replacement was vulnerable to the original Mystic-into-Sword plan. If that ever came together—even in the midgame—it was still very hard to get to seven mana have Karn and resolve Karn.
Other builds of U/B adopted Tezzerets and an artifact subtheme that would allow them to play defense against a Stoneforge Mystic accrue various resource advantages and then kill with 5/5s. In doing so however they became dangerously vulnerable to Jace the Mind Sculptor's ultimate. Because they were playing so few proactive cards they could lose games to Jace that they wouldn't have lost before.
On top of that they could still occasionally lose games to Squadron Hawks. Over the course of the post-Besieged Standard format the U/B decks were always intrinsically behind U/W Caw-Blade. They could pull ahead in a given week by giving up one line of defense to protect themselves against another threatening trait of Caw-Blade but those “better” versions of U/B could (and did) lose to the “outdated” versions of Caw-Blade. After all if you cut back on Jace Beleren to add Ratchet Bombs or Black Sun's Zeniths to guard against Hawks you can lose very easily to U/W's Belerens their Sun Titans and their Mind Sculptor's Ultimate.
This threat-answer game played out for five months but it was clear to most that U/B couldn't address the entirety of Caw-Blade's diverse threat base in a sixty-card deck. That was one of the worst parts of metagaming against Caw-Blade with non-Blade decks: you could beat the aspects you wanted to beat but in doing so you'd open yourself up to losing to another part of the deck. Jace's Ultimate was the constant predator denying opposing decks the opportunity to go too reactive. After all you could have a hand of Black Sun's Zenith Go for the Throat Duress and Spreading Seas to beat Squadron Hawk Stoneforge Mystic both Jaces and Celestial Colonnade but if they just peeled Jace the Mind Sculptor with four mana in play you could just be dead to that. If Jace didn't have that Ultimate it would be problematic but not a “checkmate in six” situation.
The final limiting factor on the newly defunct Standard format is Jace's Unsummon. The “Jace test” crib-deathed a huge number of otherwise-awesome creatures narrowing the format a ton. The Titans are also at least partially to blame for this as there is little incentive to play a reasonable four- or five-mana creature when you can play a far superior six-mana creature.
Still cards like Baneslayer Angel Phyrexian Obliterator Hero of Bladehold and Molten-Tail Masticore are all very playable creatures but for Jace's Unsummon ability. To put my explanation into more theoretical phrasing: playing three- and four-drops that gain no value until you untap with them was bad because it allowed Jace's owner to gain more than a full turn's mana advantage simply by using a third of Jace's starting loyalty.
Negating their entire turn's mana investment is brutal enough but there is additional value realized in getting to untap with a Jace. Untapping with a relatively safe Jace transitions the game into a phase where Jace decks see four cards a turn and keep two against decks seeing and drawing one card per turn. Given that inevitability any deck that wanted to beat Jace had to play cheap creatures haste creatures or creatures that developed the board even if they were bounced. Without such a restriction the format's threat base will diversify in ways that I haven't yet begun to grasp.
A lot of the rest of this article will be theorycrafting since I've known about these changes just as long as you have. Still absent the above three interactions we are looking at a format with a different set of restricting factors. We know about some of them—turn 4 Primeval Titan turn 3/4 Deceiver Exarch/Splinter Twin turn 1 Goblin Guide/Steppe Lynx—but the format doesn't stop there. There are many other cards that are worth exploring exploiting and trying to fit into a future Standard format. The playable metagame doesn't get smaller after a banning after all—there will be new very good strategies come July. So what are the most powerful cards and how can we break them best?
For starters the defending champion:
Valakut the Molten Pinnacle
This is five cards off of the BenS/Christian Valenti Valakut list I burdled durdled and hurdled to second place with at the Indianapolis Standard Open back in February. Despite mostly trying to lose games with the deck I nut-drew my opponents all day and cruised through ten rounds of Swiss while openly admitting to know nothing about the format. There's been some progress since then.
There have also been a lot of changes since then. Deceiver Exarch is a real card now and it's impossible to ignore that. Valakut is decisively behind Exarch/Twin in the matchup. To start fixing that I recommend playing the best removal spell in the format. Dismember kills everything except for Titans and you're already the fastest Titan deck in the format. Lightning Bolt is worse both in the mirror and against Splinter Twin not killing important x/4s in each matchup. In a mirror that is all about a turn-four Titan having the ability to interact with their Lotus Cobra or Overgrown Battlement seems very strong.
Valakut's sideboard options are broader than I think you'll need since I can't really recommend over-sideboarding with a deck that wants to cast Primeval Titan or Green Sun's Zenith on turn 4 every game. In a relatively unknown format I would stick to mostly proactive sideboard cards; Thrun the Last Troll Koth of the Hammer Obstinate Baloth Gaea's Revenge Karn Liberated and Acidic Slime are all very reasonable choices. Nature's Claim Combust Pyroclasm Slagstorm Spellskite Summoning Trap Act of Aggression Viridian Corrupter and Creeping Corrosion are all worth serious consideration but they are ultimately less advisable in a format likely to be as broad as this Standard.
Valakut sets the fundamental turn of the format at turn 5: if you can't win the game or meaningfully interact with their strategy by turn 5 your deck will likely lose. A deck that demands interaction on turn 4 then seems like a natural foil to such a deck. Enter the challenger:
The departure of big Jace hurts Splinter Twin to an extent although it's unclear what that extent is. Jace the Mind Sculptor forced opponents to tap mana on their main phase letting Splinter Twin bury them beneath either a million Deceiver Exarchs or a six-mana game-changer. Importantly it also bounced Spellskites although Spellskite's utility has gone down a lot since the bannings. Part of Spellskite's utility was being a Steel Wall. Without Sworded Mystics to block Spellskite isn't really maindeck-worthy. Still Splinter Twin wants a full set of Into the Roil in almost every matchup as they're either a removal spell against an aggressive deck a value card against control decks or an important tool against hateful permanents like Torpor Orb Phyrexian Revoker Spellskite and Suture Priest. In most cases Into the Roil will be better than Lightning Bolt Flame Slash and Dismember and so I would play the full four.
Dispel is the big addition to the deck post-Jace. I was talking with a couple of awesome Midwesterners at Grand Prix Kansas City about how to build an optimal Splinter Twin list. I asked them all “If Jace gets banned what does this deck care about besides Spellskite? It's all instants right? Dismember Act of Aggression Nature's Claim Celestial Purge Into the Roil various counters? Anything else?” They all agreed on principle while reassuring me that Jace would never get banned.
Now that Jace is banned I haven't heard a strong argument for why Dispel isn't the best proactive counter in the format. This deck doesn't need to be a weird midrange U/R deck anymore. It doesn't need to play a bunch of loose cards and answers to things you don't need to care about. Dispel is brutal in its efficiency and protects your combo. What more do you want?
The beautiful thing about playing the fastest deck in the format is that you can focus all of your slots on being the best possible proactive combo deck. To that end it runs Augury Owl over Sea Gate Oracle or Mike Flores's rancid Pilgrim's Eyes. The deck never had anything to do on turn 2 although you could argue that it either wanted to hold up countermagic for a two-drop or Into the Roil a Mystic. Since there isn't a really insane two-drop in the format anymore it makes all the sense in the world to just play Augury Owl. It fits your desired natural curve perfectly; it's a blocker on a relevant turn; it uses mana on a turn where you have very little else to do; and it gives you incredible selection.
Since the deck has so many cantrips it can also have a reasonable “Plan B” of a single Inferno Titan and Consecrated Sphinx. Inferno Titan is clearly superior against aggressive decks while Sphinx is far better against blue decks. Rather than play two and zero I'd rather rely on playing my deck manipulation correctly to find my desired singleton. After sideboarding it's entirely possible that the deck wants to go up to three of a given six-drop against certain strategies.
I think that this deck may end up being the best deck in the format for its ability to be a consistent fast combo deck while also possessing a certain amount of inevitability. After all many people might say that Karn Liberated or Emrakul the Aeons Torn is the best endgame that Standard has to offer. I disagree—Karn can't beat a hand of Deceiver Exarch Splinter Twin and land while Emrakul looks positively embarrassing against a combat-step Exarch. As touted as Valakut has been in the hours after the rotation I believe that Splinter Twin will be the dominant strategy in Standard in a month from now.
Sideboarding with this deck is certainly intriguing as there are a number of options available. “If your deck can do it” Mike Flores wrote “the best idea is to transform.” Into what you say? Well there are two ideas that appeal to me.
The first is to sideboard into Pyromancer Ascension neatly sidestepping removal-based hate. You still get splash-damaged by the Nature's Claims that green decks will bring in but you avoid Combust Torpor Orb Spellskite and Act of Aggression. In exchange you get to play a sideboard
The second is to sideboard into a U/R Wildfire deck. You already play 26 land and a ton of cantrips so out-landing a control deck isn't too unrealistic. You get to sideboard a few six-drops a few removal spells and three copies of Destructive Force. You have Into the Roil to buy time or lock an opponent out of the game post-Force. While perhaps not an optimal starting strategy there are matchups where I would love to cast Inferno Titan into Destructive Force. If you go this route it is likely better to play a better mix of maindeck counters since Dispel isn't that great for a Destructive Force deck while Mana Leak is excellent.
The final option is to just play a “real” sideboard. It'll have some mix of Shatter Consecrated Sphinx Inferno Titan Twisted Image Pyroclasm Spellskite Mental Misstep and Mutagenic Growth. I was skittish about even proposing this option before I figured out Mutagenic Growth since I just had no way of stopping Combust. With Growth though Combust is just another sideboard card. It's not a great solution but if you're not keen on transforming this is the card that beats their best sideboard card. It doesn't hurt that it also beats any Dismembers that may come after your Deceiver Exarch.
Enough about the combo decks though. How do beatdown decks look in a Jaceless world?
Until New Phyrexia Goblin Guide was supposed to be the foil to Jace/Stoneforge Mystic decks. With the printing of Batterskull a lot of that changed. Red decks had to be able to kill a Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2 or be prepared to deal with a Batterskull on turn 3. As with any other problem Patrick Sullivan adapted his Red deck to address it fighting his way to the Top 8 of the Invitational with Furnace Scamps and Flame Slashes. So why do I think that this list is a valid starting point for red decks in this format?
The deck has a lot of tools that are incidentally strong against aggressive mirrors—a set of Arc Trails and Staggershocks to start. Furnace Scamp and Shrine of Burning Rage are more suspect slots now to be sure but I love the Flame Slashes in a world of Overgrown Battlements and Wall of Omens. I'm certainly no expert on Red decks so I would take any advice I dispense with a mine's worth of salt grains but the creatures (Scamps aside) and the burn suite look fine to me. Depending on how reactive and creature-light the format becomes the deck may want to go back to Koth of the Hammer and add a couple of Mountains.
The sideboard would have to start from the ground up. I could see strong arguments for Mark of Mutiny Act of Aggression Combust Vulshok Refugee Dismember and Shatter. With access to Mark of Mutiny the deck would be very well-positioned against Valakut although Act of Aggression may be better as a Ray of Command against various midrange decks in addition to its utility against Valakut and Splinter Twin. Regardless of how the deck ends up being built expect it to be a major player in the format.
- 2 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 2 Acidic Slime
- 1 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Blade Splicer
- 2 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Fauna Shaman
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 1 Sea Gate Oracle
- 4 Squadron Hawk
- 1 Sun Titan
- 1 Trinket Mage
- 4 Vengevine
Birthing Pod strikes me as a better Fauna Shaman in a world where Jace doesn't exist. There were a couple of elements holding Birthing Pod back in a Jace/Mystic Standard: there were Divine Offerings everywhere for your Pods Jace's Unsummon destroyed a lot of the hard work you were doing with your Pod and it was generally just better to play a variation on Larry Swasey's U/G Vengevine deck. Where Fauna Shaman was better for her ability to chain Vengevines that could take over a Jace-dominated board Birthing Pod seems like a better way to build a dominating board position with minimal mana investment.
Lotus Cobra will need to find a new niche in the metagame as it could almost always be found next to Jace the Mind Sculptor on a decklist. Cobra provided the mana and Jace provided both the lands and the action. Absent Jace to provide overwhelming resource advantage Cobra will need a mana sink to fully abuse its triggers and Birthing Pod seems like the best mana sink in the format. Obviously this is just a rough sketch but there are a couple principles that I followed that seem important when building a Birthing Pod deck:
Be very curve-conscious. You'll want to activate Pod multiple times and will want to have several chains available so don't build a deck that's too light on one curve spot.
Make sure you're getting value out of all of your activations. If you're just playing a good creatures deck could you get more value out of just playing four more solid creatures instead of Birthing Pods?
I opted not to include the Exarch/Twin combo but I think I'd want either that or a few ways to gain life. You'll use Phyrexian mana a decent amount of the time (and especially early) so having a way to get some of that back will be important in longer games.
I won't even try to tell you what to play in the sideboard of a Birthing Pod deck. This is the deck most open to variation in the format. After all there are very good arguments to be made for playing different colors entirely. Regardless of how you end up building the deck and sideboard though build each with the other in mind. Your deck functions on the premise of having a somewhat-even curve distribution so make sure your post-board strategy doesn't involve leaving yourself without any three-drops to Birthing Pod into!
Of course what good would I be if I didn't tell you what the future of blue control is in Standard?
Proliferate is the future of blue control in Standard. Now that control decks don't need to play a ton of Suntail Hawks and Squires it's about time we got back to real resource advantages. I can understand that not everyone gets excited for Divination but Tezzeret's Gambit is a really really good Divination. If you're fighting a war of attrition having proliferate on your side can make or break a long battle over mana cards and board position.
Having Everflowing Chalice is a huge boon to anyone fighting a control mirror as the ability to scale your mana development to obsolete an opponent's Mana Leaks is critical. Don't believe me? Try playing a blue mirror where they get to proliferate and you don't.
From an archetypal point of view I'm proposing an update on Accelerated Blue. The reason why Accelerated Blue wasn't good before is that Sword of Feast and Famine is incredible against a deck that needs to compound its resource advantages. Stoneforge Mystic made it so that big decks were never able to get going. In that world Everflowing Chalice wasn't worth a card. After all I'd much rather cast Tinker on turn 2 than play a second land. Since Tinker just got banned Accelerated Blue is playable again.
The reason why Accelerated Blue is a good strategy is that its mana acceleration allows it to play multiple spells in one turn earlier on in the game than other control decks. Since some of those spells are draw spells the mana acceleration pays for its replacement. If you played during Jund's heyday you might remember the Big U/W decks that tapped out for Mind Springs and Martial Coups. This is a deck that wants to generate resource advantages in a similar way.
When Jace the Mind Sculptor first came out people tried to play him in U/W decks with Treasure Hunt and fewer Mind Springs and Martial Coups. When the “small” U/W decks with Jace played against the “big” U/W decks with Chalice Spring Coup and so on the big decks won. Why? Because they were out-resourcing the mirror on every level. All of their draw spells were must-counters and small U/W didn't play enough counters to account for each one. I'm not saying that Tezzeret's Gambit is Mind Spring but I am saying that there is a very strong case for mana acceleration and proliferate being worthwhile themes in a Standard blue control deck.
Of course there are many other viable strategies that are worth your time. Vampires Boros Elves Mono-Green Eldrazi some form of Quest for the Holy Relic and Mono-Black with Phyrexian Obliterator are all archetypes that could rise up to claim the throne of this new Standard format. There's no better time to brew in Standard than the present. Regardless of how you approach the new format there's a lot to discover. I can't wait to see what people have come up with on July 1.
Postscript: A Story
I met Patrick Sullivan in early March at the Edison SCG Open. Over the next few months I hung out with him at the Charlotte Open and again at the Invitational Weekend. We chatted online a few times throwing ideas back and forth about optimal Legacy deck construction. More than anything though I felt a real humanness from him a combination of life wisdom and genuine empathy. It's that sort of connection and those qualities that bring me to a different city every weekend eager to see my best friends after a week at work.
In the hours after my Indianapolis article went up I got a lot of messages from well-wishers asking me if my deck had turned up. I had no good news to give them only a lesson about the importance of responsibility and the futility of materialism. Still though no deck.
It was 6:53 in the evening on that same Wednesday. I was still in my office at work finishing up a project. An email popped into my inbox. Grateful for the minute diversion I tabbed over to my browser. Patrick Sullivan sent you a message on Facebook… Gmail informed me. I hadn't noticed the ellipsis in Facebook message notification emails before then. I opened it. Indented from a thumbnail of Oscar the Grouch his message read:
I replaced your Tundras. Working with Starcity to figure out when you can pick them up but they're taken care of.
I stared at it in disbelief. I read it again. Again. I started trying to think my way out of the situation. “ Surely he didn't actually buy…” my thoughts began. But no it was obvious. I stared at my monitor until I tasted salt. I blinked back tears trying and failing to engage my logical brain instead experiencing a huge range of emotions. I flitted from vulnerability to gratitude disbelief to guilt surprise to confusion all of them culminating in a sense of deep appreciation for an incredibly human act. After taking a few deep breaths I called Gerry and told him what had happened. The line was silent for a few seconds. Finally he said “Well that's just f***ing kind now isn't it.”
I laughed sighed nodded and finally managed a “yeah…yeah it is.” If I ever needed reassurance that we live in a community filled to the brim with humanity and good and decent people I found it that day in Patrick Sullivan's incredibly generous gesture. Never forget that there are good people out there. When you can go remind someone of that truth.