Three and a half months after Innistrad's release, Standard remains an unsolved format. With Grand Prix Orlando on the horizon, which decks will be played and, more importantly, which decks will be successful is anybody's guess. For anyone attending, or anyone with a Standard tournament in the coming weeks, the best way to spend the final hours of prep time is to examine last weekend's StarCityGames.com Open in Atlanta. I'll do my part by going over the tournament's winning decks with an emphasis on how to beat them with whatever decks we decide to play ourselves.
I'll begin with Alex Wyatt's U/W Delver deck because it's a direct descendant of the Illusions decks that were so dominant a month ago. Those decks used full playsets of Phantasmal Bear, Phantasmal Image, and Lord of the Unreal to apply a fast clock and create complex, threatening situations for the opponent.
Alex Wyatt has begun to move away from the more traditional builds, moving Phantasmal Image to the sideboard and cutting Lord of the Unreal entirely. We can view his four Porcelain Legionnaires as a direct swap for the Lords. The change is an improvement for U/W creature mirrors, as the extra power and first strike are quite powerful. It also takes the play of copying Alex's Lord of the Unreal away from opponents with Phantasmal Image. Since Image remains an Illusion even after copying the Lord, it gives itself hexproof in addition to pumping itself and the rest of his army! The double-blue Lords are also difficult on the mana for anyone who wants to make use of Moorland Haunts and basic Plains, though Wyatt himself opted for a relatively conservative manabase.
The absence of Lord of the Unreal, combined with changing trends in the metagame, makes cutting Phantasmal Images from the maindeck a very sensible decision. Against opponents prepared with lots of removal, the Image can remain painfully stranded in an Illusions player's hand, which brings me to the best way to attack Illusions…removal, removal, and more removal!
In my younger days, I used to run my experimental decks through a solitaire challenge that I called the “Dog Test.” (Mine was a little different from the way other people used the term). My imaginary opponent would play a Grizzly Bears every turn of the game and always attack with all of the ones that didn't have summoning sickness. Beating my Dog Test required either effective, early blockers or plenty of removal backed up by card advantage.
Illusions is basically a more challenging version of my Dog Test; anything that's good against Grizzly Bears is good against Illusions. However, I say that it's a challenging version of the test because it has a few extra angles of attack going for it. For starters, Illusions itself has access to a modest amount of card advantage in the form of Snapcaster Mage, Moorland Haunt, and a low land count. It also plays Mana Leak and Vapor Snag to punish opponents who lean too heavily on expensive spells.
Nevertheless, the top priority against traditional Illusions should be to trade early. Gut Shot, Wring Flesh, and Geistflame are all excellent for neutralizing the most aggressive of Delver of Secrets or Phantasmal Bears starts. Creatures that provide value while trading—Viridian Emissary, Doomed Traveler, Solemn Simulacrum—are excellent also, but beware of Phantasmal Image.
The other key to beating Illusions is to make sure you can close a game. This is a bigger challenge for late-game decks like Blue Control and Wolf Run than it is for aggressive creature decks. Something like a Titan or a big planeswalker is a good win condition, but only if you can cast it on a stable board and not be forced to play it into a dangerous Mana Leak or Vapor Snag. If you can't end the game, Illusions will be easily able to grind you out with Moorland Haunt.
Sweepers like Slagstorm, Day of Judgment, Black Sun's Zenith, and Whipflare are particularly great because they provide early defense as well as card advantage. They also provide much appreciated insurance against hexproof creatures like Geist of Saint Traft.
In conclusion, fight Illusions with a good mix of spot removal, sweepers, blockers, and finishers. During sideboarding, lower your mana curve as much as you can while still being sure that you can win in the late game.
Charles Gindy won the tournament with a slightly different take on U/W aggro. His creatures are less efficient but are difficult to block and even more difficult to kill. What his creatures lack in raw power, he more than makes up for with equipment, which can quickly turn a harmless Invisible Stalker into an unraceable clock. Finally, Mr. Gindy maximizes his ability to play at instant speed by using Midnight Haunting as one extra “creature” to combine with equipment for a lethal threat.
What I love most about this decklist is the Sword of War and Peace. The powerful equipment is good across the board in this deck but also singlehandedly swings two of the most challenging matchups for Illusions—Mono Red and W/u Humans—with the protection abilities and lifegain.
The “Delver Blade” deck makes use of the most appealing cards in Illusions—Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, Mana Leak, and Moorland Haunt. However, I attribute its recent success to the fact that it has to be attacked in very different ways from traditional Illusions.
Where spot removal was essential against the Phantasmal Bear decks, it has very few targets in Charles Gindy's deck. Where ground blockers could halt Illusions in its tracks, they look silly against the unblockable and flying threats of Delver Blade.
An important overlap in the Illusions and Delver Blade matchups, and perhaps a crucial ingredient for success at Grand Prix Orlando, is the utility of creature sweepers. In addition to Day of Judgment and the others mentioned above, look to Ratchet Bomb as a sideboard card against Delver Blade. Midnight Haunting, Moorland Haunt, and flipping Delver of Secrets all produce threats with converted mana costs of zero. If you have the time to tick Ratchet Bomb up to two or three, you can take out hexproof creatures and equipment, which might otherwise be difficult to answer. Finally, the fact that Ratchet Bomb can wait patiently in play means that it protects you against the instant-speed shenanigans that these blue aggro players love so much.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Doomed Traveler
- 3 Fiend Hunter
- 2 Gideon's Lawkeeper
- 4 Grand Abolisher
- 4 Hero of Bladehold
- 4 Mirran Crusader
- 2 Geist of Saint Traft
So far, we've seen two different takes on blue decks that splash white for Moorland Haunt. The other approach, and the one I personally prefer, is white weenie with a blue splash. John Runyan took W/u Humans to second place in Atlanta, losing in the end to Charles Gindy's Delver Blade deck. Runyan's creatures are meatier, and the cards tend to be individually very powerful compared to the Invisible Stalkers and Midnight Hauntings of the Delver decks.
Removal and sweepers are still good against this deck, but Humans puts even stricter demands on its opponents because of the variety of threats it can present. Hero of Bladehold, for example, demands an immediate answer every single time and is difficult to kill with Slagstorm and Black Sun's Zenith, which means cards like Doom Blade, Dismember, or at least Vapor Snag are musts. However, Geist of Saint Traft and Mirran Crusaders are hard hitters that can't be targeted by black removal.
The best way to beat Humans is to capitalize on its lack of effective answers. Wolf Run Ramp has good game against it, as Slagstorm can slow them down significantly, and when all goes according to plan, a Titan can come down as fast as their Hero of Bladehold. Along the same lines, a creature swarm deck like W/G Tokens or a proactive control build with cards like Consecrated Sphinx and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite can be built to beat the white weenie deck. If I knew I'd be facing a lot of Humans, the deck I'd pick is W/G/r Wolf Run with Day of Judgment.
- 4 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Inferno Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
Dustin Flora opted for a Wolf Run Ramp deck himself but one very similar to Jun'ya Iyanaga's World Championship winning list. Metagame aside, the raw power of this deck is through the roof, and you could never really go wrong in choosing it for a Standard tournament.
In regards to fighting Wolf Run, Mirran Crusader and Hero of Bladehold mercilessly punish players who aren't prepared for them and can steal wins even against those who are. However, the most reliable way to beat Wolf Run is with counterspells. A fast clock backed up by permission, per the three decks above, works well, as does a finely tuned control list. Flora's list in particular is very streamlined and predictable, with no threats cheaper than four mana and nothing very serious cheaper than six.
Another way to punish a build like Flora's is to attack their artifacts. Ancient Grudge, Viridian Corrupter, and Manic Vandal provide both card and tempo advantage. Destroying Sphere of the Suns sets the Wolf Run player back and can sometimes put extreme strain on their colored mana if they're sporting the full four Inkmoth Nexuses.
Finally, we have the blue control decks of Standard, which are certain to turn up in a variety of forms at Grand Prix Orlando. Michael Braverman and Laurence Brown, last weekend, showed us two ways that control can be built in this format.
In Innistrad Standard, even more so than other formats, the blue control decks have extremely powerful late games. More importantly, they tighten their grip on the game with every turn they're allowed to cast a Forbidden Alchemy or flashback a Think Twice.
The key to beating control is to present a variety of threats in the early game, and the U/W decks above do a very nice job of that, with a mix of hexproof creatures (Geist of Saint Traft), instant-speed threats (Snapcaster Mage), raw power (Hero of Bladehold), and the nightmare card Midnight Haunting.
That's not to say that U/W is the only color combination that can pressure control in this way. G/W decks can present noncreature threats like planeswalkers and Birthing Pod. Tempered Steel can dump their hand and win a game before the control player can even get on their feet. Mono Red can deal enough damage with an early rush and finish with burn at their convenience. In short, the most important things against control are speed, reach, and variety of threats. Don't give them breathing room!
Innistrad Standard has been in constant motion since day one. From David Doberne's christening of the format with Mono Red to the shifting dominance of Wolf Run, Tokens, and Illusions to Charles Gindy's most recent victory with Delver Blade, we've seen no end to the number of playable strategies in Standard.
To say that Grand Prix Orlando will be interesting is an understatement, and I for one can't wait to see the results. There are dozens of decks that have been successful in weeks past but have fallen out of favor for one reason or another. They're still perfectly playable! Will any of them make big comebacks? Or, to ask an equally important question, will Standard's trend of constant evolution continue? Will we see a brand new deck take its pilot to the trophy?
My prediction is that it will be up to the players. When there's no clear best deck, the key to success is in mastery of whatever strategy you choose. We might see eight different decks in Grand Prix Orlando's top eight, but my bet is that they'll be finely tuned lists piloted by talented players who know them well. Good luck!