It's about time they held another US Standard Grand Prix...
Thursday, I was trying to figure out what to play this weekend at Grand Prix Charleston. It would have been groovy to play a Standard GP three or four weeks ago when Bant was well positioned in the format, but the format had moved on. Bant would still be passable, but that's certainly not where I wanted to be against U/W Flash, the deck I expected to be the biggest deck of the weekend.
In piecing together the puzzle, I came to a number of conclusions.
- Thragtusk is the best card in the format. Perhaps this is less so now that U/W Flash has become the most popular deck; however, the card is absolutely fantastic against them, too. It's not just raw card power, though Thragtusk is bonkers there. It's that he does exactly what you need and so ruthlessly efficiently. Even when you know how popular he is, it's not like there's much you can do to actually deal with the card without losing value. Making matters worse, the most popular deck doesn't even use him, making it especially daunting to play a strategy that tries to sidestep his effectiveness.
- Cavern of Souls is fantastic. Now, obviously the card has always been good, but its popularity waned as counterspells fell out of favor and creature choices diversified. While nothing has changed for the latter, counterspells are back in a big way. Using Cavern of Souls to power out threats is just about the best way to punish these U/W Flash decks, plus it's quite effective against the various Bant, U/W/R, and U/W Control decks.
With these parameters in mind, I was interested in exploring some form of Reanimator. I anticipated a lot of hate, but the matchup against U/W Flash seemed pretty good. Deathrite Shaman is just a beast, and your flashback cards and Caverns let you power through permission. When sideboarding, I would take out the Unburial Rites and just cast my guys. Even if they have, draw, and play a Rest in Peace, all the other flashback cards are still worth a card. The only creature that's really hosed is Deathrite Shaman, but if they have Rest in Peace in play, two-thirds of Deathrite Shaman's work is done. Angel of Serenity is obviously hurt but is still good enough.
It's a tangent, but I wonder if U/W Flash is supposed to play Grafdigger's Cage. Purify the Grave is not really what you want since you want to be able to stop all the flashback card draw. Grafdigger's Cage still hurts your Snapcasters and Think Twice, but it does let you keep Runechanter's Pike, not to mention Moorland Haunt. Costing just one mana isn't that big a deal, but I guess the trade-off is that Cage doesn't stop Shaman or hard cast Angel. It's certainly somewhat relevant that if you destroy a Cage the work has been undone, whereas if you destroy a Rest in Peace a fair bit of damage has been done.
What does Reanimator even lose to? I asked a number of people, receiving conflicting messages. I guessed there was only one way to find out. Arriving Friday evening, I sat down to play a few games with Ben Stark, Sam Black, and Jackie Lee. Before making any major changes, I wanted to get a feel for what people were already doing, so I ran a Magic Online list from Gerry's article:
- 3 Angel of Serenity
- 3 Centaur Healer
- 1 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
While I only played four games, two against U/W Control and two against G/W Humans, it was enough to see that I would not want to play this without some serious adjustments. You don't always need to play a lot of games to make judgments about decks and matchups. Remember, we don't really care about what the "percentages" are. What we care about is the feel of the matchup. What is the pacing like? What are the important cards? Does it feel like a match you would want to play?
My draws were probably below average in three of the games, but remember, it doesn't matter what the exact percentages are. Is U/W Control a bad matchup for Reanimator? Sure, but that isn't the problem. After all, that wouldn't be nearly as popular as U/W Flash. Is game 1 against Humans really tough? Sure, and no question with two Supreme Verdicts still in the sideboard.
That wasn't the real issue, however. The deck had more expensive cards than I would like, Sphinx's Revelation decks can go over the top of it, and if these are game 1 problems, imagine after boarding. Don't get me wrong, Reanimator is a fine strategy, but I would want to do things a fair bit differently, blending the strategy with Bant Control. That serious of a shift would take more than the two hours of time I had to playtest.
I considered playing G/W Aggro, as it did seem well positioned. After all, in the land of no removal, the deck full of creatures that you must remove is king. You would still have to consider cards like Supreme Verdict, Unsummon, Azorious Charm, and Detention Sphere, but that's a relatively narrow band of answers. As a note, Kibler's unusual G/W variant (which he will surely discuss on Friday) was of particular interest, as it capitalized on a significant number of flash creatures which are especially effective against most of those removal spells as well as counterspells.
I also considered Ben's U/W Control list, which seemed pretty sweet:
It looked streamlined and consistent, a great blending of U/W Flash and U/W Control. What it lacked was Thragtusk. With just three Supreme Verdicts, I was not confident that I wouldn't just get run over. Obviously, this list has countless way to dig for those three Verdicts, but that's a lot of pressure and having only a single dimension seemed risky.
That said, I really like the planeswalkers, and it can be really tricky fitting them into a deck while still supporting Augur of Bolas. Augur of Bolas is particularly appealing because it's a great two-drop against aggro while still being a good card against everyone, unlike most removal spells. It also makes Restoration Angel much better and can make three Sphinx's Revelation feel like four.
I was a little less sure of zero Runechanter's Pike and zero Detention Sphere, but 20 "hits" for Augur is already basically the minimum I would want, so trying to fit them would probably involve cutting creatures or planeswalkers.
At the end of the day, I kept coming back to Cavern of Souls and Thragtusk. That was the foundation I had wanted to build on. As a result, I ended up running Andrew Cuneo's Bant Control deck, figuring that at least I have some experience with Bant Control in this format and it's a style that I am experienced with.
Here's the 75 I registered:
As you can see, there is more than a passing resemblance to the type of shenanigans Sam Black was getting into two weeks ago. That's because he gets his Kool-Aide from the same place I did, Andrew Cuneo's twisted mind.
The inventor of the Draw-Go archetype back in the late 90s, Cuneo only knows how to play one way: slow and controlling. A purist who generally abhors victory conditions, Cuneo actually stooping so low as to play eight creatures in a deck speaks volumes about the power level of Thragtusk.
As Cuneo put it, he didn't build this deck to be the best-positioned strategy in the room. There were just some cards he wanted to play, and they kind of take you down a path.
He knew he wanted to play four Sphinx's Revelations, one of his favorite cards of all time. Cuneo loves Sphinx's Revelations like I love Cruel Ultimatum (which, admittedly, may be too a slightly unhealthy degree...). Every color has awesome things to offer control, but if you've decided you want to stick to three (the sane thing to do), once you have Sphinx's Revelation and Thragtusk you're kind of locked in.
Four Sphinx's Revelations is certainly not for everyone, but you can get away with it a lot more than you can Blue Sun's Zenith because of the life gain actually buying you enough time to use those cards (that and Thragtusk...).
The other big reason to play green is the use of Farseek. Thirty mana plus lots of cantrips may seem like a lot, but Sphinx's Revelation is a pretty nutty card. You kind of need to Sphinx's Revelation once just to catch up from how much mana you play, but that mana advantage ensures that your Revelations are generally the biggest and the baddest.
Cuneo doesn't play a lot of removal because there are just relatively few creatures worth killing. The exceptions, G/W, Mono-Red, and Zombies, are so full of creatures you need to kill that the only reasonable plan is sweeper-based. You do need ways to defend when you don't have a sweeper, however, but this is where the creatures come in. Blocking isn't always the most reliable way to defend yourself against some attacks (such as G/W), but it's not bad and just needs to buy you time to find a sweeper. The upside, of course, is that you aren't stuck with oodles of blanks in the matchups where spot removal is bad.
Why is spot removal so bad? Too many decks play only creatures that draw a card. Augur of Bolas, Snapcaster Mage, Restoration Angel, Thragtusk—everything draws a card. That said, you're still going to have to face some Thundermaw Hellkites, Sublime Archangels, and the like. Cavern of Souls' resurgence means Dissipate isn't always reliable, but Azorius Charm and Detention Sphere do provide a few extra options when digging for a Verdict. While haste creatures can be annoying, Cuneo's list features seventeen cards that gain life (counting Restoration Angel) and a lot of ways to draw them, so often the plan is to just gain enough life to have a safety buffer.
Augur of Bolas is one of my favorite elements of Cuneo's list. Plays that meaningfully impact the board for turn 2s when you don't draw Farseek were a gaping hole in previous Bant decks. Syncopate is so loose in Bant, a deck that wants to use of its mana efficiently every turn. Essence Scatter is too sketchy in Bant because of Cavern.
Augur is not without a cost, however. This list is definitely on the low side of acceptable Augur counts with twenty maindeck "hits." Now, to be fair, Cuneo actually played two Amass the Components instead of the two Jaces, but almost none of the rest of us followed him off that particular cliff. I can appreciate wanting to keep the Augur count higher, but Jace's ability to defend, as well as actually providing another victory condition, are much welcome new dimensions.
The one Elixir may seem a little cute, but it's actually very important. With so much card draw and mana, there really isn't all that much gas actually in the tank. Elixir ensures you never run out of victory conditions going long. Additionally, it can actually noticeably improve the quality of your draws. After you shuffle twenty spells back into your deck, the number of draw steps that are nonland is actually very noticeable. Finally, the five life generally makes up for the card you lost playing it. You wouldn't want to make this exchange over and over, but a single copy buys us more time to set up a big Revelation.
The Nephalia Drownyard is intended to be a trump in the control mirrors, but I wonder if it may be just a bit too inbred. As of this writing, I am 7-2 after Day 1, and I didn't have a single match come down to Drowning anyone out. That said, I know Shahar Drowned Ochoa out despite being down about sixteen cards from Revelations, so there you go.
Cuneo is actually just a psycho; he played a miser's Ghost Quarter (instead of the second Cavern) to destroy the miser's Drownyard in other people's lists (or more commonly to fight Cavern of Souls, Moorland Haunt, and Kessig Wolf Run). I actually wouldn't mind a Ghost Quarter, but I wonder if it should possibly take the Drownyard's spot (letting us take a little less damage from the Overgrown Tomb turning into a Forest).
The only other place I departed from Cuneo was in my use of a third Restoration Angel in the board where Cuneo had a second copy of Elixir of Immortality. Since, you know, in the mirror, the guy that has two Elixirs generally beats the guy with one going long when both have a Drownyard...
Me? I just wanted a little extra percentage against U/W Flash, but perhaps Cuneo was right.
The morning of the event, I asked Cuneo about the deck's matchups. How good is it against U/W Flash (the deck I expected to be the most popular)?
"That's probably the hardest matchup."
I immediately reconsidered my deck choice. What was I doing playing a deck that's worst matchup was the deck I thought would be most popular?
"Well, it's certainly not unwinnable, but you are definitely not favored. Runechanter's Pike is the hardest part, so you need to Rest in Peace them. I gotta be honest with you. I didn't go into this event trying to figure out what deck would be the best positioned. Sometimes you just pick some cards you want to play with, it kind of takes you down a road, and your hands are kind of tied."
Cuneo is nothing if not honest with himself. It's always so refreshing when someone can be completely objective about their deck and its matchups, refreshing and helpful.
Given the options available, I decided to stick it out, hoping to dodge as much U/W Flash as I could. During the byes, I wanted to get a couple games in against the boogeyman, so I hunted down GerryT, who was on U/W Flash.
It wasn't pretty.
Speaking of GerryT, you know who won the last US GP with a lower turnout than GP Charleston?
Gerry Thompson, finishing 1st out of 620 at GP Denver, 2008, with Five-Color Control in Lorwyn Block Constructed.
It's not entirely clear why GP Charleston's attendance was so low (just 661 players), but given the sheer volume of empty chairs, it's pretty clear a lot of people were surprised.
Most likely, this was a combination of a lot of factors. To begin with, South Carolina is not exactly the easiest place to fly into. Flights are generally very expensive, particularly when there is a big event in town, as the airport isn't all that big and there aren't a lot of direct flights.
To make matters worse, Charleston doesn't have a lot of other local scenes within driving distance. Add to this the ocean cutting off potential neighbors and you're talking about a serious drop in driving traffic.
The other real big factor was Thanksgiving being just days away. An awful lot of people are planning on traveling next weekend, so the prospect of taking two flights (and likely missing some work) to get to another GP the week before is less appealing.
Besides, there's another GP next weekend with the exact same format. If people were going to skip one, this is the one to skip. Adding fuel to the fire, there was a SCG Open Series, a Euro GP, and a Magic Online PTQ among other competing events.
Many speculated that it might be the Standard format that had scared everyone off. After all, there are an awful lot of cards people are kind of sick of already. Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Sphinx's Revelation, Snapcaster Mage. This format had such promise, but it seems to lend itself a bit much to unbearably slow control decks and the same sort of U/W aggro-control decks that have been good for far too long (Caw-Blade, Delver, etc.).
Let's just get two things straight.
First of all, the Euro GP got nearly triple the attendance (while Euro GPs average about 10% bigger than US ones). SCG Standard Opens are pulling in big numbers. There are record numbers of people playing the Standard format. Say what you will about the format, but it's definitely getting the attendance elsewhere.
Second of all, the format doesn't have to be like this. There's still a lot of innovation to be had. A lot of these strategies are (probably) exploitable. Regardless of how we all do this weekend, I've got a feeling most of us are switching decks next week.
Why was Charleston so small?
Everything from the location to the timing to the competition to mild burnout, with the hurricane on top of everything else. Something has to be the low data point in this sea of record highs.
Anyway, I gotta call it a night. Day 2 starts in eight hours, and I have to admit, it feels good to be playing Standard again. So far, I've defeated two G/W Humans decks, a U/W/R Midrange deck, and a Reanimator deck, taking losses against Mono-Red Aggro and U/W Flash. I'm still looking forward to the control mirrors tomorrow, but from the looks of it, there might be more U/W Flash than I'd like.
Before I go, major thanks to Andrew Cuneo, Owen Turtenwald, Shahar Shenhar, and Reid Duke for sharing the deck and advice, as well as Sam Black, Brian Kibler, Ben Stark, and Jackie Lee, who didn't play Bant Control but helped me prepare for the event.
Have a great Thanksgiving! See you in San Antonio!