Last weekend solidified my belief that this is the best Standard format I have ever played. A wide swath of different archetypes littered the Top 8 of the Standard GPs in Bochum and Charleston, and a couple of fresh new takes on stagnant decks won the two events. For the first time in many years, Standard is healthy. Aggro, combo, control, ramp, midrange, and tempo are ALL viable strategies.
There is no definitive best deck. There are no cards that are too good that dominate the format. There is no Delver, Caw-Blade, Faeries, Valakut, or Jund to stifle deckbuilding and restrict the realm of viable archetypes. It's a deckbuilder's paradise since the doors are open to so many strategies. It's also a player's paradise because you can play your favorite archetype and have it actually be viable!
Despite this, I hear constant complaints about Standard. Yes, some cards are better than others. This will always be the case. Yes, games can go long, allowing players to actually play out their hands and strategies before the game concludes. Is that a bad thing? Some complain about unintentional draws. I have yet to draw a match in this format and have yet to play with something that isn't a grindy midrange deck or control deck.
"Thragtusk is too good. Ban Thragtusk." Really? Just because a card is one of the best cards in a format, it deserves a ban? Hardly. This may be controversial, but Thragtusk isn't even good right now. That's not to say it's a bad card, but what decks fold to Thragtusk? Not many.
Can we even decide on the best card in Standard right now? Is it Thragtusk? Rancor and Silverblade Paladin easily go under Thragtusk. Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite undo his work. Sphinx's Revelation and Craterhoof Behemoth easily go over the top of Thragtusk.
Is it Sphinx's Revelation? It certainly beats all the midrange decks. But when your opponent curves out on you with a turn 2 Loxodon Smiter and a turn 3 Silverblade Paladin + Rancor or leads Zombie into Zombie into Geralf's Messenger into Hellrider, then Sphinx's Revelation is not going to be fast enough to interact. Is it Rancor? Supreme Verdict and Azorius Charm don't think so.
As much as I don't like to admit it, the spells that can't be countered and Cavern of Souls have really had a positive impact on Standard. If cards like Sphinx's Revelation become too good, then Slaughter Games is waiting in the wings to neuter it. U/W Flash looked to be taking over the format, but the reemergence of Cavern of Souls and Loxodon Smiter put an end to that. Every strategy has a counterstrategy.
We may finally have a format that can't be solved and that doesn't have a best deck. The value of deckbuilding and reading the metagame correctly is at an all-time high.
I'm honestly curious what people don't like about Standard right now. If you have a reasoned explanation of why you think this is a poor Standard format, I'd love to hear it in the comments because frankly I don't see what the fuss is about.
With that out of the way, I'd like to talk about my experiences leading up to and at Grand Prix Charleston. Spoiler alert: the event was a failure for me. I had an interesting choice to make in terms of what deck I played, and the one I chose didn't work out for me. Since this was a memorable GP for me, even in failure, I wanted to take some time and study the mistakes I made to see if there was anything valuable I could learn from them. Hopefully, you will also be able to take something away from these lessons.
I'd like to first start from the beginning and give you a bit of backstory. One of the breakout decks from the two GPs was a Reanimator deck featuring a full four copies of Craterhoof Behemoth and Somberwald Sage designed by Brad Nelson. Brad finished in the Top 16 of Charleston, and Martin Juza won GP Bochum playing the same list. I spent a lot of time helping test this deck and ended up playing a Junk Midrange deck instead, with which I lost the last round to miss Day 2.
I heard multiple times throughout the tournament, "You had access to this deck and didn't play it? Why?!" The insinuation is that I'd have to be crazy to pass up on the deck. I don't think I'm crazy, so what gives? I could have played a sweet Craterhoof Combo deck, but I played a boring ol' Junk Midrange deck instead. Why? Why? Why?
The story began a full two weeks before the GP
Saturday, November 3rd, Buffalo Wild Wings
During halftime of the Alabama versus LSU game, Brad Nelson told me he had an awesome deck for Standard that he wanted to work on for the GP featuring an all-in Reanimator plan based around Craterhoof Behemoth as the target. I was skeptical. I tested a few games with the deck later that night but ended up not really liking it and gave it up.
Friday, November 9th, Star City Game Center
Brad told me, "I broke it." Somberwald Sage was his new tech for a transformational sideboard that allows the ability to sidestep graveyard hate by simply hard casting the threats instead. I've heard, "I broke the format" more times than I can count and chalk off the statement as being a product of his excitement more than a statement of fact. Brad asked me to lock in on the Craterhoof deck. After some prodding, I eventually caved in and decided to take the plunge. Bring It On 8: In It to Reanimate It was about to start filming, and I got a role. I hoped it was the 'rite' choice.
Saturday, November 10th, Virginia Beach
I lost a very close game 3 in the finals of a PTQ. It's hard to convey in words the level of disappointment losing in the finals of a PTQ brings, but suffice it to say, it's not a pleasant feeling. I resolved that I would do one better next time and find a way to get back on the Pro Tour. For me, the next PTQ was a four-slot event called GP Charleston. It was testing time.
Sunday, November 11th, Testing on Magic Online
I was having mixed reviews testing the Craterhoof deck. Midrange decks were getting absolutely donkey stomped, and it wasn't even close. They cast Thragtusk. Then I hit them for 65,403,234 damage. Nice five life, bro! Control decks were a bit of a close matchup. Sometimes I got there by hard casting a Craterhoof after I'd whittled them down a bit with Lingering Souls, but a lot of times they Wrathed and countered me out of the game and I was left with a bunch of land, some mana dudes, and a couple less tickets on Magic Online.
Aggressive decks were giving me the business. Surprisingly enough, the fastest aggro deck wasn't Mono-Red or Zombies. It was G/W. That midrangey deck that plays four Wolfir Silverheart was completely stomping this reasonably fast combo deck senseless. Craterhoof occasionally kills on turn 4 if you have a really good hand. From my experiences on Magic Online, that G/W deck might as well have killed on turn 4 every time.
Monday, November 12th, The Mystical Realm Known as "MODO"
I took Brad's most recent list and increased the number of Gavony Townships and played them main instead of in the side. I went 10-1 in matches on Magic Online, including winning three games where the only spells I cast were three mana dorks followed by activating Township every turn until my opponent died. Those opponents may have lost the match, but they earned something more valuable: a free, all-expense paid trip to the Gavony "Brown Town" Ship. For the first time, I was truly pumped about the deck.
Tuesday, November 13th, Back to Magic Online for Adventure and Friendship
All good things come to an end. The success I had the previous day came crashing down. I lost the first seven matches in a row I played with the deck without changing a single card from the day before. I reaffirmed the knowledge that G/W is simply unwinnable with my win rate against them looking something like 0-12 at this point. Control decks were still miserable.
I couldn't seem to win anymore with the deck. The more I played the more terrible matchups I discovered. I was seriously doubting whether it would be a good decision to continue on with this deck or if I should bail and find a different deck to play.
I decided to test the waters and try out G/W Aggro. Since it apparently goldfished me on turn 4 or 5 every game, maybe I could do the same to my opponents. I quickly found that the Jund and control matchups were kind of miserable, and I concluded that I wasn't really that interested in playing it at the GP.
Wednesday, November 14th, Magic Online
Brad insisted that G/W was a good matchup with the sideboard plan of four Angel of Serenity. I assured him it wasn't enough. I challenged him with G/W on Magic Online and beat the behemoth out of him in a few matches to prove my point.
I went back to testing Craterhoof, but after getting destroyed in some more matches by all manner of red decks and G/W aggro decks, I started to run low on tickets.
Fed up with all things Craterhoof Behemoth, I decide to go back to testing my Junk Midrange deck that I'd been working with on and off for the past month and a half. I won the first eight-man I played and a number of two-man queues with it. It felt good. It felt powerful. I was done with Craterhoof Behemoth.
Thursday, November 15th, Magic Online
I played nothing but Junk. I added Underworld Connections to the maindeck and really liked the way it played out. I wasn't settled on all of my card choices, but I was sold on the deck. I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I was making a mistake, that Junk isn't good enough, and that I was deluding myself into playing it because I liked the deck. Like any reasonable person would do, I ignored that nagging feeling.
Friday, November 16th, Charleston, South Carolina
Saturday, November 17th, Day 1 of GP Charleston
I lost rounds 3, 4, and 9 to go 6-3 and miss Day 2. Brad finished Day 1 at 8-0-1 with the Craterhoof deck. I was left wondering "what if" and thinking about where I might have been if I had just stuck with the Behemoth deck and not given up on it to play my baby instead.
On the surface, it may seem like I made reasonable choices along the way. I gave the Craterhoof deck a chance and tested it out through a wide variety of changes and updates. I kept losing a lot with it and decided that I didn't think it was very good and didn't want to play it at the GP. Instead, I reverted back to a deck I was comfortable with and was finding success with on Magic Online and played that instead.
That all sounds good on the surface. But when I dug a bit deeper, I found three mistakes I made that I could learn from.
Magic Online Is Not Real Life
Magic Online is an excellent testing tool. It's a great way to play a lot of games against a variety of different decks. You can test out changes to your deck constantly, at any time of the day, and you don't have to rely on friends to be willing guinea pigs to test with you.
There is one situation where Magic Online fails, however. You have to take the lessons you learn from testing online with a grain of salt. I played roughly 50% of my matches with the Craterhoof deck against either Mono-Red, Zombies or G/W, three poor matchups. For that reason, I lost a lot of games. When I lose a lot with a deck, I tend to tune out and give up on it.
The thing is that Mono-Red Aggro isn't a popular deck in the real life meta. It struggles hard to beat Thragtusk and Restoration Angel and sees very little play in real life tournaments relative to its online presence. Because of how cheap it is online and because it has the ability to get free wins, people play it a lot online regardless of whether it's good or not. Zombies is fairly similar in this regard.
I made the mistake of putting too much trust in my Magic Online results. I should have simply ignored every single match I played against Mono-Red or Zombies, as I was far less likely to play against those decks compared to U/W Flash (an 80/20 matchup) or Reanimator at the GP. Lots of the high profile players brought some sort of U/W or control deck to the table at the GP, and if I had simply focused exclusively on those decks and ignored the unpopular aggro decks, I might have played the Craterhoof deck and had a stronger finish as a result.
Stick to What You've Tested
This rule isn't hard and fast. Often it's right to audible to a deck when you realize that it's simply a better choice, but when you're deciding between two decks that aren't that far off from each other, stick to what you know.
While I knew Junk fairly well from playing a lot with it in the past few months, after spending the full week testing the Craterhoof deck, I knew that deck a lot better. I knew how to board with Hoof against each deck, and I knew what the game plan was in each matchup. Simply knowing what your role is and what your plan is can account for a few match wins here and there by avoiding mistakes that unfamiliar players fall victim to.
With the Junk deck, I had to rebuild the list to account for changes in the metagame. I had never played Junk against U/W Flash or the new Bant Control decks with Elixir. Previously, Bant Control had been one of the best matchups, but what I didn't realize was that was no longer the case against the new versions of it. Rather than relying on vulnerable planeswalkers like Tamiyo and Jace that Junk preys on, they opted for a spell-oriented angle featuring four copies of Sphinx's Revelation. A big copy of Sphinx's Revelation was usually too much for me to overcome, especially when they drew into a second.
I knew I wanted to cut Keyrunes and replace them with Farseek because I kept losing to Thalia and Keyrunes were too slow to combat that, and I realized that I was very rarely activating them anyway. I also decided to play two Angel of Serenity maindeck in Junk. Both of these decisions weren't made with a lot of testing behind them or any real understanding of whether they'd be good or not.
I realized after the tournament that Angel of Serenity simply doesn't fit the deck. It's a good value card, but without Grisly Salvage and Unburial Rites, it doesn't do enough to warrant a slot. Against a deck like Bant Control, I would cast the Angel and get value by grabbing some Thragtusks from my graveyard and the like, yet I would still lose because I didn't have a real plan and they had the plan of chaining together Sphinx's Revelations that I simply couldn't beat.
In fact, the Junk deck lacked a plan altogether. I played a bunch of good cards that were one and a half for ones or two for ones, but I had no coherent game plan. An extra week of testing would have given me the time I needed to hammer out the flaws of the deck and come up with what it was I actually wanted to accomplish in any given game.
Who knows—in a week's time, I might have discovered that a better version of my deck is the second place list that Brian Eason piloted
Average mana: 1.78
Average creature mana: 2.57
Average creature power: 2.36
Average creature toughness: 1.79
Red percentage: 0.00%
Green percentage: 51.35%
Black percentage: 10.81%
Blue percentage: 0.00%
White percentage: 37.84%
Colorless percentage: 0.00%
Basic Lands: 10.00%
Why was Eason's deck better than mine? For one, he had a game plan. His plan was to use Intangible Virtue, Lingering Souls, and planeswalkers to quickly build a huge board presence and pressure the opponent. Much like my version, he had the ability to grind out a long game and win that way. Unlike my deck, he also had the ability to win as early as turn 5 with quick pressure. I wonder how many opponents he beat in the tournament with a turn 2 Lingering Souls and a turn 3 Intangible Virtue + flashback Souls. I bet it was a lot.
This leads me to my final point
The biggest flaw with my Junk deck was that it wasn't proactive. I was left waiting for my opponent to do something and then trying to answer it with something like a Sever the Bloodline or an Angel of Serenity. While those cards are good and powerful, it's important that your deck has a proactive plan for how to win a game.
Most of the games I won on the day were with Garruk, Primal Hunter. That doesn't come as a surprise to me when I think about it now. Know why? He's the only card in the deck that's truly proactive. If you play a Garruk on turn 3, your opponent is left scrambling to find a way to deal with it before it quickly puts the game out of reach. The rest of the cards are better served as reactive cards. While they are powerful in their own right, they aren't the kinds of cards that can take over a game and put it out of reach for your opponent.
To illustrate this point a bit more, let's take a look at Reid Duke's list from the Top 8 of GP Charleston:
Average mana: 1.73
Average creature mana: 4.80
Average creature power: 4.60
Average creature toughness: 3.20
Red percentage: 0.00%
Green percentage: 26.47%
Black percentage: 0.00%
Blue percentage: 48.53%
White percentage: 19.12%
Colorless percentage: 5.88%
Basic Lands: 6.67%
Most Bant Control lists prior to this point were playing cards like Centaur Healer, Restoration Angel, and Angel of Serenity. None of those cards are very proactive. They all are better at playing defense and preserving your life total. For that reason, Bant Control picked up a reputation of being very good at gaining life and stalling the game, yet it struggled to actually win the game. Sometimes the Bant deck would find itself over 50 life, but five or six turns later it had somehow lost. What happened? They lacked a real plan to win the game. They knew how to not lose but didn't know how to win.
Reid's deck solves this. I had the pleasure of playing a few games against Reid before the tournament, and I was very impressed with his deck. His deck has a clear path to victory. You cast Sphinx's Revelation over and over again. Using Elixir of Immortality to not mill yourself out, eventually all of your lands end up in play and you start to filter through your spells every turn. Each Sphinx's Revelation you cast leads you to the next Sphinx's Revelation, which you can cast for an even greater X. Each time you do it you gain more and more life. Every other card in the deck has the singular purpose of making sure that in the meantime you don't die until you can assemble your end game.
His Bant shell demonstrates the power of taking an existing deck with a lot of powerful cards, adding a clear focus and purpose to the deck, and coming out the other side with a sweet deck and a GP Top 8.
In a similar vein, Brian Eason's Junk deck takes my existing Junk deck with a lot of powerful cards and adds a clear focus and purpose to the deck. The deck can win quickly with vigilant 2/2 Spirits courtesy of Intangible Virtue, but it can just as easily grind out a late game.
As soon as I got back from the GP, I applied this lesson immediately and began testing out a new and proactive Junk Tokens deck based on the shell of Brian Eason's list. I'm currently playing the following list, although I'm constantly changing the deck all the time:
Average mana: 1.62
Average creature mana: 2.47
Average creature power: 2.20
Average creature toughness: 1.67
Red percentage: 0.00%
Green percentage: 37.14%
Black percentage: 18.57%
Blue percentage: 0.00%
White percentage: 44.29%
Colorless percentage: 0.00%
Basic Lands: 6.67%
Legendary Creatures: 3.33%
This deck has been crushing everything I've played against it. It can win on turn 5-6 somewhat regularly, but it can also win a much longer game if it needs to with the grindy card advantage Lingering Souls, Gavony Township, and planeswalkers.
I'm not sure if the Garruk split is right, and I'm still testing Bloodline Keeper (although I've been impressed with it thus far). For what it's worth, Thragtusk has been the worst card in the maindeck, and I'm considering trimming down on it. I've already cut Restoration Angel since it wasn't really doing anything for me. When you'd rather cast Midnight Haunting than Restoration Angel, it's probably time to get the cut.
Mikaeus has been nasty, and I mean that in the best way.
This Junk deck is a blast to play and as powerful as I could ask for. It's really everything I wanted my Junk deck to be at the GP—it just took losing and learning to figure it out.
Thankfully, the beautiful thing about Magic is that there is always another tournament. Next time, I won't make the same mistakes.
Thanks for reading,
@BraunduinIt on the Walt Twittman
BBD on Magic Online