Before we begin, I'd like to say that I love blue decks. I am no stranger to the allure of Fact or Fiction, and there is little else in Magic that I like more than countering my opponent's score of ravenous boar. Perhaps it's an addiction. I understand that a lot of people don't enjoy counterspells, whether it's giving or receiving. As far as I'm concerned, it's just another aspect of Magic, one that I've always been accustomed to playing with and against.
Check and Balances
At times, counterspells can be frustrating. You spend multiple turns setting up some game-ending maneuver only to have the wind sucked out of your sails at the last moment. And for what? Two mana? Maybe three? How is it fair that you spent all that time and effort on something only to have it taken away from you so easily?
Because degenerate things need checks and balances.
Yes, Thragtusk is an aggressively costed monster, but for what purpose? Were aggressive decks on the rise, or was the general consensus that Thragtusk "hosed" Delver decks? I'm honestly not sure, but what I do know is that cards like Thragtusk have always been kept in check by cards like Broken Ambitions. Broodmate Dragon was one of the best cards in Standard for quite some time and not just against the aggressive decks. He was still one of the best cards for Five-Color Control mirrors even though they all played Cryptic Command, and we didn't have any free rolls with Cavern of Souls back then!
For weeks, U/W Flash has been the only deck on my mind. Ever since the term "midrange" became widely adopted as acceptable, all I've wanted to do is punish people for tapping out on their own turn. While some people might not enjoy having their spells countered, I don't like the fact that every creature in Standard is patently absurd. But maybe I'm in the minority. I don't think every creature should win the game on its own. I believe in synergy and coherent deckbuilding. I believe in efficiency in tandem with power, but it's difficult to find the balance between the two.
Even without the existence of Cavern of Souls, most aggressive decks would continue to function rather easily against the counterspell decks. They would continue casting their outrageously powerful three-mana 4/4s with multiple upsides as well as their three-mana 3/2s with undying that cost the opponent upwards of two cards and four life to deal with. But that isn't even my biggest problem.
Good players know that counterspells are traditionally bad against aggressive decks. They side them out on the regular because you'll be stuck with multiple Dissipates in your hand at the end of the game quite often. Regardless of whether or not they have Cavern of Souls, those decks don't give you enough time to be that reactive. Even when you tap out for Supreme Verdict in the late game, you leave yourself open to a huge window for your opponent to resolve a game-ending threat.
But we get it.
Most people like casting their creatures. Most people don't like the fact that Essence Scatter is actually a playable card. Well, if Essence Scatter is too good, then why even print it in the first place? Hell, just make Cancel the only counterspell in the entire format or stop printing them altogether. There really isn't any reason why Cavern of Souls and counterspells should be in the same format. It seems...counterintuitive.
Logically, counterspells are supposed to be the "answer" to all these powerful creatures. Threats with undying or creatures with a lot of different abilities need some sort of check because traditional removal doesn't deal with them. Without this check, midrange decks will run rampant. We've already begun to see the transformation of Zombies into something..."bigger" where once Zombies was fast and mindless.
The existence of Cavern of Souls makes Thragtusk good, which makes Thundermaw Hellkite good. So we're left with continually trying to outdo one another with gigantic threats, and I honestly never know who is going to come out on top.
Generally speaking, you can usually determine the winner of any given game based on the opening hand and by flipping over the top ten cards of both decks. Of course, things change with perfect information, like playing around Azorius Charm and the like. But one thing remains clear to me: the cards in Standard are too powerful. This is why we're seeing things like Falkenrath Aristocrat, Hellrider, and Thundermaw Hellkite in a Zombie-themed deck. This is why basically every deck can splash for Thragtusk that wants it.
This is why we can't have nice things.
The Dark Knight
A Standard format is a delicate thing. When a particular card or strategy is dominant, the herd cries out in unison for something to be done about it. I agree that Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were too powerful in Standard and even Ponder had my attention for a few months, but rarely is there a strategy in Standard that can't be trumped in one way or another given all the tools at our disposal.
To me, the problem (if there is one) with current Standard is that there is no "bad guy" in terms of a deck to beat. There is no Delver. There is no Faeries. There is no dominant deck that has an inherent weakness that can easily be exploited. There are no "metagame" decks that live or die by their matchups. There is nothing for us to rally against.
There is no Dark Knight.
For those of you who haven't seen The Dark Knight (the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker), please skip this paragraph, as I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. In The Dark Knight, Batman comes to a realization during his battle with Harvey Dent. He knows that in death Harvey Dent can symbolize something far greater than anything Batman could accomplish by fighting crime. Harvey Dent was an icon for justice, and Batman became the enemy so that the people would have something to rally against.
"...he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight."
Maybe I'm making too big of a deal out of this. I absolutely love coming up with ways to punish the format's "best deck." Cloudthresher was a classic favorite of mine against Faeries, but there are times when entire strategies are built with the format's "best deck" in mind. Now we think about which cards we need to build around, and that doesn't make for a healthy format. I feel like we would all benefit from having a deck to rally against, but the delicate balance breaks when the tools are not there to impede the absolute dominance of that deck.
Why Ghost Quarter Is Unplayable
Resource management is an important aspect of Magic, one that everyone continually struggles with. Of course, it isn't always cut and dry. There are times where it's absolutely correct for you to waste two or three spells to deal with only one of theirs, so long as that path leads you to victory. However, there are times when people go about answering a problem in the wrong way.
Now, I'll admit that I almost played Ghost Quarter at Grand Prix Charleston, but not for the reason you might think. I figured out that Ghost Quarter was actually just Strip Mine against the Four-Color Reanimator decks and worked quite nicely against some of the more greedy control decks. Unfortunately, I didn't think that small percentage of the metagame warranted the two sideboard slots and didn't want to hurt my mana base in order to play them in my maindeck.
Not once did it cross my mind that Ghost Quarter was a great answer to Cavern of Souls—because it isn't.
Cavern of Souls is not the problem out of an aggressive deck. Your counterspells are pretty mediocre against them anyway, and you should regularly side them out for more removal or cards that are strong in that matchup. If you rely too heavily on counterspells against aggressive decks, then you will get punished in the long run through your constant tapping out to answer their threats and ultimately end up with multiple dead counters when everything is said and done.
Cavern of Souls out of a midrange or control deck is a different story. Their plan is to use Cavern of Souls as a "one-trick-pony" to stick their biggest and baddest threat through your Dissipates and the like. Whatever they're trying to resolve, whether it be Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, or even Craterhoof Behemoth, that creature will likely kill you if you're too reliant on your counterspells to deal with it.
The second creature cast off Cavern of Souls is virtually irrelevant because the damage has already been done.
The opponent in this scenario should wait until the turn where they cast their creature before they play the Cavern of Souls since they want you to just "pass turn" and wait to counter their threat in order to foil your plan and waste your turn. Ghost Quarter will never be good in either of these situations.
Ghost Quarter is also rarely going to trade resources evenly with your opponent. Nearly every deck in the format has some amount of basic lands in it. Since this is the case, you will almost always be sacrificing a land for marginal value when you activate Ghost Quarter. I honestly can't think of a worse situation for a control deck than your opponent resolving a huge threat followed up by you sacrificing a land for basically no reason. Your goal at that point should be to deal with the current threat or kill the opponent (whichever is easiest).
To put it into simpler terms, what if Standard were a hyper aggressive format and this was the only removal spell accessible to your mono-black deck?
Terrible Deal 1B
As an additional cost to cast Terrible Deal, sacrifice a land.
Destroy target creature.
Honestly, this card makes me cringe. I can see people in my mind's eye gladly casting this spell, but my point remains the same. If your deck can't handle a common strategy that's fairly popular, you should probably change your strategy significantly. Since the release of Return to Ravnica, counterspells have fluctuated wildly from unplayable, to the best cards in the format, and now back to unplayable. And just when I was starting to fall in love with Rewind all over again...
Change your deck. Make it less reliant on counters. Figure out ways to "beat" Cavern of Souls without actually having to deal with it.
If U/W Flash wants to remain a contender in Standard, it has to evolve. It can't realistically rely on counterspells anymore to do the dirty work, but that doesn't mean that the shell is invalid. I think that Augur of Bolas, Snapcaster Mage, and Restoration Angel work really well together, and that combination is viable as long as the tools around it can proactively interact with the opponent.
When Cavern of Souls wasn't seeing much play, counterspells were your way to punish the slower decks in the format. Now that aggressive decks have taken a huge stride, perhaps it is time for more aggressive answers. Supreme Verdict could be the bee's knees, but I think that evolving the deck to incorporate a better late-game strategy is just as important.
Here's the list I've been trying out recently on Magic Online:
As you can see, I've taken the liberty of adding a lot of Supreme Verdicts to the maindeck. With the influx of aggressive decks in Standard, from G/W to Mono-Red to Zombies, Supreme Verdict was the tool that the maindeck was missing.
While Supreme Verdict is good and all, sometimes you need a finisher that can take care of your opponent's board state in the process. Angel of Serenity can do this for you and just so happens to work well with Unsummon (for value). With so many "tapout" type effects in the deck now, it might be time to do away with the "Flash" nickname, but it still fits most of the time. Your deck is incredibly reactive and rarely does anything on its own turn except for killing all of your opponent's creatures.
Much like the Big Red Zombie deck that smashed the last two American Grand Prix, changing your deck to attack and defend against certain strategies and cards is crucial in order to be successful. This is the one thing I like most about Constructed regardless of whether or not I enjoy the format as a whole. If you remember, not so long ago Joe Bernal made the Top 4 of SCG Standard Open: Cincinnati with a B/R Zombie deck featuring Bump in the Night as well as "a lot more where that came from." Joe focused his deck on attacking early and killing his opponents as soon as possible with a flurry of burn spells without giving them any breathing room. This strategy was successful for that tournament, but decks adapted.
After a few weeks, it was evident that everyone wanted to play Pillar of Flame in their decks in order to combat Zombies. Even our Miracle deck from that same tournament splashed red only for Pillar of Flame (and it was absolutely worth it). Over time, the Zombie deck fell in popularity, which resulted in the decline of Pillar of Flame. What we've seen over the past two weeks is not just a resurgence of Zombies but a new strain that is resistant to our plans of old.
Thundermaw Hellkite and Hellrider pack a pretty solid punch, and the fact that both have haste make it incredibly difficult for other decks to have the right answers at the right time. Ultimate Price is a great answer to these two creatures, but the fact remains that it is actively bad against the rest of the deck, which makes for some pretty awkward situations. Unfortunately, that's true for most of the removal being thrown at it.
- Pillar of Flame deals with the early threats but is weak against the deck's late game.
- Tragic Slip kills Falkenrath Aristocrat but little else unless you can trigger morbid.
- Supreme Verdict is mediocre against the deck due to undying, indestructible, and haste.
- Without easy deck manipulation, Terminus is less effective and more inconsistent.
But I honestly don't mind. I'm enjoying seeing an aggressive deck have its time in the sun. The massive change that occurred to the deck to make it dominant was something to behold, and I'm quite certain that it will continue to dominate over the next few weeks. The threats it deploys are absurd, and the removal that "deals" with each threat has to be different due to the tricky nature of all the creatures.
This leaves us with a pure racing situation. While the deck can be incredibly fast, the wildly inconsistent mana costs can occasionally make for some awkward draws. This is especially true when some draws feature multiple Cavern of Souls along with some Geralf's Messengers and Hellriders. I'm not sure what deck is faster than Zombies while still able to beat Knight of Infamy, but I'm sure someone will figure it out over the next few weeks.
After all, we have some big events coming up...
The End Has No End
I don't hate Standard. I honestly think diversity can be a welcome change. I love the struggle between "good and evil," but I'm looking forward to figuring out how to beat whatever crops up as the flavor of the week. At the moment, the most played decks are G/W Aggro and B/R Zombies, both of which can kill at alarmingly fast rates. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I have a few days left to figure it out!
I know that some of the things I've said in this article might strike a nerve with some of you, as I'm wholeheartedly aware that some people absolutely love casting Thragtusk (for whatever reason). But Thragtusk is only as good as we let it be. Once we all start to ignore it, the effects it has on the game won't be nearly as drastic, but that creates a much different problem.
The negative aspect of this direction is that we are discouraging interaction between decks and players, which is never something you want in any game. When you sign up to play Thragtusk, you can't complain about your games taking forever. When you sign up to play Cavern of Souls, you're just asking for solitaire. If your deck is worse than theirs, well, then that was probably a bad idea.
While I know that the frustration from having your spell countered can be a bit off-putting, the fact that these spells exist in Standard means that the guys who design the cards and sets realize that some of them might be a bit too strong. Counterspells, while occasionally powerful, have severe drawbacks, yet they are generally the glue that holds everything together.
Look at Legacy! Without Force of Will in the format, I honestly believe that every deck would be a goldfish deck that tries its best to limit the interaction between players. Force of Will actually has the opposite effect of Cavern of Souls since it encourages players to interact with each other. This is one of the reasons why I love Legacy so much! While Standard and Legacy obviously shouldn't strive to be the same, I feel like Magic is at its finest when both players are interacting with each other.
Of course, there isn't a direct correlation between the two formats because we aren't seeing any crazy powerful combo deck dominate Standard. In fact, we aren't seeing anything dominate Standard really, and that isn't something we're used to.
Perhaps some of us just have Stockholm syndrome and are wondering what happened to the man with the gun...
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on Magic Online
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