Back in the heyday of 'big mana' control, we had to cycle Eternal Dragon over and over in order to obtain value. Today, we just have to slap a meaty palm over our lands, turn them sideways, and say, "Gain eight, draw eight."
Still, it feels pretty good.
Last weekend, there was a large, two-day Standard tournament in Indianapolis which was a good opportunity to test the evolution of the metagame. In his article last week, Reid Duke articulated a good reason why Bant Control was well positioned in the metagame. He reasoned that because B/R Zombies had been performing so well lately that other midrange decks full of creatures designed to beat the format's number one enemy would appear with more frequency, putting Bant Control in a good position to win more matches.
This logic made a lot of sense, but a lot of players in Indianapolis decided to play the format's number one enemy, leading to a very dichotomized metagame. There were a lot of midrange decks, a lot of B/R Zombies decks, and a smattering of "pure" control decks like Bant.
I'd spent lot of time playing Return to Ravnica Limited, which I think is a phenomenal format, so my understanding of the current Standard metagame, which appears to vary a lot from week to week, was relatively poor prior to the tournament. As such, I picked up Reid's deck (for the most part), making only a few small changes to the maindeck and sideboard to account for my expectation that I wouldn't be as competent in the mirror match as players who had a lot of experience with the deck.
This list is very similar to Reid's. I ended up removing both copies of Cavern of Souls because I didn't expect to be playing against countermagic much during the tournament, except during the mirror, and I added Ghost Quarters because I was sensitive to the possibility of losing to cards like Nephalia Drownyard. I also slightly altered the sideboard to add a Chromatic Lantern and a Door to Nothingness. These cards gave me an additional and unexpected line of attack against both the mirror match and the slower midrange decks that might be using Slaughter Games to remove my other win conditions.
Finally, I replaced two copies of Dispel with Negate. Dispel was an excellent card when people didn't expect it, but I thought that with the card's use being common knowledge, I could gain an advantage from people playing around it when a single blue was open while still utilizing the versatility of Negate, which stops their Elixir of Immortality and planeswalkers from hitting play as well.
The tournament got off to a rough start because the gentleman who was supposed to arrive with my entry wrecked his truck on the way to the venue, and so I quickly had to trade some cards for the requisite entry pieces. Under these circumstances, I wasn't really in a position to obtain byes, so I had to pay the iron price for my early victories as well. I'll briefly summarize my matches to provide some additional context for the suggestions to follow.
Round 1: Mono-Red Aggro
Supreme Verdict is very good against the current slew of Mono-Red decks. If we resolve a Supreme Verdict into a Thragtusk, they have a very difficult time winning because none of their creatures are recursive or can defend themselves against removal. The Centaur Healers in the sideboard also serve to make this a very favorable matchup.
Win 2-0, 1-0 in matches
Round 2: U/W/R Midrange
Aside from the possibility of several unanswered copies of Geist of Saint Traft in a row, this matchup didn't seem unreasonably hard either. My observation was that Geist was really the only card in his list that could beat me because of the raw power of my spells, and I expected him to board out Supreme Verdict, so I actually ended up boarding all of my creatures in. And, indeed, it was a Centaur Healer that negated his Geist in the second game to buy me time to win.
Win 2-0, 2-0 in matches
Round 3: B/R Zombies
This should have been a very difficult match for me, but my opponent's draws had a lot of Gravecrawlers and I saw both of my copies of Augur of Bolas, so I was able to squeak out a win at one life. The most interesting thing in this match occurred when I used Jace's +1 ability and said, "This mode will apply to your next combat step." Both my opponent and the judge ruled that I wasn't allowed to do this (state my intention to use a lapsed trigger at the appropriate time), so I ended up taking extra damage in game 2. It's an interesting aspect of the rules of which I wasn't really aware.
Win 2-0, 3-0 in matches
Round 4: B/R Zombies
I thought for sure that I would lose the second iteration of this matchup, but his draws involved a lot of Diregraf Ghouls and Thundermaw Hellkites and few Geralf's Messengers and Falkenrath Aristocrats, so I was able to use my removal to its maximum potential to squeak out another win.
Win 2-1, 4-0 in matches
Round 5: B/R Zombies
Here is where the wheels started to fall off. Even with a Supreme Verdict, there's very little that Bant Control can do in its current incarnation against early drops into turn 3 Geralf's Messenger into Falkenrath Aristocrat into Thundermaw Hellkite. Azorius Charm, Dissipate, and Thragtusk didn't provide enough support, and I was beaten down incredibly quickly both games.
Loss 0-2, 4-1 in matches
Round 6: Jund Midrange
I thought I was going to lose this match badly because of the way in which it started (Farseek into Huntmaster of the Fells while I was on the draw). It seemed like he had early pressure with Huntmaster and Thragtusk as well as a Garruk, Primal Hunter, but in the end, nothing that he did seemed to be quite enough. I was simply drawing more cards and gaining more life.
In the third game (I lost the second to a mulligan to five and a misplay), I actually just ignored an active Garruk, Primal Hunter for almost fifteen turns because my spells just invalidated the Beast tokens and card draw. (Note: Supreme Verdict off of an Alchemist's Refuge in response to a Garruk -3 trigger feels very good.)
Win 2-1, 5-1 in matches
Round 7: Bant Control
The first game lasted nearly 40 minutes, and I finally won by refusing to counter any spell that didn't help him with the mill plan. We traded Thragtusks, but my maindeck Ghost Quarters ensured that I won the milling mirror match. In a stroke of awkward choices, I lost the subsequent two games in six minutes. Total.
In the second game, he played a turn 3 Geist of Saint Traft out of the board, which I had to Supreme Verdict. I drew little else but lands off of my Think Twice (twice) and died to four swings from a Thragtusk. In the third game, I kept three lands with two Think Twice, a Negate, and a Sphinx's Revelation. However, no additional lands were forthcoming, and I was rocked by turn 4 Acidic Slime into turn 5 Restoration Angel.
Loss 1-2, 5-2 in matches
Round 8: Bant Control
We traded the first two games. I won the first after two early copies of Sphinx's Revelation let me play as a Fish deck and beat down with a Thragtusk, and he won the second game in a similar fashion. The third game was much longer, almost thirty minutes, but I was able to win with an end of turn Door to Nothingness.
Win 2-1, 6-2 in matches
Round 9: B/R Zombies
Sadly, my opportunity to make Day 2 was crushed in a total of ten turns by optimal Zombie draws combined with my own mulligans. Bant Control in its current form really struggles to answer some of the cards in the B/R deck (specifically Geralf's Messenger and Falkenrath Aristocrat).
Final Record: 6-3
It appears as though B/R Zombies will be public enemy number one for the time being. At SCG Standard Open: Baltimore, it took ten of the Top 16 slots, and it has been equally prevalent in other tournaments, though its performances are not always so dramatically positive. If Bant Control wants to remain in the metagame, it needs to evolve in one of several potential directions.
The first direction is to actually 'devolve' to an earlier, creature-heavy version that leaves it weaker to midrange and control but much stronger against aggressive decks. This strategy might include maindeck Centaur Healer, Rhox Faithmender, Selesnya Charm, Terminus, and other utility creatures.
The second direction is a minor modification of the deck to be more resilient against the current incarnation of B/R Zombies. If I were to modify the list that I played in Indianapolis, I would consider retaining the shell but adding a few Rhox Faithmender, an additional Restoration Angel, and a Terminus to the maindeck. Many times throughout the day, I found that Think Twice, while a "nice card," was often redundant, and it's not useful against B/R strategies. By replacing it and assuming that we'll cycle Azorius Charm in the mirror match, we might shore up our chances against the overall field.
This is the version of the deck that I've begun testing now, but I wouldn't play it without slinging cards yourself first.
The final direction which I've thinking about was suggested to me by several observers at the tournament during my Zombie losses, each of whom suggested that as attractive as Thragtusk might be, it may not actually be the best anti-aggro strategy out there. With this in mind, I took another hard look at cards like Falkenrath Aristocrat to see if there's a similar deck that can beat them. This is my first draft.
Although I ran into a lot of B/R Zombies myself, the format as a whole appears to be fairly healthy (results of Baltimore notwithstanding). We'll have to see if the trend of diverse finishes continues, but if not, Gatecrash is right around the corner.