Playing a tournament is definitely the best way to learn about a deck. An appropriate number of games are tested post-board; you have to react to many new cards and lines of play; and you rarely just throw in the towel because the game “looks” done.
Watching a tournament may be the best way to learn about a format. Every round is like playing both sides of a random matchup, and by watching decks progress you can see a metagame evolve as you move into the winner's bracket.
These are some of the fundamental lessons I learned from commentating the Columbus Standard Open this past weekend.
1. “Off dual” mana is easy to work but costs some tempo.
Half of the possible tri-color combinations are currently lacking two shocklands in Standard. Of these, two have spawned dedicated decks that are currently competitive: Naya Midrange and Esper Control. Between the M10/Innistrad duals, Evolving Wilds, Farseek, and Borderland Ranger, making the mana to cast your spells is extremely easy. There's just one problem.
All of these solutions are either spells that cost mana or lands that may come into play tapped. If anything, the bigger drawback than not having eight on-trio Ravnica duals is that your “friend” lands (term courtesy of Adam Prosak) come into play tapped most of the time. This often disrupts your early curve and can cripple your ability to cast important spells like Supreme Verdict on time.
Borderland Ranger doesn't have this issue, but you are instead spending a full turn on a 2/2 to fix your mana. For comparison, Loxodon Smiter also costs three mana and attacks into a Restoration Angel without fear.
These all mean your deck is more likely to just fumble and die against aggro. Be aware of this and compensate accordingly.
2. If your deck has Farseek in it, the cost of a fourth color is minimal.
Unlike the above fixers, Farseek nets you tempo. It almost feels like cheating in this format and could easily just be the best card. There are a ton of interchangeable threats at each point of the curve, but Farseek is completely unique as an indestructible ramp spell that jumps over the three spot. (The other contenders for best card are Thragtusk—the only midrange threat that completely ends attacking—and Falkenrath Aristocrat—the indestructible, unblockable monster.)
Overgrown Tomb, Hallowed Fountain lets Bant play Nephalia Drownyard, like Reid Duke did for the Invitational. Temple Garden, Blood Crypt lets Naya play Ultimate Price, like Glenn Jones did for the Open a while back in Las Vegas. Swap the Blood Crypt for a Steam Vents, and you can get wild with Sphinx's Revelation and Syncopates, like Andrew Shrout did in the Open this past weekend.
As long as one of the colors is a splash color, Farseek lets you magically make mana that almost does whatever you want thanks to these two dual combinations you can tutor up.
3. Watch how your duals, gold cards, and splash colors line up.
This is a big issue I currently have with the Dark Naya lists.
Your primary colors are white and green. Red and black are your splashes. Your dual land to cast your red and black spells is Blood Crypt. You can't Farseek for any other red dual that makes on-color mana. Some of the spells that you are casting on your splash? Rakdos's Return and Slaughter Games.
The fact that Blood Crypt taps for red and black only slightly helps us cast these spells, as we still need to have another secondary color land to go along with it. Add that to Garruk, Primal Hunter and Angel of Serenity, and it is easy to see how over a long event your mana could fail.
You can cast things like Loxodon Smiter on time, as green and white are your main colors and you are heavy on sources to fight dual land-spell overlap. Rakdos's Return is likely still powerful enough to warrant inclusion, but consider this when brewing new lists. This concept will be especially relevant post-Gatecrash, where you will want your dual lands to dodge your gold cards and match your one-drops.
Note: Anyone familiar with old Modern/Extended Zoo lists will also recognize this as the Sacred Foundry-Overgrown Tomb-Lightning Helix or Temple Garden-Blood Crypt-Gaddock Teeg problem.
4. Alchemist's Refuge is a very powerful Magic card.
Let's go back in time a decade or so and look at a powerful Magic card: Rout.
Rout was a reasonable sorcery-speed sweeper at five mana. As an instant, it was an absolute blowout. Most of my experience with the card comes from Cube, but the ability to ensure your opponent has no creatures to threaten you with when you untap the turn after sweeping is absurd. Having played Rout with planeswalkers in Cube, I can tell you they interact very well. Always having a clear board to run out a Jace, the Mind Sculptor makes it simple to close out games with the card.
Activating Alchemist's Refuge and playing Supreme Verdict, while more color intensive, costs the same seven mana for an instant Day of Judgment as Rout did. The sorcery mode costs one less than Rout did.
This isn't even counting the benefit of always having good positioning on the big spell fights in control mirrors. Alchemist's Refuge just makes your good cards into absolutely awesome ones in any sort of controlling deck and is a big draw towards the Bant decks that have access to the card.
5. Angel of Serenity mirrors are much less about who makes the first Angel and much more about who makes the last Angel.
You might think at first that the Unburial Rites decks are heavy favorites in the Angel of Serenity mirrors. How can the deck that makes their Angel on turn three not just be able to run away with the game?
After playing the matchup online and watching it in real life, I would say the opposite is true.
An early Angel of Serenity doesn't get much value on its trigger. It is mostly just a 5/6 flier, which likely won't go far against Selesnya Charm and Oblivion Ring. In fact, due to these removal spells, the Death Denied mode of Angel of Serenity is often much more backbreaking than the “Plague Wind” mode. If anything, the latter should be something you use similar to a Cyclonic Rift when the on-board tempo swing effectively ends the game. Unburial Rites as a card doesn't do anything to fight this removal, as both are exile effects. Very rarely does an Angel of Serenity in play end up in the graveyard where it would be targetable by Rites.
Note: Another aspect where the Unburial Rites decks can easily fail is not having actual ways to gain value with Angel of Serenity targeting cards in their own graveyard. I would advise playing some number of good midrange creatures to Raise Dead just so that mode of the card is an option.
6. You should deal damage fast, in massive chunks, or not at all.
The short version of this: attempting to chip shot down a green-white deck takes so long that they will draw out of whatever scenario they are in.
We've all watched the various Thragtusk decks of the format play long games. They can regularly take hits of ten or more damage and still be above their starting life total once the game goes deep. If you try to take out their life total starting from forty in Restoration Angel-sized chunks, your opponent has a huge number of draw steps to find an answer.
There are currently three ways around this: kill them before they set up a massive life total, deal an absurd amount of damage a turn, or just don't deal damage at all.
The first way is what we have seen Mono Red doing. You can punish the Naya decks for not playing any real creatures before three mana with Rakdos Cacklers and Pyreheart Wolf to shove through their clunky and expensive guys. Sometimes they curve out and wreck you, but if they stumble at all you punish them.
The second way is to just match their absurd life total with absurd damage. Craterhoof Behemoth can easily trample over for their life total in one shot, as can Goldnight Commander off of an Angel of Glory's Rise. In the mirror match, Kessig Wolf Run is one of the more important cards, as it lets you repeatedly Fireball your opponent, often closing in three or four attacks.
Note on Kessig Wolf Run: You can't run this card without Farseek. Making enough mana to make enough damage requires a large amount of ramp. Fortunately, this is made simple, as almost no green deck wants to forgo casting Farseek. The decks this applies to are mostly Naya Humans decks that want Gavony Township and Chronic Flooding decks that couldn't support the colorless land anyways.
The final way is to ignore their life total. Nephalia Drownyard was Reid Duke's way to do this out of Bant control, with Jace, Memory Adept and Sands of Delirium being the most committed versions of the card. Jace is an almost reasonable Phyrexian Arena against aggro, so I wouldn't mind maindecking the card.
Of course, the king of this category is Door to Nothingness. One shot, one turn, game over. I know many people swearing by the power of Omniscience to power out the Door and a Temporal Mastery for the instant kill, but it's possible these cards are just overkill. You can easily just naturally cast (often with flash via Alchemist's Refuge) and activate Door off Chromatic Lantern and Gilded Lotus, as evidenced by watching my fellow commentator Adam Prosak stream last Friday. The list he worked on there was played to an 8-2 finish by a friend of his at the Open. That said, Door to Nothingness is a bit vulnerable to counterspells and beatdown, so be prepared to lose to U/W/R Flash without any preparation and to dedicate ten or more sideboard slots to Rhox Faithmender and friends.
7. Jace, Memory Adept could echo old memories of Standard Jace wars.
Back when four-mana Jace was a bomb in control mirrors, people were playing three-mana Jace to preempt it. If you got the value out of the minus ability and left it in play as a Seal of Counterspell for theirs, you would always be ahead on the transaction. You could even clear your own Jace to draw cards and cast your bigger version.
The same applies to Jace, Memory Adept and Jace, Architect of Thought. Architect comes down first and immediately gains value, preventing them from planeswalker ruling back without coming out behind. If you want to cast your big Jace, you can then -2 again and go for it.
I'm not sure we are quite at the point where “little” Jace is worth sideboarding or maindecking against a (currently) sideboard card, but we could be very soon.
8. Mulligan aggressively against Red.
I watched enough games where the Red player killed someone without them playing real spells to learn this very quickly. If you are playing against Red in this format and your seven-card hand doesn't have a plan to cast spells that impact the board, your six-card hand is probably better.
There is a reason Loxodon Smiter is one of the best non-life gain cards against these decks. It just lets you play a normally reasonable card that does something to slow down their early aggression and blank their smaller creatures. This lets you respond at sorcery speed to their hasted high drops without dying first, as well as helps you be safely aggressive when trying to turn the tide and finish them before they draw enough burn to kill you.
9. Nephalia Drownyard takes a lot of real time to kill with.
I have no problem taking the turns to kill someone with Drownyards. I have done so on Magic Online, and the actual process is quite easy.
The issue is that in real life the action of putting three cards from the top of their deck into their graveyard is significantly slower than online. Actually flipping each card eats a non-zero amount of time off the clock. I expect leaning on Drownyard kills could translate to a lot of draws if you aren't careful with your time management the entire match.
Of course, you could also go to time in an Angel of Serenity mirror if you aren't careful, so that may be a non-factor when comparing two possible options for an event.
This isn't necessarily from watching the Open but instead from the large number of online matches I've played from the Naya side of the matchup. Jund has access to huge trumps in Olivia Voldaren / Rakdos's Return and cheap answers for Angel of Serenity. I have no idea how Naya is supposed to win that matchup against those cards.
I have never beaten a resolved Rakdos's Return with an Angel of Serenity deck. The loss of future threats and mana as well as any on board planeswalkers is just too much to come back from in the midgame. The card is usually cast around when Thragtusk hits, and while yours goes unanswered for a turn, your opponent will always come back with their copy of the Beast and then some. The card is so powerful in the mirror that I am considering ignoring the bad mana alignment of Blood Crypt to double splash it.
11. The U/W Flash decks need to adapt.
I watched Dan Jordan draw his entire library against a Temple Garden deck and lose because it didn't do enough to win the game. He scooped before losing to natural decking. Without some big effect to take it home, the W/U decks can't beat a Cavern of Souls naming Angel and Beast. They can't grind out Angel of Serenity loops or deal damage in large enough chunks to matter.
The additional information I gained about the format this weekend has definitely changed how I'm viewing the format for Grand Prix Atlantic City. While I still haven't played a match of the format with physical cards, I feel extremely well prepared. The next time you get a chance, try seriously watching an event and analyzing the plays that occur, even if it's just for a round or two. You would be surprised what you could learn.
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