I'm going to get this out of the way early.
I ran EXTREMELY well this past weekend.
Mono-Red Aggro was definitely one of the better choices for this tournament, with Peddler Midrange and Bant Hexproof being the other top contenders, but my finish was definitely skewed high. Sure, I played pretty good Magic, but I also won twelve die rolls in fourteen rounds with a deck that is about 15-20% more to win when on the play against anything. A large amount of why I felt so far ahead in a lot of games was the fact I hit the top .5% of the distribution on coin flips.
Other event highlights:
-I lost round 3 of the event to bring my lifetime record to 0-2 in rounds before round 4 at Grand Prix. I hadn't played a round 3 in a Grand Prix since M10 Sealed. I decided I was sick of losing and didn't do so again until round 13, where Brad's Izzet Staticasters, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Tragic Slips wrecked me.
-Both matchups I lost the die roll to were Zombies, which is a very easy matchup. One of them was also gracious enough to mull to four game 1 to make up for breaking my streak.
-The last round of the Swiss, I had the option of drawing into a potential Top 8 slot. I declined. I was in a tiebreaker jam of four players separated by less than .15% opponent match win percentage, so the match "below" me could have easily drawn and gambled on beating one of us out of 8th place. I also really wanted the play, and drawing would likely have put me in 7th or 8th place. In addition to this, being in 8th place would mean I would have to face Brad's deck and get crushed by Izzet Staticaster.
A loss still put me in Top 16, so I figured I would rather risk the loss of one Pro Point for a gain of more. Of course, I forgot to factor in that the entire Top 8 would be receiving invites to Pro Tour Dragon's Maze instead of just the Top 4 when said invite would lock me for Gold. I'm still not 100% sure if playing the match out was the correct line or not, but I feel like it was definitely a judgment call and not a clear-cut decision. In the end, my desire for a trophy and knowledge that I was playing a good matchup won out.
-This finish locks me for Gold on the season and puts me one point away from getting it "early" to finish the season with three Grand Prix byes. I'm also thirteen points away from Platinum if you already count the default Pro Tour points, which given the four remaining Grand Prix I have being mostly Constructed is really about one Pro Tour Top 25 away. On a minor cool note, I am now in the lead for Pro Points this year amongst Dimir guild members.
Mono-Red Aggro is still quite good, especially as the anti-Hexproof removal tends to be clunky against real aggro decks. If I was playing in the upcoming SCG Standard Open in Dallas this weekend, I would strongly consider giving the deck one last shot before Standard drastically changes with the introduction of Gatecrash. I was happy with the vast majority of my list, which can be seen below.
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Hellrider
- 4 Lightning Mauler
- 4 Pyreheart Wolf
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 2 Stonewright
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 2 Thundermaw Hellkite
0 Black Spells
Casting noncreature black spells is not a reliable option. Eight sources is not close to enough. You can run Rakdos Guildgates, but that gives up a huge edge you have when curving out. I won a large number of games thanks to my opponents' lands coming into play tapped; I would hate to give other people the same edge against me.
Cavern of Souls gives you twelve sources to cast creatures off of, but I don't actually like any of the black two-drops.
As I mentioned last weekend, I expected the old U/W/R Flash decks to do terribly. All of the new Thragtusk decks could Cavern of Souls them out of the game. Outside of that deck, I expected very few Izzet Staticaster and Augur of Bolas, so the deathtouch and three toughness on Thrill-Kill Assassin weren't relevant. I also couldn't Pillar of Flame and Restoration Angel proof my entire deck, so even if my one creature lived through it something else would die. Outside of these resiliency benefits, Thrill-Kill was the lowest damage output two-drop due to having two power and no immediate damage impact from exalted or haste. If your goal is to crush people before Thragtusk hits, Assassin doesn't do enough to push through.
Knight of Infamy is the other black two-drop, but in terms of raw damage output it falls behind the mono-red haste options. It's better if they are smashing you with Smiters, but usually that means they are a Thragtusk deck and your chip shots or good blocks won't be fast enough.
Hellhole Flailer is a worse three-drop than Pyreheart Wolf. Pyreheart Wolf does something powerful and unique that wins otherwise unwinnable games, while Hellhole Flailer is just a dude that trades with the many 3/3s of the format and gets chumped going late.
The only black card I like, which is admittedly the big incentive to play the color, is Falkenrath Aristocrat. The issue is that you can't play Falkenrath Aristocrat, Hellrider, and Thundermaw Hellkite without pushing your curve too high. It's very possible the right setup is seven or eight of the four-drops and zero Thundermaws, but I didn't test that before the Grand Prix.
This analysis is also ignoring the potential downsides of Cavern of Souls and Dragonskull Summit when curving out. It's possible those alone are a reason to be mono-red, but I have no testing to back this up.
The short version: Lightning Mauler is worth the most damage.
Gore-House Chainwalker was the default choice for most people, but the only real benefit it has over Mauler is two toughness against Izzet Staticaster. The three power is a trap. If they have an x/3, it is brick walling something else and doing its job. Chainwalker also doesn't solve the issue of trading for a Wolf token or dying to Loxodon Smiter, while two haste damage getting in under a blocker is two good damage.
Given that you have so many other creatures, Rakdos Shred-Freak is just a worse Lightning Mauler. You can pair Mauler with any random guy to make it a Shred-Freak when it isn't hasting up itself and a one-drop in your nut draws. Be aware that if you do this you usually want to pair it with the creature most likely to die, as if that happens you have an open Lightning Mauler to pair with. The exception is obviously when they could just kill your other creature pre-attacks, in which case you want to pair it as to force their removal spell on the worst target possible.
This was originally a three-of, and I had one random two-drop. I often boarded out one or two. That said, it is your best card in any green matchup, and you always want it there. Given that is your closest matchup where you need to find the most opportunities to gain an edge, I'm ok with the random 60th card being this instead of a Rakdos Shred-Freak that would also be boarded out all the time.
I personally don't really like having a five-drop in the deck. Too often you draw it without being able to cast it. That said, Thundermaw Hellkite serves an important purpose as a random "I win" card when nothing else would do the job. It also is absolutely unbeatable in the mirror match, where games often come down to attrition and the 5/5 body is virtually indestructible.
Zealous Conscripts does cool things, but not enough people are playing cards it steals for instant wins. Even if you take a Thragtusk, they often survive the hit and continue to push further out of range. With Thundermaw, you have a continuous source of massive chunks of damage.
Pillar of Flame is a very bimodal card. It's either amazing or terrible depending on the matchup you are playing. Drawing multiples is often much more miserable than drawing the first when the card is mediocre or worse, so only three made the maindeck. An example of this principle is one copy killing an Avacyn's Pilgrim then the other rotting in your hand.
As for the split of other burn, Searing Spear costs one less mana than Brimstone Volley. Having your removal spells maintain tempo is more important than the occasional damage gain when your deck is this creature-heavy.
This is a 2/2 haste and then some in the mirror. The trick is to not cast it into a two for one. Outside of avoiding open mana, be sure to only use it on 2/2s or larger to push them out of Searing Spear range.
Note: despite this card turning out to be awesome, 90% of the reason I played it was I randomly had a foil Korean one in the cards I brought with me.
I didn't want three Volcanic Strengths but wanted another random card for the mirror. This is what I came up with. It wasn't stellar due to Pyreheart Wolf, but it did a decent job of stopping dudes otherwise. It also combos quite well with Volcanic Strength, as my round 10 opponent discovered.
Against these same decks, sometimes you just start falling way behind. They make a Thragtusk, Restoration Angel it, and then play a Huntmaster of the Fells. Overloading a Mizzium Mortars gives you a catch up mechanism.
This card was straight up bad. The decks you lose to in this format can repeatedly stabilize their life total while advancing the board, so a repeated four damage leaves you treading water on life total while remaining at the same board position that wasn't winning the game before. I would replace this with some other giant monster trying to do the same thing, like a third Thundermaw Hellkite, Bloodfray Giants, or Volatile Rigs.
This card was quite situational but nothing short of amazing. You really want to clinch the games against control and other slower decks on the play post-board, and this card does it. Turn 1 Waif that flips is Goblin Guide levels of damage. I sometimes board it in on the play against non-blue Farseek decks without one-drops (Jund), but only ever on the play as otherwise they will Farseek into a four-drop into a five-drop and your Mons's Goblin Raiders will do nothing.
The 24th land to let you overload Mizzium Mortars reliably when you want to. Happens to be slightly better value than a Mountain against control. The other option is another Hellion Crucible that would be nice in mirrors, but I can't bring myself to go below 21 red sources or board up a land when I'm not overloading.
Don't keep one landers on the play unless they involve a lot of one-drops. I did this in both of the matches I lost in the Swiss. It does not end well. You actually need more than two lands to function most games.
If your hand doesn't have a one-drop, it better have multiple two-drops and then something. Pillar of Flame may be a one-drop depending on the matchup.
When debating Ash Zealot versus two one-drops on turn 2, often the Zealot is correct as your turn 3 can be more mana efficient with two-drop plus one-drop. This feels somewhat counterintuitive and is not always right, but it is something to be aware of.
Don't miss your triggers. 100% of your creatures have one (Cackler counts since forgetting to unleash is basically forgetting to trigger). I had dice on top of my library almost all the time. The easiest trigger to forget is Ash Zealot, so keep an eye out when that one matters.
You are not going to be favored against a resolved Izzet Staticaster. You can obviously work to make the card as bad as possible, but odds are you are going to have to hope they don't have it a large amount of the time. Good news: very few people do have it and the success of Bant Hexproof does not make the card much better.
I wish I could give a better explanation of a lot of the proper plays, but the biggest thing usually is to be mana efficient and not lose cards or useful mana to obvious tricks that you can play around. You will make a lot of decisions. Operating at 90% proficiency will likely be easy and win a lot of games—it's just the last 10% that's very difficult and lets you squeeze out every last damage from your spells.
On that last note: remember the philosophy of fire. Maximize how much damage your spells do over the game. This may also mean throwing cards away for damage before a Thragtusk hits and all the damage you deal is rounded down to zero.
Naya-Based Midrange Decks (and Jund)
In general, this matchup tends to be quite close and play/draw dependent. They have a lot of cards that create huge swings back in their favor, so you have to try to end the game quickly.
If they leave up an obvious Restoration Angel, consider whether losing a creature is worth the damage you are getting in. Also remember that Ash Zealot plus an instant speed burn spell kills the Angel with first strike damage.
If they are on the play without a one-drop and you have the option of Stromkirk Noble or Rakdos Cackler, consider Cackling if you can't kill a Selesnya Charm token in combat. Trading is significantly better than just losing a creature.
Don't leave in any Pillar of Flame. I know it feels good to get their Pilgrim, but it's a trap. The only other thing the card does is kill Huntmaster of the Fells, but that still leaves them up a Wolf token and two life. Since you are using your other burn spells primarily to kill Centaur Healers and Thragtusks and not nug them out, Brimstone Volley is almost strictly worse than Searing Spear.
In games where you have Mizzium Mortars, you no longer have to be quite as aggressive in trading creatures for damage. Be aware of this when evaluating attacks into bigger blockers. You are also not obligated to save Mortars for overload if killing their creature puts them in a bad position.
If you have additional fatties, they may be better than some other random dudes or burn spells. Clearing with Mortars is good, but you need to close quickly once you do.
You are generally a favorite in this matchup. They win by being able to cast their huge fliers and attacking multiple times with them. Your goal is to race this, but their creatures are quite bad at blocking yours so it isn't very hard.
You don't need to play three-drops that almost solely function to Falter their team when your opponent isn't blocking.
G/B Kibler Aggro
This matchup is very similar to the Zombies matchup, but their creatures can block and they close a bit less quickly once they turn the corner. Pyreheart Wolf is by far your best card because usually their blocks are quite profitable since their guys tend to have the ability to never die. The unpaired Lightning Mauler into pair with Pyreheart Wolf line is one of your key ways to beat their three-drops on the draw.
They run Wolfir Avenger. Don't lose to it.
In general, you don't want to call that they don't have enough guys to save a Lotleth Troll early on. If they ever do, you will immediately lose. Midgame (turn 4ish) you may be able to because saving the Troll often means a Mind Twist that clears other future blockers.
Their creatures can't die, so Mortars is a joke. Pillar of Flame just happens to clear an early Arbor Elf or Strangleroot Geist. If I had access to additional Dragons of some kind, I could see boarding them as well since this deck doesn't have Restoration Angel to keep gaining life past the first Thragtusk.
This is a race, and their main method of interaction is giving a blocker first strike. If you can kill an early Pilgrim to stunt their mana, it is likely a good play. If I tried to write any more about trying to interact and make decisions in this matchup, I would only be flagrantly trying to pad my article with nonsense.
Their non-hexproof guys are shockingly relevant, so more removal is warranted. Many lists also have Loxodon Smiters that you want to Mortars down. I might even board a third of that card if I find myself staring down Elephants.
The cards you board out are your clunkers. Five mana is more than you will end most games with, so Thundermaw is out. Pyreheart Wolf is a good way to negate first strike blockers, but you never want to draw multiples. General deckbuilding rules suggest this means you only want three.
Supreme Verdict Decks (namely Esper and Bant)
I expect an uptick in these decks because they are quite good at handling the Hexproof deck. I also expect them to be heavy on Jace, Memory Adepts for mirrors and as the easy win condition against Naya decks.
Until your opponent can Sphinx's Revelation for three or more, the card is not game ending or close to it. Your turning point for when to overextend is around when Revelation starts getting to "lethal" range. Before that point it is usually better to just milk damage out of what you have in play if they aren't doing anything about it.
In general, these matchups should be quite easy, especially Esper. Your creatures mostly have haste, and their best removal spells aren't really instants. Punish them for this mismatch.
You have two kinds of games: ones where someone keeps a hand that is a bit too slow and dies to something like triple one-drop and those where the game is all about attrition and grinds down to who has the last creature. In the latter, anything over x/3 is king because it takes two cards to kill it. Thundermaw Hellkite beats everything else as an x/5 unblockable.
If you are interested in a more theory-based view: the easiest way to break parity without a huge trump card is creating tempo value on trades. Your Searing Spear for their Hellrider or even just your Pillar of Flame for their Ash Zealot early is a much bigger blowout than you could ever expect.
You should almost never Volcanic Strength an x/2 creature. It will get Searing Speared. Mizzium Mortars is mostly a hedge against your opponent doing this, but it also takes down a Hellion Crater token when nothing else does.
For those of you not playing Standard before the format shift, there is one big takeaway from this: you can race Thragtusk. I'm willing to bet it will be even easier with another set of aggressive cards and that Mono-Red Aggro likely won't be the best option. Boros Charm is just the start of a whole world of turn 4 kills.
-Brad Nelson for (almost) breaking it yet again.
-Pam from RIW Hobbies for assigning me the difficult job of consuming extra snack food.
-Pedro Carvahlo aka _megafone_ for having a bunch of useful advice on this deck from grinding it online.
-SCG Standard Open Columbus Champion Kevin Brumley for showing me on camera just how brutal this deck can be.