I'm not sure what the best way to start this is. I could frame this article around my own experiences in Atlantic City, where I played a slightly interesting deck to a thoroughly uninteresting finish (though I think the deck is pretty good), or I could focus on the fact that even at the end of its time, immediately before a new set, Standard continues to evolve with a new "best deck" emerging. Honestly, I think I need to talk about both, which is why opening with either is suboptimal.
I generally let chronology win in these kinds of situations, so I suppose that means starting with myself.
Grand Prix Atlantic City: Part 1
In case you haven't been following along, I've had a busy month or so. There's been a tournament almost every weekend for about as long as I can remember (around two months, I think—my memory isn't good). This means I've been traveling or working on Magic about eighty hours a week. So before Grand Prix Denver, when I knew I'd be playing Zombies, I took a bit of a break rather than getting ahead on Standard. That meant that after returning from Denver and before leaving for Atlantic City, I really didn't have that much time to get caught up on the format.
Matt Costa gave me his decklist, said he liked it, and it looked reasonable, but it was certainly the kind of thing I'd expect Matt Costa to do well with without necessarily being a deck I'd expect myself to do well with. At the same time, Gaudenis Vidugiris was pretty excited about a Rakdos build he and Zvi Mowshowitz had been working on. I'm generally inclined to trust Gau and Zvi when they have something they're confident in. So those two decks were my frontrunners, and I wanted to try both of them.
I also saw a tweet from Michael Jacob about a Hexproof deck he'd won a Daily Event with, and that seemed worth checking out.
I tried the Hexproof deck. I gave it a very small sample size in which all of my draws were atrociously bad and I mulliganed to oblivion repeatedly. I knew I wasn't getting a representative sample with the deck, but I gave up on it anyway. It was just too frustrating, and I didn't have a lot of time.
I played some with the other decks to get a feel for them without recording my results, and then I played a few matches with each, tracking my results to help decide what to play. But I got tired of doing that pretty quickly and just decided Rakdos seemed a little better.
I liked the Rakdos deck Gau had shown me, but it didn't have a sideboard, so I made that myself. Inspired by a Facebook message from Zac Hill about beating up on creature decks with four-mana Vampires, I tried three Olivias and a Bloodline Keeper in the sideboard and found myself siding them in against almost everyone.
At this point, I should mention that I think there's a common line of thought that kind of statement leads to: "Why didn't you just play it in the maindeck instead of the sideboard if you wanted it against everyone?"
Well, first of all, I didn't actually want it against everyone, only almost everyone, but that's entirely beside the point because it wouldn't change anything if I sided them in in literally every matchup (which, come to think of it, I might have done with at least one Vampire Nighthawk).
This is the one general Magic theory that I think is the least well documented and understood for its importance, so unless you know exactly where I'm going with this, pay close attention.
The General Rule of Sideboarding in Constructed
Across almost all matchups, decks, and formats, there are some basic truths to sideboarding that make a lot of sense when you think about them. Understanding them makes sideboarding and building a sideboard dramatically easier.
People build decks to do things. The decks they build (when those decks are good) are generally good at doing those things. Specifically, they play the 60 cards that are best at doing those things. If you change some of those cards, your deck will become worse at doing those things. After sideboarding, people are generally worse at executing plan A.
Answers are usually very efficient when you have the right one. However, different threats/decks need different answers. Good answers are often too narrow to play in maindecks. They belong in sideboards. If you have a narrow answer in your sideboard, it is worth bringing in in the matchup where it is good even though it makes your deck worse at executing plan A, which is why the last paragraph is true.
After sideboarding, everyone is better at stopping the opponent's thing and worse at doing their own thing. In general, cards are more likely to trade.
All of this leads to the following conclusion:
In game one, linear cards, cards that rely on and scale with other cards, are better, and in games 2 and 3, individual cards that stand on their own and win a game without relying on anything else are better.
When I was playing Faeries, I almost always sided out Scion of Oona for Jace Beleren. It didn't matter what my opponent was playing. They were always good at killing some number of my Faeries in a way that Scion of Oona wasn't great at stopping. Scion of Oona is bad if you don't have a lot of other Faeries in play. In order to make room for the answers I wanted to side in, I had to cut some Faeries.
The first to go was Scion of Oona because that's the one that most depended on having others. Both the fact that I was adding nonlinear cards to my deck and the fact that my opponents would be disrupting my linear strategy supported the plan of finding a way to move away from that linear strategy. After sideboarding, I was always just a U/B control deck with discard, removal, counterspells, card draw, and, incidentally, a few Faeries left over to win the game.
The same is true with everything else.
So with Rakdos, I almost always side out Hellrider, who is excellent at doing a lot of damage quickly if you have a lot of creatures, which means that he can steal a lot of wins in game 1. But after I bring in removal that is appropriate for killing my opponent's creatures and they bring in removal that is appropriate for killing my creatures and more life gain, Hellrider is going to be pretty bad. Meanwhile, Olivia will dominate the slower game we're both creating.
Since coming to understand this, I've generally been shocked by how consistently it applies and how few people really get it and talk about it. We should be past this by now.
Grand Prix Atlantic City: Part 2
Anyway, Olivia was awesome, and a big part of the reason I wanted to play Rakdos was that I didn't think people would be ready for her. I expected people to side in cards like Centaur Healer and Rhox Faithmender that would make the game go long, and then I'd play giant flier after giant flier after siding out every single one of my feeble attackers (one-mana Zombies and Hellrider) and thank them for giving me plenty of time. Most of my opponents would have been better off if they hadn't sideboarded at all.
So, as usual, I've gone a little too long without actually showing you the decklist. Here's what I played at Grand Prix Atlantic City:
- 3 Crimson Muckwader
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 3 Hellrider
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
The list Gau originally gave me had one less land, no Zealous Conscripts, and two Victim of Night. I cut a Thundermaw Hellkite for a Zealous Conscripts when I tested it. When I got to the site on Friday and talked to Zvi and Zac Hill (Gau unfortunately couldn't make it to the GP because of work), Zvi had cut the Victim of Nights for a land and a Hellrider. I suggested Zealous Conscripts over Hellrider and sold him on Olivia and my general sideboard plans.
I lost the last round of Day 1 playing for Day 2, and both Zvi and Zac finished Day 1 at 9-1, Zac with no byes. All of my losses were extremely close. I drew Rakdos Guildgate as my fifth land slightly more often than expected, which kept being exactly enough to cause problems.
I decided to play the exact same list in the Sunday Super Series the next day and went 5-0 before losing to Mono-Red Aggro and the mirror.
Overall, I felt like the deck was extremely powerful. Mono-Red is a really bad matchup, but other than that, it felt like I easily won every game where my mana worked and I drew a reasonable number of spells. Unfortunately, the mana almost never works, so I ended most games with one or two uncastable cards, but I usually won anyway because the spells I could cast were so powerful.
If I were testing the deck for another event, I'd try removing the Guildgates for Mountains or maybe three Mountains and a Swamp and adding a less color-intensive three-drop like Vampire Nighthawk or Hellhole Flailer over Geralf's Messenger, which might make me play Rakdos Cackler over Gravecrawler.
The primary differences between this deck and other Rakdos decks are the sideboard plan and the abundance of creatures in the maindeck. The deck was built by Zvi, and if you know how he builds decks, it really shows. He builds decks to accomplish something, and his creature decks rarely have removal. The few removal spells he does play are just a token nod to the mirror because he's convinced the deck is much better than everything else.
Crimson Muckwader seems to be the most unusual card, or at least it was the one that got the most comments, weird looks, and opponents reading it.
I'm not sure why it's not played more, really. The discussion is generally between Thrill-Kill Assassin and Knight of Infamy, but if you have enough Swamps, Muckwader is pretty awesome. This is a format where people actually play Gore-House Chainwalker, and Crimson Muckwader is like that guy except he can block and regenerate. Three is a lot of power for two mana, and in the midgame, this creature attacks into Thragtusk with impunity and shrugs off a Supreme Verdict.
Anyway, I liked the creature-heavy direction of the deck. It was nice to curve out as much as possible, and I never really missed the extra removal. Particularly when I'm planning to not be able to cast a few of my spells, I need all the rest to do real work. Playing a one for one when I'm starting down a card or more due to mulligans and uncastable cards is just not a winning strategy.
Return to Ravnica Standard
As for the format as a whole, the Hexproof deck I dismissed finished first and second. Decks like the one I played chased out mass removal in favor of spot removal, and Hexproof capitalized on it, I suppose. There were people playing Bant and other Supreme Verdict decks, but they generally got crushed (I know several strong players who played Bant and didn't do well).
I'd love to tell you where this means the format is going next, but I honestly don't know the Hexproof deck's matches well enough to know what is most likely to rise up to beat it. There isn't a lot of time to figure it out and even less incentive since StarCityGames.com Open Series: Dallas is probably the last Standard tournament that matters before Gatecrash changes everything.
I've heard a lot of complaints about this Standard format, which is pretty surprising given its diversity and how consistently it's changed. On the surface, it appears to be one of the most balanced and well-rounded Standard formats ever. So why do people complain?
The objection has to be (I assume) in the actual game play or possibly the way decks are built generally. Decks and games rely far more heavily on single cards, with the last big monster standing spelling victory, and the synergies that decks are built around are loose things like "Snapcaster Mage likes spells" or "play Restoration Angel with creatures that do things when they come into play."
R&D has made a conscious shift toward flashy cards that stand on their own and away from linear strategies, presumably because linear new cards that need other new cards to function have no appeal to casual players who are just buying a few packs to get new cards to add to their casual decks. As a result, deckbuilding is less about tuning a specific line and more about mashing all the best cards together. Basically, it's more likely that every deck will share a few cards regardless of what their plan is, which is why so many decks have Thragtusk and/or Restoration Angel.
This is to say that it's extremely unlikely that you'll play against someone who is playing the same deck as you, but it's extremely likely that your opponent will have the same card. This isn't a kind of lack of diversity Magic has experienced in such a widespread way before, and when it has, it was often because the card was just too good and needed to be banned like Skullclamp or Sensei's Divining Top. It's not too surprising that it's unpopular now because complaints have been pretty common in any format where there's some card that's in every deck.
I think people just don't have the language or structure to identify the fact that several cards are in half the decks to properly form complaints, but it may in fact be a problem. I think that if it is a problem, it's a systemic problem with how cards are made these days, so it will take a significant amount of time for it to change. While banning has been a possible solution in the past, calling to ban a card merely because every white deck plays it and half the decks have white mana is no longer a reasonable cause for banning because there are ten other cards that would do the exact same thing if it wasn't that card. Magic is just different now.
Wow, this article ended up touching heavily on some much more broad topics than I'd originally anticipated. I'll call that a win and not worry about it.
Now it's time for me to pick up my girlfriend to discuss whether we're going to take a sudden trip to Bilbao tomorrow (which I only started considering during writing this article). I probably won't do it, mostly because I don't know what to play and I need more than a day to figure it out, record a video, and prepare the Daily Decks for next week for Daily MTG while also spending time with my girlfriend, who's been in Barcelona for the last two weeks. But you never know…
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter