Hello! week after Pro Tour Gatecrash, Standard is still being affected by it. Grand Prix Quebec this past weekend solidified lessons from the Pro Tour, and the upcoming SCG Standard Open in Las Vegas will be very telling, where we'll see the outcome of lessons learned in Canada and non-PT ideas aiming to crush equilibrium. Last week, attention was mostly on the Top 8 decks with very few highlights outside it. Pro Tour Gatecrash in fact had much more interesting lists and, maybe even more interestingly, showed some completely unexplored spaces to investigate.
The metagame of Grand Prix Quebec City was a little bit more aggressive than it was at the Pro Tour—probably the very field that many players expected to see in Montreal. This is mostly because almost all of last week's innovation concerned aggressive decks: the Pro-Tour-winning deck, Brad Nelson and Todd Anderson's Naya Blitz deck, and the multiple aggressive experiments of Tomoharu Saito (who recently became very active on Twitter @TomoharuSaito). Aggressive decks were good at the Pro Tour and on Magic Online (the Magic Online metagame is incredibly aggressive right now), so the safest choices for upcoming tournaments are Jund and U/W/R Flash, both of which have some measures to ensure good aggressive matchups.
Speaking of aggressive matchups, I dislike Reid Duke's approach of Arbor Elf in Jund instead of Vampire Nighthawk (while Bonfire of the Damned looks better than Mizzium Mortars now). The metagame will drive deeper into aggression or into midrange to beat aggression, so I think that Jund should have both Vampire and Bonfire right now. Reid's idea of Strangleroot Geist is very interesting, but I'm afraid that it's too slow with nine lands that don't produce green mana. Strangleroot Geist is fine for an aggressive deck, but I'd build Jund this way:
This list contains four graveyard hate cards because Humans Reanimator is considered a good choice right now. Burning-Tree Emissary and another combo gives the deck the necessary resilience to aggro, so it's fast enough to be good in game 1 against nearly any deck. However, Reanimator is weak post-board against anyone who wants to beat it (and doesn't play U/W/R Flash). So a pair of Deathrite Shamans is just fine (as they're also good against control decks and Witchbane Orb), even if I expect Reanimator to decline soon.
As for Reanimator itself, let's look at Tsu Yeung Lam's innovative build. Another combo (cycling Fiend Hunter and Burning-Tree Emissary to Undercity Informer's ability) gives the deck an actual game-winning combo (in contrast to infinite life, which may be not enough against control decks or opposing infinite life), and the ability to play Burning-Tree Emissary makes it much more capable of surviving against aggressive decks. Further builds may not include Cartel Aristocrat, but I'm not sure that it's a good idea.
- 4 Angel of Glory's Rise
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 2 Cartel Aristocrat
- 4 Fiend Hunter
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Undercity Informer
This build is a gigantic step forward from Brad Nelson's version, and I'd be happy to play with it pre-board against nearly any deck in Standard. However, bad aggressive matchups were only one of two of Reanimator's problems, and this build doesn't solve the other one: vulnerability to hate. Something to beat it must be found, and I'm sure that reverse sideboarding into a midrange deck with Thragtusk and Restoration Angel isn't the answer.
I saw Reanimator versus Jund in GP coverage and was very surprised to see the Angel and Beast postboard. The matchup is highly favored for Reanimator pre-board, and Jund doesn't have Rest in Peace to steal post-board games, while both Grafdigger's Cage and Deathrite Shaman are beaten by Abrupt Decay (and hard casting Angel of Glory's Rise is realistic too). Jund may have the occasional Slaughter Games, but they are better shut down by Witchbane Orb (also useful against Rakdos's Return and Liliana of the Veil).
Maybe Avacyn's Pilgrim to provide more early blockers against aggressive decks and the ability to find combo pieces faster than the opponent can disrupt the combo? Or maybe Nevermore naming Rest in Peace? I still don't have the answer, but if I find one, Humans Reanimator will be on my short list for the upcoming Grand Prix Verona—if it doesn't coincide with a hate increasing week. I'd also like to play Reanimator in a U/W/R-heavy metagame (which may be the case, especially for the United States), but no one deck may be popular enough to justify Reanimator in a hate-heavy week.
If Reanimator is a poor choice and I have no reason to play Jund over my general objection to midrange decks (don't want to be 50-50 against the whole field, I'd rather have certain good and bad matches), I'll probably be a part of the movement to make the metagame faster. Aggressive decks fill the wide spectrum from Almost Mono-Red Eighteen-Land Gruul to heavy Saito Zoo. The fastest ones are unfortunately very weak to Jund, so I'd rather play heavier decks like Jund Aggro, The Aristocrats, or Saito Zoo—making changes to ensure that my choice is good against Jund and reliable against other aggro decks.
The Aristocrats was perfectly described here and here by Sam Black. It didn't become popular enough after a Pro Tour win (GP Quebec City had only a minor presence), but that may have been caused by a combination of card availability issues and the difficulty of playing such a creation. The Aristocrats is very flexible and capable of turning around bad situations, but it demands very tight play, which may not be the best for an average pilot. However, I'm very positive about the deck and believe it deserves more popularity.
Saito Naya is a completely different approach to a heavy aggressive deck. It's much more straightforward and simpler to play, but it's also weaker because it relies mostly on topdeck quality in hard situations. I've tested it a lot after the Pro Tour alongside different Avacyn's Pilgrim decks and came to the conclusion that mana dork-heavy versions of Naya are mistakes because current Standard's mana base simply can't support both turn 1 green mana for Avacyn's Pilgrim and Arbor Elf and Boros Reckoner—which is probably the best card in the deck. Saito should definitely be two-drop-based.
The two different versions of the deck spotlighted at the Pro Tour had primary differences in four- and five-mana creatures: Restoration Angel and Thragtusk or Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite. The second version was used by Eric Froehlich for Top 4 at the PT, but the first one is much better against other aggressive decks when you want to play a control role. The deck is normally awful at controlling, but there is no choice against decks like Naya Humans, so you must be prepared.
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Gyre Sage
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 2 Thragtusk
- 2 Thundermaw Hellkite
I don't want to cut Thundermaw Hellkite completely, but it's a realistic option. I also prefer Arrest and Oblivion Ring to Pacifism since the deck is very weak to Olivia Voldaren (though the Jund matchup seems to be slightly favorable for both the Hellrider and Restoration Angel version). Maindeck Bonfire of the Damned was considered because it's very impressive against aggressive decks and mirror-like matches, but I finally decided that solid four damage is better.
The mana base is still the weak point of the deck, even though there's no need to have any untapped lands on turn 1. Moreover, eschewing white in the favor of a more stable mana base doesn't help since the amount of basic Forest would only increase. Daniel Ruiz Martin made a great Gruul deck with Arbor Elf, but he was forced to cut Boros Reckoner from the deck entirely—I'm afraid it's not worth it to do so.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Gyre Sage
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Wolfir Silverheart
This list is more stable but has less ways to interact with opposing creatures, aiming to be straightforward in any situation. I don't think it's the best way, but at least this deck has all the tools for this plan, including Kessig Wolf Run and Gruul Charm in the sideboard and Thragtusk nowhere in the 75. I somewhat dislike the playset of Ghor-Clan Rampager and want to exchange it for Rancor at least partially or maybe put Kessig Wolf Run into the maindeck as I'm afraid that 21 lands isn't enough, even with eight mana-producing creatures.
By the way, the most impressive thing in the deck is the core of Arbor Elf, Experiment One, and Gyre Sage. Eight mana-producing creatures and eight strong aggressive creatures among twelve early cards provides reasonable pressure under any circumstances and supports the very questionable yet powerful Wolfir Silverheart.
Summing up, G/R Aggro is an interesting option, but it sacrifices too much power and versatility for better mana and early action, so Jund Aggro may be the better option since its mana isn't significantly worse and its card quality is better. However, Jund Aggro lies at the other side of the aggressive decks spectrum, so I'm going to leave it outside of this article since I don't want to go there. Ari Lax already wrote a fine article about his version of Jund Aggro and will surely have an update. Good luck to everybody playing in SCG Standard Open: Las Vegas this weekend, and see some of you at the two Grand Prix in Europe in March!