Commentating at SCG Open Series: Indianapolis was an eye-opening experience. I have played Magic for years and have seen many games unfold in many different ways, but not through the lens of different styles of decks. Every turn had to be called, and every out had to be named. I had to think about a series of plays or cards that Jund or Prime Speaker Bant had to draw or do in order to win from all kinds of board states. These kinds of thoughts gave me perspective on card choices and lines of play that Esper would have to take against similar decks played in the Standard Open.
As many of you already know, I have a knack for playing Islands and don't plan on battling with anything else, but if I were to lose my way and pick a non-blue control deck, it would definitely be Jund after watching its interaction of powerful creatures and planeswalkers. Cards like Rakdos's Return have a devastating impact on my deck that I must negate post-board, but after watching it in action, I realized it is good against a heck of a lot more than just control.
The Standard format is more open now than it has ever been. Decks like Naya Blitz keep us all honest in the speed of our decks, G/W/B Reanimator makes it clear that Rest in Peace must be a staple in sideboards, and all of the midrange and control decks that have been flourishing create the fear of board sweeps in the back of any deckbuilder's mind. I have experienced many different Standard formats, but not one was as healthy as this in quite a while. There will always be haters and complainers about formats, and I'm sure there will be a few here. However, just look at all of the different decks in the Top 8s of SCG Opens, SCG Classics, and Grand Prix—variety is the word of the season.
Most of the time, players that side with me in the world of Esper or true control feel like it is them against the world, and now we are just one "rogue" deck trying to defeat a diverse field. Control is most effective when the field is concentrated because it is easier to piece together specific fields to beat two or three decks. When the field has seven, eight, or nine decks that are competitive, then control decks have to water down their removal / win condition packages to handle a lot more cards.
This article will identify the format through the eyes of an Esper player and commentator. We will determine strengths and weaknesses of a few of the big decks and end with my most recent Esper Walkers list hot off the presses for your upcoming tournaments.
There are so many types of decks in the format that are competitive, fun, and require multiple hate cards in order to combat effectively. Multiple decks in each of the different genres of Magic (combo, control, midrange, aggro, "all-in" aggro, combo/midrange, mill, etc.) can and have taken down competitive tournaments across the world. What make these decks competitive?
In order for decks to be competitive, they have to be able to defeat hate against them. Aggro decks have to either kill the opponent before a board sweeper or recover from one. Combo decks (graveyard based) have to have a way to win around or remove an early Rest in Peace. Rest in Peace is the best hate card that has ever been printed to deal with graveyards. Not only does it create a Leyline effect, but it Tormod's Crypts them at the same time! When it was printed, I couldn't believe it was only two mana. I could go on about how it is too powerful, but let's move on.
There are #midrangeproblems that exist, but they are the most resilient to hate and cards specific to them. Jund hates Witchbane Orb, and Naya isn't a huge fan of Planar Cleansing; however, each deck has plenty of other cards that can combat hate aimed their way. Let's take a trip through the huge metagame and go over some examples of big hitters and their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Naya Blitz, Jund Aggro, and R/G Aggro are the decks that come to mind when we think about aggro in current Standard. Each deck utilizes unique cards, but there are a ton of cards that each aggro deck shares. Since there is so much similarity between each aggro variant, we can easily identify their strengths and weaknesses, with the ability to sleeve up hate that can hurt each one.
1. Fast…the fastest aggro I've seen since Affinity. While commentating, I witnessed an Esper Walker player slain by a Naya Blitz player after he dropped an Augur of Bolas and a Lingering Souls on turn 3 (his opponent's turn 4). The advantages of a deck that is fast are obvious and are the reasons why aggro has gained tons of momentum and popularity not only on Magic Online but also in live Magic.
There are a number of draws that are unbeatable and involve every spell in their hand with a possible topdeck. Against old Mono-Red Aggro hands, I could craft control hands that could take the punishment against any seven they had, but this new breed of aggro can be unbeatable at times. Decks that have that kind of firepower don't need many other advantages to become a force in Standard.
2. They will punish you. Hands containing multiple Think Twice and a spot removal spell seem like an auto-keep and normally should be. A hand like that, however, will be the death of you most of the time against one of these aggro decks. The very existence of these fast aggro builds makes you mulligan and play much differently than you normally would in a world of slower aggro options. Because of the popularity of these aggro decks, I never keep double come into play tapped lands on the draw because it basically puts you back two turns and gives you no shot to win.
3. Consistent. Now, there are many aspects of these aggro decks that are inconsistent, but not when they have a decent mana to guy ratio. You can expect a one-drop, a couple two-drops, and some burn almost every game. Since all the early drops are so powerful, it really doesn't matter if it's an Experiment One or a Champion of the Parish. Some draws can be more explosive than others, but all decent draws will result in an abundant amount of pressure with any number of card combination possibilities.
4. Super cheap. These decks are very inexpensive to build because they don't generally run planeswalkers or any other mythics. Cards like Mayor of Avabruck; Champion of the Parish; and Frontline Medic are pretty inexpensive. So if you are new to the game or looking to get back into it, these decks are not only cheap to build but give you a ton of bang for your buck.
1. Inconsistent (mana-wise). These decks contain a consistent array of threats but at times will be unable to cast those threats. Lands like the shocks and Cavern of Souls really help the case for the three-mana aggro decks; however, it doesn't always work out the way you want it to when you draw your opening seven. Oftentimes, these decks collapse before they play the first card because of their inability to hit all their colors. Having a risky mana base with no card draw to bail them out results in a great deal of mulliganing. If they are able to bounce back with a better six or five hand, then life is good; if not, you see a sad one-drop here and there before the icy grip extends and the game ends.
2. Weakness to Supreme Verdict. These aggro decks are some of the strongest anti-Wrath builds that we have seen in the history of modern Magic, but they still would love their opponents to play colors outside of the realm of U/W to ensure their creatures stick permanently. Cards like Boros Charm and Domri Rade allow for aggro decks to have some life after or in response to board sweepers. They know their weakness to this card, but a lot of times they're all in on the hope that their opponent doesn't have it. If their opponent has the Wrath, then we usually see a sad array of cards off the top that can't hold a candle to the topdecks of their opponents.
3. Aggro tends to draw weaker cards as the game continues. This is an obvious disadvantage that all aggro decks since the beginning of time have had. This is a con that has a clear opposite pro—powerful early cards that can obliterate the opponent before they even get started. The only reason I add this automatic disadvantage is because readers need to understand outs opponents can draw that beat you. When playing against these aggro decks, it is all about surviving the early game and then playing around the few outs that they can topdeck to end your life. The keyword is few, and once you are aware of the potential threats, then your path to victory is clear.
This is the category run by Jund and G/W/B. Other decks like Naya, Prime Speaker, and G/R can fill the ranks of major tournaments. Midrange is classified as decks that can provide early game pressure with late game finesse.
G/W/B is the only oddball in the group because of its ability to Reanimate for victory. Although Unburial Rites is a powerful card and slams the name Reanimator on the popular deck, it isn't the only path to victory. G/W/B can ramp up into Thragtusk; Restoration Angel; Angel of Serenity; and even cast Craterhoof Behemoth without too much difficulty. Cards like Mulch and Grisly Salvage can set these draws up even through a Rest in Peace and is the reason why the deck performs so well in tournaments. Other Reanimator variants like Humans don't make our top list because of their vulnerability to hate and inability to overcome it.
1. You can be the beatdown in some games and the control in others. These decks have the power to change their strategy based on their matchup. Against aggro decks, they can outclass their creatures and play powerful late-game cards to regain control. Against control, they can put on a great deal of pressure early and put you in game-ending situations a few turns later. The term "midrange" is a label that is the easiest to peg on decks and simply means sometimes they can pressure early enough to win but other times they rain large spell after large spell with a simple Farseek in between.
2. The midrange creatures are just better than all the rest. Better is subjective, but we are assuming these creatures are already in play combating each other. Champion of the Parish is a fantastic card, but not when Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells have entered the battlefield. All the midrange creatures are resilient to removal, and if they are killed they have probably done a great deal of damage already. Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk leave behind friends, Olivia Voldaren has probably done some killing, and Thundermaw Hellkite has most likely done some serious damage to the air and life totals.
Supreme Verdict can wipe out an aggro deck, whereas against midrange more often than not we have to one-for-one an Olivia or Huntmaster. The clear drawback is the mana cost, but these midrange decks often run a full eight mana dork package and/or Farseek to ramp them out with the quickness. I said on a podcast that if I were to play a non-blue deck, it would definitely be Jund, and that reasoning is based on the powerful creatures and spells that the deck commands.
3. The midrange decks have very powerful spells. If we are talking about Jund, then it is hard to ignore the spells that complement its good creatures. Spells like Rakdos's Return (ban it!) decimate control players immediately. Against planeswalkers, it not only drops their entire hand but also takes Sorin, Lord of Innistrad down with it. Rakdos's Return is one of the best hate cards ever printed for control, and for good reason. Jund decks would normally have a rough time against Esper, but Return combined with dudes and a powerful planeswalker creates a long line of "must be countered" spells.
Jund also has Liliana of the Veil; Garruk, Primal Hunter; and a slew of great removal spells. Naya also has planeswalker power in Domri Rade / Garruk to put a hurting on control decks. There are some spells that aren't planeswalkers in these decks that give reach to finish opponents such as Searing Spear and Boros Charm. Before Domri was printed, even a card like Triumph of Ferocity was a must-answer for control decks or victory would be nearly impossible.
1. You have to play a lot of mana. For the most part, these midrange decks depend on hitting four and five mana. Since that is the case, you can't jam 21-land and aggro opponents out. The more land you play, the more chance of flooding out and poor draws in the late game. Flooding and poor draws can happen to anyone, but the chances are much slimmer when playing a deck that is sculpted to battle from having only two land. Even if you have 24/25 land in your midrange deck, you also have to play Farseeks / Arbor Elfs or eight mana dorks.
This can obviously yield great rewards if things work out great, but the big difference here is that you don't have blue to bail you out. In the control decks that run a ton of land, they play Sphinx's Revelation; Forbidden Alchemy; and similar cards to filter through all the mana and/or use that mana to completely destroy opponents in the late game. Although a Rakdos's Return for eight is cool later in the game, it is outclassed by a Sphinx's Revelation for a similar amount. The rule of thumb is that flooding is bad unless you are playing blue—then it can be optimal.
2. Being in the middle of the road can be worse than being on one side or the other. Instead of having an all-in strategy or a must-survive strategy you can be all over the place at times. Hands with double Restoration Angel and a Hellkite may be awful against a hand of spot removal from your control opponent. Hands from true aggro players will usually be much more defined with hands that play out a very similar way each game and can just beat most average draws from opponents.
Hands without a Farseek or Arbor Elf from Jund can look very weak against both fast decks and slow decks. You will be hard-pressed to find a Blitz player that doesn't have one of their twelve one-drops in their opening hand, but more frequently you will see a midrange opponent have a slow draw and pay a punishing price for it.
Many of these disadvantages are very "luck" oriented and come from bad draws, but that is Magic. We had a long, fiery debate on the amount of luck in the game versus skill, and since we know there will always be luck in Magic, the best thing we can do is lower that variance chance as much as possible. You will be forced to choose between explosive power with inconsistency or a low-powered but consistent deck. Choose wisely!
Control decks are few and far between in today's Standard—actually, it been that way for quite some time. U/W/R Flash is the name of the deck, but I'm placing it in control with Esper because it is the proper place for it. After all, both decks play Sphinx's Revelation. Bant with Wolf Run has been lingering around, but the popularity of it has plummeted, so the majority of this section will focus on the non-green control decks.
1. Where do I start? Control is great! It has board sweepers, card draw, and game-ending threats. These three things combined create the backbone of control decks. The ability to bury your opponent under card advantage using board sweepers, planeswalkers, and card draw puts the burden on them to kill you in a hurry. Decks that stumble to deal lethal, overextend into Wraths, or simply try to beat you at your own game when they don't have the tools required will find themselves signing the slip and checking the drop box at tournaments.
When the card draw is good, control is good. Cards like Sphinx's Revelation and Forbidden Alchemy are the two best in Standard today. Revelation refills your hand while adding precious life points back, and Alchemy is one of the most rewarding, cheap draw spells printed. A Forbidden Alchemy can snag a necessary card while filling the graveyard up with Snapcaster Mage targets, Lingering Souls, or other Alchemys to give your late game some extra bite.
As I mentioned previously, when decks like Esper get into a flood situation, there are cards that make that excess mana turn into a game-ending refill of threats from the card draw utilized in today's Standard. Topdeck wars usually go to the control player due to the potency of the remaining spells in comparison to an enemy aggro or midrange player. Sure, they can slam a Huntmaster off the top, but the spells in most control decks can outclass or at the very least match the power of aggro and midrange's threats.
2. For the second advantage, let's talk about Wraths. Supreme Verdict, Mizzium Mortars, and Terminus are all used to fulfill the necessary "sweeper" stipulation for the modern control deck. Control players cannot defeat an aggro player with only one-for-ones. Their mana and spells are far too efficient to sit back, Ultimate Price every turn, and hope to survive. Don't get me wrong, spot removal is great against these decks; however, most of the time you will need a sweeper to reset the board and begin the empire building.
Supreme Verdict is easily the best sweeper in Standard currently. People have ditched it and returned to it over and over, but we have reached a consensus on the power of Verdict today. Aggro decks don't use any creatures besides Experimental One that are resilient to "destroy all creatures," and even that creature is left as a 1/1 at best.
Nearly every control build battling today is packing at four Supreme Verdicts in their maindeck—it has become a necessity. Aggro is just too fast, and midrange creatures are just too efficient. If you have to Verdict a lonely Huntmaster of the Fells, then think about the amount of times you'll have to sweep the board in one game. Multiple Supreme Verdicts and Snapcaster Mages are in each build of Esper to combat the speed and effectiveness of the modern creature.
3. Lastly, the power of the win conditions and spells of control decks make them top-notch contenders. The man of the hour is clearly Obzedat, Ghost Council. He has met and far surpassed my expectations of a win condition. I bought four as soon as he was spoiled, and he has doubled in price due to the fact that his stats cannot be questioned. He is nearly unkillable in the control matchup, can race aggro decks with light assistance, and is bigger than most creatures that meet him on the battlefield. The life gain is superb and the power is absurd—don't leave home without him. He is our replacement for a Titan, and I think he's done a fine job so far.
Lingering Souls is a card that I have dedicated many articles to. It packs a ton of punch as well as builds a brick wall around your planeswalkers and your life total. I won't rave on about Lingering Souls too much, but those who have played my lists and tested with my decks know why it is still a solid four-of.
The spells in control decks that count as win conditions are clearly the planeswalkers. Although Liliana of the Veil can't kill an opponent, she can make life miserable for each matchup. When the new duals joined the format, I immediately dropped two Liliana in the list and have never looked back. She stays in against all decks, and she's even good against Junk Reanimator—yes, I said it—still good! I just want to drop her, Edict, and after that everything else is a bonus. You don't want to tick her up? Fine. There are very few instances where I won't start by raising her loyalty, but that is your prerogative.
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and Jace, Architect of Thought are absolutely wonderful, and I have spent many articles describing why so I will save your eyes the repetitive history of my planeswalker passion. No one wants to tango with a control deck in the late game, and the walkers, card draw, and Obzedat are big reasons why.
1. Sooooooo slow sometimes! Ain't nobody got time for Think Twice. Cards that have been historically good in control are unplayable because of the speed of aggro decks and even the speed of midrange when they get to ramp. The biggest cut you'll see in my list below is Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. Cutting her was one of the hardest cuts I've ever had to make in the deck, but she was simply not producing results. Tamiyo is fairly costed and very powerful but simply does not fit in the current metagame. The only matchup you'll feel the hurt with her gone is G/W/B Reanimator, and by all means put her back in if you see a ton of it in your local metagame.
We all know control is slow, and that is a big reason why I'm at best 50/50 against Blitz. There are just some hands that cannot be beaten from their side of the table. While commentating, I witnessed an Esper Walker played killed through an Augur of Bolas and Lingering Souls. He had the Verdict and just died before he could even cast it. The more we cut cards to improve our aggro matchup, the more it hurts our matchups against all the other decks, so the list you see below will be changed sparingly from here on out. We know speed is a weakness of control, and changes have been made to lessen the hurt.
2. The difficulty of piloting a control deck is always an issue. There have been very heated debates on the topic of skill in Magic. Control in my opinion is tougher to play, and I wrote an article a while back that outlined and defended that stance. This article is not centered on that notion because let's be honest—Magic is tough no matter what. Anyone can make mistakes with any deck, and the only reason control is "tougher" in this disadvantage is because of the lines of play available. Control players have many different lines that they can take, especially after turn 4. Choosing an incorrect line of play into another incorrect decision against a midrange deck that is tapping out each turn for their most powerful spell will result in a loss.
Tapping out for Sorin, making a Vampire, and then receiving a Rakdos's Return to the forehead was your fault and could have been prevented. That is one out of many scenarios that could have been prevented, and the punishment is much harsher when piloting a time-sensitive deck like control. I have played Limited and tested against aggro decks that have missed a trigger here and damage there but still found more than enough damage to finish the game with a victory. The whole "which strategy is tougher" question will always create an argument, but many of us can agree there are more lines of play based on the amount of mana and spells available…which puts the burden on control.
I hope this article will help you decide on a Standard deck to battle with in the near future. For those who read my work and are staunch control advocates, I think there are some points that you can use to strategize against various matchups. It is all about sculpting your 75 to beat as many decks as you can until your tweaks begin to hurt other matchups in a noticeable way. Control isn't 100% against everything, and this article showcases the fact that nothing is invulnerable against the field. Pick a team, modify your list to maximize a few specific matchups, and then practice, practice, practice! Thanks for reading, and I'll see you guys next time.
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