Someone asked me yesterday if I feel that Standard is "solved" as a format. As a person who's played nothing but Jund for six months and found success at that, my questioner may have been expecting a certain answer from me. The truth of the matter, however, is that I've stuck with the same deck particularly because I feel that Standard cannot be solved or at least has not reached that point yet. When no deck stands out as head and shoulders above the rest, why not stick with a deck that I know I can play well and will have a good list for?
At this late hour, with only a short time before Theros comes out to shake things up, that point has never held so true. There are nearly a dozen "good" deck choices in Standard, and the best one is likely whichever you're most comfortable with. Nevertheless, there are some of us who have still not found a deck that we can hitch our wagon to. For the rest of us, it's of crucial importance to understand what we're up against.
Blue Control Decks
While I turn to Jund whenever there's a lot at stake, my pet project has long been Bant Control. Similarly, there are a number of other fringe control decks like Esper, Grixis, U/W Flash, and even U/B Control that show up from time to time. I believe that these decks can be quite competitive, but only for those people who are very comfortable with the strategy and have well-tuned decklists.
This past weekend at Grand Prix Warsaw, I lost to Stanislav Cifka piloting a creatureless U/W Control deck that dominated the endgame with Elixir of Immortality and never-ending Sphinx's Revelations. Cifka finished in the Top 64, and I heard that Andrew Cuneo, who has consumed more Elixirs of Immortality than any other Magic player, has been grinding a similar deck on Magic Online for some time now.
A huge appeal of a two-color control deck is that Burning Earth goes from being nearly unbeatable to being a bad card against you. For most control decks, a resolved Burning Earth usually means three damage, a card, and a turn to remove it via Detention Sphere—and that's when you're lucky! When you don't have a proper answer, it means a fast and painful death in a game where you can't defend yourself even in basic ways.
Of course, there are also some challenges that come with dropping a color. You no longer have access to the same versatility of answer cards, and in general your deck is likely to be a little bit underpowered in the objective sense. Again, I think most fringe control strategies are fine choices for those who've been grinding them for a long time, but I would not recommend them to a player looking to pick up a new deck for the first time.
In spite of the Burning Earth problem, U/W/R Flash has proven itself again and again to be one of the top decks in Standard. If you want to have access to Sphinx's Revelation and the other powerful elements of blue control, this is likely the place to start.
Shahar Shenhar became the Magic World Champion largely on the back of his 3-0 Standard performance with U/W/R Flash. After consultation with Tom Martell and Matt Costa, Shahar showed up with an excellent list and plowed through the field despite it being particularly hostile for control decks.
Noteworthy is the complete absence of Aetherling from both the maindeck and the sideboard. The impression that I've gotten from the people I trust on these matters—Shahar, Costa, Cuneo—is that Aetherling is one of many possible ways to win a game of Standard but is by no means the be all and end all. Committing to an Aetherling diminishes your ability to fight on other axes and in particular ties up your mana when it comes to the all-important Sphinx's Revelation battles. I personally still like Aetherling in blue decks other than U/W/R Flash, particularly because of the way it alleviates time pressure, but I understand why it doesn't earn its slot. Don't count yourself the winner just because you're managed to untap with Aetherling because there are still a number of ways to fight the card.
U/W/R Flash is a top Standard deck and an excellent choice for any tournament. It's 50/50 matchup against Jund and its struggle against the card Burning Earth are the only things standing between it and complete dominance of the format.
I had a lackluster performance with Jund at GP Warsaw and was feeling down in the dumps about the deck's position in Standard when I went to sleep on Sunday night. I woke up the next day to find this:
William "Huey" Jensen had made Top 8 of back-to-back StarCityGames.com Standard Opens with a list one card different from my own and took first place in the most recent one!
I guess I have to view Huey's performance as proof that Jund is still one of the top decks in Standard and realize that my own performance just confirmed something that I already knew: that Standard is a fickle and unforgiving format. One day you feel like you can't lose a game, and the next you feel like you can't win one . . .
The challenge that Jund faces right now is that it takes a very different set of cards to beat U/W/R Flash and the mirror match than it takes to beat G/R and Mono-Red Aggro. I'd love to find room for Vampire Nighthawk to combat red-based aggro decks, but the more "vanilla" creatures you add to the deck, the weaker you are in the mirror and against control, which brings me to a controversial issue.
Lifebane Zombie is a good Magic card, but I don't feel that it has a place in Jund. Although we use the label "Jund" for many decks—Modern Jund, Legacy Jund, old Standard Jund, Jund Aggro—the Standard Jund deck that I play is a control deck. What you really want is versatile answers and powerful defensive cards. Just because a card provides some nice value or is mana efficient doesn't mean you necessarily want it in the deck unless it helps you to defend yourself or fills a role that really needs to be filled.
The games that Jund loses are the ones where it falls behind in the early game. The biggest problem with Lifebane Zombie is that it answers a card that the opponent has not yet had to invest mana into. On turn 3, you should be concerned with what's on the board, not with some expensive creature that you should be prepared to handle by the time your opponent can cast it. Moreover, Lifebane Zombie can miss or you can topdeck it after the opponent has played out their hand, and in either case the card is quite poor.
The 3/1 intimidate body is good and efficient but doesn't do a whole lot for Jund. When it can trade with a Flinthoof Boar, it's great, but as I mentioned I view Jund as a control deck and attacking just for the sake of attacking isn't what you're looking for. Against U/W/R Flash or Jund, Lifebane Zombie can die to literally anything if the opponent is ever bothered by it, and what's worse is that it will usually just die in the collateral of a Supreme Verdict, Bonfire of the Damned, or Olivia Voldaren. When you play Lifebane Zombie on turn 3 in these matchups and hit a creature, it's fine but not particularly exciting. However, when you miss, it's embarrassingly poor. On the whole, I feel that it's a bad card in these two matchups, which is why I have no interest in putting it in my deck.
There have been times when I've maindecked Vampire Nighthawk, first and foremost as a concession to the mana curve. In a perfect world, you always draw Farseek and skip right to Huntmaster of the Fells. Unfortunately, you need some number of cards that cost less than four mana for the games where you don't draw Farseek. However, Scavenging Ooze now fills that spot, and a three-mana creature is simply not needed unless there's a great reason to play it.
Lifebane Zombie is great in a matchup where two things are true. First, that the body will actually require a removal spell. This means that your opponent doesn't have sweepers or anything incidental that can deal with the Zombie as a side effect. Also, the body will either need to threaten to trade with something relevant or present a clock that can change the outcome of the game. Second, the opponent must have a large number of white or green creatures that cost four or more mana and cannot be conveniently answered once they're in play.
The matchups that fit these criteria are Junk Reanimator, Prime Speaker Bant, and certain builds of Naya. If those decks were to greatly increase in popularity, I would reconsider my stance, but as long as U/W/R Flash and Jund are the two top decks, I don't like Lifebane Zombie.
These are two cards that can be in Jund's sideboard but don't necessarily have to be. Right now I like them because they're good in both the Jund mirror and against U/W/R Flash. However, a tiebreaker in favor of playing Acidic Slime is that your opponents are playing with Underworld Connections. A tiebreaker in favor of not playing Underworld Connections is that your opponents are playing with Acidic Slime. Therefore, there's an interesting song and dance that goes with trying to stay one step ahead of the metagame.
Underworld Connections is an established staple right now. I played one copy of Acidic Slime at Worlds two weeks ago, and William Jensen also won his StarCityGames.com Standard Open with one copy in his sideboard. I think that if I were to play Jund in a tournament this weekend, I would play two copies of each, hoping for a little lag period before Acidic Slime becomes universal. Soon after I would cut my Underworld Connections since I don't want to be continuously blown out in a world where every Jund player has Acidic Slime. Soon after that I would probably cut my Acidic Slimes because they're not so good in a world where not every Jund player is playing Underworld Connections.
Just a fun thing to think about.
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 2 Fiendslayer Paladin
- 4 Gladecover Scout
- 4 Invisible Stalker
- 1 Silverblade Paladin
- 4 Geist of Saint Traft
I respect Bant Hexproof as a powerful Standard deck that has some great matchups and is capable of some insane draws. I would be quick to recommend it to anyone who isn't a master of the format.
However, I don't think that it matches up particularly well against either Jund or Supreme Verdict decks. I expect it to maintain its presence as a relevant force in Standard, but I don't think it'll achieve the levels of dominance that it has in the past as long as Jund and U/W/R Flash stay on top.
Domri Rade Decks
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Hellrider
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
I've long been a fan of Domri Rade strategies because I feel that in addition to having a focused, proactive strategy they make use of the highest number of Standard's all-star cards. Because of its posturing as a control deck, Jund can't make full use of Domri Rade, Thundermaw Hellkite, or Hellrider despite these cards being incredible powerful under the right circumstances.
Brian Kibler's G/R Aggro build is particularly appealing right now because Burning Earth makes it great against Jund and U/W/R Flash. However, Naya is another viable option since the white offers Voice of Resurgence and Boros Reckoner, which increase the overall power level of the deck and make for even more impressive nut draws.
Unfortunately, playing such a narrow strategy means that there are certain cards or combinations that are very difficult to beat. For example, these decks have very little chance against Bant Hexproof unless you take extreme measures like sideboarding Fog. Also, the card Boros Reckoner poses a real problem.
One of my losses at GP Warsaw was to a very aggressive mono-red deck, and I have to say that I was impressed. Mutavault, Chandra's Phoenix, and Burning Earth all seem like incredible additions to the deck.
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Chandra's Phoenix
- 4 Firefist Striker
- 2 Hellrider
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 4 Young Pyromancer
After that loss, I told my friend, "I might try Mono-Red Aggro at my next StarCityGames.com Open," to which he responded, "I don't believe you."
Now, when everything is equal, I tend to turn to blue control or decks like Jund because I'm most comfortable with them and feel that they suit my skill set. However, I certainly don't have any rule against playing something like Mono-Red Aggro, and I often have great respect for the players who have the guts to sleeve it up.
And the thing is that everything might not be equal right now; Mono-Red Aggro might be awesome! Chandra's Phoenix gives the deck a level of reach that it was previously lacking. Compared to the G/R decks, the extra boost of speed strikes me as very important in the pseudo-mirror and against Hexproof and blue control.
Mono-Red Aggro is a deck that I'm going to keep an eye on, and you should too.
Aristocrats and Token Strategies
I like these decks and have great respect for the amount of play and trickery inherent in them. I think that a master of Aristocrats is a very dangerous opponent and can squeeze out a whole lot of wins that you might not necessarily expect them to. However, I don't think that the time is right for these decks. There are too many threats pulling you in too many different directions, and people aren't particularly vulnerable to swarms of creatures.
There are a number strategies that I've failed to touch on, including Junk Reanimator and B/G Midrange. However, I believe that the decks I've listed offer a pretty fair representation of Standard at the moment. If you can test against two decks, make them Jund and U/W/R Flash; these are the ones you're going to have to beat on your way to winning any Standard tournament. If you can test against two more, make them Bant Hexproof and a Domri Rade deck.
If you're still undecided on a deck, any of these decks will give you a fighting chance, but I recommend choosing one that suits you personally.