I guess it's fitting. Mono-Red Aggro won the first StarCityGames.com Standard Open after Thragtusk's rotation. Mono-Red Aggro not only won the Open, but it put four pilots in the Top 16. "Are you saying I only have twenty life to work with? There must be a mistake. Can you check again? I think you got the numbers wrong." Without the core set buddy lands, everyone is playing the full amount of shock lands, and Thragtusk isn't around to soothe it all over anymore. Ouch.
Mono-Red Aggro wasn't the only big winner at the event. Esper Control also put up huge numbers. There were three copies of Esper Control in the Top 8 alone. Another Esper Control deck finished in the Top 16, and close relative U/W Control finished in second place.
Mono-Red Aggro and U/W/x Control made up over 50% of the Top 16 decks at the SCG Standard Open in Worcester. Looks like it was a bad day to be a green mage.
It also looks like we know what our enemies are. Mono-Red Aggro and U/W/x Control might be at completely different ends of the spectrum, but I think it's certainly possible to find decks that can beat both of them. The first key is to find cards in the format that offer powerful effects against one or both of those decks. Knowing what cards are strong against the top decks will be integral in figuring out what decks might be well positioned in Standard. I want to focus on some of those cards and why I think they are good right now.
There were only three copies of Voice of Resurgence in the Top 8, and all three of them were in the sideboard of the seventh place Naya Midrange deck. If we expand to the Top 16, we only find an additional four Voices in the fourteenth place Junk Midrange list.
That's not a lot of Voice of Resurgences. I think this card is one of the few cards in the format that offers a powerful effect against both Mono-Red Aggro and U/W/x Control. Usually, if a card is good against an aggressive deck like Mono-Red Aggro, it isn't going to do much against a glacially slow control deck. Voice is the main outlier.
Against Mono-Red Aggro, Voice comes down early enough to affect the game in a big way. A turn 2 Voice of Resurgence is likely going to end up trading with a burn spell or one of their creatures, and then the Elemental token threats to trade again or grow out of control. Outside of cards like Firefist Striker, an early Voice of Resurgence really puts the brakes on Mono-Red Aggro and threatens to slow the game down long enough for your other cards to take over.
Esper and U/W Control are both focused on playing a lot of instants. Both decks are similarly built in that they have a number of planeswalkers, four Supreme Verdicts, and then a bunch of removal and draw spells. While Voice of Resurgence isn't great against the planeswalkers in those decks, it does provide solid value against cards like Supreme Verdict and Far // Away while also making counterspells painful and forcing the control player to play on their own turn.
It becomes significantly easier to play against a control deck when you know what cards you need to play around. With Voice, they are incentivized to tap out more and give you a much better idea of how to time your cards to get the most use out of them. Instead of having to worry about whether they have a Doom Blade, a Dissolve, or both, you can just play without fear and know that whatever effect they have is going to be significantly mitigated by the free Elemental you get if they go for it on your turn.
Dreadbore and Detention Sphere are cards that didn't see a lot of play in the last Standard season. A lot of the reason was that planeswalkers weren't that popular and sorcery-speed removal spell was weak against Restoration Angel and the high number of dominant haste creatures in the format. Things have changed.
Mono-Red Aggro now has only one commonly played haste creature in Chandra's Phoenix. Now it's acceptable to just wait until your turn to deal with their creatures. Having a lot of cheap removal and then a bigger endgame plan, typically featuring life gain, has always been a solid plan against Mono-Red Aggro. The U/W/x Control decks do it with a bunch of early removal spells followed by a Sphinx's Revelation.
Detention Sphere also offers the ability to mitigate Mono-Red Aggro's nut draw of multiple Burning-Tree Emissarys by virtue of being able to clear them all out. You're still a little behind if they have that start even with a Detention Sphere, but at least you're not just completely dead. Detention Sphere is also a good answer to Chandra's Phoenix since a Phoenix underneath of a D-Sphere can't keep coming back to haunt you.
Hero's Downfall is worse than both of these effects a lot of the time but does offer the ability to deal with a card like Obzedat, Ghost Council that neither of the other cards can handle. Sometimes it is also just a huge benefit to have your removal spell be instant because you can blow your opponent out in response to a monstrosity trigger or make combat difficult for them to navigate. While I feel like Hero's Downfall is probably the weakest of the three effects, it definitely does still have an added layer of versatility.
Generally speaking, removal spells like this have always been poor against decks like Esper Control. Usually, you have to play removal spells in your deck so you have a chance against the aggressive decks in the format, but you have to also just accept that you have a few dead cards against control decks.
Now that control decks are playing anywhere from three to nine planeswalkers in their decks, cards like Dreadbore, Hero's Downfall and Detention Sphere are no longer dead cards in those matchups. In fact, they could very well be the key to beating those decks. Ashiok, Jace, and Elspeth are all for the most part not that powerful if they are just in play for one turn. Ashiok actually accomplishes nothing to impact the board in just one turn. While Jace's -2 and Elspeth's -3 can still get a good bit of value, if either of those walkers just +1, you aren't losing too much when you kill them off the following turn.
Golgari Charm is admittedly pretty weak against the Mono-Red Aggro deck that won the event last weekend since that list had only one creature, Firefist Striker, that dies to the -1/-1 ability on this card. However, Golgari Charm looks to be very solid against the other three versions of Mono-Red Aggro in the Top 16. Those versions had cards like Firedrinker Satyr, Foundry Street Denizen, Young Pyromancer, and even a few copies of Goblin Shortcutter that all get hit by Golgari Charm. If nothing else, Golgari Charm can be used in combat to really reduce the effectiveness of an attack.
The other two modes on Golgari Charm also happen to both be very powerful against Esper Control. Esper Control relies on a card like Detention Sphere to handle problematic permanents such as planeswalkers and creatures that are resilient to Supreme Verdict. Golgari Charm can not only handle the Detention Spheres that they are relying on, but it can also be used to counter a Supreme Verdict.
Often having a blowout card against Supreme Verdict like this can be an immediate game-ending play since the control player will frequently try to set up the Verdict to be as effective as possible. They will sometimes save their early removal spells since they plan on just sweeping the board away, taking additional damage in the process. What happens when that Supreme Verdict they were relying on is suddenly taken away? Match slip please.
Golgari Charm also has the added benefit that it can sometimes be a randomly good card. Sometimes you can just blow your opponent out by blowing up an Unflinching Courage or Boon Satyr in combat. Sometimes Golgari Charm can handle a random card like Bow of Nylea or Hammer of Purphoros that would otherwise threaten to dominate the game.
Domri Rade is one of the best threats in the format against Esper Control. It comes down early, often under countermagic. It doesn't die to cards like Doom Blade, Far // Away, and Supreme Verdict. Domri has a high loyalty and threatens to ultimate quickly. That ultimate is nearly impossible for a control deck to beat. It turns off all of their spot removal spells and turns every creature you draw into an immediate threat thanks to haste and double Strike. Domri really is one of my go-to threats when trying to combat a control strategy.
Much like how Domri is one of the best cards in the format against control, Boros Reckoner provides that same power against aggro decks. It comes down early enough to affect the game and is at minimum a two-for-one against them. If they spend a removal spell to kill it, you still get to kill one of their creatures, and often they have to waste a turn just getting rid of it. Boros Reckoner puts you pretty far ahead against Mono-Red Aggro.
Domri isn't always great against Mono-Red Aggro, and Boros Reckoner is a pretty mediocre threat against an Esper Control deck. The reason I lumped them together in the same category, though, is due to how well they combo with each other. Boros Reckoner makes Domri significantly better against Mono-Red Aggro. If you ever get to use Domri's -2 ability to fight Boros Reckoner with one of their two-power creatures, you get to redirect the damage that creature deals to Boros Reckoner and kill yet another creature. You also get to keep both your Boros Reckoner and your Domri Rade, which is extremely powerful.
Something like fighting an Ash Zealot with Boros Reckoner and then redirecting that damage to also kill a Chandra's Phoenix is a pretty standard play and usually enough to swing the game in your favor.
Precinct Captain is also one of the few cards that can come down early enough to be a threat against both Esper Control and Mono-Red Aggro. Against Esper Control, an early Precinct Captain provides a lot of advantage. For one, it's going to provide a lethal army on its own, so you don't have to overextend into Supreme Verdict. Something as simple as a one-drop into a Precinct Captain presents more than enough pressure to force a Supreme Verdict, especially if Spear of Heliod is in the mix, and then you can just dump the rest of your hand into play afterward. Precinct Captain also screws up Far // Away by preventing the Away half from being very effective.
Precinct Captain is also a pretty big beating against Mono-Red Aggro. By virtue of having first strike, it's very difficult for Mono-Red Aggro to attack through it or block it. A few early hits from a Precinct Captain can also provide enough fodder to start to trade with creatures or at the very least invalidate Firefist Striker's ability.
Pithing Needle is a good example of a card that is very powerful against Esper Control but pretty lacking against Mono-Red Aggro.
With that being said, it's extremely good against a deck like Esper Control. I mentioned earlier how Dreadbore, Hero's Downfall, and Detention Sphere are all really good because they can handle planeswalkers in addition to their other abilities. Pithing Needle is far better at that role. An early Pithing Needle not only prevents a planeswalker from activating an ability at all but also serves as a removal spell for any number of planeswalkers that player draws.
For example, let's say your opponent drops a Jace, Architect of Thought and uses the -2 to find another Jace, Architect of Thought. If you now Dreadbore the Jace, you're still behind since they can just play another copy of Jace. Now, if you Pithing Needle the Jace instead, you not only shut off the Jace that is in play, but you also make that Jace in hand a completely dead card.
Pithing Needle also has a number of uses against other cards in the format. It can serve as a solid option against Ratchet Bomb and Trading Post. Pithing Needle can completely neuter a god like Heliod from burying you with Cleric tokens. It can also turn Aetherling from an unbeatable machine into a vanilla 4/5 for six, which is not exactly a scary thing.
I think Pithing Needle is one of the best sideboard options in this format. It handles problematic planeswalkers before they can even get started, which means it's a must-remove threat for an Esper Control deck that relies on walkers to do the heavy lifting.
Much like Pithing Needle is a card that didn't do much against Mono-Red Aggro, these three cards are only really effective against the red deck. Without Snapcaster Mage in the format and with a lot of Esper Control builds moving to a more creatureless approach, Scavenging Ooze becomes a lot worse against them. Scavenging Ooze can still be a reasonable late topdeck when their Supreme Verdicts have filled your graveyard, but it's not one of my go-to threats against control.
Scavenging Ooze makes up for that by being a huge thorn in the side of Mono-Red Aggro. When playing against that deck, creatures are going to die, and creatures are going to be killed on both sides of the battlefield. Scavenging Ooze has the ability to become the biggest creature in play, growing beyond the burn spells that Mono-Red Aggro can dish out and gaining some much-needed life in the process.
Unflinching Courage and Archangel of Thune likewise give Mono-Red Aggro players that sinking feeling you get when you know things are slipping away from you and you can't get it back. Unflinching Courage on a Loxodon Smiter? It's over. Follow it up with an Archangel of Thune? Done.
Not only does Unflinching Courage work well on cards like Loxodon Smiter; Polukranos, World Eater; and other fat green monsters to put the nail in Mono-Red Aggro's coffin, but Unflinching Courage and Archangel of Thune also play very well together. When you hit with the Couraged creature, you get to grow your entire team from the Archangel's ability. This can allow you to play an Archangel on turn 5 and gain life that same turn to pump the Archangel out of Mizzium Mortars range.
None of these cards are particularly effective against Esper Control, but if you're looking for a deck that should smash Mono-Red Aggro, the Archangel Aggro list from last Standard season should serve as a solid base point to fight it.
The first week of the new Standard showed us a format that isn't very diverse and is dominated by two decks that were also dominant forces in Return to Ravnica Block Constructed. I can't say I'm surprised, but at the same time, I know there is a lot more out there that isn't being fully explored. There are plenty of powerful cards that are effective tools at counteracting those two decks, and I hope that I've provided some ideas for how to go about beating them.
Unless you're Ali Aintrazi, I wouldn't recommend trying to play all of these cards in the same deck, but I think working on finding room to fit in as many of these as you can into your decks will go a long way toward finding a powerful threat against the current format.