This past weekend featured a gigantic snowstorm in Indianapolis along with the return of competitive Magic play in 2014. With the StarCityGames.com Players' Championship on everyone's mind, over 700 people braved the elements to attend the Open Series in Indianapolis, but I wasn't one of them. Eight hours (or more) of driving through harsh conditions was a little too much for me to handle, but you can bet that I'm itching badly to do some spellslinging. I also watched the coverage as Owen Turtenwald took down another event.
You'd think he was actually decent at Magic or something.
Whatever. It was probably all Pack Rat's fault anyway. Regardless, we have another win for Mono-Black Devotion, but there were also some interesting players and decks that made it into the Top 8. With so many players leaning on devotion strategies these days, it was actually refreshing to see some of SCG's best and brightest pick up something different for a change.
Andrew Shrout ended up making it to the finals with the G/W Aggro deck that he also played to a Top 4 finish at the Invitational in Las Vegas at the end of last year. These consecutive finishes lead me to believe that the deck might actually be pretty good. Let's take a look:
- 4 Banisher Priest
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Mistcutter Hydra
- 2 Skylasher
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Voice of Resurgence
- 4 Boon Satyr
Do you see all those creatures with protection from blue?! It's almost like Shrout realized that Mono-Blue Devotion is his worst matchup or something. I remember listening to Osyp Lebedowicz lamenting at Pro Tour Theros, where he was playing G/W Aggro, that Mono-Blue was basically an unwinnable matchup. While that version of the deck was quite different than the one Shrout used, we can really see just how far you have to be willing to go in order to beat your worst matchup. Normally this requires changing your deck so much so that you become worse against other strategies, but I think that Shrout found a sweet balance.
The Skylashers and Mistcutter Hydras are actually awesome against control decks, giving you threats that are invulnerable to most removal spells aside from Supreme Verdict. The fact that Skylasher has flash gives you a bit more of a tempo boost if you're able to hold up mana before the Verdict comes in, allowing you to apply real pressure while your opponent is tapped out. Advent of the Wurm, Selesnya Charm, and Experiment One all play out very well against the spell that a lot green-based decks are most afraid of.
Without the fear of Supreme Verdict, you can see that Shrout began to move in a different direction with the rest of his creature base. Banisher Priest is one of the easiest ways for the deck to battle Mono-Blue Devotion's common paths to victory. Much of the time Mono-Blue is reliant on their Master of Waves or Thassa to seal the deal. When that doesn't work, they are forced to rely on their miserable cadre of Grizzly Bears and Flying Men to get the job done. With Banisher Priest taking care of the heavy hitters and Skylasher and Mistcutter Hydra bringing up the rear, you can see how Shrout can easily win games against one of the format's main enemies.
Aside from Mono-Blue Devotion, Shrout also had to beat the other baddie in the format: Mono-Black Devotion. From this perspective your goal should be to flood the board as quickly as possible, playing creatures and hoping your opponent eventually runs out of removal. Selesnya Charm and Banisher Priest can get the Desecration Demon out of the way, allowing for some solid pressure, but cards like Voice of Resurgence make Devour Flesh quite laughable. Fortunately for you they don't have a real sweeper effect to contain your onslaught since most of them don't happen to be playing Ratchet Bomb in the sideboard.
I'm not saying Mono-Black Devotion is a good matchup. In fact, Shrout lost to Owen Turtenwald in the finals playing, you guessed it, Mono-Black Devotion. There's a lot of removal to contend with after all. If you don't happen to draw any Voices, you could get eaten away by their removal. If you don't draw Banisher Priest or have a slow start, Pack Rat can nibble away at you as well. And if the game happens to stall out and go long, they have a ton of ways to fight that battle that you don't. Underworld Connections and Gray Merchant of Asphodel are powerful cards that only get better as the game goes on.
But enough about Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Andrew Shrout and how awesome he is. Let's move on to another even more awesomer fellow.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 3 Sylvan Caryatid
- 3 Boon Satyr
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
Brian Braun-Duin-it again, but this time with G/R Monsters. Brian is no stranger to mana dorks followed by gigantic creatures (and possibly some planeswalkers thrown in). BBD and CVM both played G/R Monsters and were both in contention for Top 8 of the monstrous eleven-round event with only a few rounds left to go. Unfortunately the wheels fell off for CVM, but BBD kept chugging along and eventually managed to crack into the Top 8, falling in the semifinals.
The list they played seems pretty similar to the one he beat in the finals of Grand Prix Louisville in the hands of Jon Stern, but the biggest difference is that they actually decided to go a bit bigger, adding Flesh // Blood to finish off their opponents out of nowhere alongside Ghor-Clan Rampager. They also had more planeswalkers, opting for the third Xenagos as well as a singleton Garruk, Caller of B(BD)easts.
As CVM mentioned in the deck tech during the event, it was based off the G/R Monsters list played by Keisuke Sato at Grand Prix Shizuoka. While the deck looks solid, it isn't really my cup of tea. Decks that rely too much on mana acceleration have never been something I want to pick up, but I can obviously respect a man that wants to go big or go home. After all, there was a snowstorm on the horizon.
Brian continues to show his range in both Standard and Legacy, switching decks almost every single week. At the Invitational in Vegas, he piloted an Esper Control list featuring the full four Blood Baron of Vizkopas in the maindeck! This was crucial in the flurry of Mono-Black matchups, but Brian is pretty good at figuring out how metagames evolve. Either that or he just loves to switch strategies constantly to prove he can win with multiple varieties of sandwiches. That is to say that BBD isn't just a ham sandwich kind of guy. Sometimes you go for the grilled cheese. Other times maybe the peanut butter and jelly.
While the deck does seem inherently powerful with so many big spells, I can't figure out why you'd necessarily want to play to this strategy as opposed to something like Mono-Red Devotion. Both decks are moderately reliant on drawing a few specific cards, but one is much more explosive than the other. Perhaps it's the draw of playing Flesh // Blood. Who knows? Next week he'll likely be casting Thragtusk in Legacy, but I'll just keep waiting to find out. With BBD it's always a surprise (as well as a delight).
But we still have the two biggest monsters in the room. As I mentioned earlier, Mono-Black Devotion is still probably, likely, almost certainly the best deck in the format. Every time I play with the deck, it feels like I'm doing dirty things to my opponent, whether they fail to deal with Pack Rat or I just keep adding to the devotion count until I slam some Gary Merchants on their heads. Then there are the games where you draw Underworld Connections and a removal spell for every creature they play.
Like I said, we're playing Mono-Black baby. We play dirty.
But there are a lot of cards and strategies in Standard that can give Mono-Black Devotion some problems. Sometimes these cards or strategies overlap with Mono-Blue Devotion, and finding those should be a priority. There aren't many hidden gems left since people have had plenty of time to mess around with Standard since Theros came out, but we can examine how some cards are much more versatile and how you should look at incorporating those kinds of cards into your deck.
As you can see, the list isn't very big. The problem here is that there aren't a lot of ways to actually exile creatures, which means Thassa being indestructible is actually very important. The coolest part about Chained to the Rocks and Detention Sphere is that they're great at handling other threats besides these three. With so few spells in the format that can beat all three of these creatures, you can bet people are having a hard time figuring out how to beat everything.
Detention Sphere is one of few answers in the format to an opposing planeswalker. The fact that it doubles as creature removal makes it a perfect card for nearly any U/W deck. The Esper Humans deck from Grand Prix Shizuoka played the full set, and I wouldn't recommend any less. It's one of the best ways for control decks to contain random threats like Underworld Connections as well, making it a versatile all-star.
Chained to the Rocks is a removal spell that a red-based deck can play to actually deal with Master of Waves. Additionally, if people forego Cyclonic Rift in favor of the Greg Hatch list featuring maindeck Domestication, then you're relatively safe. But let's be real. Chained to the Rocks is one of the most efficient removal spells ever printed and can handle virtually any threat. The downside is obviously being unable to play it due to a lack of white mana or a lack of Mountain in play, but it can give red decks an answer to a card that otherwise obliterates them.
Unfortunately, I don't think that U/W/R Control is better than Esper or just straight U/W Control, so I don't know if there's a good shell that features both of these cards. Perhaps Mike Flores can brew up some four-color menace featuring Nylea's Presence to help out on the Mountain count. Actually, that doesn't seem half bad.
I think one of the biggest problems with the format is that there's no one strategy that trumps "the big three." With U/W/x Control, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Mono-Black Devotion just running rampant, finding the dagger seems like a daunting task. There are cards that are fantastic against two of those strategies but are underwhelming against the third. For example, a deck featuring Anger of the Gods and Chained to the Rocks seems strong against the blue and black decks. However, having too much removal in your deck will lead to drawing a million dead cards against U/W Control. Similarly, having a lot of counterspells seems great against Mono-Black and U/W but is just miserable against Mono-Blue.
You can see the problem.
If you remember the Naya Control deck that Brad Nelson used to win the Invitational a few months ago in Indianapolis, you see exactly what I mean. He tuned the deck to beat Mono-Blue and Mono-Black, but the deck lacked severely in beating control due to having over twelve removal spells in it. Did I mention that none of these removal spells were versatile and couldn't hit planeswalkers where something like Detention Sphere or Hero's Downfall would have been fantastic?
When you build a new deck, you can't expect to beat everything. You have to aim for the decks you think you'll play against most. In these cases it's important to have a proactive strategy so that you actually have a chance to win even if you don't have a great matchup. This was one place where the Naya Control deck was weak, as your threats didn't start coming online early at all. Loxodon Smiter can't do all the work by himself!
The other side of the coin is having threats be effective as well as versatile. The reason why both Mono-Blue and Mono-Black have so much success is that they hit you on so many different levels! Pack Rat requires removal early, but their entire game plan is to grind you out with things like Desecration Demon and Underworld Connections, nullifying your game plan of trying to one-for-one them to death. Mono-Blue has Thassa to go along with their slew of weenies as well as multiple different card advantage engines in Bident of Thassa and Jace, Architect of Thought, making spot removal much less effective in the long run.
But if you can apply pressure while killing off all of these creatures, you'll be in business. I think that's one of the reasons why Andrew Shrout's deck is a fantastic example of all of these things as well as a particularly good choice for the current metagame. With so many creatures with protection from blue, an aggressive clock for the control decks, versatile threats, and two different ways to handle Thassa, it's strong enough to become the best aggro deck in the format.
The combination of pressure with Banisher Priest can lead to some unforgiving draws that just roll the opponent before the game even gets started. Of course many of these decks have ways to deal with Banisher Priest, whether it be by Rapid Hybridization or good ol' fashioned Doom Blade. It isn't always a reliable answer to the format's most degenerate creatures, so you definitely need to keep that in mind before you take this deck to a tournament. You need to think of Banisher Priest as more of a tempo card rather than a removal spell or even a creature. It can attack and block, but its main purpose is to remove a blocker from the game and force your opponent to spend their next turn killing it. And if they don't have the removal spell for it, then you basically win the game on the spot.
While Shrout's deck doesn't have the same kind of "oops, I win" draws as Mono-Blue Devotion, it's much more of a traditional aggro deck with a much better plan against control decks. Mono-Blue often folds to Supreme Verdict, while G/W has multiple ways to get around it and continue applying pressure. The nature of Mono-Blue Devotion is to overextend, whether that means Master of Waves or Cloudfin Raptor. Both of these cards are hot garbage against Supreme Verdict decks because neither card is good without running head first into a board sweeper.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm suggesting you play this deck at your next event. It's a very strong choice for the next few weeks and seems like a lot of fun. You have an aggressive curve as well as a lot of "haterade" type cards for one of the format's most annoying decks, and they aren't bad at all against the control decks! Skylasher seems much better in the deck than Mistcutter Hydra since you don't play that many lands, but Mistcutter Hydra can be a superb topdeck in the late game if you start to get flooded against any blue deck.
This coming weekend will have me gallivanting around the East Coast for a few PTQs. I'm not exactly confident that I'll take down one of them, but I'm confident that I'm going to smash a Philly cheesesteak from Reading Terminal Market.