It's been a while since I've written about Standard, so it's time to get everyone caught up to speed on what I've been working on. The short version is that I went from R/W Aggro to Abzan Reanimator to Jeskai to a fatter Abzan Aggro, back to Jeskai, and then I gave Mardu a spin.
I've had a lot of ideas.
Thoughts On R/W Aggro
I'm not going to provide decklists because there are plenty out there, and I wouldn't do anything too spicy to the archetype anyway.
This deck is solid but unspectacular. It doesn't do anything particularly well, but it does play powerful threats all the way up the curve and has some cheap removal to back it up. It's not as fast as something like Mono-Red Aggro, but it can also beat a resolved Siege Rhino. In short, it's got a lot of staying power and plenty of reach.
When I played it, I didn't like the Jeskai matchup, nor did I like the U/B or Sultai Control matchup. Against Jeskai, you are basically trying to do the same stuff as them except they have Dig Through Time. You could have Outpost Siege, but so could they, plus they want to bring in some enchantment removal against you anyway. Since you're lacking in the card advantage department, you're pigeonholed into being the aggressor, which means you can't really sidestep their sideboard Anger of the Gods.
I really liked Brimaz, King of Oreskos despite what it does to the manabase. In the R/W mirrors, your Stormbreath Dragons are often the only juicy target for their Stoke the Flames, so they rarely have to point them anywhere else. At least with Brimaz, you're trying to spread their Stokes too thin, which gives you a shot at your Dragons actually staying in play.
However, what you really want Brimaz to be is Mantis Rider. I think Jeskai is the superior deck, and the manabase is only slightly worse than the R/W manabase. Mantis Rider dies to Lightning Strike along with most things, but even if they kill it, you're often getting a hit in.
These decks are all about getting their shots in while they can, and Mantis Rider is great for that. Any time you can get some damage in, force them to spend their turn killing it, then get another shot in, you're in great shape. Things tend to spiral out of control from there.
I did a video on Jeskai yesterday, so if you want to see that deck in action, feel free to check it out. I played Wingmate Roc over Stormbreath Dragon, which was likely a mistake, but I like the list overall. I only went 2-2, but the games were great.
One of the coolest things about playing with these R/W decks was the decision between Wild Slash or Lightning Strike. Typically, you're going to want these spells to interact in the early turns against similar decks, so being cheaper has a lot of value to me, especially since there aren't many three toughness creatures you need to worry about.
While there aren't a ton of three toughness creatures out there, they do exist. Fleecemane Lion, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and Mantis Rider are the three that come to mind, but being able to trade a goblin token and a Lightning Strike for a Courser of Kruphix isn't trivial either. I started by maxing out on Wild Slashes, and they were certainly great in mirror matches.
There were some three toughness creatures that popped up here and there, but I was generally able to make it work, even if my Wild Slashes weren't great. Decks with three toughness creatures often have creatures with two toughness as well, so it's not like they were completely useless. It just so happened where there were times I couldn't kill what I wanted to.
When your burn spells are dealing one less damage, it can be difficult to close games, especially against U/B Control decks packing Dismal Backwater and Radiant Fountain. The question is, how much burn are you trying to keep in the matchup post-board? If you're boarding out whatever's in the Slash/Strike slot, then it doesn't matter too much. However, after playing a bunch of games in the matchup, the burn seems very important for actually putting away games where U/B would otherwise be in control with a fistful of removal. If that's the case, Lightning Strike may be the superior choice.
At this point, I would probably play a three Lightning Strike / two Wild Slash split in R/W, but in Jeskai or Mardu, with an increased amount of enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, Wild Slash seems better. That way, you have a way to steal initiative back, even if your manabase is forcing you to develop slowly. Jeskai and Mardu also have other ways to deal with X/3s, such as Mantis Rider or Crackling Doom.
Mardu could be a better version of R/W, but it all depends on what you're up against. As I said earlier, control decks were pretty bad matchups, and while I could try to beat them with more Ashcloud Phoenixes, more Outpost Sieges, and some copies of Mastery of the Unseen, it might just be easier to play something like Thoughtseize.
Crackling Doom is the original Valorous Stance and is pretty good at what it does. Butcher of the Horde doesn't even seem to be appearing in Mardu decklists anymore, which seems kind of crazy to me, but it does turn on opposing Valorous Stances. I started with two and liked them. Having an additional way to win races is important in pseudo-mirrors, and it allows you to be the aggressor sooner.
I was trying Wingmate Rocs again, and while I think they are very good against the aggro decks in the format, they are generally worse than any card that costs 3RR. You could try to be a grindier board control deck, but the red cards all want you to focus on aggression and getting your opponents dead. It's important not to lose sight of what truly matters.
Updating Abzan Reanimator
People seem to think it can't be done. They are wrong.
My foray into Standard started with Brad Nelson and co.'s G/B Ugin ramp pile thing that they played in the StarCityGames Open in Washington DC.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Hornet Queen
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 3 Doomwake Giant
- 4 Eidolon of Blossoms
Brad's deck looked sweet, and I wanted to try it as soon as possible. Of course, those hopes and dreams I had after seeing the decklist were quickly dashed after finding out how unstable the deck actually is. BBD's 9th place finish did little to change my mind.
I liked some parts of what the deck was doing, so I tried to find a happy middle ground. It eventually morphed into this:
- 2 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Hornet Queen
- 4 Rakshasa Deathdealer
- 3 Reaper of the Wilds
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 3 Whisperwood Elemental
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
I really liked the aspect of Frontier Siege into Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Hornet Queen. However, I didn't like the "all-in" nature of it. If you didn't draw Frontier Siege (or had it killed or countered), your expensive cards would start clogging up your hand. I found that you didn't need too many big spells to beat the midrange opponents, and you were better off trying to beat decks like U/B Control with cheaper cards.
That's how the hybrid came to be. I wanted to be aggressive enough to actually pressure decks like U/B Control (and now Sultai Control) while still having the fantastic top end of Brad's deck. It may look odd to be an Abzan-style deck that is just jamming Ugins into the deck, but in reality the Ugins were more important, and I was just jamming in some cards with lower mana costs to make me better in other places.
The effects of Hornet Queen and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon against decks like Abzan Aggro can't be understated -- They effectively win you the game in nearly every situation. Yes, sometimes your insects die to Bile Blight and they keep attacking you or your Ugin wipes their board, but they Hero's Downfall it. In both cases, their board is at least a little worse off, and you get some time to try it again.
Reaper of the Wilds was great and everything, but Siege Rhino was the card I really wanted. That led me down the path of an Abzan Reanimator / Ugin hybrid, but eventually I dropped the Ugins. I was doing fine against Abzan Aggro thanks to the white cards and Tasigur, so the high end became less relevant.
I finally found a list I liked, and over two days, I went 18-2 in 8-mans and Daily Events with this:
- 2 Hornet Queen
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 1 Soul of Innistrad
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
- 3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
I felt like I had done it. The deck felt great without Sylvan Caryatid making my midgame topdecks horrendous, it was smooth, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang made Commune with the Gods playable. Being able to Impulse for, and effectively Dark Ritual out a Tasigur was, in fact, bananas.
The aggro matchups were won on razor thin margins, but they were wins. Control felt good if I could chain some Read the Bones together, stick a Whip of Erebos, or play a Tasigur, the Golden Fang while also being able to activate it. Everything in between generally lost to this strategy because I was going over the top of them.
So is this the deck I would recommend today? Not necessarily.
As I said, the aggro matchups are close, and I think we could regain some percentage points by retooling the sideboard. I tried things like Hornet Nest, Arashin Cleric and the like, but there isn't much that's good against Abzan Aggro and R/W Aggro at the same time. Sure, cheap removal like Bile Blight helps, but it doesn't deal with everything, especially their cards that actually end up beating you like Wingmate Roc and Stormbreath Dragon.
Due to how much control there is online, I cut the Sylvan Caryatids entirely. With Thoughtseize, you can strip a crucial card in your opponents curve, making it feel like you've accelerated your mana. Commune with the Gods or Satyr Wayfinder into Tasigur, the Golden Fang has a similar feeling. You lose out by not being able to ramp into Doomwake Giant and Hornet Queen, which can occasionally be costly.
If I were playing in real life, I'd likely play a similar deck, except work on finding a happy medium between including Sylvan Caryatid and not feeling like I'm manaflooded all the time.
Before Grand Prix Seville, I played against a guy online that had a Mono-Green Devotion deck similar to the ones that did well over there, and I devised a sideboard plan where I brought in all my removal and card drawing by siding out most of the my threats, such as Siege Rhino. The matchup seemed difficult, and I needed every piece of removal to contain him. I eventually won the game and match because of that plan.
Perhaps something similar could be used against R/W and Abzan Aggro. Silence the Believers is a card that I think is great, but it's obviously very expensive. Because of how prevalent control is online, I cut the Sylvan Caryatids, which should make those aggro matchups much easier and would also enable Silence the Believers to be cast in a reasonable time frame.
Of course, the other end of the spectrum would be to ditch the top end of Abzan Reanimator and go the route I did with the G/B Midrange deck by adding some cheaper stuff that can block (and I suppose attack) efficiently.
- 4 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Wingmate Roc
- 2 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
A little bit of Abzan Aggro, a little bit of Abzan Midrange, and a little bit of graveyard interaction. I had high hopes for this one, but it ended up being a little too low to the ground against decks with big planeswalkers like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. The first time I got Ugin-ed playing this deck, I definitely thought, "This is what I've been doing to people all this time? I'm a horrible person."
They'd wipe my board that I worked so hard to assemble, all in the hopes that I could take over before Dig Through Times started chaining into each other, which put me too far behind. Sure, I could Hero's Downfall the Ugin and try to move on with my life, but then they'd start the Dig Through Time chain I was hoping to get under, and I'd die eventually.
In reality, I think I need something a little closer to the Abzan Reanimator deck, although a deck like this might be great in real life. Control doesn't seem to be too popular there, but it's the weapon of choice for many Magic Online players. Maybe it's as easy as adding the Sylvan Caryatids back into the maindeck while still trying to hate on control in game 1. We shall see.
I'll definitely be experimenting with Abzan Reanimator (and all the other decks in this article too, heh) after Grand Prix Vancouver, but I'm currently going pretty deep into Modern because of that tournament. Having played Standard for the last few weeks and really enjoying it, I'm pretty disappointed that I'm going to Vancouver instead of Memphis, but Vancouver is a short drive so I can't turn that down. I thought I had a good handle on the format leading up to the Pro Tour, but now everyone has the same technology and there are a lot of scary decks out there, so I'm kind of lost.