We have Grand Prix Miami on the horizon, and it features the Standard format. Accordingly, I felt like it would be a great time to go over all of the big players in Standard. At the moment, there are quite a lot of viable strategies, but there are a few who stand above the rest in both recent results and overall power level. Those decks currently define Standard, and today we're going to break them down so that you know exactly what is important about each, both playing with and against them.
The big three are coming back to Miami!
As Grand Prix Miami unfolds, it will become clear which of those decks is currently in the best position. Having good sideboard cards or just building your deck a certain way can definitely help a player get a leg up on the competition. Knowing your enemy is a great first step in identifying and understanding which sideboard cards will shine and which will feel mediocre. In the end, we can only use fifteen, so make them count. At the moment, I am a huge fan of "hoser" sideboard cards, as so many of the decks in Standard are polarizing. Nearly all of them have a major weakness that can be exploited, and I would much rather have the more powerful option than the more flexible one. Being flexible can be beneficial when many decks in the format are similar, and some of those cards have splash damage in other matchups, but that isn't really the case in the current Standard metagame.
Go hard or go home.
If you read my article from earlier in the week, you'll know that I have a great respect for the newest iteration of R/W Aggro as played by Ben Stark at Grand Prix Memphis. The deck was lean and put Outpost Siege to great use. If you haven't seen the deck by now, here is what I'd suggest for this weekend:
The major difference between this version and previous iterations of R/W Aggro is lowering the curve to put this card at its maximum potential.
Outpost Siege is a phenomenal card, acting both as a card advantage engine in a burn-style deck while also having a secondary mode that can end the game on the spot so long as the opponent is at a low enough life total. Previous versions of this deck were a bit heavier on the top end, going big with Ashcloud Phoenix, Stormbreath Dragon, and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker in the maindeck. This made the prospect of playing four copies of Outpost Siege unlikely, as your curve would be far too high. You need to make sure you play some early threats and removal, emptying most of your hand before casting Outpost Siege. This ensures that the game is nearly at parity when you cast your Siege, allowing you to pull very far ahead in short period of time.
If you are stuck with a bunch of expensive spells in hand when you cast Outpost Siege, it is much easier to get overwhelmed by the opponent. Having a clunky start with a Stormbreath Dragon or Ashcloud Phoenix in your hand usually means you aren't casting Outpost Siege on turn 4 because spending that turn doing nothing isn't feasible. Ben Stark's solution to this problem was playing cheaper threats (Soulfire Grand Master) and cheaper removal (Wild Slash).
The biggest weakness to this deck is that it hinges on Outpost Siege. It does have the ability to get a little bigger after sideboard, and Ben recognized that it might be necessary with five total five-drop threats. You will do well against R/W Aggro if you are able to interact with all of their early threats while also destroying their Outpost Siege, but be aware that they can get much bigger. Sultai Charm is one of the easiest ways to accomplish both goals, as it kills every threat in the deck while also being a great maindeck answer to Outpost Siege.
Killing Outpost Siege is a fine start, but this deck is vulnerable to cheap sweeper effects. Drown in Sorrow is the most commonly played sideboard sweeper, but Anger of the Gods is also great against this deck. Just be aware that most red decks that might want Anger of the Gods also rely on many of the same threats as R/W Aggro, so playing Anger of the Gods might not be wise. If your deck has few or no creatures that die to Anger of the Gods, then make sure you're packing a few to handle Goblin Rabblemaster and Hordeling Outburst. A three-mana sweeper is one of the easiest ways to get a leg up on this archetype.
Bile Blight is also a great spell against this deck, as it can singlehandedly take care of a Hordeling Outburst while also being a very cheap removal spell for the rest of the creatures in the deck. If you ever get a two-for-one with Bile Blight, killing two Seeker of the Way or Soulfire Grand Master, then the game is virtually over. Keep that in mind when playing with R/W Aggro, and do your best to play around Bile Blight whenever possible. I see people run their second Goblin Rabblemaster onto the table all the time, only to have them both swept away with a single Bile Blight.
As a R/W Aggro player, I think it would be a great idea to start trying out new sideboard cards that could give you an edge against black decks. While there is no true counter to Drown in Sorrow, something like Gods Willing could be great against both Abzan Control and Sultai Control. The turns where you play and can protect Goblin Rabblemaster are crucial, but it is also a huge tempo swing if you can force them to spend an entire turn trying to kill your creature, only to be foiled for a single mana. You can also play your second Goblin Rabblemaster into a potential Bile Blight if you have a Gods Willing at the ready, as it will counter the spell altogether and keep both of your Goblin Rabblemasters on the table.
I suppose we'll work with Brad's list, as that seems the most appropriate.
I suppose it is pretty clear by now that I was wrong about Sylvan Caryatid in the deck. Not having Sylvan Caryatid feels like cutting off a finger, but in the end you get to make so many of the cards in your deck better. Having Bile Blight in the maindeck helps slow the opponent down early in the game, making up for the loss of acceleration, but the main draw for cutting Sylvan Caryatid is that it makes your deck so much smoother. Your Courser of Kruphix will never see a Sylvan Caryatid get stuck on top, and your Tasigur, the Golden Fang activations will never put a Sylvan Caryatid in your hand. Overall, the deck just feels like it runs clean without Caryatid, though it is a tad bit slower. The good part about Siege Rhino is that it rarely matters when it comes down, but only that it comes down at some point. It isn't exactly necessary to play it on turn 3 if you've killed two of their creatures by then.
Abzan Control is a newer take on the clan, relying much more on card advantage than previous versions. Instead of ramping into planeswalkers, we're trying to control the pace of the game with a plethora of spot removal, discard effects, and creatures that can slowly turn the game in our favor. Both Siege Rhino and Tasigur are great threats that have lasting effects on the game, even if they aren't around for very long. The ability of Tasigur to get a few cards back out of the graveyard is fantastic, but the real treat is how efficient he is. While he isn't as good in Standard as he is in Modern (or Legacy), Tasigur can still take over a game given enough time. Resources trade heavily in Standard, filling up your graveyard quickly.
The weaknesses of Abzan Control aren't exactly constant, as the deck can be built a number of ways to counteract the cards that were good against it last week. The deck is fluid, changing slots based on an ever-evolving metagame. In Memphis, the sideboard was built to keep R/W Aggro from going underneath us with their cheap threats. Fleecemane Lion and Sorin, Solemn Visitor gave us some breathing room against early aggression. But having those sideboard cards came at a cost. We were unable to build a sideboard that could help us if games went long. Without access to Liliana Vess or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, some decks could go over our heads. Even Outpost Siege out of the R/W decks could cause major problems.
With the current build, it is nearly impossible to go under Abzan Control. Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow coupled with the efficiency of Fleecemane Lion meant most aggressive decks needed a way to get much bigger after sideboard if they wanted to compete. Having four copies of Outpost Siege was a great way for them to facilitate that transition. Since Abzan Control doesn't have a flexible disenchant effect like Sultai Charm, they are often stuck playing cards like Erase or Back to Nature to deal with enchantments. And since they need those cards to keep from losing to Outpost Siege, they will often have cards stuck in their hand. And as anyone who plays an aggressive deck knows, the easiest way to beat a slower opponent is for them to have cards stuck in their hand.
Stormbreath Dragon is great against Abzan. They don't have too many ways to kill it, and most of those spells will be used to stifle early aggression. Most burn spells are pretty bad against Abzan, as Stoke the Flames doesn't kill Siege Rhino or Tasigur, while Wild Slash and Lightning Strike kill nothing. The incremental life gained by Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino can also make the prospect of burning them out nearly impossible. It is much easier to kill them with threats that they can't easily handle. Decks featuring creatures that die to Abzan Charm are pretty weak to Abzan Control, as you turn on one of their best spells. When they have options with Abzan Charm, you're going to be in a bit of trouble.
Having a high density of planeswalkers or card advantage is also good against Abzan Control. Like with Stormbreath Dragon, their only way to deal with them is Hero's Downfall, so putting too much pressure on their removal is essential. Decks that can blank their removal by playing no creatures also have a leg up on Abzan Control. U/B Control featuring Perilous Vault felt like a pretty bad matchup at the Grand Prix, as you have so many dead cards in the first game. Dig Through Time and Jace's Ingenuity also felt tough for Abzan Control to beat, as they helped to overwhelm Thoughtseize.
Thoughtseize is traditionally great when an opposing deck hinges on a single card or has a wide range of effects without a lot of redundancy. Taking away one piece of their puzzle disrupts them long enough so that you can get your Elspeth online and eventually take over a game. Decks that make Thoughtseize bad are full of redundant effects. A hyper aggressive red deck is full of small creatures and burn spells, meaning that Thoughtseize will have fewer options. On top of that, the damage from Thoughtseize matters a lot. Drawing multiple copies of Thoughtseize against a hyper aggressive opponent can be devastating for the Abzan Control player, as it will almost certainly get stuck in hand or just end up doing very little.
- 2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
- 1 Garruk, Apex Predator
- 2 Kiora, the Crashing Wave
- 2 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
This is the new kid on the block, and one that's really impressed me. It has a lot of the same strengths as U/B Control but fewer of the weaknesses. You have a lot of card advantage spells and can fill up the graveyard quite easily with Satyr Wayfinder, but you also have a lower density of lands in your deck, which ultimately makes Dig Through Time much better. I love the Sultai Charms, as they are sweet removal spells that are never dead, while also giving you more flexibility in dealing with problematic permanents.
Sultai also allows you to play a few more planeswalkers, which can shine in a number of matchups. Kiora is great against midrange strategies and Heroic, but it is also fantastic in a control mirror. The ability to hit more land drops while also drawing cards is exactly the kind of effect I want. Ashiok is phenomenal in a format full of midrange creatures and has a pretty high starting loyalty after using the first ability. It is not easy to kill Ashiok by just attacking, which means you will likely get to untap and go into protection mode. Ashiok can win many games single-handedly, so long as you have the means to play enough defense.
But the biggest addition to the deck when you add green is Garruk, Apex Predator. This guy has been a house, trumping both Elspeth and Ugin with relative ease. If left alone, Garruk can threaten to end the game in just a few turns, but the deathtouch Beasts are also surprisingly good, even if Garruk does go down. The lifegain from Garruk when it kills a creature is strong, giving you a pad to your life total while you try to whittle away your opponent's resources. It is expensive, but I honestly think it is better than Ugin in the deck. I would absolutely play a second copy of Garruk before a second copy of Ugin.
Without a lot of raw card advantage like Divination or Jace's Ingenuity, it can be difficult for this deck to make sure it hits all of its land drops while also interacting with the opponent. You will often need to keep the spells you see with your Temples, but that might mean missing your sixth or seventh land drop in the process. The same is true for Dig Through Time, as you'll rarely want to take a land with it. I've found that Sultai Control can suffer from having too much top end, but you must be careful as the game goes longer. A single Satyr Wayfinder rolling over your last Garruk or Ugin can be devastating to your chances of winning.
Like Abzan Control, it can be difficult to go under Sultai due to the existence of Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow. These cards help them interact with you in the earlygame, adding fuel for their Dig Through Times and the like. This also makes it exceptionally hard to go over the top of them. They also have Sultai Charm to help out against Outpost Siege and Stormbreath Dragon, giving them natural trumps to R/W Aggro. They have a great game 1 against decks featuring too many removal spells and can grind out many midrange strategies with Dig Through Time. So the real question is: What beats Sultai Control?
There isn't a lot, actually. Sultai Control can be trumped by other dedicated control decks that have access to more counterspells and card advantage. They can also be bottle necked by something like Abzan Aggro, since their Sultai Charms are quite embarrassing there. The trick to beating Sultai Control is forcing them to tap out on your turn. This means threats like Fleecemane Lion or Goblin Rabblemaster. Once you've forced them to tap out on your turn, you need a huge follow up threat that they have a tough time dealing with. Five-drop planeswalkers like Nissa, Ajani, and Liliana are all great, but Whisperwood Elemental is awesome too. The problem with these cards is that you need to force them to tap out. Once you force them to tap out once, they're ultimately forced to tap out for the rest of the game. If you don't force them to tap out the first time, they'll get a window to start resolving their Disdainful Strokes and Dig Through Times. When they're in this spot, it is almost impossible to beat them.
Overloading their Sultai Charms is also important. Having enough threats to start slamming early puts pressure on their removal spells, giving you a window later in the game to resolve something like Mastery of the Unseen or Outpost Siege. Once this happens, they'll need a Sultai Charm right away, or you'll probably take over the game. This is one of the reasons why I loved the three Mastery of the Unseen in Ben Stark's sideboard. The more threats you have that force their hand the better.
Spice and Miami Vice
While there are many viable archetypes in Standard, I suspect that these three will be the majority of matchups in a given tournament. That makes it incredibly important that you know all the ins and outs of each deck, so that you know how to construct your deck to beat them. Having a firm grasp on what each of these decks is capable of will go a long way in helping you make correct decisions in both deckbuilding, sideboarding, and playing games. Without that knowledge, it is easy to put emphasis on something less important, or build your deck in a way that is good against "older versions."
At the moment, I am not exactly sure what I'm playing at Grand Prix Miami. My gut tells me to play something fun and explosive, or just try to go over the top of everything. Maybe that means Green Devotion, or maybe it means Titan's Strength. I am a bit gun shy of playing Sock Full of Batteries Beatdown, as Drown in Sorrow can be a huge pain, but you can play around it if you know what you're doing.
Eidolon of the Great Revel is a fantastic card at the moment, punishing the control decks for lowering their curve to interact with all of your threats. Dash creatures also feel pretty good if people are in the business of casting End Hostilities and Crux of Fate.
Regardless, I'm making the fourteen-hour trek by car to Miami this weekend for the Grand Prix, and StarCityGames is looking to put on a hell of a show. If you can't make it out to the event yourself, make sure to tune in to SCGLive for all the sweet Standard action. Whatever we come up with, I'm sure it'll be exciting to watch.