There are two schools of thought when it comes to brewing. One of those schools says that it is easiest to win with a brew in fresh environments: nobody knows what they are doing, everyone's 75 is a complete guess, and anything can do well. The other school says that brewers are at their best in well-defined environments with two or three top-tier decks that can be attacked and metagamed against. Generally I am in the second camp, as people who do not know what to expect can randomly be prepared for whatever you do. It's also easier to focus your brewing on specific angles of attack when you know where the holes in the metagame are.
Every now and then, the best decks in a format have such diverse gameplans that you can't brew any sort of coherent deck that attacks them all. The most glaring example of this was CawBlade-era Standard, where Valakut was the second-best deck. CawBlade was no doubt dominant, but Valakut was beating all the aggressive decks that could put enough pressure on CawBlade. Valakut itself had a very unusual (at the time) angle of attack and was hard to interact with, making the two-deck metagame very hard to approach. Although this Standard is not quite that far gone, we are in a situation where the metagame feels very stagnant and the best decks are quite different in terms of how they want to win.
So what do we do as wielders of unconventional cardboard? Do we abandon our quest to play with fun yet powerful decks and join the masses with their Mardu Vehicles and Four-Color Saheeli decks? Do we give in to the siren call of the tuned, the powerful, the proven?
Like heck we do!
We have weapons and tools at our disposal for just this sort of thing. Brewing is always a challenge, and giving up just because two or three decks are really good right now is just not in our nature. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.
Step 1: Figure Out What Isn't Being Played
Every format has powerful cards that are not being played. This is where we live: where powerful yet overlooked cards linger in darkened corners under a light coating of dust. Is it Cheeto dust? It could be, though in this house it is more likely to be discarded corks from wine bottles.
It's important at this step to not fall into the trap of just jumping on our pet cards. For example, it would be a true statement to say that Drana, Liberator of Malakir is currently not seeing play. It would also be a true statement to say that she likely should not be seeing play when so much of the removal is well-positioned to kill her. Instead, let's look for cards that are not being played in the top decks and figure out if that absence gives us an in.
For example, sweepers are at an all-time low in Standard right now. Radiant Flames is sometimes seen in some sideboards, Flaying Tendrils even less so, and the feared dominance of Yahenni's Expertise has not materialized. Fumigate is not in the maindeck of any of the top decks, though Mardu does have it in the sideboard. That suggests that the format might be weak to a powerful aggressive strategy.
- 4 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Expedition Envoy
- 3 Hanweir Garrison
- 2 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Town Gossipmonger
- 2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 3 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
This is an updated take on the W/R Humans list that has been floating around. I wanted to find room for Pia Nalaar and Aether Chaser in here, but the three-mana cost of the former and the preference for energy of the latter turned me off. We might want some Always Watching somewhere in the 75 to help us go bigger, but I wanted to keep the threats high for now.
The idea here is to take advantage of the lack of sweepers and just blitz our opponents. Very often in this format I have seen G/B and Four-Color Saheeli decks getting into huge battlefield stalls with no real way to break through. We are looking to win before we get there.
Staying with the Humans track, we can go a little bigger in a different color:
- 4 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 4 Expedition Envoy
- 4 Hamlet Captain
- 3 Heron's Grace Champion
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 2 Veteran Cathar
- 2 Archangel Avacyn
- 3 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Less explosive but perhaps with more staying power, we are looking to both take advantage of the one-for-one nature of the removal in the format and to counter any sideboarded sweepers we might see. I am a huge fan of Heron's Grace Champion, and I think both Veteran Cathar and Hamlet Captain have potential to be very powerful in this deck.
As much as it hurts me to say this, this isn't the right deck for Renegade Rallier. Revolt is not easy to get, even with Clues to sacrifice. We do have a plethora of two-mana threats to return, but the impact is not high enough to pay three mana for a 3/2 with no other abilities.
Step 2: Figure Out a Common Strength, and Weaken It
Sometimes the imbalance in a format comes from a theme in a set being pushed too far, which leaves all the top decks playing certain cards or types of cards. Affinity is a perfect example of this phenomenon at work, as was Jace, the Mind Sculptor's dominance. When that happens, you look for cards that attack that card or type and you maindeck them. Jace stayed on top because there were no good haste creatures and no ways to destroy a planeswalker in the format. Affinity, on the other hand, was just busted in half.
Right now we are looking at an artifact-heavy block that has had a major influence on the top decks. With the exception of Four-Color Saheeli, every deck is playing several artifacts. Maindeck artifact removal is already accepted as good in Limited, but maybe the time has come to consider it in Constructed as well. Drake Bosch sent me this list via Twitter, and I think it is a good vehicle for this very idea:
I love the plan of this deck, which of course is to make tokens and sculpt them into "Ahhh! Where did those tentacles come from?!" with Indomitable Creativity. I think we can make some improvements to the tools we're using to implement that plan, however.
Release the Gremlins hasn't been a very hard card to find recently. There's a reason for that: it's good against a variety of decks. In this deck, it not only clears the battlefield state of Mardu or Temur Dynavolt, it also makes us tokens which can become monsters. We are, I think, at the point where it can be played in the maindeck. That it fits our plan is just a bonus.
There are other things I would like to change here. We need four Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, even though the trick I initially wanted to try of animating Gideon and targeting him with the Creativity will not actually work. He might be the most consistently powerful card in Standard, and he makes tokens to boot. I think we can shave a Nahiri and a Chandra for sure to make that work.
I like three as the number of big winner cards to hit off the Creativity, but I am not sure Void Winnower is what we want. Ideally we want something with a huge and instant impact or, failing that, something that is very difficult to remove. Combustible Gearhulk is right now the best one of those, but Metalwork Colossus, Bane of Bala Ged, and Linvala, the Preserver are all decent options for the slot.
I would like to add a black splash in here for a couple of reasons. One is that Hidden Stockpile would seem to fit perfectly in this deck. The scry will ensure we don't accidentally draw our monsters, and making some tokens isn't awful either. I'd also like to get Oath of Liliana and Sorin, Grim Nemesis in here to give us a more robust non-gimmick game.
Step 3: Find a Common Weakness, and Attack It
This step is not always possible, let alone easy; however, right now I do think the big decks have a weakness to one common mechanic: flying. Planeswalker decks traditionally have a tough time against flyers, and Mardu has basically become a planeswalker deck. G/B has nothing in the air, and the Dynavolt decks are all-in on Whirler Virtuoso being able to protect them. Perhaps it is time to revisit an old “favorite” and get flashy?
We don't have Reflector Mage or Smuggler's Copter, but there is still plenty of power in this deck. Archangel Avacyn has had a spell on the bench due to the prevalence of Grasp of Darkness, but with Fatal Push shoving Grasp out, it might be time for Avacyn to come back. Almost this whole deck plays on the opponent's turn, doing all it can to negate sorcery-speed removal and to attack through the air where the opponent is weak.
Step 4: Remember That If a Deck Existed That Beat Everything, Everyone Would Play It
When we brew, the most important thing to keep in mind is that we should not expect to come up with a world-beater. The hive mind is almost invariably stronger than any individual, and if the deck that beat all others did exist then someone would probably be on it. Instead we should focus on beating one or two of the best decks and try to shore up the other matchups to avoid auto-lose situations. If you cannot do that, it is sometimes okay to accept that one match is simply unwinnable without a perfect set of draws and play from there.
Take this past Standard season, for example. B/G Delirium was very good against W/U Flash but miserable against Aetherworks. Aetherworks could not beat W/U Flash. The result was a monumentally unpleasant format in which almost nothing but those three decks stood a chance in big tournaments. In smaller, store-level events, it is easier to dodge the deck we can't beat and feed on the ones we can, making it a more appealing idea to play something outlandish.
Steps 5 Through 183: Have Fun
Let's be honest here, folks: we brew because we want to have fun with our own creations, not because we think we are the only people on earth to have come up with the unique combination of cards we've put together. Never lose sight of that. If you build something that isn't fun for you, you're defeating the purpose of brewing. Winning is great, but winning and having fun is greater still.
During Innistrad – Return to Ravnica Standard, there was a Bant Hexproof deck that was built around Geist of Saint Traft, Selesnya Charm, Rancor, and similar cards. It was exceptionally powerful but not at all interactive and not even close to the kind of deck I would normally sleeve up. One Friday I decided to take it for a spin on the off-chance that I was wrong.
It was the most unenjoyable 5-0 FNM I have ever played. I felt dirty winning with it.
Don't let that be you. Sure, sometimes we all want to take a break from trying to create and just play a powerful stock list, but choose one that speaks to you. Heck, tweak it a little with a couple of spicy one-ofs so you can at least pretend it's yours.
Trust me, it helps.
That's all we have for this week, folks. Things might look bleak out there on the Standard front, but all is not lost for brewers. I will be at GP New Jersey this weekend to do battle with a home brew that I have been tweaking for a month or so, and I am excited to take it for a spin. Come say hi if you see me! As always, thanks for stopping by the LAB. Until next time...Brew On!