I can remember back to the first week when Kaladesh was legal where we watched Chris VanMeter win the Open in Indianapolis with R/W Vehicles. I was thinking to myself, "Does Smuggler's Copter need to be banned?" Back then it seemed like a far and away dream that they would ban any card in Standard again, and I resigned myself to figuring ways to beat the super efficient 3/3 vehicle. I started down the path of Delirium and I found Grim Flayer and Ishkanah, Grafwidow, which eventually lead me to the mother of all Delirium decks. The MVP? Emrakul, the Promised End. Unlike her name, Emrakul, the Promised End was in fact the beginning of a terrifying tidal wave that's only just come to rest this past week.
In what seemed like a blink of an eye the masses were turned on their heels and the entire Magic community's focus was on the fact that there was now cards on the banned list for Standard.
"It's a different story every time." -Patrick Sullivan
At the Players' Championship this past year, Patrick Sullivan repeated that phrase every time an Emrakul, the Promised End was cast, devastating the opponent's position and hand. The sarcasm was not lost on any of us that weekend. Aetherworks Marvel decks plagued the Invitational and the Players' Championship to the point where shortly after that event we were trapped in one of the dullest winters for Magic in history. Some went as far as to create formats where we hoped to remedy the issues that Standard posed while not having some of the inherent flaws that Modern had since its inception. While that neither offered a long-term solution nor change the fact that we had a ban-worthy problem on our hands, it was a message, however subtle, to Wizards of the Coast that their poster child format needed saving.
The first Standard banning since cards of such degeneracy as Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor had sought to alleviate the stranglehold some of the prominent strategies of the format and create diversity. While they did accomplish that for the most part, there was one card that slipped through the cracks.
This was a mistake. No one in design or development caught Felidar Guardian's interaction with Saheeli Rai, and this took the entire format and turned it upside down. While I personally did manage to win the first Open of this card's legality in Columbus with a deck that did not feature the combo, we soon realized the dark shadow that was cast over everything everyone else was trying to do.
That's the problem with combo decks. When a deck like Splinter Twin or Birthing Pod is first discovered, the versions that are initially designed have some work to be done to perfect them. Given a few weeks under the harsh scrutiny of Magic Online, the best players figure the optimal ways to build the most powerful decks.
Magic is always surprising us in almost every way and the hideous end to Felidar Guardian was one of the most mind boggling announcements in Magic's history. When Wizards announced no bannings on April 24th, there was a communal uproar. When two days later they announced they changed their minds and Felidar Guardian was now banned, there was deafening silence. Most of the vocal players, myself included, were shocked by this turn of events.
Make no mistake, the banning of Felidar Guardian was one of the most dangerous and terrifying things I've ever experienced as a Magic player. This ban set a truly disturbing precedent for Magic and one I hope never to be implemented again.
From this point I, like many others, believed that we would have a new and healthy format on our hands. We no longer had the threat of losing the game on turn 4 to arbitrarily large numbers of kitty cats! While the SCG Open in Atlanta just after the release of Amonkhet proved that being aggressive in a new format with little time to prepare is almost always correct, the Pro Tour told an entirely different story just weeks later. I may have had delusions of grandeur that Delirium would once again be able to hold back all of what Mardu Vehicles and the rest of the format had to throw at me, but I was wrong.
It can be very difficult to see what kinds of rippling effects certain cards have on a format, and Felidar Guardian was a tough one. With the former Aetherworks Marvel decks utilizing a semi Delirium shell to facilitate the cost reduction of Emrakul, the Promised End, we had no time in between when that deck was dominant and when Felidar Guardian was the default energy-based deck of the format. Because of the lack of time separating these beasts of the format's dominance, when Felidar Guardian was removed the true terror of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger had not yet been realized.
I've heard the logic that Aetherworks Marvel wasn't the issue and that Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger was, since that's the singular threat the game typically hinges on. While I hear those people and understand that logic, it's fundamentally flawed in the fact that Aetherworks Marvel will be legal for over another year. The threat of any high costed spell that gets printed assimilating itself into the energy themed deck and having its casting cost cheated on is far too restrictive and perhaps irreparably dangerous to what is coming down the pipeline for Magic.
Long have we had a Standard format with cards slightly too powerful by comparison to what existed around them. It is my firm belief that we may finally be at the point where Standard Magic looks, feels, and plays like actual games of Magic! We've been tried and we have come through stronger and hopefully more experienced than ever before. While we can't change the past, it seems that Wizards has recognized the flaws in its previous methods of development and has put in place new safety nets to prevent a banning from ever occurring again in Standard. I have faith that they'll come through in that regard, and once we rid ourselves of any painful memories from these bannings, we'll never have to experience that again.
Welcome to the new Standard everyone!
While I'm certainly flattered by the immediate responses from two great players, there's a ton of unexplored areas in the format that we now have the opportunity to discover! While my attention will first be devoted to my personal favorites, Grim Flayer and friends, there are endless other strategies that have been pushed slightly out of the tier one tournament scene because of the previous oppressions.
If there are any cards that I expect to see a lot more play come the Invitational, it's Glorybringer and Bounty of the Luxa. Glorybringer was the most hyped card coming out of Amonkhet and the scenario where it's the dominant force that we all expected it to be is finally here! With Grim Flayer, Tireless Tracker, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar expected to have their day in the sun, there's no greater counter than Glorybringer. Where the metagame will eventually settle I'm not sure, but here's a great starting point to where Glorybringer could fit.
- 4 Bristling Hydra
- 1 Channeler Initiate
- 1 Elder Deep-Fiend
- 4 Glorybringer
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 3 Whirler Virtuoso
With this deck being largely a port over from the shell that was built with Aetherworks Marvel, Glorybringer is the ultimate threat for most of the midrange strategies utilizing energy. Many of the old stalwarts will still exist with fewer sideboard restrictions on them. Temur Energy shells have been good since the release of Rogue Refiner and will continue to be a deck for the remainder of their legality. Something that is a bit more new to Standard is the return of ramp!
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 2 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Ulvenwald Captive
- 2 Ulvenwald Hydra
- 4 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
While this isn't exactly all too different from the Aetherworks Marvel decks we've come to hate, it is an easy alternative to those who've lost their pet deck. Bounty of the Luxa can often be a better than Aetherworks Marvel ever could be depending on the situation. If the plan is to cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and make sure that on the way you don't run out of gas, Bounty of the Luxa is the perfect card.
Adapting the role that Aetherworks Marvel had on the format, Bounty of the Luxa facilitating the ramp role to power out Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger the "fair" way seems like it could be well-poised for an unexpected metagame.
One last deck I want to revisit is a favorite from the previous format that had a zero percent win rate against Aetherworks Marvel. It might have some legs now!
Clearly any deck that tries to win the game by grinding people out with Planeswalkers would have an issue with Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and this deck was no exception. We find ourselves playing what typically amounts to a pre-boarded version of Mardu Vehicles with some ways to go even bigger post-sideboard.
It might finally be time for the Angels to decend upon us! The main reason to have Descend Upon the Sinful over a card like Fumigate is the presence of Zombies. You're a control deck and do have to deal with everything that your opponent could conceivably throw at you, and dealing with recursion is very high on the lists of things that could give you fits.
Overall I'm excited to see where decks like these could go. While Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is still a legal Magic card, its reign over Standard has indeed passed and we're better for it. I hope it's years before we have to ban a card in Standard, and I have faith that we'll come through this era of Magic and be able to reflect on the past and laugh. The Invitational is only a few weeks away, and you can be sure, with a new chapter in Standard having been turned, I'll be doing my best to be at the forefront of it and stay one step ahead.