Aetherworks Marvel has been removed from Standard, breathing life into midrange decks everywhere! There are many options that have come to life with the recent bannings announcement, so deciding where to settle can be difficult. The power of midrange is undeniable, but that typically translates to a rise in control. The paper, rock, scissors system of Standard has always equated to format health. Aggressive decks defeating control decks, control decks defeating midrange, and midrange decks defeating aggressive decks is a Standard I want to battle in. I have a good feeling that the banning of Aetherworks Marvel has opened the door for that healthy format.
There is already chatter about the price spike in Ishkahah, Grafwidow, because of its ability to thwart any strategy that relies on cheap creatures. B/G Delirium, Temur Midrange, and Zombies all have very good matchups against Mardu, which is the clear frontrunner of Team Aggro. Mardu Vehicles, utilizing the power of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, is the deck to beat in the "new" format from where I'm sitting.
This is great news for Spider lovers, but bad news for Torrential Gearhulk fans. At this current juncture, control is still a huge underdog to Mardu variants, and there aren't any cards to help shift the matchup closer to 40-45%. Paper, rock, scissors represents a level of format health to me; however, when a deck "beats" another deck, it should still be by a minimal percentage. The best part about good Magic is that anyone can beat anyone, and any deck can beat any deck.
I'm hopeful control may rise up and dominate because it is now the clear owner of the late-game, and that cannot be stolen by an eventual Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger's arrival. I think there will be some players who try to adapt the remaining Eldrazi in a more traditional ramp deck, but I doubt they will be very successful. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar provides a lethal early-game for any of those who take off full turns to put lands onto the battlefield.
Before and After
Many of you saw my deep run at GP Montreal with U/B Control. That is the deck I immediately thought of after the banning announcement. Liliana, the Last Hope is undercosted, powerful, and the strongest in a deck that can protect her until the game-ending ultimate.
I was 9-1 before back-to-back losses against U/R Control and a final loss to B/G Energy, putting me at a suddenly mediocre 11-4. Those losses came from sideboards that were ill-equipped to deal with the control mirror and large creatures. The sideboard and many cards in the maindeck were taxed by the existence of Aetherworks Marvel. Cards like Commit and Ceremonious Rejection were required to combat a resolved legendary artifact or prevent it from resolving with the lowest possible cost. Negate was another card that I was forced to run in excess in the maindeck, which was embarrassing against B/G Energy. This U/B Control deck will be more traditional against a field of powerful creatures, few spells, and the almighty Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
The maindeck looks very similar to the list that I played back in Montreal. The spells are relatively the same, but the numbers have been shifted significantly. There are only two copies of Negate main and that number may fall to one soon. Negate is strong against Mardu on the play, stopping both Heart of Kiran and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar cleanly; however there are too many matches where drawing multiple copies will result in a loss.
There are too many powerful creatures in Standard that laugh in the face of traditional answers. Most popular creatures have enters-the-battlefield triggers, the ability to return from the graveyard, or the ability to create multiple threats. The banning has increased the need for Essence Scatter, moving the total copies from two to three. Essence Scatter is a card that I was most excited about when preview cards from Amonkhet were trickling in and it will be better now than it has been since release.
The copy of Ruinous Path has replaced the Never to match Yahenni's Expertise. The ability to remove Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on the back of a battlefield sweep is very powerful. There are too many situations in that matchup where the battlefield begins to get out of hand, a planeswalker resolves, and one spell alone will not save you.
It's always felt wrong to have Yahenni's Expertise provide zero additional support upon resolution, so I hope that the future set gives us something outside of Liliana, the Last Hope to take full advantage of the powerful sweeper. At this point, Ruinous Path, Anticipate, and Transgress the Mind are our spells that follow. Transgress the Mind used to never coexist with Yahenni's Expertise, but a matchup like Temur Midrange calls for both spells to be used together.
Liliana, the Last Hope is going to have a power level increase with Aetherworks Marvel being removed from Standard. She was already the best shot control had against the former best deck in the metagame, casting one early and fighting to keep Aetherworks Marvel and its creature allies from the battlefield. The ultimate was the main course to victory, being a much easier route than expecting to dominate Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunter's late-game.
Liliana, the Last Hope is relatively weak against the Temur creatures, but she is very powerful against the rest of the field. This planeswalker utterly obliterates Zombies when piloted by a control mage. Control utilizes planeswalkers in a different way, which makes her more powerful in this U/B shell than in the Zombie deck. Zombies, or aggressive decks in general, cast a planeswalker to give added pressure, where control players land one with a handful of removal spells to protect her. This allows for dominating games, killing off lords with Grasp of Darkness, punishing "going wide" strategies with sweepers, and ticking Liliana, the Last Hope up with each move. The same theory applies for the control mirror, against U/R Control specifically, but replacing removal with countermagic and hand disruption.
The sideboard strategy against the control mirror is simple: overload with blue spells and hand disruption after dropping all the useless removal. The Dragonmaster Outcast trick doesn't work against U/B Control, because along with leaving a Grasp of Darkness or two in, Liliana, the Last Hope easily dispatches the threat.
The Problem with Red
Since Liliana, the Last Hope is great against Zombies and the control mirror and medium against the rest, there must be a reason to dedicate a large portion of the deck's resources to her. The ability to return fallen Torrential Gearhulks to your hand after they have hammered the opponent is the icing on the cake for her inclusion.
Returning win conditions is one of the major reasons to play U/B Control over its U/R competitor, but there are more. U/R Control falls short against many decks due to the inability to keep the battlefield clean. Magma Spray is a great removal spell, but it doesn't hit Heart of Kiran. There will be a resurgence of Mardu and I don't think U/R Control has the tools to handle it. U/B Control is also not favored, but I think the deck can be configured in a way to give it a fighting chance. The removal spells all destroy Heart of Kiran; Liliana, the Last Hope can catch some helpless Toolcraft Exemplar off-guard; and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet can run away with the game with a decent draw. Red doesn't offer much to the matchup, which is why I will be leaving my Wandering Fumaroles in the binder for the foreseeable future.
The good matchups for U/B Control are Zombies, U/R Control, and B/G Delirium and Energy. These decks will make an appearance at every event you attend until the next set is released. The issue is that these are not the most-played decks in the room.
After a considerable amount of testing, Temur Midrange is a tossup. Bristling Hydra is the only card in that entire deck that poses a problem for U/B Control. The three Essence Scatter and three Disallow make resolving the hexproof annoyance difficult, but it does pose a huge problem if it makes it through. It takes a lot of practice with Torrential Gearhulk, a series of removal spells, and a little luck to defeat them when the energy is flowing.
Outside of Bristling Hydra, the matchup is one of the best. Glorybringer, value creatures, and a bunch of dead red removal accounts for a pile of duds against any control mage. The matchup boils down to the use of Yahenni's Expertise, having available mana for countermagic, and sideboarding the all-star Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in with a Transgress the Mind.
The lucky break control players have received throughout all of this is the availability of good removal. Usually a five-mana haste Dragon cannot be killed by a Standard removal spell that costs two, but here we are! I had a blast playing Harnessed Lightning, but not having an Aether Hub did cost me a game or two. Four is an important threshold to hit when trying to destroy a creature's toughness and the black removal package can do it. Black also has hard removal in Ruinous Path, Ob Nixilis Reignited, and Murder (if you choose to toss one in), where red is fully conditional. In a world where B/G is on the rise, Mardu is king of the castle, and Temur Midrange will be home for a group of disgruntled Aetherworks Marvel players, I want to use removal with certainty.
The bad matchup, the elephant in the room, is Mardu Vehicles. Mardu will not be weak against any control build because of the diversity in its threats. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar makes sculpting a control deck full of answers impossible. This planeswalker creates instant death, unlike the gradual advantage previous aggressive planeswalkers provided. For that reason, a second Ruinous Path is in the sideboard, and I bring in a couple of copies of Transgress the Mind on the play. This only works if your opponent is bringing in the big spells on the draw, which they typically do. On the draw, I hope I can Negate the evil away from the battlefield on their turn 4, but it doesn't always work so neatly. The two copies of Complete Disregard are also for this matchup.
The Problem with Black
U/B Control's true weakness, when compared to U/R Control, is its difficulty with removing creatures from the game. Magma Spray can't deal with Temur value creatures or Heart of Kiran, but it does deal with Relentless Dead and Scrapheap Scrounger.
Zombies is such an easy matchup that the former doesn't matter; however, Scrapheap Scrounger is difficult to deal with. My first round on camera Day 2 against Mardu vehicles, commentary had a great time with me as I removed two Scrapheap Scroungers with two Complete Disregards, but there simply isn't another option. I never thought I was going to sleeve up the Limited powerhouse removal spell, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
I have played the matchup against Mardu with U/B Control and I win twice as much as I did when I tried U/R Control. That still puts the matchup at around 35% with the list I posted here. My prediction is that Mardu rises to the top, but is hammered by midrange decks after the first few tournaments. Control players must be the biggest advocates for midrange, rooting for them at every opportunity. Once midrange decks take the hill, we will be right there to take it back.