While Hour of Devastation is looming on the horizon, in the short term we have something just as big almost already here: the biannual StarCityGames.com® Invitational in Roanoke, Virginia. While my travel schedule unfortunately has me missing the event, I have some strong opinions across both the Standard and Modern formats it will feature.
I would be playing Torrential Gearhulk in Standard, and I have no idea why people aren't doing so on Magic Online.
U/R Control was mainly not good pre-Marvel ban because it wasn't good against Marvel. You are good against B/G, good against Zombies, and have to be good against Temur nonsense. Bristling Hydra is really annoying if you let it resolve, so just don't let that happen. The rest of the Temur deck is the same value creatures as Marvel, but there's no real threat behind them. You can tap out to answer them at value with a Sweltering Suns or something, and the worst-case scenario on the way back is.... Chandra, Torch of Defiance? Glorybringer? It certainly isn't getting your lands Ulamoged like it was a month ago.
As a reminder, Hieroglyphic Illumination is the truth. The other card I think has only gotten better is Sweltering Suns to mop up Zombies and Whirler Virtuosos and more, but I'm not sure I would play more than two maindeck and another copy or so in the sideboard, as it is still limited in application.
That said, I think defaulting to U/R is incorrect. There's no reason to not add a color for hard answers, with Jeskai as the likely best outlet. Fumigate has gone from basically unplayable to actually quite good against half of the format. Cast Out was also impressive in early testing for Pro Tour Amonkhet. Grixis for a couple of copies of Fatal Push or Unlicensed Disintegration is interesting but ultimately going to come up short against a lot of the hands. It's easier to properly appropriate slots to expensive cards that hit anything than it is to appropriate slots to more conditional answers and not draw those cards when they are bad.
Really, more than anything with U/R Control, you are exploiting the fact that people's lists are on Level 1, and Level 1 mishmash lists tend to be soft to blanking their interactive cards and overloading on answers and card advantage.
I would not be playing many non-value creatures as my alternate sideboard threats. I think cards like Thing in the Ice and Dragonmaster Outcast suffer from how good it is to Harnessed Lightning down a Torrential Gearhulk when you are attacking, often either just dying to their left-in removal or being blank cardboard if they don't care. The fact that Glorybringer is a major player that is both a solid threat and an answer to that kind of small-ball nonsense is another strike against them.
Planeswalkers, on the other hand, seem great. Nahiri, the Harbinger and Jace, Unraveler of Secrets both have a chance to shine as something that runs away with the game if your opponent has too many weird half-relevant cards like Dispels.
The relevant concept is broadening your key points of the game. If you are just trying to turn the tables with Torrential Gearhulk and Glimmer of Genius, that is easy to exploit. If your opponent has to have Dispel for the Glimmer of Genius but can also randomly just lose it all when you counter their spell and cast and minus a Nahiri on their one threat, it suddenly approaches impossible for them to have a sideboard configuration that completely covers you.
That being said, these kind of reactive decks aren't for everyone. I love them because it's really easy for me to see the path to a quickly closed-out game, but there's a lot of potential for missteps along the way if you play a little too aggressively or afraid. If you are playing a different deck, the two cards I would strongly recommend maxing out on are Scrapheap Scrounger and Tireless Tracker. Both are extremely difficult for control to profitably interact with, largely because they are cast in such an early time-frame that the control player often can't line up everything they need to beat them.
The other part of the equation to beating control is having something that goes over their smaller answers without falling solidly into the "too expensive, going to get countered" range. This is pretty much exclusively powerful four-cost things that don't die to Harnessed Lightning.
Basically, you need to be able to force a game state where they can lack a specific answer and, if they do lack that answer, the game runs away from them very quickly. You also need to do this before Torrential Gearhulk starts overriding any amount of work a single card can do, or you need to be able to pick off the Gearhulk so you don't die to a 5/6 and match the card advantage, which often takes every spell you cast.
That's a lot. Of the main decks, I'm only confident that Vehicles decks can hope to present that.
One last thing that also bodes well for control is that I expect an uptick in white removal. We've been living in a Harnessed Lightning or Fatal Push format, but Declaration in Stone is not far behind in terms of hampering early plays. Stasis Snare is similarly more solid when spot removal matters and you aren't just dying to Ulamog triggers. Neither of these cards interacts well with Torrential Gearhulk. Either they get to block before your sorcery stops it and get a Clue, or they get a free card when your enchantment gets hit by Commit//Memory or Cast Out. These Archangel Avacyn decks will make their presence known at the Invitational because their cards are individually good, but control will bash right back over them.
I'm in kind of a sad state for Modern. I would just be playing Grixis Death's Shadow, likely the four Sleight of Hand list I played at Grand Prix Las Vegas. I'm just not sure I would be happy about it because I know it is merely a good choice and not the actual perfect one.
Fundamentally, Death's Shadow is a really good deck. But there are decks that beat it. I'm just not sure people will actually be playing them, hence the willingness to go back into battle with the same list.
"First off, every game you get to do something. Sure that thing isn't always spectacular--maybe your first play is turn 3 Matter Reshaper--but the amount of games you automatically lose to your manabase is extremely small."
This is technically true, but it absolutely isn't correct or that useful. You lose a ton of games to your manabase because a trio of Sea Gate Wreckage, Urza's Mine, Ghost Quarter doesn't do anything. Or Eldrazi Temple, Urza's Power Plant, Walking Ballista. Just because you don't have traditional color screw issues doesn't mean not casting your spells well isn't a problem. If Thoughtseize just hits your best castable card, it's often over. Sure, you have a lot of top-of-the-deck equity, but that's just some numbers. On a good day, you are probably close enough to even against Death's Shadow that you are deluding yourself to play Eldrazi Tron because you think it wins against the best deck.
To beat Death's Shadow, you need to stop playing decks that lose a lot when they get Thoughtseized. That's a hard ask, but it can be done.
The best anti-Death's Shadow decks I've seen are Collected Company decks. Not Counters Company, though, and certainly not the Humans pile that popped up a couple of weeks ago.
You need your Collected Company deck to not fall apart when one or two key creatures get picked off. Counters Company gets an F- grade here, and Humans isn't far behind. Oddly, the decks I've had the hardest time against are Elves and Spirits.
Elves is easy to understand. I never actually lose to Ezuri, Renegade Leader or Elvish Archdruid. I lose because I stick a Death's Shadow or Gurmag Angler, but I have no good attacks and they eventually have seven attackers to my two blockers.
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Rattlechains
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Geist of Saint Traft
Losing to Spirits is almost exclusively on the back of Geist of Saint Traft being an absolute nightmare, but Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is another super-obnoxious card that only gets worse when you trim lands for cantrips.
Of course, this may all be an exploit of the sweeper spread common to Death's Shadow. I have Izzet Staticaster to try to hold off Affinity's Blinkmoth Nexuses and Engineered Explosives for Chalice of the Void. If I just had Pyroclasm in addition to Anger of the Gods, I can't imagine losing to these small creature decks.
That said, the fact that they exist gives me hope. An aggressively slanted Thoughtseize-and-cantrips deck is going to eventually find the configuration that beats a given linear threat. It's just a matter of the format making it chase its tail enough. Last week it was Ceremonious Rejection replacing By Force, making Affinity come back. This week it might be the lack of Pyroclasm letting weird all-in decks win, and the week after it might be a drop-off in graveyard hate, letting Dredge win.
This isn't a great cycle, largely because I feel uncomfortable just telling people to fire off Elves in what is still an open metagame. But if there's ever an event to push hard on a metagame call, it's the #SCGINVI. You can be sure your opponents are competent, have access to multiple decks and select what they think is best, and importantly have stretched testing commitments. They will show up with decks that are a half-level behind what is actually possible or optimal because they don't have the time to try the weird branches. I expect lots of Eldrazi Tron and Death's Shadow still with fairly standard sideboard choices despite it being very clear something should be able to crush both as they exist now. Firing off on one of those oddball choices is definitely a risk, but this is an event it can easily pay off big at.
While there isn't any Legacy coming up until the Team Open at the SCG Tour® stop in Atlanta in about a month, it's still worth talking about because Hour of Devastation might actually matter for the format.
An approximate chat with Lands master Jarvis Yu:
Five minutes later…
Just goes to show how first hot takes are clearly the most useful thing ever.
The idea that interested me with Solemnity was Enlightened Tutor Lands. While Gamble hits everything, Enlightened Tutor give you backup early access to cards that Crop Rotation can't. Turn 1 tutoring up a piece of combo hate like Sphere of Resistance seems powerful. Finding an Exploration a turn late is way better than not having one.
The easy out to building Solemnity-Tutor Lands is just splashing a couple of cards into the traditional R/G shell. Changing the flex spell slots to one Solemnity and two Enlightened Tutor doesn't cost a lot.
The less easy deckbuilding line is flashing back a couple of years. One of the flex spells most likely cut for Enlightened Tutor is Punishing Fire, which is going to be problematic in a very Deathrite Shaman-heavy metagame. There was a brief period of time where Lands tried Supreme Verdict, which conveniently also kills Deathrite Shaman. I think you need some way of accessing used or dredged spells if you want to play Bant Lands, but you are looking at a shell that already supported some weird tutor shenanigans.
This is also a good time to remind people that Legacy has a bunch of super-weird lock-out enchantments that Enlightened Tutor lets you crush opponents with. Moat is the obvious one that doubles down on Glacial Chasm, but I'm partial to In the Eye of Chaos from looking at old Chris Andersen G/U Enchantress lists. I'm not a Gatherer dive expert here, but if you want to play Lands in linear-heavy metagames, it seems like Enlightened Tutor is going to be a significant gain.
Overall, every one of these formats is in a weird place. It feels like we know all the things that are possible in them, but at the same time it feels like something isn't quite there for a truly stable metagame. There's room to really push Standard, Modern, and Legacy into drastically new metagame configurations, but I'm not sure if I or anyone else quite knows what that next step is. Regardless, I'm excited to watch and see. Who knows? Maybe someone actually will figure it all out!