Week one of Ravnica Allegiance Standard is in the books, and the resounding takeaway from the weekend is the power of Hydroid Krasis. Sultai Midrange, which essentially amounted to splashing blue in last season's Golgari Midrange deck for the powerful Jellyfish and some sideboard cards, was the most popular deck on Day 2 of the Open in Indianapolis and left with the trophy. Hydroid Krasis was also seen putting in work for Simic-based midrange decks of all stripes as well as serving as a win condition in various Wilderness Reclamation decks.
This, of course, means the search is on for the best cards and strategies to counter Hydroid Krasis, which is tough to do when the most important part of the card, the triggered ability, occurs upon casting, so even a counterspell leaves you behind in card advantage while aggressive decks will need to have an answer to the sizable body.
Standard is all about playing to the battlefield with creatures and removal spells, and Hydroid Krasis dominates that style of gameplay. It has the ability to put you ahead on all three axes of interaction: card advantage, tempo, and life. It's essentially impossible to completely negate the impact of Hydroid Krasis once it's cast, so we're going to have to focus on containing it as much as possible.
Since Krasis covers all three basic axes of Magic, I'm going to break down how to appropriately answer the card along each axis, though it's important to keep in mind that for most decks, you'll need to have a blend of these answers in order to adequately prepare for the card. It's just that powerful.
Answering the Tempo
Tempo is a nebulously defined concept in Magic, in part because it's difficult to precisely nail down what it means; for the purposes of Hydroid Krasis, the tempo comes from the large body it generates, which is an immediate threat to pressure your life total, attack a planeswalker, or stop a horde of creatures from attacking. In any case, you'll need to answer the creature itself in most games.
You could just point a removal spell at it, but unless you're doing something else with your turn, all you're doing is extending the game so they have more time to deploy the extra cards Hydroid Krasis drew them. Unless you're planning to go even bigger as the game progresses (and it's hard to do so without Hydroid Krasises of your own) it's important to answer the body in a way that lets you continue to pressure them, so they aren't able to deploy all the extra cards in time or at least aren't able to deploy them with maximal effectiveness.
Double-spelling with a cheap removal spell like Cast Down can work here, but I'm looking for something even better. I want to answer Hydroid Krasis with permanents that leave me further ahead on the battlefield. Most of these permanents are planeswalkers like Vivien Reid; Angrath, the Flame-Chained; and Vraska, Golgari Queen, and the latter two I particularly like because they can start negating the card advantage from Krasis if they stick around. Vivien, in particular, provides a steady stream of threats to keep the pressure on the opponent, which is perfect. She was already a key part of Golgari decks from last Standard season, but I expect Vivian Reid to get even better.
Angrath didn't see a lot of play last weekend, but as we explore the format further, that's going to change. It fights on every axis like Hydroid Krasis, and in battlefields littered with creatures and planeswalkers, its -3 ability can create huge tempo swings that start to snowball into a larger advantage. I also like that its +1 ability encourages the opponent to hold and discard excess lands, naturally weakening any Hydroid Krasises that come off the top.
Vraska, Golgari Queen is the toughest to utilize because its +2 ability doesn't naturally gain card advantage, but in combination with afterlife creatures or something like Hero of Precinct One in order to maximize that ability, it could be a strong option. Unlike Vivien and Angrath, this one needs you to put in some work, but the payoff is there.
In the non-planeswalker category, I'd be looking very hard at Hostage Taker, which was a common inclusion in Sultai Midrange decks and a key component of Wyatt Darby's fifth place Esper Midrange list . It cleanly answers Hydroid Krasis without the usual threat of your opponent getting their threat back once it dies, but that doesn't mean it's not an immediate target for removal, because getting to cast a Krasis of your own is a big swing, often leaving you ahead on both tempo and card advantage.
Beyond the way it interacts with Krasis, Hostage Taker gets better in the long games that Hydroid Krasis encourages. Krasis decks want to play long enough to chain together a whole school of Jellyfish and bury the opponent in card advantage, leading to long games where both players have plenty of lands. In these games, Hostage Taker can steal and immediately cast an opposing creature, a huge swing in both tempo and card advantage with only a small window to answer the Hostage Taker with the trigger on the stack.
With all these cards, your opponent is untapping without their big flyer and staring down a permanent that demands an answer, which will often stop them from being able to efficiently deploy their other cards. If you can cement an advantage on the battlefield, you can begin to utilize that advantage to gain cards by forcing bad blocks or answering opposing planeswalkers efficiently.
We often think of tempo as the domain of decks with a low curve and cheap disruption, but it's an important resource for bigger decks as well. Every chump block made to save a planeswalker or forced double block to trade with a larger creature adds up over time, and you can force your opponent into those plays by pressing an advantage built on the battlefield even if your opponent has several more cards in hand than you do.
Answering the Cards
Of course, sometimes things don't go according to plan and Hydroid Krasis comes down on an even battlefield. In this game, your opponent is going to have time to deploy the extra cards and there's little you can do. Having your own Krasises is the best first step, but it only gets you back to even, so we'll have to look for ways to break the stalemate. In order to do this, I'm going to take a lesson from Magic history, specifically the matchup between Sphinx's Revelation control decks and Mono-Black Devotion from Theros era Standard.
This was a matchup that typically went very long, since the Revelation decks had easy answers to Pack Rat and the other creatures from Mono-Black Devotion. In a long game, Sphinx's Revelation is about the best card you could think of, especially against a deck that has no counterspells, so as long as you could find one on the top of your deck eventually, it was going to draw a boatload of cards.
But Mono-Black Devotion had Underworld Connections. And combined with a pile of discard spells to take Revelations or key pieces of interaction, could use the powerful enchantment and the life gain from Gray Merchant of Asphodel to outpace the one-shot bursts of cards from Revelations.
In a long enough game, repeated sources of card advantage will always win out over single-shot effects. Our job then is simply to identify what the best sources of repeatable card advantage are.
The planeswalkers I mentioned above are a great place to start, and of course there's also Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Another planeswalker to add to the list, and one I think is being overlooked, is Vraska, Relic Seeker. It was largely pushed out by Carnage Tyrant, but in a world where players are flush with Jellyfish-supplied resources, the 7/6 body is easier to contain on the battlefield, while Vraska, Relic Seeker provides a huge advantage over a long game along with the ability to ignore the attrition battle and work towards a game-ending ultimate.
On the non-planeswalker side of things, I'm interested in Biogenic Ooze. It generates card advantage immediately, but as the game goes long it acts as a mana sink that can snowball your advantage in total resources while affecting the battlefield immediately. A pile of 2/2s wouldn't be much, but with the triggered ability repeatedly pumping them, those tokens will grow out of hand as the game progresses and likely trump anything Hydroid Krasis does.
The key here is to find sources of card advantage that either repeat as long as game keeps going or scale with mana so you can utilize them more often as the game goes long. The notable card that fails these two criteria is Growth-Chamber Guardian. It's a solid card, but getting a couple 4/4s is going to eventually be trumped by something, so if you're on the Guardian side you need to be ending the game in some fashion. This isn't a card that's going to contribute significantly in the attrition wars that are coming to Ravnica Allegiance Standard.
There's one more way to win the subgame against Jellyfish-derived card advantage, and that's what I'm dubbing the War Games strategy: "The only winning move is not to play."
By this I mean ignoring the cards that come from Hydroid Krasis and focus on executing your own, more powerful gameplan. That's what the Wilderness Reclamation decks are doing right now, setting up either for either comically large Explosions or taking all the turns with Nexus of Fate.
The key here is that Hydroid Krasis has to draw irrelevant cards for the matchup. Sphinx's Revelation decks used to have a solid game 1 against Mono-Black Devotion because the latter was using its Underworld Connections to draw dead removal spells, but things shifted significantly after sideboarding, when those removal spells became Duresses and other relevant disruption.
Right now, Sultai Midrange has a sideboard full of counterspells and discard, so their bad removal and weaker threats become a pile of excellent disruption for Wilderness Reclamation decks. They can use early disruption to buy time to land a Krasis for two or three, reload, rinse, lather, and repeat. That's why I'd be shying away from Reclamation strategies right now, though I'll be keeping watch for a time when they can catch the metagame unprepared.
Answering the Lifegain
The last axis of interaction for Hydroid Krasis is the lifegain. This axis matters much more for aggro than the other archetypes so this section will focus on those decks. Going into the weekend, Mono-Red Aggro was receiving a ton of hype because of the addition of Skewer the Critics and Light Up the Stage. While it was one of the more popular decks on day 2, it failed to make the Top 8, and with week one typically favoring aggressive decks, this looks like a rather weak showing for basic Mountain connoisseurs.
The best performing aggressive deck was Max Magnuson's Azorius Aggro list, trading in the red splash from last season for blue in order to utilize Deputy of Detention and sideboard counterspells.
- 4 Benalish Marshal
- 4 Dauntless Bodyguard
- 4 Deputy of Detention
- 1 Healer's Hawk
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 4 Snubhorn Sentry
- 4 Tithe Taker
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
Max's deck has no form of reach to combat the lifegain directly, but that's an advantage, because doing so plays into the Krasis player's hands. Building a battlefield of formidable creatures--which the white-based aggressive decks are quite capable of between History of Benalia, Venerated Loxodon, and Benalish Marshal--allows you to deal damage in much larger chunks than drawing two burn spells off of Light Up the Stage. Hydroid Krasis may be big, but it's only one blocker, so going wide is a great plan if you want to end the game before it takes over.
The only way for the red decks to really trump the power of Hydroid Krasis is Experimental Frenzy, which every deck is prepared to answer due to the presence of Wilderness Reclamation. Outside of that, they're fighting a losing battle trying to grind a long game through the life gain from not only Krasis but also Wildgrowth Walker, which is easier to set up after drawing two, three, or four extra cards.
The white aggro decks aren't interested in dealing damage in three point increments. Once they have their battlefield set, they're attacking for eight, ten, twelve damage at a time, at which point a Wildgrowth Walker or Hydroid Krasis may not be enough to stem the bleeding.
The adoption of Deputy of Detention also offers the white decks a great answer to the mana creatures that Hydroid Krasis decks are playing, which is a great way to limit the card's effectiveness. It delays Krasis while developing the battlefield and should you lose it to a removal spell, the returning mana creature will have still missed out on a turn or two of acceleration. It can also tag an early Wildgrowth Walker and punish them if they have to use their explore creatures to dig for a spot removal spell.
The current iteration of red decks would be perfect against decks that are trying to match up with a pile of cheap removal, but that's the opposite of what's going on right now, which makes the creature-heavy, go-wide aggro strategy that white provides more appropriate.
With a complete picture of how to attack Hydroid Krasis, you can figure out which axes of interaction your deck cares most about and find the appropriate tools to win that battle. Hydroid Krasis is powerful enough that it's not going to be pushed out of the metagame anytime soon, but that doesn't mean you have to throw up your hands and hope to dodge it. There are plenty of powerful cards in Standard that can stand up to the Jellyfish, we just have to pick the right ones.