Should we just ban Islands in Standard already? While Jace and Stoneforge are gone, Islands are still ruling the roost on Magic Online, though the lists are much different from what you would expect. While Standard has become something of a mutating puzzle (albeit an easy one), with bannings mixing things up and the Prerelease of M12 this weekend, blue is still the king. The past few weeks of Magic Online have proved a few things, but one truth remains clear: Blue is the new blue, and it doesn't look like that will be changing in the near future. Jace Beleren isn't actually that much worse than Jace, the Mind Sculptor. He is just a cheaper, less flashy version.
What that means for you brewers out there is that you really need to step it up if you want to play an aggro deck. There are a lot of weaknesses in the control decks that shouldn't be that difficult to exploit if you try hard enough. Tempered Steel has been showing a small bit of promise, but I doubt that the people playing the deck have polished the lists and made them as resilient as they could be.
If you don't want to play an aggro deck, then look no further. This is the article for you.
This week will be mostly about Pre-M12. The set hasn't come out yet, and I haven't had a chance to test with a lot of the cards, but some of them look like a lot of fun. I'm not certain what cards from the new core set will have a large impact in Standard (if any), but they are definitely trying to spice things up with the new round of Planeswalkers. They've also decided to bring back some old favorites like Solemn Simulacrum (aka Sad Robot) and Smallpox to get our creative juices flowing. I'll be sure to have a few updated lists next week before the StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati, but this week we'll be discussing some of the top contenders from the current Magic Online metagame. And guess what? They all feature a lot of Islands.
I've recently been piloting two decks in Standard, both featuring four Jace Belerens (shocker), but using completely different strategies. First off, we'll be talking about my favorite archetype:
I've been testing a lot with this deck and mixing around various options between the maindeck and sideboard. This is the configuration I currently like best, but I by no means am in love with the entire 75. I've moved Spellskite from maindeck to sideboard countless times, and Sea Gate Oracle was not even in the list for a long time. What this list does give you is the ability to apply disruption from a variety of angles, while still having the "SURPRISE! Kill you!" factor. What I noticed with cards like Spellskite is that if you draw more than one of them, they just rot in play while you try to dig for your combo. Spellskite is really good against a few decks, but he is incredibly mediocre against a lot of other decks. My verdict is to just leave him in the sideboard for the mirror, as well as the random Infect Aggro decks that pop up.
Spell Pierce and Dispel are very good at doing very specific things. Since you don't have Spellskite in the maindeck, you need some number of Dispels to help win counter-wars, as well as to counter annoying cards like Dismember when your opponent has a million mana untapped. Spell Pierce is also necessary for staving off opposing Jace Belerens and Inquisition of Kozilek in the early turns of the game, while also being a nifty weapon in winning counter wars (though not quite as good as Dispel). Spell Pierce and Dispel are great cards, but you need a mix as opposed to maxing out on one or the other.
Dismember is a card that I have almost always had in the deck, since it is incredibly powerful in the mirror, but also randomly good at slowing down opposing strategies relying on creatures (which is pretty much all of them). It is essential for helping win the war over an opponent's Deceiver Exarch, comes as a surprise quite often, and even protects Jace Beleren from opposing threats like Creeping Tar Pit. I originally had four Dismembers, but that is just too much damage for you to recuperate from if you draw too many of them, making ones you draw in the late-game dead cards. It even has a decent amount of value against Valakut, since they rely on dorks like Overgrown Battlement and the occasional Lotus Cobra to accelerate into their fattie-bom-baddies. If you slow them down enough, then when they tap out, you can just 86 them with your two-card-combo.
Four Preordain is not a question. It is a must! By now everyone knows how good Preordain is, but the real question lies with Gitaxian Probe. After testing with anywhere between two and four, I can pretty much guarantee that four is the correct number. Having perfect information based on what your opponent has in hand can be invaluable, and the cycling element adds to the velocity of your deck, allowing you to tear through cards at a rapid pace. It essentially allows you to play a combo deck that is only 56 cards, while giving you a bonus whenever you draw one. The card is good. Play four.
The sideboard is a bit of a jumble at the moment, but I think all the cards are necessary. Mutagenic Growth might stand out like a sore thumb, but it's actually genius. Combust is a card that this deck has a lot of trouble playing around. In essence, you can't play around it effectively without jumping through some serious hoops. If they don't tap out, you can't win without having multiple copies of the combo. If they draw multiple Combusts, it becomes even more of a chore. Mutagenic Growth allows you to play around Combust and Dismember, both of which are played by most Valakut decks, as well as the mirror. While you will get the occasional awkward hand featuring the card, just save it like a free counterspell for their specific answer. Combo decks need anti-hate cards, and Mutagenic Growth is quite the anti-hate card.
The Twisted Images are a bit new, but I've seen almost every control deck siding in 3-4 Spellskites, and the card just obliterates them. You have very few ways to actually kill Spellskites without Twisted Image, and it cantrips to boot, which is exactly what you want. Into the Roil doesn't really solve the problem, though it is more versatile. It is also much slower and can get you into a lot of trouble when fighting over Mana Leaks and the like.
Inferno Titan is the go-to-guy for your backup plan for the sideboards full of hate, and I even side out Splinter Twin on occasion and just go for the controlling win. People will be sitting with all sorts of dead cards in hand trying to stop your combo, only to have you beat them with six-drops. Inferno Titan can singlehandedly win a game much more easily than most threats you can play in that slot, as he removes their pressure from the board when he comes in and eliminates blockers when he swings. For Game 1, I think Consecrated Sphinx is a bit better, since it allows you to dig for your combo when your opponent has run you out of gas. After the first game, their hate will be much more pinpointed, so having both will often get you out of a jam where they have answers to your combo.
Note that the deck doesn't have a real way to deal with Torpor Orb. If the Tezzeret deck featuring those in the maindeck becomes popular, it might be best to stay away from this archetype. That card is really annoying for you to play against, and there isn't a lot you can really do to stop it. To be fair, they maindeck Spellskite and Torpor Orb. The matchup is bad, so you should just focus on matchups you have a decent chance at beating.
Ponder is the card I'm looking at very closely from M12. It could end up making the deck that much more consistent, but I just don't know what to cut. With that added consistency, it might be feasible to just cut Consecrated Sphinx from the maindeck and just focus on the combo entirely, but Sphinx really does some work when they've run you out of resources. I do know that I'd much rather play Preordain than Ponder, but I might try to fit in a few when I get some testing in later this week.
The next archetype on the list is U/B Control. Here is my current list:
This archetype is a throwback to older U/B Control decks, but without the Prince of Darkness—Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Instead you get his previous iteration to do most of the dirty work, and he does it quite nicely. With Dismember at the helm of your removal suite, it is not difficult to have a Jace Beleren active on the third turn while your opponent has no creatures in play. Inquisition of Kozilek adds to the barrage of removal-esque cards, stripping them of potential early threats while you set up your draw engine.
Spreading Seas, Preordain, and Sea Gate Oracle help keep the ball rolling while you build to your grand finale, but Jace Beleren is definitely the card you want to stick and protect. If your Jace draws you more than two cards, you will almost always be golden. The later the game goes, the worse your discard gets, but that's to be expected. Don't forget that you can always +2 Jace Beleren before casting your discard spell to make sure your Jace stays alive, and you have the best possible chance to hit their best upcoming spell.
Liliana Vess was a card I was originally skeptical of, but Dismember gives you infinite time with this deck and makes all your Planeswalkers that much better. I almost always use her +1 for discard effect, putting pressure on the opponent to play out their hand, keeping my Grave Titan safe from removal. However, in a pinch you can always tutor up whatever card you need and use one of your million draw spells to put it directly into your hand.
A singleton Karn Liberated might end up being bonkers in the deck, since it combines well with Liliana Vess, both in the discard aspect, as well as the tutoring aspect. I don't think it should take the place of Consecrated Sphinx, but it could take the place of one of the less important utility cards. Duress has been solid, but I could easily see it being moved to the sideboard in favor of the big, bad, metallic Planeswalker.
Go for the Throat is complement to Dismember, and it should stay that way. Dismember being able to cost a single mana makes it the clear choice, since you have so much to do during the early turns in the way of disruption and card draw. There have been plenty of times where I hit a Dismember off Sea Gate Oracle on turn 4 to turn the game completely around. While you do occasionally lose life, it is almost always worth the tempo you gain by being able to cast another spell in the same turn. I couldn't even tell you how often it saves you against Splinter Twin, since most lists don't run Spellskite in the maindeck.
The Black Sun's Zenith is your "catchall" card that Liliana can fetch when things get hairy, but don't expect to raw-draw it when you need it most. The second one in the sideboard shouldn't be sided in too often, but there are a few matchups where you really need to naturally draw it. The card is dangerously slow, but its effect on the game can be backbreaking for an aggro deck. Your early removal should slow them down enough for Black Sun's Zenith to really nail it home, but don't get too greedy with it.
The sideboard is a bit off, I'm sure, but the current configuration gives you game against a host of decks. Red Deck Wins has been tearing it up as of late, and Disfigure gives you another cheap removal spell to stem the bleeding. Peace Strider also helps in this matchup, giving you a much-needed cushion of life on the fourth turn, while also providing you a body to block with (or to attack Koth of the Hammer). While he still dies to Searing Blaze, I think most people will side it out against you.
I would also recommend siding in Spellskite in this matchup, since it protects your other creatures and can redirect some burn, while also providing a warm body for defense. It also stops the one card you should fear most: Shrine of Burning Rage. That card can singlehandedly kill you, even more than Koth, so be careful. You can at least counter Koth if you are on the draw. Without Spell Pierce (which might belong back in the deck), you can expect to lose to that card quite often if you keep a hand without an opening disruption spell.
One of the problems with the current mana base is that you need enough blue sources to cast Preordain and Jace Beleren early, while also having access to four Tectonic Edge. With that being the case, you can't really afford to play more than three Swamps. This gives you a paltry seven mana sources that can cast a discard spell on the first turn. To be fair, that is the same number used by most Faeries decks during Lorwyn Block Constructed to cast Thoughtseize on the first turn, but I digress. I'm spoiled and used to having more.
Memoricide is particularly devastating to two of the format's more popular strategies: Valakut and Splinter Twin. If they resolve, they take the wind completely out of the opponent's sails. I'm not sure if three is the correct number, but I do know that I always want to draw one against these decks. Forcing one through with your discard almost always results in a "Game Over" sign exploding out of your opponent's forehead, but don't think they can't still win. Valakut plays a ton of random fatties, though all are much easier to beat than Primeval Titan. Likewise, Splinter Twin will almost certainly have alternate win conditions. Don't be surprised if people remember you can play Twisted Image alongside Precursor Golem for some Ancestral Recall beats. With Dismember being the format's current removal spell of choice, I'm not certain Precursor Golem has a shot anymore, but who knows?
I'm honestly not particularly excited about any of the new cards from M12 for this archetype. Azure Mage might be insane for the mirror, acting as a threat that doubles as a draw-engine. Most people will side out the majority of their removal for the mirror, making this guy fairly ridiculous. I could see the Fact or Fiction Djinn making his way into the deck as a singleton, since his effect is quite splashy and powerful, but he isn't better than Karn Liberated. Monomania might end up being an adequate sideboard card if you decide to play some acceleration. That card alone might bring about the resurgence of BUG Control. I don't think any deck could come back from Monomania on the third turn.
These two lists are definitely my recommendations of where you should start brewing with new cards. I've played a ton with the decks, and they're both quite powerful. If you want to get a bit more adventurous, you can try out this next U/W Control list, which has been doing very well lately on Magic Online:
If you thought U/W Control was dead with the bannings, think again. This deck can turn aggressive in a hurry. Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold are absolute beatings, and Squadron Hawk is as good as ever (well not quite, but you get the point). With so many "tap out" threats, this deck makes fine work out of a Sword of Feast and Famine, though it will be played at full cost. It can still make any Squadron Hawk a dangerous threat, which is pretty solid by itself. Spell Pierce makes this deck even better, since it helps force your spells through counterspells. It also doubles as an awesome way to disrupt control decks relying on removal or Planeswalkers to take control of the game. It seems as if people have forgotten about Spell Pierce, but it might have just gotten better with the bannings.
As I said, I can't fully vouch for this deck, but it does seem pretty sweet to me. Gideon Jura seems well placed in the metagame right now, and gets even better when combined with a turn 5 Sword of Feast and Famine trigger. Ahhhh... the good old days.
If control and combo aren't your cup of tea, you can always run Red Deck Wins, Vampires, or any of the other various aggro decks. Stormblood Berserker seems like quite an addition to the Red Decks, but it might just end up being a worse Plated Geopede.
With literally no one playing Day of Judgment, and only a handful of decks playing sweepers (and very few at that), you could probably run somebody over with a dedicated aggro deck. There have been a few cool Birthing Pod decks doing well lately, and a new set worth of creatures can only make it more interesting. Next week I'll try incorporating some of the new cards into the lists before Cincinnati.
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on MOL