Innistrad has officially replaced Zendikar block and M11 meaning a brand new format with a totally undefined metagame. The first set in a block generally leads to such a brand new world that it takes quite a bit of time for players to figure out what is even going on. Just think back to this time last year when Scars of Mirrodin was brand new. For reference here is a breakdown of the Standard metagame as of late October of 2010 compared to the beginning of December less than two months away (and the same format):
Standard Metagame October 2010
U/W Control 19%
Eldrazi Green 16%
Misc. U/x Control 13%
Fauna Shaman 7%
White Weenie 2%
Standard Metagame December 2010
U/W Control 17%
U/B Control 14%
Genesis Wave 3%
Eldrazi Green 2%
Kind of wild right? When the format debuted the Eldrazi Green players had not yet figured out that Valakut was just better at doing that. There were tons of different blue control decks ranging from U/r to U/W/r to U/G/W to U/B/R to an early incarnation of the U/B style that eventually won out. Mono-R and Mono-B's popularity crashed replaced by Boros and Vampires. Elves and Fauna Shaman decks totally died out replaced with Quest and Genesis Wave. The format didn't stop evolving there either. It was after the World Championships that people finally figured out that U/B was "the best" and no one played Stoneforge Mystic in their U/W Caw-Go decks!
This should serve as a reminder that there are few periods with as volatile of a metagame as the introduction of a new stand-alone. What is the next Valakut the next U/B Control the next Vampires the next Caw-Blade that hadn't even been invented yet? Which decks will fade away not cutting it in the new era? The SCG Open in Indy gives us our first taste of the new format setting the stage for the State Championships the 2011's taking place in less than two weeks.
With six archetypes in the top 8 and diversity continuing down through the top 16 and top 32 it is pretty clear that the format is wide open at least to begin with. There is no clear "deck to beat"; however there are a few archetypes that have had a little more success out the gate and an initial gauntlet is starting to emerge. Let's take a look at the metagame from Indy what technology is seeing play from Innistrad and what conclusions we can draw.
If there was a deck to beat going into Indy's event it was our first Top 8 deck U/W Blade:
Full-on Caw-Blade will go down in the history books (the ones with Magic metagame data in them) as one of the greatest and most dominant decks of all-time. Jace the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were eventually banned but this did not stop Caw-Blade from emerging as the deck to beat for most of the three months that followed. After all neither the Caw nor the Blade had actually been banned to say nothing of recent Modern banning Preordain.
Now that Squadron Hawk has finally rotated taking with it Preordain Jace Beleren Into the Roil Spell Pierce Celestial Colonnade and Tectonic Edge there is no question the archetype is going to have to be reinvented. Still Caw or no as long as Sword of Feast and Famine is legal there will be U/x Blade decks built around it. Ricky's U/W Blade is a good example of how the archetype is likely to look early in the new format; though as other decks gain prominence it is likely to evolve quite a bit.
It's always tricky when looking at new decks from the first day of a new format as card availability is an issue far more often than it normally would be. For instance did Ricky believe that three was the best number of Snapcasters? Just the miser's Geist of Saint Traft? Maybe but maybe not. Personally I think playing fewer than four Snapcasters in U/W or U/B Blade is significantly worse than playing the full four. It is not just that Snapcaster is a more powerful card than any of the other cards in the deck; he also happens to carry the Sword (an ability that Blade decks need more than ever with no Hawks).
Speaking of more bodies to carry Swords U/W Blade is one of the many decks that will be making use of Moorland Haunt as a source of additional creatures. Inkmoth Nexus is better in this style threatening the powerful turn-four play of activate Nexus equip attack but it is definitely reasonable to fit in a 5th source of colorless. No Colonnades and no Preordains means you are going to have worse mana but at least you aren't getting Edged.
Hero of Bladehold and Consecrated Sphinx are no surprise though I am sure neither will be universally adopted throughout the season. On raw power however they are two of the best cards in the format. Batterskull is a little more surprising but there may be something to it. After all red decks no longer have Flame Slash or Burst Lightning plus with no Kor Firewalkers Dismember is a little less prevalent among them. Besides going long you could do a lot worse than Batterskull as a kill Condition.
The one Geist of Saint Traft is an exciting new addition that is particularly devastating to removal-based decks. Allaer's use of four Dismembers and three Oblivion Rings gives him much better ability to clear away blockers than old U/W decks. Four Dismembers would normally be hard on the life total but with three maindeck Timely Reinforcements Allaer can actually reliably make up for the life loss.
Gitaxian Probe is a card that made rare appearances in Caw-Blade previously but the addition of Snapcaster Mage nearly compels us to play with a critical mass of sorceries and instants to support it. Gitaxian Probe lets Allaer build a "Silvergill Adept" but the information can actually be useful for planning his game.
While Blade decks haven't always maindecked Day of Judgment I am definitely a fan of Allaer's use of it at least to begin with. This format like so many is starting out with a slightly more aggressive slant. I think it is only a matter of time before control decks gain popularity but for the time being Day of Judgment is even better than it was in the previous format.
Ratchet Bomb out of the sideboard has added utility now that it is such an effective weapon against both tokens (a strategy on the rise) and Werewolves (which have a converted mana cost of zero when transformed). I am not sure what Nevermore goes in against but it does combo well with Gitaxian Probe.
Surgical Extraction is a sideboard card we're going to be seeing a lot more of over the next year. It is a powerful weapon against Solar Flare a strategy that would normally be quite challenging. Not only does it fight Unburial Rites it also disrupts their flashback game plan going long. It provides a solution to Skaab Ruinator out of Pod decks and is not the worst at fighting Snapcaster Mage from any number of blue decks.
While U/W Blade is nowhere near the monster it was it is a definite must for any gauntlet and one of the basic strategies of the format. While U/W Blade was one of the primary enemies going into this past weekend's event Mono-R has definitely emerged as the new enemy to focus on. Mono-R is always unnaturally popular around the time of States at least partially due to how easy it is to build a respectable list. Despite losing Goblin Guide Lightning Bolt and Searing Blaze Mono-R walked away with both 1st and 2nd in Indy and should be a cornerstone of week one gauntlets.
- 3 Chandra's Phoenix
- 2 Goblin Arsonist
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 2 Spikeshot Elder
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 23 Mountain
- 3 Chandra's Phoenix
- 3 Furnace Scamp
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 2 Hero of Oxid Ridge
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
First some similarities. Both lists have adopted Stromkirk Noble a card that works excellently with cheap red removal to clear a path. Neither list has adopted Reckless Waif a card whose value is much higher in slower formats (but is initially hurt by the amount of aggro seeing play). Brimstone Volley has also been adopted as a four-of a trend I suspect will continue for most red decks (as it is definitely the most powerful red aggro card in Innistrad). Both lists feature both Chandra's Phoenix and Hero of Oxid Ridge for added staying power. Finally both lists feature Shrine of Burning Rage and maindeck Arc Trails as well as the full four Vulshok Refuges out of the board.
As for fundamental differences I am not sure how I feel about the champion Doberne's Koths this early in the format but they are absolutely fantastic against Liliana of the Veil; that is for sure. Tompkins's Shocks could be strictly upgraded to Galvanic Blast for those games where you draw three Shrines (which do happen). Tompkins also has Gut Shot a sweet tempo play that really preys on the overly aggressive format. I am a fan of this development and would guess we will be seeing more of it (now that Gut Shot is no longer embarrassed by Goblin Guide).
Tompkins features a light green splash to support the flashback on Ancient Grudge but I am kind of surprised he doesn't have some Copperline Gorges. Even more than that however I wonder about the lack of Blackcleave Cliffs or Dragonskull Summit. Not being able to draw a card off of Nihil Spellbomb seems loose and besides that is a non-zero amount of life you'd save when trying to Dismember. Obviously there is some cost to getting rid of actual Mountains (Rootbound Crag enters tapped more often) but I would be surprised if it was a bigger cost than not being able to draw that card (or save that life).
Taking the top two spots Mono-R is definitely a serious deck that needs to be part of the gauntlet. It is sure to drop in success once people tune their other decks better but for the time being it is definitely a major player. Remember Mono-R was one of the most popular Scars block decks so it not surprising to see it surging ahead day one.
Up next we have a far more surprising strategy to reach Sunday morning Todd Anderson's U/w Illusions deck:
The Mono-U Illusions archetype was already experiencing fringe levels of play pre-rotation and it didn't really lose anything important (besides a number of tough matchups). What it did gain however was an extremely valuable new threat Snapcaster Mage. The Illusion deck was a little short on two-drops anyway as Phantasmal Image couldn't always hit immediately. With no three-drops either Snapcaster Mage is the perfect spot on the curve. On two it can flashback Gitaxian Probe or Mental Misstep while on three Dismember comes online as well as the previous two options with an extra two life.
The other big addition from Innistrad is Moorland Haunt a card that provides some durability to the Illusions strategy. Sure Day of Judgment can be annoying but at least with Moorland Haunt the beats continue.
Illusions plays a very tempo-oriented game making excellent use of Phyrexian mana. Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe let you save mana while Dismember provides a much cheaper removal spell than a base blue deck should have access to. Gut Shot out of the sideboard is a fantastic weapon against aggro here and Steel Sabotage can provide a tempo-oriented solution to Tempered Steel decks or Birthing Pod. Cheap spells just work so well with Snapcaster Mage so the ability to Steel Sabotage or Gut Shot on one or two followed by a Snapcaster Mage to run the quick rebuys is a great way to start the game. Even the Revoke Existences and Flashfreezes out of the board continue the theme of using mana-efficient interactive elements to take full advantage of the Snapcasters.
I am not sold on Illusions' ability to establish itself as tier 1 deck; it would seem that Snapcaster Mage might have given this archetype the boost needed to at least reach tier 2. If you are a fan of Merfolk decks you may want to check out the Illusion deck as it has a somewhat similar feel.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Elite Vanguard
- 2 Gideon's Lawkeeper
- 4 Grand Abolisher
- 3 Hero of Bladehold
- 4 Mirran Crusader
- 4 Geist of Saint Traft
Court's list is identical to the one proposed in my set review on Monday save replacing the five Islands with a Moorland Haunt two Plains and two Gideon's Lawkeepers. I don't know if Court arrived at the list independently or tuned that list but either way it would seem he is far more cavalier with the blue mana. While I can get behind trimming a couple Islands to go down in land to twenty-three as well as even turning one into a Moorland Haunt I have to imagine the first Island is better than the 20th white. Geist on three!
With both Mirran Crusader and Geist of Saint Traft as top-notch targets for Angelic Destiny (creating difficult-to-deal-with two-turn clocks) this archetype now has the "free wins" to really legitimize it as a mainstream aggro deck. Champion of the Parish provides a great one-drop to help this particular brand of white weenie get out of the gate fast.
Purify the Grave is the only new trick out of the sideboard yet another concession to Solar Flare as well as Skaab Ruinator and Snapcaster Mage. Personally I think this is actually generally a more appealing option than Surgical Extraction if you are a base white deck and don't have a particular reason for preferring the Extraction half of the black card. Being able to counter both halves of an Unburial Rites with just one card is fantastic and it can actually get two "halves" of two Snapcasters helping keep pace.
If you have room for a fifth deck in your playtest gauntlet W/u Destiny is probably the most likely candidate to consider (though U/B Control is also a fine option). Up next we have an archetype that is one of four decks that definitely need to be in every gauntlet one of the few major archetypes to survive the rotation:
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Signal Pest
- 3 Spined Thopter
- 4 Vault Skirge
- 4 Glint Hawk
- 3 Leonin Relic-Warder
- 2 Mikaeus, the Lunarch
Tempered Steel was the most popular archetype in Scars Block Constructed ensuring its popularity (at least initially) in the new format. While it gains very little from Innistrad it loses less than most of the other existing archetypes. Steel Overseer is a major loss but at least Mikaeus the Lunarch helps things a little. He is not as good in Tempered Steel of course but he is a card that is going to appear other places as well. Spined Thopter seems to be the accepted creature to help replace those Overseers and the recently rotated Ornithopters.
Both lists are really pushing the spot removal a trend that will surely continue. The biggest difference between the two lists is Ari's use of Hero of Bladehold for more staying power while Greg Norris used Leonin Relic-Warder for a better early tempo game. Personally I am in the Hero of Bladehold camp as I think the resiliency he gives you against artifact hate is just going to be invaluable in the weeks to come.
Again we are seeing Purify the Graves as the only new Innistrad sideboard from W/u aggro decks. I expect Tempered Steel to drop in success a little once people get their new decks to work right but for now it is definitely one of the four biggest decks. You don't have to beat all four decks but ideally you should have advantage over at least two of them with no more than one actually a disadvantage. The dream is of course to be good-to-competitive against all four.
This brings us to the final deck to round out our initial playtest gauntlet Solar Flare:
Solar Flare is the hot new archetype that everyone is talking about as it makes use of the three hottest cards in the set: Snapcaster Mage Liliana of the Veil and Forbidden Alchemy as well as having access to Unburial Rites a fantastic new reanimation spell that makes the archetype possible. Based on the Japanese U/W/B pseudo-control decks that feature relatively minor amounts of permission discard card draw removal and reanimation part of Solar Flare's strength is how good its cards are on their own. Unlikely many reanimator decks Solar Flare doesn't need to cheat its monsters into play; it can just cast them. It is not all in either. It usually has answers to most types of problems with ways to look for them. It generally can't reliably "take total control"; however all it really seeks to do is survive long enough to start gaining an advantage with some battle cruiser such as Sun Titan Consecrated Sphinx Wurmcoil Engine or Elesh Norn Grand Cenobite.
Allman's list is yet another example of the three maindeck Timely Reinforcements we have been seeing more of. With the early metagame expected to be so aggro this is not surprising. With Mono-R's success this past weekend this seems totally likely to continue. The Reinforcements along with Doom Blades Tribute to Hunger Oblivion Rings Liliana of the Veil and Day of Judgment make for an awful of defense to help us survive long enough for our sixes to take over. I am kind of surprised to see Tribute to Hunger over the 4th Liliana but Tribute is a little underrated by most right now.
Stony Silence is a sweet new sideboard option combating both equipment-based decks (like Puresteel Paladin) as well as Birthing Pod decks. It is also important to note Allman's ability to sideboard into a better mix of fatties to combat whatever deck his opponent is playing. Sideboarding extra fatties of different varieties is not an uncommon tactic but it is one that doesn't get much discussion. While I am not sure what niche Grave Titan would be filling as Massacre Wurm is probably a worse Elesh Norn Frost Titan is a reasonable consideration if the format ever shifts to all Titans.
While Solar Flare is still early in its development (so likely to improve quite a bit) it is definitely going to be the target of graveyard hate. That it gets to use so many of the best new cards is a pretty big draw.
Looking at the rest of the top 32 (well most of it as one of the lists is missing) we see a metagame breakdown of:
Breakdown of SCG Indy Standard Top 32
Solar Flare 19.4%
Tempered Steel 12.9%
U/W Blade 6.5%
W/u Destiny 6.5%
U/B Control 6.5%
G/W Tokens 6.5%
U/w Illusions 3.2%
U/B Tez 3.2%
U/R Vengeance 3.2%
*1 Bant Pod 1 Naya Pod
Personally I recommend testing against the top 5 decks or substituting U/B control for W/u Destiny. U/B Control lists haven't really been tuned that well yet but for reference here are the two lists that made top 32:
I don't think either has completely solved the puzzle but both have some interesting elements. I like both Forbidden Alchemy and Liliana of the Veil and would like to see both make their way into U/B. The use of Snapcaster is a must and I still like Consecrated Sphinx. Army of the Damned is an interesting card that provides a nice alternative method of ending games.
A number of people have been on the lookout for a new Tez list so for reference here is the U/B Tez list Dustin Stern piloted to a 10th place finish in Indy:
As you can see Dustin doesn't have much Innistrad beyond Forbidden Alchemy but he does make use of some older cards that Tez lists have not traditionally used. Nihil Spellbomb is great in this world of Snapcasters Unburial Rites and flashback draw spells. Sword of Feast and Famine helps his Tez list take on more of an aggro-control feel. Ichor Wellspring with no way to sacrifice it as well as Myr Battlesphere for extra fatties are all interesting changes to consider. Finally it should be mentioned that Dustin has almost no counters (just two Leaks) and no removal (just two Black Sun's Zeniths and two Contagion Clasps I guess...). I have to imagine this list is going to have trouble with aggressive strategies but it is a jumping off point for those interested in the archetype.
So far it looks like Snapcaster Mage is already ascending into his role as one of the pillars of the format. Geist of Saint Traft is already living up to the hype. Liliana Forbidden Alchemy and Unburial Rites are starting to appear though the right mix has not yet been found. Kessig Wolf Run is a sweet splash out of basically Mono-R found in multiple top 16 red lists (also splashing Grudge) as a great way to get extra damage out of one's lands. Even Mentor of the Meek is seeing play already highlighting G/W Token decks.
Birthing Pod has experienced only lukewarm success thus far as no one seems to have found the right direction to take the archetype (now that it doesn't have Lotus Cobra Sea Gate Oracle Vengevine or fetchlands). Birthing Pod was on everyone's radar going into the event so it is not surprising that the Stony Silences and Ancient Grudges made for a hostile first day.
Of my top 10 from Friday only Heartless Summoning has yet to make an appearance. This is not surprising as Heartless Summoning is definitely not the type of card you can just jam into existing decks. What the right home will be I cannot yet say. A couple of cards I would keep an eye on are Burning Vengeance and Olivia Voldaren as both are more powerful than most are giving credit right now.
With such a rich and diverse metagame already as well as so many potential strategies to explore Innistrad Standard feels fantastic fresh and fun. There is really nothing better than brewing for a new format so let's get back to it...
See you next week!