Two weeks of Innistrad Standard have passed, highlighted by two StarCityGames.com Opens. The hundreds of players who've been exploring the new format have come up with a huge range of updates to old decks, a dozen new strategies, off-the-wall technology, and brutal sideboard surprises. The one discovery that outweighs all of that, though, is that Standard is so full of possibilities that it remains largely uncharted.
The first weekend saw underappreciated aggro decks take Indianapolis by storm, and the next a strong comeback from control with a completely rogue G/R Ramp deck taking the trophy. The lesson, in my mind, is that anything can happen at the State Championships coming up this Saturday. One thing that makes States great, and different from other tournaments, is the range of players it draws: young people and old, casual players and competitive players, disciplined netdeckers and loose-cannon designers. We won't have eight or sixteen decklists to look at next week, but fifty whole tournaments. If you think that you, or me, or anybody else has the State Championships with Innistrad Standard all figured out, you ought to think again.
What I'd like to do this week is to offer one more perspective on the format and explain what I'll be doing myself to approach the open field. I have three strategies to recommend:
- 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
David Doberne got first place at StarCityGames.com Indianapolis with Mono Red, by winning a mirror match in the finals. Coincidentally or not, I also like his decklist better than any other Mono Red I've seen so far.
Doberne took a creature-heavy route, as is natural now that Lightning Bolt, Searing Blaze, and Staggershock have rotated. This approach has the benefit of being more difficult to hate out. The opponent can gain life and stall with chump blockers, but if they're unable to deal with your permanent sources of damage, they'll still lose. Against a burn deck, life gain can equate to insurmountable card advantage, as a Timely Reinforcements undoes more than two burn spells. From my experience testing against this deck though, Timely Reinforcements is great to buy time, but often leaves me down a card once I finish chump blocking with the tokens and still facing down a giant Stromkirk Noble.
The red creatures are so powerful these days that this deck reminds me a lot of White Weenie. However, it also has access to great removal, reach, and an excellent aggressive planeswalker to top the mana curve. Hero of Oxid Ridge is also incredible in its ability to punish an opponent who taps out; the nature of this deck is that it forces the opponent to tap out in order to survive.
Regarding Mr. Doberne's individual card choices, his split between Grim Lavamancer, Spikeshot Elder, and Goblin Arsonist seemed crazy to me at first. After playing with the deck, though, I'm convinced that his decision came from extensive testing and a good understanding of the deck. Of the three, Arsonist is the weakest, but Lavamancer and Spikeshot Elder are bad to draw in multiples. I would personally play the full four Incinerates before moving to Arc Trail. However, Arc Trail is good for returning Chandra's Phoenix in addition to its obvious application against weenie decks. I like it more than Gut Shot.
A green splash is an option that's been used to varying degrees in other successful Mono Red decks. Garruk Relentless, while excellent, competes with other great four-drops—Koth of the Hammer and Hero of Oxid Ridge—which Mono Red already has access to. It's not necessary. If you decide not to maindeck any green cards, splashing Kessig Wolf Run is a little bit too fancy. It doesn't work well with haste creatures, and your creatures typically aren't going to be being chumped or going unblocked by the time you have enough mana to use it.
I recommend something like four Rootbound Crags and a Copperline Gorge in the maindeck for the sole purpose of flashing back Ancient Grudge after sideboard. With access to green mana and four Ancient Grudges, you'll be thrilled any time your opponent leads with a Signal Pest. Ancient Grudge also does as much as you can ask for against Wurmcoil Engine and is therefore a welcome addition against something like Tezzeret Control or certain Birthing Pod decks.
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 2 Solemn Simulacrum
- 2 Acidic Slime
- 1 Archon of Justice
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Blade Splicer
- 1 Fiend Hunter
- 3 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Mentor of the Meek
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 2 Sun Titan
- 2 Viridian Emissary
- 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
This is the evolution of my beloved G/W Tokens deck. The early stages of the metagame have been hostile towards creature swarm, with plenty of sweepers and the frustrating presence of Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Just because the stage isn't set for token swarm plus Overrun doesn't mean that I have to give up the things that drew me to the archetype in the first place, though. This Birthing Pod deck still makes use of the one-drop mana creatures, Gavony Township, Mentor of the Meek, an endless stream of chump blockers, and noncreature sources of card advantage.
W/G/u is my favorite color combination for a Birthing Pod deck. A huge appeal is the devastating endgame that Sun Titan plus Phantasmal Image provides. Blue, while not offering much depth, gives clone effects, which add power to the deck without raising the mana curve. Copying a creature with an enters-the-battlefield effect is a powerful and reliable move, and legend ruling Geist of Saint Traft, Thrun, the Last Troll, and Elesh Norn is much more than just a cute, once-in-a-while play.
This archetype stands in stark contrast to Mono Red in the sense that nickel-and-diming points of damage is not part of the game plan. I've been unhappy drawing Blade Splicer in token and Birthing Pod decks alike. I've included one only because there's a lack of three-drops that leave something behind as you Pod up the chain.
On the other hand, I've also been unhappy with cards like Hero of Bladehold, which offer the opponent a large window to answer them one-for-one. The best cards are ones like Acidic Slime and Solemn Simulacrum, which attack something other than life total and guarantee irreversible value as soon as they resolve.
Now, as anyone familiar with Standard knows, the biggest problem with Birthing Pod decks is…not drawing Birthing Pod. My decklist, in particular, is loaded with situational one-ofs and an abundance of “useless” mana dorks. This is where Venser, the Sojourner and Mentor of the Meek come in.
Venser was a major player in the pre-rotation Bant Pod decks, and his role is not simply blinking Stonehorn Dignitaries (which I haven't even included in the maindeck). Venser goes perfectly with all of the enter-the-battlefield abilities crammed into the deck and provides an alternate threat that can't be answered by creature removal. As he ticks up, your opponent will find himself struggling to find an Oblivion Ring—naturally he won't be able to attack Venser through the thirty creatures in W/G Pod—while also trying to contain the rest of your board. Even Venser's -1 ability is useful in this deck!
Mentor of the Meek has the unfortunate downfall of being a creature. At the same time, he has the terrific benefit of being a creature! While it's a shame that he's vulnerable to the same answers as the rest of the deck, that's simply a side effect of fitting the deck's game plan to a T. Mentor is excellent whether you have Birthing Pod in play or not. When you have one, you can search him up and from there double the advantage that you get from each activation. When you don't, he can serve as an engine all on his own, cycling through mana creatures and searching for that illusive Pod. He also works great with Phantasmal Image, as its low mana cost means you always have the option to copy the Mentor, draw a card, and threaten to put the game away the following turn.
All that said, I have no special attachment to four copies of the Mentor. For anyone considering a similar deck, feel free to trim a Mentor or two if you need to fit in your pet card (we all have those one-ofs that we can't wait to play with, and Pod is the perfect deck for them).
W/G Pod is a top contender for what I'll personally be playing at States. Just between us, I'm looking for any excuse to play it because this deck is the most fun you can have in MTG. If I decide on something else, it's because the Mono Red matchup is scary, and I'm generally nervous about choosing a deck built so entirely around a single card.
I can't help but remember that Blue Control performed incredibly well at the State Championships last year. It was before Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic were popular cards, and blue planeswalkers and permission were a winning combination, no matter what your other color or colors were. New Standard looks much the same. The only plays anyone can really make on the first two turns are creatures that can be answered by removal spells. That takes a lot of the strain off of permission decks, as Mana Leak, Negate, and Dissipate—backed up by the right removal suite—can handle just about anything.
With Worldwake's manlands gone, there's not much to say that any two-color combination is better than any other, and we've seen widely different takes on Blue Control in the first two weeks. Black and red both offer good removal, but without strong discard spells, I feel that white is the best support color. The versatility of Oblivion Ring is simply amazing. It does a fine job taking out creatures, without ever being a bad draw. It answers planeswalkers, Birthing Pod, opposing Oblivion Rings, and anything your crafty opponents might come up with. In addition to that, Day of Judgment is by far the most efficient sweeper, which is huge against Tempered Steel among other things, while Gideon Jura and Elspeth Tirel are also welcome additions. White even has the best sideboard options in Timely Reinforcements and Celestial Purge.
The Win Conditions
Jace Beleren, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Elspeth, Knight-Errant have come and gone, but it's never been a better time for planeswalkers. I can't emphasize enough how great it feels to play with planeswalkers now that there are no manlands. There's nothing like playing Karn Liberated, exiling their best creature, and knowing you're going to untap with that Karn still in play.
Along the same lines, having no manlands of your own makes it even more sensible to make opposing creature removal dead. (Mental Misstep also happens to be dead against this decklist). Sun Titan, without Tectonic Edge, fetchlands, or Jace Beleren is simply too hard to get value out of. It's unacceptable that Wurmcoil Engine can be Oblivion Ringed at no loss, and it also turns on artifact removal, which people frequently maindeck. That leaves Consecrated Sphinx as the six-drop of choice, but the fact that this deck has no other targets for Doom Blade means that if the opponent has it in their deck, they're almost always going to have it when you're ready to drop the Sphinx.
Once the metagame is more defined, it's possible that Consecrated Sphinx will earn a maindeck slot if nonblack control decks become popular. As is, though, I'm not willing to risk trading my six-drop for a two-mana instant that would otherwise be a dead card. I have, however, included three copies in the sideboard to bring in against any nonblack deck. Even against something like Solar Flare, having access to the Sphinxes after sideboard opens up a whole new challenge for them of whether or not they'll leave in their removal spells.
Tim Landale won the Philadelphia Grudge Match Standard tournament with U/W Control last weekend. I recommend his article for anyone interested in the deck. While I've gone my own direction with many of the card choices, I did take an invaluable lesson from his decklist. For a control deck like this to win in an open field, you need to be able to absolutely bury your opponents in the late game. I kept my mana curve low for my first few tries at U/W Control, but maxing out on planeswalkers and adding the second Karn Liberated really put the deck over the top. With this deck—particularly if the Sphinxes come in after sideboard—you can be in bad shape, but as long as you're not dying, you're winning because of how strong your deck is in the late game.
I've loaded up on permission, as I think it's quite powerful in this format, and my particular decklist is slow to close out a game. I've been shocked at how underplayed Negate is in the early days of new Standard, as I remember how powerful a card it was this time last year, before we had Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic to worry about. While it obviously shines in control mirrors, it's also an important role-player in the matchups where you'd traditionally question it. It stops Shrine of Burning Rage and Koth of the Hammer out of Mono Red, and Tempered Steel and Birthing Pod out of the respective decks. All of those are things which Dissipate is too slow to do effectively. One of the slots I'm still playing with is a fourth Negate in the sideboard.
A notable omission is Dismember. It's downright bad against Mono Red and unexciting against Tempered Steel, White Weenie, and most other aggro. I miss it against Birthing Pod and for some particular scenarios that come up once in a while, but the bottom line is that I'm not willing to play with removal that's not good against dedicated aggro. I'd want four copies each of Oblivion Ring, Day of Judgment, and Timely Reinforcements, which are all excellent cards in their own right, before I added Dismember.
U/W Control at States
I've told you all about how awesome U/W Control is, but I'd be neglecting my duty if I didn't leave you with a caution as well. As powerful as this decklist is in the late game, it can be hard to actually win the game if your opponent doesn't concede (which they certainly aren't obligated to). For the same reasons I omitted Consecrated Sphinx, you need to be wary about attacking with Gideon. If they have Doom Blade in their deck, they'll probably have it in their hand by the time you're ready to attack. Elspeth can win the game, but quite slowly. You'll often have to get creative and restart the game with Karn or deck them with Jace. Those routes take a lot of time, so play quickly and be aware of the clock.
There exists an “ultimate move” for U/W Control players. I can't tell you where I learned it, but let's just say that I could be a dead man if word got out that I was teaching it to outsiders. Use it with caution for my sake…for everybody's sake. Here's what you do:
You're in a control mirror that's going long. The game isn't decided yet, but for whatever reason you've stuck a Jace, Memory Adept. Maybe they're more worried about your “good” planeswalkers and they've made the fatal mistake of underestimating Jace. The default move is to draw a card and mill yourself for one because you don't want to fill the opponent's graveyard with flashback cards. However, you need to be aware (subtly aware, so you don't tip them off) of the size of both libraries, right from the start. You get Jace to seven loyalty with 20-30 cards in your library and 30 or fewer in theirs, and you wait for them to tap low enough on mana. Boom! You have both players draw twenty cards!
Your opponent picks up Jace, and reads it, because he's never bothered to glance at his ultimate before. Sure enough “any number of target players each draw twenty cards.” (If your buddy is playing a match next to you, you can throw him a bone and target him also.) The key point is, though, you draw yourself into your one Blue Sun's Zenith and target the opponent for whatever is left of his library and deck him. The high count of Negates and Dissipates will ensure that you win the counter war, even after they draw most of their deck.
So that's the U/W Control “ultimate move” and my recommendations for the State Championships. If the tournament were today, I'd be playing the U/W Control list I posted, and since I have a busy week lined up, it's almost certainly what I'll be playing at New Jersey States on Saturday. It's also a nice choice for anyone like me who doesn't have an extensive Innistrad collection yet. Two Snapcaster Mages are kind of nice, but the deck is just as good if you don't have them.
If you're a Mono Red kind of guy or girl, or if W/G Birthing Pod looks like fun to you, I recommend those decks just as highly. I would suggest staying away from Tempered Steel and other artifact-based decks for the time being. It reminds me of how Dredge was at certain points in its history, with the key difference that Tempered Steel can sometimes lose a fair game where the opponent isn't packing hate. You're simply such an underdog to anyone with Ancient Grudges or Creeping Corrosions in their sideboard, and your other matchups aren't good enough to make up for it.
I hope that anyone who has the time makes an effort to go to States because it's a great tournament for players at any level. Best of luck!