On October 6th hundreds of Magic players will convene at the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Cincinnati to try to win the first major tournament of the Innistrad-Return to Ravnica Standard format. It will be exciting; new strategies will be revealed forgotten cards will reemerge and the precedent will be set for the entire year of Standard.
How do you intend on winning a tournament on the first day of the new format Planeswalker?
They say that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. So let's take a look at the early tournaments of Scars-Innistrad Standard and see what we can learn from the initial successful strategies. Rather than starting with the decks I'm going to give you some things to think about in general before we get to specifics.
Keep It Simple Stupid
What does your deck do? Can you give a reasonable explanation in one sentence? If not I'd recommend rethinking your strategy. While decks with intricate interactions and ambitious mana bases do manage to succeed (hello Four-Color Birthing Pod) a straightforward deck is going to be best at maximizing consistency.
Simple Mana Bases Are Better
You need to hit the right colors at the right times in order to cast your spells. The thought of playing Stromkirk Noble on turn 1 followed up by Geist of Saint Traft on turn 3 seems kind of cool but what if you don't draw your red source in your opening hand? That Stromkirk Noble is looking pretty awkward. I think this one is best demonstrated by the examples below so stay tuned.
The U/B Control deck in the days before Dark Ascension came out was a blast to play. You sat back killed everything and sometimes milled your opponent for three with Nephalia Drownyard at the end of their turn until they ran out of cards.
Don't play that deck.
No matter how good you think your grasp is on the new format there's almost certainly going to be something that you haven't accounted for (Phantasmal Dragon what!?!?!?). Even if you do have an idea of what you need to prepare for your opponents might be able to fight through your tech. I can't tell you how many times last year that I played against a Solar Flare player who brought in 10+ cards against my Mono Red deck tap out for Timely Reinforcements and immediately get slammed for near lethal by an on-curve Hero of Oxid Ridge.
I recommend devising game plans that can consistently win a goldfish game (a game where the opponent does nothing) by around turn 6. Yes that seems ambitious but think of how fast Magic is nowadays. If you resolve Primeval Titan on turn 4 (and fetch Kessig Wolf Run) it only takes two swings to attack for a full 20 damage. That was a deck in the early Innistrad Standard environment.
The best argument I've heard for being proactive is that it gives your opponents less time to set up whatever they're doing. Maybe they need to pay life with Phyrexian mana; maybe they need to set up their board with creature X and creature Y; maybe they need to get up to nine mana for something. Sometimes your opponent doesn't even get to execute their game plan if you make sure you can execute yours quickly.
"Mana Curve" Is a Real Thing
If your opponent leads with Swamp Gravecrawler you really don't want to be looking at a hand that doesn't do anything on turns 1 or 2. It's tempting to play lots of powerful expensive spells but you need to be doing something in the early game. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Have a Concise Backup Plan
This is a tough one. You don't want your Plan A to suffer but you still want to attack from multiple angles so that you don't get completely shut down by one card (say Day of Judgment or Ancient Grudge). You only need to have a few slots for a backup plan but it should be something that can take over the game by itself if left unanswered or if the game goes long.
Last Year's Early Winners
Now that we have a few ideas about building post-rotation decks let's look at some examples. The following decklists were pulled from the StarCityGames.com Standard Opens in Indianapolis and Nashville last year the first two events of Scars-Innistrad Standard. While these decklists weren't particularly refined we can see why they did well in a new format.
Todd Anderson U/W Illusions
Ah the first iteration of "Delver." While Todd Anderson's decklist was significantly different from what Delver evolved into over the course of the season the basic concept was there. What did this deck do? Applied a fast clock with undercosted creatures with some counterspells and removal to disrupt the opponent's game plan. While there was the "Illusion" drawback to most of Todd's creatures most targeting spells or abilities were going to kill his creatures anyway. There was also the added bonus that Lord of the Unreal made his creatures big and untargetable and a Phantasmal Image copying Lord of the Unreal was nigh unbeatable.
Let's check a few other things off of our list. The mana base? 20 blue-producing lands with three spell lands. Simple and effective. Mana curve? Only Phantasmal Bear was a one-drop (the addition of Ponder + Delver of Secrets really smoothed this out) but most of his threats were two-mana so games where he got stuck on two or three lands weren't instantly losses. A backup plan? Moorland Haunt. Yes there were only eight lands that produce white in the deck but considering it didn't heavily disrupt his mana base and didn't replace any actual spells in the deck the Moorland Haunt plan was basically a freeroll.
Ari Lax Tempered Steel
Played cheap aggressive artifact dudes and hoped they became cheap huge artifact dudes. Tempered Steel was the only deck to really survive the rotation and I think most of us have at least a basic understanding of the deck. While the creatures were a little underwhelming without Tempered Steel sometimes playing creatures and attacking with them just got the job done. Also any game where Tempered Steel hit the battlefield became almost comical turning Vault Skirges into mini Baneslayer Angels. This deck's backup plan was the four Hero of Bladehold which dodged artifact hate and won games by itself.
Mana base? Seventeen Plains three Mox Opal and four Inkmoth Nexus. Mana curve? Not an issue here with plenty of ones and twos. Small white creatures and anthem effects has been a viable strategy since the dawn of time and I think it's a reasonable choice for Cincinnati.
Court Schuett U/W Humans
- 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
Speaking of White Weenie this was the other "play small creatures and anthems and attack" deck of the early format. More accurately I'd say this deck tried to curve out with creatures make them scary with Honor of the Pure or Angelic Destiny then attack. Ironically U/W Humans dropped off in popularity sometime around the release of Avacyn Restored but don't forget that this was one of the scariest decks around for a while. If you curved out with U/W Humans you would usually sweep the floor with your opponent.
Mana base? 20 white-producing lands with the aforementioned splash for Moorland Haunt. Backup plan? Moorland Haunt which even benefitted from Honor of the Pure. Mana curve? This deck was all about the mana curve man. Ten one-drops eight two-drops (counting Honor of the Pure) eight three-drops and three Hero of Bladehold. Just play dudes and smash—it gets the job done.
Dayv Doberne Mono Red
- 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
Mono Red gets a pretty bad rap in the Magic community but it's still a real deck that wins real games of magic. As it turns out when each of your cards are dedicated to reducing your opponent's life total to zero you tend to reduce your opponent's life total to zero. I think the most important thing Mono Red decks do is to keep the rest of the format honest. The flexibility of burn spells is the real selling point here; cheap burn is great at punishing people who try to get too cute with creature synergies and it also provides inevitability against opponents who stabilize but can't shut the door.
In Innistrad Standard most Mono Red decks had the same plan: play something on turn 1 then follow it up with a Shrine of Burning Rage or Stormblood Berserker. While Koth of the Hammer and Shrine of Burning Rage weren't backup plans per se they allowed the deck to have multiple angles of attack and resilience to Day of Judgment. Proactive? Without a doubt. Mana base? 23 Mountains nothing subtle about it. This deck wasn't trying to impress anyone; it just stole victories from unprepared opponents.
Brian Sondag Wolf Run Ramp
- 3 Solemn Simulacrum
- 3 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Primeval Titan
- 4 Viridian Emissary
In my eyes this was the big winner as far as early Innistrad Standard went. The deck tried to do the same thing every time: turn 4/5 Primeval Titan. If the 6/6 trampling creature didn't kill them Inkmoth Nexus backed by Kessig Wolf Run would. Once Primeval Titan resolved removal was basically just delaying the inevitable.
Wolf Run Ramp could adapt by putting its target on the four-drops if necessary. Thrun the Last Troll was just bigger than most other creatures that were being played so a turn 3 Thrun often blanked aggressive decks.
Of the decks I've discussed in this article the mana base was sketchiest in this deck though it was essentially mono-green splashing Kessig Wolf Run and Slagstorm. Fortunately Viridian Emissary and Rampant Growth helped on that front. While this deck was less proactive than the decks discussed above it still aimed to do something very specific and consistent by turn 4 or 5. When a format is defined by creatures sometimes you just want to have bigger creatures than your opponent.
What Have We Learned?
The most striking thing about these decks is that they were all mono-colored or essentially mono-colored. Though we are headed into a multicolor block perhaps it's best to stick with a strategy where you can cast all of your spells reliably. It's tempting to devise a three-color strategy to take advantage of all the cool new multicolored cards but I advise restraint and to stick to just two colors with one being primary and the other being secondary.
Lest you forget here are the big takeaway points of this article:
- Be proactive.
- Have a mana curve.
- Have a backup plan.
Happy brewing and good luck in the new format!
@Sunyveil on Twitter
We are Selesnya. We all about the fair fight – Thalia and Ethersworn Canonist ensure that our adversaries play fair as well. It's a harsh multiverse out there full of agonizing tendrils flying spaghetti monsters and oversized insects. But if we can stand together and unite our powers we can survive any battle bolts of lightning and even the sudden urge to plow fields.
We do not discriminate who joins our ranks. Humans Elves Kor Dryads Faeries – even Oozes Giants and the occasional Praetor – we all believe in the Worldsoul and stand to protect it.
We are Selesnya and we will prevail.