Standard is starting to shape up. After four weeks of StarCityGames.com Standard Opens some trends are starting to emerge. After playing in Cincinnati and doing commentary for SCGLive in Providence and Indianapolis I've seen quite a bit of this new format. While looking for trends I think I've noticed a few things about how successful Standard decks are being built.
Breaking down the Top 16 decks from Cincinnati Providence Indianapolis and New Orleans yields the following macro archetypes:
Small creature decks: 15 (9 mono-creatures 6 with burn)
Pure Control: 14 (4 with Thragtusk)
U/W/R Midrange: 6
Esper Tokens: 1 (The outlier!)
While we have quite a healthy format with access to all sorts of decklists there are certainly some rules and some trends that warrant mentioning.
1) Thragtusk is king. A full half of the Top 16 decklists between the four weekends leaned heavily on what is probably the best card in Standard. In addition to having a power level off the charts some of the natural predators for a five-mana green threat are no longer in Standard. The Control Magic effects are historically weak and basically unplayable. Six-mana cards have not been this (comparatively) weak since before Visara the Dreadful. It's far more difficult to use your life total as a resource to develop unless you have some life gain in your back pocket to undo all of the aggressor's good work. Thragtusk is a great card to have with how games tend to play out.
2) Farseek is overworked. What I find strange about many of these decklists is that they are heavily focused on four- and five-mana threats (Unburial Rites Restoration Angel Olivia Voldaren etc.) to carry the day as opposed to diversifying the mana costs. When I build decks I pay careful attention to the mana costs of the different functions of the deck. On the surface it may appear that Jund has a nice spread of mana costs; however all of its cheap cards are removal and all of its threats cost four or five mana.
This means that the Jund deck is heavily reliant on drawing Farseek to deploy threats in a reasonable manner and is almost incapable of deploying multiple threats in a turn. Some of the stronger builds I've seen have adopted Rakdos Keyrune both as a threat for less than four mana and as a backup Farseek. It doesn't hurt that the Keyrune naturally fights Thragtusk very well. As we've discussed Thragtusk is a fairly prevalent card.
2) When both players have Thragtusks games tend to go long. Strange how a card that gains life and is very difficult to get through on the ground leads to long games. Or not really strange at all. I saw multiple games on SCGLive ended by back-to-back Fireballs for 10+¢€Devil's Play and Rakdos's Return are quite underplayed given their ability to end games if you have a ton of mana. Sure each Thragtusk played means that the opponent is five more points out of Fireball range but someone at 30 life doesn't take care of their life total as much as someone at five life.
3) If games are going to go long then you want something that trumps Thragtusk especially in Thragtusk mirrors. After all Thragtusk is one of the best ways to get to an end game. Without the Titans (and other absurd six-drops that recently rotated) the best end game is Angel of Serenity. One of the reasons that the Reanimator decks have been successful is that they incorporate Thragtusk and Angel of Serenity into their primary game plan: Unburial Rites. As games drag on they are also adept at generating the mana needed to cast their Angels. So if you're interested in a trump strategy while still playing your own Thragtusks look no further than Reanimator.
4) Even though the counterspells themselves aren't very strong counterspells are fairly potent as a strategy. Between Essence Scatter Syncopate Dissipate and Negate there are enough second tier counterspells to justify playing in your blue decks. Thragtusk invites us all to play Battlecruiser Magic¢€counterspells are your trump in these types of games. It's not like Cavern of Souls is seeing much play. It's a delicate dance but a good majority of the deck will treat Cavern like a colorless land. Therefore it would push out cards like Kessig Wolf Run Moorland Haunt and Gavony Township. I'd much rather have the utility lands.
5) The beatdown decks are a real force. Individually Zombies Mono-Red Aggro and Humans don't have the numbers to suggest they're excellent choices but together they make up a sizable chunk of the metagame. One trend that I've noticed is that these decks are nearly 100% creatures. A card like Rancor goes a long way to making mono-creatures an acceptable strategy against even a board-dominating card like Thragtusk.
Early on the tried and true strategy of burn spells + creatures had some success but they've all but fallen by the wayside. Burn spells don't stack up well against gaining five life on the regular. Even the Mono-Red Aggro decks have been shaving many of the burn spells generally maxing out at the playsets of Pillar of Flame Searing Spear and Brimstone Volley. Zombies is still very threatening and I agree with the trend toward B/G Zombie decks. They have far more staying power than their B/R brothers.
6) Given that Thragtusk costs five mana it's impossible for the Thragtusk decks to lean on their all-star to stop the beatdown crew. In general the successful decks have had at least one other card in the maindeck specifically geared to fighting off the creature hordes. Pillar of Flame and Centaur Healer are likely the best if not most obvious options. Post-board most of these decks have the ability to side into a deck where Thragtusk is the nail in the coffin as opposed to the first line of defense.
That's a good place to be when you're talking about a dominating five-mana card. Taking things further if you have a way to turn your dead anti-beatdown cards into something worthwhile when they're not at their best even better. Liliana of the Veil Faithless Looting and Desolate Lighthouse are good ways to turn your dead Pillar of Flames into live cards (more Thragtusks!) against other Thragtusk decks.
7) Nearly all of the good removal in Standard is sorcery speed. Pillar of Flame Dreadbore Detention Sphere Oblivion Ring and Sever the Bloodline are probably the most played removal spells and they're the safest. Cards like Searing Spear Ultimate Price Murder and Abrupt Decay just have huge limitations that make them unreliable.
The best instant speed removal spells are likely the Charms (except for Rakdos Charm sorry!) although each of them have significant limitations as a removal spell. Fortunately they make up for them in versatility making them all excellent cards. Azorius Charm might be my favorite card in Standard and Selesnya Charm is a fantastic card for a "mono-creature" G/W deck.
8) Much like any format certain cards get better due to their environment and other cards get worse. I mean who on earth thought that Crippling Blight would ever be played in a 60-card deck? Some cards are better in this Standard format than their power levels might indicate. In addition to the Fireballs and Counterspells mentioned earlier Rancor Restoration Angel (and other creatures with "haste") and planeswalkers that can protect themselves from a 5/3 (Sorin Garruk Tamiyo) are all excellent cards well suited for fighting the Thragtusk menace.
Cards that are worse in this format than they otherwise might be include Geist of Saint Traft (sorry Todd Geist sucks!) Supreme Verdict Thalia Guardian of Thraben other five-mana green cards (sorry Acidic Slime) and Tragic Slip.
In summary I present a tl;dr version:
- Thragtusk is the best card in Standard and drags out games.
- Devil's Play and Rakdos's Return are both good at simply being Fireballs for double digits.
- Angel of Serenity is the best end game unless you're Ari Lax. Then hard casting Omniscience is reasonable.
- Counterspells are bad but Cavern of Souls is worse. Counterspells > expensive spells.
- The aggressive creature decks are good but need a huge amount of creatures.
- Removal is sorcery speed. Haste creatures are much better because of this.
- Against aggressive decks the Thragtusk decks need to see Thragtusk as a closer not as a first line of defense.
As a bonus I'll share the deck I've been streaming some with. I feel like it takes advantage of some of these rules and occupies a nice spot in Standard right now. I plan on playing it at the SCG Standard Open in St. Louis this weekend.
Restoration Angel is unbelievable in this deck as it's an excellent instant speed threat that your opponents can't afford to play around unless they want to be buried in an avalanche of card drawing and incremental advantages. The fact that you can get value from your Augurs and Snapcasters is just icing on the cake. At least in game 1s you rarely tap mana on your own main phase. Some decks require a subtle shift in strategy so the Detention Spheres Fettergeists and Supreme Verdicts offer a change of pace out of the sideboard.
If there's sufficient demand for this deck I could write an article about it. I've been having a blast playing the deck and have been winning quite a bit more with this than any other deck I've played thus far in Standard. Granted its primary competition is Veilborn Ghoul soooooooo¢
Hopefully next time I can regale you with stories of victory from St. Louis. See ya there!