Any tournament player will tell you that the first step in the process of building a great Constructed deck is to analyze the popular decks and go over their respective strengths and weaknesses. The term "Rock-Paper-Scissors" has been used quite often to describe the metagame, and it is correct in some ways. For example, Blue Skies beats most control decks easily, but is notorious for losing to Fires. In some cases, players will attempt to break the Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame by adjusting their decks against the rest of the field. For example, a Fires deck may run Thornscape and Thunderscape Battlemages to gain an advantage in the mirror match.
An exciting aspect of a big tournament such as Nationals is that the world's best deckbuilders will reveal their metagame breakers. The environment may be Rock-Paper-Scissors, but many will try to create the "Grenade" that blows away all the other decks in the environment. Will a deck like this take Nationals by storm, or will innovations on existing archetypes be the determining factor? Let's break down the field by deck, and see exactly what will be involved in Constructed this weekend.
Is there any other place to start? This deck has been the clock of the environment since Invasion was released, just like Sligh in its heyday. Years back, if your deck couldn't beat Sligh then it simply wasn't worth playing. In 2001, if your deck can't beat Fires, then it's time to find a different deck. This deck uses Fires of Yavimaya to get maximum efficiency out of Fading cards such as Blastoderm and Saproling Burst. That means four attacks from a 'Derm, or three 4/4 Burst tokens that hit the ground running.
Like any aggro deck, Fires can have its share of problems with control designs. Enchantment removal is quite good against it, since it takes out the key Bursts, along with Fires. Wrath of God is another exceptional anti-Fires card, as it not only takes out all the fat creatures, but it also eliminates a portion of the deck's mana by killing off Birds and Elves.
A recent trend with this deck is to use Battlemages for utility. The Red Battlemage is exceptional in the mirror match, where it can take out an enchantment and force the opponent to discard what's left of their hand by turn five or six. The Green Battlemage is also quite good, as it can take out a Bird and an Idol. However, don't think that the efficiency of these creatures is limited to the Fires mirror match. For example, the Green Battlemage can take out Tsabo's Web, and the Black kicker on Thunderscape Battlemage is never a bad deal.
This deck type made an impact at Pro Tour Chicago, and since then it has gone through variations and changes based on local metagames. The primary build is similar to a typical Blue/White control deck, with Counterspell, Dismantling Blow and Wrath of God. The Rebels merely serve as an efficient win condition. The Counter-Rebel player can play a Sergeant, and sit back on untapped mana for the rest of the game. If a threat is played, it will be countered with the available mana. If no threat is played, the Rebel player will search and develop his board position. If you looked up "synergy" in a Magic dictionary, I doubt you would find a better definition than this deck.
Lately, Rebel designs have gone back to their aggressive roots. Meddling Mage is one of the primary reasons for this, as it is a "Bear" that heavily disrupts the opponent. Don Lim, who was one of the innovators to design Replenish last year, recently won a Neutral Ground Grudge Match Qualifier with an aggro Rebel white-blue build that used Parallax Wave and Reverent Mantra. No counterspells, no Wrath of God, just pure aggression- or at least as aggressive as a White/Blue deck can get.
Nether Spirit is a card that did not see much use prior to Invasion, with the exception of rogue decks such as Condamnination (a Contamination/Nether Spirit lock deck). However, Invasion contained many cards which allowed slow control decks to be viable again, and Nether Spirit is a great victory condition. There are various ways to build this deck- many players copied the version Alex Shvartsman posted to Sideboard a few months back. His version was strictly blue-white, and could only get Nether Spirit into play with Fact or Fiction or Foil, or by discarding with eight or more cards in hand.
Other versions splash Black so that Nether Spirit is castable, which provides access to certain sideboard cards such as Tsabo's Decree. Sean McKeown's Probe-Go deck uses the Black for Probes, which can selectively discard Nether Spirit (unlike Fact or Fiction). Regardless of design, the choice of Nether Spirit as the victory condition allows the deck to control the game and win at leisure. The Nether Spirit does not have to be played, and can be put into the graveyard as an afterthought to other effects. This allows the player to focus entirely on the task of taking control of the game. Once this is established, Nether Spirit will always come back to finish off the opponent.
A few years back, Sligh was the dominant force in Standard. Thanks to undercosted creatures such as Jackal Pup and Mogg Fanatic, and broken burn spells like Fireblast, this ultra-fast deck could destroy an opponent in the blink of an eye. Even though Pups and Fireblasts have been sent off to Extended, Mono-Red is a decktype that seems to never go away.
The notable difference in current Red decks and those in the past is in creature quality. Most Red decks now run Firebrand Ranger and Rage Weaver, which are simply two casting cost versions of Goblin Patrol and Jackal Pup. However, the deck does have Chimeric Idol, which provides a much-needed colorless source of damage. It's not exactly Cursed Scroll, but it gets the job done. The burn assortment is rather straightforward, with Seal of Fire, Shock, Scorching Lava, Ghitu Fire and Urza's Rage all available to burn your opponent and his creatures to a crisp.
Having all that burn is quite beneficial in the current environment, where many decks rely on early creatures to win. For example, a Rebel deck may have problems winning the game if you burn off all its searchers before they become active. Similarly, the Fires deck cannot overwhelm you with speed if you kill off its Birds and Elves. As always, worst case scenario is that you aim all that burn directly at your opponent's face and burn them out of the game.
A few weeks ago, decks that were primarily Black weren't exactly dominating the tournament scene. Black is notorious for having no way to deal with Enchantments, and in this case, it has no way to deal with the ubiquitous Saproling Burst. However, the color of death gained some assistance from 7th Edition in the form of Duress and Persecute. Suddenly, Black decks became viable again. With the help of Duress, a Black mage could take out Bursts and other problem cards, and a well placed Persecute can cripple any deck. With the help of Dark Ritual and Phyrexian Scuta, the color retains the speed which defined it for years, and has a beatdown creature on par with Juzam Djinn.
So now that we have specific utility cards, how do we go about building a deck around it? One option is to use land destruction in conjunction with the reintroduced discard spells to entirely cripple the opponent. Rain of Tears, Despoil and the returning Befoul all round out the base of this specific build. Another option is to build the deck as Black/Red aggro, which has the benefit of access to Red's burn spells, and some of its better creatures such as Skizzik.
It is important to note that the post 7th Edition environment is still young, and some of the potential builds have yet to develop into specific decktypes. This tournament will answer most of the questions regarding 7th Edition by letting the cards speak for themselves. Will Wildfire show up and be a force, or is the metagame too fatty-based? Will a Black deck break out and have a strong showing? As the week unfolds, competitors and spectators alike will gain new insight into what Standard with this new basic set will be like for the next few years.