It can be hard to get a handle on all the decks that are running through Standard right now. And even if you do, how do you pick (or build) the best one and play it through? There were two top decks in Standard a few weeks ago—Abzan Midrange and Jeskai. Tom Ross argues that Mardu Midrange is the new third. That view bears out in the metagame breakdown today, Mardu players make up around 11% of the Day 2 field. But that is far from set in stone. Then, looking further down the list for players that could go 7-2 the number of archetypes reaches about 20.
How do you thresh your way through a field like this? Mardu was nothing until some dude showed up with it and won (I mean, that "dude" was a Player of the Year, but still...). The same could be said for White-Blue Heroic. Do you play that deck? Do you play the deck you know? Do you adapt for this deck that might not even show up in multiples? I sat down with some of the top players at Grand Prix San Antonio to figure out what do they do.
David Ochoa's two-step mantra is simple: 1) "Know how to play your deck." 2) "Make sure your deck is good." It's hard to argue with the man who's currently sitting at 10-1. That ranking gets even more impressive when you know his secret: "I haven't played a game of Standard since Grand Prix Los Angeles."
But it wasn't like Ochoa put his blinders on and suited up his Jeskai deck. "It's important to be aware of the decks that exist, even if they won't have a huge impact." He keeps abreast on the decklists that show up, and makes sure he at least has a strategy against it, if only theoretical.
When it comes to a new, flashy deck, Ochoa is much more conservative when he approaches Grand Prix events. "I know the matchups and I know how to sideboard," he said. This sideboarding point was what Josh McClain and Jon Stern highlighted when I talked to them.
"This might be the most challenging Standard ever when it comes to sideboarding," they said. Players routinely say that siding out twelve cards is commonplace. And the extra wrinkle gets added when you try to figure out how your opponent is sideboarding.
"Usually Mardu players, side out most of their creatures and go control. But if they don't, and you didn't side in your Drown in Sorrows [playing Abzan Midrange], it'll be a hard game," McClain said.
He added that misassignment of even the deck itself can help or hurt you. In a game in Day 1, McClain's Abzan Midrange went Thoughtseize, Thoughtseize, Anafenza, the Foremost in the first game. His opponent thought he was Abzan Aggro and completely flubbed his sideboarding. (Greg Ogreenc would be remiss if I didn't mention that McClain missed this at the time, but won the second game anyway. Sorry, Josh.)
Stern didn't think of unorthodox sideboarding as a strategy, more so a suboptimal plan. "But you can't just walk into a match and assume your opponent is going to put in the optimal sideboard, just because you know what they should sideboard."
When it comes to approaching the actual decks, because of this sideboard shoring up, McClain and Stern opted to play more variable decks—Abzan and Mardu, respectively. The options that those sideboards allow you if you face a deck you've never seen are just greater than if you're playing a super-proactive deck like Mono-Red.
Ochoa echoed this idea, saying "you're going to have a lot more four-ofs and three-ofs in Mono-Red sideboards than other matchups." With a field spread across so many different strategies, having a linear sideboard can be detrimental if a deck attacks from an avenue you can't cover.
McClain, Stern, and Ochoa have all had success with this method of finding a deck that's good, and really knowing how to play that deck—all 75 cards of it. There is no doubt that Jeskai, Abzan and Mardu are very strong decks, and all have the capability of performing well in a, say, standard Standard metagame. On the other side of the fence, defiantly, is Tom Ross.
Ross—whose Red deck shook up the dregs of the Theros Standard format, and whose White-Blue Heroic made waves in the last month in the new Standard—opts for a different tack.
"Do your best to make the good cards bad," he said. This operates on the idea of making your opponents' strengths their weaknesses. He continued, "Like in the Mono-Black matchup [in Theros Standard], the red deck made cards like Thoughtseize just redundant." His White-Blue Heroic deck made cards like Siege Rhino just not that good. It's still "good" but not nearly as good as it is in other matchups.
Ross, an inveterate brewer, has had great success with this strategy, but it's not without its weaknesses. In such an open format, a deck could be great at one tournament, and not great at the next. Ross admitted that his deck was "great three weeks ago, but probably not anymore." He attributes this to the rise of Mardu. With Chained to the Rocks becoming commonplace, efficient removal like that can be death for the deck.
If you go for consistency, you might run hot enough, but if you can make the good cards bad, you can easily rise to the top—assuming you know what the "good" cards are at any given time.
Ross said Hordeling Outburst is very good right now, and sits in a spot that is annoying and hard to remove, and Ross starting brewing in front of me on how to minimize its effects. "Anger of the Gods is probably a maindeck-able card right now honestly."
He continued on this thought train and said a Blue-Red Control deck could be really good. "Your Dig Through Time is better than [in the other control decks]. You can play Steam Augury and net cards and fuel your Digs." He added that Peak Eruption could be very good right now too (you can tell this man really doesn't like Chained to the Rocks).
Asked if he could run the tournament back, he said he'd want to play Blue-Red Control, if he had the time to figure it all out. "The format has begun to settle; the wedge decks have gotten defined," so he could probably tackle it. He likes the idea of control but doesn't think any of the current incarnations are there yet. Likening the current sweepers to Dan Quayle, he said "End Hostilities is no Supreme Verdict," and added "Perilous Vault is really slow."
"Decks are forced to play efficient removal now," and Ross says making those "good" cards—Lightning Strike, Crackling Doom, Chained to the Rocks, et al—bad in a solid control shell, could really pan out. Tom's Good-Cards-Gone-Bad strategy is harder in an open field, but if you are on the pulse of the broad strokes of what's going on, like "efficient removal is necessary," you can still exploit the holes.
These are just some of many ways to play into an open Standard field. But I think Ochoa's mantra is broad enough to encompass Ross's. Know your deck—sideboard included—and maybe most importantly, make sure your deck is good.
Take a look back at that archetype chart. You can basically do whatever you want in Khans of Tarkir Standard, as long as you do it well.