GRAND PRIX VANCOUVER 2014 - THE EVOLUTION OF THEROS STANDARD

Posted in NEWS on January 29, 2014

It seems like only yesterday Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, Ireland ushered in this vibrant Standard format. But oh how young we were back in October! There were only three Mono-Black Devotion decks at the entire tournament, and a total of two(!) Pack Rats among them. No. 5 Jeremy Dezani along with the formerly named Team Revolution (now The Madness Project) cleaned up the Top 8 with then brand-new Mono-Blue Devotion deck. Playing Master of Waves and Thassa, God of the Sea was a novel idea in those days.

The other big Standard breakout of the Pro Tour was a little Legendary Land called Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. No. 14 Martin Juza and the rest of the ChannelFireball team were calling it the new Tolarian Academy, and the comparison didn't seem to far off. With enough devotion, often the right play was to tap your first Nykthos, then play a second to make more. Though you would have to bin the first one via the "Legends rule," it was more than worth it for the extra seven or eight mana. The deck that best showcasing the land was No. 13 Makihito Mihara's Colossal Gruul deck – powering out green fatties like Polukranos, World Eater and Garruk, Caller of Beasts.

But those halcyon days are far behind us. Six Grand Prix later, the format has re-shaped and re-shaped again. Many of the Pros thought Mihara's deck was the one to beat coming out of the gates. But with the rise of Mono-Black Devotion (now sporting four copies of Pack Rat every time) and Mono-Blue Devotion, both of which were not positive matchups for the Colossal Gruul, the ramp deck all but fell of the radar. In fact, at Grand Prix Louisville, taken down by Brian Braun-Duin (and his four Pack Rats), the Colossal Gruul was replaced by No. 25 Jon Stern's Gruul Beats that featured a total of zero Nykthos, and zero Garruk. The deck also played two Mistcutter Hydras in the main to shore up the Mono-Blue Devotion matchup, which put three players in the Top 8.

Also at Grand Prix Louisville were two Esper Control decks. Its pilots who had struggled to contain all the new questions from other decks had now figured out answers. William "Huey" Jensen and Alex Sittner used the two powerful planeswalkers Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Jace, Architect of Thought, along with the supremely powerful Ætherling, to make Esper the pillar control deck in the format – proving that Sphinx's Revelation was still really, really, good.

With four Pack Rats now the gold standard in Mono-Black, and Mono-Blue Devotion the deck to beat, Grand Prix Santiago was a departure, setting some amazing alternative decks to play. The new toys to adjust to were Azorius Devotion, a control deck with Master of Waves, and two Red Aggro decks (one featuring Mogis' Marauders which won the day thanks to Chilean newcomer, Luis Navas).

At Grand Prix Albuquerque, hailed as the "Return of Owen", Standard reached a scary nadir. It seemed that perhaps the two big dudes in the room, Mono-Blue and Mono-Black, had figured out how to stop the alternatives, putting seven decks in the Top 8. Dark Betrayal was the sideboard card of the weekend for the black mirror match, and a whopping 28 copies of Nightveil Specter were in the Top 8. There were many decks bubbling up in the Top 16, but the Top 8 looked grim. Todd Anderson and No. 6 Sam Black both put up their second Grand Prix Theros Standard Top 8s.

And then in Vienna a little card appeared that turned the format on its axis. Last Breath, the number four card of the weekend, gave white decks (and any deck that could splash white) the ability to kill Pack Rat, Nightveil Specter, Frostburn Weird and Master of Waves for two mana at instant speed – all the while keeping Whip of Erebos from returning them. The four life was basically negligible for any deck slower than Mono-Blue or Mono-Black.

Though only 13 copies ended up in the Top 16, Grand Prix Vienna marked the rise of white. A Mostly White Humans deck, an Esper and an Azorius Control deck and two Red decks splashing white all finished in the Top 8. The Aggro decks eschewed Last Breath for another one-mana answer, Chained to the Rocks. These white aggressive decks, though not taking down the tournament, served as an indicator of the aggressive turn of the format to come.

These decks all provided answers to a necessary deckbuilding question in this Standard – Can you kill a turn-two Pack Rat? Chained to the Rocks, Last Breath, Orzhov Charm were all up to the task, and Detention Sphere provided a great answer after the second turn. All these cards could also conveniently kill the threats out of Mono-Blue. Perhaps it wasn't coincidence that not a single Mono-Black Devotion deck made the Top 8 in Vienna.

This "Kill-The-Pack-Rat" trend continued into Grand Prix Dallas Fort Worth. Three Azorius Control, a Boros Aggro deck and two Orzhov variants showed up in the Top 8 – with only one Mono-Black Devotion breaking in (and only one more in the Top 16). This tournament was also notable because it was the first and only time Mono-Blue Devotion did not see the Top 8. Granted, there were three in the Top 16, but none under the lights.

The Orzhov decks, sporting the versatile Orzhov Charm, infused some new ideas into the format. No. 1 Ben Stark's Mostly White Orzhov Aggro deck, with lots of human interaction, pinioned by Xathrid Necromancer, proved that an alternate aggressive deck could disrupt just enough to let little guys get through. Spear of Heliod (one of the top five cards of the weekend) was a big help, and started to show up more and more in the format.

In fact, the Orzhov deck was so influential it vaulted Ryo Nakada into the top spot at Grand Prix Shizuoka, the last Standard Grand Prix leading to this event. And Esper Control put three players into the Top 8 for the first time in the season (granted, one of those was No. 23 Shota Yasooka's off-the-wall Prognostic Sphinx/Master of Waves deck). Past that, and Esper Humans deck, piloted by Shota Takao, took the Orzhov model and ran with it. It kept the Daring Skyjek, Imposing Sovereign, Soldier of the Pantheon and etc., but added three Obzedat, Ghost Council, four Supreme Verdict, and four Detention Sphere. This allowed the deck to win either the short or the long game – whichever was preferable. Read Ben Schwartz's

deck tech with Takao for more. In fact, Justin Tsang used it just last night to win a grinder here at Grand Prix Vancouver.

The other card that Esper loves is Domestication. Almost unique in this format is the power of small creatures. Domestication takes them before they become a problem – stopping the growth of Pack Rats, killing Master of Waves elementals and creating card advantage – all while adding a chump blocker. Orzhov Humans' Cartel Aristocrat does a great job of halting such shenanigans.

So here we are. At the final Grand Prix of the Theros Standard season. We've come so far. Pro Tour Theros showed us that devotion was indeed good, in fact quite better than good. This whole season can be seen as both aggressive and controlling decks trying to figure out how to beat Mono-Black and Mono-Blue Devotion. Esper and Azorius Control both provide great answers, as do the various Human decks. Will one of the more consistent decks reassert its dominance in Vancouver, saying that it in fact was the deck to remember from this season? Or will one of the less-proven decks show that the throne has been usurped, and that the community has solved the Devotion puzzle?

And the bigger and even more exciting question: What tools will Born of the Gods provide to shake up everything we've been building towards? We'll find out as the weekend and the following weeks unfold. Welcome to Vancouver, everyone!