The Mountains Win Again

Posted in NEWS on June 20, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

The Mountains Win Again is this week's theme, and part of what prompted me to circle back and take a look at Standard. It's been hard to resist the call of Vintage since the release of Vintage Masters, and writing about all the sweet Vintage decks last week lit a fire long gone out. I've played more Vintage in the last three days than the last three years, and I used to be really deep into Vintage. I'll talk about what I've been liking a little later, but with Grand Prix Chicago this weekend, I really have had to focus some on Standard as well. Plus, as I alluded to by mentioning the theme of the week, there have been some metagame shifts worth mentioning.

Lightning Strikes Twice

Red decks hoisted a pair of trophies this weekend, with Igor Gorbunov winning Grand Prix Moscow and Tom Ross winning the StarCityGames Invitational. That's an impressive sweep, and it definitely has some implications on what you might want to play in any upcoming events. Besides the two actual winners, there were plenty of monsters lurking around the top tables—monsters that happened to be colored red and green.

First, the red decks, both of which are actually very different in both construction and game plan.

Igor Gorbunov's Boros Burn

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This has been the most popular red deck recently, and it's about as single-minded as it gets. Every card in the deck besides Young Pyromancer and Chained to the Rocks is a burn spell, with Pyromancer providing a resilient threat and Chained dealing with the opponent's resilient threats. It only has eight creatures that aren't Mutavaults, and while Chandra's Phoenix isn't literally a burn spell, it may as well be.

Chandra's Phoenix | Art by Aleksi Briclot

This is not the kind of red deck that aims to win on turn four or five, and instead aims to just point burn spells at the opponent's face until he or she eventually keels over. Between Magma Jet to dig for whatever's needed, Warleader's Helix to make racing extremely difficult, and Skullcrack to stop any incidental lifegain, this deck is very well set up to win those medium-length games. It does fall off a bit in the late game, although Mutavaults, scry lands, and Chandra's Phoenix all help there, but it can almost always assemble lethal burn before the game drags on too long. Sometimes it can struggle with heavy disruption, because it doesn't have the speed to rely on, but at least in Game One, almost no deck plays a lot of cards this deck cares about. The list is basically just discard, counterspells, and lifegain, and no deck has a ton of those and a reasonable clock.

Cards this deck is vulnerable to: Nyx-Fleece Ram, Fiendslayer Paladin, Blind Obedience, Pharika's Cure, Duress, Negate, Dispel, Unflinching Courage, Courser of Kruphix, Nylea's Disciple, Master of Waves, Warleader's Helix.

There are plenty of good sideboard options against this deck, but this is one of the more resilient burn decks I've ever seen. Between Chained to the Rocks for cards like Nyx-Fleece Ram, Fiendslayer Paladin, Master of Waves, or anything with Unflinching Courage; Skullcrack against lifegain; and Chandra's Phoenix as a recurring threat, there's no one card that just beats this deck. Granted, if any other deck gets a solid hit in with Unflinching Courage or lands a successful Nylea's Disciple or Warleader's Helix, things can get tough, but at least the red deck can theoretically answer just about anything. I actually think Blind Obedience is the most effective card against the deck, as it steals haste from Chandra's Phoenix and provides an unkillable (save Banishing Light) source of lifegain. Not that many decks can play Blind Obedience, but I'd definitely run two in any control sideboard if beating this deck was a high priority (which it likely should be).

Tom Ross's Mono-Red

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And now we go from a deck with eight creatures and all burn spells to a mono-red deck with zero Mutavaults and four(!) total burn spells. Two Shocks and two Lightning Strikes are the extent of the burn present in Tom Ross's winning decklist, but this is still very much a red deck in both form and function.

With twenty one-drops and fourteen pump spells, this is the red deck that is trying to hit those turn-four wins, and it does so with frightening regularity. It also doesn't care about most of the cards in its opponent's deck, but in this case it's because it tries to end the game before they come online. In theory, something like Polukranos is good against small threats, but in practice this deck can just kill green mages before they have a chance to even cast Polukranos, much less activate it.

There are a bunch of mini-combos in the deck, like Akroan Crusader plus any pump spell, Foundry Street Denizen plus Akroan Crusader, and Legion Loyalist plus pump spells, but the base strategy is pretty straightforward. Play small red creatures, make them into large red creatures, and attack with them. The presence of Blinding Flare over more burn really signifies what this deck is about, and how singleminded it is.

Cards this deck is vulnerable to: Nyx-Fleece Ram; Fiendslayer Paladin; Drown in Sorrow; Pharika's Cure; one-mana removal; Master of Waves; Jace, Architect of Thought; Courser of Kruphix; Unflinching Courage; Warleader's Helix; Supreme Verdict; Anger of the Gods.

While there is definitely overlap between the two lists (these are both essentially mono-red decks that attack your life total, after all), there are plenty of cards that don't overlap. That's heavily in favor of these red decks, as they will often require multiple individual cards each to prepare against, which greatly increases the odds that the opponent will be ready for one and not the other. Because this deck is so creature-based, it tends to be vulnerable to cheap removal and sweepers more than the burn deck, although it cares not at all about the counters and discard that burn doesn't want to play against. This deck also has fewer of its own answers, as monocolor decks built for blinding speed tend to be pretty low in the answer department. That does mean that opposing decks have less time to find and assemble their anti-red cards, but if they do it is harder for this deck to beat them.

Dragons and Hydras

The other red deck I want to look at is about as midrange as it gets, and represents a significant portion of the current metagame. Red-green monsters is a deck that's been around as long as Magic, with Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise into Shivan Dragon being the original iteration. With twenty years of practice, finally we've perfected the Elves into Dragons deck, and it looks like this:

Sergiy Sushalskyy’s Red-Green Monsters

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With lots of acceleration, seven Planeswalkers, a bunch of powerful plays at four+ mana, and a smattering of removal and defensive cards, Red-Green Monsters does what midrange was built to do.

Against aggro decks it plays control, using Courser of Kruphix, Planeswalkers, and removal to stabilize until Polukranos or Stormbreath can finish the game. It sides in more removal and lifegain, further cementing its role as the control deck.

Against control decks it relies on its resilient threats, forcing control to deal with each threat on a one-for-one basis, often tapping out in the process. Red-Green then gets to land a Stormbreath Dragon or Xenagos, and get some free damage in, repeating the process until it's out of threats or the opponent is dead.

It's an effective strategy, as this deck has enough cards that play both offense and defense that it is happy enough in either role. This is a solid proactive deck, and one that you can expect to see many times in any Standard tournament you play.

Cards this deck is vulnerable to: Doom Blade; Ultimate Price; Hero's Downfall; Lifebane Zombie; Rapid Hybridization; Cyclonic Rift; Supreme Verdict; Elspeth, Sun's Champion; Pithing Needle; Planar Cleansing; Fated Retribution.

Every card on that list is removal of some kind, as efficient removal is this deck's bane. When all your threats cost a bunch of mana, getting them killed for two mana is a real pain, and sweepers aren't far behind. The good thing is that this deck cares more about what the opposing deck's overall game plan is more than which removal spells it plays. Because this deck isn't super fast or linear, it actually has to play normal Magic against its opponents, unlike the red decks. The red decks only care about the specific anti-red cards each opponent has, but RG has to deal with whatever the opposing deck is trying to do, and therefore is much more concerned about the overall plan than whatever couple cards its opponents sideboard in.

Picking Your Poison

Besides these decks, which I expect to be quite popular, Mono-Black Devotion isn't going anywhere, either. I also expect some Sphinx's Revelation decks and some Mono-Blue Devotion decks, although fewer of those than Mono-Black, Red-Green, or aggressive red decks combined. Where does that leave us? What decks should an aspiring Standard mage be looking at for upcoming events?

I honestly can't say for certain what I'm playing in Chicago (I did say I was going to play Revelations in Cincinnati, and stuck to it), but the decks I'm seriously considering are both devotion-based. I'm looking at either picking up Black Devotion of some kind, mainly because of how awesome I think Lifebane Zombie is, or Blue Devotion, because of how good it is against red. I think either is a solid choice, and it's mostly going to come down to how I feel when playing them after this week of practice. I suggest you take the same approach, since being comfortable with and liking your deck is the most important part, given that you are picking from all of the various good decks available (of which there are many).

Speaking of decks I like, I feel obliged to mention the Vintage deck that I've enjoyed playing thus far:

TezzOath

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This is very close to the Bazaar of Moxen–winning decklist, with just a few changes I've made after playing over these past couple days. I added more Dredge hate to the sideboard, a couple Thoughtseizes to the main deck, and upped the Forbidden Orchard count to two. Overall, this is an awesome deck, as it does all the broken blue stuff I like doing in Vintage, while playing the control role well and having a hard-to-stop win condition. It also has a great sideboard, with Oath of Druids coming against any creature-based deck and being as absurd as you'd imagine. Remember to side out the Snapcasters and usually the Colossus when you side in the Oaths, with your new win condition being to Oath up Rune-Scarred Demon and tutor for Time Walk, Yawgmoth's Will, a counterspell, or whatever it is that will win you the game.

Wish me luck in Chicago and I'll do the same for whatever tournament you find yourself joining this weekend!

LSV