Red-Green and Jund Monsters were two of the decks of choice for players looking to fight the various devotion and control decks at the top of the Standard metagame. Backed by potent removal like Dreadbore and Mizzium Mortars, Stormbreath Dragon often ruled the skies and pummeled opponents that weren't expecting it. In combination with Domri Rade or Xenagos, God of Revels, Top 4 competitor William Levin closed out several games swinging for 7 and 8 damage chunks. Giving opponents just one turn to answer it was often not enough.
The steady performance of Esper and Azorius Control decks, as well as the continuous presence of Blue Devotion, meant there was more than enough blue around to dedicate sideboard space for color-mirror showdowns. Gainsay's efficiency as a hard counter for blue spells was critical for protecting trumps, as Nathan Holiday did setting up resolving Nightveil Specter against his semifinal opponent Gary Wong. Once he secured the potent flier, the flow of cards shifted dramatically in Holiday's favor. Gainsay may not be splashy, but hedging the right direction in the metagame was precisely what players needed throughout the weekend.
"Rakdos's Return is one of the most powerful cards in Standard, but at the same time it needs complements." - Eric Froehlich, No. 23 Ranked Player
Froehlich's Black Devotion deck, splashing a little red, made use of Rakdos's Return two weeks ago in Cincinnati, and while the powerful Rakdos X spell found its way into the sideboard of his deck for this tournament, it did some major work for him and those who saw its power all weekend. For Black Devotion, one of its weak points was trading card-for-card with a Sphinx's Revelation deck, then losing to it when they resolved their key card-drawing spell to re-fuel. Rakdos's Return gives Black Devotion a new way to attack those strategies. By saving your Thoughtseizes and Duresses to draw out countermagic, and by not playing good targets for Esper Control's one-for-one removal, you can leave their Detention Spheres and assorted removal in their hand for the turn where you go big with Rakdos's Return.
The card's power level in the sideboard, combined with Froehlich's accurate read on how to attack Standard's key archetypes, allowed the No. 23 Ranked Player to lock up a Top 8 slot with a Round 14 draw, giving the Las Vegas resident his tenth Grand Prix Top 8.
2. Bile Blight
As the Standard format has evolved in the past few weeks, one change we've seen in Black Devotion lists has been the movement away from Bile Blight. After all, if you're expecting a field full of monstrously large creatures, much like the ones out of the Jund Monsters deck, Bile Blight is far from at its best.
What it is good at, however, is a few things that proved to be key this weekend. Aside from being a way to control an early Pack Rat, giving you a larger window to deal with the rat infestation before it gets out of control, it also kills soldier tokens. All of them. This allows the Black Devotion decks, which can be held off for an extended period of time by an active Elspeth, Sun's Champion, to actually punch through and take down the six mana planeswalker through attacks. We saw this in eventual winner Robert Berni's Quarterfinal match against Daniel Ward, where three copies of Bile Blight allowed Berni to fight through Elspeth's tokens, take her out, and eventually win him the game.
Part of what makes both the Black and Blue Devotion decks tick is the card advantage engines they carry. Nightveil Specter is shared between them, and its ability to rip valuable, useful cards from opponents is a sword striking twice: Not only does the attacking player "draw" an extra card but it's one less copy the opponent has access to. Runner up Nathan Holiday pulled lands and another copy of the advantageous card during his semifinal match against the white version of the Blue Devotion deck, all this after Holiday cast Brandon Bercovich's Gray Merchant of Asphodel for a lethal life swing in the Quarterfinal. Winner Robert Berni stole no less than three in his decisive third game march over Holiday in maintaining the dominance of Black Devotion.
That's all in addition to counting for three devotion for either blue and black - a fact that turned many Thassa, God of the Sea into unblockable five damage chunks throughout the weekend. Neightveil Specter does work, and its power in the devotion strategies cannot go unchecked.