Starting at the Top

Posted in Top Decks on March 7, 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).

Now that Standard is in full swing, there's no better time to live up to the Top Decks name and look at what's currently on top. Some clear frontrunners have emerged, and by looking at them, we can figure out what to play, what you need to beat, and what are interesting modifications to these proven powerhouses.

Grand Prix Melbourne's Top 8 actually showcases perfectly all the decks I want to talk about today, and that's not just because those are the decks that made Top 8. The Standard standouts right now are Red-Green-based Monsters decks, White-Blue-based Control decks, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Mono-Black-based decks. GP Melbourne just happens to have a Top 8 made up of representatives from all those categories, which is convenient.

Red-Green Monsters

The first deck I want to talk about is not only the newest addition to the Standard scene, but the most popular. Even though just about every card in the deck was legal before Born of the Gods, this deck has exploded in popularity since then. It may be as simple as the right list not being discovered (I believe all decks exist in some theoretical space, and are discovered by brave explorers from each format), or that Courser of Kruphix and Xenagos, God of Revels were really that important to the deck's success. Either way, in a field very similar to pre-BNG Standard, Red-Green Monsters is taking the format by storm(breath).

There are a few variants of the deck, as it can easily splash any color, although that generally means black or white. First, let's look at the straight Red-Green version:

Huang Hao-Shan

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The basic idea behind this deck is so simple, even a monster could grasp it: play an Elvish Mystic or Sylvan Caryatid, ramp into giant monsters, profit. Domri Rade and Xenagos (both varieties) provide Planeswalker backup, making the deck more resilient in the face of spot removal and sweepers, and a light touch of removal lets the deck handle the few things its monsters can't.

Just about every version of the deck plays the following:

4 Elvish Mystic
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Domri Rade
4 Courser of Kruphix
4 Stormbreath Dragon
2 Xenagos, the Reveler
2–4 Mizzium Mortars

There's a decent amount of variation among the last ten to twelve slots, but the plan of the deck doesn't change as a result.

It's rare to see a midrange deck be so successful, and I really would classify this as such. Against control decks like White-Blue, this deck wants to overload them with threats, knowing that it can't beat Sphinx's Revelation in a long game. Against other midrange decks like Mono-Black Devotion, it's a war of attrition, a contest to see who can keep the last threat standing. Against more aggressive decks like Mono-Blue, Red-Green is able to use its control elements like Domri Rade, Mizzium Mortars, Courser of Kruphix, and Polukranos to wipe out every threat. Granted, Red-Green does have the capability to play the beatdown role in every matchup, depending on draws, but it plays enough flexible cards that it can adjust to what's needed. The deck also tends to adopt the opposite role of its opponent, but certainly isn't required to.

Mizzium Mortars
Polukranos, World Eater

One of hardest category of cards for this deck to deal with is opposing monsters. Creatures with 5+ toughness aren't easily killed, and it usually requires a trade in combat or a fight via Domri (which accomplishes the same thing most of the time). Having a solid answer to Desecration Demon or an opposing Polukranos is one of the best reasons to splash black, as Ash Webster did in the GP Melbourne Top 8:

Ash Webster

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Dreadbore is a huge addition to the deck, and I really like the sideboard options as well. Golgari Charm and Abrupt Decay offer additional ways to fight Detention Sphere and Charm even doubles up against Supreme Verdict. Rakdos's Return is incredible against control and the mirror, especially when you can wipe a Planeswalker and the opponent's hand in one fell swoop. Ultimate Price gives the deck more ways to kill large threats, as well as cheap removal against cards like Pack Rat.

It's possible to run the white splash as well, which gives you Chained to the Rocks, Voice of Resurgence, Selesnya Charm, and other powerful white cards, but for now I'd go with the black splash. I even like the Jund version more than the straight Red-Green version, for the reasons listed above. Of course, if we are talking about what I like, look no further than the next deck...

Esper Control

Sphinx's Revelation
Supreme Verdict

I called this White-Blue-based Control earlier, and while that's accurate in general, Esper is winning the war for the time being. I expect that to go back and forth over the course of the season, and is mainly based on how good the black removal spells happen to be at any given time. Right now, Red-Green Monsters makes Doom Blade and Ultimate Price really good, so Esper is outpacing straight White-Blue. If that becomes less true, the more consistent mana base of White-Blue might win out, but for the time being, Esper is the Top Deck.

Zheng Jingwei

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Fresh off a PT Born of the Gods Top 16, Zheng Jungwei brought a very solid Esper list to Melbourne. I like a lot of these numbers, and this list lines up with what I've been happy playing myself.

At its core, this is still through and through a deck that revolves around the (now) time-honored combination of Sphinx's Revelation + ways to not die. I expect that to be a viable strategy until the very day that Revelation rotates out of Standard, and it's been Tier 1 ever since it showed up.

Detention Sphere

Speaking of cores, this is another deck that has a lot of slots locked in, although the remaining ones offer plenty of opportunities for customization:

4 Sphinx's Revelation
4 Supreme Verdict
4 Detention Sphere
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion

Azorius Charm used to be a member of this ensemble, but that's true no longer. The addition of the scry Temples make the cycling mode of Charm less needed, and removal spells that can be played at more convenient times (and that actually kill things) are mostly what you see out of these decks. Azorius Charm isn't completely gone, but it's far from a lock these days.

The rest of the deck is typically made up of disruption (Dissolve, Syncopate, and Thoughtseize), removal, an Ætherling or third Elspeth, more removal, 0–2 Fated Retributions, and—lastly—some removal. Once you have 4 Revelation, 4 Jace, and 2–3 Elspeth, all you really need is the removal necessary to get those card advantage engines going.

Doom Blade
Ultimate Price
Last Breath
Fated Retribution

Picking your removal is a tricky thing to do correctly, but I'm leaning toward Doom Blade plus Last Breath in the main deck (two and two), with one Fated Retribution in the main and board. I like more Doom Blades and Ultimate Prices in the sideboard, although maybe not quite as many as Jingwei. Making sure all your main deck removal kills Mutavault is critical, as it's played in almost every single Standard deck right now, but besides that it's good to mix it up some. I'm a fan of ones and twos instead of all four-ofs, especially in a control deck that tends to see a ton of cards. Having a potential answer to a wide range of cards is exactly what you need in a deck that intends to slug things out until everything has been answered, since it just takes one threat that you can't answer to end things.

I'd heavily recommend Esper over White-Blue right now, for the reasons stated above. Past the need for removal, now that you can play the full twelve scry Temples, I don't feel like the mana is as huge a burden as before. You want more than just four anyways, so why not upgrade your spells if you are already going to play the colored sources?

It's worth noting that this is the best Game 1 deck in the format, as it blanks all the opponent's removal at no cost. It's also one of the decks that gets the worst after sideboard, as every opposing deck gets to swap out all that dead removal for excellent anti-WU cards, whether they are Duress, answers to Detention Sphere, or more Planeswalkers. It's not a reason to shy away from the deck, but be prepared to fight through a lot of hate after board.

Mono-Black Devotion

Pack Rat

Next up is the previous best deck, and the actual winner of GP Melbourne. While it's cool that this deck won, it's not really relevant for any sort of metagame discussion, as what happens in three random best two-out-of-three matches doesn't matter in the overall picture (not to take anything away from Nam Sung-Wook, of course; individually, winning a Grand Prix is a big accomplishment).

Mono-Black looks pretty similar to how it did a month ago, and even Bile Blight, its best new addition, has lost some of its luster. It's not because Bile Blight is bad (far from it), but because Red-Green evolved to take advantage of Mono-Black playing four Bile Blights by playing all giant monsters. As a result, most Mono-Black lists are down to two Blights, as Nam shows.

Nam Sung-Wook

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Nam has the spicy addition of a Notion Thief in the sideboard off of the 4 Temples of Deceit and 2 Watery Grave, but besides that this is a pretty typical Mono-Black list. It aims to fight WU with Underworld Connections, Thoughtseizes, Duresses, and Erebos; kill all of Red-Green's monsters with Doom Blades; and outlast Mono-Blue in a similar fashion. Against everyone, Pack Rat can just steal games, and there's something to be said about a mana base consisting of four Mutavaults and twenty-two black sources.

Underworld Connections

Besides Mono-Blue Devotion, this is one of the decks with the fewest open slots. When you are restricting yourself to just one color, the best cards of that color demand inclusion, and the vast majority of Mono-Black decks end up playing a very similar main deck. The number of Bile Blights and Devour Fleshes is the main difference between Nam's list and others, and because of Blight's weakness against Red-Green, I like the two-four split in favor of Devour.

White-Black Midrange is a deck I consider a subset of Mono-Black, although it definitely drops the devotion part. It still uses the core of Thoughtseize, Underworld Connections, and removal spells, and often includes Pack Rat as well (although the list Craig Chapman used to Top 8 the GP does not).

This list plays a lot more white than the winning list from GP Dallas, but even though the threats are different, the overall strategy is the same. I personally prefer Mono-Black, because I don't think the card quality upgrade is worth the mana inconsistency, and I have a hard time giving up on Pack Rat and Gray Merchant.

Craig Chapman

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Mono-Blue Devotion

Thassa, God of the Sea
Ephara, God of the Polis

Speaking of decks that are locked in to most of their cards, the classic Mono-Blue deck and its fifty-three-card core is still going strong. With twenty-five lands and twenty-eight creatures (4 copies of the same seven), only the last seven slots are really open to movement, and of those, the same group of cards tends to show up. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that there's less of an update to report here. The deck is good, it has a generally favorable matchup against Red-Green, and is not a huge underdog to anything.

Luke McGlaughlin

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What is interesting is a new version of the deck that has been popping up that splashes white for Detention Sphere and Ephara, God of the Polis. I got to see the deck in action last weekend while I did commentary on a 10k PTQ for ChannelFireball, and two copies of the deck made Top 8 of the 408-player event.

Jiang Li's WU Devotion

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Adding white gives the deck much more resiliency against removal-based matchups (Mono-Black and WU Control), because Ephara is an awesome threat and card-drawing mechanism in any long game. Against faster decks, Detention Sphere gives the deck an excellent removal spell that fits into its overall game plan. I really like the look of this deck and think it might be heir to Mono-Blue's throne (although I need to test it more before I'm completely sure).

We have a very robust Standard on our hands. Even just looking at Tier 1 (the top decks, if you will), there are four big categories, and multiple decks within each of those categories. Expand your look to Tier 1.5, and you pick up a handful of other decks, all of which are definitely viable as well. I'm excited to play Standard at Grand Prix Cincinnati in a few weeks, and even more excited to be back in the booth as I do live commentary at Grand Prix Phoenix next month!


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