Switching Up Standard

Posted in Top Decks on February 27, 2015

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).

This Standard format has plenty left to discover, and last week's Grand Prix in Memphis did a good job of demonstrating that. The decks that did well show the value of bringing unexpected cards and plans to the table, whether that comes in the form of a sideboard plan, a main deck shift, or both.

Here is the Top 8:

That sure is a lot of Abzan, but four of the five of those Abzan decks stand out because of the four Fleecemane Lions in the sideboard. The Abzan Control main deck is fairly typical for the archetype, but even just changing the sideboard in this manner was enough to give the pilots a significant edge against people who didn't take the semi-aggro plan into account.

Brad Nelson's Abzan Control

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Part of what made the Fleecemane/Sorin plan so effective was how controlling the list was to start. This Abzan list has main-deck End Hostilities, six ways to draw extra cards, and only ten creatures, all of which give the opponents incentive to board out cards like Lightning Strike and Bile Blight. Once the Lions and Sorins come in, the opponent may be caught unawares, and monstrous Lions will end the game fairly quickly if not stopped. Even if the Abzan deck doesn't actually beat down with the Lions, they are fairly large roadblocks, and a deck such as Red-White will have trouble attacking through them.

The Red-White Midrange deck (I refuse to call a deck with zero one-drops and eight two-drops an aggro deck) played by Ben Stark was the list I found most interesting in the Top 8. Ben made the finals, and he sure showed me for not playing his deck. Along with Pat Cox, we tested this deck for a week, but ultimately I decided to play Jeskai (as did Owen Turtenwald and Huey Jensen, with Owen going 11–2 before losing in round 14). Ben, of course, barely lost at all, and a large part of his success came from changing the entire focus of the Red-White deck. He truly moved it into midrange category, and in fact played the control role in many of his matchups.

Ben Stark's Red-White Midrange

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The key differences in Ben's list:

The full four Outpost Sieges make up the engine that drives this deck. By playing Outpost Siege and naming Khans, this deck essentially starts drawing an extra card every turn, and with all spells that cost less than Siege, there's very little risk of not being able to play the exiled card. Once Siege hits the table, all you have to do to win most games is survive, and with cards like Chained to the Rocks, Soulfire Grand Master, Hordeling Outburst, and burn spells, that isn't very difficult. The same cards that help kill opponents can help prevent them from killing you, and eventually you find another Siege and start drawing three, or just draw enough burn and Goblin Rabblemasters to accidentally deal lethal (which is a little sad, because then you stop drawing extra cards).

Ben also played four Grand Masters, which do a couple powerful things. At a base level, the Grand Master attacks for 2 points of lifelink damage, which may not sound like much, but is fine for two mana. The deck needed more early plays, and after we told Ben that Raise the Alarm was awful many, many times, he relented, and Soulfire Grand Master won the slot. It is also relevant that it gains you life off every Slash, Strike, and Stoke, and most importantly, it becomes an engine in the late game. The synergy between Stoke the Flames and the activated ability on the Grand Master is awesome, as you can often pay four mana to activate the Master, and then tap four creatures to cast Stoke. That deals 4, gains 4, and doesn't cost you a card, a process that doesn't take many iterations of before leading to a victory.

That leads to an important point about this card: it does what all two-drops aspire to do, and what successful ones like Fleecemane Lion accomplish, which is be a good play on turn two or on turn ten. You are happy casting and attacking with this early, but it isn't like it's blank later (which a card like Seeker of the Way or Monastery Swiftspear does suffer from). A late-game Grand Master is potentially even more dangerous, as given enough mana, the Grand Master will cast a never-ending stream of burn spells and will demand an immediate answer.

The lack of main-deck Stormbreath Dragons is the notable part here, as Ben decided that he didn't want the huge removal target that is Stormbreath Dragon. He was playing a lower-curve control deck and didn't feel a particular need to try and end the game quickly, which is the main appeal of Stormbreath. Given that, he saw no reason to play a five-drop that interacted poorly with Hero's Downfall, Murderous Cut, and Stoke the Flames. Every other creature in Ben's deck was cheap enough to trade well with removal (and in the case of Outburst and Rabblemaster, could leave a token or two behind), so adding Dragon seemed foolish.

Ben still had the Dragons in the sideboard, as they are fantastic in some matchups and in slower post-board games, but not having them main deck was a fairly big piece of technology. Cards like Stormbreath Dragon often seem uncuttable (and I'll fully admit that I was skeptical), but not taking any card's slot as locked in is something that can give you a big edge. I do have to admit that some of the value Ben got was that his opponents didn't know that he didn't have Stormbreath, and I'm sure some of them saved a Hero's Downfall or Stoke for the Dragon that was never coming, letting Ben sneak in a bunch of extra damage with a Seeker or Grand Master. That is the sort of bonus you get for being the first to try something new, but even now I'd expect Dragons to be more common than no Dragons, so all of this value isn't lost.

Before I mention the sweet Sultai deck that won the tournament, I want to talk about how important transformation sideboards are in Standard. Ben's Red-White deck and the Jeskai deck we played (which I went over last week) are perfect examples of this, and I already mentioned how Brad and Co. got equity from boarding in their Fleecemane Lions.

In the cases of both RW and Jeskai, most sideboard plans start out with the assumption that you are boarding out every Goblin Rabblemaster in your deck on the draw, and often on the play as well.

That isn't to say that Goblin Rabblemaster is a bad card; far from it. Goblin Rabblemaster does what Splinter Twin does in the Modern deck: it ends games rapidly if unanswered, and forces the opponent to board in such a way that respects it. That then lets you sideboard to take advantage of that, and almost without fail, Rabblemaster decks get slower after sideboard. They just (rightfully) expect to play against Drown in Sorrow, Anger of the Gods, and more cheap removal than in the first game, which gives them a big incentive to board in Sarkhans, Elspeths, and counterspells, all cards that go over the top.

There is a bit of a shell game going on here, as most people are aware that the Rabblemasters often leave the deck, but even armed with that knowledge it's hard for people to really assume they can skimp on removal. Rabblemaster (again, like Twin) kills you if you guess wrong, making it much safer to be on the side of the proactive threat. If you do leave Rabblemasters in and your opponent removes them, you usually just traded one for one, and at relatively equal mana. If your opponent draws removal and you draw expensive cards instead of Rabblemaster, you have the advantage, and if your opponent can't kill Rabblemaster, he or she just loses. That's a great spot for the Rabblemaster side of the equation, and part of the reason that Rabblemaster is such an incredible card.

In the case of Red-White, Sarkhans, Dragons, and cards like Mastery of the Unseen; in the case of Jeskai, the slower cards tend to be some combination of Elspeth, Disdainful Stroke, and Negate. Both plans work pretty well, although the winner of the Grand Prix was a on a deck that was fairly immune to such shenanigans…

Jack Fogle's Sultai Control

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Even though Jack Fogle's Sultai deck had some of the usual anti-RW suspects like Drown in Sorrow and Pharika's Cure, it was the main-deck Sultai Charms that really did the trick. Because Sultai Charm can destroy Outpost Siege, Goblin Rabblemaster, Stormbreath Dragon, and Mastery of the Unseen, it singlehandedly makes all of the late-game options weaker for the Red-White deck. Because Red-White isn't truly an aggro deck, especially with how Ben built it, the advantage certainly goes to the deck playing an insane suite of late-game cards and card drawing. Against normal Blue-Black control, Outpost Siege and Mastery of the Unseen give Red-White a plausible chance of keeping up on cards, but against Sultai, that just isn't going to work out in most games.

As such, Jack Fogle soundly defeated Ben, and in post-GP testing, I've found Sultai to be by far the worst matchup for the Red-White deck. The Sultai deck is awesome if everyone is looking to be slow, but it struggles against decks like Jeskai, as pressure backed up by burn spells plus counterspells can be tough, and I imagine the same may be true of its matchup against Temur or any other blue-based deck that beats down. It does handle Abzan Control and Red-White well, which is a convenient place to be if you were in the Memphis Top 8, and a trophy was indeed the reward.

Where Next?

That is the eternal question, as figuring out which direction the format is heading is really the entire trick. There are a ton of viable decks, so figuring out which is the best-positioned and what changes you can make to solidify that position is the task ahead. I still like Jeskai if Sultai is going to be more popular (which it will, following a GP win), but Jeskai Tokens may be even better. I'm in love with Disdainful Stroke right now, and I really want to play a deck that can harness its power, and having access to cards like Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time doesn't hurt either. Of course, playing Siege Rhino has never been a mistake, and I wouldn't blame anyone for looking to cast lots and lots of Rhinos, although the real victory would be if there was a sweet four-color control deck that played Rhinos and blue cards. I've seen some lists, but nothing looks like it's quite there yet, although that may not remain true forever.


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