The Evolution of a Format, Some Painful Truths

Posted in Event Coverage on January 10, 2016

By Marc Calderaro

A lot has happened to Standard since the Pro Tour. Though some of the deck names look the same—“Abzan,” “Jeskai,” “Esper”—there’s been a lot shuffling around. And some decks that have arisen since Milwaukee look completely different from their Pro Tour counterparts. When you talk to the Pros about what happened, there is a big, single answer that binds all the changes together—Painful Truths.

The card used to be a one-of in a few sideboards, usually as extra card draw in control mirrors. But now virtually every deck that plays Black plays Painful Truths—and even some decks that don’t. Tracking the addition of the card to maindecks helps explain the changes in Standard.

At Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar people expected Red. As Matt Sperling told me, the expectation of red decks scared off a lot of the slower, life-loss-based cards and strategies. So the big three color wedges, Abzan, Esper, and Jeskai, had to be mindful of Red and play a more pro-active and safer game plan. Additionally, as Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Brian Kibler noted, building with the new dual lands took time to understand well. People didn’t quite know how far you could stretch (though Dark Jeskai made that abundantly clear).

Painful Truths didn’t belong anywhere near that metagame.

But, once Dark Jeskai established just how much color greed was possible, decks started maxing out on all the best spells they could, while fine tuning what lands to play, and what lands to not play to make that happen. For example, there were some pain lands at the Pro Tour and they are virtually absent from today’s Standard.

It was then that Green-White Megamorph virtually disappeared. Why play two colors when you could play four? Rally the Ancestors learned this lesson well—going from the Abzan Rally in October into the standard Four-Color version we see today.

Those best-of-the-best spells and improved manabases were so much better than the Red decks’ offerings, Red started tapering off. Once Atarka Red became marginalized, the top three started a “big off.” Decks got bigger, wider, and more powerful. For example, gone was Mantis Rider from Jeskai decks, and in came Monastery Mentor. This was when decks like the Eldrazi Ramp decks really hit their stride. They were so over-the-top, as (9) Alex Hayne said, they “go over the top of people who care about drawing three cards.”

The decks became about maximizing every available resource. Even decks like Esper Tokens was leveraging as much value as it could, leaning on Gideon, Ally of Zendikar for its virtual card advantage.

Enter Painful Truths. This was when the format became what we know today. Playing these well-oiled manabases, and with less fear of quick aggression, and a decent plan to stop it when it did come (thanks to cards like Radiant Flames), players needed something more—something more efficient and more powerful. Painful Truths was the answer.

It was three mana for three cards. Easy as that. As Pro Tour Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin said, “We were all looking at the value of an additional scry, and wasn’t just looking at the value of two cards over one.” Once both life and mana became less of an issue, resolving a Painful Truths became the best way to get ahead. And so what if you’re playing Dig Through Time? You can Dig into Painful Truths too!

So now we’re here. The big three have all been optimized, to paraphrase Ari Lax and Patrick Chapin. And Painful Truths is found in or around their 75s. Even the Mardu players are packing as many as they can too.

There are certainly decks that prey on those deck styles, Ramp and Rally are the two most common. And there are plenty of more builds that have been cropping up all over this tournament. But no matter what, if you came into this tournament and weren’t thinking about Painful Truths, you’re woefully behind the curve. And if you’re playing black and not playing this card, you better have an amazing reason.

No one knows what players will be in tomorrow’s Top 8. But I’d wager that I know at least one card that will be amply represented.

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