Your Fate in Your Hands: Choosing and Tuning a Standard Deck

Posted in Event Coverage on June 20, 2015

By Peter Rawlings

Dragons of Tarkir Standard has been marked by frequent evolution, with no single archetype able to stake a claim to the title of top deck in the format for more than a week or two at a time. In the wake of the Pro Tour, Esper Dragons looked like the deck to beat and seemed poised to establish itself as the defining deck of Standard. But, as they have time and again over the last year, players adapted and old standbys—such as green-based devotion strategies and Abzan—and new innovations—such as Megamorph decks based around Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor —have kept the metagame in tremulous flux.

With the Standard ground constantly quivering under their feet, players coming into Grand Prix Providence have been left with some uncertainty as to how to decide on a deck. Is it better to stand pat, relying on intimate familiarity with a particular deck to carry them through whatever their opponents throw at them? Or should they try to shift with the format, changing their strategies from week to week?

I sat down with two Standard masters, who have taken opposite approaches to an unstable Standard, to get their takes.

Coming into Providence, No. 10 Brad Nelson tried to figure out how to next-level opponents who would be gunning for Green Devotion.

No. 10-ranked Brad Nelson is known for his innovation and willingness to try new strategies when he thinks he has a read on how the metagame is breaking. His approach to deck selection “comes from a school of thought that you should move to what is well-positioned and not be afraid to change things up.”

Central to that decision-making process is trying to understand what the “Level 1” deck will be and how players will adapt to the previous weeks results, he said. For this week, Nelson expects the “Level 0” deck to be Green Devotion decks, which have put up strong finishes recently, and that players will adjust to that by turning to “Level 1” strategies, such as Esper Dragons, that have strong Devotion match-ups. Nelson's approach is to try to next-level those players, and look for a deck that can capitalize on a field flush with Dragonlords Ojutai and Atarka.

For Nelson, that meant Jeskai. “I think my biggest advantage in Standard is not exactly my ability to metagame, but rather to be able to have zero bias when I'm deciding on things and to keep up with every deck so that when I see something I like I have no fear about transitioning to it,” he said. For instance, this is the first time he's ever registered Mantis Rider, “the last powerful 'bucket list' card from Khans of Tarkir” he has not yet played with. (Savage Knuckleblade doesn't count, he kidded.)

“Even though I thought Jeskai was terrible forever, I liked what it was doing this week, and I was able without bias to see how powerful it was and move into it,” he said.

With Thunderbreak Regent expected to be on the downswing, Nelson decided to sleeve up Mantis Rider for the first time.

The reason for Nelson's turn to Jeskai? The rise of Red-Green Devotion meant that cards in other red-and-green-based strategies, such as Stormbreath Dragon and Thunderbeak Regent—historically problematic cards for Jeskai—were likely to be pushed out of the format since Devotion decks were so easily able to go over the top of those creatures. With those red Dragons absent, [autocard]Mantis Rider[autocard] has more space to take to the sky, he said.

The expected popularity of the Devotion archetype also meant that Abzan Control decks—which can be a difficult match-up—would be forced to adapt their game plans to beat the green decks, Nelson said, creating an opening for Jeskai. Additionally, since Jeskai itself had ebbed in popularity, Nelson wouldn't have to waste sideboard space on cards such as Outpost Siege.

“Usually decks like Jeskai have to worry about cannibalizing themselves, but since there is no other Jeskai right now, I can build a 75-card deck while ignoring the mirror,” he said. That frees up slots for cards like Mastery of the Unseen, which can come in against the expected glut of Esper Dragons decks. While Esper can be difficult for Jeskai to beat in Game 1, the luxury having extra sideboard space allowed him to tune his deck to shore up the match-up in Games 2 and 3.

Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Semifinalist Adrian Sullivan stayed true to his trusty Blue-Black Control deck in Providence.

Where Nelson has tried to bob and weave his way through this shifting Standard format, another player, Adrian Sullivan, has taken the opposite approach. Sullivan has yet again sleeved up Blue-Black Control for Grand Prix Providence, a strategy he has turned to since time immemorial (or at least throughout this Standard season).

The deck carried Sullivan to an appearance in the semifinals at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, as well as a Top 16 at Grand Prix Memphis and a Top 8 showing at the recent Invitational. “There's always merit to sticking it out” with a single strategy, Sullivan said. “It's just a question of whether that merit is overcome by the world changing around you.”

For Sullivan, those changes haven't taken place, and he sees more edge to be gained in playing a strategy that he is intimately familiar with than in trying to make a big jump to something new. Rather than set aside a deck that has served him well in the past, he has opted instead to make more subtle changes to his existing list to adapt to changes in the metagame.

Sullivan sought to adapt to changes in the metagame, and an increase in Green Devotion, by maxing out on Ashiok.

“At Grand Prix Toronto, I think I slightly misaimed,” he said. He placed too much emphasis on beating Abzan and should have dedicate more deck space to defeating Devotion, he said. He's corrected that hear by, for instance, adding more copies of Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver—he's now running a full four copies in his starting 60.

In trying to figure out how to make such adjustments, Sullivan pays close attention to event results, both online and in paper, but is also careful not to discount the harder-to-quantify “feel” he gets about which particular cards and strategies are on the upswing.

In this Standard format that means looking for instance, at how how popular specific cards such as Deathmist Raptor at a given moment, or whether red decks are making their mark. He also plays close attention to see whether any Frontier Bivouacs are being erected anywhere in the wilds of the format. “If there is even a whiff of Temur that could be a problem,” he said. “Temur is the death knell for my deck,” with its combination of early aggression, countermagic, and burn.

Here in Providence, Sullivan expected to face primarily Esper Dragons, Green Devotion, Abzan Control and Mardu Dragons. With his four copies of Ashiok and four Perilous Vaults he feels well-positioned against any green-based strategy, and is confident in his match-up against Esper as well.

While he lost to No. 19 Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa and his Esper Dragons deck in the quarterfinals of the recent Invitational, “I would choose to play the Esper match-up again and again and again,” he said, attributing the loss to a turn of bad luck, running short of mana in his 27-land deck.

The reason he thinks the match-up is good is that most Esper players try to adopt a controlling stance when facing a mirror-type match. Sullivan's Blue-Black deck is well-equipped to win that battle, as it tends to pack more card draw and countermagic than Esper, as well as a strong trump card in Cranial Archive, he said.

“I really love Standard right now,” Sullivan concluded, singling out the edge that was open to players to gain by focusing intensely on their deck selection and card choices. In Modern, for instance, “if you work really hard you can maybe get your deck to be good in 65% of match-ups or so,” he said. But in Standard the possibility is there to push that number even higher, he said. “It feels much more like you have your fate in your hands.”

Brad Nelson – Jeskai Aggro

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Adrian Sullivan – Blue-Black Control

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