As we all know, a beginning is a very delicate time. We're witnessing the dawn of a new Standard, and it's far stranger than we might have expected. The breakout decks could become format staples, or fold under pressure from innovative new designs. I set out to ask the pilots of the weekend's best-performing Standard decks what they considered their key cards, and the constraints that those cards imposed on the format.
Coming into this Pro Tour, the one deck everyone knew to be prepared for was Bant Company. I tracked down Kyle Boggemes, who put up a perfect 5-0 record on Day 1, and asked him what made the deck so formidable.
"I'm actually playing a slightly nonstandard version of the deck," he explained. "I cut out a lot of the blue to make room for Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector, to give the deck an edge in the grindy match-ups. Jace was really underperforming for me, so I was happy to let him go. I'm also playing three Archangel Avacyn and those have been just amazing." But what about the heart of the deck? "Collected Company just offers so much power. It's not hard to get ahead on the board and stay there."
I asked Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas about ChannelFireball's Black-Green Aristocrats deck, and if it was fair to call it a Collected Company deck. His response was an emphatic "Best card in the deck." And why is that? "Collected Company is the most powerful card in Standard right now," he said. "It's not hard to see why. For four mana at instant speed, you get five or six mana worth of creatures as well as a two-for one."
So why the Aristocrats over the already established Bant Company deck? "The thing is, they're just playing it for value. In our deck, we get to pick up the missing pieces that we need. So you'll almost always take Nantuko Husk if you don't have one, but then you might want Zulaport Cutthroat for damage, or Catacomb Sifter to help you dig, or Liliana, or Duskwatch Recruiter." This last was the card he pointed to when I asked him about Cryptolith Rite, and the lightbulb finally went on for me. "You start activating Duskwatch Recruiter two or three times, and it's very hard to lose."
The other half of the expected metagame was the various flavors of Humans decks. Naturally, I had to consult with the patron saint of White Weenie, Craig Wescoe. Now, I won't say he rolled his eyes at me when I led off the interview with "How did you settle on Mono-White Humans this weekend?" but he did leave me a lengthy pause to rephrase my question into something more sensible: "What are the reasons to play Mono-White Humans?"
"I tried some various black-white midrange-type decks, but I wasn't impressed," he said. "You're not going to beat Company by getting a two-for-one off a Wasteland Strangler. So if you can't play the midgame, you have to try to get in under them. Now, the decks that splash, whether it's blue for Reflector Mage or green, their mana doesn't always cooperate. You need your mana coming into play untapped, because you need to be hitting your drops every single turn."
He went on to explain that the power of Thalia's Lieutenant and Always Watching was the way they let Mono-White run over the midrange decks. "They aren't playing creatures that can survive against yours. They wind up trading their 3-drop for your 1-drop." I asked if he'd faced any decks packing Languish this weekend. He had, but he'd found the card less troublesome than you might expect.
These two cards, according to Wescoe, are the reason the Humans deck is able to out-aggro the midrange decks with a fast start.
"Obviously I'd rather my opponent didn't cast Languish, but it's not like they can play Languish and the game just ends," he continued. "They still have to answer my reload. The problem Languish decks have is their mana. There's no guarantee that they'll have four untapped lands on turn four, and they might not get a turn five."
Next on my list of luminaries was Brad Nelson, who swept Standard on Day 1 with Team EUreka's Red-Green Goggles Ramp deck. I asked him if his deck would be a fixture for the coming months of Standard, or if it was a glass cannon. I wasn't prepared for the tide of information that was about to wash over me.
"I think our deck can definitely be attacked," he explained. "Standard right now exists in three levels. Level 1, you have Collected Company and Humans, or decks that want to take advantage of Reflector Mage. Level 2, you have decks like ours that ignore Reflector Mage entirely. Level 3 are decks like Face-To-Face's Green-White that prey on Level 2 decks. So things might cycle, our deck might be a bad choice one week, but come back.
"Standard is an anomalous format right now. The aggro decks can run over the midrange decks. You don't have something like a Brimaz that can just roadblock them. If we had an actual Firespout instead of Radiant Flames, it would be a very different format. The other thing that's going on is that the midrange decks are better at going long than the control decks, thanks to cards like Duskwatch Recruiter, Den Protector, and Tireless Tracker. We have so many creatures with built-in card advantage that the control decks can't cope. Blue is dead. You look at Pantheon, the "We'll Play Control at Every Pro Tour" team, and their control deck is Black-Green." Even Andrew Cuneo has shelved his islands and countermagic this weekend.
Team East West Bowl disagrees with this assessment, and have put their money where their mouth is. They're playing an Esper Control deck stuffed with Planeswalkers. I caught up with reigning World Champion Seth Manfield and asked him what makes their deck tick.
"It's your typical control plan: Answer their early plays, then use your more powerful plays to take over the game," Manfield said. "The Planeswalkers we have right now are incredibly powerful. If you play one onto an empty board, or into a single opposing creature, it can just take over the game." Sorin, Jace, and Ob Nixilis all offer board control and a steady stream of card advantage. I asked Manfield if he thought that East West Bowl had managed to find the format's Languish deck, but he wouldn't go quite that far. "We found a Languish deck," he replied. "I think our deck makes very good use of it."
Lastly I took five minutes to consult Player of the Year Mike Sigrist about the Green-White Tokens deck he and the rest of Face-to-Face Games are playing. "I don't think there's really a key card in our deck," he said. "The closest is like, the combination of Nissa and Gideon. Really, it's just a collection of highly synergistic cards. You can take over the board by growing your team of creatures, just getting much bigger than anything the other decks are doing. It's very hard for a lot of the decks to get through to your Planeswalkers. If the board gets really gummed up, you can just Avacyn into 0-cost Hangarback Walker or Evolutionary Leap."
We're just a few short rounds from the cut to Top 8, where the blueprint of Standard will be decided. Stay tuned.