Hello!

At this point, I think Standard is pretty well established—everyone knows every deck and all the cards that go in them. In fact, over the last three Standard GPs, I did not even see a deck I didn’t know, let alone play against one. Today’s article will be about the state of Standard as a whole, what I think is good and what I think is bad.

Esper

I think by this point Esper is the accepted “most important deck in the format.” It might not necessarily be the best deck (though in my opinion it is, if not by much), but it is the deck that you have to keep in mind as you are entering a tournament. Do you have a plan against Esper? If not, your deck might not be a good choice, because Esper is both very popular and very good. UW is similar to Esper, but I think a worse choice now because of the number of mirror matches.

You might think that if everyone thinks like that, then Esper won’t be good—after all, no one is going to enter a tournament expecting to lose to it. The problem is that people always overestimate their matchups against the “best deck"—even if people skew their decks toward beating Esper, there is nothing they can do to make the matchup super favorable for them, because Esper is a powerful deck with lots of answers to everything.

This is Kyle Boggemes’ list from GP Cincinnati:

Kyle’s build is pretty standard, though there is very little you can actually do to an Esper deck. This is, in fact, a characteristic of most of the format—the great majority of slots are already locked and then you get 6-7 cards to deviate from the norm.

Kyle plays two Thoughtseize, which I think is fine. Then he plays two Azorius Charm and one Last Breath, where I would have two Last Breaths and one Revoke Existence. I think Last Breath got a lot worse against black—people don’t play nearly as many Nightveil Specters as they once did, and some black players don’t even play Pack Rat, which means Mutavault and Gray Merchant are their only targets—but removing Last Breath weakens your deck against three things: Mutavault, Chandra's Phoenix, and Voice of Resurgence. Here I’m more worried about the first two, since Voice isn’t incredibly good right now. The main issue is that there is nothing that actually kills Mutavault and is not Doom Blade, and I don’t want a third Doom Blade because Mono-Black is the second most popular deck. Devour Flesh is an option that doubles against Hexproof and Blood Baron, and since Burn is on the rise and Last Breath is one of your best cards against them I think I’d stick to Last Breath for now.

In the sideboard, Kyle opts for an Archangel/Blood Baron split, which doesn’t seem fantastic to me. I don’t actually want those cards against a lot of people. Blood Baron seems like it would be great against Mono-Black, but they have four Lifebane Zombies and they will keep in Devour Flesh against you, so I don’t think it’s worth it.

Nightveil Specter is a card I can get behind, and one I played to some success at GP Santiago many months ago. The main issue, again, is that against black they will just keep removal in against you, and then the card is not very good. It’s possible that just trying to fight their removal with Specters AND Barons is good, but I would prefer having neither. Specter is, however, a good card in the mirror and against Mono-Blue, and one you’d also board in against red, so perhaps it’s worth the slots for the simple fact that it comes in almost every round. Lets compare it, for example, to Brad’s sideboard:

Brad plays zero creatures, instead opting for more specific and powerful cards. Against black, for example, Dark Betrayal is better than Specter (especially if they are the white version, with Obzedat—you need Dark Betrayal against those). Against RW, Blind Obedience is better than Specter. Against the mirror, Gainsay is better than Specter. Kyle boards in Specter against all of those decks, so it’s a slightly worse card that comes up more often.

Kyle also chose one Duress over the fourth Thoughtseize—no doubt because he wants it against Burn, which I respect (since Duress is good there but Thoughtseize is not). I can only imagine he boards in the Duress against Burn and the mirror, and the mirror is the only deck he’d board the fourth Thoughtseize against (other than, say, Naya Hexproof), so if most Esper decks don’t play creatures, Duress is probably the better choice. I expect most Esper decks to have some creatures, though, and the ability to take them (and Aetherling) makes me think Thoughtseize is just the correct choice here.

Mono-Black

The second most popular deck is Mono-Black, which nowadays is not so mono anymore, with both red and white being splashed to various degrees in different builds. I’m personally not a fan of Mono-Black—I just don’t think its win percentage is quite there, with no great matchups, no horrible matchups, but all of them verging on mediocre.

Two BW decks Top 8'd GP Cincinnati—here are their lists:

Jared Boettcher
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 8

Auston Tramper

Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 8

I don’t understand a lot of the numbers in Jared’s build—it looks like the work of a madman. 2 Baron, 2 Demon, 1 Erebos, 3 Connections, 3 Specter, 2 Lifebane, 3 Merchant? It could theoretically be correct, but I can’t find any sort of method behind this. Erebos, for example, is just a worse Underworld Connections to me against almost everyone—I would surely maindeck the fourth Connections over it. Gray Merchant is a card that scaled well in multiples, but he only has three because he already has two Blood Barons and can’t overload on fives. Demon is one of your best cards against Monsters and Burn, but there is only room for two.

Overall I don’t like what the white splash is doing for Jared. I think he could achieve the same things, but better, without making his mana base worse. He has, for example, two Sin Collectors in the board. It’s arguable whether Sin Collector is better than Duress, but there are only 10 sources—it’s possible that he won’t be able to cast Sin Collector when he wants to. Is it worth it, then? Is it that much better?

Auston’s deck is a little different, because it’s more controlling with two Elspeths. I don’t like this approach, but I think it’s at least different than Mono-Black. Here, the white splash is actually doing something for you, even if I don’t think it’s something worth doing. I think the reason the BW midrange deck is worse is that it’s worse against Esper; without Gray Merchant, Connections is hard to justify as a four-of, and it’s your best card by far in the matchup. In a different environment I could see BW midrange being good, but I think mono-black is just too cohesive and the cards work so well that it’s still the better choice here.

My favorite black deck, however, is not mono-black—it’s the BR deck that David Ochoa and Eric Froehlich played:

Eric Froehlich
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 16

I like this deck for one reason—Rakdos's Return. When I’m playing Esper, I often find myself thinking, “well, I have to tap out for something now and hope he doesn’t have card X, because if he does I’m just dead.” Rakdos’s Return is card X more than any other card, except maybe for Aetherling. The reason it’s so powerful is that it deals with planeswalkers and your hand—most of the time, you don’t care about tapping out for a Jace or an Elspeth, because they are either going to do something powerful or deal with the card you played, not both, but with Rakdos’s Return, they can kill the planeswalker and get a good chunk out of your hand. I think if I were to play that deck I’d want to have a number of Mizzium Mortars in the board—maybe one—to sideboard in against Blood Baron decks.

I’m also a fan of Slaughter Games, which is surprising because I hate the card. I think that you see their hand enough with Duress, Thoughtseize, and Lifebane Zombie that you can usually hit something  you know is there, and even if you are firing blindly some of Esper’s cards are so much more important than others that it’s worth wasting a card to make sure they never draw a Revelation ever. EFro only played one, but I wouldn’t be opposed to more. I know a guy who did a Deck Tech had four in his sideboard and, though four is a lot, I don’t think 2-3 is crazy.

I also like that this deck plays four Lifebane Zombies. Lifebane Zombie is great against Monsters, very good against people who are on the Blood Baron plan, from whatever deck, and good at racing in general even if it finds no targets. I don’t think Specter is a bad card, but I think Lifebane is better on a 3/2 split, I’d favor three Lifebanes, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a deck with 3-3 or 4-2. It's also interesting that they chose to not play Pack Rat, playing more removal spells instead.

If you do not play Nightveil Specter, I think your scry land of choice should be the BR or the BW one. Temple of Deceit is better so that you can cast the good blue cards you steal with Specter, but if that is not a factor, then I think Temple of Malice or Temple of Silence are the better choice because it makes them think you have red and white cards. If I’m playing against a Temple of Deceit, I will assume it’s mono-black; there’s no reason to give me this information for free. If I’m playing Esper, I might actually sideboard differently against a deck if I’ve seen Temple of Malice game one, even if I’ve seen no red cards.

If you really want to pretend you’re Esper (only works on turn 1!), then play Temple of Silence instead. This way, you can still fake t1 Esper while also pretending you’re the BW deck, which might prompt people to play around cards like Revoke Existence and to sideboard answers to Blood Barons that you don’t have.

RG(b) Monsters

Next most popular comes RG(b) Monsters. There was no Monsters deck in the Top 16 of GP Cincinnati, so we have to go back to GP Buenos Aires:

Philippe Monlevade's Jund Monsters
Standard – Grand Prix Buenos Aires 2014

First of all, I think that if you choose to play Monsters, then you really must splash black. The straight RB version has issues with cards like Elspeth that the black really helps deal with, and Golgari Charm and Rakdos's Return are very important cards for Esper. I truly think RG Monsters has no good matchups, whereas Jund Monsters is actually a playable deck.

I think Jund Monsters as a whole is very poorly positioned right now. It has major problems with Lifebane Zombie, which takes a good card away and then kills your planeswalkers, and it’s not great against Elspeth either (though obviously much better than the RG version). It’s also not fantastic against Mono-Blue, and that coupled with the fact that the deck has 31 mana sources and a lot of blanks makes me think it’s just not a good choice. If you do decide to play it, I think you need one or two Rakdos’s Returns main deck, and possibly a maindeck Ultimate Price too to deal with Master of Waves. But overall I’d stay away.

Mono-Blue Devotion

Next in popularity is Mono-Blue Devotion. Here is the Top 8 list:

Jeffrey Pyka
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 8

Jeffrey chose to splash white, which I don’t love. I think the deck actually wants all its lands to come into play untapped, and it’s so blue-hungry that you can’t afford to play Godless Shrine. Even if you do, 9 sources is not enough to justify 5 maindeck white cards, I don’t think. On top of that, Ephara is just not a good card. Against Esper she is worse than Bident or even Jace, and against Mono-Black she doesn’t help in a race—which is the primary way you lose the matchup. She even gets hit by Lifebane Zombie, which is the ultimate disgrace. Even if you choose to splash white (which I would not), I don’t think you should play Ephara.

What the white does offer is interesting sideboard options, which is great because the sideboard for Mono-Blue is awful—Glare in particular is appealing, and Revoke is good in the mirror. Pacifism is an interesting choice—I think it’s OK against Mono-Black, stopping Specter, Lifebane Zombie, and Demon, but it doesn’t stop Pack Rat, and it’s probably not that great against Monsters where it doesn’t stop Dragon and only partially stops Polukranos, so I would not play any. Instead, I’d play four Domestications --Domestication is your best card against black and very good in the mirror, I see no reason not to play four of those.

Overall, I’d stay away from Mono-Blue. I think the Mono-Blue deck has a very bad matchup against Esper and an OK matchup against Black, whereas the Uw deck has a better matchup against black and the mirror if it draws the right cards, but suffers from much worse mana so can randomly lose games to itself—neither of those are positions I want to put myself in.

RW Burn

The next most popular deck is RW Burn. Burn was making some waves online and at the SCG circuit, but as players have adapted to it (playing things like Blind Obedience), its win percentage started to go down and no Boros deck Top 16'd Cincinnati either, so again we have to go to Buenos Aires for a list:

Ariel Nagy's Boros Burn
Standard – Grand Prix Buenos Aires 2014

This is a pretty standard Boros list at this point, with the minimum number of creatures in the main. Lucas Paletta also Top 16'd with the exact same main deck. If you want to stick to Burn, there isn’t much that can be done to it—you’re already playing all the burn in the format. If you want more creatures, you can play Young Pyromancer, maindeck Firedrinker, Boros Reckoner, or even Viashino Firstblade. I’m not a fan of this deck and, while it’s certainly powerful, I also think it’s not well positioned right now. If you do play Burn, I think some number of Burning Earth in the sideboard is probably good—it wasn’t necessary before, because Esper was a good matchup, but as people adapt then you start needing more and more.

Dredge and Hexproof

Then, we have the fringe archetypes. Of those, two have had some success lately—Dredge and Naya Hexproof. Dredge is a very powerful, synergistic deck, that had Top 16s in both GPs:

Ari Lax
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 16

The point of this deck is to turn clunky cards such as Nighthowler and Nemesis of Mortals into undercosted threats by filling your graveyard. My favorite card here is Shadowborn Demon. It does so much against so many decks, and you have so many creatures that you will eventually get to a point where you don’t even have to sacrifice anything. Conley has written extensively about this deck, so I won’t go in much detail about it, but I agree with him that one Whip of Erebos maindeck is probably good now.

Matias Chilperico Top 16'd Buenos Aires with a similar list, except he played two Ultimate Price. I’m not a big fan of that—in decks like this, every card has to be part of the synergy or be super powerful, and Price isn’t either. When you mill Ultimate Price over milling a creature, it can potentially really hurt, and you never even drew the card!

I think Dredge is certainly a player in the metagame. You should never have to sideboard specifically against it, but you should be aware that it exists. I think Dredge is potentially a deck I would play in a tournament.

Here’s the other deck:

Jacob Maynard
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 8

This deck is interesting. It’s pretty inconsistent and you need to draw the right number of the right pieces, and God forbid they Devour Flesh you when you only have one guy out, but it’s certainly powerful and attacks people from a different angle than any other deck.

Some decks just can’t beat Naya Hexproof—Mono-Blue is an example. I particularly like Fiendslayer Paladin now, since it’s great against both Mono-Black and Burn, especially if Burn plays only two Chained to the Rocks. I’d try to make room for a third Paladin, probably cutting one Chained to the Rocks. This is not really my style of deck, but I could also see myself playing it, which I can’t say for RW Burn for example.

To Sum Up:

• I think Esper is the best deck in the format, and also the most popular. If I were to play a Standard tournament tomorrow, I would play Esper. I think Esper is better than UW because it has a good edge in the mirror. If I played something else, I’d skew it a bit towards beating Esper. Even if everyone thinks like that, I still think Esper is good because there isn’t much actual “hate” people can play.

• Mono-Black is the second most popular deck in the format, but I don’t like it very much. I think the version with the slight red splash is the best of all the “mono-black” decks and that one is actually a deck I would consider playing in a tournament.

• Monsters is very badly positioned right now and I would not play it. If you do, make sure you play black, I think the straight RG deck is not playable. I would also consider maindecking Rakdos's Return.

• Mono-Blue is badly positioned right now as well. If you do choose to play it, I think straight blue is better than UW. If you want to play UW, I’d play Detention Sphere and sideboard cards only, Ephara is not good.

• Burn is a fine deck but people are starting to adapt to it, so you need to adapt a little bit too, playing cards like Burning Earth. I wouldn’t play it but I wouldn’t necessarily tell you to not play it; I think it’s a better choice than Monsters or Mono-Blue but worse than Esper or Br.

• Of the “different” decks, I think Naya Hexproof and Dredge are both solid choices.