2012 has arrived and with the holiday break over, out comes the flood of Standard tournaments until Dark Ascension hits in February. With a couple of major events left it looks like this Standard format is going to remain dynamic and reasonably balanced right until the end. Even if it turns out Delver Haunt decks are the endgame of the format (something I don't believe), they aren't ridiculously powerful and would be the last change in a long list of top decks throughout the past three months. To start us off let's take a look at the first major real world results we've had for Standard since the SCG Invitational.
Top 16 of SCG Atlanta
5 UW Delver
3 Wolf Run Ramp
2 UW Humans
1 UB Infect
1 Esper Control
1 Tempered Steel
It feels like people underestimated Delver decks and are now paying for it, though how much is Moorland Haunt decks being better than everything else versus MODO skewing the metagame has yet to be seen. Right now one could easily argue that the lack of major Standard tournaments for the past couple of weeks meant that the only information that could be considered fresh and that warped the turnout for the first major tournament of the new year. Regardless of which you believe now we've seen that the real world and online metagame have synced to some degree and as we have a clear public enemy number one we need to battle against.
Oddly enough blue currently has the best early game creatures in the format and it speaks to how weird the current format is in some ways. Blue has the trifecta of Phantasmal Bear, Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage all of which are used to their fullest potential in the current crop of tempo decks. I'm not quite sure why blue needed the no-drawback 2/2 or the flying Wild Nacatl, but at least blue is finally good at something! Is there really a good reason to run other aggressive decks when all the other aggressive drops suck by contrast*? Even the next tier of creatures is still very potent ranging from Geist of Saint Traft to just making a bunch of spirit tokens. In one sense these decks were inevitable once Innistrad was fully explored, it was merely a matter of building them properly.
*Notable exception given to Champion of the Parish
I have little in the way of mirror tech to share, most of the first and second thoughts for maindeck or sideboard tweaks have been tried online with various successes. Right now the only new variant I've spied is one featuring Grand Architect, which makes some sense considering the move toward equipment. It also allows for a small maindeck or sideboard cache of larger artifact creatures to take over the battlefield. While Precursor Golem may not be the best idea due to the Vapor Snag problem, it does allow for effective use of Phyrexian Metamorph and other heavy hitters such as Myr Battlesphere or Batterskull. It also let's you take advantage of other equipment like Mortarpod which already has some useful applications in the mirror match and when combined with Moorland Haunt can win almost any late-game. There are so many things to combine your peanut butter with that I'm sure you'll find one that suits your palette.
A lot of control decks were smashed in Atlanta, and a lot of those were just the same old control decks people were playing per-Invitational. Control needs a clear end-game against Illusions and other Moorland Haunt decks or they'll run out of gas and then get beat down after dealing with the first wave or two go down. The endgame could be Curse of Death's Hold, a Titan putting you far enough head to win or just using a four-drop to win the game before they can fully take advantage of Moorland Haunt and draw more gas. A control deck leaning on Bloodline Keeper or Olivia Voldaren is going to have a lot more success then just trying to keep throwing down six-drops and hoping they don't get hit by Vapor Snag over and over. The advantages of Sun Titan or Grave Titan in control are more impressive than Sphinx at this point if only because they can keep you in the game even if you need to replay your sixes multiple time.
As I mentioned last week, I'm a big fan of UB Control in that regard and I'm surprised (though I shouldn't be) that many of the control decks in Daily Events look to be the same old stuff. Notably some Esper Control players are tuning their decks to be more of a factor against the field, but the majority are just bringing the same old dull butter knives to the party and wondering why they keep losing. Control is no more dead then it was heading into Worlds just a scant 7 weeks ago and after that people figured out builds that weren't disease ridden. Same concept at work here, more Pristine Talisman, real threats and ways to stop early Delver / Geist / Stalker and less leaning on Doom Blade and Day of Judgment to do all the work.
Cards that I feel are underrated for effectively dealing with threats are Whipflare, Sorin's Thirst and Curse of Death's Hold. Whipflare is practically Pyroclasm at this point in time, and with Gut Shot and Vapor Snag making a lot of people move away from small early drops I think it should be time for a return. What is Slagstorm better against that would make me want it over Whipflare? Tempered Steel seems to be the entire list. Sorin's Thirst has also gotten very little love even in dedicated UB Control and I'm sad to see it missing, gaining two and killing a creature against Illusions buys at least 1-2 turns and when combined with Snapcaster Mage it isn't uncommon to gain four or six a game. Throw in Pristine Talisman and in a fair amount of games opponent's will need to overcome 25-30 life. You win a long game if you can just outlast the Moorland Haunt offense and life-gain is a very good way of doing that when every draw step should be getting you closer to a finisher.
I feel like many control builds are focused a little too much on trying to get ahead instead of surviving until their stronger cards take over the game. There's nothing wrong with playing something that isn't draw-go, but drawing too many cards that have to cycle are going to put you in a massive hole when trying to battle through a Mana Leak or Dissipate. I hate my own counters for the same reason Illusions and other tempo decks love having them, I'm not gaining tempo or value from using them in most situations. At best I keep serve and that just hurts my longer game when I topdeck a Mana Leak when I really want another removal spell. In the most UW matches they accomplish* the same thing in the early game except one class of card gets that much worse on the draw.
So what should you be playing in Standard until Dark Ascension becomes legal? Well the easy answer is a Moorland Haunt deck. They have the best selection of creatures in the format, some of the most efficient spells and some of the best ways to offset variance in Ponder, Gitaxian Probe, Snapcaster Mage and Moorland Haunt. You have a solid proactive game plan and you can vary your deck and make people have to guess which plan is optimal against your particular build. Moorland Haunt aggro isn't fraudulent by any stretch and outside of being a tad overplayed at the moment is one of the best options. If you do play it, make sure you're well-versed with the mirror though since unlike many mirrors the better players wins the majority of the games.
Alternatively you could always roll the dice with some form of red aggro and take advantage of the fact that Timely Reinforcements play is at an all-time low. I would suggest you stop playing cards that outright lose to Gut Shot and Mental Misstep though because playing that game is a losing one. It wouldn't surprise me to see a slower red deck, perhaps along the lines of the RB Olivia aggro deck pop up and become a factor in the future. I can't honestly believe that throw a bunch of burn and 1/1's at the opponent is still the best strategy when everyone is gunning for small creatures and Moorland Haunt already forces decks to have late-game options against fliers. Really the average red deck has two really powerful cards in Koth of the Hammer and Shrine of Burning Rage, yet instead of looking at other good drops, just jams the same old stuff. I like Stormblood Berserker as much as the next guy, but at some point that just isn't enough to run so many terrible onesies. Maybe just mashing with Delver, Vapor Snag and Gut Shot is just a better red deck to begin with.
Door number three is control and as I mentioned before, UB Control, Esper and Grixis all have viable set-ups. Here are some sample lists:
Esper Control by LSV
Grixis by Laurence Brown (8th SCG ATL)
Basic plan for all these decks are the same, survive the early game, get ahead and then drop the hammer on Moorland before they produce a big enough force to overcome. The Grixis deck could definitely use some extra Olivia Voldaren and the Go for the Throat feels very out of place, but I'm not full of burning hatred for the rest of the choices. Counters even make more sense in the Grixis build since Desperate Ravings is better then Think Twice or Forbidden Alchemy at improving card quality during the midpoint in the game. Not a huge fan of maindecking the full set of Mana Leak, but it isn't entirely unreasonable. A fourth Desperate Ravings, a Chandra and figuring out if I want Black Sun's Zenith, Whipflare or Slagstorm seems appropriate - the answer being Whipflare and Ratchet Bomb with a sideboarded pair of Black Sun's Zeniths.
Finally you could Wolf Run and just ramp your way to victory, though the posion plan has become a lot tougher to pull off through so many spot removal spells, curses and spirit tokens. I can't argue with the numbers though and frankly if you draw well with the deck it still can be one of the most frustrating decks to fight since any bomb they hit can buy so much value. If I do go this route for LA I definitely want to pack Dungrove Elder and Daybreak Ranger since both demolish Delver decks and makes Green Sun's Zenith even better. Not sure if I still want to be on the Desperate Ravings plan or just start throwing around Devil's Play. Point is you can have a very brutal aggressive variant with Dungrove Elder and Thrun, the Last Troll while still maintaining Primeval Titan into Inkmoth Nexus as an end-game. Inferno Titan is a flashier way of trying to beat decks packed full of bears, but I rather have my turn three Titan and just race, especially against Invisible Stalker.
I'm on the fence over what to play for SCG LA with the top two choices being Esper Control or Dungrove Wolf Ramp, but who knows what'll change in the next couple of days. I know at least two of my friends have shipped some sweet brews to battle with and if one of those pans out, perhaps I'll be playing something entirely different at LA. Good luck to everyone battling this weekend and I'll see you in LA!
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom