This week is the runup to the last major Standard tournaments of the year, with the POTY Standard tournament on Magic Online and SCG Invitational in LA this weekend. So, I want to take a quick look at where the format has headed, and where it seems to be going.
A Flood of Angels
Flooding out in Magic is usually a bad thing, but in Okita Yuji's case he seemed to be having a grand old time with Chronic Flooding. While I had seen Chronic Flooding decks on Magic Online before this, most of them were scattershot or lacked one of the key components that this deck had.
Before I go any further, I just want to say that Chronic Flooding is a legitimate engine card for a deck that wants to fill its graveyard and not just throw a handful of cards into it. If you cast Flooding on turn three, by turn six that's 12 cards milled at a far better rate than any other card will give you.
What I like: The Staticaster-Peddler combo remains a legitimate option and actually ends up better positioned if decks like Naya and 4cc Midrange are prevalent. The amount of filtering in the deck also makes it easy to find multiple pingers, which are huge against BR and other aggressive strategies.
The ability to just combo out with Angel means you have a way to go over the top without relying on Sphinx's Revelation, which is sorely absent in this format. This deck preys on anything that can't race it by eventually setting up an uncounterable Angel into a one-shot with haste creatures and Goldnight Commander. Even if it doesn't win on the spot, it can often demolish the opposing board, and post-sideboard it isn't unreasonable to gain a bunch of life in the process.
What I don't like: A sticking point for this deck is the rough mana base, which forces you into hoping certain colors of mana pop up at the right times. You really want to cast Mulch every game and there's no real equivalent elsewhere. This leaves you with a deck that almost always wants access to turn two green and still has issues hitting all the colored mana requirements.
And, of course, the set of Caverns to help with creature costs.
Realistically the biggest issues are the green sources and the amount of white that can cast spells, such as flashing back Unburial Rites. That you can't hard cast Rites or even flash it back occasionally is a major problem. Okita mentioned later that he wanted to add an actual black source to cast it, but with the number of potentially tapped lands already in the deck and Caverns, it's a tough sell.
Perhaps you could cut the singleton Tracker's Instincts and a Sulfur Falls to fit in a pair of Overgrown Tomb or a Blood Crypt. I know it may not feel like much, but even having a handful of black sources can make a big difference in a deck with a set of Mulch and this much filtering.
The biggest sticking point for this deck is the same one that kept the winning GP: Bochum Hoof deck in check. It is now a completely known quantity with a result that people will take notice of when building a sideboard. You may have known about the deck if you kept careful track of MtGO results, and maybe there was one guy playing a similar deck at an FNM or smaller tournament, but it didn't have a breakout moment until now.
Graveyard hate is at a low point and most countermagic has been pushed out again thanks to Cavern and Rakdos decks. That made it the perfect time to strike, and makes it a very awkward choice for the future. Play a Rest in Peace against this deck and it has major issues, there's very little it can do to most midrange or control decks without going over the top outside of playing a few Huntmasters and trying to get Goldnight Commander.
More Goldnight Commanders out of the sideboard can help, but without the threat of Angel of Glory's Rise, you have a mediocre midrange deck with no removal and few ways to beat opposing Thragtusks and Angels.
I highly recommend a good sideboard strategy against Rest in Peace if you plan on playing this deck. It does have quite a few good matches in the current meta and can potentially beat BR, but you just can't be caught unprepared for the inevitable sideboard backlash against this strategy.
Consider fitting at least two or three of the Cathedral Sanctifiers in if you plan on playing in a metagame with a large amount of BR Aggro. This deck can really use the early speed bump, and often you win by simply surviving until Angel resolves and gaining enough life to not die on the back-swing.
That's the issue I had with it against the heavy-red variants—Angel wouldn't clear the board, and if I couldn't gain 5 or more life or kill them with my board, I'd often just get killed by a Thundermaw Hellkite, Hellrider, or Brimstone Volley before I could untap. The deck is a great example of solid deck synergy over raw power, though, and I'm glad it had success over the typical BR run-goods that have won the last two Grand Prix events.
Black & Red Aggro
RB Aggro by Murae Ryuj
I picked Murae Ryuji's deck from the Grand Prix because it reminds me best of Pedro Carvalho's take on red aggro, and I think this is better positioned than the traditional black version with Messenger.
What I like: It still has many of the best threats in the format, and while the curve doesn't fit the traditional model, it retains the massive threats, and the mana isn't garbage for a straightforward aggro deck.
Regarding this version specifically—Cathedral of War? What madness is this!? The deck has three colorless tapped lands, and no Guildgates in an archetype that usually struggles even with 20 of 24 land saying B in the text. Although, Cathedral backed by Knight of Infamy can actually give you enough exalted to bash through with your typically useless one-drops, and makes Ash Zealot that much better.
Bonfire of the Damned is an interesting choice over more spot removal like Tragic Slip or Ultimate Price. Considering the current format, I don't feel like Bonfire of the Damned is particularly well suited to the deck, but much like Geist of Saint Traft there will be a number of games where it just wins you the game outright.
Still, with the now solidly red mana base, I like Mizzium Mortars again, as it takes down nearly every relevant creature and the overload is valuable against the 4cc Midrange decks. The majority of these decks just load up the clown car with as many X/4 bodies or Huntmaster of the Fells as they can, and this is one way to break through. Bonfire of the Damned simply can't get it done against those board states unless you get it off of a miracle.
I actually think if you really wanted an X-spell, Rakdos's Return would be a nice addition to the sideboard for these decks. Even a Blightning for 2BR is going to do a lot of damage to the midrange and grindy control decks that really need to make the most of every card. The weakness of being just a dumb fireball in the late-game is mitigated by Sphinx's Revelation forcing you to deal another 4-10 damage.
Returns are pretty dead in the opener, but come on, look at the curve on the deck. If you don't like that, then what about Devil's Play? The card is relevant early on and can easily be a double spot removal spell or great finisher later in the game.
There's a definite gap in power level, at least of the brute force variety, with this deck compared to others. There's a reason Grand Prix Nagoya had five of the top eight slots taken up by B/R Aggro, and six of the 9th-16th place players were rocking the same aggressive shells. Even if you can't stand the deck there's, no denying the massive power it holds and it should still be at the top of anyone's test list if you aren't playing it.
What I dislike: Most builds aren't like this and the mana bases have long been disaster zones. Try drawing a Rakdos Guildgate as a 4th or 5th land with a relevant creature in hand. Many versions also have major issues with the Rhox Faithmender sideboard plan UWx decks can implement, though this is something that can be solved with liberal use of Victim of Night and Sever the Bloodline.
Drawing the wrong side of your deck is just as big an issue here as it is with many of the clunky control and midrange options available. Drawing a random 2-power dork after turn three is a paddling, and the same goes for drawing Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite after naming Zombie with Cavern of Souls to cast Geralf's Messenger.
Speaking of Messenger, I have to really wonder if Rakdos cares about playing him anymore. Messenger is not only the biggest strain on the mana, but is slow, unwieldy and absolute garbage on the draw against aggression. A number of players have posted builds that omit him and had success, with Kazumasa Satou and Ryuji's builds best illustrating what I mean.
RB Aggro by Kazumasa Satou
This version is slower than the other builds, with more emphasis on spells and the lack of Hellrider, but also has a better defense with more removal and Rakdos Keyrune helping shore up the defensive end. Actually, I'd love to see a Cathedral of War or two in here since the worst mana costs got cut from the deck.
Rakdos Keyrune helps support Thundermaw Hellkite and attacking with a Keyrune for 4 or Archwing Dragon every turn for 5 can quickly take out a control deck while ignoring nearly all blockers. Be very wary about what your opponents may have when they start out with a Blood Crypt, as it could vary widely version to version.
UWR Flash & Tempo
The multiple versions of the UWR deck could be the most popular control and midrange strategies this weekend. Here's a more controlling version that I split the Top 3 of a 1k with this weekend.
I nabbed the original list from Michael Hetrick and tweaked a few of the cards, based on the expected metagame. I'm a big fan of Burning Oil against the BR decks, and it's passable against midrange decks with Huntmasters and Thragtusk, being one of the few cards in the format that can kill both parts of the card on its own.
Desperate Ravings was definitely a Hetrick card as most people hate the possibility of losing something valuable once, especially if it was the card they planned on casting the next turn. I was a fan of it, and while I also ran into times where I was annoyed I threw away a Restoration Angel or Sphinx's Revelation, the extra cards I saw really helped out. It definitely felt better than Think Twice, and while I cut the third Ravings for an Izzet Charm, I was content with the remaining two copies.
Speaking of Izzet Charm, I find it fits the same role as Azorius Charm, a card that I don't love all the time, but almost always has a mode I can find a use for. I used every single mode on Charm during my tournament, and while it was frequently just a Shock, having one that could filter flooded hands or miscalculate an opposing Revelation or burn spell was incredibly relevant.
All this random discard combined with the prevalance of Jace in the mirror sold me on Devil's Play. It replaces Runechanter's Pike as a finisher, as often it was irrelevant until the late game, and D-Play can't be chumped. It also has a lot more utility since it can be used effectively in the early game to kill off obnoxious creatures like Deathrite Shaman or Knight of Glory, or get milled off Thought Scour and still be useful. With a deck like this, sometimes you need to hire Sherlock Domes to crack the case.
The card I got the most questions about both online and off is the singleton Swift Justice, and while I admit the card reeks of too cute, it does serve a purpose. I wanted a cheap all-purpose card that could let my Geist bash into most creatures in the format and come out on top.
This one was the cheapest, let me win Angel fights, and gained me life in the red matches to boot. Costing one mana is huge, because Snapcastering it back is common against red decks and gives me another way to gain life without spending a lot of mana. Moment of Heroism is another consideration and potentially better. It let's Geist beat Restoration Angel or Ash Zealot, but since it only trades with Smiter and Huntmaster + Wolf double-block I'm not a huge fan. You don't need either card, but having one trick like this gives you something that can potentially swing the game, and if they see it in G2 they have to respect it in G3.
What I like: There's only one match in which I feel like a real dog—Naya—but against everything else I feel like I can form a coherent plan with my cards and take a run at them in games two and three if needed. The deck also straddles the line between aggressive and controlling better than the UWR Tempo builds, which need to err on the side of aggression because of the extra burn and Hellkites.
Almost all the cards in here give you some value when they hit play, even if it's only half a card or so, and you have countermagic and Sphinx's Revelation which give you more options than the average deck. You may be the best Revelation deck in the format and you also have access to the best ways to combat it with Dispel, Counterflux, and Curse of Echoes. You also have a very reasonable BR match-up with tons of viable sideboard options including Burning Oil, Rhox Faithmender, Fog Bank, and others.
What I dislike: Every single match is a grind and you lack the freebie wins of other decks. Even Bant Control can get hands where it just runs the opponent over with Farseek into Supreme Verdict, Thragtusk, Thragtusk, and either Sphinx's Revelation or Angel of Serenity to seal the game up.
Your only free wins come from games where you slam an early Geist of Saint Traft and ride it to victory—not exactly an easy proposition without Unsummon or a bunch of cheap countermagic to keep blockers out of the picture. Also hurting things is the resurgence of Naya, which features one of the best end-games in the format against you.
Any deck that can play uncounterable Angel of Serenity, buying back four- and five-drops is going to be a miserable obstacle. Boarding into anti-Angel plans are made difficult by the configuration of your own deck, and the existence of Naya decks that eschew all that jazz and just beat you to death with Thragtusk and Thundermaw Hellkites.
I've considered siding into Hellkite just to add a few extra threats to the deck that these midrange decks need to care about. It isn't the ideal solution and I want something better, but the options I've seen so far are limited. I would much rather try to play a tempo game and burn them out with Devil's Play over trying to grind out every little card.
I've seen other versions going way over the top with Angel of Serenitys of their own, but I just can't get behind it. Often they just rotted in my hand or couldn't get me anywhere near the value my opponent's could. True control decks can also grind you out of the game with Frownyard while answering your relevant threats. Part of the reason Counterflux is even in the deck is to give you a good way to interact with these strategies when they cast Sphinx's Revelation or Jace, Memory Adept with Dispel backup. Maybe you just need to be more aggressive post-board to have a fighting chance against these strategies.
Naya by Nagai Mamoru
Ah, my former love, I'm glad to see some have gotten a version with Thundermaw Hellkites to work, as I prefer the more aggressive builds for closing the game out before Revelation takes over. I picked Nagai Mamoru's build as he came in 3rd in a Top 16 full of BR decks, and had the most refined list I've seen so far.
He opted for a more aggressive curve and sweet removal spells, with full play sets of Selesnya Charm and Bonfire of the Damned in the main deck. While I'd like to see a Mizzium Mortars somewhere in this 75, I'll certainly agree that if any deck was primed to use Bonfire well, it's Naya. Angel of Serenity buying back your best creatures is still a big game, and I'm glad he kept that option around in the sideboard against UWR Flash and Bant Control. With the swap in removal for many decks and the focus moving away from decks like G/W Aggro and the fastest BR builds, Naya has carved out a niche for itself.
What I like: This deck is a nightmare match for every version of Flash I've seen, and most control builds are hard-pressed to deal with it. Fitting Cavern in was the final key to breaking that match open, and something I was missing in my original lists because I was too scared of the mana. Now the only way blue players win games is by casting multiple Revelations and getting too far ahead with their own Thragtusks and a million cards, but even in those games you'll still win your fair share with uncounterable fat and Angel recursion.
There are only so many times you can sweep the board or trade off with Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Thundermaw Hellkite when Angel of Serenity can buy them all back or Garruk hits the board and draws a bunch of cards. It can easily be modified to deal with more aggressive decks as well with a mix of cheap life gain options and Mizzium Mortars to join Pillar.
What I don't: This deck suffers badly from 'draw the wrong half' syndrome. It is very common to have a hand full of sweet fat that you won't be able to play until you're already backpedaling and well on your way to losing. Same goes for flooding with mana dorks, Farseek, and Selesnya Charm against decks that want all the free land drops they can get until they start casting Sphinx's Revelation.
While the deck does feature an actual end-game after sideboarding, it can still be difficult to beat a deck that just plays Thragtusks and draws a bunch of cards off Revelations and Jace. Sometimes you just want a way to interact with the opponent outside of attacking, and this deck has a hard time offering that sort of interaction.
1. Reanimator is one of the best decks in the format when the metagame allows for it. After the success of Chronic Flooding this weekend, I wouldn't be surprised to see one sneaking into a Top 8, but there will be serious backlash against it, which makes it a far less appealing option than it was.
2. Midrange is back en masse, with players either running Slaughter Games in an attempt to beat Sphinx's Revelation the fair way, or joining them and simply playing it in their Naya and Junk decks. Some of these decks have great games against BR and have plenty of power cards to overwhelm UWR Tempo when given the chance.
The biggest issue is when they stumble on mana early or can't find the cards that keep them relevant in grindy games. Running a pair of Revelations for the late-game is a good start, but if you can't dig for them there's still a real possibility of never seeing them while UWR Flash draws 15 cards over two turns and casually crushes you.
3. Speaking of UWR—while I like the controlling versions, they suffer from having no good way to end the game. Letting decks hang around too long in this format is a big weakness when everyone has 5-mana and up spells, and midrange/control decks are packing Rakdos's Return and Sphinx's Revelation as haymakers.
Even letting the average aggro deck hang around for a few extra turns can be a big deal when Thundermaw Hellkite, Gavony Township, and Kessig Wolf Run exist. The UWR Tempo versions don't suffer from this issue, but also have many more draws where they have a hand full of weak answers that rely on pushing through one or two creatures to win the game. If they get answered they instead fall back on playing a weak control shell until either Hellkite or Revelation bails them out.
4. Bant, Esper, and OmniDoor Big Stuff are all relevant strategies, but are only fringe players for how many competent pilots they have. Knowledge of what each deck plays is a good start so you don't get ambushed, however dedicating slots to them probably isn't worth your time.
5. Underestimating BR Aggro is a good way to go home early. Even the decks with the best matchups against BR are only mildly favored, and it only takes a handful of good draws to beat you on the play. Be very aware of what you keep on the draw and how you intend to survive to the late game.
6. If you’re playing BR Aggro, make sure to have a plan for the mirror and know what draws are keepable on the play and on the draw. There's a major difference in value depending on play/draw, and precisely how aggressive your version of the deck is.
Good luck to everyone this weekend, and a shout-out to Sam Pardee for coming in 2nd place at GP: Toronto this weekend—maybe you can win the Invitational this weekend to make up for it.