Before getting into Standard this week, I'd like to thank everyone for the awesome amount of feedback my last article received. I honestly didn't expect a humor article to be one of the most popular articles ever published on ChannelFireball. So again, a huge thanks to everyone who read, shared, or talked about the article over the past week. Now it's time to get back into Standard, with SCG Vegas and the Invitational in LA coming up over the next two weeks.
Before breaking down the metagame from the last few events, I want to quickly touch on what I've been playing lately. This weekend I played in an SCG Invitational Qualifier, with a slightly modified version of Craig Wescoe's GW Human deck.
I ended up going 4-1-1 in the swiss, losing to eventual winner Eric Pei with BR Zombies, and then again in the Top 8 to GP Chicago Champion and small child Jacob Wilson playing Michael Hetrick's Esper Control. In the swiss, I beat Heartless Summoning, UWR Tempo, Bant Control and UW Aggro. After bashing with the deck some more on MtGO, I came to a few conclusions about the deck's position in the current field, and why GW was so powerful to begin with.
First, if you've ever heard Cedric rant about how GW doesn't have a lot of play to it and that it's hard to pace this deck in certain matches without having Telepathy, you're already familiar the deck's biggest issues. A handful of players can squeeze extra percentage points by playing the deck in non-intuitive ways and with proper pacing, but you'll never get a 'gotcha!' moment with this deck, and your pace is often dictated by the opponent.
While in some matchups there's more of a give and take, especially on the play, the match against UWR and UW decks is an uphill battle from the start. They can snipe your best creatures without exposing themselves, and if things get hairy they can Supreme Vedict—twice in most games, thanks to Snapcaster Mage and Sphinx's Revelation.
Restoration Angel is the bane of your existence, just like it was the last time around. Even if it doesn't outright provide a wall with the 4-toughness butt, it can always get value off other creatures or team up with Hellkite in the more aggressive builds to quickly turn a race around.
At this point, I've considered going back to Plummet in the sideboard to deal with the number of obnoxious flyers in this format, and tricks like Moment of Heroism or Swift Justice aren't even the worst when the opponent doesn't know you run them. The biggest matchup issue I have is UWR—which could be the undoing of the deck, seeing as how it had three of the fop four slots at the TCG 50k this past weekened.
I did like having at least a handful of ways to interact, thanks to Fiend Hunter and Ulvenwald Tracker. Tracker in particular dominates the small-ball white and green mirrors, and at least provides a method to trade creatures against other decks. Outside of those, you can't interact well, and I actually liked Fiend Hunter post-tournament, if only because it gives you an unconditional way to deal with creatures. Of course, much of the time you'll be using it to protect your own creatures from Supreme Verdict rather than wrap a warm blanket around your opponent's Angel while you get wrathed.
Your threats are among the most brutal in the format, and the combination of Silverblade Paladin and Sublime Archangel provide a bunch of free wins. You also have the best imitation of Gravecrawler, Ghoul, Messenger into Aristocrat with starts like Champion, Mayor, Silverblade, and almost anything else. Mana-wise, you aren't horribly punished for being two colors, and can so enjoy the wonder that is Gavony Township without vomiting every time you draw a Guildgate, à la BR Zombies.
Some changes I'd make to the deck mostly focus on Riders of Gavony and Avacyn's Pilgrim. Let's start with the easy swap—I'd much rather have Restoration Angels of my own in the deck than Riders of Gavony. For every game where Riders becomes Falter or allows Ulvenwald Tracker to start getting rowdy, there's a game where it sits useless on the board while I die to a Hellkite or it dies to a Searing Spear.
Restoration Angel isn't a perfect fit by any stretch, but it provides another evasion creature and at least a small amount of play against Supreme Verdict decks. Outside of Angel, the other card I really wanted to add was Selesnya Charm so I could have a main deck trick like Moment of Heroism that wasn't dead outside of combat.
I'm on the fence about dumping Avacyn's Pilgrim, since when it's good, it powers out ridiculous starts like Silverblade Paladin into Sublime, or allows earlier use of Gavony Township. On the other hand, Pilgrim is wretched at any point after turn three, and while we have a couple of ways to make the body useful, Pilgrim is never going to be a very sturdy attacker. I'd rather run a better threat here, like an extra Thalia or even Azorius Arrester to help force through extra damage in races. As it stands, I'm trying things out over the Pilgrim, but I suspect in the end it could be correct to run them despite their limited usefulness.
Sideboard-wise, both Nearheath Pilgrim and Slayer of the Wicked would have better served as Rhox Faithmender, Oblivion Ring, or Pacifism, though being able to hit a Vampire Nighthawk or Olivia with Slayer can be a big game.
Life gain is better suited to playing creatures that are actually good and then giving them lifelink for a turn. Eating a creature let's you get ahead in the race, and another 3-5 points of life is all you need to force the opponent to stay on the defensive. Faith's Shield is also reasonable as an alternative trick that people will play around sometimes regardless if you have it or not, and every so often you get to win a fight out of nowhere.
GW Aggro remains a solid option if you want to try to duck UWR decks and Bant to a lesser extent. If you can do that, then you have a deck that does reasonably well against BR Zombies and has powerful linear openings that completely steamroll half the decks in the format.
As a whole, the format feels nearly cyclical at this point. Think about what the top decks were for the the first set of major Standard tournaments of the season.
Zombies and UWR Control largely fell out of favor for a month; and a large variety of aggro, tempo, and midrange decks all rushed to fill the void. Then we finally had a set of Grand Prix Standard events, and some significant MtGO time with RTR that seemed to redefine the metagame away from midrange and back toward aggressive plans, with a bit of control thrown in. Where are we now? In a place that is surprisingly familiar for a format that's been so diverse since rotation. Take a good look at the most successful archetypes right now:
Not exactly a massive shift in what's been doing well from the beginning of the format, even though things have been in constant flux for the past 2 months.
So if we accept these as the pillars of the format:
And these as the primary associates:
Then you end up with a format in which being able to deal with very lethal threats quickly is a priority, while still being able to beat an instant speed reload in a deck likely running either a wide variety of removal and countermagic or the best speedbump in the format. Is it really a surprise that both powerful aggro decks that take the initiative are popular and winning, or that midrange and many versions of straight control are in dire straits in this metagame?
It isn't that these decks can't win—Conley, Ali, and a handful of others all proved that they can, but the percentages feel so dependent on the actual pilot. There's a reason we only see a handful of Bant decks winning, now that decks have all gotten the idea of having a late-game down pat.
Perhaps the answer lies in the past—Entreat the Angels went from being an amazing finisher to completely out of the format within a few weeks. Despite Hellkite shutting down Angels for a turn, can decks really beat an Entreat for 3 or more without casting Verdict? Most people cut Detention Sphere and Terminus to maximize other options, and racing Thragtusk is pretty easy with 12 power of flyers.
In the end, the best metagame call would be to find a deck that trounces BR Zombies and has a reasonable shot against Sphinx’s Revelation and UWR decks. Good luck with that, since the two decks attack from polar opposite directions in terms of pacing. UWR punishes you for wanting to slow the game down and using 1-for-1s thanks to a bunch of value cards and tough to kill threats. BR Zombies makes sure that if you want to get to a late-game that at least half of your deck needs to be able to interact early, or you’ll just get run over by good aggro draws.
The natural response to this was to play Mono-Red, and simply race the Zombie decks while trying to sack out the Verdict decks. Instead of focusing purely on giant BR, the answer may be to have the biggies against Bant and UWR Tempo, and then tune the main deck to play a faster and better attacking game against the mirror. Having a lower curve and other forms of evasive creatures are a step in the right direction, or even move away from the heavier black and instead play essentially Mono-Red with a splash for Knight of Infamy and Falkenrath Aristocrat. No matter the route you choose, simply be ready for the onslaught of these decks.
Good luck to everyone this weekend!