This time of year is a cooldown period for me, and I normally shut off Magic for two weeks. I haven’t played a lot of Standard over the holidays and Cube has taken much of my time. But with GP Oakland coming up, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on what’s happening locally, with no major events to shift the field before the Grand Prix. My day job at the ChannelFireball Game Center allows me the opportunity to watch a ton of Standard games of Magic at what is effectively an average skill level in a metagame about 30 miles from the actual GP. This gives me some insight into what a lot of the locals will end up on, because not only do I see what they play at CFB, but I get a rundown from players who are battling at other stores in the region.
In my mind, there are two solid non-Abzan choices for the majority:
• GR Ramp
• Dark Jeskai a.k.a. (I-can’t-possibly-finish-3-games.dec)
Why these two decks in particular? Because both of them are very powerful and have a straightforward game plan. It’s easy to assess where you are in the game and what you need to do, because your individual cards are a cut above the opponent’s. You aren’t playing Rally the Ancestors and trying to remember 400 triggers when most players can’t remember what they did two turns ago.
Secretly (or not so much, if you were paying attention) Abzan was the best deck—in fact, it’s still arguably the best deck. But Dark Jeskai suddenly became a full-on control deck with a lot more removal and card draw to survive a long grind. More Rally players came along who didn’t mind stacking triggers and blocks, and discovered that the matchup was actually pretty easy if opponents didn’t drop Anafenza on you.
Why Not Abzan?
If you’ve played the deck for a while, then it remains a strong choice. If you haven’t and want to jump in on the bandwagon—good luck with that. We’ve reached the point in the format where everyone who has been playing for a while already has a good idea of what their plan is for the matchup and the sideboarding options. Look at how GR Ramp and Dark Jeskai play against you and ask yourself if you want to slog through that and 5 Abzan mirrors. The mirrors aren’t quite as dominated by Rhino draws as they were before, though they can still pull it out if the opponent doesn’t curve into a Wingmate Roc.
Why Not Esper Dragons?
The problem with playing Esper as a “bigger” Jeskai deck is that the metagame has moved back toward stack-based control and big draw engines. Look at Dark Jeskai now: it has Duress, Dispel, Negate, Painful Truths, Jace, Kolaghan’s Command, and Treasure Cruise. That doesn’t even count the fact that it has a legitimate 3-drop threat in Mentor that can’t be beat by just a removal spell. Abzan decks all run giant dash creatures and a suite of their own discard. Plus, you still have to finish 3-game matches and the majority of people can’t do that—in fact, we had to make Standard fewer rounds at the Game Center specifically because Esper and Jeskai players kept dragging us 5-10 minutes past the end of the round.
Playing Esper Tokens at least gives you the opportunity to be proactive and switch roles. Yes, Dragonlord Ojutai theoretically lets you do that, but that’s a bad play when the opponent can just throw down Monastery Mentor or Pitiless Horde and throw a haymaker right back at you. Esper Tokens can make use of Painful Truths in conjunction with real threats in Gideon and Wingmate Roc. Of course, you do then lose out on Fiery Impulse and Kolaghan’s Command.
If that were all that was holding back Esper decks, it wouldn’t be that bad, but neither deck holds up particularly well against Mastery of the Unseen. Every white deck is back on the army generator and outside of attacking them with Monastery Mentor it’s difficult to see a good way to deal with it outside of narrow sideboard cards. Worse still is that the support for Mastery is generally as good as it’s been since GW Megamorph was the deck du jour.
And the Others?
Atarka Red is just bad right now, now that everyone has moved back to instant-speed interaction you can’t just steal Berserker wins, and your options against people who make the top-tier play of leaving mana open are reduced greatly. The deck is also difficult to sequence now that people have learned to respect what you can do, and most red players are still either all-in every time or just never play the combo unless the coast is clear. I know not everyone can be Patrick Sullivan, but it gets old watching people unwilling to split their combo pieces for prowess value or only play Atarka’s Command.
Temur and Mardu both suffer from being midrange decks that don’t do anything particularly well. Neither can outperform Jeskai or Esper on the merits thanks to Treasure Cruise, and Dark Jeskai is basically Mardu with better draw and planeswalkers. If the threats generated by Mardu and Temur were better, that would be one thing, but Mantis Rider and Monastery Mentor are miles ahead of anything these decks are doing—and the former isn’t even good enough to make the cut these days.
Rally is a great choice if you’re well-versed with the deck and aren’t going to lose to missing triggers. It has game in both races and attrition battles. If you’re prone to missing triggers though, then you can’t play the deck outside of Magic Online. Sorry! The other major issue is sideboard hate. I’ve watched plenty of games shift heavily post-board because of cards like Hallowed Moonlight and Infinite Obliteration. The mirror is also absolutely abominable and a nightmare if one player is at all confused.
I’ve taken judge calls with a multitude of triggers on the stack, then you see shrugs and the old please-play-this-game-for-us look and you know it’s bad times. Inevitably an argument breaks out over what was and wasn’t resolved or announced or on the stack and it’s miserable. Please track your triggers in the mirror—with paper and pen if necessary—even just a running tally of triggers could save you. Also knowing how being the active or non-active player affects triggers is a must.
As for other decks—BW Warriors is one of those decks that could easily go on a tear, but who knows if anyone will bother playing it. The key with Warriors is the consistent curve and access to solid removal for almost any occasion. It’s easy to forget how sweet it is when you aren’t relying on 1-2 specific removal spells to deal with a threat—Stasis Snare and Murderous Cut simply don’t care. If people are moving away from dominating the battlefield it could be a sneaky good choice.
For GP Oakland, I suspect Atarka Red will be a substantial presence regardless of how good or bad it is in the metagame. Abzan will remain the top dog simply because nobody who has been playing it for a while is going to jump ship so close to the event. Ramp has seen an uptick locally and it’s a powerful straightforward deck that won’t take much time to learn, so people on the fence about GP Oakland will pick it up.
If we’re being honest about the choices for GP Oakland, then the format should theoretically look like a paper/rock/scissors of GR Ramp, Dark Jeskai, Abzan, and a few Rally players in the role of Meteor. I suspect that what actually happens is that Abzan will be the most played deck and Jeskai, Ramp, and Atarka Red will be spread pretty evenly across the room.
As usual, I’ll be working the Grand Prix, and rooting for a local to take it home.