This Standard format has been a tough one to crack. Every time I play, I take a few mental and physical notes on what I’m learning.
Traction is Key
In every game, the first three turns are extremely important. If I’m casting Thought Erasure on 2, my objective is to stop them from making a play on a key turn and not necessarily to take the most high impact card out of their hand. Other early plays involve setting up against planeswalkers mostly. There are so many planeswalkers in the format now, and while they don’t all tick up to ultimates, many accrue a potentially more devastating advantage with their static abilities.
Picking up traction doesn’t necessarily need to mean an onboard advantage like with a creature deck, but by advancing the game state in a way that favors my strategy. For Esper Control, that simply means keeping the battlefield empty, and adding a planeswalker to the board here and there, or accruing card advantage to set up that game state where I have Azcanta the Sunken Ruin and a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in play while my opponent is exhausted of resources.
This format is all about traction, or having a board presence. Though sometimes, on the draw, that’s not even possible. Playing my 2-mana creature into an opponent’s Teferi, Time Raveler and playing from behind at sorcery speed for the rest of the game is a losing proposition. To add to that, Little Teferi makes sure Big Teferi is going to resolve, and you’re going to have untapped mana before your opponent can do anything about it. I’ve felt at a disadvantage on the draw more in this format than I have in almost any other. Between Thought Erasure disrupting my curve and facing down planeswalkers before I have the ability to act, it’s tough.
Static Abilities on Planeswalkers Are Messed Up
Planeswalkers with static abilities grant value every turn by forcing the opponent to do something they don’t want to do. When I play Narset, Parter of Veils, minus it twice and get two spells, my opponent is forced to play Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and minus on it if they want their Teferi to get going later. I’ve gotten a ton of value out of the static ability on my planeswalker after already casting a Dig Through Time. I can now redraw that Narset, and I likely already have an answer to their Teferi in my hand. I’m picking up value as turns go on in the form of card advantage, and my Narset is sitting in play, preventing my opponent from drawing cards to get back into the game.
When my Teferi, Time Raveler is forcing my opponent to play awkwardly each and every turn, leaving dead counterspells in their hand, it’s getting me something more valuable than the threat of an ultimate somewhere down the road. I’m getting actual card advantage out of the static ability, and strategic advantage in the form of the ability to play at instant speed. For this reason, the number of counterspells needs to trend down. I’m often surprised how often my opponents are boarding into cards like Negate, Disdainful Stroke, and Dovin’s Veto when I already have—and I’m boarding in more—copies of Teferi, Time Raveler. This is especially problematic on the draw when it’s much easier to play Teferi. Use it to bounce the only threat and then start trading one-for-one down the chain, eventually leaving the opponent with dead counters in hand and no way to remove the Teferi.
I originally thought these planeswalkers felt balanced. With no ultimate to worry about, you could realistically play a long game with them in play, but you won’t actually lose on the spot. In reality, these planeswalkers are just as powerful as the older ones, potentially moreso because of their aggressive mana costs. While they don’t end the game with an ultimate, they often decide the game much earlier with their static ability cutting off opponents’ outs to claw back into a game. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt helpless when my opponent casts a Llanowar Elves on turn 1 on the play into any 3-mana planeswalker.
I’m sitting there with a tapped Watery Grave staring down a Teferi, Time Raveler or Vivien, Champion of the Wilds, trying to figure out how I can recover from that start five turns down the road, if, and only if, they don’t do anything else meaningful in those turns in between. Bant Midrange has seemed much stronger because of these games than it actually is in reality. Playing from the Bant Midrange side, my mana is often awkward. When my Elves don’t live, I’m fighting an uphill battle, and I’m not very good at coming back from behind on board. Cards like Hydroid Krasis only makes this worse, as I’m getting out tempo’d by Teferi, Time Raveler in some games and Krasis is useless in the face of Narset, Parter of Veils.
There Are a Ton of Planeswalkers—Have a Plan to Fight Them
Ways to combat this planeswalker-flooded format involve going underneath them with decks like Mono-Red, but yet more haste creatures may need to come out of the woodwork. Imagine the world where I play my 2-drop on the draw, my opponent Teferis it but I’m able to follow up with a Legion Warboss, Tajic, or Gruul Spellbreaker and eat their planeswalker. Creatures like these make playing these planeswalkers incredibly awkward.
That said, my reactive decks, or black decks in general, are all playing as many as two copies of The Elderspell now. This is one way I’ve found I can come back from a devastating series of planeswalker after planeswalker. In some games it rots in your hand until you’re too far behind and you get a single planeswalker with it, only to be met with the same one the following turn. Your catch-up card just isn’t enough sometimes. Some games play out such that each player is trading haymakers back and forth. Both players play little Teferis into big Teferis, and this is the way to break that chain. I originally thought The Elderspell would be close to unplayable, but its impact on games can be unlike any other card in the format.
I’ve noticed Arclight Phoenix decks have won a bunch of MCQs both on and offline, which makes a lot of sense to me. Finale of Promise bringing back Phoenixes on its own is a strong addition to the deck, and on top of that, Arclight Phoenix is a haste creature that pressures planeswalkers at 4 mana. Bringing them back from the graveyard to eat a planeswalker and present a big board presence feels like a good approach in this format. Crackling Drake is a great way to one-shot the aggro decks, as they have trouble with 4-toughness creatures, and Crackling Drake hits incredibly hard.
The Play is More Important Than Ever, So Have a Plan for Being on the Draw
Playing from behind in this format is simply a fool’s errand. To adapt, you need to significantly lower your curve. In Esper Control, you need to have access to more 2-mana removal in the 75. Whether it’s main deck or sideboard, I’m constantly adapting the amount of 2-mana removal I have on the play or draw. On the play, I’m more likely to have higher impact cards in my deck and shave some of the lower impact 2-mana removal. On the draw, I need to be able to answer their first creature so I can start the snowball first. Sweeper effects can be great, but every deck has a way to punish you for tapping out to cast Kaya’s Wrath. Either way, more 2-mana removal sets you up for better planeswalkers on turn 3. Between Narset and Teferi, you want to make sure the board is manageable when you play them and it’s easy to parlay that onboard advantage into an eventual win.
I’m definitely thinking about multiple configurations of sideboard plans in this format. I’ll have a plan for the play and another for the draw against almost every deck. On the draw, I like Dovin’s Veto more in Little Teferi mirrors. You can counter it and follow up with your own. On the play you play your own, they play theirs, and you have this dead card in your hand. This works the same with creature removal. I want to be able to kill my opponent’s Thief of Sanity on the draw with 2-mana removal, but on the play I want more proactive cards in my deck because I have way more coverage against the Thief. If I’m in a Thief of Sanity mirror, I’m on the play, and reacting to their threats, I’m wasting what I perceive to be a big advantage. I want to be threat dense in these spots and present a threat every turn. I will run away with the game once one of them sticks. By only answering their threats on the play, I’m wasting that advantage I have of forcing them to have answers.
Fighting Aggro Decks Is Much Different than Post-Board
The aggressive decks in this format, Mono-Red and Azorius Aggro, slow down a lot post-board. Boarding into a bunch of Cry of the Carnarium and sweepers against them plays right into their post-board strategies of going bigger in the case of red, and bringing in counters in the case of white. Cards like Duress are actively good in these matchups post-board, and allow you to take their most punishing cards, like Experimental Frenzies and Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants. While I’ll still bring in those sweepers, keep in mind they’re not nearly as devastating post-board as they are before sideboarded games.
I’ve seen people suggest cards like Basilica Bell-Haunt and Vona, Butcher of Magan over Enter the God-Eternals in decks like Esper Control and Esper Midrange. I don’t like these suggestions for a couple of reasons. Enter the God-Eternals is much more effective against both premier aggro decks. Bell-Haunt isn’t nearly as good against white, and about as good against red. I can find Enter the God-Eternals off of Search for Azcanta, the one true card engine outside of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria I leave in my deck. Having a card that gains life, kills a threat, and threatens planeswalkers later in the game all rolled into one card has been important to me.
After playing a lot with a lot of different decks, I can’t find a reason why Mono-Red isn’t actually the best, despite being on everyone’s radar. Its sideboard plan of going bigger is great. The deck reminds me of the old Hazoret versions of the deck. Experimental Frenzy is the new Hazoret, and if it’s left in play for a full turn cycle or two, it’s nearly impossible to recover from. It gets to resolve Frenzy with ease because of the incredible amount of pressure it puts on opponents.
Enchantment removal is everywhere, as is planeswalker removal, but red gets to play as many high-impact 4s at the top of the curve as they want between Chandra, Fire Artisan, Experimental Frenzy, and Rekindling Phoenix. If any of these stick around, red runs away with the game. I didn’t really like Despark early in the format because it didn’t seem great in a world of aggro decks, but post-board against Red I’d want a couple of copies despite how awkward it is early game. It covers all your bases on the top end. Obviously it answers a lot of the top-end planeswalkers people are playing as well, so I’m starting to consider adding copies to decks I otherwise wouldn’t. While I think Red is good and will continue to be good, I don’t think it’s head-and-shoulders above the rest. It simply doesn’t fall victim to hate like decks like these have in the past because of its ability to adapt post-board and its countless options an opponent needs to prepare for. If you don’t like anything, I do think Red is a safe choice despite its success.
With weekly MPL matches starting, I’m going to need to be constantly attacking the format from a bunch of different angles to throw off my opponents and to get every deck advantage I can in pursuit of Mythic Points and whatever else it all may feed into. Either way, I’m trying to stay sharp in Standard, and with these notes in mind, hopefully I’ll be successful.