In Standard, there is often a “best deck.” This deck usually covers about 25% of the metagame, and if you can find a deck that beats it without being embarrassing against everything else, it gives you a huge edge. Unfortunately, these decks are the best deck for a reason: they usually have very few bad matchups. If they do have a soft matchup, it is usually against a deck that is weak against everything else. Because the current Standard has a “best deck” in ramp, it is huge to understand how to attack dominant decks.
The first thing to do when attacking a dominant deck is to look at its weaknesses. For example, Faeries was extremely reliant on [card]Bitterblossom[/card], Mistbind Clique, and Cryptic Command. Mono-Red punished Faeries for playing Bitterblossom and had instant speed burn to prevent the latter two cards from causing mayhem.
When we look at the Ramp deck, one weakness stands out: speed. The Ramp deck is at its best doing something powerful on turn four, and often has to wait until turn five. If Ramp players can live that long, they can do something pretty broken, but that won’t matter if they are already dead. Thus, Mono-Red might seem like a good choice in the current Standard metagame. It is the fastest deck in the format and Ramp has a really hard time surviving to cast its threats.
The biggest problem with Mono-Red is its other matchups. It’s soft against most of the other major decks in the format like White Weenie and Blue/White Control. While it is good to be strong against the top deck, more than two thirds of your matches will still be against a non-Ramp deck and you must be prepared for that.
When the deck with the best matchup against the top deck is weak against everything else, it is often right to use a less drastic measure to attack them. One of the best places to implement a plan is in the mirror. If you can break the mirror match, you will be playing the most powerful deck against the field while being very prepared against the most popular deck in the format. In addition, mirrors are often breakable. If you can figure out what a mirror match comes down to, you can often find a card, or plan that breaks it.
One way to address the mirror is to play very generic sideboard cards like Tunnel Ignus. However, when a deck is such a big portion of the metagame, it becomes realistic to board eight or so cards for the matchup. This allows you to have a full-fledged plan against the dominant deck while retaining the characteristics in your main deck that made it dominant in the first place.
Fixing your Bad Matchups
As before, looking to weaknesses is the way to build the sideboard. For example, the Jund mirror was a war of attrition, so boarding in cards like Sarkhan the Mad that broke the mirror open were really powerful. In the Ramp mirror, it is simply a race. Neither player has any relevant disruption, so both decks simply ramp out as fast as possible. Cards like Plated Geopede and Lotus Cobra are both very explosive creatures in a deck that puts a bunch of lands into play. Because Ramp will be boarding out their removal, you can board these critters in and put some pressure on the Ramp deck before they’re ready. Here’s a potential Valakut Ramp list that implements the tiny critter sideboard plan for the mirror:
Post-board in the mirror, we can take out the mediocre Overgrown Battlements for Cobras and then take out the Summoning Traps for Geopedes. Suddenly, our deck is much faster than theirs. If you see them reaching back to their sideboard for game three to bring back in removal, you can always go back to Traps and punish them.
One other side effect of being slow is a vulnerability to Mind Sludge. On turn four when you can cast your Sludge, the Ramp deck will usually have about three or four cards in hand. A Sludge will take the Ramp player’s whole hand and leave them in topdeck mode. Since the Ramp deck has so much mana, they will have to get lucky to rip gas post Sludge. Here’s a ramp list that boards in a Sludge plan:
This deck’s maindeck is very similar to the one Tim Landale played at the TCGplayer 5k. However, the sideboard is very different. By bringing in Mind Sludge and Swamps, we can have a threat that is cheaper than theirs and more backbreaking. While it may seem like four Swamps is not enough for the Sludge, the deck essentially has 12 more: Verdant Catacombs, Harrow, and Cultivate can all fetch Swamps. In most games, it is relatively easy to get to five mana and three or four swamps on turn four. Bring out the Eldrazi Temples and Battlements for Sludges and the Swamps.
One other weakness of Ramp is counters. Because a lot of its spells are so expensive, counters have a lot of value. Summoning Trap makes counters a little less potent, but they are still quite good. If you Mana Leak a Primeval Titan and they play a Trap and you Leak that as well, you have still paid less average mana for your spells than they have for theirs. While Blue White is the normal place to insert counters, cheap counters are a lot more powerful when backed by pressure. Here is a list that can play a little like a Fish Deck against Ramp:
The core is a Gerry Thompson brew that was built for speed. The deck essentially has eight two-power one drops and has very explosive starts with Bloodthrone Vampire. However, postboard against ramp, UB Vampires can have eight two-mana counters while having a ton of pressure. Killing them before they get to their threats should not be a problem, especially because you can counter their first threat.
Another option to attack dominant decks is to choose colors with the best sideboard cards. In Faeries-dominated Standard, Great Sable Stag and Volcanic Fallout made red and green a lot more tempting to play. Currently, Leonin Arbiter and Tunnel Ignus push for red and white. While I’m not necessarily suggesting playing Boros, it is worth noting that having access to these sideboard cards is a huge plus. Blue, black, and green really don’t have nearly as good sideboard options against the Ramp deck.
One other way to attack a dominant deck is combo. No matter how powerful a non-combo deck is, a surprise combo deck is almost always more powerful. This means that if you can find a combo deck that people are not ready for, you can simply out-power the “best deck.” Dark Depths was supposed to be the most powerful deck in Extended, but off-the-radar combo decks like Elves, Living End, and Hypergenesis ended up putting up even better results. Nothing is more powerful than a surprise combo deck.
While many of the best combo cards in Standard rotated, there are still a few combo options. Antoine mentioned Mass Polymorph as a combo option in his last article, and I think it could be a great choice. Another combo deck that is mildly interesting is Pyromancer Ascension. While many people think the deck is dead with the rotation of Time Warp and Ponder, it is still playable. The new Ascension decks simply grind the opponent out with card advantage and eventually kill with copied burn spells. Since the deck isn’t as all-in on Ascension, it plays Jace, the Mind Sculptor as an alternate card-advantage engine. With Burst Lightning, Mana Leak, and Lightning Bolt, the deck is very good at protecting Jace. Here’s a list:
Many people have suggested putting cards like Contagion Clasp or Steady Progress in to help get Ascension active. The old Ascension deck would have really liked a card like that, but this more controlling build doesn’t want a three mana cards to simply cantrip when it doesn’t have Ascension out. This deck is much more of a combo-control deck than a pure combo deck.
While it is tempting to beat the best deck, it is not always necessary. Often, a deck that beats everything except the “best deck” is a great choice. At Pro Tour Hollywood, Mahikito Mihara and Yong Han Choo played Reveillark even though it had a very soft Faeries matchup. They happily took their licks against Faeries while crushing everything else on their way to Top 8. Blue White Control is the Reveillark of this format. Here is a sample list:
This list is Pedro Quintero’s from the TCGplayer 5k. His list has a lot of cards that are blank against Ramp. However, the list is very solid against everything else. Like Choo and Mihara did before him, Quintero simply accepted a rough matchup every once in a while in order to have a dominant matchup against the rest of the field. If you think about it, if you are 60% against the rest of the metagame and 20% against Ramp, then, assuming Ramp is 25% of the metagame, you would still win 50% of your games. If you consider Blue White to either have a better ramp matchup than that, or be better against the rest of the field, it quickly becomes a great choice. While it’s always nice to beat the best deck, it’s not always necessary.
When a deck is dominant, it is very important to choose your deck carefully. You don’t necessarily have to beat the “deck to beat”, but you do have to be very aware of it. When you approach a metagame like the one in the current Standard, your deck choice and every card choice should be made with Ramp in mind. Good luck taking down Ramp at States, or beating everything else.