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PV’s Playhouse – Standard After Louisville

Hello!

Today we’re going to talk a little about GP Louisville and the current state of Standard.

After PT Theros, everyone was all about devotion decks—mono-blue was the most popular and most successful deck at the PT, but mono-black and mono-green also had strong showings and have managed to acquire quite a fan base since (mono-red, unfortunately, didn’t really. Oh well…). Even though they are all “devotion decks,” they don’t really operate similarly, so I think it’s bad to classify them in the same category—mono-blue is an aggro deck, mono-green is a ramp deck, and mono-black is more of a control/midrange archetype.

At that point, I would say that mono-blue was the most important deck. Mono-green was second, and mono-black, a distant third. People adapted to beat the first two decks, which they could easily do—mono-blue and mono-green do share some common traits, and the way to beat each deck is not that different. If you want to beat mono-black then you have to attack from a completely different angle, but most people, I assume, did not think that was a big consideration because the deck was not as popular.

The trait that both mono-green and mono-blue share is that they play a bunch of sub-optimal cards that become good once inserted in a certain strategy. Cards like [card]Judge’s Familiar[/card] and [card]Voyaging Satyr[/card] aren’t exactly super powerful, but they play a role, and in the context of those decks they make sense. Cards like [card thassa, god of the sea]Thassa[/card] and [card garruk, caller of the pride]Garruk[/card], on the other hand, are very powerful, but also have their shortcomings—they don’t do anything without “backup,” or they are too slow. By having the “sub-optimal” cards, though, you can mitigate the negative effect of those powerful spells, and then all you’re left with is power, no downsides. The moment you add those two types of cards, you automatically improve both of them. I like to think of it as exponential power increases—you add two 1s and the result is a 4. Other people are adding 1.5 + 1.5, and, well, 4 beats 3.

The key to beating those decks, then, is breaking the synergy. You don’t need to get rid of their entire deck—you need to get rid of half of it. Sometimes, they draw multiple pieces of each half and win anyway, and sometimes you’re too slow so they don’t need the first half, but as a general rule you get much more value by breaking their “combos” than by doing anything else—you spend 1 to get rid of 1, but by getting rid of that 1 you drop their power level from 4 to 1 and now your 1.5 is enough to beat them.

The best way to do that is with cheap, unconditional cards that break both parts of the combo. Nowadays, all the good cards that do that happen to be black—[card]Thoughtseize[/card] and the spot removal spells ([card]Doom Blade[/card], [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card], [card]Ultimate Price[/card]). Those work because, if you [card]Thoughtseize[/card] them and see three Elves and a Garruk, you take the Garruk. If you see three Garruks and one Elf, you take the Elf. With Elf + Garruk they can’t lose, but with only Elves or only Garruks they are probably not going to win.

Yamamoto identified that at the PT, and so did people like Chapin and Rietzl, who added black to their decks so that they could play those cheap, versatile answers. You see those traits in Wafo-Tapa’s Esper deck as well, with him having four [card]Doom Blade[/card]s, four [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card]s, and two [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s. That’s also what the rest of the SCG guys identified for GP Louisville, which led them to play a tweaked version of Yamamoto’s deck and to put three people in the Top 8 with nearly identical lists, which is a tremendous accomplishment considering the size of the tournament.

(An aside: I’ve seen some people trying to take credit for the “mono-black deck,” and it’s utter nonsense to me. I believe you had a mono-black deck before the PT. Everyone did, the set basically forces you to build mono-colored decks and there aren’t even that many options that you can reasonably play. Yamamoto’s deck, however, has some defining features—it runs cards like [card]Pack Rat[/card] and the full amount of [card]Underworld Connections[/card], for example, which happen to be what makes his version good. If you are playing a deck with those cards after the PT, then you’re really playing a version of his deck, even if you already had a mono-black deck before. It doesn’t really change much, and it certainly doesn’t affect me in any way, but I think it’s disrespectful to the guy when you take his core list, change four cards, keep the defining traits of his deck intact, and then try to claim the deck is yours).

This was the deck that ultimately won the tournament:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Mutavault
19 Swamp
2 Temple of Deceit
4 Desecration Demon
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nightveil Specter
2 Pack Rat
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
4 Hero’s Downfall
4 Thoughtseize
2 Ultimate Price
4 Underworld Connections
2 Whip of Erebos
Sideboard
1 Dark Betrayal
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
3 Duress
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Pack Rat
1 Pithing Needle[/deck]

You can see that this deck operates differently from the other devotion decks—devotion is hardly a feature here. It doesn’t really play any bad cards—the only card that maybe you would not play if devotion didn’t exist is [card]Nightveil Specter[/card]. Yamamoto originally played [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] in this slot, but the switch makes perfect sense—there aren’t that many green/white creature decks around, and against other black decks the Specter is doubly better, since both the Zombie’s abilities (discard and intimidate) are useless and you can actually cast any card that you hit. It’s also immune to [card]Doom Blade[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card], so it’s pretty hard to kill these days (though every card in your deck save [card]Mutavault[/card] is immune to [card]Doom Blade[/card], of course). [card]Devour Flesh[/card] is also a concession to other mono-black decks, as well as [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card], which we might see more of now in BW/Junk main decks and is harder to answer when you don’t have [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card].

The most interesting card here is [card]Pack Rat[/card], which has eluded Constructed play until now. I remember when the set came out I named [card]Pack Rat[/card] as my favorite card for Constructed, so I feel kind of vindicated now, but I have to say that’s really not how I imagined it. In my mind, you would play [card]Pack Rat[/card] on turn two and then either react to their opponent or just make another guy at the end of the turn. [card]Pack Rat[/card] would basically be a [card]Bitterblossom[/card], providing all the pressure by itself while you react to anything they play. That strategy didn’t come close to working, and this black deck uses [card]Pack Rat[/card] to basically brute-force a bunch of 5/5s into play. If you’ve ever had a bunch of 5/5s into play, you know it’s a pretty effective strategy, all things considered. Moving forward, I’m not sure there is much to change regarding this deck—the number of playable black cards in Standard is not that high, so you’re going to end up with different permutations of the same cards, such as swapping some of the removal spells for others or maybe [card]Duress[/card]es for [card]Pithing Needle[/card]s and so on.

The other “breakout” deck from GP Louisville was Esper. It’s not really fair to call it breakout, since it has existed for about five years now, give or take, but the devotion theme also basically pushed Esper into the spotlight—as a deck that plays the best [card supreme verdict]sweeper[/card] in the format and has access to all the good black 1-for-1s, it is well equipped against any deck that wants to get a combination of permanents into play. Two people piloted Esper to the Top 8, and three more finished in the Top 16. This is William Jensen’s list:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Island
3 Plains
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave
1 Aetherling
3 Azorius Charm
4 Detention Sphere
3 Dissolve
2 Divination
2 Doom Blade
1 Far Away
2 Hero’s Downfall
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
4 Supreme Verdict
1 Thoughtseize
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
Sideboard
1 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
3 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
4 Gainsay
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Negate
2 Soldier of the Pantheon
2 Thoughtseize[/deck]

I like this list, though it’s slightly different than what I would have played. There are many directions you can take with Esper, and all depend on the metagame you expect, so I’m not going to dwell on particulars of Esper lists much—I feel like that would be an article in itself. All in all, though, I am not a fan of [card]Divination[/card]—I think the card is extremely clunky and not needed. I do like four [card]Detention Sphere[/card]s—I think they’re better than [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card] because they’re easier to cast and because dealing with Gods and their weapons is too important. I am also not a fan of eight scry lands. They are very good in the deck (like, super good), but I don’t think you can afford that many, your deck is already too slow—my ideal number is between five and six.

Though those decks are supposedly good against the devotion decks, they clearly haven’t managed to remove them from the metagame—there were two mono-blue devotion decks in the Top 8, for example. Mono-blue plays some bad cards, but not that many and not that bad, so it can still win games even if it’s getting disrupted, and cards like [card]Bident of Thassa[/card] go a long way toward fighting the 1-for-1 spells. Mono-blue might not be the king anymore, but it’s tied for prince. I’d say the format right now should be a pretty even split of mono-blue, mono-black, Esper, and various green builds—likely green/red.

Of those decks, my preference is for Esper. I know, I know, Esper again, blah blah. Esper is a very strong deck—it has powerful cards and can beat almost anything. I also happen to think it’s fun to play, and not at all easy to play against—despite its being around for a long time, people still have trouble playing against the combo of Jace + [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. If there were a tournament today, I would probably just play Esper. It is not, however, the best-positioned deck. That distinction belongs to mono-red aggro.

Before the PT, mono-red aggro was a popular deck. It won the first SCG tournament, after all. Most people tested against it, but, for most people, losing to mono-red was not a big issue. It’s very rarely a popular deck at the PT no matter how good it is, and GW had just won the latest tournament—you can’t really ever beat GW if they have a normal draw. Those people were right not to be worried—less than 10% of the field played mono-red. Right now, though, I feel like mono-red is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the popular decks. They are all clunky, with cards that damage themselves and with few answers that are good against red. Look at those Esper lists, look at this mana base—it’s almost like you start with [card]Spellshock[/card] in play, they can’t cast a spell without taking 2 damage. Cards like [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card] and [card]Far // Away[/card] might be good against a certain metagame, but they aren’t good against mono-red—they’re simply too expensive.

“But PV, don’t people have, like, [card]Frostburn Weird[/card]s, and [card]Tidebender[/card]s, [card]Master of Waves[/card], and [card]Whip of Erebos[/card]?”

Well, yes, they do. But you can beat those cards, especially the first two. [card]Master of Waves[/card] is the best one, but it’s not hard to hit them for so much, so quickly, that you can just go over the top with burn spells or fliers by the time they hit four lands. [card]Fanatic of Mogis[/card] is particularly problematic for them, as they have zero interaction with you. Whip could be very good against you, but not usually out of that deck—their only big guy is [card]Desecration Demon[/card], and you can easily stop that one from ever entering combat. Sure, it might still beat you in the long game, but I see no reason why you should ever go to the late game. Do you?

There are many ways to build Mono-Red; [card boros reckoner]Reckoners[/card], no Reckoners, more burn, less burn. Having a white splash for [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card] is also viable, and improves your matchup against [card]Master of Waves[/card] decks. I’d probably start with something like this:

[deck]4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Ash Zealot
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Firefist Striker
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Lightning Strike
2 Magma Jet
4 Boros Reckoner
2 Mutavault
20 Mountains[/deck]

This is very similar to the list we tested for the PT. If you want to change things, then Reckoner can go—it’s not exciting right now, but it helps with devotion and it helps finish them off, and it’s also your best card in creature mirrors, so I think it’s earned its place. It’s dispiriting to have an [card]Arbor Colossus[/card] and face a [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]—you just can’t do anything. If you cut Reckoners, you can go up to four [card]Mutavault[/card]s, maybe adding an extra land. Potential additions are [card]Shock[/card] and more [card]Magma Jet[/card]s, or the white splash. Out of the sideboard you get [card]Burning Earth[/card], which is a nightmare for those Esper decks that have so few basic lands. Unfortunately, the rest of your sideboard is horrendous, as mono-red sideboards usually are.

If you are not a mono-red guy (and God knows I’m not), another deck that I think could be well-positioned is Shota’s UB deck. This one, however, is just conjecture, a project for the future. I know mono-red is good, since we played it a lot for the PT, but I have not played games with Shota’s list. This was the deck Shota ran:

[deck]Main Deck
1 Dimir Guildgate
7 Island
4 Mutavault
5 Swamp
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Watery Grave
4 Master of Waves
2 Prognostic Sphinx
3 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
2 Devour Flesh
2 Dissolve
2 Domestication
2 Doom Blade
2 Essence Scatter
2 Hero’s Downfall
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Opportunity
3 Ratchet Bomb
4 Syncopate
1 Ultimate Price
Sideboard
1 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Negate
2 Pithing Needle
3 Thoughtseize
4 Tidebinder Mage
3 Wall of Frost[/deck]

I like what this list is doing, though I don’t like some of the specifics ([card]Essence Scatter[/card], for example, seems like a worse removal spell to me these days, since there is no [card]Thragtusk[/card]/[card]Angel of Serenity[/card]/[card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], so you can just let whatever creature resolve and then kill it). I think this deck could play some number of maindeck [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s, since it can cast them much more easily than Esper can. I also think one [card]Aetherling[/card] is mandatory in a control deck, since everyone else has them and they’re basically the only card that matters in the mirror. At first I was skeptical about [card]Domestication[/card], but it really doesn’t seem that bad—you can steal [card]Master of Waves[/card] for major blowouts, [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] for mid-sized blowouts, and even [card]Pack Rat[/card] (!). This deck could incidentally also run [card]Pack Rat[/card] in the sideboard, fulfilling my dreams of using it as a kill condition in a sort of aggro-control deck—people would certainly not see it coming.

This is the list I would run today:

[deck]7 Island
4 Mutavault
6 Swamp
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Watery Grave
4 Master of Waves
1 Prognostic Sphinx
1 Aetherling
3 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
2 Thoughtseize
2 Devour Flesh
2 Dissolve
2 Domestication
2 Doom Blade
3 Hero’s Downfall
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Opportunity
2 Ratchet Bomb
4 Syncopate
1 Ultimate Price[/deck]

To sum up, I think Mono-U, Mono-B, Esper, and G/r are here to stay, and of those decks I think Esper is the best. The best positioned deck now in my opinion is mono-red, but if you don’t like red then I would experiment with some UB builds. If those don’t work, then I’d return to Esper.

See you next week,

PV

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