When diving into a new format, it’s a good habit to ask yourself, “What makes this format unique?” In Standard, the first answer that jumps out at me are the giant, red flying creatures.
Perhaps the reason Glorybringer and Rekindling Phoenix jump out at me is because they kill me all the time. Again, and again, and again. If you’re a frequent Standard player, I’m going to venture the guess that you’ve had a similar experience. Aggressive and midrange red decks make up a huge portion of the field, and the top-end cards are extremely powerful and unforgiving. You need to get rid of them quickly and decisively, or they’ll serve you that exact treatment.
Standard is a small format, and there isn’t an abundance of great removal. The tools exist to fight these cards, but you have to consciously work for it—it’s not going to happen by accident. Most homebrew decks, and even most established decks that you might copy from the internet, are going to be woefully underprepared to handle the top-end creatures of this format. In this article, I’ll tell you how you can shore up these weaknesses, and hopefully impress on you why it’s so critical that you do so.
For me, these are the most terrifying cards in Standard for three reasons. First, they have flying, so you can’t fight them by blocking—you must have removal. (Again, being prepared to beat these cards won’t happen accidentally—it must be a conscious effort.) Second, they live in a color and in archetypes that are already aggressively attacking your life total. Good luck surviving against Mono-Red if you take even two hits from one of these terrors. Third, they both have additional abilities that make them difficult to answer at an even exchange.
The haste and exert of Glorybringer means that it can devastate your board on any turn that you tap out, even if you have the means to answer it after untapping. Rekindling Phoenix rises from the ashes, and is resilient to removal that doesn’t exile.
These aren’t red’s only stone-cold-killers. Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance remain two of the most powerful cards in Standard, and will similarly eviscerate an opponent who cannot answer them immediately. The raw power of these four cards, and the fact that each requires different answer cards, contribute to red being the best color in Standard.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the ever-present The Scarab God, which is a defining feature of many of the non-red midrange and control decks. The Scarab God is another example of a creature that must be answered on sight, or else it will be too late.
While there are plenty of other potent threats in Standard, these five cards—Glorybringer, Rekindling Phoenix, Hazoret the Fervent, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and The Scarab God—are the ones that you’ll run into most often, and that will punish you most for failing to answer them. Tailoring your removal suite to beat these cards is a great first step to building a well-rounded Standard deck.
As long as I’m raving about the strength of the color red, I might as well begin here. If you’re playing a red midrange deck yourself, how can you set yourself up to beat the top-end threats in your mirror matches and pseudo-mirror matches?
There’s good news and bad news, and I’m going to give you the bad news first. Red cannot kill Hazoret the Fervent. If you’re a bigger red midrange deck, you’ll need to pair with a color that can answer the God. If you’re Mono-Red, you’ll need to employ the “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” technique, and play 4 Hazorets of your own. I believe that this weakness to Hazoret is a fatal flaw of both Treasure Red and R/G Monsters, and puts a ceiling on how effective these decks can be.
In the interest of being thorough, I should mention that red technically does have two ways to kill Hazoret, though they’re pretty ugly. The first is the unreliable Soul-Scar Mage plus Chandra’s Defeat combo. The second is Hour of Devastation, which is really only an option for a dedicated control deck.
But I still owe you some good news. Red has some of the best removal in Standard, and has reasonable ways of answering everything other than Hazoret.
Playing with your own Chandras and Glorybringers is a great way to up the power level of your deck and round out your answer suite for opposing big creatures.
Cut // Ribbons and Struggle // Survive are two fringe cards that need to start getting a lot more love. We’re hard up for ways to kill 4- and 5-toughness creatures, and these are both reasonable ways to do so. You can consider these for Mono-Red decks, and if you actually have access to both colors of mana, you should make them a priority.
Struggle // Survive is red’s answer to the Scarab God. It’s also reasonable against Rekindling Phoenix, although it will leave behind a chump-blocking Elemental.
Chandra’s Defeat kills Glorybringer, Chandra, and Phoenix all at a large profit of mana. It does so while rarely being a dead card, and protecting you from a quick weenie rush if you’re desperate. I’m looking to sideboard 2 Chandra’s Defeats in most red decks, and I don’t think 3 is out of the question.
Note that pairing these removal spells with cheap answer cards like Shock, Magma Spray, Fanatical Firebrand, or Walking Ballista will help ensure that your deck is well-rounded, while also giving you a reasonable plan for beating Rekindling Phoenix.
Fatal Push is one of the best cards printed in the last ten years, and has become a Legacy and Modern staple.
It’s not that great in Standard.
Fatal Push is somewhat of a necessary evil, as you do need to be able to keep pace with aggro decks, as well as be ready for Kari Zev, Skyship Raider and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. I maindecked the full 4 the last time I played Standard, but I don’t think that choice is automatic, and you can certainly consider sideboarding some out, even in creature matchups.
Similarly, cards like Moment of Craving, Golden Demise, and Yahenni’s Expertise are decent role-players, but they do not solve the real problems against aggressive red decks. Moment of Craving would be pretty good in game 1, but sideboarding a bunch of them is a lazy strategy that will get you into big trouble against savvy Mono-Red opponents. Their focus will shift away from the quick rush and toward bigger cards like Chandra and Glorybringer.
Vraska’s Contempt is the card that most overperforms its power level in today’s Standard. What I mean is, if I showed Vraska’s Contempt to someone who hadn’t played Magic in a few years, they’d probably think it’s okay, but not great. They’d be disappointed in the mana inefficiency as compared with Hero’s Downfall, Maelstrom Pulse, Terror, Swords to Plowshares, and the rest. But the fact is that Vraska’s Contempt is one of the best cards in Standard right now. If you’re playing black, you should play 4, and you should rarely sideboard them out.
Vraska’s Contempt kills all five of your public enemies dead. No questions asked. The life gain is not trivial, and can undo a little bit of the damage done by the haste of Glorybringer, Hazoret, and Chandra. I even find Vraska’s Contempt to be a strong card against a deck like U/B Control because of its applications against The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk.
In fact, I find that a playset of Vraska’s Contempts doesn’t feel like enough. The card is so good that I don’t want to spend it on anything less than the absolute best target. Black decks can consider supplementing with a 1-of Hour of Glory or Battle at the Bridge (both answers to Hazoret), or with Never // Return (a catchall that answers Chandra). Ravenous Chupacabra and Walk the Plank can help against Glorybringer and Phoenix, although you’ll have to accept trading at a bit of a loss.
Blue has a shallow pool of removal, but a couple of options are quite good.
Confiscation Coup and Entrancing Melody are decent options for turning the tables on Hazoret or the Scarab God. They are very good against Rekindling Phoenix since it will be you, not your opponent, that gets the token when the Phoenix dies. (Note that you can’t return the Phoenix from your opponent’s graveyard, but at least it will be dead for good.) The control magics are okay against Glorybringer, although sometimes the damage will be done the first turn that it attacks.
In reality, blue’s best answers to these top-end creatures are Essence Scatter and other permission spells. Rather than let your opponent resolve a giant haste creature and try to answer it at a loss after the fact, you can make sure it never gets to that point.
I still recommend using these tools sparingly, because they require you not to be tapping out yourself. If we’ve identified these 4- and 5-drop threats as some of the best cards in Standard, you should probably be playing with them yourself. If packing your deck full of permission is stopping you from slamming Glorybringers and scoring easy wins, you might be overthinking things.
The stock of white removal is at a high point right now because exiling things is so much better than destroying them. Cast Out is a great card with obvious parallels to Vraska’s Contempt and Commit // Memory. Beyond that, Ixalan’s Binding, Thopter Arrest, and a handful of others can provide a similar effect.
Fumigate is an interesting case. It’s a very powerful card, but falls short against Rekindling Phoenix, Chandra, and Hazoret. I love pairing Fumigate with Authority of the Consuls as a devastating one-two punch against red decks after sideboarding.
Settle the Wreckage is not exactly my kind of card, but I acknowledge that it’s extremely valuable right now. It’s one of the best ways to protect yourself against both haste creatures and against indestructible creatures alike.
White is the color that least fears these top-end threats, which is a huge appeal in my opinion.
Green is the worst color in Standard, in part because of its pitiful inability to fight Hazoret and The Scarab God.
Glorybringer, Rekindling Phoenix, Hazoret the Fervent, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, The Scarab God, and Standard’s other deadly threats—games are won and lost based on which player can stick one of these cards on the battlefield. If you want to make sure that player is you, the first thing to do is include these cards in your deck. The next thing to do, and the thing that can set you apart from everyone else, is to tailor your removal suite to handle these cards as well as possible.