The Rules of Standard
Every Standard deck plays Shriekmaw. They come in different forms, but cards like Reflector Mage and Goblin Dark-Dwellers both serve to add to your board presence while subtracting from the opponent’s. These cards are so good at providing mana and tempo advantage that it’s even dangerous to develop your board with the intent of blocking or preventing your opponents from attacking. The threat of Reflector Mage (and the fact that the decks that play it have access to Collected Company to find it more often) makes it so that you will often be facing double the pressure on the following turn without the ability to replay your creature.
As a result, the best response to a threat from the opponent is to play a removal spell rather than develop your board to avoid that tempo disadvantage. It would seem that a natural response to a Standard format dominated by Reflector Mage would be to play a deck that didn’t rely on creatures. Unfortunately, two decks in Standard—Rally and GR Ramp—are great long-game decks, and you need pressure to beat them.
This puts you in an awkward spot, looking for enough pressure to combat those decks but also enough removal to not have to play into the “Shriekmaw” effects.
In my experience, two of the best cards to play in this type of metagame are Sylvan Advocate and Chandra, Flamecaller. Sylvan Advocate is great because it represents a large board presence in the midgame for a relatively low mana investment. If you are trying to develop your board on turn 5, you can play Sylvan Advocate alongside another spell, and if it gets bounced by Reflector Mage, it comes down a couple turns later as a 4/5 creature at a substantial discount.
On the other hand, Chandra is able to stabilize a cluttered board, and also threatens to close out the game quickly. A typical game plan against Rally the Ancestors in game 1 is to sweep up their board and hope to close out the game before the namesake card appears. Hopefully, a Duress or Transgress the Mind shows up to delay the inevitable a little longer.
With these rules in mind, I played the following deck to 11-2 over the course of the Regional PTQ weekend two weeks ago. I really wish I’d trusted my gut and played this deck at Grand Prix Houston but, like many others, I fell into the Hardened Scales trap.
Sylvan Advocate Control
In many ways, this deck is similar to the popular Mardu Green decks, but I found that Soulfire Grand Master wasn’t an effective main-deck card and that Abzan Charm is both a bad card and difficult on the mana base.
This deck hinges on making land drops with both Sylvan Advocate and Chandra requiring you to hit your sixth land drop on curve. The deck plays 27 lands and uses Read the Bones and Painful Truths to help make land drops and prevent mana flood.
I originally tried to build the deck with even less white, but Siege Rhino proved to be an important source of life gain in addition to a great threat against Bant Company, Ramp, and Rally.
Siege Rhino is a liability against Reflector Mage, but I believe that you have to play some creature threats in Standard, and the Rhino does a good job of closing the game out when left unchecked. Crackling Doom and Rhino also provide incidental damage that make a game easier to close for creature lands and Chandra.
Chandra is without a doubt one of the most powerful effects in Standard—this is the best Chandra deck. All of the creatures live through her -X and the deck has enough lands to reliably cast her on turn 6.
One of the best plans I’ve found against Rally is to use sweepers in combination with either counterspells or Hallowed Moonlight to prevent Rally and Collected Company. 1-for-1 removal is generally ineffective aside from killing Jace. I like Sylvan Advocate as a cheap threat that lets you hold up mana for Hallowed Moonlight—by the same token, Goblin Dark-Dwellers isn’t very good.
Bant Company plays in this matchup like a Rally deck that can’t punish you for killing their creatures. As long as you keep the board clear and make Krasis/Reflector Mage ineffective tempo plays, it is very easy to win.
Rakshasa’s Secret is one of the best cards against Ramp in all of Standard. Your opponent needs a critical mass of resources to win, and anything you can do to disrupt that flow of resources slows the game down and gives you time to put pressure on them. You can usually beat the first threat, and cards like Transgress and Secret make it less likely that the second one will ever happen.