After this weekend at #GPPitt, I heard some rumblings that this Standard format has already run its course. I took a Twitter poll to see how many people enjoyed this format, and how many disliked it. The results were close, but more people seemed to dislike the format than like it. This doesn't surprise me, because I'm one of the people who fall into the "dislike" category. I have a few reasons why that is the case, and potential solutions to the problems we face while playing it:
1) Being On the Play Matters Too Much
I remember the first format I had the feeling that I had to win the die roll or be at an especially extreme disadvantage—GP Detroit in 2016, during "Eldrazi Winter." It's always been an advantage to be on the play, but I never felt so deflated to lose a die roll or excited to win a die roll as I did during this event. Being able to cast Thought-Knot Seer first was a huge advantage in the Eldrazi Mirrors, and in current Standard, the advantage of being on the play isn't far off.
In my preparation for Pro Tour Aether Revolt with Jeskai Saheeli, I would get so excited when I saw an opening hand of some lands, a Harnessed Lightning, and a Saheeli Rai when I was on the play. Playing Saheeli onto an open battlefield was a huge edge because of how much pressure it puts on the opponent's mana to protect themselves from the combo or risk dying immediately to a Felidar Guardian if they tap out. I would often struggle with this same hand on the draw, because I'd be unable to cast my 3-drop on turn 3 in the face of the amount of power I'd be facing—even with a removal spell.
Vehicles have also made playing first more important. Vehicles are much better on the play, because that gives you time in a race to develop your board and attack first, and you can use a freshly cast creature to crew. These creatures you're tapping to crew a Vehicle obviously won't be blocking, and a lot of Vehicles are extremely large for their mana cost. There's not another 2-drop creature that can block a Heart of Kiran effectively. This allows for few situations where blocking is possible, heavily rewarding those on the play. In older formats, you'd at least be able to play a creature of equal or bigger size than an opponent's and make a profitable block or a trade. When you combine the Vehicle mechanic with cards like Scrapheap Scrounger and Toolcraft Exemplar, it makes blocking extremely difficult, especially in the early game, as Toolcraft Exemplar can only block as a 1/1 and Scrapheap lacks the ability to block altogether. With no blocking, every game usually turns into a race, and the player on the play is usually heavily favored in a race.
Looking at the B/G Constrictor decks, you see a very similar effect. Winding Constrictor makes creatures enormous, and blocking difficult. A curve of Winding Constrictor into Rishkar, Peema Renegade puts 8 power onto the battlefield on turn 3. Winding Constrictor makes cards like Rishkar, Peema Renegade, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, and Verdurous Gearhulk turn every block from an opponent into a chump block.
Large creatures, courtesy of Winding Constrictor and Verdurous Gearhulk, are why we are seeing more of cards like Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Gonti generates value and can block anything because of its deathtouch. Noticing this, some teammates and I played Gnarlwood Dryad this past weekend in our B/G Delirium decks, which allowed us to trade up with giant creatures boosted by Verdurous Gearhulk and Winding Constrictor. Gnarlwood Dryad or Narnam Renegade are under-powered individually, but give you some ability to block in these situations where you're getting run over by larger creatures.
Fatal Push is one of the ways we have to take back the play from an opponent, and during GP Pittsburgh, it almost felt as though solid hands without a Fatal Push were bad to keep on the draw. Obviously you can't always mulligan to a Fatal Push, but keep this in mind when building your deck as a reason to play 4-of this card. I often see lists with 3, and I think it's a huge mistake to not play a full playset with B/G Constrictor as popular as it is right now.
2) Too Many Cards Create a Snowball Effect When You're Ahead
The snowball effect is similar to why being on the play matters so much, but also applies to whenever one of these threats is left unchecked.
This is a small list of the cards that create a snowball effect when they aren't answered immediately:
- Winding Constrictor
- Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
- Longtusk Cub
- Tireless Tracker
- Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- Aetherworks Marvel
- Grim Flayer
All of these cards snowball the advantage for their controller when left unchecked. Every turn these cards are in play creates additional advantage, tightening the stranglehold on the game. Stumble on a land drop? Dead. Miss casting a spell in a turn? Game over.
Tireless Tracker draws you an extra card and grows every turn. Winding Constrictor accelerates the speed at which threats grow. Longtusk Cub gets harder to block and hits harder each and every turn it connects, and is especially disgusting with Winding Constrictor. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner draws an additional card every turn. Aetherworks Marvel digs to high impact spells and casts them for 0 mana, such as Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and if it doesn't find the correct spell, can usually find more energy to spin again. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar creates a token a turn, making it more and more difficult to answer as it stays on the battlefield. Grim Flayer pumps itself while also giving you a "scry 3"-like effect, allowing you to stack your deck for future turns so that you don't fall behind.
These kind of cards further punish players on the draw because they are always forced to react to these extremely powerful threats with answers that line up immediately or simply fold to them. Being on the draw comes with an additional card, but most of these cards create well more than a card worth of advantage when left on the battlefield. What else do all of these cards have in common? They're mostly quite bad when you fall behind early.
With threats like these being so powerful, make sure to have a plan in your sideboard to interact with these kinds of cards, especially when on the draw. This often means sideboarding more removal like Grasp of Darkness or Ruinous Path—the cards you'd normally see in main decks, but now you may want to play even more in your sideboard, so you have answers when you're facing down these game-winning threats. I have been adding extra removal to my sideboard strictly for when I'm on the draw, because it can be too difficult to recover otherwise.
3) Lack of Diversity
"I've played 22 rounds of it (Standard) at premier events, and I've played against B/G or Mardu in 21 of them." -Sam Pardee
Sam makes a great point about how diversity in this format is concerning, and my personal matchup tally doesn't look much different than his. There's a variety of B/G decks, but most of these B/G decks feel the same to play against, and even with. Most of them are built around Winding Constrictor and have a delirium or energy sub-theme. These sub-themes are where the decks look a little different, but most of the games play out similarly.
With such a huge percentage of the field being B/G, shouldn't it be easy to exploit? Just play a deck that's good against B/G, right? Well, B/G Constrictor is a powerful and consistent deck that certainly can have bad matchups. Going back to PT testing, most of the "interesting" decks we built were actually good against B/G. The problem was that they were heavily disadvantaged against Jeskai Saheeli, and a lot of them also weak to Mardu Vehicles. This means you'd have to expect to play against a high percentage of B/G decks to want to play a deck like say, Metalwork Colossus.
Attacking Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor with the same strategy is also rather difficult. The card I lose to most with B/G Constrictor decks is Fumigate, and you'd think a sweeper would be good against Mardu Vehicles since it's an aggro deck. The problem is, it's not. In fact, Mardu Vehicles often sideboards in their own Fumigates to fight B/G Constrictor decks. Mardu has a ton of resilient threats such as Scrapheap Scrounger, Heart of Kiran, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, making it a difficult task to stave off their threats with a creature sweeper.
To address the resiliency of Vehicles and planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I think it would be good if we saw a card similar to Planar Cleansing—a slightly over-costed sweeper that could kill planeswalkers and Vehicles, as well as creatures. This would make it possible to keep up with these kinds of decks with a control deck, and with creaturelands still around, force you to stabilize at a reasonably high life total.
As for the diversity problem, you can exploit this problem if you find a deck good enough against both Mardu and B/G Contrictor that you can risk having fringe bad matchups. I haven't found this deck yet, but a deck like U/R Zombies is close, though I'm still not confident it's good enough in the Mardu Vehicles matchup to shake up the metagame.
4) Saheeli Rai Combo Pushes Midrange out of the Format
This is sort of a Rock, Paper, Scissors format with Mardu Vehicles being slightly disadvantaged against B/G, B/G slightly disadvantaged against Saheeli, and Saheeli being a huge dog to Mardu Vehicles.
I do think Saheeli Rai decks are the worst to play in this 3-deck metagame, but I also think that Saheeli decks are the reason for the lack of diversity and why midrange decks in general are underrepresented.
Let's go back to my Pro Tour Aether Revolt testing house with CFB Ice along with Face to Face. We built a bunch of decks that seemed promising and utilized all the great cards in the format. Many of these decks have been written about by my teammates Paulo and Joel here on ChannelFireball.
The main reason a lot of our brews didn't make it beyond a handful of games was because they played too poorly against Jeskai Saheeli, and any other variant of Saheeli Combo. We tried many of these decks against B/G variants, and the decks were actually favored in that matchup. Decks like Metalwork Colossus, U/R Zombies, and Grixis Control were all posting great numbers in the matchup against B/G decks. Two of these three however, were huge dogs against the Saheeli combo.
At one point, Ivan Floch built a mono-blue Paradoxical Outcome/Whir of Invention deck that won by combo'ing off with Aetherflux Reservoir or by creating a bunch of Thopter tokens with Efficient Construction. The deck seemed like it had potential, but it just lacked any way to beat the combo—so it was quickly dismissed.
A deck like this won't ever see the light of day because it's not strong enough against B/G or Mardu to play in a format where there is a combo deck it will almost never beat. The deck is interesting and powerful, but will get destroyed by a combo deck because it's too linear to have the ability to interact with the combo and still do its thing. Metallic Rebuke wasn't nearly enough to fix that matchup, and that's all you could really afford to play.
Midrange cards like Ajani, Unyielding and Sorin, Grim Nemesis, are all left collecting dust because casting 6-mana sorcery-speed cards that can't interact with the Saheeli Combo is a death sentence against any decks with the combo. For as long as the combo still looms, a bunch of interesting cards will be left on the sidelines.
The Metalwork Colossus decks we had were actually superb, and used a lot of new cards from Aether Revolt to great effect. The major problem was that the deck wasn't good enough against Saheeli Combo, and also had some issues with Mardu Vehicles. I can definitely see playing this deck if the combo weren't around to punish it.
So in my opinion, if Felidar Guardian were banned, we'd see some more decks that were weak to the combo taking its place, making gameplay more interesting, and allowing us to play with more unique cards and strategies. Even if the combo isn't dominating Standard, it's still making the format less interesting by replacing a bunch of other strategies that can't compete with the Saheeli Combo.
I'm not usually the type to complain about the state of a format. Generally, I just want to know what's legal so I can get to work. This time I noticed that the speed and power level of the cards makes the format difficult to get an edge in, but I'm going to keep looking for one and you should too. Let me know what you think about this Standard format in the comments below.