The Final Countdown is upon us. Please feel free to imagine the massive keyboard intro the eighties’ most overblown rock song kicking in as you’re reading this.
Yep, it’s almost here – the MSI World Championships in London, and with it the £10k Epic Quest, the culmination of the first season of Britain’s first real cash tournament circuit, the Dark Challenge. Five days of Magic, with the highlight being a two day Standard tournament with a prize payout comparable to a Grand Prix. Frankly, it’s pretty exciting stuff.
With just one day to go it should really be time for us to be applying the finishing touches to our 75s – but this is one of the most challenging Standard formats to brew for in a very long time. There are a massive range of viable archetypes, from aggro to midrange, pure combo to draw-go control. Tuning a deck is a hell of a lot harder than it was a few months ago when there were pretty much only three seriously competitive decks.
To help out, I’ve decided to run through a handful of the decks people can expect to face, and offer a few hints on how to tune them, as well as hopefully giving those of you who don’t follow the competitive Magic scene too closely an idea of what to expect.
This is the serious bit; you should probably stop blasting out Europe in your head now. Quit fist-pumping and pay attention.
Let’s start at the top. Abzan Midrange took down the Pro Tour in the hands of Ari Lax, and it’s been a staple of top 8s online and in major tournaments since. The appeal of the deck is pretty straightforward – you just play 25 lands and jam all of the most powerful spells in the format.
Here’s Steve Rubin’s recent SCG Standard Open winning deck:
3 Bile Blight
3 Drown in Sorrow
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Liliana Vess
2 Nissa, Worldwaker
1 Murderous Cut
1 Unravel the Aether
This is the deck I’ll be sleeving up at the ExCel Centre on Saturday. Not, to be fair, this exact 75 – I’ll be keeping my tech quiet, thanks very much. The deck gets some pretty unbeatable draws – T2 Sylvan Caryatid, T3 Siege Rhino, T4 Wingmate Roc, T5 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, good game. And when it doesn’t just curve out into the nuts, it gets the best disruption and removal available.
There are only a few slots in the maindeck that I’d consider flexible here. Ari Lax had two Elvish Mystics to provide quicker access to the haymakers, but I’d prefer to use those slots for removal or threats. This deck’s main weakness is the habit of flooding out late game – there are a lot of weak top decks past turn 5 or 6, so if your opponent can trade favourably with you in the early game, you’ll often be stuck drawing air whilst they get ahead.
As a consequence, I think trimming early-game cards such as Elvish Mystic and Thoughtseize is perfectly reasonable. I also like the third Elspeth here – most stock lists run two, but I feel that the more strong mid- to late-game plays you have, the better off you are. The format has relatively few good answers to a topdecked Elspeth, and she can bury a game very quickly if she isn’t dealt with.
For the sideboard, one thing I’ll say I definitely believe to be true is that it’s a huge error to run fewer than three copies of Drown in Sorrow. It’s not great in every match up, but when it’s good, it’s usually the most important card in your deck. When you need it, you really need it.
The rest of the board is pretty flexible – this deck would have no issues filling out a 100 card list, less still 75, so there are few clear-cut right or wrong answers. I like having access to Liliana Vess post-board, as when she’s good, she’s also an extra copy of your other good cards in that match-up thanks to her minus ability. That helps you play more one-ofs in the board, which is handy in such a diverse format.
This seems like a good time to quickly mention both the more aggressive version of Abzan (Demonic Zoo, as it’s sometimes called) and Mardu Midrange. The former basically trades Elspeths and Coursers for Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion. To me it feels like a deck that’s neither fast enough to be a good aggro deck, nor powerful enough to be a good midrange deck. I’m not a massive fan of decks that hedge between two archetypes, and this is no exception.
I do prefer it, however, to Mardu, which plays a largely similar game to its Abzan midrange counterpart, but instead of Coursers and Caryatids, it gets Crackling Dooms and Lightning Strikes. My opinion is that if you’re going to play a midrange-y good stuff deck, at least play the best cards. If you’re not playing Siege Rhino, you aren’t doing that.
The other big deck from the Pro Tour in Honolulu, Jeskai aggro has faded slightly in recent weeks, putting up relatively few big results. For all that, it remains a popular choice and I’d expect plenty of Mantis Riders to be buzzing about in London this weekend. Here’s my favourite version of this deck – Yuuya Watanbe’s top 8 list from the PT:
1 Gods Willing
3 Magma Spray
3 Disdainful Stroke
4 Suspension Field
2 Prognostic Sphinx
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
My main reason for liking this list is the use of Brimaz, King of Oreskos, a card I think should absolutely be played over Goblin Rabblemaster. Rabblemaster is my pick for most overrated card in Standard right now. It dies efficiently to every two-mana kill spell in the format, and with two toughness it fights through almost none of the format’s cheap creatures. On an empty board, it’s great, but then on an empty board practically any threat is good.
By comparison, Brimaz offers much the same potential damage output whilst providing strong defence and far greater resilience. If your opponent is killing your three drop for two mana, then they’ve just gained tempo on you. That happens all the time with Rabblemaster, and never with Brimaz.
Where this deck has been struggling in more general terms is the rough match against both Abzan and the increasingly popular Whip of Erebos decks. Lifegain in significant quantities is tough to fight when your main win conditions are Stoke the Flames and Jeskai Charm. I’d definitely want to maindeck Hushwing Gryff right now. It shuts down Siege Rhino and Whip’s best targets, especially Hornet Queen. There also aren’t that many fliers being played by other decks right now, so it can often get the run of the skies.
A good thing to be aware of if you don’t keep an obsessive eye on tournament results is the increase in popularity of Jeskai control decks. Their early game looks remarkably similar – but a few burn spells doesn’t always mean your opponent is beating down though, as they may well have maindeck Anger of the Gods and/or End Hostilities, so be cautious not to overextend. If they play Rabblemaster, you’re fine. If you see no cheap threats coming out though, be wary.
One more note – whichever version of Jeskai you’re on, play four Dig Through Time. It’s the single best card in any deck that can reasonably play it, and playing fewer is a grievous error in my view. It’s my only major gripe with Watanbe’s list above.
Also in favour online and a top 8 placer at PT Honolulu is blue-black control, which is a pretty straightforward draw-go control deck similar to UW versions we saw last season, but with Dig Through Time and Jace’s Ingenuity replacing the departed Sphinx’s Revelation.
1 Disdainful Stroke
4 Drown in Sorrow
4 Jorubai Murk Lurker
2 Pharika’s Cure
The deck has a great match-up against most midrange decks in the format. Sadly, lacking an efficient sweeper means it can struggle against aggressive decks. Many draws will hinge around Perilous Vault – if you can deal with it or race it, you’ll be in great shape. Otherwise, I don’t feel any deck that cares about having its entire board exiled should sleeve up without answers to Vault, at least in the board.
This isn’t personally a deck I’d love to play next weekend. It has some excellent matches, but several dire ones. The sideboard options are relatively weak and it struggles to come back from behind. It also has a massive problem with Nissa, Worldwaker, as Vault doesn’t kill off animated lands.
Some players, however, just can’t get enough of their blue control decks, so expect Dissolve to be a common sight at the Epic Quest. I can’t blame them, I love countering things as well – and if you must play this deck, then for heaven’s sake play the version with Vault and Pearl Lake Ancient. Prognostic Sphinx is frequently too slow and denying yourself a sweeper to play a 3/5 flyer isn’t a great way to win.
Oh, and don’t bother with Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. Seriously, that card is pretty dreadful. I can never get behind a planeswalker that literally can’t do anything the turn it comes into play.
WHIP OF EREBOS DECKS
A new player on the scene, and designed to be favoured against Abzan and Jeskai decks, Whip decks are a superb call if you’re planning to game the meta rather than play the “best” deck. A lot of decks just can’t deal with Hornet Queen, less still when it keeps coming back for more.
Two versions emerged at GP Santiago recently, a Junk list which took down the whole shebang, and a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant deck piloted by Willy Edel. In the interests of keeping the number of lists in this article down, and for the sake of my fingers typing all this out (seriously, repetitive strain injury isn’t something they warn you about when you start playing Magic), both decklists are available for perusal here.
The downside to these decks is that they take a few turns to set up, and if the Whip gets dealt with or can’t be found, then you’re basically just playing a bad midrange deck. With Sidisi, Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods all available though, finding the key pieces can be done pretty consistently.
If you’re playing one of the decks that suffer against Hornet Queen and a ton of a lifegain, then I’d strongly urge you to play hate cards for the Whip and the queen bee somewhere in your 75. Happily there are great options here – Erase and its ilk are perfect for taking out the Whip itself, and both Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods neatly cope with any number of buzzing 1/1s – especially the latter, as it stops them from coming back from the grave afterwards, and even mops up Sidisi herself.
It’s hard to tell just how many of these decks will be present at the Epic Quest, simply because it’s such a new boy on the tournament circuit. It may transpire that when people are ready for them, the decks get exposed as being not quite good enough, but don’t get caught out come the weekend.
In the spirit of not going over absolutely every deck with a fine toothcomb, I’ll also briefly mention green devotion decks here. They occupy a similar place in the meta, in that they go over the top of the midrange decks very effectively, and naturally have a good match against monored and monoblack aggro decks.
There are two builds to be aware of – green/black, using See the Unwritten to power out multiple Doomwake Giants and Eidolon of Blossoms, and green/red, which has a more straightforward plan of ramping out Polukranos, World Eater or Stormbreath Dragon, usually backed up by Crater’s Claws.
Both of these decks have strong game plans but suffer from being terrible against both Jeskai and Heroic, which for my money makes them a bad call. If you struggle to beat one of the most popular decks or the best budget deck available, it’s a deck I’d be uncomfortable playing in a large tournament. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx may have its time to shine again, but I don’t think it will be this time around.
Speaking of heroic decks – there are two variants doing the rounds right now after recent breakthroughs on the SCG Open circuit over in the States. Ivan Jen won a recent Open with his combo-aggro build:
2 Ajani’s Presence
3 Chasm Skulker
1 Disdainful Stroke
2 Magma Jet
2 Seeker of the Way
This deck is pretty exciting to watch, but feels a little like a glass cannon. With Jeskai Ascendancy out, it can make combat a nightmare, or just go “infinite” with Retraction Helix and Springleaf Drum to deal arbitrarily large amounts of damage. The downside is that without Ascendancy in play, this deck really is an absolute pile of bad cards – and you’re only due to draw it about 50% of the time.
It’s also a hard deck to play – I watched US pro Chris Vanmeter’s attempt on video recently and to be honest, he made a hash of it. Knowing when to go for the combo kill or just to beat down is clearly a tricky skill to learn, which I suspect serves to explain its lack of results since Jen broke through with it. If you haven’t already built the deck and started putting the reps in, I’d steer well clear.
The second build to see some play lately is form player Tom Ross’ more traditional UW version, which uses Heliod’s Pilgrim and Ordeal of Thassa to make a much more consistent deck than the heroic decks we’ve seen before from last year’s Block Constructed. The deck has a great game against most of the green decks in the format, and if it draws enough of its Gods Willing effects, it can power through just about anything.
2 Ajani’s Presence
1 Aqueous Form
1 Heliod’s Pilgrim
2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
1 Ordeal of Heliod
1 Seeker of the Way
3 Stubborn Denial
2 Treasure Cruise
It’s not all that fast though, and when I tested it I felt like it was very dependent on drawing the right ratio of threats to protective spells to aggressive auras, and that balance wasn’t there as often as I wanted. That said, I did win a lot with it. I wouldn’t discount this deck from seeing some real success in the coming weeks and months.
If you do want give it a spin, I’d personally cut Eidolon of Countless Battles, which is only decent if you have a creature-heavy draw and gets wiped out by End Hostilities. I do however like Phalanx Leader to give you some game when you draw too many creatures. Without auras and tricks, the bodies in this deck are very underwhelming, so I like having a way to turn them into serviceable threats when you just aren’t drawing the right cards.
Another “quick mention” bit now – Jeskai Ascendancy combo, using Retraction Helix plus mana dork plus free artifact plus Altar of the Brood or similar (deep breath) is too easily hated out and disrupted for my liking – and just like the Heroic Combo deck mentioned above, it looks rather embarrassing when you don’t find Jeskai Ascendancy itself. It doesn’t even have a respectable plan B. It’s powerful, but I just can’t see it going off often enough over thirteen rounds to take down the £10k.
Are you still here? Seriously, I’m impressed. I’ve been banging on for ages now and still feel like I’ve scarcely scraped the sides of this format. Nearly there though. Thank god, too, ‘cause my fingers have had it.
Popular online due to their cheapness, monored and monoblack aggro decks are actually very viable decks. Like most one drop-filled aggro builds, they’re both fast and fragile. If I was forced to play one, and admittedly it would have to be at gunpoint, I’d prefer monoblack. Here’s a sample winning list from the recent State Championships (albeit please don’t ask me why there are eight fetches in this one. I don’t know. If you’re not playing Murderous Cut, don’t pay life for your swamps):
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Polluted Delta
4 Bloodsoaked Champion
4 Gnarled Scarhide
4 Herald of Torment
4 Mogis’s Marauder
4 Pain Seer
4 Spiteful Returned
4 Tormented Hero
2 Bile Blight
2 Boon of Erebos
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Agent of the Fates
1 Bile Blight
2 Boon of Erebos
2 Dark Betrayal
4 Pharika’s Cure
Using Mogis’s Marauder and Herald of Torment to force through the last chunks of damage, they’re also much more resilient to cheap sweepers due to the bestow creatures. The red decks are faster, with Monastery Swiftspear and Akroan Crusader providing some very rapid starts, but they basically can’t beat Drown in Sorrow, and also tend to mulligan much more. I like the black version’s ability to use bestow guys to make the curve much more flexible.
That said, Red Deck Wins is pretty popular among London players right now, so whilst I don’t expect it to be super-heavily played, it will certainly be a presence. If you have space in your board for some Magma Sprays, I’d advise against leaving them out.
Lastly on the list of aggro decks is Temur Monsters, as popularised by Brian Kibler. I’m not a massive fan of the number of tap lands this deck needs to run to make the mana work, but Savage Knuckleblade and Ashcloud Phoenix are very strong cards, and being able to play a more tempo-oriented game courtesy of Temur Charm and Stubborn Denial gives it a dimension no other deck in the format really has.
I’m also a big fan of the fact that the creature base is very resilient to the format’s favoured removal spells – whenever you’re dodging the best removal in the format, you’re doing something right.
2 Disdainful Stroke
3 Hunt the Hunter
2 Magma Spray
1 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
2 Stormbreath Dragon
3 Stubborn Denial
2 Surrak Dragonclaw
If you’ve made it all the way here, you really are Heroic (har har), and hopefully I’ve given those of you not familiar with the metagame as a whole a leg up ahead of the big event this weekend. I can’t encourage you enough to hop on a train to London for this – not only are big Magic events always great fun, but the EV on the prize structure is pretty staggering. Besides, there’s a plethora of side events going on if things don’t work out for you.
This is the most varied Standard format in a very long time – and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone competing on Saturday is to learn the decks you’re going to face and really put the effort in to tuning your sideboard.
There are far too many decks going around to be competitive in game one against all of them, but anyone who makes the little tweaks to stock lists to give them the edge against the field will put themselves in great shape to give their paycheck a timely pre-Christmas boost.
For all of you playing at the Epic Quest this weekend, best of luck, and I’ll see you across the tables – and I hope this run-through of some of the huge number of viable decks out there has been a help in your preparation. It’s quite the format, and I can’t wait to get down to business.