Five Questions for the New Standard

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In case you hadn't heard yet, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic are both banned in standard, effective on the first of July.

If you hadn't heard, I would like to welcome you back to the world from your outerspace voyage, deep sea exploration, coma, or other state of being that resulted in you not hearing the news before now, and thank you for reading my article before any others.

In my article last week I walked through a number of possible decks that could rise to fill the void left by CawBlade if either Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Stoneforge Mystic was banned, but it didn't even occur to me that banning both was a possibility.  I considered Wizards would surgically cut away one piece or the other, and instead they dropped a nuke.

After brainstorming a few ideas and talking about the new standard format for a bit, I was all set to start decktesting and get down to some good old-fashioned brewing when it was pointed out to me that M12 would be legal in less than a month.  The prereleases are less than two weeks away, the Ninth, which makes spending any significant amount of time on the format as it currently exists an exercise in futility.  While some spoilers for M12 exist there are still many blank spaces left to fill in, and there's enough to render entire archetypes unplayable or push fringe strategies to the forefront.  Imagine working on perfecting a MonoRed list, only to see Circle of Protection: Red was being reprinted, or perfecting a new blue-based control deck just in time to see Red Elemental Blast was back.

With CawBlade in its recent incarnations gone the metagame is seemingly wide open.  Any number of archetypes can claim to be the new top dog, and the viability of many cards goes up without the fear of a Jace making them irrelevant or a turn three Batterskull attacking too quickly for them to come online.  Until some tournament results come in to fill in the gaps any talk about the new metagame will be little more than an educated guess, but we can still know questions need to be answered.

1) What happened to blue's stock?

It would be easy to say that Blue lost most of the reason to play it after Jace's banning - after all, how many blue decks have made the top eight of a tournament recently that didn't have four copies?  Jace was one of the best reason to put blue mana in your deck and has been for quite a while, and decks frequently played blue for fewer than ten cards other than Jace.  With him gone, the question arises whether there is any reason to play Islands at all.

While many players are going to assume the answer is no, I look forward to playing blue in the new metagame (maybe I just like going against the grain).  Blue has been in the limelight for some time, so much so that everyone knew it was the best.  People that had never played blue before were playing with Jace in addition to the old school blue mages.  Now that he is gone and a legitimate case can be made for another color being the best some of the imposters, groupies, hangers-on, and barns will leave blue alone and allow the real Blue Mages to show their colors, like the true fans of a winning sports team being lost in the crowd and then re-emerging after time passes after their team wins a championship.

Consecrated Sphinx is one of the cards that gained the most from the departure of Jace due to the oppressive effect of his -1 Unsummon on large creatures.  Mana Leak and Preordain are still around, and Jace Beleren is too.  Blue Sun's Zenith can put a game away, Sea Gate Oracle does a passable Preordain impression and can block Goblin Guides all day, Venser, the Sojourner provides a win condition while also allowing card draw or selection when combined with Wall of Omens or Sea Gate Oracle, and Sphinx of Jwar Isle (aka Jwar Jwar Sphinx) is still a problem for many decks.  With all this still around I find it hard to believe Blue will vanish from the metagame.

If anything, I would expect to see more blue decks, just with more variety between them.  The loss of Stoneforge Mystic from the metagame will help blue decks more than losing Jace hurt them and will possibly allow a return to blue-centered "true" control decks of the kind we haven't seen since PT: Paris.

One of the possible blue decks for the foreseeable future is Venser-centric:

[deckbox did="a89" size="small" width="567"]

This was the list I won The 2010s with last year, and I would love to blow the dust off.  While clearly many of the numbers would need to be changed for the current metagame, the core provides a good place to start.

With Wall of Omens and Sea Gate Oracles aplenty, this list is better prepared for aggressive decks like Boros, Goblins, Vampires, or a creature-heavy RDW than most UW decks, and  Venser, the Sojourner is one of the best planeswalkers for fighting against control decks.

One possible strike against this style of deck, however, is Consecrated Sphinx.  Venser lets you draw approximately one bajillion cards, but he makes you work for it.  Your deck has to be built around abusing his abilities and requires you to play a number of tier two or three cards, much like Tezzeret, Agent of BolasConsecrated Sphinx's also lets you draw approximately a bajillion cards, but its only price is blue mana in your deck and surviving through the opponent's upkeep step.  As a flier it is also unblockable to a Venser deck's blockers.  If the format shakes out such that the Sphinx can live a reasonable percentage of the time it may single-handedly invalidate Venser-based decks.

Another possible direction for blue deck to go in the coming weeks is more of a traditional, land-go, grind-'em-out style of control that hasn't been seen in standard for some time.

[deckbox did="a90" size="small" width="567"]

This was Guillaume Matignon's winning list from Worlds last year.  Without Jace this list would be sorely lacking in the card-draw department, but there are fixes available.

Here is the UB list I have been working on recently:

[deckbox did="a91" size="small" width="567"]

This kind of deck is well equipped for fighting against any deck that isn't trying to kill you before turn four.  With targeted discard and a plethora of must-counter threats, as well as its own counterspells, it should have the upper hand against any other control deck while the removal and large threats can lock out any midrange strategies and protect against the Deceiver Exarch-Splinter Twin combo if that remains viable.

That said, it is very vulnerable to decks like Kuldotha Red or a quick draw from Vampires or Boros, and a burn-heavy build of MonoRed would be near-unbeatable.  This kind of deck simply can't kill the opponent quickly enough to race a hand full of Lightning Bolts and Staggershocks, and there aren't enough hard counterspells to fight that kind of fight.

If the format slows down as a result of Stoneforge leaving this would be a good place to start work on a new deck, but if MonoRed and friends take over the format UB would need a significant overhaul to hope to remain viable.

2) Is Valakut tier one again?

Valakut was the Big Bad Wolf going into PT: Paris, where CawBlade was unleashed.  More players were playing Valakut that anything else and everyone needed a plan against it to be competitive.  When Stoneforge Mystic let control players put Valakut on a significant clock without tapping out in the late game for a Gideon Jura or Titan of some kind, everything changed.  Valakut could no longer wait out the control decks and land a game ending Primeval Titan.  Valakut also got a few new toys to play with from NPH, most notably Phyrexian Metamorph and Noxious Revival.  Both of these allow Valakut to effectively up its Titan count without upping the manacurve.  An early Revival could rebuy a Cultivate or other ramp spell while also threatening to turn into a Titan in the later stage of the game, while the Metamorph could serve as a Flashfreeze-immune Titan, provided one had already resolved.  Even if the board was empty it could make the opponent think twice about playing their Consecrated Sphinx or other threat.

Rampant Growth is also in M12, giving Valakut another ramp spell to choose from.

With a number of upgrades available and its primary predator banhammered out of existence, Valakut could be poised to make a comeback.

Here's the thing though: people hate losing to Valakut.  Whether right or wrong, it has a reputation of being a deck that plays itself and requires little skill to pilot, and its games are frequently non-interactive.

If Valakut does prove to be tier one again, people will be quick to dust off their Flashfreezees, Spreading Seas, Memoricides, or other hate cards.

Between Vampires' ability to play Doom Blade and/or Go for the Throat and the new Shrine of Burning Rage Valakut could have a hard time racing the new breed of aggro decks, even with Rampant Growth speeding it up a bit, and it is more vulnerable to hate than many decks.  These could easily keep it from tier one status.

3) Is Mono Red the premier aggressive strategy?

Grim Lavamancer is being reprinted in M12.  So is Goblin GrenadeIncinerate and Shock, too.

Mono Red had seen an uptick in popularity recently, mostly due to Patrick Sullivan, and with a number of excellent new burn spells coming in just a few weeks Mono Red appears to gain more from M12 than any other currently existing aggressive deck.  Of course Vampires or Boros could play the same burn spells, but they already have access to many good burn spells, and don't want as many as a deck like Mono Red does because then they don't have enough room for creatures.

The traditional argument for playing a deck like Vampires or Boros instead of Mono Red, ignoring metagame considerations, has been that their creatures are basically repeatable burn spells.  A Pulse Tracker "Shocks" the opponent every turn that it is alive, allowing a deck with creatures to go the distance even if it starts drawing land after land off the top.  Burn heavy decks are more prone to running out of gas than decks that are a mix of creatures and burn, and every turn they draw a land instead of a spell after spending their hand is much more painful to them than to a deck that has a creature or two in play to continue the assault.

Now that Mono Red has Grim Lavamancer to complement Shrine of Burning Rage, it can avoid running out of gas much more easily.  Even if it draws blank after blank Mono Red will still be threatening a minimum of one more damage per turn from the Shrine, and an active Lavamancer can threaten an additional two damage per turn.

With more new tools from M12 than any other aggressive strategy and multiple ways to avoid stalling out, Mono Red could become the best aggressive deck if it can find a good answers to both Kor Firewalker and Leyline of Sanctity.

4) Is UR Twin still a deck?

The UR [card Deceiver Exarch]Exarch[/card]-[card Splinter Twin]Twin[/card] deck had been doing well before the banning, mostly held in check by Dismember from the CawBlade decks.  The good news is that now that Stoneforge Mystic is gone from the format maindecking three Dismembers is going to be a lot less appealing, which means anyone looking to beat UR Twin is going to have to play more mana intensive answers.  As being more mana efficient than the other guy was UR Twin's specialty, this is going to help out significantly.

The bad news: Jace got banned too.  Maybe you heard.

Without Jace UR Twin is going to have to find another way to dig for the combo or answers.  It can still get lucky and end the game on turn four if an opponent is not prepared, but it will have a much harder time answering Phyrexian Revoker, Spellskite, Torpor Orb, or any other problem permanents, or any instant speed disruption.

Shrine of Piercing Vision is an option that hasn't been explored yet that could let UR Twin find its combo pieces or any needed answer, but it is slow and easily disrupted.  See Beyond can cycle away excess land and fits well on the mana curve, and Gitaxian Probe can provide some helpful information while digging a little deeper, but nothing does a good job of taking Jace's place as a repeatable source of card advantage.

My guess is that if UR Twin remains a deck after the loss of Jace it will look more like a UR Control deck that has a combo finish than like a combo deck.

[deckbox did="a92" size="small" width="567"]

While this still has the capability to "oops I win" on turn four, it can also easily play a long game and win without relying on the combo.  Having access to targeted removal from burn spells and cheaper board sweepers than UW's Day of Judgment is a plus, but it would still be left hurting if matched against a burn heavy MonoRed list.  Valakut could also be quite a rough matchup if the combo didn't present itself quickly or if Valakut had an answer.

Combining Deceiver Exarch with Splinter Twin is still one of the most powerful plays available in standard and I'm sure attempts will be made to mold them into a new deck.  Without Jace, however, its going to be an uphill battle to assemble the combo, and later to find answers to any meaningful opposition.

5) Are Swords still worth playing?

The Sword cycle has some of the most powerful equipment ever printed.  They can allow an aggressive deck to present a [card Day of Judgment]Day[/card]-or-lose board state without needing to dump their entire hand, letting them to last later in the game than otherwise possible and generate some card advantage.  They can also let control decks attack for significantly more damage with their creature-lands, letting them save slots on actual kill conditions (Creeping Tar Pit with Sword of Feast and Famine is still good, it turns out).

Stoneforge Mystic was good not just because it could save a mana on the Swords and get around countermagic, but because it could tutor for them.  This allowed decks to play one Sword of Feast and Famine and one Sword of War and Peace, and perhaps even one Sword of Body and Mind and always have the perfect one for the moment.

Without the ability to tutor decks that want to play Swords are going to have to play fair--they won't get to play only one of each Sword and still have it at the right time, and they won't be able to put it into play at the end of an opponent's turn without fear of countermagic.  They are still extremely effective and could catch opponents off guard if they are too quick to remove their Divine Offerings or other answers from their sideboards, but without being to cheat them in they get significantly less appealing.

The first problem is the question of how many swords to play.  The problem here is that the Swords have significant diminishing returns--the second Sword is less than twice as good as the first Sword, and I don't want to think about drawing three.  If you draw one Sword, suddenly all your small dorks that a control deck could previously ignore suddenly demand an answer or they can run away with the game.  In an aggressive matchup the first sword (hopefully) lets you make a creature unblockable, bash and collect your $200, then move the Sword to a blocker for defense.  The second Sword...makes your dorks even more answer-or-lose, and it lets you beat an aggressive mirror even harder.  It is not exactly stellar.  There are of course corner cases where a second Sword is exactly what the doctor ordered but in general it is not what you are hoping to draw.

The more Swords a deck has the higher the chances of drawing one, but also the higher the chances of drawing a useless second or third copy.  Without a reasonable chance of drawing a Sword in the early game it becomes foolish to build your deck around them, but finding the line where a deck draws enough but not too many will be quite a challenge.

Hopefully next week will see enough of M12 spoiled it will make sense to start seriously brewing instead of making broad guesses.  If not, please let me know in the comments if you would prefer some Legacy talk or a partial review of the set as it stands, or about any other topic that you would like to read.

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@BGardnerDurbin on Twitter

4 thoughts on “Five Questions for the New Standard

  1. I don’t get the whole “with no Stoneforge nobody will play swords” talk. SoFI saw play in a truly absurd format (though part of that was due to Troll Ascetic), and Sword of War and Peace is similarly insane in an aggro deck.

    1. I agree the swords are powerful, I’m just not sure that they fit in any of the currently existing decks. Boros is the deck most likely to play any, but they don’t do well in RDW or Vampires. The problem of which one to play is also significant, as there are Titans of all colors running around right now which makes having a Sword that makes its wearer Unblockable unlikely.

  2. The biggest problem for blue is a new mill based jace for 5 mana isn’t as useful as 1.0 in those builds. He kinda makes the curve a problem more than anything.

    1. Agree, I plan on sticking with Jace B for the moment. Not sure what will happen when Innistrad comes in and pushes him out of the format, other than me being sad. 🙁

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