It has been a little longer than I would have liked since I last sat down to write about Magic. This is partly due to the release of Diablo 3, which, admittedly, has been taking up a good portion of my free time. Aside from Diablo 3 keeping me preoccupied, the standard format has become stale to me and my interest in it has been waning over the last few weeks.
I know many of you are reading this and thinking, “What is he talking about? The environment is so diverse right now. There are so many viable decks out there.”
There are a few reasons for my change of heart, and I would like to take some time in this article to discuss my feelings about the format and what I would like to see change with the release of the new block later this year. In addition, I will provide an update to my Solar Flare list from the last article, as well as some performance data, in case any of you are still considering trying it out and want to know how it stacks up in the format.
The first issue I have with the current standard format are the increasing limitations being put on deck building and archetype selection. Maybe we had it a little too good last season in Zendikar/Scars standard, but this season’s land selection has been very stifling for many deck builders who enjoy playing three, four or five color decks. I realize there are three and four color lists that have done “well” in this season’s format, but none of them have been able to really escape the problems of a stretched mana base. Sometimes I enjoy playing a mono or two-color deck, but I do not want to be limited to just mono or two-color lists. Additionally, I do not enjoy feeling as if I am at an inherent disadvantage if I decide to play a three-color deck instead, just because I am running at a higher risk of having bad luck and getting mana screwed off my draws.
Evolving Wilds out of Dark Ascension was nice, but I would have really liked to see some additional color-fixing land options come out of Avacyn Restored as well. I am hoping the Return to Ravnica will see a reprint of the shock land cycle and help alleviate some of these mana problems. It will not fix them all however, because remember we will be losing the Scars lands, so we will have some ground to make up there as well. Would it be too ambitious to hope for a reprint of the Onslaught fetches as well? Yeah, it probably would be.
The other limitations in the current standard format come in the form of archetype selection. Right now, there just is not a variety of valid, competitive archetypes to choose from. Aggressive creature decks are currently dominating the format. Whether it be R/G aggro, U/W delver, U/R delver, R/W humans, U/W humans, U/B Zombies, B/R Zombies, Naya aggro/pod etc. These decks all play the same aggressive, creature-based game. Counter-based control decks like U/B control, U/W control, Esper and Grixis are nearly non-existent at the top tables now due to the printing of Cavern of Souls. This land has successfully pushed these control archetypes out of the format by allowing wolf run ramp to play its game without having to worry about counter-magic, which was the deck’s biggest weakness prior to Avacyn Restored.
Cavern has not really done much to hurt delver lists though, which according to WotC, was the intention of Cavern’s printing, because delver can still play its tempo game even with Cavern on-board. Sure, the delver player cannot counter the titans, but they can still counter the ramp and then bounce the titan. An unanswered turn one delver, turn two flip, followed by a leak for ramp/removal and a couple of vapor snags will still be enough to dispatch most ramp players.
As the format currently stands, your options for competitive standard decks include aggressive creature-based decks and wolf run ramp. Sure, the aggro archetype has quite a few shells within it, but regardless of which shell you play, they all play out in similar fashion. Just look at the latest SCG Orlando top 16 deck lists; 4 Wolf Run Ramp decks, 1 Control deck (Esper), and 10 aggressive creature decks of various types (R/G, Humans, Delver, Naya, Architect). Again, I am really hoping that Ravnica will bring with it a resurgence of archetype variance in the format, because I do not think I could play another entire year of aggro vs aggro matches.
Linear Lines of Play
The other big issue I have with the current standard format is that the lines of play available in a given game tend to be linear and non-dynamic. There are not a lot of decision points in many games. Each player is simply trying to play their own game faster than their opponent does. Creature decks do not have many tricks in this format. They are simply running out their threats and turning them sideways in an attempt to lower their opponents life total to 0 as fast as possible. The only real decision most aggro players have to make is “do I play around wrath or not?” The Wolf Run player’s line-of-play has become even more straightforward with the printing of Cavern of Souls. Now, most Wolf Run players do not even have to worry about playing around counter-magic due to the new land. They can simply ramp, ramp, ramp and then slam titan after titan without utilizing any amount of mental energy.
In addition to the lack of decision points in a game, a player generally does not have to switch gears in a game either. Most decks in the current standard format are built around a single path to victory. Aggressive decks win by playing creatures and turning them sideways. If their plan is interrupted, their chance of winning almost completely diminishes to zero. They do not have a back-up plan to fall back on. Wolf Run players have a slightly better scenario in this regard. If their titans cannot win the game for them, they can always fall back on the Inkmoth Nexus infect route to achieve victory, and some of the ramp decks are packing powerful, game-ending planeswalkers such as Karn. So, in that regard, the Wolf Run player at least has some diversity in their path to victory; however, that diversity is partly determined by their ability to top-deck the one-of Karn in their deck during a game. Again, I am hoping that Ravnica will help alleviate these burdens and open the format up to more dynamic lines of play that offer multiple critical decision points in a game and ways to incorporate multiple paths to victory in multiple decks and archetypes.
Exploring Other Formats
With the help of some friends, I was able to trade/liquidate most of my standard collection and invested it into legacy. Prior to this, I had limited exposure to the format. I previously played Dredge in legacy as it was a fairly inexpensive deck to build that allowed me to at least participate in legacy events. Dredge was fun and challenging to play in the beginning, but quickly started to become stale to play. Most games I played were decided in the first two to three turns of the game. There were a few games that really put my mind to the test, but more often than not, by turn two or three I either had won the game or knew that I was going to lose. Because of this, I decided that I wanted to build a more interactive deck that provided more lines of play, more roads to victory and would allow me to play games that were not decided so quickly.
I spent a couple weeks reading articles and forums, and watching videos on SCG, YouTube and other media outlets in order to find a list that really appealed to my taste. After all, if I was going to be serious and liquidate most of my collection to build a single deck, I wanted to make sure it would be something that would be both fun to play and competitive. Eventually I settled on Aggro-Loam as the deck of choice. I came to this conclusion because the deck seemed extremely challenging, yet rewarding, to play. The deck also came in at a decent budget, with the winning list from the SCG Providence legacy event coming in at just over $1,200. Additionally, Aggro-Loam has the benefit of also being able to be played in modern with a few minor modifications. This will allow me the opportunity to really learn and master the deck in legacy and then apply that knowledge and expertise to modern as well.
It took about three weeks of selling/trading most of my standard collection in order to fully assemble the deck. During that time, I was testing the list using proxies with some friends at my LGS. The deck was such a blast to learn and play. Every game came with varying decisions, lines of play and critical thinking points. Each matchup played very differently from the one before it. It seemed like each time I shuffled up, I would discover a new line of play that I was not previously aware existed. Additionally, just being able to play with powerful cards such as Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Mox Diamond has been incredibly fun itself.
After a couple weeks of testing legacy, the standard woes mentioned above seemed to become even more apparent in my mind. I finally realized why so many of the pros and legacy enthusiasts have spoken so highly about the format: It is a BLAST to play! It almost felt like a different game completely. I distinctly remember playing a practice match against a friend of mine who was playing Maverick. The games were very back-and-forth, each of us constantly either presenting a powerful threat, having to answer an opposing threat, or face defeat. The interactions and lines available to each of us were much more complex than anything I had ever experienced previously in Magic. I actually found myself having to think, and as a result could feel myself improving as a player. After the match ended, I thought to myself “Now THIS is Magic!” From that point on, I was hooked, and the idea of playing standard just seemed very mundane to me.
An Update to Solar Flare
Before I end the article, I wanted to share my latest thoughts on Solar Flare in standard. I had the opportunity to take the deck to an SCG Super IQ and a couple of FNMs since the last article was written/published. My IQ performance was not the greatest. I ended up with a mediocre record of 2-2-1. I beat humans and tempered steel, drew against the mirror and lost to U/R delver and Grixis control featuring Tamiyo. I felt like my play throughout the tournament was fine, and I felt like my deck performed consistently throughout the day. The matches I lost, my opponents either just played better, or drew better, than I did.
In the U/R delver match, I lost both of my games at the hands of Zealous Conscripts. All three games were very close and we were both playing very tight. In the end, conscripts were able to trump my defenses and allowed my opponent to steal games 1 and 3 away from me. In the Grixis match, I lost the first game by decking myself. My opponent only had three cards left in his library at the end of the game, and it was actually a recurring Black Sun’s Zenith that allowed him to not deck himself before me. In game 2, my opponent was able to resolve Tamiyo on turn 4 and keep my Gideon Jura tapped down. I then proceeded to top deck lands for the next 5 turns while he ticked Tamiyo up and used her ultimate. At that point, I was dead to never-ending Dissipates and Thought Scours turned Ancestral Recalls.
After the IQ, I made a few tweaks to the list and have played it to a few top 8s/4s in recent FNMs. I feel the deck is still solid and is able to compete with the rest of the field just as well as any other deck. My delver matchup is solid and I seem to win against them more than I lose. Although, I will say that I do think I am stronger vs U/W delver than I am U/R delver. I do not have much experience, outside of playtest matches, against wolf run, but from what I have seen, I feel about 50/50 – 55/45 against them as well. As for aggro strategies, I feel like I am a definite favorite against them, probably in the 60/40 range. My worst match is definitely permission-control (U/W, U/B or Grixis). Esper is a grindy game, but one that I feel is mostly winnable. In order to strengthen my tougher matches vs permission, I decided to slightly tweak the main and sideboard to give me more options to combat them. Here is where the list sits today:Creatures 8 1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Phantasmal Image
3 Sun Titan
Planeswalkers 22 Gideon Jura Spells 23 1 Batterskull
3 Day of Judgment
2 Dead Weight
4 Forbidden Alchemy
4 Lingering Souls
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Ratchet Bomb 1 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Unburial Rites Lands 26 1 Darkslick Shores
2 Evolving Wilds
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Seachrome Coast
3 Swamp 2 Cavern of Souls
Sideboard 2 Celestial Purge
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Karn Liberated
2 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Ratchet Bomb
3 Timely Reinforcements
1 Consecrated Sphinx 2 Ghost Quarter
I am still going to be working with this list in standard and will be playing something like this for the foreseeable remaining future of the current standard format. It is a fun deck to play, and I feel it is still a competitive deck in the format. This brings me to my final comment about standard: Play what is fun to you. The format is fairly open in the sense that there are a variety of decks that can all perform well in this environment. Even though you may not have a variety of archetypes or mana bases to choose from, you do have the ability to competitively and successfully play a large number of various cards, which is a good thing. It definitely would be a lot worse if delver had become this year’s Caw-Blade and truly dominated the format. Fortunately, that did not happen, so find a deck that you enjoy and stick to it, make it the best you possibly can and have fun with the game. Hopefully, Ravnica will open up the number of possibilities even more and the format will continue to grow in its diversity. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy planeswalking!