The Standard arms race

0
222

Before jumping into some extreme Standard theory, I want to quickly touch on my experiences at the StarCityGames Invitational last weekend. It might be an 11 hour drive, but road trips with friends are almost always worth it on their own. It’s just such a well-run and high value tournament, despite Roanoke not exactly being a tourist destination, that it’s absolutely worth going to every time. Now, with all that positivity out of the way, I had an absolutely terrible weekend of tournaments. I have this theory where there are two ways to approach Modern. You can either take part in the matchup lottery, where you pick a linear deck, sit down, and flip coins to determine the outcome of a match, somehow dodging disqualification each round, or play the sideboard lottery, hoping that your fair deck packs the appropriate sideboard cards to beat your opponent’s linear deck.

I chose to register Storm, putting all my money on the roulette wheel of the matchup lottery. I’m not convinced that either one of the two lotteries is objectively better in terms of win-rate, but I can say without a doubt that randomly alternating between unwinnable and unloseable rounds is obscenely un-fun and contrary to everything good about Magic. I wish I had learned my lesson beforehand. In my last two rounds of Modern at the Invitational, I played Jeskai, failing to draw Empty the Warrens, and Infect, who killed me on turn 3 both games after Dismembering my mana dork. This dropped me to 4-4, so I registered for the Open. At 5-2, I lost back to back rounds to Jeskai with 12 sideboard cards for me (!!!), then B/W Hatebears, which seemed to be maindecking all the Storm hate available in the format.

I firmly believe that complaining about variance in Magic has no concrete benefit for your own game, but the variance inherent in Modern right now has just reached a tipping point for me. Every round I played was a travesty in one direction or the other, and I sincerely hope that I never convince myself to take part in the matchup lottery again. That said, I’m a fool and will probably register Tron this weekend. I hope that something can be done about this dichotomy. I understand that the format is deeply enjoyable on an FNM level, but I feel like the long-term repercussions of competitive coin flips being pushed onto the major tournament scene are potentially very serious. The linear decks need to either be regulated somehow, or the format’s importance has to be dialled back.

Anyways, on to Standard. I played the same 4c Gonti deck that I won the last Standard Showdown with in both the Invitational, where it brought me a middling 2-2 record, and Sunday’s Classic, where I lost my win and in to notable SCG grinder Zan Syed to finish 14th. In direct contrast to Modern, I learned a ton from each of my losses. Zan buried my Gontis and Siphoners under a mountain of Vizier of Many Faces before cracking a bunch of Treasures, courtesy of a certain Map, to lethal me with a Nissa. I had once again made a classic Standard mistake, misled by my consistently high win-rate online: I was playing last week’s deck. Zan was kind enough to lead me to the Otaku Prince himself, Yuuya Watanabe’s top 8 list from GP Shanghai, sporting all of the available technology to be six steps ahead of the midrange arms race.

Temur Energy – Yuuya Watanabe

Yuuya, and the Japanese in general, have always been pretty excellent at identifying outrageous plans in Standard and implementing them to great success. Taking a look around Hareruya on the Thursday after PT Kyoto, I saw a ton of innovative strategies. They love to brew, and in a way that’s surprisingly coherent. That creativity that’s emblematic of their community was clear in this Yuuya list. It features a full set of Viziers, one of the biggest trumps in the midrange mirrors, and a pair of slow 2-drop sources of non-creature card advantage in the sideboard to slot in after you board out Cubs. Yeah, your singleton Treasure Map might die to Abrade, but that card is weak in post-board Temur mirrors.

The most interesting thing about this list is not only that it beats Glorybringer Temur decks by going significantly over-the-top of their card advantage game while still clogging up the board, but that the full set of Viziers also does a good job ensuring an advantage over the dedicated 4-colour decks. I felt helplessly behind on cards and on board in my post-board games against Zan, and his deck didn’t even have to give up its Red matchup like I did for that advantage. We’ve known that Energy decks are the consensus best deck for a while – thanks to Brad Nelson and co having played them at bac-to-back events—and I think this build has finally solved the current metagame. Things could change, of course. This deck isn’t great against a lot of the fringe strategies from the early weeks of the format, like Tokens or Gift. That said, right now, Approach variants are definitely the third wheel to energy and red decks, and Yuuya’s build is adequately set up to fight control. If you expect more of the rogue decks, then some more cards like Deathgorge Scavenger or River’s Rebuke could make their way into the sideboard.

Standard is, of course, always about staying one step ahead of the competition, so let’s take a look at strategies that get ahead of this ninth hell of a midrange arms race.

First off, of course, we have the fun police in Hazoret, the Fervent and her fiery friends. These iterations of Temur still haven’t cut Longtusk Cub, but some more controlling versions without the bear are popping up online. The moment people decide to play some obscenely over-the-top deck that cuts down on the early game, red becomes immeasurably favoured.

Ramunap Red – Yam Wing Chun

I like building this deck in its most aggressive mode right now, with the full playsets of all of your removal spells and Ahn-Crop Crasher. In a more varied metagame, starting Rampaging Ferocidon and maybe a second Chandra could be better, but when you’re choosing to play an aggressive deck into an oppressive deck, you just have to maximize your aggressive potential, and you do that with the Crasher. Otherwise, there’s not much to say about this deck that hasn’t been said before. It’s not like Hazoret got bad, it’s just that Temur is extremely good.

Sultai Energy – Seth Manfield

With the downtick in Glorybringers in both Red and Temur, Sultai’s stock has risen once more. Its problem has typically been that it’s poor at interacting with the powerful red midrange spells, but it stands to gain a lot from Temur decks continuing to get clunkier. They have access to the same powerful late-game cards like The Scarab God and what not, but also have a much more aggressive start and the mirror-breaking Glint-Sleeve Siphoner.

Sultai Energy – Daniel Diamant

This take on the deck, however, has become very popular online in recent weeks. Cartouche of Ambition is an extremely powerful card, and this build is almost closer to a Pummeler deck in terms of how aggressive its gameplan is. However, it doesn’t rely on a bunch of fragile cards to be able to deliver the killing blow. I also really like the inclusion of Skysovereign in Daniel’s deck – it’s the only 5-drop able to go right above The Scarab God.

Unfortunately I’ll be skipping Grand Prix Oklahoma City this weekend in favour of a bunch of store-level invitationals in Toronto this weekend, including Face to Face Games Toronto’s own Ultimate Showdown! Will I choose to play Standard in the first three rounds? You’ll have to see! Check in early next week for Keith’s coverage of the event, and a photo session of me inevitably holding the trophy.

Discussion