Standard hit by the banhammer once again

What just happened?! I know Standard had been a pretty binary format for a while but 4 cards seems like an overreaction. Until you start going into the details that is. Wizards provided a lot of context for their decision in the announcement, including a lot of matchup data for both Energy decks and Mono Red. In that data you can see that Energy (both Temur and Temur Black) is the classic “Jund” deck in terms of matchups; they all hover around 50% and it almost always improves after sideboarding. This is just how midrange decks play out almost by definition and that alone isn’t enough for me to advocate a ban. But then consider that this is with everyone who doesn’t play Energy trying to beat it. It is problematic that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get a considerable edge.

If you take the BG Midrange decks in Modern, many of their matchups are close to even but it can’t take over the metagame because a few decks like Tron and Scapeshift could then rise and prey on it. In Standard, the counter strategies available like the UW Control decks hold a massive advantage in game 1 but they are so inconsistent or low power that the Energy decks could sideboard their way to a reasonable matchup.

I personally enjoyed having Energy decks in the format because the games were often very deep and interesting, but I agree that it would get to monotonous to keep having it around with Rivals of Ixalan looking like it wouldn’t be able to change much.

Then we have the takedown of the Mono Red deck. This one I unequivocally agree with, for a couple of reasons. First, I hate Mono Red. It’s a deck that just plays the hardest hitting cheap haste creatures it can find along with whatever burn is available and just hopes the opponent misses a spot on their curve and/or doesn’t have any lifegain. It leads to boring games where the opponent just has to try and take as little damage as possible and hope they can stabilise out of burn range. When you play against Mono Red you rarely have to think more than a turn ahead and most decisions are quite obvious. When I lose a game, I can often find a decision that I could have made differently to give me a chance of winning. This basically never happens against Mono Red.

Second, Mono Red destroyed the metagame outside of Energy. Some decks rose up to beat Energy, like UW Approach and UW Cycling and not only were they not as good at that as intended, they got crushed by Mono Red to the tune of around 70% of matches. The Mono Red deck boasts both blistering speed and incredible resiliency. You couldn’t just fill your deck with life gain because you would just lose the long game. Red aggressive decks still look quite viable but the power level seems more reasonable.

Now for the individual cards removed from the format. Let’s start with the two energy cards banned; Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner. I agree that these are the core of the Energy decks’ power; they are both reasonable without the energy so it becomes very close to a free addition.

Banning Attune only would definitely kill off the black versions of Temur Energy but straight Temur would still be viable albeit weakened. Banning Rogue Refiner only would hamper the decks consistency a lot and it would need to be replaced by less generic 3 drops like Deathgorge Scavenger. This would also allow the deck to stay but would take most matchups down a notch. I think banning either one would have been interesting but with the risk of leaving it atop the metagame still, I understand the “safe” choice of taking out both.

Then we have Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon. Ruins was from the beginning touted as a game changer because it provided reach to aggressive decks at basically no cost. The Mono Red plan is to get in damage early with creatures and then finish the opponent of with burn once their better creatures have gained control of the combat phase. The creatures can deal more damage because they can do it every turn, but they are easier to stop. You want creatures in your opening hand and draw burn later. Ruins meant burn in lands so you could play more creatures and thus have more creatures in your opener while still giving you burn for the late game when you need it. Land also meant it didn’t get stopped by Negate so the damage was all but guaranteed. Without it, Mono Red goes back to the “traditional” way of needing to draw creatures and burn spells in the correct order, making it more manageable.

Lastly and to many, most confusingly, is Rampaging Ferocidon. I think it makes perfect sense actually. I don’t think ferocidon was a ban worthy problem in the pre ban format. But consider that now we are getting the second set of a tribal block, and a lot of players will be looking to play their favourite tribe in Standard. Then imagine playing your Vampire deck and making a gazillion 1/1 lifelink tokens and thus stopping any hope the Mono Red opponent had of getting your life total to 0, except they have a 3/3 that not only prevents you from gaining life, it kills you for making all those tokens. Beyond just the Vampire deck, a normal plan against Mono Red is to gum up the board and gain some life. The dino stopped both those plans. It is still just a creature that can be killed by removal without having any effect on the game, but tribal decks, almost by definition, are light on removal and would be very vulnerable to it.

In conclusion, I think the bans are reasonable and more importantly the reasoning laid out by Wizards seems sound and thorough. On the other hand, it is very disconcerting that we continue to need bans in Standard, which already has a yearly rotation to keep players’ wallets under pressure and I’m afraid Standard support will keep dwindling for a long time before confidence in Wizards is restored. Finally, on a positive note, Standard now looks fresh and exciting and I look forward to exploring it (get it?).

I was getting worried that I would have to do a Vintage article but it looks like that can wait until I actually get an idea of what I’m talking about (don’t hold your breath).

Let me know in the comments or on social media what you think of the changes if you haven’t already.

How to beat Ramunap Red (… and zombies)

This weekend, the Pro Tour finally happened and Standard is alive again. The top 8 contained 6 Ramunap red decks, and red was the talk of the weekend.

It’s a very powerful deck with some very fast draws and at the same time a lot of staying power between Hazoret, the Fervent and Ramunap Ruins. If you think you can just play a truckload of cheap/mass removal and be safe, you have another thing coming. So is this the new caw blade? First of all, we need to look deeper than just the decks in the top 8.

This has always been overvalued, because remember the Swiss includes 6 rounds of draft. We also have to keep in mind that basically all the top pros/teams brought Bomat Courier and friends to the table and it was almost 25% of the starting metagame so you should expect to see some copies doing well.

I prefer to look at the decklists published on the coverage page sorted by standard record. That reveals the following: 1 Ramunap Red went 10-0. 2 Zombies and 1 Ramunap Red went 9-1. 1 Ramunap Red and 1 BG Constrictor went 8-1-1. At 8-2 were 6 Ramunap Red, 2 BG Constrictor, 2 Zombies, 1 Four Color Vehicles and 1 Temur Energy. Going down 7-3 there were 12 Ramunap Red, 13 Zombies and 7 BG Constrictor with a few copies of assorted other decks.

Any of these could have been in the top 8 depending on their limited records. Considering that there were more than twice as many red decks as zombies and almost three times as many red decks as constrictor, you could argue that Ramunap Red actually did worse than the other two. Additionally, there was a Standard PTQ on MTGO on Saturday with a top 8 of 3 Zombies, 2 Constrictor, 2 RG Ramp and zero(!) Ramunap Red decks. What I take from all of this is that Ramunap Red is very beatable.

It will continue to show up in the coming tournaments because a lot of people will just copy a list from the pt top 8, especially the winning one, but the decks you should really Metagame against right now are zombies and BG Constrictor. Luckily, all three decks have a comparable game plan: cheap aggressive creatures backed up by resilient, hard-hitting top end threats. First of all we need cheap removal; these decks hit the board early and hard and if you take too much damage from their cheap creatures, you will be hard pressed to keep up answers to their late game.

Second, you need a way to take over the game, once you’ve dealt with their early onslaught. You need to close the game out fast or it could slip away to their top decked Hazoret, Dark Salvation or Verdurous Gearhulk. Lastly, you need to be prepared for their sideboard plans. All of them pack extra punch and Resillience in the board, mostly in the form of Planeswalkers like Ob Nixilis Reignited, Liliana, the Last Hope and extra copies of Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Don’t just board in a bunch of extra Fatal Pushes and Sweltering Suns, lest you risk losing to one of these.

My current way to deal with these 3 decks is BR Midrange. It started just after Hour of Devastation came out, when I saw this list 5-0 a league:

BR Midrange

Creatures (9)
Glorybringer
Goblin Dark-Dwellers
Gonti, Lord of Luxury
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Spells (25)
Abrade
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Doomfall
Fatal Push
Hour of Glory
Liliana, Death’s Majesty
Liliana, the Last Hope
Live Fast
Magma Spray
Never // Return
Lands (26)
Aether Hub
Canyon Slough
Endless Sands
Evolving Wilds
Foreboding Ruins
Mountain
Smoldering Marsh
Swamp

I took it for a spin and liked a lot of it, but there were a few problems; there was too much of a gap between the early removal and the late game.

You often needed to be able to play 5-6 removal spells in the first 4 turns to have enough room for your 5 drops to take over. And then other games you needed to draw much less removal and more big threats because they had a slower start and answers to your first 2 threats. It was basically the classic non-blue control deck problem where you needed to draw the right half of your deck without any card selection.

I knew I wanted 4 Liliana for sure because it was both removal and threat at a cheap cost but other than that I wasn’t too sure. Then last week, Paul Rietzl 5-0’d a league with a similar deck that also top 8’ed the MTGO PTQ the weekend prior:

BR Midrange - 5:o Standard League by Paul Rietzl

Creatures (12)
Demon of Dark Schemes
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
Glorybringer
Goblin Dark-Dwellers
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Spells (22)
Abrade
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Collective Brutality
Doomfall
Harnessed Lightning
Liliana, the Last Hope
Live Fast
Ruinous Path
Lands (26)
Aether Hub
Blighted Fen
Canyon Slough
Foreboding Ruins
Mountain
Smoldering Marsh
Swamp

The key for me is the 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner.

It might look out of place in a control deck but it helps keep the cards flowing and at two mana, it will rarely be stuck in your hand, and you can play it and a removal spell on the same turn in the midgame. It also puts the opponent in an awkward spot for sideboarding because if they board out their removal, they could just flat out lose to it but if they keep removal in for it, they lessen their chances of enacting their own game plan because of a card you might not draw.

It even presents them with a dilemma in-game when you play it turn two because they have to spend mana to kill it in which case it did the same for you as a removal spell; keeping one of their threats off the board.

Along with the 4 Lilianas you have strong proactive early plays that are good against both aggro and control meaning the losses to ‘drawing the wrong half of your deck’ become much less frequent. I was not satisfied with the removal suite though; nothing at 1 mana and 6 at 2 is just not going to cut it against Ramunap red.

I also think you need ways to deal with Hazoret in a deck like this and Doomfall won’t hit it when you don’t have enough cheap removal to keep their small stuff off the board. I want some Grasp of Darkness instead of Harnessed Lightning and some combination of Fatal Push and Magma Spray. Spray is very good in the metagame but Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a big part of our plan and push is much better against gb so I think 3 Fatal Push, 1 Magma Spray will be good for now.

You want more against Ramunap red and zombies but that’s what sideboards are for. I’ll give my current list before discussing further:

BR Midrange by Anders Gotfredsen

Creatures (11)
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
Glorybringer
Goblin Dark-Dwellers
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Spells (23)
Abrade
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Doomfall
Fatal Push
Grasp of Darkness
Liliana, the Last Hope
Live Fast
Magma Spray
Ruinous Path
Lands (26)
Aether Hub
Canyon Slough
Evolving Wilds
Foreboding Ruins
Mountain
Smoldering Marsh
Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Chandra’s Defeat
Magma Spray
Never // Return
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Lost Legacy
Dispossess
Transgress the Mind
Dreamstealer
Sweltering Suns
Chandra, Flamecaller

Against the current “big 3”, the plan is pretty straightforward; keep the board clear for the first few turns, stick a planeswalker or Kalitas and snowball the advantage from them.

If you have Liliana for turn 3, let one or two of their one toughness creatures live. If you have Kalitas, try to conserve your removal until he hits the board. It’s not easy knowing when you should play him turn 4 and when you should wait until you can leave up a removal spell the same turn.

Some of the red decks play Collective Defiance but people almost always copy the winning list (especially when it’s someone as well known as PV) so I would default to running it out turn 4 for now. Zombies have both Grasp of Darkness and Dark Salvation so here I would lean towards having removal the same turn as I play Kalitas.

Of course some games you see their hand with turn 3 Doomfall and the choice will be easy.

Doomfall is an interesting card for standard. I didn’t even consider it for constructed when I first saw it but it has the same kind of flexibility that makes Supreme Will good; it has an “answer” mode and a mode for when you don’t need to deal with something they have played.

The big difference of course is that Doomfall is a sorcery, and sorcery hurts a modal card much more than a one dimensional card. Specifically, exiling Hazoret after it has attacked you once is unpleasant. Unfortunately, discard spells tend to be sorcery so we’ll have to make do. It is bad against Ramunap Red and servicable against Zombies and good against Constrictor but I think you need it main to not auto lose game 1 to decks like ramp and control.

Just having a few makes a big difference when you’re playing Goblin Dark-Dwellers, and as long as it’s not completely dead in any matchup, I think you can get away with it.

The thing I’m most uncertain of is the mix of 5-drops. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is both a good card and a personal favourite of mine, which I fear makes me a bit biased.

The problem is that a lot of the time your first opportunity to play is on an empty board and it happens that you don’t have Live Fast in the yard and either no Doomfall or the opponent has no cards in hand. Glorybringer is often fine to jam on an empty board, though it is true that removal can answer it cleanly compared to the goblins.

There are also situations where the opponent has 2 or more creatures and you can’t really afford to exert it to kill one of them leaving you tapped out and defenseless, where goblins can both kill a creature and stay back to block.

What Glorybringer excels at, which I initially underrated, is end games, and while the goblins are also hard to block, 4 flying haste power is a big deal. Hopefully further testing will give me a clearer indication of which way to lean (if any).

I think we should have the aggressive decks covered by now so let me finish with the two other decks I would expect to face: UR(x) control and RG Ramp. Both are going to be very tough game 1 (maybe you should even move the Doomfalls out of the main and just concede game 1 to be even more sure to crush aggro.

But you still have a shot against control since they have a lot of useless removal, so maybe they are fine). Against control, hope to draw as little removal as possible outside of the stuff that kills Torrential Gearhulk; it is possible to just run them out of wincons. You have value creatures, discard and planeswalkers so you can come out on top if you pace your spells properly. Try to hold on to your discard until you can play it and a threat the same turn to overwhelm their mana.

Post board we get even more discard and a new favorite of mine; Dreamstealer. This is a nightmare for them. They have to spend a removal spell on it the first time around and when it comes back they can’t even block it with gearhulk so it’s a guaranteed two for one and if they don’t kill either half, they pretty much just lose on the spot. I haven’t played against ramp yet but it looks rough.

You only have 3 Doomfall that really do anything game 1 and unless you can snipe their only Hour of Promise, it don’t know how you win game 1. You get to bring in more discard along with a Lost Legacy, but it’s probably not enough to make it a good matchup overall. Ramp might pick up in popularity now and I will consider adding another Lost Legacy to the board in that case.

I really like this deck as it has a lot of play to it and a lot of room for innovation to the list. I just saw someone has 5-0’d a league with 4 Gifted Aetherborn instead of the siphoners. If I keep facing all aggro decks, that is a change very much worth considering. Give it a try if you like grinding, and let me know any ideas you have for the deck.

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