A defined Standard metagame is beginning to take form, and at the moment Bant Company is the deck that has put up the best results overall, with various builds of Humans being the next most popular strategy. Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad should indicate whether Bant Company is actually as strong as the results it has been putting up. I expect Craig Krempels' runner-up list to be the most popular version of the deck to be moving forward:
In order to understand what angle to attack the Bant Company deck from, it is important to understand why the deck is so good in the first place. By going three colors, there are a wider variety of powerful creatures to draw from that cost three or less. Collected Company is a card that has defined Standard and Modern since it was printed because of how powerful putting two creatures into play at instant speed is.
Many times Collected Company will find two three drops, and paying four to cast two three drops using only a single card is absurd. This is common knowledge, but Collected Company is not only mana efficient, but also a source of card advantage. In order to maximize Collected Company though there is a bit of a drawback in terms of requirements for deck construction. It is extremely important to keep the amount of noncreature spells and high-casting cost creatures to a minimum, because whiffing on a Collected Company is devastating.
It is clear that Bant is the strongest color combination for Collected Company. Reflector Mage is not only one of the most powerful low-casting cost creatures in Standard, it is also a way to interact with what the opponent is doing. Bant Company can only play a few removal spells because the creature count needs to stay up, but Reflector Mage is a form of removal, as Bant Company is happy to play a tempo game. Reflector Mage generally either will put you far ahead in a game by bouncing blockers, or can be used defensively versus the super-aggressive strategies. With cards like Gryff's Boon becoming one of the more popular ways to combat Bant Company, Reflector Mage becomes that much more important. Most Bant Company lists also rely on Bounding Krasis to play a similar role to Reflector Mage. Bounding Krasis is a worse card but it allows you to play even more powerful tempo creatures for three mana.
What may seem peculiar to players familiar with Bant Company from previous seasons is the general absence of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. There are so many options for three mana that this megamorph package is starting to get phased out in exchange for the tempo creatures, and new forms of card in advantage in some cases. This weekend, Tireless Tracker had its breakout performance. Initially I believe most players saw Tireless Tracker in a similar light as Sin Prodder — a three drop that is easy to kill, and the card advantage it provides may or may not be useful depending on how the game plays out. However, while Sin Prodder is turning out to be a bit of a dud, Tireless Tracker has been over-performing in Bant Company. Bant Company needs ways to use its mana later in the game, since all of its creatures, besides perhaps Archangel Avacyn, are so inexpensive. The deck wants to be able to go long, and continuously sacrificing clues is especially good against the mirror and other midrange decks. Tireless Tracker itself can actually become a large body, especially once you have two in play, the clue engine starts to snowball quickly.
Initially my first attempt to attack Collected Company was to play control. Control decks tend to have a ton of card advantage and the tempo threats like Reflector Mage and Bounding Krasis become less good versus noncreature threats like Planeswalkers. The real incentive to play control, though, is access to sweepers. With Humans and Bant Company being the most popular decks, having a cheap sweeper can swing a game.
Many slow decks have been relying on Chandra, Flamecaller, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that may not be good enough anymore. When Chandra, Flamecaller does work optimally, it will usually end the game, but there will be games that end before the mana-intensive Planeswalker is cast. Other times, it is possible to hold up Archangel Avacyn in order to get around Chandra, Flamecaller ticking down. Even when Chandra, Flamecaller kills all the creatures in play, Bant Company can play a flash threat or a Collected Company in order to immediately take Chandra, Flamecaller off the table.
While Chandra, Flamecaller is indeed a sweeper, it is not the direction I like going in at the moment. It is fine to play a couple copies in Blue/Red Goggles as a win condition, but even there it seems like you don't want more than two. Blue/Red Goggles and Esper Dragons are currently the two control archetypes seeing some success, but both still have trouble with Bant Company. This begs the question of whether or not control is actually a reasonable strategy.
While Chandra, Flamecaller may not be well-positioned right now, Languish and Radiant Flames are.
What decks actually play cheap sweepers? The answer is very few, and with all these three-toughness creatures in Standard, both Radiant Flames and Languish will Sweep Away all of the opponent's creatures. While it is true that these removal spells are not great against other control decks, the focus in this metagame should be on beating the most popular decks, and right now control represents a very small percentage of the metagame. Expect to see more sweepers at the Pro Tour as players look into a wider variety of color pairs. As an example last week, when playing in the Baltimore Open, I got destroyed by Jund:
first week of Shadows over Innistrad Standard, there are a lot of powerful elements that helped lead him to a strong finish. Radiant Flames is now a maindeck card in these types of controlling strategies. Forget about the days when you could just stick one or two in the sideboard — it's a maindeck card now. Radiant Flames works well in conjunction with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet as a way to deal three to everything and still have Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and an army of tokens. Tireless Tracker and The Gitrog Monster provide lategame card advantage, and while this deck does run Chandra, Flamecaller, it also has a host of other removal to ensure the game reaches turn six.
Jund is not a strategy I have seen many players try. It seems that right now there is a tendency to play decks that are known to be good rather than brewing a three-color deck like Donaldson's Jund list. This list could likely use a couple of changes, but the idea of overloading on removal before jamming a huge card advantage threat has been proven to be successful, so why not now? While Donaldson's Jund list is controlling I wouldn't consider it a true control deck. Expect to see more countermagic in the near future.
The Bant Company deck operates at instant speed, which means that they will usually wait until your end of turn to cast Collected Company. Countering a Collected Company is a big deal since that is the best card in the deck, especially versus control. There really aren't very many counterspells being played at the moment outside of Silumgar's Scorn in Esper Dragons. A card like Clash of Wills or Scatter the Winds will likely take your opponent by surprise. Sometimes the way to beat Bant Company is shutting off Collected Company itself. Since the Bant Company decks only have four copies of Collected Company with less and less Den Protectors to rebuy them, the plan seems viable.
Donaldson's Jund list plays Planeswalkers as win conditions, which may be the trend moving forward. Cards like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ob, Nixilis Reignited are perfect alongside early spot removal. The idea is to use cheap removal on the first couple plays out of the Bant Company deck, and once you are successfully able to land a planeswalker and keep it in play for a couple turns it is pretty easy to keep up with any advantage Bant Company might be gaining off of sacrificing clues and such. However, it is still necessary to have ways to close out the game. True win conditions are lacking right now and I have seen Esper Dragons players lose by running out of Dragonlord Ojutais. In addition, Bant Company has Lumbering Falls, which is a tough land to answer, as it requires presenting some kind of clock.
It seems that having some sort of engine is going to be important for decks that are running few creatures. This past weekend, Noah Walker showcased his Blue/Red Tutelage deck.
Here we see one-mana removal spells like Lightning Axe and Fiery Impulse along with an engine in Sphinx's Tutelage that can be protected. It is true that the deck is less explosive without Treasure Cruise, but Oath of Jace is an important addition. Not only is it another form of card drawing, but it also provides protection against Dromoka's Command. Dromoka's Command is a card that can wreck a Sphinx's Tutelage player when they need to sacrifice Sphinx's Tutelage. Now there is an enchantment that can sit in play and it doesn't matter if the opponent forces you to sacrifice Oath of Jace. Out of the board, Fevered Visions plus Sphinx's Tutelage is a powerful combination that can end the game super fast.
U/R Mill isn't really a control deck, but we are starting to see hybrid strategies that need to play lots of cheap removal alongside Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, but have some other way of actually closing out the game. While players are looking towards Mono-White Humans to beat Bant Company, you can mill out these Mono White Humans decks that only play 18 lands and white spells faster than any of the other decks in the format.
Bant Company is a good deck, and it requires some work in order to have a good matchup against it, but the deck is beatable. I have heard pros complaining that the deck is too good, but it is too early to say that. Expect players at the Pro Tour to try and punish a metagame filled with Bant Company.
Thanks for reading,