Recently, I saw a tweet from one of Denmark's finest magicians, Michael Bonde:
Im a bit confused I have seen people say:— Michael Bonde (@Lampalot) October 9, 2019
1. Oko is Oppressive
2. Field of the Dead is oppressive
3. Jeskai Fires is oppressive
How can this all be true at the same time? They have no cards overlapping
I haven't been super active on social media lately, so I missed the discussions he is referencing, but I wholeheartedly believe that they exist. Throne of Eldraine is full of powerful cards. They're creating a lot of powerful strategies in Standard which push the envelope on what we consider unreasonable to play against.
I want to make it abundantly clear is that Standard is always going to have "(a) best deck(s)" and "best cards." No matter what combination of cards you throw into a Standard format, there will always be a sub-combination of them that rises to the top and is stronger than other sub-combinations. The best cards in Standard are basically never fun to play against. Nobody liked playing against Teferi, Time Raveler or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Nobody liked playing against Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran. Nobody liked playing against Aetherworks Marvel and Emrakul, the Promised End or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Nobody liked playing against Pack Rat, Delver, Jund, Caw-Blade, Faeries…
The list goes on and on, ad nauseam.
There's a pretty simple explanation for this. The best decks in a format aren't fun to play against because they win a lot. They wouldn't be the best decks in the format if they didn't win most of the time. Losing isn't fun, and it is especially unfun to get so outrageously outclassed on card quality that it doesn't even feel like you can put up a fair fight. Not-so-coincidentally, that happens to be exactly the way it often feels to play against or lose to the best decks in a format.
Almost by definition, losing to the best deck isn't very fun. You're going out of your way to build your deck to try to beat the best deck, but you're still losing a decent amount of the time anyway because their cards are so much better than yours and you begin to despise playing against those cards. Or the format devolves into 40% of the field (of the dead) playing the same deck and you get tired of facing it round after round. Whatever the reason, it's pretty natural to not enjoy playing against the top cards, and it's easy to go to the next step of believing that they are then oppressive to the format as a whole. Sometimes they actually are. Sometimes it just takes time to dethrone them.
How can we tell the difference between your normal run-of-the-mill best card in the format oppressiveness vs. your we-should-probably-ban-this-Hogaak-card level of oppressiveness? To be honest, I don't have a clear metric, but I don't think it should happen immediately after a set release when only a few events have even been played in that format.
Teferi, Time Raveler was probably the most complained about card from the last format. Fast forward a few months and it's an also-ran in current Standard. It's in a few decks, but it's not a centerpiece to any of them, and if it suddenly disappeared from the format, I'm not sure that people would really notice that much, except for the five of you still trying to play Simic Flash. Yeah, that's right. Called out. Teferi is certainly no longer on the level of Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, Field of the Dead, Oko, Thief of Crowns or friends.
I even believe that Teferi, Time Raveler saved the last Standard format from being a hellscape of decks like Mono-Blue, Simic Flash and Esper Control dominating everything with cheap tempo plays or removal backed up by a ceaseless bevy of countermagic. I think of Teferi, Time Raveler as the unknown savior of last Standard format, but like most tortured artists, he probably won't be recognized for it until after he is dead and gone.
The point I'm getting at is that while we are currently complaining about cards being too good or too oppressive for Standard, we do that about literally every single Standard format, and it's entirely reasonable to think that right now someone is building a deck that will dethrone these top decks. It's entirely possible that in a few months, some of these cards will simply be supporting artists in a format dominated by different best decks with different best cards. We'll then complain about those cards also being too oppressive for Standard and the show will go on with new actors.
It's true that sometimes cards are too good and actually do need to be banned, but that usually happens after it's been proven that people can't beat them, no matter how much they try over a long enough period of time.
And with that unnecessary sideshow diatribe out of the way, let's get into the guts of the matter. How do we go about trying to beat these cards? I've got a few ideas.
Field of the Dead decks—or more specifically the Golos decks that utilize this card as the centerpiece of their strategy—are the most powerful strategies you can deploy in Standard right now. Golos decks have warped Standard around them completely, and yet still seem to be doing quite well. So well, in fact, that I registered Golos for Mythic Championship V. Even with Golos being public enemy number one with a target on its head, I still don't think people will beat me. So yeah, I think this deck is pretty powerful and hard to beat. It has the makings of being truly oppressive, and with WotC suspiciously moving the next Banned and Restricted announcement up a month, they might feel the same way.
That being said, there are a few ways to go about attacking—often quite literally—a Field of the Dead deck.
If you're aggressive enough and have sufficient closing power, you can kill the Golos player before they can get their engine going. Once Golos survives past the early turns, it becomes increasingly more and more difficult to beat their card draw, board presence and life gain.
With Arboreal Grazer and five-mana sweepers like Time Wipe and Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off, you don't have a lot of time to execute this plan, and Golos decks are really good at stabilizing against aggressive creature draws at a low life total and then taking over the game.
Because of this, it is imperative to have ways to finish a game off after Golos decks have started to take over the board. This can take a number of forms, such as haste or evasion creatures like Questing Beast, burning them out with cards like Slaying Fire or Cavalcade of Calamity or draining them out with cards like Ayara, First of Locthwain and Cauldron Familiar.
Decks that utilize this plan:
Early creatures drop Golos low on life and then Torbran, Thane of Red Fell and burn spells can finish the job. Other versions can get the same reach with Cavalcade of Calamity.
Most creatures in the deck have haste, and both Questing Beast and Skarrgan Hellkite have evasion, making them difficult to block. The deck deals huge amounts of damage early and then tries to finish the game eventually with a swing from a Questing Beast or Hellkite, or by putting Embercleave on a creature.
This plan eschews the strategy of trying to kill Golos before they can stabilize, and instead tries to put Golos in a poor defensive spot and then disrupt their attempts to stabilize. Whereas decks like Mono-Red and Gruul don't interact much with Golos's game plan, this deck is looking to interact a few times a game at the right spots so that they can finish the job.
These decks are going to have to interact with Golos. They lack the speed the other decks do, so the idea of just slamming the door on Golos before they survive the early turns is out the window—but having a few key high impact cards at exactly the right times is still a go.
Decks that utilize this plan:
Questing Beast, Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa, Who Shakes the World provide a slow build of pressure, and cards like Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft can disrupt a key card at an important moment to finish the job. Countermagic after sideboard bolsters this plan, and some versions now include Ashiok, Dream Render and/or Disdainful Stroke to further shore up the matchup.
Edgewall Innkeeper and a steady stream of Adventure creatures generates a slowly mounting increase of pressure. Questing Beast and Rankle, Master of Pranks can represent hard-to-block haste damage out of nowhere, and cards like Legion's End can clear out an army of Zombies to make room for a final attack. Hand disruption and/or Ashiok, Dream Render (in some versions) after sideboard bolsters this plan.
This plan is difficult to pull off because Golos grinds so incredibly well. The idea behind this strategy is that your entire deck must be constructed such that each card is part of a whole that is capable of stifling, shutting down or containing Golos even when it gets to do its thing.
The whole thing falls apart if they find and exploit even one hole in the strategy, so everything must work in lockstep to accomplish this plan. Golos executes three basic strategies: blow up the opposing board with sweepers, develop a massive board turn after turn and generate huge amounts of card advantage.
To go toe-to-toe with Golos, you need to be able to survive having your board hit by a Time Wipe or Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off, be able to match them on their ability to add to the board every turn and be able to match them on card advantage.
The only way I've seen people manage this feat is with planeswalkers. Planeswalkers survive sweepers other than Planar Cleansing, they can add to the board every turn and their abilities can disrupt Golos's card advantage or generate their own.
Decks that utilize this plan:
Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa, Who Shakes the World attempt to match Golos's ability to add to the board. Hydroid Krasis (and Narset, Parter of Veils in some versions) match Golos on card advantage. This deck tries to shut down Golos's creatures with Oko, soak up swarms of Zombies with 3/3 lands and 3/3 Elks and eventually win with big copies of Hydroid Krasis, or Nissa ultimates. Sweepers can be good against the deck, but not always due to the power of the planeswalkers.
Drawn from Dreams and Narset, Parter of Veils provide card advantage to match or stifle Golos's card advantage. Fires of Invention + Fae of Wishes // Granted can match or attack Golos's board development, and Sarkhan the Masterless can provide a quick two-turn clock to finish the game with creatures that fly safely over Zombies.
All this being said, these are merely strategies one can deploy toward attempting to defeat Golos, not tried-and-true guarantees that you'll beat them if you execute one of these plans. Golos is the best deck in the format, after all, and thus, by definition, pretty damn hard to beat. I feel fine playing against any of these decks with Golos, although they can all present difficulties in their own ways. For what it's worth, out of all of these decks, I have found Gruul Aggro to be the best performing against Golos.
In the previous section, I outlined strategies for defeating an entire archetype, the Field of the Dead-based Golos decks.
This section will be different. Oko, Thief of Crowns isn't tied to one specific archetype, like Field of the Dead is, and therefore this section will be dedicated to helping you make your deck not suck against Oko itself, rather than any particular Oko deck.
Oko, Thief of Crowns is a disgustingly pushed planeswalker, and hopefully the last powerhouse three-mana planeswalker they print for a while, considering its immediate dominance in Standard and its playability in both Modern and Legacy, as well. With that being said, Oko is not an in-your-face-kill-you kind of planeswalker like Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord was, but rather a walker with small value abilities and an enormous loyalty bank that picks you apart over the course of many turns.
I want to start by saying that the way to beat a card like this is not to try to push through it via conventional means. That's just not possible. It has such a high loyalty, it can create blockers while going up further in loyalty, and it can ruin your best attacking creatures. Trying to deploy one really powerful creature each turn is going to be a losing fight against Oko when they all turn into Elks.
Likewise, trying to beat Oko with a bunch of mediocre 2/1s and 2/2s will also fail. Oko gains a lot of life with the Food tokens, 3/3 Elks outclass those creatures in size and if you're stuck in a spot of not being able to kill Oko immediately, the game is basically over. Taking multiple turns to chip down Oko while losing weak creatures along the way just buys your opponent time, and ignoring Oko and trying to just kill your opponent will lose to the life gain and blockers Oko provides.
So then how do we beat this shapeshifting trickster?
This plan is fairly straightforward. If all your creatures are already 3/3's or, better yet, creatures with +1/+1 counters on them to make them a 3/3, then Oko can't really do much against them. So if you have Nissa, Who Shakes the World to turn your lands into 3/3s, they're already Elk-sized and Oko can only match them defensively. If Oko turns your 3/3 land into an Elk, it will be a 6/6, since the three +1/+1 counters stay on.
Vivien, Arkbow Ranger puts +1/+1 counters on creatures and gives them trample, which is perfect when your creatures are being turned into generic 3/3 Elks. Gruul Spellbreaker can be a 4/4 that when targeted by Oko becomes a…*checks notes*...4/4 creature.
Just like how I'm immune to undead attacks because I'm already dead inside, you can insulate yourself from the Elk takeover by making all your stuff honorary Elks already. Truly a diabolical and also brilliant scheme.
I'm not going to go into a lot of the minute details about this plan, but the crux of it is that you use a spell or ability that is capable of destroying or removing Oko... and then target Oko.
For example, if my opponent casts an Oko, Thief of Crowns and I'm displeased by this, I may consider casting my Murderous Rider's adventure mode of Swift End to lose two life and destroy Oko, Thief of Crowns since it fits the description of creature or planeswalker.
Likewise, consider the scenario where my opponent generates three mana on their turn, of which one is green, one is blue and one is generic and they use that three generated mana to place Oko, Thief of Crowns onto the stack. I may find that I don't like the implications of what it may do to the game over the course of the next few turns, and therefore decide to use the card Noxious Grasp to destroy Oko, Thief of Crowns after it's resolution.
Perhaps my opponent casts Oko, Thief of Crowns and uses its ability to create a Food token. I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, determine that I probably won't beat this Oko, Thief of Crowns going long and piece together through my knowledge of Magic's Tournament Rules that casting the card Planar Cleansing will clean up both Oko, Thief of Crowns and the Food token, since they are both part of the subset of non-land permanents. Having made this determination, I cast the Planar Cleansing, and Oko is destroyed.
In all seriousness, Oko is obnoxious enough as a planeswalker that it's hard to just attack it down, so decks that aren't well suited to beat it by other means should overload on cards like Noxious Grasp, Murderous Rider // Swift End, Prison Realm or the like to deal with it quickly.
In other words, the Golos plan. Another way to beat Oko is to simply not care about it. If you're going way over the top of Oko or generating way too many things for Oko to handle on a one-per-turn basis, then you'll beat it eventually. Oko's advantages will eventually fall short of Field the Dead's board production output without serious help from the rest of the deck.
Another deck that can execute on this level is the Esper Doom Foretold deck. That deck doesn't have creatures that get shut down by Oko, and can sweep away any stray Elks with Kaya's Wrath or Planar Cleansing. Doom Foretold itself will kill Oko, since Doom Foretold ignores tokens and thus won't consume the food. When you think about it, my doom truly is foretold when I'm denied food, so this all seems like a real flavor success to me. Or perhaps it's a lack of flavor success...since I don't have food...Eh? Eh? Too far. I get it.
Register any current deck in Standard.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2019 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.
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