Standard is in a state of Flux. As one might expect in the early stages of a new set release, new decks and metagame choices are popping up that are helping to shape the landscape of Standard. While the Pro Tour had a huge influence here, it was only the groundwork that players had to build off of. This past weekend was the first round of Regional PTQs and through a very large data set across many small tournaments, we are already starting to see the decks that are being built to combat the Pro Tour field and then to combat Esper, which appears to be the strong favorite against the Pro Tour field.
Perhaps the loudest of these decks is the deck that Mike Flores qualified with: Five Color Blue Dragons. We will discuss that deck more later, but for now we just need to establish that the field that went into the Regional PTQ and the field that walks away from it should be vastly different.
Assuming you did not discover something that actually just trounced Esper this past weekend, you probably should have been playing Esper. The deck is robust and does some downright dirty things while still ending the game quickly and being able to mulligan reasonably well. The fact that the deck was highly customizable too means that if you read the metagame correctly, you could configure your 75 to beat almost anything.
Here is the list that Michael Jacob and myself played down in Albuquerque at the RPTQ:
There are a lot of slots that can potentially move around and MJ and I, along with LSV and Patrick Chapin discussed most of them before the tournament. One big decision was whether to run Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or not. I was a big proponent of it because I thought it allowed you to play easy mode and get out of unique situations that otherwise were tough to maneuver. After playing with the card this weekend though, I think it is possibly the reason to play this deck (alongside Ojutai and Silumgar's Scorn). Having a single card in your deck provide such a huge comeback mechanic and game closing ability but still being able to reliably find that card is amazing.
I won multiple game ones with Ugin that no other card could have won and in game two situations, it's not as though his value drops much. Sure, you might face a Negate or Disdainful Stroke then, but Haven of the Spirit Dragon provides you with an uncounterable means to just get Ugin right back. I cast Ugin multiple times in at least five games that I played and it was clutch. Sometimes, you even purposefully drop Ugin below what is necessary with its -X ability just to make sure it ends up in your yard so that you can reset it with Haven. This protects against things like Utter End and also just allows you to have a useful Ugin the following turn as opposed to one at a single counter that just has to Ghostfire your opponent's face.
What we were essentially looking to do with this list, was to have a solid deck against the field, one that could run over midrange and hold off aggro, while standing toe-to-toe with the mirror itself. So many people want to win the mirror with their maindeck, but that is generally pretty tough to do. Instead, just work on your game plan and execution in game one and have a solid plan for the board to break the matchup open.
Our particular plan ended up being three Risen Executioner along with a couple copies of Stratus Dancer and some other one-of upgrades. With this package, the plan was to put out pressure earlier than your opponent and then protect it or enable it with your Counterspells and removal. The other obvious route to take would be to try to go over the top and out card-advantage the opponent. Most lists have things like a second Dragonlord's Prerogative in the board to enable this.
We were not entirely sure which route was the best, but general consensus seemed to be that Executioner was excellent here. In actuality, I was not really a fan of the card. I played one mirror on the day and when I drew my Executioner on turn five or six, it felt very anemic. My opponent was able to essentially ignore the damage or play a Silumgar to defend. Meanwhile, the Ugin he drew simply held Executioner down and raced it with ease. I felt like I would have much rather just been trying to execute on my game one strategy with additional countermagic and hand disruption to help me out.
With all of that said, I would have played a slightly different list were I to run the entire tournament again.
Unfortunately, this shell might not be the greatest going forward thanks to the Five Color Dragons decks that Mike Flores qualified with. Mike's deck is a thing of beauty that specifically can pick apart these other control decks based largely on just having less dead cards in the main deck and more trumps.
For example, what does Esper do against storage lands? Flores can sit back turn after turn, charging up a Crucible of the Spirit while he leaves open countermagic. At some point, that lone land is going to be able to tap and cast one, if not two dragons in a single turn and we are going to have an extremely difficult time doing anything about it. Flores has more Counterspells in his deck to win counterwars and significantly more mana than us despite being the one casting a threat, thanks to that storage land.
And perhaps worst of all is that even if we do win the counter war and answer his dragon, Flores has nine more of those in his deck. That means that we have to look forward to another one next turn or a few turns from now. Pretty quickly, we find ourselves with a hand full of Bile Blights and Hero's Downfall while Flores has still been drawing more countermagic. At this point, the game is over and there are not many lines, given either of the above lists, that can avoid this from simply being inevitable.
Five Color Dragons might not draw any Crucibles right away, maybe, but even then, we are not winning the game with any kind of breakneck speed so they will probably have a reasonable chance to find one eventually while the game is still in its back and forth.
With a control deck now in existence that can essentially just go over the top of Esper Dragons, one has to ask where Esper Dragons gets to exist. Previous to this week, Esper Dragons was the most controlling deck in the format and was able to outlast and out-resource every other deck going long. Now, that is no longer the case and turning the Esper vs. Five Color Dragons match up into a favorable one for Esper is nearly impossible.
Five Color Dragons doesn't even give up much against the midrange decks of the field in order to have this inevitability. Cheap countermagic and Perilous Vault still do a great job against Courser decks and whatnot. Where Five Color Dragons gives up a few percentage points is against the hyper-aggressive decks like Monored or Atarka Red.
While neither of these matchups were thought to be great for Esper, it at least has the proper tools to fight against them. Bile Blight, Drown in Sorrow, Virulent Plague and Foul-Tongue Invocation are all great here and even if you have a lackluster number of these in game one, game two and three get to see a significant increase in them. Five Color Dragons, on the other hand, looks to have a huge board devoted to beating red decks and it still only does an okay job, primarily relying on early blockers to survive.
One might make the Leap then, that the decks that will rise up to fight Five Color Dragons are these hyper-aggressive red decks. I think this is fairly accurate and as a result, the format should balance out quite a bit. We basically have two different models here as in one them, there is a best deck which warps the metagame and in the other, a "solution" to the best deck exists, thereby removing all best decks from the format and allowing a healthy format with a lot of available archetypes.
The wrench in that plan would be if Five Color Dragons is so good that rather than just act as a check to the former best deck, it actually becomes the best deck.
In this world, we have basically the exact same environment as before, with 5C Dragons simply replacing Esper. In that world it just does what Esper does but better, so the outcome is basically no different than if people just made Esper better.
I think that with vulnerabilities to exploit, mostly weaknesses to aggro, 5C Dragons will not see the metagame settle down just yet. Instead, it is more likely that 5C Dragons is the next evolution of the ever rotating environment. Because the format is rather new, we have yet to see all that it has to offer.
As aggro decks pick up some steam in the face of an even slower control deck, Courser of Kruphix starts to look a lot more appealing. And once that is true, control once again looks appealing, and so the cycle begins. That cycle gets broken once something is discovered that skews it. Perhaps that is a new archetype or maybe just a small innovation to an existing one. If we do have a format that actually has relevant tier one decks across the spectrum though, that sounds pretty sweet to me.
I have my eye on a few strategies that might be worth exploring right now:
Monoblack Aggro is potentially a strategy that might be able to attack the open metagame. It has much of the same aggressive power that red has, with a little less reach, but it has actual ways to interact with an open field in Thoughtseize and less conditional removal.
Additionally, I saw a player at the RPTQ this weekend jamming a midrange Temur list with Savage Knuckleblades that was rolling over control and stabilizing just fine against the red decks. That seems like an interesting angle to explore.
We will return next with a few brews and further discussion on the state of Standard as I think we are in for quite a ride. Until then, thanks for reading!