Hello and welcome! This is my first article with TCGplayer, so I will quickly introduce myself before getting into the meat and potatoes of this wonderful Standard format.
My name is Robert Vaughan, I live in New Jersey, and can be found at any tournament from Boston to Charlotte on a normal weekend. On an unusual weekend I'll fly somewhere I'd rather not drive to, and on rare occasion I'll spend my weekends going to concerts and dive bars.
Anyway, I have been playing Magic since the Coldsnap prerelease, but did not start looking for more out of the game until the Caw-Blade era (Winter 2011). As far as my resume is concerned, it's still a work in progress. I have a single Pro Tour qualification under my belt, along with a handful of near misses at Grand Prix in the recent months, most notably a 9th place at Grand Prix Providence 2015 on tie breakers with a 12-2-1 record, so no invite. I consider myself a Standard player first and foremost, but I do play a significant amount of Modern, and enjoy Legacy as well. One of the biggest improvements in my game over the last year has been the ability to metagame and figure out the best cards to be playing in the upcoming weeks. Some weeks it is easier than others, but when you are on top of it, it's a tool that people can't compete with.
So what has changed since the release of Origins and where does it leave us now?
Languish is a card that had immediate impact on Standard, and was actually too good at its job. When the card was spoiled, groans from Abzan Aggro players echoed throughout the world. No longer would Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer have free reign over the ground, with impunity against black based removal decks. Not only did bigger Abzan decks gain this tool to compliment their perfectly positioned 4/5 Siege Rhinos and Tasigur, the Golden Fangs, but so did UB-based control decks, most popular recently being Sultai. The ability for a blue-based control deck to interact with the board on turn four is something that hasn't been present in quite a few sets and it truly put the writing on the wall for the aggressive version of Abzan, along with other low to the ground aggressive decks. The metagame was very much made up of GR Devotion being favored over traditional Abzan Control, Abzan Control being the favorite over the low to the ground version, Abzan Aggro beating up the UBx Control decks, and those same decks being favored against GR Devotion. The printing of Languish looked to offset that balance, putting UBx Control as a favorite over Abzan Aggro, if anyone was even brave enough to sleeve it up.
Week one at the SCG Open in Chicago we saw a lot of the same. GR Devotion won the tournament and dominated the Top 8, while traditional Abzan Control lists were grouped together in the Top 16. When looking at these results, it's easy to pass over certain things that should have been very good clues for the things to come. Logan Mize lost in finals to arguably his best matchup, piloting UW Heroic against GR Devotion, and while variance did get the best of Logan in this match, he did have a very good tournament overall. Heroic was one of the only aggressive decks in that field that could punish the inclusion of Languish over the more traditional five-mana sweepers, such as Crux of Fate or End Hostilities. So if Heroic is favored against GR Devotion and Abzan Control, where does its fault lie?
The following week in Richmond, the format looked a little more diverse. Abzan and UBx control decks were able to adjust for the results from week one and obviously they dominated the tournament, right? Well, not exactly. While two UB-based control decks did manage to crack the Top 16 - one Sultai-based deck at the hands of yours truly and the other a Thopter Spy Network list piloted by Jim Davis - neither of them could take down the tournament. Abzan Control had another week where it was present and put up solid numbers, but nothing dominating like we were used to pre-Origins.
Heroic was once again forced to be the bridesmaid after being completely outmatched in the finals against Ray Tautic and his innovative Abzan Rally deck. While I do not believe Ray built the deck with Heroic (despite his number of edict effects) in mind, it did line up nicely against the "protect the queen" strategy that Heroic employs. But what else was beating Heroic that weekend? Chris VanMeter and Todd Anderson were the two big names in the Top 8 and both of them were on Heroic. They were vocal after the tournament about only having a combined eight losses between them throughout the swiss and elimination rounds, three being to Ray Tautic and two being to each other. All things considered, that is an insane record between two players and if it wasn't for Merciless Executioner and Fleshbag Marauder, Heroic would have been the talk of the tournament.
Two weeks, two tournaments, and two times a bridesmaid for our heroes, would the Pro Tour be the chance to break through? Well, not exactly.
At this point we are all aware of the UR Ensoul Artifact and Monored decks that dominated the Pro Tour in Vancouver just two weeks ago. While there was a single Heroic player that put up an 8-2 performance in Constructed, no copies of the deck were able to make the Top 8. What made Heroic such a poor choice for the Pro Tour?
Heroic is deck that is very much about picking your spot to go for it and, when you have to, take the more conservative line. There is a level of bluffing to get your opponent to consider cards that you may not have even registered and overall it is viewed as one of the more gimmicky decks in the format. All things considered, it's not a particularly well-suited deck for a tournament consisting of the world's best players. Your opponent will know when you have it and they will know when you don't. While the deck has draws that are unbeatable regardless of that, it was not a popular deck in the tournament, with only four players piloting the deck on Day 2, and therefore did not put up quality results.
But what if a super team did show up with Bant Heroic? How would that have done in hindsight?
Matchup wise? Pretty well. Dromoka's Command was one of the most absent cards from the field and Brian Kibler showed us that by putting up a 9-1 record with a GW Aggro deck featuring four of the powerful instant. Having relevant text against Monored, GR Devotion, Abzan decks of all flavors, and being one of the most efficient answers to Ensoul Artifact, Dromoka's Command was arguably the best card at the Pro Tour and very few people were playing it. While Heroic might not be the first deck thought of when Dromoka's Command is brought up (the single Heroic player who did do well wasn't even playing green, rather red for Temur Battle Rage) it is more than likely the best deck at taking advantage of the card. Being able to target two of your creatures benefits the heroic ability incredibly well, and when paired with Favored Hoplite, can give you a creature to take down any possible blocker without remorse.
The most interesting thing about the Pro Tour results is not only that the arguable best deck in the field was absent, but that it's still a dominant force in the format after the Smoke settled. Todd Anderson won the Premier IQ this past weekend in Washington, DC with Tom Ross's updated version of Bant Heroic, including maindeck Hangarback Walker. Being able to pair Hangarback Walker and Dromoka's Command together is something that I have been trying to do in most decks I've built this week. Adam Yurchick went into detail on a few other ideas including that pair earlier this week, and I would definitely go check that out here if you haven't yet.
"But Rob, if Heroic is so well positioned now, why wasn't it putting up better results before? Surely it can't be because of the change from End Hostilities to Languish in the Abzan decks!"
While that statement is correct on the surface, it's what you find underneath that is particularly interesting to me this week. When Languish was printed and adopted by the Abzan and UBx based control decks, it was a safety net that covered up the Abzan Aggro matchup, well, that net let some other cards slip through the cracks. Self-Inflicted Wound is a card that was a universal two or three-of in the sideboard of Abzan decks, mainly to interact with Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion, but it was also conveniently the best sideboard option for the Heroic matchup. What other decks kept Heroic in check? Well, Mardu Dragons was easily the worst matchup for the deck prior to the Abzan Rally deck, and might still be worse! The combination of Crackling Doom and Foul-Tongue Invocation, alongside other cheap removal and Stormbreath Dragon was something that was too much for Heroic to overcome. Esper Dragons was the only other mainstay deck in the format that played edicts, but both of those decks suffered with the printing of Languish. Being able to clean up Stormbreath Dragon, Goblin Rabblemaster, and an untapped Dragonlord Ojutai all with a single card was too much for these decks to handle and all had to take a step back until it was their turn to shine again.
Additionally, Mardu Dragons' toughest matchup came from the low to the ground red decks, which just so happened to have just won a Pro Tour. This left the door wide open for cheap creatures that could grow out of Languish's range and be protected by one mana spells such as God's Willing and Ajani's Presence. Looking through the results from the Pro Tour 8-2 decks and the Top 16 of both the Richmond and Chicago Open, there is a single edict in the form of Self-Inflicted Wounds present in non-Mardu decks. Give that a minute to sink in. A single copy of Self-Inflicted Wound! No wonder the Bant Heroic deck has been doing so well: people have taken out the catch-all sweeper in favor of a conditional option and removed the best sideboard cards for the matchup.
But like all good things and pieces of technology in the MTG world, they must come to an end. While Bant Heroic is still likely the best-positioned deck in the format for this upcoming weekend, it is not a particularly difficult deck to hate out. With the adoption of Hangarback Walker to fight against edicts such as Merciless Executioner and Fleshbag Marauder, the multi-purpose Artifact does not interact with Self-Inflicted Wound, which is surely going to get picked back up in the coming weeks.
"But if we want to play Self-Inflicted Wound again, why are we playing Languish?"
I'm glad you asked! Who said you should be playing Languish in the first place? The beauty of cards like Languish is that they do their job even when you aren't the one playing the card. The idea of Languish being in the format is enough to keep the Rakshasa Deathdealer, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Goblin Rabblemaster players away. In addition, with Languish being a known quantity, players are more able to construct their deck around the card. Let's take a closer look at the GW Megamorph deck.
Upon first glance, Boon Satyr and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes both seem like very good cards at punishing reliance on Languish. The Satyr has the ability to bestow on a creature in response, saving him from the -4/-4 and presenting a large threat for the following turn. Ajani on the other hand is a more proactive answer to the card, giving the ability to grow your creatures out of Languish range or find additional threats to deploy on the freshly swept field.
As the old questions of the format become answered, new questions will emerge. Abzan Aggro incorporating Hangarback Walker over Rakshasa Deathdealer is a step that I can see picking up in the near future. Really, just adding Siege Rhino, Abzan Charm, Ultimate Price, and Hangarback Walker to the GW Megamorph deck is enough to sell me moving forward.
"Wait a minute, if the Abzan decks don't want to be playing Languish, then what should they be playing instead? End Hostilities?"
Josh McClain made the Top 8 of a TCG 5k in Madison, WI this past weekend with an Abzan deck that looks perfect. While he may be low on Dromoka's Commands for my liking, the deck checks every box for what an Abzan deck should look like when being prepared for the post-PT metagame. Tragic Arrogance, when paired with Courser of Kruphix, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Hangarback Walker, leads to some completely busted turns. Duneblast was a card that used to see play as a one-of in pre-Ugin days, and this card has the ability to do a whole lot more. While this deck does interact with GR Devotion, Monored, UR Ensoul Artifact, and other Abzan Control lists very well, I still don't see any Self-Inflicted Wound...
I hope you enjoyed the read, and best of luck to everyone competing in Grand Prix Detroit or Grand Prix London this weekend. I'm taking a rare weekend off, but I will be back battling next week...just not before I do my homework from GP London.