It was a diverse field at SCG Cincinnati last weekend, the first big Standard tournament featuring Hour of Devastation. The format looked interesting, and more importantly, fun. I watched a smattering of the event on Twitch and got to see a number of different decks mingled in with a heavy dosage of White-Blue Monument. Well, to be completely honest, I was drafting and losing non-stop on Magic Online with the event on in the background, but I still saw some things. Things I'd rather not talk about (mostly Twitch chat, if I'm being honest). I also saw things I'm perfectly happy talking about, which is what this article is about.
The top 8 of the tournament consisted of seven different decks, with the aforementioned Monument being the sole repeat offender. It only took banning 90 cards and a full year of miserable Standard events, but we might finally have us a good format here. I'm honestly pretty excited to play some quality, clean Magic again instead of trying to do degenerate things and inevitably lose to Mardu Vehicles whenever my draw doesn't come together, which was all the time.
It's fairly commonplace to see articles that go over some of the top performing decks in any given format and discuss why they are good and maybe some potential ways they could be even better. I've done it many times myself. Today, I'm not about that life, though. Why build something up when you can just tear it down instead? Instead, I'm going to take a look at top decks and draw focus on their flaws and how they can be beaten.
Let's start, not with the champ, but with the deck that got a lot of coverage airtime and is likely what consensus would call the best deck in the format.
Both Jonathan Rosum and Ben Weinberg took Monument to a Top 8 finish, playing very similar builds. The deck also put a lot of pilots into the Top 16, 32, and 64 of the event.
I will admit that Monument has proven itself to be a good deck. Oketra's Monument, as I quickly learned from drafting a lot of Amonkhet, is a disgustingly good card and can run away with a game very quickly if left unchecked. I am not surprised it ended up making its way into a great Standard deck.
White-Blue Monument isn't without flaws, though. The deck is extremely beatable, but it requires a lot of discipline. Monument is extremely effective at exploiting players who are unfamiliar with it. If you aren't prepared for Dusk // Dawn, it's very easy to play into it and get wrecked. If you aren't properly playing around Spell Queller or are just kind of playing the game without a coherent plan for how to beat them, it's easy to find yourself falling behind.
The major key for playing against Monument is containment and patience. That deck can start to snowball out of control if left unchecked, and it's paramount to prevent that from happening. It's also hard to just brute force them down because they generate so many good chump blockers and defensive creatures, and play a one-sided sweeper in Dusk // Dawn that you don't want to let them get a lot of value out of. For that reason, it's generally better to handle their problematic cards (Bygone Bishop, Hanweir Militia Captain) with removal spells immediately than to develop your own board.
It's also very important to keep Oketra's Monument off the table. Without that card in play, the Monument deck is underpowered. For that reason, I would board in any number of cards like Dissenter's Deliverance, Abrade, Manglehorn, etc. to deal with Monument. Another card that is extremely potent against them is Liliana, the Last Hope. Liliana kills Selfless Spirit and picks off tokens from Monument to keep them from getting to Ormendahl or flipping Hanweir Militia Captain. A few weekends ago at the SCG Invitational, when the Monument deck finally began to transition from being a Magic Online deck to seeing paper success, I was able to beat it many times with Zombies over the course of the weekend.
My game plan was simple. Use Liliana to contain Monument, and employ patience. Kill their important creatures as soon as possible, and don't make my Zombies bigger than 2/2's to avoid getting wrecked by Dusk // Dawn until I'm okay with that outcome. With that game plan, I could flood the board with Diregraf Colossus tokens and slowly pressure their life total without exposing myself to getting destroyed by sweepers. With that game plan in mind, it wasn't that hard to just grind them out eventually.
With other decks, a similar gameplan can be successful. Bring in cards to destroy Monument and take care of their important creatures. Use sweepers or cards like Walking Ballista to contain their board and keep them off of Ormendahl. Don't let Hanweir Militia Captain flip or Bygone Bishop generate a lot of card advantage. It may sound like a lot to accomplish, but without an engine online, the Monument deck crumbles pretty easily.
Michael Hamilton won the Open with an interesting take on a control list in that it's not based around Torrential Gearhulk but instead planeswalkers. It also isn't leaning on Hour of Devastation, a card that I expected would be the centerpiece of control strategies, but keeps it "old school" instead with Fumigate and Radiant Flames.
The second place deck at last weekend's Magic Online PTQ was a more traditional-oriented control deck, Blue-Red Control piloted by Logan Nettles, a fairly prolific Magic Online player.
Regardless of which version of control you're battling against, the plan to beat them remains relatively the same. The major key is to diversify your mode of attack against them. Coming at a control deck with a one-dimensional plan of attack makes it really easy for them to fight you.
The best plans against them rely on stressing their answers in a variety of ways. For example, Temur Energy is generally a strong strategy against control decks because they have a mixture of good creatures, planeswalkers, and cards like Negate or Dispel to attack their spells on the stack.
One very important thing against control strategies is to not leave yourself without removal after sideboard. It seems natural to want to cut removal spells against a deck with very few creatures, but the problem is that most control decks have a sideboard plan to bring in creatures post-board. Keeping in Harnessed Lightning to kill sideboard Glorybringer, Thing in the Ice, or Dragonmaster Outcast is pretty important. Worst case, it kills Torrential Gearhulk, which is still very worthwhile because of how quickly it can end the game.
One card from the new set that seems great against control is Doomfall. Doomfall can strip an important card from their hand, but it can also exile a Torrential Gearhulk or whatever sideboard card they have. Versatility in cards like this is really strong against control strategies, because overloading on hand disruption is a good way to lose to the top of their deck, and overloading on removal is an easy way to lose to their card advantage spells.
One last thing to remember when playing against control is to not make your deck too weak against them. When I say weak, I'm talking about the power level of the individual cards you choose. These control strategies are full of powerful cards. Torrential Gearhulk, for example, is a powerhouse that dominates a game. As a result, too many low-power but situationally great cards is not going to be enough to beat control. Sometimes players load up their deck with too many cards like Transgress the Mind and leave themselves with too few cards that actually pressure the control deck's life total, which allows the control deck to have an opportunity to just outclass them late with more powerful topdecks.
Adam Bowman had a pretty traditional take on Zombies for last weekend, with a little bit of sideboard spice. Zombies is a deck that I believe is still a powerful deck in this format.
One easy misconception that people have is that you can beat Zombies just by playing a lot of removal and sweepers. That actually doesn't work. Removal and sweepers are good against Zombies but they don't beat the deck by itself. Zombies are extremely resilient to those cards thanks to Diregraf Colossus, Relentless Dead and Dread Wanderer. They can rebuild quickly from that.
One deck that I think is good against Zombies is Black-Green Energy. This deck beats Zombies by a combination of being able to use Walking Ballista to handle creatures like Cryptbreaker and Metallic Mimic, which keeps Zombies off speed and then can win by just going way bigger than Zombies does with cards like Verdurous Gearhulk. The deck can disrupt Zombies and also pressure it really well.
In fact, I think the best way to beat Zombies is to employ a similar style of game plan. Disrupt Zombies early in the game to keep them from getting too out of control too quickly and then be proactive enough to put Zombies on the back foot. One-sided sweepers like Yahenni's Expertise or Radiant Flames combined with creatures that are big enough to not die to them can slow Zombies down and give the opposing deck enough time to pressure Zombies, which often struggles to catch back up from being behind.
Simply playing lots of removal spells without a way to pressure Zombies won't be enough. There are way too many ways for Zombies to come back from that. You have to combine it with a real plan to win the game.
Emerge decks like this were once a popular part of the format, but they fell out of favor for a long time. Now, thanks to some cards like Champion of Wits, they are back. Zan Syed ended up taking this Sultai version to the Top 4 of the SCG Open.
Kozilek's Return plus Elder Deep-Fiend is still a powerful combination of cards, and beating this deck can prove problematic for a number of strategies. For one, it's really tough to grind through a deck that can keep bringing Haunted Dead and Prized Amalgams back into play. Trying to just brute force grind through it is almost never going to work.
One thing that this deck lacks, however, is removal. One way to beat a deck like this is to beat it with creatures that are extremely powerful if they go unremoved. For example, Kalitas, Traitor to Ghet is extremely powerful against the deck. If you can activate it once, it turns into a 5/6, which is big enough to get beyond Kozilek's Return range. Kalitas also makes all their creatures get exiled, shutting down their engine.
Verdurous Gearhulk is another good one against decks like this, for a similar reason. It can push outside of range of Kozilek's Return and trample can ensure that it is really difficult for them to handle it through combat. Archangel Avacyn is also great against these decks because it can protect creatures from Kozilek's Return and it kills most creatures in their deck when it flips.
Another good way to combat Emerge is through cards that exile their graveyard or cards that exile creatures in play. Anguished Unmaking or Cast Out are nice permanent answers to a Prized Amalgam, and Magma Spray takes care of Champion of Wits or Haunted Dead. Something like Crook of Condemnation can sit in play and pick away at their graveyard, keeping them off of delirium and preventing them from getting their engine online.
Ultimately, I think this deck is fairly beatable, but it's going to be near impossible to defeat a strategy like this without being prepared for it.
I love this aspect of Magic. My favorite part of the game is figuring out how to beat certain decks or strategies, and I like that this current Standard format looks like it's going to be fun and diverse enough to allow for that. I'm looking forward to seeing what decks continue to spring up and developing strategies to beat them.
- Brian Braun-Duin