Exploring the Modern format at Grand Prix Birmingham this weekend was brilliant fun. Modern seems to be in an excellent position at the moment, with a wide-open metagame that invites preparation and innovation. It's not the only format with these attributes, however – there is a lot of talk about the current state of Standard being the best it has been in quite a while. After a turbulent year of overpowered decks being hit by repeated bannings, the good ship SS Standard seems to have righted itself, and is setting sail towards calmer waters.
I had the chance to sit down with some of the players who had come to do battle in Birmingham. We discussed the current Standard format, its health and how to attack it moving forward. This particular peanut gallery included a World Magic Cup champion, a Platinum Pro, a Pro Tour champion, and a Hall of Famer - and these four Magic players showed themselves to be bravely unafraid of cliche as they proceeded to disagree on more or less every point. Then again, there was one very interesting exception, as you'll see.
The current state of Standard is generally regarded as pretty positive by the wider Magic community, and the French Hall of Famer Raphael Levy agrees. "There are a lot of decks people can play, and I guess that's a good sign," he said. "A good Standard is when people have the choice between different good decks - when multiple deck archetypes are viable." Diversity in Standard has been an issue throughout the last few months, but in the wake of key bannings and the release of Hour of Devastation, the format seems to have opened up for attack. Even in the wake of the Pro Tour, Standard leaves us with as many unanswered questions as a Christopher Nolan flick.
Pro Tour Magic Origins champion Joel Larsson is at least somewhat on the same page as Levy when it comes to deck diversity. "I guess a diverse format is good in some ways - not having any overpowered cards or very dominant decks, that's a good thing," said the man with the second-best hair in Magic. "I guess it's a good Standard format – I personally don't like it because it feels like a small Modern."
He's not the only one who isn't having the best time, either - the Czech Platinum Pro Ondřej Stráský shares some of Larsson's concerns. "I don't think it's the best format ever," he contends thoughtfully. "I think it's better than it's been in the last couple of years. But it's still Standard - I enjoy the older formats more. Still, it's nice that there are a bunch of viable decks and that things change from week to week."
But if you're ever looking for an endless font of positivity and optimism, get in touch with Mr. Red Button Tie himself - WMC "Daneblast" champion Simon Nielsen was characteristically upbeat about the state of the format. After the measured responses of Larsson and Stráský, Nielsen channeled his inner Emmet Brickowski, and let us all know that everything is awesome. "The format is where it needs to be. It's not clear what the best deck is, and that's really good," he said happily. "There's also a lot of fluctuation, and if the metagame changes each week then that's where you want to be."
This rings true, as the ongoing evolution of post-Pro Tour format has kept wizards around the world on their toes. This creates an enticing set of challenges for those looking for success in Standard. "Standard is not settled at all," Nielsen continued, with obvious enthusiasm for the openness of the format. "We have a defined 'best deck', which is mono-red, but the problem is that's not very good against the other two best decks in the format, which are Zombies and Black-Green Constrictor. So it might not even be a good idea to play the best deck - mono-red is the most powerful deck, but the metagame is very hostile to it."
Stráský was looking for another angle of attack altogether. Recognizing that these three decks are at the top of the format and have targets painted on them, he's looking to get on the front foot and ensure he comes prepared. "I think it's all about metagaming," he explained. "You need to find a deck that beats all of them, or take one of them and tune it to beat everything else." This statement opens up an interesting argument – should players be looking to innovate and find new decks, or tune established decks to attack the metagame?
"I think innovating now is going to be pretty hard," Levy said. "I think having the right metagame call is important, having a deck that doesn't lose to itself, a deck that has a decent matchup against the most played deck – this is what you should be doing all the time, but in a settled Standard format it's the most important."
So is there a deck that he would suggest, one that fits these criteria? "If you haven't tried the Ducks, you should – I still like the Mardu list; I think it's underappreciated."
Larsson agreed with Levy that the midrange approach was the way to go. "I've tried to go more midrangey, playing Mardu. I thought that Gideon in particular was going to be good in midrange mirrors," he said. "We can also see some people doing really well with midrange decks that are really well-tuned against the Red decks – we saw Corey Baumeister and Brad Nelson do very well with green-black Midrange. It didn't play Attune or Traverse – it was really streamlined."
Nielsen isn't sold on the idea that midrange is the best way to crack skulls in Standard. "Maybe ramp is better, as it's good against those black midrange decks. Maybe Mono-White Eldrazi or Blue-Black Reanimator – there's all sorts of stuff. Maybe Blue-White Gifts." Considering this smorgasbord of options available to those looking to attack Standard, Larsson ultimately reconsidered, musing that midrange might not, after all, be the solution. "I think you want to go bigger," he decided with characteristic assuredness. "We're seeing Standard become a bit all over the place, it's very hard to attack. Maybe Blue-Red Control could be in a good position to take advantage of that."
Blue-Red Control has seemed to remain all ham and no sandwich since Torrential Gearhulk was printed, but Larsson thinks that may be shifting as control mages test new ideas. "People are trying to find some middle ground where they can attack an open format, but are not completely dead to all the red decks," he concluded. On paper, Blue-Red Control seems to have all the tools it needs to answer the questions Standard poses – efficient point removal, instant-speed card draw, and – critically – a sweeper in the card Hour of Devastation. Why hasn't it started to put up the numbers, then?
Nielsen weighed in. "There are so many decks, you have to try out to find out what is really working," he explained. "if you have enough time you can try and actually explore Standard and find a hole in the format." Blue-Red Control does offer its pilots a hugely diverse suite of answers - Magma Spray takes apart Zombies, Sweltering Suns wrecks Ramunap Red and Harnessed Lightning can take care of enormous Constrictors. Couple that with consistent card draw and one of the format's most potent threats in Torrential Gearhulk and it seems that you have all the tools you need to succeed.
Stráský agreed. "It's about card choice, it's about finding the right answers," he said. "I don't think there's much chance for brewing or finding completely new decks. You can make changes in the decks that are established - it's more about tuning than innovation."
With some contending that this Standard format is amongst the best ever, I asked these four to share their thoughts. As diverse as their opinions are on today's format, however, all four of these players have the same opinion on the best Standard format of all time. Stráský snaps off an answer like he's shipping a no-lander. "The best Standard format - easy. It was when Junk Reanimator was the best deck, in 2013. That was my favorite deck of all time," he smiled. "That Standard was the best because every archetype was viable. Aggro was great, Control was great, Midrange was great, and everything changed every week."
Larsson agrees. "I think that Innistrad-Ravnica Standard was brilliant. I was in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Gatecrash and there were seven different decks and all of them were very skill-intensive. There was good mana and there were so many decks – I loved that Standard format. A lot of games came down to play skill and knowing how to play the matchup."
Nielsen had trouble picking a favorite. "I love all Magic," he demurred. "Even in the Standard formats where people said 'this is terrible,' I still had fun. But I think that Innistrad-Ravnica was pretty good – there were a lot of fluctuations and a lot of very good decks. I definitely enjoyed that format a lot."
Levy hit the tank like a blind goldfish while putting together his answer. Scratching his head, he finally made his suggestion: "Maybe the one where you could play Predator Ooze and Rancor together... when was that? Around 2013?" A rare moment of unity between some of the best players in the world, who – like Magic players everywhere – relish the challenge of an argument about anything at all.
Hearing these players' dissenting views on Standard is sure to be very illuminating for those looking to take down their next tournament. Will you take Levy's line and stick to a deck you feel comfortable with? Or do Larsson and Stráský have the right of it, suggesting you Tinker and Twiddle and tune an established archetype to have it beat everything else? Or perhaps it's Nielsen who is on the right track, suggesting you chuck it all out the window and develop a sweet list that will turn Standard on its head? Theirs aren't the only voices, however, and I want to hear yours - get at me on Twitter (@rileyquarytower) and in the comments!
- Riley Knight