The 2015 TCGplayer MaxPoint Invitational is finally here this weekend, and I couldn't be more excited to fly out to Las Vegas and play Standard with some of the best Magic players in the world. I have been playing a lot Standard lately and it's going to be a lot of fun putting what I have learned into practice at the Invitational. There is a long list of great players invited, so there is sure to be a lot of talent in the room competing for the $50,000 prize pool. Every player who won a Player Appreciation Event, MaxPoint Platinum, or MaxPoint Gold event is invited, as is everyone who reached the Top 8 of a Diamond $5k Open. All players who reached the Top 8 of a Grand Prix or Pro Tour in the last year are also invited, so there will be some great competition indeed.
For the full invitation list, and a look at the schedule, prizes, and other information, check out the invitational page. If you aren't qualified for the Invitational but still want to come play, there are Last Chance Qualifiers Thursday at Power 9 Games, and Friday at Wii Play Games, so follow the link for more information.
With the 2015 TCGplayer MaxPoint Invitational here in just a few days, we have reached the zero hour for Standard preparation. With time crunched, it's important to begin getting honed in on a specific archetypes to play so there will be ample time remaining for the process of tuning the last few cards and finalizing sideboard plans. Deck selection and deck tuning can only be done in the context of an expected metagame, so intimate familiarity with the current state of the Standard metagame is critical to tournament success.
This Standard metagame is massive in its size and scope, with well over a dozen viable archetypes along the spectrum from aggressive to control to even combo. With a card pool extremely deep in quality, there is also an unprecedented amount of variation within archetypes themselves. It can be hard to make sense of a format with so many different things going on, but there are some common threads that tie decks together and allow them to be simplified for metagame analysis.
One factor that makes this Standard format so complicated is that many deck archetypes play the same core cards as one another, but they build off of this core with a wide variety of potential support cards and colors. This extra noise makes it difficult to see the roots of a deck, so it makes the format look more diverse and complex than it really is. If the archetypes in a format can be regrouped into more broad categories, then it becomes easier to make deck selection and deck tuning decisions.
To help provide some order to the chaotic metagame, today I will break the format down into its fundamental parts based on the shared fundamental game plans of the different archetypes in the metagame. I have regrouped the decks in the metagame into six categories, each titled by a headline card that is an integral part of the strategies of the archetypes in that category that sets these archetypes apart from others in the metagame. These groups will provide not only a framework for analysis, preparation, and even deckbuilding, but also a comprehensive look at the key players in Standard that should be on every player's radar this weekend.
Siege Rhino has defined the Standard metagame since the beginning, when it elevated the most successful Theros block deck, GBW Control, into the most successful Standard deck, Abzan Midrange. In Standard Siege Rhino nearly always accompanies Abzan Charm, and together these cards reveal the fundamental game plan of Abzan decks. These decks win by pressuring the opponent while disrupting their strategy, and they do so backed up by card advantage and removal-resilient threats. The three modes of Abzan Charm are particularly illustrative, covering the three core pillars of creature removal, card advantage, and aggression. Siege Rhino gives these decks damage reach that is hard for control to prevent, and provides life gain that is difficult for aggressive opponents to overcome. Supported by removal, Siege Rhino is regularly the largest creature in play, and it clocks the opponent as efficiently as it blocks.
Efficiency, versatility, and value are key to Standard Abzan decks, and as such they play a mix of the most efficient threats in the format, like Siege Rhino, and the most broadly efficient removal in the format. These decks include Hero's Downfall and usually Thoughtseize, so they are able to answer any threat in the format. These decks generate card advantage mostly incidentally, from Abzan Charm drawing two, Siege Rhino drains, or support cards.
Siege Rhino decks currently occupy nearly a quarter of the Standard metagame, taking into consideration Magic Online event and major paper events. The major two archetypes that include Siege Rhino are Abzan Control and Abzan Aggro. Like the differences between a cello and a violin, these decks are essentially the same thing on different parts of a spectrum, in this case the spectrum from control to aggro. Siege Rhino is the inflection point around which these decks operate.
Abzan Control builds on top of Siege Rhino, and it plays the six mana Elspeth, Sun's Champion, which goes over the top of most opponents, and Den Protector as a source of card advantage which essentially costs five mana. Some of these decks include Satyr Wayfinder and Deathmist Raptor for more grinding power, while others may be more aggressive with Fleecemane Lion. These decks aim to win the long game by grinding out the opponent with attrition and dominating them with higher overall card quality.
Abzan Aggro builds up to Siege Rhino with cheap aggressive creatures, and takes advantage of Siege Rhino as its top-end threat of choice and as a source of reach with its life drain ability. The threats it plays are extremely efficient and powerful, including Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer, which grow more powerful as time goes on. Anafenza, the Foremost has the potential to snowball out of control with its +1/+1 counter ability, and it's hateful against the format - against Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor in particular, but against even Haven of the Spirit Dragon.
Siege Rhino decks are similar in that they are focused on gaining ground on the battlefield. Abzan Aggro does this more proactively, with cheap threats, while Abzan Control is more focused on maintaining the opponent's board with cheap removal like Bile Blight. In either case, these decks lack many ways to catch up from behind, so getting a board advantage early or ensuring they aren't able to find their own footing are among the best ways to Defeat Abzan. Strategically, the best way to beat Abzan is to be extreme, either by going far under with cheap aggressive creatures that match up well against their more expensive removal spells, and then finish with burn like Atarka Red does, or by going over the top with mana acceleration and big threats, the strategy employed by Green Devotion decks.
Stoke the Flames
With its convoke ability allowing it to be cast for as little as zero mana, as a removal spell Stoke the Flames is a very efficient tempo play in a format lacking much cheap removal. Dealing four damage, Stoke the Flames is a potent finisher that pushes a deck down the road of "Philosophy of Fire"; that is, its sole aim is dealing 20 damage to the opponent, and its burn spells allow it to ignore much of what the opponent is doing.
Stoke the Flames is an integral piece of aggressive red decks in Standard. With convoke, it incentivizes these decks to be creature-based, and as a powerful burn spell finisher, it encourages these decks to play additional burn spells to support that end. Indeed, Stoke the Flames, which can be found in nearly 20% of decks in the Standard metagame, always sits alongside an assortment of aggressive creatures and burn spells. The convoke ability pushes Stoke the Flames towards token creatures in particular, so nearly all decks that play Stoke the Flames also include Hordeling Outburst, and most of these go even further with Dragon Fodder or Raise the Alarm.
These decks rely on creatures to deal most of their damage, so they can't win with just burn spells alone. The best way to beat these decks is to mercilessly Stave Off their early aggression which, as turns go on, will lose its effectiveness in the face of more powerful cards. Trade cards for their cards whenever possible and minimize the damage their creatures deal to you and they will eventually run out of fuel. From the sideboard, Arashin Cleric, Disciple of Nylea, Drown in Sorrow, and Seismic Rupture are among the most effective options in the format.
Over 10% of the Standard metagame is composed of decks that include Elvish Mystic, the most efficient piece of mana acceleration in the format. All other mana acceleration costs two mana, so any deck with Elvish Mystic has a distinct tactical advantage over the rest of the format. Elvish Mystic on turn one requires a green mana, not necessarily an easy feat in a format where most fixing comes into play tapped, so it pushes decks towards a heavy-green composition, as does the fact that it produces green mana. To take advantage of Elvish Mystic's mana generation ability, these decks push the edge further with as many as eight additional mana acceleration creatures, which they leverage to accelerate into powerful threats that go over the top of opponents.
The classic Elvish Mystic decks are Green Devotion decks. These decks take advantage of their green-focus with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which provides incredible explosive power and mana producing capabilities that enable some of the most powerful threats in the format.
While it's not obvious at a glance, Red/Green Dragon decks are reliant on mana acceleration like Elvish Mystic to get their threats into play early enough to win a race or to overwhelm a control deck. While it's easy to classify these decks by their Dragons, it's more beneficial to classify them by the inclusion of Elvish Mystic.
Playing against RG Dragons is very similar to playing against Green Devotion, where Goblin Rabblemaster, Thunderbreak Regent, and Stormbreath Dragon replace Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, World Eater, and Whisperwood Elemental. These cards and these decks can be exploited in a similar fashion with the same cards.
There are two exploitable flaws inherent to Elvish Mystic decks. One, their heavy inclusion of mana acceleration and reliance on a few key powerful threats makes them relatively threat-light so they can be exploited with attrition and disruptive cards like creature removal and Thoughtseize. Two, the threats these decks rely on tend to be more expensive than the removal that kills them, so cards like Ultimate Price and Silumgar's Scorn can be used to disrupt these creatures and create a significant tempo advantage.
Deathmist Raptor and partner-in-crime Den Protector have fallen slightly in popularity as the metagame has pushed back against them, but the pair is still found in nearly 10% of the field. These cards represent the ultimate defense against creature removal and attrition, a nearly unstoppable combination that offers an endless supply of threats from the graveyard over the long-term. These cards incentivize the graveyard and today are most often found alongside Satyr Wayfinder to maximize access to them.
The core graveyard core is always used as a supporting cast to a grander end game strategy. There are a variety of options, perhaps the most important being the Abzan Control strategy of Yuuki Ichikawa, which adds Siege Rhino, Abzan Charm, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion:
A variation that has been steadily gaining followers since its debut at GP Shanghai two weeks ago is 5C Dragons:
This deck uses Deathmist Raptor to hold the ground while it flies over with a large cast of Dragons. The most subtly powerful aspect of this deck is that it takes further advantage of Satyr Wayfinder by playing Haven of the Spirit Dragon. Not only does Satyr Wayfinder fill the graveyard with fuel, but later in the game Satyr Wayfinder can effectively find a Dragon, instead of a useless extra land.
Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector can be found in a variety of other archetypes, including Bant:
Deathmist Raptor also sees some minor play in Green Devotion decks, notably because of its favorable interaction with Rattleclaw Mystic.
While the hype surrounding Esper Dragons has mostly faded, it's still an important facet of the Standard metagame. Taken together, Esper Dragons, UB Dragons, and UW Dragons nearly compose 10% of the metagame. The true strength of this archetype is Silumgar's Scorn, which is often simply Counterspell. The efficiency and broad applicability of Counterspell is unique among others in Standard and Magic cards in general, and it's this access to Silumgar's Scorn that drives the Ux Dragon Control decks.
Silumgar's Scorn decks will win every long game with their card advantage spells like Dig Through Time, so it's important not to fall into the frame of their game plan. Apply early pressure, apply disruption, and seek to end the game as quickly as possible. Overloading their removal and Counterspells with cheaper threats is an effective plan. The recursion of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector can match the pace of their card advantage and eventually run then out of removal altogether.
The final piece of the metagame puzzle is Crackling Doom, and particularly Mardu Dragons, which composes 7% of the Standard metagame, but is gaining popularity.
In terms of power and efficiency as creature removal, there is no spell in Standard that matches Crackling Doom, which by design destroys the most powerful opposing creature in play and generates value along the way with its two damage clause. Against planeswalkers, the two damage is a backbreaking tempo play, but Mardu Dragons also uses the two damage to support its burn-backed endgame. It's supplemented by Draconic Roar, which is cut from the same cloth and has a very similar effect in that it's a removal spell that also damages the opponent. Together, these two cards serve as an excellent core to an aggressive deck which, because of Draconic Roar, must be based around Dragons.
Thunderbreak Regent, with its own damage clause, is perfect for the strategy, while the haste of Stormbreath Dragon has much value. This cast is supported by the most efficient disruption and creatures in the format, including Thoughtseize and Goblin Rabblemaster, and the end result is an aggressive deck loaded with disruption that's also suited to playing the control role against aggressive opponents.
Mardu Dragons is similar to Abzan Midrange - Abzan Aggro specifically - because it plays powerful individual threats and efficient removal, and generates some incidental value along the way. The burn in Mardu that can be used as removal means that it's better at playing the control game, so it's much harder to swarm out with aggression, and the incidental burn gives it a lot of reach. On the other hand, its creatures are less resilient than those of Abzan Aggro. Attacking the creature base of Mardu can leave it without a threat, and without Stoke the Flames in the archetype, it will have a hard time closing the game out with burn alone. Its dragon threats are also relatively clunky, so they are exploitable by cheap removal like Ultimate Price. Mardu also lacks traditional card advantage, so it's vulnerable to losing an attrition battle.
Familiarity with a deck from practice beforehand makes a tournament that much easier, so it's valuable to get in as many games as possible with a deck before playing it in a tournament. I know I'll be playing as many games of Standard as I can this week. How do you prepare for your events? How are you preparing for the Invitational this weekend?
The TCGplayer Invitational this weekend is one of the biggest events of the year for us, so I can't wait to see lots of faces, new and old. It will be a memorable and rewarding event for those competing, and with Frank Lepore and Marshall Sutcliffe in the booth, it's sure to be a great show for those tuning in from home.
What other unique Standard cards are defining the format? What factors are driving the metagame? What's your pick for best deck to play this weekend? Share your thoughts and any questions in the comments section below.