What's the deal with Standard? Can't live with it. Can't live without it. Am I right? It's like airline food…
As you can see, my attempt to design a Stand-Up Comedy routine based solely on the Magic: The Gathering Constructed format "Standard" has been largely unsuccessful thus far, but I haven't given up yet, nor will I.
Ever. When I'm 87 years old, 3 months, and 13 days, on the ninth hour of that self same day, I will be still cranking out this comedy routine. Mark my words.
One thing that has gone a bit better, however, has been my attempts to get a feel for this Standard format. I've been playing a good bit of Standard over the past week, and through losing a lot I've learned many valuable lessons. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to go. Every loss is a learning experience. If that is true, then I might be the most learned man about this Standard format in the world.
It's time to share that knowledge. I'm going to talk about the three best decks in the format along with some analysis from playing with and against these strategies a number of times. Let us begin the story, now.
Is this deck good? I can't tell. It only put six players into the Top 8 of the last Standard Grand Prix. Hit seven players and then we can talk. Six means nothing to me. In fact, every time someone starts counting from 1-10 I stop them after five and say "It doesn't sound like anything to me" and then let them continue from seven onward.
In all seriousness, while this deck utterly dominated Grand Prix Birmingham last weekend, I do only think it is number three on the list of decks in Standard. Why is that? Well, because I've been beating it with both of the other two decks on this list. While I imagine Black-Red Vehicles is dominant against most of the rest of the field, it's hard to call something the best deck in the format if it isn't great against the other two top decks.
Now maybe those problems are fixable and black-red can immediately vault back up to being the top dog without any hitches, but until that happens, I think Black-Red Vehicles is only a good choice, not a great one.I will say that I like Simon Nielsen's list the most of any of the Vehicles lists. There are a few reasons why.
The first reason is that he plays a basic Swamp. People see Goblin Chainwhirler costing RRR and assume that they must play exclusively lands that produce only red mana or they'll never be able to cast it. People play Cryptic Command in Modern with 24 lands in their deck, two basic Plains and a basic Mountain. You can get away with one land that doesn't produce red mana and still cast Chainwhirler on curve the vast majority of the time.
Why does the swamp matter? Field of Ruin. I've been playing a lot of Field of Ruin strategies in Standard and I've gotten a lot of free wins against this deck by just blowing up one to two black sources, having them only able to fetch Mountains and stranding Scrapheap Scroungers in the graveyard and other black cards in their hand. I think my favorite was when I field of ruined a Dragonskull Summit and my opponent brought back their thirrd Scrounger in response and then I got to Fumigate and strand three Scroungers. That was a, how do you say it, oh yeah, a pure, utter delight. I cackled maniacally for minutes and started yelling "YES" to nobody in particular. I walked outside and shouted it at my neighbor and she ran inside her house screaming, probably because she couldn't handle all the value I accumulated with that Field of Ruin activation.
I like that Simon is also playing Magma Spray. Get those Scrapheap Scroungers out of here! Get them out of my life. Scrapheap Scrounger is all over the format and Spray easily takes care of it, and it also handles one half of History of Benalia for one mana. While getting 2-for-1'd by History of Benalia isn't ideal, the cheap cost of Magma Spray helps alleviate that problem, especially because you can also sometimes blow your opponent out in combat with Magma Spray and Soul-Scar Mage if they aren't expecting the one-mana play.
Thirdly, I like Simon's sideboard – especially Heartless Pillage and Angrath. I love Mind Rot in Constructed. Hell, I had Blightning in my Hollow One sideboard, and it is not even close to the first time I've played Blightning in Modern because I love the rot. Mind Rot effects simply do not get played enough. People love their one-mana discard – and for good reason – but sometimes in lower-power formats like Standard, Mind Rot can actually be better in quite a few spots.
The reason Mind Rot effects are good is that a lot of decks like White-Blue Control are actually pretty good at playing through one-for-one hand disruption. Decks like Black-Red Vehicles do not put a fast enough clock on them to make sniping one card that big of a deal. They'll draw way more interaction in the many turns they have left in the game. Mind Rot, on the other hand, can be devastating if you force them to interact with you a bunch on the early turns. They've deployed a lot of their hand and the remaining cards are likely to be powerful cards like Teferi, Pull from Tomorrow or a sweeper.
One thing I'm not sure about regarding this deck is the planeswalker split. Right now the deck has two Chandra and two Karn main with an additional of each in the sideboard. I'm not sure that's the optimal split, as there is a good chance one is better than the other. I lean toward Karn being a bit better in situations where his -2 ability to make Constructs is relevant pressure and Chandra being better in matchups where that doesn't matter too much. I haven't played enough to know for sure which matchups are which yet.
This deck crushed the Magic Online PTQ last weekend, going 12-0 and winning it all. There are two main things I like about this deck. The first is that it's a white-black deck and I love the Orzhov Syndicate and everything that color combination stands for. Religion, Corruption, the two combined as one and everything that goes with that is my cup of tea. The Handmaid's Tale in guild form. The second thing I love is that this deck has an off-the-charts power level. I wouldn't be Orzhov if I didn't love power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and I want both the power and the corruption so, yeah, that works for me.
This deck is a lot like the Mardu Vehicle decks of old that almost every card is a super-high power level threat that must be addressed. However, also like Mardu Vehicle decks of old, it also has mana issues and is very clunky and some of the cards don't always work together that well.
I've been jokingly referring to History of Benalia as a mythic Call the Cavalry. In Limited, that's basically true. History of Benalia and Call the Cavalry aren't that far off in power level. In Constructed? Let's just say I drastically underrated History of Benalia because that card can do some dirty things, and the +2/+1 ability is not to be trifled with. Once that saga pops, the damage don't stop.
History of Benalia represents 14 damage by itself in the three following turns if it goes unchecked. So while the card seems like it's just a good value card, it actually outputs a lot of pressure and damage as well. It's perfect for defending Karn and pressuring opposing planeswalkers – in a lot of ways it is the ultimate midrange card. Provides value, provides pressure, and plays defense. It attac, it protec, but most importantly it beat your opponent entire dec.
Speaking of Karn, this is the best Karnage deck in the format. I've played a lot with Karn over the past few weeks and there are basically two conditions that need to be met for Karn to be a great card. The first is that the -2 ability must be relevant. In this deck, the Construct crews vehicles, gets pumped by Scrounger, Heart of Kiran, and Walking Ballista, turns on Toolcraft Exemplar and amplifies the deck's aggressive angle.
The second condition for Karn to be great is that the deck have enough powerful cards to where the +1 and -1 ability are actually relevant options. I've played Karn in control decks where the +1 and -1 are great but the -2 is weak, and I've seen Karn played in artifact synergy decks where the -2 ability is great but the +1 and -1 are weak because the power level of the deck is so low.
This is a deck where both abilities are useful and worthwhile.
If there is a flaw with this deck – and there is – it is that the deck suffers from a lot of discord. Toolcraft Exemplar doesn't curve well into Knight of Malice or History of Benalia. Knight of Malice and History of Benalia both do not crew Heart of Kiran on turn three without help.
The last flaw isn't necessarily immediately apparent from looking at the decklist, but it became clear when I was playing with the deck. This flaw is that all the pieces in the main deck are reliant on each other to function properly. Toolcraft needs Heart of Kiran. Scrounger needs Toolcraft and Knight of Malice to provide enough fuel for it. Heart of Kiran doesn't work without Toolcraft or Scrounger, and so forth. This synergy-driven approach to the deck means that sideboarding becomes problematic. If you cut one piece, it makes all the other pieces worse. If you cut two pieces, then you basically need to cut everything.
So while the sideboard has a transformational aspect to it – you can turn into a midrange or control deck after board – I don't like that the deck basically forces you into that role, because once you cut two pieces of synergy cards from the deck you have to essentially cut the whole package. And if you don't want to cut the synergy package but only take out one piece, like Toolcraft Exemplar against Goblin Chainwhirler decks, then the other pieces get worse and you also can't cut more of them or the entire house crumbles. That minimizes how many cards can get sided in and really mitigates the effectiveness of the sideboard.
I imagine these flaws will get solved at some point, and this deck will be a force to reckon with in the weeks to come, because it is playing all the great cards. It just needs some tuning.
This is the best deck in Standard right now. That won't be the case in a few weeks, but right now, this is the best tuned and most streamlined deck in the format.
Why won't it be the case in a few weeks? Well, White-Blue Control is an exploitable strategy. Most of its removal spells only function on tapped or attacking creatures, which opens up a clear avenue to beat it. History of Benalia, anyone? Cards like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Walking Ballista that don't have to attack to gain value are also a good place to start.
The problem with a lot of cards that attack White-Blue Control is that those same cards, like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner can be very weak against Goblin Chainwhirler. The one-two squeeze that Control and Vehicles put on a format often forces players to choose decks that can beat one or the other but not both. A lot of decks can beat neither! I suspect once white-black irons out the kinks it will be a deck that can beat both, but until that point, White-Blue Control thrives because Vehicles is the deck with the bigger target on its head.
I've played a lot of leagues with various versions of the deck over the past few weeks, and the two I like the most both contain zero creatures. One of them, this version, is the cleanest and purest form of White-Blue Control. Other than the one-of Gideon in the deck, the only way for this deck to win is to loop Teferi by chaining together the -3 ability on itself in combination with a Teferi ultimate to eventually mill your opponent out while exiling all of their permanents. Now that's some old school control.
The other version I like is my own brand with Karn in addition to Teferi. I like Karn because it comes down early and ensures you keep hitting land drops because your opponents tend to just always give you the land when you +1 Karn. Eventually you can use the -1 to reacquire cards like Fumigate or countermagic when you need them. But Karn isn't at his best in control, as I alluded to earlier – without the -2 being a worthwhile play in most situations, Karn is just a slow, plodding card advantage engine. However, I think that is actually often good enough and I tend to think better than a one-shot effect like Glimmer of Genius.
My favorite aspect of this deck by far is the sideboard. There's one sideboard card in particular I want to talk about.
Let me start by explaining that it all began when the Sheoltun Empire collapsed. Not everyone knows that, because the collapse of Sheoltun didn't result in decay and chaos for that long. Not with Torsten Von Ursus around. Torsten took Sheoltun's demise as a chance to form a new empire, which he named Benalia, designed with the intent to rule the world. Torsten, you see, doesn't often get the recognition or credit he deserves, largely because he spent much of his life in exile.
Torsten himself was brutal and efficient, but ultimately mortal. He himself would also die, leaving Benalia without a singular figure at the helm. Instead, Torsten decreed that Benalia would instead by ruled by seven distinct clans, each with a different purpose.
One key thing about Benalia is that it was the eventual birthplace of one of the greatest heroes of Dominaria's past, Gerrard Capashen, ancestor to Raff Levy Capashen and Danitha Patrick Capashen, who have graced us with their presence in the most recent set. Gerrard and his legendary exploits in the Weatherlight Saga were a constant force for good in battling against the legendary villain Yawgmoth and both with and against egotistical and powerful Urza, who would alternate between heroics and villainy. In fact, it was once said that Urza's compatriots would be happy to stop contradicting him as soon as he started being right. He never did start. Gerrard, however, was always battling for the best outcome for Dominaria, even though he lacked the enormous powers of Yawgmoth and Urza. He gave it his all, just like Benalia would have expected of him.
So, in conclusion, I do think that card is the best card in the sideboard of this deck, because of how insane it is in control mirrors and against other decks that are sideboarding out removal because they don't expect to play against threats. I would not register this deck without four copies of History of Benalia in the sideboard. A resolved turn three History of Benalia in the mirror is just game over in most games. It's actually very frustrating to play against specifically because of how devastating it is and how much variance it adds to the mirror match.
One last point I want to touch on is that I think Fumigate is insanely good in this deck and actually better than Settle the Wreckage, though Settle is superior against Vehicles. Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer are all more vulnerable to Settle than Fumigate. However, that is a good matchup for White-Blue already. The bad matchups are decks that can back up disruption with threats like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Bristling Hydra or Walking Ballista and the timing restriction and drawbacks to Settle the Wreckage can be really hard to Overcome in those matchups, while Fumigate cleans it all up easily.
I think as people transition to beat White-Blue Control, Fumigate will go up as the sweeper of choice and Settle the Wreckage will get way worse. Things already seem like they've started to trend that way, if my experience recently on Magic Online is any indicator.
I think it may be correct in the future to turn White-Blue Control into Esper or Jeskai to get access to better removal spells and more transitional sideboard options, like The Scarab God or perhaps Whirler Virtuoso to pair with Karn and Glimmer of Genius and Aether Meltdown. Teferi is such an unbelievably powerful card that I can't imagine we won't be seeing a lot of Teferi for the next few months – it's already starting to make a splash in Modern – but it's just not clear to me what the best Teferi shells will eventually look like as players adapt.
- Brian Braun-Duin