Thoughtseize doesn't care who your opponent is.Thoughtseize doesn't care what other cards it's played with.Thoughtseize doesn't care when it's cast.
Thoughtseize only cares that you pay its price.Choosing your Champion
I've always thought that trying to figure out which card in Standard is the most powerful is an important tool in deckbuilding and metagame solving. Years ago, I wrote about how Jace, the Mind Sculptor was far and away the best card in Standard. Some argued that Bloodbraid Elf was better (or later, Primeval Titan), and they might have been right. It really didn't matter which card was actually best, just that I was committed to one.
I picked my champion, in that case, it was Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I focused on always trying to build the best deck with Jace in it. I knew that if I showed up to a tournament with a tuned deck that uses the best card, I'd give myself the best chance to have the right deck for that tournament. Over the course of Jace's time in Standard, I played nearly every color combination that could support 2UU.
I know that there is no single card that is the right choice for every tournament of a given format, but I do think there is one for an individual. A best card for me or you.
Had I played different decks more frequently, I may have had a better match up against the field in some events. I knew that switching between Jace and Primetime meant that I would be less familiar with how to play my own deck. If I was more practiced with a single archetype, I might gain those percentages back through making marginally better plays, maybe plays only even noticeable after hundreds of games with a deck.
After a long hiatus from Magic, I came back knowing that I wanted to play Standard with Thoughtseize. I was new to the format, and Thoughtseize is a card that I know is powerful, and also let me see my opponent's hand. It would help me learn faster what to expect out of my opponents - as well as help me make in game decisions. Should I cast Hero's Downfall or Devour Flesh? I don't know if my opponent is more likely to have Blood Baron of Vizkopa or Elspeth, Sun's Champion, but if I cast a Thoughtseize at any point during the game - even if I saw neither of those cards, the other cards in my opponent's hand (and deck) may help me make an educated guess.
That was just one minor upside to Thoughtseize specific to me, but not enough of a reason to say that Thoughtseize is the best card in Standard or the most powerful card in Standard.Thoughtseize is the best card in Standard
It's a bold assertion - but not unfounded. Thoughtseize is the best targeted discard spell ever printed. Arguments could be made for Unmask or Cabal Therapy, but for Thoughtseize's ability to be played without support (IE: Other black cards or creatures to sacrifice), and for its efficiency, it's the best card at what it does.
What it does so extremely efficiently is trade one-for-one with the best card in your opponent's hand. When cast on turn one, it lets you sculpt a game plan that is accurate to what your opponent has.
Melissa DeTora said in her article, "I really think that Thoughtseize defines Standard and the powerful discard spell actually makes certain strategies unviable."
I wholeheartedly agree with her - if you're playing a deck that revolves around a single card - Thoughtseize is the worst card to play against. Even if you're not playing a deck hinging on a specific card or two-card combination, it can force you to play linearly (by, for example, taking your only threat in a removal heavy hand, or your only spell in a creature heavy hand).
The real point here is that it doesn't really matter what your opponent is doing. Thoughtseize is going to be good. Let's add Hero's Downfall to the mix; one card lets you take the best card out of your opponent's hand, and the other destroys your opponent's best permanent (usually).
Sometimes, it's best to not cast Thoughtseize on turn one. There are times and matchups where holding onto the Thoughtseize and saving it to protect a threat can be game-winning. Thoughtseize into Pack Rat is a play anyone who plays Standard is familiar with. If your opponent knows you don't have the answer - what is to stop the fishy Rat from taking over the game?
All of this for the low, low price of one mana. And two life.The Punishment for Stolen Thoughts
So by now, you probably have heard enough of how good Thoughtseize is. This isn't news.
What do we to do fight against Thoughtseize? The card doesn't win every game, and some even choose not to play the card in decks that can cast it. Why?
We can start with the obvious: "You lose 2 life."
Black is the defining color of Standard. Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall ensured that for both Standard and Block. The depth of the color allows for it to be both a top tier aggro deck, and a top tier control deck. In addition to Thoughtseize, Underworld Connections and Herald of Torment see play and cost life, this is part of what opens the format door for burn, but it's not the only reason.
Even aside from the life loss of Thoughtseize, burn also doesn't much care about what card it actually loses. All of the deck's cards do the same thing - and this is what is fundamentally important about beating Thoughtseize.
#1: Have many cards that serve the same purpose.#2: Punish the life loss.#3: Punish the tempo loss (one mana spent on Thoughtseize, to the zero of the card discarded).
Burn accomplishes these three goals well. White aggressive decks also succeed at beating Thoughtseize by having redundancy in early threats, and trying to end the game before the enemy is able to cast all their spells.
White Weenie and Burn also do a good job of minimizing the damage Hero's Downfall deals. By playing creatures that cost less than three (or, in the case of Chandra's Phoenix, a card that targeted removal is weak against), they're also gaining tempo against the removal spells. The loss of tempo from Thoughtseize is as minimal as it gets - only a single mana. But when a deck is built to force the opponent to lose one mana over and overm that's where the advantage is gained. Judge's Familiar is an incredibly weak card, unless all of your cards are squeezing that extra mana out of your opponent.
Another angle to fight Thoughtseize from would be to play several standalone threats. Haymakers that are good off the top without a supporting cast. Monsters does this well - take Xenagos, and they'll cast Polukranos. Take Elspeth, and they'll cast a different, but powerful six-drop that rhymes with Elspeth. A Thought by Any Other Color
Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall are where black decks start in Standard. For redundancy, add Duress, Brain Maggot, Lifebane Zombie or Sin Collector. Add Bile Blight, Devour Flesh, Ultimate Price or Abrupt Decay for flavor.
Here are a few lists, the first from Adam Yurchick's article earlier this week, and the other two from a recent Standard Daily.
These decks are extremely similar, the first two more than the third. Supporting a plethora of removal and card draw are the same efficient black creatures - Desecration Demon, Pack Rat, and Lifebane Zombie. The third list gives up Gray Merchant of Asphodel for some more variety in its spells, and some of its mana to support Elspeth, Sun's Champion."I am NEVER out of options!" - Olivia Pope
Personally, I love the mana in Standard. There's exactly enough fixing for any two color combination, and the devotion mechanic rewards deck builders for working with less.
We see Monoblack, B/g, and B/w in these lists. What about B/r and B/u?
We saw a black-red (+/- green) deck earlier in the format, with Dreadbore, Rakdos's Return, Sire of Insanity and Slaughter Games. Hero's Downfall does the job we would want to splash Dreadbore for, and the hand disruption isn't as important as it was when Sphinx's Revelation was the most played card.
If you're interested in playing with the black cards, and care to splash a different color to suit your metagame - figure out what your deck wants to beat. Is there more burn than anything else? Maybe splashing Nyx-Fleece Ram and Blood Baron of Vizkopa would be the best bet. Are there too many Blood Baron of Vikzopa's running around? Maybe a blue splash for Far // Away to supplement Devour Flesh would work best.
The power of this black controlling shell isn't from what color it splashes, but rather in its flexibility to change a couple of cards and beat whatever was giving it trouble the week before. Understanding the archetype and staying ahead of it is the only way to ensure beating it, either from the outside or in the mirror.
Thanks for reading!