The most important thing for the first week after a new set makes its way into Standard is figuring out where you can use the new cards to gain an advantage. Whether it's a brand new deck or an update to an old strategy, week one success belongs to those who get a handle on the new cards the fastest. After week one, however, these simple tricks are no longer enough. Success from this point forward will take more than a novel idea.
For week two and onwards, the name of the game is adjusting. Sure, there is still some new technology to be found among the new cards and exploring new terrain is still worthwhile. But exploration of new ground is no longer the only thing that matters. Now we have to start wrapping our heads around the new reality we find ourselves in and adjusting to it. This can be easy, and this can be hard. Adjusting to brand new strategies is relatively easy — it's the same song and dance we as Magic players have done a thousand times, learning a new matchup and growing to understand how to beat it. No, what's difficult is figuring out how the subtle changes to previous archetypes affect how we need to play and build our old decks.
The difficulty in adjusting to small one or two card changes in previous decks is primarily in unlearning what we knew. With brand new decks we have a clean slate, no outdated impressions to guide us down the wrong paths. But when an old strategy changes, it is really hard to ignore what we used to know about the strategy and how to beat it. This is understandable, as much of the last few months in our Magic lives was a battle to learn these now outdated truths. Abandoning the fruits of our previous labor is painful and hard, but it is absolutely essential to continuing to grow as a player. Such is Magic.
So, with Oath of the Gatewatch upon us, what do we need to unlearn? Before we talk about any specific decks (which, don't worry, we will) we need to talk about the format in general. Really, formats in general and the effect of adding cards to a format's card pool. When a new set enters Standard, what happens? The simple truth is that a bigger card pool means better decks. Decks don't just change, they improve. We have more options available to us and can build better decks, not just different ones. Better in Magic tends to mean faster and more efficient. Vintage is a faster format than Legacy which is a faster format than Modern which is a faster format than Standard, etc. Sure, games in massive card pool formats can still get grindy and go long, but even a control deck in Legacy is capable of effectively winning a game very early.
Think back to the last time you were actively building or tuning a deck. Remember every decision point at which you had to choose between consistency, efficiency, and raw power? Maybe you didn't think of the decisions you were making in those terms, but at some level that's what most deck-building decisions are. A fourth Painful Truths, because no deck could effectively punish you for not affecting the board on turn three. An extra exciting five-drop over a serviceable two-drop because you think you can get away with it. Squeezing extra creature lands into your mana base even though it puts you to way too many enters-the-battlefield tapped lands. We often choose power over efficiency while deckbuilding, and our greed is often justified and correct, but when the card pool increases, every decision like these needs to be reexamined.
In practice, this can be exceedingly difficult. Unless you keep meticulous notes while deck-building, it is likely impossible to remember every single instance in which you faced such a decision. And it's not like it's correct to simply make the opposite decision in every instance — often, playing the more powerful card is still correct. For the first few weeks of the new format while playing with old decks, keep your mind open to this power/efficiency spectrum and try to gauge if your deck is still falling on an appropriate point in the spectrum.
One last note before we move on to examining a couple of specific decks and how they've changed: sometimes, while reexamining a deck's power over consistency decisions, you will realize that the format has grown too efficient for this level of inconsistency, and that these decisions should be reversed. At the same time, you will be scared that if you decrease the power level of the deck, it just won't be able to compete at with the rest of the format. In cases like these, it is exceedingly likely that the deck is just no longer good enough to play. Don't be afraid to move on when the time comes.
Let's get it out of the way: Red won again. This time around, the Open-winning deck utilized just one new Oath of the Gatewatch card - three copies of Reckless Bushwhacker - on its way to the championship. Those three copies were critical though, allowing the deck to drop the Temur Battle Rage combo and play as a classic Red Aggro deck in a nod to consistency over raw power that no one could have seen coming three and a half weeks ago. In this new world, how do we prepare to play against turn one Mountain, Monastery Swiftspear?
Matches against Red Aggro right now are going to be the Wild Wild West of tournament Magic: no law, no order. If you think every Red Aggro pilot is going to be onboard with dropping Temur Battle Rage and playing a more fair game, you are very wrong. If you prepare solely for Temur Battle Rage-less versions of the deck, what's your plan when you get paired against a Red Aggro pilot who didn't get the memo? Venting to your friends about how you lost to an idiot who doesn't know that Temur Battle Rage is bad isn't going to get you any match points. And let me assure you, Temur Battle Rage isn't bad and and that person isn't an idiot. These things have an ebb and a flow to them, and we haven't seen the last of Temur Battle Rage.
Forgetting about the combo finish out of red is not the answer. However, that does not mean that we have to respect it exactly as much as we used to. The combo won't disappear, but the threat of it will be diminished. Less pilots will choose to run it, and of those who do, some will minimize its importance in their build by playing less copies. So we don't want to unlearn the combo entirely, but we do want to throw our previous impressions of its frequency out the window. And with them, our thoughts on how we need to play around it. Tapping out against Red Aggro in the midgame while they had a board presence before Oath of the Gatewatch felt like a death sentence. That is no longer the case. Now it's just maybe a death sentence. The risk for tapping out in these spots has decreased while the reward has stayed the same (potentially even increased, due to the higher play-to-the-board ability of the new breed of red). Basic game theory will tell us that these shifts together mean that we are supposed to tap out more often in these spots than we used to.
The new builds of Red Aggro are much better against spot removal than the old versions. We used to actively want spot removal against Atarka Red since it could stop the pump spell combos, now we should forget that desire. I used to find Crackling Doom completely serviceable against red — it was expensive, but it did what I wanted: stop the combo. Now, I'm going to forget about that card. The combo is diminished, not gone, so I believe we will soon be learning that we do still want some spot removal. However, now we need to be much more selective in what removal we play. One mana spot removal spells are excellent (Murderous Cut), two mana spells are playable, spells costing more than that likely aren't good enough.
Cards that are good against red no matter how its pilot wants to play are at a premium. Sweepers like Flaying Tendrils and Radiant Flames do this, as do select cheap counterspells like Dispel and Negate. Arashin Cleric seems better to me now than it ever has before. For now, we can't make too many assumptions about what our Red Aggro opponent's deck looks like. Forget everything you know about the archetype's specifics for each match, and relearn them as you go for each opponent, piecing together what their build looks like as the match goes on. Pack your 75 with anti-red cards that are good against all comers and use your in-match gleanings to learn how to sequence and play them against the exact deck you're facing.
The Rally the Ancestors deck did not break the top eight of the Open, but there was a full four copies in the top sixteen. That's impressive. The Oath of the Gatewatch card they all agreed on was Reflector Mage, with every top sixteen build playing at least three copies. Some of them also played Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim in small numbers as an additional sacrifice outlet. The main take-away, however, is absolutely Reflector Mage. The best Man-o-War ever printed does a lot of things for the Rally deck, most of which can be summed up by saying that he greatly increases the deck's ability to interact. That's huge.
Previously, Rally's interaction was precisely Sidisi's Faithful. Sidisi's Faithful did what the deck needed in a fairly clumsy way. Notably, it really was only great when the deck was in the process of doing what the deck wanted to do — casting Collected Company and Rally the Ancestors and generally developing its board and its graveyard. It was very bad when the deck was stumbling, trying to buy itself some time to continue finding its power cards. Enter Reflector Mage. The Mage serves the same "get troublesome creatures out of the way" function that Sidisi's Faithful did, but it's also incredible on curve. Reflector Mage just buys the deck so much time against an aggressive opponent, time that the rest of the deck puts to fantastic use.
Previously, the most popular anti-Rally strategies were Anafenza, the Foremost and counterspells (including Hallowed Moonlight). With the printing of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, I think a lot of people were excited about having access to a less color restrictive Anafenza, the Foremost for use in beating Rally. Now, I think Reflector Mage means we need to completely unlearn everything we thought we knew about the role of Anafenza, the Foremost and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in beating Rally. With so many bounce options available to the Rally deck, these cards simply aren't reliable enough to depend on for victory. They used to be a large roadblock for the Rally deck, something that would either beat them outright or force them to spend a sizeable amount of resources to deal with. Now, I'm not sure they are a road block at all. If you were going to main deck Anafenza, the Foremost or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet regardless, then by all means, keep playing them, but I no longer will be going out of my way to get these cards into my 75.
So if Anafenza, the Foremost and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet aren't good enough anymore, what is? Before Oath of the Gatewatch, my thoughts on the Rally deck were that I just had to board in some counterspells and execute my normal game plan while keeping them off their powerful spells and I would eventually win. If that was ever the case, it's not anymore. Against most decks, I believe the late game favors Rally. Counterspells are good, but they can't be your whole plan. You need to find a way to pressure the Rally deck, to keep them on the back foot. Then your counterspells can seal the deal, but if the Rally deck is only under light pressure it doesn't matter how many counterspells you have, they will eventually win. I don't have a perfect answer for how to beat Rally yet, but I am sure that the way to find one is to first toss out all your old accumulated knowledge on the subject — it no longer applies.
Constantly challenging your assumptions is an important skill in both life and Magic. In Magic, however, it's amplified, as its very nature periodically completely invalidates everything you thought you knew. Being willing and able to forget all your previous knowledge and start again fresh is a valuable skill that will reward you handsomely.
Thanks for reading,