As you probably know, the TCGplayer Standard State Championships are this weekend. In the last couple years, there has been a trend towards having State Championships right after rotation, which I really love. These Championship tournaments always feel cool and special because they award titles -- the winner will be the TCGplayer Standard State Champion (in addition to qualifying for the $50,000 MaxPoint Championship, of course). That's not something you get at your average run of the mill tournament, and awarding that title right after rotation means becoming a State Champion will require strong deckbuilding and metagaming skills, and not just tight play. Each TCGplayer Standard State Champion will be someone with a legitimate claim to being the best all-around Magic player in their State that day, not the best pilot of the de facto best deck, and I think that's pretty cool.
So looking ahead to the TCGplayer State Championships this weekend, today I am going to talk about the things I want to be doing in this brand new Battle for Zendikar Standard format. These are things to keep in mind as you set your battle plans for your State's Championship to help guide your deck selection. Any deck that can reliably do all of these things is, in my mind, a deck capable of winning a State Championship. If, while reading this list, you find something that you think the deck you had in mind to play this weekend would have a difficult time doing, you may want to Think Twice on that choice.
We're playing Magic, so I want to cast spells. I know, I know. Duh. Hear me out though, this needs to be said.
There is a narrative being formed around this Standard format that says the mana is so good you can do whatever you want. Four-color and five-color decks are starting to look like the rule and not the exception. Don't be tricked by this narrative. The mana is certainly good and four/five-color very possible, but it's not free and it's not easy. When building a many-colored deck, you have to really think about how to construct the mana base and when you want to be able to cast each of your spells. Just because you are playing four colors does not mean you will be able to have equal access to every one of those colors throughout all stages of the game.
In this particular format, when you have access to what color largely depends on the colors you are typically able to fetch for with basics and which you primarily only have access to via battle lands. This is why knowing when you want to cast each of your spells is so important. If you want to cast Jace, Vryn's Prodigy on turn two reliably, you probably need to routinely be able to play a blue fetch land and grab an Island on turn two. If you are playing Jeskai Black and only need black for a few mid-to-late game spells like Crackling Doom, your mana works because you don't need black mana early. Don't assume you can do whatever you want and decide you want to tech some Bloodsoaked Champions into your build -- without drastically rehauling the mana of the deck, that idea will not work out well. Further, these many colored mana bases are very good at having access to each mana symbol of the color pie, but fairly bad at having access to multiple symbols. Play cards that are double costed in one color of mana (like Ruinous Path) only very sparingly and only if you are sure you are heavy enough into that color to be casting them.
In general, this format is fast enough that you need to be casting your spells reliably and quickly. The mana bases are fetch/battle land-powered, not Temple-powered like we have gotten used to. This means more lands are entering the battlefield untapped more of the time, which means things are faster. Get to castin' or get to dyin'. You can play a lot of colors, but you can't do nothing forever. Identify what you want to be playing on turns two, three, four, etc., and make sure your mana base can support playing those spells on that turn.
Kill Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
We are only two weeks into this Standard format, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy has already left his mark on it. He might be the single card that gained the most with the rotation of Magic 2015 and Theros block, in part due to their being much less competition to his power level, and partly due to the things he does being even more valuable in this Battle for Zendikar world. I talked about this in more detail last week, but the long and short of it is that Jace is both the best flood insurance and the best draw smoother in a many-colored format where decks are prone to both stumbling and flooding. Now, I'm not trying to tell you that only a mage casting Jace, Vryn's Prodigy can possibly win a State Championship. That's far from the case. However, I can guarantee that to be successful in this Standard format, you need to be prepared to deal with Jace.
Deal with, for the grand majority of decks, means Remove. And we really want to be removing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, and not Jace, Telepath Unbound. Partly because it's easier, and partly because by the time Jace has transformed it might already be too late. The best spells in each color for dealing with Jace are as follows:
Note that the blue and green offerings to this list are pretty measly and not at all the same level of quality as the others. I would not recommend playing a pure blue/green deck this weekend (for a multitude of reasons). In reality, the short list of Jace answers I am looking to play is Silkwrap, Ultimate Price, Reave Soul, Wild Slash, Fiery Impulse, and Dromoka's Command. I want my answer to Jace to be two or less mana, partly because that's all they spent on Jace and I don't want to trade down, and partly because I don't want them to untap and get some value before I manage to get rid of him. It's worth noting that Dromoka's Command is not a clean two-drop answer as it requires that you already have a creature on the battlefield, which can be a difficult proposition on turn two.
Whatever deck I choose to battle with in this Standard format, I'm fairly sure that it will be playing at least one spell on that shortlist of Jace answers. But how far behind will that put me against decks that aren't playing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy? Well, for the most part, not very. This format is shaping up in a way such that interacting early is just something a deck has to be able to do. There are very few decks where these Jace answers have no targets, because every deck has to be doing something early. The worst case scenario, I guess, is a control deck that has made the conscious decision to not play Jace, Vryn's Prodigy so as to blank their opponent's removal spells, but even then I think I'm happy because my control opponent isn't playing Jace. So don't worry too much about having a bunch of dead Jace kill spells vs. a deck whose curve starts on four, as those decks are punished by this format (or need Jace to survive to four).
Brian DeMars won the first major tournament of Battle for Zendikar Standard with a green combo take on red aggression with his R/G Aggro list. I say aggro, and his deck certainly was aggressive, but if I had said combo I wouldn't be that wrong. The combination of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage is a very scary one. For me, the take away from his list and his success is that we need to be expecting the Red Aggro deck in its final incarnation to be packing haymakers. Without the reach Red Aggro had in Theros / Khans of Tarkir Standard the deck needs to add powerful splashy effects to compete. Gone are the ultra-consistent and methodical Red Aggro decks of Pro Tour Origins. The new breed looks to be terrifyingly variant, capable of spewing tons of damage at once if you give them an opening.
For me, this change means I want to be proactive in beating the red deck. Executing a game plan that looks relatively normal and hoping that removing a couple of their key creatures and blocking a few times is enough to win the game is not at all where I want to be. I have a couple ideas in mind for beating these Red Aggro decks. The first plan I would want to be on is removing everything. If it moves, kill it dead. Creatures are way more important to this Standard's Red Aggro lists because they don't have nearly the same quality of burn spells to rely on. If you manage to deal with all of their creatures, it will be exceedingly difficult for them to cobble together more than four or six damage, if that. This plan is well-suited for decks that already have a high removal density in their starting 60 to execute by making all of their Red Aggro sideboard cards more removal spells.
The other plan is to get aggressive. Haymaker style Red Aggro needs to find its card combinations to execute its haymakers, and if you are very aggressive and don't give them the time needed to find said combinations, you stand a better chance. I would not be at all surprised to learn that part of the success of Red Aggro in the opening weeks of this Standard format was due to people playing too defensively against the deck. Last Standard's red lists mandated defensive counter-play -- anything else would see you dead very quickly. In bringing the fight to these new Red Aggro lists, you do likely need to slow them down with well-timed removal or gain some sort of life cushion.
One last note on playing against red right now: please don't sideboard Arashin Cleric. Three life is close to nothing against Red Aggro lists that are creature-reliant instead of being spell-reliant. If they are capable of pushing 20 damage through with creatures in a game, they are almost certainly capable of pushing 23 damage through. Gone are the days of Arashin Cleric being a proactive Counterspell for a Lightning Strike. And the 1/3 body fails to impress against these Red Aggro lists and their resilient creature base. If you want to gain life, I recommend Lantern Scout and attacking. Bonus points if you're playing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar -- the Knight Allies he makes will trigger the Lantern Scout again on your next turn.
Get Planeswalkers Off the Table
There are a lot of very good paneswalkers in this Standard format. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Nissa, Vastwood Seer already have seen some time in the spotlight, and I fully expect to see Ob Nixilis Reignited and probably a couple of other walkers join them before too long. Being able to get opposing planeswalkers into the graveyard from the battlefield is an important capability for decks to have right now, as most games that don't end instantly will have you staring down a Planeswalker at some point.
In thinking about dealing with planeswalkers I assume that my opponent has a board presence that exists but is somewhat anemic. Maybe their three-drop is still sticking around and they played a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and made a Knight Token so now they have two 2/2s. The best thing in this format for assassinating planeswalkers is probably fliers. Wingmate Roc and Dragonlord Ojutai have both shown their worth in this capacity already in this format, and I expect them to continue to do so for some time. These are my "tier one" anti-planeswalker options.
The "tier two" anti-walker keywords are trample and haste. Both somewhat help you get through a middling ground opposition, but neither are fool proof. The best trample creature to be playing is, of course, Siege Rhino. The best haste creature is probably Surrak, Hunt Caller, but no haste creature has really shined thus far into this format. However, there are some theoretical haste/flying all-stars waiting on the benches: Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Kolaghan, Storm's Fury are some of the best anti-planeswalker cards around. Due to the mana constraints of this format, the double red on Sarkhan might be a deal breaker, but Kolaghan is a card I am actively looking to play right now.
Burn is a historically solid way to deal with opposing planeswalkers, but with the current card pool it is less of an option. Wild Slash doesn't line up terribly well with any of the good walker loyalty numbers and Exquisite Firecraft is a double red sorcery, making it somewhat unappealing. Ruinous Path can destroy target planeswalker but again, is a sorcery speed card with two black pips in its casting cost. Creature options for dealing with planeswalkers are the best we have.
Best of luck to everyone this weekend!
Thanks for reading,