The State of Standard

Standard is a pretty healthy format at the moment.  With Nationals approaching, there are several tier 1 decks to be considered.  Wolf Run Ramp, Red Deck Wins, and Solar Flare are the big three.  Tempered steel, with its ability to steal games, is not one to be counted out, but does not have the raw power of the top tier decks.

Solar Flare is moving away from Liliana and towards Jace, Memory Adept.  I believe this is among the proper approaches to take, as Liliana is weak in the Wolf Run Ramp matchup.  Of the big three, Wolf Run Ramp seems to be the deck to beat.  The top 8 of Grand Prix Brisbane featured 4 Wolf Run Ramp, 3 UB control, and 1 WG Hero of Bladehold beatdown deck.  View the results for yourself here.  Among the UB control lists was a Tezzeret deck.  Any of the top decks that could fit it in ran Wring Flesh.  Having a 1-mana out to annoying X/1 creatures outside of red is worthy of inclusion.  Wring Flesh as a maindeck card in UB control is probably a good enough reason to avoid running Tempered Steel in the present format.  Oddly enough, the winner of the tournament was UB control.  The deck is legit.  Untapping with a Concecrated Sphinx against any deck seems good.  The card’s primary weakness is its lack of an immediate effect.  The deck’s other finishers make up for that quite nicely.  UB control’s finishers are immune to Dismember, at least if the red zone is not considered in the equation.  If the deck isn’t tier 1, it is very close.

There are other tournament results to consider.  The StarCityGames.com Standard Open brings more lists to the table.  There were a great number of innovations in the tournament, as pointed out by Mike Flores here.  For innovative Solar Flare decks, Christian Valent’s decklist takes the cake.  The deck features no planeswalkers at all.  None.  Not even in the sideboard.  The deck is a thing of beauty.  As a concession to aggressive strategies, the deck has a miser Celestial Purge, 3 Timely Reinforcements, and 2 Day of Judgment.  In the current meta, I don’t know that such a decklist would work.  Ghost Quarter is a must to deal with Kessig Wolf Run and Inkmoth Nexus.  Running lands that don’t tap for colored mana can really strain a deck working off of 3 colors.  However, switching numbers around a bit and overhauling the mana base may produce a list that has a solid chance.  The tournament saw decks that ran fewer than four Mana Leak.  Personally, I don’t like the card at all right now.  You are quite often outside Mana Leak range once you see something relevant to counter with it.

Why I Suck at Magic

I have been playing Magic off and on since Mirrodin block.  It is a tiring game, as losing can be very frustrating.  Victories can be equally rewarding, but if you are below .500 like me, you tend to lose the motivation to press on. 

My lack of humility is definitely another factor that makes Magic much harder.  I want the cards I like to be good, and I sometimes simply ignore those who would tell me otherwise.  Accepting the fact that some of the cards I like are terrible often comes down to losing to terrible decks repeatedly.  Trusting some of the people who are good at the game would save me a lot of time and headaches, but pride, distrust, and the need to see things for myself stand in my way.

Now for the character flaw that spawned this article:  my lack of skill at dividing my attention.  While writing the Innistrad review, I had a particular deck in mind the entire time, and that leaked into my perception of the cards and how good or bad they were.  The fated deck is of course the self-mill pseudo-dredge deck.  Every single card I mentioned in the review, I sized up against that deck.  This is a very good perspective for a scientist to take when looking at drug interactions, co-infections, immune systems, and microbial mechanisms.  Unfortunately, this approach to assessing cards is less than ideal for a Magic player.  There are cards that I should have a higher opinion of simply because they are solid, regardless of deck archetype.  There is no “best” deck in Magic, but I treated the self-mill deck as though it were the deck to beat.

On the good side of things, the good Lord has humbled me greatly over the past few years.  My ability to trust others’ assessment of things is improving.  That still leaves a glaring weakness.  So, attacking my card assessment ability will involve putting my critical thinking skills into play.

Perhaps I don’t give myself enough credit, but I know things need to change if they are to get any better.  My lifetime record in draft is something on the order of 10-50-5.  That should say something of the level of improvement that is called for.

Innistrad Review

I have to get this out of the way first.  The only card that really got me giddy was Lantern Spirit.  I can’t help it…. I love creatures that are nigh impossible to get rid of.  The guy can fight through everything on its own short of counterspells and split-second removal… and of course being tapped out.  It may not even be constructed worthy, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  He has a special place in my heart.

First, the obvious: Liliana of the Veil, Devil’s Play, Curse of Stalked Prey, Snapcaster Mage, Garruk Relentless, and Mayor of Avabruck will all, nigh inevitably have time in the limelight.  I think they are too good not to.

Wizards, I don’t know whether or not you are aware of this, but Dredge was never unplayable, and I don’t think it needed a buff.

This is by far one of the strangest sets I have seen in a while.  My whole concept of what is good for me and bad for my opponent has been tossed on its head.  Moreover, what I considered fun and unfun are no longer that way.  Being at the other end of  ‘the nuts’ mill deck in draft = frown, amirite?  But in Innistrad, you might just as easily win from nowhere on the back of the flashback cards that your opponent put in your graveyard.

Ok… Big picture stuff is out of the way… I’m going to focus on draft more than anything in this set review, so that means paying particular attention to the commons.  The other cards will get plenty of attention as the new Standard develops, so I feel no need to review them.  In addition, most of them do not seem terribly hard to assess in draft anyway, as a lot of them are simply upgrades to common and uncommon cards.

White first, per the norm.  I don’t think you will be seeing any mono-white decks in this draft format.  The color’s cards are quite good and they will likely get snapped up quick.  Also, the minimal graveyard abuse white gets may be reason enough for wanting another color, at worst as a splash.  The colour has a lot going for it.  Creatures benefit a lot from others on your side dying, as well as creatures entering the battlefield.  The color has some extremely aggressive potential.  Dropping a Doomed Traveler turn 1 seems like a solid game plan as you can consistently get through with him.  Unruly Mob is only a 1/1, but he can get out of hand very quickly, particularly with some of the other cards white has access to.  Selfless Cathar is another card to watch out for.  Being able to threaten lethal with him can lead to some really bad blocks or outright blowouts against opponents. If you have a bunch of Spirit tokens, popping him could end the game with ease.  White also gets several really good removal spells and combat tricks at common.  Smite the Monstrous is going to be good.  Four mana seems like a lot, but triple Innistrad draft can be a fairly slow format.  This will kill almost everything you will want to kill.  Rebuke is also quite good, but it can be played around once your opponent is wise to it.  I feel like Ghostly Possession might be a little underrated by people.  It is exceedingly good against very large creatures, as the benefit of allowing them to keep a large creature for blocking purposes is minimized in a deck that plays out lots of creatures (e.g. white weenie/white tokens).  Not actually killing it also keeps you from having to deal with graveyard shenanigans.  The combat tricks are fairly straightforward, so I won’t go into detail with them.

Blue has good fliers, counterspells, and a smattering of card draw.  Unlike normal, however, blue has some extremely good, undercosted creatures.  The biggest drawback being that they require creatures in your graveyard to be exiled as an additional cost.  With the mill cards available to blue, however, this is not a big deal.  Armored Skaab is probably going to be the cornerstone to any self-mill decks in limited.  He has a hefty rear end, can bring the beats in a pinch, and mills 4.  Deranged Assistant is also very good.  He takes care of both components of the costs of those undercosted creatures.  He synergizes well with Delver of Secrets, allowing for some early card selection.  Filling out the self-mill decks, you will want Makeshift Maulers, Stitched Drakes, and similar creatures.  Blue is light on the removal end as usual.  Silent Departure and Claustrophobia are pretty sweet for blue ‘removal’ spells, however.  The best color to go to for removal in a deck that is using the self-mill strategy would likely be black since you can benefit from the zombie tribal theme as well.  Obviously, taking what you can get will be more beneficial than forcing anything.  If removal is nowhere to be found, counterspells may be the only option as far as ways to interact with the opponent.  Lost in the Mists seems reasonable actually.  Five mana is tolerable in this format.  At worst, you are countering a spell and setting your opponent back on his lands.  At best, you counter something really nasty, bounce a key blocker, and get in for lethal the following turn.  The best counter against this kind of deck is Dissipate since it keeps you from getting value out of flashback spells or creature recursion.  Thankfully, it is an uncommon.

Blue has a straight flier strategy as well.  Combined with some removal and other cards from white, the spirits and spirit lords available in blue can be a real beating.  Here, you will be looking for cards like Moon Heron.

Black divides most of its attention between the Zombie tribe and Vampires.  Vampire Interloper is the best black low curve vampire available at common.  He is good without any tribal support, so you are lucky if you manage to pick up a lot of them.  The best high curve vampire at common, Stromkirk Patrol, gets out of hand quick if he can land some attacks unblocked.  The only black vampire lord is at rare, so there really is no sound reason to stay loyal to that tribe unless you manage to first-pick Bloodline Keeper or a Rakish Heir.  Bloodline Keeper is a 3/3 flier for 4 that pumps out 2/2 flying vampires, so don’t expect to get him beyond 2nd pick (even then, only in the case of a decent foil rare upstream of you).  Rakish Heir is also good on his own, so he will not go late either. Removal-wise, dipping into red  for a vampire deck is the natural choice since you get access to red’s vampires as well.  Black also has the Zombie tribe to take advantage of.  Several zombie tribal cards are located in blue, and can go pretty late depending on what is in the pack.  Black also has a zombie enabler in the form of a rare enchantment and a creature: Endless Ranks of the Dead and Unbreathing Horde.  While it is possible to create a zombie tribal deck, it is probably better to simply stick to picking solid creatures, unless of course you manage to pull one or several of the zombie enablers.  Interestingly, the more zombies you have in your deck, the worse Ghoulraiser becomes, so it may be correct to pick other cards over Ghoulraisers in some zombie decks.  Ghoulcaller’s Chant is a card to consider if you pick up some good zombies (namely the ones in blue).  Dead Weight and Victim of Night are solid removal spells.  Relying on Corpse Lunge for removal in a self-mill deck may not work out well, but is an acceptable option in other decks.  Dead Weight seems a lot better than it looks at first because it kills a lot of creatures that get better as the game progresses, and can weaken bigger creatures, eliminating them as a threat.  Black also has a few decent flashback spells.

Red has Geistflame among other things.  The card looks terrible on the surface… 5 mana for 2 damage???!  You can get a lot of value out of it, however.  Certainly don’t first pick it over bombs or better removal, but don’t count it out.  Ashmouth Hound can block X/1’s all day, even if they have first strike.  Brimstone Volley is far and away the best spot removal spell available in red.  Nightbird’s Clutches is a solid combat trick in aggressive decks.  The flashback cost isn’t too crippling, and should be manageable even in decks that shave a few lands.  Traitorous Blood is the standard ‘steal your guy for a turn’ spell, and will be stealing many a game.  The addition of trample is quite relevant in a deck that is trying to deal 20 damage as fast as possible.  Bloodcrazed Neonate brings the beats every turn and represents a 5-turn clock at 2 mana.  Werewolves are a solid option in limited as well.  Red has several common werewolves worthy of inclusion.  Village Ironsmith is probably the best of them since the card has first strike built in.

Green is the home of Werewolves and the other half of the Human tribe.  Many of the slots filled with removal in other colors are filled with pork, as expected for green.  Festerhide Boar and Darkthicket Wolf can do a lot of heavy lifting in the early turns.  Prey Upon isn’t an all-star, but is certainly better than the removal many green mages have had to get by on over the years.  Somberwald Spider doesn’t have much of an upside compared to the usual bird-eater, but becomes reasonable after a creature dies.  Travel Preparations allow players to upgrade their creatures.  To go with it, Avacyn’s Pilgrim is solid, allowing you to pay the flashback cost.  Not to mention, acceleration is quite nice when many of your creatures cost a pretty penny.  Ambush Viper seems like a solid way to enable morbid while getting value at the same time.  Of the morbid cards available at common, Woodland Sleuth‘s morbid ability seems the most valuable, allowing you to come out ahead in an early trade.  All of the common green werewolves are worthy of inclusion.  They all become undercosted after being flipped, and are reasonable even without it.

All of the multicolored cards are mythic, so I am not going there.

Every last one of the common artifacts are quite playable.  Many of them are aimed at a particular or set of tribes.  Blazing Torch is a reprint from Zendikar, and was downgraded from uncommon.  It is reasonable removal, and can sometimes randomly win against the zombie or vampire-laden decks.  One-Eyed Scarecrow seems reasonable even when not facing down a horde of 1/1 Spirit tokens.  Wooden Stake… moving on…  Ghoulcaller’s Bell seems reasonable in the self-mill decks, but you really want cards that mill more at one time.  The card does allow you to potentially win via milling the opponent (though if you intend to win that way, you will clearly need to devote more card slots to it).  Cobbled Wings and Sharpened Pitchfork are both reasonable ways to upgrade your creatures.  Sharpened Pitchfork turns your tiny deathtouch creatures into powerful blockers.  Granted there are only 3 deathtouch creatures in the entire set and Garruk’s flipped version is the only other way to get deathtouch creatures, but the card still seems reasonable on pretty much anything aside from creatures that already have first strike.  White favors it more heavily than other colors, as the +1/+0 to humans is pretty relevant there.  There are no ally-colored duals in Innistrad, so Traveler’s Amulet may be a little better than it would be in some other sets.  Shimmering Grotto is the only other non-colored fixing available, and is valuable even in mono-colored decks.  Being able to grab any color is more relevant than you might think, particularly to decks that require off-colors to pay for flashback costs.

Well, that’s all I have for now.  I hope you enjoyed it or at least learned something or got an idea out of it.  The Innistrad pre-release events for Magic: the Gathering Online start tomorrow, so see you online!