One of our local players recently won a GPT for GP Columbus; as a consequence of this, the players around are shop have been rallying together a little and helping him and the other guys heading out to Ohio with him do some testing. That’s been a pretty interesting experience for me since I’ve never really done testing with the express purpose of helping someone else prepare.
Whenever I’ve gone into testing sessions, it’s always been with the intent of tweaking my lists and learning how to play the matchups I was concerned about; learning about the deck so that I would have a better list and could give a better deck/advice to friends. The testing I’ve done has always been for my benefit, not anyone else’s.
That means that I’m not used to playing decks that I haven’t built or don’t like. I’m not used to playing the gauntlet decks, or decks that I think are bad, even if they’re popular. More specifically, I’m not really used to playing the more aggressive decks or creature-based combo decks in the format, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this past week.
What I’ve learned is that we’re in a new place in Magic than the ones that I’ve been used to over the years. I started playing competitive formats back in Champions-Ravnica standard; a format largely defined by Gifts Ungiven, Enduring Ideal, and Lightning Helix. This was followed by a format defined by Dragonstorm and Mystical Teachings. Games were all about spells; about sculpting games so that you could play around as much as possible over many turns.
That just isn’t realistic anymore. Creatures are too good; too efficient. There’s no excuse for trying to be reactive and get the game to go long anymore. The complexity of games has been compressed into the first six turns of the game, and if you stumble anywhere in those turns, there’s a very real chance that you’re just going to lose. If that’s the case, why would you ever want to be on the side that can stumble, as opposed to the one that’s punishing missed land drops or color screw.
We started testing the format on Thursday, and I ran Affinity, RG Tron, UW Midrange, different Pod decks, and Jund against some of the decks that our friends were considering running. In a format where I’ve only really played UW Tron and Gifts Rock, this is about as far outside of my range as you could possibly get. The important thing is that I learned a lot about aggressive decks, the format, and how I want to position myself in a metagame.
The most important and fundamental thing is that I learned that I want a deck with a nut draw. Some decks have consistent good draws. Noble Hierarch into Knight of the Reliquary for example. Or some interactive elements and then turn four Gifts Ungiven for an Unburial Rites package.
Wouldn’t you rather have the nut draws though? Turn three tron for Karn Liberated. Turn three Tron for Gifts Ungiven into Unburial Rites. Turn one vomit your hand onto the table, turn two Cranial Plating, equip. These are sequences that are absurdly powerful and all but win the game on their own if your opponent makes a mistake or stumbles.
I’ve always preferred grindy decks that give you and your opponent as many opportunities as possible to make decisions. I wanted to push the game long and give both of us opportunities to make good plays and mistakes. For building a strong technical foundation, I think that was a great choice, since it forces you to become a better player in many aspects of your game. But as the game evolves in this new direction, you have to embrace some amount of variance. You have to be proactive; capable of capitalizing on small openings and opportunities, because these are the margins in which games are won and lost in this era of Magic.
We gave up on Modern on Friday and Saturday in favor of just grinding some Standard. Here’s the list I’ve been working on that I’m happiest with:
This is a list I’m very, very happy with. I’ve played with multiple iterations of Esper midrange, and they were all fine, but I just didn’t like the removal and Forbidden Alchemys. They seemed clunky and slow compared to the more efficient cards in the UW counterparts. Sure, they’re more powerful, but if I’ve learned anything about Magic in general this week it’s that I want to be more streamlined and aggressive in every format.
What I’ve learned about Standard in particular is that Vault of the Archangel is the card that breaks open the UW mirrors, whether they’re Delver or anything else. Vapor Snag being more efficient than actual removal makes your Snapcaster Mages more efficient, and they accomplish effectively the same thing as actual removal in this match up. All you’re doing is buying time to find Vault of the Archangel and activate it with a reasonable board presence. After that games very quickly become unloseable.
Vault is absolutely a card that I’m willing to splash for because it crushes all of the creature match ups right now. That said, I’m not willing to splash for the other black cards that make your draws and mana clunkier, since that’s the easiest way to lose games.
That’s what I played on Friday, and it’s what I’d recommend to anyone who’s looking to play a midrange list in the near future. The list is consistent, and powerful, and is pretty well positioned against most decks in the format except for the decks that go a little bigger, like Ramp, Solar Flare, and actual Control decks. Even against those, though, I wouldn’t say that they’re awful match ups. You’re certainly not favored, but you can still have incredibly aggressive draws and just smash them before they actually do very much.
On Saturday, we ran a few 8 mans with small buy-ins for store credit for the winner, and I decided to try out some of the lessons I learned in Modern. I learned that more aggressive decks have upsides, even if they’re outside of my comfort zone, and I wanted to try some of the decks that I felt had consistent, strong nut draws.
We ran four events Saturday, and I managed to play four different decks in each of them. In the first I wanted to try out Zombie Pod, since I like the power of Zombies, but it feels like you never do anything without a Geralf’s Messenger. Here’s the list I tried:
This deck is sweet. There’s probably nothing more fun in standard than having a Birthing Pod in play with some combination of Geralf’s Messenger or Gravecrawler. The issue that I’ve had with Zombies in the past is that there are two halves of your deck; there’s the good cards, and then there are cards that I’m a little embarrassed to be playing. Adding Birthing Pod gives the deck a ton more consistency and an absurd amount of reach.
All of this and you can still just curve out with one drops, Messenger, and Phyrexian Metamorph. This is probably the most fun I’ve had in Standard since just after States when UW Draw Go and Pristine Control were reasonable choices.
Immediately after that, I wanted to try Naya Pod. Zombies is a pretty grindy deck, that involves a ton of math, but it’s not really combat math in the traditional sense. I wanted to see how Gavony Township felt as part of the metagame and to see just how cluttered the board could get before I got absolutely lost. Someone else brought Naya and I just borrowed their list.
This deck was fine, but not something I’m really interested in playing. I didn’t feel like there was a ton of play in what I could do, even when I had a Birthing Pod in play. It felt like my plan in most match ups was to be super aggressive and either just kill them or clog the ground until they drew something insane or I drew Gavony Township, with no other real ways to break open a stalled board.
Maybe I’d like this better if it had a Titan at the top to help with board stalls, but as is it’s just a little too dependent on the top of its deck for my taste.
With this, I went 2-1, beating Esper Midrange and BR Zombies and losing to UW Delver. Against Esper the games devolved into who found their utility land first. Considering that this list runs 4 Township and Esper only has one Vault of the Archangel, that’s not really a fair fight. Against Zombies, all you really had to do was make as many Blade Splicers and Huntmasters as possible as quickly as you could.
After that, I wanted to go a little more all in. If everyone’s playing nothing but Vapor Snags and efficient guys, what’s the creature deck with the most unbeatable nut draws? Tempered Steel is the answer I came up with, since artifact hate is on the decline and you have the ability to just kill people before they get to do anything at all. Giant Vault Skirges and Etched Champion seem particularly good against the best decks right now, and I’d never played the deck, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
This deck was interesting. I went 2-1 with it, and none of my matches were close, whichever way they went. I lost to Delver when they had double Gut Shot double Snapcaster Mage. I crushed Naya and Zombies when I had turn one multiple guys turn two Tempered Steel or just multiple Tempered Steel draws.
This was the highest variance deck that I played, and you could definitely tell that your fate was sort of out of your hands. You crushed people that were unprepared, or who didn’t draw the cards that are good against you. If they did though, you were never really in the game no matter what you did. Even if the metagame has moved away from Ancient Grudge, we’re moving towards even more Gut Shots, which makes this deck questionable at best, even if it is fun.
The point of all of this is that viewing things from different angles gives you more perspective on the format and on your role in it. Knowing how other decks play out, pivotal points of the match up from their perspective, and particularly knowing how they sequence things can absolutely change how you play your side.
It’s also important to stretch yourself; to put yourself into positions where you have to figure things out. Magic is a game where the person who knows the most about how the game, the format, the match up work is favored, and you don’t get that kind of knowledge by playing the same kinds of decks week in and week out. You also don’t get it when you let yourself play on auto pilot all the time.
Making yourself play something you wouldn’t ordinarily is a great way to get a new perspective on the format, identify the important aspects of different match ups, and keep yourself sharp and focused on making the best decisions possible instead of getting too comfortable and complacent.