Magic the Gathering Standard Analysis: Zombie Apocalypse!

The StarCityGames Open Series took a week off for Thanksgiving but was back December 1 in Baltimore (SCGBALT). It was an interesting one to be sure, so let’s check in on the Magic: the Gathering Standard metagame with some analysis and observations of the decks and cards in the top 16.

The Top 16 Overview

We’ll start with a high-level look at the top 16: the decks played and a summary of the archetypes, strategies, and colors used.

Zombie apocalypse! It sure looks like players went from dining on turkey to feasting on brains in Baltimore. Fresh off of Grand Prix victories in Charleston and San Antonio, Rakdos Zombies overran the tournament with ten of the top 16 finishes. No other archetype had more than one in the top16, and the biggest split for me to show you was between the BR Zombies decks that used [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] and those that were on Team [card]Blood Artist[/card].

Red and black were both played in thirteen of the top 16 decks. Blue and white joined forces in all four control decks, and green was played in only four decks, down from nine at SCGSEA.

Aggressive decks are on a roll, and SCGBALT continued the trend. Let’s take a look at the historical trends since rotation and SCGCIN:

Aggro decks have continued to rocket upward, reaching a new post-rotation high with Baltimore’s wave of BR Zombies. Control decks, armed with board sweepers, are at their average for this Standard season with three decks (2.9 average per tournament). Midrange lost some ground once again despite finishing first and second at SCGBALT.

Deck Check

Written off for dead a few weeks ago, the Zombies archetype has found renewed quasi-life with the help of new hasty friends: a devil named [card]Hellrider[/card] and a dragon known as the [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. The game plan is simple and familiar: play a bunch of two-power one-drops into a [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] on turn three and attempt to overwhelm your opponent. Once your ground game gets outclassed by midrange creatures, [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] is still a great finisher for the deck. She is now often joined by [card]Hellrider[/card] at four mana, who gives those 2/2s a new reason for undeath and to attack. [card]Hellrider[/card] provides some much-needed reach to finish off a stabilized opponent. Need even more power? [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] is a hasty finisher that should get in there and clear the way for your Aristocrat too. Paul Longo’s eighth place deck is a good example of this aggressive game plan. Longo backs his creatures up with plenty of burn to finish the game or clear the way for his team.

Some Zombie players also turned to an old favorite: [card]Blood Artist[/card]. Danny Goldstein, who finished fourth, played four copies of the misunderstood vampire painter. His plan leaned heavily on triggering direct damage and lifegain by sacrificing creatures to [card]Bloodthrone Vampire[/card], [card]Bloodflow Connoisseur[/card], and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] with an Artist on the battlefield. The creatures were often his own [card]Butcher Ghoul[/card], [card]Gravecrawler[/card], and [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], and sometimes his opponent’s with the help of three [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] in the deck. The goal is to steal an opponent’s creature, attack with it, and then sacrifice it for their pain and your (life) gain. This is particularly helpful when a [card]Thragtusk[/card] is staring you down; remove a threat and keep the token when you’re through with the beast. With so much sacrificing going on, the deck takes full advantage of morbid with four copies of [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] and three [card]Tragic Slip[/card]s.

Though dominant, BR Zombies was not decisive in its victory: first, second, and third place all went to different archetypes. First place was won by a Naya Midrange deck piloted by Patrick Shifflett. His deck made full use of some of the format’s most powerful creatures and enters-the-battlefield-abilities, in standard with four copies of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Restoration Angel[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. He played four [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card]s to ramp into a turn-two [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] in order get out an early blocker. Two copies of [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] and a full four [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card] in the maindeck provided reach.

Clark Williamson placed second with a Jund Midrange deck, which fought fire with fire, or dragon with dragon, with his own pair of [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]s. Williamson played the Jundtastic trio of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], and [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] and included two [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] in the main and another two in the sideboard. His removal suite was as extensive and diverse as a Swiss army knife: 2 [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], 3 [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], 2 [card]Ultimate Price[/card], 3 [card]Dreadbore[/card], 1 [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card], and 1 [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card], and that’s just the main deck. This left him ten turn-two removal spells with which to battle Zombies, and I’m sure the two [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] in the sideboard saw plenty of action as well, including in the top eight, where Williamson had to fight through two Zombies matches to make the final.

Third place was Ali Aintrazi with a 5-Color Control deck. His deck’s plan was to stall and control until he could land a big finisher like [card]Nicol Bolas[/card], Planeswalker; Griselbrand; Gisela, Blade of Goldnight; or one of his haymaker sorceries: three [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] to gain life and fill his hand, or two [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] to destroy his opponent’s hand and reduce their life total. To get to this powerful endgame, Aintrazi played a mix of single-target removal, like [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card], and sweepers, like [card]Terminus[/card] and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. He also played three copies of [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and full sets of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] and [card]Thragtusk[/card], which can not only stall out an aggressive opponent but also win the game outright. [card]Door to Nothingness[/card] and [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card], had spots in the sideboard for an alternate win condition in control mirrors, and a pair of [card]Rhox Faithmender[/card] certainly helped against Zombies. 

With the top 16 decks, strategies, and colors in mind, let’s get to the cards played. Unless otherwise noted, the number of copies of a card played in the top 16 of the tournament will be listed in parentheses after the card name.

Creature Feature

The following graph shows the most played creatures, displayed by maindeck in blue and sideboard in red. The table below it indicates the  number of decks in the top 16 that played the card and the average number of copies main and side.

This list is dominated by Zombies and their friends. [card]Gravecrawler[/card], [card]Diregraf Ghoul[/card], [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], and [card]Hellrider[/card] were played in all ten BR Zombie lists. [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] appeared in ten decks: eight Zombies lists along with Naya Midrange and Jund Midrange.

[card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card] wins the award for most-played sideboard card of the top 16, appearing in eleven decks: all ten Zombies lists as well as Jund Midrange. He is an aggressive attacker that provides some tempo advantage with lifegain and is a first-team all-metagame pick on defense, able to block and trade with anything short of [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] the first turn it is played.

[card]Thragtusk[/card] saw the least amount of top-16 play at SCGBALT than any other SCG Open Series since rotation. Each of the four decks playing green ran four copies, but we saw far fewer green decks in the top 16 this week as the other colors gave way to Rakdos mayhem. [card]Restoration Angel[/card] (10) also dropped quite a bit from the prior tournament (25 copies at SCGSEA) for the same reason. She also appeared in four decks.

The Answers

Let’s turn now to answers: how did the top 16 manage opposing threats? Here are the most-played removal spells of the tournament along with the number of decks they appeared in and average number of copies played in the maindeck and sideboard:

[card]Pillar of Flame[/card] (45) is back with a vengeance, up 35 copies from SCGSEA. It was played by all thirteen decks playing red and undoubtedly exiled many a zombie. [card]Searing Spear[/card], [card]Tragic Slip[/card], and [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card] were each played by nine of the Zombie decks.

[card]Ultimate Price[/card] found a home in six Zombie decks, as well as in Jund Midrange, 5-Color Control, and Esper Control. The control decks brought their copies of [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], [card]Terminus[/card], and [card]Detention Sphere[/card] (7) to help wade through the zombie infestation and get to the top 16.

Counters & Caverns

Now it’s time for a Cavern check. [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] (55) was played by fifteen of the top 16 decks. The only card that saw more play was [card]Swamp[/card] (77), and only Matt Toepfner’s Esper Control list, which plays no creature cards, did not play it. Those fifteen decks averaged 3.6 copies in the maindeck and 1 copy in the sideboard.

So how many counters were played by blue-based decks that snuck through the zombie invasion to the top 16? Ali Aintrazi’s 5-Color Control deck skipped counter magic altogether, but the remaining three blue decks each played four copies of [card]Dissipate[/card] (12) along with some [card]Dispel[/card] (7) and [card]Negate[/card] (6) but hardly any copies of [card]Essence Scatter[/card] (2), and no [card]Syncopate[/card] (0).

Zombie Hate

This past weekend was a wakeup call for Standard. If you didn’t get the message after GP Charleston and GP San Antonio, you should hear it loud and clear by now: Zombies is back. Placing ten decks in the top 16 at SCGBALT is going to bring the hate back in full force, and there is a lot of Zombie hate available. Let’s go beyond the known quantities of [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], [card]Terminus[/card], [card]Rest in Peace[/card], [card]Knight of Glory[/card], and [card]Elite Inquisitor[/card] and take a look at a couple other options:

[card]Rhox Faithmender[/card] (2) costs 3W and can hit the battlefield right in time to help stabilize. As a 1/5 it is a great blocker and kills [card]Gravecrawler[/card] over and over again. He gains you two life each time he blocks and synergizes well with other lifegain effects like [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] (12). He can’t be removed by [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] or [card]Searing Spear[/card], and it would take a morbid triggered [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] to burn him into the grave. This Rhino Monk will likely find a sideboard home in Naya Midrange decks as well as white-based control decks. Equip him with a Rancor in Selesnya decks and he could really do some work.

[card]Silklash Spider[/card] costs more and is harder to splash at 3GG, but it can beat [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] to the table on the play and block both the dragon and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] indefinitely. In fact, this spider can block almost everything and is even more resistant to burn than the rhino. Silklash Spider’s ability to fire off a [card]Hurricane[/card] as an activated ability keeps constant pressure on [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], clears out [card]Lingering Souls[/card] (6) tokens, and can eventually kill [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], and other fliers.

Green has several more options available to handle both [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] at instant speed. Plummet is the cheapest at 1G, and will destroy either flier, though perhaps not the Aristocrat if your opponent has something to sacrifice. [card]Aerial Predation[/card] gets you the same effect plus 2 life, which could be relevant against Zombies, for one more colorless mana. [card]Crushing Vines[/card] is more versatile with the option to destroy an artifact instead.


Tribal Warfare

It had been going so well for humanity. Human tribal decks have had at least one representative in the top 16 of a SCG Open tournament since SCG New Orleans on October 27. The return of the Zombies displaced the Humans as the top tribe in standard… for now. I think Humans have a good shot at dealing with this newfound zombie menace and have a lot of tools at their disposal.

WU Humans is a deck archetype that has been in the mix for the last several weeks. It has not been a major force in the metagame and is less popular than its Selesnya based cousin, but it has had recent success at GP Bochum (12th and 15th place) and SCG Open Seattle (second place). I think it is well positioned to take on the current metagame including BR Zombies. Let’s look at why.

1)       It Can Race:

The Azorius themed Humans can come out swinging with a turn-one [card]Champion of the Parish[/card] and keep the pressure on; there’s a lot of humans in the deck to grow your Champion. A turn-two Thalia slows down decks hoping to play a [card]Farseek[/card] and makes [card]Searing Spear[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card] unplayable on turn two for opponents on the draw. Turn-three [card]Lyev Skyknight[/card] detains the opponent’s best blocker and gets your Champion out of [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] range. A [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] on turn four should have some nice options to bond with and presents a big problem for your opponent, especially with all the fliers in this deck. Speaking of…

2)       It’s Evasive:

Evasion is good in a metagame heavily populated by creatures, and this deck plays a lot of fliers. It can rule the sky as early as turn one with [card]War Falcon[/card], far sooner than its undead competition. Plenty of soldiers and knights call this deck home and a turn-two [card]Knight of Glory[/card] will allow your Falcon to swing for three damage in the air. When [card]Sublime Archangel[/card] flies in on turn four, you might find yourself with a whole host of creatures and a couple options: swing with the team, or let a flier go solo with the support of a stack of exalted bonuses. [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] rarely runs out of fuel in this deck and can provide plenty of flying, and exalted, support at instant speed to block [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. Some WU Humans decks play [card]Restoration Angel[/card] for some flash and further air superiority, and if you want to go even bigger, [card]Angelic Overseer[/card] provides an evasive and very resilient finisher that can beat down a Hellkite, so long as you can keep a human on the battlefield.

3)       It’s Got Geist:

WU Humans is the best [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] deck on the market today. First, it does not have to rely on the legendary spirit cleric to win; it has plenty of other options, so resources don’t have to be devoted to keeping him alive. You can play Geist and force your opponent to choose: deal with him or lose to him. Geist also works very well with exalted bonuses. The Angel he brings to his cause enters the battlefield attacking but does not attack, so let’s say you play a [card]Sublime Archangel[/card] on turn four with [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and two other creatures on the battlefield and then attack with only Geist. He is a 5/5 because of the three exalted bonuses attacking alongside a 4/4 flying Angel. He’s got a good chance of surviving that combat step.

4)       It Brings the Hate:

WU Humans matches up well with Zombies. It plays 3-4 copies of [card]Knight of Glory[/card], which has protection against black and, therefore, all of BR Zombies creatures save [card]Hellrider[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. It also avoids removal like [card]Tragic Slip[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card]. You can offer [card]Elite Inquisitor[/card] a spot on the team as well, gaining further protection from Zombies, not to mention [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], and [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card]. Playing eight two-drops your opponent can’t block or get past very easily is a good start. First strike is also good against the Zombies early game, and in addition to the Inquisitor, WU Humans plays [card]Precinct Captain[/card] and [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card]. The deck can also run [card]Rest in Peace[/card] if more Zombie bane is needed, though it makes [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] just a colorless producing land.

Thalia has the added benefit of fouling up Control decks, UW Flash, [card]Unburial Rites[/card] strategies, and removal and ramp options. WU Humans runs between 30 and 38 creatures, making it a perfect home for her. You can sideboard [card]War Priest of Thune[/card] to handle [card]Detention Sphere[/card] and [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] and Militant Dryad (an honorary human for the purposes of this example) against [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], [card]Lingering Souls[/card], and other graveyard robbing strategies. [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] is an all-purpose temporary answer to bothersome creatures and just might buy you enough time to finish off your opponent.

5)       It’s Got Answers:

Playing WU Humans gives you a lot of flexibility in your 75 cards to play the answers you need in your metagame. [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] is a problem that can be solved by Rider’s of Gavony, which could also be a blowout against Zombies and a Humans mirror match. [card]Bonds of Faith[/card] does some work in this deck and acts as either a Pacifism for a potential blocker or can make your [card]Lyev Skyknight[/card] a 5/3 flier or [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] a 4/4. Cards like [card]Feeling of Dread[/card] are good tempo plays against other aggressive decks as well as against midrange strategies, and [card]Purify the Grave[/card] offers an additional efficient answer to graveyard focused strategies.

You can run four copies of [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] without much of a drawback, naming human, spirit, or angel. The deck is almost all white and uses blue for creatures and [card]Detention Sphere[/card] if you are worried about [card]Lingering Souls[/card] getting in the way. [card]Faith’s Shield[/card] protects against removal and can force through a decisive attacker to win the game, and the deck can also play its own counter magic, mainly [card]Negate[/card] against mass removal (other than Supreme Verdict) and cards like [card]Flames of the Firebrand[/card] that could be card advantage for your opponent.

Next Up

Thanks for reading this analysis of StarCityGames Open: Baltimore. I will tweet more information and observations about the tournament and metagame this week, so follow me on Twitter if you are interested in that. I’ll be back next week to discuss SCG Open: Las Vegas. Can the Zombies overwhelm Sin City or will the rest of the field beat them back? I’m excited to see what happens and where the metagame goes from here!

Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)