Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Behemoth of a Format: Standard Primer (11/21)

Good morning, good evening, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all (and if you're outside of the US...well...happy Thursday!).  I've finally gotten through the onslaught of traffic and work and am home with what better way to kick off the holiday than with a primer of the most versatile format around (cough, cough...)!  Let's get started, shall we?

3 Major Tournaments, 3 Different Strategies...Charleston, Bochum, and Seattle Wrap-Up
Thundermaw Hellkite
Not just for Tempo anymore!
This past weekend saw 3 major Standard tournaments across the US and Europe.  First off was Grand Prix: Charleston, which was won by B/R Zombies.  Sure, we all know of Gravecrawler and friends, but most of us in the competitive world thought this deck all but dead, and I can only imagine that not many competitors had their decks built with that particular matchup at the forefront of their strategy.  The real breakout card of this deck was Thundermaw Hellkite - which actually made its way onto the current Standard scene in UWR Tempo strategies.  The winning zombies list took advantage of the slower format and broke out the 5-drops in what I would imagine was an attempt to take back the late game and make a dent in the control powerhouse in this format...clearly, it worked out in their favor.  Add that to the ease of playing Cavern of Souls in a Zombies shell, and it's clear to see why Zombies is back on the scene.  For players thinking of playing this deck, be wary - hate will be prevalent in the coming weeks...expect Terminus to make a comeback, in particular.
Craterhoof Behemoth
This guy crashed onto the
scene in a BIG way...
Meanwhile, in Germany, Martin Jüza took a Brad Nelson special (which I'll call Reanicrater) to a win in Bochum.  Using quick ramp via mana dorks and efficient graveyard manipulation, this deck was able to throw down a Craterhoof Behemoth as early as turn 4...scary, if you ask me.  Brad was also able to perform well in Charleston with the deck, finishing in the top 16.  To players hoping to mimic that success...burn spells are not your friend, and I feel like they may make a comeback...look out for your local Bonfire!
Finally, control did rear its ugly head in Seattle, as a Bant Control deck successfully took down the field at SCG Open Series: Seattle.  Jacob Thiessen took note of the rise in the use of Cavern of Souls and decided to forego the use of counter-spells in favor of more board-wipes and late-game presence with cards like Garruk, Primal Hunter and Sphinx's Revelation.  Geist of Saint Traft may show up in more maindecks now that fewer counter-spells may be used, but it's not like Geist really left, right?  Prepare for board wipes and planeswalkers, and you should be in good shape...Jund, where are you?

Aggro, The Comeback Kid
(And not from the graveyard,
this time!)
Brace yourselves...Aggro decks are coming.  If Charleston was any indication, Aggro mages are figuring out how to get around the onslaught of control and reanimator.  Zombies took new paths running Thundermaw Hellkite, other decks are employing Cavern of Souls to beat counter-spells, and G/W decks love a good Loxodon Smiter.  In my opinion, we're starting to see a cycle of success in standard and the format is stabilizing some.  Zombie decks in particular used the old tempo tactic of running Thundermaw Hellkite in order to provide some late game umph in what was normally an unfortunate matchup post-turn 5, giving more support with Cavern of Souls.
Simple solution to this?  Board wipes.  Control decks need to realize that their game isn't over after turn 5 Thragtusks and be able to hold more solutions to mid-game aggro threats.  Terminus and Supreme Verdict will be on the rise, and UW-style decks will adapt to face this rise of Aggro.

Soul Searching - How Viable is Cavern of Souls?
Cavern of Souls
Only as good as you want it to be.
It's becoming pretty clear that Cavern of Souls is back and ready to wreck an unprepared control opponent.  Naturally, tribal decks are most prone to using Cavern in order to ensure their threats reach the battlefield, but we're beginning to see Cavern used simply to cast a Thragtusk or Angel without it being Dissipated.  With slower decks, this is definitely possible.  In essence, Cavern is as viable as a control opponent is willing to let it be.  Playing counter-spells?  Cavern is your worst enemy.  Not playing counter-spells?  Nice Ancient Ziggurat you got, there.  Handling threats once they hit the field is the easiest way around a Cavern, but don't overextend!  Jacob Thiessen's Bant Control deck is an excellent example of how to navigate around the threat of Cavern of Souls, utilizing 0 counter-spells and emphasizing the use of effects that are most prominent after creatures hit the field, while still utilizing a sideboard that can adapt for the need for counter-spells in games 2 and 3.  Check out Jacob's deck to see more!

The Inevitability of Tempo, and the Flexibility of Control
Runechanter's Pike
Jusssst when we thought
Tempo was dead...
Let's be honest here, folks - when was the last time a UW Tempo deck wasn't a prominent tier-1 strategy?  When I started playing 2 years ago, Caw-Blade was the go-to deck.  Then, JtMS and Stoneforge got the axe, and the deck morphed with Emeria Angel and the Swords.  Finally, rotation of Zendikar block happened, and we finally thought "maybe we're done?"  Nope.  Delver of Secrets crashed the party.  Ponder left the format a few months ago, bringing to an end the constant onslaught of a turn 2 aberration.  However, that didn't mean Tempo was dead...Geist of Saint Traft is more popular now than perhaps any other time in its run of Standard, and Adam Prosak decided to bring the menace back, leaner and more protective than ever.  It feels like Delver, plays like Delver, and, well, doesn't run Delver.  Prosak jammed about as many Instant and Flash-based spells into his deck to keep tempo up, running the freshly dusted Runechanter's Pike to make Moorland Haunt tokens viable again.  Will UW Flash remain a contender?  There's been a lot of debate, but I personally think decks like this will *always* be around...they are easily adapted to fight nearly any meta, and while it may not be as oppressive as Delver once was, it's still a potent threat.  Maybe Ancient Grudge will make a comeback...or perhaps Sundering Growth for a mirror match.
3-color tempo decks have also been popular as of late, opting primarily to splash red in favor of Pillar of Flame, the occasional Mizzium Mortars, and everyone's favorite dragon, Thundermaw Hellkite.  While they have kind of fallen out of favor, expect these styles of decks to pop back up, especially as Zombies returns to the spotlight.   
Centaur Healer
A necessary inclusion?
Speaking of 3-color decks...Control is a thing people!  Take blue, white, and your next favorite color, and you can probably make a viable control deck right now!  Esper Control reached top 16 of Charleston, Bant Control took the recent SCG Open, and Americontrol has been around since rotation!  Bant seems to be the deck of choice right now because of the format's all-star, Thragtusk (honestly, what deck that runs green *isn't* running him right now?).  The ability to splash Green for this guy is insane, and makes me believe that Bant will be around for the long haul...add Restoration Angel to the mix and the deck can just get downright silly.  Adjust the deck to fight the quick game, stabilize, and win.  That's the name of the game with Control right now.  I think Centaur Healer may return to Bant sideboards as aggro has come back a bit.  I'm personally avoiding it for now, but it may be necessary if San Antonio confirms the results of Charleston.

You Got #hoof'd - Reanimator, Reanicrater and Blue?
Craterhoof Behemoth
Did I mention this guy was BIG?
Faithless Looting was a reason for red.  Lingering Souls prompted white's take on the reanimator scene...but blue?!  Yep.  Tracker's Instincts put blue on the reanimator scene.  The ability to see 8 cards with flashback is pretty ridiculous, and Brad Nelson took advantage.  Using a combination of Tracker's Instincts and a full set of Craterhoof Behemoth in order to abuse mana dorks and Unburial Rites to take Reanimator to new, unfair levels.  Swing for 39 on turn 4 or 5?  Sure.  #hoof'd.  If it wasn't clear before, there are a *ton* of different ways to abuse Unburial Rites right now, not the least of which is the new behemoth of the Standard format.  Here's the problem: Nelson's deck is going to be noticed, and more than a fair share of people are going to try and mimic the performance he had in Charleston (and that Jüza had in Bochum), and plenty of hate exists for a format chuck full of reanimator decks.  Between Purify the Grave, Rest in Peace, and plenty of burn spells to combat the newest iteration of reanimator decks, it can be easily handled.  Keep a Bonfire in hand, handle the mana dorks, and the matchup becomes a bit easier.   Maybe some new instant-speed removal will be needed to take care of #hoof and friends - one of you will find it, right?  Right?.  Playing reanimator?  Just be ready for the new hate and adapt.  Make sure you hit your one drops, and have a solution to the burn and removal spells out there.  Maybe Craterhoof is just a one-week fad, but I see players adapting and making it a pretty consistent threat.  At the very least, you can offload your set for 400% profit!  Good luck to the Rites, Frites, and...#hoof players out there this weekend.

Sleepers of the Week!
Did I say instant-speed removal for #hoof?  Sometimes, going rogue can prove useful, and I know of one useful burn spell that can be cast in response to a Craterhoof Behemoth...Magmaquake!  Sure, it costs XRR, but, it can be used to at least wipe out all of the mana dorks powering Craterhoof and allow you to survive.  Late game, it can be as useful as a Bonfire.  Just be careful if you're running creatures of your own - Magmaquake hits your side of the field, too!
Key word: Instant.
Bonfire of the Damned
I kill dorks.  You like that.
I also think Bonfire of the Damned is poised to make a comeback.  The format, slow as it is, is beginning to fully utilize mana dorks to ramp out quickly.  Even on turn 3, a Bonfire for 1 is enough to put a serious dent into a ramp strategy.  If I were a red mage, I would be playing one or both of these in perparation for Zombies and Reanimator, especially if I were playing Jund.  Red-based control would love either of these cards this week.

My Deck du Jour!
Well, I've turned to the dark side, folks.  I was tired of getting out-played by control opponents, but I still wanted to turn to Thragtusk and friends to power my deck.  So...I turned to Bant Control.  The deck is quite similar to Thiessen's from Seattle, but employs a Tamiyo maindeck in order to hit enemy Thragtusks.  It also drops to 3 Detention Sphere in order to play an Oblivion can hit a Sphere, and more often than not, that Sphere is holding a Thragtusk or a Planeswalker...a useful substitution, if you ask me.  Finally, I opted to drop to 3 Azorius Charm to add another board-wipe in the form of Terminus #3.  If Zombies are back, Supreme Verdict only does so much.  Putting Zoms onto the bottom of the library is much more effective, and I want to try out the 5th board wipe.
This will make waves this
week, I hope.
 The only concession I feel like I had to make was to play Purify the Grave over Rest in Peace.  I felt like decks that wanted Rest in Peace didn't like Snapcaster Mage, and my sideboard was designed to play counter-spells against the mirror and other control matchups.  There, they are insanely useful, and I don't need to worry about having extra ammo for Snapcaster without the risk of losing them against other decks.  I would love to flashback a Dissipate against a few Craterhoofs.  Purify won me over in testing, but time will tell which is the better option.  There's also Geist of Saint Traft to fight Zombies and Control.  I think the weakness to this deck is honestly the mirror.  It is insanely dull, and often ends 0-1, 1-0, or 0-0-1.  Make the most of the first game, as it's probably the only one you get.
 Here's the deck (via TappedOut)...feel free to provide suggestions for future improvements, but I'll be slinging this over the weekend at a few Standard tournaments.     

And that's it for this week...hopefully this helped you all realize some of the decks in the format, and maybe helped you think of a strategy or two to fight the meta.  In any case, I'll  catch you all in a few weeks with another primer.  Until then - may the cards tap in your favor.  Cheers!

Twitter: @wingmanmtg
Reddit: wingman2011  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Know Your Meta! A Guide to Deck Creation on the Local Scene

Most of us have been guilty of this before (I know I have been): 

"Seriously? Wolves just beat my
Delver Deck?  But How?!"
You log onto on a Sunday afternoon, desperate to find the top decklists of the week on the Open Series circuit.  You’re always looking for the latest tech to beat up on your mates at FNM, and you instantly sleeve up the decklist of the winning deck, card for card, and expect to crush on Friday.  After all, it’s clearly the best deck right now!
Fast-Forward to round 4 of FNM.  You’re 1-2, and you’re about to lose round 4 to some deck you didn’t even see take top 32.  “How am I losing to this?” you wonder, as your opponent slams their third Immerwolf and swings for a lethal dose of pain.  “This deck isn’t even a contender!”  

You sign your match slip, feeling a rather high amount of angst as you leave the table.  Part of you knows that guy just got lucky.  Part of you thinks that it was just a fluke.  Part of you wants to throw your deck into a box and never see it again.

Part of you doesn’t understand your Local Meta.

The Local Meta is one of the best parts of any local, non-competitive tournament (when I say non-competitive, I mean a tournament that isn’t run at Competitive Rules Enforcement Level – REL).  It’s constantly shifting, and it’s harder to expect than, say, the top decks on the StarCityGames Open Series Circuit.  A Local Meta can feature decks that are completely out of left field, completely unlike the usual Delver and Naya Pod decks you've come to expect from the competitive scene.  Today, I want to explain to you how to approach deck selection and deck creation on the local scene, so you can succeed more in your next FNM or other local tournament.

The Problem with “Net-Decking” at FNM
First, let’s talk about “net-decks.”  You know, those 75-card lists you love to take note of after StarCityGames Opens or a Grand Prix.  A common misconception among local players is that if you play one of these decks, you’re bound to succeed more at FNM or other local events.  In part, you would be correct – these are the decks that are more prone to succeed on a grand scale – but newer players picking up 75 cards that won a major tournament the week before tend to not understand a key point about net-decks that succeed: They are built to fight an expected metagame. 
Not always the best idea
 When deckbuilding...
What’s an expected metagame?  It’s the selection of decks and deck-building choices that someone makes against an expected, general field of contenders.  Take Standard, for instance: the expected metagame (at the time of this writing) consists of a lot of UW Delver decks, probably some Zombie decks, some RG or Naya Aggro decks, and some number of decks containing Birthing Pod.  I could elaborate further, but you get the idea.  These are the decks that are talked about the most in Magic articles, and are the “best” decks in the format.  Week after week, these decks are being tuned to fight the biggest threats in the expected metagame, looking to take advantage of the deck-choices from yester week.  They are tested constantly against any number of these expected decks, and are tuned to have better match-ups against this field.  These are not the types of decks you are going to see consistently at FNM!
Now, I will concede that you will see some players using these decks at your FNM or local weekend shindig at the comic shop – Hell, I’m one of them; if I have a playset of Snapcaster Mage or Bonfire of the Damned, I’m going to use them.  But you can’t expect to walk into a room of players at FNM with 75 cards meant to beat Delver and Zombies and crush a random control deck.  Could it happen?  Sure.  But the deck is not necessarily primed for that particular matchup.

Solution #1 – INNOVATE!
In order to create a greater chance of success against your local meta, you need to realize that net-decking isn’t the answer!  Take that with a grain of salt, though – looking at the top decks in the format is a great way to see what synergies, combos, etc. work well in the current format.  For instance, I learned really quickly that Thragtusk and Restoration Angel, when working together, create a lot of tough situations for my opponents.  In essence, learn the strategy, not the decklist.  Doing so will make your 75 cards that much stronger.  

Once you figure out a strategy you like, take a look at what your local players actually play.  This can take some time.  Scout some tables – see what they’re doing.  If you see that only 5% of your players play Delver decks (for me, 5% represents 1 of 20 decks at the tournament), you may want to consider focusing on other matchups.  Your 75-card net-deck is expecting around 33% of the field to be playing Delver – of course they want to be ready for it!  If you use that same 75, some of your cards are naturally going to be weaker in your local meta.  This is when you have to put on your thinking caps and determine the best plan of attack!   

Here’s an example: Johnny took a winning UW Delver list that ran a full playset of Gut Shot to his FNM, where he quickly saw that about half of the folks there were playing Zombies.  Johnny knows that Gut Shot does next-to-nothing against Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger, so he decides to replace Gut Shot with some exile effects – perhaps Tormod’s Crypt or Celestial Purge, prepping Gut Shot in the sideboard in case he sees a need for them.  Would a deck at a SCG Open ever do this?  No!  Gut Shot is awesome against Delver and mana dorks.  But, if you’re not seeing those cards, why devote slots in your deck to beating it. 

Here’s one more example – this actually happens at my LGS, and I’m so tempted to take advantage:  You’ve probably seen pro players say that UG Delver is bad against the current metagame.  They’re right – Quirion Dryad folds over to Vapor Snag, and it kills a lot of what UG would have going for it. 
It might be one of the best choices to play at my FNM this week. 
The reason?  Hardly any deck that I have played against in the last month has had a Vapor Snag in it…most were Zombies or other Aggro builds!  It’s pretty easy for me to take advantage of this development in our local meta, and build a deck that uses this information to my advantage.  If Quirion Dryad doesn’t leave the board, I usually would win a match-up; it gets really strong, really fast.  In short, learn what your local group plays, and gain value from this information.  This probably changes over time, but you can still learn a trend and have a plan of attack ready for whatever you may see.  Ultimately, innovation is a key to your success at FNM.  Like it or not, you’ll have to think a bit outside the box to improve your success rate!

Solution #2: Go Rogue!
“Man, that Trading Post looks AWESOME!”
-Brad Nelson (probably paraphrased)

Maybe you’re just getting tired of playing a deck, and want to try something fresh, something fun, and something out there.  That’s the joy of FNM, at least where I play – we love playing fresh brews that are fun.  Far too many players think that the only fun part of FNM is when you win.  Where I play, new brews are actively encouraged.  Want to see if that UB Trading Post deck would succeed?  Brew it and play it!  Got 4 Bonfires and want to burn some folks?  Do it!  You don’t need to play Naya Aggro to use those Bonfires.  Want to play a tribal deck?  More power to you – that’s the fun of FNM.  Here’s the best part: when you brew something out of the ordinary, few players know how to reliably battle you.  You can take advantage of the fact that you created something from scratch – where only you really know the strategy initially – and clean house using the knowledge of what everyone typically plays, while you are building something fresh, fun, and surprisingly competitive. 
Be creative, and this could be you!
“But, what if my deck doesn’t do well?  What then, smart guy?!” 
Then try something different!  I’ve seen a ton of articles online saying that (paraphrased) the best deck ideas evolve from stupid ideas that happened to work.  If you think your idea has potential, put it to the test!  FNM is a perfect place to try out new things without being criticized for your deck-building choices.  I encourage you all to take a chance on an idea you’ve been thinking about, and make that idea a reality.  Maybe you only go 1-3, or 2-2…so what!  You tried an idea, and had fun doing it…one of these times, you’re bound to build something that works really, really well.  Personally, I get a lot more out of these successes than when using a net-deck (even when I tweak it) to do well.

The Moral of the Story is…You Can’t Trust the System!
This Magic lesson brought to you
by Andy Samberg...
Yeah, you got me…the Lonely Island is going to teach you something about Magic here, folks.  At FNM, you really can’t trust the system…you’re going to see the unexpected, play the decks you thought unplayable, and get beat by decks that you just don’t see coming.  That happens – and it’s okay!  What I hope you get out of this is that you have to take a closer look at your local metagame in order to find the right tools to win.  You can’t just use an expected metagame full of Delver, RG, Naya, and Zombies to combat that Mono White Good Stuff deck that Jon plays with every week.  You have to learn to innovate as a deck creator in order to succeed.  A huge step in your growth as a Magic player is going to be made by learning how to tweak ideas, come up with strategies, and exploit them to succeed.  Using Gerry Thompson’s exact 75 might get you some wins, but the deck won’t be optimized to fight the 20 people you see every week at the comic shop.  Keep that in mind the next time you sleeve up your 75 on a Friday night.

Until next time, create, innovate, and annihilate.  Good luck at FNM!
Twitter: @wingmanmtg
Reddit: wingman2011