Sunday, July 25, 2010

Standard with M11 - The Cream of the Crop

Standard has been turned on its head - the landscape has altered irreversibly, and we are no longer living in yesterday's Standard. I feel M11 has hit us harder and more immediately than anything the last two sets have brought us.

Obviously it is all due to three cards in particular:
Mana Leak, Primeval Titan, Fauna Shaman

Not only are these cards powerful, they scream "Build around me!" - people are clearly tired of the Top Tier Triangle of Jund, Mythic/Bant, and UW/x. They will do just about anything to play something new. Or even just updated versions of older decks that have become much better because of M11.

The metagame is very volatile right now, and trying to grasp it is like trying to hold a ball of air, but here are some directions I anticipate, with the help of other writers also analyzing the situation.

I like analyzing formats by focusing on the impact of particular cards - it helps to ignore all the smaller roleplayers and just examine the "flagships" and "staples" - using Flores terminology. We need to understand the underlying strategies that these cards are going to open up to deckbuilders in order to know how to beat them.

For instance, Primeval Titan. A lot of writers have discussed how they'd like to use the Titan. But fewer still are discussing how to beat Titan and what Titan is going to do to our metagame. Sam Black is one of those few - here is his article on SCG Premium.

When some people first saw Primeval Titan, they either saw an overcosted ramp spell or a big dude. Neither of which are particularly interesting when isolated. But together, we're in a whole different ballpark. The entire Titan cycle goes above and beyond because they are, effectively, spells on bodies. Spells on bodies, in the same vein as Bloodbraid Elf, Flametongue Kavu, and Mulldrifter. The Titans are just scaled up on all levels - they cost more, they're bigger, and their effects are repeatable.

And they are all playable. I think all of them have seen play already. (Yes! Even Frost Titan.)

But out of all of the Titans, I think Primeval is still the best and the one that will impact Standard the most; this is because of the inherent strategies one can use with Primeval T.

Some decks are just 2 lands away from inevitability. Some decks just need Primeval Titan to resolve to gain an insurmountable advantage. And if it does resolve, how will the opponent respond then? Path to Exile? You want to give me another free land? What if I had just gotten 2 Valakuts with my Primeval Titan? Fetch a Mountain, take 6? Or take 6 trample damage next turn?

These are the kinds of uncomfortable positions Primeval Titan can put you in. If you don't have the Mana Leak, you are probably just doomed.

So either we have to beat Titan or play Titan. The following decks have chosen to play Titan:
Destructive Force
Eldrazi Ramp

The following decks could easily use Primeval Titan in their current strategies:
Fauna Shaman decks
Landfall Aggro

From my perspective, the best Primeval Titan decks are currently Valakut and Turboland. If you want to get the most out of your Titans, I would run these decks. Sam Black noted that one could put him in Jund, but then you're just a worse Primeval Titan deck than the others: "How can you really expect to play a midrange deck [Jund] that's trying to grind out a win on incremental card advantage when this guy can just come down and put you so far ahead?"

Primeval Titan strategies are inherently set up to beat Jund. (And probably Next Level Bant.) Does this invalidate Jund? Not at all, but Jund has to evolve to meet this new threat.

One direction for decks is to become more aggressive - win before Titan can take over. Jund has already seen cycles of hyper-aggression - Manuel Bucher recently put up a list advocating the return of Geopede in Jund. The other way Jund typically beat these "go big" decks was to Blightning the crap out of their hand before they could do much. Unfortunately, Primeval Titan is green, meaning they can run cards like Obstinate Baloth and Vengevine as foils, but there might be some justification to just taking the hit and running Blightning anyway. Bucher still has 4 Blightning. His removal suite, though, includes Slave of Bolas and Consuming Vapors - instead of cards like Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse. This allows him to use an opponent's huge creatures against them - sometimes in a devastating turn around.

I find it amusing that Bucher discusses this deck primarily in pre-M11 context, making him sound strangely prescient. But if there's any way to properly deal with a Titan, it is probably to just steal it.

Sam Black advocates one of the older strategies, Mythic, as a foil to Titan decks. In theory, it makes perfect sense. Mythic is fast. It is the fastest green deck on the market, so can easily win before Titans get set up. Or can apply pressure and then leave up mana for a timely counterspell. Mythic already beats Turboland, right?

The deck I would be worried about however is Valakut, which has the options available to it to disrupt Mythic if it wants to. Mythic's speed is based upon some very fragile creatures, and red mana has all the tools to deal with them - Lightning Bolt, Pyroclasm, Earthquake, Forked Bolt, Cunning Sparkmage, etc. As the Mythic player, I would want to figure out how to make the deck not fall completely dead to red's disruption first.

The obvious way to deal with a Titan is just to counter it. Now with Mana Leak back, blue decks have this as an option. Unfortunately, Mana Leak is trying to hold the world on its shoulders and will simply fall under the weight. In other words, it is not enough by itself to stop the Titan strategies.

I'm sure most of you realize already why Mana Leak is good - counterspells have a long Magic history. This is presumably why not a lot of writers are talking about Mana Leak. It's the first card that people are just reaching for and sticking into their blue lists.

There were 40 copies of Mana Leak from the opening weekend of M11 Standard from various PTQs and Finnish Nationals, as counted by Adrian Sullivan in his analysis of the new Standard. Out of the 32 decks counted, 9 were UW/x Control lists. UW control lists continue to see huge success this weekend in various Nationals and PTQ tournaments.

France Nationals Top 8

Three UW control lists, all running Sun Titan, and piloted by some big names: Lucas Florent, Julien Parez, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. They're all slightly different, tweaked to each player's preferences, but all sport a full playset of Mana Leaks.

This list also won the Edison, NJ, PTQ this weekend.

4 Wall of Omens
3 Jace Beleren
3 Jace, TMS
3 Elspeth
2 Gideon

4 Mana Leak
4 Cancel
3 Jace's Ingenuity
2 Path to Exile
3 Condemn
2 Day of Judgment
1 Martial Coup

4 Glacial Fortress
4 Colonnade
7 Island
6 Plains
2 Sejiri Refuge
3 Tectonic Edge

1 Jace Beleren
1 Path 
4 Flashfreeze
2 Deprive
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Kor Firewalker
3 Celestial Purge

Yes, that is 4 Cancels. If you're going to run counterspells, it makes a lot of sense to run even more than your typical or "best" 4 and go the extra distance and try not to tap out at all. The deck runs 16 instants total and should always have something to do on the opponent's turn. Congrats to Nick Spagnolo for winning with four Cancels! Sick! Good job to Matt Ferrando for building the list.

I think Mana Leak has potential to shine in combo or combo-like lists as well - Turboland, Pyromancer's  Ascension, Runeflare Trap, Mythic Conscription, etc. If there's room for an Aggro-Control deck in Standard, there's a good chance Mana Leak will be a part of it. If you go back to the France Nationals Top 8 lists, you'll see Guillaume Matignon in it with a Pyromancer's Ascension list. At the Edison PTQ, Jake Van Lunen made the finals with Pyromancer's Ascension also. The two lists have some differences but both are mostly composed of the same core. Here is JVL's list.

4 Ponder
4 Preordain
4 Bolt
4 Time Warp
4 Pyromancer's Ascension
4 Spreading Seas
3 Call to Mind
3 Foresee
4 See Beyond
4 Mana Leak

4 Scalding Tarn
10 Island
8 Mountain

4 Negate
3 Jace, The Mind Sculptor
4 Burst Lightning
2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
2 Into the Roil

Runeflare Trap has also been getting some press on The Starkington Post. Only one of the lists runs Mana Leak, the one that won a PTQ in California. Some Turboland lists have added Mana Leak to their arsenal, as well. Mana Leak is not ubiquitous in all combo lists, but I think it is easy to add them - it fits into the game plan, particularly for the early turns. You gain a lot more than other decks from just countering an opponent's spells - this is because every time you draw a card and drop a land, you are furthering your game plan significantly more than when other decks do the same. Your cards and lands are valuable resources and each one takes you a step closer to winning. It is kind of what AJ Sacher described in his Snowball article on SCG.

You want to make even trades - your opponent's cards and lands will become invalid soon - so you just need to hold out, draw some cards, drop some lands. And soon, all your 1-for-1's will add up to an insurmountable advantage. Your Mana Leaks are virtual timewalks.

To beat Mana Leak, I think there are definitely avenues one can pursue as an aggro list. Fauna Shaman often gets in under the cover of Mana Leak fire because it's so cheap to cast. If it resolves, then you can start going crazy and search up any number of spells that evade Mana Leak. Vengevine, Bloodbraid Elf, Stoneforge Mystic, Gaea's Revenge, Great Sable Stag, or other cheap creatures. Another way to get around Leak is to dump a lot of mana quickly, like Mythic - then you can always play around it. Mono-Red can get around counterspells by running Unearth creatures. Jund inherently gains advantage from an opponent making 1-for-1 trades. It's good to note that Valakut and land-based strategies in general have inherent protection from counters. If you can play smart, you can certainly find ways around it.

The bigger question is what decks lose traction because of the presence of Mana Leak in the format - and how do we build decks from here on out. Mana Leak influences Standard in a million different little ways, some subtle, some less so. It probably does deserve a deeper look, but I am probably not the one to do it. There are probably hundreds of articles about counterspells anyway - I just don't know where they are.

Anyway, I know you're tired of hearing about Fauna Shaman, but let me just make some final points about it.

I have been messing around with Fauna Shaman the most - because, as you know, I love Fauna Shaman. But here's what I think so far.

  • Fauna Shaman doesn't fit in Mythic. It's too slow. 
  • Sovereigns of Alara is a hard fit into any deck without Lotus Cobra, even though a lot of people are trying anyway. 
  • Most of the time, Fauna Shaman is going to find Vengevine or Bloodbraid Elf. But I think Stoneforge Mystic is also a very strong target. This is because Sword of Vengeance is amazing. On any creature with a tap-ability it is doubly awesome - especially Knight of the Reliquary. It's not bad on a Shaman itself or a manadork. It is like a tutorable win-condition, much like tutoring for Sovereigns. But much easier to get in under a rain of counterspells and removal. I wouldn't find it too early, but it is certainly a great target any time you're in Stage 2/3.
  • Fauna Shaman is important, not because it can't be beaten, but because it is warping the way decks are built by simply existing. I have no doubt decks will adapt, and Fauna Shaman, as ridiculous as it is, will not be overpowered or unstoppable. However, there's a limit to how much decks can adapt. After all, UW decks simply don't have a very efficient way to answer a resolved Shaman. Condemn and Path to Exile are the removal spells of choice, one of which doesn't work, and the other isn't ideal if it ramps the opponent into a Vengevine. Journey to Nowhere has been suggested. One might also splash for Bolts or Disfigures/Doom Blade. The best answers to Shaman are in red and black, which not every deck can use. 
The problem with Fauna Shaman is that it was printed in the same set as the Titans. Thus far, none of the current Fauna Shaman decks have particularly struck me as "stupid good". As it dawns on me that the Valakut deck is genuinely ridiculous - how does any deck with the grinding strategy beat a Titan strategy? It just isn't going to be fast enough. And the endgame of other decks are just stronger than what people are currently trying to make Fauna Shaman do. 

The format is full of such powerful game-enders as Baneslayer, Primeval Titan, Sovereigns of Alara, Planeswalker build-up, Avenger of Zendikar, and Eldrazi. 

As I see it, there are 3 stages in a Magic game, and each deck thrives in one of these stages. Mono-red, for instance, is the classic "Stage 1" deck. Mythic fits in this category as well. Jund and NLB and many of the current Fauna Shaman builds are "Stage 2". The Titan decks and UW/x Control are "Stage 3". 

All the Stage 2 decks feel weak in this kind of environment - either they have to get faster or they have to find ways to disrupt the game plans of Stage 3 decks effectively. Here are some methods that may or may not work: Goblin Ruinblaster, Spreading Seas, Thought Hemorrhage, Mind Shatter, Mind Sludge, Haunting Echoes, Blightning, Mana Leak/counterspells, Manabarbs, Contaminated Ground, Sedraxis Specter, Esper Charm, Duress, Inquisition of Kozilek, Tectonic Edge, Realm Razer, Destructive Force, Lavaball Trap

I should probably mention the best answer I can think of, which notably also hoses a lot of other decks: Leyline of Sanctity. If the goal is to Valakut me to death, I think it's best if you simply can't target me. If the goal is to burn me out with Runeflare Trap or Pyromancer's Ascension, I think it's best if you just can't target me. If you want to burn me out as the mono-red deck, well fuck you, too. 

White gets everything. (Again.)

Just as I type this, Canadian Nationals has just about ended.

Jay Elarar (UW) has beaten Vincent Thibeault (RG Valakut) in the finals 3-1. Elarar had 3 Leyline of Sanctity in his sideboard while Thibeault had 3 Back to Nature. I guess we have our answer/answer. 

If you want to know what I think, I think Wizards probably knows what it's doing. Probably.