How I Learned To Love Standard Again

Written by Jack Grannan on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

How I Learned To Love Standard Again

Jack Grannan

Above all things, Jack Grannan is a brewer. He once spent $30 to register a singleton deck in a Standard cash tournament. If you're looking for offbeat strategies and innovations that border insanity, you've come to the right place.

I have a confession to make. I haven’t much cared for Standard for the past year. Yes, the game I had grown up with and played since I was a wee child was starting to grow dull. Was my mother’s wish of me not playing this children’s card game anymore coming to fruition? Perhaps I was finally becoming an adult.

It all began about a year ago with the printing of an innocuous card, Delver of Secrets.

This poor Jeff Goldblum imitator defied what it meant to be a blue card. Blue is supposed to draw you cards, provide you with countermagic that you could ration for the spells you deemed most important. Blue provided decision tree upon decision tree, each a wonderful path of thought that provided boundless entertainment guaranteed for a long and glorious game of Magic. Delver of Secrets is an abomination of that.

Blue cards shouldn’t be attacking on the second turn, and certainly not for three damage! I trust enough readers have gone on tilt after seeing the “blind flip” time and time again. I played at FNM occasionally, brewing up deck after deck, but to no avail. There were other viable decks in the format … if you enjoy X/Y Aggro or Ramp. Where was the bona fide control deck of the format? Where was the deck that sat behind powerful planeswalkers and spells while not bothering with such plebian devices as ‘creatures’ and ‘win conditions’?

I had lost my way.

My cards were being used against me. Mana Leak, a card I used to hold so tenderly in my grip until the time was right, had betrayed me. Being a counterspell used to mean something. Now players were throwing Mana Leak at any spell with little to no regard. All that mattered was buying a few extra turns to get in the last damage and close out the game. Everything I knew and loved about the color blue was being turned around and forced to do nasty, vile things.

Needless to say, I hated it. Something needed to change. Then Return to Ravnica happened.

A Savior Arrives

With a plethora of new cards in and a multitude of cards out of Standard, it was time to brew again. I wanted to digest, ingest, move the puzzle pieces around and bring back my love for the game. While the format was still fresh, the Zombies deck was far and away the best-looking deck because it had the least to lose and the most to gain. The boogieman had been established, and the question became, “Are there solutions available to the questions put forth by the current format?”

With the return of Shocklands on top of M13/Innistrad lands, mana fixing looked great. Decks could run three colors easily and consistently, allowing a splash for singular cards without stretching the mana thin.

And then there was Jace.

Jace, Architect of Thought is the real deal. He is by no means as backbreaking as the Mindsculpting variety, but he really isn’t that far off. When you’re behind and play him, you can save a lot of damage by +1’ing. If you need to find answers, a quick -2 and you’ve already gotten value. In a world without perfect information (don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Gitaxian Probe) your opponent won’t know what you need.

Holding that Angel of Serenity and just need a couple more lands to bust that game wide open? Gladly scoop up the two land to one spell split. Already have the wrath you need in hand? Sweat some bullets so when your pile comes up Terminus/X/Y and your opponent easily piles the two random cards together, smile as you ship that one to the bottom and show him you had it all along.

The curtains have been drawn, the clouds parted. It was all becoming clear. Mana wasn’t an issue, the answers were in place, and all that was left was the reason. Control needs a reason to play reactively. If you’re just trading one for one, where’s the incentive? Jace provides answers to both an onslaught of creatures and an empty board. At the first major tournament since the format rotated, Todd Anderson proved once again that control was not only viable, but also that it was good enough to win a large tournament.

I felt good about Standard again. Not just good. The best I’ve ever felt about it. It was time to durdle again.

Control isn’t Dead

A good place to start would be Todd’s winning decklist at SCG Cincinnati. Jace proves his huge force in the UWR Control deck at the maximum of for copies per my hopes and dreams. Todd’s deck sits behind a comfortable UW Control/Miracle shell  with a splash of red only for Pillar of Flame. Because every creature sans Diregraf Ghoul is essentially immune to your stock ‘creature kill’ spells in Zombies, alternative removal options need to be employed. Detention Sphere is clearly an easy inclusion because it’s a relatively good upgrade to Oblivion Ring, an already fine card. Terminus is less consistent than the always four-mana Supreme Verdict, but it provides a much more permanent solution to Zombies. The deck wasn’t full of surprises, just incredibly powerful when wielded in the right hands.

Going forward, I had some choices to make. I witnessed the power of Control take down an SCG Open, and the following weekend I had a tournament close to my backyard in Providence, R.I. Originally I brewed a BUG Control list, capitalizing on the best card in Standard, Thragtusk, as well as Jace and various other control cards. While the deck could hold its own against other control decks, the answers simply weren’t present for Zombies. The deck needed some number of removal effects that didn’t trigger Undying or allow for Gravecrawlers to rebuy later on. Sever the Bloodline was the closest effect, but even that was usually too little too late.

A few days before the event I still tried to justify playing BUG control. I knew aggressive decks were problematic, but I knew playing Thragtusk would help. Ricky Allaer had been testing his four-color brew to some success, however, and it came highly recommended. It capitalized on the best control elements of Todd Anderson’s winning decklist, while adding green for big daddy Thragtusk. After some tweaking and spinning my own touch on it, I settled on the following decklist:

Here, in all its pride and glory, is a decklist I can get behind. One-ofs as far as the eye can see. And spells to maximize value to ensure better chances as the game goes long. Suffice to say, we have again an era of true control decks. Let’s look at the advantages of this decklist.

Creatures of Habit

Unlike Todd’s deck, this deck runs various creatures over Entreat the Angels. This can be considered good or bad depending on what you expect the metagame to look like, but I think the Thragtusk/Restoration Angel/Angel of Serenity package outclasses Entreat the Angels. The synergies between Thragtusk and Restoration Angel are obvious, and I wouldn’t be playing green for Thragtusk if it wasn’t that powerful. Not only does it do a ton of work against the aggressive decks, but he holds his own against control decks. It’s almost impossible to ‘get value’ out of opposing Thragtusks. In Control mirrors when your opponent is trying to keep your board clear so they can stick a planeswalker, you’re getting a Beast no matter what.

Thragtusk is bonkers against creature decks. Thragtusk is bonkers against control decks. Thragtusk is a good card. Got it? Good.

Another ‘incredible in a vacuum’ creature is Restoration Angel. Aside from the coined Cruel Ultimatum-type effect you get when you target a Thragtusk, the Angel is a huge roadblock for a lot of the creature-based strategies. It’s also an instant-speed unexpected threat for control decks. Nothing is quite as satisfying as having an opponent resolve a Jace, immediately -2 because you have no threat on the board, and then slamming Restoration Angel to deal with it and play your own. Since Jace is your premium four-drop and you don’t want to overload on those, Restoration Angel sits comfortably at three copies.

Rounding out the slew of creatures is two copies of Angel of Serenity, which is the real deal. Premiering in the second-place deck at SCG Cincinnati as a 4-of in reanimator, this card does some serious work. Much like Thragtusk and Restoration Angel, Angel of Serenity fills different roles against different styles of decks. Against aggressive strategies the plan it to get to seven mana and deal with their three best creatures because a 5/6 is in generally too big to deal with. You drop a powerful threat while likely plague winding your opponent. Against control, Angel of Serenity allows you to rebuy fallen comrades in battle.

Tucking one or two creatures in your bin gives Angel of Serenity that Thragtusk-esque resilience that makes it a threat on the battlefield and off should they find a way to remove it. Two copies are played, which allows the possibility of looping Angel of Serenity with the other copy late in the game. While Restoration Angel cannot target Angel of Serenity, the overall synergy and power level of these cards make up what I believe is an optimal creature base.

Entreat the Angels has a very obvious and powerful effect if you get a chance to miracle it. Even so, a simple wrath or Detention Sphere sends all that hard topdecked work right out the window. While running a creature base might be more work, the resiliency makes it more powerful against control’s answers and it buys time with bodies and lifegain against aggro.

Mana Math

Four colors must mean the mana is awful, isn’t it? False. Here is the breakdown of number of mana producers of each color:

White: 14
Blue: 19
Red: 12
Green: 6

These numbers exclude Chromatic Lantern, which obviously fixes all the mana. Evolving Wilds is actually one of the best lands in the deck because it acts as a mana source of each color and with a Lantern out can tap for mana the turn you play it. Blue is such a big player in the deck with four Jaces that you definitely want to be able to play it on Turn 4, on top of a slew of other cards such as Azorious Charm.

While the deck is affectionately named Lantern Control, the mana is far from needing the fixing provided by the Chromatic Lantern. As two-of, it is more of an occasional accelerant and even more occasional fixer. Triple white on Angel of Serenity has been the only somewhat prohibitive cost, and even that has been mostly negligible. While the Lantern could potentially be an Azorius Keyrune or Selesnya Keyrune, the upside of various corner cases makes me like the Lantern more.

With an active Tamiyo ultimate and Pillar of Flame in hand, each land is an effective two damage. Evolving Wilds can be your Turn 4 land into Thragtusk where it would otherwise not be available. Even the presence of Chromatic Lantern induces opponents to deal with it when they would otherwise not bother. I’ve had my Lantern Syncopated, Negated, Abrupt Decayed, Cyclonic Rifted and Detention Sphered almost immediately after playing it with a full grip. It’s almost as if opponents assume that since the lantern is in the deck that it relies on its fixing to operate, when that is simply not the case.

In my Round 1 feature match at SCG Providence, my opponent was clearly in the driver’s seat halfway through Game 1 before deciding to Syncopate my late-game Chromatic Lantern. This allowed me to resolve a Thragtusk (Hint: This is much more threatening) as well as a Terminus after Vraska cast Captain’s Call. The born-again Beast token made quick work of Vraska and I eventually won that game.  If my opponent hadn’t decided to throw a counterspell at what was essentially a dead card, I would have easily lost.

Sideboard Strategy

Did you forget to bring your sideboard, or did you actually intend to play those cards?

Short answer is yes, I did intend to play them. Each one fits a specific role, and the numbers are still being worked on, but let’s talk about what cards fit what roles.

2 Surpreme Verdict
2 Centaur Healer

These should be pretty obvious. Verdicts become wraths five and six on top of the maindecked Terminuses. Verdict is awful against Zombies, but they come in against GW Aggro, UW Humans (where the uncounterable clause is relevant against their sideboard Negates) and even against Control. I like to side out Terminus against UW/x but bring in the Verdicts as a concession to Sigarda, Host of Herons, Geist of St Traft and Entreat the Angels. Centaur Healer comes in as another effective roadblock for the creature decks, and interacts favorably with Restoration Angel and Angel of Serenity.

2 Clone

Clone is the only card other than basic lands that was in the original set of Magic. While the card pales in comparison to Phantasmal Image, I believe it still has a spot in this environment. We have been spoiled by two-mana Clones for far too long, and just because good old Clone of ’93 cost four mana doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his applications. In any midrange green mirror I bring in Clones, because it is your Thragtusks five and six. Sometimes it’s an Armada Wurm, a removal spell for tough-to-beat legendary creatures, or another trump to an Angel of Serenity war.

Imagine a board with a Thragtusk, Clone copying Thratusk, and Restoration Angel in hand. Restoration Angel can hit the Clone, yielding a 3/3 Beast, Clone can return as a Restoration Angel blinking the real Thragtusk, gaining five life and another Beast. All in all, lots of versatility for a smaller mana investment than most creatures worth copying.

1 Zealous Conscripts

It’s clear this card is great against Planes walkers. Conscripts comes in against decks that try to get value out of Jace, Architect of Thought and Vraska, the Unseen, allowing you to suicide their walker and get value with a 3/3 to boot. It also works great with Restoration Angel (sensing a theme?). If you have nine mana, you can steal an opposing creature and blink it with Angel to permanently keep it, but that’s a pretty rare scenario. Then again, nine-plus mana is completely realistic in [/card]Thragtusk[/card] mirrors, and keeping your opponent’s Thragtusk forever can easily break parity.

1 Alchemist’s Refuge
1 Mercurial Chemister

In almost comedic thematic fashion, an Alchemist and his refuge oftentimes come in together. These are often the most questioned cards in the deck, but both have served an important purpose. Against grindy matches, Mercurial Chemister provides the card advantage and eventual steady removal to pull ahead if the game goes that long. Alchemist’s Refuge is another land that control mirrors so desire, and I wanted to get a little creative and try this one out.

Unfortunately since black is the one color absent from the list, Nephalia Drownyard couldn’t fit the bill. I could have went with another Desolate Lighthouse, but I wanted a way to circumvent countermagic. As cute as Alchemist’s Refuge is, I may end up cutting it for Ghost Quarter because problematic lands like Kessig Wolf Run and Nephalia Drownyard keep showing up.

I see a lot of people bring in Jace, Memory Adept in the mirror to mill the opponent out. While five-mana Jace is much more cost efficient than Sands of Delirium, who wants to side in a card that’s a more expensive version of a planeswalker that is presumably an 8-of between you and your opponent? I sure don’t.

2 Negate
2 Ray of Revelation

These should be obvious. Negate comes in, again, for the control mirror as well as Jund because Rakdos’s Return is essentially unbeatable. Ray of Revelation comes in for any deck that brings in a high number of Oblivion Rings/Detention Spheres. I could see bringing them in if you didn’t want to get buried in card advantage from Underworld Connections, but with only one target in the deck I’d be happier leaving them in the board.

1 Pithing Needle

A lot of problem cards exist, including planeswalkers and lands. Pithing Needle is bad in multiples, but it’s nice to have an option to deal with those cards preemptively.

1 Deadeye Navigator

The king of over-the-topsmanship, Deadeye Navigator lets any game that goes late most certainly give you the edge. Pairing it with a Thragtusk and lands is brutal. Pairing it with an Angel of Serenity is simply unbeatable. Blinking out Angel of Serenity allows you to exile three creatures permanently if you stack the triggers correctly. How it works is like this:

1U: Blink out Angel of Serenity. When it comes back into play, both the Navigator’s soulbond trigger and the Angel’s exile trigger go on the stack. Put the Angel’s on first, choosing your three targets. The soulbond trigger will then resolve first, allowing you to pair again. With the exile trigger still on the stack, blink out the Angel again with the new pair. The ‘leave play’ trigger on Angel of Serenity will trigger on top now, returning nothing to hands because the exile trigger still hasn’t occurred. When the exile trigger finally resolves, the return trigger has already happened. Those three creatures are then banished through time and space permanently.

Most decks don’t run any form on instant-speed disruption, meaning the bond will almost always stick. I bring in Navigator in any match where I expect to have 10 or more lands out by the end of the game, typically Reanimator or against Bant control.

This deck provides the options to survive the early game, capitalize on opponents who don’t do much in the middle game with cost-efficient creatures, and loves going into the long game with haymakers such as Sphinx’s Revelation and Angel of Serenity. The deck is incredibly powerful, and more importantly a lot of fun to play. I will be testing this deck more and tweaking it based on the current metagame. Playing four-color gives access to a plethora of answers to whatever the current problem cards are for the deck.

Thanks for reading!

— Jack Grannan
@Spelljackg

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