These past couple weeks, Star City Games has hosted a couple high profile events that highlight which Standard mainstays have transitioned well into the new format, and which new strategies have burst onto the scene. I’m speaking of course about the oppressive card advantage of Bant Company and the lightning fast aggro of the Human decks, respectively. Still, the format is fresh and there is plenty of room for innovation. These are my takeaways from SCG’s events:
Declaration in Stone has exceeded expectations as the premium removal spell of Standard. In the days preceding the official release of Shadows over Innistrad, I heard a lot of people discussing the merits of Declaration. One of the main points I heard was that it would perform best in aggressive decks that won’t give their opponents the chance to crack their Clues and draw cards. Certainly there is some credence to this argument; 4 aggressive Human decks made it to the Top 8 of Week 1, each running a full playset in their maindecks. These Human decks had explosive plays that could overrun more long-term strategies, and Declaration in Stone offered cheap removal in the face of midrange decks hoping to gum up the board. Bant Company especially tends to gum up the board with redundant copies of Reflector Mage,Bounding Krasis, and Sylvan Advocate. While the card can be shaky in the mirror match due to how mana-efficient the creatures are, it can potentially be a blowout if it manages to exile 2 or even 3 copies of the same creature.
But what of the Midrange decks using Declaration? W/x Eldrazi decks gladly used the 2-cost sorcery to handle threats and keep opponents on the back foot. Some even opted to use Wasteland Strangler, a solid choice in a Standard awash with exile effects such as this. I had heard complaints about the Clue tokens disproportionately helping aggressive decks that do not normally have access to card draw (after all, look at the popularity of Thraben Inspector!), but I believe in this case, giving your opponent a Clue token is perfectly acceptable if it means denting their board presence. Bant Company can also make excellent use of the card, as unconditional removal adds to the immense tempo swings that the deck lends itself to. As mentioned before, Standard is filled with redundant creatures, and any deck running white is going to run Declaration in Stone if it knows what’s good for it. Bant Company, being among the top decks right now, is of course no exception.
As a brief aside, I would like to discuss the W/B “Midrange” decks that cropped up a lot in these events. I use snarky quotation marks because a lot of these struck me as control decks, complete with boardwipes, oftentimes a lack of creatures, and planeswalkers as main win conditions. Plenty of these decks used Declaration in Stone to great success, including Blake Conti’s Top 8 list. I believe that, in the current environment, it is worth it for Control/Midrange type strategies to use Declaration in Stone to drag games out longer. Honestly, I would be more worried about using this card against other Midrange decks who get more bang for their buck per-card compared to the Human decks. If my Declaration in Stone keeps me alive long enough to cast Sorin, Grim Nemesis, but I’ll be a little more hesitant to cast Declaration if it gives my opponent an opportunity to draw a planeswalker of their own… but it’s still the best piece of removal in Standard so I’ll cast it anyway.
With continued dominance of Bant Company and Human-based aggro strategies, instant-speed answers will be a top priority. I know what you’re thinking: “But James, you just sang the praises of a sorcery-speed removal card in every deck that could afford to run it!” And to that I say that Declaration in Stone is a special case. Declaration answers creatures so cleanly and efficiently that you can afford to cast it at sorcery speed. You MAKE time for your Declarations, damn it. Ahem. Where was I?
Oh right, instant-speed everything. The winning deck of SCG Baltimore, piloted by Jim Davis, contained exactly 2 creatures that could not get cheated into play by Collected Company. 2 copies of Archangel Avacyn, a creature with flash. On top of that, Duskwatch Recruiter’s ability can be activated at instant speed and all the non-Collected Company spells are also instants. A deck that can play entirely on the opponent’s turn is extremely powerful, and will demand some equally speedy answers from said opponent in order to not be bludgeoned to death by a motley crew of Werewolves and Fish Lizards. On the flip-side, Humans are so aggressive that you almost need to be playing on their turn AND your own in order to keep up. The issue is surviving late enough into the game that you can do so. I watched several decks prioritize using Fiery Impulse on Thraben Inspectors and other one-drops immediately, hoping to stem the tide of small creatures long enough to open to door for more impactful boardwipes. This Standard is not friendly towards the likes of 3-mana removal, and there are plenty of decks that would love to trade one of their mana creatures for a pricey Anguished Unmaking or a painfully slow Ruinous Path.
I will be honest; after SCG Baltimore in Week 1, I anticipated that players would turn to Red and Black for some of their removal needs. While I heard some worries about Grasp of Darkness’s quality in the face of Goldnight Castigator, I felt like those fears were fairly irrelevant. It can shoot down nearly every Human creature, provided no lieutenant shenanigans occur, and it can safely kill creatures in the Bant Company deck, Avacyn or no. Foul-Tongue Invocation is hit-or-miss; the possibility for life-gain might be mitigated by just how many creatures are flooding battlefields at the moment. Ultimate Price is certainly an attractive option, but stumbles in a field full of Reflector Mages and Bounding Krasis. Not to mention a certain toad has been known to surface from time to time…
Red seemed to be fine in my eyes, and in fact I did notice that Red continued to perform admirably on camera whenever it stared down some of the top decks. I was initially unsure that Fiery Impulse would be able to keep up with the growing creatures in Human decks, or the high-toughness of Bant’s creatures. My fears were assuaged by several moments on camera where Impulse either managed to pick off one-drops or shoot creatures in-response to various anthem effects. Spell mastery still isn’t too hard to achieve, especially in U/R Control, so 3 toughness creatures like Bounding Krasis or Reflector Mage aren’t entirely safe from Impulse either. Speaking of U/R Control, that deck also made use of good friends Lightning Axe and Fiery Temper, two spells that very well together to take down bigger targets. While alone they have some awkward requirements, together they are a match made in heaven (look, Fiery Temper even has an angel in the art)! I predicted correctly that Rending Volley would start seeing play with the bevy of white creatures floating around, although I envisioned it shooting Avacyns and Ojutais out of the sky, not little creatures on the ground.
Instead of shifting towards Red and Black removal, it appears most people just moved further towards White to give their decks some extra juice. W/X Humans, W/B Midrange, W/G Tokens, and Bant were all top decks solidifying White as the most popular and (arguably) most powerful color in Standard currently. I will note one exceptional approach to this “problem” in Standard that I had not considered; the way U/R Control handles removal and card advantage. Instead of trading 1:1, building up toward an eventual endgame that can handle or invalidate all of the opponent’s threats, U/R relies on spells like Fall of the Titans or interactions with Pyromancer’s Goggles to 2-for-1 opponents into oblivion. Numerous times U/R could fire off 2 removal spells in order to kill 1 creature, and still have plenty of cards in hand. Burying your opponents with card advantage could be viable, although stumbling to set up these card advantage engines can spell doom for their pilots.
With the weekend now behind us, several successful archetypes are laid out before us. Human-based aggro, which managed to win the Invitational on the 17th, manage to win through overwhelming board presence, surprising reach with Gryff’s Boon, and a plethora of anthem effects. Bant Company is no slouch with its ability to out-tempo opponents and build up an oppressive board-state. U/R Control and W/B Midrange lurk in the shadows, utilizing unique interactions and high-value cards to combat the onslaught of creatures flooding our battlefields. And finally, I would like to give a special mention to the various token strategies that have been clogging up boards enough to cause headaches for even the Human decks.
So now the question is: what do we do with all of this information? I agree partially with my initial evaluation of Red and Black as natural go-to sources of removal, but a Standard flooded with anthem effects has shaken my confidence in cards like Languish and Radiant Flames. What do you think? Is there some answer to these top decks, or is it better to simply join them? Let me know in the comments below!
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