How to Beat X: Standard’s Guide to Lining up Answers to the Best Threats

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

How to Beat X: Standard’s Guide to Lining up Answers to the Best Threats

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all, recently, I wrote about my tournament in Milwaukee. After this most recent tournament, Standard has moved in a radically different direction. Adrian Sullivan managed to take down the whole tournament with an innovative Jeskai deck that featured 4 copies of Niv Mizzet, Parun. At first, I believed that Niv Mizzet forced you to contort your entire gameplan and offered no great ways to be answered outside of the Golgari decks. But, I thought about it a little bit longer and realized that my tunnel vision on Niv Mizzet was the same kind of tunnel vision I offered for Carnage Tyrant just a few weeks ago and despite being hexproof, uncounterable and enormous as well as the same converted mana cost as Niv, Tyrant does not rule the format. It’s important to look at how to address the threats that define each of Standard’s powerful decks and today I’m going to break down several cards that are required to address if you’re going to succeed in Standard. Before we begin: Unmoored Ego answers everything except the 5th copy of each basic land.

Niv Mizzet, Parun:

Niv Mizzet is pretty clearly the breakout card of GP Milwaukee. Adrian Sullivan showcased the power of Niv Mizzet by tailoring his whole deck around the Izzet mythic. Niv Mizzet is a great trump in blue mirrors because of its uncounterability, but, also because of the massive card advantage it grants you over just a single turn. Every instant or sorcery played by either play generates a card. This means that Niv will often grant you a card even if it dies. Moreover, the nasty combo of Niv Mizzet plus a one mana protection spell like Dive Down or Spell Pierce can mean that Niv Mizzet draws you two cards, and gets to shoot two damage among any number of targets. After all that, Niv gets to untap with access to plenty of mana and steal the game within a turn or two. This makes Niv Mizzet a must answer threat on sight. Niv’s legendary status and 5 toughness help it dodge conventional, cheap removal like Shock, Lightning Strike, Lava Coil and Cast Down which limits the number of answers to it immediately. Here are a couple cards you can and should sleeve up if you want to address Niv.

Red Based Removal: Beacon Bolt and Fight with Fire both offer the ability to deal enough damage to kill Niv Mizzet and be cheap enough that you can fight over these spells resolving. As the number of Niv Mizzets increase, I want to make sure I have access to three total copies of these kinds of effects in my Blue Red spell lists.

Traditional Black Removal: Cards like Vona’s Hunger, Plaguecrafter, and The Eldest Reborn can get around Dive Down and in the case of Plaguecrafter, Spell Pierce as well. If the plan out of Green Black is to clear the board of Electromancers with Cast Down, the stock of edicts gets much more reasonable. Vraska’s Contempt, Ravenous Chupacabra, Assassin’s Trophy also address Niv, in the right ways. Contempt and Trophy grant you the ability to bait out the Dive Down on endstep and then address Niv on the untap which can be crucial if you don’t have a way to protect it. Plummet and Crushing Canopy also work similarly and could have additional utility if we see the format move towards more fliers or see a resurgence of Mono Blue Tempo.

More Permanents: Vivian Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker are options for Black Green to answer Niv without triggering a card draw spell. Especially with more Duress, these cards can swing the tempo race well in your favor. Deep Freeze is a way to completely block out Niv Mizzet’s ability in blue colors, but, may be dangerous with the uptick in Blink of an Eye. Conclave Tribunal and Ixalan’s Binding operate similarly to Deep Freeze, but, could also face danger if a Blink of an Eye disrupts their plans.

What to Think About:
Dive Down is the setup, which means you have to be prepared for it before it happens. Niv Mizzet is a powerful threat that often requires you to be well ahead on board to be able to withstand its power. Moreover, choosing to operate on the axis of spells plays into Niv’s hands and is inadvisable. The most powerful thing you can be doing to address this expensive bomb is winning before it makes an appearance or having enough pressure that you can withstand the one-two turns before it wins the game.

Adanto Vanguard:

Adanto Vanguard is not typically conceived of as a format defining powerhouse, but, if you ask Drakes or Jeskai players, it is public enemy #1 within those matchups. The ability to attack hard early and be resilient to red removal is a potent combination in the format. Cards like Entrancing Melody have made their way into the format to address Vanguard, but, it’s likely a bit late. You’ll need a specific answers and have to be prepared in the early stages of the game to not just lose to the requisite chip damage after Vanguard has done its part.

Uncommon Creatures: Sailor of Means (or any 1/4), and Raptor Hatchling are tools utilized by Izzet Drakes decks in order to profitably address Adanto Vanguard and progress their game plan. Raptor Hatchling is particularly impressive to me because of its ability to produce a 3/3 that can continue to stop the White decks from producing profitable attacks without some kind of anthem, and even then, can trade with the impactful Benalish Marshal. Forcing Adanto Vanguard to have to pay 4 life multiple times can allow you to position yourself well in the race, which is why Mono Red is not as worried by Adanto Vanguard as most. I’ve heard that Goblin Chainwhirler is pretty good against Adanto Vanguard. Similarly, the Golgari decks can use Wildgrowth Walker to race Adanto Vanguard.

Black Wither Spells: I’ve called these “wither” spells because of their ability to grant -x/-x to creatures which can seamlessly address the pesky indestructible clause. Golden Demise can take on the board of White decks before Benalish Marshal hits the battlefield. Moment of Craving, Fungal Infection and Reaver Ambush offer another way around the indestructible clause.

What to Think About:
Time is of the essence. Entrancing Melody usually takes a tapped Vanguard that’s gotten to attack twice. Being able to get rid of this threat as soon as possible requires you to build your game plan about being prepared in your opening hand if this card troubles you. Having sweepers that are slow or don’t deal with the right cards can often miss the point of a matchup. Ritual of Soot hits some threats but misses others and making sure you have the right answer for the right threat is so vital in this standard format. For some decks, it’s about addressing one piece of the puzzle, but, Adanto Vanguard is one of the ways that White decks can fight traditional plans like Defeaning Clarion or Cleansing Nova.

Carnage Tyrant:

Carnage Tyrant seems to be the former king of Standard. Just a few weeks ago, the format was scrambling to figure out how to beat a Carnage Tyrant endgame, but, now it seems many decks have found their answers. Here’s a brief refresher on what we know.

Black Edicts: A critical pattern for Carnage Tyrant builds is their ability to annihilate the board with a Finality leaving only an implacable death lizard. However, the crux of understanding this play pattern is understanding that, often, after a Finality, that is when Carnage Tyrant is the most vulnerable. Plaguecrafter or better The Eldest Reborn or Vona’s Hunger can take advantage of the nearly clear board your opponent has left for you and can swing the game back in your favor.

A Well-Prepped Battlefield: More importantly, understanding the power of opposing Finalities means you have to be able to rebuild from them. Wildgrowth Walker can buy you time and offer a growing body to actively challenge Carnage Tyrant. Multiple creatures, a large drake, or lethal on the crackback stops Tyrant in its tracks.

Keyword Stoppers and Keyword Big: Detection Tower is a sneaky way to address Hexproof (either for a previously Dive Down creature or remove Hexproof from Carnage Tyrant). Settle the Wreckage and Star of Extinction as well as Cleansing Nova can answer the hexproof creature without targeting it. Thought Erasure can help to challenge a Carnage Tyrant about to be cast to help use the information you’ve gained from the revealed explore triggers. Keyword Big is another plan. Ghalta, Molderhulk, Giganotosaurus, your own Carnage Tyrant and the aforementioned Wildgrowth Walker can all challenge Carnage Tyrants’ claim for dominance on the battlefield.

What to Think About:
Planning for haymakers means that you’re always striving to create a board state that is hostile to their endgame. The more time you can buy, the more favorable your position will be against the impending threat. Carnage Tyrant is no different. Six mana is a lot and in order to feel confident that playing one creature is sufficient for your turn, you have to have some level of stabilization to the board. Having extra pressure, power in the air or a broad board can make Carnage Tyrant much less dangerous. Planeswalkers, on the other hand, are rarely the answer to Tyrant. The most powerful element of Carnage Tyrant is its ability to challenge inevitability.

Arclight Phoenix:

Switching gears from a giant Lizard, I’d like to move to a flying lightning Bird. Arclight Phoenix has proved to offer powerful force to provide consistent recursion, a returning blocker, and a relatively potent attacker for the cost of developmental cantrips. Arclight Phoenix demands a specific set of answers. Normally, a Doom Blade or a Murder is enough to get rid of a creature, but, Arclight Phoenix reminds us of Scrapheap Scrounger in that it challenges the typical removal and asks a more specific question.

The Graveyard: One way to beat Arclight Phoenix is to get rid of it before it enters play. Blood Operative, Deathgorge Scavenger, Deadeye Tracker, and Silent Gravestone all address the Phoenixes in the yard and can eat away at the Jump-start spells that prop up the Phoenix deck’s plan to provide additional value out of their spells. What’s important to know is that the smart Phoenix pilots are not going to leave their Phoenixes in the yard if they don’t have to and will try to protect them as much as possible.

The Exile Zone: Vraska’s Contempt and Reaver Ambush as well as Lava Coil can cleanly answer Phoenix the first time. Exiling Arclight Phoenix allows you to stop the plan for recursion right away. There’s not much to say about these spells other than they have a job and that job is to actually line up with Phoenix as a 1-1 answer.

The Tempo: While the previous category is more cut and dried, this next category is a little more creative. Threats like Merfolk Trickster, Sleep, a wide board presence, 4/x attackers, Tramplers and Enrage Creatures offer a variety of ways to address the plan that Arclight Phoenix helps address. Phoenix, as Pascal Vieran points out, is often best as a blocker.

What to Think About:
Arclight Phoenix is about the inevitability. They are most powerful when they serve as early chip damage that stifles your development or closing out the last few points of damage. Keeping productive hands and challenging their development make them much less daunting as is keeping effects that can send Phoenix’s away for good.

Experimental Frenzy:

The last card I’d like to talk about today is Experimental Frenzy. I have made a point to highlight the powerful threats of each of Standard’s major archetypes and I found Experimental Frenzy to be a necessity for this list. The reason I picked Frenzy is because it is the most important tool that Boros and Mono Red have to go long in this format. Understanding not just how to answer Experimental Frenzy, but, how to understand how it shapes your post board games is the best information I can offer in approaching the aggressive decks.

Spells: Naturalize effects are good against Enchantments, shocker. Invoke the Divine, Crushing Canopy and Assassin’s Trophy are the most potent Naturalize spells while Thrashing Brontodon, Reclamation Sage, and Knight of Autumn would be the best Naturalize creatures. I lean towards the creatures more than the enchantments and I’ll explain why in a little bit.

Permanents of your Own: Conclave Tribunal, Ixalan’s Binding, Vivian Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker offer the same kind of presence as Naturalize threats. Again, I lean towards the Planeswalkers here because of their ability to have an effect after they answer. The Red and White decks are putting you on a clock and you need to be able to close the door before they rebuild again.

Aggressive Plans: Speaking of closing the door, Large Threats, The Flame of Keld and Risk Factor tools to stop the game before the inevitability of Experimental Frenzy take shape.

Plans to go Long: Just like ending sooner, cards like Treasure Map and Teferi along with a clear plan in your deck to win a longer game can help challenge the dominance that Frenzy threatens.

What to Think About:
Experimental Frenzy is a card to counteract what you’re already doing right. This is to say that Frenzy often doesn’t come in or serve as part of the plan unless the player believes they need help going long. Frenzy is a tool to fight decks that go long, challenge 1-1 trades, and the ways that decks stabilize against Red and White aggro. Understanding that you need to start to plan for the midgame rather than doubling down on anti-aggro cards is the best way to respect Frenzy. If they slow down, you have more time to do what your deck is positioned to do. Don’t soil it.

I’ve covered a lot in this article despite covering only five cards. What I’ve hopefully illustrated is that each color offers a way to address the best threats in the formats and that careful decision making and clear understanding of your role in matchups where these cards come into play is integral to understanding which answers you should play. Being able to understand how to adapt is crucial to making sure you’re presenting the best 75 card deck from week to week. Going one step further, having the knowledge that one threat reduces the format’s attention to another can make a specific threat or another answer the right call for that week. The nice thing about a balanced Standard is that it rewards disciplined tuning. Best of luck in your card selection in the weeks to come.

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