(Editor’s Note: This article was written before the Dark Ascension Release, but the recent Pro Tour kept me busy. Fortunately, Delver did well on the Pro Tour, and the content is still relevant. -CalebD)
It’s no longer a secret that Delver decks are the best strategy in Standard (and to a lesser extent, the blue/white Haunted Humans decks.) Their dominance on the Star City Games and GP circuit over the past several weeks are a testament to their power and resilience. But how have we reached this point in Standard? Why hasn’t the metagame shifted, like it has so many times in the past three months?
Since the rotation of Zendikar block leaving Standard to be replaced by Innistrad the metagame has been populated with a variety of decks—perhaps a product of the fact that Innistrad’s cards are not as powerful as Zendikar’s in Standard, leaving more room for many cards to shine. From Esper Control decks looking to reanimate Sun Titan, to mono-green ramp decks playing Dungrove Elder and Kessig Wolf Run, to Blue/Black Draw-Go and Green/White token concoctions winning GPs, to the impressive run of team Channel Fireball at Worlds with Tempered Steel, there have been a ton of different winning strategies, archetypes, and colors associated with competitive events.
But over the past month or two, the format has become stale. We’ve seen innovations, to be sure, but those innovations are isolated among one style of deck—blue/white aggro-control (sometimes referred to as “fish.”) Whether the decks have a human subtheme, an illusions subtheme, or 12 creatures designed to hit hard and fast supported by equipment, we’ve seen a lot of the same: Islands, Plains, Moorland Haunt and Mana Leak. Why has the format stopped shifting? Why haven’t people figured out the next stage in the metagame? My guess is one of the following:
1) People can’t figure out how to beat U/W Fish.
2) People don’t want to beat U/W Fish.
Notice the difference between these options—people either can’t figure it out or people don’t want to.
Let’s explore each option.
Option #1—People can’t figure out how to beat U/W Fish
U/W Fish is very customizable. U/W Fish can choose between options for its threats like Delver of Secrets, Doomed Traveler, Honor of the Pure, Lord of the Unreal, Invisible Stalker, Grand Abolisher, Porcelain Legionnaire, and Geist of Saint Traft. Each of these threats attacks from a different angle, and some cards are more efficient against one threat than the others. As such, it’s harder to keep up as a deck reacting to those spells. Gut Shot is great against Delver, but terrible against Traveler. Doom Blade is excellent against Lord of the Unreal, but poor against Invisible Stalker. Mana Leak is good against the more expensive spells, but terrible if your opponent has a Grand Abolisher on the battlefield.
It’s difficult to match the right answer to the threat you’re currently facing—and that’s assuming you draw it, not to mention what happens if the U/W deck draws a counterspell or too many threats to overload your answer.
Threat base aside, (most of) the U/W decks also run a lot of filtering and cantrips in order to reduce their variance. With cards like Gitaxian Probe (and Thought Scour when Dark Ascension rotates in,) the U/W decks can afford to run fewer lands, allowing them to draw their business spells more often. Furthermore, they have card selection in the form of Ponder and Snapcaster Mage (using the graveyard) to search for and play the spells that matter in the current game. Need a second Vapor Snag? Conveniently, there’s one in your graveyard! Play Ponder on turn 5 and see nothing but excess land? Shuffle it away for some new cards! The options the support cards give U/W allows the player to sculpt the game to some extent, which can give the U/W player the tools he needs to win. It was the same case with Preordain in the last Standard season. This is the reason, by the way, that Preordain and Ponder are banned in Modern—they are too efficient at what they do (in Modern’s case, finding combo pieces.)
Now think about the average Standard deck outside of Delver. What does, say, a Wolf Run deck do on the first two turns of the game? Play two lands and a ramp spell? Maybe Birds of Paradise, if they draw it? What about Esper Control? Two lands and a Think Twice or Mana Leak, if they are lucky?
U/W decks can play a 3/2 flyer on turn one, then follow it up with a 3/1 first-striker or counter magic, then play a Hexproof creature that deals six damage a turn. That’s a ton of pressure!
How can a deck handle that type of start without the appropriate answer? Sure, Doom Blade helps against some of that, and Mana Leak helps against more, but you need to draw the right answer at the right time. Mana Leak doesn’t answer Delver, and Doom Blade doesn’t answer Geist. Randomness will only allow for so many games where an opposing deck can answer all of those threats at the right time. Furthermore, you may have the right answers to Delver and Geist, but what about an answer to Moorland Haunt? It’s a lot to deal with, and sometimes having the right answer isn’t enough. Sometimes, you also need to get it to resolve past U/W’s Mana Leaks and Dissipates once you have it.
If having the right answer doesn’t always work out, could we force the U/W decks to have the correct answers for us? If we were to play a proactive strategy, such as Tempered Steel (which Channel Fireball did at Worlds specifically to combat Illusions) or Mono Red, we can force the U/W decks to answer us by applying more pressure than they can handle. Long term, however, a new issue arises—one of consistency. Tempered Steel and Mono Red lack long term tournament consistency to keep its pilots winning all the time.
Tempered Steel relies on subpar creatures like Memnite and Vault Skirge in order to play stronger cards like Tempered Steel and Mox Opal. Mono Red, on the other hand, relies on Goblin Fireslinger and Galvanic Blast to power up Shrine of Burning Rage and Stormblood Berserker. The synergy in these decks makes these cards quite powerful. However, because of an over-reliance on several cards, you lose the games when you don’t see your most powerful cards—something that is certainly possible in an eight-round tournament. Furthermore, without the ability to control your draws (as with Ponder), you lose the ability to control the cards you draw, thus reducing the amount of times you only see the weaker parts of your deck. Given that variance exists and we can’t always choose our starting seven cards, this just might happen often enough to knock you out of a tournament.
Are Tempered Steel and Mono Red “bad matchups” for U/W decks? Sure—it’s difficult to handle the pressure they create when their game plans work. However, their game plans lack the consistency enabled by cards like Ponder, and as a result they tend to lose games where variance delivers the subpar portions of their decks. Thus, it becomes less common for a player to win with these strategies as the rounds progress in a tournament.
It is U/W’s customization, card selection, consistency, fast threats and non-specific answers in the form of counter magic that make it near impossible to deal with. It’s no wonder people have not found a way to beat U/W Fish decks. Or maybe they can…they just don’t want to.
Option #2— People don’t want to beat U/W Fish
Now maybe, just maybe, we haven’t seen any innovative ways to beat U/W Fish because most people have stopped trying—they prefer to play U/W Fish rather than try to beat the strategy with another strategy.
It’s possible that the more talented Magic players don’t want to figure out how to beat U/W Fish decks (beyond playing one themselves) because they love playing them and winning with them. Maybe the variance present in the options that beat U/W Fish decks (such as with, say, Tempered Steel) is not preferable to the card selection and counterspells the Fish decks provide. Maybe they love the feeling they get when they sit on one cheap threat and ride it to victory behind counterspells and tempo spells. Maybe some Magic players love drawing card filtering spells so they have less variance and more choice in their games. Or maybe people just love casting Tiago Chan all day.
Personally, I love Standard right now—Fish decks are my favorite archetype. The ability to proactively start applying pressure while being able to react to your opponent’s game plan is enthralling. Having the option to play Mana Leak or Midnight Haunting on a turn, see what your opponent plays, then react accordingly is my favorite type of Magic. With the addition of Snapcaster Mage, I get the option to do it again the next turn. Maybe it is other people’s favorite kind of Magic too. With counterspells, you get to choose what your opponent gets to do—and that type of control, backed up with a threat that’s winning the game for me, is what I look to play in every format I can. It’s methodic for me—play a threat turn one or two, then hold up threats with flash and countermagic for the rest of the game, varying between playing a counterspell or playing a threat. Faeries was my ultimate dream, as it was all of this, and more (though I’m sorry for the people that chose not to play Faeries—playing against that deck was a nightmare.)
In my long Magic: the Gathering playing career, I’ve found that most people who go to tournaments generally play whatever they want. In the early rounds of an event, there’s the possibility you’ll play against anything—a home brew, the best deck, or anything in between (though depending on the event, you’ll see less home brews and more “Tier One” decks.) However, as the event goes on, the less expected strategies that aren’t as good as the “best deck” fall off, creating less of a need to be prepared for random strategies. However, there is still a need for tournament players to be prepared for strategies they might not expect for the first few rounds of a tournament (which, by the way, is one reason byes are so good.) Take Legacy, for example—there are a ton of different spells you may need to be able to answer in any given tournament. Show and Tell, Dark Ritual, Wild Nacatl, Stoneforge Mystic—these are all cards played in different strategies. How can you possibly answer them all?
Two words: Counter. Spell.
Because variety exists, I strongly believe that the best thing you can do to combat your opponent’s cards is to play counterspells. Because of variance, I strongly believe that the best way to reduce your losses and increase your wins is to manipulate the cards you draw each game. Thus, playing a deck with Mana Leak and Ponder seems like the best case scenario to me. And readers, it’s possible other people feel the same way as me. It’s not necessarily that we can’t beat U/W Fish decks—there’s the strong possibility that not enough people want to.
But, if you’re not like me, and you hate our seemingly oppressive transforming and hexproof overlords, I can give you a few tips on how to beat them down.
How to beat Fish of all colors—some general guidelines
Whether it’s Faeries, Merfolk, or Delver decks, you can beat all of them by applying one or more of these general principles:
1) Be faster.
2) Overload their creatures with cheap removal.
3) Overload their counterspells with spells that “matter” (threats, though this can also be removal).
At Worlds, Channel Fireball figured out how to beat Illusions really easily—they just had to be faster. Tempered Steel was faster than Illusions, and it allowed several players to perform admirably in the Standard portion of Worlds. In Legacy, Goblins and Zoo usually win against Merfolk due to their speed and removal—Merfolk can never gain the lead, so there is no opportunity for them to keep it. In Lorwyn Standard, Faeries had a hard time keeping up with Elves and red burn decks for similar reasons. Being faster means applying pressure before the Fish deck can start its game plan—usually starting on turn one. This is, as far as I can tell, the easiest way to beat a Fish deck.
If the Fish deck is forced to react to pressure in the early stages of the game, such as via an on board presence, it has a hard time catching up. Vapor Snag (and other tempo spells) work best when they are being used in conjunction with racing. If you’ve ever had to use a Silent Departure on a three or four drop in Limited without any board presence, you’ll notice that it’s not nearly as effective at winning you the game as it is when you have a few creatures on the board also attacking the opponent. This is because these tempo cards are not traditionally worth a card in the card advantage sense—their benefits are realized when you are winning a race.
Take Divination—card advantage at its simplest. Pay one card for two. Sounds great, right? Well, the issue is, games aren’t decided only by the amount of cards we draw. Card evaluations are contextual (which is why metagames shift in the first place—some cards get better as different cards see play.) If you spend your whole time casting two-for-ones that don’t impact the board or preserve your life total, then you’ll lose to your opponent’s game plan.
Cards that provide tempo need to be capitalized on with other cards. Cards that provide card advantage need time to allow the cards you gain to overwhelm your opponent. Fish decks fight a tempo-oriented battle using cards that sometimes aren’t “worth a card” in card advantage sense to gain significant tempo. Vapor Snag isn’t worth a card in this sense, but tempo wise, it can set your opponent so far back that the loss of a card is irrelevant.
Usually, Fish decks take one or two threats and ride them to victory with counter magic protection. This is their strength—if decks are slower than them, it doesn’t matter if their win conditions are Grave Titans, Primeval Titans, or Inferno Titans—they all get countered by Mana Leak, or the game is over before the win conditions take over the game. However, given enough time, the Fish deck can lose to spells that make it past the counter shield. It is a misconception that Faeries could counter everything—at the time, many non-Faeries players believed this. It wasn’t that Faeries countered every spell—it countered every spell that mattered. That is, the spells that actively stopped Faeries from winning. These types of spells included disenchant effects for Bitterblossom, creatures that could kill the Faeries player before the Faeries player could kill the opponent, and removal on key Faeries creatures like Mistbind Clique. If you play a bunch of spells that matter, then the Fish deck can’t keep up. This was Conley Woods’s plan in a room full of Illusions at GP Orlando—he overloaded Delver’s counter magic and threats with spells that mattered like Curse of Death’s Hold, Ratchet Bomb, Grave Titan, and Green Sun’s Zenith. Delver could stop a few of them, but not all of them—and usually once one of these spells resolved, that was all it took to end the game.
Overall, Fish decks tend to favor card disadvantage (with cards like Vapor Snag and Force of Will) for tempo advantage, and then capitalize on that advantage with cheap threats. They build their board on the first two turns of the game, then sit back and ride their way to victory by reacting to their opponents at instant speed. By recognizing this axis of interaction and either going under it on the first two turns of the game or overwhelming it as the game progresses, you can beat a Fish deck—that is, if you want to.
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