Hi all, reporting in once more with thoughts returning from one of the first Standard PPTQs this year in the North of England.
2018 has already brought us a new set release, and what will likely be a bit of a ‘shake-up’ for Standard in the coming weeks with the banning of Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon leaving everyone trying to figure out the strongest strategies.
A few words about the bannings
There’s already a lot of extensive content about the bannings discussing how much the authors agree or disagree with them and what they predict they will do with Standard. I’ve provided my briefer thoughts below:
- Attune with Aether: This held the Energy archetype together with enough solidity allow it to play the best cards in 3+ colours AND provide free resource. The banning helps address Energy’s dominance.
- Rogue Refiner: While only really a ‘support’ card, this did too much for its mana cost. I think if only Attune had been banned we’d likely see possible continued dominance by the Temur or Sultai Energy decks with this card pulling a bit more weight in holding it together.
- Ramunap Ruins: Allowing an already strong red deck to run extra repeatable sources of damage in the ‘Lands’ slots really pushed it over the edge. The only thing that kept Mon-red from dominating was that Energy decks were set up to deal with it. So with Energy becoming weaker, I think something had to be done about Mono-red too.
- Rampaging Ferocidon: In an aggressive strategy, this card did a lot of work to mitigate the weak-spots. Preventing life-gain or overwhelming board advantages can often translate to ‘no fun allowed’ for the opponents. I agree with Sam Pardee on this one. Hazoret the Fervent is the most powerful card in the deck and the easiest path to victory, and I think banning this card instead would have shut Mono-red down to a much greater extent. Aggressive red strategies are needed from time to time and having the god in the mix keeps it alive, albeit weaker.
What do I think this will do to Standard? Control and combo decks strengthen their position now that they don’t have to worry about 30% of their opponents getting them with a Longtusk Cub backed up by Negate in the sideboard games (they can also gain life against Mono-red). Decks like Tokens or Approach which were hampered by Rampaging Ferocidon have a much easier time and there’ll be a hell of a fight for best aggro/midrange strategy, this makes cards like Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage useful to have in the maindeck for now.
Choosing a deck in new Standard
As a former Energy/Red player, and with this in mind, I started to think about what to play in the PPTQ. Here were my more instinctive options:
- Grixis Energy: Grixis Energy actually existed in the previous metagame, Championed by Brennan Di Candio, but didn’t quite get the profiling that Temur or 4 colour energy did. This seems like the closest ‘next step’ deck for those who were running the 4 colour energy decks with more black spells (Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Vraska’s Contempt, Gonti, Lord of Luxury) and I expected a lot of former Energy players to jump on the bandwagon.
- Mardu Vehicles: Lost very little from the bannings, and the Red/Energy decks were quite strong against it. Having a quick and proactive gameplan while everyone is ‘trying stuff out’ can provide an edge. I’ve also played the deck before during the previous Standard rotation so am familiar with some cards/play patterns.
- Temur Energy: If I replaced my Attunes with a mix of lands and/or Channeler Initiate and Rogue Refiner’s with Jadelight Ranger I could play a very similar deck. The issue I had with this is that the power level of cards goes down significantly, as well as the Energy supply to cards like Bristling Hydra and Whirler Virtuoso.
- Monored: If I replaced Rampaging Ferocidon with Ahn-Crop Crasher and Ramunap Ruins with Mountains, I can, again, run a very similar deck. I’ve played red before, but found people to be respectful and prepared for it more often than not. One thing that also crossed my mind was that in ‘figuring out stuff’ that there would be a few more decks taking advantage of the Ferocidon ban.
- Try something new: Mono-black Vehicles seemed like an appealing option. Similar plan to Mardu Vehicles, but with a much better manabase – the problem is the cards are overall at much lower power-level, and thinking about it, I didn’t fancy playing Night Market Lookout and Vicious Conquistador. I haven’t particularly been a fan of playing a dedicated control deck in Standard for some time, mostly because the permanents you have to deal with are so powerful. However, if Fumigate and Settle are going to be strong against a good proportion of what I expect to show up, it makes sense. I still had reservations about being a mostly ‘reactive’ deck. So I thought about tokens decks and decks revolving around God-Pharaoh’s Gift.
Fortunately, others were in the same boat. I agreed to meet up with my friends Gareth Woodhead PT (Gaz), Matthew Duggan (Matt) and Alfie Bennett (Alf) to bash out some games, help each other with card choices and work out what we wanted to play (as well as actually obtain the cards we needed!). Alf was our dedicated Mardu player and with Gaz wanting to play Grixis and Matt fairly set on a GB Winding Constrictor deck, we had a good set of creature decks with which to do battle. I decided to try out the various UW decks, starting with God-Pharaoh’s Gift. If it could go over the top of all these, I’d go into the PPTQ feeling confident about how I line up with the expected field. I started with a recent 5-0 list from MTGO Competitive Leagues.
Why UW and not Jeskai or Esper?
- The Jeskai version of the deck seemed the best ‘goldfish’ version of the combo, but also a much more ‘all-in’ strategy. It seemed very reliant on comboing out, and therefore soft to disruption, or much less effective if you didn’t get the right cards into the graveyard on time. In the postboard games you can sideboard in a lot of countermagic to protect the combo, which is useful. However, this doesn’t stop Scavenger Grounds, nor is it great against hate that can be played very early on like Crook of Condemnation. I disliked that there wasn’t really a strong Plan B for the deck. The other versions could just ‘cast monsters’ and play a ‘fair game’ much easier when needed.
- The Esper version of the deck seemed like it had the best disruption package with Kitesail Freebooter and Hostage Taker, as well as Fatal Push to stop early pressure (in addition to the combo + The Scarab God), but again, it needed a critical mass of creatures in the graveyard to combo out and I felt the deck was trying to do so many things that there could be a lot of draws where I have a bit of a disruption, but don’t amass enough of the combo when I need to.
- I’m a relatively risk-averse person when it comes to deck choice and technical play. This sometimes can lead me to playing too conservatively at times, when I should have sucked-it up and played more aggressively. Having said this, I’m a big fan of the Reid Duke philosophy of ‘planning for the worst’ and playing in a way that helps mitigate ‘things going wrong’ where practical. With this in mind, I decided to play UW – better manabase, lowest combo setup cost.
After bashing out some matches during the week, I became more familiar with the deck’s game one strategy and how its moving parts work. I knew now that I had to nail down a good sideboarding strategy. Most opponents would definitely be sideboarding to stop the combo, but I wasn’t sure how much of it to board out or keep in each time. After some scouring of the internet, I came across a translated article by Kenta Harane who won the World Magic Cup as part of the Japanese team and played UW God-Pharaoh’s Gift. The article was an absolute life saver and ideal for me as I wanted to understand what’s important in each matchup and why certain cards stay in or come out for different sideboarded games. With a few adjustments to his WMC list in consideration of the bans and slight adjustment to the expected field, I decided to try this deck out.
I had another chance to play some more games with Gaz, Matt and Alf. Mardu seemed like a pretty tough matchup, especially game one, but I was happy with the way the postboard games played out overall against all the creature decks. The midrange strategies often instinctively board in cards like Duress, Negate and Abrade only to be outdone by an Angel of Sanctions while most or all of the Refurbishes and Gifts got sideboarded out!
Gaz and I travelled to the PPTQ together. Alf unfortunately couldn’t attend due to other commitments but at the venue, we met up with Matt, a lot of the other Leeds players and a healthy number of other competitive players from the North of England. It was quite an experienced field from the looks of things. The event was held at Gamers-at-Hart, with an adjoining café (Tea-at-Hart) which did a great bacon sandwich! The event was 5 rounds with a cut to Top 8.
Here’s how the rounds played out
Round 1 vs Sultai Energy
- Game 1: My opponent opens with Merfolk Branchwalker, Jadelight Ranger and Walking Ballista. I try to draw into the combo, but can’t find a Refurbish. Instead I find a Fumigate to clear the board and start hard-casting Angels of Invention to recoup lost life and soar to victory
- Game 2: Unfortunately, my opponent misses their third land drop which allows me enough time to start taking over the game with my five drops. My opponent does fight back with multiple Vraska’s Contempt, but with multiple Angels of Invention each creating 2 Servos on appearance, I easily force a late-game with huge resource advantage and wrap things up comfortably with more Angels of Invention/Sanctions.
Round 2 vs UW God-Pharaoh’s Gift
- Game 1: Game one of the mirror is absolute nonsense! Within a few turns, both of us have multiple God-Pharaoh’s Gift going and are churning through our decks. Unfortunately for me a few things go slightly better for my opponent than for me. This involves them reanimating Zetalpa, Primal Dawn to hold the fort and buy enough time to mill me out with Ministers and Rivulets (I failed to draw Cast Out).
- Game 2: So begins the battle of Fairgrounds Wardens and Angels of Sanction. Luckily for me, I have a ton more of these than my opponent and win convincingly.
- Game three: Again, I think my opponent has to leave in more low-impact cards like Minister and Sacred Cat as they don’t have enough to board in. My opponent doesn’t really do much other than play one drops, so I put him on holding up countermagic. I start to deploy Angels and apply pressure while patiently waiting to be able to cast the Gift with Negate backup. Eventually, I manage to crash through for about 20 damage on the last turn of extra turns to avoid the draw.
Round 3: vs Mardu Vehicles
- Game 1: I keep a hand that is a little contingent on hitting spells with the Chart a Course, but I know what I’m up against so I think my best shot is to try and draw into the combo while slowing them down with Sacred Cats. My opponent comes out of the gates relatively quickly and I start drawing a lot of lands which is worrying. There are a few turns where I’m literally chump blocking to survive and I’m dead to a single Lightning Strike or Unlicensed Disintegration, but luckily my opponent doesn’t have either. I eventually draw a Refurbish, combo off and clinch victory from the jaws of defeat.
- Game 2: My opponent again starts aggressively, but is a little dependent on their artifacts to make their manabase of multiple Spire of Industry allow them to cast spells. I use Fairgrounds Wardens and Angel of Sanctions to kill off Thopter tokens and Scrapheap Scroungers to constrain my opponent’s ability to cast spells and halt their assault. I then force a lategame where my opponent is unable to deal with the Angel or get through for damage. After the match, we discuss sideboarding and I’m quite happy to see that my opponent took out some cards for Duress and Abrade, which are much lower impact against me when I take out the combo. My opponent admits that had they known about me removing the combo postboard they would have definitely sideboarded differently.
Round 4: vs UW Approach
- I’m up against Roberto. He’s happy to ID, as am I. Game one is pretty awful for me, and, if I get there in the sideboarded games it will be a real grind and likely go to time.
Round 5: vs Mardu Vehicles
- I’m up against Alex Gershaw (Gersh), another good friend and fellow Leeds player He is also happy to ID and guarantee Top 8.
While we wait for the rounds to play out I grab some lunch from the café and play Coup and Exploding Kittens with Roberto and Matt. I would recommend these if you like boardgames that are easy to set up and relatively quick to play.
Top 8 is announced and I’m in third place which means I get to go first in the Quarter Finals.
Quarterfinals: vs Mardu Vehicles
I’m up against Gersh again, only this time we have to play a match. He’s a solid player who’s mostly stuck to Legacy over the last few years, but won a Standard PPTQ last season and it’s good to see him continue to come back to play some Standard.
- Game one: I mulligan into Sacred Cat, Plains, Chart a Course, Strategic Planning, God Pharaoh’s Gift and Refurbish. I decide to keep the hand based on its potential for a turn 4 combo if I can hit a second land drop and then lands 3 and 4 in sequence. After scrying away another Gift, this doesn’t exactly go to plan and I die before I draw a second land. Maybe this is my inexperience showing, but I felt that in game one I want to keep hands that have the potential to combo quickly.
- Game two: I keep a hand that allows me to slow down my opponent’s pressure with Fairgrounds Wardens and Angel of Sanctions. I use my draw spells to make sure I hit land drops. I then start to clock my opponent but get into a bit of a pickle when my opponent topdecks back to back Unlicensed Disintegrations but fortunately a third one is not forthcoming and I’m able maintain board advantage while flying over with angels.
- Game 3: I do my best to keep my opponent’s artifacts off the board to constrain their ability to use Spire of Industry, Toolcraft Exemplar, Pia Nalaar and Unlicensed Disintegration. It works very well and really helps me stabilise the board. A topdecked Hazoret causes a few headaches, but nothing a Cast Out can’t stop. Eventually my opponent is on the backfoot and the angels get it done once again.
Semifinals: vs UW Approach
I’m up against Roberto once more, and there’s no getting away from the UW standoff this time. With a slightly un-favoured matchup and a very skilled opponent, this is going to be tough.
- Game one: I don’t have much of a plan other than to try and make my opponent’s cards as ineffective as possible, hope they can’t find an Approach, and if they do, mill it with Ministers and Rivulets before it can be redrawn (and hope they don’t just have a second one in hand). I’m disheartened to see a Scavenger Grounds (and other deserts) on my opponent’s side of the battlefield as it’s going to do quite some work for him. I grind my opponent down to 8 life, but a Fumigate puts him back up to about 16. My opponent confidently casts an Approach and I have, what is likely one turn to one-shot my opponent. I do actually mess up in terms of playing to my outs. I was so transfixed on trying to make sure I could mill my opponent’s Approach that I forgot about changing the plan when I topdecked a Refurbish for the turn. In addition to playing the Gift I had been holding, I could have milled myself for four with the Rivulet and hoped the last Gift was in the top 4 cards (first 2 Exiled via Scavenger Grounds) and return it to allow me to reanimate two Angels of Invention that turn and crash in for 17 (1 Minister already on board). This game goes to to Roberto.
- Game two: This time I have Negates and Jace’s Defeats in place of Sacred Cat and Fumigate which should allow me to put up some resistance. The game starts out with the obligatory land drops and I start jamming Angels of Invention into whatever counterspells my opponent is holding. One sticks but only attack with the Servos. After a few turns my opponent Fumigates anyway. I play Refurbish and represent Negate backup. I only have Angel and Gift in the graveyard and my opponent can use Scavenger Grounds to exile them, but I think he is waiting to have more deserts on the battlefield to get multiple uses out of the Grounds. Everything resolves and I make more Servos and bash. From this point I basically try to grind my opponent into oblivion by only attacking with bad creatures and committing as little as possible to the board/graveyard to basically force my opponent to use Settles and Fumigates sub-optimally. After a few sequences of turns with beatdown, my graveyard getting exiled, a forced Settle/Fumigate, my opponent runs out of stuff to do and is holding only lands.
- Game three: My opponent adopts an aggressive gameplan by casting Essence Scatter on a Champion of Wits, Censor on Angel of Invention and a Torrential Gearhulk to Essence Scatter my next creature. I’m on a four turn clock out of the control deck! However, this does put my opponent lower on resources during the midgame (I say mid-game, it’s about turns 8-12) which means I have a bit of free space to resolve a Gift and start drawing cards with Champion of Wits. I can then adopt a similar ‘grind out’ plan as per game two, the only thing I have to watch out for is getting milled out if my opponent survives for long enough. Fortunately I’m able to get there before that becomes material.
This was one of the most challenging and grindy games of Magic I’ve played in a very long time. After revealing the sideboard strategy, Roberto admitted that sideboarding out all the Approaches may have been a mistake given how little countermagic I actually run. I believe this is partly true, though if only one is kept in, I can potentially mill it before re-draw so I think he would have to keep in two.
Finals vs Jeskai God Pharaoh’s Gift
My opponent and I agree to split the prizes so that the winner gets the RPTQ invite and the loser gets 54 boosters (1.5 boxes). Nobody concedes as we both have our eyes on the invite. This seems like a bad matchup from what I know about my opponent’s deck.
- Game 1: I fail to find a Cast Out, so, to nobody’s surprise, we just both combo out. I manage to stop him going infinite the first time as he runs out of Combat Celebrants, but the very next turn my opponent is able to refill the graveyard and eventually find another one. Meanwhile, my Angel of Invention is only a three turn clock.
- Game 2: I do have the Negates in hand, but what really decides this game is my opponent drawing all four Aether Hubs and ending up running out of coloured mana to cast spells. I win fairly easily with an Angel of Sanctions and Hostile Desert.
- Game 3: This is probably the most interactive game of the three. I have a reasonable hand to fight the combo but I miss a few land drops and end up having to simply pass the turn and represent countermagic. I otherwise lose on the spot to his combo. My opponent gets to advance their board at will as I have no pressure. I wait until the last possible turn before playing Settle the Wreckage against a lethal attack. After an exchange of Negates, the matter is Settled. Unfortunately at this point my opponent is able to untap and combo out for and with no more answers, I extend the hand.
While disappointed to have lost the finals, I’d played through multiple matches I consider unfavourable against some good players and I’m mostly happy with my preparation and the way I played. Congratulations to Stuart Jackson for securing an RPTQ invite.
I really like the transformational sideboard. As I’ve touched on earlier, boarding out the combo and boarding into Angel of Sanctions and Fairgrounds Warden is a really effective way of sidestepping unprepared opponents playing creature decks who are hoping to get the best out of their Negates, Abrades, and Duresses. I followed Kenta Harane’s sideboarding plan (accommodating for the slight adjustments I made to the list).
All eyes are now on GP London this coming weekend. I’m really excited to be part of the UK Content Creators who are putting on a Treasure Hunt at the GP and I’ll also be spell-slinging between 12:00 and 16:00 on the Friday, so if you’re there and want to battle me for CFB goodies I’ll be there for that and hopefully two days of Ixalan Limited!