Wrath of the Banhammer and first look at new Standard
By Neil T Stacey (@NeilTStacey on Twitter)
Putting together a Modern deck from scratch is particularly arduous in South Africa. With our comparatively small market, it’s simply not financially viable for our suppliers to procure and maintain large, diverse stocks of staple cards for all formats.
This makes individuals more reluctant to trade freely. The fact that it is difficult to get particular cards makes people more reluctant to sell or trade away staples they may need in the future. It’s hard to get hold of cards, which makes people hold on to cards they have, which makes it harder to get cards. It’s not just the expensive cards either; it’s often especially frustrating trying to get hold of a $1 uncommon that no-one wants to part with because the price isn’t worth the trouble of making a trade. It’s a vicious cycle which has the effect of making it frustrating and time-consuming to get a deck together.
So when the two most popular decks are simultaneously banned out of the format, a lot of people have good reason to be annoyed. For those out of the loop I’m referring to Blue-Red Delver which will be hit hard by the banning of Treasure Cruise and to a lesser extent that of Dig Through Time, and Birthing Pod which saw its namesake card banned.
In last week’s article I predicted that there wouldn’t be any major bannings in Modern and I could not have been more wrong. My reasoning at the time was that despite the crazy power of the delve spells, the format was still reasonably balanced between Delver and Pod, with a ton of other strategies still viable. The format was far from stale; in fact it had yet to settle down. Tournament attendance was good and people were enjoying the format, so why hurry to change things?
WOTC thought differently, however and declared that no; you actually can’t draw 3 cards for 1 mana. Fair enough. Dig Through Time was a less clear decision. Then again, Modern is a format where the card selection from Ponder or Preordain is considered too good. Looking at 7 cards and keeping 2 of them, often for just 2 mana and at instant speed, is dramatically overpowered by comparison.
The banning of Birthing Pod is more controversial by far; the card doesn’t do anything outside of what’s considered fair in Modern and the deck has never been particularly oppressive. As the format stood before the bannings, Pod didn’t seem like a problem in the format. For that reason, I have to consider the banning of Pod to be a side-effect of the banning of Dig and Cruise. I imagine that once they had reached the decision to ban the Delve spells WOTC tried to figure out how the metagame might look at the Pro Tour and realised that wall-to-wall Birthing Pod was a strong possibility.
Pod was a powerful deck pre-Khans and has generated a lot of discussion leading up to previous rounds of banning. After it picked up Windswept Heath and Siege Rhino it became powerful enough to retain a sizable share of the metagame even in the presence of the overpowered Delve spells. Had WOTC banned the Delve spells and left it at that, the default deck of choice for a big chunk of the field would most likely have been Birthing Pod.
Instead, we’re left with the prospect of a Modern Pro Tour where the game’s best players have an incentive to build new decks or innovate to bring older decks up to date with recent cards and a brand new metagame.
I can see how that’s better from a certain point of view.
That said, the philosophy of diversity at all costs has another drawback. As a spectator, I find that if there are too many different decks in a format then I have no clue what half of them do and I can’t make myself care. I don’t expect that to be the case with the new Modern, but it’s another reason for WOTC to have a light touch with the banhammer.
This weekend also gives us our first look at Standard with Fate Reforged cards, with a StarcityGames Standard Open taking place. With 19 unique archetypes featured just in the Top 32 decks, the format looks like a mess. Digging a little bit deeper, however, reveals a few solid trends. The single most represented deck was Abzan Midrange, with 5 copies. There were also 3 copies of Abzan Aggro and a copy of Abzan Whip. That’s a solid metagame share for Siege Rhino with more than a quarter of the Top 32 Decks.
Red/White Aggro and Jeskai Aggro showed up with 3 copies each. These are similar decks, running a comprehensive suite of burn alongside cheap threats like Seeker of the Way and Goblin Rabblemaster, a core that was also present in a lone Mardu Aggro deck. The additions of Valorous Stance as well as the options of Soulfire Grandmaster and Monastery Mentor have solidified the variations on this basic shell as frontrunners in the format, second only to Abzan variants.
The tournament was won by Gerard Fabiano with a Sultai Control build, one of 4 dedicated control decks in the Top 32 and the only one playing 3 colours. Blue-Black looks set to be the Control Deck of choice going forward, but the addition of Kiora and Garruk, Apex Predator alongside Ugin and Ashiok gives the 3-colour version a powerful Planeswalker-based angle of attack. Silumgar and Ugin have given Control some powerful new options for finishers and with Crux of Fate the deck has access to a solid sweeper.
The rest of the field was made up of a variety of fringe strategies along with a few old favourites coming out in small numbers. Mardu Midrange, Green Devotion and Jeskai Tokens were all represented and a new combo deck made a bit of a splash, using Temur Ascendancy and Temur Sabertooth as part of an infinite mana engine. The deck requires that you have both of those pieces, as well as a creature able to tap for enough mana to pay to return it to your hand and recast it with some left over, so the combo itself is far from consistent. The deck mostly plays as a straightforward Green Devotion variant grinding extra value off of Ascendancy and Sabertooth, and threatens to combo off if it’s allowed to get out of control.
U/W Heroic decks, hitherto popular and successful on the SCG circuit, failed to produce many good results. It’s possible that the arrival of Wild Slash and Valorous Stance have made the environment particularly hostile for a deck that’s reliant on powering up a handful of creatures.
This format is unusually diverse but even at this early stage there’s a clear picture of what to prioritise in preparing for it. The Abzan variants remain public enemy number one, followed by Rabblemaster and friends appearing alongside a mix of support cards. Control and Combo decks make up a minority presence that you have to be aware of. With such a mixed metagame, taking a pro-active approach is crucial; it’s difficult for a reactive deck to be prepared for everything. Even Fabiano’s winning Control deck is threat-dense by Control’s standards, running 7 planeswalkers able to win a game.
If I were playing Standard tomorrow, I would most likely pick up Red/White. It has a superb mix of cheap removal, most of which still has utility if there aren’t viable targets. Along with that it has stable mana and an excellent mix of threats able to rapidly close out a game. Of all the decks in the format, it picked up the most from Fate Reforged, getting access to Wild Slash and Valorous Stance as well as new threats in Monastery Mentor and Soulfire Grandmaster.