On August 2-4, 2013, the World Magic Cup will be held. One of the formats that each National team has to tackle is Team Unified Standard. In this format, each team member plays a Standard deck, but there is a team-wide restriction: no more than four copies of any card (except for basic lands) may appear across a team's three Standard decks.
This restriction yields an interesting deck construction puzzle, which does not have a straightforward solution—simply selecting three arbitrary archetypes need not work. Take, for example, the combination of Junk Reanimator, Jund Midrange, and American Flash. Sure, these are distinct archetypes in different colors, but they still have a lot of overlap: Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Overgrown Tomb, Woodland Cemetery, Pillar of Flame, Abrupt Decay, and more. Splitting up those key cards significantly weakens the decks, so it will be very difficult to run them side-by-side.
But what combination of Standard decks does work? How do we minimize the overlap? These are exactly the questions that I will analyze in this article.
It is only fitting that I am publishing my analysis here on TCGplayer.com because in the last Team Unified Constructed Pro Tour, which was back in 2006, I competed together with Antoine Ruel and Olivier Ruel as…team TCGplayer.com. (Back in the days, you could choose a team name different from your team member's three last names.)
This year I am not qualified for the World Magic Cup; I skipped too many Pro Tours last year to take the Dutch pro point lead, and I failed to win the WMCQ that I was able to play. But I will be doing event coverage in Amsterdam, and I love deck building puzzles such as these.
To analyze the Team Unified Standard options, I will restrict myself the following archetypes:
These 13 archetypes represent the top performers in recent Magic Online and Grand Prix tournaments. I'll assume that readers are familiar with these archetypes; representative decklists can be found all over the internet. Craig Wescoe's recent article is a good start. One clarification is in order: with Naya Aggro and Jund Aggro, I mean the “bigger” versions with Bonfire of the Damned and Thundermaw Hellkite.
I know that I am leaving out several decent archetypes (such as Grixis Control, four-color Rites, Rakdos Zombies, and Azorius Flash) but I had to draw the line somewhere. With thirteen different decks, there are already hundreds of different three-deck combinations to wade through.
Out of the archetypes above, I will not be trying to pinpoint the “best” ones. I will start from the premise that all 13 are equally excellent. This is obviously debatable, but it will serve as my starting point and, given the popularity and recent performance of these archetypes, I don't think it's an unreasonable one. My goal will be to identify the three-deck combinations with minimal overlap.
Before proceeding with my analysis, I have a remark on M14. Even though M14 will be legal for the World Magic Cup, I based my archetype selection on pre-M14 results, and I will mainly analyze the overlap in pre-M14 cards. I don't think this is a huge limitation. There are certainly several M14 cards that will strengthen my 13 archetypes—I will mention some of those cards at the end of this article—but none of them will result in problematic overlap and none of them will invalidate any of my 13 archetypes. Basically, the same decks will still be around; the addition of an 8th set to Standard won't shake up the foundations of the format. There are also several M14 cards that may spawn completely new archetypes—I will discuss those as well—but it is currently unclear how to build them. Hence, I decided to do thorough analysis based on established decklists, and to merely speculate on the impact of M14 cards at the end.
The devil is in the mana bases
In my opinion, the ten most important Standard cards that the World Magic cup competitors will have to take into account when constructing their Team Unified Standard decks are the following:
We are spoiled by the availability of great mana fixing in Standard. All these dual lands, which are almost always four-ofs in their respective decks, allow us to consistently cast our gold spells. And I haven't even mentioned Sunpetal Grove and its kin. As a result, my list of top archetypes is populated almost exclusively by three-color decks.
How does that affect Team Unified Standard? Well, when I started this article, my initial thought process was as follows: “The best combination probably consists of three different three-color decks, which gives you 3x3=9 guilds. That should work because there are 10 guilds in total.” Unfortunately, that reasoning is wrong. In fact, constructing three different three-color decks with no guild overlap is impossible!
To show why, let's start with the first deck. Without loss of generality, we can make it Naya. For the second deck, to ensure no guild overlap with the first, we need to pick Dimir and one of the Naya colors. Without loss of generality, let red be this color, so that we end up with Grixis. Finally, for the third deck, to ensure no guild overlap with Naya or Grixis, we need to start with a guild bridging Selesnya and Dimir; let's say Simic. So far so good; no overlap yet. But every third color we would add to the third deck will always result in an overlap with either the first or the second deck. Hence, constructing three different three-color decks without any overlap in guilds is impossible.
Interestingly, the above construction shows that it is possible to have overlap in a single guild only. This implies that one two-color deck and two three-color decks could work within a single team.
Important overlap in creatures and spells
Lands are important, but creatures and spells are important, too. So next up is a list of the most important non-land Standard cards that are being played across multiple archetypes. The list is not exhaustive; it merely includes the cards that I consider to be most pivotal. I do not include cards such as Strangleroot Geist, Loxodon Smiter, Cavern of Souls, Garruk Relentless, and Liliana of the Veil. These cards are solid and played in multiple decks, but most only run a few copies, so they shouldn't affect archetype choices very much.
It doesn't matter whether you are Junk Aristocrats, Junk Reanimator, Jund Midrange, Jund Aggro, or Golgari Midrange—when you are in the Golgari colors, you want to have access to a few copies of this premium removal spell. Granted, it is not an essential four-of in any of those decks and it might be replaceable by M14's Doom Blade, but it is important to keep in mind that you cannot play more than four copies of Abrupt Decay across your entire team.
This mana accelerant is an important piece of Jund Reanimator, Naya Aggro, Bant Hexproof, and sometimes Bant Control, too. It allows these decks to ramp up to their big spells, and they would be substantially weaker without it. I wouldn't want to split up Avacyn's Pilgrim across decks. Elvish Mystic is a possible replacement from M14, but one that doesn't fix your colors.
A solid creature that sees play in Gruul Aggro, Naya Aggro, and Aristocrats. You could even call it an essential part of those decks, meaning that you only want to have one Boros Reckoner deck across your team.
Both Junk Aristocrats and Aristocrats include this potent flashback spell. The same can be said about Blood Artist, Cartel Aristocrats, Doomed Traveler, and Skirsdag High Priest, so it will not be possible to play both Junk Aristocrats and Aristocrats next to each other.
It can take out a pesky Voice of Resurgence or finish off the opponent when he/she is at two life. As such, Pillar of Flame is an important part of Gruul Aggro, American Flash, Jund Midrange, and, to a lesser extent, Naya Aggro. It is worth noting at this point that Shock returns in M14. Shock cannot remove Voice of Resurgence, but it is a reasonable replacement for Pillar of Flame if you want to run, say Gruul Aggro and American Flash side-by-side.
Junk Reanimator uses it to blink Thragtusk and Acidic Slime, while American Flash uses it to blink Snapcaster Mage and Augur of Bolas. Restoration Angel is also included in some, but not all, Bant Control and Esper Control lists. But the overlap is mainly essential for Junk Reanimator and American Flash, making it very difficult to run both those decks in the same team.
A year ago, it was hailed as the best card in Standard. Since then, the format has changed, first with the rise of Sphinx's Revelation decks, then with the printing of Burning-Tree Emissary, and finally with the introduction of Voice of Resurgence. Thragtusk may not be the best card in Standard anymore, but it is still a very strong creature. It is a pivotal element of Junk Reanimator, Jund Midrange, Bant Control, and Golgari Midrange. I would recommend to go with only one Thragtusk deck per team, and this is a gigantic restriction.
American Flash, Naya Aggro, and Jund Aggro typically run two or three copies of this hasty flier. Although not an essential four-of, Thundermaw's ability to turn games around and nullify Lingering Souls is very powerful.
One of the best creatures in Standard right now. Junk Aristocrats, Naya Aggro, and Bant Hexproof all rely on it. Even Junk Reanimator and Bant Control sometimes run a couple Voices to halt Burning-Tree Emissary and Syncopate alike. Being able to run only 4 across your team members is a huge limitation.
So, it's a complicated puzzle, but not an insurmountable one. After enumerating all possibilities, I found the following combinations with overlap in at most one card. (If I missed any, please let me know in the comments below.)
That's still a lot of reasonable options! I was surprised to see how many deck combinations with (almost) no overlap there are, even within my restricted pool of 13 archetypes. We can certainly look forward to a diverse format in Amsterdam.
In the above list, there is a lot of Gruul Aggro, Golgari Midrange, Esper Control, and Bant Hexproof, and a notable underrepresentation of Junk Reanimator. That is all because of overlap considerations, and it has an important implication: If all teams were to pick a combination from the list at random, then we would see significantly less Junk Reanimator than at a regular Standard tournament. This is good news for decks that have a bad matchup against Junk Reanimator. At the same time, decks with good matchups against Gruul Aggro, Golgari Midrange, Esper Control, and Bant Hexproof become better options. World Magic Cup competitors will have to take these metagame considerations into account when choosing their decks and constructing their sideboards.
Some notable combinations are left off this list because they overlap in more than one card. For example, Gruul Aggro, American Flash, and Junk Reanimator overlap in both Pillar of Flame and Restoration Angel. Another example is Jund Midrange, Bant Hexproof, and American Flash, which overlap in both Hallowed Fountain and Pillar of Flame. Now, if you strongly believe that the last set of three decks (i.e., Jund Midrange, Bant Hexproof, and American Flash) represent the best decks in Standard, or rather the best decks in the specific Team Unified Standard metagame, then I wouldn't fault you for splitting up Pillar of Flame and Hallowed Fountain between multiple decks and going with that. But you'd have to be sure that these decks remain top-notch after giving up several copies of key cards.
That said, my initial premise was that all archetypes under consideration are equally excellent and that the goal is to minimize overlap. As shown above, no-overlap combinations do exist. My personal favorite (without any M14 cards) is the following:
The first two of these lists were built by others. My only change would be to replace a Tragic Slip by a Warped Physique in the sideboard of Esper Control. That brought the total number of Tragic Slips in the team down to four, and no other card should appear more than four times across these three decklists. (Hopefully I didn't miss anything…)
The third list is my own. Lately, I have been very successful with Naya Humans in Standard. My record with this deck and sideboard is 22-4 so far, combining both Magic Online and real-life tournament matches. I consider Naya Humans to be superior to Gruul Aggro for several reasons: Champion of the Parish is one of the best one-drops of all-time, Frontline Medic is an amazing way to bash through opposing Thragtusks and Boros Reckoners, Mayor of Avabruck can win games by itself, and Cavern of Souls makes the mana base remarkably consistent.
Although the speed and consistency of Naya Humans have propelled me to an impressive record, the main reason for my fondness of Naya Humans is the challenge of finding the optimal plays. Naya Humans presents a lot of decisions: when to mulligan, how to sequence the lands and creatures, how to attack and block, and how to play to your outs. This is not straightforward—it requires some planning ahead, and I greatly enjoy that.
So far, I didn't consider any M14 cards. Now, let's take a preliminary look. I will first go over cards that might slot into existing archetypes in alphabetical order. Afterwards, I will discuss cards that don't easily slot into existing archetypes, but that might spawn completely new decks. My main focus will be on cards relevant for Team Unified Standard.
A great sideboard tool for Gruul Aggro. Have you taken a look at the manabases of Jund midrange or American Flash lately? Landing a turn four Burning Earth completely wrecks those deck's respective late game plans of chaining Sphinx's Revelations and taking over with Olivia Voldaren activations. Burning Earth will be responsible for lots of wins in a world where everyone is playing multicolored mana bases. An important implication for Team Unified Standard is that splitting up, say, four Hallowed Fountain between two Azorius-based decks is not all that bad anymore: by playing a Plains and an Island instead of two Hallowed Fountain, your mana consistency drops, but your resilience versus Burning Earth grows! Also, there might be some merit to the idea of playing Monored, eschewing Flinthoof Boar and the like completely. This would enable an all-Mountain manabase, and Burning Earth might become good enough for maindeck inclusion.
A cheap option for Bant Hexproof; it might be just what the archetype needs to flourish. Together with Rancor and Ethereal Armor, you can swing in with a 5/3 hexproof, trampling, first striking creature on turn two. Imagine the look on the opponent's face if you follow that up with a turn three Unflinching Courage. Nevertheless, the introduction of Gladecover Scout (and, to a lesser extent, Witchstalker) may actually weaken rather than strengthen Bant Hexproof because everyone will (should?) prepare for the Hexproof menace, adding multiple copies of Ray of Revelation and the like to their sideboards.
A good sideboard card against Junk Reanimator and Naya Aggro. The 3/1 body is pretty solid, too. An interesting interaction that might come up is with Restoration Angel; if you blink Lifebane Zombie in your opponent's draw step, you can snag a white or green creature if he or she drew one that turn.
Mentioned together because of their combo potential. Since Blood Artist completes the combo, I would expect that the best home for these cards is in the Aristocrats. Where are we at right now: Act 4? Act 5? Act 99?
A solid sideboard card against Junk Reanimator, Junk Aristocrats, and decks with Snapcaster Mage. Might even be worth maindecking in decks with access to enough green mana, such as Jund midrange or - if it becomes viable - Monogreen. It seems better than Ground Seal, at least.
Seems excellent in Cartel Aristocrat decks. It's a Human, which may herald the comeback of Champion of the Parish. Matt DeKok recently made a suggestion that got me really excited: combine Xathrid Necromancer with Thatcher's Revolt! Wow. Include Blood Artist for good measure, and you have assembled an inhumane combo. There is certainly some potential here. However, from the perspective of Team Unified Standard, the resulting deck will be similar to Red-Black-White Artistocrats; it doesn't open up new color combinations.
Okay, now we move over to notable cards that may give rise to completely new archetypes. With the introduction of Imposing Sovereign and Brave the Elements, White Weenie might actually become worthwhile. Paul Rietzl relied on four copies of the instant to win Pro Tour Amsterdam with White Weenie, and that was in the Extended format! There is certainly potential in this Falter / Counterspell split card.
Team it up with Arbor Elf for consistent mana acceleration. Monogreen with Predator Ooze might become a real deck now, as going from four to eight Llanowar Elves is a big deal. If Monogreen would turn out to be strong enough, then it can be paired with American Flash and Junk Aristocrats in Team Unified Standard without having to worry about overlap. The same holds for Monowhite, by the way.
A super-cool card, but one that I wasn't very excited about at first. After all, you're paying five mana for a creature without haste, without an enters-the-battlefield trigger, and without notable defensive capabilities. All that in a format featuring Doom Blade, Angel of Serenity, and Supreme Verdict. So, at first glance, Kalonian Hydra seemed worse than MASS POWER (i.e., Wolfir Silverheart) as the Wolf Warrior can at least immediately Enlarge an existing attacker and act as a huge blocker. Since Wolfir Silverheart is seeing hardly any play in Standard, my initial reaction to Kalonian Hydra was one of dismissal.
But I missed two things. First off, Kalonian Hydra is much better than Wolfir Silverheart in creature-light decks. Even without soulbond, the Hydra can kill in two swings and tramples over an opposing Thragtusk with ease. The second and more important thing that I missed was the synergy with Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch. (It was Dragonmaster Brian Kibler who alerted me to this potential.) This combination is incredibly powerful, and may spawn a new deck archetype. From the perspective of Team Unified Standard, however, the resulting deck will take up largely the same cards as Jund Aggro, so it doesn't seem to open up new possibilities. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to seeing the Hydra in action!
An amazing card in a spell-heavy deck. You can pair it with Shock and Chandra's Phoenix in a monored shell. You can pair it with blue cards: Nivix Cyclops and Artful Dodge come to mind, or perhaps Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. Alternatively, you can add Lingering Souls and Faithless Looting. Or you can take another, completely different route. Plenty of possibilities here, and this is the M14 card I am most excited about as a brewer. However, at the moment, no color combination or archetype clearly jumps out to me as the clear best home for Young Pyromancer, so it's difficult to predict its impact on Team Unified Standard. One way or another, when brewing with Young Pyromancer, Pillar of Flame will be one of the key overlap cards to take into account.
This was quite the puzzle, and I'm looking forward to see how the World Magic Cup competitors end up navigating this format. I am certainly planning to interview some teams in Amsterdam to learn how they tackled the overlap problems and how the Team Unified Standard metagame, which will differ from the “regular” Standard metagame due to all the overlap restrictions, affected their deck choices. For instance, Junk Reanimator (which gobbles up Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Godless Shrine, and Temple Garden) is very difficult to combine with two other top Standard archetypes. It might get a little easier if you consider decks like Grixis Control or Rakdos Zombies, but recent Standard results haven't convinced me that those decks are top contenders. All-in-all, the complicated overlap considerations might be responsible for warping the metagame in Amsterdam in unexpected ways.
M14 may also spawn several new archetypes. If Mutavault, Brave the Elements, and Elvish Mystic can turn White Weenie or Monogreen Aggro into a real deck, then a no-overlap suggestion would be to pair either of them with American Flash and Junk Aristocrats. And if a Blue-Red Young Pyromancer deck would become a thing, then pairing it with Jund Midrange and Bant Hexproof results in no overlap except for Pillar of Flame. So, there are also plenty of reasonable three-deck combinations made possible by these speculative new archetypes.
I would like to conclude with a suggestion: organize a Team Unified Standard tournament in your own local store! The format seems like a great challenge, and team tournaments are always a lot of fun due to the camaraderie. Moreover, if you live in a small country, then such a tournament would support your National team by giving them a good opportunity to practice. Either way, don't leave all the fun to the World Magic Cup competitors!
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