Following Pro Tour Theros and Grand Prix Louisville, the Standard metagame is beginning to take shape. Monoblue Devotion, Monoblack Devotion, Gruul Midrange, and Esper Control are the clear frontrunners of the format and the decks worth paying the most attention to. Today I would like to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of these decks and also to provide a Selesnya list that is specifically geared to combat these current end bosses of the format. So whatever deck you're interested in playing, the goal for today is to equip you with the knowledge of how to beat the top dogs of the format.
Master of Waves and Thassa, God of the Sea are the pivotal cards in this deck. If you focus on taking care of these threats, you'll likely be in good shape. Bident of Thassa and Jace, Architect of Thought are the next most threatening cards as those are the primary sources of card draw. Discard such as Thoughtseize is a pretty strong card against this deck and the optimal turn to cast it is usually just after their second turn. This maximizes your chances of hitting any of their four best cards. If you have an answer to Thassa already in hand, then it's usually best to wait yet another turn so you can hit their four-drop.
Tidebinder Mage, Cyclonic Rift, and Rapid Hybridization are their answers to opposing threats. These are especially potent against large green monsters, though the Mage is not so much against World Eaters. Creatures with abilities, especially ETB abilities, are especially potent against these answers. In contrast, creatures such as Desecration Demon or Alms Beast are not so good because they allow the blue mage to Time Walk you with Cyclonic Rift. The demon is not a bad card per se, just not so good against the answers in the blue deck. Stormbreath Dragon is also not especially impressive against this deck. Mistcutter Hydra, on the other hand, is very good against the blue deck. Their only ways to interact with it are chump blocking with Mutavault or Rapid Hybridyzing their own guy to block.
Mihara and the Japanese had success with this deck in Dublin and Jon Stern carried the torch into Louisville, taking it all the way to the finals. I'm a bit surprised not to see Nykthos in Stern's build, but I suppose Burning-Tree Emissary is just too lackluster, and the Emissary is pretty necessary in order to support the land. They are sort of a package deal.
Like most midrange Gruul decks, this incarnation plays great off the top of its library. The deck is full of large creatures that can benefit from an abundance of mana. Where it is potentially vulnerable is in the early turns when it is trying to set up. Banisher Priest on an Elvish Mystic can buy you time to keep beating down. Doom Blade or Selesnya Charm on Polukranos can likewise act as a Time Walk. Protection from red (i.e. Master of Waves) is actually very good against this deck. Domri Rade can't target it, nor can Mizzium Mortars (though an overloaded Mortars can kill the tokens).
Thoughtseize can be an important role player at stripping a key piece from the hand (either the lone accelerant or the lone threat, depending on the contents of their hand). But since the deck plays so well off the top of the library, you have to quickly capitalize on the time Thoughtseize buys you. Otherwise they'll just draw out of it and kill you with a large monster.
Unless we count Monoblack Devotion as a control deck, Esper is the default control deck of the format. Kenny Oberg played Azorius in Dublin and had success in the Constructed portion, but Wafo-Tapa performed even better with Esper. Esper Control placed two people in Top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville (Jensen and Sittner). Hence going forward, I would expect control players to default either to Monoblack or to Esper.
The biggest advantage I see to playing Esper is its ability to blank all the removal spells in opposing decks. With the unkillable AEtherling as its only creature, it essentially ends up two to three cards up on the opponent due to dead removal spells accumulating in their hand over the course of the game. Post-board things change, but this is a huge edge in game one.
Another advantage to running Esper is Supreme Verdict and Sphinx's Revelation. Verdict keeps all the creature decks honest and provides a buffer that leads into the mid-to-late game where Esper looks to set up with Planeswalkers and cast Sphinx's Revelations. As has always been the case, it's extremely hard to beat the control deck once it starts casting Sphinx's Revelations.
Aside from dodging Supreme Verdict, another effective strategy is to cut off its primary source of card draw - i.e. Sphinx's Revelation. If you can Thoughtseize or Slaughter Games a Revelation out of their hand, they have to rely on Planeswalkers for card advantage. Without Revelation as part of the equation, most decks remain on equal footing even late into the game. There is also good old fashioned counter-magic. You can't counter the Verdict, but you can counter the walkers and Revelations.
Given the four decks I expect to be the major players in Standard this weekend, I would personally play Selesnya. I've been playing Boros, which has an excellent Esper matchup, but with Esper only comprising about 20% of the metagame, Selesnya makes more sense right now.
The above Selesnya list is a bit different than some of the ones that have been succeeding lately. The most notable difference is the four Banisher Priests main. They are very good against the devotion decks and can be situationally very good against the Gruul deck as well. They are not a permanent answer to opposing threats, but they provide a big tempo boost and force the opponent to expend a removal spell on it instead of our other threats. And in conjunction with Voice of Resurgence, the opponent can usually not afford to try and “blow us out” on our turn since we would get a token if they do. Gods Willing almost made the cut and it's very possible it should be in the deck (to protect the Priest and whatever other threats we have), but I think just playing more threats that pressure the opponent is probably better. It is close though.
Another notable inclusion is Mistcutter Hydra – two main, two sideboard. These are exceptional against the Monoblue Devotion deck and are also fairly strong against Esper. It's not an unreasonable body on its own, acting as the last threat you cast. The haste is a nice addition and helps to mitigate the effectiveness of Supreme Verdict against us. For example, they cast Verdict; we regenerate Experiment One, make a Voice of Resurgence token, make a Selesnya Charm knight in response, then untap and cast Mistcutter Hydra, wrecking the opponent. Even if all these things don't line up, some combination of them lining up will often be enough to win the game. Hence I decided to move the Rootborn Defenses to the board. Advent of the Wurm can also fill into the Verdict equation.
Ajani, Caller of the Pride could be Boon Satyr or Gods Willing. I'm not 100% sure which of these three cards is the best for this slot. Ajani is great at forcing through damage and at not overextending into Supreme Verdict. Boon Satyr can be flashed in post-verdict, or it can be thrown onto a Mistcutter Hydra on turn five to generate a seven power pro-blue creature. This is especially good against the Monoblue devotion deck. Gods Wiling can keep a creature from dying in combat or to a removal spell, and it can help Sift through excess lands or to help find lands if needed. I'm currently going with Ajani, though I can easily see either of these other two cards being slightly better. I'd recommend going with whichever one you like best.
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Out of the board we gain access to two more copies of Mistcutter Hydra, which come in against Monoblue and against Esper. We also gain four copies of Last Breath. These are very important against the blue decks because Master of Waves is their best card by a mile and having eight answers (four Last Breath, four Banisher Priest) makes the matchup very good. Without an answer to the Master, we usually lose. Considering the fact that excess amounts of Last Breaths or Banisher Priests are still very good in the matchup, I would not run less than the full four copies of each. Tidebinder Mage is probably the second best target as it usually taps down something important. Nightveil Specter, Frostburn Weird, or even Cloudfin Raptor can be good targets depending on the board state. Even Thassa can get wrecked by Banisher Priest as long as the devotion is met.
Unflinching Courage and Trostani are mostly for the aggressive decks, especially burn-heavy red decks. They can also help in race situations, allowing us to transition into the control role against any hyper-aggressive strategy.
The four big decks in Standard right now that you should expect to face are Monoblue Devotion, Monoblack Devotion, Gruul Midrange, and Esper Control. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses, as pointed out in the above analysis of each deck. I'm planning to attend FNM at the Geneva Gaming Goat tomorrow and I'll be packing my Selesnya list. It's the deck I feel is best positioned, given the metagame, though any of the five decks discussed in this article are fine choices for this weekend. I'm interested to see what happens at the TCGplayer 50K in Columbus next weekend. I'm sure that will shake things up.
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