Metagaming Against Tier 1 Decks

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
10/25/2013 11:04:00 AM
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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.

Monoblue Devotion

Monoblue Devotion by Sam Black
Finished 5th - 8th Place at 2013 Grand Prix Louisville - 10/19
Main Deck
4 Cloudfin Raptor
4 Frostburn Weird
2 Judge's Familiar
4 Master of Waves
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Tidebinder Mage
Creatures [22]
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
Planeswalkers [2]
2 Bident of Thassa
2 Cyclonic Rift
3 Rapid Hybridization
4 Thassa, God of the Sea
Spells [11]
20 Island (234)
4 Mutavault
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Lands [25]
Deck Total [60]

1 Aetherling
1 Bident of Thassa
1 Cyclonic Rift
1 Dissolve
1 Domestication
4 Gainsay
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Judge's Familiar
1 Negate
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

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.

Monoblack Devotion

Monoblack Devotion by Brian Braun-Duin
Finished 1st Place at 2013 Grand Prix Louisville - 10/19
Main Deck
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nightveil Specter
2 Pack Rat
Creatures [14]
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Hero's Downfall
4 Thoughtseize
2 Ultimate Price
4 Underworld Connections
2 Whip of Erebos
Spells [21]
4 Mutavault
2 Temple of Deceit
Lands [6]
Deck Total [41]

1 Dark Betrayal
2 Devour Flesh
2 Doom Blade
3 Duress
1 Erebos, God of the Dead
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Pack Rat
1 Pithing Needle
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

Underworld Connections and Whip of Erebos are the card advantage engines of the deck, so if you can shut those down, you'll be able to fight on a level playing field. Esper Control has one big thing going for it in this matchup, namely a lack of creatures. This blanks most of the black removal, except for Hero's Downfall, which is exceptional in the Esper matchup. Detention Sphere is a solid answer to Underworld Connections, as is land destruction. Whip of Erebos and Underworld Connections are slow, so if you're somehow able to overwhelm the black deck with early pressure, you can strand a bunch of slower cards in their hand. Monored is good as long as you can keep them off heavy devotion for Gray Merchant of Asphodel.

Post-board the black deck gains access to even more removal spells. Cards like Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Fiendslayer Paladin, and Witchstalker are especially good against this deck because their targeted removal can't touch them. You'll still need incidental creatures such as Elvish Mystic or tokens in order to protect your untargetable guy from Devour Flesh.

The deck is reliant on its life total as a resource for cards like Thoughtseize and Underworld Connections, so if you're able to play around Gray Merchant of Asphodel, burning them out can be a real plan. Slaughter Games on Gray Merchant from a burn-heavy Rakdos deck seems like a winning strategy. Also just overloading on difficult-to-handle creatures such as Voice of Resurgence, Fleecemane Lion, and Fiendslayer Paladin can prove effective.

Gruul Midrange

Gruul Midrange by Jon Stern
Finished 2nd Place at 2013 Grand Prix Louisville - 10/19
Main Deck
4 Boon Satyr
4 Elvish Mystic
4 Kalonian Tusker
2 Mistcutter Hydra
4 Polukranos, World Eater
2 Scavenging Ooze
4 Stormbreath Dragon
3 Sylvan Caryatid
Creatures [27]
4 Domri Rade
2 Xenagos, the Reveler
Planeswalkers [6]
3 Mizzium Mortars
Spells [3]
10 Forest (246)
6 Mountain (242)
4 Stomping Ground
Lands [20]
Deck Total [56]

2 Arbor Colossus
1 Burning Earth
2 Fade into Antiquity
2 Mistcutter Hydra
2 Plummet
1 Ratchet Bomb
1 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
2 Shock
2 Time to Feed
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

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.

The deck attempts to ramp into big threats using Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid. It also has Planeswalkers to help mitigate the Supreme Verdict problem. Xenagos, the Reveler in particular is great at pumping a bunch of mana into the Stormbreath Dragon, Polukranos, World Eater, Mistcutter Hydra, or Arbor Colossus. Between Domri Rade, Mizzium Mortars, and Polukranos, the deck actually has a decent amount of removal. Still, if you can keep the Planeswalkers in check, mass removal is very good against this deck.

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.

Esper Control

Esper Control by William Jensen
Finished 5th - 8th Place at 2013 Grand Prix Louisville - 10/19
Main Deck
1 Aetherling
Creatures [1]
2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
Planeswalkers [6]
3 Azorius Charm
4 Detention Sphere
3 Dissolve
2 Divination
2 Doom Blade
1 Far // Away
2 Hero's Downfall
4 Sphinx's Revelation
4 Supreme Verdict
1 Thoughtseize
Spells [26]
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Island (234)
3 Plains (230)
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave
Lands [27]
Deck Total [60]

1 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
3 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
4 Gainsay
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Jace, Memory Adept
1 Negate
2 Soldier of the Pantheon
2 Thoughtseize
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

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.

There are a few ways to combat Esper effectively, however. One is to play cards that Thwart the Supreme Verdict plan such as Rootborn Defenses or Boros Charm. Another way is to play creatures that are inherently good against removal such as Experiment One and Voice of Resurgence. Yet another way is by playing Planeswalkers that can pressure the opponent without causing you to overextend into Supreme Verdict.

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.

Selesnya Aggro

Selesnya Aggro by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
4 Banisher Priest
4 Experiment One
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Loxodon Smiter
2 Mistcutter Hydra
4 Soldier of the Pantheon
4 Voice of Resurgence
Creatures [26]
2 Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Planeswalkers [2]
4 Advent of the Wurm
4 Selesnya Charm
Spells [8]
9 Forest (246)
10 Plains (230)
1 Selesnya Guildgate
4 Temple Garden
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]

1 Arbor Colossus
4 Last Breath
2 Mistcutter Hydra
1 Plummet
2 Rootborn Defenses
1 Trostani, Selesnya's Voice
4 Unflinching Courage
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

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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Magic MTG Card Ajani, Caller of the Pride Magic MTG Card
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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.

Last Breath can also come in against decks packing problematic sub-three power creatures. Banisher Priest would be a reasonable example of such a card, as would be Woodlot Crawler.

Plummet and Arbor Colossus are mostly for Stormbreath Dragon. I'm not yet convinced that the mana can support the Colossus, but I'm trying it out over the second Plummet.

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.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter

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