Is Standard a Two-Deck Format?

Feature Article from Seth Manfield
Seth Manfield
3/10/2017 11:00:00 AM
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As I write this, I'm doing my final preparation for Grand Prix New Jersey, trying to figure out the best way to attack Four-Color Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles. In my opinion these are the two decks to beat in Standard right now, and results back that up. The Magic Online Championship was last weekend, and the field of 16 competitors was very strong. Most of the players were playing these two decks, and two copies of each archetype made it to the Top 4.

Sure, it's just one event, but it was primarily pros playing. In addition, looking at Magic Online and other events, we see a similar trend of Four-Color Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles putting up more results than any of the other decks. What happened to decks like Black-Green Constrictor? It was a powerhouse for a while, but now new sideboard plans are starting to push those decks out of the format a bit. Black-green needs to find a way to adapt in this metagame, and I believe it has the tools to do so.

First, let's look at the two decks to beat, and why they are so good. To beat these decks, it is necessary to understand them and the various gameplans they have access to. Josh Utter-Leyton or “Wrapter” won the Magic Online Championship with Mardu Vehicles.

There are a few different variations on Mardu Vehicles, and this one features Walking Ballista over Veteran Motorist, unlike many earlier versions of this deck. This swap is a good metagame call. Against Four-Color Copy Cat, Walking Ballista serves as protection against the combo, and in the mirror it takes out one-toughness threats like Toolcraft Exemplar.

While Walking Ballista is a relatively new addition, most of the cards haven't changed since Pro Tour Aether Revolt, though there are a few other standout choices in Wrapter's list. The three-drop slot is a point of contention – We've seen Pia Nalaar and Cultivator's Caravan, but instead here we have three copies of Aethersphere Harvester alongside two Thalia, Heretic Cathar. Athersphere Harvester is a flying, lifelinking threat that is also an artifact for Toolcraft Exemplar and produces extra energy for Aether Hub. On the other hand, seven is the top end of the amount of vehicles this deck can play, and makes you more vulnerable to sideboarded Release the Gremlins.

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Thalia, Heretic Cathar is another form of protection against the Copy Cat Combo. Previously Mardu Vehicles relied on only spot removal to stop the combo, but now threats that have built-in strength versus the combo are good choices in the main deck. Even so, the matchup is very close, with lots of decisions on both sides in most games. The other choice that Wrapter made is to not main deck a five-drop like Archangel Avacyn, and instead keep converted mana costs down to get away with playing only 23 lands.

We do see five-mana cards in the sideboard, where this deck can transform to a certain extent. In game one, in every matchup Mardu Vehicles wants to be aggressive, curve out and beat down, with some curves that the opponent has no chance of beating. After sideboard, the deck can become more of a midrange or even control deck. The two copies of Painful Truths serve as a form of card advantage, and are an innovation of Wrapter's. Sometimes you are trading one-for-one, and being up three cards can be a difference maker. We also see the Oath plan that has become popular, and features both Oath of Chandra and Oath of Liliana. These cards come in alongside the Nahiri, the Harbinger and Ob Nixilis Reignited, to turn into a full on Mardu Superfriends deck. Against creature decks like Black-Green Constrictor, the removal alongside card advantage suddenly provides a lategame inevitability the Mardu Vehicles deck didn't have in game one.

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This Mardu Vehicles list has some game-breaking spells after sideboard. Fumigate helps flip the Black-Green Constrictor matchup, making what used to be the worst matchup for Mardu Vehicles perfectly fine because of the sideboard. In fact, I have seen Mardu Vehicles board in all 15 cards against black-green decks. The other gamechanger is Release the Gremlins, a card Mardu Vehicles is scared of, and which gets brought in against any deck with multiple artifacts.

In game one Mardu Vehicles, is the same deck we are used to, but it becomes a completely different deck after sideboarding. This means you need to be prepared for both directions Mardu Vehicles can go, and not just be strong in game one.

Four-Color Copy Cat, on the other hand, is always a midrange deck, but can also win with the Copy Cat combo.

Like Mardu Vehicles, there are many cards in the main deck that are a must-have, but there are a few choices to make. Previous versions of this deck played Elder Deep-Fiend, but more recently we are seeing Chandra, Torch of Defiance instead. Planeswalkers give the deck another angle of attack, and Oath of Nissa means casting Chandra, Torch of Defiance isn't too tough on the mana. Being able to kill an opposing Felidar Guardian with Chandra, Torch of Defiance comes up as well.

The deck has added more planeswalkers, as there is also Tamiyo, Field Researcher, which helps make Oath of Chandra better. Being able to deal an additional two damage when playing a planeswalker can add up, and is a way of attacking the opponent's planeswalkers too. Having seven Oaths means there will normally be one around to blink with Felidar Guardian.

Four-Color Copy Cat has a lot of play to it, so be prepared for its ability to win with regular damage and not just the combo. Sometimes you play around the combo too much, and die to Whirler Virtuoso and friends. Both Mardu Vehicles and Four-Color Copy Cat have multiple angles of attack, and that is what makes them so threatening.

Weaknesses of Mardu and Copy Cat

Both decks do have their own set of issues. For instance, Mardu Vehicles is not a very consistent deck because of the mana base. When you curve out with it the deck feels great, but that doesn't always happen. The other issue is its reliance on artifacts. If you are able to use artifact removal effectively, then it puts more pressure of cards like Spire of Industry and Unlicensed Disintegration.

Four-Color Copy Cat has some issues as well. Since the deck is four colors, you need to play cards like Attune with Aether and Servant of the Conduit, which means a lot of mana sources and can lead to the deck flooding out. Add in the fact the deck has cantrips like Rogue Refiner and that the curve stops at four, and excess lands can be a nuisance. It's also quite vulnerable to sweepers.

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The other factor is its reliance on the combo. This is the best deck for the combo, but players are still playing ways to break it up. Comboing off with cats is more difficult than ever, so while it still happens in plenty of games, you do have to work for it. Four-Color Copy Cat is a difficult deck to play and can be punished for even the smallest error.

Don't get me wrong, these are still the two best decks based on results, but that doesn't mean that choosing to play another deck is a bad decision. Four-Color Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles are well known and players should have well thought-out plans for the matchups. On the other hand, playing a different deck can provide an important surprise factor.

Can the Snakes Survive?

Going back to Black-Green Constrictor, I want to talk about a build with Greenbelt Rampager and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner that has found recent success online.

The deck still has lots of good matchups. Four-Color Copy Cat has trouble with the card advantage of Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Verdurous Gearhulk can go over the top. The game one matchup against Mardu Vehicles is even better. We see additional planeswalkers, discard, and Bristling Hydra as key options after boarding. What is most important is countering the opponent's plans and knowing how to sideboard. For instance, right now I like bringing Transgress the Mind in against Mardu Vehicles to break up their Fumigates and planeswalkers.

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This deck has an aggressive game one, and then should slow down after sideboarding to play a grindier game. When the opponent has sweepers, discard and planeswalkers of your own is a recipe for success, and Heroic Intervention is a foil to sweepers and spot removal. Overall, I think Black-Green Constrictor is still viable, though it takes more work to sideboard now. Anticipating what the opponent is doing and how to counteract that is a huge part of this.

A Two-Deck Format?

Personally, I don't think we are in a “two-deck format.” There are other decks out there, it is just a matter of carefully tuning them to beat Four-Color Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles. For instance, I went 5-0 in a league with Temur Tower this week.

This list is very different than most of the Temur Tower lists that are out there. The main difference is there are far less creatures in the main deck. I haven't been impressed with Rogue Refiner and Shielded Aether Thief can become a lightning rod for removal. Scrapheap Scrounger is typically very strong against control, but this deck can answer Scrapheap Scrounger pretty easily with Natural Obsolescence or Incendiary Flow.

With most decks shifting towards more planeswalkers, countermagic like Negate is in a great spot. This Temur Tower deck aims to get a Dynavolt Tower into play early, and once you untap with it you should win so long as you aren't far behind. While it is not quite that simple, the card is that high-impact. One shot from a Dynavolt Tower can take out almost all the creatures in Four-Color Copy Cat, or go after planeswalkers.

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Control decks should be having more success, and this is an example of one way to tune your own list to do well in the current metagame. Adding a card like Natural Obsolescence to the main deck in anticipation of Mardu Vehicles is the sort of adjustment that is required. As a control player, I'm happy with decks like Mardu Vehicles moving towards midrange after sideboarding because I still have the late-game inevitability by playing more card advantage and counters.

Thanks for reading,

Seth Manfield




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