Going Deep in Standard
Following Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, many players like myself were worried Ramunap Red would be too good for Standard. When a Pro Tour Top 8 has six copies of virtually the same deck, it is natural to worry that a format may be unbalanced.
But not to fear. Here we are just a week removed from the Pro Tour and Ramunap Red is no longer dominating Standard! In Minneapolis this past weekend there was only one copy of the feared Ramunap Red deck in the Top 8. Clearly there are ways to combat Ramunap Red, and that helps open room for other decks to enter the format.
In fact, the best deck right now in Standard appears to be Mono-Black Zombies. Zombies does traditionally have a good matchup against Ramunap Red; in fact, it is good against most creature-based decks. At the Grand Prix, I played Black-Green Constrictor, and was also not particularly happy with the Zombies matchup. In order to beat Zombies, I believe you need to have a crazy good late-game and simply go over the top of them.
The Graveyard Decks
In testing for the Pro Tour, we quickly realized that White-Blue God Pharaoh's Gift has a good matchup against Zombies. While that deck has started to fall out of favor a bit, that doesn't mean there aren't other graveyard decks that have merit as well. Players are starting to cut graveyard hate like Crook of Condemnation from their sideboards, this open the door for this sweet Sultai Reanimator deck that has been popping up.
This deck takes a few turns to start doing crazy shenanigans, but once it gets going it becomes almost impossible to stop. Ramunap Red is a close matchup because it can kill you before you start reanimating big creatures. However, a deck like Zombies or Black-Green Constrictor isn't quite as fast as Ramunap Red, so you will have time to get your huge fatties into play with some life to spare. This allows you to fill up the graveyard in the early turns with fatties while you hunt for reanimation cards, and the removal suite prevents the opponent from running over you. Since there is so much card draw, the likelihood of drawing one particular card during the course of a game is much higher. For instance, even though there are only three Yahenni's Expertise in the deck, if you need one, you are a favorite to find one by turn four. This means the deck can often clear the board on turn four and then start reanimating creatures on turn five.
Liliana, Death's Majesty is probably the most important card in the deck. There aren't any four-mana reanimation spells here or this deck would simply be too good, so we have to settle for a five-mana way to Reanimate creatures. Liliana, Death's Majesty comes into play and generally immediately returns a high-impact threat to the battlefield. While your opponent is worried about the big creature that just came into play, there is still a Liliana, Death's Majesty on the battlefield. This planeswalker does it all, and oftentimes you bring back multiple creatures with the same Liliana, Death's Majesty.
The deck can only play four Liliana, Death's Majesty, so there are also a couple of Ever After as well. Sometimes you only have one fatty, but when returning two to the battlefield with Ever After it is backbreaking. With six reanimation spells, you almost always draw one during the course of the game.
What to Reanimate?
The green in the deck is just for Ishkanah, Grafwidow. This deck can hit delirium pretty consistently, and Ishkanah has been proven to be a great way to clog the board with creatures. You can cast Ishkanah naturally, but most of the time you want to be reanimating her.
While Ishkanah clogs up the board, another creature exists as a way to gain life and help most when you are far behind in a game: Noxious Gearhulk. This is widely considered the most important creature in the deck, which is why the deck runs four.
There are also some one-ofs like the Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and The Scarab God. If you are able to make a copy of Noxious Gearhulk or Ishkanah with The Scarab God, it is pretty easy to win from there. The Razaketh, the Foulblooded provide an additional combo element to the deck. Being able to search for any card by sacrificing a Spider Token or Champion of Wits creates a chain where you always have gas to play, and Noxious Gearhulk can gain back any life lost from activations of Razaketh, the Foulblooded. And don't forget that we are talking about a huge flyer that can end the game very quickly.
The next deck took me completely by surprise in Minneapolis – White-Blue Approach. I had seen some Bant Approach lists, but creating a more consistent mana base and more interactive spells has taken the strategy to the next level. Approach of the Second Sun is in fact a very good win condition, and in a world where there aren't many decks with counters, Dan Ward was able to showcase his take on White-Blue Approach to a Top 16 finish in Minneapolis.
Now here is a deck that is good against Zombies. I was chatting with Dan in Minneapolis and round after round he was hoping to get paired against Zombies, and even though he wasn't getting his wish he was still winning. It seems that this deck is the real deal. Fumigate is in an amazing spot at the moment, but there are very few decks that can actually take advantage of the card as there are very few white-based control decks.
Since the White-Blue Approach deck only needs to devote three slots to winning the game, it is able to play as much interaction as it wants to. We see mostly classic control elements here, as the combination of countermagic, removal and card advantage does good work. It's also still a work in progress; while Dan did well with this list, that still doesn't mean it's optimal. The White-Blue Approach deck is a completely new strategy, and there may be ways to improve the deck now that players are aware of what it is up to.
You might expect this to be a typical White-Blue Control deck with Torrential Gearhulk. However, not playing any creatures has a huge upside. Many decks are packed with various removal spells, and making those cards dead is great. This might be the only deck in the format that doesn't need creatures to win. On the flipside, since the deck has no creatures, it becomes a challenge to fill the entire deck out with quality spells.
The countermagic that doubles as card draw in Censor and Supreme Will is quite important. You do want to find Approach of the Second Sun by turn seven, and cards like Supreme Will really help with setting up your draws. Glimmer of Genius is self-explanatory. Even though there are not any energy payoffs, the deck still wants Glimmer of Genius since it is the best card draw spell in the format. After casting an Approach of the Second Sun you may not have a second copy, so it is important to be able to dig through your deck to find the same copy of Approach of the Second Sun and cast it again.
While I approve of the card draw choices, I'm not convinced on some of the removal spells here. Aether Meltdown seems like a weird inclusion, since there are actually not any energy payoffs here. Also, Aether Meltdown doesn't work well with Blessed Alliance, because if the opponent attacks with their creature that got hit with Aether Meltdown, all of a sudden Blessed Alliance doesn't look so hot. I would consider playing Immolating Glare over Aether Meltdown, as it is also a two-mana removal option. The opponent has to attack every turn, so killing an attacking creature is almost hard removal.
Looking at Dan's sideboard, we see more and more copies of Authority of the Consuls being played in Standard. Before the Pro Tour, Authority of the Consuls wasn't popular, but now we are seeing decks that have four copies. This is because a deck like this is going to struggle against Ramunap Red, and without some way to gain life and slow down haste creatures the matchup would be hopeless. There is a huge difference between games where you have first-turn Authority of the Consuls and the ones you don't.
There are definitely a few cards in the main deck that aren't exciting, and Unsummon is one of those cards. Playing Unsummon in a deck with lots of card draw is okay since that helps Negate the card disadvantage caused by playing Unsummon in your deck. In sideboarded games, bouncing your own creature can come up, and that is pretty cool. However, most of the time I would rather be killing an opposing creature rather than bouncing it.
After sideboard, the opponent is forced to take out as much removal as they can. Once they do, Regal Caracal and Torrential Gearhulk become very good. The life gain on Linvala, the Preserver and Regal Caracal is going to really help in games where you fall behind early. Countermagic is going to give you problems, so having alternative win conditions is important. For the go-wide creature decks (as if those matchups weren't already good enough), there are a bunch more sweepers in the sideboard! I would be careful playing Hour of Revelation, though, as it can destroy your own Cast Outs.
Thanks for reading,