Some Thoughts on post-Rise Standard and Card Quality

So, today I tweeted this:

Is it just me, or does standard just rock right now? So many viable decks. I want to play everything this week at FNM!

Maybe it is just me, but I got a bunch of re-tweets, so maybe I’m not alone.

I’ve only been back in the game since Zendikar, and up until Rise the metagame has been dominated by Jund. Now, Jund is still both popular and good, but it doesn’t rule the roost in nearly the same way. One could argue, as has one of my favorite MTG bloggers, Mulldrifting (Lauren Lee), that the dominant decks right now are UWr and Bant variants (Mythic, Next Level). What’s exciting about standard right now is that there are so many good decks, all of which are viable. Maybe not all fantastic, but when you plan for FNM, (or I guess a PTQ), you can expect really any of these, and they are all legit threats:

UWr “Superfriends”
Mythic Conscription
Next Level Bant
UW control (usually tap-out, but sometimes with main deck counters)
Naya Vengevine

There are also interesting hybrids out there, like the UW Sovereigns deck as well as other cool tech like Brilliant Ultimatum—plus other random stuff like Eldrazi Elves, Time Sieve, and Turbofog are still around.

It’s also important to realize that “Jund” is a horrible label because there are so many variants of Jund floating around right now. Jund varies a lot in terms of amount of removal/burn, amount of ramp/mana fixing (Rampant Growth? Trace of Abundance? Lotus Cobra?), and the exact creature base (Vengevine or no? Putrid Leech? Master of the Wild Hunt? Siege-Gang? Bloodwitch? Still running Broodmate?), and even planeswalkers (Sarkhan, Garruk, both, neither). Trying to prepare or sideboard against “Jund” is not always clear, because Jund itself is pretty amorphous. You have the Jund colors, of course, and everybody still runs Bloodbraid Elf, but after that, it’s all over the place.

This is a pretty drastic change from pre-Rise, and what’s interesting about it how few Rise cards are actually involved. Mythic Conscription obviously relies on Eldrazi Conscription, the UW decks use few Rise cards other than Wall of Omens and Gideon Jura. Turboland, at least LSV’s version, uses exactly zero main-deck cards from Rise (there are a whole 2 Narcolepsy in the sideboard, though). On the other hand, NL Bant is based heavily on Vengevine abuse, and of course Naya puts the nasty plant to good use as well. RDW got the most from Rise with Devastating Summons, Kargan Dragonlord, Flame Slash, Staggershock, Forked Bolt, and Kiln Fiend. Not all builds run all of those, of course, but most run most of them.

Frankly, I think it’s awesome. Sideboarding is difficult because of the diversity, playtesting requires a significant gauntlet, and many of the matchups play out very differently. (For example, NLB is the beatdown vs. the UW decks, but not vs. Mythic.) There is no one boogeyman. I personally think Mythic is the strongest deck, but even Mythic is uneven and legit arguments can be made for other decks. To me, that’s a great environment. The major complaint that people appear to have—and I cannot disagree—is that it’s expensive because of the preponderance of planeswalkers and other mythics. Otherwise, though, I have to say I can’t wait for FNM each week.

So, the question I wanted to consider is “how did we get here?” That is, why is the environment kind of a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of situation. To look at this question, I take inspiration from Flores, and look at the answer to this question: what’s are the best cards at each casting cost? I believe it looks something like this, though of course people will disagree with specific choices here, I think this gets to the heart of the matter:

Casting cost
Best Contenders
1 Lightning Bolt, Noble Hierarch Path to Exile
2 Spreading Seas, Wall of Omens, Lotus Cobra Terminate
3 Blightning, Maelstrom Pulse Knight of the Reliquary
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Vengevine, Bloodbraid Elf Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Ajani Vengeant
5 Baneslayer Angel, Gideon Jura Siege-Gang Commander

Oblivion Ring is a nice card at 3, too, but seriously, wouldn’t you really rather have a Pulse? Of course you would. This is why Jund was still generally better than Boss Naya right before Rise came out. Jund would cascade into Pulse and Blightning and Terminate, and Naya would cascade into O Ring and Birds of Paradise. Good cards, but not a level playing field. (Vengevine makes cascading into Birds a lot more attractive, of course.)

Anyway, now let’s look at the top decks and how they do with these cards:

Myhic: Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, Jace, Baneslayer, sometimes Elspeth and/or Gideon. One (or more) at each casting cost.

UWr: Path to Exile, Spreading Seas, Wall of Omens, Jace, Elspeth, Ajani Vengeant, Gideon. Nothing at 3, but double at 2 and those are both cantrips, and multiple at 4.

NL Bant: Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Wall of Omens, Jace, Vengevine, Elspeth, Gideon. Again, nothing at 3, but one at each other casting cost and many 4s.

Jund: Lightning Bolt, Terminate, sometimes Lotus Cobra, Blighting, Pulse, Bloodbraid, Siege-Gang. Again, at least one at each casting cost. One of the things that makes Jund so good is that it has so much play at 3, and it gets 3-drops for free much of the time. Thrinax and Leech are also very strong cards at their costs, too, just barely missing this list.

It’s no surprise that these are some of the best decks; they play the best cards at their casting cost!

What’s also interesting is what is not here. There’s nothing here for Vampires, most notably at 1. The best two-drops in Vampires are Bloodghast and Vampire Hexmage. Good, solid cards—but not the best. Vampire Nighthawk is a limited bomb but not one of the best cards around at 3. Vampires is not a Tier 1 deck for a reason.

RDW breaks this analysis, of course, as it has virtually nothing on the list but is good anyway. I’d note that before Wall of Omens, one of the best RDW variants was Barely Boros, which splashed white for Path and Ajani, breaking onto this list. Maybe Devastating Summons belongs with Path on the 1-drop contenders list.

Interestingly, Grixis ought to be good, right? Bolt, Spreading Seas, Terminate, Blightning, Jace… Got 1-4 drops covered, and Grixis also gets another really solid 3-drop in Sedraxis Specter. I think the real problem is that there’s no great threat for Grixis at 5. Grixis’s big-time threat, Cruel Ultimatum, doesn’t hit until 7, and there’s just not much in way of high-quality ramp in Grixis colors. The Bant decks will ramp into their Jace first, the UW or UWr decks have strong 5 and multiple strong options at 4, which gives them something to do on turn 5 where Grixis does what, exactly? It can’t play another Jace… I think if Sorin Markov cost 5, he’d be played here and Grixis would be much better. That a guy made top 8 at GP Manila and that Flores qualified for Nationals with Grixis tells you those guys were either lucky, good, or both—the deck should be one notch below the top, I think.

So, how will M11 affect Standard? I think that will strongly depend on what it can put onto this list, and what is lost. Baneslayer is back for another round, so that’s safe. The rotation of the Shards block will also have a big impact, as there are several cards on this list that will be going away.

Interestingly, the list also suggests that Junk should have a shot: Noble, Path, Wall of Omens, Cobra, Pulse, KotR, Vengevine, Elspeth, Baneslayer, Gideon. Kind of a weird mix of cards, and Noble doesn’t make black mana, but maybe this is worth a shot. Seems like you’d need to run Ranger of Eos to make sure you trigger Vengevines, and there aren’t really great 1 drops for these colors past Noble. Guess a Scute Mob, but that doesn’t seem like quite enough. Student of Warfare seems soft. Anyone tried Alex Shearer’s recent Junk list? He doesn’t like Baneslayer or Gideon in his build, but this analysis suggests those should be at least tried. Not sure I like the Stoneforge Mystic package without Cunning Sparkmage, and he’s not running Cobras, either. Hmm. My thoughts would be something like this:

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Vengevine
3 Ranger of Eos
3 Baneslayer Angel
Other spells
3 Path to Exile
3 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Gideon Jura
4 Marsh Flats
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Stirring Wildwood
2 Sunpetal Grove
2 Sejiri Steppe
1 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Plains
4 Forest
2 Swamp

I couldn’t get Wall of Omens to fit in sensibly with the Ranger of Eos package, nor could I get in Emeria Angel, which also seems like it’d be great here—if producing bird tokens counted for Vengevine activation, I’d do it in a heartbeat over the Ranger package and tuck in a third Elspeth and a fourth Pulse. Also not sure about the mana base. I’d maybe consider 3 Student of Warfare and 1 Scute Mob over the Lynxes, too, but I kind of miss playing Steppe Lynx. Turn 1 Lynx, turn 2 Cobra swing for 2, turn 3 fetch into Gideon or Baneslayer and swing for six seems pretty good.

Yeah, there would have to be a sideboard, too, which would feature Doom Blade for Mythic, Kor Firewalker for RDW, O Rings for UWr, Celestial Purge for Jund, Bojuka Bog for other Vengevine decks.

I’m open for suggestions, thoughts, criticisms…