April 7, 2014

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What We Know (and what we don't)

What We Know (and what we don't)

I've found the best way to keep up to date with any particular format - and to remain sharp - is to go over the things we know for sure, and to let that train of thought lead towards learning the things we don't. So for my first strategy article for MTGCanada, I'm going to go over the facts in Standard and Modern, and see if that can help lead us to an overall better understanding of what we need to be doing to be successful in each format.

First up, Standard

The things we know:

1. The format has matured and most of the top tier decks are established.
2. Those decks are: U/Wx control, G/Rx Monsters, Mono Blue Devotion and Mono Black devotion (and various other Pack Rat decks).

At this point in the standard format, playing a deck you understand well is most important. While there is certainly an advantage to metagaming, if you play Esper ineffectively against a skilled Mono-Blue opponent, even though the matchup is favourable, you will still lose. There is no “One Clear Best Deck” that everyone has to play, or play to beat. It's a diverse field, and knowing your cards and having a plan is the way to go. Although there's a new set on the horizon, the third set in a block typically doesn't create many new archetypes, but rather adds more to the current strategies.

With that in mind, here are some things we don't know:

1. We're still missing two of the scry lands, would having them open up even more strategies?
2. A few Heroic-based strategies have been showing up, are they the real deal?

So far the scry lands have done nothing but over-perform. Current U/Wx decks play more scry lands than shock lands. The ability to hit lands drops early and pseudo-cycle away dead draws later in the game is invaluable. Abrupt Decay is secretly one of the best cards in Standard, as it offers a way to deal with important threats in every matchup – it's biggest weakness has been the BG mana cost. Black/Green based decks tend to have a place in every format, and even without the BG Scryland, Junk/Jund Monster decks have been doing well. As for heroic decks, some interesting lists have shown up in a few MTGO Dailies and various other events. The cipher mechanic on Hidden Strings allows for you to trigger heroic every time your creature deals damage. That paired with almost-playables like Retraction Helix and Triton Tactics give you some pretty reasonable ways to get quite a bit of value. This list has been floating around and while it seems a bit rough, it's a pretty neat idea.

Nivmagus Elemental is an interesting addition as well, as it gives you a way to get value out of your sometimes dead spells, not to mention the tricks with the cipher mechanic. Whatever the case, I'm interested to see what Journey in to Nyx brings to the Heroic lineup!

Next up is Modern:

Things we know:

1. Combo decks are the current face of Modern (and there's a lot)
2. Being proactive is your best bet for victory
3. Jund still isn't dead

Modern has been a roller-coaster ride since its introduction, and there's no way you can cover every deck and strategy with only 75 cards. The solution to that is to be the deck that others need to beat. While it's true that the reactive cards are quite powerful (think Mana Leak, Remand, Cryptic Command), the threats are so diverse that all it takes is one misstep for your opponent to resolve their spell and end the game.

The things we don't know:

1. With the massive card pool, have all the top tier decks really been determined?
2. Despite an incredibly diverse format, is there an effective way to battle everything at once?
3. What's going to be banned next?

Modern evolves rapidly, and if it stagnates, WotC bans or unbans something to shake things up. This has both upsides and downsides, but what it does guarantee is that the format is always new and interesting. It does seem to prevent a “best deck” from existing, which leaves us with a format with a bunch of very good decks, some good decks and the rest. When testing for Pro Tour Born of the Gods, I originally wanted to break the format, but with the card pool available, I don't believe that is possible. That being said, there are plenty of edges that can be gained from correct card choices, and as with standard, playing something you understand the ins and outs of is paramount.

Generic answers like Mana Leak can handle most threats in the format, but since the power level in modern is so high, being on the draw can mean your Mana Leaks are ineffective. I'm in the camp of people who believe that Jund is not at all dead (despite ALL THE BANINGS). The reason for this is that Jund simply plays the best cards that can beat everything. If you ban one card, it is simply replaced with a similar card. The trio of Thoughtseize, Lightning Bolt and Tarmogoyf is nothing to scuff off. Check out this list from a recent MTGO Premier event.

Efficient removal, solid threats and plenty of redundancy. What more can you ask for. If you're not going to play a combo-based deck in modern, I still believe Jund is the place to be! As for bannings, it's anyones guess what will get the axe next. My money would be on Birthing Pod, but I also feel that Ancestral Vision could come off the banlist. It's all speculation, though.

Whatever format you're focusing on, having an understanding of the card pool and knowing what your opponent may or may not have will remain to be one of the most important things. For every situation, take a few seconds and think to yourself “what could they have?” It doesn't take long, and you'll be surprised how many situations you can think your way out of if you just slow down and think it through!

Thanks for reading!