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De-Khanstructing Standard

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Hey, everyone!

I didn’t want to write about Standard until we had some time to digest all of the sweet cards from Khans of Tarkir. I have some ideas about what the format will look like and where you should begin with your gauntlet. Today, I’m going to focus on midrange and aggro and where they lie on the spectrum of speed. Let’s get started!

Midrange

Just like the last rotation, wherein Thragtusk dominated the format, midrange is poised for dominance in the early weeks. This is the case for two reasons:

Thragtusk

  • Theros Block Constructed was dominated by Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix.
  • The small card pool discourages playing linear strategies. Powerful cards are more impactful with fewer sets. This is why we saw Thragtusk go from being a singleton in Birthing Pod decks to being a Constructed all-star a week after the Innistrad rotation.

I’m comparing this year’s Standard rotation to last year’s because Wizards of the Coast is moving away from counterspells and land-denial spells and more toward midrange threats and aggressive creatures to go under them. Sphinx's Revelation promoted pure control decks, but we’re currently lacking in that department.

With that being said, we need to account for the influx of midrange decks, but also focus on the rest of the metagame. How do we do that?

  • Go over the top of midrange decks. This is why casting Unburial Rites into Angel of Serenity was dominant in Standard last year. It had the most powerful midrange, card-advantage engine. If we can find a new card that flourishes in a land of powerful spells, we will be ahead of the game.
  • Don’t forget about fast red decks. It’s not reasonable to play nothing but mana ramp and fatties when you can be run over by Goblin Rabblemaster and friends.
  • Have access to sweeper effects for Mono-Green Devotion. It’s significantly less linear than the version in the old Standard, but it can still have some powerful draws. Sweep that opponent’s mana to make him or her fight fair. A card like Anger of the Gods might not make the main deck, but we at least need an answer in the sideboard.

Mana Confluence
When I build a deck, I am always thinking about where my deck lies in the spectrum of aggression. The cards I can add will vary dramatically based on what roles I can expect to be playing in certain matchups. This idea is why it’s all right to play Mana Confluence in aggro decks but not in midrange (assuming you have alternative mana-fixing). If I plan on attacking, my opponent had better plan on blocking, and that means my life total will be less relevant. If I’m playing midrange, I can expect to be the aggressor against slow decks but defensive against aggressive decks.

I’m going to try to make a midrange deck that is able to stop early creatures without being too weak against midrange and control. There is a constant struggle to be able to make a main deck that can compete against the entire spectrum. This is especially troublesome for midrange decks because you must include cards that are good against aggro and control; drawing the wrong half of the deck is a recipe for disaster.

Let’s kick things off with a midrange decklist that has me excited:

This deck was testing very well for me because the main-deck answers to creatures are robust. Lightning Strike isn’t effective at killing things against other big green decks or control, but Magma Jet can set up your draws and scry lands to the bottom against any strategy. Banishing Light is my white splash because my mana is actually better when I add a third color.

Rugged Highlands
What happens if I play two colors?

I would be able to have more lands that come into play untapped, but I would prefer a scry land on turn one. If I play off-color scry lands over Rugged Highlands, I may as well splash for a single card in Banishing Light because it answers troublesome cards such as Butcher of the Horde and Planeswalkers.

Something to consider for non-wedge, three-colored decks is the interaction with scry lands and fetch lands. I will want to scry unneeded lands to the bottom of my deck, but shuffling my deck will randomly distribute them in the middle of the game. This becomes more awkward when I also have Magma Jet in my deck adding to the scry effect—I put those cards on the bottom for a reason. Of course, the synergy between fetch lands and Courser of Kruphix cannot be ignored. I can shuffle my deck if I don’t like what I will draw the next turn or give me another chance to hit a land off the top. In the end, I decided the synergy with Courser of Kruphix and fetch lands was enough to justify shuffling my deck when I play twelve scry lands. The addition of Windswept Heath means I need to add a Plains to my deck; if I go down to just four Wooded Foothills, I can cut the extra basic land and play a Battlefield Forge.

Nissa, Worldwaker
The fetch lands also have the ability put basic Forests into play to untap with Nissa, Worldwaker. This becomes important when I want to use her secondary +1 ability to cast a bomb such as Hornet Queen or make Stormbreath Dragon and Polukranos, World Eater monstrous.

Many Naya decks have opted to play Elspeth, Sun's Champion because it was the most powerful card in Theros Block Constructed, but I chose to simply splash for Banishing Light. The reason I avoided playing Elspeth was that it killed my Polukranos and Stormbreath Dragon. Her stock also declined, as players are currently favoring numerous copies of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker over Stormbreath Dragon, making her -3 ability worse against opponents.

Another popular card I chose to cut was Elvish Mystic. I would rather have scry lands as a way to blank opposing creature removal spells. Ramp spells are often the most powerful in midrange mirrors, but less so when they die to Magma Jet. The same can be said for Rattleclaw Mystic, which is why I play fewer copies. I still like Rattleclaw Mystic because unmorphing it can allow me to cast Hornet Queen earlier. It’s also important to consider the post-board implications of playing extra mana-ramp. When I play Anger of the Gods in the sideboard, I don’t need more things that have under 4 toughness.

I think this deck does a good job of playing threats against aggro, midrange, and control without having cards that are too dead in the wrong matchups. Sarkhan can be used as a removal spell that will be the target of attacks (he’s basically a Warleader's Helix), and Stormbreath Dragon can preemptively block Butcher of the Horde (sure to be a key interaction). Nissa and Xenagos, the Reveler can ramp into Hornet Queen, and Magma Jet can help dig for the key spells against big-mana decks. These are not the way the good lord intended for us to use these cards, but we need to improvise with midrange. Sometimes, we need to be aggressive, and other times, we need to be defensive.

The sideboard is split down the middle for aggro and control. Goblin Rabblemaster and Mistcutter Hydra add pressure against control decks, while Magma Spray and Anger of the Gods will slow down aggressive opponents.

We can try a similar list except add black over white to interact with Stormbreath Dragon at instant speed.

I took a slightly different approach with this list because Thoughtseize demands I have black mana on the first turn. This means I want more black fetch lands to find my Swamps. Murderous Cut’s delve clause makes me want to play even more fetch lands to fill my graveyard, and that makes Courser of Kruphix happy and my scry effects sad. This is a natural change, as I need more basic lands to search for, and that leaves me with less room for Temples (funny how this works).

This is just one approach to off-color midrange decks, but I like the theory behind them. Now let’s turn our attention to the aggressive end of the spectrum: mono-red:

Not only is this deck incredibly cheap (four Goblin Rabblemasters and fifty-six other cards), it’s capable of consistently crushing decks that don’t come prepared. I would make sure whatever brew you plan on playing is able to handle the onslaught of quick little red creatures. Throughout the history of Magic, I have always fancied control decks, but I do like how this deck plays. Hammerhand is currently underrated in Standard, as the enchantment can trigger heroic for Akroan Crusader or allow for a nasty turn four in combination with Goblin Rabblemaster.

It’s not all fun and games for the red mages because they have to fight against Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid in most matches. Titan's Strength and Mogis's Warhound can punch through the pesky 2/4 while also saving Goblin Rabblemaster from the wave of Magma Jets and Magma Sprays.

Borderland Marauder looks funny, but it is actually pretty strong against Sylvan Caryatid. I like it more than I like War-Name Aspirant because I may not have a 1-drop on the first turn that can attack before I want to cast it.

As you can see, this basic red deck has plenty of synergies within the list. It’s difficult to cut a single card because each empowers the remaining cards in the deck. What happens if we attempt a more Goblin-oriented deck?

If we apply the same principles as we did for midrange decks, we can gain a sense of when this deck will be better and when it will be worse. Since the Goblins deck wants Hordeling Outburst, the mana cost of the deck will increase. Hall of Triumph will add to this because a critical mass of Goblins will be better when we have Anthem effects. As we increase the average mana cost of the deck, we creep closer to playing midrange. When the deck becomes slower, it will lose percentage points against actual midrange decks because they can do midrange better. The way for red decks to beat monsters is to go underneath; we’re currently running the risk of drawing too many 3-drops.

Control decks also have more time to sweep your board. Hordeling Outburst can be nice for nut draws with Stoke the Flames, Hall of Triumph, or Foundry Street Denizen, but it also opens you up to being blown out by Anger of the Gods or Drown in Sorrow. This deck also becomes better against spot removal, as your threats are diversified. I also cut all of the enchant creatures and pump spells, and that makes me less vulnerable to spells like Magma Spray.

Hordeling Outburst
There is clearly an incentive to play Goblins even though the higher average mana cost of the deck makes it weaker against midrange and control. What happens when we face another aggressive deck? I would think we would be favored, as cards like Hordeling Outburst will dominate against small red creatures. When two decks in similar positions in the aggression spectrum collide, card advantage is king. We see this all of the time when mirror matches are determined by card advantage spells: Underworld Connections in Mono-Black Devotion, Sphinx's Revelation in Azorius Control, and even Bloodbraid Elf with Blightning in old-school Jund.




So there you have it: the inner workings of midrange and aggro in the new Standard. I’m not sure what control will look like in the coming months, and I’m excited to see the Pro Tour results and find out. It’s important to understand your role, as the fundamentals haven’t changed as we see another rotation of Standard. Aggro decks will be the aggressor against everything except the mirror. Midrange will be aggressive against control yet defensive against beatdown. Control will be defensive against everything except the mirror.

I didn’t provide sideboarding advice because I’m not sure what the big players are in the new Standard format, and I also laid the groundwork for building a sideboard based on where you and your opponent lie on the spectrum of aggression. This theory can be best applied when deciding what you want to board out in each matchup and which cards you should be sideboarding. Remember that you can take a decklist off the Internet, but knowing how to use it is the other half of the battle; having some building tools in your back pocket will put you ahead of the game.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle


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