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Golgari Control and The State of Standard

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As a review, the nice people in Renton, WA declined to ban anything back in October of last year. At the time, this was the explanation:

"As Innistrad: Midnight Hunt's Standard season winds down and we approach the release of Innistrad: Crimson Vow next month, we've been aware of some players' concerns about the impact of certain individual cards on metagame diversity, such as Alrund's Epiphany and Esika's Chariot. After reviewing MTG Arena metagame data and recent online events (including the World Championship), and in considering the upcoming release of Innistrad: Crimson Vow, we've decided not to make any changes at this time.

"We'll consider changes to the Standard environment, if necessary, after evaluating Innistrad: Crimson Vow's impact on the metagame."

At the time, I thought this was the correct call. I was playing a lot of Standard, and even if I felt a wee bit oppressed by Izzet decks, it was mostly my own fault. I liked Black-based Blood on the Snow decks the best, and accepted a disadvantage against Alrund's Epiphany decks as The Cost of Doing Business for my main squeeze. One of the things that I appreciated most about playing Standard in that era was that Black could beat Izzet (or other u-x Control decks, which might also have been Alrund's Epiphany decks)... It was just hard. Hard and rewarding! Every time I figured out how to thread the narrow needle, get my The Meathook Massacre down for an exact-sies chip shot five turns in the future, I felt like I was accomplishing something and developing as a tactician. Even if Epiphany / Control was hard, on balance, Blood on the Snow decks farmed Green decks at an even greater rate than Izzet beat black.

A second argument was this:

If you discount just killing the opponent (or, a proxy for that, in chaining Epiphany into Epiphany) it was not at all clear that - as oppressive as that seven-mana sorcery felt - it was even the most powerful two token producing battlecruiser in Standard. What's better? A random card off the top of your deck and two 1/1 Birds, or a one loyalty personal Howling Mine and two 2/1 Menace Spiders? Especially when the latter was 2 mana cheaper? Given a largely four-deck metagame, where Blood on the Snow was a breaker in three of the matchups, my support for WotC's non-decision was rooted in an idea that the real oppressive cards in the format would be unmasked by an Epiphany ban.

Fast forward a couple of months. It turned out that waiting around for Innistrad: Crimson Vow to fix Standard all by itself didn't really accomplish that. Reprint Thalia, Guardian of Thraben's primary impact in the format was to increase randomness. If you were losing to White Weenie primarily when they hit the lottery on the play... Well, they got another coin for the scratch-off. Did Hullbreaker Horror at its point on the mana curve extinct Alrund's Epiphany? No. Though for a while we did get some cool / weird stand-offs. The same kinds of patterns that the Izzet-oppressed identified as un-fun either stayed the same or got what amounted to a 7/8 coat of paint.

Ultimately in January, R&D let Esika's Chariot live, surprise banned Faceless Haven, K.O.'d the predicted Alrund's Epiphany... And finished off their triple ban-hammer with easily the weakest choice in the history of card restriction: Divide By Zero. Their thesis this time was this:

"As such, we have a set of changes targeted at some of the top decks, including Blue-Red Epiphany and other Blue control decks, Mono-White Aggro, and Mono-Green Aggro. Our goal is to create some churn among the current top decks, open up additional angles from which to attack the metagame, and leave room for more experimentation and innovation with the release of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty."

As someone who plays A LOT of Standard - even more than I was playing in October (for reasons that will become immediately obvious) - all I can say is that WotC were wildly successful in delivering on this objective.

First, they did indeed create churn among the top decks. Mono-White is still played - even pretty heavily played - but it doesn't feel like the first or even second most popular aggressive deck. And I think that's a good thing!

Mono-White in Standard feels extraordinarily random from the other side of the table. Even though it's a beatdown deck it has this Non-Blue Control sense of just not being a very good deck. While it has a plausible win rate, it's also just this roller coaster that's gone off the rails. Fast? Yes! Or "possibly" at least? But utterly out of control. The leverage - but also complete chaos - all around their 3-drops is kind of unprecedented. It's like if you're a [fellow] removal-poor creature deck they demolish you if they draw all their Brutal Cathar // Moonrage Brutes but will often get roflstomped if they draw any other 3-drops. And as a controlling opponent, you're shaking your head when they're on the play with Thalia, and follow up with one of their what? Two? Redaines. Why wasn't that a Skyclave Apparition? Because if it were, they would lose by a million instead of your being completely unable to cast a spell before being picked apart by these laughable 2/1 creatures. It wouldn't feel as bad if they did anything at all to influence how they beat you. The fact that they seem to lose more than half the time is, by comparison, simply justice.

To WotC's credit, Mono-White has largely been supplanted by the Kamigawa-fueled Naya Runes as Standard's aggressive boogeyman of choice. Runes gets ridiculous, improbable, draws sometimes. I lost a game last week where my opponent very obviously ripped a Runeforge Champion and proceeded to kill me from 17 by back-to-backing four consecutive zero-cost buff cantrips. Is that very likely? Of course not! That's why it's worth a story. But two things here: First, you want the villain to be able to do something improbable and exciting or there is no point in playing the hero. More importantly, I think that being bowled over by Runes just feels way less bad than being bowled over by White Weenie because it's not random. Runes actually has some control over their draws with Runeforge Champion and Showdown of the Skalds. You have some control over what might beat you out of nowhere later in the game. Do you gobble their Rune of Speed from the graveyard (knowing a Champion can potentially dig it out of there) or greedily chomp for one life and a creature that won't recur? Rather than being locked out by Taxes on the draw, you get to make decisions, too; and they can be important, even if the action goes quickly. On balance, Runes has to set up tramplers to overcome big-butted defenders; and create interplay on the back foot with lifelink. Some games they back-to-back every Aura in their deck, and others they sit back and collect materiel. Runes is very decision-intensive, even if wrong decisions can still pay off because of the deck's extraordinary synergy and power level.

The other thing about Runes that I love is how many decks its existence as The Deck to Beat has actually created.

Selesnya Control, one of my favorite decks to play right now, was largely a response to Runes. If there was ever a deck that exemplified the Non-Blue Control deck's fatal flaw, it's Selesnya. This deck isn't actually good. It has powerful plays and can win many games, but they're largely a result of context and fortune rather than merit in the abstract. A real control deck will often overcome Selesnya's immense card advantage on the battlefield with a single spell; and any deck whose linchpin removal is just a Skyclave Apparition probably deserves it when that Spirit is set on Dragon's Fire mid-combat. But it sure is fun to play Runes with Selesnya! The good guy gw slows the game down while accelerating into honest, meat and potatoes, 4-drops like Yasharn, Implacable Earth; and if ever there was a deck that could turn perennial heel Esika's Chariot babyface, it's the one that cares that the two Cat tokens just provided two life points at the same time.

Standard prior to the onset of Streets of New Capenna is in a place of unprecedented diversity, and, dare I say it, fun. There have been Standard formats with "too many" decks before. There have been Standard formats without a consensus best Deck to Beat. But I don't know if I can think of one that spawned such rich and varied intra-archetype interaction around how they solve a problem that isn't even that problematic.

The best example might be EDEL's Golgari Control:


I encountered versions of this deck - both in an Event Top 8 and Magic Online League 5-0 - while doing research for my Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki article a few weeks past. No, this deck doesn't play Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, so I didn't talk about it then. But it has scads of other jaw dropping three-mana plays!

The first card that I raised an eyebrow to was Sarulf, Realm Eater. The Big Bad Wolf actually gets to blow a lot of houses down, if you give it any amount of setup. Playing EDEL's shell is reminiscent of the Miracle Grow decks that Hall of Famers Alan Comer, Brian Kibler, and Ben Rubin made so successful twenty-plus years ago. But rather than just accumulating size, Sarulf leaves you with an escape hatch for the opponent's next big turn. I was initially apprehensive about playing it; but ultimately found the card to be quite rewarding. Basically, the more precisely you play, the more Sarulf pays you back.

The second thing you might notice about EDEL's deck is that he really, really, doesn't want to lose to White aggro decks. Wow that is a lot of Ray of Enfeeblement, I thought; especially main deck. You can't discount how effective a one-mana removal spell like that is at solving the Thalia, Who Ruins Everything puzzle... Nor how it can steal cards and mana both from Naya when applied to Jukai Naturalist or Runeforge Champion.

The most exciting card, however, is one of the list's most unassuming:

Culling Ritual

One of the things that persuaded me to try this deck was just that I had a bunch of Culling Rituals lying around from Strixhaven drafts. But it turns out the Rare is actually awesome in Constructed as well. So awesome that you will often grab it with a Shigeki recur or Dig Up Cleave despite competition from more conventional card advantage removal. Awesome specifically at demolishing Anvil decks... And awesome in a way that probably would never have come up if Alrund's Epiphany were still legal in Standard.

One of the most rewarding play patterns in EDEL's Golgari is setting up your Culling Ritual and figuring out what your next play will be. Can you follow up with a Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton? Did you just demolish them for so many little permanents that you can freebie out an Invoke Despair?

On that note, the viability of this color combination just made sense to me. I could never really wrap my head around the idea that a b-w medium-big spell deck was the format's top mid-range Control deck when the vastly superior Binding the Old Gods was still in the format. How is Golgari not just better than Orzhov? With this deck, I had my answer!

I had been so programmed by Blood Money inheritors that I just started all my bg decks with Eyetwitch, Shambling Ghast, and Deadly Dispute, tying up twelve slots on cards that literally didn't survive EDEL's cut. Instead, he makes three giant leaps:

The first is the adoption of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty standout Shigeki, Jukai Visionary. What a card! It's a beatdown destroyer, card advantage engine, and single spell map to inevitability all in one. Shigeki is flat-out unbeatable by most other controlling decks - or as this deck reveals, largely Control pretenders. If the opponent doesn't have a legitimate Over the Top end game, they will be ground out, or better yet burnt out, by EDEL's Golgari.

Second is the inclusion of Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton. What a card! I played an absolute ton of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Limited, and the card I feared most was this Black Gnarled Mass. Graveyard Trespasser is bonkers in this deck. It's bonkers generally, but the specific non-synergy with Culling Ritual makes it ferocious against anyone trying to quickly kill you with damage. Culling Ritual will generally kill all the opponent's stuff, leave your Trespasser (or Trespassers) and simultaneously provide you fuel for graveyard gobbling life gain.

Finally, the deck's sub-theme of burning the opponent out with Witherbloom Command and Invoke Despair (and a little of the aforementioned Graveyard Trespasser) can't be exaggerated. One of the things that this deck really exposes is how helpless "control" decks without Counterspells are to the Black burn sub-theme. I kind of chuckle every time I'm paired with Esper. As you know Esper Violates the Prime Directive. "I'm playing one of the only decks they can actually beat," I will sometimes say to myself... A few minutes before being reminded that Witherbloom Command mercilessly mangles their Ninjas and Vehicles and life totals while drawing extra cards.

Golgari is simply wonderful. While it is of similar speed to Orzhov, Blood Money, and Selesnya, its play is more complicated and has a higher ceiling than any of them. When you try it (and you should) keep the following play patterns in mind:

  1. You very rarely want two dedicated sources of Green on the battlefield at any time before you run out of non-Black lands. The deck has to play Forests but doesn't actually want more than one until you start Channeling Shigeki. You should be loath to ever - ever - play Darkbore Pathway // Slitherbore Pathway Green-side up; and it is extremely unlikely you should ever - ever - front-side a Dig Up for Forest. The games where you are hitting your land drops and have spells (but still lose) are almost all when you drew (or foolishly searched up) Green lands. You'll get more than enough Green mana from duals like Deathcap Glade and Woodland Chasm.
  2. Shigeki is extremely tricky to play and non-intuitive the first like dozen times you Channel. No, you can't get back The Meathook Massacre. No, you can't get back another Shigeki. Nor a Legendary Land. However Witherbloom Command can get back Legendary Lands. So, use that knowledge when selecting which lands to return, and how to actually spend your Legends. For instance, in the mid-game you can use Takenuma to get back a Shigeki you lost in combat on turn two and ensure that you have a land in your graveyard for Witherbloom Command the next turn cycle. Boseiju is a Green-only land. That means - per the previous point - you should be reluctant to ever put it into play. Think about how you can hold it instead to leverage Witherbloom Command recursion, while hiding behind an un-counter-able fail safe for opposing creature lands or big enchantments.
  3. Six is an important mana point. That is how much mana you need to Channel Shigeki for exactly one and get back Infernal Grasp to kill a problem threat during the opponent's turn, all at instant speed. From a planning perspective, putting together less desperate "all my mana into Shigeki" turns is beneficial because they will not only crush the opponent's spirit, they'll usually turn it to Night for Graveyard Trespasser.
  4. The mana break points are very weird and somewhat erratic in this deck. Shigeki is a pretty mediocre lead-in to the good 3-drops. If you actually get to use it, you don't accelerate cleanly into either Binding the Old Gods or Invoke Despair. Also, sometimes you miss. Therefore a lot of the decision making in this deck is about which lands you play that enter the battlefield tapped on off-turns, and how to double spell your removal.
  5. I was really surprised how good this deck is against Mill. Mill usually feasts on mid-range Control decks with lots of removal and not-lightning-quick threats. But this deck actually gets extra damage from their milling thanks to Graveyard Trespasser (eat your own stuff!) and their Crabs and Cacophonies make your Witherbloom Commands so much more consistent. Plus, if they don't kill you by turn six or seven you can often Harness into a one-turn avalanche of card advantage. Not the matchup "you want" but shockingly not bad.

Covert GO-lgari

I shared my initial EDEL success with my favorite streamer and it turns out he was working on some similar ideas. This is a variant I've been playing a lot based on CGB's input:


The key changes are these:

  • Briarbridge Tracker over Sarulf: The deck wanted a non-Legendary threat for recursion purposes, and EDEL's later forays into Old Rutstein did not fit the bill. Briarbridge Tracker is non-Legendary and is better than ever anyway due to its dominance over The Wandering Emperor. I will caution you, however, that its Clue tokens will sometimes create conflict with Culling Ritual.
  • Blood on the Snow over Harness Infinity: One Blood on the Snow is a turn faster than Harness Infinity and also affects the battlefield. You can search it up with Dig Up, and (unlike the seven mana instant) recur it over and over with Shigeki. The biggest sell for me, though, was just that you could return Shigeki as your one creature. The Snake is so difficult to recur (but can be so vulnerable early) I felt this was among the swap's best selling points.
  • Land mix: Forest and Swamp become Snow-covered in the CGB-inspired build, and the one Snarl magically transforms into the fourth Woodland Chasm to support Blood on the Snow. Note this isn't a "Blood on the Snow deck" but rather a deck with just enough Snow to get back Shigeki or one of the advantageous 3-drops.
  • I took out a lot of EDEL's overt White hate for more flexible, generally more powerful, interaction. Golgari is just fine against Runes regardless; and even if it loses to White Weenie's outlier draws, I'd still rather be on this side of the battlefield.

If I said "Standard has never been this wide open" ... That might be less true than it is usefully descriptive. I don't actually remember every Standard format. But it's not only awfully open, but meaningfully varied in its game play and interactions. As an Izzet player, you can run not only one but two distinct Tasha's Uncontrollable Laughter decks. The latter of which is also an Invoke Calamity deck... Which can be used to propel giant Body of Research one-shots if that's your combo jam, instead. You can play Goldspan Dragons with Disciple of the Drowned, or as lead-ins for Hullbreaker Horror. You can create infinite pumps (or if you're a person of more heroic perspective) defend your permanents with Geistwave. Today's Golgari deck attacks the opponent on three different axes, one of which is Modern-flavored non-interactive. A controlling opponent gets an outsized benefit from playing Farewell, and might have no shot if they don't. Runes remains an important leg in the metagame's stool, but it's not even clear it is the best actions-intensive linear aggro deck. Rakdos Anvil comes in at least three different flavors and both challenges Runes heads up and contends against its unique incentives. For the love of Morphling I've assembled the Megazord. And in response to removal I've assembled the g-d Megazord. There is a Kairi Dragons deck that gives my tap-out heart the absolute Keiga feels.

If Standard turned you off with Alrund's Epiphany... I never thought it was that bad actually. But if Standard previously turned you off with Winota? Countless now-banned nonsense? This is not the same format in anything but name. It's simply joyful to play, and a privilege to be able to try - and win with - so many different decks of such individually unique approaches to the game all at one time.

LOVE

MIKE

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