tandard is an easy format to start playing, but a tricky format to completely break open. The abundance of tournaments in today's world means that the format is always changing—and you have to be on the cutting edge to succeed.
Unlike Modern or Legacy, where anything is viable and you can just play the same deck for years on end, Standard requires more adaptation. Shortly after a new set releases the decks quickly begin iterating into their most powerful versions, and deep into a tournament season the metagame is shifting and new decks are finding success each week. What's on top one week could be—and often is—doggie chow the next week. How can you stay ahead in a format like this?
The answer: Knowing the secrets behind fighting the format.
While I can simply show off an awesome Standard decklist each week, this week I'm... still going to show off an awesome Standard decklist. But in the process, I'm going to show you how to figure out the weak spots in a format and exploit them. Then you have the power to repeat this for any given week of Standard, in any given environment. Whether your local store or the PTQ circuit, they can all fall prey to these tactics.
Ready? Let's get to it!
Index | Art by Kev Walker
The first thing you have to do is figure out what decks you're actually trying to beat! This could be anything from a popular Delver of Secrets deck to the guy at your shop who always wins FNM with Mono-Phage Aggro.
This is perhaps the easiest part of the process. What are you seeing a lot of? You can use personal experience and results to figure this out. If you aren't sure where to start, look over Standard Grand Prix results, Magic Online decklists, and StarCityGames Open results. Between those three primary sources, you should be able to notice some trends—or at the very least identify some decks you're trying to beat.
Note that it's not going to be plausible to defeat every single deck you see. You have to keep your hit list realistic—choose two or three decks that you really want to beat and focus on those. You can try and fix other matchups once you've established a core game against the decks you want to beat, and you can also try to fight them with sideboarding. But first things first: identify your primary enemies and aim to destroy them.
Today, the three decks I'll be trying to fight against specifically are White-Blue Delver decks, Birthing Pod decks, and Zombie decks. A survey of the format puts all three of those decks high on the popularity radar. My focus will be most geared to Delver and Pod since they seem to be the most popular. However, since it's a proven fact that everything gets better when you're killing Zombies, that will be a close next priority.
Darkslick Shores | Art by Charles Urbach
Once you've established which decks you're trying to fight, the next step is to look over them and see what makes them so strong—and where their thermal exhaust ports are. Once you've identified what makes each deck tick, you can surgically figure out how to carve your way under their skin.
How might one do this? Well, let's kick it off by looking at Delver:
Josh Dillahay's White-Blue Delver
Standard – Winner, StarCityGames.com Open, Buffalo
Kevin Gerhart's White-Blue Delver
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Buffalo
When you're looking for what a deck's strengths are, you will want to think about how it typically wins, what are some of the key cards it uses, and how it can recover when it's losing. Another way to think about it is: "How does this deck beat me when I'm playing against it?"
Anyone who has played with or against Delver knows about how versatile the deck can be. One game you're crushed under the wings of a couple early Delvers, and the next game is a long, drawn out affair where your opponent defeats you with Snapcaster Mages and Equipment. Its versatility is certainly one of its major strengths.
What propels that versatility? A lot of the support cards do a great deal of work in this deck. For example, Mana Leak can either help control the long game or press the advantage in the early game. Vapor Snag acts similarly, pushing your creatures through, delaying your opponent's assault, or even bouncing your own creatures to protect them in an attrition war.
Everything the deck does just adds up over time. After a handful of Vapor Snag hits, opportune Snapcaster Mage swings, and Moorland Haunt token pokes, you are within striking distance of a Runechanter's Pike hit or a couple Geist of Saint Traft swings to close out the game. If you try to play creatures, you're punished by Vapor Snag. All the small pushes are unnoticeable alone, but eventually they end up toppling you.
Another large strength of the deck is its ability to transition from defense to offense and vice versa, all thanks to its creature suite. Restoration Angel can act defensively and then swing in for 3 point chunks once it's safe to attack, while Phantasmal Image can copy your opponent's best attacker and threaten to trade—until you Vapor Snag your opponent's blocker and start attacking with a copy of his or her own threat.
Magic 2013 also adds its own wrinkles. Newcomer Talrand, Sky Summoner adds a huge boost to the deck, allowing you to continue to play defensively with cards like Vapor Snag while applying pressure. Once you have a handful of 2/2 Drakes, your opponent is unlikely to be able to attack safely, which means it's only a matter of time until you have accrued enough Drakes to kill your opponent in one or two attacks. Augur of Bolas provides consistency, helping to play a tempo game or a long game as necessary.
To find a deck's weaknesses, you'll want to think about what kinds of draws cause it to lose or are considered weak draws, or how you've seen it battled back against before.
Because you don't know what kind of draw Delver is going to have, it can make it difficult to prepare for. But there is an overarching theme: sidestepping its creatures. Whether Delver is on an aggressive or defensive plan, it needs either an Equipment or a top-of-the-line creature like Talrand or Restoration Angel to operate.
Delver is weakest when it has no creatures. At that point, it doesn't have the capacity to beat you quickly, because it has no threats. However, its primary methods of buying time also don't work because it can't slowly increment damage and propel itself closer to winning.
Now, fighting off all of Delver's creatures is easier said than done. Moorland Haunt alone makes that extraordinarily difficult. But if you have enough versatile removal spells that can take down early Delvers and later-game Talrands and Restoration Angels, you can set yourself up for a position to overpower your opponent.
Next up—Birthing Pod!
Kai Burnett's Bant Pod
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Buffalo
Travis Harrison's Naya Pod
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Buffalo
Like Delver, Birthing Pod decks have several angles of attack. Unlike Delver, though, the deck has significantly more speed, some big threats, and an extremely powerful single-card engine that can win games by itself.
The first thing you have to prepare for about Birthing Pod is how quickly it comes out of the gates. Seven or eight mana Elves allow you to push your threats into play several turns ahead of schedule, helping to put reactive decks under pressure fast.
All of the accelerants can also power out a three-drop on turn two—like Birthing Pod. The namesake artifact headlines the deck for a reason: a turn-two Birthing Pod on the play means the game is fundamentally over for many decks. Control decks can't easily defeat an active Pod since every creature is a threat, and if a beatdown deck stumbles this deck races ahead.
But don't think this deck is just about the Pod. While shutting down Pod does significantly hurt this deck's versatility, the deck is still just full of good cards. Even without the ability to cycle through enters-the-battlefield triggers each turn, you could easily still be squashed by anything from a Frost Titan to Huntmaster of the Fells to Thragtusk to Restoration Angel... or more. This deck is more like a good midrange deck with a three-mana card that steals games than anything else.
Because many creatures in this deck provide some kind of effect upon entering the battlefield, simply destroying all of its creatures isn't enough. You need to be prepared to garner some card advantage of your own.
One of this deck's major strengths is its speed—but if that speed is stifled it can be a slow going for Birthing Pod. If your opponent is relying on a turn-two Pod and you kill the turn-one Birds, then you've not only set back your opponent a turn on the Pod, but, if he or she doesn't have another cheap creature, potentially a turn back on Podding as well. If you can delay his or her start and race ahead, then not even a Pod can save your opponent.
Alternatively, you can also go under Pod as opposed to just going over the top. A hyper-aggressive deck that can threaten a lot of damage in the first few turns poses an issue for Birthing Pod, especially since casting and activating Pod early incurs the life toll of Phyrexian mana. If you don't give your opponent time to take advantage of the myriad abilities his or her creatures offer, you'll be in good shape.
While this deck does have a strong plan B without Birthing Pod, it can be overpowered by a deck which can both deal with Pod and consistently present major threats. Since the deck relies on Birthing Pod for consistency in dealing with specific threats, shutting down the Pod means that, unless your opponent draws the perfect card for the situation over and over, something like a Titan or two will dismantle the Pod deck. Just don't try and out-midrange Birthing Pod—Birthing Pod does it the best.
Finally, let's take a look at Zombies!
Han Kyu's Black-Red Zombies
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Las Vegas
Bradley Javner's Blue-Black Zombies
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open, Las Vegas
Zombies is a beatdown deck—and a very efficient one. While it is (appropriately) much more single minded, it has enough avenues of attacking you that it's become one of the most played beatdown decks in the format.
Eight 2-power one-drops lead the deck out of the gates, meaning it's not uncommon to represent 6 points of power on turn two! If that opening is followed up with a Diregraf Captain, it gets even messier.
You absolutely have to be able to deal with Zombies's creatures early or you will fall behind. Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger give Zombies a nice ability to recover from mass removal, and cards like Falkenrath Aristocrat, Blood Artist, and Diregraf Captain provide a massive amount of range on your opponent's life total. All of this combined with a slew of removal means blocking quickly becomes impossible.
Like most beatdown decks, removal is a reasonable way to stave off the creature horde. However, Zombies have a penchant for returning from the dead—and that certainly plays out with cards like Geralf's Messenger and Gravecrawler. Removal that exiles their creatures makes a big difference, so a card like Pillar of Flame is a huge problem for Zombies.
Large blockers can also stymie the threat of Zombies quite handily. While Gravecrawler is a pain to permanently deal with via removal, an Augur of Bolas fights it off fairly effectively. Even a Kraken Hatchling can do a surprising amount of work, fighting off one-drops and Geralf's Messengers alike. Sure, Zombies has some removal—but if your opponent is spending it on your blocker, then you're gaining time and ensuring he or she has one less removal spell for your big threat.
Once you have surveyed your enemies, it's time to strike back. Break down the strengths and weaknesses and use them to pinpoint cards and strategies that fight back. As Chinese strategist Sun Tzu says, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Now that we know our enemies, it's time to know ourselves.
The first thing you want to look for are common weaknesses among all of the decks you are targeting. That way you can figure out the framework for the deck you want to build. Just looking at the overviews from the absolutely topmost basic level, it breaks down like:
Fighting Delver: Kill creatures early, then take advantage of the hole in tempo to win. Alternatively, be faster and try to steamroll it.
Fighting Birthing Pod: Be either faster or go over the top and disable Birthing Pod. Fight its mana creatures early to slow it down. Don't be midrange.
Fighting Zombies: Fend off Zombies's early game, then take the offensive.
A running weakness through all of these decks is that they're creature heavy and cheap removal is effectual against their game plans. Additionally, after fighting off their early game, you have to transition into a threatening position.
However, there are some interesting constraints here. That kind of description naturally works toward a midrange deck—but trying to out-midrange Birthing Pod is a futile exercise. Additionally, this is complicated by looking at each of the three decks' strengths:
Delver's Strengths: Versatility, strong utility cards, the ability to set creatures back with Vapor Snag, transitioning from offense to defense.
Birthing Pod's strengths: Quick, has a must-answer three-mana card, plenty of versatile creatures.
Zombies: Quick aggressive starts, resilience, plenty of removal for blockers.
Two of the three targeted decks are aggressive and quick, but that's covered with the aforementioned "removal is key" strategy. However, two of these three decks don't take kindly to you trying to play creatures after controlling the game early. They will just have all of this removal sitting in their hands that they've been waiting to use.
So, how do you attack it? What would you do here? What kind of deck would you build?
Well, I think there are two strong approaches. One is to take the quick route. Attacking and trying and go under the opponent with some long-game reach will work against Delver and Pod, although Zombies might give you some trouble. I think something like the Goblins deck I talked about last week, perhaps with main deck Arc Trail, actually fits this spot fairly well.
Instead, I'll take the other approach: a more controlling deck. A deck filled with answers and that can capitalize on a long game is right up control's alley—but we're going to do some unique things to help fight these decks in particular.
Let's first look at the removal spells we want to use. The first common theme through all of these is that removal is important, especially cheap removal that can fight off Delver of Secrets, Gravecrawler, and Birds of Paradise alike. A card I definitely want access to is Pillar of Flame because of how well it fights Gravecrawler, and Arc Trail is also fantastic against these kind of beatdown decks. Whenever you can Arc Trail a pair of mana elves early on, the game just feels over.
However, it's also important to have some instant-speed answers to some of the more top-end cards in the Delver and Pod decks, like Restoration Angel or Sun Titan. Dismember gives me a little extra ammo early on that kills of Restoration Angel, while Go for the Throat provides an important resource to fight Angels and Titans alike.
But how am I going to out card-advantage a midrange deck with a bunch of enters-the-battlefield triggers? How am I going to fight off long-game Moorland Haunts and Gravecrawlers? The hammer of Curse of Death's Hold puts the kibosh on a ton of cards in all three decks, from one-drop accelerators to unflipped Delvers. These matchups are an excellent time for the Curse.
Now that the removal's down, let's try and address any issues for specific decks.
Against Birthing Pod decks, a control deck absolutely needs a way to shut down Birthing Pod. It looks like I'm going to be going blue-black-red—also known as Grixis—since I'm going to need blue's card advantage and selection to keep up as the game goes on. The card I want to play is Grafdigger's Cage—and since I'm blue, I can also play Trinket Mage to go find it! This allows me to fit in a small Trinket Mage package for the Pod decks. While Grafdigger's Cage does hurt things this deck is doing, it fights the Birthing Pod decks enough that it's worth the tradeoff.
What about Delver? A card that is surprisingly good against Delver is Pristine Talisman. A deck like this is going to want some mana acceleration—more on that in a moment—and Pristine Talisman pulls a lot of weight against Delver.
That deck relies on its small advantages to beat you over time, and the Talisman slowly pushes those advantages back. I remember when I was playtesting the Delver versus Grixis matchup with Patrick Chapin, and he had also included the Talismans primarily for that matchup.
Geist of Saint Traft is traditionally one of the roughest cards for this deck. But Trinket Mage and Snapcaster Mage can both block it, and Black Sun's Zenith is a sweeper that takes care of it. While not killing it outright (except in multiples) Curse of Death's Hold chops the Geist down to only 4 damage a turn, hopefully giving you some extra time to find an answer in conjunction with Talisman lifegain.
Zombies, I already have plenty of cheap removal for, and it was my third priority deck to fight anyway, so I'm pretty happy with how the matchup against them looks.
Now, how about winning the game?
The unique thing about this deck is that I don't want to rely on creatures to win the game. Snapcaster Mage and Trinket Mage are both expendable (and happily Vapor Snagged) but relying on a Grave Titan or Consecrated Sphinx is more of a liability. Instead, I want to kill with a Planeswalker.
If only there was an expensive, powerful Planeswalker who fits right into a blue-black-red control deck, dealt with any permanent type, and had an ultimate that should usually win you the game on its own. It would be great if a card like that was in Standard. It would also be cool if that character was some kind of legendary, iconic creature from Magic's storyline who previously had a non-Planeswalker card version of himself...
By now, I'm sure you all know which card I'm talking about.
You might wonder what's going on with that sideboard. Well, when you build your deck to fight three specific decks it is important you both reinforce against those decks' sideboard plans and also combat other decks that were outside your initial scope. For example, Duress helps fights control decks that you aren't as well prepared for.
Thundermaw Hellkite might look out of place—but he's a fantastic transitional card. In the first game, opponents will notice you're a control deck and sideboard out a lot of that aforementioned removal for Game 2—meaning you can juke them entirely by bringing in creatures!
You can take out some Karns against most decks and change from a tap-out Karn deck to a tap-out Thundermaw deck. The combination of Thundermaw Hellkite alongside Phantasmal Image is deadly, killing your opponent out of your "control deck" in just a couple turns.
So, how does this deck reinforce against the three targeted decks?
Against Pod decks, you bring in Smelt, an extra Cage, and Torpor Orb to fight off Birthing Pod. Torpor Orb is strong against Pod decks, shutting down all of their creatures' enters-the-battlefield abilities, while the others help deal with any Birthing Pod issues.
Against Delver, you always bring in Phantasmal Image to fight off Geist of Saint Traft. If you think they cut their Vapor Snags, Thundermaw comes in as well to terrorize the skies. If they're running spell-heavy builds, you can also bring in Duress to cut them off of spells.
Against Zombies, you don't really bring much in except for the games where you want to transform into the Thundermaw plan, but your main deck should be in fairly good shape against them. Kill their creatures and take them down!
Carefully sideboard against the three decks you're targeting, and your edge should carry over the entire match!
Karn Liberated | Art by Jason Chan
How to Win at Modern
Next weekend is the World Magic Cup at Gen Con, and that will no doubt impact the Standard metagame. To avoid receiving a bunch of decklists that are outdated by the time I get to talk about them—and for me writing about them and providing you guys with dated information—let's take a trip to another format. We're going to once again visit the crazy world of Modern!
Deadline: Monday, August 13, at 6pm Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article
You have all certainly delivered on exciting Modern decks so far. I'm in the mood to cover something crazy this time around, and I can't wait to see what you all come up with!
I hope you enjoyed this Zero to Sixty on building to beat specific decks! Hopefully it helps you fight against whatever might be running around in your local metagame. If you have any questions or feedback on this article, definitely let me know on Twitter or by posting in the forums. Doing these Zero to Sixty columns always make a fun break from just looking over decklists, and I'd love to hear what you liked or didn't like, as well as what you'd like me to cover in the future.
Next week, I'll be back with a competitive overview of a deck, tuning it for the World Magic Cup! If you're a tournament player, you won't want to miss it.
See you then!