Pondering—Attacking Along an Alternate Axis

Nephalia Drownyard

I played Standard last week. Me! Standard!

There was a time when that statement didn’t raise any eyebrows. Standard used to be my jam, until Return to Ravnica and my discovery of Modern changed that. After GP Atlantic City, I played less and less Standard until I eventually just stopped paying attention to the format altogether. The main reasons were lack of interest and lack of variety, and because I was fully focused on the Modern PTQ season.

I haven’t followed much of the metagame in the four months since, but with the store doing Standard on Saturdays now, I decided I’d give it a shot rather than doing another Gatecrash draft. I found it odd to come back to a room full of Thragtusks and Drownyards. I vaguely recall someone saying that the format is healthy with many different viable decks.

I played UWR Flash. Won’t bother posting a decklist for this one, it was a pretty stock mainboard, but missed quite a few critical answers in the side, namely the anti-mill cards (Psychic Spiral, Jace 3.0, Detention Sphere). I dropped at 1-2, losing to Kadar’s Prime Speaker Bant and Johnny’s Esper Control.

The Bant match was especially boring. The match went to time (much like many other matches around the room throughout the day), and Kadar did not have lethal on turn five, but managed to dig far enough into the last five or so cards that remained in his library via a Jace Fact or Fiction to find his second Angel of Serenity. I had a Negate in hand for any tricks that would be played on my blocker, but it was obviously dead against the Angel, who cleared the way so that Kadar could alpha for the win. As for the Esper match, well, Johnny had all the Detention Spheres and I didn’t pack any. A Psychic Spiral would have also been an instant win (in both of my losses, actually, though it’s not that obvious of an inclusion post-board against Bant), considering my deck ran Counterflux.

So, while it was on me for coming unprepared and not running the right answers, I can definitely see how frustrating and unfun it would be to play against these decks with a midrange build. And if you’ve read this week’s Power and Toughness, you already know.

It’s difficult for “fair” creature decks to beat a deck like Esper, they just operate on two completely different axes. Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, it is either awesome or completely awful that Esper’s game plan is objectively better. I guarantee, guaran-damn-tee, that nobody would be playing Jaces and Drownyards if Thragtusk was never printed. But because it was, and because it’s in the same Standard environment as Restoration Angel, people moved on from trying to win through damage and are winning through milling instead.

For the record, I find both sides horribly boring and wouldn’t play either deck if I was looking to have fun. But if I wanted to do well at a Standard PTQ or GP and those were my only options, I’d snap-pick Esper and never look back. Esper is not unbeatable, but it’s got the advantage in that no one else is trying to attack its weak spot. Esper is vulnerable to its own game plan; there ain’t a whole lot of things in Standard that prevent death by milling, especially with countermagic backup.

This is what makes Esper so strong, the fact that its win-cons are much harder to deal with than dudes, even if those dudes are Thragtusks and Angels. Only a few cards in all of Standard deal with Nephalia Drownyard directly: Witchbane Orb, Ghost Quarter, and Acidic Slime. No one plays the first because it’s clunky and narrow, and very few play the second because everyone’s too busy being greedy with their own mana bases. Acidic Slime is gaining traction, apparently, suggesting that others are realizing this point as well. Three cards a turn is a lot when you’re out of gas and have no board presence.

As it is, decks are built to survive Naya Blitz first and foremost, and then worry about the Control decks. Half the time, not much consideration is put into the latter portion (mostly because you can’t jam in answers to both Burning-Tree Emissary and Nephalia Drownyard and expect the deck to be consistent), leading to slow, miserable grinds that inevitably end in the Esper player’s favor.

As for whether I think it’s “fair,” I answer with a resounding “yes.” It is no fun to play against, sure, but let’s not get definitions mixed up. Unfair decks are those that do nothing else except for its combo and does very little to interact with the opponent otherwise, like Ad Nauseam Tendrils in Legacy. Modern has that as well, to a degree, but none of those decks are nearly as resilient, which is another important trait. At the end of the day, Esper is just a deck built to beat creature decks, and the creature decks are losing because they’re not packing enough answers in response.

I’m fairly certain that that pile of garbage cannot answer a Psychic Spiral with Counterflux backup, but that would require me to play both of those cards and die to the aggro decks, thus beginning the whole cycle anew. Magic has been like this forever, it’s the very definition of a metagame.

So, before you go walking off a building like Matt almost did the next time someone Verdicts the board and drops a Memory Adept, just remember that the deck is not nearly as untouchable as it appears. You just need to assess your degree of hatred toward its bullshit and weigh it against your desire to beat the rest of the field.

Or you can play older formats where silly things like this are old news, and everyone packs hate by default.

9 Responses to “Pondering—Attacking Along an Alternate Axis”
  1. Zac Clark says:

    I completely agree that the definition of a metagame. On one the really genius things about this game was the inclusion of alternative win conditions. Esper is maybe the best deck but I hardly believe that will last for long. There are a lot of interesting cards in Dragon’s Maze. I expect a few new archetypes to emerge. Maybe even some kind of BUG control deck. I think Aetherling off of a Plasma Capture could be a format shaker. I guess we’ll see.

  2. David McCoy says:

    Or I could just play Jund and lose to everyone, haha.

  3. Tim says:

    I will refute your guaran-damn-tee with the fact that UB control was a very real deck just after DKA was released (where there were obviously no tusks to be seen). The main wincons were drownyard, blue sun’s zenith, and Karn.

    • Li Xu says:

      Didn’t those decks win with Grave Titan?

      • tony says:

        There were a lot of variants of old Forbidden Alchemy Drownyard UB. Grave Titan was the anti aggro version, Mill jace was the anti control variant and Karn was for people who love draw brackets.

      • Tim says:

        They typically ran 0-2 of Sphinx/Grave Titan/Wurmcoil.. I don’t think any actually ran maindeck Jace. This was my favorite version of the deck (and my favorite post-JTMS standard control deck ever).

      • Tim says:

        oh weird.. it didn’t post my link. Just google: stark reality controlling orlando. That list was frickin’ sweet

      • Li Xu says:

        Hah, looks gross. I like my control decks every now and again, but not these slow, grindy ones that only dare to run out a win-con until after the opponents get impatient and hang themselves.

  4. mike says:

    cavern on ooze

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