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Pro Tour Prognostics

Ah, those glorious days between the release of a new set and its corresponding Pro Tour. No articles unpicking the intricacies of common match-ups – we still don’t know what the best decks are. No MODO footage of Pro players picking up brand new decks and muddling through them on stream – the new set has only just gone online. In a world overwhelmed with information, there is precious little available about the current Standard format.

Today, I’m going to try to sketch out the limits of the format. What restrictions are imposed upon successful decks? It’s not the mana, as we can happily play four or even five colours off the absurd Fetch and Tango lands (though fewer colours is still faster). Instead, this format is limited by the removal available.

Removal

What makes this format tricky is the absence of ubiquitous removal. Anything costing fewer than three mana has some pretty restrictive conditions on it actually killing things. In addition, the threats being played require totally different answers.

On the one hand, we have the early threats– and thanks to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy these are not only found in aggressive decks. With a fetch land and a removal spell, Jace can be flipping on turn four regularly, and with a couple of loots and Planeswalker advantage quickly puts the game out of reach. We also have to deal with the likes of Monastery Swiftspear, Soulfire Grand Master, Knight of the White Orchid, Hangarback Walker, Warden of the First Tree and Mantis Rider.

On the other hand, we have the mid-range and bigger threats. Headlined by Siege Rhino, cards like Wingmate Roc, various Planeswalkers and Dragonlords demand a totally different bag of tricks. These cards represent the end-game, and once they start dropping, games tends to slip away if you can’t deal with them on the spot.

So, to deal with the first batch of creatures, we have plenty of options. Wild Slash, Ultimate Price, Silkwrap, Reave Soul and the like do a fine job of killing early drops. Ideally, we want to play a blocker, and then force them to play into our removal, which puts a premium on instant speed. However, these cards deal poorly with Anafenza, the Foremost and friends. Sweepers like Languish and End Hostilities can easily be too slow against the new breed of Atarka Red, which can simply play a hasty creature and ultimate you with Temur Battlerage and Titan’s Strength.

Against the other kind of creatures, spells like Abzan Charm, Ruinous Path, Murderous Cut, and Utter End to a fine job of trading with little tempo loss against the format’s big threats. The problem is that they are woeful when cast against the cheap drops (unless supplemented by cheaper removal). If your first play is on turn three, killing their Swiftspear feels bad if they’ve played spells on the subsequent turns. It’s game over, man, game over.

There are a handful of removal spells quite well placed. Stasis Snare and Crackling Doom are instant speed ways to remove creatures big and small, though at three mana need to be paired with some earlier plays. Draconic Roar tends to only see play in Red-based shells with bundles of dragons, but is probably good enough at buying time that it doesn’t need the extra damage. With a Soulfire Grand Master and some dragons in your deck, it can level up to double Lightning Helix, which helps to make you feel better about the times they play Anafenza into Rhino whilst you’re holding Roar. Radiant Flames is a turn quicker than Languish, and can also snipe a Jace before he flips, so is worth considering, however hits your own early plays if you’re playing a creature based deck.

A pair of cute options are Surge of Righteousness and Heir of the Wilds. Wait, what? Surge is absurdly relevant at the moment. The restrictions are harsh, but it’s one of the only spells that can kill both Monastery Swiftspear and Siege Rhino for less than three mana. Heir of the Wilds is vulnerable to the same spells that I’m saying we should play anyway to deal with early drops, but against decks that plan on attacking with little removal (think Atarka Red and Abzan Aggro) it can happily jump in front of whatever they’re turning sideways.

Pro Tour Predictions

So which decks will be good for the Pro Tour? Atarka Red will be, unless people bother to beat it by changing their removal suite substantially. Any kind of RW deck (Jeskai, Mardu, or the new ‘Jeskai Black’) gets access to most of the best removal in Stasis Snare, Radiant Flames and the like. Getting to use Ojutai’s Command or Kolaghan’s Command to re-buy Soulfire Grand Masters and Jace looks pretty savage, and I expect this to be the go-to midrange strategy.

The most recent SCG Open was dominated by Jeskai variants and GW Megamorph. The GW deck plays creatures that embarrass pretty much all removal, with Den Protector, Deathmist Raptor, Hangarback Walker, Nissa , Vastwood Seer and Wingmate Roc. This deck looks well set to prey on people relying on removal just as Craig Wescoe did with his Bant deck at PTDTK. Silkwrap and Stasis Snare are solid answers – Dromoka’s Command is less potent when killing an enchantment only brings back a 0/0 Hangarback, a 1/1 Warden or a face-up Den Protector. Of course both Jeskai and GW can play those spells themselves…

Abzan seems out of its depth at the moment. However, splashing an extra colour or two to provide access to Radiant Flames, Wild Slash and so on might help. If people go full Abzan, they’re going to want cheap interaction so expect Silkwrap and Reave Soul. Ramp decks are probably poorly placed as the most explosive acceleration runs right into the removal people need to beat the Red deck. If it’s good, I would expect it to play Blighted Woodland and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods alongside other non-creature ramp spells.

Unexplored

Two things that seem powerful but are as yet unexplored are Emeria Shepherd and Awaken. The Angel is tough to abuse with Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods gone, but represents inevitability and might be the top end to a white midrange/attrition deck like Abzan. Alternatively, control decks don’t need to play any win conditions, just End Hostilities, Cancel, and Hero’s Downfall all of which now have [Kicker Creature Land]. Fill out the other slots with land, Dig Through Time and cheap interaction and pure control could actually be quite powerful.

This format is a very tricky puzzle. Trying to match your answers to your opponents’ threats is supremely difficult, so something proactive like Jeskai or Mardu that also gets to play the better removal seems good. Alternatively, GW and Atarka Red do their best to ignore the removal spells and bulldoze your life total to 0. Either way, the Pro Tour results will give us a better idea of the format going forward and I for one will be interested to see how it turns out.

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