Monday, 23 January 2017

Post-AER Standard: The White Aggro Decks

It seems to me that, for the most part, the aggro decks in the new standard format will be white-based, generally also with Red, often with Black. Which leads us to our starting point here, an update of Mardu Vehicles:

The thing about this deck is that it didn't get tons in the way of improvements - the mana is certainly better thanks to Spire of Industry, there are a couple cards added that are nice, notably Shock - but overall, things really seem to be overwhelmed by the loss of Smuggler's Copter. This leads me to want to look in somewhat different directions. Including:
This one is a very vehicle-based deck. It utilizes Siege Modification, Peacewalker Colossus, and Start Your Engines to try to get mileage out of vehicles with a pretty low creature count. Ultimately, though, I think this, too has to be a bit too gimmicky and fragile of a deck to really be competitively viable.

I'm more interested in a different variation on an old deck of mine that got some help with Aether Revolt:

Sram is the big deal here, though obviously I'm only playing a couple copies here. Kari Zev and Shock also both make appearances, and because this deck was built more on equipment than Copter, that loss is lessened - though I still don't expect this deck to be good except as a metagame call.

The other big direction that aggro decks can take is in a Humans flavor. For that, I've brewed up a Mono-White Version: a WR version: which is probably best, and also a WB version: . In all cases, the deck is significantly helped out by the addition of Metallic Mimic set to Human, which helps keep the artifact count high and give a desperately needed extra 'lord'. This also works well with Hanweir Garrison and Hanweird Militia Captain.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Going Green Post-AER: Tokens and Black

The first deck I built in the format was actually before the format was fleshed out: as soon as Oath of Ajani was revealed, I wanted to maximize it. The list I'm about to post has obviously changed since then - losing Smuggler's Copter was obviously a big change (as the card would have been great here). Let's look at where we stand now:

Note that the sideboard has been adjusted slightly, but apparently those changes don't take effect in visual view - I'm not sure why.

In any case, the big thing to note here is that this deck is lower to the ground than the versions which were so dominant in Standard last year (and which most other versions I've seen seem to be based on). We just want to apply a lot more pressure a lot more quickly, and rely mostly on the 8 planeswalkers we already have, and going wide, to keep us in/finish out longer games. Enough artifacts for Toolcraft Exemplar (note that Servo Exhibition counts) means that I would also strongly consider playing some Spire of Industry, which may let us also play another copy of Westvale Abbey. The other big thing I'd worry about with this deck is that the 2 drop slot seems a little thin. We could add more Selfless Spirit, Lambholdt Pacifist, or maybe Sylvan Advocate to shore up that spot on the curve. The cards I'd look to cutting are probably Oviya (which may just be horrible, but I'd like to try), and Aethersphere Harvester.

In terms of beating the combo, this has 4 Stasis Snare, 3 Heart of Kiran to kill Saheeli, and some sideboard Authority of the Consuls. Also, just kill them before they draw it. I'm not too worried.

Something else that caught my eye early on was the interaction between these two cards:

With these two in play, every time you make a servo or a permanent you control gets a counter, you can pay X to make X 2/2 servos. That's a pretty darn good ability. And there are a number of other cards in the format that make servos or add counters to your stuff. Let's start with a Servo Tribal Mono White deck which, truth by told might be the worst of all the brews I've come up with in the format so far, but still has some reasonable ideas and might be fun:

Ruins of Oran Rief and again Westvale Abbery are doing some work here. We get to play lots of 'lords' thanks to Master Trinketeer and Chief of the Foundry. Collective Effort looks really excellent as the pump spell of choice here. So overall it seems too likely to be too slow, but there are good things we're doing. And actually lots of mana sinks.

A more logical direction to take these things, in my opinion, is into Green. An early mono-green list in that direction can be found here: This introduces some ideas - Vile Redeemer as measures against sweepers (notably Yahenni's Expertise) from the board, Rishkar paired with cards like Nissa to be able to make oodles of mana, along with an old favorite in Cryptolith Rite to provide some redundancy. Walking Ballista. But this was pretty raw, and pretty quickly, we want to turn with some of these ideas to... Green Black!

I built many decks in this space. Starting out, I was coming up with things such as , but it started to become clear that I was putting too much effort into making the above combo work - sure, it allows me to make an enormous army, and perhaps an enormous amount of mana, but really to what end. Well, the linked deck here might be ok - there are some sinks for the mana in Walking Ballista and Duskwatch Recruiter - but the other parts of the deck started to seem better on their own. Most importantly, Animation Module and Metallic Mimic seemed too lackluster without the other. So I iterated. And iterated. Sometimes more Revolt-y (Greenwheel Liberator?). Sometimes more Delirium (Grim Flayer, Traverse, Mindwrack Demon). Sometimes lots of counter combos. Sometimes more energy-y.

Some lists:

I think my best overall list at the moment is probably the following, but I'm very much not convinced by it, and would really need to test many different variations, and really need to figure out an expected opposing metagame, to work it out.

Some notes on this style of deck: Winding Constrictor seems very good. Makes Tireless Tracker get big, fast. Helps with energy from Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. Has outstanding interaction with Longtusk Cub, in that it nets you more energy per hit AND more counters per energy. Walking Ballista breaks up the Saheeli combo, provides a mana sink, and has counter synergies. Drana is good in spots... but you need to be careful that's not limited too much to win-more.

Lots of options, and I suspect that optimizing the build of this will be a good exercise for Standard coming up.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Post-AER Standard Brews Part I: Best Card and Some Blue Brews

I know that generally I start out talking about a set with Limited Analysis. I may try to do that at some point, but in this case, my time had me tied up after the full set info was released and before Pre-release, so I wasn't able to math it out then, and now... well, there aren't too many things I can think so much to look at there, and I'm far more interested in the constructed shake-up. So I'm going to start out with that - leading with my pick for the best card in the set (for Standard - Fatal Push has to be it for older formats):

Yeah, the land. And 'the' is right, because it's the only one, but it's very, very good. It provides decks that want to play Eldrazi more colorless sources that are actual dual lands. It provides multi-color fixing. And it lets artifact-featuring aggro decks have significantly better mana as well, without needing to play ETB tap lands. Let's start with a deck that's a riff on an old favorite, which Spire of Industry plays a prominent role in:

That's right, Mono U Eldrazi. Here, we have 11 cheap artifacts for the Spire, making it reasonably consistent as a blue source (though not stellar). It's one of a couple major improvements the deck received this set, along with Metallic Mimic and Heart of Kiran. The Mimic is big in e.g. turning your Skyspawners into 3/2 fliers that come with 2/2 scions, which is actually quite a good rate. The land is actually pretty darn important in getting the mana to work out ok - we can run 14 C sources plus 4 Hedron crawlers (and scions from Skyspawner), which should be good enough, I think; 10 islands would normally be light, but getting to supplement with 1-shots off Aether Hub and the Spire, we should be ok there, too. The hard part is definitely getting up to UU for emerging Elder Deep-Fiend, but I think that generally we should be ok.

The sideboard is very rough - you can play these cards, but there are lots of options. Might also note that Stoneforge Masterwork is one - but might be better at home in a deck with more scion-production. To fight the Saheeli Combo, this deck has Heart of Kiran, Thought-Knot Seer, generally having big things to attack, EDF to tap down, and counterspells (plus Warping Wail) to disrupt.

Another deck that Spire plays into (at least one version of) is possibly the one I'm most excited about for the new Standard - and the deck which, looking at the spoiler, looks like it gained the most from the new set:

We're storming off! Reverse Engineer seems like a huge boon for the deck. Renegade Map are nice split-cards between lands, mana rocks, findable by Glint-Nest Crane, fixing, returnable with Paradoxical Outcome... Ornithopter gives us more free artifacts, which contributes to Improvise as well as Outcome. Metallic Rebuke gives a good counterspell to protect things. Baral makes all your spells cheaper. Whir of Invention gives redundancy. Merchant's Dockhand gives long game. Hope of Ghirapur really protects the combo. Sram helps you draw cards... a lot.

Three Authority of the Consuls are primarily there for Copycat combo, but play against aggro also (and hey, the life is nice). This deck seems really strong to me, and I'm not sure what the mana base should be (mostly, how many lands do we need?), as improvise can make that tricky, and I haven't really sat down to math it out, or test it, so much. But I certainly expect this deck to be a very strong player.... though maybe not this version:

The mono U version has a more streamlined mana base, plays more counters and more Inventor's Fair. We also get to use our freed up slots for access to Padeem, and Foundry Inspector makes more of our artifacts free. The biggest plus is probably the ability to play Engulf the Shore, and that the white cards aren't all that plentiful or great anyway. Out of the board, this deck is sporting an alternative plan to have a huge creature which is cheap and protectable by counters. Not sure if/when these cards are the plan we want to go with, if ever, but want to highlight the possibility.

I'm excited about blue in the format, for the first time in quite a long time. I'll be back soon with more new Standard brews!

Friday, 20 January 2017

Why Copycat Won't Ruin Standard

The bane of Standard players everywhere.... or is it? If you're paying any attention to the discussion of the format, you'll know that this two-card combo has dominated all the talk. And  if you aren't, let me explain - Saheeli's -2 copies Felidar Guardian, which blinks Saheeli on ETB, making it a fresh permanent that hasn't used a loyalty ability yet this turn, which lets it make another hasty Cat Beast, ad infinitum.

I, however, don't think this combo will be the format-destroying scourge most others seem to. Let's dig into why.

1. Math

So, the first thing people said was, "This is a turn 4 format now!". First of all, I suggest that good aggro decks can kill on turn 4 in most formats without interaction, but I digress. This combo will yes, sometimes be able to kill you on turn 4, but it won't be consistent at all.

The chance of naturally drawing both combo pieces by turn 4, given that you have at least 4 lands which make all the right mana you need them to, and assuming you're running 4 of each combo piece, is only 12.1% on the play, 16% on the draw. Throw in that you actually need Saheeli on turn 3, and we're down to about 11.1% and 14.7%, respectively. Not all that hot. I should, of course, point out that Saheeli's plus give a scry, which helps find the cat, but this adds only about 3.6% (a tiny bit extra on the draw compared to on the play). Still looking at a pretty low percentage in any case.

But, people have also noted the whole thing can be played on turn 6, which also reduces the opportunities for the opponent to interact. The problem here, of course, is that for that to work, you need to have 6 lands. And so even if we're assuming that you have enough lands every time, those lands take up slots in your hand. So the chances of having everything by turn 6 aren't much better - 12.9% on the play, 17% on the draw.

But this has all been assuming you just have the lands you need, which is by no means a given. Even still ignoring the color requirements, or that the last 1-2 need to ETB untapped (both of which are going to be very dependent on the precise build you use - mana for the deck can be pretty good, but getting the last land ETB untapped might be a bit tough), just having enough is a serious concern. If we look at a typical Standard land count of 25 lands, then having enough by turn 4 is only a 67.5% proposition on the play, 76.6% on the draw. When you multiply those by the existing chances we had above, and we're taking a few percentage points further than before even.

For the turn 6 scenario, it's even worse (as you might expect): only a 36.8% chance of having 6 lands on turn 6 on the play, and 47.5% on the draw. Of course, you're less likely to be color-screwed by the time you're at 6 lands, but still more unlikely to have that 6th land ETB untapped.

There are, of course, ways to make things more consistent. There are a number of cantrips in these colors, though at 1 mana you'd need a creature (though Insolent Neonate can do some amount of work for you), so effectively we have... Anticipate, Cathartic Reunion, Tormenting Voice, Nagging Thoughts, and a number of no-selection draw-1s for 2 (best of which for the deck is probably Prophetic Prism). Best case here is Anticipate, and it really does help a good amount - it takes a card slot, but lets you see 3 deeper. Of course, you need it by turn 2, and it gives you less chance to hit your taplands, so it's not without cost. But if you can get it off, it adds... several percentage points to where you'd otherwise be.

The other thing which presumably helps you, and I'm not taking account of here, is mulligans. Particularly with the scry, your ability to toss back hands which are missing too much is going to help you out. I will note that it's still harder, even with the scry, to get it all on 6 than it is on 7, and that those bad 7s do sometimes get there. So the improvements won't be huge, but they're real.

All told, these improvements may get your chance of combo-ing out up to 20% or so, and while I haven't actually simulated finding an optimal goldfish list or percentage, I find it hard to imagine you can get that to much over 25 or 30%, especially on the play - certainly well below 50%. Goldfishing turn 6 is much more plausible to be able to optimize for, but on the other hand, that's not so impressive - even midrange decks can routinely goldfish at that rate. Heck, limited decks can. If anyone has done this kind of optimization, I'd love to hear about it. I suspect the optimal goldfish-turn-4 list is somewhere around this:

That leaves the question open, though - how long does it take, typically, to get the combo together? By 'typical', I'm going to say the point at which you can expect to have a greater than 50% chance to have the combo assembled (and not the average turn it's assembled on,which is almost surely worse/later). In an unoptimized list (i.e. 4 of each combo piece, a pile of lands, maybe some cards that don't help assemble at all), we're looking at somewhere around turn 10-11 (depending on play vs draw, exact manabase and composition of irrelevant cards, etc.). In an optimized version... well again, I don't know what optimal would be for minimizing time to goldfish, but my guess is that it's probably going to be turn 6 (though turn 5 wouldn't surprise me - getting an extra turn to deploy cantrips helps a LOT).

(Pre-Post Edit: Okay, I missed Contingency Plan, but come on, let's be serious - not THAT much better than Anticipate, and hard to see it actually, you know, making the deck).

2. Interaction

There are lots of ways to stop the combo in Standard - any way of killing a 1/4 at instant speed (Grasp of Darkness, Murder, Unlicensed Disintegration, Stasis Snare, revolted Fatal Push, Warping Wail, Harnessed Lightning + an energy), any way of killing a planeswalker at sorcery speed (Ruinous Path, 4+ damage from combat and burn), 1 damage to a planeswalker at instant speed (Implement of Combustion, Shock, Fiery Temper), Counterspells (Void Shatter, Disallow, Metallic Rebuke, etc. etc.) Misc (Thalia, Authority of the Consuls, Dampening Pulse, win faster).

Most of these cards are fairly commonly played already. Moreover, virtually every deck in the format plays at least some of these already, even in the maindeck - and most have more in the sideboard. And while it's certainly possible to have plans to deal with most or all of these... well, you need to have plans to do that. Which take up slots. And time. And make your deck less of a consistent quick combo. That's not to necessarily say they're bad, but it does bring us to

3. But what about Splinter Twin?/So where do we stand?

So the big comparison that gets made with the Copycat combo, of course, is Splinter Twin. Twin was so good, it even got banned in Modern. Everyone knows, of course, that this combo is worse, but Standard is also a weaker format than Modern, and is the combo really that much worse?

So, in terms of consistency at least, yes, it's quite a bit less consistent. This was especially the case when you could Preordain and Ponder - that many good cheap cantrips? You get quite a bit of consistency there. Even afterwards, though, Serum Visions is basically as good at digging as Anticipate, and it's a whole mana cheaper, which means you can use both turns 1 and 2. Furthermore, you got to play with more pieces than 4 of each - typically you played 6 Exarch/Pestermite, which is a 50% increase. That 50% doesn't translate to 'having it' 50% more of the time, of course, but it's not that far off. So this is really significant.

The bigger thing, though, is that Twin got to play a different kind of game. Turn 3 Exarch, tap down your land, untap kill you. It's only vulnerable to instant-speed interaction. It can kill out of nowhere. And realistically, represent doing other good things as well. Lots of flexibility. And lots of generally other good cards - the snapcaster/bolt/remand/cantrips Blue Moon kind of game. The deck was way more consistent, way more efficient, and played a really good game even when it wasn't comboing off.

At this point, I want to make a point about the other shell a lot of people have discussed for the combo, and that's using it as a finisher in a control deck. In some sense, I can see that - there's really not a reaosn it wouldn't work - but I am not terribly convinced by this, either, for one big reason: Torrential Gearhulk. Gearhulk already provides that deck with quite a quick clock to finish the game off, it takes fewer slots, it comes at instant speed, it helps support the control aspect of the deckmuch better. So it's a bit tough for me to think that such a deck is going to go for the combo over Gearhulk, or take up enough slots to go with both.

Having said allllllllll of that, I don't think the combo is just terrible. I could see it still being good. I wouldn't be entirely stunned if it was strong enough that a banning needs to happen (though I kind of doubt it). My main point is, you need a really good shell around it that plays to its strengths. You can't just throw it anywhere and have it be busted. It's not like pre-ban Eldrazi was in Modern where every flavor was effectively busted, and it was all about optimizing for the mirror. You need to build the right shell for it to be good, and my guess is that it will be good in that shell, but not busted.

What is that shell? I think a lot of people are reasonably close - you play Jeskai, you play a lot of good ETB creatures, with a mix of disruption and a bit of selection. Not too far from the Panharmonicon decks we started seeing last Standard.