Deep Magic Insight: if a Standard deck or strategy hits your style/fun sweet spot, be sure to play it while it’s competitive. Most cards are too weak for eternal formats. Once the metagame shifts, even if the key cards haven’t rotated yet, the deck might lose viability. Do not let the magic pass you by!

Grand Prix Oakland provided just the opportunity to play a “sweet brew” that I would hate myself for not playing at least once. Because I mostly focus on Limited, I have a habit of playing Standard tournaments right before new sets come out. It fits my Magic life cycle—explore all the new cards through Limited, then extrapolate to Constructed. Once the metagame becomes established and I’ve had time to acquire important cards from the most recent release, I can pick out the strategies that line up with my play style.

I was super excited to build a deck for Oakland. Current Standard has so many powerful cards and such great mana, you can pick the best cards that support your strategy and play them. Unfortunately, work has kept me very busy over the end-of-year holidays, which kept me from playing much Magic. I spent a ton of time theory-crafting the Standard metagame, however, and I think I found a cool niche that hasn’t been explored. The format will shift when Oath of the Gatewatch comes out in a week, but this strategy deserves to be tested and developed.

I present to you, my ultimate vision of midrange good stuff:

Goodbye Blue Abzan

Creatures (13)
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Den Protector
Siege Rhino
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Spells (21)
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Duress
Murderous Cut
Ultimate Price
Abzan Charm
Languish
Planar Outburst
Utter End
Gather the Pack
Painful Truths
Treasure Cruise
Lands (26)
Polluted Delta
Windswept Heath
Flooded Strand
Sunken Hollow
Canopy Vista
Prairie Stream
Lumbering Falls
Shambling Vent
Swamp
Forest
Island
Plains

Sideboard (15)
Monastery Mentor
Stratus Dancer
Mastery of the Unseen
Exert Influence
Hallowed Moonlight
Surge of Righteousness
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Utter End

I call this deck Abzan Blue, but it’s not the usual Abzan Blue like Ben Rubin’s second place deck from GP Oakland. Those decks are Abzan Aggro with a few blue spells thrown in for tempo advantage—stuff like Dispel, Stubborn Denial, and in Ben’s deck, a very effective use of Exert Influence. My brew is more like Esper Green, except blue is the splash. Instead of playing aggro with blue tempo, it plays Abzan midrange with blue card advantage. I haven’t seen any decks built like this in current Standard, although I admit I didn’t do a deep search. I’d love to hear if others have worked in this area.

So how did I get here? As I hinted last week, I really wanted to play sweepers and creature lands given that the format is dominated by midrange creature and aggro/combo swarm decks. Nobody respects Languish because almost nobody plays it. I know it doesn’t kill Siege Rhino and a few other big creatures, but even against Abzan Aggro—a.k.a. the most popular Siege Rhino deck—Languish kills everything else. Wingmate Roc and Anafenza the Foremost crumble before its majesty. More importantly, though, it clears out the small stuff so you can use your spot removal on bigger threats. Languish is good on turn four, and is reasonable later in the game (either drawn or taken from the graveyard) when you want to clean up messy boards.

Painful Truths and Shambling Vent are a huge power in Standard, and they both fit easily with the Languish plan. Originally I was working on Esper decks, but I was struggling to find enough ways to gain life, which is necessary in all but the most controlling matchups. Neither Seeker of the Way nor Soulfire Grand Master fit a sweepers and creature lands strategy. Shambling Vent gains life, but only in the late game. You need something to bridge the gap to the point where your creature lands take over.

Eventually I thought, “Siege Rhino gains life. Why not just play Siege Rhino?” It and Den Protector are exactly what this kind of deck wants. Abzan Charm is another of the best cards in Standard. And then I realized there was an underplayed green card perfect for this strategy: Lumbering Falls. Card is good, folks. The trio of Jace, Den Protector, and Lumbering Falls make a compelling package. We should keep exploring it until the fall rotation.

stratus

Hold me closer Stratus Dancer!

The sideboard might not be perfect, but Monastery Mentor and Stratus Dancer definitely were. They let you go under decks that can beat your long game, like Eldrazi Ramp and Rally the Ancestors. And apparently Sphinx’s Tutelage Control, as I found out in round five. I unlocked a sweet achievement in that match: exile an attacking Stasis Snare with Abzan Charm (thanks to Starfield of Nyx) to get back Siege Rhino and then attack for the win. It was too bad my opponent only had four enchantments left, or else my rhino could have blocked the attacking Quarantine Field that held another Rhino and Stratus Dancer. One can only expect so much value in life, I suppose.

Stratus Dancer might be a good maindeck card in this strategy. It plays extremely well with Den Protector because the both cost two to megamorph, and tiny dancer is even better than maternal witness against both Atarka Red and Rally the Ancestors. It does good work against Jeskai as well, potentially trading with Mantis Rider and, in one of the best moments of my weekend, countering a Kolaghan’s Command in kill-Jace-get-back-Jace mode.

Going into Grand Prix Oakland, I knew my list wasn’t tuned. Work has been quite busy lately, and I simply did not have time to figure out the optimal build. Sad as it is to say, the only matches of Magic I have played with this deck were my seven post-bye rounds on Saturday. I won three of them—two comfortable wins over Atarka Red and a post-sideboard crushing of Tutelage Control. I lost two rounds to mulligans and missed land drops—this might be a 27-land deck, and definitely wants a copy or two of Hissing Quagmire to up the green mana count—both against Abzan, a.k.a. the deck designed to punish mulligans and missed land drops. My other two losses were essentially draws against Esper Dragons and Dark Jeskai.

The dragons matchup was my first in round three, and I am certain I would have won if I had practiced with my deck. I made some bad decisions, took too long at strategic junctures, and ended up dying exactly from four life on turn five of overtime in game three to Self-Inflicted Wound clearing my Den Protector to finish me with Shambling Vent. My six creature lands were amazing in the matchup, and led me to victory in game two despite my opponent popping Infinite Obliteration on both Monastery Mentor and Siege Rhino. You can’t obliterate Lumbering Falls! I never felt outclassed and the matchup seemed fun to explore. I hope I get the chance.

torrente

I hope this thing makes a comeback too.

I ended up scooping to my round eight Dark Jeskai opponent to save us from drawing each other out of day two. We were 4-3, and with the new 6-3 cut to day two, only the winner would have a chance to advance. The match was amazing, exactly the sort of back-and-forth slugfest that this Standard format encourages. Time was called right as we were settling into a new equilibrium with his Soulfire to my Den Protector and one card in each hand. In other words, not close to an endpoint. On the final turn of the game, my hand was Ob Nixilis Reignited and Treasure Cruise with both Lumbering Falls and Shambling Vent available. I was in a great spot to play ten more turns. This is the selling point of my deck—having six creature lands puts you at a huge advantage once the dust settles and both players have ten mana but not much else. But I was also behind on life (a common rubric for deciding who scoops) and honestly needed to do some work on Sunday, so I conceded.

In that spot, it benefits both players for one to concede, and I was sure that I’d benefit more from a Sunday free of Magic. I ended up switching to an 8am flight home and was in my office in Denver at 1pm. My boss was in his neighboring office when I arrived. I could have called him from the GP site between rounds or in a cab to the airport, as I had planned when it became clear my pre-scheduled trip would run into work responsibilities, but it was better that I made it in to talk to him in person. And honestly, it felt really good to help my opponent, who played a great match and was geniunely kind.

In the end, my 5-4 record was mediocre, but I felt great about the weekend. This was the first time I built my own deck for a Standard Grand Prix, and it performed very well. If I had praticed and tuned it, I am sure I would have won at least two more matches on Saturday. My need to balance work and Magic ended up making 5-4 an almost perfect outcome. In my quest to get comfortable hopping to Standard Grand Prix the way I’ve been doing with Limited, I took a huge step forward. Hopefully I can continue to explore this deck, or something else as sweet, with the release of Oath of the Gatewatch. I have a friend competing in the Super Sunday Series Championship in Seattle on release weekend, so I plan to jump in on that prep.

Speaking of Oath, the prerelease starts in two days! I can’t wait to take a test run of these sweet new cards. I’ve got my eye on one in particular:

essencedepleter

Hello friend.

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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