Breaking Chains: Standard Deviations

by Tobi Henke on 27 June 2018, Wednesday

Tobi Henke

Breaking Chains: Standard Deviations


"A format hardly ever gets stuck at level one, and I expect the status quo to be overturned before long. This format isn't solved yet!"


These lines I wrote after Grand Prix Birmingham. The kick-off premier event of the current Standard season invited comparisons to Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. Back then, Ramunap Red had taken six of the eight slots in the playoffs. At the follow-up GP only one such deck made the Top 8, and by the next GP, Temur Energy had established itself as the real top dog of Standard.



That was then. Today's Standard, on the other hand, didn't play out that way.


Birmingham had six red decks in the Top 8, the Pro Tour had seven, and GP Copenhagen again had six. At both GPs, half of the Top 32 was whirling chains. The Top 64 in Birmingham featured 34 decks with Goblin Chainwhirler, while in Copenhagen that number came to 28.


One could refer to this progression as making baby steps, though it doesn't look as if this toddler is going anywhere. Since reality is an imperfect approximation of mathematics, one might as well call the difference a rounding error.



I don't know whether or not a ban is coming, but I do know that the next ban announcement is scheduled for July 2. So if you didn't get onto the Chainwhirler chain gang yet, now may not be the best time.


Thankfully, current Standard isn't just a broad tapestry of Chainwhirlers, a Goblin Gobelin, if you will. Other options exist. Specifically, there are ways over, under, and around Goblin Chainwhirler. Some decks even take multiple paths.


You'll hardly find an original thought below. After all, I'm a reporter, not a player. Doing coverage at all of the major Standard tournaments of the season put me in a prime position to watch the format unfold, not from the frontline itself but at least from the sideline of the frontline.




Going Bigger


The poster child of this approach is, well, White-Blue Approach. Right from the start, White-Blue Control proved a viable option to outlast the slower Chainwhirler decks. A lot of this is of course on the one-man show that is Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.


Teferi, Hero of Dominaria Approach of the Second Sun


At the Pro Tour, however, Brad Nelson made a compelling case for the additional inclusion of Approach of the Second Sun. He explained that today's red-black decks would fight White-Blue for late-game position after sideboarding. In come discard spells, planeswalkers, sometimes even Arguel's Blood Fast. Who's outlasting whom then?


In this, Red-Black plays similar to the energy decks of seasons past. But where they used to bring value-generating threats backed up by Negate, Red-Black deals in Duress and Doomfall for disruption. Less Negate and more Duress turned Nelson into a happy Approach player.


Approach of the Second Sun deserves the "going bigger" label, but it also bypasses the fight for battlefield dominance, so it goes over as well as around Chainwhirler. It even puts opponents on a clock. No wonder it was the last non-Chainwhirler deck standing at GP Copenhagen!


The Scarab God isn't dead either. In Copenhagen, I spoke with GP Bologna champion Usama Sajjad who ran his Blue-Black Midrange to a 15th place at the event. He echoed the sentiment that Red-Black was in fact just another midrange deck and that it could well be beat at the value game.


The Scarab God Arguel's Blood Fast


What stood out to me was his take on Arguel's Blood Fast in the matchup, both sides of which Sajjad considered strong. "You might think paying life for cards would be bad against a red deck. But these red-black decks, they don't burn you out. It's often safe to go down to 5, and then you get to start sacrificing creatures."


For all the talk of Standard being solved, Grand Prix Copenhagen showed that not even every niche of the format had been explored yet. Up until Round 12, Thoralf Severin was on track for his fourth GP Top 8 with the following monstrosity:



I can't claim to understand all of what is going on here, much less do I feel confident to make a recommendation. But the plan is to generate a ton of value with The Eldest Reborn and to go over the top of Chainwhirlers and many others alike.




Going Faster


The most exciting deck at Pro Tour Dominaria to me was Mono-Red Flame, and that it didn't do well was equally the biggest disappointment. However, those versions all invariably ran 21 Mountains and six to seven cards that required more than two lands to cast.


At Grand Prix Copenhagen, Joakim Stahle-Nilsson was one of the first players to clinch a Top 8 berth. He did so with an updated The Flame of Keld build which went down to 18 Mountains and placed a solitary pair of Ahn-Crop Crashers at the top of the mana curve.



When I first realized what was missing compared to the Pro Tour lists, I did a double take. No Goblin Chainwhirler? Surely this must be a mistake!


Luckily, I was sitting next to Joel Larsson at the time, who was taking a break from commentating and now took a break from his break. He patiently explained that Chainwhirler had no place here, despite its interaction with The Flame of Keld. If one attempts to rush Chainwhirler decks with a curve that's lower to the ground, one needs to go very low. 


Larsson once won a Pro Tour with Mono-Red Burn, so I'm inclined to believe his expertise. Joakim Stahle-Nilsson succeeding where other Flame pilots failed is great evidence too.


What's notable about Mono-Red Flame is that it's not only built to be too fast for the Chainwhirler decks. In total, Stahle-Nilsson's version also packs enough firepower to deal 36 points of direct damage, not counting possible add-ons provided by The Flame of Keld.


Wizard's Lightning Lightning Strike


Chainwhirler decks are good at controlling the board but can't combat life loss outside of combat; so this would be a case of going under as well as around Chainwhirler.



Going Somewhere Else


Finally, a couple of strategies operate on an entirely different axis than the Chainwhirler decks and can ignore most of what the latter is doing. Combo decks take the fight to a place where the Goblin can't follow.


One such example is Paradoxical Outcome Storm, as played by Marc Tobiasch in May's Standard MOCS to a 6-2 record and at GP Copenhagen to a 10-5 finish. The Pro Tour Amonkhet quarterfinalist often runs some crazy concoction, and often enough he is doing well with it.


Paradoxical Outcome Aetherflux Reservoir


Unfortunately, I've never seen anyone else be able to replicate Tobiasch's success with Standard's Storm, and his GP record wasn't a success worth repeating anyway. I'd advise caution. It's no recent development that I've come to think of Tobiasch as the embodiment of Fancy Play Syndrome.


Max Pritsch, meanwhile, came but one match win short of claiming his third GP Top 8 in Copenhagen. He had dusted off the old New Perspectives for the occasion, possibly the most boring breed of combo deck, predictable albeit reliable.



The deck is able to go off on turn five without having to worry about anything on the battlefield. This, Pritsch had found, is actually spectacular when walking among Chainwhirlers!


Granted, the same doesn't hold true once sideboards become involved. But Pritsch came prepared with a transformational sideboard of his own, featuring Archfiend of Ifnir and Drake Haven.


It's also not quite true in the first place when taking into account the existence of Thrashing Brontodon. However, Pritsch had reason to suspect he wouldn't face a lot of these. Indeed, his 19th place made the above the highest finishing of any green deck at GP Copenhagen!


I'm excited about Mono-Red Flame and New Perspectives; I'm baffled by Black-Red Control and Paradoxical Storm; and personal preference means I'd rather not touch White-Blue Control or Blue-Black Midrange. But that's just me. What are your favorite non-Chainwhirler decks in Standard?


Thanks for reading! Until next time, I hope you'll be able to break free from the chains that bind us.


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