Dog Days: Level Up Your Standard Game When Standard Is Solved

Darin Keener • March 17, 2020

I have to admit: there are fun times to be a jank Standard columnist, and then there are times like now.

We're still almost three weeks out from the start of preview season for Ikoria, and Standard is... well, it's solved. I don't mean it's solved-solved, where we know that there's only one deck that you can play and everything else is terrible. I mean that if you're a Spike grinder, you know that there are three or four truly great decks that you can choose at your next tournament and you aren't surprising anyone with them. And, to tell you the truth, everyone else knows it too.

I can't tell you how many social media posts I've read in the past week or two that proclaim, "I TWEAKED MY COMPLETELY ORIGINAL DECK AND HAVE GONE 294-3 OMG", only to check the list and confirm that it's one of those three or four decks with maybe one or two changes to the maindeck or the sideboard.

And yes, there are lots of people getting mileage writing out involved sideboarding guides for those three or four decks, but I'm not that guy. I have to write what I know, and help you deal with the stuff that I deal with. So I've been considering what it is that I'm actually supposed to be doing with my MTG time and energy. I've enjoyed playing a lot of the decks that I've written about over the past months on the ladder and seeing if they can still work, but I swear (and this isn't a conspiracy theory BECAUSE IT HAPPENED TO ME WHERE'S THE ALUMINUM FOIL HAT I MADE) that a lot of the ladder is not only a bot playing UW Control, but a bot playing UW Control set to "play as slowly as possible". Combine this with Wizards' new policy of sharing as little information about successful decklists as possible in Standard, and the truth is that there's not much else worth saying about Standard.

So it's rough out there right now, kids. But we must soldier on, and every hardship conceals opportunity for those who are willing to look for it. And, as it turns out, there are a few things that we can be doing that will level up our Standard game and prepare us for the next set that don't involve grinding Standard at all.

Option 1: Limited (for experience and collection)

There are certainly other ways to play with Standard cards, and Limited is definitely a way to make your Standard game better. No, they're not the same game. Being a good Limited player involves a wide range of knowledge about how to pick cards and what cards are in the draft set, including a wide range of cards that you may not know a thing about because they're not good enough to see a ton of play in Standard. While this is not really the place to give a primer for Constructed-only players on Limited, there's one thing that you can do to get better at Limited:  play Limited.

Seriously: you live in probably the best time in MTG history to do a bunch of random drafts to flex your mental muscles because of Arena. I can hear the Limited gods screaming already, by the way: "Well ACKTUALLY drafting on Arena is terrible because you're not drafting against humans and there's no chance to learn how to cut your neighbor or read draft cues or or or or...". Yes, I know, and I'm not going to argue that point. It's not the same, yes. But you can learn an awful lot about the set and the available cards just from drafting against bots and learning how the flow of Limited games work.

In addition, you have an added benefit by handing yourself over to draft on Arena (or MTGO or any paper draft at your LGS, for that matter): you can just rare draft.

Yes, I said it, and I don't care. You can rare draft.

Draft the cards that you need for your collection or the cards that are worth the most money and build draft decks around them. If you're on Arena, I've had a great deal of success in keeping track of my Arena inventory and drafting every rare and mythic card that I don't already own a playset of. (I don't think that detailing the procedure is worth the text space here, considering that there have been about a billion articles written about it.) To be brief: make a list of every rare and mythic in the set, and if you don't already have four of it, pick it and no I don't care whether it's playable in the deck you're building or not. Essentially you're trading EV% in your current draft for the cards you'll need to build future Standard decks as well as the gems that you can accumulate once you've obtained all of the rares. 20 gems at a time for every pack isn't a ton, but it's not insignificant. It'll add up. And you have no idea what cards are going to be necessary in future versions of Standard. Remember...there are cards that are unplayable today that will be the strongest cards in the format once new cards are added to the pool. No one wanted copies of Scapeshift in Standard for any reason until Field of the Dead was printed in M20, and then it owned Standard. And if you draft in paper? Even better, because Cardsphere is a great way to trade cards you don't want to use for cards that you'll need for your next deck! (Shameless plug count: 1)

Option 2: Thoughtcraft Decks For Future Use

I'm glad I get to write about this one, because I've been doing a lot of this lately. There are an awful lot of cards in Standard right now that are good...REALLY good cards. But there's a downside to them that makes them not-quite-good-enough for the current Standard format. The poster child for this is God-Eternal Oketra. The kitty god is crazy powerful. A huge body, the ability to make huge zombies when you CAST (not ETB... CAST) creature spells, PLUS you can get it back in a turn or two if your opponent has removal? It's GREAT.


Except that it doesn't really do much when it enters the battlefield on turn 5, if it gets countered it's just gone, and the format is dominated by either hasty creatures that will just kill you before you can play her, or creatures with huge ETB triggers that can get value no matter what happens to them. So Oketra is getting virtually zero play apart from a few random copies in some rogue Jeskai Fires decks.

But what would Standard have to look like to make Oketra playable? And is there a possibility that Ikoria will have the sorts of cards that make it happen? It seems to me that two things would need to be true: Ikoria would have to be a creature-centered format (rather than control-centered or enchantment-centered) in order to build a deck that can capitalize on Oketra's strengths, and something would have to keep the ETB creatures in check. And it turns out that we've reason to believe that both might be true. We already know that Ikoria is going to be a creature-focused set (although the creatures might be bigger than the smaller ones that are needed to get real value out of Oketra...Timmies rejoice!), and WotC has been in the habit of making cards that wreck ETB effects lately.

It wasn't so long ago that Tocatli Honor Guard was in Standard, and we already have Hushbringer in Standard now. WotC obviously sees this as not only a white ability, but a white ability that they think has use in Standard, so would it surprise you that much to not only see another creature like Hushbringer, or possibly an enchantment or artifact that does the same thing? I'll be keeping my eye out for these Ikoria previews, and if I find them I'll start brewing right away. So you can do the same thing, especially with powerful cards that haven't quite found a home yet or had a home at one time but lost some pieces to rotation (like Lazav, the Multifarious and Rienne, Angel of Rebirth).

So not all is lost. If you're the master of one of those lists that are doing well right now, that's great. Perfect your playing patterns, make sure you're not giving away any percentage advantage in your plays, and grind on. If you're looking for the next big thing but the next big thing hasn't gotten here yet, invent it yourself and start looking for it so you'll be ahead of the curve. If neither of those are for you, start drafting for fun and profit. The Magic wheel never stops turning. So find your place on it, get ready for Ikoria, and as always... please drive friendly!