Next Level Strat - Standard Redux - Bannings and Combos

Alex Stratton
January 13, 2017

by Alex Stratton

   This week’s article was originally going to be about the Ad Nauseam Storm Combo deck I played to a 10-5 finish in Grand Prix Louisville this past weekend. However, we will have to save that for another time. You see, unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed something pretty rare happened in the MTG world on Monday 1/9.

   Banned, banned, and definitely banned. Yep, it’s the end of the line for Smuggler’s Copter and Reflector Mage, while Emrakul has finally reached her promised end! 

   Anyone could have predicted the Modern format decision to ban cards such as Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll. But these cards (Especially Copter and Reflector Mage) were a shock to most. Now many of you may be asking: Why would Wizards ban such format defining cards out of a format which is usually left untouched? To answer that question, as in many cases through Magic: The Gathering, we need to look to the past. 

History Repeats Itself

  The last time cards were banned out of standard was in 2011 when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were taken out of their comfy Cawblade home, and thrown to the curb for Legacy players to find. Wizards explained this ban not only stating the overwhelming dominance these cards had on the format, but also by noting the drop in attendance of events (Including FNM), and the overall desire to not play in such a suppressed metagame. Moving back to our current format, we see precisely the same thing. Wizards has come out directly and said that our current offenders have “Stifled creativity, and prevented a diverse metagame”.

   The ultimate goal at the end of the day for Wizards is to ensure people have fun playing their game, and don’t feel that they “need” to be playing a certain card to be competitive. Like Jace and Stoneforge, Emrakul and Smuggler’s Copter were doing just that. If we look at the standard decks of the past few months, nearly every deck is playing one of these cards. This does not promote Wizard’s vision for their healthy “shining city on a hill” standard format.

   The Reflector Mage ban was a bit more interesting, but given what the format may become with the other two gone, I can easily see the need for it to go. A concept such as this may be difficult for some to understand, as we simply see wizards taking away our toys and making all the money we put into the format null. But at the end of the day WoTC is a company, and they need to do what’s best for them and the game we love...

…Although, companies do make mistakes - will they make the same one twice?      

  Something about a seemingly harmless uncommon 1/4 seems familiar. Let us look to the past once again. Directly prior to the bannings of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Wizards had decided to print the card Deceiver Exarch. This proved to be quite the oversight as it turned Rise of the Eldrazi casual favorite Splinter Twin, into a deadly turn 4 game-ending combo. Of course people had noticed this prior to the bannings of JTMS and SFM, and even played the cards in interesting Twin-Blade shells, but the combo really came to fruition with the absence of standard’s overly dominate role players. Let us begin by looking at the 2011-2012 Splinter Twin deck of standard’s past.

Standard Twin:

4 Deceiver Exarch
1 Dismember
4 Dispel
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Into the Roil
2 Mana Leak
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
2 See Beyond
4 Shrine of Piercing Vision
4 Splinter Twin
3 Arid Mesa
4 Halimar Depths
5 Island
3 Misty Rainforest
4 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn

  The first thing you will note about this deck is that while it is extremely powerful, the added cantrips probably put it on a comparable level to the Modern Twin deck we all knew. However, something that does not come as obvious as the deck's power level to those who did not play in this era, is the impact decks like this had on the format. When your Twin opponent passed the turn with three mana open, not only must you hold up removal that turn, but you must do it for all subsequent turns as the threat of dying at any moment is very real. Even in modern Wizards decided this kind of play pattern was not how they wanted the format to develop, and banned Splinter Twin with the Kaladesh B&R Update.

   Now, the Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian combo is not nearly as powerful as the twin combo above. But the point is that it doesn’t need to be in order to drive the format back into the unhealthy place it once was. If your opponent at any point taps out for a Saheeli, you will be holding up (or bluffing) a removal spell for the remainder of the game, period.

   Luckily this combo can be broken up much easier than simply killing the Felidar Guardian, as Saheeli can be both attacked, and have damage from an opposing Shock (or comparable burn spell) redirected to it with Felidar’s ETB trigger on the stack targeting it. However. the flipside of this coin is that unlike the Exarch + Twin combo, this can be executed the same turn if your opponent is tapped out, and with only six mana (Felidar > blink land, Cast Saheeli)!

   The tools to support such a combo in our current standard format are much different than what we see above. Instead of all-in combo, I could easily see the Saheeli + Felidar package slotting into a Jeskai control shell as an alternate win-condition, and cause lots of headaches simply the threat of having it.

So there's a sweet Combo in Standard? Show me a list!

 Such a list may look like this:

 2 Torrential Gearhulk

4 Felidar Guardian
3 Anticipate
4 Saheeli Rai
1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
4 Glimmer of Genius
3 Harnessed Lightning
2 Shock
4 Glimmer of Genius
2 Dispel
2 Negate
2 Disallow
1 Fumigate
4 Aether Hub
4 Port Town
4 Wandering Fumarole
2 Inspiring Vantage
3 Spirebluff Canal
5 Island
4 Plains

   As you can see this list is very similar to the Jeskai control value list that Carlos Romao piloted to a finals finish at the last Pro Tour, but has the combo worked in. A list along the lines of the one above is where I see the home of Saheeli + Felidar to be within our standard environment.


More Bannings to Come?

  The final thing to note about the Banned and Restricted announcement is that Wizards has added a time to review the state of standard after the Pro Tour (normally bannings are announced just before a Pro Tour). This will give them time to re-assess in order to ban or un-ban cards after they have seen the best in the game play the format. Overall I believe this to be a very positive change as it will give us time to see how dominate new cards can be, and how a new combo like the one we just got can affect the game we love. If anyone was around for the Eldrazi Modern Pro-Tour, it didn't take long for the Modern format to become 2 decks - those that were Eldrazi, and those that beat Eldrazi.

They say history repeats itself, and if this set proves anything, Magic is no exception!


Alex Stratton - Alex is a Magic the Gathering Player and Judge from Upstate NY. He is currently residing in Tampa, FL, area where he competes with some excellent players part of team Next Ridge Gaming. Alex is looking to contribute introspective articles that involve community interaction and help us understand Magic, the community around it, and how it all works!