Oath of the Gatewatch and First Week Format Fallacies

KevinJones

“This deck can’t beat ramp!”
“I’m under 50% in game ones against the ramp deck.”
“How’s your ramp matchup?”
“Buy every World Breaker you can with that store credit.”
“Can I borrow two Ugins, 3 Ulamogs, and a Kozilek?”
“Nope! I have 8 Mantis Riders though. One is Russian, one is Spanish, and one is signed by me.”

Soulfire Grand Master

Soulfire Grand Master – Fate Reforged

These are things people have said to me in the past few weeks. Except the last one, I quoted myself there because I’m every bit as unhinged as I am self-indulgent. But anyway, what were those people talking about? The sky is falling, the hunger is ceaseless, the distortion is great. People won’t stop talking about Eldrazi Ramp for Oath of the Gatewatch (singles here)standard. I’m still not sure how much I believe the hype. I want to write an article about the flawed thinking that people have in week one standard formats where they heavily hype new cards without leveling them against what would’ve held the spot previously. Not everything is an upgrade just because it’s new. Sometimes a new card eclipses a previous format or archetype staple. Even in these cases the cards are rarely strictly better than their predecessors and they’re often just better in a different set of situations. Soulfire Grand Master and Seeker of the Way are perfect examples. Seeker was the gold standard in the early format and was essential to the Jeskai strategies that were totally starved for two drops. Once Soulfire saw print many people saw it as a strict upgrade. It’s not. Soulfire is much better if you’re slanted towards the late game and more controlling. Seeker is better if you’re tapping out a bunch and trying to beat down. The deck shifted in identity from an aggressive burn based deck to a card advantage based aggro control deck that capitalizes on all its resources. Overall, Soulfire is a more powerful card than Seeker but that doesn’t always mean it’s the best fit for a specific deck in a given week.

Once a set is spoiled in full we all bust out our sharpies and make some new format standard decks to battle in between rounds at our local events or to use as a gauntlet to gauge the week one metagame. I’ve played with and against so many horrendous decks in this time period. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Play all the bad new cards. Learn that something is bad. Putting a new card in your deck as a 2 of is a waste of time and testing, unless you have tutors or are playing control or something. You have to find out by playing. The best thing that can happen is you draw the new card you’re super hyped about playing and it’s totally insane and wins you the game. That’s awesome, if it keeps happening you might really have something there. The second best thing that can happen is you draw it and it repeatedly does nothing. You’ve now learned that this card isn’t supposed to be there. Maybe it’s not well positioned or it’s just not good enough, either way, back on the shelf and back to the drawing board. This is what happens when I’m testing in a healthy way. It’s a frustrating and draining process but it pays dividends more often than not. What happens to a lot of people is different, however. Some may test similarly, some may not test at all. But they end up doing one of two things:

  1. Jam a bunch of shiny new cards with little logic as to why they’re there or how they work. This is usually a recipe for disaster but might work once in awhile. People who aren’t super dedicated or super invested will do this since they stand to lose less from uninformed decisions.
  2. Test some and get frustrated when the pieces don’t slot into place and then revert back to playing a tier one deck from the old format with no new cards outside of a couple random splashy things or slightly different sideboard cards. This is dangerous as well but less so than the previous fallacy. I think this is what befalls “good” players most in an early format. It might work cause the established good decks are in fact good and play the best cards in the format. You might be missing that edge that a few new cards could’ve provided. Or you might miss the busted open deck that nobody knows about (these exist less and less as technology and the magic hive mind grows even larger and more ubiquitous).

I used good in quotes in the above segment because the best players have a network full of feedback and trust their decisions and usually have the week one bullets that others have missed. Part of being good is a healthy approach to the game and playing scared isn’t healthy at all. It might be safest to play a virtually unchanged list of a previous tier one deck. You won’t miss by much that way. Which is to say that even if you’re not tuned to every nuance of the format you’re still playing a deck you know and know is good. Doing this if you’ve exhausted your other options and believe it’s correct is fine and can be a great decision. Doing this because you’re afraid to lose or look stupid with your new cards is bad. Years ago I wanted to get into poker. I told a great magic and poker player I knew that I had started playing 1/2 hold ’em at the casino and bragged about buying in for table minimum and leaving with between 2 and 4 times my entry the couple times I did it. He said “Don’t buy in for table minimum because you’ll make bad calls for pot odds.” Now I won’t get into this too much cause it’s a magic article and I’m clueless about poker. But when you go to a magic event you’ve likely booked a hotel, sometimes a flight, and (hopefully) preregistered. You’ve also invested time and effort into testing. Don’t make a bad call/play a bad deck cause you’re afraid to lose your investment. Don’t let the money already in the pot convince you that you have to make a certain play. Your time and effort is also an investment that will pay off if done right. It’s not always about the bottom line. We would play a different game if we only did this for the money. Basically, I’m saying that you should make healthy decisions when you approach deck selection. And not to worry if you missed one week. Don’t be afraid to try new things but don’t feel forced to either. The vast majority of the players end up playing way too many or way too few new cards. Week one standard can be really tough.

I enjoyed talking about tournament preparation and that portion of the article was as much for me as it was for you guys. I struggle to find the best choice week one. Those of you out there grinding should remember that your results in each event have no reflection on your value as a person. This took me so very long to learn this lesson. It’s still something that I struggle with and that I see many other players struggle with as well. It might seem ridiculous to say but success and failure in this game is often tied directly to your ability to make correct decisions in stressful situations. It’s easy to internalize failure and quantify defeat as a manifestation of your lack of intelligence or responsibility.  Your method of handling the ups and downs of traveling to play competitive magic almost weekly speaks to your ability to handle adversity and also, to handle success. But I’ll break our little circle up now, enough talking about feelings and stuff, there’s decklists coming!

Goblin Dark-DwellersI did what everyone should do once the spoiler went up and I built some decks with the new cards. I’m 5 days off from SCG Atlanta as of writing this and I have no clue what I’m playing. I haven’t tested Jeskai Aggro or Dark Jeskai with the new cards yet. I was saving those decks for last cause I know they’ll be at least okay if everything else is a disaster. The cards that will be great in those decks are somewhat obvious. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is nuts and if the deck has a reasonable spell count then this card is gonna be a great fit at the top of the curve. Chandra, Flamecaller is an awesome finisher and should be nice at the top of either version of Jeskai much like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was last year. Chandra might even get built around herself (hint, hint…). Stormchaser Mage and Reflector Mage aren’t auto includes the same way these cards are but they’re both very good cards. Stormchaser belongs in a dedicated prowess type deck and Reflector Mage could be everything Harbinger of the Tides wished it was in a tempo based Jeskai Aggro deck. I’m sure I’ll explore this soon enough. But first, the brews! I’ll post a few of the decks I’ve been tinkering around with for post Oath standard. Keep in mind, these aren’t my picks for the best deck or what I’m planning on playing. Just some interesting ideas that have some potential for exploration.

This feels like an evolution of the Megamorph strategy that’s even better against creature removal. The sideboard would be stacked with Disdainful strokes and Negates to combat Rally and Eldrazi Ramp. Not sure if this is even a good deck in the current meta but it’s definitely filled with some powerful cards and exciting synergies.

This deck is a totally new strategy. It’s viability hinges on how good Stormchaser Mage is. I think this is the deck to optimize Stormchaser and it’s going to be a strategy that several people will try this weekend. With 8 haste creatures and the Expedites to give Tasigur and Abbot haste this deck keeps the pressure on early. Jori En, Ruin Diver is a powerful engine with so many cheap spells. Casting a few prowess creatures early followed by a few removal spells leads to Jori En plus Tasigur or Murderous Cut on turn 4 regularly. Previous iterations I tested eschewed Tasigur for pump spells or Jace. While being powerful options in their own right, these cards are unable to help close the game and tax their removal like Tasigur can. An Expedite on a third turn Tasigur isn’t unusual at all and can be an unbeatable board presence. The amount of delve spells could be high but Magmatic Insight and fetchlands should help fuel delve. It’s possible this deck wants a third Tasigur as casting him and two other things on turn three is absurd and surprisingly common for this deck. This is a strategy that I keep coming back to in testing so it’s possible I could be battling with Grixis Prowess in Atlanta this weekend. Definitely find myself excited to see how this deck evolves in the metagame.

I went totally off the wall with this one. I think some of the new cards are very good for this deck. This might be terrible but hopefully the counterspells can leave ramp and rally off balance enough to close the door. I suspect those matchups are both dreadful though and consequentially wouldn’t recommend this deck just yet. When the cyclical metagame starts to move away from ramp and rally, likely after they’re hated out from being the best two decks, and creature based midrange decks like Abzan and Jeskai Black return to form is the time to bust out this sweet little number. I hope you enjoyed the new decklists I provided. Hopefully they can spice up your FNM or local testing gauntlet. Of the three lists I posted I think the Grixis Prowess deck is the closest to being a real strategy. That was something new, here’s something older. This deck is good against ramp and rally as well as having a solid Abzan matchup and a good Atarka Red matchup as well. If you expect a lot of Esper Dragons don’t sleeve this one. Otherwise, go crazy. America is awesome.

The new cards ended up in the sideboard of this deck more so than the main. I just want proven powerful aggressive cards for the main deck. The two negates will make sure you can slam the door against Rally the Ancestors and Eldrazi Ramp while providing some needed assistance against Esper Dragons/Control in game one. Also great against Jeskai Black. While there are a ton of powerful new cards there’s no definitive information source for what the new decks and new versions of decks should look like. I’m just hoping that the slightly untuned versions of my opponents decks won’t be able to beat the aggressive tempo based game this deck looks to play.

Well that’s all for this week. Come back next week and see how I did at SCG Atlanta. I can’t wait to see what this first week holds. If you have your own spicy brew or see something this weekend at your local store’s release party, let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, everyone!

-Kevin Jones

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