This past weekend, we finally got a Standard Grand Prix with Rivals of Ixalan included in the format. In the end, R/G Monsters took home the trophy. Outside of being an incredibly entertaining tournament to watch, GP Memphis also gave us a great look at how the Standard format may shape up over the coming weeks. One critical deckbuilding point that I think is more important in this Standard format than the average one is the removal suites that decks are playing. As midrange creatures become more and more value-oriented, there is an increased need for those threats to be cleanly answered. In this article, I’ll be going through the most commonly played removal spells in this format, the metagame trends that have begun to force the shape of removal suites, and then finally a direction that I believe can take advantage of the metagame through this lens. Let’s jump in!

The Removal

Removal in this format has started to become somewhat predictable. Counter spells have taken a bit of a hit in this format thanks to Mono-Red’s continued top tier performances (hence why a removal-heavy U/B Control list seems to be the weapon of choice for Control players in this format), so we’ve been more or less left with cheap red removal spells, cheap black removal spells, an expensive black removal spell, and expensive white removal spells. That looks something like this:

This general list of viable removal spells exists for two primary reasons:

  1. The format is all about trying to attack both Mono-Red and grindy midrange decks with value-based creatures and planeswalkers.
  2. These are pretty much all that we have regardless. For better or worse (probably better), these removal spells tend to be good against one of the two “core” strategies of the format.

I would argue that Vraska’s Contempt is far and away the most important card in this format. As a 4 mana removal spell, it’s gotta do a lot. And, honestly, it doesn’t really do that on its face. Unconditional removal for a creature or planeswalker has been done before…at 3 mana with Hero’s Downfall.

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Downfall saw a ton of play during its time in Standard, as planeswalkers were important and it’s hard to say no to unconditional removal. Is 2 life and exiling that creature or planeswalker really worth an extra mana, though? In most contexts, I don’t think so. However, the specific Standard environment we’ve found ourselves in is one that has many creatures that have some element of recursion and thus demand exiling to be permanently answered. That leads me into my next section…

The Creatures (and Planeswalkers)

Over the last several years, planeswalkers have become more and more important in Standard. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Chandra, Torch of Defiance specifically come to mind, with the latter still a critical part of the format. Especially for decks that are trying to go over the top of most of its opponents, making sure that they could remove these planeswalkers from the board tended to be high priority. Cards like Cast Out were a perfect example of cards that were borderline playable before this general design/development power level switch of planeswalkers.

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Similarly, creatures have started to be more and more removal resilient, no matter their mana cost. At the low end, cards like Gravecrawler, Dread Wanderer, and Scrapheap Scrounger come to mind, while at the high end, cards like Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God, and the newly printed Rekindling Phoenix all punish the opponent for trying to remove it without the right tools. This has put a real premium on exile effects, no matter how expensive. On the low end, Magma Spray has shown itself to be quite good in this format, primarily because it answers Scrapheap Scrounger cleanly while having solid applications against higher end cards.

That being said, nothing comes close to the perfect placement that Vraska’s Contempt has in this format. You actively want it against almost every deck in the format. Against Mono-Red, it’s every deck’s best answer to Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance (and gaining 2 life is nice!), while against the midrange decks it’s crucial to answer The Scarab God before it can make an army of zombies.

How to Capitalize

So, how exactly do we take advantage of this? There are several ways that players have been taking advantage of this in recent weeks. Notably, U/B Control (which itself has very few meaningful targets for Vraska’s Contempt and no targets for most other removal spells) has been on the rise. Its ability to dominate games against the midrange decks makes it a really appealing option moving forward. However, its tendency to struggle against Mono-Red may hold it back from becoming the best deck in the format. At GP Memphis, we also saw a lot of decks trying to go wide, with decks that invalidate removal like Abzan Tokens and go-wide aggro decks staking their claim for a piece of the format. However, what I’m really excited about is a little bit different.

Sultai Constrictor (Snakes & Ladders), by Aaron Barich at GP Memphis – 2nd

Creatures (26)
4 Bristling Hydra
4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
4 Jadelight Ranger
4 Servant of the Conduit
2 Verdurous Gearhulk
4 Walking Ballista
4 Winding Constrictor

Non-Creature Spells (10)
3 Blossoming Defense
2 Fatal Push
2 Vraska’s Contempt
3 Hadana’s Climb

Lands (24)
4 Aether Hub
4 Blooming Marsh
4 Botanical Sanctum
3 Fetid Pools
3 Forest
2 Foul Orchard
2 Hashep Oasis
1 Ifnir Deadlands
1 Swamp

Sideboard (15)
2 Fatal Push
2 Vraska’s Contempt
2 Cartouche of Ambition
3 Duress
3 Negate
3 Thrashing Brontodon

So why do I think that this deck is particularly excellent in this metagame? Firstly, a lot of the removal that was mentioned above is damage based, and this deck’s +1/+1 counters theme frequently leaves creatures too large to remove. It also has enough card advantage in it to compete on that axis with the midrange decks of the format. However, what really excites me is one card.

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This card was a nightmare to play against when Temur Energy was the dominant deck in Standard, and while it perhaps suffered the most out of any cards in that deck by the bannings of Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner, it has once against become an excellent option in this format. Outside of those cheap, damage-based removal spells that I mentioned above, the rest of the removal in the format looks… pretty expensive, and that’s where Bristling Hydra shines. Spending 1 or 2 mana to break the so-called “shield” that 3 energy provides the Hydra is pretty acceptable, but spending 4 mana absolutely is not.

The only other thing holding back Bristling Hydra has been the dominance of The Scarab God, which creates problematic blocker after problematic blocker, essentially invalidating Hydra on many board states. When it’s the biggest creature on the board, Bristling Hydra becomes a massive attacker that demands chump blocking that also can hardly be taken down by removal. This last hurdle to clear, the last thing holding Bristling Hydra back can now be tackled by a very odd card from Rivals of Ixalan…

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A pretty strange card, Hadana’s Climb turns this deck from a midrange value deck into a powerful 1-shot combo deck that provides massive flying attacker after massive flying attacker. The 2 features of this format that make this card fit particularly well is that it is somewhat lacking in meaningful flying blockers (thanks to the energy nerf that has hit Whirler Virtuoso), and that the format leads to a lot of board stalls. Hadana’s Climb breaks through both of these with ease, which we saw that round after round at GP Memphis in the hands of Aaron Barich.

Going forward, expect this deck to put up more results. It’s not the most powerful or the most elegant, but it’s positioned so excellently in this format. As the format shifts to adjust, it will likely get knocked down a couple pegs. But until then, it’ll be an exciting time to climb in Standard.

Until next time,

Jonah

Looking forward to jamming this deck in a Standard tournament near you? Check out Riccardo Monico’s article where he goes over the changes that Grand Prix Memphis brought to Standard, and where to go from here.

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