Survival Guide for an Enchanted Meta
- Gianluca Aicardi
Following the November 18 bans, the Year of the Food has officially come to an end—and it was actually just six very intense weeks. In its wake, several top decks are now vying for Standard supremacy, and one thing most of them have in common is their focus on one key artifact or enchantment.
Standard has been purged. Oko, Thief of Crowns and his oppressive green entourage are no more. The inevitable exit stage left of the most blatantly botched card in recent memory has opened up the metagame. (Though I still contend it was a brilliant design with a mangled execution.) With both Field of the Dead and the Food decks gone, Standard has become the hunting ground for a variety of different strategies, both old and new. But when we look at the lists that are competing at the top right now, we can't help but notice one peculiar element that a substantial number of them share: the presence of an enchantment or, to a lesser extent, an artifact acting as their centerpiece and winning engine. A definite change of focus compared to the creatures-and-planeswalkers paradigm we had before.
To better establish what's going on and what measures we can take to counteract this state of things, let's take a look at what's currently showing up at the highest tiers.
1) Jeskai Fires: The most assured bid for metagame dominance come from a family of lists, of which the Jeskai colored version is the most successful, that rely almost entirely on the tempo advantage from the namesake enchantment Fires of Invention. Among the various silver bullets in the wishboard that are meant to be fetched via Fae of Wishes // Granted, we often find another game-breaking enchantment in the form of Ethereal Absolution.
2) Jund Sacrifice: The "Cat in the Oven" combo started as a meme, then grew into a bona fide force to be reckoned with—and of course the Witch's Oven itself is an artifact. Trail of Crumbs is also seen in these lists, combining cheap card advantage with the death by a thousand cuts procured by baking the Cauldron Familiar to Schrödinger's levels.
3) Golgari Adventures: Ultimately the only proper tier-one deck that doesn't feature any artifact or enchantment. In previous versions, some copies of Lucky Clover might have been included to milk even more value out of the adventure creatures, but lately the archetype reshaped itself to resemble more closely a Golgari midrange build with the occasional extra card from Edgewall Innkeeper.
4) Rakdos/Mardu Knights: All the aggro decks from this era quickly coalesced into the one high-profile battle plan of leveraging the insane damage acceleration that Embercleave provides. Being Magic's take on Excalibur, it seems only natural for this legendary equipment to be associated with Knight tribal, although even in these builds it's rather assigned to be brandished by the tiny hands of Rotting Regisaur, for a possible one-shot kill.
5) Simic Flash/Monoblue Tempo: No fancy permanents around here. Just flash creatures and the counter spells and bounce spells to back them up.
6) Monored Aggro: Cavalcade of Calamity has been the face of monored for a while, and it was definitely something the deck would fall apart without, since most of the other cards in the Cavalcade lists were individually underwhelming. This weakness pushed post-ban Monored to embrace Experimental Frenzy once again. And yes, it's just another critical enchantment you need to remove. Plus, Embercleave is there, too.
7) Gruul Adventures/Aggro: Speaking of the mighty sword of beating … Whether with or without an adventure theme, Gruul decks also count on Embercleave to seal the deal fast and furiously. It's less crucial here than it is in the black builds, but a Questing Beast outfitted with Embercleave is all but unstoppable, wiping out any blocker with its lethal tap and then trampling over for nine.
8) Esper Control/Doom: With the Oko menace out of the picture, the classic configuration of Esper Control is back in full force. One of the most challenging variants, also called Doom Stax, uses Doom Foretold as a Smokestack stand-in, with Dance of the Manse to keep recurring the ominous enchantment, thus imprisoning the opponent in an endless streak of forced sacrifices. Definitely something you want to put a stop to, preferably for good.
9) Azorius Control: The most classic of all control decks has emerged from the shadows too. It doesn't actually use enchantments or artifacts in a central role, but Prison Realm is an important part of the removal suite, and Glass Casket often comes out of the sideboard. Sorcerous Spyglass has also been on the rise as a countermeasure to planeswalkers, Embercleave, and the Castles.
10) Temur Reclamation: Here's another archetype with an enchantment right there in its name. Wilderness Reclamation is what enables the Expansion // Explosion endgame, so taking it off the battlefield is the first thing you want to do when facing this archetype.
Learning to Disentangle
The scenario now appears in full clarity. Fires of Invention, Doom Foretold, Experimental Frenzy, Wilderness Reclamation: this quartet of 4-mana enchantments can't be left unchecked, or winning the game suddenly becomes a much easier proposition for the opponent.
Meanwhile, Witch's Oven and Embercleave are the two artifacts that must be responded to on sight. Going to battle fully prepared to answer these six terrors has many incidental benefits: we're able to revert the effect of Prison Realm and other permanent-based exilers such as Glass Casket and Conclave Tribunal. We can disable hosers like Sorcerous Spyglass and fight the Cavalcade of Calamity lists that are still popular enough, especially on Arena. We have a solution at hand for the occasional game-winning Aura like All That Glitters, or for less common high-profile cards such as The Great Henge, Bolas's Citadel, and Ethereal Absolution, maybe even answer outliers like Stonecoil Serpent, Outlaws' Merriment, and Thousand-Year Storm. And let's not forget that Theros: Beyond Death releases next January and is only going to exacerbate the enchantment situation.
But what is the best tool against these cards? Well, of course blue decks can always fall back on counter magic, and black mages can try and Duress or Drill Bit them away, but once one of those permanents successfully resolves, every deck should find itself able to draw into an out of some kind, at least come game two. So here's a list of all the possible solutions to your artifact and enchantment problems, ordered by color and mana investment. Note that I purposely disregarded all those that require a specific condition, often not too easy to achieve, like Flaxen Intruder // Welcome Home and Sunder Shaman connecting, or Ajani, Strength of the Pride and Gideon Blackblade fulfilling their ultimate's requirements. Aside from that, these are all the hate cards that are currently available—plus one that will be soon. Pick and choose your poison, and then poison your opponent's battle plan with it.
Disenchant: The oldest answer to artifacts and enchantments ever printed dates all the way back to Limited Edition Alpha and still sees play in Standard 26 years later. It's nothing flashy, but effective, and the fact that it can be found in more than one sideboard these days is a clear indicator that the permanent race has definitely shifted in a noncreature, nonplaneswalker direction.
Banishing Light: It's not in our hands yet, but we already know Theros: Beyond Death is going to reprint this Oblivion Ring variant, which first appeared in the original Theros block. And it's a welcome return, overcoming Prison Realm's restrictions as a solid 3 drop, catch-all removal.
Expose to Daylight: A little scry is not really enough to justify the additional mana we are asked to cast this Disenchant clone.
Topple the Statue: Now, a cantrip effect is a bit more alluring than just scrying, but unfortunately this concerns only artifacts. Bonus points if you cast it on the God-Pharaoh's Statue itself, though.
Conclave Tribunal: Monowhite and Selesnya decks are not very high in the metagame right now, but they can still trust their convokable Oblivion Ring to handle pretty much everything. At least until the opposing enchantment hate hits the Tribunal in turn.
Crush Contraband: Exiling in place of destroying can be relevant, particularly when dealing with Doom Foretold, which tends to return with a vengeance via Dance of the Manse. Crush Contraband can even exile two permanents at once, albeit it's unlikely for any of the mentioned decks to have both an artifact and an enchantment in play, so it's kind of overkill, plus the 4-mana cost makes it unnecessarily clunky compared to the Disenchant blueprint.
Cavalier of Dawn: As enter-the-battlefield effects go, this is clearly powerful, and yet our triple-white guy never found a single home since it was printed, and it's not well-positioned to find one right now. This might change with next year's sets, as all the enchantments from Theros: Beyond Death may end up aligning favorably with the white Cavalier's largely unexploited death trigger.
Planar Cleansing: This is the extreme measure, expensive but unforgiving. Fires decks and control decks use it as a whishable reset button.
Embereth Shieldbreaker // Battle Display: For 1 mana, this is fairly playable in adventure decks. It only solves Embercleave and Oven issues, but it's still something, and its addition to the deck doesn't disrupt the overall plan, although it's generally not strong enough to deserve a place in the main.
Return to Nature: Green is of course the go-to color if you need a way to eradicate both artifacts and enchantments with a single card. White still does it, but doesn't seem to try and push the envelope as much. Case in point, Return to Nature, first printed this year in War of the Spark then reprinted in Throne of Eldraine, is a strictly better Disenchant—or, we should say, Naturalize—that can also prevent one instance of reanimation: particularly useful to stop that darn Cat from coming back.
Thrashing Brontodon: This is arguably the best weapon against artifacts and enchantments in green's arsenal, and has already had a long history of success since its first appearance in Rivals of Ixalan. Return to Nature seems slightly favored right now, because it's a quicker, cleaner answer, whereas the Brontodon requires 4 mana to cast and activate from scratch, or otherwise it runs the risk of being dispatched before its target even manifests itself. It remains the most main-deckable option, even if green has typically a lot of strong creatures competing for that spot in the curve.
Rampage of the Clans: This is more of a janky combo card than removal; plus, once again, we're not seeking a way to destroy a ton of permanents at once—just a single instance of a very dangerous one.
Steelbane Hydra: Coming out of the Brawl decks, this Hydra is way over-the-top to be playable in regular Constructed, and the 3-mana activation might be slightly overcosted even in Commander formats.
Angrath's Rampage: A valuable piece of non-targeted removal that's seeing a considerable amount of play regardless, Angrath's Rampage has the upside of also dealing with Oven and Embercleave, so Rakdos decks have that covered. Of course black and red can't interact with enchantments very well, if at all.
Cindervines: This might secretly be one of the most powerful, and quite underrated, sideboard cards in the environment, and Gruul decks should never forget to bring it along for the ride. There are archetypes that straight up lose to a resolved Cindervines. And, yeah, it kills artifacts and enchantments too.
Despark: The applications for this conditional 2-mana exiler are plentiful enough to make it a legit main-deck option. In our specific case, out of the six main targets we identified, only Witch's Oven remains unaffected by desparking.
Assassin's Trophy: Golgari always has the best removal, combining black's proclivity for murdering creatures with green's hatred for all kinds of artifices. Assassin's Trophy is among the all-time best examples of this explosive alliance, and its presence in Standard is a gift. Of course, if your Golgari deck can find an answer that doesn't ramp up the opponent, that's even better.
Deputy of Detention: The best use of this Deputy has historically been to obliterate an army of tokens, but it's still a viable option against any permanent that needs exiling, even if it's bound to come back eventually, a 3-toughness body not being the most impenetrable prison. It's the reason why this Vedalken was at his best as a zombie hunter during the Golos era, and is a bit on the low side right now.
Mortify: Same as Bedevil, but in Orzhov and Esper, and with enchantments as the secondary noncreature target instead of artifacts. Both are effective creature killers with incidental extra value, which, in Mortify's case, is higher because enchantments are otherwise harder to kill, and they constitute the majority of the six targets we're focusing on.
Knight of Autumn: If Selesnya were more of a presence, the excellent Knight of Autumn would single-handedly decrease the overreliance on strategies that require a single artifact and enchantment to stay on the battlefield undisturbed.
Status // Statue: This is a very versatile card, but a little too cumbersome to work in a competitive setting, except maybe in Brawl.
Vraska, Golgari Queen: There aren't many planeswalkers capable of destroying artifacts and enchantments in the current pool anymore as both Vivien Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker were lost in rotation. 4-mana Vraska is one of them. Unfortunately, of the six main meta-targets, only Witch's Oven falls into her purview. She's still a very playable card, nonetheless.
Casualties of War: This Golgari larger-than-life, apocalyptic tool can, of course, hit any of the cards we're discussing, and even two of them at once. Granted, it's a 6-mana spell, but some ramp in Sultai or the help of Fires of Invention actually make it playable.
Blast Zone: This is one of the solutions available to any color, but definitely not a fast one, except against the Oven. In the time Blast Zone gets ready to destroy Embercleave, you're probably dead. Twice.
Ugin, the Ineffable: Ugin can kill each one of the permanents in question except for the Witch's Oven. As such he's a great complement to all the cards, such as Vraska, Golgari Queen, Goblin Cratermaker, and Kaya, Orzhov Usurper, that are only able to kill the Oven. He's certainly a worthy planeswalker in general, and sees his fair share of play, but ultimately 6-mana spells aren't what you want to put in your sideboard to battle a range of cards that drop much earlier.
Meteor Golem: And what's been said for Ugin is even more accurate when speaking of Meteor Golem. Maybe a reanimator shell could make the big dude work, but at that point you're better off recurring Agent of Treachery instead. Which brings us to a final consideration: as far as artifact and enchantment hate goes, you can destroy them and you can exile them, but you can also just steal them, and Agent of Treachery and Mass Manipulation do the trick just fine, if not for cheap. Also, stealing Doom Foretold is somewhat questionable.
And this is what we'll have to work with for now, in the hope that the sets that will complete this Standard cycle throughout 2020 will print or reprint some more anti-artifact and anti-enchantment technology.
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