Brewing is hard, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. I’m going to take a look at what it means for a deck to be Tier One or Tier Two, and at the ways that your brew can be doomed to Tier Two right off the bat. Then we’ll look at some of the Tier One brews emerging from Origins and see what makes them successful where others struggle.
Already this has been a great season for brewing. Not often does a set come out and vault a brand-new (or largely neglected) archetype into the top spot. And make no mistake, coming out the Pro Tour that is exactly what’s happening. The metagame warped around Abzan Rally.
The winning deck was the best anti-rally deck: RDW. But what is it that separates this new Rally deck from the tier two decks like Jeskai Tokens and Abzan Constellation? Is there a special something that we can point to and say, “that’s why this deck is considered ‘tier one?'”
Tier One of Tier Brew?
First things first, I want to emphasize that tier two does not mean “bad.” The idea that competitive players have to play tier one decks is largely untrue, and is fact a rather destructive notion (more on this later). In fact, there are tons of really powerful tier two strategies in Standard. This is one of the reasons I mentioned Jeskai Tokens and Abzan Constellation as flagship tier two strategies, because they qualify despite their top 8 finishes, and despite the fact that they’d be perfectly reasonable deck choices at certain tournaments.
Instead, there are a number of features that can make a deck tier two.
The first of which is folding to targeted hate.
The fact is, even though Jeskai Tokens and Abzan Constellation are both extremely powerful strategies, they both fold to targeted hate.
And right now, there are some extremely vicious hate cards in the Standard card pool.
Dromoka’s Command has held a stranglehold on this formats enchantments since it’s printing. In fact, it promptly pushed out the dominant RW archetype on its arrival by making cards like Chained to the Rocks too risky to play.
Between Dromoka’s Command and Virulent Plague, Jeskai Tokens players can expect a lot of powerful targeted hate out of the sideboard should they ever become too powerful.
Abzan Constellation, on the other hand, can dodge Dromoka’s Command simply by virtue of having too many enchantments. It’s almost funny: the Command forces most enchantment reliant decks out of the format, unless they run almost entirely enchantments!
That being said, the point I want to drive home in this section is this: these hate cards may or not be in your opponents sideboard. If your deck flies under the radar, and you can dodge these cards, then these decks can do extremely powerful things.
But if the deck becomes too powerful, if it warps the meta even a little bit, decks everywhere can pack game-ending hate in the sideboard like Back to Nature. I mean really, think about how insane this card is against an all-enchantments strategy… Imagine a card that was: 2 mana, instant speed, “destroy all nonland permanents!”
So, to reiterate, the reason that these sorts of decks are tier two is because, although they are capable of doing well, they fail the second they do too well.
Does your deck need to have a certain card on the battlefield in order to really shine? Does it have ways to ensure that you draw it?
Jeskai Tokens is broken if it can stick an Ascendancy but is just an extremely mediocre deck otherwise. Reliance on a single card can really set back an archetype. This and Tokens’s vulnerability to hate compounds into tier two status, at least in my opinion.
Inconsistency can come from other sources too, for example, my Temur Goblins deck suffers from the inconsistency of being a three color/twenty land deck. Matthew Tickal’s 4color Rally deck gained the power of Jace, but was missing a lot of the consistency of the Abzan Rally list that came later.
To reiterate this point, it’s not enough to just do powerful things. Even if your deck doesn’t fold to targeted hate, it may be doomed to tier two status just in virtue of its lack of consistency. Examples of this are many of the Standard decks based around two card combos like UR Artifacts, or the Dark Deal/Waste Not decks floating around.
That Special Something
So back to the original question: what makes tier one decks tier one?
Well, pretty much the opposite of everything I’ve said so far.
The trademark of tier one decks is that they execute their game plan(s) consistently.
This means that they have well-tuned mana bases, and a streamlined game plan.
The paradigmatic tier one deck in this format is Abzan Control. If you take a look at the lists floating around, there is nothing crazy going on. Just a tried and true formula of efficient creatures (Courser, Rhino), versatile removal (Abzan Charm, Hero’s Downfall), and the best finisher in the format (Elspeth, Sun’s Champion).
But how does Abzan Rally fit under this definition? Anyone who’s played the deck has learned that you don’t need a Rally the Ancestors to win the game, you’re perfectly fine playing an attrition plan, and Collected Company brings an absurd amount of consistency to the table. So even though the deck wants to win with Rally, its ability to conjure up an efficient secondary gameplan should the other become interrupted imbues the deck with a surprising amount of consistency.
The best way to not fold to targeted hate is to have built in redundancy. This is an important word when assessing the viability of new strategies.
One of the things to ask yourself when you’re brewing is: can this strategy survive an early Thoughtseize?
This is a good litmus test to see if your decks gameplan has redundancy. This is important to remember when designing new decks. You should be constantly asking yourself: “does my gameplan have redundancy?”
Abzan Rally has a lot of built in redundancy: from its ability to run up to 8 edict effects, it’s ability to win via a combo-kill or value grinding, and its ability to nearly tutor up creatures via Rallies and Collected Companies… The deck can fight through targeted hate like Hallowed Moonlight quite efficiently (although they’re certainly never happy to see it).
A lot of this built in redundancy has to do with one card:
Den Protector, in my humble opinion, is the difference between these Rally decks being tier one or tier two strictly via the redundancy she provides.
There is a third option, because sometimes a deck can be tier one even if it lacks a bit in consistency or folds to targeted hate.
It’s Just That Good
I don’t think there are any examples of this in standard currently, because it’s quite a corner case, but it exists: sometimes a deck is just that good.
The first deck that comes to mind in this category for me is Affinity in modern. Affinity has been tier one in modern for many years, in spite of the fact that Artifact hate has lined sideboards for just as long.
The fact is that it’s just that good. The sheer power of the strategy ensures a ridiculous game one percentage, this makes it so that even when the sideboard is packed with hate, the player just needs to squeeze some way around it and they can win the game. Or, even more terrifying, often they can just ignore the hate and hope you don’t draw it, and kill you extremely fast, giving you very few draw steps to draw an out.
The best part about tier two decks is that your opponent is that much less likely to be prepared for them. A prudent Magic player can easily use this to her advantage. Further, tier two decks often have polarized matchups, some decks they just can’t lose to and others they can’t beat, so they can be very rewarding in certain environments. It’s for these reasons that tier two decks often make the best meta decks.
So don’t be afraid to sleeve up a tier two deck in order to take advantage of your knowledge of the meta game. Use your opponent’s expectations as a tool. The distinction between tier one and tier two can certainly be used to your advantage.
But when you’re brewing be sure to keep in mind the common pitfalls that result in tier two decks and avoid them. Try to focus on builds with potential for consistency and redundancy, but don’t be afraid to take chances because sometimes you just stumble onto Abzan Rally.
‘Til Next Time!