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Instead of our customary decklist and discussion, I'd like to do something a bit different this week. I've been putting a lot of thought into how best to stymie Steve's Craterhoof Behemoth deck from last week, and I wanted to run through my own process of designing against a specific strategy. The first thing is the easiest, identify a target. This can be either a specific build, like Craterhoof, or a general strategy that you're looking to beat, like Aggro. Given that Craterhoof has been trampling over our local meta, I'm going to be focused on taking that down this week.
Once you've identified what you're looking to beat, you need to understand the intricacies that make it work. What are the strengths and weaknesses? What makes it win and, more importantly, what makes it lose? With Craterhoof, they basically win by filling the board with little creatures, then pumping with Craterhoof or Ezuri, Renegade Leader and trampling in for the win. This leaves the strategy vulnerable to two things at a glance. First, if you can stop the pump effects, you can prevent them from ending the game in a single turn. While this won't necessarily save you from a swarm of Elves swinging in for several turns, it can keep you in the game long enough to enact your plan. Secondly, if you can simply remove the swarm of creatures, there is nothing to pump, and hence, you have little to worry about. Naturally, this is easier said than done, what with Ezuri, Renegade Leader regenerating all of his Elf friends, but it gives us something to work with. A tertiary weakness of the deck lies in the frailty of the mana acceleration. If you can take out the turn-two Elvish Archdruid, the chance of a turn four Craterhoof is next to nothing.
Once you've found a plan of attack, even with the broadest of strokes like "I need to run sweepers," and "I need to kill the Archdruids," things start to take shape. We need an answer in the first three turns of the game, since Craterhoof comes down and wins on turn four on a good draw. One thing we might consider is Slagstorm, which can clear out a whole slew of Elves on turn three, even while they're being pumped by an Elvish Archdruid. Most often, even if Ezuri comes out before you get to Slagstorm, you'll have a turn while they're tapped out to clear the board. It gets a lot worse after Ezuri is in play, but as for an early option, it's definitely worth considering. If we're looking to simply buy an extra turn, however, we can implement some very specific hate cards like Torpor Orb which shuts down the Enters the Battlefield (ETB) effects of all creatures, nullifying their turn four win with Craterhoof. It also shuts down the draw from Elvish Visionary and Soul of the Harvest and the artifact hate from Viridian Corrupter, so it's not a bad consideration. This prevents one of the pump effects, but doesn't do anything against Ezuri, so it's not going to be a sufficient answer on its own.
Assuming we're on the draw, unless we have a Torpor Orb in play, we can't expect to survive to our fourth turn. With that in mind, another option is the Day of Judgment plan, where we ramp mana and cast it on turn three. Black Sun's Zenith fits this approach as well, since we're typically only going to need X=2 to clear the board of Elves, so it can also come down on turn three with a bit of ramp. Without delving into Green, though, the only 2-mana accelerants that I can think of in Standard are Deranged Assistant and Sphere of the Suns. The Assistant might serve for a predominantly Blue deck, where colored mana isn't at a premium, but I prefer Sphere which can happily go in virtually any deck, and thrives in multi-color environments. Finally, we get to the targeted removal option, where we simply take out the Archdruids, keeping them off Craterhoof mana. This will only work for so long, since there are still eight other mana-producing Elves in the deck, so they'll get to 8 mana soon enough. If we're hoping to ride this option to victory, though, we're going to have to win before they get the requisite mana, so we'll need a heavily aggressive deck.
Now that we've got a few plans in mind, I like to see how they fit into existing archetypes to see if perhaps some of my work is already done for me. For example, Slagstorm has seen a lot of play in RG Wolf Run decks, so we may be able to utilize this archetype to combat Craterhoof. Being in Red also gives us access to damage-based removal to keep the Archdruids out of the way like Galvanic Blast, though I think I would prefer the slightly less efficient Incinerate for how it stops Ezuri's regenerate. Bonfire of the Damned also fits this strategy quite well, and can act as additional sweepers, though I wouldn't want to rely on them entirely, since you'll need to get to 5 mana to hard cast it to much effect. Similarly, what can run Day of Judgment, Black Sun's Zenith, and targeted removal like Go for the Throat? Esper (White/Blue/Black) Control is one of my favorites historically, capable of running as many sweepers as you can stomach, plus removal, card advantage, counter spells, and back-breaking finishers like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. I like Esper's options against Craterhoof, since it doesn't necessarily need to hit a turn three Day of Judgment, when it can simply Dissipate the turn four Craterhoof. The mana can be tricky in any three-color deck, but Sphere of the Suns helps a lot with that. Finally, the 'win faster' approach lends itself to a Red Deck Wins style build, featuring lots of cheap, efficient creatures, plenty of Shock and Galvanic Blast effects to keep the Archdruids down, and a plan to win in six or so turns. Red probably has the least game against the field of other decks at the moment, though, so this is a pretty narrow option for taking down Craterhoof.
We've identified a target strategy that we're looking to defeat. We've looked in depth at the strengths and weaknesses of the deck, finding what makes it win and what makes it lose. Then we highlighted specific cards and effects that will help us exploit the weaknesses. Finally, we pinpoint existing strategies that utilize these effects, as they will tend to have the best game against other decks in the field. One of the most important points of establishing an anti strategy is not to lose sight of what your other matches will look like. You can't simply run a deck designed only to counter a specific game plan, else you end up being weak to everything else. Regardless of the approach we end up taking, you'll still need plenty of practice to familiarize yourself with how the deck plays, what you should do in any given situation, and often most importantly, when you need to mulligan.
What kind of approach do you take in establishing an anti strategy? Do you identify cards that you want to utilize and integrate them into a well-established deck? Do you create whole new deck builds to combat whatever's taken hold of your local meta? Is it some combination of the two, heavily modifying existing strategies to accommodate new tech to defeat the menace?