With Khans of Tarkir right around the corner, Standard is getting ready to see a major rotation. Like a lot of people, I have also grown tired of black devotion and blue devotion comprising half the field at nearly every Standard tournament, and with cards like Nightveil Specter, Lifebane Zombie, and Frostburn Weird rotating out, as well as the introduction of a tri-color block, this is sure to be the change we have all been yearning for.
The thing that I’m really going to miss from current Standard, albeit probably unlike quite a lot of other people, is Sphinx’s Revelation. Ever since Sphinx’s Revelation debuted on the scene with the release of Return to Ravnica, it has consistently been a major player in the Standard metagame. Of course, this is helped by the fact that the same set introduced both Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict, making blue/white attractive for as long as those cards were legal together. Unfortunately, the party is almost over. In this article, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane, and look at how Sphinx’s Revelation has helped shaped the Standard format over the last couple of years.
Pro Tour Return to Ravnica was a Modern format Pro Tour, which also incidentally marked my return to Magic after a long hiatus, but Sphinx’s Revelation didn’t really see much play because it is a little too expensive for most Modern decks. But in the weeks afterward, there were several Standard Grand Prix in which Sphinx’s Revelation really started to make its mark. The first was Grand Prix Auckland. The Top 8 contained two decks with Sphinx’s Revelation: one Miracles deck, with a single copy of Sphinx’s Revelation, piloted by John Denz and a U/W/R Flash deck, with two copies, piloted by Robert Lui, a deck which would have many versions that would go on to be very popular for quite a while.
U/W/R Flash by Robert Liu
At the beginning, due to cards like Geist of Saint Traft, there were a lot of these aggro control decks. Because of Sphinx’s Revelation’s raw power and positive interaction with Snapcaster Mage, the decks started to include a couple copies. The land count was usually too low to be considered a pure Revelation deck, but the card’s power really began to shine.
Over the next month or so, were five more Standard Grand Prix in Bochum, Charleston, San Antonio, Nagoya and Atlantic City. All but Nagoya had one or more Revelation decks. There were a decent amount of the aggro control decks still, but archetypes that started to represent the more “pure” control decks started to be developed, where Sphinx’s Revelation would really shine.
Grand Prix Bochum and Grand Prix Charleston took place on the same weekend. Soon after that was Grand Prix San Antonio. Bant control made Top 8 in each of those three events. Pierre Dagen made Top 8 of Bochum and Reid Duke made Top 8 of both Charleston and San Antonio.
Bant Control by Reid Duke from Grand Prix San Antonio
Here is our first deck that I would consider to be a true Sphinx’s Revelation deck. The deck, of course, is the first to have four copies of the card and with 30 mana sources (far greater than any amount seen previously in a Revelation deck)—26 land and four copies of Farseek—the game plan of the deck is definitely to cast Sphinx’s Revelation as many times as possible. This was the first Revelation deck that included Elixir of Immortality, in order to be able to tear through the deck multiple times if need be, or to simply be able to recycle important answers to its opponent’s threats. Although the deck was capable of winning games with creatures, particularly Thragtusk, it included a copy of Nephalia Drownyard to give it significant advantages against other control decks.
At Grand Prix Atlantic City, we saw the further development of another of the staple pure control decks: Esper Control.
Esper Control by Lloyd Kurth
The Esper control deck is somewhat similar to the Bant control deck. Instead of Thragtusk, it uses cards like Lingering Souls to control the board and protect its life total and planeswalker’s loyalty while attempting to win with Nephalia Drownyard. Part of the initial appeal of the Esper control deck was that the matchup against Bant was very good, largely in part to those three copies of Nephalia Drownyard. This particular version, while only having three copies of Sphinx’s Revelation, did contain 26 land, a fair amount of cheap card draw to be sure to hit land drops, and Forbidden Alchemy/Snapcaster Mage, to dig for, and be sure it has more Sphinx’s Revelation’s to cast later in the game.
Also that weekend, Matt Costa made Top 8 with U/W/R Flash.
U/W/R by Matt Costa
So, compared to the previous U/W/R list we looked at, we can see that this deck is moving away from being quite as aggressive, although it still has aggressive elements, and moving more in the direction of a control deck. Matt opted to include the 25th land in his deck, when most of these decks had been running 24, and instead of having Geist of Saint Traft, opted to include Augur of Bolas. Augur is a more controlling card than Geist, of course, allowing a player to have a blocker on the ground, try to find answers (or Sphinx’s Revelation) when needed, and also grind out incremental advantage with Augur and Restoration Angel. Matt did play with two copies of Runechanter’s Pike, but I’d say that was more of a finisher than it was an aggressive card in these U/W/R lists, almost like a combo card.
The next major event was Pro Tour Gatecrash. At that event there were four Revelation decks in the Top 8. Gerry Thompson and Joel Larsson played decks similar to the Costa U/W/R deck above, except included Boros Reckoner and various combos for doing vast amounts of damage. Melissa DeTora played a more creature-based Bant Control deck, splashing for two copies of Kessig Wolf Run. And Ben Stark played a pure Esper Control deck with four maindeck copies of Nephalia Drownyard.
U/W/R Reckoner by Joel Larsson (2nd at Pro Tour Gatecrash)
As you can see, Joel opted to go with a more comboish build at Pro Tour Gatecrash. This deck is sort of like a U/W/R Flash deck, that features a combo comprised largely of cards that are just fine to draw on their own. Boros Reckoner + indestructible (from Boros Charm) + lifelink (from either Azorius Charm or Moment of Heroism) will allow the U/W/R player to gain infinite life. Also, simply casting Blasphemous Act with a Boros Reckoner in play will allow the U/W/R player to deal 13 damage to his or her opponent, and in a deck with Searing Spear and Snapcaster Mage, likely be able to quickly finish them off.
Wolf Run Bant by Melissa DeTora (6th, Pro Tour Gatecrash)
Melissa opted to go with a more creature-based version of the Bant Control deck, including three copies of Centaur Healer, Augur of Bolas, and the full playset of both Thragtusk and Restoration Angel. This was probably largely in part due to the popularity of the Saito R/G hyper aggro deck on social media leading up to the event. Rather than splash for something like Nephalia Drownyard, Melissa opted to splash for Kessig Wolf Run, to complement the large creature base and act as a finisher.
Esper Control by Ben Stark (3rd, Pro Tour Gatecrash)
Ben Stark played what was the most pure control deck in Top 8 of the Pro Tour. He did have a few creatures, but his deck not only featured four copies of Sphinx’s Revelation, four copies of Supreme Verdict, but also two copies of Planar Cleansing, for a total of six board sweepers. His deck had four copies of Nephalia Drownyard, and that was the primary route to victory. This deck is the closest precursor to the decks that would develop in the next block, after the outward rotation of Innistrad block and the inward rotation of Theros Block. Ben clearly wanted to spend a lot of cards to 1-for-1 his opponent, or generate incremental card advantage, and finish the game off with Sphinx’s Revelation for large numbers. Also, Ben’s was the first deck to feature 27 lands, which would become much more common going forward.
Interestingly, after Pro Tour Gatecrash, there were only three Standard Grand Prix before Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. More interesting, there was not a single copy of Sphinx’s Revelation in any of those Top 8s. This was largely in part due to the metagame shifting into some very hyper aggro decks, and also the popularity of Jund. The Jund against control matchups were pretty even, so if a player was looking to pick up some points vs. hyper aggro, they often looked at decks other than pure control decks. Reanimator also started to get more popular, and that was never a runaway matchup for control or anything.
Between Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze and Pro Tour Theros, there were four final Standard Grand Prix prior to the rotation of Innistrad Block. Three times Sphinx’s Revelation deck’s made Top 8, and all in the hands of exceptional players: Matt Costa in Miami and Alexander Hayne took UWR Flash to Top 8 finishes, with Hayne winning the tournament in Calgary. Also in Calgary, Jacob Wilson took a straight U/W control list to a Top 8 finish.
U/W Control by Jacob Wilson
The package of Restoration Angel, Augur of Bolas, and Snapcaster Mage (albeit only one), was still too strong not to play, but Jacob’s Calgary deck was the first time, in Standard, that we saw a Revelation deck playing with Aetherling have a very successful finish in a Pro-level event. (Although we did see a lot of it in Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze)
At Pro Tour Theros, the landscape was about to change as we all knew it. Cards like Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, Snapcaster Mage, Liliana of the Veil, Nephalia Drownyard, Farseek, and Think Twice were all leaving Standard. Traditionally, it is very difficult to build control decks in unknown metagames. The reason for this is that a control deck needs to know which questions are being asked so it can provide adequate answers. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that there was only one Sphinx’s Revelation deck in Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, and it definitely doesn’t surprise me that it was piloted by Guillame Wafo-Tapa, who is widely considered one of the best control deckbuilders and players of all time.
Esper Control by Guillame Wafo-Tapa (5th, Pro Tour Theros)
With eight scry lands (Four of each Temple of Deceit and Temple of Silence) it is no surprise that the first color that almost everyone added to the U/W control deck was black. Guillame played a fairly counter-light version, and clearly planned to win games on the back of card advantage from Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation. At Pro Tour Theros, Mono-Blue Devotion was really the deck of the tournament, and because Mono-Blue Devotion tends to be weak against control strategies featuring Supreme Verdict, Revelation decks became very popular for a while afterwards. There wouldn’t be another Standard Pro Tour after Pro Tour Theros until Pro Tour M15, which just happened a few weeks ago. But there would be developments at the Grand Prix level.
Grand Prix Louisville was a few weeks after Pro Tour Theros, and I ended up piloting an Esper Control deck, similar to that of Wafo-Tapa’s, to a Top 8 performance. There was only one other Revelation control player in the Top 8, and that was Alex Sittner, also choosing to go with an Esper strategy. The next Standard Grand Prix that I personally attended was Grand Prix Albuquerque. Albuquerque was the tournament that saw Pack Rat break through. Owen Turtenwald won the tournament, Paul Rietzl made Top 8, Matt Sperling finished 9th, and Tom Martell and I both finished respectably. While a lot of people remember that tournament as breakout performance for the Mono-Black Deck, part of what I remember it for is Andrew Cuneo’s U/W Elixir deck. After I was done with all my rounds, I’d go watch Andrew play, and it made me jealous. I loved the deck—all it played was card draw and answers—and only 1 single way to win (not counting a couple Mutavaults): Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Andrew didn’t have a great finish at that tournament, so the deck largely stayed off the radar. I pretty much knew that whatever my next tournament was I would definitely be playing Andrew’s deck. A few weeks later, I hopped on a plane and headed to a Standard Grand Prix in Dallas, Texas.
Dallas, because of how fun the deck was, and how much I really enjoyed playing it, was likely my favorite Standard tournament of the year. Andrew is one of the best deck builders of all time, and I felt like his deck ran like a well-oiled machine at that tournament. I ended up finishing in second place with Andrew’s deck.
U/W Control by Andrew Cuneo
Part of why this deck was so good at the beginning was because not everybody knew the list yet. People didn’t realize that the kill condition was more or less just Elixir of Immortality and an Elspeth. It caused people to play sub-optimally on the other side, especially in control mirrors. This deck is exactly what you want in a control deck: a LOT of card draw, a lot of answers, and very few cards that clutter up your hand. The mana was also very good, which helped quite a bit against the aggro decks, which were starting to see a bit of a resurgence particularly white weenie as it was being championed by Ben Stark and Pat Cox.
The next person to play an off-the-radar strategy control deck was Alex Hayne, winning Grand Prix Vancouver just a few weeks later.
U/W Control (with Angels) by Alexander Hayne
Alex decided to do away with the Elixir, take the Divinations out of his deck, and put in more win conditions. (Aetherling and extra copies of Elspeth) Because of the lack of Divination, Alex added a 27th land, which is definitely reasonable, to be sure to hit as many land drops for as long as possible, and cast Sphinx’s Revelation for as much as possible. What really brought a new element to the deck for Alex in Vancouver was the four copies of Archangel of Thune in the sideboard. I had the opportunity to watch Alex play a few matches that weekend, and it seemed like every time I saw, against nearly every deck, Alex was killing people with Archangel of Thunes. It was a really great metagame call by Alex, and in general, if a player doesn’t know what to expect from a control deck, or they expect a different version of the deck, often times something like Archangel of Thune will just be unanswerable and end games very quickly. Naturally, Archangel of Thune combos very well with any cards that allow you to gain life, especially Sphinx’s Revelation.
Born of the Gods was released soon after Alex’s win, but the set really didn’t have a very large impact on Standard. Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow were both cards that saw a lot of play in the black decks, but were not very good in or against Sphinx’s Revelation decks so didn’t really matter very much.
The Sphinx’s Revelation deck of choice trended back to Esper for a little while, because the format started to slow down, moving away from aggro a little, and Jund Monsters type decks started to become popular. Access to cards like Doom Blade or in some cases, Hero’s Downfall, made those matchups a little easier, and in the control mirrors, one player being able to cast Thoughtseize while the other cannot really was a huge advantage.
Kyle Boggemes took Esper control to a first place finish at Grand Prix Cincinnati. Incidentally, in the finals, he defeated Brad Nelson who was also playing a Revelation based Esper Control deck.
Esper Control by Kyle Boggemes
This is basically just a natural continuation of how the Esper decks had been being build as early as Wafo-Tapa at Pro Tour Theros. Detention Sphere was more widely played as a four-of by this time, and Kyle opted to play a few more counterspells, but the shells of the decks weren’t really changing any much at this point.
At Grand Prix Phoenix a few weeks before the release of Journey Into Nyx, we saw a Sphinx’s Revelation based archetype in Top 8 that we hadn’t seen in a very long time. Daniel Ward piloted a Bant control deck to a Top 8 finish, but was unable to make it out of the first round. Right around this time, Tomaharo Saito had also begun to champion Bant, so it was an interesting period to see how the deck ended up working out.
Bant Control by Daniel Ward
Similar to Reid’s old Bant Control deck, Daniels deck had 29 mana sources. The only green in the main deck was two copies of Kiora, the Crashing Wave, and three copies of Sylvan Caryatid. Although Saito continued to champion and work on this deck up to and including at Pro Tour M15, it never really caught on. I think its largely in part because the green cards just weren’t powerful enough to make them a preference over the black parts. Also the negative interaction between Sylvan Caryatid and Supreme Verdict.
Around Journey into Nyx, the format was very stale and frankly, there were very few innovations of any kind for a while. Journey into Nyx, again, didn’t add very much to the format, and mostly the decks remained fairly similar. Metagame shifts did cause one new type of control to emerge, and that was the Detention Sphere-less Planar Cleansing Control deck. The first major success of this deck was Reid Duke at the Invitational in Columbus, OH.
This deck was a good metagame call in a format that consisted of a lot of decks with ways to remove Detention Sphere. It certainly helped from falling too far behind against a deck with a lot of cheap Planeswalkers such as Domri Rade and Xenagos, the Reveler to be able to have a kill switch that would literally clean up all of your opponent’s permanents. Also this was at the time when Mono-Black Devotion’s splash of choice happened to be green, for both Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm, making Detention Sphere considerably weaker at removing the most important threats like Underworld Connections or Erebos, God of the Dead.
At Pro Tour M15, most people expected the most popular decks to be Mono-Blue Devotion, Mono-Black Devotion, and Sphinx’s Revelation strategies. Black based devotion decks and Blue based devotions decks were certainly the most popular, and Sphinx’s Revelation decks weren’t too far behind. The only Sphinx’s Revelation deck in Top 8 was piloted by Ivan Floch, and was also a version that contained no copies of Detention Sphere, and focused on having four copies of Quicken to be able to deal with threats at instant speed, and also three copies of Planar Cleansing to act as a kill switch, as discussed. Here was Ivan’s list:
Ivan had a lot of courage to play a deck with effectively no win conditions, and he did it masterfully, winning the last Pro Tour of the season. This deck is pretty similar to Andrew’s deck that I talked about earlier, but Ivan probably felt, because of slightly longer rounds at the Pro Tour, he didn’t have to “waste” a spot in the main deck on a card like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Aetherling.
I for one was glad to see Sphinx’s Revelation go out on top. I likely won’t play another Standard tournament until after the release of Khans of Tarkir, so it’s possible that I won’t end up casting Sphinx’s Revelation again for far too long.
It’s been fun, buddy, and I’m going to miss you.
This weekend, I’m heading to Grand Prix Salt Lake City. I’ll be one of the featured pros in the bounty event on Friday night, so if you’re in town, stop by and play. It’s a really fun event. If you beat any of the invited ChannelFireball Pros, you win 12 packs. This will be my third or fourth one of these, and I look forward to it every time. The tournament itself is M15 sealed deck followed by M15 draft on day two, so hopefully that goes well. If not, maybe I’ll find my way to the booth on Sunday. If you are around during the weekend, but unable to participate in the bounty event, feel free to say hi anytime. Hopefully, I’ll see you this weekend.