You got me.
GW Tokens is the best deck in Standard.
It won the PT. It wins 2 Grand Prix in the same weekend. And now #1 ranked player Seth Manfield takes down GP Costa Rica while Gerry Thompson goes on a 15-0 run in an Open event. GW Tokens is just the best deck and fighting that fact has proven fruitless.
So how do you build the best version of the best deck? Let’s start with the staples.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar are 4-ofs and the cornerstones of the deck. These planeswalkers both create huge forces with their token making capabilities, but also can pump your entire team. We’ve seen how quickly Gideon can close out a game single-handedly with a Knight Ally on turn 4 and then attacks for 7 when unopposed after that.
A turn-3 planeswalker that immediately ticks up to 4 in Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is already going to be tough to deal with. Even though the Plant tokens will often step in front of opposing attackers and take one for the team, that just buys more time to tick up Nissa until it’s time to ultimate or start pumping your entire team. A single minus activation on a board of multiple creatures is some sick value. Most sequences will include a Nissa plus for a Plant token before minusing the next couple turns after playing out your spells to have a massive force threatening to win around turn 5 or 6.
Sylvan Advocate was the defining creature in all of Standard, showing up in all the top decks due to its power both early and late—until Bant Company started taking on the Humans subtheme. With Thalia’s Lieutenant, other creatures promise to be bigger and badder than the Advocate, but this is still a staple 4-of in every GW Tokens list. Vigilance is an incredible ability in a deck looking to both attack and defend its planeswalkers, and Gideon’s emblems and Nissa’s counters make this 3-toughness creature too big to handle even before the sixth land comes down.
Hangarback Walker is another early drop that scales with the anthem effects. 2/2 or 3/3 Thopter tokens will end the game quickly. This was another staple 4-of that some players have been shaving a copy of, although that usually ends up finding its way into the sideboard. The combinations don’t end there, you can couple a Hangarback with Evolutionary Leap, or with an Archangel Avacyn as a free way to flip the Angel and purify the board.
Archangel Avacyn is too good not to play. The threat of having it in your hand with 5 mana is already enough to change how people play, and a 4/4 flash flying vigilance with no other text would already be worthy of consideration for a slot. Giving your entire team indestructible allows you to attack or block without fear, and flipping Avacyn tends to end the game on the spot. Some anthem effects may even help your tokens get out of range while a flipped Avacyn kills all of their creatures as well as their planeswalker—or even the opponent.
Oath of Nissa does a lot of work in this deck. First, it helps fix your mana for your most powerful spells, your Nissas and Gideons. While you shouldn’t struggle too much to be able to cast spells in your 2-color deck, the fact that both planeswalkers are double-colored means that it definitely comes up. Oath also helps you to actually find the lands you need to function when you’re short, while helping to find creatures or planeswalkers when you’re not. While this isn’t Ponder, in some ways it is better. If you’re only looking for one card, Oath will help you find it and you don’t need a shuffle effect to get rid of the stuff you didn’t want.
Dromoka’s Command has become the defining tool in all of Standard. Utilized by the two best decks in GW Tokens and Bant Humans, this card has basically forced enchantments out of Standard. Players rely only on cards like Oath of Nissa that they don’t mind having to sacrifice, or Gryff’s Boon that they can get back. Almost never do you see Silkwrap and Stasis Snare—once defining removal spells of Standard—in a world where they are such a liability in game 1. Dromoka’s Command is a 2-mana removal spell at instant speed, a combat trick, and also a way to protect your creatures from damage spells such as Fiery Impulse or Radiant Flames.
With a starting point of these 28 (maybe 27 if you shave a Hangarback) spells, you’re pretty close to a complete deck. Even the mana base is completely standardized at this point.
While 25 lands isn’t set in stone and some players prefer to go up, this is the starting point. Extra green will help to cast turn-1 Oath of Nissa, turn-2 Sylvan Advocate, and a turn-3 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, but with 16 sources of green and 15 white, you shouldn’t struggle too much to cast the spells you need.
So you have a fantastic starting point of 53 cards that are more or less locked in. Where do you go from there with your flex slots?
Alex Johnson, 1st place at GP Minneapolis
Alex Johnson, winner of GP Minneapolis, started with 2 Lambholt Pacifist as his flex creature of choice. This is a great one in a metagame where you expect some early creatures as a 3/3 blocker for 2 mana will do a great job of holding down the fort. In conjunction with anthem effects and Dromoka’s Command, it’s easy for Lambholt Pacifist to attack as early as you need it to.
With his 2 removal flex slots, Johnson opted for 2 Declaration in Stone to fight other token decks and the early rush of Humans decks.
This leaves 3 flex slots, and Johnson goes with 2 Secure the Wastes and 1 Stasis Snare. Stasis Snare is weak to opposing Dromoka’s Commands, but that’s mitigated nicely by the Oath of Nissa that you have no problem sacrificing. The true power of Stasis Snare comes in a metagame that’s heavy on decks like Grixis, since killing Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is so important, but that’s not really the case right now. This is also the best tool at handling an opposing Archangel Avacyn, but typically it’s relegated to the sideboard.
Secure the Wastes is a strong card against control decks as an instant-speed way to flood the board out with threats. Coupled with anthems or Westvale Abbey, you can win in a single turn. There’s utility in creature matchups to have access to Secure, especially as a way to create Ormendahl out of nowhere, but it’s not the most efficient.
Fast forward one week later and a little further south of Minneapolis, where #1 ranked Seth Manfield went on to win yet another GP with the following list:
Seth Manfield, 1st place at Grand Prix Costa Rica
Manfield also used his 2 creature flex slots on Lambholt Pacifist, but by trimming a copy of Hangarback Walker that’s now in his sideboard, he’s freed up a bit of room. He uses that slot and 1 of his pure flex slots on Den Protector.
Den Protector is a decent tool against everyone, but it really shines in attrition battles. As a 2/1 for 2, it can trade with an early creature or to help protect a planeswalker. As a 5-mana 3/2 that returns a spell from your graveyard, Den Protector shines. With Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Dromoka’s Commands, all of which you can also return from your graveyard, Den Protector threatens to get to 5 or more power relatively early in the game, creating a huge evasive creature. Turn-4 ultimate a Gideon and turn-5 morph, flip Den Protector and return the Gideon with your 4/3 in play is tough to beat.
For his 2 removal flex slots, Manfield keeps 1 Declaration in Stone, but also maindecks a single Tragic Arrogance. This is a nice tool to help keep people honest. Opponents rarely suspect the game 1 Arrogance, but there isn’t much they can do even if they know it’s there. Playing around a 1-of is not conducive to success, but not playing around such a massive swing can also be catastrophic.
With his final 2 true flex slots, Manfield has the 2 copies of Secure the Wastes also.
Gerry Thompson has been one of the best deckbuilders in the world for the longest time and he ran back his MOCS deck list to a 15-0 Swiss record before falling to a game 3 mulligan to 5 in the semifinals to White Humans.
Gerry Thompson, 3rd place in a Standard Open
Gerry’s creature slots both go to Den Protector, which I think will continue to be popular going forward. While not as big as Lambholt Pacifist, the evasion and card advantage is huge, and attrition matchups are more common than aggro ones.
With his 3 flex slots, Gerry opts for 2 Evolutionary Leap and the 26th land. Leap is an interesting card in this deck as all of the creatures it can go find are fairly awesome. Sylvan Advocate is almost always going to be the worst hit, and by the time you’re using Leap, it’s likely going to be a Tarmogoyfian 4/5 for 2. Digging through your deck for more Hangarback Walker to sacrifice, finding even more Archangel Avacyn and Den Protectors, is going to win the midgame against virtually everybody, but this is a huge liability against aggressive decks where you simply don’t have the time. Leap is also a fantastic way to control when you flip Archangel Avacyn.
As for sideboard options, you should fully expect to see some sweepers, some spot removal, some creatures that are good in attrition battles, and some haymakers. Gerry Thompson’s sideboard is a pretty perfect example of this.
These are your best tools against white aggressive decks, but they also do work against Bant Humans. If people start to play more Archangel Avacyns in their Humans or Bant decks, then this card simply has to become Tragic Arrogance, but that currently isn’t the case.
The best removal spell to bring in against aggressive decks and those with tokens, such as the mirror. While trading your Declaration for their creature and giving them a Clue isn’t the best against aggro decks in general, your higher card quality will mitigate this tiny loss of card advantage and make this an awesome tool there. Killing a bunch of tokens, Hangarback Walker, or Archangel Avacyn will make you feel good.
This can come in versus aggro, midrange, and control. Yeah, that means that Nissas are essentially coming in every single time in every matchup. So why not maindeck it, you may ask? It’s not the best tool against any deck, but is useful against all of them once you start trimming cards that are not good. While this isn’t the best creature against an aggressive deck, it can trade off and help find you the extra land you need to cast 5-mana sweepers. If you get to that turn-7 midgame, Nissa, Vastwood Seer will help close things out quickly.
This is a great tool against Dromoka’s Command decks. Going to the skies is where you want to be against Bant and GW Tokens. You can attack planeswalkers and have a powerful creature that opponents won’t want to Reflector Mage. Bant Humans decks will try to go wide against you, so 8 power in flyers and 5 life is completely game swinging.
This is one of the best cards against control (although that can be replaced by sideboarded Evolutionary Leap if you end up maindecking some number of Secures). You’re not really looking to have it anywhere else, except for possibly some chump blockers versus aggro.
This is useful in the mirror since Dromoka’s Command is already bad enough that it should be coming out and you have Oath of Nissa to protect it even if they make that sideboarding mistake. Snare can fight opposing Archangel Avacyns and Linvala, the Preserver. It’s also a useful tool against decks like Grixis since Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet can be a problem, and it can also deal with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy when needed.
I’m pretty low on this card and would likely prefer something more versatile, such as Angelic Purge, but this is another way to fight problematic enchantments. When you already have 4 Dromoka’s Command, it doesn’t feel like a high priority to me. Cryptolith Rite decks are a pretty tough matchup for GW Tokens, so having a way to interact with that does feel useful if those decks start to tick back up again.
This is just a good attrition card. Against slower decks you’re bringing it in 100% of the time, but it’s also quite good in the mirror as an evasive threat and can be boarded in for any matchup where you have more cards to bring out than bring in.
As for what to sideboard out, Gerry had a plan that was quite different than any I had seen before for the mirror.
Keep in mind that Gerry was always on the draw in this matchup as he never actually lost a game, and Nissa is a much better tool on the play. On the play, I would consider keeping in the Nissas, but I’m not sure that’s right. It’s possible you don’t want Nissas in the matchup and are instead looking to play the big control game. With Evolutionary Leap to find more Hangarback Walker to sacrifice, as well as Archangel Avacyn and Linvala, the Preserver to rule the skies, you’re well set up for your removal spells, Nissa, Vastwood Seer, and late-game Den Protector to handle business.
Against control decks, you’re cutting Dromoka’s Commands.
Against Company decks, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar again becomes weaker as they are both aggressive and have the ability to go wide. Nissa, Vastwood Seers do come in, however, as a late-game threat and way to bridge your mana to get to 5 for a sweeper. Secure the Wastes and Evolutionary Leaps are also mediocre here, as you’re boarding in Nissas, sweepers, Linvalas, and Declarations.
Against aggro, the Leaps are a huge liability, and you don’t need Den Protector (and don’t have the time to adequately set them up). Nissa, Vastwood Seer can block and help get you to 5 while you want more removal spells and sweepers. Once the board is under control, winning is academic, so cutting some number of Avacyns is also reasonable.
GW Tokens continues to prove itself as the powerhouse deck of Standard, winning huge tournaments week after week while consistently putting up great numbers. For a deck that is such a known quantity, and one that more or less has 53 of the main deck slots set in stone, the fact that nobody has come up with a great way to interact with this deck is incredible.
What the future may hold, however, is a rise in UR Flyers decks like the one I highlighted earlier in the week. Some early 2/1 flyers backed by burn spells, Goldnight Castigator, removal, and counters seems to be the perfect foil for GW Tokens. Being able to hold up counters/removal while flashing in a flying threat gives the deck game to interact with everything GW is doing while also presenting a quick clock. If GW continues to rise, expect UR flyers and Cryptolith Rite decks to be more heavily played.
Is there any card or strategy you’ve found to be particularly strong against GW Tokens? Are the 53 “locked” main deck cards actually ones you shouldn’t deviate from, or do you think you’ve found something better? Sound off in the comments!