While I’ve been taking a break from grinding and content creation these past few weeks, I have been helping some friends test Standard for the Pro Tour, and I have a few notes.
The SCG Opens can influence the PT meta, but they never define it. The main difference I expect is the popularity/success of RG Ramp, which is the deck to beat. I imagine it’ll take up some 25ish% of the Day Two metagame, and people looking to take down the whole thing should play a deck with a good matchup against it.
One of Esper Dragons’ better openings involves a turn two Silumgar’s Scorn. A lot of people figured out that Clash of Wills opened up that possibility for other builds of blue control decks, but not many have talked about adding Clash of Wills to Esper Dragons as a way to get the turn two counter more often. I wouldn’t want to play four, but 1-2 doesn’t seem bad.
Abzan Control is still playable because it’s so consistent, but Siege Rhino isn’t as exciting as it used to be. This is the best Den Protector deck, recurring the most powerful cards. Overall, it should be one of the most represented decks on Day One, though those numbers should dip as it gets trimmed down by RG Ramp going into Day Two.
Heroic supposedly beats up on ramp, but I don’t think that matchup is good enough to be worth it in and of itself. It’s weak to edicts, which prey on the low threat density while also ignoring Gods Willing and other protection spells, and the presence of the new Rally deck with its six edict effects might be enough to scare the Heroic players away. This is bad reasoning, since Rally won’t be enough of the metagame to be a significant factor in deck selection, but I still don’t like Heroic since it tends to do worse against top level opponents.
Mono-Red improved a lot from Origins, and can be built to favor Goblins or burn, but it still loses to the same cards it always has.
The Rally deck that just won the Open is similar to RG in that it beats up on Abzan (and does so a bit harder) but also loses to control (again a bit harder) as well. The Ramp matchup is fairly even. If the Rally deck can win the die roll and edict away a mana dork on the play, it’s likely to slow the Ramp deck down enough to force through a win. If the Ramp deck wins the die roll then the edict is too slow, and Ramp should win.
What Would I Play?
For starters, I would want to play 4 Hangarback Walkers. It’s a threat, it’s value, and it has a lot of crazy good synergies. It’s a Doomed Traveler and Lingering Souls hybrid that scales into the late game, and if that doesn’t excite you then you must be dead on the inside.
As far as finding the best shell, there are a bunch of exciting ways to go with it. Cards that interact with +1/+1 counters are a fine start, and Dromoka’s Command can net you an extra Thopter while cracking your Hangarback. Ryan Hipp did well with an RW aggro deck running Dictate of Heliod as a way to buff the Thopters. Jeff Hoogland (and then Jim Davis) combined it with Thopter Spy Network.
My first idea was to put it in Bant Heroic. Bant Heroic is already running 4 Dromoka’s Command, and the Ordeals love creatures that start with +1/+1 counters. While Hangarback is a slow threat, it grows naturally (without committing resources), is hard to attack into, and protects you from edict effects and sweepers. As a colorless threat, it blocks in the mirror despite Gods Willing, and it lives through an Ugin downtick.
The Hangarbacks tested great against other aggressive strategies, creating a wall that the opponent didn’t want to trade with. They were at their best with the Ordeals, drawing cards or gaining life immediately.
They were a bit slow against RG Ramp (as expected).
I gave up on the list after testing against Esper Dragons. While Hangarback was fine, the control deck could afford to give up a bit of value in answering it, and it wasn’t the solution to the matchup by any means.
I still like a few Hangarbacks in the list, but Heroic still has its problems and the inclusion of Hangarback isn’t enough to play it at the Pro Tour.
After that I put together a UB Thopter Spy Network list, basically a port of Hoogland’s deck and very similar to what Jim Davis played, but when I tried coming up with playable artifacts that could potentially let us go up to four Spy Networks I hit on Cranial Archive and Hammer of Purphoros. Hammer, along with the basic idea that Shrapnel Blast is the best way to crack a Hangarback Walker, lead me to the following creation:
Now, I wouldn’t play this deck at the Pro Tour, as it’s a bit weak to a resolved Atarka out of ramp. By not having a “real” sweeper the deck lacks a way to catch up in the early midgame, and if you fall behind it can be hard to crawl back in. Similarly, not having access to Hero’s Downfall as an easy answer to resolved creatures and planeswalkers is a big liability.
On the other hand, it was a successful experiment because I learned a lot about tweaking the Thopter archetype. An active Thopter Spy Network is both a win condition and a way to prevent flooding, and you almost never lose once you start hitting people and drawing cards. Between it and Artificer’s Epiphany, a lot of the work of Dig Through Time was already being handled, and most of my mulligans involved drawing multiple Digs in the opener. Meanwhile, a Thopter Spy Network or an Artificer’s Epiphany could be a reason to keep a hand, leading to fewer mulligans and increased consistency.
Aetherspouts, while not good at clearing mana dorks like Languish, is still an amazing card alongside Thopter Spy Network. Even if the opponent is aware of the card and wants to play around it, they often can’t afford to let you keep drawing cards and have to try and kill you as soon as possible. After all, if they give you more turns then they might just lose to an Ugin.
Shrapnel Blast did test well, and at one point I increased the count from 2 to 3. It cracks Hangarback while killing something relevant, which is a lot of value for two mana, and it can sacrifice a Thopter token or a Darksteel Citadel in a pinch. In the end, though, having access to Shrapnel Blast didn’t make up for the lack of Hero’s Downfall, though it gave me hope for future UR artifact creations.
I wasn’t too pleased with the sideboard, and didn’t have much time to test it. In general, I’m not keen on the Perilous Vault, but I’m even less keen on having Ugin be the only real answer to Dragonlord Dromoka, and Vault is a great catchall.
Annul seems like a better sideboard card than usual between people testing constellation decks and the Hangarback Walker/Thopter Spy Network mirror.
Stratus Dancer isn’t just a beating in the control mirror, it’s also incredibly good against the Rally decks.
After setting aside UR, the choice is whether to go UB for better spot removal or UW for Elspeth. Here’s my take:
There are a few things I’m doing differently than Jim Davis. For starters, I moved the Ashioks to the sideboard. While Hangarbacks and Thopters are great blockers for Ashiok—a tool UB hasn’t had before—the artifact creatures also act as a win condition in and of themselves, making Ashiok less necessary.
Ashiok fluctuates in value depending on the field. It’s amazing against Abzan and Ramp, and it’s a fine threat against classic control lists, but you don’t want it in your deck against Mono-Red, Heroic, or the Thopter mirror. Currently, I’d rather set aside those slots for Bile Blights since we have a good plan against Abzan and Ramp already, but Ashiok is powerful enough in those matchups to be worth the sideboard slots.
The card draw suite is a bit different as well. For starters, seven is an above average number of draw spells, and I imagine Jim was porting over as much of Hoogland’s UW version as possible. Six is a much more common number for UB Control, favored by Shouta and Adrian Sullivan, and with the addition of Thopter Spy Network the need for dedicated card draw actually lessens.
Of course, not all draw spells are created equal, and the downside of Artificer’s Epiphany is that it’s less powerful than other options. Maybe that’s the reason Hoogland and Jim both settled on four Dig (and seven draw spells total), but Thopter Spy Network is already picking up that slack.
The specific draw spells matter a lot too, and UB has a wide variety at its disposal. One reason Esper Dragons wants four Dig Through Time is to help combine the Dragons with the Silumgar’s Scorns and Foul-Tongue Invocations, and you could argue that Dig fills a similar role by finding Thopter Spy Network + artifact. The difference is that Esper runs 5-6 enablers (Dragons) and 7ish payoff cards while we have 8 enablers (artifacts) and 3 payoff cards, meaning that it’s much rarer for us to have a payoff card without an enabler. As such, we don’t need to favor filtering (Anticipate, Dig) over raw card advantage (Artificer’s Epiphany, Jace’s Ingenuity/Dragonlord’s Prerogative).
Drawing raw cards is sweet because hitting lands for Ugin is nice and some of the lands you’re drawing into are partly spells.
I’m still running a few Dig because it’s the best card for finding Ugin, sometimes it’s nice to cast it + the answer you find on the same turn (something Epiphany is also good at), and if you don’t get the Thopter engine going early it’s still the best card at mitigating flood.
It’s possible that the Crux of Fate should be the third Languish or a second Aetherspouts, but I like having a direct answer to Silumgar, the Drifting Death. I could also see this slot becoming a Foul-Tongue Invocation.
Pros and Cons
- It’s much easier to play than regular UB Control. Classic UB is an exacting deck, and anything from spending the wrong removal spell to playing the wrong land has a high chance of losing you the game on the spot. Here, those decisions still matter, but it’s not hard to play a Thopter Spy Network and start attacking with 1/1s. Once you start drawing cards, your individual decisions matter less.
- Hangarback gives the deck a proactive game plan and a level of board presence that it was missing before.
- Hangarback/Thopters are good with and against Ugin. Being able to sweep the board and still block manifests is a great feeling.
- Without Radiant Fountain, the red matchup is much harder.
- Silumgar, the Drifting Death is crazy good against a pile of 1/1 Thopters, and don’t get me started on Virulent Plague. Magma Spray and Anger of the Gods are fine answers to Hangarback. Still, people have to choose to run these cards, draw them in a game of Magic, and finally resolve them through countermagic, and then they have to not lose to Ugin.
Good luck to everyone on the PT. As for the rest of you, maybe I’ll see some of you at Gen Con.