Before jumping into this week I just want to say that I was impressed with how many brave people went out and decried Khans of Tarkir as the weakest set in years and how it didn’t include a single Eternal playable card besides the fetches. Thankfully instead of having to wait for these cards to show up and talk about how good they could be, in an odd case of immediate impact, cards like Jeskai Ascendancy and Treasure Cruise made themselves immediately known. In fact, there’s at least five cards that made an impact this weekend in Modern or Legacy and in a big way, not just a minor upgrade or a niche sideboard card.
I’m sure we’ll see more of these cards and Ascendancy may just end up banned in Modern for being a little too good as a combo deck, but this single set has probably had more impact than most full Blocks have had. It could easily end up competing with New Phyrexia for number of Eternal playables a year from now. Oh and Khans is also the first Sealed format I’ve played in years that actually feels deep and fun without including many uber bombs or nutty finishers at common. So I’m pretty thrilled with how this set is turning out after a boring platter of Born and Journey. Enough about how sweet Khans is though, let’s get cynical and take a look at the winners and losers for week one Standard!
Week 1 Observations
Jeskai and Tempo Decks
Jeskai Burn was one of those decks I was looking at and while I liked the angle it was taking, I just couldn’t get the right mana curve to feel comfortable with it. As it turned out the card I was missing the whole time was Seeker of the Way. Not only is it much easier to cast than cards like Brimaz, it also gives the deck a much needed two-drop that isn’t a burn spell. Having a creature-based threat would be reasonable enough, but Seeker goes the extra mile by scaling well with your burn spells and the lifelink allows you to survive an extra turn or two. For a deck that relies on eeking out close matches by just getting there in races or seeing that burn spell on the last turn of the game this kind of ability is a huge boon.
We had two similar but distinct takes on the deck care of Jadine Klomparens and Kevin Jones—winner of SCG Indy.
The strengths to the Jeskai deck are reminiscent of both the burn deck from a few months ago and even has some Delver roots. In fact if one were to run Monastery Swiftspear and focus a little more on the board, you could very easily build a hybrid between the two. As it stands this is definitely a deck that leans toward board control and takes full advantage of how powerful Rabblemaster and Seeker can be. Mantis Rider is an awkward card to utilize due to the mana restrictions and being killed by both Lightning Strike and Bile Blight, however it’s one of the best ways to dodge ground stalls and keep planeswalkers in check.
Notably, Kevin Jones’ deck is a bit more on the controlling side, featuring both Banishing Light and extra draw power in Steam Augury. While I still think Steam Augury is too low power to play, if there was a deck that could use it, it would be this one. I do like his sideboard quite a bit as I see way more use for Disdainful Stroke against the Top 8 we saw in NJ and Indy. Additionally both Ashcloud Phoenix and Narset are at home in this kind of deck, lots of board clearing removal and enough damage sources to not have to rely on them to do all the work. Narset in particular has such a powerful effect it’s easy to point at her and say you want to plan around her. However, nobody had created a deck that was proactive enough to fully use her while also justifying paying the six mana in the first place. This deck can use her beautifully against slower midrange and easily net 7-8 points of burn off an attack to just end the game or simply find a draw spell or removal to keep her alive against blockers. She can end the game with one swing or have a reasonable chance of surviving to try again on the next combat.
While I can see times where combat tricks will do a lot of good in Jadine’s list, overall I don’t like situational cards over simply packing more removal. I’m not as concerned about protecting Seeker or Rabblemaster over the long haul and I think there’s plenty of protection for Narset. I also think that Gods Willing is cute enough to still be relevant, but I can’t see wanting Titan’s Strength against other burn strategies or Abzan. I do like that her deck is taking the clear proactive role for game one and then doesn’t mind sliding into a more controlling configuration over Jones. Pressuring them heavily game one, especially when nobody knew the list, makes her deck a lot more dangerous and the combat tricks increase in value immensely.
This is what I’m currently trying out:
I could also see switching over to Brimaz and a heavier white commitment if people continue to fight Rabblemaster since Brimaz is better in the mirror and against a lot of green midrange. The mirror is definitely a consideration now and it’s a big part of why I like being able to go bigger post-board, Brimaz may just be a natural extension of that and also allow for Anger of the Gods out of the sideboard. For week two it’s quite possible the “proper” setup is:
And then End Hostilities in the sideboard to clear the way for the going-big plan. For everyone freaking out over how much midrange showed up week one, the aggro control deck took it down by carefully applying pressure and utilizing versatile cards instead of trying to win off raw power.
Were you depressed by the number of blue and black decks in the last Standard? Felt repressed by the cards Tidebinder Mage and Lifebane Zombie? Perhaps Pack Rat was just a little too disgusting, easily racing every green army by its lonesome. Well good news! Green decks absolutely dominated this weekend and while I expect a correction, I do fully expect the Caryatid/Courser combo to stay popular and the threat base to adapt as much as possible. If you dislike green this should be good news because it means a lot more decks becoming inbred to try and beat each other instead of adding generally good cards or more disruption.
Devotion to Hornet Queen
Devotion in many forms was thought to be eliminated after so many of the double- and triple-costed cards left the Standard format. Instead, devotion did exist this weekend, it just didn’t involve Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Master of Waves, it was entirely based around green decks taking advantage of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Why is this good?
Why is Hornet Queen so good? Because she brings everyone with her and immediately dominates the board. The best answer may be to play a deck that has a built-in trump to this endgame. Ross Merriam was up for the challenge by using Doomwake Giant and a constellation engine to break open the board stalls common in green mirrors.
Despite Control being a no show week one the massive influx of midrange makes for a real exciting line to go through. For example, how many Ashiok, Nightmare Weavers do you see in the Top 32 of both tournaments? How good is a deck with four-of a planeswalker that is at its best against green/X midrange in a field of 88.8% of midrange decks? I’m going to go out on a limb and say pretty good. End Hostilities may be a slow wrath effect, but getting a full board cleanup against green devotion shouldn’t be underestimated. You can never keep a loose single removal spell + End Hostilties hand against aggro like you could with Verdict, but that doesn’t mean the card is unplayable. The key is going to be finding enough proactive threats, since playing draw-go is tough in a format where everyone runs at least 20+ creatures that can kill you on their own.
Or you could stick with the Jeskai model and simply play a more controlling variation of it or even straight RW Control like David Fulk did.
I had a really hard time getting the aggro plan with Chained to the Rocks working and this does so easily by just jamming it in a control plan. Casting it perfectly on time is a bit less relevant when Banishing Light and Fated Conflagration can take down the 5-toughness creatures. Really this may be the future of control decks in this format where you just need to be able to shift into an active finishing mode or you’ll simply die to topdecks. Unlike classic control there’s not enough consistent card draw or an overwhelming planeswalker for blue to just end the game with. Playing Sarkhan as a removal spell that can also end the game in five attacks is a nice way around this issue.
By Abzan of course I mean Reanimator because why else would anyone talk about it? The deck put up a lot of numbers and did win one of the Open events. I find it tough to talk about it in such a general sense when there’s at least three different versions of the deck and all of them were splashed under “Abzan Midrange.” For example the Reanimator variant seems significantly better for future weeks or at least until people take aim at the graveyard. The standard Abzan Midrange deck involving a bunch of ground pounders and Wingmate Roc was the most popular deck at both Opens by a fair margin. Playing a deck that can jam Hornet Queen and get multiple uses out of it feels very unfair. Let’s take a look at Samuel Valentine’s winning Indy list and Karttik Patel’s who made Top 4 at a 5K in Texas this weekend.
Valentine’s list plays a straightforward game, utilizing normal biggums Siege Rhino and Necropolis Fiend as cards that can come down earlier and don’t require too much work to gum up the board. It probably looks like a run-of-the-mill midrange deck unless it casts Commune with the Gods early and then just crushes with Hornet Queen pretty easily from there. If you look at the answers in the main decks of these Abzan lists, outside of a few playing Drown in Sorrow nobody actually packed real answers to Hornet Queen. One of my biggest questions when I saw all these BGx decks was where the hell was Pharika, God of Affliction? Just like Ashiok, if there was ever a format where she could be good, the mono-midrange format with small numbers of sweepers sure seems like the perfect format.
Patel’s list on the other hand is much more interested in playing the reanimation plan every single game if possible and includes Satyr Wayfinder and Endless Obedience to reinforce the usual Whip shenanigans. While I’m not sold on the number of Ashen Rider, I think the all-in reanimator plan is a legitimate trump if other Abzan decks are rolling with their pitiful 5/5s and Wingmate Rocs.
There’s not a lot to say about this deck. While it didn’t make any Top 8, if the format is full of midrange and not a ton of disruption then it’s probably worth looking into. I don’t think a fully refined build will dominate the format barring some massive discovery, but I think it only needs a bit more work before you can play it without attaching the “because it’s fun” justification. A lot of the deck’s natural enemies are being pushed out by the overwhelming amount of devotion and midrange, and this deck is a natural counter to that in much the same way the Jeskai Burn deck is.
Remember guys, there’s three ways to beat midrange:
Midrange is excellent at preying on the small-ball aggro strategies, smaller two-colored decks, and slow lumbering control or grindy attrition plans. They can even be reasonable against combo if you’re willing to dedicate the space and disruption to fighting them directly. However going under them forces them to choose between developing a board to try and race or using their limited removal spells which leaves them open to planeswalkers or a bigger threat later. Going over them utilizing something specific like Hornet Queen means they need to spend a hefty chunk of resources dealing with one threat. Wingmate Roc would be the lesser iteration of this, providing a split threat that pressures them in a way they can’t easily deal with.
Wait you just said Abzan was good though! In fact it took the most slots in the Top 32 of both tournaments! Yeah, except it was also the most played deck and while it could’ve still overperformed expectations, odds are better there was such a high Top 32 percentage via sheer quantity. What this also did was make red an actively bad choice and by pushing those decks out of the metagame we’re going to see a lot more Abzan decks focusing on winning the mirror and punishing other big green decks.
This makes it so you either have to join in on the fun and try to battle them on those terms, or stay versatile against the field and be weaker in the mirrors. This is a big deal when decks like Jeskai Burn are already positioned well and we’ll only see more decks like Sultai Reanimator built around Sidisi, Jeskai Ascendancy in various forms, and any control decks.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Abzan midrange decks moved toward being more aggressive to trump the go-big plan.
It’s possible the mana is simply too ambitious for this deck and we’d have to cut Fleecemane Lion and tone down the Citadel parade. In which case I’d look at Heir of the Wilds. In fact if you push up the 4-power count a little bit I think it may just be a better option. Herald of Torment is really great at getting in early damage and drawing them later means the opponent better have a removal spell or they’ll be dead very quickly.
Why grind out the Courser mirror if everyone only has 6-8 removal spells maindeck? Just dump the defensive cards and play cards that all blast through their Caryatid’s and Coursers—punish them for trying to set up a board. Even though Siege Rhino is very good at stabilizing, you have plenty of ways to interact or avoid direct fights. Despise didn’t see a ton of play and hits 9 out of 10 relevant cards for this Junk plan game one.
Go big, get low, or go home.
…Ok, not this low. For the first time I can remember in recent history people actually played the red deck in numbers at the first tournament of a new format and didn’t get there. To be fair they kind of gutted a lot of red’s favorite tricks with the exception of Goblin Rabblemaster and Stoke the Flames. There’s just not a lot of great reasons to play red when everyone is packing a playset of Siege Rhinos and Sorins right besides their Caryatid and Courser sets.
I feel like red would have no problems plowing through Abzan hordes if all they had to do was take on the reigning tag team champions. It becomes a heck of a lot more futile when the ref is secretly a vampire giving them life and a Rhino comes out from under the stage with a steel chair. But I digress.
It may just be that everyone was taking the wrong approach to building the red deck. Maybe instead of focusing on being the smallest and fastest we take a page out of the aggro-control playbook and focus on threats that aren’t brickwalled by half the threats in the format. While we may not have Chandra’s Phoenix there is a certain other Phoenix that’s tested pretty well in a variety of decks…
The Color Blue
Sorry Counterspell aficionados. While I fully expect some control deck to be playable, if not top tier, blue is going to be a support color and no longer the primary bringer of misery and woe. Cards like Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time go from format defining to just respectable in formats where you can’t get 3-5 cards into your graveyard by just playing Magic by turn three. Counters are still stuck at Dissolve level and there isn’t even Essence Scatter to punish these creature-heavy decks. I know you won’t ever print Counterspell again, but I’ll take a UU – Counter target creature or planeswalker.
It doesn’t help that for the first time in years blue has no planeswalker to fall back on for support. Ashiok may be a solid player in this format, but we’re a far cry from all the decks the iterations of Jace have been in over the past 5+ years. Without any real devotion enablers it can’t even make Master of Waves and Thassa happy anymore. You had a good run, like any good sports team it’s time to take stock and rebuild for the future.
This was the other hyped aggro deck coming into week one and it put up similarly disastrous results alongside its red counterpart. I would say it did slightly better, but that doesn’t say much about the deck on the whole. I understand why it wouldn’t necessarily be well positioned against the Jeskai Burn plan, but I thought it would’ve held out better against all the devotion plans. Having discard and removal combined with a very quick clock looks like a nice plan.
Of course maybe it ran into the same Siege Rhino issue that red did, trying to trump these decks midgame was just too taxing on the deck. Can this be effectively solved? There are two options from what I see. We can double down on the removal options and try to win with whatever is deployed to the board on turns one through three. Or, we can treat the deck like a burn strategy and get them low and kill them utilizing other means like bestow, Spiteful Returned, or even Gray Merchant to force the remaining points through.
One list that’s trying something a bit different is Josh Gilmore’s take on it from the aforementioned Texas 5K.
I’d definitely cut a Tormented Hero before I cut a Scarhide in a deck featuring Agent of the Fates and I think there should be some fetches with three Murderous Cut. I’d rather just jam Despise in the deck to cut down on life loss rather than pay full retail for Cut. Otherwise it’s doing a lot of things I like, has a reasonable way to win in the midgame, seven quality removal spells plus Agent, multiple evasion creatures and Master of the Feast can just end the game against Forests if they don’t have an Arbor Colossus or real removal spell at the ready.
That’s it for this week, next week I plan to focus on just one or two decks for a change. Doing these larger overviews is fun, but it’s tough to know exactly how much time to give each deck and even then you can’t cover everything. For now, here’s the main takeaways for a tournament this weekend.
The top three decks to have a plan against are Jeskai Burn, Abzan Midrange, and Green/X Devotion. If you have the time and inclination I would also make sure my Rabble Red match was salvageable and if I could ever beat Hornet Queen or Ashen Rider on turn five out of a Reanimator deck. If not, then I really would recommend having at least a couple of sideboard cards to hose their best strategy against you.
Red had a bad week but people will still play it in droves and I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried adding colors or going bigger to stay relevant. Purphoros was a very scary card in testing even without a good deck, be wary. Some may also apply what they learned from the successful burn decks this past weekend and simply shave a color to make the mana a little more flexible.
If you’re jamming devotion decks, then the ultimate end-game in every mirror is almost always going to be Hornet Queen or deathtouch + fight. Stuff like Doomwake Giant, Bow of Nylea, Pharika and others are going to pick up steam to break mirror stalls. Being red actually looks kind of nice since Arc Lightning can clean up a lot or even just faltering out for the win. Temur Monsters decks may actually have the best maindeckable mirror options without hurting their odds in other matches.
End Hostilities and removal-laden slower decks are real, they’ll just be focused a lot more on ending the game ASAP after the first board clear and lean heavily on planeswalkers to press an advantage. Sarkhan is the perfect complement to Elspeth in this regard since he can take down a relevant threat and immediately go on offense. People also slept on Elspeth and couldn’t really jam them in their Abzan decks, I don’t expect the best PW in Block and the last Standard format will go quietly into the night.
See you next week.
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