1st Place, Ari Lax
Top 4, Mike Sigrist
I mean it won the Pro Tour, it gets top billing by default. Ari Lax took it down with Abzan Midrange which was the go-to for many players from the first week of the format, but there was also Mike Sigrist and team Face 2 Face with an aggressive variation on the theme. As someone who was a fan of this plan* before because it allowed you to apply pressure in matches where Junk Midrange occasionally struggled I’m happier to see this version do well. It reinforces to me that both Rakshasa Deathdealer and Herald of Torment are very good right now, plowing through Caryatid and Courser.
I also prefer the aggressive deck because Abzan Midrange is going to be enemy #1 so if there is a way to beat it, people are going to seek it out and play with it. The more aggressive version, while hitting many of the same beats, does enough differently that many reactions are less effective against it when the deck curves out.
*The version I posted was a Despise-Thoughtseize swap and three spells away from the main deck of the Pro Tour Top 8 build.
Meanwhile Ari Lax’s build is the more traditional Caryatid/Courser package alongside infinite value creatures, some of the best removal in the format, and a fistful of planeswalkers. The nice thing if you play the Abzan deck is that while you can get clunky draws, so many of your draws are live because of sheer power level. Much like Jund and Junk decks of the past, it’s really hard to line up against it in such a way where you can just overpower or ignore it. In fact, only the Jeskai Ascendancy combo decks and some Jeskai Burn draws could really do so. Other decks have to go all 12 rounds and usually aren’t even going to last that long. Even UB Control which aims to get into these protracted battles and come out on top frequently fell behind endless efficient creatures and planeswalkers.
So what are we looking forward to for GP LA? Well once again any potential advantage you can get in the mirror is definitely important and so anything involving flyers, Elspeth, or Hornet Queen is a big deal. Additionally we know you can’t get too inbred or you risk losing percentage to Jeskai Burn which already attacks via evasion and burn. Plus Dig Through Time gives it a bit more of an endgame push than your deck. While your overall draws may be better, being able to pick from the top seven is tough to compete with.
Everyone seemed to be in agreement that this is the best creature in the Abzan decks, shutting down aggro shells, helping stabilize against burn decks, and providing a body that survives Stoke the Flames. To top all that off it is the biggest creature that sees play in the majority of Abzan decks, allowing him to be the best attacker or blocker for the deck that already has a selection of great creatures. The Rhino is the best of a burly bunch of creatures under the Abzan banner and is the new Bloodbraid Elf or Thragtusk of Standard. A card that’s simply too efficient for its own good and a snap 4-of in any deck that can support the mana cost.
Top 8, Yuuya Watanabe
2nd Place, Shaun McLaren
The only thing stopping people from crowning Mantis Rider queen of the mountain is the Rhino in the room. Jeskai Burn proved itself every bit as formidable and potent as any of the Abzan strategies and is one of the most interesting hybrid decks in recent memory. I’ve watched it win games without casting a single burn spell, casting nothing but burn spells, or playing out like Delver decks of old.
We may have finally see the evolution of burn strategy and a general understanding of what Red Deck Wins was trying to do for all these years. Up until now, trying to explain when the Burn deck wanted to play control was like trying to explain how to drive to a dog, they would look at you funny, bark and go back to what they were doing before (Taking selfies and posting on message boards about how crap cats are I would imagine). Duh, why wouldn’t you enjoy 20 burn spells and removal spells when you aren’t the aggressor? Now it seems accepted—oh of course you use your burn to control the game, eventually planeswalkers will dig you out or a player will hit a land clump and you can take advantage of it.
Moving forward I’d take a real close look at Hushwing Gryff somewhere in the 75, just like Ondrej Strasky had in his top eight list. I’m not sure I like outright replacing the aggressive three-drop of Rabblemaster or Brimaz with it, but I do like how well Hushwing hates against the field right now. It also gives you greater maneuverability post-board with counters by allowing you to not tap out on turn three or four and still land a creature on the board if you don’t Dissolve or Disdainful Stroke something. If people are gung-ho about Rhinos then this seems like a natural countermeasure to take while not overloading on reactive cards. Oh and I’d definitely slam four Dig Through Time, the card is just absurd and this deck takes advantage of it better than UB Control or anything other than the Ascendancy deck.
Maybe it was the fact that Dig Through Time became an accepted part of the deck and one of the best ways to find the means to close out a game that spurred on the success of the deck. Speaking of which…
Dig Through Time
While Treasure Cruise may be the highlight of the blue draw in Eternal formats, Dig Through Time is the go-to blue card advantage spell in Standard. I’m not surprised it had such an impact and if anything I’m glad that it showed people, including myself, not to be scared to max out on the card. While drawing multiples early can be awkward, it is one of the most powerful and efficient card selection spells we’ve had access too in a long time. The kicker is that instead of only fitting into control and combo, even the more aggressive Jeskai decks can get in on the fun and use it to simply reload on burn to end the game or find the planeswalkers needed to gain some value. There’s no substitute for the card and being able to cast it for two can dig you out of a lot of rough spots.
While I think the price on this card is artificially high right now because of the low quantity of Khans out, don’t doubt it’ll remain a staple in Standard (and likely Modern) until Khans leaves. For every Rhino Warlord, there’s a Shovel Knight!
So while it isn’t quite the format-warping card Siege Rhino is, Mantis Rider is one of the best reasons to make the Jeskai mana work. I’ll summarize my thoughts on the card with this: The number of games I’ve won when my Jeskai opponent played two in the same game is real low. On back-to-back turns? I can count it on one hand. Forcing you to deal with Riders means you can’t deploy your own clock. You start to catch up and get burned straight out of the game. Mantis Rider is a major winner as the flagship card of the Jeskai Burn deck.
Top 8, Lee Shi Tian
Combo hasn’t been a real concern in Standard since Splinter Twin and it’s nice to see that the archetype still exists. While it’s a little more of a mess than I imagined the next playable combo deck would be, it does have some sweet things going for it. The first being that despite needing a bunch of cards to go off, you have plenty of ways to dig for them between Commune with the Gods and Dig Through Time. The second is that Sylvan Caryatid and Jeskai Ascendancy are a great combo that dodge the majority of removal in the format and make certain hands almost certain wins against fair decks. It makes a huge difference having one part of the combo that they simply can’t interact with and this is especially true for game one where you also have surprise on your side, meaning if they keep a slower hand all the fair decks will just be dead. Finally there’s a surprisingly decent amount of resilience despite not having cheap cantrips to filter through and this is almost entirely because of Dig Through Time being nuts.
Can I recommend this deck for the Grand Prix? If you’ve practiced a lot and have a good plan against Thoughtseize or removal decks then I’d say go for it. People I trust tell me it has a solid match against the Ari midrange iteration and while the more aggressive build can pressure well, it’s still relying on drawing a small set of cards at the right time. If you net a Sylvan Caryatid it suddenly becomes very difficult for the Abzan deck to interact.
Most people will have little experience playing against this deck and often the people playing this strategy will be doing so mostly for fun. Meaning you have decent odds that your opposition won’t have any testing against an optimal list piloted by a strong player. This can also be a big edge when sideboarding if only because they can accidentally weaken their deck while siding in answers to your combo. If you plan on piloting a non-Ascendancy deck at the GP, really hammer out your board plan for this matchup. Knowing what to bring in is rather obvious but it can be very easy to go overboard and severely hurt your clock against the combo.
Top 8, Ivan Floch
We saw five different archetypes in the Top 8 and every archetype represented well. We had a hybrid aggro/burn deck, normal aggro, midrange, pure combo, and pure Dig-go control! Maybe the specific decks aren’t your cup of tea, but it’s tough to really complain when there are so many different kinds of decks. Yeah, Jeskai and Abzan dominated overall, but they aren’t the end-all of the format and you can play other color combinations and still succeed. This is such a nice change of pace from our last Standard format that I’m more than willing to deal with an overabundance of complaints about Abzan midrange for the next three months.
While a handful of players had some limited success with the deck, for the most part this particular clan fell flat. Abzan already rules the roost for jamming powerful cards into your deck and calling it a day, while the Jeskai decks are better at card filtering and running the occasional answer card like Disdainful Stroke. Both of the major niches for Mardu are done better by other archetypes and the last place to look—some sort of synergy-based creature plan—failed to put up any real success. This is likely due to the sheer amount of removal running around and how outclassed the non-Butcher of the Horde creatures are compared to what you get in Abzan. Only two Mardu lists made the top Standard decks list in the hands of Nathan Herkimer and Pierre Dagen. Pierre’s list focuses heavily on board control and relies on planeswalkers for card advantage and to close the game out, while Nathan focused more on pressing the opponent utilizing Rabblemaster and Butcher of the Horde.
If I had to pick a route to go, I think the slower grindy take is a bit more interesting if only because Nathan’s deck honestly looks like it’s just playing Jeskai Burn’s game and doing a worse job of it. The threats are similar but more expensive, and it lacks reach or a solid way to refill like Dig Through Time. At least with Dagen’s Mardu deck you can leverage End Hostilities a bit better against all the green strategies. Regardless, it’s going to take a really good reason to justify this color combo over the top two.
Go ahead and count how many Polukranos were in the Top 8. Then look through the top decks and come back. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Polukranos ended up in 17% of the top decks and made an appearance in the Top 8 in the sideboard of a Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck. Not exactly a good look for the former best four-drop of the format. GR Monsters in general performed miserably and only had a single appearance in the top decks. Honestly this shouldn’t be too surprising when everyone showed up with Jeskai Burn decks and big dumb Abzan monsters. It doesn’t run enough interaction to stop burn from goldfishing on it most games and while I’ve been told it has a reasonable Abzan game, you’ll still be dueling off giant green creatures and they have Hero’s Downfall and Abzan Charm.
Sorry guys, if you aren’t playing at least two colors, it’s time to go find a new format. Statistically tri-colored decks dominated the Pro Tour and it wasn’t close. If you look at the top eight it hints at that, but going through the top Standard decks for a better view just cements the notion. Abzan Midrange, aggro and Jeskai Burn took 60% of the ‘winners metagame’ aka: had 21 points during the Standard portion of the Pro Tour. Not a single mono colored deck made the list and frankly even two-colored decks only added up to 25% of the field. There’s no reason to stick to a single color right now and frankly you need to be doing something really impressive to justify not playing three colors in your deck.
Grand Prix Los Angeles
The Grand Prix is only a week away and unfortunately between MTGO being much worse for testing now, being sick, and other concerns popping up I haven’t been able to focus much on Standard. I am attending the Grand Prix barring any unforeseen complications though and have tried to fit as many games in as I can. Right now there’s only four decks I’m focusing on simply because of the time constraints.
- Abzan Aggro (Demonic Zoo as Pardee named it)
- Sultai Delve
- Jeskai Burn with four Dig Through Time
- Jeskai Ascendancy (CFB build)
Realistically I’m probably playing Zoo barring some major breakthrough for the Delve deck. I like taking the aggressive track in most matches and there’s a lot of play to the deck despite being straightforward card-wise. For dredge I love being able to jam Sidisi and Whip of Erebos against fair decks, I’m not loving the fact that Abzan Midrange can basically match everything I’m doing and plays more removal. Jeskai Burn being a big game is pushing me back toward it if only because the deck has major issues ever beating a Nighthowler or Whip of Erebos.
Jeskai Ascendancy is only on the table because I can practice it by goldfishing. You can also pretty easily practice against situations like going off around a single counterspell or removal piece. That gives it a big edge, because the other two decks need real opponents to get any real value out of testing.
FWIW, this is my Sultai Delve deck at the moment:
I originally didn’t have Nighthowler and preferred just grinding out long games, but Jeskai Burn makes that a lot less attractive than I originally anticipated. They can overwhelm you and burn you out from strong board positions without any real issue and if they run even 1-2 Harness by Force can find them pretty easily via Dig. As a result I really just want games to end so getting any creature to X/5 forces immediate action. You also have Whip of Erebos and Gray Merchant to try to stabilize against them if you fall behind early. Not having Courser of Kruphix may seem odd in that regard, but Nyx Weaver fuels Murderous Cut and Sidisi too well for me to cut them.
The best decks to play at Grand Prix Los Angeles in my mind are:
- Jeskai Burn with four Dig and a strong mirror plan
- Abzan Aggro
- Abzan Midrange
- Esper Control (I’m convinced after watching all the UB feature matches you need a better win condition than Pearl Lake Ancient or Prognostic Sphinx)
- Jeskai Ascendancy: If the meta shapes up right. Right now it’s looking like heavy Jeskai Burn so…
- Sultai Delve: If you can figure out how to trump Abzan Midrange before getting overwhelmed by Rhinos and Birds. The answer shockingly isn’t MORE Hornet Queen. Maybe recurring Gray Merchant?
- RW Heroic Tokens: Another casualty of the metagame shaping up as 20 removal spell.dec against you every other round. It does some frighteningly powerful things though and people may move away from Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods post Pro Tour.
- Temur Monsters: I think RG Monsters is pretty bad, but countermagic out of the board is excellent, and Knuckleblade can fight everything in the Abzan deck and come out on top.
That’s all I’ve got, hopefully I’ll see some of you in Los Angeles!