Chromantiflayer is real. It may or may not be the strongest deck in Standard, but it is definitely the coolest deck in Standard and solidly tier one. The deck is based around using self-milling cards like Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods to put lots of cards into your graveyard, and then casting a Soulflayer with lots and lots of abilities, most of which are found on Chromanticore. Backing that up are several powerful secondary plans also capable of winning the game on their own.
It’s been possible for a while to make a reasonable build of the deck, but previous attempts failed because the lists weren’t streamlined and tried to do too much with their mana base and/or focused on cards like Siege Rhino that didn’t impact the game in the right ways. Siege Rhino is a great card, but nothing about it helps to win very many games that Chromantiflayer was otherwise going to lose. There was also a big control problem, and the more dedicated the control deck, the harder it was to get anything going.
Chromantiflayer Deck List
This deck list is slightly modified from the Pro Tour. Stick close to the main deck, but be aggressive about modifying the sideboard to get the cards you feel are important in the matchups you expect—the field will evolve quickly. I realized in retrospect that I had one land too few in the deck, and that it would be better to run 24 and have my mana more reliably than to try to stuff that last spell into the deck. Because we’re adding an untapped Forest, we can then shift the risky (although highly rewarding) third Polluted Delta into a second Sandsteppe Citadel. This puts the hurt on your 75 because every card you can reasonably cut then wants to be in the sideboard, which is already squeezed tight. Every card I look at cutting is painful. For now I’ve sacrificed the Sidisi, Undead Vizier in the board in order to keep access to all 4 copies of Murderous Cut.
The deck’s default game plan is to begin by playing out Sylvan Caryatid, Satyr Wayfinder, and Commune with the Gods, almost always in that order if you have a choice, giving priority to a third-turn Sidisi, Brood Tyrant when given the chance.
After that, you can find yourself in a variety of different situations. If you’re under attack, you’ll need to get the defenses up quickly. The question then becomes how strong a board presence is necessary to accomplish that, and how fast you will need it. The deck must frequently choose between deploying good cards that can fight and gain incremental advantage, and going all-out for the big Soulflayer. Once you start spending your mana on one, you risk slowing down the other too much for it to work. A lot of decks in Standard have the nasty habit of assembling a ton of power on the board that can overwhelm your “normal” game plan quickly enough to the extent that it isn’t worth the trouble. Better to go for the big payoff and miss, either because they have the answer or because you didn’t find the components, than to go down a road that can’t succeed.
When you’re not under immediate life total pressure, the question to ask is: What do I need to assemble that my opponent cannot beat? Do I need my Soulflayer to be hexproof? Usually you do. Do I need it to be indestructible? If they run Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, that’s the most important attribute to have, and it’s important against the larger flyers as well if you don’t get deathtouch. Deathtouch shouldn’t be underestimated, as it saves you from a number of nasty surprises: You can shrug off a bestowed Boon Satyr, win a fight with Dragonlord Atarka or Dragonlord Silumgar, fight through Silumgar, the Drifting Death, and so forth.
Many times the least important attributes come from Chromanticore itself, because you can bestow one of those later on! Paying 2WUBRG isn’t easy, but you will normally have it available before too long. As Jamie Park showed, if you can get hexproof and indestructible, the Soulflayer isn’t going anywhere for the rest of the game, and your opponent is on a ticking clock unless they play a Perilous Vault or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
There are three kinds of matchups: In the first category, they are the beatdown and you are the combo player. Examples of this are playing against red, Abzan Aggro, or RG Dragons. See what they’re up to this game, and decide whether you need to go for a contextually full Soulflayer (or as I sometimes call it, Yahtzee) as quickly as possible or if you can play a more incremental game. The eye test is best. If it looks like an incremental game would buy time, it’s usually right to go that route, whereas if it looks like “that won’t be enough” then don’t waste time with a plan that you know won’t work.
Courser of Kruphix
Reid Duke played this deck without the Deathmist Raptor engine, choosing instead to run Courser of Kruphix, the full four Murderous Cut, and a Soul of Innistrad. Others on the team, such as Jamie Parke, split the difference, which is how that card showed up on camera during the Pro Tour. I felt strongly before the Pro Tour that Courser of Kruphix is a mistake. Yes, you board out Deathmist Raptor in many places, but it is part of the central strategy against many controlling decks and provides a strong secondary plan. You sideboard it out not because it is so bad, but because you usually have more things you want to have in the deck than things you want to take out, and know which section of the deck you must focus on for game two. Reid felt that the Deathmist Raptor plan never really got there to win games, but that has not been my experience.
Instead, I feel that Courser of Kruphix is low impact, because it runs into a lot of answers and many decks are designed to cut through it without trouble. Where you would have it in after sideboarding, it is taking the place of cards that are almost as good (or better)—except against red, but even against red the extra win percentage is not that large.
You may want access to any of the following: a 2nd Sultai Charm, a 4th Thoughtseize, a 1st Duress, a 2nd Negate, a 1st Disdainful Stroke, a Sidisi, Undead Vizier, a Child of Night (to have a 5th lifelink creature against red and other fast aggressive decks), a 4th Drown in Sorrow, or a 2nd Hornet Queen, Dragonlord Silumgar, or Torrent Elemental. Space is tight and so you’ll have to make some hard choices.
Against slow opponents, you should be very conservative with your mulligans. As long as you can go out there, make your land drops and cast some spells, you are good. Against more aggressive opponents, that won’t work, and the only thing that matters is how fast you can do your thing. Be unafraid of all but the most extreme mana flood early on, so long as that flood includes good acceleration and color. You’re very good at making those hands work. If you’re short on mana, that’s fine if and only if you don’t need anything else and the additional needs are moderate.
As in any other situation, ask what must go right for your hand to be good enough to win the game. Your deck can collapse into nothing on some mulligans, but it can also shrug them off easily if it has a good land-and-spell mix, because what you do matters a lot more than the number of spells you cast.
I’ll talk about key matchups below, but the most important principles are to keep access to the Soulflayer abilities you need and to avoid oversideboarding. Putting in too many spells will make the deck’s engine not work properly; you’ll start too miss (or effectively miss) on Commune With the Gods, you’ll be missing key attributes for your Soulflayers, and you’ll spend too much time interacting in ways that don’t progress your game plan. That’s why when you take out a lot of cards, you usually want to either take out the Deathmist Raptor engine and keep a strong Soulflayer package, or take out Chromanticore and Sylvan Caryatid, and keep a strong Deathmist Raptor engine.
Before you put more cards in your sideboard to help with a matchup, make sure you know what is coming out!
Standard is too diverse to cover all possible matchups, so I’ve done my best to cover the ones that are most popular and/or present unique issues.
This matchup is a nightmare for Abzan Control as it is typically configured. Your automatic victory condition is a hexproof indestructible Soulflayer. If you can get that, a typical build of Abzan can no longer win. If you’re missing hexproof they can kill it with Abzan Charm and Utter End, so you need to be on the verge of death to move in on a Soulflayer without hexproof. It’s certainly no place to waste a valuable dose of indestructible! The problem with not having indestructible is that they can kill it with Elspeth, Sun’s Champion’s second ability.
You often don’t have the luxury of waiting for Pharika to show up, so this will happen. The important thing at that point is to have other creatures in play or your hand that can neutralize the Elspeth. Silumgar, the Drifting Death is of course excellent for this, and Den Protector is also strong since the tokens can’t block, and the creatures that can block die to Elspeth’s minus ability.
Look to avoid bestowing Chromanticore onto Silumgar, the Drifting Death, since that exposes him to Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and can lose unlosable games. Often, the Abzan player will hang around for a bit, but their cards don’t do much of anything. It’s hard for them to attack, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is neutralized by Silumgar, the Drifting Death, and you are building toward Chromanticore and Soulflayer. They might draw a bunch of extra cards, but if those cards don’t win the game, it hardly matters.
Sideboarding slows things down as both decks fill up on answers. They don’t have a graveyard answer, so the only scary card they might board in is Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, which is the reason you’re interested in boarding in Thoughtseize. The biggest question is what to do with the Deathmist Raptors, as they are good for holding off Siege Rhino and preventing early blowouts, but unlikely to kill the enemy in a meaningful way. Your removal is similar, as Murderous Cut prevents bad things from happening but doesn’t actually further your game plan that much otherwise.
If you have access to Disdainful Stroke or Sidisi, Undead Vizier, you’d board those in, and you can make the case for Negate (assuming you don’t have any Disdainful Strokes) or the third Thoughtseize as well.
It’s also reasonable to have two or even three Murderous Cut depending on their exact build and expected sideboarding plan, but have Hero’s Downfall first to cover Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Sultai Charm is mostly there to smooth things out since you can afford it and it’s important to be able to discard a God—you can leave it out if you need to.
Note that you took out Deathmist Raptor but are leaving in Den Protector because it’s a great card here on its own, and you now have a few more 1-of cards to bring back as the situation calls for. Thoughtseize should be fired off right away if it’s early, but if it’s late you may want to wait until they hit 7 mana, since the only scary card is Ugin.
Blue/Black, Sultai, and Esper Control
The exact cards change things more than the colors do, so it makes more sense to consider these as a unit.
Settle in for a long grind. They don’t have that many counters, and you can sculpt your game and have some very effective interactions, but your kill is slow and they are still the blue deck in a control war. You need to put them on the back foot and keep them there by keeping up the continuous pressure. Don’t worry too much about how good your Soulflayer is, mostly it’s just a good creature. Indestructible is great due to their Dragons and Crux of Fate, but still loses to a number of key sweepers.
Your best friend is the engine of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. Thanks to your ability to mill so many cards, you hope to get into a position to use Den Protector on another Den Protector, continuously returning Deathmist Raptors to the board (usually face down because of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon) and running them out of answers. If you still have spare mana after that, be careful about committing too much to the board or an attack due to Crux of Fate, Aetherspouts, Perilous Vault, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
Once they get to 7, each turn you want to set up face-down resources that make sure he won’t make it out of your turn alive, if at all possible. With a few Deathmist Raptors, you can beat Ugin, but he is still quite good against you as he takes out your Soulflayer. Perilous Vault is also a problem, and a lot of good play is making sure you don’t get too many Deathmist Raptors exiled at once. The more proactive their build, and the more Dragons they have, the faster you should play and the more you need to commit to the board. The good news is that your cards match up quite well against their creatures and many of their spells.
Your sideboarding strategy here is to take out Chromanticore and Sylvan Caryatid. You don’t want to overcommit and have your cards be caught in sweepers, Soulflayer will never be a victory condition, you don’t need Chromanticore to win, and without Caryatid you can’t cast it anyway, so it’s a natural set of moves. What else you do depends on their expected creature count after board and what threats you need to answer.
That setup gives you a good mix of disruption and answers to go with your core engine. Erebos is a better God than Pharika in context, and you want more of them rather than less. You would love to get more discard, more counters, or a second Torrent Elemental. If you do that, consider whether you need both copies of Pharika. Given the dominance of Esper Control this past weekend, it’s likely the board will need to move toward having more discard and/or counters to be better in this fight.
Red (with or without Atarka’s Command)
There are a bunch of variations to their deck, and they matter, but they don’t change your plans that much because your moves are all forced. Your goal is to get a hexproof or indestructible Soulflayer, either of which is sufficient. Once you have one, they have one final turn to try and burn you out or swarm you, after which you are quickly out of range.
Your ability to survive without Chromanticore is not great. If you try to play normal Magic you can overpower them in time but that is time you do not have without a great start. The die roll is huge. If you’re on the play, you can go Sylvan Caryatid or Deathmist Raptor into Sidisi, Brood Tyrant and that will often do it. If you’re on the draw, even a third-turn Sidisi, Brood Tyrant is highly questionable. If you have the choice between trying to set up Soulflayer or trying to fight them in a normal game, it’s almost always right to go for the Soulflayer and hope that you get there. If you can’t get there, don’t be afraid to throw out a Chromanticore on its own (either a real one or a Soulflayer) and hope they don’t have 4 points of burn.
Drown in Sorrow out of the sideboard is your best friend and allows you to play normal Magic much better.
While Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor play great Magic, this matchup isn’t about playing Magic and you don’t have that kind of time. There’s nothing especially wrong with playing Raptor to block but there’s nothing great about it either so instead we maximize the amount of setup for the Soulflayer engine and back it up with removal that can make a difference. Murderous Cut can end up taking out a 1-drop, but there’s nothing wrong with that and sometimes it takes out a Goblin Rabblemaster. After board, you either need the combo on time or you need a timely Drown in Sorrow into a good followup, but watch for Hall of Triumph if they are on the play.
Anafenza, the Foremost is your enemy. She stops you from putting creatures into your graveyard, turning your deck into a convoluted and overpriced jumble. It’s still a jumble with a lot of power, but that’s not the game you would like to play, so she has to die. This is the place where you miss the third Murderous Cut the most, and if the deck is popular then find room to put it back. Try not to kill other creatures if you don’t have a good reason to, until you’ve put the key components into your graveyard or have a Den Protector on the ready to kill again.
Deathmist Raptor is quite good as a blocker to slow down their offense while you set up, even when Anafenza, the Foremost stops any recursion, and your victory condition is a hexproof deathtouch Soulflayer. Without deathtouch, you are vulnerable to Warden of the First Tree once it goes large, so don’t hesitate to sacrifice that Deathmist Raptor to a good cause. Indestructible lets you fight with Siege Rhino, Rakshasa Deathdealer, and monstrous Fleecemane Lion, so most of the time it’s good enough, but try for deathtouch if you can. The other card you have to worry about is Dromoka’s Command, which means that a bestowed Chromanticore is not safe unless you’ve covered it with Pharika.
On the play, you should consider also bringing in Thoughtseize, perhaps for more Den Protectors, and likely bringing in Dragonlord Silumgar for a Deathmist Raptor since you have fewer Den Protectors but want to preserve deathtouch. You want to have a lot of answers to Anafenza, the Foremost, but spending your second turn on Thoughtseize is a good way to die to regular attacks when you’re on the draw, and turn three is too late. Sidisi comes out because she gets run over and does very little when Anafenza, the Foremost is in play, so there’s no reason to risk that.
Game one they can potentially beat the hexproof Chromanticore by using Boon Satyr, Dragonlord Atarka, or a monstrous Stormbreath Dragon, but add deathtouch and they are dead in the water, so that’s your victory condition. Indestructible (which makes hexproof irrelevant) is usually good enough as well, since you can follow it up with support over time if needed. If they are playing a small version, keep in mind they likely only have four good ways to kill a Chromanticore or Soulflayer even if it is exposed (bigger versions also have Dragonlord Atarka) so you can often run them out of answers if necessary.
Sideboarding against the larger versions takes you away from the Deathmist Raptor engine since the action often takes place in the air, but deaththouch is very important, so you still want access to that. Go larger and add answers to Dragons:
If they are going smaller with Goblin Rabblemaster and Heir of the Wilds then Drown in Sorrow is potentially useful and your Deathmist Raptor engine is relevant again, so you can instead take out Sidisi, Brood Tyrant and perhaps one Den Protector for removal and call it a day.
That should provide a good range of situations to guide you. There’s no substitute for experience with the deck, and sideboarding is often akin to deck tuning: You are picking the cards that will be effective given who you’re up against and exactly what you expect them to do, including being on the play or the draw.
I encourage everyone to give the deck a spin!