The Decks Team CFB Didn’t Play at Pro Tour Ixalan

Every time we get together to test, we come up with a lot of interesting ideas/builds that are left unused. In this article, I’ll go over a couple of them, explaining what the decks were designed to do and why we ultimately didn’t play them.

Jeskai Tokens

One of the first things we identified about the format was that there were a decent number of good token-makers, and that almost no one was playing sweepers. Another was that, with the disappearance of Red’s 1-drops, Toolcraft Exemplar was much better than anything other people were doing on turn 1. Jeskai Tokens was our attempt to group both things together in one deck.

This is a one-dimensional aggressive deck—its goal is to swarm the board with creatures and then kill the opponent, with or without a Trial of Solidarity off a Shefet Dunes activation. The deck came in two forms: one tri-colored with more tokens, and one straight R/W and more aggressive.

Jeskai Tokens

This deck uses Unclaimed Territory as a fixer—if you name Artificer, you can cast any creature in the deck except for Hazoret! Unclaimed Territory was an interesting card to explore because no one really paid attention to the creature types before it existed, and then all of a sudden we’d find out that “wow, all these creatures actually share a creature type.” Other things we briefly worked on were Dwarves tribal (Toolcraft/Veteran Motorist/Depala) and Dinosaur tribal, where Unclaimed Territory could also name Human to cast Otepec Huntmaster, Kinjalli’s Caller, or Drover of the Mighty.

Here’s the more streamlined version of the aggro tokens deck:

R/W Tokens

Maverick Thopterist was a great card, but I felt that the R/W version was better. Adanto Vanguard was surprisingly good in a lot of the aggressive decks we had, and it shored up weaknesses to any eventual sweepers that did show up (like Fumigate). This deck also had more ways of casting sideboarded cards, since Unclaimed Territory didn’t really help with that, as well as more ways to return Scrapheap Scrounger.

Both of those decks felt amazing when they worked, but they often didn’t. If your opponent killed your Bomat and your Scrounger, for example, you’d often be left with no artifacts, which powered down your Toolcraft, your Inventor’s Apprentice, and your Spire of Industry, which often meant that you couldn’t even bring back Scrounger. It was simply too inconsistent for us to play.

Another problem was the mana. One of the reasons Temur (and by Temur, you can infer R/U/G, B/U/G, 4-color—basically green-based midrange energy deck) is the king of Standard isn’t because it has the best cards (though it does have great cards), but because its mana is so good, and everyone else’s is absolutely awful. The cards are there to play an aggro deck, but there are only four dual lands in any color combination, and that’s simply not enough. You don’t want everyone to be playing 4 colors, but I think you also want to make it so that a person can just play a deck like B/R Aggro without worrying about casting their off-color 4-drop, and this is just not the case right now, let alone casting two 1-drops in different colors. To be able to play both Toolcraft Exemplar and Inventor’s Apprentice, you have to play cards like Spire of Industry, Aether Hub, and/or Unclaimed Territory, and those sometimes don’t work.

Finally, there was the sideboard. Over half the games in a tournament are played with sideboard, and this deck had about 0 sideboard cards we actually wanted. Sure, some were good—Metallic Rebuke in the first version, or Chandras in the second, but everything was just so hard to cast! Even if you assumed that you could cast those spells reliably, you wouldn’t want to dilute your deck too much with those spells, so we often sideboarded 0 cards in the most popular matchups, which isn’t a great place to be.

Blue-Black Approach

If you’ve followed any Magic forums about Standard, you’ve probably read the words “Approach is your worst matchup” or “it can’t beat Approach pre-board” several times. You’ve also likely read a variation of “post-sideboard, Approach is a joke.” Both of those statements are true for a lot of decks—they have a lot of trouble with the mix of control plus kill condition that can’t be interacted with in game 1, but then they bring in the Negates/Supreme Wills/Duresses/Lost Legacy and suddenly you’re just not a deck.

Analyzing this, we concluded that if we could make Approach a good game 2 deck, we’d have an amazing deck on our hands. After all, it beat most people game 1 (though it did not beat Red consistently). We figured out that whatever it is that you’re doing should be a creature so that they aren’t able to Negate/Duress it. If your plan is, for example, an expensive planeswalker, then they’re just going to remove it with the same cards they’re already boarding in. It should also ideally have 5 toughness, as to not die to Chandras and Glorybringers that will still be in their decks. It had to win the game single-handedly. Finally, it had to not be Regal Caracal, because that card is an embarrassment to control players everywhere—at some point, someone must’ve put that card in their Cat tribal deck, another player saw it and thought it was Standard, and then everyone’s been copying it forever.

There are two creatures that kind of fill this role in Standard—The Scarab God and, to a lesser extent, Torrential Gearhulk. The issue is that both of those are underpowered in U/W decks. The white removal is enchantment-based, so it can’t be Gearhulked back, and The Scarab God requires you to kill creatures (on top of being, well, black). Our idea, therefore, was to just play a U/B deck that killed with Approach game 1, and that sided into regular U/B games 2 and 3.

U/B Approach

The mana wasn’t really a problem, and in theory this would give you a big edge in matchups like Tokens (which are good for U/W but bad for U/B) and the mirror (since creatures are much easier to interact with than sorceries). It would also make for a better game 1 against Temur at the cost of a slightly worse game 2. Finally, it’d be worse against Red, where I feel that countering or killing their first couple of plays and slamming a big threat is the best way to win.

Ultimately, we just had too much trouble beating aggro decks, which is where the creatures shine in the U/B builds. A lot of the time, you go Push into Censor into counterspell into The Scarab God and they can’t win, but Approach doesn’t block and takes longer to kill, so they can bounce back. Being stuck on 6 lands is horrible, for example. We also tried some white-heavy versions (basically just U/W Approach, with Settles and all that, with Push and The Scarab God in the sideboard), but the mana for those weren’t that great, and couldn’t support Essence Extraction out of the sideboard.

This is a deck that I’d like to revisit in the future. The concept of having an “Approach deck game 1 with a real sideboard game 2” is still appealing to me, but I think we failedon the execution.

Blue-Black Gate to the Afterlife

The U/B deck is an archetype that already exists (and in fact, Gabriel Nassif even played it at the PT), but our version was a little bit different in that it didn’t have Seekers’ Squire, and instead had Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. I understand what Squire is doing in the deck, and I don’t think it’s bad, but I think Siphoner is simply a better card. One is a creature that they often must kill no matter what, and the other is a creature that you’d be thrilled if they killed. There are many ways of putting creatures in the graveyard, and one of them is being so powerful that they will stop whatever they are doing to kill it. The deck also has a decent energy component with Aether Hub and Minister of Inquiries, so it’s possible to start drawing cards on turn 2 or to fuel Siphoner even if you can’t attack.

U/B Gate to the Afterlife

The goal of this deck is to play like a value U/B build, except that it’s based on creatures to support the Gate to the Afterlife combo. It’s not nearly as focused as the U/W build, which means that it’s slower, but also more resilient to any type of disruption. I’d say that you win about half of your games with God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and the other half by simply playing a normal game, whereas in the U/W build it’s closer to 95% with Gift. Between Freebooters, Hostage Takers, Scarab Gods and Angels, your Gifts are usually good enough to win, so the main difference is how you get it in play—six creatures is doable, but not trivial.

This deck had two main problems. The first was that it was kind of “forced” into playing Walking Ballista to fuel Gate to the Afterlife, and we perceived Ballista to be a bad card once Red started cutting 1-toughness creatures. It’s passable but not great even in Sultai decks that have Winding Constrictor and Rishkar to power it up, and in this deck it’s very underpowered.

The second problem was sideboarded games against Temur. While there isn’t a single card they can board in to ruin your day, a combination of extra Abrades, Magma Sprays, artifact removal, and often Nissa, Steward of Elements or Deathgorge Scavenger made your life much harder. The Gate plan is not as reliable post-board, but you can’t fully transform out of it since it uses up too many cards. As a result, you end up with a control deck that has a lot of 2-for-1s and some 1-for-1s, but then also has cards like Minister of Inquiries in it, which do not go well with the plan at all.

Abzan Tokens

This is a deck that popped up on Magic Online leading to the event, and that some members of our team played in their respective Nationals to good success. It’s also a version of the deck Sam Pardee used to 8-0 the MOCS. At that point, we were strongly considering playing it:

This deck is, first and foremost, a Hidden Stockpile deck. Secondarily, it’s a Fumigate deck. Only in third comes Anointed Procession. A mistake that a lot of people make when playing with and against it is to consider it an Anointed Procession deck. You don’t need it to win, and in fact you often sideboard it out. Play this as a control deck, but don’t forget to attack with your tokens—you can deal a lot of damage with Shefet Dunes. If the game goes very late, then Anointed Procession makes sure you win it.

Our list wasn’t groundbreaking in any meaningful way, but we identified that Sacred Cats were bad, and Start // Finish was quite good at flipping Legion’s Landing, blocking and getting rid of undesirable creatures such as Rampaging Ferocidon.

With Abzan Tokens, your matchup against Red is OK but worse than expected, because Chandra and Rampaging Ferocidon are true nightmares. Your match against U/W is almost unwinnable, but against U/B it’s pretty good. Finally, your match against Temur is great—in game 1. Once you go for post-sideboarded games, they bring in counterspells for your Fumigates, more planeswalkers, and some enchantment removal, and then it becomes very hard to win. Given that you can also randomly lose game 1 to cards like Supreme Will and Commit // Memory, as well as potentially a splashed Vraska, Relic Seeker (that card is very good against you since it kills enchantments), we decided that we didn’t like our Temur matchup that much. While it certainly wasn’t bad, it also wasn’t good. Given that we expected Temur to be about 40% of the field, being good against Temur was a big draw toward playing this deck—“slightly even” wouldn’t really cut it when it didn’t necessarily excel in other matchups.

So to sum it up, it seems to me that the biggest bottleneck to beating Temur is the sideboard. A lot of decks can be good against it game 1, but that’s because Temur has to hedge its answers and trumps. Once Temur gets to cut Magma Spray for Negate, or Vraska for Abrade, then the deck becomes extremely efficient against everything, and it’s very hard to win. Other decks can never sideboard much because all of the cards that are good against Temur are already in the main deck.

Right now, I’d say that there isn’t a single deck that is favored versus Temur (and its variations) in a post-sideboarded game. Until someone finds a way to make that a reality, I believe we’re going to keep seeing Temur/4c Temur/Sultai at the top of the metagame.

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