It has been a while since I have tapped a Forest in Standard. I thought it would come as an easy transition due to the amount of control elements present in Sultai, but there is clearly some rust from this old Esper mage in testing. After many matches with the new deck, I am officially proficient in the effective use of Courser of Kruphix and his little friends. The green creature package has been outstanding, allowing defense, lifegain, and mana/card advantage to fuel the planeswalkers that follow. I was very pleased to see BBD pick up the deck, make a few changes, and test out Sultai Walkers on camera. Whenever a fellow magician gets some testing in with one of my creations, it can only get better. There are a few big changes I made to the list in order to incorporate BBD's additions, handle the onslaught of midrange decks in the metagame, as well as have a real good shot to knock off aggro decks after sideboard. I have also been working in the lab, trying to develop an Esper Control list to help answer the midrange decks, but it's still not good enough for me to publish at this point. Stay patient my Esper mages, because at this point, the overall weakness of counterspells and removal is killing my favorite color combination.
It is tough to stray away from Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid early in the season. There are just too many benefits of using this creature package in comparison to other color alternatives. Kiora, the Crashing Wave and Nissa have been dynamite, controlling threats on the other side of the battlefield and applying pressure. The one-of Garruk, Apex Predator has been delightful to cast as well, removing enemy creatures and producing a deathtouch army of beasts. Although Nissa has been great against the midrange field, her power level against the fast aggro decks is about as bad as it gets. For this reason, I moved one to the sideboard to avoid having one or both in the opening hand. It's okay to have multiple one-ofs in this deck due to the scry ability of Prognostic Sphinx and the new addition of Dig Through Time.
Dig Through Time has been absolutely amazing. I liked this draw spell a lot, but I felt that the metagame would be more aggressive than it appears to be. With an avalanche of midrange deck pouring into tournaments near you, Dig through Time is probably the best card in the deck outside of the planeswalkers. BBD's list had multiple copies and he told me it's easily the best blue card in the set. I agree completely after playing the spell for the first time, and I determined that another copy had to make it into the maindeck. After playing two copies, I realized that a third was necessary because of how amazing the card is against everything that doesn't blitz you down in the first few turns of the game. I tried Sign in Blood, Read the Bones, and even Divination, but nothing comes close to the power level of Dig Through Time.
There has been a lot of talk about Dig Through Time being utilized in older formats, which would be very cool to see. Delve is a very powerful mechanic that is reminiscent of Phyrexian mana. Anything that makes cards cheaper to cast will see play if the ability is powerful enough, which is definitely the case here. I can see myself trying one or two copies in Modern, but I'll leave the Brainstorm + Ponder duo alone in Legacy at this point. Dig Through Time is that card advantage/selection card that I said the deck would definitely need in order to keep up with one-for-ones against similar decks. Going blow for blow against aggro decks is doable because eventually your more powerful spells will take over, but some advantage is required against slower decks. It's hard to give Dig Through Time its praise by calling it one of the best draw spells made in recent years because of Sphinx's Revelation, but it's certainly up there. There is so much junk in Sultai Walkers that you don't want later in the game, and Dig allows you to dodge it all.
What makes Sultai Walkers so powerful is that it's in a dominating position against other midrange decks. The first step I took to making it great against other midrange decks was cutting the Bile Blights. Bile Blight was nice against aggressive decks and sometimes useful in combat, but I just cut out the middle man and added Drown in Sorrow in its place. I figure if Bile Blight is used 99% of the time as an answer to aggro, using Drown in Sorrow in the maindeck is just a better option, as it allows you to steal games that you had no business winning. There are times where Drown in Sorrow is just a complete stinker, but with Sultai Charm to pitch it, Dig through Time/Prognostic Sphinx to avoid it, and the scry one attachment, it's not too bad. At the very least, Drown in Sorrow handles tokens from Elspeth and Xenagos, two cards that are seeing a lot of play at the moment.
The removal of two Bile Blights, the transfer of the last two to Drown in Sorrow, and the addition of Dig Through Time have all been improvements that help dominate the midrange opponents. Midrange decks have been utilizing Hornet Queen, which was a huge problem at first for Sultai Walkers. Drown in Sorrow in combination with Thoughtseize has provided us with some relief against this annoying bee summoner. It is a sad reality, but if you play against Hornet Queen decks, you must keep in Drown in Sorrow and may also have to bring in another one. The removal package in the deck isn't built to deal with five deathtouch flyers at once, and Drown in Sorrow is the best answer to that situation.
You'll notice that the majority of the sideboard is hate for aggro decks. This isn't because I'm the guy who trashes on aggro (even though I do), but because we have a lot of cards to board out in that style of matchup. My general aggro sideboard plan is as follows:
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is pretty terrible against anything with cheap creatures. Its ability to develop a board presence is hurt by the fact that you are likely dead if you use your third turn for anything other than a removal spell or a Courser of Kruphix. The removal of Thoughtseize is pretty standard, and the two planeswalkers (Garruk and Nissa) are just too slow.
The sideboard cards that are brought in to assist you against aggro are all studs. Nylea's Disciple is the best sideboard card against Mono-Black, Mono-Red, or any other hyper aggressive variant. It's like a very bad Ravenous Baloth, but it does the trick. You will be hard pressed to lose a game where you play a Courser of Kruphix into a Nylea's Disciple because of the big bodies, lifegain, and all of the removal to supplement your defensive creatures.
The other two Drown in Sorrow come in, as well as a few two mana removal spells. The reason why Bile Blight is in the mix instead of capping off the Pharika's Cures is because there are some three-toughness creatures still out there. Mono Black Aggro has Herald of Torment and G/W has Fleecemane Lion to name a few problematic cards for Sultai Walkers. The two life is awesome, but diversifying your removal is a much safer choice in a dangerous new world.
The remainder of the sideboard is geared toward midrange and control decks. Negate is a powerful sideboard card in this day and age - that much we know - but the lack of Disdainful Stroke probably needs an explanation. There are spells that Disdainful Stroke can counter that are problematic for Sultai, however, Negate is more useful from the sideboard the majority of the time. Having the ability to counter a Hero's Downfall on a planeswalker, the array of different charms that people are packing, and opposing countermagic is more important to me than a late game bomb from the creature realm. Hornet Queen is the only card I'd wish my Negate could stop, but the other threats can be easily answered by the spells that exist in the maindeck. The two Dissolves in the board are also there to answer any threat that may rear its ugly head in the late game. These four counterspells, the removal package, and four copies of Thoughtseize are plenty of heat for any deck that's similar to ours.
The haymaker planeswalker in the sideboard to join the side of Garruk, Apex Predator is Liliana Vess. She is a blast from the past that I've been itching to play ever since I heard of her glorious return to Standard. The format has powered down to the point where she easily earns a sideboard slot. Liliana Vess is amazing against midrange and control decks as a turn 5 play. Nissa, Worldwaker's turn 5 is a tad less impressive and can hurt your mana in many situations, but Liliana Vess comes in and gets to work immediately. This version of Sultai Walkers deck has so many powerful cards that the tutor ability is absolutely fantastic, but it is still not the primary use. Card advantage in control mirrors is very important and the original black planeswalker will make that happen via its +1.
As you all know, the metagame can be different from location to location, or from a higher level tournament to a lower one. That is what makes building the best control deck the toughest, guessing which pocket of decks you'll play against the most. When I craft these wild things, I have the Open Series, Invitational, and Grand Prix mindset. My formula in Standard is to outclass midrange decks with powerful spells in the maindeck, try to play better than control opponents using cards geared against creatures, and to obliterate aggro decks with a huge sideboard dedicated to that matchup. These decks that I churn out have the inherent power of being able to defeat aggro decks, and if you decide to change a certain card or two, be careful, because the entire hate package in the sideboard is necessary for victory.
The aggro decks are pretty strong still, even with their poor performance in recent tournaments. Playing against Mono-Red and Mono-Black Aggro is still very scary, and the sideboard hate is the only thing blocking us from utter obliteration versus the aggro menace. There were multiple one-drops that exited Standard, but the remaining crew is still a force to be reckoned with. Aggro with burn is still the best against control mages like us. Being able to beat us down and then come in with a couple burn spells to the dome is usually enough to dispatch even the best wizard. With that being said, using the green creature package protects us from a lot of the ground damage. I would trade it all to have Supreme Verdict back, but upping the board sweeper cost by one (End Hostilities) nearly killed it in my eyes. The lack of good early card draw and early spells in general is another huge reason why Sylvan Caryatid is the best two drop in Standard.
The midrange decks are all packing the same green critters that we are. This creates awkward board positions for most decks, but luckily we have the planeswalker army to break it all up. Each midrange deck out there is playing some amount of planeswalkers, but Sultai Walkers has either more, or uses Dig Through Time to make up for it. Midrange is definitely the best matchup for Sultai Walkers, which rests on the power level of Thoughtseize, Hero's Downfall, and its powerful win conditions. I knew one thing before rotation--I'm following Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall to the grave. No one can deny the power level of these two cards, and to not play Thoughtseize in a slow format would be nearly blasphemous. Enemy planeswalkers are always scary, but being able to rip them out of their hand for a discounted rate or have them fall to our removal is pretty awesome. Cards like Stormbreath Dragon, Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, Polukranos, World Eater, or any fatty later on is a joke and easily dealt with. We had a little chat above about Hornet Queen, and even though you have to let some Drown in Sorrows stay in the maindeck, the rest is powerful enough to get the job done.
This version of Sultai Walkers has been tested and is much more refined than the launch from a few weeks ago, so take it and charge ahead friends. I'm glad that I was able to test out Dig Through Time, and I know that I'll be playing it for a long, long time. Good luck in GP Orlando and any other Open Series or tournament you may attend, everyone!