I've been playing a fair bit of Legacy lately, and enjoying it, but with the Portland Open Series on the horizon and the Seattle Invitational immediately after, I knew it was time to get to work on Standard. I've played a lot of different decks in this Standard format, but I've never found something I was willing to stick with and settle on.
After seeing Willy Edel putting in some work online with Sultai Reanimator, I decided to go back to my roots and battle with that deck. I had experience with it, knew I'd be able to actually metagame the deck, and most importantly, knew that it was definitely playable! However, the actual playing of matches didn't go so great. I was winning but not crushing, and I lost to a stream of Siege Rhinos more often than I was willing to accept. Sidisi felt better than Rhino in almost every matchup that didn't involve opposing Forests, but that wasn't going to cut the mustard.
After losing to the zillionth Siege Rhino, I opened my consolation packs from FNM and found a fourth copy of the big guy immediately staring back at me. Taking it as a sign, I decided to cast my first sanctioned Siege Rhinos.
I built up the Grand Prix Santiago-winning list and played it in a local event. I lost a very close match to Boss Sligh--after winning game 1, to add insult to injury--but beat up my U/B Control, Jeskai Aggro, and G/r Devotion opponents quite easily. Over the course of the event I relevantly activated Soul of Theros exactly once and probably would've won that game without it. Meanwhile, the big white giant constantly rotted in my hand. I knew L1X0 had raved about the Soul and crushed that Grand Prix, and the deck was doing alright on MTGO as well, but I couldn't reconcile my experiences with theirs.
Now, I'm not saying Soul is bad. What I am saying is that I didn't understand what made it good, and that meant it wasn't the weapon I needed in the least. Perhaps my style of play just isn't a match for what Soul of Theros wants?
I decided to brew up my own list for a Super IQ the next morning in Bellevue. Here's what I took into battle:
- 2 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Hornet Queen
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 1 Soul of Innistrad
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
Let's address a few of the changes.
24 Land, 0 Elvish Mystic
I've been the guy cutting a land and running two Elvish Mystics, but I didn't want to do that with my list for several reasons. First off, I wanted more black mana to let me cast Whip of Erebos and Drown in Sorrow early and pain-free when possible. Second, when you run several sweepers in the sideboard--and expect opponents to access them as well--mana creatures are a significant liability. Sideboarded games tend to get grindy, and losing these virtual lands in a deck that is so good with a surplus of mana is costly.
Plus, revealing a Mystic to Courser makes me want to flip the table.
I respected the Grand Prix Santiago sideboard strategy, but in my deck I really just wanted to push harder on two-drops as the metagame was skewing aggressive. I attribute this in part to the growing popularity of W/U Heroic. When you don't make a mana accelerant on turn 1 or 2, it's critical to have some kind of two-drop because your next best possible openings are two-drop into three-drop or two-drop plus tapland, leading to a Siege Rhino on turn 4.
Fleecemane was great for me at stemming early bleeding and being a mana-efficient threat when I had initiative. I'd consider playing a third, but doubt I'd play a fourth. It's not the kind of card I need to fill my deck with, but Lion pulled its weight.
This thing is fantastic. I ran one in Sultai Reanimator ages ago, and it is very good at setting up Doomwake sweeps during stalemates against green opponents. Plus, quite frankly, casting seven Siege Rhinos is usually good enough.
Against Green Devotion and Whip mirrors, you can often afford to just cast it and get back three creatures, as those matchups go super long and they are light on answers to the Soul. I loved my singleton and will likely play a second in the sideboard.
Read the Bones in the Sideboard
Against decks with sweepers, or pure control decks like U/B, I wanted to sideboard out some if not all of my Sylvan Caryatids. That said, my deck was built to operate with those creatures as lands, so I needed something to help me keep making drops in their absence. Read the Bones is a perfect card against these decks, as it lets you load up on whatever you need at any given time.
In my matches against other midrange decks, they were frequently bringing in Thoughtseize against me. Read the Bones is a perfect way to punish that strategy as well. Would you rather be the person with the discard spell or the super-Divination when the matchup is all about beating each other to death in a grindfest?
The tournament went pretty well; I won, dropping zero matches on the day and only three or four games. Also of note is that I only took the play in two of these matches, which is a sign of how strong the deck is at turning the corner and stealing away opposing initiative.
Here are some notes from the event to help give you an idea of how the matchups play out. Apologies to any opponents if I mixed up the rounds. I've also avoided identifying my opponents by name as I discuss some of their errors and consider calling them out here to be in poor taste, but if they're reading and feel so inclined they're welcome to comment, especially if I got something wrong or if they disagree.
Round 1: Bye
Round 2: W/U Heroic
I played against a solid local player. I'd actually tested this matchup by playing against Gerry while we were waiting for the tournament to start, and things went mostly how I anticipated. I did lose game 2 to an unanswered Stratus Walk when on almost 50 life, failing to find a Queen or one of many removal spells for several turns while he team-chumped my Whip-fueled Rhinos and Cruised to keep up against my blanks.
In general, I'd approach this matchup with a look to establish a Rhino and then start killing their creatures. Between Murderous Cut and Glare of Heresy, you have multiple cheap ways to kill creatures, making Gods Willing and Ajani's Presence much less effective. Thoughtseize is also a fine card for stripping those defenses, though you should probably only board in one or two on the draw to avoid painful blanks.
Also of note is that Glare is white, Cut is black, and Insects are green--it's difficult to force through a giant thing once I stabilize, and Whip will keep me safe from the grind.
Round 3: Abzan Midrange
I remember incredibly little about this match, sorry. It's actually possible my opponent was on a different deck, but I distinctly remember attacking a Siege Rhino into a Siege Rhino and a Hornet Queen while holding one Rhino back to play around Bile Blight. That was either this match or the U/B Control match (lol) so I'm thinking it was Abzan.
Shrug. I do know I won pretty easily, whatever it was.
Round 4: Boss Sligh
Another player I knew to be solid. Fortunately, Satyr Wayfinder is the real "boss" in this matchup as having an early drop that threatens to trade is really awkward. Both games boiled down to me giving my opponent a one-turn window to have a lethal burn spell come off the top of the deck, and both times he failed to find it. It'll certainly happen sometimes, but in general, I'm comfortable with the state of this matchup.
Play defense. If you can hold up Cut to halt Hammerhand while casting a creature, it's worthwhile. For example, deploying Courser instead of Rhino will frequently pay off, as you have no six-drops anyway! For this reason, I also bring in Reclamation Sage in the matchup. Hilariously, stripping a Hammerhand in order to set up a Doomwake Giant also has applications, and it's not a bad answer to Eidolon of the Great Revel either, though in my experience they take way more damage from it than you do thanks to Murderous Cut being your primary removal spell.
Round 5: U/B Control
This match was for the right to double-draw into Top 8, and once more it was against a player I knew. I'd seen him play a few matches already--one of the perils of a slower deck is you easily garner spectators--and I knew that he had maindeck Ashiok, Nightmare Weavers. That card is particularly good against me, as I don't have a lot of openings that will quickly pressure it and U/B should be able to defend from most of them anyway, even losing a turn to cast the planeswalker.
That's exactly what happened. A Courser, Siege Rhino, and Hornet Queen were all cast via Ashiok over the course of the match, but I managed to take game 1 thanks to having a reasonably solid start and depleting my opponent's resources with Soul of Innistrad from the graveyard. In game 2, a Cranial Archive (?!) forced me to use my Soul for a turn free of Dissolve rather than for three spells, and he was able to close me out. The third game saw my opponent mulligan to a hand light on defense and get run over by the nuts.
Amusingly, I left in a pair of Murderous Cuts due to my sideboard being misbuilt but also due to wanting ways to get through my own stolen creatures.
Casting the right spells on the right turns in this matchup is incredibly important. You want the game to get to the state where they're burning turns and excess mana killing your threats. If they ever get a turn off, you may see them load up with a Jace's Ingenuity and pull too far ahead. For this reason, if I have a Siege Rhino against their four lands I'll often wait to cast it until they have five, forcing them to choose between accessing countermagic or cards. In this way, I can bring the seeming card advantage disparity closer to favoring me by making their cards temporarily not matter.
Generally speaking, you'd like to ensure there's always something in play attacking the opponent--even if it's just a Satyr Wayfinder. Prioritize hands with two-drops very highly! If that little two-drop is still in there attacking while you're both exchanging spell after spell, then these trades are gaining you a bit of ground. Ideally, you get to the point where you cast a threat and then activate Soul in their end step to keep the stream coming.
It can be a judgment call to commit two threats to the board when they get up there on mana. In general, avoid committing two threats to the board when they have eight mana, but you almost always want to do this when they have seven. Why? Because this makes them either take additional damage or burn removal on a permanent the Vault could handle. If you are going to cast a threat you expect to die to an incoming Vault, try to make it something like Rhino or Whip (on eight mana), in order to get some value either way.
Round 6 and 7: ID
I could've played for seed in the final round, with a win securing first and a loss securing eighth. I was tempted to do so, but in the end decided to sit in a likely fifth. My primary reason for doing this was I felt it gave me and Gerry the best chance of dodging each other until the finals, as he was playing for Top 8 in Round 7.
Quarterfinals: Mardu Midrange
I wasn't initially sure what to make of this matchup, but it turned out feeling pretty favorable. He went into a planeswalker-based deck with sweepers in sideboarding, playing right into Glare of Heresy. Soul of Innistrad and Whip of Erebos combine to make for a pretty great lategame in this matchup, which I think is incorrect.
You can get stressed by wanting Murderous Cut for Butchers and for Rabblemasters, so I encourage playing defensively to really minimize the latter. You'll win the long game; it's the games where a Crackling Doom lets them get a big hit in that can hurt (or they build up too many Goblins). For example, when deciding which creature to attack with, generally favor Rhinos. Not only do they die to Doom every time, but they're also going to be vulnerable to Elspeth's -3 and Whipping them back is the best value on lifegain in the deck. Sarkhan is a concern for defending Coursers, so try not to leave yourself open. The red planeswalker is difficult to remove, so be wary of him.
After ultimating Sarkhan, my opponent made an error in failing to Lightning Strike my face before discarding his hand to Sarkhan. I was able to answer the leftover 1-loyalty planeswalker, and after several turns of him drawing three cards, I arose narrowly victorious, denying him a third game.
While my opponent did make a mistake here, we went six or seven turns with him drawing three cards and I still got it, so I'm pretty confident in the matchup at this point. I think the correct approach for them is to be aggressive, but you're a favorite against both of their sideboards and you have Soul to bail you out against attrition and Whip to keep your life total secure, with Rhino and Courser to supplement that.
Semifinals: Abzan Whip (with Soul of Theros)
My opponent appeared to be playing something very close to the Magic Online lists, but I'd seen he had Wingmate Rocs (yuck!) and a Soul of Innistrad. Knowing that, I drew some quick conclusions: he likely had less Murderous Cuts and/or Doomwake Giants than I did, so I wouldn't need to play as scared of those cards.
I wasn't exactly sure how to approach the matchup initially. I knew keeping removal spells available for Souls would be important and that it was best to ignore Courser and Rhino, as we both have several and they essentially negate one another. When both players have Doomwake, Hornet Queen is usually similarly irrelevant, but because my opponent turned out to have zero copies of the 4/6, I actually had a huge leg up in this department. He was all-in on Soul of Theros to break through the bees, and as I said I already knew I'd need to conserve removal for that, in order to make it a one-shot trick.
My opponent appeared to prioritize Whip very highly, while I didn't really. I used it to keep myself from going too low on life, but knowing I had three Whips and two Banishing Lights, I knew he wouldn't be able to straight up deny me access to Whip if I really needed it. Given that he likely had the same thought, that also seemed like it wasn't a fight worth fighting. For the most part, I'd want to just guarantee an activation got me a Hornet Queen or something similarly good. I avoided using Whip on enchantment creatures in order to ensure I'd have maximum access to constellation via Soul recursion.
I actually began to burn my excess Murderous Cuts once my opponent had played his three and both Lights--I knew Soul of Theros would no longer be able to beat me. I hardcast Soul of Innistrad, and it went unchecked the entirety of the game after that, with double Doomwake and my four Coursers meaning I could chump a large number of attackers and then retaliate by sweeping his board on the following turn. In fact, my last Murderous Cut killed my own Courser in order to let me Doomwake away his last swarm of Insects and every Courser on the board, leaving him with far too few creatures to overwhelm me.
Once I knew this would be my win condition, I also knew to stop casting Satyr Wayfinders. Not only could they mill cards I wanted to draw--namely creatures and spells, duh--but my opponent had torn through his deck much more aggressively searching for creatures to Whip and Souls to activate, making decking him an inevitable victory backed by my Soul's ability to ensure I wouldn't break via combat.
Another thing I did here was keep track of his scrys; as we both had Courser basically the entire game, seeing the cards I knew he'd sent to the bottom earlier would let me know when there was nothing left to fear in his library. On the downside, this meant I forgot some of the cards in his hand that he'd revealed, so my note-taking could have been better.
Game 2 was much simpler, as I established Pharika and Doomwake Giant pretty quickly. He Thoughtseized me, but I had Reads to dig ahead, and he conceded once it was clear he'd never be able to get rid of Pharika, as I had a Reclamation Sage to Soul back after killing his first Banishing Light.
Finals: Mardu Midrange
Game 1 was quite easy, with my establishing two Coursers and running Rhinos into his removal while a Rabblemaster went nowhere fast. I played to avoid getting thunked by Butcher, but the top of my deck made it much easier by dealing me multiple Murderous Cuts.
In the second game, he mulliganed and I Thoughtseized him (I tried boarding in one or two, thinking it would help me avoid Sarkhan and play around his removal spells) and saw he'd kept a hand with a Crackling Doom, two Erases, and something else that couldn't kill a Rhino. I took the Doom, held my Whips, and Rhinos did the rest with minimal backup.
Here's the list I'd play if the Invitational was tomorrow:
- 2 Fleecemane Lion
- 3 Hornet Queen
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 1 Soul of Innistrad
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
I'm actually considering a maindeck Reclamation Sage, as it has massive blowout potential and enchantments are really picking up in Standard right now.
It's possible I could be convinced to once more sleeve up Jeskai Ascendancy in the wake of the SCG Richmond win, but honestly that win was probably better for my current deck. On paper that matchup sounds pretty favorable, and my sideboard is already heavy on profitable forms of interaction for the matchup. I'll have to actually play it to know for sure, but after an undefeated weekend with Abzan Whip where I felt like a commanding favorite in most of my matches, it will be difficult to persuade me to play anything else.
Long live Rhinos!