In most cases, changing decks the night before a tournament is a mistake; changing to a deck with which you have no experience even more so. You simply lose more equity by playing the new deck less effectively than you can gain by having an ostensibly better positioned deck for the tournament. But sometimes you just have to make that mistake. And sometimes mistakes can pay off. Results aside, I am very glad with my decision to play Bant Heroic over Sultai Reanimator last weekend at the Open Series in Cleveland. The rise of Esper Dragons followed by the myriad of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector decks to combat them has diminished Sultai's standing in the metagame. I believe the tools to defeat either of those decks exist, but to do so at the same time is too much to ask. Also, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant is largely ineffective in both matchups, leaving the deck in an awkward spot in which you want to move away from a strong enabler for the graveyard synergies but also want to exploit those synergies to gain an edge. Still, on the ride to Cleveland I finalized the following Sultai Reanimator list:
- 3 Deathmist Raptor
- 3 Den Protector
- 1 Hornet Queen
- 1 Merciless Executioner
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Torrent Elemental
- 3 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Dragonlord Silumgar
- 4 Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
- 1 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
For those of you who read my article last week, you may recognize this as a bit of a blend of the three plans I devised for the Esper Dragons matchup, with a weight toward the attrition plan. I felt confident with this list against control, but I had the sneaking suspicion that this list would be significantly disadvantaged against the other Deathmist Raptor + Den Protector decks in the format, notably Bant and Abzan builds. Those decks have better trumps for a long game in Dragonlord Ojutai, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Mastery of the Unseen along with an easy answer to our trump, Whip of Erebos, in Dromoka's Command. Ashiok is a great sideboard option that I think will see more play as those decks become more popular, but likely not enough to turn around the matchup overall if it was indeed as poor as I thought it to be. This worry was exacerbated by the fact that I had seen many requests to borrow Deathmist Raptors on social media, leading me to believe that those decks would be very popular. Upon arriving in Cleveland, I decided to play some games against Bant Megamorph in an attempt to gauge the matchup.
Things did not go well.
Even though I won a few of the games, any time the Bant deck executed their gameplan, the things I was doing seemed entirely outclassed. At this point, I was fairly certain that playing Sultai Reanimator was a losing proposition. Earlier in the week, I had been reminded of the Bant Heroic deck, and as my worries about Sultai Reanimator grew, thoughts of playing Heroic slowly entered my mind. The Deathmist Raptor decks typically play very few removal spells, and navigating around creature defenses is eminently do-able. Moreover, the deck had a strong control matchup in the past, so the deck seemed rather well-positioned for the weekend. I did have reservations about the rise of edict effects like Foul-Tongue Invocation being an issue, but after reading Tom Ross's article, I became convinced that I could play well through those cards because of Treasure Cruise. Dromoka's Command was the obvious gain from splashing green, but the addition of four more fetchlands meant the deck could support more copies of Treasure Cruise, moving to the full four after sideboard. Even though the control decks would have better removal spells, their plan is still predicated on the effectiveness of one-for-one removal, so having powerful card draw in Cruise and Ordeal of Thassa along with counterspells for their card draw and Dragons is a strategic trump.
At this point, it seems like the decision to switch to Heroic would be easy, but I was hesitant due to Heroic's poor reputation. The deck certainly has a lot of weak draws, and a manabase with four Mana Confluence could pose issues. It was a decision I wanted to make, but I needed an added push. Eventually I came to the opinion that even though switching decks to something I have never played and many think is bad is iffy, it was going to be the correct decision. I just needed some affirmation to calm my nerves. So, in a feat of incredible genius or stupidity depending on your perspective, I purposefully sought out people who I believed would be complimentary of the deck in order to bias myself into making the decision I wanted to make. Like the title says kids, do as I say, not as I do. Patrick Sullivan and Anthony Lowry offered their expected support for the deck, while Brian Braun-Duin offered a more true but less helpful "I have no idea." The votes were in, and it was 2.5 to 0. How lucky! After some thought I came to the following list:
- 1 Battlewise Hoplite
- 4 Favored Hoplite
- 4 Hero of Iroas
- 2 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
- 2 Monastery Mentor
- 4 Seeker of the Way
From the list Tom wrote about, I moved an Ordeal of Heliod to the sideboard for a Battlewise Hoplite, cutting the single Lagonna-Band Trailblazer from Tom's sideboard. With no experience, I was not about to stray too far, but I know in my experience playing against Heroic, Lagonna-Band Trailblazer has been ineffective far too often to want three copies, and I nearly cut the second from the main, only deciding to keep it in an effort to keep the curve as low as possible. I wanted to move an Aqueous Form to the maindeck, but I felt as though the Ordeal of Heliod would be more important. Monastery Mentor would serve a similar purpose to Aqueous Form in trumping a board full of creatures but is not vulnerable to Dromoka's Command and serves as an additional threat against control that is particularly good against edict effects.
Now that the tournament is over, I am obviously impressed by the deck. The sideboard plan against control was excellent, allowing me to put them under pressure early on but not fold to their first few pieces of interaction. I won many long games against them, and in four matches, went 7-1 in the post-sideboard games. The Monastery Mentors also performed well, allowing me to defeat two Hornet Nests in thrilling fashion in game 3 of the quarterfinals, among several other impressive appearances on the weekend. As a three-drop they were awkward a few times, so I am not going to add more copies, but the first two are secure for now. Trailblazer, while underpowered, was important as a one-drop, as I expected. The deck often needs to play a threat with protection mana up, so having your threats be as cheap as possible is important.
The two cards I was unimpressed with were the third copy of Ordeal of Heliod and the Temple of Mystery. The Ordeal rarely came in, as there are few aggressive decks around right now. The Temple of Mystery was simply the worst card in the deck. Lands that enter the battlefield tapped are a high cost for this deck, as are lands that do not produce white mana, since the deck often wants to play two or more white spells in the same turn. At the very least that will change to a Yavimaya Coast moving forward, but I could see trying to retool the manabase to eliminate the non-white-producing land entirely. However, for a deck that has such strained color requirements, it is forced to play four copies of Mana Confluence, and that is a difficult task.
The most surprising aspect of the deck is how decision-intensive it is. Treasure Cruise and Monastery Mentor provide additional angles to play an attrition game or go wide, in addition to the primary plan of building a large creature requiring very careful planning and sequencing to defeat disruption. The matches I played in the elimination rounds were filled with high drama and back and forth play, which suggests that Bant Heroic will be difficult to hate out with the typical cards: sweepers, edicts, etc. For the first time, I feel as though I have found a deck that I will be able to play for more than a few weeks. Of course, with this Standard format, it will probably be unplayable by the time the Season Two Invitational in Columbus comes.
The difficulty of the deck combined with my inexperience led to some poor plays, and I would like to close by discussing an interesting situation in which I am certain my decision was suboptimal.
It is game 1. My opponent is playing Abzan Aggro. Life totals are 16-2 in his favor, and the boardstate is as follows:
Him: 6 lands in play, 1 untapped, no color issues. 1 unknown card in hand.
Me: 5 lands in play, all untapped, no color issues. A Favored Hoplite with no +1/+1 counters.
Obviously, this situation is precarious, but Dromoka's Command was the perfect draw to get back in the game. I believe the first priority is to find either a way to gain life to get out of Siege Rhino range as well as find another creature or a protection spell in case he has a removal spell for Favored Hoplite. The easiest way to do this is by leading with the Temple before drawing cards, but it is possible to draw three cards this turn between Defiant Strike and Ordeal of Thassa, at which point we may want to play an untapped land we draw in order to enable more lines of play. However, since drawing cards with the Ordeal would necessitate attacking with the Favored Hoplite and the Command will still leave him with a lethal attacker, this consideration is very small. We would have to draw an untapped land and a one mana creature to chump block his creature, at which point we would still lose to most removal spells as well as Siege Rhino.
Upon leading with the Temple, you see a Seeker of the Way off the scry trigger. This is an excellent card as it is both an additional creature to stabilize the board and an immediate source of life when combined with Dromoka's Command. We can access the Seeker by casting Defiant Strike on Favored Hoplite, at which point we still have enough mana to cast it along with Command. The only question left is how to use our Command.
Since the sacrifice an enchantment mode is listed above the fight mode, it will happen first, making the level 1 Warden a 3/3 when it fights. Since the Favored Hoplite gains a counter from the Defiant Strike, it would be a 3/4 upon fighting and serve as a blocker for the other Warden. However, a removal spell on the Favored Hoplite would leave us with a Seeker that is forced to chump block the second Warden, which I think we should avoid if possible. We can use the Seeker to fight the 1/1 Warden, which would put us out of Rhino range but leave us with a 2/2 and a 2/3 to block his potential 3/3 Warden. We can get around this by casting our Command on his upkeep, but that leaves our Command vulnerable to a removal spell, and fighting with Seeker on his upkeep leaves it vulnerable in the fight if he levels his Warden in response.
Unfortunately, it appears as though there is no way to play around a removal spell. As such, I would prefer to make the play that puts us in the best position otherwise and plays around Siege Rhino. That would lead to casting the Command on our turn using the Seeker to fight the smaller Warden and forcing him to sacrifice the Boon Satyr. If he does not have the removal spell, he may not even attack his Warden into the possible double block, especially when he can fully level it in two turns. If he does attack, we have the choice to take it and lose to Abzan Charm or Siege Rhino or to double block and be decimated by Abzan Charm or another removal spell. The Warden is still a problem, but between our draw step, Ordeal, and Cruise, we will draw six cards the following turn to find an answer.
At the time, I cast Defiant Strike before playing the Temple of Mystery, and after drawing the Seeker, my Temple scry revealed a second Dromoka's Command. I then played Seeker and Command, but instead of fighting the 1/1 Warden, I fought the 3/3 with Seeker, losing my creature. At that point, I attacked with the 2/3 Favored Hoplite since I was not going to block, and lost to Abzan Charm + leveling Warden for a five-point attack. I was overwhelmed by the size of the decision tree and made a clear mistake. While it did not cost me since my opponent had the Abzan Charm in his hand, I think this play is emblematic of how many options this deck has available to it. I am not even entirely sure that my line is correct after days to think through it.
That mistake aside, I was very pleased with my play on the weekend, and the sheer number of intense games I played made this tournament particularly memorable even disregarding the fact that I won. Still, I would not advise picking this deck up on the fly as I did. But fortunately for me, my "mistake" was heavily rewarded. If we could all be so lucky…