Another week, another Standard tournament filled with decks brought back from the dead while last week's decks to beat are nowhere to be found. The breakout decks from Pro Tour Magic Origins, Mono-Red Aggro and U/R Thopters, failed to crack even the Top Sixteen in London.
It has only been two weeks!
Khans of Tarkir Standard refuses to stop evolving. You cannot become complacent and run the same deck week to week because no cards are dominant enough to allow for any stagnation. So here we are, back to the grind of analyzing last week's results and trying to get a leg up for this weekend.
First the results. GP London brought Abzan Aggro and G/R Dragons back to the spotlight.
Anafenza, the Foremost and Stormbreath Dragon were supposedly the big losers from the printing of Languish, forced to the fringes of the format as the powerful sweeper found a permanent home in Abzan and blue-based control decks. Instead, they were merely lying in wait. As has been the case since Khans of Tarkir's release, a deck may disappear for a while but it will almost assuredly be back.
This isn't even the first time Abzan Aggro has played possum. Shortly after Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, the deck was in decline and thought to be a good metagame call that would fade away into obscurity as the true format took shape. Instead it returned at the Seattle Open on Invitational Weekend where Andrew Tenjum and Thea Steele took ninth and tenthplace respectively using a retooled list that eschewed Herald of Torment and played the full four copies of Wingmate Roc in the maindeck.
Now the new addition is Hangarback Walker. A lot is being said about this card now that it appears poised to drive the metagame over the final weeks of Theros Standard and honestly I don't see what the hype is all about. This is not a particularly efficient threat, since it will never produce more power than mana invested to cast it. In order to make it a significant attacker, you have to spend a few turns pumping it so it is not going to aid any aggressive starts. And if it dies early, the value of one or two Thopter tokens you get in the exchange is not at all game-breaking.
The appeal of Hangarback Walker becomes more apparent when you look at the cards surrounding it. Anafenza, the Foremost, Abzan Charm, and Dromoka's Command all provide efficient ways to add counters to Hangarback Walker so you can often turn it into a sizable threat simply by playing your other cards. Normally there is some worry that using your cards as glorified pump spells sets you up poorly against removal, but Hangarback Walker conveniently solves that issue by providing the necessary resilience to make investing resources into it worthwhile.
Then we need only consider the expected metagame for London. G/W Megamorph was the breakout deck from GP San Diego the week before, and it was sure to be a key player the following week. The Pro Tour brought us Mono-Red Aggro and U/R Thopters which, while not performing that well in San Diego, were still on players' radars. With these decks supplementing metagame mainstays like Abzan Control and G/R Devotion, it was clear that the London metagame would lean on the aggressive side.
Hangarback Walker provides a threat that also plays solid defense against aggressive decks when necessary. Because of its painful and often slow manabase, Abzan Aggro can struggle against opposing aggressive decks when it is too focused on its own gameplan. It needs to adopt a more midrange strategy to stem the early bleeding before turning the corner with its more powerful creatures. Being able to trade your Walker with a creature or removal spell and then start attacking with the Thopter tokens while spending your mana to contain their board or land a Siege Rhino is perfect for this plan.
The issue with slowing yourself down is that you now become more vulnerable to the controlling lists of Abzan, since you have diminished your ability to come out quickly and apply pressure. But in this instance Hangarback Walker gives you a threat that gets better as the game goes long and provides resiliency against sweepers like Languish that would otherwise punish you for having to extend more resources in order to apply sufficient pressure.
So the key to understanding Hangarback Walker's place lies in its versatility. Despite being labeled as aggro, the Abzan Aggro deck goes a little bigger and can play longer games because the individual card quality is so high and Fleecemane Lion, Warden of the First Tree, and Abzan Charm all provide some insulation against flooding. Like these cards, Walker is going to be a good draw at any point in the game and can play both sides effectively.
Since I am often looking for cards to slot into very specific roles, it is easy for me to overlook cards that are always solid and instead brand them as always mediocre. Granted, I do not believe Hangarback Walker will maintain its current level of ubiquity and its surge in popularity will likely cause it to be placed into homes where it does not belong, but there is always something to be said for a card that is never bad, especially one that has a fairly high ceiling.
The other breakout deck from London was G/R Dragons, which made Top Eight in the hands of Marin Juza:
- 4 Deathmist Raptor
- 2 Den Protector
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
Despite looking like Juza may have been in a coma for the last three months and simply played the deck he had laying next to his hospital bed, this one is fairly straightforward. In a field of Dromoka's Commands and Abzan Charms, Stormbreath Dragon does not die very often. When Stormbreath Dragon does not die, your opponent does. Quickly.
The Abzan decks from the Top Eight play just three to five ways to kill a Stormbreath Dragon between Ultimate Price and Hero's Downfall. Between the deck's four actual copies and two Haven of the Spirit Dragon acting replacement Stormbreaths number five and six, it is not difficult to overload their answers. This is before taking into account Goblin Rabblemaster forcing their removal early and Den Protector providing added redundancy. The three copies of Xenagos the Reveler further tax opposing copies of Hero's Downfall.
This deck is definitely going to have draws that fold to Languish, especially when it is relying on its mana creatures staying around, but Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector provide some resiliency there and Languish itself is not ubiquitous enough to stop the deck from being well-positioned overall.
So where do we go from here? As U/R Thopters and Mono-Red Aggro drop in popularity, the format will slow down, which could open the door for a Dig Through Time control deck to re-emerge. However, the spread of threats in this format is incredible and the resilience of cards like Hangarback Walker, Den Protector, and various planeswalkers makes the idea of being reactive unappealing.
Instead, I say that the fall of the Pro Tour decks combined with the re-emergence of Stormbreath Dragon should cause Dromoka's Command's stock to drop. This is great news for a long-forgotten removal spell that just so happens to be particularly good against Hangarback Walker:
R/W Aggro was among the top decks in the metagame in the early part of 2015, but it quickly fell out of favor following Grand Prix Memphis. The printing of Dromoka's Command was horrible for a deck based around small creatures, burn spells, and powerful enchantments. It is certainly a risk to play such a deck again when Dromoka's Command has been popular, but if you find the right week when the Command finally dips in popularity, the payoff is there since Chained to the Rocks is among the most powerful removal spells in the format.
An updated version of the deck may look something like this:
- 4 Abbot of Keral Keep
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 4 Soulfire Grand Master
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
Abbot of Keral Keep replaces Seeker of the Way because having an early red creature is much easier on the mana than another white creature and Soulfire Grand Master provides us with a much more powerful lifegain effect. The card advantage of Abbot is a welcome addition, especially in a deck that plays the most powerful one-mana spell in the format. It is possible that this deck is aggressive enough to want to play Seeker over Grand Master or that a split of the two is best, but for now I have erred towards the more powerful option.
With the Dragon package taking the place of Hordeling Outburst the value of Stoke the Flames goes down, but Magic Origins provided a great substitute with Exquisite Firecraft. I have started with a split because Stoke is still great with Goblin Rabblemaster and is easier to buy back with Grand Master. I could see ending at an equal split or deciding Firecraft is just better and playing the full four copies.
Ideally I would play more than one copy of Haven of the Spirit Dragon, but the mana is quite awkward in this deck even though it is only two colors. I do not feel comfortable with fewer than eleven ways to find a target for Chained to the Rocks or fifteen total white sources, so only a single copy fits unless you want to raise the curve of the deck and add a 26th land.
The sideboard is fairly typical, starting with some removal for big green creatures. I prefer Valorous Stance in general because it can counter removal, but Roast is great with Grand Master so I have a split. Magma Spray is another cheap removal spell against aggressive decks, which is the best option in a deck with Abbot and Grand Master.
I have chosen Chandra, Pyromaster instead of Outpost Siege because I do not want to make myself any more vulnerable to Dromoka's Command than I have to and Chandra's stock goes up with the recent decline in Hero's Downfalls we have seen. A few more resilient threats against control decks are rounded out by a single Tragic Arrogance (which could be great against G/R Devotion if we can cast it) and some speculative Revoke Existences because there are so many targets for it in an open metagame.
In addition to this list, I have an idea for a more aggressive way to utilize Chained to the Rocks:
This deck is capable of some incredible turns, especially if it untaps with a Monastery Mentor in play. The one-mana cantrips may seem low impact, but you need the velocity it provides in order to have enough spells to leverage all your Prowess creatures over multiple turns. Almost any reasonable one-mana spell is great in this deck, so I could also see something like Ajani's Presence or Gods Willing especially since the deck is a bit light on threats.
Rending Volley could be a great sideboard option if Jeskai and Abzan Aggro continue to put up good numbers, and both Myth Realized and Molten Vortex are good, cheap sideboard options against control decks. Even cards like Hammerhand and Glaring Aegis look attractive when your deck rewards cheap cards.
The key is to have as many spells as possible that you can cast proactively since you are so highly rewarded simply for casting them. That is why Valorous Stance completely replaces Roast in the sideboard – even if they do not have a target for the removal half, you can still cast it to further your own game.
The mana is a little worse in this deck since the lower curve and added cantrips make cutting a land worthwhile, but the additional white cards provide added tension between consistently hitting your colors and always having a Mountain for Chained to the Rocks. I have dipped below the comfortable mark of eleven here in order to fit a Mana Confluence as an added white source, but the six cantrips in the deck should help to make up some of the difference. If the cantrips have an even bigger effect than expected, I could even see going down to twenty-three lands... but for now, I am playing it safe.
At some point in the next few weeks, I believe R/W will have an opportunity to rise again. As for exactly when, well, your guess is as good as mine. Khans of Tarkir Standard has rewarded those with the patience to wait until the time is right and the confidence to then pull the trigger.
Maybe after Battle for Zendikar I can finally ride the same deck again for months on end. This weekly grind to find the next best deck is exhausting. I miss the good old days of curving Thassa into Master of Waves while my opponent rolled their eyes at me for being that guy.
But I guess having the format remain fresh for an entire year is kind of nice too!