Rally the Ancestors is the best deck in Standard and you should be playing it at #SCGCOL this weekend.
Normally in a writer's first article, it's customary to say something shocking to grab readers' attention. Today I will forego the shock factor and just try to lay out the article's most important takeaway in the first line. By the end, I hope you'll believe it.
For those who don't know me, my name is Emma Handy. I like long walks on the beach, Lady Gaga, and competitive Magic. It doesn't really matter if it is playing, watching, or just discussing high-level Magic; it all appeals to me. The SCG Tour® has thus far been a great outlet for me to apply my passion and convert it into a little success.
This past weekend I was the most recent addition to the Elimination Rounds Bridesmaids' Club at #SCGATL, piloting a Rally the Ancestors deck to a ninth-place finish with a 12-3 record. It's easy to get sucked into a bad mindset that devolves to a “woe is me for being unlucky” mentality. The reasons this is wrong are twofold.
Even considering that 12-3 is a respectable record, it was absolutely in my control to reach 13-2 or better over the course of the tournament. I have over 100 hours of games in with the Rally deck and still made a significant number of mistakes. Some were incidental and didn't matter. Another poor judgment call I made cost me my match against Dalton Ozmun. Another point to keep in mind is that I absolutely would have still attended the tournament if the proverbial Ghost of Christmas Future had come to me in a dream and told me that I would come in ninth place.
Going into the weekend I was confident I would want to find the best Rally the Ancestors list, and so I began trying out new cards in the archetype early. Reflector Mage was a very welcome addition out of Oath of the Gatewatch but was the only new card that survived playtesting. Reflector Mage's power and role in the deck actually ties in to why Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim isn't a good fit for the deck.
Whenever you can't win with the deck's namesake, your game plan devolves to a mediocre beatdown deck that uses various tempo plays to gain on-board advantages through Collected Company, Nantuko Husk, and your creatures with built-in Unsummon effects. In theory, Ayli should be a welcome addition to a deck that needs sacrifice outlets and efficient creatures. Unfortunately, in practice she is incredibly clunky. Four-Color Rally's ability to spend all of its mana every turn is only surpassed by Jeskai Black. This means that the Four-Color Rally pilot very rarely has any mana left over to spend on sacrificing creatures and gaining life. It is also incredibly rare that you actually want to sacrifice your on-board presence in exchange for a resource as expendable as your life total. While there were times in playtesting that Ayli was valuable, she was often nothing more than a clunky 2/3 deathtouch creature that was difficult to cast on the second turn.
Before discussing more about the deck itself, here is what I played last weekend:
- 3 Catacomb Sifter
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 3 Grim Haruspex
- 4 Nantuko Husk
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 3 Sidisi's Faithful
- 4 Zulaport Cutthroat
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
At this point, Rally players have found the near-perfect manabase for the deck and it is hard to justify changing a single card in it. None of the Rally the Ancestors decks in the Top 32 had the exact same spell lineup, but it's easy to tell which players were more focused on comboing as opposed to the camp that incorporated more midrange elements. Most of the differences stemmed from what card(s) players cut in order to play Reflector Mage.
For my list the first card looked at was Sidisi's Faithful. The Naga serves a similar role and it's hard to quantify how valuable redundant Unsummon effects will be in an open field. After shaving any number of copies of Sidisi's Faithful, it becomes much harder to justify including Liliana. The synergy between the two is unbelievable, Liliana into Faithful being the most efficient way to transform her and then Faithful being in the graveyard to help Liliana, Defiant Necromancer do her best Jace, the Mind Sculptor impression against creature decks.
After lowering the number of Faithfuls (and by extension cutting Liliana), the easiest card to remove was the noncreature spell that most decks had defaulted to using, Murderous Cut. The initial idea behind the spell was to have another maindeck answer to Anafenza, the Foremost. Reflector Mage not only gets it off the table the turn it enters the battlefield, but it almost guarantees you an Anafenza-free untap step as well.
The Felidar Cub was a relatively last-minute addition that had excelled in testing against Silkwrap decks. In a lot of the grindier matchups it appears correct to board out a Zulaport Cutthroat, making it problematic if your opponent has an early Silkwrap for one. Being able to "unlock" creatures from under Silkwrap is an excellent feeling. Finding Cub in a Collected Company or geting to temporarily reanimate it to destroy a second Silkwrap via Rally the Ancestors is one of the better feelings you can have. All-in-all, the card oftentimes felt a bit unnecessary in a deck that wants to be as streamlined as possible. It's unlikely that it will make the cut as the deck evolves.
At #SCGCOL this weekend I am likely to play something close to the following list:
- 3 Catacomb Sifter
- 4 Elvish Visionary
- 1 Grim Haruspex
- 4 Nantuko Husk
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 3 Sidisi's Faithful
- 4 Zulaport Cutthroat
- 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
I regularly found myself relegating Grim Haruspex to the sideboard and leaning heavily on my copies of Dispel. I have had reasonable success with Dispel in the maindeck previously (choosing to play it over the usual Murderous Cut for a long time pre-Oath) and am confident in the card's power outside of the ramp matchup. Dispel being weak against the ramp decks is mitigated by the fact that Jace tends to live longer in the matchup, making Dispel a safe and easy discard.
The addition of Hallowed Moonlight is a concession to the inevitable increase of Rally decks in the coming weeks. As more and more people realize how strong the deck is, more powerful hate cards will be required for the matchup. Many players moved away from Anafenza in lieu of Hallowed Moonlight this past weekend but I don't buy it. Part of Anafenza's strength is allowing you to continue to tap low while she is on the battlefield. Hallowed Moonlight requires you to hold two mana up every turn whether they have Rally/Company or not.
The strength that Hallowed Moonlight has over Anafenza, the Foremost is it can't be bounced by the plethora of pseudo-Man-o'-Wars in the deck. Playing the fourth Anafenza is unreasonable due to the legendary clause but it is the type of card you want to find every game as early as possible. If Rally decks end up moving to the full four Sidisi's Faithful on top of four Reflector Mage, Hallowed Moonlight may become a necessity.
The reintroduction of Minister of Pain to the board is a concession to Korey McDuffie's newest variant of Atarka Red.
With tokens at a high-point in red-decks, it seems like a safe card to play a single copy of. It may prove to be better to just have a third copy of Arashin Cleric in this spot as Minister of Pain is generally much stronger in Rally variants that can loop it with Liliana, Defiant Necromancer.
I'm usually anti-sideboarding guides but think this deck plays oddly enough to warrant explaining why some cards are more important than others in a given matchup.
In this matchup you just want to play damage control for as long as possible and try to eventually drain them with Zulaport Cutthroats. Most of your creatures do a pretty good Nekrataal impression against tokens or have sizeable toughness. If they get a particularly aggressive draw you will be in trouble, with your best bet being to use Sidisi's Faithful as Yoked Ox and regularly blocking with Jace and hoping they don't have a way to pump their creature. Even if they do, it is regularly reasonable to trade your Jace for the precious life points that a Titan's Strength would have otherwise taken. If they are playing a more combo-oriented version of the deck, finding room for Murderous Cut is crucial to your success. Jace is one of the earlier cards to look to for cards that are weak against the strategies that go wide, but shaving copies of three-drops may be a better plan.
Jeskai Black is one of the better matchups for the Rally deck. It's just a difficult needle to thread at times. The Jeskai deck relies on its ability to break apart what the opponent is trying to do. This becomes significantly harder for them when they have to be wary of a combo-kill from you on top of your deck being incredibly resilient to removal. Their game plan is not conducive with any of our draws that involve more than two Zulaport Cutthroats (and honestly, the second one is usually pushing it) so shaving one is relatively academic. The two Rallies are in anticipation of our opponent bringing in hate cards along the lines of Hallowed Moonlight and Dispel. A well-positioned Hallowed Moonlight is oftentimes lights out for Rally, so making yourself as prepared for the card as possible is an important step to take.
Bringing in Murderous Cut against a deck as light on creatures as Jeskai Black feels poor, but the opportunity cost of having a couple of weaker topdecks is worth avoiding some of the nightmare scenarios from Jeskai Black. Our deck is jam-packed with ways to bounce creatures, but permanently dealing with Monastery Mentor is an absolute priority. An opponent's single untap step with the Monk is a pretty bad sign that forces you into a position that requires a combo-kill.
I very regularly overcomplicate the board plan here and it is much easier to keep it simple. Duress can hit some of their early ramp spells and your bounce-creatures interact favorably with their mana dorks and Hangarback Walkers. It is wise to try and avoid cracking your fetchlands for mana past five. It makes it infinitely harder for your opponent to color-screw you with Ulamog if you can just fetch up whatever color they try to get rid of. Either of the ten-mana Eldrazi can be problematic, but most of the others aren't enormous issues.
This matchup boils down to to you trying to stay alive in order to find a pocket to successfully combo. The Abzan deck is good at picking off one or two combo pieces while applying pressure, making Zulaport Cutthroat a liability if drawn in multiples. Many players sing Jace's praises in this matchup, but in practice he is regularly a liability, not actually contributing anything unless you get multiple untap steps with an early copy or getting to untap at all with a late one. Bringing in the Fleshbag package is much better against a deck that is trying to put a lot of stock in one to three efficient pieces of pressure.
Shaving a Rally the Ancestors is necessary as you are going to win more games by resolving a Rally the Ancestors through a Hallowed Moonlight (via either Duress or Dispel) that you are via multiple Rallies. These games have a tendency to go a bit longer than one would think, so going down to three copies of Rally isn't as scary as it appears. Murderous Cuts are crucial against a deck that plays four Anafenza, the Foremost. Murderous Cut is also an exceptional way to punish players for playing Dromoka's Command greedily.
The actual sideboarding here is mostly trimming combo pieces for ways to interact with your opponent's combo. The gameplay in the mirror is a very long and drawn-out game of cat and mouse. Making sure to play at a reasonably brisk pace is nearly as important as the actual plays that are being made. The ideal scenario in the mirror is:
Turn 4: Untapped land, Collected Company.
Turn 5: Flip Jace, flashback Collected Company.
Your best bet is to do whatever you can to stick to this line of play while disrupting your opponent taking the same line. Being on the play is incredibly important in any tempo-driven matchup and this is no exception. Reflector Mage-ing Jace is a great play that you should make when possible. Be patient with extra Jaces that you have. You do not need to loot as soon as possible.
Remember that the discard is just as important as the draw with Jace. There are games you will be able to win by putting a Zulaport Cutthroat in your graveyard at instant speed, and then Rallying. The most I can really say about this particular mirror is that nothing replaces actual experience that comes from playing games of Magic. The more games you play with in this mirror match, the more you will understand the deck as a whole.
All of this information really only scratches the surface of all the minute technicalities of Four-Color Rally. Like any deck, there are interactions that aren't apparent on paper. To echo my previous sentiment, nothing replaces actual games of Magic. As I write this, I am planning to go to every single SCG Tour® event for the rest of the year. If you want to talk about the deck at #SCGCOL, feel free to come up and say hello!