This weekend brings Pro Tour Hour of Devastation and all the sweet Standard action that goes along with it. Also, there's Limited, I guess, but that's not what we're going to focus on today. Over the last few weeks, we've started to see the Standard format we've been wanting for. The year of our Lord Nicol Bolas 2017 has not been kind to those who are fans of the format, but I'm hoping that's all about to change.
Well, except for one glaring potential problem.
Let me start by saying this: there is a very good reason that so few professional Magic players are talking about God-Pharaoh's Gift. My best guess is that many of them are planning on playing it at the Pro Tour, and for good reason. While it's expensive to cast, there are a few ways to cheat it onto the battlefield, including the mostly-forgotten Draft chaff Gate to the Afterlife. You know, I really dislike it when they make cards that do nothing until another set is released. But now that the referenced card is printed and playable, we have to take another look.
First of all, having a noncreature permanent that triggers whenever one of your creatures dies is pretty sweet. It can make for some cool combos with sacrifice outlets or even protect you (somewhat) from a sweeper effect. While Gate to the Afterlife isn't exactly a powerhouse card on its own, it does fuel itself. Whenever one of your creatures dies, you get to draw and then discard. That means every creature of yours that somehow dies has the ability to twice-fuel your graveyard to turn on the second ability.
And the second ability is where the money's at.
There is so much strange text on both of these cards that it took me quite a few tries to really understand what exactly they did. For starters, I missed that God-Pharaoh's Gift gave the "Eternalized" creatures haste, and then I expected them to get exiled at the end of turn. Nope, they just stick around, and you continually assemble an army. But the best part of all is that all of your token creatures still get their "enters-the-battlefield" effect!
- 3 Cataclysmic Gearhulk
- 4 Angel of Invention
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 3 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 4 Thraben Inspector
My best estimation is that this deck will function much like the W/U Oketra's Monument deck I played at the Season One Invitational, except there with a much stronger late-game. And to me, that really says a lot about the archetype in general, since W/U Monument has a very good late-game. Instead of just assembling an army of small creatures that eventually turn on Westvale Abbey or overrun your opponent through brute force, you are playing with a card that allows you make a serious threat every single turn...that also has haste...and gets some value along the way.
While this card never got off the ground in my initial test runs, it wasn't for a lack of trying. I thought putting a fourth-turn Combustible Gearhulk onto the battlefield was a big deal, but it just wasn't enough. And it wasn't worth all the time and energy spent. At the time Refurbish was printed, there weren't too many big artifacts worth looking at, but I've been keeping an eye out. And God-Pharaoh's Gift seems to fit the bill nicely.
But while Refurbish will be primarily aimed at playing a cheap God-Pharaoh's Gift, you can still just reanimate Cataclysmic Gearhulk, which could help fend off a swarm of Zombies or other annoying creatures. Can you imagine trying to beat Cataclysmic Gearhulk with a Zombies deck? Sure, you can recoup some of those lost creatures, but what if they follow that up with a God-Pharaoh's Gift, or even just an Angel of Invention?
My guess is that you'll be fighting an uphill battle that will be very difficult to overcome.
Minister of Inquiries seems a little strange to me, since we have no other ways of generating energy, but I understand why it is here. Filling your graveyard for cheap can be priceless in a deck like this. Not only can you find big artifacts for Refurbish, but you can push yourself closer to turning on Gate to the Afterlife. Plus, you need to be able to continually put creatures into your graveyard if your opponent is able to deal with your first two or three tokens. While I'd like to see an Aether Hub or three in this deck, I can understand why it wouldn't make the cut.
Strategic Planning is another "new" card that I was really hoping would find a home. Well, it didn't take long. Not only is it another way to help fuel the graveyard, but it can dig for whatever card you need in a given situation. Is your opponent overwhelming you with small creatures? Dig for a Cataclysmic Gearhulk. Is your hand full of expensive clunkers and a useless Refurbish? Dig for a Champion of Wits! While digging for whatever card you need for the occasion, you could also just find whatever card you need to be in the graveyard.
Champion of Wits is the card that really makes this deck tick, though. Discarding your expensive artifacts so you can bring them back next turn is huge, but filtering your early draws so that you can smooth out your next few turns is key. Plus, if your opponent happens to draw a ton of Abrade or other artifact removal, you'll need cards like Champion of Wits to win longer games. Eternalize is one of the better keyword abilities I've seen in the last few years, since it gives decks something to do that flood out. Plus, many of the eternalize creatures are power/toughness related, so bringing them back with eternalize gives you a very swingy effect.
To say I'm impressed by Champion of Wits is an understatement. While I don't know if it is the best card from Hour of Devastation, I do think it can make quite the case. From Emerge to graveyard-related strategies, it seems to fill in all the blanks. I'm quite happy with the design, and it sure seems to have found a home for the time being.
The first step for this deck is figuring out a way to survive until you can cast or put God-Pharaoh's Gift onto the battlefield. With creatures like Thraben Inspector, Champion of Wits, and even Angel of Invention locking up the ground, you can buy yourself plenty of time to set up your marquee card.
If you can't find God-Pharaoh's Gift or your opponent can continually answer it, the deck does have alternate paths to victory. This isn't a combo deck. This is just another version of Rally the Ancestors. While we can certainly win the game with our namesake card, we have the tools to win games without it. And if people are starting to play a bunch of graveyard hate and/or artifact destruction, our backup plan is simple: beatdown with random creatures.
That's the beauty of a deck like God-Pharaoh's Gift. We're not bottlenecked into doing one thing. We aren't a glass-cannon combo deck. Our deck is full of value creatures and we can easily just cast them until you die. And, if we're ever given the opportunity to resolve the namesake card, you're just dead. Well, maybe not dead immediately, but you get the idea.
The downside to getting our God-Pharaoh's Gift countered or destroyed is that we probably put a lot of effort into getting it on the battlefield. The tempo black hole created by it dying is pretty miserable, but one that we can overcome. This deck offers up quite a bit of redundancy, but with the ability to switch gears if necessary. It all just depends on the matchup.
Against Mono-Red, our goal is to trade our creatures aggressively. They have a tough time beating Thraben Inspector, of all cards. I can't imagine them trying to keep up with the lifelink on Angel of Invention (assuming it lives). Our end-game is much stronger than theirs, so using your early creatures to make blocks is all you need to worry about. Eventually, you'll find a way to close out the game. It just takes some time, and you should be using every creature in your arsenal to help buy you that time.
Against control decks, we probably don't need to rush. If we can stick an early creature or two, those might just get the job done on their own. If our opponent goes to remove one or two of them, it might open up a window for us to stick a Gate to the Afterlife or even a Refurbish on God-Pharaoh's Gift itself. While it will be tough to fight through all the counterspells, there is a very good reason why we have four copies of Dispel in the sideboard. We want to win those battles.
My gut tells me that you need a bit more help against control, and that help might come in the form of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I was very happy with my sideboard plan of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar out of the W/U Monument deck, and it singlehandedly won me multiple games against control. At some point, your opponent will have to bite, and that could open up the door to land Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or some other powerful spell. And when it's backed up by four copies of Dispel, landing a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar shouldn't be all that tough.
Against other midrange and Champion of Wits strategies, you shouldn't have too much trouble overwhelming them with your end-game. If they start to flood the battlefield with a few too many creatures, threatening a lethal swing with Elder Deep-Fiend(s), a single Cataclysmic Gearhulk could do the trick. Otherwise, just keep playing casting and hope you can find a God-Pharaoh's Gift before they sweep your battlefield with Kozilek's Return. Their biggest threat against you will be Elder Deep-Fiend, so try to prevent as much damage in the early turns as possible. Once they start chaining Elder Deep-Fiends together, taking away multiple turns in a row, that's when you lose.
While I'm not sold on the sideboard plan just yet, I think there are some things we need to unpack before we continue. First of all, the four copies of Dispel.
As we talked about earlier, counterspells can really hinder a deck like this. Our creatures aren't exactly huge, and we don't have a lot of must-counter cards to pound away at their resources. The trick with Dispel is using it to force through your big spells in just the right spots. While Dispel isn't as versatile as Negate or some other counterspell, it does exactly what you want it to do: force through your best spell against a control deck. Nothing else matters.
While Dispel is a solid card, you could also think about switching the sideboard around a bit to do something a little different. As I said earlier, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a fine start, but what if we took it a bit further? Instead of having our deck center around the graveyard, why couldn't we transition to a different strategy altogether? Oketra's Monument alongside Spell Queller? What about just moving toward a Rattlechains, Negate, Spell Queller strategy? Do we really have to rely on God-Pharaoh's Gift to do all the heavy lifting?
I'm not a huge fan of Fragmentize or Declaration in Stone, and I would very much like an alternate win condition for hateful opponents. While some of the above chatter might seem like nonsense (it very well could be), more and more people are already preparing to beat it. You really think Ramp decks are going to lose to Void Winnower coming back off God-Pharaoh's Gift? Of course not! Every last one of them is going to have Crook of Condemnation and/or Struggle // Survive to help fend off this type of thing.
Was having Void Winnower as an anti-ramp sideboard straight fire emoji in the first few weeks of the format? Absolutely. No one is questioning that. But you can't just sit on your hands and think that this list is going to get the job done at the Pro Tour. People know how your deck works. They're going to play against it a lot, and they're going to find ways to pick you apart. So, in turn, you need to find a sideboard strategy that can allow you to adapt. Whether that means transforming into a different deck entirely is up to you, but my gut is screaming that you can't necessarily rely on God-Pharaoh's Gift in every single matchup. It's lunacy to assume it will always work.
Graveyard hate doesn't actually affect this deck too badly other than shutting down Gate to the Afterlife. Crook of Condemnation and others are easily outmaneuvered thanks to stuff like Minister of Inquiries. And since God-Pharaoh's Gift doesn't actually target a creature in your graveyard, the first activated ability of Crook of Condemnation doesn't shut you down too hard. In order to get rid of every creature, they'll just have to pop their artifact. After that, you can rebuild with a number of spells in your deck.
The easiest way to disrupt this strategy is by killing the God-Pharaoh's Gift before it gets a chance to trigger. In the mirror, that's virtually impossible. Like the W/U Monument mirror, you don't really have much to keep the other deck in check, and it will be a grindy battle to the bitter end. From other decks, you need to understand what types of strategies will have ways to kill your God-Pharaoh's Gift and what you can do to mitigate that attack. Aggressive strategies like Mono-Red Aggro with Abrade will require some finesse, but I think most of your creatures line up well against theirs. You just need to outlast their early onslaught.
So, with that in mind, here's the sideboard I would register at the Pro Tour this weekend (the maindeck almost perfect).
Outside of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I can't think of a better solution to the problem. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a fine win condition on its own, and you can protect it pretty well with your early creatures. Of course, this won't always work against an opposing aggressive strategy. Mono-Red Aggro and Zombies are notorious for being able to kill Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on the spot, so I would probably save that sideboard plan for matchups that are more reliant on instant-speed interaction.
I hope everyone's aware that this is just the first iteration of God-Pharaoh's Gift and what it can do. I'm assuming that players at the Pro Tour will find a better version of the deck after being holed up for two weeks of testing. God-Pharaoh's Gift and Gate to the Afterlife are colorless artifacts that can play other colors if they want to. In fact, there are plenty of creatures in other colors that have awesome "enters-the-battlefield" abilities. Did we forget about this one?
Over the weekend, I'm sure we'll see a lot of people piloting this God-Pharaoh's Gift deck, and I am confident it there will be more than just the W/U one running around. The engine is powerful and something people can build around. It shouldn't take long for people to find a different build that might incorporate the two-artifact combo a little bit better. After all, we saw all sorts of Emrakul, the Promised End decks when it was first released, and it took weeks, if not months, for most people to settle on Temur Emerge and B/G Delirium being the dominant Emrakul decks.
While I'm not confident this deck will win the tournament, I expect it to do well. Mostly, I know that it is a good deck, and the fact that so few people are talking about it makes me really think people are trying to keep it under wraps. And honestly, I'm just looking forward to seeing how this weekend turns out. I want desperately for Standard to be fun again. The last month or two since the banning of Aetherworks Marvel has been a dream come true, and I would like to see that trend continue.