We have finally found ourselves with the full set list for Ixalan and I've been in the Think Tank this week, doing everything I can to replicate my performance at the starts of Aether Revolt and Amonkhet with a Top 8 finish in both of those opening formats. This set, in conjunction with the rotation, will have Standard looking like a shiny new toy on Christmas with all the bells and whistles you can imagine!
I've been told by many not to get too excited, since the stalwarts of the previous format, Ramunap Red and Temur Energy, lost virtually nothing with the departure of Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad block and are likely the two decks to beat going into SCG Dallas just one week away. Before we can get into all the new decks that will certainly make a showing at the event, we have to be sure we can beat the pillars set in place.
- 4 Bristling Hydra
- 3 Glorybringer
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Whirler Virtuoso
It's no secret that Brad Nelson is in all likelihood the person you should most pay attention to when it comes to Temur Energy. The success he has had in the past several months with all variations of the wedge is unbelievable and this should be the starting point for everyone's testing. If you can't beat this deck, don't bother showing up to the event!
There are those who would splash black for The Scarab God and I can't blame you. The card has proven to be one of the swingiest in the entire format.
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Ahn-Crop Crasher
- 4 Earthshaker Khenra
- 3 Rigging Runner
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 3 Hazoret the Fervent
- 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
I'd say Rigging Runner is a downgrade, but Lightning Strike is an insane upgrade, giving this deck the flexibility and bluffing potential of concealing damage in hand when saying go. With Incendiary Flow, you had to main-phase cast it and almost telegraph an incoming Hazoret the Fervent, allowing your opponent to play accordingly and defend, where now it's even more difficult to tell what's coming down the pipeline.
Those are the two decks of the format that haven't lost much of anything and are decks you absolutely need to test against if you have any hopes of taking home the trophy in Dallas. So what's the right move? Should you just play one of those established decks that have neither gained nor lost much from the rotation and release of Ixalan?
If you're like me and don't want to be left out of the party happening in this awesome new plane we're now in, that's certainly not the case!
While you're certainly not used to seeing me give you any sort of control deck to consider, the new Hero's Downfall, Vraska's Contempt, will see widespread play, as it's the one card that can answer nearly every threat an opponent can cast while gaining two life to make up for its cost. Of all the cards to benefit most from the printing of Vraska's Contempt is Torrential Gearhulk, as, outside of To the Slaughter, there haven't been any instant-speed spells that deal with planeswalkers.
U/B also offers one of the few ways to deal with the new bane of control decks everywhere, Carnage Tyrant.
There are highly limited ways to deal with this card out of any blue-based decks if you're not also playing Fumigate in your deck. While you certainly could go down that route, having another answer in the format of Doomfall lets you handily deal with Carnage Tyrant as well as still playing Vraska's Contempt without stretching your mana too much with a three-color deck.
That all being said, Vraska's Contempt is an answer that other decks can play to deal with what was previously your ace-in-the-hole threat, The Scarab God. It seems no one is safe these days, and while it's usually not correct to be on the controlling side of things Week 1, we have a lot of the same powerful cards as we've had before and some decks just simply can't keep up with Torrential Gearhulk!
- 4 Daring Saboteur
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 3 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Ruin Raider
- 4 Siren Stormtamer
- 2 The Scarab God
There are some cards notably missing from this deck that may seem like auto-includes to some, such as Fathom Fleet Captain and Dreamcaller Siren. I think this isn't an all-in tribal deck like we may have been expecting, at least not without another set in the mix. Those two cards seem obvious if you're able to have a critical mass of tempo-based Pirates, but not with the slower, slightly more powerful ones I think we should be abusing at the moment.
Of all the Pirates in this set, Hostage Taker is by far and away the best one and it's not really close. It only took one game of me testing against it to realize how insanely powerful the card is, and sometimes even with an answer to it in hand, a Siren Stormtamer messed all that up and utterly destroyed me the following turn. I'm not even sure Hostage Taker won't just end up in any Attune with Aether deck that has access to blue and black mana.
Even with the realization that this isn't just the better Brain Maggot that many people first read it as, Kitesail Freebooter does a fantastic job at clearing the way for Hostage Taker, depriving your opponents of both removal and creatures, a one-two punch that is often too much for most decks to handle.
Pirates are likely to get another wave of awesome tools to make them a fully fledged tribe when the next set in the Ixalan block comes out, but for now I think it still has a lot of merit to it in a slightly less focused version.
- 3 Walking Ballista
- 3 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 3 Hostage Taker
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 The Scarab God
I've been trying various versions of Sultai Energy, giving up obviously powerful cards like Harnessed Lightning, Whirler Virtuoso, and Glorybringer for some cards that might be better-positioned at the moment. The obvious synergy that the energy package has with Winding Constrictor is amplified even more with Longtusk Cub, essentially making every energy counter you have directly into a +1/+1 counter. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner is another energy outlet that gives you yet another must-kill threat that can run away with the game like Longtusk Cub can.
I've sung the praises of Merfolk Branchwalker and I stand by them whole heartedly. It's a two-drop that finds a land or gets your closer to one in the early-game and even has an upside with Winding Constrictor making it into a 4/3 over half the time! This little two-drop that could has all the potential to see play in tons of decks that want some interaction early that gains some value and that might not want to dip into blue for a card like Rogue Refiner.
Hostage Taker is the curve-topper doubling as removal, filling the hole that losing Grasp of Darkness left in these type of decks. The dream scenario is stealing a Whirler Virtuoso and immediately casting it, giving you additional energy outlets, or even stealing a Glorybringer and using their own Dragon against them!
All in all, I'm not sure it's going to be right to not just play a deck with three to four copies of Hostage Taker just on its power level alone.
The only exception to that might be bringing the big beats to the table.
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 2 Carnage Tyrant
- 4 Deathgorge Scavenger
- 4 Drover of the Mighty
- 3 Otepec Huntmaster
- 4 Regisaur Alpha
- 4 Ripjaw Raptor
I think there's a happy medium with Dinosaurs where a card like Commune with Dinosaurs is highly playable and not quite broken. I've tried versions without it, mainly because there isn't really a two-cast Dinosaur I want to ensure I have on turn 2 every game. Even without one, having a pseudo-Traverse the Ulvenwald is good enough to find some of the key Dinosaurs when we have a spare mana or just a land when necessary.
This was on my list of cards that would have an important role to play in the Dinosaur deck for many reasons. It can gain life against Ramunap Red, exile Torrential Gearhulk spells preemptively, slow down any kind of Gate to the Afterlife deck getting its wheels spinning, and exile a copy of The Scarab God that's been killed during the turn to stop any kind of shenanigans.
In testing so far, The Scarab God has been the biggest issue for this deck, as the only singular removal we have for it is Savage Stomp and that's contingent on having either a Ripjaw Raptor or Carnage Tyrant already on the battlefield, which isn't something you can count on. Deathgorge Scavenger has the added ability of exiling your own creatures in the early-game to deny The Scarab God's food when it eventually comes down, since this deck has no recursion.
The last deck I want to touch on is an old favorite that did lose its best one-drop in Insolent Neonate. I think it can take on a different shell and still do very well.
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Angel of Invention
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 3 Hostage Taker
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 2 Sunscourge Champion
With the loss of Insolent Neonate, the appeal of using Gate to the Afterlife as your method of cheating God-Pharaoh's Gift onto the battlefield isn't nearly as good. Yes, a card like Rowdy Crew can do similar things to what Insolent Neonate did as far as filling your graveyard is concerned, but I'm not sure it's good enough.
I've seen people try to use Chart a Course as a draw-two for two mana, but that's the least broken thing you can do. At Pro Tour Hour of Devastation I played a similar deck to this, leaving Gate to the Afterlife on the sidelines and being all-in on Refurbish. While it didn't pan out the way I'd have liked there, Chart a Course is literally the perfect card for this deck, giving it more ways to see the cards you need to get the engine going while providing a discard outlet for God-Pharaoh's Gift that undesirably found its way into your hand.
Angel of Invention is still as powerful as ever and even gained a new tool in the form of Hostage Taker, which is possibly at its best here. It's perfect here, because the turn after you get your God-Pharaoh's Gift and smash them with an Angel of Invention, you can return Hostage Taker to the battlefield with all your mana untapped, allowing you to cast the card you exile that same turn!
Wakening Sun's Avatar in the sideboard is likely an upgrade to Cataclysmic Gearhulk out of the sideboard and seems utterly devastating against Temur Energy as well as against any other non-Dinosaur midrange deck.
I'm not trying any misdirection, not hiding any tech or secret brews (at least at the time I'm writing this). I'm beyond thrilled to be getting back to the SCG Tour®, as my short break has left me hungry for another title! We have one week to go before SCG Dallas, and you'd best believe I'll be putting everything I can into this awesome new format, either streaming on Twitch or responding to ideas in the comments below. I hope you all are as excited as I am, and check back next week for my final thoughts before SCG Dallas and what you should be ready for!