Ixalan has now been out on Magic Online for a week and we have our first big Standard results thanks to the SCG Tour® this past weekend. Together, these have taken a format that was just theory and guesswork and have brought it to life, confirming much of what was expected, but offering a few curveballs in there too.
What was to be expected was continued success of Temur Energy as well as Four-Color Energy, and every variant thereof, due to the very little they lost in rotation, as well as strong showings from Ramunap Red, who also lost very little. Approach of the Second Sun would surely be present and we were likely to see some God-Pharaoh's Gift decks, but beyond that was just guesswork.
In some ways, what we expected to be true was all that came to pass. The vast majority of decks in the Top 8 of both the Open as well as the Standard Classic were among the decks mentioned above. Obviously the format is extremely young and it could just be the case that people have yet to figure out their new brews and therefore turn to something that is a known quantity. Still, I think it goes a little beyond that. I wanted to talk about my testing of the format thus far and the things that deckbuilders need to keep in mind as they try to tackle the format.
Energy has a monopoly on midrange. We saw this with Aetherworks Marvel just a year ago, as you essentially have one deck doing its thing so well and so efficiently that playing the game against Energy that Energy wants is stacking the odds against you in a dangerous way.
Between efficient removal, great threats along the curve demanding answers, and a backbreaking end-game built upon value, you're just not going to out-midrange the Energy decks. You need to pick a side to attack Energy from and go hard from that direction.
Your first option is an aggro strategy that tries to punish them before their mana can be established and before their haymakers can come down. Typically this job would be left to Ramunap Red, but with such a target on its head for so long, Energy decks have learned how to combat it reasonably well. Still, if a red deck can find a vulnerability to exploit, it can definitely punish a deck with the manabase like Energy's.
Your second option is to control the game your own way, going over the top of whatever The Scarab God nonsense the Energy deck has planned as its end-game finale. Along the way, you will also need to deal with their Longtusk Cub on Turn 2, likely a Bristling Hydra or two, and probably a Chandra to boot, so it is not as simple as just beating The Scarab God, but you'd better have a plan for The Scarab God in mind as well.
I noticed this when battling with my Grixis Marionette Master brew from last week. I found myself assuming the control role against most of the field and coming out the other side just fine. Against Energy, however, I couldn't just be the control deck as I did not have great answers to their threats. I could take down a Longtusk Cub on Turn 2 and keep Rogue Refiners off my back, but as soon as Bristling Hydra, Glorybringer, and The Scarab God enter the picture, I had better be ahead on the battlefield or my plan falls apart. I just cannot reliably kill all of these threats while keeping my own alive.
- 3 Bristling Hydra
- 2 Glorybringer
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Whirler Virtuoso
- 2 The Scarab God
Because of this, I often found myself trying to switch from control to combo at a time when my setup did not allow it. I would be forced to turn a corner and try to generate as many Treasures as possible in a short amount of time so that I could look to burn the Energy player out with a string of Marionette Master triggers. In switching to try to end the game, however, I no longer can pay any attention to my opponent's creatures and am basically just blocking to stay alive as long as possible so I can hopefully combo off.
Under the pressure of opposing creatures, removal, and planeswalkers, this rarely worked out for me. Occasionally I would steal a game with Master, but for the most part, once they broke past my control elements, I could not pick things up in time to secure a win. I needed to either become more of a control deck so that I could extend the early portion of the game and buy more time for setup, or I needed to become more of a combo deck so I could race the threats that Energy presented.
I decided to test the waters both directions. Here is an updated version of my list from last week, skewed to combat Energy in a more controlling manner.
Before we talk about the metagame as a whole, let me quickly sing the praises of Treasure Map. This card has been absolutely amazing (arguably the best card in the deck), and I would not be surprised to see other lists picking it up.
While this list picked up a few really cool tools in helping us end the game, most importantly Cut (well, Ribbons!), the biggest shift is in multiple copies of a sweeper in the main deck to buy time and card advantage against these creature-based midrange decks. We simply cannot go toe-to-toe with Energy when we are trying to answer their threats on a one-to-one basis while also building up treasures and other artifacts. Instead, we need to extend our setup time and allow for more topdecks that can turn the game around, and Bontu's Last Reckoning allows for that.
We do weaken our strategy against decks like Approach, as Bontu's is a dead card there, but we can make up for that out of the sideboard. With Energy so prevalent in the metagame, I think it is important to address it first and then to shore up the more fringe lists with our extra fifteen.
I could easily not have reached a point where I am controlling enough here. I could see a card like Hour of Devastation being correct to give me a better game against planeswalkers and Energy and to conveniently leave a 4/6 Marionette Master alive and kicking. I can see more card advantage and big controlling bombs like that with Master being our "Titan" of choice as a finisher.
I could even seen moving into an Esper shell so that we can access to more actual Wrath effects like Fumigate and possibly synergy pieces such as Hidden Stockpile. I want to explore all of these directions, as I think they take the core concept we are addressing here, to out-control Energy, and manifest it through different ways while still having an explosive end-game left intact. Expect plenty of updates about the direction of this moving forward!
As mentioned before, though, digging our heels in and going heavier on the control is not our only option. In theory, we could also get lower to the ground and become a little more aggressive, even while using the same shell.
In theory, if we were to incorporate more damage into our gameplan that was not a part of the Master win condition, we rely less on the setup of our combo and instead can use the time we buy to stay alive. Every four damage we deal the opponent is one less artifact needed for Master, so by pressuring the opponent, we are essentially starting our "combo." Being the aggressor also makes our opponent react to our gameplan and makes it less likely that they have a specific answer to our combo when it does finally come up.
I am not talking about a full-on aggro deck like we built last week, but rather a more aggressive control shell. This might seem like we are trying to compete in the midrange space that I am cautioning against, but the reality is that it's actually more of a combo deck in this world. We are not trying to trade one-for-one forever, but instead are only doing so as a means to get to our combo and sneak in some extra damage. There is not as much of a need to answer Bristling Hydra because we, in theory, can just try to win instead.
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
- 1 The Scarab God
Control elements still make sense. After all, Energy is not the only deck in the format and we are never going to be able to race Ramunap Red without interaction, but we can still choose cards that are more aggressive than what we play above. Lightning Strike over Abrade allows for just a little more burn to the face. Captain Lannery Storm sneaks in a few damage here and there while accelerating us to our endgame. And Hostage Taker is proving to be an incredible card that we have simply neglected in our previous lists.
By shifting the focus from "best control cards" to "control cards that happen to supply damage," we reach our end-game that much sooner and therefore don't need as firm of control elements.
This list actually resembles more of a tempo deck than our previous version. The number of times you will Unlicensed Disintegration an enemy creature so that your Captain Lannery Storm can attack again might surprise you. While we played pretty much defensively before until the coast was clear, now we are constantly sending things to the battlefield and to the red zone, inching us closer to our goal of Master plus Treasures.
Gaining Hostage Taker is a really nice element to this list. Even though we could have run it in the list earlier, it would have a much bigger target on its head and the tempo it creates would not be capitalized on as well. Here we can use it as a late-game Control Magic, but even on Turn 4 we might be freeing up a Captain Lannery attack which brings with it plenty of tempo, demanding the removal spell be aimed at Hostage Taker and putting us ahead on mana.
In some ways, the model for this deck was inspired by the performance of Grixis Improvise in Dallas this past weekend. The idea of more threats and more distractions paving the way for a finisher makes some real sense and allows you to win games you otherwise might not have been able to. Let's take a look at what I am talking about.
While SCG Dallas and Andrew Jessup's winning Sultai Energy list will be talked about by plenty of great deckbuilders and players who know the list better than I, there was also an SCG Standard Classic in Dallas this weekend and that event was won by a list much more up my alley. Zac Elsik took down the event with a Grixis artifact shell using Tezzeret the Schemer and Herald of Anguish.
Peter McKinney actually put up a Top 32 finish in the Open playing the same 75 as Elsik, so we see repeated success from this one list, making it unlikely that its victory was just a fluke. Let's take a look at the list and then examine it a little further afterward.
I talked at length about not trying to out-midrange the Energy decks, but here is actually a reasonable example of how to go about that if you are dead set on doing so. The key to Grixis Improvise being able to compete with Energy in the mid-game is that it is generally trying to play a different game during that time. It is not trying to nickel-and-dime you with removal and then just win with a single threat, even if that can happen. Instead, it is deploying creatures, tokens, and sacrifice fodder to the table on nearly every turn of the game.
Most of the energy decks are not playing sweepers and so this strategy begins to warp the way that Energy must play. Now they are forced to leave some attackers back on defense or to use removal in an inefficient way (such as Harnessed Lightning on Pia Nalaar).
This pressure and these distractions ultimately give way to Herald of Anguish. Herald of Anguish is essentially replacing the Marionette Masters from my list and it makes sense. While Master allows for instead wins on the spot and lets you utilize your life total as a resource better (one life is still enough to win instantly), Herald of Anguish requires much less setup and will take over a game if left unchecked for a turn or two.
The big reason Herald is so appealing is that a 5/5 dodges so much of the removal currently seeing play. Cast Out and Unlicensed Disintegration are the most likely answers an opponent can have, but Energy decks and Ramunap Red don't get to play any of those cards. Instead, they are left using Harnessed Lightning if they are lucky and otherwise will be losing their hand and battlefield at a quick pace.
Of course, Herald can lose a lot of this traction it has gained if the metagame shifts. If people begin playing Hour of Devastation, Vraska's Contempt, or Hour of Glory, then Herald of Anguish stops being as dominant. You can still usually sneak it in for a card from the opponent's hand, so a two-for-one is always likely, but you would prefer if your big win condition did a little more than that.
Elsik is certainly not leaning on Herald to do all the lifting, though. This deck actually has a lot of ways to sneak in damage with a ton of 1/1 tokens, flying and otherwise, as well as removal and countermagic to ensure they get through. This means that the opponent needs to spend time and resources dealing with this small army of artifacts while Herald is waiting in your hand to come down and end the party. By that point, if the opponent has a removal spell to deal with Herald, it likely came off the top of their deck and you still have a shot at countering it at least.
The ability for this deck to switch from aggro to control and back, using essentially the same cards, is what gives it an edge against opponents who don't know what is going on. I expect some of the matchups for this list to weaken a bit as people develop more sound gameplans against it, but I still really like the direction the list has taken in the current metagame.
On Renegade Map Versus Traveler's Amulet
Due to my splitting of the two, one of the most common questions I get regarding the Marionette Master builds is why I am running three Renegade Map and one Traveler's Amulet and what value one has over another.
The truth is that neither card is better in a vacuum and both have high and low points during a game. Where there are many corner cases, it can be best summarized as:
- Renegade Map is better in your opening hand. It allows for Turn 2 plays without needing a mana investment and it being tapped does not matter here.
- Traveler's Amulet is a better topdeck in the mid- to late-game as you have the option to immediately find a land and make your drop for the turn. Imagine being stuck on two mana and drawing Map, knowing you won't have three mana until next turn, whereas Amulet gets you there immediately.
- Map happens to be a free sacrifice for when Master comes out, but that requires it already being on the battlefield, whereas Amulet is much better to have in hand when Master makes an appearance as you can play and sacrifice it immediately.
I bring up these two cards because things are a little different in the Improvise list and I am not certain that Map is better here. Improvise requires the tapping of your artifacts, so when you tap your Map to cast something, you no longer have the option to cash it in for a land on that same turn. Similarly, you can never play a "free" Map and then improvise with it immediately.
Map is still going to be a better card in your opening hand, but I would like to examine if Amulet is not just better in a shell like this. Granted, there are many two-drops in the list and only 21 lands, so perhaps Map is used as your second land drop often enough that it wins the competition, so I don't want to just outright claim it incorrect, but would like to examine it further.
We have been primarily focused on Grixis shells playing artifacts up until this point, but I wanted to explore another concept for those of you looking to attack the enemy life total a little more aggressively.
All right, so I must admit that I got a little too excited by Jace, Cunning Castaway. I probably read the card 25 times, and not once in any of those readings did I catch that the token Jace makes does not fly. A -2 ability for a 2/2 with a drawback did not register as being good, so I just constantly read that token as having flying.
Well, 25 tickets on a playset of the newest blue planeswalker later, I casually attacked my 2/2 Illusion right into The Scarab God and my world came crashing down with it.
Still, all is not lost for Jace. He is still a noncreature spell that supplies a creature and the ability to loot with it is pretty nice on occasion. I no longer want four copies of the card in my Favorable Winds decks, but I think we can still get some value from him.
As for Favorable Winds, this is a card that many people are building around and for good reason. The number and quality of the fliers in the format are actually pretty staggering and Favorable Winds is very efficient at what it does. Many people are playing white or black alongside blue to increase their interaction and the pool from which they choose their flying creatures, but I actually think blue alone has enough to get the job done. Riddleform is kind of a ridiculous Magic card, as I learned at GP Denver when one beat me down repeatedly for the win, and Mono-Blue can play that card just fine.
Here is what I am testing at the moment.
- 4 Dreamcaller Siren
- 4 Nimble Obstructionist
- 4 Siren Stormtamer
- 4 Skyship Plunderer
- 2 Storm Fleet Aerialist
- 3 Hope of Ghirapur
While I could get Kitesail Freebooter or Aven Mindcensor for going into another color, I also risk screwing up my curve with tapped lands or not hitting my colors on time. While playing just blue, I don't feel like my card quality has dropped much. Sure, I am playing a few copies of Unsummon where Fatal Push might be, but a proactive one-mana "removal" spell doesn't need to permanently get rid of a creature to leave its impact on the game when you are as aggressive as we are. Just buying yourself a turn can amount to six or seven damage in the air, which doesn't leave that creature much time to do something when it comes back to the battlefield.
Throne of the God-Pharaoh feels like a pretty natural extension of the fifth Favorable Winds, even though I have not seen many other lists adopt that technology just yet. It, alongside a playset of Sunscorched Deserts gives this "something blue" deck a lot more reach than you might expect. Riddleform and our eight creatures with flash also do a great job of playing around sweepers, so you can consistently get in damage without risking nearly as much.
While I certainly think this list has all sorts of room to grow, I like that it attacks the metagame in the air, which is something the Energy decks tend to struggle with, especially the Sultai versions that don't have Glorybringer or Whirler Virtuoso to keep things in check. This puts them in a spot where they are actively needing to race you, and with Unsummon, Perilous Voyage, and Dreamcaller Siren to disrupt them, plus your generally faster clock, this is a race you should be happy taking every time.
I will admit that the format is not as diverse as one might hope it to be immediately after rotation, but I just think it is a matter of time for the world to adjust. If you are a brewer looking for places where you are likely to find the most success, here is what I would recommend:
- Ramp. Ramp is mostly nonexistent right now and Hour of Promise remains incredibly strong. A proactive deck that can go over the top of Energy would be a powerful tool to possess right now. I think building a good ramp deck is difficult at the moment, but the tools are there, they just need to be configured correctly.
- Hyper-Aggro. I would consider that Favorable Skies deck to be hyper-aggro for the purposes of this point. Any deck with blind aggression on the mind is going to have a chance in this format, especially if it can find a way to beat Ramunap Red.
- Niche Control. Approach of the Second Sun sort of has the "traditional" control market cornered at the moment. I think that control has an excellent chance for success, but you need your control deck to do different things from Approach because Approach tends to do the basic stuff really well. Draw-Go other than Approach is essentially not an option right now because of this. Find something worth controlling the game for and experiment!