Testing for Pro Tour Ixalan was interesting.
Everyone knew Energy decks and Ramunap Red would be good, so the first question to answer: could anything actually reliably beat them?
My initial testing was focused on Sultai Energy. I'd had success building Winding Constrictor decks in the past, and it seemed like it could have the necessary tools to beat everything I wanted it to and more, especially with the additions of Duress and Hostage Taker.
I liked the normal builds of Sultai, but wasn't especially happy with how Walking Ballista was positioned, so I tried to build Sultai Energy more similarly to how Temur Energy is built:
- 3 Bristling Hydra
- 1 Champion of Wits
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Rogue Refiner
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
- 2 The Scarab God
The problem with all the versions of Sultai Energy I tried was that they were struggling against Temur Energy. It was difficult assembling Winding Constrictor shenanigans against all their removal and Hostage Taker was weak to Bristling Hydra and Glorybringer.
I also found that Glorybringer and Whirler Virtuoso would usually just burn me out before I could assemble a dominant enough battlefield presence. I kind of began to view Temur Energy as a big old Burn deck, and Sultai just wasn't cutting it.
I wasn't looking forward to playing Temur Energy mirrors.
Thankfully I had my brother cooking up something good.
This Pro Tour marked me joining Team Massdrop, and my one stipulation for testing with the new team was that I also be able to test with my brother Dean, who was also qualified for the Pro Tour. This turned out to be very important, since Dean ended up delivering big time by discovering and championing U/W Gift.
This was the original list Dean found online and began to work from, and a lot of credit goes to Magic Online player Seth2. Seth2 really nailed it, and a lot of the tools that ended up in our final version were here as well.
Initially I was super-skeptical about the deck. I remember when Dean first told me about the deck and I pretty much scoffed at it; well, maybe not quite a full scoff, but I made a face.
Dean claimed he was crushing with it against everything, and I was getting frustrated with Sultai, so I gave this "gimmick deck" a try.
I was surprised by the power and consistency of the combo and quickly grew to like the deck more and more. I turned my focus towards the deck and began tuning it, most notably by adding Sacred Cat to the maindeck.
It wasn't long after we had updated the deck that some of our other team members took notice, including Pascal, who would end up getting second place at the Pro Tour with it.
Here's what I played at the Pro Tour:
It was difficult to build and pinpoint exactly what the deck wanted beyond its core, since its core was so strong. My deck was three cards different from Dean's version, and a few more than that different from Pascal's second-place list, notably not running any Angel of Sanctions in the sideboard.
The basic goal of the deck is getting God-Pharaoh's Gift in the graveyard and quickly returning it to the battlefield with Refurbish, and then reanimating Angel of Invention as the biggest, baddest Baneslayer Angel you've ever seen. This is usually enough to get the job done, but the games where you don't get to that point easily can be much trickier. Sequencing and optimizing you card draw and searching is important... To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand the deck.
Some games, you dig hard and don't find a critical missing piece and feel like an idiot for not trying to win the value game; others, you wish you had dug harder as your value game gets trounced. Determining what your role is and odds of success for either plan is essential.
Speed at which you Refurbish God-Pharaoh's Gift is usually what determines your success. Sometimes you don't see a crucial God-Pharaoh's Gift or Refurbish after digging through half your deck, and other times you just naturally have all your pieces and discard them with Champion of Wits on Turn 3 easy-peasy.
The key is that the deck usually does in fact draw its pieces in a timely fashion, since there are a lot of ways to dig through the deck. Further, the rest of the format was somewhat unprepared and not that many packed full Abrades maindeck.
The addition of Sacred Cat to the maindeck turned out to be essential for making the deck solid against Ramunap Red and Temur Energy in Game 1. My thinking along the lines of Temur Energy being a Burn deck helped me realize this. You have so many ways to flip Sacred Cat or discard it, it doesn't matter that it's usually a weak card to draw naturally.
Sacred Cat is a speed bump, the perfect Cat-shaped speed bump that buys you time to assemble your combo. Sorry, kitty, hang in there, baby! It's especially excellent at delaying Longtusk Cub damage and size early in the game, even though it's losing that "catfight" every time.
I made an attempt to optimize the Cat theme, since I already had Sacred Cat and Search for Az-cat-a, but Cat-aclysmic Gearhulk ended up being medioc-purr.
I love having one Fumigate maindeck, since it allows you to win otherwise unwinnable games where you don't see your combo. Powerful one-ofs are good in the deck, even if they don't help your combo, since you have a ridiculous amount of card draw and selection.
Fairgrounds Warden was the final key addition to the deck that tied everything together nicely. It was not only the missing piece that helped the Red matchup and dealt with Rampaging Ferocidon, it was also just great against any deck with creatures post-sideboard when your opponent is less likely to have removal. Fairgrounds Warden excels by being able to nab a Bomat Courier or Longtusk Cub that has been acquiring value or fight back against Hostage Taker, The Scarab God, and Kitesail Freebooter.
I liked having one Fairgrounds Warden maindeck as a God-Pharaoh's Gift target, since it often allowed me to profitably respond to scary cards by Refurbishing God-Pharaoh's Gift and exiling an opponent's maindeck The Scarab God or Rampaging Ferocidon.
While maindeck games are usually a breeze, post-sideboard can be somewhat trickier to navigate. One of the big advantages going into the Pro Tour was that the deck was a much more unknown entity. I expect things to get harder for the deck going forward.
Sideboarding with the deck is fluid and depends on what you think your opponent is going to do, which tends to be all over the place. Here was my template for the major matchups:
Temur Energy, on the play:
Building a sideboard in this Standard format is interesting since, just like with deckbuilding, you start by essentially only caring about beating Temur Energy and Ramunap Red. You want to build the best post-sideboard configuration your deck is capable of against Temur Energy and Ramunap Red and are willing to use fifteen sideboard slots to do so. Then maybe later you can dedicate a couple slots to the rest of the format, but mostly you're fine just working with whatever you already have for Temur Energy and Ramunap Red.
Fairgrounds Warden helps a great deal in the Temur Energy and Ramunap Red matchups. It not only provides you with removal but with a creature to reanimate when you're decreasing your creature count.
The best thing you can do is threaten to reanimate God-Pharaoh's Gift by getting it in the graveyard as quickly as possible. If the Temur player doesn't have Deathgorge Scavenger, they have to keep up mana to respect it or risk you comboing off. If they do keep up mana, you can start hard-casting Angel of Invention or Cast Out on your opponent's turn, which leaves them mana-inefficient and allows you to start playing the fair game until they have to tap out or risk losing to you slowly getting value through Plan B.
Temur Energy, on the draw:
Being on the draw against Temur is a lot worse post-sideboard, since you can't Fairgrounds Warden a Longtuk Cub or Servant of the Conduit before they get a chance to use it. Sometimes, if you're behind, you can't play scared and have to fire off a Refurbish or Fumigate that isn't guaranteed to resolve.
Ramunap Red has a lot of scary cards, including Rampaging Ferocidon, Abrade, and Scavenger Grounds. Combined with a fast clock, it puts a lot of pressure on the deck to perform, and your average hands usually aren't going to cut it.
Ramunap Red was the deck I wanted to respect the most going into the Pro Tour, and it still wasn't enough, since I lost to it twice by drawing awful hands in my post-sideboard games. Turns out random creatures and burn still end up getting you dead if you don't do anything.
Rampaging Ferocidon lives up to its name by being by far the most ferocious card they have, so a lot of choices that went into deckbuilding and sideboarding revolve around it. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship is an excellent answer to one Ferocidon and sometimes more, and you can even Refurbish it as an added bonus. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship is similarly good against Deathgorge Scavenger.
Fumigate is bad against Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but it's still one of your best cards, since it allows you to completely catch up by attacking through massive hate towards God-Pharaoh's Gift in otherwise unwinnable games while clearing away Rampaging Ferocidon.
Thus concludes the comprehensive rundown of how to sideboard against all the decks in the format.
Unfortunately, my tournament didn't go as planned and I got eliminated at the end of Day 1. The only one to truly destroy with the deck was Pascal, proving its viability, so a big congrats to him. Pascal put in the time and practice and crushed it.
So where does U/W Gift go from here?
Well, since it had such a high-profile finish, I expect things to get harder for U/W Gift in the near future.
There were plenty of misplays against Pascal because his opponents just didn't know the correct way to play against the deck, and I expect people to start wising up. The biggest issue was people playing scared. Sometimes you have to tap out and risk losing. That goes both ways; if you're piloting U/W Gift, there's no point in playing around something if it's unlikely to get better for you. I know I've lost games playing around Abrade from Ramunap Red and just getting into a worse position because of it.
I still love the deck, even though it failed me, and looking back, I think it was one of the coolest and most powerful I've played at a Pro Tour in recent memory.
Even though it hasn't been a great year for me in terms of big tournament results, it's been an excellent one as far as deckbuilding is concerned, not just for coming up with new archetypes but for tuning existing ones as well. I created a lot of new cool and powerful archetypes, including Temur Marvel, various forms of B/G Delirium including the version with Dissenter's Deliverance that was decent against Temur Marvel, and now I've helped with U/W Gift.
Tapping into my creative deckbuilding side has been a lot of fun and I'm only getting more comfortable and enjoying it more and more. Crafting a finely tuned deck is almost as appealing to me as doing well in a tournament… almost.
Now I'm looking forward to that Modern Pro Tour and what lies in store for 2018!