Anyone who knows me personally knows that William Jensen winning the World Championship in Boston last year was a significant life event for me. We've been friends and roommates for years now and we prepared for that event together. Preparation was a difficult task for Worlds because Ixalan had just been introduced into Standard and there hadn't been a major event to help us with decklists we may want to copy or use as baselines for our own brews. Therefore, we needed to start entirely from scratch.
I realize that Rivals of Ixalan has since been printed and they banned some of the cards that we used in Temur Energy, but I still believe there are lessons to be learned that can help us have an edge on the competition moving forward. The reason I mentioned my preparation for Worlds was because we literally sat in a house isolated from other humans playing Magic from sun up to sun down trying to master Standard and explore every possible archetype.
One funny side note from our testing was that Huey and I decided the power level of Ixalan was so low that it was a mistake to play with any of the cards from the set. I believed our edge in the tournament was to get paired against other players who made the mistake of including cards from Ixalan in their Constructed deck (our only exception to this rule was a few copies of Rootbound Crag). I also still can't believe ten of the twenty-four players at Worlds played Ramunap Red when, now, looking back it's an accepted fact that it was an underdog against Temur Energy.
Come on people! It's science!
The biggest takeaway for me in Standard right now is that the mana is really bad. I'm going to repeat myself because this statement should inform your deck choice for the foreseeable future - manabases right now do not meet basic standards for what I deem to be acceptable levels of consistency, with the exception of Mono-Red Aggro. The reason Mono-Red wins as much as it does is because it's a one-color deck with extremely consistent mana. We could sit around all day and argue about how broken cards like Glorybringer, Hazoret the Fervent, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are, but the reality is it's all about consistency.
The only pushed Constructed card for Mono-Red that was too good was Ramunap Ruins. In games where you drew a Ramunap Ruins and a Sunscorched Desert, you're just printing five damage where there otherwise wouldn't have been any damage at all. In the history of Magic, the struggle between red aggro decks and other Constructed decks built to beat them is how do you stabilize at a low life total and turn the game around. It's a classic type of game that everyone enjoys playing. Now imagine having to play against a red aggressive deck, but your starting life total is fifteen and not twenty. That's egregious! On top of that, the cost for them to play with Ramunap Ruins was at an all-time low, as the land generated the deck's primary color of mana and it entered the battlefield untapped. Good riddance!
For sake of example, here's a 5-0 decklist I found from a Standard league on Magic Online:
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Ahn-Crop Crasher
- 4 Earthshaker Khenra
- 4 Fanatical Firebrand
- 4 Rigging Runner
- 4 Hazoret the Fervent
- 3 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
If you want to truly understand my point about Standard having bad mana, look no further than the above decklist. This deck plays 24 land, but let's just pretend for argument's sake that they don't get lucky and draw one of their four copies of Inspiring Vantage during a game. That leaves that manabase as 13 Mountains, 6 Plains, and 1 Aether Hub.
That's like looking at a Sealed deck!
It's like drafting red and white commons and playing 10 Mountains, 7 Plains, and hoping you draw one of each. Nothing about this deck shows me that it's trying to combine power with consistency but is instead prioritizing power over consistency. I'm notoriously bad at identifying decks that sacrifice consistency for power but occasionally I get it right (see Temurge at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon).
The way Standard has worked lately is the power level of all the cards has been really high, so no matter what color combination you play, you're going to have a pretty sweet curve topper. It can be Glorybringer, Regal Caracal, Torrential Gearhulk, Verdurous Gearhulk, or The Scarab God, but they're all quite likely to lead to a win for the caster as long as they can cast them at a high life total and on a stable battlefield. Magic is a beautiful game, but at its core it's really all about consistency and how to find the perfect marriage between consistency and power.
At Pro Tour Hour of Devastation, when I played Ramunap Red I told myself, "I'm a red beatdown player. If I win the die roll and make a Bomat Courier, what can my opponent do on their first turn to kill it? Fatal Push and Magma Spray." We all know there are ways to kill it later in the game, but as long as my deck is functioning as intended I should be able to play a spell each turn after that and overload my opponent or at least deal damage enough times to get them within Ramunap Ruins range. I think a similar question should be asked today - "How do we get red or black mana untapped on Turn 1?" My go-to answer in the past was Aether Hub, but now I'm starting to suspect it might be old reliable…
If I were headed to GP Memphis this weekend, I would be playing some version of the Brad Nelson style Sultai Midrange he wrote about last week . I'm in love with Fatal Push, Vraska's Contempt, and The Scarab God. Standard has always been my bread and butter, and when I play I do my best to give myself a deck where I can play the type of games that I want to play and avoid that feeling of helplessness that comes when you just get run over. It could be arrogance or delusions of grandeur, but I always feel like if I can come prepared with the right reactive cards, play well, and outmaneuver my opponent in sideboarding, there's almost nobody that can beat me.
Take a look at the decks I've made the Top 8 of Pro Tours with:
- Jeskai Black
- B/W Devotion
To say I have a preference for midrange would be an understatement. Sultai Midrange just seems to check all the boxes that I look for and reminds me of Abzan with Siege Rhino or Mono-Black Devotion with Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
- 3 Champion of Wits
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 1 Hostage Taker
- 2 Kitesail Freebooter
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
- 3 The Scarab God
It just seems to have everything. Champion of Wits in game 1 makes your copies of The Scarab God supercharged while also giving you absurd game against control, as casting one allows you to mitigate the downside of having worthless removal spells you don't want in the wrong matchups. Champion also gives you a sick late game with the eternalize ability simulating Careful Consideration.
Vraska's Contempt was dismissed at first as a worse version of Hero's Downfall, but it seems now more than ever before that exiling creatures is an absolute necessity given how many copies of Hazoret the Fervent, The Scarab God, and Rekindling Phoenix are seeing play.
Gifted Aetherborn is my least favorite card in the deck. The ability to turn an anti-aggro card into some real sauce against control when you draw it in combination with Arguel's Blood Fast is pretty sweet, but it's just too fancy for my tastes. I think Arguel's Blood Fast is already an "I-win ticket" redeemable for one free game win anytime it resolves against control or ramp. It's possible I'm setting my expectations too high and you simply need to play Gifted Aetherborn on power level, the extra bonus against Mono-Red, and the synergy with The Scarab God making 4/4 lifelink creatures, but I hope to find a replacement soon.
Hostage Taker is just fake news. Every time I put it in a deck, it's a complete and utter embarrassment. Not only is it expensive, but it's bad when you're behind and is occasionally a huge liability in situations where you exile a creature with an enters the battlefield ability (or god forbid an exerted Glorybinger). Worst of all, if you try and wait to play Hostage Taker and cast the card you take all in one turn, the opponent can just kill Hostage Taker with its ability on the stack! Do not play this card!
One card you should play? Field of Ruin, a card I have long held the belief is an overpowered Magic card. It's been a game changer in Modern as it forces people to play with Wastes in Eldrazi Tron and basic Swamp in the sideboard of G/B Tron. I actually think the mana in Standard is so bad right now that using Field of Ruin as a way of disrupting the opponent and functioning as an expensive Evolving Wilds that actually makes your mana better when you use it is an underrated option. Not to mention that many people play Path of Mettle, Thaumatic Compass, and Search for Azcanta in their maindeck with the explicit goal of transforming each of those cards.
I had a game on Magic Online this week where I played Field of Ruin and passed for my third turn. On my opponent's third turn, they made a 4/3 Jadelight Ranger and explored a Glorybringer to the top of their deck. On their end step, I activated Field of Ruin on their Hashap Oasis to get a basic Swamp and then cast Fatal Push with revolt on the Jadelight Ranger.
To recap, my land upgraded from Field of Ruin to a basic Swamp (which I kinda wanted anyways), it enabled revolt to turn my glorified Disfigure into a Swords to Plowshares, it shuffled away my opponent's Glorybringer (hurting their consistency and generally decreasing the quality of their draw), and it turned a Hashap Oasis into a Forest.
The opportunity cost to playing Field of Ruin is as low as it's ever been and in this instance they even paid me in free revolt for my Fatal Push and the privilege of hurting my opponent's consistency and decreasing the quality of their draw. Just think about it - if both players start with seven cards and you play a long grindy game where you get to trade a land for a card like Search for Azcanta, that's a huge win. It's time people start thinking about Field of Ruin in the same way they think of Celestial Colonnade or Horizon Canopy; all three are utility lands that produce immense value.
I haven't tried it, but I've spent quite a bit of time considering potential splash options for Sultai Midrange. If four Aether Hub is mandatory for Glint-Sleeve Siphoner then all I need is 1 Forest with 4 Hub and 4 Field of Ruin to enable splashing something like Vraska, Relic Seeker or Appetite for the Unnatural. I may even want a Mountain for Chandra's Defeat to shore up my matchup against Mono-Red. Ultimately, though, I fear I may just want better mana so I don't sit around blaming my mana issues on bad luck like the rest of us.
As just a hint for you savvy Standard players out there, there's a lot of spicy innovation in the decklist that won Worlds, and I think a lot of it ports over pretty well to what people care about now. The format is ripe for players who want to dedicate time to mastering their decks and exploiting weaknesses.
My one big prediction for Grand Prix Memphis? The Top 8 will be filled with skilled, formidable players who take advantage of all 75 slots they have to work with.