It's sad that this amazing Standard format will only see /two/ big tournaments in its lifetime. Some team trios events too, but those only kind of count.— Jadine Klomparens (@thequietfish) February 26, 2018
A month later and this is still true. Rivals of Ixalan Standard is everything the format has been missing for a while. The format has been dynamic since day one, with aggro, midrange, control, and combo all having had their turn at the top of the metagame.
Not being into this format from day one post-Attune with Aether ban is perfectly understandable. Here's the quick version of what lead to this point.
The first phase of the format takes place early on, around the January SCG Tour Classics in Dallas and Philadelphia and similarly timed MOCS events.
The immediate question asked was how do you beat Hazoret the Fervent? The reactions and lessons from this stage:
Removal that exiled became a requirement. Lots of decks moved towards black, which had real cards. Some moved towards white, which was literally just removal.
Hazoret mirrors quickly resolved with Earthshaker Khenra dominating Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Heart of Kiran, much like what happened in the pre-ban metagame. Play Mardu when everyone cuts Abrade and Fatal Push. Play Dread Wanderer and Scrapheap Scrounger when grinding supplants attacking. Apply haste and Mountains to their face otherwise.
The stage two time frame is around Grand Prix Memphis in February. Here we saw the rise of various midrange decks and Mono-Red Aggro starting to disappear, with zero copies making the Top 8 of that event.
Despite playing one of these midrange decks - Naya Monsters - I'm not actually convinced they were actually big favorites against Mono-Red Aggro. The matchup was just close enough and real edges could be gained in that sector of the metagame.
The reactions and lessons from this phase, beyond the pre-event ones I already wrote about :
Holy crap Approach of the Second Sun is still terrible. I've never seen a card with such a gap between how much people want to play it and how much people only wanting to win play it. Stop doing this to yourself. Negate, Duress, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are all cards.
The end of this phase registered the need to beat Carnage Tyrant. In midrange battles with lots of removal, often the unleashing the giant death lizard is the best option. This might be what triggered some of the next phase strategic shifts.
I want to say the turning point from the last phase to this one was Owen Turtenwald's article about Grixis Energy. Even if my bias is that Naya was underrated and Grixis overrated, that piece solidified a picture of the metagame as Mono-Red on the decline with positioning battles between The Scarab God decks.
It turns out there's a lot you can do to exploit B/U Midrange.
Gerry Thompson was probably a bit ahead of the curve in talking about various white go-wide strategies . If your opponent has Rekindling Phoenix, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, Magma Spray, and Sweltering Suns, you're just gonna have some bad lineups because all their cards are great and fly. Or if they are making massive Walking Ballistas and flying double sized hexproof Bristling Hydras. If they're 54 pieces of trash, no sweepers, exile-able The Scarab Gods, and Torrential Gearhulk on Essence Scatters on things you don't care about, things look much better. If you're all lifelink tokens to their Hazoret the Fervents, your Vampires will have plenty to feast on.
If your opponent's counter magic is focused on Essence Scatter, you can also get them with God-Pharaoh's Gift. The point I made about Negate being a clunker and Duress being the actual good tempo spell last week is largely based on these decks . Their mediocre beats force action, but tapping out is possibly lethal, but also going long means they cast their Gifts and eternalize Champion of Wits and transform Search for Azcanta.
For those looking to combo, the Ben Friedman-endorsed U/R Gift is pretty darn good , as is U/W Refurbish Gift, so you have a choice. Search for Azcanta is so absurdly good in U/W and Chart a Course helps with some of the raw card quantity issues U/R can have, but U/W has a larger combo fail rate compared to the deck that gets to play Trophy Mage. That said, U/W had a ton of successful finishes at last weekend's monthly MOCS event, so I would be hard pressed to say it isn't now a tier one option.
The last category of weird stuff is best described by the card Arch of Orazca. Unshockingly, a land that draws cards is super powerful. I don't think we have quite figured out the right build of it yet, but there's a lot of options. I would stay super far away from the Bant Approach lists from last month. I think the Naya Dinosaurs build with Gishath, Sun's Avatar and Zacama, Primal Calamity is more cute than good, but I like splicing the heavy Carnage Tyrant elements of that deck into the Mastermind's Acquisition G/B shell. This sample Magic Online 5-0 list isn't perfect, but it's a lot of steps in the right direction. Bounty of the Luxa as extra card draw and ramp, bonus colors for The Scarab God and/or Profane Procession--or even just Ipnu Rivulet to break control mirrors--and Commit are the highlights. I used to really like The Immortal Sun in these decks, but that phase quickly went away as God-Pharaoh's Gift forced people to play real Shatters instead of Vraska, Relic Seeker and Ixalan's Binding.
The last deck that isn't really an exploit but is just putting up tier one results is Sultai Constrictor. Despite Aaron Barich making it to the finals of Grand Prix Memphis, I struggled to see the staying power of this deck. Anything Glorybringer and Chandra-based like the G/R Monsters deck that beat him in that last match is not good at all.
It turns out this turn to weirdo decks has not been good for those red midrange decks. U/W Gift is especially an uphill struggle, and The Scarab God decks all adopting Commit has also been a bit rough. Sultai Constrictor, on the other hand, can just wombo combo those decks and has Duress.
So to summarize, the top tier of the format has turned from Hazoret the Fervent, Glorybringer, and The Scarab God to God-Pharaoh's Gift, Winding Constrictor, and The Scarab God with a splash of Adanto Vanguard in a mix of sub-flavors.
The Key Tidbits
So with all that in mind, here are the small tips and tricks I've found playing with and against those best decks.
Various The Scarab God decks:
Owen wrote about half an article last week about how good Commit//Memory is . It might have been an understatement. The insane Ixalan's Binding-River's Rebuke-Memory line he wrote about is much closer to the norm than you would expect. I'm honestly wondering if the entire color white is worth playing anymore because Ixalan's Binding is just a liability.
Playing Champion of Wits in these decks is a joke. Spending three mana on the front half of that card is embarrassing unless you're following it up with Refurbish. The only upside of playing four of this card is sometimes you have the obvious discard of even more Champions to the first one. Even if Whirler Virtuoso is half the card it was in the Attune with Aether days, I'd rather have a three-drop that can chump a Winged Temple of Orazca activation.
Again, Owen is just right, and Field of Ruin is criminally underplayed in these decks. Or honestly Standard, in general. Killing Sultai Constrictor's Winged Temple of Orazca or U/W Gift's Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is a big deal.
Basically every deck without The Scarab God or Refurbish should sideboard two or three Silent Gravestone. It shuts down those cards and Torrential Gearhulk and Rekindling Phoenix, the latter of which is really prompting me to reconsider how (and if) I want to build my Glorybringer decks.
If you're going to play a U/B deck, you need to be really familiar with what a winning hand looks like against each of the relevant decks. Often, half of your deck is pretty bad, but there are some cards in the other half they can't beat. Being able to sideboard and mulligan to maximize your odds of a good draw is how you win these days, not just keeping The Scarab God and whatever answers you find.
One of the interesting parts of the Gift decks is that there isn't a good overlap on hate between the two builds. A lot of this is because U/W Refurbish can shift over to a Fumigate control deck and play a long game, but the various Gate to the Afterlife builds back up into creature midrange. Duress and Silent Gravestone put in work against one where Deathgorge Scavenger and Glorybringer hit the other, but nothing great hits both. Your best overlap bet is Naturalize or Abrade, and there's only so far leaving up two mana gets you.
Nothing about Gift is easy. U/W has a ton of decisions about how to sequence your spells to see the most cards for a combo, decisions about whether to keep an Angel of Invention to cast or discard it to reanimate, the same decisions about God-Pharaoh's Gift, as seven mana is very real. U/R is all about figuring out how to get to the six creatures in graveyard point and then some. Then in the face of interaction... ugh. They have The Scarab God, but you have removal to dig to, but if you take too long they get to set up Commit on a Cast Out and immediately activate it, so you then sideboard Negates, but then... Oh yeah, and you have to sideboard and not cripple your deck. Neither of these are decks to pick up and go with.
Even if it seems like these are decks looking to minimize the impact of good removal, and even if they do a great job of it in game 1s, spot removal can be a key part of post-sideboard plans of keeping them off balance. A Vraska's Contempt on their Angel of Invention or first Combat Celebrant buys a turn against an active God-Pharaoh's Gift, and if your other disruption pushes them into slim margin scenarios, that can be enough. Just don't try this with Fatal Push as the tokens are copies with the appropriate mana costs.
Holy crap you can't ever beat a Solemnity. Honestly the biggest draw to some Vampires-style nonsense at this point is that you get to play Solemnity and Silent Gravestone without any issues of your own. This alone might mean it's time to mix up your high end a bit, possibly going from just Verdurous Gearhulk to a mix of that, The Scarab God, or even Skysovereign, the Biggest Boat in the Sky.
Bristling Hydra is the super-duper combo kill with Hadana's Climb, but outside of that it kinda sucks. There just isn't enough spare energy to make it survive double blocks, and if you have Winding Constrictor active to go that big, why is a giant non-trampler the good payoff?
I also hate Blossoming Defense, but I think this plays a little more into how this deck has changed since the builds we have been used to since Aether Revolt. We like to think of Winding Constrictor decks as really Delver-y: a lot of powerful two-drops that run away with the game, maybe a bit of a high end to crack some games open. This just isn't the case anymore. Longtusk Cub was cut because now you just don't get free wins from your early drops. Sometimes an enhanced Walking Ballista spikes a specific matchup, but Sultai Constrictor now is more of a setup deck with a combo payoff in Hadana's Climb, closer to Affinity with better interaction. Playing Blossoming Defense in this deck just puts more cards in your deck that aren't payoffs with the hope that you line everything up perfectly.
Just a reminder: cycling lands have a real cost. While they're perfect for wedge tri-color mana like Naya, Jund, or Grixis when paired with Dragonskull Summit, they're super awkward with the Kaladesh fast lands. Your sequencing of trying to play a tapped land on turn 1 but play all your fast lands before turn 4 is strained at best. Even in two color decks like U/W Gift, I have found myself wanting to play a ton of lands and also curve out early.
What The Future Holds
After Grand Prix Seattle and the SCG Tour® Milwaukee Classic, Rivals of Ixalan Standard is done and Dominaria is here to stay. While a large set with as many heavy hitters as it looks like Dominaria has is bound to change some things, I would keep the following in mind:
Beware the lure of medium-sized creatures with medium-sized stats. The 3/3 for three Goblin Chainwielder is going to get outclassed by Hazoret the Fervent or The Scarab God too fast to matter much of the time. Siege-Gang Commander and Goblin Warchief, on the other hand, do something bigger than the individual pieces, and I expect those Goblins to shine.
Llanowar Elves is getting a lot of hype. It's a really good card, but I think some people have skewed memories of the card. G/R Devotion had a lot of other powerful support behind it. The disappearance of one-drop green mana creatures was never intended to be permanent, just that always having them makes cards like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar unprintable.
The format is not going to be static. The good answers to specific card types aren't good against everything. Enchantments, artifacts, planeswalkers, and creatures exist. If your The Antiquities War deck isn't good one week, that doesn't mean it won't be good for your next event.
Fight with Fire
Kicker 5R (You may pay an additional 5R as you cast this spell.)
Fight with Fire deals 5 damage to target creature. If this spell was kicked, it deals 10 damage divided as you choose among any number of targets instead. (Those targets can include players and planeswalkers.)
My favorite card no one is talking about is Fight with Fire. Three mana five damage is close enough to playable, and nine mana is close enough to castable that I expect to be lighting people up with this spell a lot. It might be time for Hour of Promise to find some Desert of the Fervents...