Dominaria has already begun to reshape Standard, even before it hits the streets in paper. On Magic Online, the metagame cycle is starting to churn once again, and the players from the blockbuster new set are doing their part to create the contours through which the Standard metagame will wind. At first blush, it's not the most heartening scene.
Clearly, everyone and their brother knows that Llanowar Elves is the first pillar of the bold new Standard, singlehandedly pulling the clock back on the fundamental turn of the format and making opponents respect the early turns even more than before. Good mana acceleration is fundamentally unfair, and cards like this one increase the advantage of being on the play more than before. If you aren't playing Llanowar Elves, you'd better have a great reason behind that choice.
And if that reason is Goblin Chainwhirler, you'd be well on your way to parsing the biggest shapers of the metagame. Chainwhirler Red is absolutely the premier deck for breaking the would-be stranglehold of Llanowar Elves on Standard, boasting numerous ways to kill the Elf to maintain parity alongside a quartet of this monster for mowing down small creatures for profit. A maindeckable mini-sweeper is going to change how decks are constructed simply through its existence, and the two conflicting pressures from these blue-chip cards in Dominaria will reverberate throughout every Standard event for the foreseeable future.
Of course, most (but not all) two-deck metagames are exploitable, and one defined by aggressive red decks and aggressively slanted battlefield-filling green decks is vulnerable to the exact sort of deck in desperate need of a Hero to make it a contender. Teferi (alongside his greatest ally, Seal Away) is the Hero that Dominaria needs.
Now, numerous words have been written about Teferi by better players, but at five mana, there is a lot of competition for game-winning threats. Glorybringer and The Scarab God immediately come to mind, and both are likely to be supported by Llanowar Elves (in decks like Sultai Midrange, Sultai Gift, G/R Midrange, and G/R Gift). Where does Teferi slot in that makes him worth building around? Aside from the obvious U/W or Esper Control shells, where the planeswalker is an obvious target and the primary way of winning, there has to be something a little more innovative.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria will do its best work as a sideboard juke for U/W/x midrange decks. Just as Chandra, Torch of Defiance has enabled red decks to go bigger post-sideboard for the entirety of her existence, Teferi will enable focused decks to incorporate a totally orthogonal gameplan in the sideboard that neatly sidesteps whatever answers an opponent might bring in to target the pre-sideboard plan.
This means U/W Gift. This means Esper or Bant Midrange. This means U/W Wizards (assuming, of course, that R&D intends to string out the powerful Wizard creatures over the next couple of sets to encourage cross-set deckbuilding.)
Watch what happens when the following U/W Gift deck (cribbed mostly from a recent Andrew Jessup list) changes gears completely in post-sideboard games in order to embarrass sideboard cards like Abrade, Silent Gravestone, Scavenger Grounds, and the like:
By sideboarding out some number of Refurbish, God-Pharaoh's Gift, Minister of Inquiries, and Angel of Invention for a hefty helping of removal and Teferi, U/W Gift can make opposing Abrades look shameful. With Seal Away and Settle the Wreckage offering powerful, easy ways to protect Teferi from enemies like Hazoret the Fervent or Glorybringer, this first draft of a sidestep plan looks perfectly poised to preemptively puncture whatever sideboard cards they want to bring in against the ostensible strategy of the deck. Very crafty!
Part of the appeal of Teferi is that he puts opponents in a no-win situation when paired with Settle the Wreckage and Seal Away. If the opponent only attacks Teferi with one creature to play around Settle, a Seal Away will do just that: seal the game away. If the opponent tries to swarm Teferi, they are playing right into Settle the Wreckage, which will settle the outcome of the game by wrecking their chances.
If a Turn 5 Teferi on a stable battlefield is a great way to win the game, though, what about one on Turn 4?
- 3 Walking Ballista
- 2 Champion of Wits
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 3 Thrashing Brontodon
It's a little all-over-the-place, but the idea of combining the obvious powerhouse mana acceleration creatures with a planeswalker who just wants to come down on the battlefield without immediately being overrun is intoxicating. Without Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner for mana fixing, velocity, and free excess energy, we're forced to make do with a powered-down version of the deck, but the concept is still strong enough to be worth exploring.
Now, cute sideboard jukes and accelerated planeswalkers aside, there is one known strategy that absolutely benefits from the inclusion of a powerful alternate win condition, one that has sprung up from time to time as a fringe player in Standard yet could be rocketed to the next level with Teferi at the helm. I'm speaking, of course, about U/W/x Approach. The deck has done well at the highest level, including the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, and I have no doubt that the Guillaumes (Wafo-Tapa and Matignon) are busy tinkering away in the lab, ready to unleash a terror on the world.
And, because I fancy myself a prognosticator, here's an educated best guess as to where they will end up:
Isn't it amazing that there are two unique niche U/W control-combo decks with strange and difficult-to-interact-with win conditions floating around in this Standard format? The more odd top-down designs we see, the more likely this phenomenon is to continue. It's thrilling, really, that two odd seven-mana cards anchor two different decks that occupy different spots on the control-combo spectrum, and both can make use of Teferi as a standalone gameplan-in-a-box.
If there does end up being a competitive additional pillar of the format besides battlefield-vomiting aggro, aggro-midrange, or aggro-combo, it will likely revolve around this narrow band of strategies. And it will do so via a suite of tailored answers like Seal Away, Fumigate, or Settle the Wreckage combined with the squeeze between the proverbial rock (Teferi), and hard place (Refurbish or Approach of the Second Sun).
The craziest part about it, though, is that those aren't even the only two niche U/W decks in Standard. There's another one out there, an aggro-combo deck where Teferi will slot perfectly into the sideboard.
I feel like a sleazy infomercial salesman at this point. "But wait! That's not all! Call in the next ten minutes and you'll receive a free U/W Sram deck!"
It's true, the U/W Auras deck may have gotten the biggest upgrade of all with a brand-new planeswalker, and here's why. U/W Auras, as an archetype, is much more naturally suited to playing low-cost threats and protecting them with cards like Spell Pierce than the other U/W decks of the format.
U/W Auras is the type of deck that forces opponents to play on its terms due to raw goldfish potential but often struggles in post-sideboard games when the opponent gathers a high enough density of interactive spells to make the Auras deck fail. U/W Auras can make the best use of Teferi's -3 ability to put away troublesome permanents and finish the game by the time they get re-drawn. U/W Auras also plays well with Teferi's +1 ability, drawing extra battlefield-cloggers, untapping lands to cast more cheap spells, and still leaving mana up for Spell Pierces, Negates, and the like.
If it can keep up with the increase in Seal Away, Walking Ballista, Goblin Chainwhirler, and Llanowar Elves-boosted Green decks, U/W Auras is poised to have a weekend or two of absolute dominance at some point in this Standard format. Here's an approximation of that future Standard king:
This deck is aggressive with a sideboard plan to switch up against any opponent who comes expecting a swarm of tiny creatures. That's the dream with a tempo-oriented strategy like U/W Auras, and that's the kind of mind game that a powerful gameplan-in-a-box planeswalker like Teferi enables. It makes cheaper cards better, incentivizes you to craft your deck with divergent gameplans that are hard for your opponents to cover simultaneously, and rewards creative sideboarding. Truly a grand slam card for metagaming and list-tweaking.
One last list to cap off Teferi's possibilities in Standard. Few people remember Jeskai Vehicles as an alternative to Mardu for a brief period during the Aetherworks Marvel era, but blue mana is relatively easy for the deck to pull off. Few people remember Big Mardu as an alternative to low-end Mardu Vehicles for a different period of time during the Kaladesh era, but it was yet another change-up designed to take advantage of sideboard jukes and unexpected plans. Teferi excites me as a pilot for Heart of Kiran alongside Karn and the usual suspects. Keep that battlefield full, and protect your planeswalkers, people!
Llanowar Elves is one-dimensional. Goblin Chainwhirler is one-dimensional. Those cards are high in horsepower, but low in finesse. Teferi, on the other hand, empowers new and different play patterns. Teferi empowers less-obvious strategies. Teferi properly and profitably answers classes of cards that were previously difficult to answer (cough, The Scarab God, cough). If the format isn't completely overrun with these obvious all-stars of Dominaria, you'll see Teferi slowly build his stock in a number of different decks.
Metagaming in contemporary Standard is most often about lining up the proper threats and answers, or making last week's answers line up improperly against your threats. This format looks to be no exception. Pick your spot and find a weakness in people's expected sideboard plans. This Teferi's Puzzle Box of a Standard format won't solve itself, but the clues are out there for those who look.