Leading up to the Pro Tour, my team was one of the last I knew of to confirm who would play which format. We were pretty sure Matt Nass would play KCI in Modern--even as new developments like Spirits and R/B Dredgevine showed up that looked a little scary for KCI, it still felt like the best we could do, especially since it let us focus on other formats. Sam Pardee was testing Legacy, and Matt spent most of his time helping with Legacy since he didn't think he had much work to do on Modern. I played a bit of Legacy myself to see if I wanted to advocate for Lands or Zombies, but I mostly decided I'd let them decide if they felt like we should be playing a Brainstorm deck, and I'd let Sam play it if that's what they wanted. (For the record, I think Brainstorm in Legacy is the most overrated card in any format--it's great, but a huge portion of pros think you shouldn't consider any deck without it, which I think is far from true, but I also knew that I wouldn't be able to be sure about my choice, so I wanted to err toward trusting them.)
A couple weeks before the Pro Tour, I started really focusing on Standard. The Sai/Outcome deck looked great and showed a lot of potential, so I spent almost all of my time working on that. Before GP Minneapolis, I packed my luggage for a week in Minneapolis and the only Standard cards I brought with me were most of the cards I was considering for Sai/Outcome and my R/B deck from Nationals.
After the Grand Prix, my team got to work in a conference room for the next three days. We had three tables split by format. I was working at the Standard table with Jack and Quinn Kiefer, Ben Weitz, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, Martin Juza, and Grzegorz Kowalski. Steve Rubin was working with us remotely. At first, Grzegorz and Martin were basically doing their own thing, testing R/B and Grixis while the rest of us were working on blue. I liked focusing on Karn while Paulo and the Kiefers were still more interested in Aetherflux Reservoir. I'd also talked to Alex West at the Grand Prix, who wasn't playing in the PT but developed an interest in the deck and kept updating me with more outside the box ideas he was trying.
As the PT approached I decided I needed to try some ideas on MTGO and see how the deck would do, and it wasn't pretty. I told my teammates about how I lost to every conceivable deck, including some nonsense fog deck that seemed like it should be a great matchup (it ended up being almost exactly the Bant Nexus deck from the PT, which I do think should be a good matchup for blue). By this point, I think Jack and Quinn had moved on to testing R/B in the MTGO queues and I joined them, and between us we went something like 31-7 with me personally going 13-2, and I realized that if I had results anything like that with blue I'd be ecstatic about how we'd broken it and I needed to just accept that R/B was the deck to play.
We'd all been playing slightly different lists. I was the only one who wasn't playing with Hazoret the Fervent. I was saying that I basically didn't think it mattered exactly which cards you play. It's correct to play R/B and all the cards that are close are basically interchangeable, so it was pretty easy to convince me to change a few things at the last minute. My teammates convinced me that I should have at least one Hazoret somewhere (I think they mostly played two main, but I just put one in the sideboard over the fourth Glorybringer because people seemed surprised when I asked about sideboarding into four Glorybringers and they thought that seemed like too much).
Other points of contention were whether or not we should play Soul-Scar Mage (some prefered a few Earthshaker Khenra) and whether we preferred Pia Nalaar or Ahn-Crop Crasher. I'd been playing with Pia, but my teammates said Ahn-Crop was good: They'd been playing against Grixis and called it a "cheaper Glorybringer" since in that matchup, they're often trying to stabilize with a single big creature (usually one Glorybringer can't kill), so it's great there. I was more worried about the mirror, where I like that Pia generates two bodies, and I was worried about how easy it is for Ahn-Crop Crasher to trade down on mana, but I was also worried that Pia might have become a little too small-ball now that Goblin Chainwhirler can clear the Thopter for free and we're not trying to crew Aethersphere Harvester. Still, I had been reasonably impressed with Crasher, so I split the difference. As it turned out, the way my sideboarding worked out against R/B I decided I wanted Crasher on the play and Pia on the draw (because I was convinced that casting Pia on turn 3 when they're about to untap on three and likely want to cast Chainwhirler, which will then instantly kill the Thopter isn't great), which made splitting them feel a little better.
The list I ended up submitting was:
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 1 Ahn-Crop Crasher
- 2 Glorybringer
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 3 Rekindling Phoenix
- 2 Soul-Scar Mage
- 2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 1 Pia Nalaar
I played seven mirror matches on day one, so here's a complete SB Guide:
VS R/B on the play:
VS R/B on the draw:
Fans of Owen Turtenwald may notice that this sideboard plan differs substantially from his recommendation with a very similar deck a few weeks ago, where he essentially advocates leaving in removal instead of Chandra, Torch of Defiance.
I'm not sure that I'm right and he's wrong--he crushed me in the mirror at the Pro Tour--but my plan has been working well for me. My thinking is that the games almost always become attrition battles and the high impact cards matter the most, so you want cheap answers and big plays, and you want your big plays to be as hard to answer profitably as possible.
Chandra is a bit of a liability because of Chandra's Defeat, but it's a good answer and it can run away with a game, so I like it.
Honestly, the best card for me by far was Karn, Scion of Urza, a card I think most players didn't play; I'd definitely play another one if I played the deck again. It's very common for the board to be empty, and then your opponent can't cleanly answer it with a single card, so it puts you ahead several cards. I was lucky to draw it a lot, and it was always fantastic.
Meanwhile, Hazoret, the Fervent didn't impress me at all. Yes, it's kind of hard to answer, but it requires a lot to go right and often forces you to play your other cards inefficiently. I beat it a lot while I was playing without it and when I drew it and it worked out well at the PT, it still lost me the game--I played it on turn 4, then on turn 5 I was able to play a land, then play Chandra, add mana, and cast Magma Spray and Abrade to take out a Rekindling Phoenix and attack in a spot where it didn't look likely that Hazoret would become active, but then my opponent played Chandra's Defeat on Chandra, Soul-Scar Mage and Cut on Hazoret, and I lost very easily. Yes, my opponent's draw was great, but if I'd just had a Karn, none of that stuff would have mattered.
I know a lot of people cut Heart of Kiran because it can get stranded in the mirror, but I think it's impactful enough to be worth one slot, though I don't feel strongly. Similarly, I think Unlicensed Disintegration and Cut are very close, but I favor disintegration because it can answer Glorybringer before it attacks.
Moving forward from the Pro Tour, I think we'll see more Bant Nexus and more control, as I've heard that Esper Control did well, and it's also a good choice to prey on Bant Nexus. The availability issues surrounding Nexus of Fate make adjusting to the deck tricky, as it may show up in artificially low numbers. (I'm on Team "Nexus of Fate as a Buy-a-Box Promo was a horrible idea, and Buy-a-Box Promos as the the only printing of a Standard-legal card is also a horrible idea" in case you were wondering; If the cards are made for casual play, they should only be legal there, because otherwise Wizards has to work hard to make a card that's weak enough that they're sure Standard players won't want it, which makes the product less desirable to everyone, but it's a real nightmare if the card becomes a Standard staple. I also hate any card existing in foil only).
I believe that with four Duress, Doomfall, and Chandra, the matchup against Bant Nexus probably isn't that bad, but if the deck takes off, I'd want to try to find room in the sideboard for 1-2 Insult//Injury, which seems like a nightmare for them.
Overall, my experience trying to tune decks to beat Red decks in this Standard format was that there are too many variations that can play too many different kinds of games. You have to be ready for them to go big or small in a way that creates a really difficult squeeze, and the cards are all great, versatile, and consistent. When a deck like Bant Nexus Shows up, R/B has the tools to adjust easily with cards like Insult or Sorcerous Spyglass, or with blue, it can just add a couple By Force--too much green, maybe another Unlicensed Disintegration, or Hour of Devastation if you're desperate. The deck just has too many tools. It's not going anywhere, and there's a reason it was over 40% of the Pro Tour field.
Is R/B the best deck in Standard? Yes, I believe it is. I think it's beatable, but it's the kind of midrange deck that can adjust to beat whatever it wants while also being among the fastest and most resilient aggro decks. The cards are simply too good.
Okay, okay, you probably want more than one match worth of sideboarding notes:
Against green aggro, I was tempted to cut Bomat Courier at first because it can get blocked easily, but you're maximizing removal. An easy way to win is to play Bomat and kill their first few threats, then reload, so instead, it's better to cut the middle-sized ground creatures that match up badly against theirs, like Scrapheap Scrounger, Pia, Ahn-Crop Crasher, and even Kari-Zev, and bring in all the removal that can interact with their creatures.
Against blue, you want to establish a clock and then try to keep their battlefield as clear as possible to prevent their critical mass stuff from working. You want all your Abrades, obviously, and plenty of answers to Sai. Because Chandra and Glorybringer can both kill Sai, I think you can afford to cut Cut, but I like Unlicensed Disintegration. Cards like Pia Nalaar, Soul-Scar Mage, and Rekindling Phoenix are horrible here, as is Hazoret if you're playing that (which I think is a mistake).
Sideboarding against control varies a bit depending on their list, but you're basically looking to cut expensive threats like Phoenix and mismatced removal for relevant interaction like Duress and more planeswalkers.