Let's quit messing around.
This is week one of a new Standard format. We all know that means it's time to beat down. Nothing beats down as hard as a turn 2 Steel Leaf Champion, ergo, this is the deck to play in the Standard seat at SCG Columbus:
- 4 District Guide
- 4 Kraul Harpooner
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Nullhide Ferox
- 4 Pelt Collector
- 4 Steel Leaf Champion
- 4 Thorn Lieutenant
- 2 Vine Mare
- 3 Ghalta, Primal Hunger
Okay, okay, a little background and breakdown might be useful. Steel Leaf Stompy has been a part of Standard since Llanowar Elves and Steel Leaf Champion joined forces with the printing of Dominaria. Llanowar Elves, specifically, was an astonishing card to see returned to Standard after several years without Elvish Mystic. It seemed like a card from a bygone era, and Wizards of the Coast seemed to have been content to keep that type of early-game mana acceleration out of Standard. Its return then, was surrounded by discussion of its outsize impact on Standard and how it would make green a powerful color in the new format.
For a while, it seemed like that was the case. Steel Leaf Stompy was a part of the Standard metagame for quite some time, but one thing kept holding it back.
Owen Turtenwald's pet card suppressed Llanowar Elves to the point where it was untenable to play it in a Chainwhirler-heavy field. One needs only look at the World Championship metagame from this past weekend to see over half Chainwhirler decks and nary a Llanowar Elves to be found.
The sequences between a Rakdos deck with Chainwhirler and a green deck with Llanowar Elves were often painfully lopsided affairs. If the green deck had a turn-1 Llanowar Elves into Steel Leaf Champion on the play and Rakdos didn't have a Cut to swiftly answer and bridge to Chainwhirler, Steel Leaf Stompy would generally run away with the game.
With Rakdos on the play, though, Llanowar Elves were always just easy fodder for Chainwhirler clean up duty, and often a curve of Cut into Chainwhirler into Chandra, Torch of Defiance was enough to wrap up an easy win. Between Cut, Glorybringer, and Chandra, Steel Leaf Champion's four toughness was a huge liability. Between Walking Ballista, Fatal Push, and The Chainwhirler, Llanowar Elves was just not positioned well enough to make a real impact.
Goblin Chainwhirler (and, to a lesser extent, Fatal Push) meant that other decks were simply able to keep pace with aggressive draws from the green deck and win the midgame. Rakdos Aggro, as the best deck in Standard (and with over 50% representation at Worlds, it's hard to argue otherwise) just kicked Steel Leaf Stompy to the curb. And there it lay for a few months, languishing at the bottom of a metagame that had too many other powerful options.
But times are changing.
The Chainwhirler has lost almost its whole supporting cast. Cut, Glorybringer, Chandra, Bomat Courier, Soul-Scar Mage, Unlicensed Disintegration, Scrapheap Scrounger, Heart of Kiran, Kari Zev, Hazoret, Abrade, and even Magma Spray are gone, gone, gone! The whole deck has fallen out, and without these incredible support cards, there's little reason to commit to a heavy-red manabase. From over half of the Worlds metagame, Goblin Chainwhirler will go to being a fringe player in a single all-in aggro deck. This alone is reason enough to consider bringing back Llanowar Elves for another swing.
It's not just that, though. Fatal Push is gone, and with it, the best one-mana answer to a Llanowar Elves in the format. What will Grixis decks play now? Fungal Infection is the closest thing to a real answer, and there's always plain old Shock, but these are poor substitutes for a four-of slam-dunk card like Fatal Push.
Even Azorius Control lost Irrigated Farmland (with no Hallowed Fountain forthcoming for a healthy few months) and Fumigate (with Cleansing Nova and the easily-played-around Settle the Wreckage as substitutes), which means that Teferi. Hero of Dominaria isn't quite as intimidating as he was with his full supporting cast. Bant Nexus lost Haze of Pollen and much of its manabase as well, which means that without an overhaul, it too will be unable to prey on Steel Leaf Stompy. It's all looking pretty good for beatdown decks these days!
Removal is worse in Guilds of Ravnica Standard compared to Core Set 2019 Standard, and that means that it's important to get creatures on the battlefield early and often. Nothing does that better than a Llanowar Elves.
Now, it's not just a question of what other decks lost (which is substantial), but what Steel Leaf Stompy gained. Let's go up the curve.
Pelt Collector is an Experiment One reprint of sorts, with a few key differences. The evolve trigger on Experiment One keyed off power or toughness, while Pelt Collector only counts power. Of course, Pelt Collector gets to trigger off your creatures dying, which is my easy bet for "most likely trigger to be missed in Guilds of Ravnica Standard."
Neither of these differences do a ton to move the needle on whether Pelt Collector is going to be a great player in new Standard or not. The key here is that Experiment One could be regenerated by removing two +1/+1 counters, but Pelt Collector gains a very important ability once it goes big. Trample is green's form of evasion, and it's going to mean that Pelt Collector smashes through Selesnya tokens with ease as a 5/5 or 6/6 creature during the mid-game. It's not better or worse than Experiment One, it's just different, but the difference does mean a lot in a format defined by clogged battlefields rather than good, cheap removal.
This card answers Tempest Djinn. Ken Yukuhiro showed us this weekend that Tempest Djinn is a real threat in a real deck. I can't overstate the importance of being able to answer it, and sometimes you even just get to snap off their Siren Stormtamer. Compared to Merfolk Branchwalker (which might be a suitable supplement, of course), Harpooner is always big and steps up in a matchup I'm predicting will be popular in the coming months. Reach matters. Having a potential removal spell in key matchups where you need it matters. Getting your Pelt Collector to 3/3 on turn 3 matters. Kraul Harpooner is going to see play in Standard, and it will start in this deck.
A healthy 2/3 body for two mana, a trigger that dissuades opponents from using targeted removal on it in the early game, and a great mana sink for the lategame? Sign me up. Thorn Lieutenant is a solid role-player for green aggro that will see play alongside Llanowar Elves for the next year or more. I like this card over Branchwalker as well, but if there were a need for two-drops numbers 9-12, Branchwalker would be the one we'd call up.
It's not clear that you need District Guide, but having a way to improve consistency and find the splash color is important. If Merfolk Branchwalker gets involved in this list, District Guide might be a reasonable card to shave or cut, but sometimes you just need to find that Golgari Guildgate to cast your Assassin's Trophy. Plus, it's been called the best card in Guilds of Ravnica by a reputable source, so who am I to argue?
Nullhide Ferox card is incredible. It's a 6/6 hexproof for four mana! Your opponent will need to spend four or more mana to remove it at any point, which means it can basically never be profitably answered. If your opponent is foolish enough to play Nicol Bolas, the Ravager in their deck, you get to freeroll a massive beating with this monster. Cards like Nullhide Ferox make opponents grumble. Cards like Nullhide Ferox win games by themselves. Cards like Nullhide Ferox turn adequate decks into great decks.
The poor version of Nullhide Ferox, Vine Mare still has a place in Steel Leaf Stompy as hexproof thing five and six, and it's a great way to kick in the door against opposing black decks. Following up a turn-2 Steel Leaf Champion with either Vine Mare or Nullhide Ferox will end the game against any Vraska's Contempt deck you see sitting across the table. I pity the Golgari-playing fool who doesn't have a way to answer Vine Mare.
While Ferox and Vine Mare handle the removal end of the metagame, Ghalta just does it bigger and better than any creature deck can hope to match. Selesnya Tokens can't really beat a massive Ghalta, and this deck can crank out the apex predator on turn 4 easily. I expect Selesnya Tokens (a la Gerry Thompson's various brews from his excellent stretch of Guilds of Ravnica analysis articles) to be a major player in upcoming Standard, and without Ghalta, you'd have a hard time beating them. Ghalta is your queen for bashing through clogged battlefields.
This format's Path to Exile. If you can play it in an aggro deck, you probably should. It's important to have sufficient answers to annoying powerhouse cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria; Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice; or Lyra Dawnbringer. You'll need to answer opposing Ghaltas in the mirror match as well!
In the sideboard, we see a very preliminary attempt to put together a handful of grindy cards and answers to opposing enchantments like Seal Away, Conclave Tribunal, History of Benalia, and potentially the terrifying Thousand-Year Storm. I tentatively prefer Reclamation Sage to Thrashing Brontodon simply because of how Reclamation Sage very cleanly answers History of Benalia on the draw, but the Brontodon's burly 3/4 body is worth a second look in a deck playing Pelt Collector. To start, I'm willing to try a mix.
The one key card in the sideboard that excites me, though, is Find.
This card offers a clean two-for-one against grindy midrange or control decks with Find, but Finality is the half that I'm really pumped about.
If Guilds of Ravnica Standard, as predicted, ends up being dominated by clogged battlefields, Finality is our ace in the hole. Sweeping up enemy tokens, Shanna, Sisay's Legacy, Benalish Marshal, and the like is exactly what this deck needs. Against Boros decks, our only goal becomes to deny our opponent good attacks long enough to break them with this sweeper on turn 6. There's a distinct lack of synergy with Nullhide Ferox, to be sure, but it's something that can be worked around. I'm just excited to have a 7/6 Steel Leaf Champion and a 5/5 Pelt Collector against an empty Selesnya battlefield.
Plaguecrafter, of course, is a secondary answer to heavy Planeswalker decks, like Azorius Control. It's the best Fleshbag Marauder I've ever seen, and as a creature with a spell-like effect, it's doubly valuable in a Nullhide Ferox deck. Against Tempest Djinn decks and some Boros builds, Plaguecrafter will be a key part of the plan. Just don't sideboard it in against Selesnya!
Ari Lax gave his take on Steel Leaf Champion decks over on the Premium side today. He's got a few different brews, but I'm a simple, straightforward Magic player. I like to beat down with the new set. I fully expect Andrew Jessup to go ahead and level me next week with a full dressing-down of how to beat this deck and win the week-one format, but I've selected my champion and intend to stick with it.
I'm ready for Guilds of Ravnica Standard.