Some massive changes to the Brawl format were announced a few weeks ago, and they have finally been applied to Magic Online. The format is back in full swing, and the first batch of decklists since the changes are now available. They paint a picture of a format very different from before, and presumably one that is much more balanced for the future.
Beyond the change to the format brought by banning Baral, Chief of Compliance, which destroyed its format-warping Mono-Blue Control deck, bringing life totals down to 30 from 20 has reinvigorated aggressive decks and has made life much more difficult for control decks. The standout new aggressive deck is Mono-Red, to no-one's surprise, but its most popular and successful commander so far is Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, which might give fans of Hazoret the Fervent pause, but rest assured the God sees its fair share of play as a commander too.
It makes sense that Kari Zev, Skyship Raider excels as a commander, because the consistent power and battlefield presence it provides forms a strong backbone for an aggressive deck, just like Baral, Chief of Compliance formed the backbone of its control deck. Where Baral, Chief of Compliance generated extra mana and looting each turn, Kari Zev, Skyship Raider generates damage, the currency of red decks. It's also a threat that keeps coming back, so it can be played again and again throughout the game. It helps alleviate one of if not the biggest weakness of red decks, running out of action.
Hazoret the Fervent has plenty of things going for it, but it's actually made a bit worse by the command zone, which essentially means it's the eighth card in the starting hand. That might not seem like a lot, but it definitely matters. This explains why the list of the Hazoret the Fervent commanded deck looks quite different than the Kari Zev, Skyship Raider list.
This list is more aggressive and much lower curve than the Kari Zev, Skyship Raider deck so it can empty its hand quickly. It completely gives up five-drops and even four-drops, like Glorybringer and Rekindling Phoenix, in favor of cards like Inventor's Goggles and Consuming Fervor, all to give it the highest chance possible of playing an attacking Hazoret the Fervent on turn four.
There's also the route of going black-red, like the current most popular deck in Standard and one that had a field day at last weekend's Pro Tour. The Brawl deck is designed to play in much the same way, playing an aggressive plan with plenty of removal to help it play a more midrange game, which is supported by commander Angrath, the Flame Chained as a source of card advantage with its +1 ability and potentially removal with its -3 ability.
The one-of card rule means going a bit deeper to find playables, which explains inclusions like Ghitu Lavarunner, which helps pad the one-drop spot, and Bone Picker, which doesn't make the typical Red-Black deck but has had Standard success and seems quite strong here. I've been impressed by The Flame of Keld in Limited and it has appeared as a four-of in Modern, and it's actually a bit better than normal in Brawl because of the command zone, which is like having an extra card in hand after discarding and drawing two, so I also like it as a way to dig for extra lands towards casting Angrath, the Flame Chained.
An entirely different route for red is to combine it with blue under the banner of Adeliz, the Cinder Wind. It has an incredibly powerful ability in a deck full of Wizards and having access to it as a commander makes it consistent enough to build a deck around. The life total change means this is now worthwhile, and it has shown some early success.
The cool thing about this list is it utilizes the many Merfolk that are also Wizards, and in fact make up the bulk of the Wizards in the deck. Red burn joins blue counters to give the deck a wealth of disruption, and plenty of ways to trigger Adeliz, the Cinder Wind and prowess to victory.
One of the most surprisingly successful Brawl decks before the changes was a Pirate-themed deck commanded by Admiral Beckett Bass. Its cheap creatures and disruption made its strategy pretty decent against Baral decks, but the life total change will make the aggressive strategy more effective against everyone.
Being Grixis means the deck has access to a ton of removal to combat the new more creature-oriented metagame, and the secondary ability on its commander is surprisingly relevant as a Control Magic effect when triggered by deck's many evasive creatures.
Another aggressive blue deck finding new life after the life total change is this one with Jace, Cunning Castaway as its commander.
Throne of the God-Pharaoh highlights that this deck is essentially adapted from the Standard mono-blue deck built around the artifact, which plays all of the best cheap and evasive blue creatures available and supports them with disruption. Jace's Sentinel is a nice touch that works well with Jace, Cunning Castaway, which seems like a great commander for the strategy because it's so easy for the deck to get in damage and loot and adding a 2/2 token to the battlefield is welcome for the aggressive deck.
This aggressive deck commanded by Gideon of the Trials was made possible by the life total change.
This deck has good aggressive potential with plenty of cheap creatures, but it has power up the curve to its five-drops. White works well paired with every other color, but this deck shows there's enough quality cards to stay in white, and access to Benalish Marshal and colorless utility lands like Zhalfirin Void might make that worthwhile.
Combining the aggressive white deck with green opens up options, especially with its commanders Shanna, Sisay's Legacy and Huatli, Radiant Champion. The commanders are very similar in that they both are made better by having more creatures in play, and both seek this by playing all of the best token-generators, but maximizing each card does mean making specific adjustments with them in mind.
Huatli's best ability is its -1, which can pump a creature significantly if there are enough creatures in play. This deck is designed to get full value the pump by playing plenty of evasion creatures to target with it, as well as lifelink creatures like Aerial Responder to get more mileage from the pump. Key to the City excels here, where it ensures Huatli's pump ability will never be impeded by blockers.
The Shanna, Sisay's Legacy deck gives up the evasion plan in favor of more token elements, with cards like Tendershoot Dryad, Call the Calvary, and even Sylvan Awakening, which can make Shanna, Sisay's Legacy huge. The deck also plays extra cards to pump its team, like Oath of Ajani, Dawnfeather Eagle, and Ridgescale Tusker.
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons was an exciting release for Commander, where it spawned a new archetype built around -1/-1 counters, and the strategy is now starting to perform in Brawl.
This list manages to fit in a surprising number of -1/-1 counter cards, which turn Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons into a 1/1 deathtouch Snake token-generating engine. There are some powerful interactions, specifically Amnit Eternal, which combines with the commander to generate a token every time the opponent casts a spell. The deck also makes great use of Nest of Scarabs, which is essentially Hapatra's token-making ability in enchantment form. Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons seems useful just as a two-drop, and one that needs to be respected because it does have an ability if it hits the opponent.
One commander that was heavily built around when Brawl went to Magic Online was Zacama, Primal Calamity, the perfect top-end for Naya ramp/control deck, but it was also ideal prey for Baral, Chief of Compliance. With control in steep decline there is now room in the metagame for a ramp strategy, which could thrive if it can deal with the life total change meaning it has less time to operate against aggressive decks.
The nature of the Baral deck meant it eliminated all other control decks from the metagame, so its banning removed the entirety of the control decks being played. Control has plenty of great cards, and I expect a control deck of some sort will fill the void left by Baral. The best candidate to do so seems to be Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, which is proving itself to be the single best control card in the Standard and thus a perfect commander. It provides access to excellent anti-creature white sweepers and life gain, which control decks will require to combat the aggressive metagame.
There's also the possibility of a Blue-Black Control deck, which could use The Scarab God as a commander but also has the option of Tezzeret the Schemer, which might have more immediate impact on the battlefield because of its ability to ramp mana with its +1 ability or destroy a creature with its -2.
The second-best deck during Baral's reign was Ghalta, Primal Hunger's Mono-Green Aggro, and it's another beneficiary of the life total change.
One the Ghalta deck's biggest strengths was that it at least had a fighting chance against blue, especially when it drew hosers like Prowling Serpopard and Carnage Tyrant. Green decks with big creatures tend to do pretty well against the small creatures and burn spells of red, so I see green thriving in the new aggressive metagame if it evolves through the transition by adjusting its build to best deal with the realities of the post-Baral world.
The changes to Brawl were a step in the right direction towards making it a great format. With so many different commanders being represented in results already, the metagame looks to be thriving compared to before, and I'm excited to see what else appears in the coming weeks. What are you playing with in Brawl after the Baral ban and life total change?