With Ixalan Standard upon us, it's time for brewers everywhere to show the world what they've cobbled together with our exciting new toys. I'm always looking for new angles on a new format, and so I put together a couple of lists I'll be testing for potential viability. One looks to exploit the perennial benchwarmer mechanic improvise, while the other seeks to take us back to the days of dominating with six-mana planeswalkers. Let's get into it!
Improvise hasn't made much of an appearance at the top tables of Standard since its introduction in Aether Revolt. This is a little puzzling, as traditionally abilities that allows you to "cheat" on the mana cost of a card have been amongst the most busted in the game (see: Treasure Cruise). A key reason for this was the nature of the improvise cards themselves: they have a naturally defensive inclination, which allowed canny opponents to save removal spells for payoff cards like Herald of Anguish without ever being under too much pressure.
Well, with Ixalan, the script may have just been flipped. Some key additions to the Standard card pool have resulted in a re-examination of previously overlooked strategies. Cards such as Siren Stormtamer and Favorable Winds look to enable a proactive, pressuring approach to constructing a deck that can also improvise out an early Herald of Anguish. With everyone from Ari Lax to Frank Karsten looking to break Favorable Winds, I may have prematurely consigned Favorable Winds to the Scrapheap in a previous article - well, right now I'm ready to get out the good crockery and the nice silverware, dish up a steaming plate of my own words, and eat them right up.
Early pressure from cheap evasive creatures followed up by undercosted bombs is the name of the game with this list, with a strong focus on power instead of synergy. An appropriate comparison may be with Theros-era Mono-Blue Devotion, as both decks look to beat down with mediocre creatures while benefitting from momentous payoff cards. Back then it was Thassa, God of the Sea alongside Master of Waves – this time around it's Herald of Anguish coming down to dominate the board alongside Favorable Winds to pump up the team.
You might raise your eyebrows at cards like Hope of Ghirapur and Aether Swooper, but think back to 2013. We all had a good giggle when people started registering Cloudfin Raptor and Tidebinder Mage in Constructed decks, but no-one was laughing when Jeremy Dezani won the Pro Tour! Except for Jeremy, I suppose, as he was probably pretty happy about it.
Chart a Course is bonkers in this deck, invariably ending up as a two-mana Divination due to the plethora of cheap fliers that can guarantee uncontested attacks. The reason it really shines is because you will often have to spend your early resources while developing the board, and finding yourself left with too few cards in hand to seal the deal. Chart a Course will allow you to refuel, digging you to action like Herald of Anguish, Maverick Thopterist, and of course Favorable Winds.
This deck boasts a collection of absolute powerhouse three-drops, some of which are proven Constructed all-stars while others have never been fully exploited. Pia Nalaar has shown her strength in Mardu Vehicles and Ramunap Red, and adds to both evasion and artifact-based synergies. So too does Whirler Virtuoso, who scarcely needs an introduction – this fellow helps us go wide in the air like no other.
Tezzeret's Touch, however, is the card that enables some disgustingly busted aggressive draws. We all experienced the joy of being beaten by insane Ensoul Artifact draws back in the day – now you can make 'em saltier than a packet of Lay's Originals as you send in a 5/5 Ornithopter. Caution! You may experience negative side effects when casting Tezzeret's Touch when opponents have Abrade mana open. If symptoms persist, see your doctor, who will prescribe a strong dose of learning how to play around removal spells.
Siren Stormtamer isn't just a glorified Flying Men. Its ability is surprisingly relevant, as it can protect whatever you've juiced up with a Tezzeret's Touch or the Herald of Anguish you've just slammed down. Best of all, it doesn't hamper the beatdown plan, as you don't need to tap it in order to use the ability!
- With a Favorable Winds out, Maverick Thopterist is often tied with Herald of Anguish for your best possible draw - when buffed by the Winds, it has a huge board impact when both ahead or behind.
- Aethersphere Harvester retains flying and can still gain lifelink when enchanted with Tezzeret's Touch. It's pretty corner case, but sometimes 10-point life swings will be enough to put a game out of reach.
- Don't be overeager in spending energy on Aether Swoopers. 1/1 Servo tokens are great for improvise (and also for chump blocking), but they are effortlessly outclassed by the tokens generated by Whirler Virtuoso.
- Don't be afraid to "chump attack" in order to enable Chart a Course. There aren't many situations in which a 1/1 token is better than a whole new card off the top.
- Hope of Ghirapur is legendary! If you're stuck with a second copy in hand, however, all is not lost. Attack, sacrifice it, cast the second one, and enjoy a surprisingly relevant Silence ability. Look to snipe Ramunap Red as they gear up to deploy Chandra!
Our sideboard cards are aimed at a more value-oriented game plan for slower post-board games. Our opponents will beef up their decks with removal and sweepers, and so we need to pivot slightly and aim to interact a little more.
Against powerful game-changers such as Winding Constrictor and Glorybringer, cards like Harnessed Lightning offer an important disruptive element to our synergy-driven approach. Further interactive options like Negate are essential against slower control decks, but you need to have a clear idea of what you're wanting to hit with them – typically, things like sweepers, planeswalkers, and Approach of the Second Sun. Negate shouldn't come in against decks like Four-Color Energy unless you're certain they will be bringing in sweepers.
Tezzeret the Schemer plays a similar role to Chandra, Torch of Defiance out of the Ramunap Red sideboard. Sometimes you're not going to have the option to just aggro them out, and old Tez will stick around to gain value and help push you ahead. Bring him in against defensive decks that will be able to stop your creature-based onslaught.
Extra Aethersphere Harvesters are a necessary and welcome concession to the ongoing presence of Ramunap Red. This card is perfect in our deck – the numerous artifacts stretch their Abrades to the limit, the crew cost can be paid by the Abundance of tokens we'll have lying around, and of course our energy package means we'll always be able to give it lifelink.
Ever since busting open my first Ixalan draft pack, I've been enamored with Vraska, Relic Seeker. The power level on this card is obscene, and not just in Limited – even as a six-drop, Vraska comes down to impact the board immediately and very strongly. I had a long-standing affaire de coeur with Elspeth, Sun's Champion; is this new six-drop token generator/walking removal spell going to take us all back to slamming expensive, game-winning planeswalkers?
In building around Vraska, the first thing to do was identify an overarching game plan. From a very early point, I identified that this deck wants to be highly defensive and seek to stall out the board before playing a single game-winning card with a huge immediate impact. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to expensive haymakers that will swiftly take over a game, but the biggest problem is simply getting there to exploit them.
Critical to this list's strategy is playing a turn-two ramp spell. Servant of the Conduit is industry-standard in today's Energy decks, but Channeler Initiate has never found its platform and we're here to change that. It's terrific – it fulfils both roles required of creatures in this deck. After boosting early mana development, it sits there as a "free" 3/4 that will soak up damage or pressure opposing planeswalkers.
Ranging Raptors is an experimental approach to bolstering our mana. It's really only good when we're blocking, so look to aggressively sideboard it out in situations where it will merely be a 2/3 unblocked creature.
As for the mana base itself, this list gets the Dr. Frank Karsten tick of approval when it comes to raw numbers. We want to cast 1G mana dorks and BB removal spells on turn two, and with 13 green sources and 21 black sources – not even including the mana dorks themselves – it's Hakuna Matata when it comes to casting our spells. Even the blue splash for The Scarab God is accounted for, with 10 blue sources!
While on the topic of The Scarab God – there's simply no better card to see you through a stalled board. A sticky, snowballing threat, The Scarab God already has Temur Energy players jumping through hoops to splash a fourth color, and it's a no-brainer to include this hard-hitting heavyweight alongside other giant bombs.
Noxious Gearhulk is a way to turn the tables quickly: slaying a creature, gaining some life and attacking with evasion will close out a tight game at a rapid pace. Liliana, Death's Majesty has never really had her time in sun (for good reason, too, look at all the mummies with their shadecloths and fans), but this deck is slow and defensive enough to allow her to grind out ongoing value and therefore gets a slot.
We're playing the very best removal in the format, much of it unconditional. Fatal Push, Walk the Plank, Never // Return – these cards kill anything and everything between them. Never // Return gets the nod over Vraska's Contempt due to both its cost, its aftermath, and due to this deck always looking to tap out anyway. Unconditional black removal is at an absolute premium in a format full of Glorybringers, Ripjaw Raptors and Chandras.
Seeing as we're playing a longer, value-based game, it might seem odd to include Obelisk Spider above something like Rogue Refiner. While Rogue Refiner has an unimpeachable track record, it's not quite what we're looking for here. With minimal energy components and a strong desire to block, the Spider is a better fit for our highly defensive deck.
At the four-drop slot, we have some absolute powerhouse cards. Gonti is perfect for our strategy and punches well above its weight in midrange mirrors, as you're more or less guaranteed a two-for-one. And speaking of two-for-ones – Dr. R.J. Raptor's consulting hours have begun, and he's here to cure what ails you. This monster will block and draw you cards like no other, and even has Walking Ballista for that nutty hidden errata: "4: Draw a Card."
Obviously this deck requires slight configuration to go up against the aggressive decks of the format, and so we have access to a strong anti-aggro package out of the board. Gifted Aetherborn stonewalls small attackers, and is particularly excellent when cast from a Yahenni's Expertise: a free blocker after having swept the board is incredibly difficult for aggressive decks to contend with.
Confiscation Coup is there to shore up the already powerful game we have against opposing midrange decks, and is bolstered by the incidental energy we get from Servants and Aether Hubs.
Our anti-control package is no less powerful – Duress excels where Walk the Plank does not (it is also a defensible include against Ramunap Red, but probably not all four copies), and Carnage Tyrant absolutely hoses control decks, demanding a real sweeper be played almost immediately – don't overcommit a Tyrant to a board you're already dominating!
Additionally, the single Arguel's Blood Fast is an Erebos-like way to pull ahead on cards. All our other sources of card advantage are relatively easily answered by control's removal, whereas this enchantment will stick around. A word of warning: control decks can turn the corner on a damage race very quickly with an end-of-turn Gearhulk and a Lightning Strike, so be cautious about going too low.
These two decks represent two ways to attack a format in its infancy, and are both based around somewhat speculative calls on cards that haven't quite made it so far. As with all early deck design, there's plenty of room to Tinker and experiment, while also looking to streamline these lists into lean, mean, killing machines. With that in mind, I want to turn it over to you – what improvements would you suggest to these two lists? How would you seek to strengthen them further? Is there another angle entirely that is poised to take down Ixalan Standard? Let me know through the usual channels, on Twitter (@rileyquarytower) or below in the comments!
- Riley Knight