If you have not been paying attention to Standard for the last few months, allow me to catch you up to speed. The format is healthier than it has been for a few years and there are dozens of viable decks with more being built or discovered every week. This is great news for tournament goers and even better for deck builders out there as there is so much territory to be explored.
One deck building technique that has not gotten a lot of press, most likely because it is not used successfully very often, is what I like to call the splice technique. This is where a deck builder looks to combine two ideas, archetypes, or strategies into one cohesive deck. Sometimes the deck builder will do this by tying everything together using common elements of the two strategies while other times they want those two strategies to be distinct, so as to avoid some hate attacking the entire deck. In other words, they use a second strategy as a Backup Plan.
This method is not used often, partially because the speed at which decks evolve make it difficult to discover anything groundbreaking. Additionally, it can be difficult to find two ideas that work well together, especially ones that have a reason to exist outside of the individual decks that make it up. Is your Goblin / Storm Legacy deck really better than either Goblins or Storm? Probably not. Occasionally though, that will be true. For example: Hexmage Depths and Thopter / Sword were two distinct combo decks at one time. Over the course a few months, it became clear that by incorporating both combos into the deck, you could circumvent most of the hate that people were bringing to the table while also having a robust line to take throughout the game. Vampire Hexmage plus Dark Depths was great for winning a game, but it didn't do much when you were far behind. Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek gave the deck a second engine that was built to win long, grindy games.
Moving back to current Standard, we see a lot of decks that have strong engines in them. Sidisi / Whip of Erebos was yesterday's hotness and even though it isn't as popular today, that entire engine still exists. Or maybe you want to use Nykthos to power out an insane play in your devotion decks. The Dragon Engine is a new one that has been added to the bunch, but we have seen the strength of Silumgar's Scorn, Draconic Roar, and even just the dragons themselves. Perhaps you would rather be using planeswalkers and Courser of Kruphix to gain a bunch card advantage. Or maybe you want to get wacky and throw Chromanticore and Soulflayer into the ring. Standard is wide open and that is a prime opportunity to do some experimenting.
As I mentioned before, you generally look to combine strategies either when you are looking for a solution to a specific problem, or when you are able to find a common thread that you think can be enhanced through a splicing of the two lists.
I am a big fan of the list that Mike Flores played to qualify for the Pro Tour. The list very much uses dragons as an engine to enable undercosted cards and to use two of the most powerful lands in Standard. After playing with Esper myself, it was hard to ignore the power level of things like Foul-Tongue Invocation and Silumgar's Scorn. And in that list, five total dragons meant you could realistically miss from time to time on your kickers. Mike's list, on the other hand, basically always had dragon-powered instants in his list and instead of just two lands, Mike gets eight total lands to fuel his synergy.
If you look at the dragons Mike is casting though, they are all gigantic. While Esper is content playing Ojutai and maybe Silumgar as its finishers, Mike's deck goes even bigger on the bodies and even more expensive up the curve. Every game you draw your Crucible of the Spirit Dragon, this is fine, but what about the other games? You can play a typical control deck and win some amount of the time, but cheating dragons out faster than normal seems like something worth pursuing.
I wanted to take Mike's base concept and see if we could combine the over-the-top dragon strategy with other means to power them out. That basically boiled down to a choice of ramping them out quickly, or reanimating them from your graveyard,
The first of these seemed like the more plausible at first; ramping out six and seven-drops is something I am quite familiar with, after all. But at the end of the day, it seemed like all I would be doing was swapping out Counterspell for Sylvan Caryatid and Dissolve for Courser of Kruphix. These were different cards, sure, but the game plan of buying time, either defensively or offensively, in order to get dragons into play was fundamentally the same. Was I adding anything new? Would the player bringing his hate for Flores' deck still be able to prey on me? It seemed likely. I wasn't doing anything radically different than Flores' deck and was more than likely just opening it up to new weaknesses without gaining much in the strengths column.
Reanimation seemed like it could be viable though. Most of the dragons were things I would be happy to actually work for in that way. While I might only be saving a mana or two, I would theoretically be saving colorful mana costs and could potentially even find other benefits. For example, Fearsome Awakening is not the worst reanimation spell in the world and it directly rewards you for Dragons. A 5/9 Silumgar or a 7/9 Dromoka is quite the upgrade despite these creatures already being large. If we were also using Foul-Tongue Invocation, Draconic Roar, or Silumgar's Scorn, we would now have multiple incentives to use these dragons along with the lands that we have already discussed.
Dragons seemed completely justifiable then. The last piece of the puzzle is justifying reanimation. Fearsome Awakening is cute, but it alone is probably not enough reason to start throwing these flying beasts into your yard. A certain delve creature might be, though. A few months ago, I was very interested in Soulflayer. It was a new unique card to be built around and Chromanticore already provided it with a big dream to live up to.
Chromanticore comes with baggage, though. The thing costs all five colors, for example and we don't get to use a bunch of spiffy dragon lands to help us cheat in this area. That leaves us with a stretched mana base or the inability to cast Chromanticore. While neither of these options is a no-go, they do come with real costs. What if we took the Chromanticore out of the mix though?
If you take a second look at all of the giant dragons flying around Standard, you will actually find quite the array of keywords. Hexproof, Lifelink, Flying, and even Haste are all things we can get from a stocked graveyard. While no one dragon vaults us in the same way that Chromanticore does, having a 4/4 flying, hexproof demon or a 4/4 flying, lifelink demon is not bad and we have access to multiple dragons to allow us to voltron up.
Looking at the dragons in Standard, here is a list of keywords we can pick up, should we run them all:
Compare that to Chromanticore and we cover everything on the list plus pick up haste, hexproof, and deathtouch, should we want it. Again, no one creature will get us there as quickly, but we are making that tradeoff to gain value elsewhere.
Combining all of this brainstorming together, here is the list I came up with:
Here we have a deck that can cast its fatties, bring them back from the dead, or simply absorb their powers and use them to your advantage.
Satyr Wayfinder actually increases our chances of drawing a dragon land. Mike's deck had Anticipate, but Satyr Wayfinder provides us with so much more upside and a higher chance of hitting one of these lands, which is always welcomed. From there, you would expect to see Commune with the Gods, but I have actually opted for Nyx Weaver and Sibsig Icebreakers as my other enablers.
While neither of these provide the raw selection that Commune does, they do provide us with early bodies that can hold off an aggro deck, or at least trade, which is nice. Nyx Weaver also gives us another keyword that might be relevant while Sibsig Icebreakers gives us a touch of disruption. Both of these points are small, but the big takeaway is simply that these enablers impact the board immediately which is something we need to do when we have as robust of a late game as we do.
Nyx Weaver comes with the very real upside of bringing back things that we have had to dump before too. This means a higher chance of finding Whip of Erebos, Fearsome Awakening, Soulflayer, or just any individual dragon. It only takes two turns of Nyx Weaving to get as many cards into the yard as Commune with the Gods, making these two cards not as different as they might seem.
If you were to add blue or red to the deck, you could expand your options a little. Sidisi, Brood Tyrant was a staple in these kinds of lists before and it could be worth adding more blue to get it back into the list. Sultai Charm would theoretically upgrade our Sibsig Icebreakers as well. Similarly, red gives you access to Tormenting Voice. Both of these options might be the correct way to go, but with effectively eight colorless lands in our deck for any non-dragons, I wanted to keep things as simple and clean as possible for the mana base. This means a two-color base for now with ten lands that can power out our dragons later in the game.
I think this formula works pretty well overall and gives us a lot of mid to late game power which is where we look to take over the game.
There are certainly some numbers that can be adjusted here. For example, right now we have three sources of protection for Soulflayer (one indestructible, two hexproof) and five sources of lifelink (counting Whip of Erebos). These two aspects are the most important things to pick up on Soulflayer, so it is possible we want to find another source of each to fit in here.
That said, Soulflayer plays a diminished role in this list as we have three viable plans of attack. Because of this, having a smaller chance to assemble true Voltron might be acceptable. Remember that reanimating a Soulflayer with Whip of Erebos or Fearsome Awakening does not let you delve which means the Soulflayer will not be able to pick up keywords in that world.
If nothing else, these three plans of attack have some nice overlap and provide us with a lot of versatility against hate. Making sure we have good matchups is something that further testing will provide us, but as far as new lists go, this is pretty sweet at first glance! Until next week, keep on brewing!