Fate Reforged has increased the power level of the Standard format, because it is Magic law that the more cards there are in a format, the more powerful it is. Fate Reforged is particularly powerful and follows the trend Khans of Tarkir set with many efficient, powerful, and flexible cards. These cards, including Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Soulfire Grandmaster, Valorous Stance, Outpost Siege, Whisperwood Elemental, Wild Slash, and Crux of Fate have been immediately adopted across the format. The influx of new Fate Reforged cards has not dramatically shaken up the metagame or spawned a new top-tier deck from nowhere, but it has given tools to every archetype in the field.
This wealth of quality cards available gives players greater ability to adapt their strategies in deckbuilding and sideboarding. Rather than being pigeonholed into certain cards and strategies, the deckbuilder has a significant amount of flexibility in their card selection and strategic positioning. The increased number of cards in the format also makes opponents more difficult to play against because of their increased range of potential card holdings. Fate Reforged added depth and complexity to the Standard format.
At Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir some players found great success in sideboard plans that allowed them to transform their strategy and shift their role in a matchup. Shaun McLaren's Jeskai Tempo deck could turn into a control deck with End Hostilities, Anger of the Gods, six Counterspells, and a Keranos, God of Storms endgame. Ivan Floch's UB control deck had access to three Clever Impersonator in the sideboard to catch creatures and planeswalkers and produce a threat, which could prove devastating against an opponent who has cut their removal spells. Lee Shi Tian's Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck employed the most significant transformational sideboard of the Top 8. His sideboard included four Savage Knuckleblade and a pair of Polukranos, World Eater, which allowed him to shift away from a combo deck and instead leverage his mana acceleration to enable powerful, large green creatures capable of winning the game by themselves.
Grand Prix Memphis featured some impressive dynamic sideboard strategies from the majority of the Top 8 players, making it clear that having a way to shift gears is not just an option but perhaps requisite for success in this Standard metagame.Cat's Out of the Bag
The talk of the tournament was the Fleecemane Lion sideboard plan of Abzan Midrange played by a contingent of Abzan Midrange players, including the deck's brainchild Steve Rubin, whose Team TCGplayer teammate Chris Fennel also finished in the Top 8 along with collaborator Alex Majlaton.
Also sporting Abzan Midrange with the Fleecemane Lion Package was Brad Nelson, who has made the Top 8 of yet another Standard Grand Prix.
Fleecemane Lion is used by Abzan Control to shift its gameplan to a more proactive and aggressive one after sideboard. It's great against most opponents because the Abzan Midrange deck doesn't play cheap creatures, so cards like Bile Blight and Lightning Strike are commonly sideboarded out against the deck because they aren't impactful in the matchup. Opponents expect to play against a controlling deck, so Fleecemane Lion flips the script and will catch the opponent off guard.
It's a very effective plan against control decks like UB and Sultai, and the pressure is effective for getting the jump on the opponent in the mirror match. It's surprisingly strong against RW Aggro, where it's important to be aggressive to race Outpost Siege, and the 3/3 body holds up well against their creature suite. It's also effective against Monored Aggro and other aggressive weenie decks, while it stays home against UW Heroic.
Fleecemane Lion is an effective clock when paired with Abzan's heavy disruption suite. It's capable of playing an aggro-control tempo game plan by using Fleecemane Lion in the role of Wild Nacatl or Delver of Secrets, though perhaps Tarmogoyf is a more fitting comparison. The pressure of Fleecemane Lion's three damage a turn, combined with the ticking Time Bomb fact that if left unmolested until turn five Fleecemane Lion will monstrous and likely win the game on the spot, forces the opponent to answer it. Any turn spent dealing with Fleecemane Lion is one turn they are occupied and unable to advance their own board state or deal with a different threat. Fleecemane Lion has the effect of paving the way for future threats. It is something of a Flagbearer creature, or as Brad Nelson described it in his deck tech, a Spellskite.
I'd like to discuss the presence of Sorin, Solemn Visitor in Abzan Midrange sideboards. In his deck tech interview Brad spoke to the importance of the planeswalker as a way to supplement Fleecemane Lion when he shifts gears towards a more aggressive deck after sideboard. Much like Fleecemane Lion, Sorin, Solemn Visitor is a way to proactively impact the board and demand a response from the opponent. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is also a great tempo play because its -2 ability creates two pieces of board presence, the token and the planeswalker itself.
Some of the Abzan Midrange players opted for Mastery of the Unseen in the sideboard. This threat is quite hard to deal with, and because Abzan Midrange doesn't normally play enchantments, it will normally be immune to everything but Utter End. It's a slow, reliable way to generate an advantage over a long game. It's great in any attrition matchup, like the mirror match, UB Control, and Mardu.
Considering that five Abzan Control decks made Top 8 out of the 10 copies in day two, the deck clearly overperformed at the Grand Prix and may very well be the best deck in the metagame going forward. It's hard to hate out directly, but the metagame could shift towards one hostile to it, perhaps back to Hornet Queen and Whip of Erebos or hyper-aggressive red decks that prey on control decks.Sultai Control
Jack Fogle's Champion Sultai Control deck featured an aggressive sideboard transformation similar in nature to the Fleecemane Lion / Sorin, Solemn Visitor sideboard strategy of Abzan Midrange. Rakshasa Deathdealer is a potent alternative to Fleecemane Lion that Threatens to deal a massive amount of damage if unanswered. It's capable of closing out a game quickly and is a great mana sink. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is particularly potent in Fogle's deck, which plays Sylvan Wayfinder, but it's good in general in this control deck with an attrition-based plan that's likely to trade off most cards and will often find itself with a stocked graveyard. These two aggressive creatures combine to give Fogle a very effective sideboard plan that he found great success with over the weekend.
The post-sideboard creature plan is particularly effective here, because Fogle's maindeck is essentially creatureless. Opponent's will sideboard out all creature removal beyond Hero's Downfall, which are necessary to destroy planeswalkers, so their removal capabilities will be severely stressed when confronted with a creature suite in addition to the planeswalkers. This plan is particularly excellent in this deck because of his creatureless maindeck configuration, but even more so because as a control deck it's likely to get into long game, and for practical considerations it's very useful to have access to creatures because they can win games quickly when facing restrictions from the clock.
Fogle's sideboard plan is particularly impressive because he can pair his creature aggression with the disruption of Counterspells. Applying pressure while maintaining control with Counterspells is a powerful combination and surely led to some clean wins for Fogle, as witnessed throughout the Top 8.
Sultai Control is clearly well positioned in the metagame, where it preys on midrange creature decks, and I expect it will gain traction in the coming weeks.RW Aggro
Ben Stark played an innovative take on RW Aggro, which takes full advantage of Fate Reforged's offerings. Headlining Ben's deck is a full playset of Soulfire Grandmaster. This card has most often been a one-of, or perhaps a two-of supplementing Seeker of the Way. I had seen some lists using the full four Soulfire Grandmaster, but then they skimped on Seeker of the Way. Ben Stark has embraced the bear with full playsets of each 2/2 two-drop.
Soulfire Grandmaster provides Ben with a powerful late-game card advantage engine that paired with a burn spell will inevitably win the game. It gives RW greater ability to play the long game and is part of a fundamental shift in this deck's game plan away from pure aggression and towards a card-advantage fueled attrition game that looks to go long.
The strategic shift is centered around Outpost Siege, and Ben plays as many as possible. Plan A for Outpost Siege is to play it as a card advantage engine in the same vein as Phyrexian Arena. The steady stream of cards gives the deck a bigger advantage the longer the game goes on. This allows Ben to operate much like a control deck, and in his deck tech he went so far to say that he hopes the game goes as long as possible. This is in many ways a covert transformational plan in the maindeck. His deck looks and operates much like a typical RW Aggro deck, but the inclusion of this new card gives his deck ability to play a very different long-term attrition plan. Especially after sideboard players will warp their decks and strategies to beat an aggressive deck, but they will find themselves in a losing battle against the potent card advantage engine that is Outpost Siege.
Ben's most serious departure from the status quo is the movement of Stormbreath Dragon to the sideboard. He stated that it does not fit his control strategy, so he cut them. Most opponents will be expecting them game one and will play around them accordingly, which leaves them looking the fool. Ben instead uses Stormbreath Dragon out of the sideboard to transform his strategy in matchups where he wants to take on the aggressive role.
Ben also played three Mastery of the Unseen in his sideboard. This is a serious commitment of sideboard space to the strategy and one that Ben was surely confident in. It provides the deck with a potent tool that further cements its edge in the long game. It's quite effective in any attrition matchup, like against UB control and Abzan Midrange, and it seems particularly potent in the mirror match, where both players tend to get into a topdeck mode relatively early in the game, and Mastery of the Unseen acts as a parity-breaker that should allow its controller to inevitably overtake the opponent.
Absent from the maindeck is Brimaz, King of Oreskos, which I have previously discussed as being a strain on the mana with its double white cost: a volatile and somewhat unreliable liability. Ashcloud Phoenix is also absent. It's poorly positioned because it's quite weak to Chained to the Rocks and Abzan Charm, and as a four-drop it competes with Outpost Siege on the curve.
Absent from Ben's sideboard is Elspeth, Sun's Champion. A distinguishing feature of this card is its high mana cost, and its exclusion from the sideboard is similar for the reason Stormbreath Dragon is cut from the maindeck: it's too slow and too expensive. Ben Stark's gameplan is to be as efficient and explosive as possible in the early game, and then transition into an endgame driven by Outpost Siege and Soulfire Grandmaster that floods the opponent with spells. Ben isn't attempting to win through Brute Force of individual card power, but rather through the efficiency and the sheer number of his threats and disruption.
Ben's decklist is unique in that it plays three Evolving Wilds, compared to the usual one. These two extra Evolving Wilds effectively increase the count of each color of mana in his deck by one. This makes it slightly more likely he has the critical white mana necessary to cast his bears, and this also increases his effective Mountain count to make Chained to the Rocks more reliable.
I do worry that with so many enchantments, Ben's deck is weak to Back to Nature, which is currently being minimally played but it poised to make a comeback if this decklist is widely adopted. It's something the deck will have to contend with in the coming days. RW is extremely consistent and aggressive. It's well positioned against creature decks, and the innovations of Ben Stark give it the tools to outlast control decks.Soulfire Grandmaster Continued
Outside of the Top 8, Andrew Cuneo played an interesting take on Jeskai control with a transformational sideboard of his own.
I want to focus on Soulfire Grandmaster. This card should be a consideration for all manners of RWx and UWx decks going forward, and it may be particularly potent as a transformational sideboard option. In some ways Soulfire Grandmaster is the Jeskai take on Rakshasa Deathdealer. It's effective and impactful early as a creature, and its power scales up throughout the game limited only by the amount of mana available. I could imagine that, much like did Cuneo's deck, UW or Esper control could utilize this as an extra threat out of the board.
It is important to make a distinction between Soulfire Grandmaster and other creature options. It's not robust, like Fleecemane Lion, and it's not capable of doing a lot of damage like Rakshasa Deathdealer, nor does it generate incremental board advantage like Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Early on, Soulfire Grandmaster is best used for its Lifelink, which makes it best against aggressive opponents. A UW Control deck, for example, could bring in Soulfire Grandmaster against RW Aggro. After sideboard RW is likely to have cut their creature removal and perhaps their lowest impact burn spells like Wild Slash, so Soulfire Grandmaster is a legitimate threat early that will at least trade at mana parity with Lightning Strike; trading it with Stoke the Flames is certainly advantageous. Unanswered, it will generate precious life points in reserve now that can be spent to buy time later. Later it the game, Soulfire has obvious card advantage applications and will win the game if left unchecked. Playing this card in a deck with many spells provides it with a significant amount of inevitability that can't be understated.
Soulfire Grandmaster also has applications in Mardu which, as an aggressive deck full of creature removal, can leverage the value well. Mardu typically plays plenty of creatures, so most opponents will bring in creature removal, but imagine Soulfire Grandmaster in the sideboard of a creatureless build like Raphael Levy's from PT: KTK:
Soulfire Grandmaster is sure to be great with Thoughtseize!Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe did not finish in the Top 8, but he was in the fight all weekend long and put up a solid Top 32 finish. Craig played an evolution of the Naya Tokens deck he and Chris Fennel played to near-Top 8 finishes at Grand Prix: Denver.
Craig's deck is notable because of his aggressive Mistcutter Hydra sideboard plan, but I'm really impressed by Reclamation Sage. This card is excellent against RW Aggro, which is loaded with enchantments, so it'ss aggression and disruption in one. As a two power creature it trades well with the many bears in RW Aggro as well. It's a very frustrating card for RW Aggro to play against and is surely a great sideboard option for any green deck going forward.
What other sort of strategic shifts are occurring in Standard? What are other examples of transformational sideboard plans? What other archetypes could benefit from a change in perspective? Are there any specific cards that would excel as an aggressive sideboard option? Share in the comments! I'll do my best to make sure any questions get answered.
Think outside the box!
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