This past weekend was of course the first weekend of the new Standard format, and the results really help indicate what to look for moving forward as far as what the decks to beat in Standard are. The largest scale tournament this past weekend was the SCG Open in Indy, and that was taken down by Brian DeMars playing Atarka Red. Initially I wasn't impressed because Atarka Red has been doing well in Standard for quite some time, but after watching Brian play games with the deck it plays out very differently from more traditional versions of Atarka Red. This is his list:
The biggest hit to the red aggro decks were the best burn spells like Lightning Strike, Searing Blood, and Stoke the Flames rotating out. Sure you still have access to Exquisite Firecraft, Atarka's Command, Wild Slash, and Roast, but that really isn't enough. In fact the only burn DeMars has in his maindeck is a playset of Atarka's Command and Wild Slash. This means that he was forced to look elsewhere in order to find spells that can help make up for the lack of burn, and this is where the pump spells come in. We have seen Titan's Strength before, sure, but he has also added the combo of Temur Battle Rage plus Become Immense. While these aren't cards from Battle for Zendikar they are new in the respect that they weren't really seeing a ton of play before.
There were a number of different takes on red/green aggressive decks but there was only one version like the one DeMars played as far as I know. He has gone ahead and added the full amount of Temur Battle Rages to his deck to go along with the pump, and whenever he drew Temur Battle Rage and Become Immense together I'm sure he felt great. When watching the games play out on camera he was able to set up wins against even the perceived bad matchups, even without drawing his combo kill. I would be surprised if building around the pump spells isn't the best way to construct Atarka Red moving forward. Of course once people are thinking about the pump spells you lose the element of surprise, though it's not clear how big of a deal that is.
As far as the creature base here many of the creatures are typical of this deck, but there a couple guys that stand out. There are two maindeck copies of Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh as a top-end play. Without Goblin Rabblemaster around, expect Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh to see increasingly more play. This provides another way of dealing damage to the opponent, that doesn't actually require attacking. Another creature which stands out is the one copy of Makindi Sliderunner. This deck isn't built around landfall but there are ten fetch lands, and Makindi Sliderunner having trample is what makes him worth playing. This card is a great target for Become Immense or Titan's Strength because it has trample, which can lead to a lot of additional damage. When hearing DeMars talk about his creature suite he mentioned his disdain for Lightning Berserker and how he would want to add a bigger threat like Thunderbreak Regent to the main.
Adding a Thunderbreak Regent would mean that part of his sideboard plan was incorporated in the maindeck. The plan after board is to make you less vulnerable to mass removal, which means changing the creature base, and bringing in Hangarback Walker, Goblin Heelcutter and Thunderbreak Regent. This makes a card like Radiant Flames much less scary. Over the course of the event it didn't seem like there were any matchups or cards DeMars was particularly afraid of. This version of Atarka Red is the top deck in Standard as of right now.
In the finals Brian DeMars overcame the Green/White Aggro deck Michael Majors played in two quick games. This was perceived as a very bad matchup for demurs. While the Green/White Aggro deck didn't look great in the finals, I do think the deck is very strong, and was one of the best decks of the weekend. This is the list of Majors:
It is no coincidence that decks with only two colors in them met in the finals. While there were a variety of attempts to build four and five-color decks, many of those attempts failed. Even the good versions of the four and five-color decks had trouble dealing with these fast two-color decks that can punish even the smallest of stumbles. In addition there are actually not very many good turn two plays and even less strong turn one plays. Here we see one of the strongest one-drops in the format showcased in Warden of the First Tree. This deck can curve out pretty easily, while a slower deck may not even start casting spells until turn three. This sort of green/white deck has been around for a little while now and may be the best way of utilizing morph creatures in the format.
Initially Craig Wescoe built this deck with Collected Company in it, and then it evolved into the deck Brian Kibler played at Pro Tour Magic Origins. The deck has a lot going for it as it has a ton of early plays, as well as a lot to do with its mana later in the game. Cards like Warden of the First Tree and Hangarback Walker are strong early, and then can be mana sinks later on. Over the course of the weekend Majors won games that went very long which isn't something that many other aggressive decks can accomplish. In the quarterfinals, game three versus Esper Dragons was epic but it was Majors who got the job done. Part of the reason for the strong late game is the three copies of Evolutionary Leap in the board. This makes the deck much less susceptible to removal spells, and works very well with the plan of returning Deathmist Raptors to play from the graveyard.
The newest addition to this deck is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Here is a card that many white decks are now playing, as it is one of the best four-mana plays in the format, especially when you aren't being pressured by the opponent. This is a threat that control decks really have trouble with and can provide a fast clock when turning itself into a creature. Majors used all three modes on Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the Top 8 of SCG Indy. It makes sense to play four copies because if you have extras the idea is to make an emblem with the first one and then churn out a bunch of 3/3 creatures with the other one. This deck's success will make creatures like Mantis Rider more popular since it is very hard to attack Deathmist Raptor and friends on the ground. Still, the deck does play spells that can be used as removal like Dromoka's Command and Valorous Stance.
Overall Green/White Aggro didn't lose much from the rotation and gained Gideon, Ally of Zendikar so expect the deck to continue to do well. It may not be flashy, but it is consistent. I also don't think the matchup versus Atarka Red is as bad as it seemed versus DeMars in the finals; traditionally that type of deck is actually a good matchup for Green/White Aggro.
Alright, so these two-color decks definitely did very well, but there were still some four and five-color builds that have promise. Most of the five color decks were focused around Bring to Light, and the version Gerry Thompson played seemed to be the most successful. Gerry dominated the tournament until facing Atarka Red in the Top 8 and having some unfortunate draws, in addition to the matchup being rough. His build does have a lot going for it though, here it is:
This is what a true Bring to Light Control deck should look like, as it is filled with singletons. There are only a few spells which are four-ofs, but they are the strongest ones in the deck. They are Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Siege Rhino, Abzan Charm, and of course Bring to Light. These are some of the most powerful cards Standard has to offer. Bring to Light can search for anything in the deck besides the singleton Silumgar, the Drifting Death. This means that each singleton is essentially part of the Bring to Light toolbox. There is no need to play multiple copies of sweepers like Languish or Crux of Fate since, with Bring to Light, it is almost like you are already playing five copies. This deck can find whatever answer it needs in a pinch once it gets to five mana and has its colors straightened out. The manabase is actually quite good, it just takes some time to set up. The deck doesn't have a ton of early plays so the most aggressive decks can be a bit of an issue. There aren't any Counterspells in the maindeck as the deck operates primarily at sorcery speed, which makes sense with Bring to Light being the key piece of the engine. My favorite singleton might be the copy of Gilt-Leaf Winnower as it is a great answer to Siege Rhino and can deal with other threats too.
This deck plays essentially more Siege Rhinos than any other deck because of Bring to Light and also has the largest variety of answers to opposing Siege Rhinos. This helps contribute to the reason the Abzan matchup is so good. There were a lot of base three-color decks that splashed an additional color in the Open. The reason for this is that the new manabases make the splashes look almost free. One of the decks that stood out was Adam Varner's Four-Color Midrange, take a look:
This resembles a typical Jeskai Midrange deck, yet an additional color has been added, primarily for Crackling Doom. Crackling Doom is currently one of the best removal spells in the format as it answers Dragonlord Ojutai and Siege Rhino. The deck also plays one copy of Butcher of the Horde to supplement other flying threats. So many of the base green decks have difficulty dealing with flyers, which is why a deck like this is well positioned. There is also a new four mana threat here that shouldn't be a surprise, as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar can slot into pretty much any white deck.
The deck still has access to the power of Ojutai's Command plus Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, and there is even a new one-drop that works well with Ojutai's Command. Adam won games on the back of Dragonmaster Outcast, as this card is a legitimate win condition, and it can be brought back from the graveyard even if the opponents kills it initially. The deck has a relatively low mana curve while also having a good late game, and a large part of that is due to the addition of Dragonmaster Outcast. I am not convinced that Hangarback Walker is the correct two-drop for this deck, but it is also a hard two-drop to argue against playing. The only issue is Hangarback Walker doesn't work well with Ojutai's Command, though perhaps that is okay. Moving forward I expect Jeskai variants to continue to find success, and splashing for black cards seems like a smart addition to an already powerful strategy.
Thanks for reading,