This past weekend, I had the privilege of being a spectator at Mythic Championship VII in Long Beach, watching all the games first hand. But more than that, I was able to talk to competitors about their decks, and what they thought of the field overall. Unlike the previous two Standards, there was no clearly best card or deck like Field of the Dead, or Oko, Thief of Crowns. Instead there was an early frontrunner, Jeskai Fires, and a smattering of other decks, typically built around Edgewall Innkeeper, Cauldron Familiar or blue countermagic. When the dust settled, the final matchup was between Simic Flash (which is much less Flash and much more Ramp these days) and Jund Sacrifice, which would win the whole tournament, in the digital hands of Kannister.
Finally, four bans later, we have a Standard format that looks healthy!
When Ally Warfield and I arrived on site Thursday, there was one phrase we heard repeated:
"I'm glad there's so little Embercleave."
It turns out that Standard's version of Temur Battle Rage was on most people's radar, but nearly absent from the tournament. It showed up in a couple people's sideboards as a one-of, but only one competitor built her deck around it specifically:
Esther's deck was a combination of Edgewall Innkeeper and Embercleave that seemed like it should have been pretty effective to those of us watching before the tournament started. The deck had big, hasty creatures and a low curve that would be good against the Simic and Izzet Flash decks, a quick clock to try and race the sluggish Jeskai Fires, and Questing Beast and Embercleave to punch through the Adventure and Cauldron Familiar decks. It seemed like, in many respects, the deck was well poised to take advantage of the field.
Prior to decklist submissions for the MC, it was one of the decks I was trying out in an attempt to exploit the metagame. The deck definitely still had weaknesses against Deafening Clarion, which could significantly slow down its clock, and the deck's mana hadn't really improved (still trying to cast double green and double red cards with almost exclusively basic Mountains and Forests). Still, it seemed like a good overall choice for the tournament.
Unfortunately, luck was not on Esther's side day one, as she got only one win after being paired repeatedly into Jund and Golgari Sacrifice decks. And with that, the only real Embercleave deck in the format was out.
The question remains, though… why? Embercleave was able to compete in Standards with cards at bannable power levels like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Field of the Dead. Both did a good job of gumming up the ground with creatures, while Embercleave prevented effective trades and forced through damage. In this metagame, all of the Cauldron Familiar and Edgewall Innkeeper decks function similarly, but with smaller creatures. Foulmire Knight in particular looks especially embarrassing when it goes from a guaranteed trade with most creatures in Standard to only soaking up 1 point of damage before dying to first strike. Going forward, a Gruul deck like Esther's seems like a reasonable choice for Standard on ladder, or at Grand Prix Oklahoma City or Portland in the next couple weeks. If people are picking up Jund Sacrifice in larger numbers after Piotr's win at MCVII, killing them before they can set up their engine is a good plan.
That said, in many respects, this same aggressive plan was still represented at the Mythic Championship, but with a four-mana planeswalker instead of a legendary equipment.
Chris Kvartek's deck is quite similar to lists we saw during Mythic Championship V in October. Back then, the goal was to build out a wide board and attack with big threats with trample from Vivien, Arkbow Ranger to try and punch through the hordes of zombie tokens on the ground. Chris's deck took it one step further, adding Rotting Regisaur and The Great Henge to the deck, now that both had been "unbanned" by Oko, Thief of Crowns leaving the format. This gives the deck a surprising amount of card draw, life gain and reach for a midrange deck in this format, as well as the potential for extremely fast clocks with Lovestruck Beast and Rotting Regisaur.
Between his insanely high level of play and a good deck choice, Chris Kvartek looked pretty favored going into the Top 8 of the event. The first game of his match against Andrea Mengucci showcases just how powerful the deck can be and how good Chris is at the game, before a combination of untimely mulligans and missing a key land drop killed his chances in what seems like a favorable matchup against Andrea Mengucci's Simic Ramp. Still, the evidence is there from all his other games during the weekend: big creatures with trample, whether from Embercleave or Vivien, Arkbow Ranger, are a powerful thing to be doing in this metagame. Having played some games with his deck, I'd be mostly fine just sleeving up his exact 75 if I were playing in Oklahoma City this weekend. The deck can win quickly, grind, and break through groundstalls. There's not much more to love in a deck right now.
However, right now my heart is in blending the two decks: combining Rotting Regisaur and Embercleave to hit people for 16 on turn four. This list is unlikely to be finalized until closer to the tournament if I play it, but for now, this is my build.
To give credit where it's due, I'm definitely not the first person even recently to think of putting Rotting Regisaur and Embercleave together. Over the last week, the Arena Decklists Twitter has retweeted a couple people with the same idea, and I definitely tried both of their lists before building my own the way I did.
The idea is simple. Rotting Regisaur and Embercleave will be lethal on turn four if:
1. We're attacking with at least two creatures, including Rotting Regisaur
2. They take at least 4 points of damage from other sources over the first couple turns
Thankfully, Embercleave already encourages us to play with a lot of creatures to minimize the cost of Embercleave anyway, so the second part is trivially easy to achieve.
Most of the good aggressive cards in red and black right now happen to be Knights. Stormfist Crusader, Knight of the Ebon Legion and Fervent Champion are four-ofs in each of these decks, because they represent some of the best things to do, period, for one and two mana right now. Stormfist Crusader especially has impressed me. Most Standard decks are very good at drawing cards on their own, but very bad about using them fast enough to keep up with this deck's aggression. Dealing 3 points a turn starting on turn three and turning on Drill Bit pre-combat is very valuable in the games where the Regisaur/Embercleave combo doesn't lock up the game instantly. Drill Bit itself has been incredibly valuable. It grants information about how to play around Flash decks, and takes key cards out of Jeskai Fires opponents' hands to keep them from locking up the battlefield with Cavaliers and Sphinxes.
The big thing I'm doing differently is mostly in the one-drop slot. When I've seen this deck online or on ladder, the third one-drop is usually Gutterbones. That card has, historically, not impressed me unless there was a good way to abuse the ability to return it to hand, like Priest of Forgotten Gods. In this deck, taking the time when on offense to return it to hand is usually a complete waste of time, unless they've swept the board, in which case it's not coming back anyway. Additionally, not being cast off of Tournament Grounds is a strike against it. Really the card's only purpose is to attack for a small amount of damage early, enable Drill Bit, and discount Embercleave. Instead, I've opted for Foulmire Knight. The card blocks better than Gutterbones, trades with the same things, and when drawn in a game that's going long it cycles to draw more action. Because Fervent Champion can pump it (unlike Gutterbones) it's not even very different from the 2/1.
At the top end, I've opted to also include Spawn of Mayhem. Flying is valuable, built-in trample is valuable, and the small amount of unblockable damage from its triggered ability has come in very handy. It's possible to draw too many (and I occasionally shave one in sideboarding to prevent this), but more threats that dodge Deafening Clarion and hold an Embercleave well are important to this deck's success.
This does make the mana a bit weird. The deck would love to play fewer basics and lean more heavily on Tournament Grounds, but Tournament Grounds doesn't cast a lot of the sideboard cards or Spawn of Mayhem. Ultimately the deck has to walk a tightrope to cast Embercleave and the double-black cards Swift End and Spawn of Mayhem. This is my current build of the mana, but I could see it adjusting slightly over time.
The other card I included is a callback to Ken Yukuhiro's deck from the previous Mythic Championship V, Steelclaw Lance. I sideboard it out a decent amount, but it has an important function against Jeskai Fires: making a 2 toughness creature like Knight of the Ebon Legion or Stormfist Crusader survive Deafening Clarion. It also lets the deck recover more quickly when the board is swept by making every small creature a threat, and for not very much mana (and sometimes for free, when equipped to Fervent Champion).
The sideboard is a mix of cards to tailor the removal or discard suite to what you're playing against: Legion's End and Disfigure for Innkeeper decks (much less so for Cauldron Familiar), Epic Downfall for Rotting Regisaur and Cavaliers, etc. The deck doesn't have much ability to shift to be anything else; this car only goes forward at full speed. Because of that, sideboarding tends to be pretty easy: take out Drill Bit, Murderous Rider, Steelclaw Lance or Foulmire Knight, depending on what's bad and bring in the appropriate removal or discard spells.
The list is still in flux, and I'm still experimenting, so don't be afraid to deviate from this and try things out!
Against Jund Sacrifice, I also like taking out Stormfist Crusader. They often have the blockers between Cauldron Familiar and Gilded Goose to make menace not worth it, and their deck is very inexpensive, letting them deploy the extra cards pretty quickly. Instead, I would rather try to keep them off key artifacts like Witch's Oven with Embereth Shieldbreaker and the important creatures with Epic Downfall. Downfall removes pretty much everything relevant (Mayhem Devil, Wicked Wolf, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King…) from their board for less mana than they cost.
Because we remove creatures vs. Regisaur and they have more removal and bigger blockers, Embercleave is less a one-hit KO and more just a powerful card. Drawing two is pretty bad, so I shave one.
In summary, against the post-Mythic Championship metagame, I think the key card to watch for is Embercleave. Whether in Rakdos or Gruul, the card seems well positioned to slice through the decks people are playing right now. The decks above aren't well suited to attacking for large amounts of damage quickly, and usually rely on chump blocking to buy them time to get an engine online.
I'd expect to see Embercleave do well this weekend in Oklahoma City. But for now, I'm happy battering my opponents with it on Arena.