Teferi, Hero of Dominaria has been one of the pillars of Standard since it was first printed in Dominaria. Now that Guilds of Ravnica has joined us, that doesn't seem to be changing – control decks are still putting up the numbers in the opening weeks of the format. That's pretty remarkable given how aggressive new Standard formats tend to be.
There doesn't yet seem to be a consensus on the "best" Teferi deck, however. Between white-blue, Esper and Jeskai, there have been plenty of different builds seeing success in Leagues and online PTQs, as well as on the SCG circuit. Today, we're going to break down the differences between these lists, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and decide upon which the best version moving forward.
Advantages: Great mana, utility lands and incredible sweepers
Disadvantages: Clunky enchantment removal and no reach.
Advantages: Amazing point removal, conditionally excellent sweeper and powerful sideboard.
Disadvantages: Weak to noncreature permanents and clunky mana.
Advantages: Removal doubles as reach, has cheap sweepers and a transformational sideboard.
Disadvantages: No "unconditional" removal and clunky mana.
The primary and perhaps most important consideration when building any deck is the mana base. Can it support a deck's gameplan? Does it provide the necessary colored mana to cast spells in a timely fashion? When building a Teferi deck, it naturally has to contain white and blue – and due to the current state of fixing, we generally see decks based in two colors, splashing for a third.
White-Blue offers stable, functional mana that doesn't rely on life payments for shock lands, awkward, dual-heavy openers, or difficulty in hitting double-casting-cost spells. You can even play multiple utility lands like Field of Ruin and Arch of Orazca - White-Blue has excellent mana.
Conversely, both Esper and Jeskai rely heavily on shock lands and check lands to fulfil their mana requirements. That's not to say the mana is bad – it isn't, and still has plenty of basics (important in a format with Field of Ruin and Assassin's Trophy). However, it's not as streamlined and effortlessly painless as straight white-blue.
Irrespective of how you build this list, there is almost always going to be overlap amongst the core blue cards. Sinister Sabotage and Chemister's Insight have replaced Disallow and Glimmer of Genius, respectively, and are now near-universal inclusions in any blue-based control deck. Search for Azcanta is too good not to play, and both Essence Scatter and Syncopate see play as (mostly) two-mana disruption.
In White-Blue, this Counterspell suite is expanded to include cards such as Disdainful Stroke (whichdainful stroke?), Negate and even Devious Cover-Up. Additionally, Mission Briefing has seen play here and there, as has Blink of an Eye. Given that White-Blue doesn't have a surplus of interactive options, unlike Esper and Jeskai, this makes sense.
Given that Teferi is a white-blue card, and all these decks play white, why are there not also core white cards? Remember that white is the splash color in both Esper and Jeskai – the mana can't really support it as a fully-fledged third color – and as a result Teferi is often one of the only maindeck white cards.
In any case, this core of Sinister Sabotage, Chemister's Insight, Search for Azcanta, Essence Scatter, and Syncopate is played alongside Teferi regardless of accompanying colours. It's when filling out the rest of the deck that the real questions begin to arise.
White-Blue, undoubtedly, has the "best" sweepers. In a vacuum, Settle the Wreckage and Cleansing Nova have the highest raw power, and are about as unconditional as you can get in the current Standard format. Of course, it's possible for a canny opponent to play around Settle - although sometimes they simply can't afford to.
Additionally, Cleansing Nova costs five, and trades away the stabilizing power of Fumigate for the flexibility of blowing up artifacts and enchantments. This mode, however, isn't something you should be super interested in, especially as the white-blue deck is full of cards such as Seal Away.
Esper gains the very powerful Ritual of Soot. Right now, this sweeper is exceptionally powerful as aggressive red and white decks are running roughshod over the format. It also pairs exceptionally well with Vraska's Contempt, meaning your turn-four play is always going to be a relevant one – either sweep a board full of small dudes, or pick off a single large threat.
Having said that, Ritual of Soot gets worse as the format gets slower. Despite its ability to slay the enormous Steel Leaf Champion, it misses key creatures such as Nullhide Ferox, Rekindling Phoenix, and Lyra Dawnbringer. In a format Overrun by one and two-drops, then I'm a big fan of Ritual of Soot, but in a midrange slugfest it's the last card you want.
Jeskai has access to an incredibly important card in Deafening Clarion. It's not often you'll gain much life from its second ability – it's much like Azorius Charm in that this ability does next to nothing – but having access to a three-mana sweeper is absolutely huge, especially in the current Standard format.
No other card deals with tiny red dudes more efficiently or effectively, and thanks to its cheap cost, it's not hogging the more expensive slots on the curve like Ritual of Soot or Cleansing Nova. We've established Ritual of Soot is great against low-to-the-ground aggro decks, but Deafening Clarion is even better.
Which sweeper option is best? Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. It depends on a wide range of factors: the speed of the format, the size of opposing creatures, and, of course, the point removal you're using alongside these sweeper effects.
The most important factor when it comes to evaluating point removal spells in Teferi decks is simply its cost. Does it cost two or fewer? If so, it's at a true premium, thanks to the synergy with Teferi's first ability. Being able to defend a turn-five Teferi with Seal Away, Cast Down, or Lightning Strike is critically important. Consequently, examining each color for the best two-mana removal spells will heavily influence our decision-making.
As you might have guessed, eschewing a third color cuts off your removal options quite significantly. Seal Away is a great option, but the loss of Cast Out really hurts this deck. Ixalan's Binding is often very awkward to cast and having to rely on cards such as Gideon's Reproach and Baffling End isn't a great place to be. The lack of good removal is the biggest downside to not dipping into three colors.
Black removal is usually the best in the business, and things are no different here. With strong two-mana options such as Cast Down and Moment of Craving, black is well-positioned to support Teferi. While it might be awkward to have Cast Down while facing a Lyra Dawnbringer, generally speaking, black's cheap removal is top-tier – and black also offers Vraska's Contempt, which is the best general answer in the format.
Justice Strike shores up one of the main weaknesses of red removal: the ability to kill huge creatures. Lyra, Doom Whisperer, Nullhide Ferox – no longer are red decks in the cold to massive beaters. Lava Coil is also a nice option, although fails the Teferi test due to being sorcery-speed only (as does Beacon Bolt, which also costs three). Lightning Strike has been a defensible removal spell since it was first printed, and the fact that it can go upstairs makes the chip damage from Ionize all the better (although I'm still not convinced it's better than Sinister Sabotage).
Clearly, black offers the best removal. Its inflexibility in the face of artifacts or enchantments isn't hugely relevant in a post-Heart of Kiran world, and the efficiency of a card like Cast Down makes heavily conditional cards like Seal Away and Lightning Strike look a little silly.
A straight white-blue deck will generally play the full four copies of Teferi, and nothing else. Why mess with perfection? Occasionally a Lyra or two will make it to the maindeck, but I think a streamlined, creatureless approach is the best way forward. As a matter of fact, it may well be a trap to get fancy and add further multi-coloured threats in three-color lists.
Chromium, the Mutable sees play as an industry-standard one-of in Esper lists alongside the playset of Teferi. I'm not sure it's necessary; drawing a seven-drop when your opponent is beating you down with Ghitu Lavarunner will make you feel like a real idiot. I don't see this as a reason to play black.
Many Jeskai lists have gone completely bonkers when it comes to jamming huge threats into the starting 60 – Ral, Izzet Viceroy, Niv-Mizzet, Parun, and even Cracking Drake are all getting a run! As this often results in shaving the fourth Teferi, I can't say I agree with this approach. I don't think you ever want the first Ral before the fourth Teferi, and I don't like main deck creatures of any kind, as you want to blank as many cards as possible.
Overall, I don't see playing a third color as being very influential when it comes to filling out a suite of threats. As Teferi can win a game on his own, and as it's generally best to keep all opposing removal spells dead, I wouldn't go overboard with extra threats. Maybe an extra Ral as a pseudo-Teferi, but even then, is it even necessary?
White-blue sideboards are extremely well-known by now. History of Benalia lowers the curve, blocking against aggressive decks while putting pressure on control, and this creature plan is aided by Lyra Dawnbringer or maybe a Nezahal. Apart from that, it's mostly boring but effective stuff like Invoke the Divine, Negate, and the like. There isn't anything particularly exciting when it comes to a pure white-blue sideboard.
Black opens up some great post-board options – Duress has a lot of utility in grindier game twos, and spare removal like Fungal Infection can be squirrelled away here as well. I'm most excited by the "go big" cards like Profane Procession, The Eldest Reborn and even Vona, Butcher of Magan. These cards pack a real punch and attack on angles that are new and difficult-to-answer.
Finally, I'm really interested in including Thief of Sanity, perhaps as a playset, in the sideboards of these Esper decks. If it takes someone by surprise and goes unanswered, the game is more or less over then and there.
Oh boy. I absolutely love transformational sideboards, and Jeskai has so many options to wrong-foot an unsuspecting opponent. Legion Warboss, Cracking Drake, Siege-Gang Commander – you can pack your sideboard with nine or 10 creatures and transform into a board-centric midrange deck supported by removal and countermagic. If you're playing against Jeskai Control, don't be too quick to board out all your removal – there might be a Legion Warboss ready to open his army-in-a-can on turn three.
So, after this thorough analysis of all the options available to us when building a Teferi list, where do we land? Unfortunately for Jeskai fans, I don't think the time is right to be running red cards when their black analogues are, quite simply, better. The choice, then, is between white-blue and Esper and depending on how the format shapes up, it's a pretty clear choice.
Thanks to its cheap, nigh-unconditional removal and the excellent Ritual of Soot, Esper is the pick against a fast, aggressive format. Additionally, with sideboarded Duresses and the "go big" threats we discussed, Esper is also well set-up against opposing control decks. Right now, Esper is the best pick against the Standard format.
This can and probably will change, however – and if it does, you'll want to adapt with it. If the format takes on more of a midrange bent, orbiting the various Green-Black and Abzan decks that continue to emerge, I'd much rather play straight White-Blue. Big sweepers like Cleansing Nova are at a premium in these matchups, and clunky or conditional removal is easier to wield when not being beaten down by one-mana creatures. For this reason, if the format slows down, I'll be looking to cut black and play two-colors.
There's no doubt that Teferi will continue to be a major player in Standard moving forward - but finding the right support cast for the mighty planeswalker will be a key challenge for anyone hoping to harness his power. May your turn-five Teferi ever go unanswered!
- Riley Knight