I have said many times in the past that Magic-League is my favorite place to find tournament results and decklists immediately after a new set is released. It's a competitive place with no barrier to entry, unlike Magic Online. The ease of access, long-standing infrastructure, and a large, global player base make it a strong Magic community full of hungry competitors eager to improve their gameplay and deckbuilding.
Khans of Tarkir has been played on Magic-League since the full spoiler was released, and this gives Magic-League players an early lead on testing and metagame development. Historically they are ahead of the Standard metagame curve, and fall set Standard rotations in particular showcase Magic-League's strengths. In past Standard formats, the origins of many format-defining top-tier archetypes can be traced back to Magic-League, most recently the Monoblack and Monoblue Devotion strategies that dominated this last year of Standard.
With that said, I was eager to see what Magic-League brought to the table for Khans of Tarkir Standard. Since the full set was spoiled there have been two tournaments worth of results posted on Magic-League, a Masters Trial tournament and a monthly Master tournament. With real prizes, these Masters events bring out the best players Magic-League has to offer. The fact that they chose the new Standard format for this month's Master event was exciting. The results from both events shine some light on the Standard format, and there are lots of potential decks to cover, so I'll get right into it:Evolving Sphinx's Revelation Control
Skullbashx won the Trial event with an old favorite, Esper control. This deck seeks to continue the success of UWx control strategies in a world without Sphinx's Revelation.
Jace's Ingenuity fills in the card drawing role, replacing Sphinx's Revelation. It serves as a reliable source of card advantage to keep the control action flowing through the midgame. Jace's Ingenuity is not nearly as powerful as Sphinx's Revelation overall, but at five mana it's actually a more efficient drawing spell than Sphinx's Revelation when X=3. It's better earlier in the game, which is when the deck is strained for mana and at its most vulnerable, so players familiar with playing this strategy over the last two years will be pleasantly surprised by Jace's Ingenuity.
Sign in Blood helps with consistency in the early game along with an extra bit of card advantage to keep the action going. Compared to the old UWx decks, it's somewhere between Azorius Charm and Divination in the role that it plays.
End Hostilities fills in the sweeper role replacing Supreme Verdict. End Hostilities costs a mana more, so it's not as efficient and unfortunately slower against aggressive decks, but it is a bit more powerful in that it handily deals with Bestow creatures, which were an important fixture of Theros Block Constructed. This deck is built with lots of early interaction, which helps it survive to turn five and allow it to take full advantage of the board sweeper. End Hostilities looks to be a very strong card against the creature-oriented midrange decks that define the format.
All of the spot removal in this deck is powerful and flexible, which gives the control deck a strong removal suite to fall back on in any matchup. Two Utter End make the cut, supplementing a full set of Hero's Downfall, three Banishing Light, and a pair of Bile Blight. Utter End is expensive, but it's a clean answer to nearly anything, and the fact that it's an instant means it plays well with cards like Jace's Ingenuity and Dissolve. Bile Blight is slightly narrow, but it's quite efficient and potentially very powerful, and most importantly it shines in the hyper-aggressive matchups where this deck needs the most help.
Dissolve helps to maintain the counter-control nature of the strategy and will be a familiar and welcome sight to those who played this style of deck last season. A pair of Nullify is an interesting addition that will be quite powerful when it finds a target, and I suspect this Standard metagame will have no lack of good targets.
Without Sphinx's Revelation, this archetype needs power and it needs a win condition, and it finds both of these attributes in Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. This card proved itself valuable in block but hasn't had the opportunity to make a huge impact in Standard. Once active, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver Threatens to play the opponent's creatures for free, which generates both card advantage and a tempo gain in the form of a creature that can protect the planeswalker or get aggressive. Carefully played, this is repeatable and capable of putting an opponent right out of the game.
It's expected that this Standard format will be defined by midrange strategies, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is at its strongest against such opponents. The +2 ability brings the loyalty right to 5, which on the third turn allow it to survive all but the most aggressive starts in the format, especially when the planeswalker follows a removal spell. The fact that the second ability is -X and scales up or down based on the size of the opponent's creatures mean that against the fastest, most aggressive decks this ability is at its cheapest, which helps to hedge for the planeswalker's general weakness against aggressive creatures.
Prognostic Sphinx provides some board presence and a source of card selection. It's a block powerhouse that has made the jump to Standard. With hexproof-at-will it's nearly unkillable by spot removal and it will help the control deck gain control of a game or snowball an early lead. A single Elspeth, Sun's Champion is part board wipe and part win condition, and this deck plays one to add an element of inevitability to its control plan.
A core strength of this deck is the manabase. Esper, as with all of the allied shard combinations, gets access to two fetchlands, which helps greatly in creating a consistent manabase. Eight scry lands provide additional mana fixing and consistency with added power in the form of scrying.
The sideboard includes a lot of niche cards for specific matchups, including Nyx-Fleece Ram for aggressive decks, especially red aggressive decks, and Tormod's Crypt for any graveyard strategies.
This deck follows the guidelines of a proven strategy and applies it to a brand new format. Control decks are among the most difficult to construct, as they must adapt constantly to the competition, and this is difficult in the early stages of a new environment. It will be interesting to watch this archetype evolve as the format develops and more players work on tuning their own Esper control decks. Green with Envy
Taking second place in the Trial event was a Green Devotion Ramp deck:
This sort of strategy immediately rose to success and into the spotlight after the printing of Magic 2015 brought us some green powerhouses, most importantly the threat machine and turbo-ramp spell Nissa, Worldwaker, but an according spike in the popularity of Lifebane Zombie and Tidebinder Mage kicked the deck back down to earth. With those hate cards and other powerful enemies gone, Green Devotion is free to leverage powerful creatures like Arbor Colossus and Genesis Hydra. Chord of Calling creates reliable toolbox access to utility cards like Reclamation Sage, Hornet Queen, Nylea, God of the Hunt, and even Paragon of Eternal Wilds.
This deck is straightforward, consisting of 12 mana creatures in Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, and Voyaging Satyr. Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, World Eater, and Nissa Worldwaker add a powerful midrange aspect that helps the deck sustain against aggressive strategies and bridge into the lategame which is defined by X-spells Genesis Hydra and Chord of Calling.
This deck combines a traditional ramp strategy with the linear synergy of Devotion highlighted by Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. It helps this deck snowball starts and gives it the ability to overpower and go over the top of any opponent, especially combined with Voyaging Satyr.
This deck cares little about what the opponent is doing but rather focuses on its own, proactive plan. That's a great strategy in an undefined, wide-open environment.Craig Wescoe Was Right
A week-and-a-half ago, Craig Wescoe shared his take on a Mardu Tokens deck for the new Standard. Sront took his decklist and ran with it all the way to a third place in this Magic-League Trial:
I refer you to Craig's article for insight into that deck!
The Magic-League Masters event revealed that players have begun to design and refine some advanced and complex strategies. The Tpp 8 decks are a look at where the format is at now and some clues as to where it is headed.Black Strikes Back
Winning the event was an Orzhov-tinged Black Aggro deck in the hands of Brasi:
Just when everyone thought monoblack might be gone for good, here it is rearing its head again! This is certainly no Black Devotion deck, but rather an aggressive, rush creature deck that takes the best of Theros block and adds some great cards from Khans of Tarkir. It actually splashes into white for Sorin, Solemn Visitor, which adds a very powerful element to this otherwise classic black aggro deck, serving as part anthem, part token producer, and part lifegain engine.
The core of this deck is the one-drop creatures, most importantly the new Bloodsoaked Champion, which provides a repeatable source of card advantage and constant action for this aggressive deck. Those familiar with Gravecrawler will have some sense of what Bloodsoaked Champion can do. Though this one is less powerful at its best, it does not require such extreme synergy, rather working with any other creature, like the other one-drops. Tormented Hero can potentially generate value with the various bestow creatures this deck plays, including the final one-drop, Gnarled Scarhide.
The creatures go on up the curve to include Pain Seer as a source of card advantage that will snowball an early lead. On offense, Spiteful Return functions as a pseudo-Watchwolf that has additional value with Bestow for when it would otherwise be stopped by blockers. In his Top 8 interview, Brasi said he would cut a Tormented Hero for the fourth Spiteful Return.
Herald of Torment tops the curve as a bestow creature for the lategame while doubling as a highly aggressive and evasive three-drop creature. Mogis's Marauder effectively has haste, and it doubles as a way to provide evasion to a team and push through a lot of extra damage.
Supporting this cast of aggressive creatures is a disruption package, which includes the versatile Hero's Downfall and three Thoughtseize. A singleton of the legendary Hall of Triumph comes at little cost but works very well with the aggressive starts this deck is designed to produce.
This deck is efficient and aggressive, and the package of bestow creatures provides a powerful element that helps to alleviate some of the problems facing aggressive decks in the lategame. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is an excellent element that is best utilized in a hyper-aggressive deck like this, and compared to the Monoblack Aggro decks of block or last Standard season it provides this deck with a very useful tool.
I am particularly excited by this sideboard, which includes three copies of Empty the Pits as a way to Rebuild an army and simply Devastate opponents reliant on one-for-one targeted removal. This card is one of my picks for biggest sleeper in the set. It's a powerful flagship card to build a graveyard deck around, but it seems even better as a value card out of an aggressive deck like this.
Opponents that survive the early aggressive rush the Black deck presents will do so by using loads of creature removal, eventually outlasting the creatures and winning with sheer attrition. Empty the Pits is excellent for counteracting attrition strategies whether it generates a few tokens to help maintain pressure in the midgame or simply Devastates the opponent in the endgame. As an instant, it can be played at the end of the opponent's turn to kill them even as they hold sorcery-speed spot removal or board sweepers. As a card that counteracts the strategies that may defeat this deck, it seems perfectly fit for this sideboard. It's a plan worth noting and trying in other aggressive decks, but the BBBB mana cost is restrictive; it's a sure-thing in this deck where nearly every land produces Black mana.Jeskai for a New Age
One unique deck from the Masters Top 8 is the following Jeskai Midrange deck:
This deck is based around protecting and winning with Goblin Rabblemaster, Brimaz, King of Oreskos, or Prognostic Sphinx. This strategy and construction reminds me most of decks using Geist of Saint Traft, whether it be in old Standard or current Modern. It seeks to ride one of its creatures to victory, and the rest of the deck is built to support this plan, including the disruption suite of Jeskai Charm, Lightning Strike, Magma Jet, and Banishing Light. Deflecting Palm is valuable for tight racing situations, while End Hostilities can wipe the board and clear the way for a game-winning creature.
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Elspeth, Sun's Champion are planeswalkers that provide another element to the deck and are also cards that can win the game by themselves. The token generating cards, Hordeling Outburst and Raise the Alarm, provide some board presence for aggression or defense. The creator said in his Top 8 interview that he would cut Raise the Alarm, so I'd look towards more disruption in that slot. I could also see Mantis Rider having a home here.Abracadabrabzan
The Magic-League Masters event Top 8 was dominated by six Abzan decks, featuring no less than four different variations of the wedge.
An Abzan Constellation deck that features the enchantment theme from Theros Block:
Two identical graveyard decks utilizing Commune with the Gods to enable various powerful Delve cards and Whip of Erebos as a reanimation engine:
An aggressive Abzan deck using Rakshasa Deathdealer:
And finally, two true Abzan Midrange decks in the spirit of Patrick Chapin's Theros Block Pro Tour Journey into Nyx-winning decklist with Khans of Tarkir updates:
Godica_ said he would add a black source and maybe another land all together, and Mastikor said he would cut Sorin, Solemn Visitor for another Abzan Charm.
Each of these Abzan decks bring their own strategies to the table, but they share many of the same cards. The clear winners here that we didn't see in Theros block are Siege Rhino and Abzan Charm.
Siege Rhino provides a valuable creature on offense and defense. Many have said that Siege Rhino does not match up well against other four-drops like Polukranos, World Eater, but the real value in Siege Rhino is not when it lives, but when it dies. Its drain three life ability cannot be simply erased by a removal spell like Hero's Downfall. It's this sort of incremental value that Abzan thrives on, and it makes Siege Rhino an all-star.
Abzan Charm combines utility, power, and value into one package. The most powerful and urgent use is when it serves as removal for the most threatening creatures in Standard. The most common practical use is as a card drawing spell that relishes the black part of Abzan and adds an almost blue-control card drawing element to this deck. The most niche but potentially most threatening ability is the +1/+1 counters, the mere existence of which makes Abzan very difficult to predict and manage in combat.
With its combination of efficient disruption with powerful creatures, Abzan looks to be an early winner in this Standard format. These tournament results show there are many ways to build Abzan, from the controlling, to the aggressive, to the synergistic and almost combo-like. I expect the synergistic side of the wedge to be explored greatly in the coming weeks and months, and it is these strategies that provide a possible avenue for cracking the format with something more powerful than the opposition is prepared for. Alternatively, the midrange side of the archetype is a stable and reliable place from which to attack the rest of the format, and I expect it will be constantly tuned for the metagame as the format develops. Looking Forward
Magic-League events shed some light on what's possible in this upcoming Standard format. Theros Block and this past Standard format clearly serve as the natural starting point, but with Khans of Tarkir being as powerful as it is, I expect it to spawn its own unique and engaging metagame. Standard will rotate officially this Friday, so this weekend will bring us paper results and a lot more information to digest. If one thing is for certain, it's that I can't wait to see where this format is headed.
Do any of the decks I shared today strike you as future contenders? What cards or archetypes have caught your attention? I am especially interested in hearing about testing or tournament results. Share anything or ask questions in the comments section below.
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