Finally, at long, long last the greatest tribe in Magic is getting the recognition it deserves. Gone are the days of Elves, Goblins or even Merfolk - in Standard right now, it's all about White-Black Knights.
It's a mystery as to exactly why I have a fixation with this tribe, but between Dominaria and M19 we finally have a critical mass of playable Knight cards. This, in addition to a robust and efficient disruption package, means that these mounted warriors and their noble steeds are charging into battle like it's 1099.
The year is 1119. Pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem are being waylaid by bandits, thieves and highwaymen. Scattered resistance to these ne'er-do-wells is ineffective, as the knights seeking to protect these pilgrims are poorly organized and lack a strong leader. As a result, a French knight named Hugues de Payens founded the Knights Templar, organizing a band of mighty warriors to protect the weak and the innocent during their travels.
Before the release of M19, Knights in Standard lacked a Hugues de Payens. There were Knights aplenty – Knight of Grace, Knight of Malice and the inestimable Aryel, Knight of Windgrace – but they lacked a figurehead to rally around, one that offered a payoff powerful enough to put the tribe over the top.
That card arrived, however, in the form of Valiant Knight. Today, every Knight deck worth its salt runs this card, taking advantage of the truly staggering power level of the card. Even without its activated ability, providing yet another lord effect is enormous (backing up the work done by Benalish Marshal) – but it's the threat to give your entire team double strike that causes Valiant Knight to be the powerhouse that it is.
Consider that Knight decks are able to put together truly ferocious 1-2-3-4 curves, and when the top of that curve is a four-drop with a game-ending activated ability that costs five, it's not difficult to see how things will often come together. Attacking with the team with five mana open is going to be a nightmare for the opponent – how can they possible hope to make correct blocks? How can they navigate three or more attacking creatures all potentially being given double strike?
It may seem a little innocuous, but Valiant Knight really is a centerpiece of this strategy. It turns Dauntless Bodyguard – a one-drop – into a creature that attacks for si X! And when combined with History of Benalia it's going to be Béziers all over again.
The Knights Templar needed more than a leader – they needed a patron, someone to back them up and keep them on their feet. Just as Bernard of Clairvaux helped to ensure the Knights Templar were strongly supported without ever entering combat himself, so too does Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants help to support the Knight tribe in today's Standard format.
As discussed last week, Ajani is picking up steam as a value-focused threat to further bolster the lategame of any white deck with aggressive leanings. He does a superb job of this in Knight decks of all kinds, providing extra pressure when ahead and reanimating excellent defensive cards like Knight of Malice or Paladin of Atonement when behind.
A criticism I made of Ajani last week his how narrow he is, and I still consider that criticism legitimate – but his narrow set of abilities is perfect for a go-wide white-based aggro deck and he's a fantastic inclusion as a result.
Broadly speaking, those looking to saddle up and ride into battle today have a clear choice to make. Knight decks generally fall into one of two camps, with a clear distinction between how big these respective options end up going. The "smaller" deck stops its curve at four and barely splashes black, whereas the "bigger" deck includes five-drops in the starting 60 and leans more heavily on black cards.
First up, we have the "smaller" version. There is a lot going on here that I really, really like – a playset of Valiant Knight, a strong commitment to casting Benalish Marshal on time with every land outside Ifnir Deadlands producing white, and a streamlined approach to building a removal suite. Thopter Arrest is a great pick for the current Standard format, as exile-based removal is always a premium effect and I don't think this deck can afford to run any more four-drops.
Which brings me to my next point. The complete lack of Aryel, Knight of Windgrace in this 75 seems to be an error. While I have a deep and abiding personal bias when it comes to this card, I still think it warrants inclusion as a two- or three-of in any deck like this. Against any removal-light deck it quickly overtakes the game and being able to play the role of a removal/army-in-a-can split card – while still attacking for four – is absolutely huge.
Aryel, Knight of Windgrace is a kill-on-sight threat for control strategies and plays supremely well on defense against the Goblin Chainwhirlers of the world, and for that reason I'm a strong advocate of the card. The lifelink and destructive power of Vona is great, but I value Aryel higher for her flexibility and raw power level.
The "larger" version, as you might expect, goes bigger, with multiple main deck five-drops (some other lists play a Lyra/Vona split, or just Vona on her own). We see a lessened commitment to Benalish Marshal and the inclusion of a basic Swamp to support the great number of black cards that have found their way into the main. Thopter Arrest subs out for Fatal Push, and Aryel replaces some of the Valiant Knights, but it's the inclusion of a certain non-Knight black two-drop that really intrigues me.
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner has proven its worth as a terrific card advantage engine, as well as being a meaningful threat against slower decks – plus, it can be reanimated with Ajani. Its inclusion here makes some sense, although on the whole I don't like it. It lessens the impact of Valiant Knight, dilutes the overall damage output of the deck and – most fatally of all – dies to Goblin Chainwhirler.
My suggestion would be to move the Siphoners to the board, perhaps replacing the copies of Arguel's Blood Fast. There you can see another terrific utility creature already in Remorseful Cleric – I'm much more interested in bringing in Siphoners post-board, when I know the coast is clear and that they'll have the impact I want them to.
The Aryel/Valiant Knight question is less clear. Both cards have a huge impact on the game when allowed to do their thing, but Valiant Knight is clearly the quicker card (while being less flexible, obviously). For that reason – and it pains me greatly to say this – I don't think Aryel should be prioritized above Valiant Knight. If you can find room for one in the main that's great, but the fourth copy Valiant Knight is more important than the first Aryel.
White and black combined have some of the most effective and efficient disruption in the Standard format, and this is reflected in the sideboard of both these decks. Duress continues to be an absolute rock star in slower post-board games (where you can expect to see much more removal), while Remorseful Cleric is a great way to keep God-Pharaoh's Gift decks in check while still applying pressure when necessary.
I like bolstering main deck removal with extra sideboard copies (for example, the 2/2 Fatal Push split), as it's possible for this archetype to reposition as a more controlling deck in games two and three. Take out little beaters like Dauntless Bodyguard and bring in top-tier interaction like Settle the Wreckage and you'll have a much better time against decks that seek to race. So many of these Knights are naturally excellent on defense – particularly Knight of Grace and Knight of Malice – that you can afford to slow down a little after sideboarding and win a longer game rather than bursting them down from a high life total.
Ultimately, the sideboard of these decks can be built to give you an almost transformational plan for post-board games. I'm a huge fan of this; I love Geisting people in Modern after a long game one and I think there are a lot of percentage points to be gained by trimming the creature suite in favor of further interaction. In situations like this, Aryel is one of the cards that can pull you a long way ahead – Duress away their removal and either make 2/2s or manage their board with her until the game is locked up.
On Friday, the 13th of October 1307 – which is sometimes considered one of the reasons Friday the 13th is considered unlucky – the Knights Templar were disbanded (to put it very, very mildly). Their time had come, and history turned away from them – and here is where the paths of the Knights Templar and Knights in Standard truly diverge.
There is no end in sight for Knight decks. Cast your eyes over the lists once more – the only cards we lose to rotation later this year are Concealed Courtyard, the Deserts, Thopter Arrest, Cast Out, Forsake the Worldly, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Fatal Push. None of these cards are central to the deck's gameplan, and some of them even have immediate replacements.
Guilds of Ravnica may even offer us some new Knights – particularly from the Boros Legion – and then next year we get Orzhov with Ravnica Allegiance. If you're looking to invest in a strong and flexible deck that is guaranteed to survive rotation (or even get better!), White-Black Knights is a truly excellent place to start!
- Riley Knight