Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir has resolved, and many congrats to Ari Lax for his well-earned victory. He played under the Team TCGplayer banner alongside Craig Wescoe, and it will be great to see what the team can accomplish as the season continues. All of this Pro Tour's top performing Standard decks with a 7-3 record or better have been released, so along with the Top 8 decks there is a ton of great Standard information out there. I have looked at all the decklists and gained some insight into the format, including the competitors' expectations of the metagame versus what actually appeared, and where the metagame is headed moving forward.
I'll also focus on the various Jeskai decks that reached the Top 8 and a version outside the top 8 that may serve as a template for the archetype going forward.Looking Ahead
It's clear that some players expected aggressive decks in the format, but, as it played out, aggressive decks were nearly absent in the metagame. Midrange decks ruled the metagame, and some savvy players one-upped them by playing traditional control decks, the most notable being the Dimir control deck designed by Andrew Cuneo and played within a game of the Top 8 in the hands of Owen Turtenwald, and the Dimir control deck played to the Top 8 by Ivan Floch.
Going forward I expect midrange decks to adapt away from beating aggressive decks towards beating control decks by including less creature removal, more versatile disruption like discard, and more robust aggression, possibly utilizing Whip of Erebos. Control decks will shift more down the control route away from removal for aggressive creatures, and more towards Counterspells like Disdainful Stroke and Dissolve. Control decks will start to shift towards beating mirror matches and other control opponents as the strategy begins to permeate through the metagame.
Hypothetically this shift may open up the format to be taken by surprise by a well-designed hyper-aggressive deck sometime down the line, which would shift the metagame back towards the aggressive end of the spectrum.Jeskai (Almost) Wins
Going into the Pro Tour, I expected players to experiment with the popular Jeskai shell by moving it towards both ends of the spectrum, from the highly-aggressive with cheap creatures and burn like a Zoo deck, to the controlling with board sweepers like a traditional control deck. While Abzan won the tournament, Jeskai was a top competitor with three versions in the Top 8 and many more with great records. I'll discuss the various flavors of Jeskai along the spectrum, from aggro to the control strategies I expect to be popular going forward.
Ondrej Strasky took an interesting aggressive approach filled with flying creatures in the build he played to the Top 8.
Standard is dominated by midrange and beefy green ground creatures in particular, so flying is of particular importance and possibly even a necessity for traditional aggressive decks that want to thrive in this environment; there is not a single Soldier of the Pantheon in the top performing decks of the Pro Tour. Flying ensures that a creature stays relevant in the face of the resilient blockers that Green opponents play up their curves. Mantis Rider lives on the back of its flying and Ashcloud Phoenix is a fine option in the four-drop slot. It has seen some play in Jeskai Wins sideboards, but Ondrej proved it's maindeck material. It's effectively a two-for-one creature against traditional removal and creature combat, so it has plenty of upside.
Strasky's big innovation was a full playset of Hushwing Gryff in the maindeck. With flash it comes with utility in this instant-filled archetype, and one Pro Tour commentator went so far as to compare it to Vendilion Clique. It's also a potent hate card against the format, with target #1 being Siege Rhino. Other offenders include Wingmate Roc, Hornet Queen, and even Eidolon of Blossoms. The common thread between these come-into-play creatures is that they produce value and counteract the strategy of Jeskai wins, and Hushwing Gryff eliminates their added value.
While not as aggressive as Strasky's build, Yuuya Watanabe reached Top 8 by utilizing three Brimaz, King of Oreskos in his build:
Yuuya uses Brimaz, King of Oreskos as a threat that's capable of winning a game by itself. When unopposed it generates tremendous pressure and will end a game in a matter of turns. It does require some work to be pushed through blockers, but the Jeskai deck is filled with creature disruption to accomplish just that.
Yuuya and Strasky do not play Dig Through Time, so they must rely on early pressure as repeatable source of damage if they are to win a game, they simply don't have the tools to play an extended game of attrition against cards like Siege Rhino. The high value of creatures is apparent given Yuuya plays two copies of Gods Willing to protect a creature from removal and generate tempo. These decks can be compared to RUG Delver decks in Legacy, which feature a ton of disruption but rely on an early creature to actually pressure the opponent.
Shaun McLaren reached the finals with a decidedly more controlling version of Jeskai using four Dig Through Time:
This list is notable because it features a full playset of Dig Through Time, a card that proved itself time and time again over the Pro Tour weekend. This was the breakout weekend for the card that will be a pillar of format going forward. McLaren used the card to full effect in his Jeskai deck, whether it was producing card advantage to help outlast the opponent and win an attrition battle, or it was digging for two burn spells to steal a game from the jaws of defeat.
McLaren cut down to just one Seeker of the Way, with two of those extra slots being filled by Anger of the Gods. This gave McLaren more game against aggressive decks, which in retrospect might not have been necessary given the metagame of the Pro Tour, but it surely served him well against a swath of Sylvan Caryatid and Elvish Mystic.
Going forward I'd likely relegate Anger of the Gods to the sideboard in favor of a more versatile card. One option worth trying is to fit some more Counterspells in the maindeck, like the maindeck Nullify version played to success by Ben Stark and Shahar Shenhar:
The deck that I'll pay most attention to today is an even more controlling take on Jeskai that was piloted by Justin Cheung to a 7-3 record at the Pro Tour.
Justin Cheung has had considerably success in Australian Grand Prix and Nationals tournaments. Many years ago on MTGO, when LSV was just a grinder, Justin Cheung was a feared MTGO ringer who went by "Juzza" and various variations. He's from an area lacking much Magic opportunity, yet Justin Cheung has managed to repeatedly make it to the Pro Tour. He's a strong deckbuilder and someone to take notice of in any tournament he attends.
Justin's deck has shifted away from the traditional Jeskai Wins aggressive deck towards a more controlling role. He has done away with the entire set of Stoke the Flames and all but one Magma Jet. The deck utilizes one Suspension Field along with two Banishing Light as dedicated creature and planeswalker removal, and for more disruption the deck includes a small Counterspell package with two Disdainful Stroke.
Goblin Rabblemaster was replaced by the more versatile and robust Brimaz, King of Oreskos. The aggressive Seeker of the Way has been cut altogether. Cheung employs Mantis Rider in a style reminiscent of Lightning Angel.
With a new reduced, more resilient creature base, Justin was free to add a pair of Anger of the Gods as a board sweeper; Finalist Shaun McLaren played two Anger of the Gods even with Goblin Rabblemaster.
Three End Hostilities in the maindeck gives this deck true creature control power in the traditional sense and pushes it further down the control rabbit hole. End Hostilities is particularly useful against the midrange strategies that define the format, including all flavors of Abzan, and it's an extremely powerful reset against Green Devotion strategies that operate under the assumption that the metagame doesn't feature traditional white board sweepers.
To support his controlling shell Cheung plays a card advantage package of three Steam Augury and two Dig Through Time. These two have a very nice interaction in that Steam Augury is great for filling the graveyard for lots of Delve fuel for any future Dig Through Time. There is also the curious case of when Steam Augury actually reveals Dig Through Time, which puts the opponent into an impossible situation of putting Dig Through Time by itself but nearly entirely fueling Delve, or putting Dig Through Time with another card and giving the opponent some serious card advantage.
The most important part of Justin's overall change from the stock Jeskai Wins archetype is the addition of a powerful top-end. Two Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the maindeck are the ultimate goal of this deck and provide a strategic advantage over Midrange opponents in a way that traditional Jeskai Wins lacks.
Jeskai Wins can expend all of its burn as removal and fight an attrition game, but it doesn't have a powerful control-style threat to take over the game by itself. Justin's deck is comfortable fighting one-for-one and hitting land drops, because at the end of the Tunnel it has a plan that wins the game. Traditional Jeskai Wins decks are forced into an aggressive tempo game and must be applying pressure to the opponent in the meanwhile or it will find it hard to close out a game before the opponent gains mounts a lethal offense.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion is the perfect follow-up to an End Hostilities or early attrition trades, and it's the sort of card that will win the game by itself. Justin also plays three Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker for its versatility and has foregone Stormbreath Dragon altogether.
Justin also has a unique manabase with a whopping ten scry lands, which filter his draws and provide his control deck with the mana and constant action it requires. This high number of scry lands is reminiscent of Esper control from last season that also played a high number of scry lands. Justin also plays an extra land in the deck to help him hit more land drops and support Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
It's easy to draw comparisons to Justin's deck and the UWx control deck from last season, especially if one compares Dig Through Time to Sphinx's Revelation. The Pro Tour revealed just how great Dig Through Time is - just take note of McLaren's full playset - so I'd start tuning by cutting a Steam Augury for the third Dig Through Time, and I'd try to fit in the fourth copy.
I'd think about the comparison to UWx Sphinx's Revelation Control when approaching tuning and playing this deck. The deck doesn't have the full card advantage capabilities of Sphinx's Revelation, but it does have the ability to dig quite deep into the deck with Dig Through Time and find the most important cards for a given situation. Consider it quality versus quantity; Sphinx's Revelation takes a shotgun approach, while Dig Through Time is a sniper.
Keep in mind that this deck is best when nickel-and-diming the opponent along the way, similar to how UWR control decks operate in Modern. Lighting Strike is a substitute for Lightning Bolt, while Mantis Rider does a fine impression of Restoration Angel.
I haven't fully answered is the question of "Why is being more controlling better in the first place?"
Historically the best way to win a mirror-match is to shift into a slightly more controlling, slower, but ultimately more powerful deck. This strategy has been seen time and time again in sideboard strategies, and I'd argue that the entire essence of Midrange deck design is balancing the ability to dominate more aggressive decks with maintaining the ability to meaningfully pressure more controlling decks. By shifting Jeskai Wins into a more controlling deck it's better equipped to defeat the expected metagame, particularly the mirror match, Abzan midrange decks, and Green Devotion. Going forward it will also be important to combat control decks, so Counterspells like Dissolve will be an important part of the puzzle.