Magic: the Gathering commanded a major presence at last week's Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle, which featured both the 2015 World Championship and the unveiling of the upcoming Battle for Zendikar set.These events have provided a wealth of new decklists and card spoilers to chew on.
While PAX was unfolding, TCGplayer hosted a Standard Open in Orlando, and it produced the most refreshing group of decklists I have seen in recent memory. The event is liable to get lost in the shuffle this week, so I am going to take this opportunity to shed some light on these decklists, which contain interesting innovations on a wide range of existing archetypes. I will explain what makes each of these decks unique and I will identify how their configurations give them an advantage against the field.
Midrange Red Deck Wins
The TCGplayer Open Orlando was won by Red Deck Wins, but the decklist is notable for its unorthodox card choices and numbers, and particularly for its shift away from a hyper-aggressive burn-centric deck towards a creature-focused midrange deck.
Justin's deck goes bigger than the Pro Tour Magic Origins RDW lists by positioning himself as a decidedly midrange deck. In the wake of the Pro Tour, Hangarback Walker has taken over the format. Going one-for-one with burn spells is a losing proposition against Hangarback Walker in terms of card advantage and mana expenditure, so Justin drastically reduced his burn package by trimming a Wild Slash, including just two Searing Blood, and foregoing Exquisite Firecraft in the maindeck. X/1 creatures are also weak, which explains why Justin cut the majority of them, including two Abbot of Keral Keep which is widely regarded as a sacred cow of the RDW archetype.
Justin planned to Overload and overwhelm Hangarback Walker and its Thopter Tokens with robust creatures of his own, including Thunderbreak Regent, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Hordeling Outburst. These cards were forsaken at the Pro Tour, but they allow the deck to establish significant board presence with relatively little investment. They can also generate virtual card advantage against removal spells, which makes them excellent against a format that has skewed towards control decks.
Justin's sideboard further allow this deck to play a grinding game against creature removal with a trio of Flamewake Phoenix, which can trigger from his maindeck four mana creatures or Titan's Strength. Magma Spray is particularly important as a direct solution to Hangarback Walker. The creature is often leaned on as a crutch in the RDW matchup, but between his maindeck configuration and sideboard options, this deck is particularly well-suited for running through Hangarback Walker and leaving the opponent wondering what went wrong.
Martin Dang used Atarka Red to win Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, but the archetype fell by the wayside after Magic Origins. Josue Soldevila's update stays true to the original strategy but is adapted to the Hangarback Walker era:
This deck retains the core strategy of using token creatures to take advantage of the +1/+1 ability of Atarka's Command, but it forgoes the many one mana creatures the original version played, including Foundry Street Denizen which is vulnerable to being blocked by Hangarback Walker or Thopter Tokens. This deck plays very few traditional creatures so it's also excellent against opponents with expensive targeted creature removal that they can't effectively utilize.
Instead, this deck Overloads with burn spells which allow it to operate much like a dedicated burn deck. A critical mass of burn spells available makes this possible, and card advantage from Abbot of Keral Keep makes the plan that much better. This deck can play a control game against creature opponents, and then execute a combo-style kill by dealing a massive amount of damage with tokens and Atarka's Command.
With Courser of Kruphix, Nissa, Vastwood Seer, Den Protector, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Robert Meeker's Naya Superfriends deck employs a formula that should be familiar to those who have seen Abzan Control operate, but from that base he departs into a world of his own:
Beyond its creature core, Robert's deck is defined by two things: planeswalkers and board sweepers, with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon being the combination of both. This planeswalker is typically found in the sideboard of Abzan Control decks, but Robert ups the ante by moving the card to the maindeck. Unlike Abzan Control, Naya supports Ugin, the Spirit Dragon with the mana-generating +1 ability of Xenagos, the Reveler. The deck also include a pair of Sarkhan, the Spirit Dragon, which will often serve as a pseudo-Stormbreath Dragon, but with its -3 ability also adds an additional element to the deck's removal suite.
The removal suite is dominated by playsets of End Hostilities and Seismic Rupture, which cover the full range of creatures opponents can muster. A set of maindeck Seismic Rupture is devastating against aggressive opponents like RDW, Elves, and Monowhite Devotion, and it's effective against the mana acceleration of Green Devotion. End Hostilities does a ton of work in a format that has moved towards creature-focused midrange decks, where it' a great catch-all that opponents don't typically expect. This deck's board sweeper strategy is a complete 180 degree turn from the flexible pinpoint removal spell strategy employed by Abzan, but it's well suited for Naya's planeswalker game plan, especially considering the lack of Siege Rhino's ability to control the battlefield and hold multiple creatures at bay.
A set of Hangarback Walker in this sideboard is an effective way for this deck to change gears with a piece of board presence that gets aggressive against control opponents. It also has applications as a defensive creature against aggressive opponents.
RG Dragons has found much success in recent weeks as a strong option against Abzan strategies, Steven Macanka took the concept further by splashing into blue for a variety of cards that punish control strategies:
By adding blue, Steven sacrifices some mana consistency for power, particularly against midrange and control strategies. The defining advantage that blue provides is Counterspells, in this case a playset of maindeck Stubborn Denial and some Disdainful Stroke in the sideboard. Where RG Dragons is subject to the whims of control players, and is forced to simply power through any obstacle, Temur Dragons is able to fight back with Counterspells that drastically interfere with the opposing gameplan. Being able to stop a key removal spell while generating a significant tempo advantage is backbreaking and often game winning.
Blue also provides access to Savage Knuckleblade, which has the ability to defend itself against removal spells, Combined with the haste ability, this makes Savage Knuckleblade very troublesome for control players.
Temur Dragons is a great option for a field where Abzan decks reign, but blue is a liability in more aggressive metagames.
Jeskai has been steadily gaining followers, and was even the most heavily played Standard archetype at the World Championship. Shawn Ellis took his burn-focused adaption to the Top 8 of the TCGplayer Open Orlando:
Compared to traditional Jeskai decks, Shawn plays very few creatures and a massive number of burn spells. This deck preys on creature decks because it is so capable of destroying their threats, and it exploits control opponents that Overload on removal spells because it plays very few creatures of its own.
Mantis Rider is the best creature that Jeskai has to offer and it's functionally a burn spell with a ton of upside. The burn suite makes Soulfire Grand Master extremely potent as a source of life gain, and provides the fuel to make it a reliable card advantage engine in the late game. The defining feature of this deck is the playset of Satyr Firedancer, which belies the deck's position as a dedicated burn deck that is glad to play the control role.
This burn deck is extremely aggressive, but that doesn't mean it's not capable of slowing the game down and playing like a control deck. With so many burn spells, this deck is very capable of containing the opposing board by using its burn as removal. This deck also includes a pair of Ojutai's Command, along with two more in the sideboard, which provides the deck with Counterspells, along with the card advantage and tempo potential of reanimating Satyr Firedancer or Soulfire Grand Master. Negate in the sideboard cover the noncreature gap left by Ojutai's Command, and gives this deck considerable Counterspell capabilities.
Counter-burn is an often referenced historic archetype that combines counter-control elements with burn spells, but it's poorly understood. Every burn deck can play the control game because of burn's inherent Dual Nature of acting as a removal spell or win a condition. Adding Counterspells to the mix adds an additional way to control the game and may earn a deck the counter-burn moniker, but rather than being a unique archetype, counter-burn is simply a strategy employed since time immemorial in all variety of URx decks with Counterspells and burn. The idea is to be flexible and transition between using burn to control the board and killing the opponent. Any Modern deck with access to Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, and some number of Counterspells comes to mind as being able to execute some degree of the counter-burn credo. This Jeskai Burn deck has elements of the counter-burn strategy, including the card advantage elements necessary to fight through an attrition war, so it's something to keep in mind when piloting and tuning the deck.
Harbinger of the Tides and Smash to Smithereens in the sideboard further the deck's ability to control the battlefield while maintaining aggression. Deflecting Palm is a burn spell in disguise, and is a very useful tool in racing situations.
Jeskai was heavily played at the World Championship, but the archetype failed to perform up to the expectation of its pilots. Perhaps the burn approach favored by Shawn Ellis is the direction to go in the future. I am interested in testing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in the burn shell, where I expect it will truly shine.
Hangarback Abzan Control
Hangarback Walker is now the industry standard in Abzan Aggro, and although it has not been widely adopted in Abzan Control, it featured heavily in Abzan Control decks at the TCGplayer Open in Orlando. Both Abzan Control players in the Top 8 played a pair of Hangarback Walker, and a third player finished in the Top 16 with a full playset:
Hangarback Walker provides the deck with a proactive two-mana play that plays well into the late game. Hangarback Walker competes in the two-mana spot with Fleecemane Lion, but it's better against removal spells because it's a more reliable investment into the battlefield.
The most interesting deck of the tournament is a Rally the Ancestors deck that takes advantage of Ghirapur Gearcrafter and Thopter Engineer, which will leave Thopter Tokens in play even after the effect of Rally the Ancestors has worn off.
This deck also includes a playset of Purphoros, God of the Forge. It's impressive when combined with Rally the Ancestors, especially because multiple copies can trigger at the same time despite the legend rule, which gives this deck a bonafide combo kill. It's especially strong with the token generating creatures, which will each deal four damage for each Purphoros, God of the Forge. It's also perfectly acceptable when this deck is playing a fair game, and the activated anthem ability is great with Thopter Tokens.
This Rally the Ancestors deck does without Nantuko Husk, Mogis's Marauder, and the Fleshbag Marauder creatures. The Pro Tour metagame drastically shifted the metagame away from one where those cards were good, which is why Rally the Ancestor decks performed so poorly at that event and in its wake. The Thopter and Purphoros, God of the Forge strategy is better suited to the current metagame, and because it is more proactive, it is better against a wider variety of strategies in general.
This deck also includes the sideboard technology of Cleric of the Forward Order, which acts as additional copies of Arashin Cleric, but are extremely potent combined with Rally the Ancestors.
Next Level Standard Strategies
The TCGplayer Open Orlando was defined by innovative players that adapted existing archetypes to the realities of the Standard metagame, which has been through a period of constant change after the release of Magic Origins. The current metagame is defined by the rock that is Abzan sitting at the top of the heap, but the decklists today show that this enemy is exploitable, and the metagame provides opportunity for innovation in Standard. The Battle for Zendikar release is just weeks away, which means that rotation is imminent, and everything will change. What deck are you using to play out the twilight of this format? Are you excited to play a specific archetype after rotation? Share your thoughts, and any questions, in the comments.