This weekend was Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir where I played Ojutai Bant, going 8-2 in Standard and narrowly missing Top 8 (10th place on tiebreakers). The deck performed very well and is my top choice for the foreseeable future. Today I am going to explain the deck, share its ins and outs, and tell you how to play and sideboard in each of the major matchups.
To start, here is the deck list:
It is a midrange deck similar to GW Devotion but more toward the aggressive end of the spectrum. It's designed to be proactive in applying pressure but also has tools to combat most things the opponent plans to do.
Mana production is generally the phase one plan of the deck, playing out Elvish Mystic and/or Sylvan Caryatid to get ahead on mana early. The Backup Plan is pressuring the opponent with Fleecemane Lion and Deathmist Raptor.
The midgame is where a lot of options start to open up for the deck. Need to pressure an opponent or their planeswalker? Cast Surrak, the Hunt Caller and attack. Need to stunt the opponent's development? Cast Dromoka's Command or Valorous Stance to Remove their permanent(s). Need to get through the opponent's ground defenses? Attack with Dragonlord Ojutai. Planning for the long haul? Start gaining incremental advantages off Courser of Kruphix, Den Protector, and Mastery of the Unseen.
In the late game we can do some pretty annoying and powerful things. With 23 lands, four Elvish Mystics, four Sylvan Caryatids, and four Courser of Kruphix we can generate eight mana for Mastery of the Unseen pretty reliably. We can also loop Den Protectors into each other, making an inexhaustible army of Deathmist Raptors and Den Protectors that keep coming back from the dead.
Now that we've gotten a brief overview of what the deck aims to accomplish and the options it has available to itself at various stages of the game, let's go into more detail about each of the most popular matchups in the field right now, starting with the Control Decks.
Josh Utter-Leyton went 9-1 with Esper Dragons and two of his teammates (Paul Cheon and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa) went 8-2 with the same deck. The deck is actually better in the field than these incredible numbers indicate too since I was Josh's only loss and one of Paulo's only two losses and I was playing an off the radar Bant deck that you likely won't face in a tournament. With that said, the reason I went 3-0 against this deck in the tournament is because it's a favorable matchup. The plan is to apply enough pressure that they have to start tapping out to deal with our threats, which leaves us open to resolve our key spells such as Dragonlord Ojutai and Mastery of the Unseen. Den Protector is really the backbreaker though because it undoes so much of the progress they've made toward stabilizing the board.
Between Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor it's really difficult for them to keep up with our card advantage. Add in Counterspells from our side post-board and you have what Josh referred to as "pretty much the worst possible matchup" for Esper Dragons.
Our weakest card in the matchup is Dromoka's Command because they don't have any enchantments and all their creatures have hexproof. So those are the easiest cards to board out. Valorous Stance is also not very good even though it can "counter" a removal spell and sometimes kill a tapped Dragonlord Ojutai. We would much rather have the more versatile Counterspells from our sideboard. So the plan against Esper Dragons is to side out all our removal spells and replace them with counter-magic. You can leave in a Valorous Stance if you don't have enough stuff to board out.
If you want to make the matchup even better, then increase the amount of Negates, Disdainful Strokes, and/or Mastery of the Unseen. You can also reduce the amount of Dromoka's Commands and/or Valorous Stances main.
There were three different UB Control decks in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Shota Yasooka and Andrew Ohlschwager played a more dragon-centric build while Adrian Sullivan played a more Ashiok- and spell-centric build.
The dragon-centric builds are a slightly better matchup for us than Adrian's build because our removal spells are more useful. Valorous Stance not only says "counter target Hero's Downfall" but also says "destroy target Dragonlord Silumgar". Even more importantly, Dromoka's Command doesn't just say "put a +1/+1 counter on a creature you control" but instead also says "have target creature you control fight Icefall Regent". There are times against Adrian's version where you fight a creature put into play off Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, but most of the time it is a nearly useless card. Against either deck though, it's the first card you board out.
Without counter-magic pre-board, it can be tough to fight through Crux of Fate backed by a bunch of point removal spells and card draw spells. The game is often still close though because we have ways to pressure the opponent's life total and unless they're able to counter our Den Protectors, we can Undo most of the progress they've made toward stabilizing the board (much like against Esper Dragons).
The sideboard plan is basically the same against UB Control as it is against Esper Dragons. Bring in your Counterspells and take out your removal spells. Mastery of the Unseen is one of our best cards in the matchup not only because it allows us to grind out card advantage with a steady stream of threats but also because those threats are colorless and can thus dodge the –X ability of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. If they're playing Shota's version and they play a morph, it is Stratus Dancer.
To improve this matchup you can move some Negates and/or Disdainful Strokes to the main. Being able to counter their Crux of Fate (or AEtherspouts in Adrian's case) is often a huge momentum swing in our favor. You can also add more counters to the board.
Kenji Tsumuara went 8-2 with Abzan Control and Marco Cammilluzzi made Top 8. I went 1-1 against this archetype at the Pro Tour, defeating Jacob Wilson and losing to Ben Friedman. We have Valorous Stance for their Siege Rhinos and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and we have Dromoka's Command for their Courser of Kruphix, so they are very reliant on Elspeth, Sun's Champion to stabilize the board and take over the game. A timely Disdainful Stroke or Negate can leave them buried underneath an avalanche of Deathmist Raptors and looped Den Protectors.
You'll want to go up to the full four copies of Valorous Stance in this matchup because it has ten good targets (four Rhino, four Courser, and two Tasigur) and can also counter a Hero's Downfall or Ultimate Price. I also bring in both copies of Glare of Heresy because it can kill Siege Rhino or Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Some decks are better off not boarding in Glare of Heresy against Elspeth because by that point in the game they've already lost whether they can kill the planeswalker or not, but that is not the case with Bant Ojutai. We have plenty of ways to still win a game at that stage.
I also bring in Disdainful Strokes because they counter nearly all the opponent's threats (Rhino, Tasigur, Elspeth, Ugin) while also stopping End Hostilities. Negate is a card I'm on the fence about. It has its uses but we don't want too many reactive cards. After all we are still the aggressor in the matchup and unless we have a board presence, our reactive cards will only keep the game at par. We instead want our reactive cards to press our advantage and enable us to close out the game.
In this matchup we have a lot of sideboard cards we want to bring in but not a whole lot of cards to bring out. This is not a bad thing because it means most of our cards naturally line up well with the opponent's cards. Nevertheless we still have to make some cuts in order to upgrade our deck configuration for the post-board games. Dromoka's Command is strong against Courser of Kruphix, but we don't have a lot of creatures big enough to profitably fight an opposing 4/5 Rhino or Banana man. So those would be the first place I look to cut. I would also consider boarding out some number of Sylvan Caryatids. They don't block anything and they'll often just get swept away by an End Hostilities. I probably wouldn't board them all out, but some of them.
As you can see, most of the sideboard plans and overall game strategy is similar against the three major control decks of the format. Now let's talk about the opposite end of the spectrum with the two major aggro decks of the format (Red Aggro and Abzan Aggro), where our plan is quite different.
I'm of the opinion that the green splash for Atarka's Command will be the more popular option between the two, mostly because it won the tournament but also because I think it affords the deck a worthwhile added angle of attack. Atarka's Command can be worth four to six damage in a lot of spots, whether pumping attackers or negating the life gain from an opposing spell (in conjunction with the Lava Spike mode). It also protects your Goblin Rabblemaster and Zurgo Bellstriker from Drown in Sorrow without skipping a beat since you also get three damage out of the deal, which is exactly what you're hoping to get out of your Lightning Strikes most of the time anyway.
The game plan against these two decks is basically the same. We want to stay at as high a life total as possible and then start grinding out incremental advantages while using spells like Dromoka's Command to prevent the damage from a key burn spell in addition to providing some extra value such as fighting down an opposing creature or making our creature larger.
Valorous Stance is generally pretty bad as it doesn't have any good opposing targets, though in some spots it can save our creature from a burn spell or from trading in combat. The fourth Command definitely comes in and all the Valorous Stances come out (unless you suspect the opponent is bringing in Thunderbreak Regent, in which case you can consider leaving some copies in). We also want to bring in Hornet Nest as that card bricks the opponent's combat pretty abruptly. It also fights very well with Dromoka's Command. I bring in all my counter-magic other than Disdainful Stroke because the red decks have plenty of non-creature spells that are worth countering (burn spells and token makers).
In addition to Valorous Stance, I also board out Surrak, the Hunt Caller because he is too slow and just dies to Roast post-board. Dragonlord Ojutai is a little better but I also usually board out one or two of those if not all of them. Encase in Ice is not really good enough in this matchup unless maybe they have Thunderbreak Regent. It's mostly just an answer to Stormbreath Dragon, which Red Aggro decks obviously won't have. Mastery of the Unseen can also be a way to take over a game and get permanently out of burn range by flipping your creatures over and gaining life, so those stay in. Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are great blockers, so they also stay in.
If you want more cards specifically for this matchup I would recommend Last Breath since it hits Goblin Rabblemaster or most any other creature in their deck and can also be useful in other matchups such as against Hornet Nests or Courser of Kruphix. Surge of Righteousness is not a great answer to Goblin Rabblemaster but it's good against most of the other threats in the red deck and can also be useful against Abzan Aggro. Nylea's Disciple, Arashin Cleric, and Ajani Steadfast are also cards I've been considering for this matchup. The tools are there to make the matchup as good as you would like it to be. The question is how much space you want to dedicate to your sideboard. I generally prefer the more flexible options such as Negate, Dromoka's Command, and Hornet Nest. Last Breath is probably next best on the list.
Abzan Aggro gained Surrak, the Hunt Caller and Dromoka's Command from Dragons of Tarkir. This matchup is generally pretty good because our removal spells have good uses, especially Valorous Stance, and the games often come down to attrition battles, which plays right into our Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector plan. Abzan Aggro has its own powerful proactive plan though too, so depending on how the draws play out, it can go either way.
Valorous Stance and Glare of Heresy have lots of great targets and I want the full amount of each in this matchup. I also want some number of Disdainful Stroke because, in addition to being the best answer to Siege Rhino, they are also the best answer to Wingmate Roc and Elspeth, Sun's Champion – two of their best cards against us that they almost assuredly side in. Even though Disdainful Stroke is only ok in game one, it gets much better after board.
I would not bring in Hornet Nest because they have plenty of ways to get rid of it that do not involve dealing it damage and so we would much rather have a creature that can attack or a removal spell that doesn't require as much setup. I'm a bit on the fence about whether to bring in the Negate effects here. They can be great in some situations and terrible in others. I might just bring in one copy. I would board out some number of Sylvan Caryatids because our removal is inexpensive and they can't really block anything profitably. This is another matchup where most of our cards are already good, so finding things to cut can be a challenge. Mastery of the Unseen might just be the last cut, especially since it's an enchantment that dies to their Dromoka's Commands. Speaking of which, boarding out Courser of Kruphix is also an option since that would leave us with no enchantments left in our deck to play around their Commands.
Now that we've discussed the major control decks and aggro decks of the format, let's go over the various midrange Green/Red decks.
Green Devotion decks were splashing white for Mastery of the Unseen at Grand Prix Miami but now they are leaning more toward the red splash for Dragonlord Atarka and Xenagos, the Reveler.
This change from a white splash to a red splash favors us considerably. My second loss in the constructed rounds of the tournament was to a GW Devotion deck because I couldn't get rid of his Mastery of the Unseen that was gaining him ten life per turn. Dealing with a single Dragonlord Atarka is way more manageable, especially considering the number of Disdainful Strokes we bring in. Speaking of which, Disdainful Stroke is by far our best card in the matchup. It stops pretty much every relevant card in their deck and can be regrown using Den Protector. The key is applying enough pressure to capitalize on the tempo swing afforded by Disdainful Stroke. We can't just be the control deck in the matchup because eventually one of their threats will resolve and they will kill us with it.
Fortunately our removal spells also match up well against their threats. Valorous Stance kills Courser of Kruphix, Polukranos, World Eater, Surrak, the Hunt Caller, and Whisperwood Elemental. Dromoka's Command can have our creature fight their mana accelerant and sacrifice a Courser of Kruphix. We certainly have the upper hand when it comes to efficient and versatile answers to opposing threats. The pivotal variable is whether we can win the game before they just outlast us with the strategy of "tap out and cast a big threat each turn until one sticks". That's where Fleecemane Lion and Deathmist Raptor come into play. Dragonlord Ojutai is also great in these scenarios if we can find a window to resolve it because it applies pressure, evades past any potential blocker, and refills our hand with more answers to their next threat each turn.
I board in all copies of Disdainful Stroke, though likely not Negate or Stubborn Denial because most of their threats are creatures. I also board up to four Valorous Stance. Mastery of the Unseen is slow and unnecessary for the matchup, so those can come out. Beyond that we can shave in a few places to make room for the final sideboard additions. We can cut a Sylvan Caryatid, a Dragonlord Ojutai, or even a Courser of Kruphix, depending on which of these you believe is going to be least effective.
The other popular Red/Green midrange deck of the format is RG Dragons.
Jason Chung's version is a bit more aggressive than Maciej Janik's, though each essentially has the same game plan: attack the opponent to death with red dragons. This is certainly one of our toughest matchups and I was fortunate to dodge it throughout the tournament. I knew going in that it's tough and that is the reason I have Encase in Ice and Plummet in my sideboard. Moving forward, I think I would replace one of the Encases with a second Plummet because as it turns out, there are more dragon decks in this format than just RG Dragons and hence Plummet has some other applications. We can also regrow Plummet with Den Protector but we cannot get back Encase in Ice.
Our board plan is slightly different for the different builds, so it's important to identify which build you are up against. If they have Goblin Rabblemaster and Heir of the Wilds then we want Hornet Nest (and Last Breath if you added those to your sideboard for Red Aggro). If instead they are the more aerial build with Ashcloud Phoenix, then we would not want Hornet Nest (or Last Breath). Against either build we want all copies of Disdainful Stroke as that counters Stormbreath Dragon and most of their other potent threats. We also want all copies of Plummet and Encase in Ice as additional ways to answer the dragons. Dromoka's Command gets boarded out because we're bringing in better answers and we can't afford to have too many reactive cards left in our deck. I might also board out one copy of Valorous Stance for that reason even though it has a decent amount of targets. Mastery o the Unseen can be useful at gaining life and has the potential to take over a game, but it's likely our next worst card in the matchup. I could also see shaving in the usual places for our last adds, depending on what you feel is going to work best.
There are several other decks that exist in the format right now such as GW Devotion, GR Bees, Jeskai Aggro, Jeskai Tokens, UW/x Heroic, Sultai Reanimator, Temur, GW Aggro, Jeskai Ascendancy Combo, Atarka Abzan, and even Chromantiflayer. Based on the metagame following the Pro Tour, however, I do not expect any of these decks to be as popular as the seven I went over in detail today. For what it's worth, we are incidentally well-equipped to handle most of these lower tier decks as well.
Ojutai Bant was very good for me this weekend and nearly got me my fourth Pro Tour Top 8. There is lots of room for decision-making the way the games play out, so it's a good deck for people who like to have options. It is also capable of fast draws, usually involving Surrak, the Hunt Caller that can put a game out of reach quickly and really punish an opponent for stumbling or needing time to setup. There are only a handful of changes I am considering for this weekend and each was mentioned in the article. Among them are increasing the number of Counterspells, adding Last Breath and another Plummet to the sideboard, and maybe shifting a few cards between the maindeck and sideboard. Depending on the way you expect your local metagame to look, I've given you the knowledge of how to adapt to it. If you have more specific questions let me know in the comments section.
Let's hope Ojutai and company can give me another strong finish at GP Krakow this weekend so I can lock up Platinum for next year! Tune in to the live coverage to see if it does.