Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir set the post-rotation Standard metagame stage, but this past weekend Grand Prix Los Angeles pushed the format to a new level. Abzan was a top performer as expected and different variations of the wedge brought multiple players to the Top 8 and Top 16, but various other archetypes added diversity to the format, including the winning Gruul Monsters deck. A new surge in aggressive red decks has shocked the format and will force other archetypes to adapt.
Notably absent from the Top 8 was Mantis Rider, though four copies made Top 16 in the single Jeskai deck of note.Jeskai Tempo
Far from typical Jeskai, this deck foregoes Goblin Rabblemaster and employs the control strategy debuted by Justin Cheung at the Pro Tour and discussed in my article last week.RG Midrange
Winning it all was a RG Midrange deck very similar to the Monsters deck in Standard before rotation. Khans of Tarkir adds some powerful cards that create redundancy in the strategy.
Green provides the typical mana acceleration suspects, which give the deck explosive power rivaling that of Green Devotion. Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid are supplemented by newcomer Rattleclaw Mystic, which serves the dual role of offensive bear and mana acceleration.
Courser of Kruphix and Polukranos, World Eater pair with the mana acceleration to give this deck a strong midrange core. Feeding off of the ramp aspect of the deck is a pair of Genesis Hydra, which has the potential to be a large threat. It also generates card advantage and tempo when it hits a relevant spell, and it even offers a powerful form of deck-digging card selection. Hornet Queen earns a maindeck slot and two spaces in the sideboard. It's an ideal card for dominating midrange strategies like Abzan and Jeskai, whether it be attacking for the win in the air or stonewalling attackers with its four flying deathtouch tokens.
Red supports Green in multiple ways. Xenagos, the Reveler is the glue that binds this deck together. It combines with mana acceleration creatures to generate even more mana with its +1 ability, or it generates hasted 2/2 tokens to protect itself or pressure the opponent.
Stormbreath Dragon fills the role of finisher and combined with its Monstrous trigger it will typically end the game if given just a few attack steps. A pair of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker supplements the hasted flyer plan while doubling as a much-needed removal spell.
The removal suite extends further to include set of Lightning Strike to control small creatures and pressure planeswalkers. Khans of Tarkir tool Crater's Claw's is a functional-if-not-clunky removal spell that doubles as an X-spell finisher that's capable of dealing a dizzying amount of damage with the deck's plentiful mana acceleration.
An interesting addition to the archetype is Ashcloud Phoenix, which supplements the red dragons as an additional flying threat, but it also provides a powerful late-game plan and win condition that exhausts typical removal spells.
Red offers excellent sideboard options. Three Anger of the Gods control aggressive creature rushes from a variety of archetypes, including the new wave of monored aggro decks that appeared at the Grand Prix and will surely be relevant in the metagame going forward. Destructive Revelry is quite useful in a metagame where nearly every archetype offers a target. Most green decks use Courser of Kruphix, while Jeskai typically uses Banishing Light and often Suspension Field. The newest breed of Mardu decks uses Chained to the Rocks. The two damage is particularly excellent for redirecting to planeswalkers like Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker that are commonly played in decks that utilize enchantments.
A copy of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in the sideboard may draw heads, but it's a great card in matchups where the opponent won't present much disruption but rather is focused on their own strategy. In these matchups, like against Green Devotion and Jeskai Ascendancy, the Monsters deck must go over the top of the opponent, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx offers the deck additional explosive power. I imagine it commonly accompanies other expensive and powerful cards in the sideboard, including two copies of Genesis Hydra and the fourth Crater's Claws.Boss Sligh
Adding a new dynamic to the format are aggressive monored decks reminiscent of two archetypes that found success last summer: both the Boss Sligh deck that Tom Ross used to win the SCG Invitational and the Rabble Red deck that emerged at Pro Tour M15 and was a metagame fixture until rotation. Eric Pei reached the Top 4 with a deck the official tournament coverage called Boss Sligh: a deck combining Heroic creatures with cards like Hammerhand and Titan's Strength.
Monastery Swiftspear is a perfect fit into the strategy and combines well with the multiple pump spells and burn suite. The three tokens generated by Hordeling Outburst are excellent combined with Foundry Street Denizen and even allow it to profitably attack into a Courser of Kruphix. Of course Hordeling Outburst is great with the singleton Hall of Triumph, but it also provides a reliable outlet to cycle Dragon Mantle.
Finalist Denis Ulanov played many of the same cards but took inspiration from Rabble Red with the addition of four Goblin Rabblemaster.
It's important to note that each monored player used a set of Eidolon of the Great Revel sideboard. More than just hate for Jeskai Ascendancy combo, it's a highly aggressive creature that allows the deck to trade life with the opponent when strategically favorable. Against a deck like UB Control, for example, it offers a pure upside with its passive triggered ability and is a must-answer threat. Against decks looking to beat the red deck with attrition, it's effectively a two-for-one in a red deck that's simply looking to convert its cards to damage and bring the opponent from 20 life to 0.Mardu Midrange
On the topic of Mardu Midrange, Brad Nelson is back with a new competitive deck and has demonstrated his continual mastery over Standard.
A set of Seeker of Way is a relatively new development in the archetype. It caught my eye in a decklist early in the season and popped up in a few places, but it never gained much popularity as the archetype drifted more towards creatureless builds focusing on planeswalkers, such as the build Raphael Levy played to success at the recent Pro Tour. Brad has brought out Seeker of the Way in full force and, combined with Goblin Rabblemaster and Butcher of the Horde, it gives this deck an aggressive creature base similar to the one played by Jeskai Wins. This deck uses just one Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker but three Wingmate Roc provide a powerful top-end creature and source of card advantage.
Brad's biggest innovation was Hordeling Outburst, which fills many roles in this deck. It's simply great with Butcher of the Horde, and it provides a triple-shot of sacrifice fodder to be used for lifelink, haste, vigilance, or even all three. The Goblin Tokens have some additional synergy in that they can pump an attacking Goblin Rabblemaster, and they are simply excellent with the +1 ability of Sorin, Solemn Visitor, which conveniently sits one mana up the curve. Goblin Tokens are also excellent for generating Wingmate Roc Raid triggers.
The deck plays a sizable creature disruption suite that includes three Chained to the Rocks and a Murderous Cut. A set of Chained to the Rocks and Lightning Strike are primarily creature removal but also provide the deck a significant burn package and source of game-winning reach.
It's very interesting that this deck doesn't use Thoughtseize, not even in the sideboard. For one it highlights that this deck is more focused on its own synergies than on disrupting the opponent's synergies, in part because this format is not as synergy-oriented as last year's Devotion dominated metagame. Rather, it features rock-ish decks like Abzan and Jeskai that don't rely on any card in particular and had significant topdeck power. The lack of Thoughtseize also makes sense given that this is an aggressive, burn-filled deck that lives in part by the Philosophy of Fire of dealing twenty damage to the opponent. Thoughtseize doesn't Deal Damage so it's not on-plan, is often a dead draw, and late game top-deck liability.
The Mardu deck employs a transformational strategy by dedicating a sizable portion of its sideboard to a control package. A pair of both End Hostilities and Anger of the Gods highlights the plan of turning into a deck that's capable of controlling the board and slowing the game down. A pair of Banishing Light and a pair of Magma Spray give this deck additional control ability and push it into an attrition role. The deck capitalizes on this role by using a pair of Read the Bones to generate card advantage. The deck goes bigger after sideboard with three Elspeth, Sun's Champion as a board control element and finisher of choice that will go over the top of most opponents.
Adding serious credibility to this version of Mardu Midrange is that fact that Brad's teammate Valentin Mackl reached Top 16 playing an identical decklist. It says that the performance is most likely not a fluke but real results from a legitimate archetype. According to Frank Karsten's article on the official coverage, on day two the Mardu Midrange deck had a 9-4 record against Abzan Midrange decks and is likely a strong metagame choice against that archetype.Abzan Aggro
Abzan Aggro made a big impact at the Pro Tour with its Top 8 finish in the hands of Mike Sigrist. At Grand Prix Los Angeles three of the five day one undefeated decklists were Abzan Aggro. It followed up with a strong day two performance, putting two representatives into the Top 8 and another into the Top 16. The archetype is clearly a top performer and a real competitor going forward.
Abzan Aggro differentiates itself from Abzan Midrange by playing Rakshasa Deathdealer in lieu of Sylvan Caryatid. The card is aggressive early in the game, where it fights through Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Mantis Rider, and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Later in the game it serves as a mana sink and psuedo x-spell comparable to Nantuko Shade. With Regeneration, it's reminiscent of River Boa in its ability to Withstand removal and grind down opposing creatures.
The deck also plays Fleecemane Lion as an aggressive threat that maintains its value later in the game as the monstrous ability proves valuable in a variety of situations.
Heir of the Wilds appears as a redundant two-drop threat that favorably attacks into anything and combines well with the three-drop threat of choice, Anafenza, the Foremost. This high-powered threat is easier on the mana than Brimaz, King of Oreskos, and its ability to generate +1/+1 counters is excellent in midrange ground stalls. The graveyard hate aspect provides some minor value against Dig Through Time and opposing Murderous Cut, but it's legitimate hate against Whip of Erebos and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant.
The inclusion of Herald of Torment turns Abzan Aggro into a full-fledged suicide black-style aggressive deck. It's not particularly strong when behind, but it's the perfect card for racing situations. It has flying, which is particularly strong in this midrange format filled with resilient ground blockers. It's an effective three-drop threat, but more importantly, with its five-mana bestow ability it can give flying to another creature and turn it into an evasive threat. It's ideal for pressuring Elspeth, Sun's Champion because it flies over Soldier Tokens. Bestowing also effectively gives Herald of Torment haste because its three power can be attacking immediately. It's also effective for generating tempo against removal in that it will return to play as an immediate, free threat when its bestow target is destroyed. It's also suitable for blocking and trading with Mantis Rider. Herald of Torment's life loss trigger occurs at the beginning of its controller's upkeep, so it can be played to block a Mantis Rider before it ever charges a life.
For a look at the Abzan Aggro deck in action, check out this video piece by Frank Lepore.
Tamada Ryoichi started off with a tremendous 14-0 run on his way to a Top 8 finish, and he did it with a version of Abzan Aggro that replaced Herald of Torment with Courser of Kruphix.
I have mixed feeling on this; Courser of Kruphix is individually quite powerful, helps generate card advantage, and is strong against aggressive strategies. On the other hand, it's not necessarily on-focus. Herald of Torment fits the main strategy and is synergistic with other cards in the deck. Neither is strictly better, and it will be interesting to see if Courser of Kruphix is adopted. It's also not clear that they are mutually exclusive, and perhaps a deck using both could work.
Abzan Midrange in the style of Ari Lax's Pro Tour winning decklist is also alive and well. For a deeper look into that deck check out this article by Seth Manfield, who was a part of Ari's Pro Tour team and instrumental in testing the deck.
Abzan Midrange finished as high as 3rd in Atlanta:
It also rounded out the Top 8:
The most influential Abzan Midrange decklist is likely the one Patrick Chapin played to a 9th place finish:
For much of the weekend the coverage was focused on Brian Kibler's Temur Midange deck, which he played to a finish within a match of Top 8.
What do you make of the Grand Prix Los Angeles results? Where is the format headed? What's your weapon of choice this weekend? Share your thoughts in the comments!
-Adam YurchickFollow me on Twitter @ www.twitter.com/adamyurchick