Pro Tour Hour of Devastation provided an interesting challenge as an entirely fresh Standard format. Preparation for Grand Prix Kyoto was more akin to a Pro Tour that was the first in block, not the last. While new cards such as Hour of Devastation and Earthshaker Khenra were poised to make a splash, it was the banning of Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian that really shaped a new landscape for the format to form. Cards that were previously unplayable because of the combo nature of these cards were now "unlocked," so to speak. Midrange and aggro decks alike were now much more viable than previously, and my testing with the conglomerate began with a larger than normal amount of decks/archetypes.
It didn't take long to for us to figure out that Ramunap Red would be the deck to beat at the Pro Tour. We frequently played against the deck on Magic Online, and it was also quite dominant while maintaining consistency in our in house testing. The Deserts of Hour of Devastation were quite powerful, and the combination of Ramunap Ruins and Sunscorched Desert gave an insane amount of not only reach but level to a strategy that is normally quite underpowered. Not only that, but this was a new format in a post Marvel/Felidar Guardian world and cards like Kari Zev, Skyship Raider and especially Hazoret the Fervent were essentially "new cards." They had been around, but it took a new format and a powerful mono-colored incentive of Ramunap Ruins to push these cards into the spectrum of playability.
Most of my team was high on Ramunap Red and wanted to play it at the Pro Tour. I felt as if it should be pretty easy to beat Red, at least in theory, and that would likely also be the goal of anyone attending the Pro Tour. Playing the deck felt kind of like playing Jeskai Saheeli at Pro Tour Dublin. Of course it's a good deck, but it's hard to win when a majority of everyone's testing was devoted to taking you out. This is especially true for a normally linear strategy such as mono-red.
One of the strategies that seemed solid against Red was Green-Black Constrictor, a deck built by Shawn McLaren for the Marvel format that I had played to a ninth-place finish at a Grand Prix. Interestingly enough, I felt as if the deck was poor against Marvel but excellent against the majority of the field. In theory, this deck should be good against Red. The combination of tons of cheap threats and cheap Planeswalkers such as Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Liliana, the Last Hope coupling with cheap removal in Fatal Push let you win the board early and run away with the games. Constrictor and Walking Ballista provide a cost-effective combo that must be answered, while Kalitas gives you the free win potential. Testing against Red built my confidence in the deck, and I began to work through more matchups.
The deck was great against Energy decks, which we expected to be perhaps the second-most popular deck to try and beat Red. It had Tireless Tracker, more planeswalkers and most importantly Traverse the Ulvenwald instead of Attune with Aether, which gave us an enormous edge as long as we could make it to the late game.
Black-Green Constrictor was beating both of the white-blue decks, Monument and God-Pharaoh's Gift. Dissenter's Deliverance wasn't spectacular, but the cost was low enough that playing it helped us beat these decks pretty soundly. Dispossess was a monster against God-Pharaoh's Gift, of course, and black-green was really shaping up to be a deck I was excited to bring to the Pro Tour.
Mardu Vehicles had always been a solid matchup for Black-Green Constrictor barring some insane and immensely constricting sideboard plans. Most of the lists were removing Fatal Push in favor of Abrade, which helped our matchup even more.
Black-Green Constrictor is a quite well-rounded deck that most people would not be testing against. It quickly become a favorite to be my deck at the Pro Tour, especially since I only needed a 10-6 finish for Platinum status. The deck is proactive with a strong late game, and provided flexibility to sideboard into a slower or faster deck given the situation which is always a good place to be in a new Standard. Still, the deck had a few struggles, and we tried our best to solve these issues.
The main one was that your Red matchup was significantly worse post-board. So much so that the matchup is closer to an even matchup than one where you are favored. This is mostly because of Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer being difficult cards to answer. They usually remove your best threat is on the table, which leaves you in a poor spot even if you deal with them. We had tried Transgress the Mind, which while it would seem helpful was not good enough as you can't afford to use your mana early without affecting the battlefield. The card we found to help combat their sideboard plan was Ishkanah, Grafwidow. It trumps Glorybringer and Chandra by going wide, buying you time or giving you pressure in conjunction with a Nissa or Verdurous Gearhulk. It wasn't really main-deckable as we don't reliably achieve delirium, plus Constrictor wants to be the aggressor in several matchups. That made it a perfect fit as a one-of in our sideboard to Traverse for. We tried (like game one) to win the battlefield and not attack often, and we played Never // Return for additional answers to Red's go-big plan. I played two Gifted Aetherborn in the sideboard for additional ways to get ahead early and provide some life gain.
With Red's "go big" plan and our need to have creatures in play to contest Chandra, Yaheeni's Expertise is not a card you want against Red even though it would be great in game one. Because of this, we foolishly cut them from the sideboard not expecting many Zombie decks and also holding onto a somewhat false belief that it is not great against them as well. At the tournament, I struggled to go 1-2 against Zombies and wished I had Expertise anyway.
The second issue we found with Constrictor was that we thought the Blue-Red Control matchup was quite poor. We knew that Red crushed Blue-Red Control. We even tried to get creative from the Blue-Red side, but Ramanup Ruins made an already tough task of beating an aggro deck with half the converted mana cost of your cards and no taplands into an impossible task. We felt as if fewer people would play Blue-Red Control for that reason. But, the Pro Tour is often an interesting sample of decks since people sometimes go way too deep. In our testing, it was apparent that Blue-Red Control was insanely good at beating decks that were beating Red. After all, it's almost impossible to build a deck to beat Red that would be good against a control deck. That means people might go to a level deeper and play Blue-Red anyway – especially if they thought people would actually crush Red. Secondly, Blue-Red was the deck that got the most out of Hour of Devastation – Abrade, Hour of Devastation and Supreme Will were all excellent additions. We thought needed to be able to beat Blue-Red Control.
Game one against control was hard to win, but we attempted a strategy of boarding in all of our removal and Dispossess to prey on Blue-Red's weaknesses. After watching Mike Sigrist deck Ivan Floch playing Constrictor against Blue-Red post-board, I was quite intrigued. Blue-Red Control is a somewhat flawed strategy. It's not a pure control deck like we've seen in the past. There are no Sphinx's Revelation, Elixir of Immortality, Nephalia Drownyard, or another excellent built-in finisher. It's almost more of a midrange deck, as it needs to kill you with creatures. There are no planeswalkers or huge draw spells (Pull from Tomorrow is too slow to be played), so the deck gains no incremental advantages. If you can remove all four Torrential Gearhulks, and have enough answers for however many Thing in the Ice are boarded in, you will win. It quite the pathetic spectacle really, as they end up drawing into more and more one-for-ones and eventually just stop really functioning as a Magic deck (and I was able to recreate our testing success in the tournament itself). We ended up boarding in all of our discard, Dispossess and Never // Return, while leaving in all of the Grasps, Dissenter's Deliverance and one Fatal Push as the perfect recipe to be able to beat them regularly and sometimes quite convincingly. I was pretty sold on Constrictor at this point as what seemed to be the worst matchup was actually quite good.
The last issue was the problematic Bristling Hydra. While this was rather minor, it's nice to go to a tournament with all angles covered. Ishkanah, Grafwidow was a step in the right direction, but I decided to play Gifted Aetherborn alongside the normal Gonti, Lord if Luxury in my sideboard as I wanted additional ways of dealing with Bristling Hydra. I found that the other Energy decks pretty much only won through a huge uncontested Longtusk Cub or Hydra, and with two Gifted Aetherborn plus the two Gonti our deck could combat that plan.
Here is the list we ended up on:
I ended up 6-4 in Standard, though I feel with a few Yaheeni's Expertise that record could have easily been much better. Grim Flayer master Samuel Pardee went a superb 10-2-1 though, so all in all I'm happy with Constrictor at the Pro Tour as well as moving forward. While missing the World Championships by one pro point was a brutal way to end the season, hitting Platinum for the third year in a row is quite the positive achievement, so I'm travelling home from Japan pleased.
I'm stopping on my way home to attend Grand Prix Minneapolis and am going to play a modified version of Black-Green Constrictor. Dissenter's Deliverance is no longer necessary, as Vehicles, Gift and Monument seem to have fallen out as top-tier. Zombies is still strong and will be popular as it's one of the few decks that is favored against Red. I think the simplest changes to our list is to cut the two Deliverance and move a Grasp of Darkness and one Gifted Aetherborn from the Sideboard to the main deck, leaving a convenient two slots to add the Yaheeni's Expertise.
- Steve Rubin