Another weekend has come and gone, and with it, Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. In terms of ongoing influence on the Standard format, no tournament equals the Pro Tour. This Pro Tour is extra important because this Standard format is still brand new and many players will be looking to the results of this tournament to guide their thoughts on the format for the months to come. It behooves us to be intimately familiar with the different decks to come out of the Pro Tour, both to help us better understand the format, and, more importantly, to help us understand what our competition will be thinking about the format.
To this end, today I will be going over the different decks from the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar Top 8. The decks in the Top 8 are where our eyes are first drawn and are generally the most influential decks of the tournament -- especially in the time immediately after the tournament. The depths of PT Battle for Zendikar will eventually be mined and each deck will influence the metagame, but right now the Top 8 decks are what matter. For decks that we have seen already in this format (spoiler: that's most of them) I will discuss the evolution of the deck for the Pro Tour, the implications of those changes and whether or not I think they are likely to stick as permanent fixtures of the archetype. Further, at the end of each deck's section I will give two ratings on a 1 to 10 scale (low to high): permanency, which is a measure of how much play I think the archetype will see going forward in this Standard format and adaptability, a measure of how much room I think is left in the archetype for change and innovation.
Let's start with the 'menace' of the format, Atarka Red. At Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Atarka Red was represented in the Top 8 by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who presumably collaborated on the deck with his team for the event, team Face-to-Face. Despite only having one copy in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, I am starting with it because this deck was the most played archetype on Day 2 of the event. Its broader archetype, Red Aggro, had the second-best advancement rate to Day 2 with 68.7% of Red Aggro pilots making Day 2 of competition. Overall, it is safe to say that Atarka Red was a good-performing deck at this event.
The last time we saw Atarka Red in this format was in the hands of Brian DeMars during his win at SCG Indianapolis. DeMars innovated heavily on last season's Atarka Red variants to land on a version of the deck relying heavily on the combo elements of Temur Battle Rage, Titan's Strength, and Become Immense. Paulo's build preserves this element of the deck while enhancing the Atarka's Command + creatures combo by cutting some of the creatures in DeMars's list to make room for copies of Hordeling Outburst. Going forward, I expect Atarka Red to remain a Combo-Aggro deck.
The major changes in Paulo's list are in the sideboard. Gone are the four mana Thunderbreak Regents and any copies of Goblin Heelcutter whatsoever. Instead, Paulo shores up his mirror match with the rest of his Hordeling Outburst playset and a copy of Battle for Zendikar's own Boiling Earth. Three copies of Rending Volley in Paulo's sideboard speak to how highly he respected Mantis Rider, and three solitary Roasts alongside the aforementioned zero Goblin Heelcutter speaks to how much he disrespected Siege Rhino. A lack of respect for Siege Rhino will be a common thread as we continue to examine the Pro Tour decklists.
Some other takes on the deck were seen throughout the Swiss rounds via the occasional feature match, but as of the time of this writing no decklists aside from the Top 8 have been published, so I will have to rely on memory for these points. First, Frank Karsten displayed a Thunderbreak Regent / Flamewake Phoenix sideboard plan in his round four match with Gabriel Nassif. That sideboard is far from dead and depends heavily on how popular Abzan is on a specific week. The other cool Atarka Red innovation I wanted to mention was Hooting Mandrills. Javier Dominguez utilized the infrequently seen Khans of Tarkir common to win an Atarka Red mirror in round 16 against Brandon Burton to lock up a 12-4 finish, and the card looked very impressive in that context.
Permanency = 9: Atarka Red is around to stay -- didn't get a 10 just because Red Aggro is often a deck kept down by the whims of the metagame.
Adaptability = 6: The foundations of this version of Atarka Red are immutable, but the details and the sideboard have plenty of room left for beneficial innovation.
Jeskai was the second most played deck on Day 2 of competition, with a Day 1 advancement rate of 65.2%. It successfully put three copies into the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, and has a strong claim in my opinion to being the best deck of the tournament. Of the three copies in the Top 8, two are the deck that PT coverage has given the moniker 'Dark Jeskai,' while the other copy is a purist version of Jeskai. This is all besides the copy of Jeskai Tokens that also made the Top 8. Altogether Jeskai-colored decks comprised a full half of the Top 8 field.
Let's start with Jeskai Black. The last time we saw this deck it was dominating SCG Atlanta in the hands of several different pilots, none of which agreed on what the deck should look like (or even what black spells were worth splashing for). Aside from the unanimous agreement on Crackling Doom, there was no cohesion. The Jeskai Black decks in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar were piloted by Jon Finkel and Owen Turtenwald, members of renowned team The Pantheon. As team members, it should come as no surprise to us that their versions of Jeskai Black are the exact same 75-card mirrors. The Pantheon's answer to which cards are worth splashing for? Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Kolaghan's Command, Utter End, and of course, Crackling Doom. Tasigur is the big one for me here -- a card that we had not seen in these lists previously, that looks very good and could easily be a staple of the archetype going forward. The other big thing from their lists is that have delivered a resounding verdict on tri lands in a post Battle for Zendikar World -- yes! They have five total tri lands in their list, with a singleton Nomad Outpost accompanying the four Mystic Monastery.
The Jeskai deck that refrained from splashing black was piloted by Ryoichi Tamada in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. His list is a much more aggressive take on the Jeskai archetype, with more total creatures in his list including a staggering 12 two-drops (playsets each of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Seeker of the Way, and Hangarback Walker). He also has a full playset of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in his main. This focus on aggression in a purist Jeskai deck enabled him to play a full two less lands than the Jeskai Black deck and he still probably has better mana. Seeker of the Way is one of my favorite cards, but this deck is not really to my liking. I expect that Jeskai Black will be the standard way of things going forward.
The last Jeskai variant in the Top 8 was Jeskai Tokens, piloted by Martin Müller. Müller worked with team Eureka for this event, the majority of whom, I believe, played this deck. The Eureka tokens list has three main points of innovation from previous lists: 1) embracing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, 2) Silkwrap, and 3) a 25th land. These innovations play beautifully together and I am very excited to give this deck a whirl sometime soon. The playset of Gideon helps give the Jeskai Tokens deck a respectable amount of power even in games where it can't find a Jeskai Ascendancy -- this deck utilizes Gideon's emblem better than any other deck in the format. Silkwrap is both one of the best white removal spells in the format, matching up very well against the premier cards of the format, and insulation against Dromoka's Command for your Jeskai Ascendancy. The 25th land makes the deck more consistent at casting its new four-of four-drop, with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy enabling the deck to run that 25th land. This deck looks clean and well-thought out, and I expect it to be the foundation for future Tokens lists this format.
Jeskai Black Permanency = 10: Jeskai Black is here to stay.
Jeskai Black Adaptability = 8: Four-color decks need constant tuning to stay at the top of the meta.
Jeskai Tempo Permanency = 4: I expect pilots of this deck to incorporate black going forward.
Jeskai Tempo Adaptability = 3: If you decide to stay pure, this is more or less what your deck will look like.
Jeskai Tokens Permanency = 7: Tokens is powerful but can be hated out. Will always play a role in the meta.Jeskai Tokens Adaptability = 3: The Tokens core takes up most of the slots, and every decision in the Eureka build looks like a great complement to that core.
The third most popular deck on Day 2 of competition with a 59.1% Day 1 advancement rate, G/W Megamorph placed one copy into the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, piloted by Ricky Chin. In the weeks before the Pro Tour, G/W Megamorph was heralded as the best deck of this Standard format with great performances in both of the Opens that took place prior to the PT. Michael Majors was the name most associated with the deck, thanks to this second place finish at SCG Indianapolis (Majors also played the deck at PT Battle, for what that's worth). The biggest story in Chin's version of G/W Megamorph is the lack of change from Majors' original deck. Chin's maindeck is three cards off of the original, swapping some copies of Valorous Stance for the well-positioned Silkwrap and ditching the copy of Blighted Steppe for a land that can produce colored mana. Chin did clean up the sideboard some, gaining much needed copies of Surge of Righteousness to have a better game plan against Red Aggro.
That is not to say that Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar brought no innovation to G/W Megamorph. Paul Cheon played a version of the deck that splashed red to great success Day 1, although that success was not replicated on Day 2. Autumn Burchett finished in 11th place (with an outstanding 9-1 Constructed record) with a version of the deck eschewing Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and some copies of Hangarback Walker for Knight of the White Orchid and Archangel of Tithes. Cutting Gideon seems crazy to me, but it definitely worked for her and Archangel of Tithes certainly provides the raw power to replace my favorite Planeswalker (and is a new, unexpected angle of attack for a 'known' deck). Knight of the White Orchid, however, I can definitely get behind, especially right now in a meta hating on Hangarback Walker.
The biggest takeaway for Megamorph is probably the universal cutting of Valorous Stance for Silkwrap. This is the disrespect towards Siege Rhino I alluded to earlier, and it makes perfect sense. Rhino is seeing less play and Mantis Rider and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy are seeing more. Lose your Stances and get some Silkwraps in there. Makes perfect sense. Whether or not this aversion to Siege Rhino will be seen going forward in lower levels of competition remains to be seen.
Permanency = 10: I think at this point it is safe to say that Megamorph is one of the best decks in the format.
Adaptability = 6: There is certainly room in the archetype to splash a color or change around some threats (Hangarback Walker in specific seems to me to be next up on the cutting block).
Last year's boogeyman, this year's punching bag. It's not quite that bad, but the mighty sure have fallen. Abzan was the 7th most played deck on Day 2, fielding less than a third of the competitors that Jeskai Black or Atarka Red had. Its Day 1 advancement rate was 50%, markedly lower than that of the other decks we have discussed. Despite all that, it placed two copies into the Top 8 of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, piloted by Kazuyuki Takimura and Paul Dean.
Last season Abzan was a huge blob of decks with nothing in common other than Siege Rhino and Abzan Charm. This format, only one Abzan deck is winning, and it is most similar to the decks that we would have called Abzan Aggro last season. Both of the Top 8 lists featured a Warden of the First Tree / Hangarback Walker / Anafenza, the Foremost / Siege Rhino / Wingmate Roc curve backed up by nine to ten pieces of interaction and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The two lists are very similar, and piloted by pilots who did not work together for this event. To me, that suggests that this list is strong and should not be deviated from much.
My theory on Abzan is that the colors' raw power is no longer enough for it to get by. Anafenza, the Foremost seems to be key to these decks success -- she matches up very well against much of the format (especially G/W/x Megamorph). Abzan is now more of a metagame deck than a raw powerhouse, relying on anti-meta cards like Anafenza to disrupt its opponents long enough for its aggressive plan to win the game. I would not look to Abzan as the default choice when you don't know what to play anymore. Instead, treat it as a solid option when the metagame lines up in a specific way.
Permanency = 6: The Abzan Aggro shell will always see some reasonable level of play.
Adaptability = 3: I think these lists are very well-tuned and do not have much room for change until the meta changes significantly.
That's all the Top 8 decks, and thus, all I have for this week. I currently intend to look at the decks that placed outside of the Top 8 next week (when I can reference their lists), so look for that!
Thanks for reading,