Ever since the release of Dragons of Tarkir and its Pro Tour debut, the three Tier 1 decks have been Red Aggro, Esper Dragons, and some form of Abzan. This weekend marked the definitive rise of Green Devotion to Tier 1 status, specifically GR Devotion splashing for Xenagos, the Reveler and Dragonlord Atarka. The deck placed four copies in the Top 8 of the SCG Invitational and three copies in the Top 8 of the TCG Invitational. Today I'm going to explain why it's suddenly so successful and also how to beat it.
GR Devotion in Context
Just prior to the Pro Tour, Green Devotion was on the rise. Mastery of the Unseen had its coming out party at Grand Prix Miami where GW Devotion splashing for Mastery finished in both first and second place in the tournament. The deck was clearly the best for that tournament and it had a huge target on its head leading up to the Pro Tour.
With the release of Dragons of Tarkir, Esper Dragons immediately became a staple Tier 1 deck of the format. Team CFB had four pilots finish 8-2 or better with the deck at the Pro Tour and then Alex Hayne won GP Krakow the following weekend, followed by Paulo Vitor winning GP Sao Paulo the weekend after. Esper Dragons is arguably GR Devotion's worst matchup, so this sudden rise of the dragons put an immediate halt to Green Devotion's success.
In that same Pro Tour the lone Green Devotion deck to make it into the Top 8 was a GR version sporting Dragonlord Atarka. The red splash proved better than the white splash not only for that tournament but also in the ensuing metagame. The Dragonlord offered versatile removal to a deck that was short on removal spells and it also offered a fast flying clock to a deck that had trouble breaking a ground stalemate in the mirror. Mastery of the Unseen also became much less popular with the introduction of Dromoka's Command, which made the red splash even more appealing than the white splash.
Since Esper Dragons had been dominating so many high level Standard tournaments, people began to wise up to it and start playing strategies that were stronger against it. One strategy in particular is Deathmist Raptor + Den Protector. This combination of threats allow green decks to keep up with the card advantage generated by the control decks, most notably that of Esper Dragons. Den Protector is the best follow up to a Crux of Fate, essentially rebuilding in a single turn the card advantage and tempo generated by the board sweeper.
The Ojutai Bant deck I played to a tenth place finish at the Pro Tour continued its success by placing multiple pilots in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Krakow and Grand Prix Toronto. GW Collected Company also began to take off a bit, based around the same megamorph package. Even more recently, Abzan decks began adopting a stronger megamorph package, beginning with Den Protector in the sideboard, then moving it to the maindeck, and then finally playing four copies of Den Protector and four copies of Deathmist Raptor in the maindeck. Esper Dragons was still good but was nowhere near as good as it had been in the first few weeks of the set's release.
With the field becoming much more hostile toward Esper Dragons, Green Devotion began to flourish again as it had just prior to the release of Dragons of Tarkir. GR Devotion is even beginning to adopt the megamorph package in large part to improve its matchup against Esper Dragons.
UW/x Heroic decks are also a tough matchup for Green Devotion and they have become much less popular in recent months. Burn decks have lots of answers to heroic threats and Abzan has lots of cheap removal spells, including Murderous Cut and Glare of Heresy. Dromoka's Command is also generally not a card Heroic likes to face. Sacrifice effects such as Foul-Tongue Invocation and Crackling Doom are likewise a nightmare for Heroic and those are commonly played in Mardu Dragons and Esper Dragons.
To make a long story short, the metagame is currently much more hostile toward the enemies of Green Devotion than it was a month ago. As a result, Green Devotion is now much better positioned to flourish.
The Best Answers to GR Devotion
As I mentioned in the previous section, Esper Dragons (and really any UB/x Control deck) and UW/x Heroic decks are the primary enemies of GR Devotion, but you don't necessarily have to play one of those two archetypes to still have a decent matchup against GR Devotion. You can simply add a few of the following cards to your sideboard or adjust your maindeck to include them depending on how much you want to improve the matchup and how well your deck can support the cards.
Anger of the Gods
Anger of the Gods has a low enough mana cost to stunt GR Devotion's mana acceleration by killing Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Rattleclaw Mystic, and also Voyaging Satyr if they play that. It also has utility in the midgame by cleaning up all the Satyr Tokens produced by Xenagos, the Reveler along with all the mana producers. It can also get rid of Hornet Queen and all the Insect Tokens. Exiling the creatures can also be relevant if they run Deathmist Raptor and/or Den Protector.
Anger of the Gods doesn't just fit into any deck though. The primary constraint is the ability to reliably have double red mana by the third turn. If red is just a splash color, you likely can't support Anger of the Gods. The secondary constraint is playing a strategy that can effectively incorporate a third turn sweeper into its overall game plan. If you are a mana ramp deck or an aggressive deck that plays creatures on the first few turns of the game, Anger of the Gods will not provide enough advantage for you in the matchup.
An ideal candidate for running maindeck Anger of the Gods is Mardu Dragons. Instead of playing Seeker of the Way you can have a more controlling early game backed by Dragons. Anger of the Gods can still be effective later in the game to clear out Hornet Queen and her Insect Minions without harming your dragons in the process. Mardu already runs Anger in the sideboard, but moving it to the maindeck would be a good metagame call as it is good against Red Aggro and many versions of Abzan, especially now that most are moving further toward the full megamorph package. Esper Dragons is really the only matchup where you don't want it and that archetype is decreasing in numbers.
Anger of the Gods hits all the accelerants in GR Devotion and also has utility against Hornet Queen and Xenagos, the Reveler tokens. Arc Lightning doesn't have the same late game utility, nor does it hit Sylvan Caryatid, but it can take out an Elvish Mystic and a morphed Rattleclaw Mystic, setting back GR Devotion's first two turns of the game with a single card. It can also take out 3/5 of a Hornet Queen or directly take out a Xenagos, the Reveler on three loyalty. As long as the rest of your deck can produce early pressure, Xenagos likely has to produce a Satyr Token and thus stay at three loyalty the turn it enters the battlefield.
If your deck is more controlling and can support the double red, Anger of the Gods is better. On the other hand, if you are only splashing red or if clearing your own side of the board on the third turn is too costly, than Arc Lightning is still a way to gain a big advantage in the early game against GR Devotion. One such strategy that can effectively utilize Arc Lightning against GR Devotion is Monored Aggro, whether in the maindeck or in the sideboard.
Other strategies that can utilize Arc Lightning effectively against GR Devotion include various Green/Red Midrange strategies such as: Jund, Naya, Temur, or RG Dragons.
RG Dragons doesn't have much trouble producing RR on the third turn to cast Anger of the Gods, but wiping the board will take out its own mana accelerants along with those of the opposing GR Devotion player. If your plan is to be an Anger of the Gods into Dragons strategy then Mardu Dragons is the better deck for that plan. It has better removal options and also has access to Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury. If you would rather accelerate into your dragons faster, then GR Dragons is where it's at, but you'd be much better served by Arc Lightning than by Anger of the Gods in this strategy.
If you are heavy enough blue and have enough Dragons, Silumgar's Scorn is the more effective counter, but Disdainful Stroke is still plenty good enough against GR Devotion and is also well-positioned enough to consider running in the maindeck. Against Red Aggro it can only counter Stoke the Flames and against Abzan Aggro it can only counter Siege Rhino, though Abzan lists tend to run some number of Wingmate Roc and/or Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the maindeck now, or at least a Tasigur, the Golden Fang, so you likely have more targets than just Siege Rhino in that matchup. In every other matchup it not only has targets but will be one of your best cards!
A little bit of counter-magic can go a long way since GR Devotion has so much mana production and comparatively few actual things to do with all the mana. Negate only stops the planeswalkers whereas Disdainful Stroke will stop any of the major threats. The one downside is that it will only catch the Genesis Hydra half of a Genesis Hydra. If you combine Disdainful Stroke with other disruptive spells though, such as the ones already mentioned that stunt their mana development, then you'll be able to get plenty of utility off a timely Disdainful Stroke to make it worthwhile.
UB/x control decks are great against GR Devotion, and boarding in Disdainful Stroke makes them even better. Certain other strategies are less good against GR Devotion and can gain a lot of value by adding a few copies of Disdainful Stroke either to the maindeck or to the sideboard. For instance, Jeskai Midrange has a close matchup against GR Devotion and cards like Disdainful Stroke and either Arc Lightning or Anger of the Gods can greatly improve the matchup by cutting off their mana production and then countering whatever big thing(s) they cast. Jeskai is especially good against GR Devotion because it also has access to cards like Valorous Stance to take out Polukranos, World-Eater, Genesis Hydra, and Dragonlord Atarka, aka giant threats that something like Temur would otherwise have difficulty dealing with efficiently.
In addition to Valorous Stance, various other point removal spells that can kill a giant monster are great against GR Devotion such as: Murderous Cut, Abzan Charm, Crackling Doom, and especially Hero's Downfall since it can kill any creature or Xenagos, the Reveler (or Nissa, Worldwaker out of the sideboard).
Valorous Stance / Murderous Cut / Abzan Charm / Crackling Doom / Hero's Downfall
Roast doesn't quite make this list of premium removal spells against GR Devotion because it can't kill Polukranos, World-Eater in the mid-to-late game, nor can it kill it at instant speed (i.e. not in response to the monstrous ability). This sorcery speed restriction makes it much worse against Whisperwood Elemental too since it cannot stop them from getting the manifest the turn they play it.
Valorous Stance can grant indestructible to protect a creature from the abilities of Dragonlord Atarka or Polukranos, World-Eater, but usually it will be targeting one of these giant opposing creatures to destroy it. Whisperwood Elemental is also a prime target, as is Genesis Hydra. It can't stunt their mana production the way certain other removal spells can, but it still serves an important function by killing whatever giant monster the GR Devotion deck ramps into.
Murderous Cut can theoretically hit a mana producer, but unless you're on the play and cast a second turn Satyr Wayfinder, you will unlikely have enough fodder in the graveyard to cast it until a little later in the game, which means it will usually only hit the big monsters that they ramp into. This is perfectly fine since it has no restrictions on what it can hit and is an instant that can cost as little as one mana to cast. This means you can gain a huge tempo swing off a timely Murderous Cut, say in response to Polukranos, World-Eater trying to go monstrous or during a player's second main phase after they spend their turn casting Whisperwood Elemental.
Abzan Charm is a bit more costly than Murderous Cut and is more restrictive in its mana cost. Thus it will not fit into as many decks, but the decks it does fit into are able to utilize it effectively against GR Devotion. The most obvious function is to kill one of the monsters described already. Another subtle function is to add a +1/+1 counter to two of your creatures in response to the ability of Dragonlord Atarka or Polukranos, World-Eater. An unsuspecting opponent that doesn't account for this possibility could potentially not only fail to kill your creatures but also lose their Polukranos from the fight back.
Crackling Doom will mostly just kill their biggest threat and tack on some incidental damage, but you can also Redirect the damage to a planeswalker. Two damage isn't enough by itself to kill any of their planeswalkers, but when combined with attackers or other burn spells, it can play a big role in handling their two biggest threats (for instance, having them sacrifice Dragonlord Atarka and deal two damage to Xenagos, the Reveler).
Last but not least, Hero's Downfall is the most versatile removal spell of the bunch because it can hit any creature or either planeswalker. The mana is not quite as restrictive as Crackling Doom or Abzan Charm, but it is restrictive enough that it cannot fit into every black deck as easily as, say, Murderous Cut can. If your mana can support it, however, now is a great time to run the full four copies of Hero's Downfall. It's great against Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and the dragons in Esper Dragons and is the best removal spell against GR Devotion. It's a bit slow against Red Aggro, but it's no worse against them than any other removal spell mentioned in this section.
Recap for Beating GR Devotion
Overall strategies that are especially good against GR Devotion are UW/x Heroic and any form of UB/x Control (UB, Sultai, Esper). Other strategies can also be good against GR Devotion if you adjust them to include certain key cards that are especially good against the archetype. For instance, Anger of the Gods and Arc Lightning are great ways to cut off their early mana acceleration whereas Disdainful Stroke and Hero's Downfall (or various other point removal spells) are great ways deal with the threat they ramp into. Therefore Mardu Dragons with Anger of the Gods, RG Dragons or Monored Aggro with Arc Lightning, or Jeskai Midrange with Disdainful Stroke and Valorous Stance all have what it takes to hang toe-to-toe with GR Devotion. GR Devotion is certainly good and is currently well-positioned, but there are enough options available to stay a step ahead of the metagame.
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