The Salty Sultais is either the name of my Standard deck, the name of my barely seaworthy boat, or the name of my cover band struggling to get gigs at the local bar. If you guessed "the name of my Standard deck" then you would be correct. If you guessed the name of my cover band, well, you'd also be correct. Wonderwall anyone? I don't do boats.
After the banning of Field of the Dead, Standard devolved into effectively a "one-deck" format. Alright, that's not entirely true. You can certainly play other strategies like Golgari Adventure or Selesnya Adventure and...that's it...but effectively base-Simic Food decks are tier 0. When I say tier 0, I mean that they are the best deck, and by themselves in the category of best deck. Typically tier 1 is used to house the best decks, but when it's a single deck by itself with no real risk of being dethroned, tier 0 is more apt.
We've seen this a few times in the past with Temur Energy being the most recent example. Temur Energy was by itself as the best deck, and not just that, it also was able to adapt to beat any other decks that tried to dethrone it. That's the key to being a tier 0 deck. Base-Simic Food, which I'm using to refer to both Simic decks as well as derivatives like Bant and Sultai, are able to adapt to beat any deck that tries to have a positive matchup against it.
So we have a format that is incredibly warped to attempt to beat these Food decks, and we have Food decks that are still winning despite that. People are maindecking Noxious Grasp and Aether Gust and still aren't winning at a significant rate against base Simic Food decks. Sound familiar? I'm recalling a time in the not-so-distant past where people were maindecking Leyline of the Void and still not beating Hogaak decks.
I've been playing predominantly Sultai decks lately, and while the core of the deck remains unchanged from list to list, there are still options surrounding the "other" cards. I want to discuss what your options are when playing Sultai and give a rundown of the value of those choices.
Note that I don't have all the answers here. This isn't even a case of me protecting information for the upcoming standard Mythic Championship, I simply don't know what the best thing to do is when it comes to this list. There are pros and cons to various approaches and the best I can do is breakdown the choices, why you would or wouldn't want to do them, and let you decide what you believe to be best on your own.
There are effectively three options for how many lands you can play in your Sultai deck.
Greedy: 24 lands. You're okay with missing land drops to cast things like Nissa or Hydroid Krasis occasionally to lower the chance of flooding out.
MTG Arena streamer crokeyz has been putting a lot of work and being successful with Sultai lately. His list was everywhere to be found among both the top performing players in last weekend's MTG Arena Mythic Championship Qualifier as well as this week's Pearl Division of the MPL Weekly Splits. His lists are on the greedy side, playing 24 lands and also four Fabled Passage.
For what it's worth, in a format as high variance as this, it's hard for me to argue against greed being the best way to build your decks.
Conservative: 25 lands. You'd rather flood from time to time than miss out on being able to cast a turn-three or four Nissa or Hydroid Krasis for four.
Personally, this is where I lean. I like hitting my land drops and I hate being stuck unable to cast my cards and forced to play from behind, especially in a curve-out deck like this. I'll probably play 25 lands at the Mythic Championship, although my teammates will probably register one less than I do.
Go Big: 26+ lands and Growth Spiral. The Growth Spiral aspect of this is important.
This is the list I played during my MPL Split. I went 2-5 and this list was bad. Don't copy it. That being said, this is an example of 26 lands and two Growth Spirals to go with it. I wanted Growth Spiral to give myself more chances to pull ahead in the early turns.
Overall, Growth Spiral was fairly weak, but the advantage it did provide was that on the draw in post-board games it plays really well with interaction. You can hold up Growth Spiral and Noxious Grasp and if they don't do something worth Grasping, you can just Spiral. It's a way to play catchup on the draw so that things don't...Spiral...out of control.
I'll see myself out. Out of the race to qualify for Worlds, as this heinously poor finish doesn't do me any favors.
The go-big approach is to play a lot of expensive effects and rely on a higher land count and Growth Spiral to get you there. I'm not a huge fan of this as incredibly cheap cards like Negate, Disdainful Stroke and Veil of Summer can ruin those big effects.
Playing the full complement of shock lands is fairly important, with Watery Grave being the sole exception. Both Breeding Pool and Overgrown Tomb are phenomenal at fixing mana and also phenomenal with Nissa in that you can untap an Overgrown Tomb to cast a Noxious Grasp and you can untap a Breeding Pool to cast a Negate or Disdainful Stroke the turn you play Nissa. I'd still play four Watery Grave just for fixing reasons, but it's far less essential.
The real question marks in the deck are cards like Temple of Mystery and Fabled Passage. I hate both of these lands. I played a full set of Temple of Mystery for my split, but with 26 lands I felt like I was less likely to have it hurt my development and more likely to value the scry from it. It coming into play tapped just hurts you so often.
Fabled Passage likewise comes into play tapped far too often and isn't even a dual land like Temple of Mystery.
Ultimately a perfect list would strive to play as few of these as possible, although some number is likely essential for adequate fixing.
Since there are a few flex slots in the deck, it's possible to spend a slot or two on expensive effects that can take over a game that grinds out. A lot of games are over really fast. A turn-two Oko, Thief of Crowns, or turn-three Nissa, Who Shakes the World is usually going to win the game in any matchup, and likewise opposing decks are often trying to close the game quickly.
Now, the games themselves usually drag on past the first few turns. It's not as though the game is simply over on turn three when a Nissa is cast. It may take another four or five turns for the win to actually be realized, but one player can amass such an enormous board advantage such that there isn't any card that can pull the other player back into the game, and thus their big effect card is just not good enough, even if they do have time to cast it.
However, some games are closer and these big effects can completely take over, so it isn't ridiculous to consider playing a few of them.
Garruk, Cursed Huntsman: This is the best big card in a vacuum. Garruk is an incredibly powerful planeswalker that easily takes over games, even sometimes against good board states from the opponent. One laughable thing about Garruk is that he has abilities that—get this—tick DOWN his loyalty. Hahahahaha. Wow. What a joke. Downticking your planeswalker? For six mana? That's rich. The only six I'm accustomed to is six loyalty when I tick up my three mana walker.
The problem with Garruk is that he dies to Noxious Grasp and gets hit by Aether Gust. That's it. That's the weakness. Sadly that's likely too big to overcome, making Garruk not worth it, despite his power level being so high.
Liliana, Dreadhorde General: Liliana is significantly weaker than Garruk in my opinion, but she doesn't die to Noxious Grasp or Aether Gust and therefore likely gets the nod.
Casualties of War: This is the best "comeback" card of the bunch in that an accelerated Casualties of War can actually survive an opponent's fast Nissa draw when you're on the backfoot. The major issue with Casualties of War is that your opponent can Dismiss it for one mana with Veil of Summer, and worst case Aether Gust, Negate and Disdainful Stroke do it in for two mana. That's a yikes from me. Casualties of War is super hit-or-miss in non-mirror matches.
Agent of Treachery: While this card also loses to Veiled or Disdainful Stroke, it dodges Aether Gust and Negate and can help you come back from bad positions in the same way that Casualties of War does.
The huge problem with Agent of Treachery is the price tag. The other cards listed all cost six mana. I think one copy of a six mana big-play is acceptable in a 24 land deck, but multiple copies or anything that costs more than six is really, really pushing it. Agent is exceptionally greedy, even for this format.
With a 25 or 26+ land deck it's conceivable that this card could make the cut, but it might actually just be too slow at seven mana when the sweet spot is six. It's also questionable how impactful this card is in non-mirrors.
Mass Manipulation: Mass Manipulation is like a bad Casualties of War or Agent of Treachery at six mana, but gets gross at eight or more. This is by far the most powerful of these big effects, but I really hate this card for a few simple reasons. The first is that the quadruple-blue price tag is hard to come by and probably requires an overhaul on the mana. The second is that Mass Manipulation gets countered by everything under the sun. Veil and Mystical Dispute snuff it for one mana, and losing your eight or ten mana play to a single blue or green is backbreaking. Negate and Disdainful Stroke both do it in as well.
Mass Manipulation is great against slower decks, but quite bad vs. red-black decks trying to exploit maindeck Noxious Grasp and the like.
The core four-ofs in the deck are Gilded Goose, Paradise Druid, Once Upon a Time, Noxious Grasp, Oko, Nissa, Wicked Wolf, and Hydroid Krasis. That's 32 cards, leaving four flex slots for 24 land decks or three slots for 25 land decks. 26+ land decks are constructed differently entirely, making them a different beast.
Vraska, Golgari Queen: I've found Vraska to be "fine" but nothing exciting. Vraska is nice for killing Oko and Hydroid Krasis in the mirror, both of which you don't want to use a Noxious Grasp on but do need to get off the board. Most of the time, Vraska is simply a four-mana removal spell, as she will just die the following turn to creature combat. However, sometimes it's annoying for your opponent to get to the Vraska and they do have to mess up their curve to kill it.
Vraska is actually quite great against Jeskai Fires, which does see some play. Killing a Narset, Parter of Veils or Teferi, Time Raveler and then having a way to turn excess garbage into card advantage is quite useful against them.
Massacre Girl: I hate this card. So much. Massacre Girl is good against Sultai, so I don't really know why you'd want to put it into your own deck when half the time it's just going to blow up your own spot. That being said, this is the best card in the format against Selesnya Adventures, which is actually strong against Sultai in a vacuum, so I don't hate having some in the 75.
Questing Beast: I have a mixed opinion on this one. I love that it closes the door quickly and presses tempo advantages before your opponent can catch back up. I hate that it often doesn't do anything and just gets turned into an Elk by Oko without providing any form of lasting advantage for four mana. I also hate that it gets brickwalled by Wicked Wolf. It's Great against Fires of Invention decks, but non-impactful against Edgewall Innkeeper strategies, which can usually just trade with a Lovestruck Beast.
Voracious Hydra: It's pretty unexciting against Sultai decks and Fires of Invention strategies, but really quite great against creature decks. Sometimes this is even better than Wicked Wolf in that it will kill a creature but also pressure a planeswalker or life total even through annoying blockers like Tibalt, Rakish Instigator Devil Tokens or Cauldron Familiar. It gets found by Once Upon a Time, which is relevant. The same advantage applies to Massacre Girl and Questing Beast as well.
Kraul Harpooner: This incredibly weak card has one purpose: killing geese. I didn't realize the goose infestation in the Kraul was that bad, but apparently it is. Kraul Harpooner on turn two to kill a Gilded Goose is delightful. It can also sometimes slay Hydroid Krasis later in the game. Overall, seems a bit underpowered to me, but Andrea Mengucci had it in the last MPL Split and if you hit the high variance upside of having it when your opponent has the turn-one Gilded Goose, then I'm all about it.
There are two key things to note. The first is that you need to have enough cards to bring in when Noxious Grasp sucks for every conceivable matchup. The second is that you shouldn't overboard with the deck. The core four-of cards in this deck are there for a reason—they are exceptionally good. Overboarding dilutes that power.
Veil of Summer is an incredibly efficient sideboard card that is good in a wide range of matchups, so I'm not going to bother talking about it. It's in effectively every deck as it should be.
Negate vs. Duress: I value Negate effects incredibly highly in this deck but they do compete with Duress for a similar role. Duress has the advantage of fitting into your curve whenever you have a chance to play it, and as a proactive card you don't need to hold it up every single turn to get value out of it. A well-timed Duress is going to be significantly better than Negate ever could be.
I actually prefer Negate though, as Negate provides a tempo advantage that Duress cannot. When you Duress your opponent, you take a card out of their hand, but you don't waste any of their mana. If you Duress a Fires of Invention, they can still just cast Drawn from Dreams on their turn. You're reducing their options but you aren't wasting their turns.
Negate is the opposite. You aren't reducing which cards your opponent can play, but you are forcing them to commit mana, and usually a full turn's worth, to cast a card and then invalidating it completely. That kind of tempo advantage, especially when you have planeswalkers like Oko or Nissa in play, is invaluable. Negate is also a much better card later in the game where it can hit your opponents' topdecks.
Disdainful Stroke: Negate accomplishes much of what Disdainful Stroke can, but Stroke has applications in the mirror match against things like Hydroid Krasis or Wicked Wolf that Negate can't hit. With that said, I don't think these kinds of soft counters are great in the mirror, but depending on your opponent's decklist, they can be.
Lovestruck Beast: Lovestruck Beast is great against Gruul and Rakdos Aggro at completely shutting down their aggressive draws, especially when paired with Wicked Wolf. I don't think either of those decks really exist, so Lovestruck Beast is possibly a wasted slot. It's not great against Adventure decks that just grind past it or Mayhem Devil/Witch's Oven decks that try to generate an engine to take over the game.
Mystical Dispute: I've seen a lot of people hate on this card. I really like it a lot. Getting blowouts for one mana while developing your board is exactly my cup of tea. Paying three mana later in the game for a Mana Leak isn't super impressive, but it still gets the job done.
Thrashing Brontodon: If you look up "this is an acceptable sideboard card" in the dictionary, it's a picture of Thrashing Brontodon. It's never been a great sideboard option, but has always been totally… acceptable. It does things. It kills Embercleave, Fires of Invention and so forth, but never that well. It blocks and attacks but also never that well. Versatile but replaceable.
Legion's End: I like this card a lot. It's a replacement removal spell for decks dodging Noxious Grasp, and doubles as extra removal against Edgewall Innkeeper, which is the most important card against us out of those decks. It can also take out a lot of March of the Multitude tokens, but that doesn't come up that often.
Assassin's Trophy: Emphasis on Ass. All-purpose answers are great, but the extra land is incredibly useful to pretty much every deck in this format. No thanks from me.
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales: Tamiyo is an incredibly powerful card, but the places where she's good seem narrow to me. I'd want her vs. control strategies and decks like Esper Dance that win with Doom Foretold. Past that point I'm not sure where she shines.
One of the flaws of Sultai is that Veil of Summer is great against cards like Noxious Grasp, Vraska, Golgari Queen and big haymakers like Mass Manipulation, Casualties of War, and so forth.
There are two schools of thought on beating Veil of Summer. One idea is to Overload it. If you play a ton of cards that get hit by Veil of Summer but are otherwise great effects, then you crush them if they don't draw or have the Veil of Summer. If they do have the Veil of Summer they'll blow you out with it, but if you draw enough of those effects, and if they are truly powerful enough, then you can just win with the second or third copy.
The other school of thought is to try to strand Veil of Summers in your opponent's hand by rendering them ineffective. You'll never make them entirely dead, as Noxious Grasp is just too good to cut in green matchups, but you can put them in spots where they side in Veil of Summer even though it only hits a few of your cards, and the Veils might just get stuck in their hand.
I honestly don't know which school is correct. Veil of Summer is such an unbelievably good card and a lot of the bottlenecks of this format revolve around it. Plenty of potential decks that would perhaps beat Sultai find themselves thwarted by cards like this. Veil of Summer is a huge part of the dominance of base Simic Food decks, and tough decisions like this is a lot of the reason why.