The results from Dominaria's first week in Standard are in, and for all the rusted-on white-blue mages like myself, the news is very good indeed. While Mono-Red Aggro is still hanging around (we can't seem to find a big enough boot to crush that particular cockroach) and while various green decks are slamming their big idiots into play, there are a plethora of white-blue decks that are crushing the new Standard format. And nary The Scarab God in sight! Just, one might say, as Garfield intended.
Let's have a look at the decks that are fighting the good fight and explore the reasons they're doing as well as they are.
Also known as White-Blue Flash, a new deck based around the ability of Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage has emerged to very meaningfully contest this new frontier. Subverting the stereotypical tendency for white-blue decks to be controlling, this deck is capable of some reasonably quick starts – but its real strength is in pure card quality, made all the more potent when these haymakers come down at instant speed.
Every single nonland card in this deck can be deployed at instant speed, given you have Raff Capashen online. There's no doubting the power of a card like Lyra Dawnbringer, but how about flashing her in to block? Or during the end step to avoid sorcery-speed removal? How about an instant-speed colorless Fireball with Walking Ballista? These already very strong cards become enormously more impactful when deployed at instant speed.
My favorite thing about this list is the way that the supporting cast of interactive spells has been built for maximum synergy with the flash-based creature plan. Filling a white-blue deck with powerful instants is nothing new but relying on cards like Blink of an Eye and Commit // Memory for interaction (over something like Ixalan's Binding, for example) adds to the overall cohesion of the deck and makes gameplay even harder for an opponent to navigate.
This list isn't set in stone, as people continue to tweak the numbers and experiment with different cards. Some lists have included Supreme Will, a splendidly versatile card; some have included Cast Out, which goes up against opposing planeswalkers very handily. Karn, Scion of Urza and Shalai, Voice of Plenty cover yet further angles. My favorite piece of sideboard tech, however, has been Urza's Ruinous Blast – a five-mana, instant-speed Plague Wind seems pretty good!
We've seen Approach decks like this before, and it's good to see them up and about again. This strategy received some important upgrades with the arrival of Dominaria, but it's not often we see a pure control deck doing so well in the first weeks of a new format. It seems that white-blue now has the tools to tussle with everything that might be thrown at it, and when considering how diverse the threats in Standard currently are, that's quite a feat.
Counters, removal, sweepers, and a few win conditions – it doesn't get much more straightforward than this. Indeed, this wasn't the only white-blue control deck to put up the numbers this weekend – there was also an Approach-less list that instead sought to get the most out of Torrential Gearhulk and the powerful new planeswalker, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Torrential Gearhulk is certainly more proactive than Approach of the Second Sun, and this deck will close games out much more aggressively thanks to the role the 5/6 plays. All the same, it's Teferi, Hero of Dominaria that is garnering the most attention as control's newest darling. As a card draw/removal split card, Teferi does just about everything you'd want a controlling planeswalker to do. I believe, however, that much of the success Teferi is engendering comes about as a result of his ability to untap lands – and, in particular, what you can then do with this two extra mana.
Keen-eyed readers will have noticed a common element shared by each of these decks, and it is, I think, the principal cause for their success. Flashy Raff-into-Lyra plays are stealing the show and Week One Control is making headlines; it's only natural that the focus is on the big, splashy cards. Behind the scenes, however, invisibly dragging kit around and hauling on curtain ropes, is the real reason these decks are bathing in the warm glow of the spotlight.
Seal Away is the answer that non-black, non-red decks have needed to the questions this Standard format asks. It deals with everything from Toolcraft Exemplar to Glorybringer – and there are a staggering number of creatures against which it's invariably better than an ordinary kill spell. Earthshaker Khenra, Rekindling Phoenix, Gideon of the Trials, even Hazoret the Fervent! The fact that it exiles rather than destroys is remarkably relevant against a wide proportion of the field.
More than anything else, it's the cost of Seal Away that allows it to shine. Two mana is cheap enough to Stave Off early aggression, whereas something like Cast Out feels clunky and fatally slow against Standard's aggro decks, Seal Away will usually break even on mana and in many situations end up with your ledger in the black. And – critically – its cost allows you to use it to defend a freshly-deployed Teferi, Hero of Dominaria after activating his +1 ability. Untapping with an active Teferi on turn six is huge game, and Seal Away is an incredibly important piece of that puzzle.
Of course, the card isn't without its weaknesses. Seal Away is a little awkward against black-green based decks with Winding Constrictor and other utility creatures like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, as its ability to only exile tapped creatures is problematic when an opponent can just generate value with an untapped Snake and a Siphoner, unafraid of Seal Away. It's also difficult to get real value against a Walking Ballista, because even if they end up attacking with it the counters can still go upstairs.
That's not to mention the fact that it is, after all, an Oblivion Ring-esque enchantment that is vulnerable to Disenchant effects. Thankfully, they're not at an all-time high – there's the odd Fragmentize or Thrashy B hanging around, but largely speaking Standard isn't inundated with post-board enchantment removal.
It's terrific to see control decks having such a bang-up time straight after a Standard shake-up, although it's difficult to divine the future for them. There are several things to be done that can (and probably will) Diminish the role of control decks in Standard. Rather obviously, the first is to find room in a deck for difficult-to-answer threats like Carnage Tyrant or Chandra, Torch of Defiance, or to focus on more value-oriented cards like Winding Constrictor and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. The second, however, is a little different.
By now, people have learned their lesson (usually the hard way) when it comes to playing around Settle the Wreckage. While the pilots of these Seal Away decks will have benefitted from some percentage of their opponents not being cognizant of Standard's newest removal spell, this advantage will dwindle very quickly as player awareness increases. No more "might as well" attacks into two open mana – the secret is out and people will play more carefully as a result.
Nonetheless, the future looks bright for Glacial Fortress enthusiasts. White-Blue Historic seems to be a true powerhouse, and that's without the decklist even being truly "finished" yet. Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage has opened an entirely new archetype for us to explore! As much as I love holding up countermagic and removal for the turn, I'm definitely not accustomed to flashing in planeswalkers and Baneslayers during the end step – it's an exciting new direction to investigate, and I anticipate that this new Historic deck will be a major player in the coming weeks and months.
I mentioned that the Historic deck might not yet be "finished" – it certainly isn't according to MTGO player csmidy, who crushed a league with their take on the archetype. Adding green for mana acceleration and a ton of new planeswalkers, maybe we haven't yet turned the Raff Capashen dial all the way to 11! You can see a similar list in video action here.
Rather than just a handful of Teferis, csmidy went up to twelve planeswalkers – and even included an Oath of Teferi to get even more value from them each turn! Rather obviously, all these changes forced the curve up a little higher than before, and for that reason we see the very welcome inclusion of Llanowar Elves alongside Servant of the Conduit.
Despite these huge changes to the structure and thrust of the deck, the playset of Seal Away is sacrosanct and hasn't gone anywhere. Anyone who is in on the secret – which now includes you, dear reader – will recognize this as the right move. Seal Away is just too important to overlook in a deck like this; the price is right, the synergy is right and having an (often upgraded) Doom Blade effect like this shores up a major weakness of archetypes like this. I'm excited to see what comes next in the wake of Seal Away!
- Riley Knight