I really thought that the first events of Ixalan Standard would be completely dominated by the delicious cocktail of Ramunap Red, Temur Energy, and White-Blue Approach of the Second Sun. I made a mistake. My thought was wrong. My expectations proved erroneous. My computations were incorrect. My format prediction missed the mark. My best guess slid past the second base of truth and virtue and was tagged out by the shortstop of lies and falsehood.
When I was in college, I had a computer science professor that was the epitome of the kind of "better-than-you" elitism that sometimes manifests itself in smart people in difficult fields. He was very smart and also very aware of his own intelligence, which resulted in a kind of swaggering confidence in himself. His belief was that math and computer science were where smart people ended up and people majoring in things like business or liberal arts were of a lesser intellect than those who pursued The One True Majors.
Normally, I have a disdain for that kind of egotistical mentality, but this professor I actually liked for some reason. He wasn't malicious about it, and he had a kind of cynicism that was entertaining to listen to. He was also a great teacher, which helped.
One day, in class, he spent about 15 minutes going through a problem on the board. When he got to the end he stopped and said, "wait a second, this isn't right." He then spent a few moments going through it again himself before eventually realizing that his initial work was actually correct after all.
He turned around, stared at us for a few moments and then said point blank, "I made a mistake today: ...I thought that I was wrong." It didn't sound like it was a mistake he made very often, and needless to say, he has likely never made the error of doubting himself again.
I was reminded of that moment when I saw some of the new or repurposed decks putting up results last weekend. I had predicted that Ixalan would have only a marginal effect on Standard, which would just end up basically being a three-deck format between Red, Temur, and Approach. I made a mistake. Only I actually was wrong.
Zac Elsik wasn't satisfied just playing a stock deck, so he decided he needed to…
Well, that's all I got for today. Thanks for reading. I'll see you all next week with another article full of hard hitting facts and high-level insight.
- Brian Braun-Duin
Okay, I'm back. I just couldn't quit you like that. Zac Elsik did it again. Feels like Zac is from Milwaukee with how he is a Brewer, and this brew actually paid off with an SCG Classic win.
What surprises me most about this deck is that it could have completely existed before rotation. My initial testing seems to indicate that the deck is good against both dirt Ramunap Red and Temur Energy and they were two of the most popular and top-performing decks last season. Where was this deck last season and why did Zac pull it out for this weekend? These are questions we will never know the answer to unless we just simply ask Zac, which I am not going to do. Instead I will carry on in blissful ignorance.
This deck centers around Dirty Harold, otherwise known by his stage name: Herald of Anguish. The deck fairly easily can churn out a turn four or five Herald, which dodges most commonly played removal in Fatal Push, Shock, Abrade, and Lightning Strike, and is bigger than and survives a Glory H. Bringer. Once in play, Herald completely dominates the board. It strips their hand and completely controls the combat step with its activated ability.
The other big card is Tezzeret the Schemer, which is a nice removal spell for cards outside the purview of Fatal Push. It is important to note that it kills Hazoret, which is huge. Tezz also ramps into Herald or accelerates out Maverick James Thopterists to buy time and trade off. Tezzeret ultimates quickly and the ultimate will eventually win the game. Tezzeret has always been a good card, but good shells for him have not always existed.
Everything else in the deck is basically facilitating Tezzeret and Herald, which both control the game and then ultimately win the game. It's important to note that neither of these cards are here to "just play". They are indeed here to win the game.
Having played some with the deck, there isn't a whole lot I would want to change. Sorcerous Spyglass underperformed for me, and I can't imagine not playing a fourth Tezzeret, which always overperformed and seems quite good with how many Hostage Takers are being played in the format right now. I think the big key is adding Duress to the sideboard, likely scrapping the Scrapheap Scroungers, which seem underwhelming and ineffective in a deck with such few creatures.
Duress into Tezzeret's Touch seems like a nice touch against control decks. Battle at the Bridge is a great way to bridge the gap between early artifacts and late game haymakers against red. A nicely timed Battle at the Bridge is like throwing up an extended middle finger. Geeeet defeeeeeeaaated.
There are no sacred cows in Magic, and the Jessup brothers proved that Harnessed Lightning isn't necessary for a functioning three-color energy strategy when Andrew Jessup won the tournament and Danny finished in the semifinals with a "Salty Sultai" take on the strategy.
The big new hit from Ixalan in this deck is Hostage Taker. It was unclear to me how good Hostage Taker would be. It costs four mana, which is a lot, and it is entering into a Standard format dominated by removal spells, which weakens its effectiveness. With that said, Fiend Hunter effects have typically been very playable, and Hostage Taker takes that to the next level by also giving you the ability to play the card you steal yourself. Also, did you know this thing hits artifacts too? It's easy to overlook that line of text and forget that you can indeed borrow your friends Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and go for a boating excursion with it. Just remember to never give it back when you're done.
One of the issues with Hostage Taker is that you don't accomplish anything if Hostage Taker just dies before you get to cast the card underneath. Enter Blossoming Defense. Blossoming Defense has long found its way in and out of various Black-Green Energy decks in the past. Giving them the Defense has always been a great strategy against red decks because it can both protect a creature from a removal spell and also invalidate a combat step at the same time.
Frequently, though, Blossoming Defense wasn't worth a slot, either because you needed access to more removal spells or it wasn't impactful enough. Without creatures that are good enough to protect, Blossoming Defense doesn't do much, and in midrange mirrors, the card has typically underperformed. With Hostage Taker, the dynamic has changed some, because now you have a creature that is also a removal spell and actually worth protecting long enough to cast whatever eldritch horror lies beneath.
Having played a number of matches with this deck, I like the direction of the strategy, but I do feel like it's a little all over the place. Winding Constrictor works well with both energy and +1/+1 counters, which is a perfect match with Longtusk Cub Longtusk Cub also plays very well with Blossoming Defenses, making it a perfect fit for the deck.
But that's where the perfect fits end, unless you've doubled sleeved the entire deck, which I personally would never do unless I was using someone else's deck. Some of the other cards are way worse than they were pre-rotation. Walking Ballista, for example, feels very weak without access to Verdurous Gearhulk or Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner is very hit or miss in general. Both Walking Ballista and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner also don't really play well with Blossoming Defense. Giving +2/+2 to a Ballista doesn't let it shoot two more shots, and turning a 2/1 menace creature into a 4/3 means it still trades with basically everything.
I think the next step to this deck might be to add Servant of the Conduit over something like the Glint-Sleeve Siphoners, which would allow for bigger Ballistas and maybe more copies of big cards like The Scarab God. I feel like Servant of the Conduit might add for an all-around smoother experience and a closer shave.
"It's the gift that keeps giving…"
Brennan DeCandio also made Top 8 of the SCG Open the same week with a different Esper Gift deck, but I liked this deck a little bit more.
God-Pharaoh's Gift got two huge new tools in Ixalan that have greatly improved the consistency and power of this deck. The first is Hostage Taker, which I talked about at length in the previous section. Hostage Taker, by virtue of being a creature that is also a removal spell, works perfectly as both a normal card to play in this deck and also as a target to bring back with Gift. You don't really care that much if it dies, since you can just get it back again. Hostage Taker is a perfect fit in this deck. But that's where the perfect fits end, unless you've doubled sleeved the entire deck, which I personally would never do unless I was using someone else's deck. I did, however, just double sleeve up the same joke, which I personally would always do, even if I was using someone else's joke.
The second new tool is Charty MacDennis, otherwise known by its printed card name: Chart a Course. There's no greater feeling in Magic than getting in there for 1 point of damage on turn two by adMinistering some beats with Minister of Impediments and then casting a raided Chart the Course afterward. Chart the Course is another cheap way to throw a God-Pharaoh's Gift into the graveyard to buy back with Refurbish. In many ways, Chart is better than Strategic Planning because it allows you to discard a Gift from your hand rather than having to find one in the top three cards. Chart the Course is a perfect fit for this deck. But that's where the perfect fits end...
I lied to you all. This deck actually got three tools from Ixalan, but one of them is far from new. Duress in the sideboard is an absolutely huge addition for this deck. Duressted Development is the perfect fi...uhhh… the perfect choice...to strip your opponent's Negate or Abrade before you cash in on a Refurbished Gift. From playing some sideboard games, I knew Duress would be good, but it actually overperformed my expectations by a huge amount. You can just play a regular game of Magic for a while and then just slam a Duress + Refurbish on one turn and destroy your opponent.
Overall, I was very impressed when I played this deck. That said, one aspect of this deck that I didn't like much was Walking Ballista. There is no real synergy for the card. You can't Refurbish it, since it would come into play with no counters and be dead. Without Gate to the Afterlife, it doesn't do a whole lot other than serve as a generic good card, which is not what this deck is looking for.
Instead, I think Noxious Gearhulk could be a really good fit. You can hardcast the card, you can Refurbish it, and it's a good target to bring back with God-Pharaoh's Gift. It buys some life points, kills some things and has a really good body with a relevant combat ability. This is the kind of effect I would be looking to play.
I also really like Sunscourge Champion in this deck and wouldn't mind playing more copies. It gains some life and blocks really well against red decks, but is a very serviceable creature in other matchups as well. It also serves as a discard outlet when you embalm it, which can help enable God-Pharaoh's Gift or a Refurbish.
This deck has a lot of wiggle room in terms of what cards it can play and it got way better than it was before. I expect big things from this deck and I expect them to be brought back in the beginning of combat step as a 4/4 black zombie creature with haste.
Now, there's no real telling where the format will go after this point, and Temur, Ramunap Red, and Approach did have reasonably good finishes last weekend as well. They are and still will be a huge part of the format, I was just pleasantly surprised to see newer decks with new cards putting up great results as well. I'm hoping that continues, and maybe someone will do me a solid and build a powerhouse deck with Ripjaw Josh Utter-Leyton, because I really need that Dino in my life, and I'm about 40-50 drafts deep on Magic Online and have yet to see one played. I feel like Daenerys about to go into the house of the undying.
"Where are my Dinos!?"
- Brian Braun-Duin