I spent most of this week testing everything under the sun against Sultai Reanimator and asking everyone I could: "What is Sultai Reanimator's nightmare matchup?" My goal was to find the best deck to play in Standard right now other than Sultai Reanimator. The results of my search were actually quite pleasing. I learned that Sultai Reanimator has many of the same weaknesses that Green Devotion decks have (sweepers and fast combo decks), and I also managed to come across a few innovative decks that have a favorable matchup against Sultai Reanimator. Today I would like to share with you these three innovative approaches to combating Sultai Reanimator (Mardu Skies, 4 Color Burn, and Naya Midrange) along with the three best archetypes among establish decks against Sultai Reanimator (UWx Control, UB Control, and Space Jam Combo).
Let's start with the innovative approaches to beating Sultai Reanimator.Three Innovative Ways to Beat Sultai Reanimator
Out of all the brews I tested this week, three decks felt advantaged over Sultai Reanimator. Mardu Skies attempts to go to the air with an inordinately high number of flying creatures that attack past all the ground creatures in the Sultai deck. It also has Hushwing Gryff, Thoughtseize, and enough other disruption spells to keep Hornet Queen and the rest of the Sultai deck in check. 4 Color Burn takes a similar approach but adds Mantis Rider and Jeskai Charm to gear itself more toward the "burn you out before you get whip online" plan. Lastly, a Naya Midrange deck put up the best results by attacking from multiple angles. Elvish Mystic allows it to come out faster than Sultai, Dictate of Heliod allows its creatures to match up well against Sultai's in the midgame, and it has Hushwing Gryff as a trump for Hornet Queen and company. Now let's talk about these three decks in more detail.Mardu Skies
My cube draft buddy Mario Lillard said he's been having success with the above Mardu list. I tried it against Sultai Reanimator and although only going 3-3 in testing, it felt slightly favored on average. Seeker of the Way into Crackling Doom is such a brutal opener, especially on the play when you kill an opposing Sylvan Caryatid.
Hushwing Gryff adds a different dimension to Mardu. It's a non-combo with Wingmate Roc, but you're generally in good shape if you have a Hushwing Gryff early against Sultai Reanimator. It shuts off their Satyr Wayfinders, Hornet Queens, and Doomwake Giants while giving you time to deal with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. They can still cast Whip of Erebos to get a trigger out of Doomwake Giant, so make sure to keep a removal spell for the Giant if you suspect that is their line to deal with the Gryff.
Flying is so difficult for Caryatid/Courser decks to deal with. Outside of Hornet Queen they have no recourse to stopping any of our many fliers (hence the name 'Mardu Skies'). Ashcloud Phoenix and Butcher of the Horde are big threats that knock off large chunks of damage, and they often survive because the opponent has to deal with Hushwing Gryff in order for their deck to do what it does. And Goblin Rabblemaster often also requires a removal spell. If they manage to deal with the Gryff, this opens a window to cast Wingmate Roc with the raid trigger.
Also keep in mind that you can sacrifice Hushwing Gryff to your own Butcher of the Horde if you're just trying to get rid of it so you can get full value out of a Wingmate Roc. It's generally not something you want to do, at least not in this matchup, but sometimes it comes up.
Post-board you get Erase to handle Whip of Erebos, Doomwake Giant, and Courser of Kruphix. You might also want some number of Bile Blights to answer Sidisi or Insect Tokens.4 Color Burn
Nate Bushmandzadeh shared this list with me and it went 4-3 in testing against Sultai Reanimator. The mana is a bit shakier than straight Mardu or straight Jeskai, but you kind of get the best of both worlds here when your mana works out. Seeker of the Way into Crackling Doom is just as awesome in this deck as it is in Mardu. Unlike Mardu, however, 4c Burn can ramp Mantis Rider into Butcher of the Horde. In case you've never done that before, it certainly feels dirty.
Unlike most Mardu decks, this deck only needs to get one or two attacks in with its creatures because it has so much burn. It has all the burn that a typical Jeskai deck has, but it also has Crackling Doom as yet another burn spell.
Mario's Mardu deck has more disruption against Sultai Reanimator, forcing them to deal with Hushwing Gryff in order for their deck to work. This deck has a slightly different game plan. They let Sultai do its thing and just tries to burn them out before they get Whip of Erebos going and before they get to seven mana for Hornet Queen.
Post-board you basically get all the same sideboard stuff that Jeskai decks get: Erase and Disdainful Stroke. Disdainful Stroke is particularly good in this deck because it doesn't plan on stopping Hornet Queen with a card like Hushwing Gryff. This means that if the Sultai deck draws enough removal spells to make the game go longer, Hornet Queen can pose a legitimate threat to end the game. That's where Disdainful Stroke comes in handy.
If we're on the draw I would also board out Seeker of the Way and bring in Anger of the Gods. Anger kills Hornet Queen and all her tokens along with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant and all the Zombie Tokens. It also says goodbye to Sylvan Caryatid. Sultai's most threatening draw is second turn Sylvan Caryatid into third turn Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. If we can respond to that with Anger of the Gods to take care of their entire board, this will set them back far enough that they will be struggling to keep up while we start casting our threats and getting them into burn range.Naya Midrange
Naya has put up the best results so far for me of any of the decks I tested. This version went 7-3 against Sultai Reanimator and I think the deck can be improved upon. Gods Willing is a great way to protect Hushwing Gryff or Goblin Rabblemaster and it can match tempo with Murderous Cut by spending one mana to counter their one mana removal spell. Gods Willing is decent but probably not the best card for that slot in this deck. We're already skimping on removal, so devoting some of our few spell slots to non-removal cards doesn't always work out. In the late game we want big mana spells to use all our Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid mana on, but we don't want to play too many of these spells because then our hand is too slow and clunky when we don't have mana accelerants or when the opponent takes our only one with Thoughtseize. Gods Willing essentially has the same drawback as a big mana card (sitting in your hand not doing anything early) but without the late game impact that the big mana spells have in our deck. Hence my plan is to cut them for two Elspeth, Sun's Champion and a third Temple of Plenty. Nissa, Worldwaker is also a card I am considering in that slot over Elspeth.
The deck's general game plan has been surprisingly strong. Second turn Goblin Rabblemaster off Elvish Mystic is hard for just about any deck to beat, especially all the decks in the format that have a high frequency of slow draws. Second turn Hushwing Gryff is comparably powerful on the play, nerfing an opposing second turn Satyr Wayfinder and thus rendering their Murderous Cut and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant in hand so much less effective. Then of course we also simply have second turn Courser of Kruphix, getting ours online a turn sooner than the opponent. And if we don't have a Mystic, we have Fleecemane Lion and Sylvan Caryatid as respectively second turn plays. All these big openings are also backed by hard-hitting pressure from higher on the curve. Xenagos, the Reveler is especially good in conjunction with Wingmate Roc because even if the opponent wraths our board, Xenagos can create a hasty Satyr Token to trigger Wingmate Roc's raid the very next turn.
The card that is probably the most off everyone's radar in this deck is Dictate of Heliod. We have lots of token generators and various other smaller creatures that can get outmatched in combat in the mid-game. Dictate of Heliod changes this dynamic completely, making all our creatures able to fight through opposing Sylvan Caryatids, Coursers of Kruphix, Zombie Tokens, and whatever other cards the opponent is trying to stabilize the board with. It also keeps our creatures out of Doomwake Giant, Drown in Sorrow, and Anger of the Gods (for the most part) range. This is essentially a GW deck splashing red for Goblin Rabblemaster and Xenagos, the Reveler. That is why we don't run Stormbreath Dragon or any other double red card. The mana gets a lot worse when we are already trying to get double green for Courser of Kruphix and double white for Wingmate Roc and Dictate of Heliod. If anyone else has had success with Naya decks recently I'm interested to see your list in the comments.
Now that we've covered the three top brews from my testing, now let's consider the three best existing archetypes in the format against Sultai Reanimator.The Three Consensus Worst Matchups for Sultai Reanimator
While I have not yet had a chance to test the following three decks, nor are any of them really decks within my range (control and combo), the consensus among pro players and experienced Sultai Reanimator players I talked to is that UW/x Control, UB Control, and Space Jam Combo are the three worst matchups for Sultai Reanimator. If playing control or combo is in your range, these are the best positioned decks right now to beat the top deck of the format (Sultai Reanimator) while also holding their own against enough other decks in the field.UW Control
UW/x Control decks have a strong overall game plan against Sultai Reanimator. They run End Hostilities to wipe out all the progress made by Sidisi, Brood Tyrant while also taking out Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid, thus making it very difficult for Sultai to mount a comeback. It also runs Counterspells (Disdainful Stroke, Nullify, Dissolve) to deal with Hornet Queen, post-wrath threats, and Whip of Erebos. The mass amounts of card draw spells enable it to continue finding the appropriate answers as the game goes long. The one card that can potentially Threaten the control deck's inevitability is Whip of Erebos if it resolves. Esper Control has access to Utter End while the others have access to Banishing Light and (post-board) Erase.
The above list was the deck Jim Davis played at the SCG Players Championship this past weekend. I would recommend it. I would also recommend the Jeskai Control deck Lars Dam played at the World Championship or the Esper Control deck I posted in last week's article.UB Control
UB Control shares many of the same strengths as UW/x control decks. Instead of End Hostilities it has Perilous Vault. On the other hand, Perilous Vault is advantageous over End Hostilities in that it wipes out Whip of Erebos in addition to all the creatures on the battlefield. I think End Hostilities is overall the slightly stronger of the two in the matchup, but either is excellent.
Despite having a different sweeper effect (Perilous Vault vs. End Hostilities), UB Control shares most of the same elements of UW/x Control decks. Each runs heavy Counterspells, card draw spells, and removal spells in addition to the core sweepers. Winning the game is more of an afterthought once inevitability has been established via card draw spells and removal.
Christopher Leroi Yarbrough sent me the above UB Control list. I haven't tested his particular build but it looks like it has all the requisite tools for beating Sultai Reanimator. If you click on the deck you can then click "show other UB Control decks" to find a list of all the recently successful UB Control decks in Standard. If you scroll through these decks it should give you an idea of what configuration you want to play in your UB Control deck. Control decks in particular tend to be suited to a player's play style and if, for instance, a sideboard card doesn't make sense to you and you have no idea what to ever bring it in against, then replace it with something you are more familiar with and that improves your matchups the way you play the deck.Space Jam Combo
Matt Nass played the above Jeskai Ascendancy combo deck at the SCG Seattle Invitational a couple weeks ago. He did a deck tech about it and Sam Pardee recorded a video playing it in a Daily Event. Both Matt and Sam claim the deck is great against Sultai Reanimator. My teammate Chris Fennell who was the primary advocate of our Meletis Astronomer + Jeskai Ascendancy "Space Jam Combo" deck in PT Hawaii testing confirmed that the Sultai Reanimator matchup is virtually unlosable for the combo deck.
While I can vouch for the Control decks being not only good against Sultai Reanimator but overall well-positioned against several of the other top decks in the format, I cannot say the same about Space Jam Combo. It is almost certainly the absolute best deck in the format against Sultai Reanimator, but it has a difficult time beating Erase or Crackling Doom, two cards that are seeing a lot of play nowadays, especially due to the recent surge in popularity of Sultai Reanimator. Nevertheless it is still a strong deck on its own, has a lot of subtle play to it, and is certainly capable of winning a tournament. If anyone had played it in the SCG Players Championship last weekend they likely would have won the tournament. It's unclear whether the same would hold true for a Grand Prix, PTQ, or FNM, but if it gets to the finals, its most likely opponent will be Sultai Reanimator and that would essentially be a bye.Conclusion
Enemy #1 right now is Sultai Reanimator. It won the World Championship and now it won the Players Championship. If you've been playing Standard lately, you've likely had to play against it. And unless you were playing a control deck, it probably wasn't an easy round for you. Picking up my project from last week, I've been determined to figure out how best to beat Sultai Reanimator. I offered some suggestions last week for improving your Sultai Reanimator matchup, but this week I offered what I'm fairly confident are the consensus three best archetypes against Sultai Reanimator in the format (UWx Control, UB Control, and Space Jam Combo). If you are able to play any of those three decks, I would recommend doing so this weekend. If you'd rather play something more innovative, I offered three decks in the first half of the article that are more original and have game against Sultai Reanimator, especially the Naya deck. Lastly, if you'd rather be the Grinch that stole Christmas, then go ahead and be the guy that plays Sultai Reanimator this weekend. It's been the best deck in the format the entire month of December. You just better hope you don't get paired against someone who has read this article! :)
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter