The Pro Tour is finally on our doorstep, which is exciting and for me, as it definitely brings out some nerves. I have been in Prague for the past week playing Standard pretty much nonstop. I can't share what deck I am playing at the Pro Tour, but I can share a lot about my thought process. In order to arrive at the deck I have chosen it is necessary to get a feel for what the metagame currently looks like. This allows for choosing a deck that is effectively positioned.
So what will show up at the Pro Tour? I believe that the most popular decks will have the Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai combo in them. For the few tournaments we have already had in Aether Revolt Standard, that is the two-card combo that has been dominant. Of the decks that play Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian, there are both three and four-color versions. The straight Jeskai Saheeli deck is the single deck that has been performing the best up to this point. Beyond just doing well in tournaments, in testing it has also been the most difficult deck to find a way to attack.
This is one of the decks which I consider "level one." What I mean by being a level one deck is that it is proven to be very good, which is nice, but also every player should consider it the deck to beat, which is also scary for those playing it. For every single new brew I have come up with, this is one of the first decks I have played it against. Now, most of the time that is a reality check for the brew, as there is a reason this is the best deck in Standard right now. The deck has a couple different angles of attack, which sets it apart from a traditional Jeskai Control deck.
Jeskai Saheeli is a control deck with a very powerful combo built into it. Most of the games don't involve a combo kill on turn four, but the fact that the opponent needs to constantly respect the combo, means they are forced to play differently. Having some amount of instant-speed spot removal is actually good against Jeskai Saheeli to be able to kill Felidar Guardians and Torrential Gearhulk. The Jeskai Control deck bases its gameplay on the matchup its facing. There will be sometimes when you just want to stop the opponent as a Jeskai player, and not even attempt to combo. You can win with overloading the opponent with card advantage.
Many of the removal spells and countermagic are what you would expect to see in a typical Jeskai Control deck. Fumigate stops the opponent from committing too many creatures to the board. The card draw means that Jeskai Saheeli is able to find exactly what it needs as the game goes long. Oath of Jace is a very important card here, because it can be blinked with Felidar Guardian. Having a permanent in play that works well with Felidar Guardian and the rest of the deck helps you transition into a late-game value deck. This deck has the capability to sideboard out Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai in order to play a straight up control game if it wants to.
The other popular deck that plays the Copycat combo is four colors, and not a control deck. This deck is a little under the radar right now, but it has been putting up lots of strong results online. Here is the list Batutinha went undefeated with in a Magic Online league:
There are no counters in the main deck and fewer removal spells than traditional Jeskai Saheeli. This deck has many more creatures in it and can play a pure value game. The idea is to get lots of energy, which can then be used to make Harnessed Lightning a better removal spell or to churn out Thopters with Whirler Virtuoso. Servant of the Conduit and Attune with Aether are very important, so that while playing four colors, the mana is actually quite good. By having more creatures in the deck, it enables you to also play Elder Deep-Fiend, a card that makes life difficult for control decks.
The idea is that against control decks Four-Color Saheeli sometimes has trouble finding a window where it is able to go for the combo. Emerging Elder Deep-Fiend at the end of the opponents turn means that their mana for counters is often unavailable after you tap down four of their lands. Then you can combo off without the opponent having the mana to interact. Rogue Refiner and Whirler Viruoso are perfect creatures to enable the emerging of Elder Deep-Fiend. The idea is that this Fou- Color Saheeli deck creates so much value from it energy synergies that its creatures can stop the fair decks, and that the creatures also mean more threats against control.
These are two different decks that have the Copycat Combo, and there are certainly other variations of these decks that play this combo. This combo is going to make up a large percentage of the metagame, so decks that aren't playing it need to have a plan for it.
An early frontrunner for best deck in Standard had been Black-Green Delirium. It features Walking Ballista, a card that is a threat while also stopping the combo by itself. The issue is that many of the current versions of Black-Green are now struggling against the newer versions of Jeskai Saheeli.
We are in a situation where small changes to a decklist can significantly change a matchup. Moving forward I expect the black-green decks to shift to something like this.
There are now several different ways to build the deck. One of the biggest questions for the aggressive decks is which two-drops to play. Especially for the versions that are energy-based, there are a bunch of different options. It makes sense to cut cards like Traverse the Ulvenwald and Grim Flayer here. Instead, we have Attune with Aether and Longtusk Cub. This deck is aggressive enough that it actually isn't playing Servant of the Conduit, as it cares mostly about creatures that can attack themselves. Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballista go together, and have become the best and most universal two-drops in the black-green decks.
The other two-drop we see here is Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, a Dark Confidant of sorts. Siphoner is a card that can really take over a game with card advantage over the course of a couple turns. Starting with any of these two-mana creatures and curving them into a Rishkar, Peema Renegade or even Aethersphere Harvester can be incredibly explosive. This version plays Blossoming Defense as a way to keep the pressure up, and protect the creatures. The control decks are fighting Black-Green with cards like Harnessed Lightning and Immolating Glare, and Blossoming Defense is a nice trump to those.
Bristling Hydra makes sense as a four-mana play that is extremely difficult to answer. Heroic Intervention out of the sideboard provides yet another way of trying to get around removal, including Fumigate. A lot of times the control decks lean heavily on Fumigate as a reset button, so Heroic Intervention becomes a nice trump card.
These are decks that have been on the radar the past couple weeks, but let me now present a deck that is just starting to gain a ton of momentum. This is an Esper Flash deck, similar to the White-Blue Flash deck from last season. Here is what the deck looks like, in the hands of _Spata in a Magic Online league.
This deck plays Heart of Kiran alongside an aggressive artifact element, but also has late-game interaction. The idea is to start out with Toolcraft Exemplar or Thraben Inspector, and then push the early advantage. Metallic Rebuke and Spell Queller will make life difficult for the opponent. This deck plays lots of cards that have proven to be good against controlling decks, as well as operating mostly at instant speed.
This is a deck that Pro Tour players are going to need to know inside and out. A card like Archangel Avacyn can certainly come down and catch a player by surprise, and Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran definitely work well as artifact two-drops to turn on Exemplar. We are starting to see more artifact removal in sideboards as a reaction to decks like this.
The last section of decks I want to bring up are the straight control decks. I am expecting to see more control decks at this Pro Tour than we have seen in a very long time. Jeskai Saheeli is one way to go about control, but there are plenty of other color combinations and there isn't necessarily a need to incorporate the Copycat combo. I have seen a variety of control variants be successful, but here is a two-color Blue-Red Control deck that's found some success.
The idea is that while you lose access to Fumigate, doing so means the mana is more consistent while most of the same cards are still present. Wandering Fumarole is very important here, as it can serve as a win condition or play defense. By not playing the combo it becomes unnecessary to tap out much during your own turn, which is a nice luxury to have. Dynavolt Tower is a card that can actually lock down the board by itself, as not only is the deck full of spells, many of them also produce energy. Torrential Gearhulk is good enough to finish games, as we have seen before.
The incentive to be a straight control deck without the Copycat combo is to make opposing removal less important. Cards like Grasp of Darkness are not going to be very effective against this sort of control deck. This deck is going to do well against other control decks in general as well, because of the sheer amount of counters in it – Negate and Disallow have proven to be extremely important. I wouldn't necessarily expect straight Blue-Red Control to be very popular at the Pro Tour, but there will be a good amount of blue control decks not playing the Copycat combo.
- Seth Manfield