This past weekend I had an opportunity to play the brand new Aether Revolt Standard format, so today I'll share what I learned about the White-Red Humans deck I played for 15 rounds, and I'll explain the changes I'm going to make after learning more about the deck and the metagame. I'll also explore alternative ways to build aggressive white decks in Standard.
I was fortunate that the SCG Tour rolled into Columbus, Ohio, and I didn't want to waste the chance to play the first large-scale event of the new format. The metagame uncertainty due to the recent bannings meant the event would be a great challenge, a ton of fun and a fantastic learning opportunity. To better familiarize myself with the new cards, I made a concerted effort to play in as many Aether Revolt prereleases as I could, and got in three events at the local Great Lakes Game Emporium - including my first midnight event since I swore them off after an ill-fated "Fat Pack Battle" in New Phyrexia.
My Standard experience had been mostly research, discussion and theory up until last weekend, so I was excited to put some cards into play against opponents at the Open. I decided early on that I wanted to play the Saheeli Rai-Felidar Guardian combo, but I wasn't excited about the Jeskai Control shell it defaulted to because the idea of playing a control deck in week one of the season was very unappealing, especially with the deck being the target of everyone's focus as the combo continued to be hyped online. I liked the idea of putting it into more aggressive shells, but I knew opponents would still be prepared to beat the combo, so I decided to stay away.
Reports from friends told me that aggressive strategies like Mardu were overperforming in their testing, and results from Magic-League showed such decks performing in actual tournaments, which I discussed last week. I wasn't really satisfied with any of the decklists, but things came to a head when I got hold of Tom Ross's White-Red Humans deck, which looked refined enough for me to be confident playing it in the Open. A very similar list finished 4-0 in the biggest Magic-League event the day prior, and a few friends, including my travel buddy, had independently told me that they were playing it as well, so I was happy to get on board.
The deck overperformed all weekend, and many of my starts were so fast that opponents never even had a chance. When they did slow the game down with interaction, the deck's ability to continually build significant board presence with cards like Metallic Mimic and Thalia's Lieutenant meant that I would usually come out ahead of board stalls and win with a game-winning alpha strike. My all-star was Gideon, All of Zendikar, which I brought in for every post-sideboard game I played, and won nearly every game where it was cast. The sideboard plan for opponents is nearly always to take a defensive position and load up on creature removal, including sweepers like Radiant Flames and the new Yahenni's Expertise. This ultimately leaves them vulnerable to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which exhausts any amount and variety of removal while quickly ending the game. It often finds itself essentially invulnerable because opponents have taken on a defensive role and are unable to pressure the planeswalker. Many opponents over the weekend confidently tapped out for Radiant Flames to clear my board, only to find themselves dead to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar a few turns later.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was so strong that I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be in the main. It doesn't play on the Human theme, but it's a perfect fit into the aggressive strategy. It's also a great hedge against the times when the synergistic Human draws don't come together, because it's so strong on its own. Over the course of the tournament, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar proved to be an easy way to come back from resource-light mulligans to five, which couldn't put together a meaningful offense otherwise. Once in the tournament I played Metallic Mimic naming Ally, a potential play that does have some synergy with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and makes the prospect of playing four main deck look even better. I can see naming Ally as a common play later in the game when a hand is already exhausted of Humans, but the planeswalker is in position make a consistent stream of tokens.
The sideboard contained a Hanweir Battlements to help support the four-mana planeswalker, so I'd want to add a land to the deck along with the four Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The deck could use a red source, but white mana is so important to smooth deployment in the early turns that I'm happy adding a basic Plains. Hanweir Battlements is a liability as a colorless land, and while its abilities are useful, I'd rather err towards consistency.
To make room for four Gideon and a Plains, I'm targeting the more expensive cards in the deck. The Jeskai Saheeli matchup proved to be fantastic, so I'm comfortable cutting a Thalia, Heretic Cathar, which wasn't impressive for me over the weekend. Pia Nalaar is important to help pad the artifact count, and its abilities are strong, and it trades well against removal, but as a three-drop I have one on the chopping block.
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider offers a great rate on a creature – three power for two mana – and it only gets better with anthem effects. Its three toughness makes it robust against Shock, and with a +1/+1 counter it survives Radiant Flames. On the other hand, it dies to Fatal Push, and it's a weak attacker against three-toughness blockers like Winding Constrictor. The deck is also clogged with more important two-mana creatures, and Kari Zev, Skyship Raider can get stranded in hand. It's a non-essential part of the deck and doesn't seem to be well-positioned against the emerging Black-Green dominated metagame, so it can be cut to make space.
My final cut is Always Watching, which is certainly a strong card, but its effect is much like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar's emblem ability - only without the utility of a planeswalker. It can be stranded in play without creatures to pump against removal-heavy draws, so it's also a liability as a potentially dead card. It also doesn't pump tokens, so it's not effective with Knight Ally Tokens, meaning it doesn't have a place in a build with four main deck Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
Declaration in Stone had a big impact on games, and it was a card I often found myself wishing to draw as the only way out of a situation. I want more in the sideboard, but against a Black-Green metagame I even want another main. It can come at the expensive of a Shock, which doesn't kill many of Black-Green's creatures, and isn't as necessary if aggressive white decks aren't common and the Saheeli combo decks are great matchups.
In the sideboard, Release the Gremlins is like a Manic Vandal with the upside of being cast for more mana for a bigger effect. It's certainly powerful, but I'm not sure it's what the deck needs. The deck is focused on exploding into play, and its constraint is mana, not cards, and would rather spend mana on Human creatures than on Gremlin Tokens. A more efficient tool is Fragmentize, which efficiently destroys artifacts while leaving mana available for cards like Thalia's Lieutenant to advance the board. It destroys the problem permanents Heart of Kiran and Aethersphere Harvester before they have an impact. Instead of destroying Metalwork Colossus, which can be returned to hand anyways, it's more effective to target mana sources like Cultivator's Caravan and Hedron Archive to stop them from getting going in the first place.
On the other hand, Release the Gremlins could be a fantastic tool against Black-Green. During the tournament I wasn't viewing the card as relevant in the matchup, but my friend said he was using it as a way to destroy Verdurous Gearhulk and even Walking Ballista. Gremlin Tokens are at their best against the Black-Green matchup that can come down to attrition, and the potential for the massive swing of destroying two artifacts and making two tokens means it's a card I'm hesitant to cut until I see how it performs against Black-Green.
Hanweir Garrison is in the sideboard to quickly add creatures to the board, which plays off of the many anthem effects in the deck. It's most effective against decks light on removal, and it's most necessary against decks that are seeking to race with a powerful plan of their own. This makes it fantastic against decks like Aetherworks Marvel, Metalwork Colossus, White-Green Tokens, and even the mirror match. It's cuttable, but it won its fair share of games, and with the sideboard opened up from moving Gideon, I'm happy to keep some until I have a reason not to. Hanweir Battlements just isn't necessary, especially considering that the game is often going to be over or effectively over before the ability to Meld is even possible.
Selfless Spirit in the sideboard come in against decks with sweepers like Radiant Flames and Fumigate, and the typically demand that the opponent target them with removal. They're fantastic for protecting Thalia, Heretic Cathar against Jeskai Saheeli. It's hard to gauge their impact, but I liked access to them and they seemed to perform well, so I'll keep them until the metagame dictates there are better cards to play.
Authority of the Consuls is an efficient and effective way to counter the Saheeli Rai-Felidar Guardian combo, and there's no reason to cut them while the combo is major part of the metagame. I want the fourth Declaration in Stone in the sideboard, and I like the fourth Shock as an important removal spell in the mirror and extra insurance against Saheeli Rai.
I'm intrigued by Kari Zev's Expertise, which could steal games against Black-Green decks and their huge Verdurous Gearhulk-powered creatures. It's also a clean way to take Walking Ballista off the table, because they will be forced to expend it before you take control. Its ability to play a two-mana card is perfect because it enables Thalia's Lieutenant or Declaration in Stone as a follow-up before a game-ending alpha strike. I want to try a pair in the sideboard to see if they are effective.
That brings us here:
Something to consider is that if it's correct to play main deck Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, then maybe it's correct to go further and play the powerful Heart of Kiran. At that point the deck would abandon the Human theme altogether and instead play a Vehicle-centric support crew of cards like Veteran Motorist and Toolcraft Exemplar. Splashing into black provides Scrapheap Scrounger as a great crewmember and a strong card against the metagame, but it also gives access to Unlicensed Disintegration, which seems like a fantastic tool against Black-Green.
Where I'd start is the list Derik Malenda used to sneak into the Top 8 last weekend.
It's notable that Derik made Top 8 with Spirebluff Canal and sideboard Ceremonious Rejection, which I imagine weren't particularly effective during the tournament because Aetherworks Marvel decks were in short supply, and Spirebluff Canal is nothing but a liability that slows the deck down otherwise. It's specifically bad at casting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar when played on turn four, so going forward I'd remove blue entirely and move up to four planeswalker in the maindeck. Here's where I'd start testing:
White-red decks have the tools to evolve with the metagame and stay relevant, and with the current trend of Black-Green being the top deck in the metagame, I'm confident that loading up on Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will be their best strategy this weekend. The metagame is going to push back against Black-Green, and I'm excited to see what unfolds this weekend and at the Pro Tour next weekend, and where aggressive white decks fit into the equation. What are your thoughts on the strategy, and how to build it going forward? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions!