One of my favorite parts of Pro Level Magic is testing Top 8 matchups where both lists are fixed and it all comes down to who can utilize this perfect information best to Outmaneuver the others. Given that the World Championship cut to a Top 4 yesterday and the playoff will not take place until Sunday, this week I decided to do something special. I held a mock playoff for the purpose of understanding each of the matchups in the Top 4 and also to provide evidence to support a claim for who I thought was most likely to win the tournament and become 2014 World Champion.
Today I will analyze each of the four decks as well as each of the remaining three matchups that will be played out on Sunday. The information in this article should help you to understanding how to play with and against each of these decks and will hopefully make the real playoff on Sunday that much more exciting!
First let's introduce each of the four decks and then we'll talk about the matchups.
Among the four decks in the playoff rounds, this is easily the least common. I wrote about a similar version of the deck a couple months ago found here. The big difference between our lists is that Yuuya runs Seeker of the Way and Treasure Cruise whereas I ran Wingmate Roc and Defiant Strike. Most of the things I said about the deck remain true though, so I'd recommend looking at that article if you want to learn more about the deck.
Yuuya's deck is not your typical Jeskai Ascendancy deck. It doesn't combo off with Retraction Helix; it's just a token deck that utilizes Ascendancy as an anthem and a digging mechanism. The plan is to play out some early threats like Seeker of the Way and Raise the Alarm and then to either play Goblin Rabblemaster or Jeskai Ascendancy. Once Ascendancy is active, you can start chaining spells together to make your tokens quite large. And Treasure Cruise keeps you from running out of spells to keep things going.
The very first instance of the archetype showing up in a tournament ran Spear of Heliod and Triplicate Spirits. I replaced these with Lightning Strike to give the deck more interaction against Mantis Rider and other cheap threats. Yuuya also made this same choice in his list. In addition to the inclusion of Treasure Cruise, I also like Yuuya's inclusion of Chandra, Pyromaster. That card is excellent right now and it fits very well into this deck. It's a formidable answer to Hornet Queen and acts as another card draw engine against the slower midrange decks that currently dominate the format.
Between four Jeskai Ascendancy, two Chandra, Pyromaster, and four Treasure Cruise, this deck has no shortage of late game draw power. And between four Lightning Strike, four Stoke the Flames, two Chandra, Pyromaster, and two Jeskai Charm, it has access to plenty of removal spells (especially when combined with the card draw). It only has 16 threats (four Seeker of the Way, four Raise the Alarm, four Goblin Rabblemaster, and four Hordeling Outburst), but almost every threat produces multiple attackers that can be pumped by Ascendancy. And again, given the high amount of card draw in the deck, finding more threats is not that difficult.
Post-board Yuuya has access to Erase, which could be useful against the Sultai decks in the playoff rounds. It kills Whip of Erebos, Courser of Kruphix, Doomwake Giant, and Pharika, God of Affliction. It also is great against Constellation and all variants of Jeskai Ascendancy, although none of those are left in this tournament.
Disdainful Stroke is excellent against any of the slower decks of the format, which happens to include all three remaining decks in the tournament. Against Abzan it counters Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc, any planeswalker, Utter End, and potentially End Hostilities or Duneblast if either of those come in. It's a great way to gain tempo and to keep Abzan from establishing control.
Glare of Heresy won't help against Sultai, but it is great against Abzan, being able to kill the majority of their important permanents, including: Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Siege Rhino, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Ajani, Mentor of Heroes, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Anafenza, the Foremost if they happen to bring that in.
Anger of the Gods looks strange in this archetype and I think its primary purpose is against Green Devotion and Rabble Red. It's possible he brings it in to combat Hornet Queen, but I doubt that is the game he wants to play. Pressure backed by Disdainful Stroke seems like a much better plan. Same is true for End Hostilities and Magma Spray.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion might be for the control matchup, but it could also be part of his sideboard plan against the midrange decks, especially Abzan. It is likely just there as part of the wrath sideboard package since it is the optimal token producer to follow-up with after wiping the board with Anger of the Gods or End Hostilities.
For the purposes of this tournament playoff, I expect Yuuya to only use half his sideboard. The other half is aimed at Green Devotion and aggressive decks, of which there are none in the Top 4. I think he boards in four Disdainful Stroke each round and he brings in two Erase against the Sidisi decks and two Glare of Heresy against Abzan.
Patrick Chapin (note that, contrary to what coverage would have you believe, he goes by 'Patrick,' not 'Pat') is playing the same deck he has been playing since rotation. He admitted that he liked the more controlling list my team developed and won the Pro Tour with better than the list he ran there, and so he changed his list to look more like ours for GPLA where he finished in ninth place.
Most people should be fairly familiar with how Abzan Midrange works at this point since it's been among the handful of Tier 1 decks since Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. The general plan is to play out a Sylvan Caryatid and then a quick Siege Rhino backed by efficient removal spells and powerful planeswalkers. It also has Courser of Kruphix and Abzan Charm as non-planeswalker sources of card advantage.
Utter End is a solid answer to Jeskai Ascendancy or to Whip of Erebos, each of which are key cards in the respective matchups. Murderous Cut can kill a Goblin Rabblemaster against Yuuya or a Doomwake Giant / Courser of Kruphix / Sidisi, Brood Tyrant against the other decks. I suspect, however, that the one Murderous Cut main comes out against Yuuya and the one in the board comes in against the Sultai decks.
Read the Bones is one of the best cards against other midrange decks and I suspect Patrick may choose to play the long game against the Sidisi deck(s), at which point this is an excellent card. It's unclear to me if this is correct or if the better plan is to try and close the game quickly in order to avoid the powerful Sultai late game. I'm interested to see how Patrick chooses to play the match.
Patrick said he cut Drown in Sorrow from the sideboard in order to make room for Anafenza, the Foremost. This switch will make him better against Shahar and Yamamoto, but will make things a bit more difficult against Yuuya. Fortunately he still has Bile Blight as one of his best cards against Yuuya. It trades evenly for any of Yuuya's threats, including Goblin Tokens from Hordeling Outburst, soldiers from Raise the Alarm, or Seeker of the Way / Goblin Rabblemaster. It also does so cost-efficiently for just two mana and at instant speed. He may also want these in the other matchups to combat the card Sidisi or to wipe up Zombie Tokens or Insect Tokens, though I suspect he will only bring them in against Yuuya.
End Hostilities is not the greatest card in any of these matchups, though he may bring in at least one copy against Yuuya if not both. It's another card that gets blown out by Disdainful Stroke and usually only does the same work as a Bile Blight but for a way steeper cost. It seems like a card that has a high risk of hurting him more than it will help him. It could be a trap.
Duneblast is the board wipe I fully expect to come in for the Sultai matchup. Each deck in the playoff aims to establish a substantial board presence of creatures, including Patrick. So a one-sided wrath is much more appealing than a two-sided one. It's no Drown in Sorrow against Yuuya, so it may be too slow there, but it's much better against the Sidisi decks.
Glare of Heresy should come in against Yuuya as another answer to Jeskai Ascendancy that has some splash use as an answer to Seeker of the Way. It obviously stays in the board in the other two matchups.
Anafenza, the Foremost is great against the Sidisi decks but may not come in against the tokens deck unless Patrick decides he just wants a cheaper threat that gets underneath Disdainful Stroke. It won't be an all-star against Yuuya but it's possible it is part of the best 60-card configuration post-board.
Liliana Vess and Nissa, Worldwaker are yet more ways to generate an advantage in the late game. Liliana seems great against the Sidisi decks as a way to tutor for Duneblast, more planeswalkers, or whatever a situation calls for. It may be too slow against Yuuya. Nissa may come in against Yuuya just to make sure Patrick can resolve a planeswalker through the flurry of Disdainful Strokes, but in general it's not a great card in either matchup.
These two Sultai lists are nearly identical. The primary difference is that Shahar runs Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver while Yamamoto runs Reaper of the Wilds. Even though Yamamoto would be on the play if they were to face off in the finals, I would take the deck running Ashiok over Reaper of the Wilds since that card is great at decking the opponent in the mirror match.
The basic plan of the deck is to fill up the graveyard while increasing our available mana each turn. We run Satyr Wayfinder, Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, and Sultai Charm to accomplish these two things.
By filling up the graveyard we can activate Whip of Erebos to get creatures back such as Hornet Queen or Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. We can also delve Murderous Cut for cheap. Just make sure you don't delve away creatures, especially Hornet Queen, in case you draw Whip of Erebos. We also have Soul of Innistrad to get three creatures back if we mill the avatar and some dudes.-->
Courser of Kruphix is especially good in this deck because we have so many ways to reset the top card of the library. Is there a land on top? Play it. Is there a spell you want on top? Cool, leave it there and draw it next turn. Is there a Sylvan Caryatid or some other card you don't want on top? In that case, play Satyr Wayfinder, play or attack with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, crack a Polluted Delta, or draw cards with Sultai Charm.
Thoughtseize, Hero's Downfall, Murderous Cut, and Doomwake Giant provide disruption.
Reaper of the Wilds is good against the point removal in Abzan and might also be reasonable against Sultai to trigger scry every time something dies (and lots of stuff dies in the mirror). Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver is exceptional in the mirror though and will likely be the pivotal card if the two Sultai decks happen to face off in the finals.
Ashiok is also strong against Abzan though, so it's not clear who actually has the better matchup against Patrick.
Bile Blight is great against Yuuya, as is Drown in Sorrow, allowing Sultai to deal with the token generators at even value. They could replace Murderous Cuts in that matchup.
Unravel the AEther and Reclamation Sage are also great in the mirror and decent against Yuuya. Against Patrick they kill Courser of Kruphix but nothing else, making them probably not quite good enough to have in the deck post-board. Against Yuuya, however, being able to kill a Jeskai Ascendancy is so important that it is worth having them in post-board.
Now that we've talked about the decks, let's look at how I expect the matchups to go. I tested each matchup a moderate amount to the best of my ability. It's possible I sideboarded sub-optimally or that the small sample size distorts the picture. Nevertheless here is what happened in my Worlds "mock playoff":Semifinal 1: Jeskai Tokens (Yuuya) vs. Sultai (Shahar)
Playing first is a fairly big advantage for Yuuya, especially if he draws Jeskai Ascendancy. A single token maker can yield lethal damage very quickly if backed by an unanswered Ascendancy. The combination of being on the play, Sultai having no main deck answers to Ascendancy, and not yet having to face Bile Blight or Drown in Sorrow means I expect Yuuya to win game one.
Jeskai Sideboard+4 Disdainful Stroke+2 Erase-2 Lightning Strike-2 Stoke the Flames-2 Seeker of the Way
Sultai Sideboard+2 Sultai Charm+1 Drown in Sorrow+1 Pharika, God of Affliction+3 Bile Blight+2 Reclamation Sage-4 Murderous Cut-3 Hero's Downfall-2 Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Disdainful Stroke on Hornet Queen and Erase on Courser of Kruphix can enable Goblin Tokens and Soldier Tokens to put Sultai into burn range. Disdainful Stroke on Doomwake Giant is also kind of a beating.
Sultai Charm destroying Jeskai Ascendancy is big game, but Sultai has to follow that up with something powerful or else Jeskai Tokens will soon find another copy. Reclamation Sage, Sultai Charm, and Unravel the AEther each want to come in post-board.
Double Lightning Strike on Doomwake Giant is not the most efficient way of answering it, but it can be effective. Also remember that if you have Jeskai Ascendancy in play, you can stack the Doomwake Giant trigger and respond by playing a spell to pump your team to effectively Negate the trigger. Jeskai Charm's +1/+1 mode can also save them if you have that instead.
Thoughtseize can take Jeskai Ascendancy or any of the other card draw spells (Treasure Cruise / Chandra, Pyromaster).
If Sultai survives the initial onslaught from the Tokens deck and can establish a board presence with Courser of Kruphix, Whip of Erebos, and/or Sidisi, Brood Tyrant then it's very hard for the Jeskai deck to regain control of the game. Once Sultai starts gaining large amounts of life off Whip, it's pretty much over. Assuming Yuuya takes the first game though, the pressure is on Shahar to break serve and win a post-board game on the draw.
It's fairly close but I would put Yuuya around 60% to win the match.Semifinal 2: Abzan Midrange (Chapin) vs. Sultai (Yamamoto)
Soul of Innistrad is such a value beating prior to Anafenza, the Foremost getting boarded in. Even though Chapin is on the play, he needs to have a second turn Sylvan Caryatid to stay ahead of the Sultai deck. Sultai has the better long game and Abzan is ill-equipped to go long with it in game one. Abzan's best plan is to leverage being on the play and just out-tempo Sultai, possibly also nabbing a key card with Thoughtseize to steal the game. In my limited amount of testing, Sultai is favored in game one, even on the draw.
Abzan Sideboard+2 Anafenza, the Foremost+1 Utter End+1 Murderous Cut+1 Liliana Vess+1 Duneblast-2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor-4 Hero's Downfall
Read the Bones and Bile Blight were close, but I figured Abzan wants to be more tempo-oriented in the matchup than attrition-based.
Sultai Sideboard+4 Disdainful Stroke+4 Reaper of the Wilds-1 Reclamation Sage-1 Sultai Charm-2 Doomwake Giant-1 Whip of Erebos-2 Thoughtseize-1 Hornet Queen
Too many disruptive non-creature spells can keep Sidisi from triggering. Disdainful Stroke is a fine topdeck, but Thoughtseize is terrible in scenarios where each player is playing off the top of their library. Hence I chose to cut two of the Thoughtseizes. This might not be correct, but cutting anywhere else felt less correct.
Brimaz is surprisingly effective. Liliana as a reusable Demonic Tutor can quickly Break Open a stalemate.
Turn one Thoughtseize taking Sylvan Caryatid can be a big tempo play from either side.
Elspeth ultimate is one way to legitimately hang toe-to-toe with Sultai's late game.
Soul of Innistrad is so difficult to attrition out.
Reaper of the Wilds matches up nicely against Siege Rhino since you can give it deathtouch and it survives after blocking. Abzan Charm deals with it nicely though, as long as you have a spot to kill it without them having hexproof mana open.
Anafenza, the Foremost backed by Duneblast ended up taking game five in my testing, so I expect Patrick Chapin to make it to the finals to face Yuuya Watanabe.Final Match: Jeskai Tokens (Yuuya) vs. Abzan Midrange (Chapin)
Prior to bringing in Bile Blights from the sideboard, Abzan has a difficult time combating token generators. Thoughtseize and a pair of Siege Rhinos, however, are quite the combination of disruption and pressure and can potentially steal game one, even while on the draw. That's exactly what happened in the mock playoff match, although realistically Yuuya is likely favored to win game one.
Jeskai Sideboard+4 Disdainful Stroke+2 Glare of Heresy-4 Lightning Strike-2 Jeskai Charm
Abzan Sideboard+3 Bile Blight+1 Utter End+1 Duneblast+1 Glare of Heresy+1 Liliana Vess-1 Ajani, Mentor of Heroes-1 Murderous Cut-4 Abzan Charm-1 Read the Bones
Leaving in Thoughtseize definitely feels correct because we only have two Utter End and a Glare of Heresy to stop Jeskai Ascendancy and it can also take Disdainful Stroke to get our important spell to resolve. It can also take Treasure Cruise at an opportune moment.
I left in Hero's Downfall to deal with Chandra, Pyromaster and Goblin Rabblemaster, though it's possible we should cut one or two of those.
Disdainful Stroke works great in conjunction with Raise the Alarm. If Abzan casts a big spell, you counter it, Otherwise you make tokens on their end step.
Despite winning the first game, Abzan fell in the fifth and final game, making Yuuya's Jeskai Tokens deck the winner of my mock playoff. I think I boarded incorrectly with Abzan though. Instead of Duneblast and Liliana Vess I think I want the two copies of Anafenza, the Foremost. It's another card that dies to Stoke the Flames and Glare of Heresy, but three-drops get underneath Disdainful Stroke, are able to race in conjunction with Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and can block and survive most token attacks.
In general, the game plan for Abzan against Jeskai Tokens is to keep Jeskai Ascendancy off the table with Thoughtseize, Glare of Heresy, and Utter End while Siege Rhino'ing the crap out of the opponent.
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into how these decks play out against each other. I'm very much looking forward to watching the playoff on Sunday morning to see how close my sideboarding and result predictions are!
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter