Beating Four-Color Rally

We’re approaching the point where you need to decide to beat Four-Color Rally or join Four-Color Rally. Super Sunday Series Champion Sam Black has advice for both camps in his latest work!

The StarCityGames.com Regional Championships, February 6!

Looking over the Top 8 decks from #SCGCOL, I noticed something. There were eleven Reflector Mages in the top three decks. Abzan, Jeskai, Four-Color Rally, and “Value” Collected Company (as opposed to Collected Company combo) all played Reflector Mage. A funny anecdote I learned at the Super Sunday Series? Development never played Reflector Mage in Constructed.

It was a 2/2 for most of the development cycle and was bumped up to 2/3 to add some more power to U/W decks in Limited. That third toughness is a world of difference in Standard. The red creatures have two power, and the one-mana burn spells deal two damage. The new sweepers kill two-toughness creatures. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar makes two power Knight Allies. Out of the gates, I’d argue that Reflector Mage is clearly the most influential card in Standard out of Oath of the Gatewatch, which I don’t think most of us expected when we first read the spoiler.

Reflector Mage is best with Collected Company, which lets you put it onto the battlefield at instant speed and gives you the option to take it or not some portion of the time, so it’s adding access to a unique effect to your Collected Company, which otherwise usually just increases your board presence. I think Reflector Mage is the truth, and I think Collected Company with Reflector Mage is likely where it’s at. I think Andy Ferguson’s deck looks real, in that it’s doing sweet things that are good in the format, except that I’m not really sure how it plans to beat Rally.

Sure, there are some counterspells in the sideboard, but is the plan to just cut all your removal for counterspells? I think it kind of has to be, since this deck can’t really go lower on creatures, but I feel like this is just asking to get torn apart by a late-game Duress with the Jace you can’t answer. (Sure, there’s attacking, but I don’t love the strategy of trying to attack on the ground against Four-Color Rally.)

To start with, I think it’s time people got serious about Hallowed Moonlight. Yes, I understand that this has the same Duress problem, but at least you’re getting paid quite a bit more for it when it works. Bant Company is a pretty good shell for Hallowed Moonlight, since you have a lot of instants you’re looking to hold up anyway. Unfortunately, I think I might just be talking myself back to the conclusion I ultimately came to with B/W Warriors, that I didn’t want to bother sideboarding Hallowed Moonlight because it was just hopeless.

The problem is, I don’t think you can afford to just punt the Four-Color Rally matchup these days. Where does that leave us? Personally, I think it leaves us with a sweet deck to keep in mind for another moment, but I don’t think this is how I want to try to beat Four-Color Rally.

How do I want to try to beat Four-Color Rally? Well, to be honest, for now I’m on the “join them” plan, but I could imagine going another way. I don’t think Anafenza, the Foremost is the right way to do it anymore. Reflector Mage is just too good. I think you basically have to pressure them, and that the only ways I can think of to do that are by attacking in the air or just leaning on big spells to go over the top of them–I don’t know if that’s possible, but if it is, it basically means playing Ramp, ideally Ramp with Hallowed Moonlight.

Let me get back to that idea after discussing the option to just get on board and play “the best deck” until the hive mind demonstrates that it can be beaten.

I haven’t had a chance to test Standard, but I played Four-Color Rally with Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim at the Super Sunday Series Championship, and Ayli felt really good to me, in addition, obviously, to the fact that I liked its look on paper, which is why I put it in my deck. So I felt somewhat vindicated seeing Jacob Baugh’s winning list after reading Emma Handy’s inaugural article that dismissed Ayli.

Jacob’s list is very similar to the list I played, specifically: -1 Grim Haruspex, -1 Nantuko Husk, -1 Prairie Stream, +1 Reflector Mage, +1 Liliana, Heretical Healer, +1 Canopy Vista.

I’m open to the fourth Reflector Mage over the third Haruspex. I’m not very interested in Liliana over Nantuko Husk, but I could be convinced. I hate Canopy Vista over Prairie Stream with eight cards that cost green mana in the deck.

His sideboard had a Felidar Cub and a Liliana, Heretical Healer where I had a Murderous Cut and a Valorous Stance. I like cutting the Valorous Stance for Felidar Cub; with three or four Reflector Mages it’s much less important to be able to bring in as much Anafenza removal, but I’m not particularly sold on the idea of going up to two Liliana, Heretical Healer. I’d be more open to the idea if there weren’t already one in the maindeck, but moving forward, I’d want the third Anafenza or the first Hallowed Moonlight in that spot for the mirror.

Fundamentally, I think this deck is too good for Standard. It’s a combo deck that needs narrow hate cards, but the reactive nature of the hate cards that are legal in Standard makes them borderline nonfunctional against the combination of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Duress, combined with Reflector Mage for the creatures.

Of particular note, in the Top 8 interviews for the player profiles this weekend, players were asked how Rally influenced their deck choices. Every player respected the deck and made decisions based on it; none of them said it wouldn’t be an issue or that they decided to give up, but Four-Color Rally won anyway, which indicates there might be a problem with how people are handling things. Three of them listed Dispel specifically, with another referring to counterspells. I don’t think this is an effective plan.

I think WotC’s Development team messed up. They missed this deck and they missed Reflector Mage, so they didn’t include good enough graveyard hate in Standard, and it’s going to be a problem for the next few months. I’m not saying this will be the best deck every week, but it will absolutely warp Standard. Until people find a way to do it, the question you should be asking when you pick up a new deck is, “can this consistently beat Four-Color Rally?” and the question you should be asking when building a new deck is, “How can I beat Rally/How can I make this beat Rally?”

This is to say, the hate cards aren’t hateful enough. If you want to beat Rally, you can’t just take a deck that loses to it, add some Hallowed Moonlights, Dispels, or Anafenzas, and call it a day. You have to have an overall strategy that matches up well against Rally’s strategy.

First, there’s flying attackers. Tom Ross’s deck looks like it’s doing what you need to do to beat Rally. It’s flying over blockers with a fast clock using creatures that are bad to bounce because they have haste or enters-the-battlefield abilities or, in Thunderbreak Regent’s case, just damage a player for bouncing them. That’s except for Hangarback Walker, which isn’t good in the matchup, but it plays well with the deck’s plan, and really, another two-drop wouldn’t be much better.

On paper, I might like to see more Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to go with all these removal spells, but I could believe that either the matchup is good enough without it or that you don’t actually want more because it can be risky to play on turn 4, since it gives them something good to do with Reflector Mage beyond killing a token.

A similar approach that I think is effective is an appropriately evasive use of Jeskai, which Andrew Tenjum nailed. He calls out Mantis Rider and Dispel specifically, but he actually went beyond that with four Jeskai Charms and Seeker of the Way over Soulfire Grand Master, representing a clear focus on ending the game. As an aside, while I said Dispel isn’t an effective sideboard card because Rally will often just be able to take it with Duress before casting their critical spell, that concern doesn’t exist in game 1, where Dispel is excellent against them. (Note that the same is true of Hallowed Moonlight, and if anyone ever gets around to putting that card in their maindeck, they’ll substantially improve their positioning against Four-Color Rally, and the opponent is unlikely to see it coming on top of not having a way to deal with it.)

Like Tom Ross, Andrew Tenjum lost to Andy Ferguson’s Bant Company deck, so Andy seems to have effectively gone to Level Two, beating the two decks in the Top 8 that actually look good against Rally, aka Level One, where playing Rally is Level Zero. The bracket just broke wrong for him, and rather than getting to play against the deck that beat Rally after they knocked Rally out of the tournament, he had to knock them out of the tournament, only to run into Rally in the finals.

I don’t really believe that Raja Sulaiman’s B/W Control deck was positioned well enough to beat Four-Color Rally, but it’s worth noting that he included the forgotten or overlooked proactive graveyard hate card in the format in Cranial Archive, which might actually be the right way for some decks to approach the question of beating Rally, especially removal-heavy control decks. (And Raja’s sideboard does have a lot of good cards against Rally, so I could believe that he has a reasonable shot in the matchup, but the maindeck plan is just so bad that it’s hard for me to imagine he’s much of a favorite.)

Patrick Chapin and Brian Kibler have been advocating for wider use of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which is certainly a good start, but Kalitas has an extra-strong case of the Reflector Mage problem Anafenza, the Foremost suffers from, and I don’t know that filling their decks with removal does much to mitigate that. Patrick’s Grixis deck has four Duress to try to stop Rally, with Chandra to close out the game, so I can believe this might work.

I think it’s possible to beat Rally with a control deck. It’s just harder for me to know what that deck looks like at the moment, while I know which kinds of cards one has to use to try to beat them with an aggressive deck (attacking on the ground isn’t the way to do it, thanks in large part to the addition of Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim).

Earlier, I mentioned the possibility of playing Ramp with Hallowed Moonlight to try to go over Rally. On second thought, I don’t think that’s the right way. I’d want to lean on Planar Outburst into Hallowed Moonlight, but I think you’re probably too like to just die when you tap out for Planar Outburst. If we say that pressuring Rally with fliers is going under them (despite flying traditionally being thought of as the thing that is over non fliers, but I mean strategically–under is faster, over is bigger), then I think the way to go over them might have to be with a control deck, which I think should be able to do it with the right mix of removal, card draw, and cards like Dispel and Hallowed Moonlight in the maindeck. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet certainly plays here too, though I might be more interested in focusing on making bounce bad.

I think trying to finish the game with Chandra, Flamecaller is the best way to blank bounce, but it’s tricky because I want Duress, Dispel, and Hallowed Moonlight, and Chandra is a fourth color, which I’d like to avoid. I guess Hallowed Moonlight isn’t necessary if you have Dispel, or you can play Kalitas instead of Chandra.

I almost started trying to build my own list of Grixis, but I realized that it would be very similar to Patrick’s. Counterintuitively, I think I’d bench Kalitas to improve my Rally matchup, looking to add Dispel to the maindeck and move from Treasure Cruise to Dig Through Time to get better at finding Chandra, Flamecaller, since I’d have fewer ways to win the game. I also might want an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.

Ultimately, I think tuning a control deck isn’t going to be a great strategy for beating Four-Color Rally unless you’ve already put a lot of work into it. If I were playing Standard this weekend, I’d be testing Four-Color Rally, Tom’s B/R Dragons, and Andrew Tenjum’s Jeskai list. If I wanted to go with something more rogue, I might experiment with Jeskai Aggro with Stormchaser Mage starting the flying pressure, paired, obviously, with Mantis Rider and Jeskai Charm, topping off at Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Yeah, okay, I probably need to include a list if I’m going to end with a suggestion like that:

This has a focused aggressive plan with Dispel to stop Rally from doing unfair things, but against other decks, Dispel doubles as protection for Monastery Mentor and Jori En, Ruin Diver to give the deck more power…or, more to the point, more quick card advantage to avoid getting buried by removal decks.

The sideboard uses Monastery Swiftspear as additional pressure against decks that aren’t great at blocking on the ground (with Slip Through Space in case they happen to have a few blockers), Kozilek’s Return for token decks, Reflector Mage and Valorous Stance for creatures that are too large to burn out, Disdainful Stroke for ramp, and Hallowed Moonlight to seal the deal against Collected Company decks, while helping out against tokens and even being able to slot in as a two-mana cantrip if something’s bad.

The cantrip is good enough in this deck that I even decided to add one to the main where I previously had a Slip through Space, and I could see going even further depending on how much of the field will be playing either Collected Company or a dedicated token deck. It’s nice to have a shell that’s looking for a card that cycles anyway if you want to play a deck that can afford to maindeck Hallowed Moonlight.

The StarCityGames.com Regional Championships, February 6!