From the Mixed-Up Files Of Grand Prix Kitakyushu

Mike Flores takes a look at the Top 8 decks of Grand Prix Kitakyushu, which contained a few surprises, along with the Top 8 of the SCG Legacy Open in Baltimore last weekend.

Over the past couple of weeks in thinking about the current / upcoming direction of this column, editor Cedric Phillips maintained (and I would guess largely created in a greater sense) a position I would guess that lots of you have held for some time yourselves: Standard is stale. Standard is stale, and Standard is known. Standard is solved, or at the very least most every angle of Standard has been sanded over, polished, rubbed out, or otherwise explored. Does the savvy SCG Premium reader really need to know the basic mechanics of how a Naya deck works? Why G/R Aggro sides in Burning Earth?

And then Kitakyushu happened.

Heck yeah Kitakyushu!

While not eight new decks in the Top 8 or anything, Kitakyushu was like a breath of fresh air, a splash of cold water, a similarly trite third example, the "etc." at the end of a sentence about a refreshing change of pace! It was, to borrow a sentiment from an earlier time, just thoroughly Japanese.

I remember the first Pro Tour booth I worked in when we were looking over the Top 8 Extended decks of the era, poring over the Loop Junktion Life combo deck that was at that point not yet known, and Brian David-Marshall commenting that he would not be surprised when the next great Japanese deck designer produced "the Numai Outcast deck." The subsequent generations of Ishida, Fujita, Mori, Sato, and Yasooka never quite gave us a Numai Outcast deck, but Kitakyushu at least gave us the emergence of Scion of Vitu-Ghazi, the return of Delver of Secrets, and one more Reverberate than I can recall ever seeing in a Constructed Grand Prix Top 8.

Here’s how Kitakyushu broke down:


Bant Hexproof

Bant Hexproof was the prestigious big winner of this event, with both the GP win in the hands of Raymond Tan and an appearance in the Top 8 by 2012 Magic World Cup Champion and infinity-time GP Top 8 competitor Tzu-Ching Kuo (though each of them played quite different decks).

The plan of Bant Hexproof is not ambiguous at this point. Play a guy; hopefully it is a hexproof guy (and more hopefully still Geist of Saint Traft in specific) or at least a contextually resilient and high-impact guy like Fiendslayer Paladin. Apply all kinds of pants. Crush over the course of (again hopefully) very few attacks. "Just" a Geist of Saint Traft—which can come down on turn 2 in this deck thanks to Avacyn’s Pilgrim—followed by a Spectral Flight can put the opponent on a three-turn flying clock . . . and shorter still with any kind of boost after the Flight.

No, Bant Hexproof’s plan is not ambiguous. But eventual winner Tan was able to spice up what has become a well-weathered strategy. Here are some interesting or unique card choices and less explored angles he took:

  • Gladecover Scout – When M14 came out, tons of good deck designers hither and thither started spitballing and speculating about the future of Bant—or even just G/W—Hexproof decks. Witchstalker was one reason (hey, it’s just another three-drop hexproof creature to play next to Geist of Saint Traft), but Gladecover Scout also spurred a lot of discussion. That said, neither card has really cemented itself firmly as an archetype staple. I am pretty sure this tournament marks Gladecover Scout’s best performance in Standard. Basically, it lets Tan get a fast one-drop drop on the opponent in games where he doesn’t hit the first turn Avacyn’s Pilgrim (for Avacyn’s Pilgrim into Geist of Saint Traft—and anyway he only plays three) and can make for an immediate Auras beatdown. Rancor + Ethereal Armor on turn 2, for instance, is an immediate and substantial clock. I don’t know that we are always going to see this card in Bant Hexproof, but it is an option and, especially if you aren’t playing with a Plan B, an attractive one.
  • Simic Charm – This card has floated from a stock two-of to the first card cut (therefore to a one-of) to not played at all . . . back up to a three-of in this list. Simic Charm is a bad Giant Growth and a bad Unsummon and sometimes very disheartening for the opponent’s Acidic Slime. It is not great at any one thing; it’s not a permanent source of buffing (which is why it often got cut for an archetype with so much other buffing available), and faux-removal is less necessary in a deck with lots of evasion—which might have given Simic Charm a very good window this weekend. Simply not that many folks think to play around it. I know that I have had the thought "I hope he doesn’t have Simic Charm" about one second before concluding "nah, no one plays Simic Charm any more" about one second before being blown out by Simic Charm on Magic Online and that I have had this sequence of thoughts more than once. Tan played three, and I would guess he got his money lots and lots of times from players with the exact same thought process.
  • Ajani, Caller of the Pride – Lots of interesting things you can do here. Just making Geist of Saint Traft 3/3 pushes it past cards like Borderland Ranger safely—and you don’t have to commit an actual card! The opportunity for double strike can set up instant kills out of nowhere with all the deck’s conditional buffing.
  • Celestial Flare + Feeling of Dread + Fog (sideboard) – Interesting mix of racing options here. It is unusual to see Feeling of Dread alongside Fog. One of them is great pure racing / defense; the other is primarily racing / defense but can push damage through proactively as well. And as for Celestial Flare? A surprising inclusion from my perspective given its color intensivity, but obviously great given a heavily committed or otherwise cooperative opponent.
  • Mending Touch + Negate + Spell Rupture (sideboard) – All different answers to removal. Mending Touch can save a guy from Supreme Verdict (which can’t be countered by Negate or Spell Rupture), but the latter two are much more effective against edict removal, Mutilate, or Barter in Blood. The lesson here is that you can’t just have one generic "anti-removal" or "anti-sweep" slot because of all the different angles that removal can come down.
  • Ray of Revelation (sideboard) – Just interesting to note a specific attention by Tan to a card that would be extremely helpful in the mirror. Card advantage! (Or, more importantly, racing and creating bad combats.)

Again we see the inclusion of Gladecover Scout here, this time to the detriment of usual four-of Invisible Stalker in the creatures section. That said, Kuo’s lack of some of the unusual cards we saw in Tan’s Bant Hexproof list allowed him to play the (again) usually stock Voice of Resurgence package—albeit only as a three-of maindeck.

I just want to point out two interesting cards from this list:

  • Increasing Savagery – Whoa! A sometimes inclusion in the archetype in its infancy but left unseen for half a year, Increasing Savagery is a permanent buff effect that is not actually an Aura (and therefore immune to interaction a la Ray of Revelation). It is also quite expensive relative to most cards in the 22-land strategy. On balance, its flashback can dig you out of flood games like few others.
  • Nearheath Pilgrim – An interesting sideboard card from two angles. One: just great to help race, more lifelink, etc. Two: a lot of the time Bant Hexproof just wants another guy, just wants another body to buff. Nearheath Pilgrim is potentially such a body and you often want one in matchups where there is a lot of trading or point removal—which is often exactly when you can benefit not just from a body but the lifelink.

G/R Aggro

The initial sentiment around Brian Kibler format-redefining World Championship deck was that it was potentially a perfect deck for a tournament with no Bant Hexproof. Kudou made it all the way to the GP finals before falling, perhaps predictably, to an Invisible Stalker wearing Unflinching Courage.

Kudou’s G/R Aggro is pretty straightforward Kibler. Tight creature-based offense. Tons of haste in the form of Flinthoof Boar, Hellrider, and Thundermaw Hellkite with Ghor-Clan Rampager providing the ability to win any hand-to-hand situations this menagerie gets itself into. Great ability to make creatures bigger (Wolfir Silverheart) and initiate or win fights (Domri Rade). Good pressure, some card advantage—but relatively few outs to hexproof and Unflinching Courage.

Of the G/R Aggro decks that made the Kitakyushu Top 8, Taniguchi’s is the spicier. Maindeck Volcanic Strength!

Beyond the fact that this is a very clear nod of respect to the ascendant G/R Aggro archetype (hey mom, I can win the mirror!), the card has some relevance against Naya, Jund, the various red aggro decks, and so on. Mountainwalk is great in a race situation, but Auras can be liabilities in matchups featuring a lot of removal. At least in this case Volcanic Strength can pull a 3/3 like Hellrider or Flinthoof Boar out of Mizzium Mortars range.

B/G Midrange

Today’s iteration of The Rock largely evolved out of a desire to kill hexproof creatures. Cards like Mutilate and Desecration Demon allowed the B/G strategy to fight creatures that could not normally be interacted with, while Thragtusk made for a great racer (as well as resilience to the deck’s own sometimes-symmetrical removal). Since M14, The Rock has incorporated the mighty Lifebane Zombie, which not only bolsters interaction with certain white creatures such as Geist of Saint Traft but gives the deck a reasonable racer against creature poor—or at least black creature poor—decks like U/W that just can’t block it.

B/G is a deck that excels where it can either go bigger (or more resource advantageous) than the opponent’s creatures (Desecration Demon, Thragtusk, and Disciple of Bolas), where its removal is contextually relevant, and where it can avoid those same kinds of effects burying it. For instance, B/G doesn’t like to be hit by Rakdos’s Return (it more or less fights on the same axis but falls behind both Farseek and direct interaction) or Sphinx’s Revelation (where it can be overwhelmed or buried).

I love cards like Curse of Death’s Hold, Demonic Rising, and Vampire Nighthawk that can challenge opponents to deal with particular kinds of permanents before being able to play / interact whatsoever. For instance, Demonic Rising challenges removal decks to keep pace. Curse of Death’s Hold can wipe the floor with usually card advantageous or hard-to-handle threats like Lingering Souls or Invisible Stalker, and Vampire Nighthawk is just a stud in the red zone. It outclasses an unenhanced Geist of Saint Traft straight up and is hell on basic G/W or Naya creatures. Just a great mix of a third point of toughness, lifelink to race, and the ultimate trump of being able to trade with almost anything that doesn’t have first strike—bolstering a removal-rich, high-quality utility / fatty creature strategy out of the board.

Junk Tokens

The last three decks we will look at from GP Kitakyushu are all crazy Wild West gunslingers to some degree or another. Naitou’s Junk Tokens is a great example of this. It is essentially a tokens-linear deck that commands multiple strategies that all somehow tie into the mainline tokens theme.

Card Advantage – Both of the creatures in the deck, Scion of Vitu-Ghazi and Voice of Resurgence, are fundamentally card advantageous. Scion of Vitu-Ghazi comes with extra bodies and is generally at least 6/6 (functionally) for five mana; Voice of Resurgence is removal-resilient and can at times produce multiple extra bodies. Lingering Souls and both of the deck’s planeswalkers continue the card advantage theme, producing multiple threats for a single card.

Size – Many of the creatures in this deck, kind of like mainline Naya creatures, punch above their weight. Call of the Conclave is like a Watchwolf with some linear-contextual up side, and Advent of the Wurm is like a Jade Leech or Juzam Djinn with tons of extra abilities instead of a liability. Scion of Vitu-Ghazi moves like a 6/6 at five mana and can go even bigger when larger tokens are involved. In this sense, it kind of doesn’t matter that this is a tokens deck—you can just plow into the opponent in a Naya-esque way, leaning on Selesnya Charm to win fights and playing a straightforward offense.

Populate – There are two important populate cards in this deck—the legendary Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice out of the sideboard (which can create a lockdown anti-aggro environment) and Rootborn Defenses, which can be a big blowout. If your strategy is to plop a ton of little tokens onto the battlefield, maybe you are exposed to mass removal. There is probably nothing worse than investing four mana for an uncounterable Wrath of God, only for it to get countered with a freebie creature added to the other side as well. Rootborn Defenses can also play combat trick, allowing the tokens creatures in this deck to win fights or survive gang blocks, again with the populate bonus tacked on for an extra resource advantage.

Life Gain – The size of the creatures and creature tokens in this deck give it certain potential advantages against decks that try to win with creatures, but the life gain elements allow it to go over the top. Trostani can create a lockdown on the battlefield body after body while putting life points on; Unflinching Courage combines the "size" subtheme with life gain, allowing the deck to bowl over smaller creature decks or race monolithic threats like Thundermaw Hellkite almost effortlessly.

Naya Midrange

This is not your father’s Oldsmobile!

Nomura went not just big but huge with his Naya deck, featuring a ton of expensive cards alongside the trademark card quality of the typical Naya deck.

What’s different here?

Before we get to what Nomura played, it might be interesting to look at what he didn’t play. There are no Avacyn’s Pilgrims in this list, which is super surprising as the stock Naya deck uses Avacyn’s Pilgrim and the Shard-specific land base to play a mana mix that can consistently produce Boros Reckoner from either the red or white sides. Not only are there no Avacyn’s Pilgrims in this deck, but no Farseeks!

No disrespect to Voice of Resurgence or Scavenging Ooze on two, but no Farseeks makes for a noggin-scratcher given the eight five-drops in this deck. Nomura must have leaned very hard on his twenty-six.

We might as well get to card choices, especially unusual ones:

  • ThragtuskThragtusk is a really unusual choice here for two reasons. One, Thundermaw Hellkite has in large part made extinct the big 5/3 in Naya, and secondly, Nomura eschewed the usually ubiquitous Restoration Angel. In sum? He can’t unlock the "five life and free 3/3" achievement.
  • Warleader’s Helix – Nomura played a robust life gain subtheme—not just Thragtusk but four copies of Huntmaster of the Fells and additional life gain in the forms of Fiendslayer Paladin, Scavenging Ooze, Warleader’s Helix. As with the Junk Tokens deck, this Naya deck can create an overwhelming game position that suffocates the opponent in life gain while creating other advantages such as extra bodies, winning fights, and removing threats.
  • Reverberate – Bet you didn’t expect to see this one in Naya! Reverberate largely has to rely on the opponent’s spells here. There just aren’t that many appropriate targets in Nomura’s deck (only ten other instants and sorceries). Obviously, you have some interesting piggyback situations or can surprise win a counterspell fight, but one of the big—literally big and expensive—sequences has to be your own Warleader’s Helix + Reverberate for an eight-tacular sixteen-point life swing.

U/W Delver

He’s baaaaack!

Long time no see, onetime best creature in Standard [and still cross-format all-star].

Delver of Secrets has been largely absent from Standard since its setup man Ponder left the format with M13. Takahashi had to rely much more on the luck of natural Delver flips to get his money in Kitakyushu, but he obviously cashed in enough looks at the just 23 spells in his deck to make Top 8.

Next to Delver of Secrets are the U/W usual suspects—Geist of Saint Traft, Restoration Angel, and Snapcaster Mage—all superstars, of course.

His spell mix is quite similar to U/W Flash, if somewhat heavy on the Essence Scatters. With only nineteen lands, Takahashi really leaned on his one-mana cantrip spells. In addition to Thought Scour, he played two Quickens despite having only two Supreme Verdicts to set up (both of which were in his deck already). But hey, Quicken is the truth.

Overall, we see here a deck with the main theme of tempo. I’ve got a fast threat (Delver of Secrets); hope I can Essence Scatter your first threat while Unsummoning your next one. Hopefully I can get meaningfully ahead and stay ahead long enough to seal the deal. Geist of Saint Traft might not be at its best in U/W Control, but it is still a very hard-to-contain attacker. Same with Restoration Angel. There might only be three Snapcaster Mages in this list, but Restoration Angel is an offensive wonder due to flash even without its 187 crew. Finally, Tidebinder Mage out of the sideboard allows the deck to add offense to the battlefield while locking down the opponent’s best threat.

Delver held Standard in an Insectile stranglehold last year. Can it return to prominence in next week’s Open before the Theros rotation?

I hope you enjoyed our format-refreshed review of the GP decks. But before we sign off, I thought it would be fun to think about one or two things from last week’s Open Series in Baltimore.

Getting to Know Your Legacy Decks

While not as off-the-wall as the Kitakyushu Top 8, the Baltimore Open presented an unusually diverse and surprising set of Legacy finishers, even considering the reputation Legacy generally has for diversity and expansive possibilities.


Painted Stone

Perhaps the most exciting deck in this Legacy event was its winner! Jonathan Suarez played a multidimensional mono-red combo deck.

The Core Combo

Painted Stone runs on a two-card combination of Painter’s Servant and Grindstone. You play Painter’s Servant, name a color (blue, all other things held equal, to set up Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast) and then activate Grindstone. All the cards in the opponent’s deck are blue, so Grindstone never stops. That’s game boys!


Obviously, the deck has a massive amount of extra percentage against blue decks. You don’t even have to play Painter’s Servant and you have six copies of a card that says "counter or kill anything" more or less. But not only that, the deck also crushes nonbasic lands. Maindeck Blood Moon! Think for a second how many decks have no maindeck ways to kill an enchantment. Sure, they might be able to counterspell Blood Moon—and they might also be in a counterspell fight against a deck with six maindeck Pyroblasts. Can you function with all Mountains in play? Because I can.


Imperial Recruiter can set up Painter’s Servant or Blood Moon proxy Magus of the Moon in this deck. A singleton Goblin Welder can rebuy combo pieces in the case of removal or can be set up by the various discard text on Jaya Ballard, Task Mage.


This deck is deceptively fast! A City of Traitors with Simian Spirit Guide in hand can give it a first turn Blood Moon. In the case that it wants to play the entire combo all in one turn, that is only six mana, none of which is color-committed.

Painted Stone isn’t a completely unknown strategy or anything, but it also hasn’t been memorably at the top tables in some time. Great job by Suarez bringing Servant back.

Death and Taxes

Everyone knows about the artifact-driven offense of Death and Taxes and the interplay between Aether Vial, Mangara of Corondor, and Karakas—but did you catch the combo-hating splash damage levied by a deck with three or more copies of that legendary land? Micah Greenbaum didn’t even play Mangara!

But a deck with all those Karakas can keep Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand off its back effortlessly. No wonder a Top 8 with two copies of Death and Taxes would pair with a rare absence of Sneak and Show.

RUG Delver

RUG Delver has become increasingly convergent over the past several months. Once upon a time we saw RUG Delver decks with cards like Green Sun’s Zenith and maindeck Scavenging Ooze. Today we see almost universal mana denial decks with Wastelands and land-crushing Stifles (the uber-consistent Pikula skimping to a three-of here), with Gitaxian Probe becoming increasingly staple.

Both Ranking and Pikula played a single Forked Bolt in the "flex" slot in the main, with Rankin playing a second singleton Dismember over fellow Phyrexian mana card Gitaxian Probe #3.

The two decks played divergent sideboards with lots of unique functionality and singletons. Most interesting to me was Chris Pikula eschewing of Life from the Loam / Scavenging Ooze (grinding big winners in the mirror and elsewhere) for Young Pyromancer and more 0-1 CMC artifacts.

Punishing Jund

Though conforming largely to the progressive advantage and individual card efficiency mantras of Jund, Lopuski erred perhaps surprisingly heavily on traditional card advantage over removal and flexibility.

Shardless BUG and U/W Miracles

It’s nice to see Jace, the Mind Sculptor continuing to get work.

The viability of these decks is at least in part a product of the diversity and to a degree the ebb and flow of the Legacy format. U/W Miracles can play combo-like with its Rest in Peace + Helm of Obedience or Sensei’s Divining Top + Counterbalance (the latter preying upon the general low-cost sameness of Legacy staples)—but hates Liliana of the Veil.

Shardless BUG can take on all comers and interact with essentially any kind of deck but prefers matchups where its Baleful Strix can disincentivize or dominate combat—not fighting many kinds of combo decks that make it more of a Baleful brick. The cascade redundancy in Shardless BUG makes it love to play against [other] fair decks, where it can leverage card advantage or tons of cascade-driven removal.

So . . . what are you looking at playing in this weekend’s SCG Standard and Legacy Opens in Cincinnati?


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