Grinding With Dragons

Brian Braun-Duin has been grinding hard on the road for weeks now, so to take a relaxing vacation and ground hard during his playtesting session instead. With a lot of archetypes to try out before the Season One Invitational in Richmod, he has tons of early lists to share his thoughts on the format so far.

The past week and a half has been a real change of pace for me. It seems like I have been traveling nonstop for the past couple of months, and in reality, I basically have been. I went from Grand Prix Memphis to SCG Baltimore to Grand Prix Miami to Grand Prix Cleveland in successive weekends. All of them were road trips, and some of them were quite long drives. Miami was twelve to fourteen hours, and Memphis was about ten to twelve. Cleveland was only seven, but I made that trip solo, which was exhausting in and of itself. I can’t even remember what tournaments I played in before Grand Prix Memphis, but rest (not necessarily) assured, I was probably traveling somewhere.

Last weekend was my first chance to take a break. All that traveling had started to burn me out, and I needed a weekend off before everything started up again. This weekend is the Season One Invitational in Richmond, and the weekend after I am flying to Brussels to test for and then play in Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir.

I wouldn’t trade my job for the world, but sometimes it is frankly overwhelming and a break is desperately needed. I used the last week and a half to really take some time off, relax, and enjoy myself away from Magic, and it was just what I needed. I feel rejuvenated, ready to get back into the game, and ready to take down some tournaments.

For someone like me, though, there is no true escape from Magic. Even though I was taking some time off, I still had Versus Videos to film and I was still thinking about decks and cards on the side. I haven’t been giving Magic my undivided attention, but I’ve still been paying attention to Dragons of Tarkir and the kinds of cards that have caught my eye from the set. I want to talk about some of the decks that I’ve been working on and building in the meantime.

Abzan Aggro

You might recognize this list. It looks very similar to the list that Andrew Boswell Top Eighted Grand Prix Miami with… in fact, the creature base is identical. What changed is the spell base. Abzan Aggro got a giant boost thanks to Dromoka’s Command and Ultimate Price.

One of the issues that a deck like Abzan Aggro had before was that it was weak to Chained to the Rocks and also had issues efficiently dealing with creatures early in the game. Generally speaking, you would use the early turns to deploy your own creatures and then use the later turns to kill theirs and punch through with your creatures.

This plan fell apart when your opponent could do something like play both a Chained to the Rocks and a Goblin Rabblemaster on turn four. Not only did they clear out your blocker, they also presented a serious threat in the same turn. That kind of efficiency alongside must-answer threats was very tough for a deck like Abzan Aggro to overcome.

Thankfully, those days are behind us. Abzan Aggro now has the ability to fight on that same level. Turn two Fleecemane Lion followed by a turn three Ultimate Price and a tapland lets you curve out effectively. If your opponent uses their fourth turn to play Rabblemaster and Chained to the Rocks, you can use your fourth turn to play another two-drop and a Dromoka’s Command to completely reverse the game dynamic right back at them.

Abzan decks also get access to Duress in the sideboard, which will drastically improve their matchup against various control strategies. I’ve always felt like Abzan Aggro was favored against control decks anyway, but having access to Duress certainly doesn’t hurt at all.

I feel like Abzan Aggro will be one of the more dominant decks in this format. As always, the weakness of the deck is the manabase and some of the anemic draws the deck can cough up when it floods out or the mana doesn’t come together for a coherent hand. However, if you can get past the inherent variance of the deck, the power level is very high and it only looks better with the new set.

W/x Decks

I started with this deck:

Then I moved on to this deck:

And then finally moved even further to a deck like this:

All of these decks ended up being flawed, but I felt like I learned a lot from the experience and the entire progression of testing them.

I’m pretty confident in saying that White Devotion simply doesn’t have enough to be viable. Poor Heliod. It’s been a pet deck of mine ever since I bought a whole bunch of copies of Heliod, God of the Sun on Magic Online. BBD is to Heliod what Kibler is to Daybreak Ranger. How’s that for some free SAT prep. It’s been a labor of love trying to make White Devotion work, but I’ve finally given it up for good.

That being said, I did like a lot of aspects of the decks. Anafenza seemed great to me. It was a must-answer threat that comes down early enough in the game to where it doesn’t matter too much if they do kill it. It’s not like you wasted too much initiative if they happen to Ultimate Price your two-drop. It is also still reasonable later in the game where you can do something like cast it and immediately follow up with another creature or activate Mastery of the Unseen to immediately get a free Bolster out of the deal.

Citadel Siege also seemed insanely good. I feel like this card is very much a sleeper card from Fate Reforged that will end up being a relevant player in Standard at some point. The biggest issue for me is finding the right home for Citadel Siege.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in Standard is that all your cards have to be good. Gone are the days where you can get away with playing a card like Young Wolf in your Standard deck and have your deck actually still be good. You can’t really get away with synergy alone nowadays – cards have to be powerful enough to stand on their own individual merits. If they have great synergy after that, then awesome, but synergy alone isn’t enough.

The issue with something like Citadel Siege and White Devotion in general is that you have to play so many cards that aren’t able to stand on their own merits in hope that the combination of all those cards is enough to get the job done. It isn’t. However, if they end up printing enough cheap white drops that are actually good creatures, like Anafenza Kin-Tree Spirit and Nasty Brimazty, then we may see something like Citadel Siege become a powerhouse.

The last deck, the W/B Seeker of the Way deck, was my favorite deck of the bunch by a country mile. Remember how I said that every card needs to be powerful enough to stand on its own accord? Monastery Mentor was by far the worst card in the list, because it simply wasn’t good enough by itself.

On the other hand, Brimaz was phenomenal. I think that Brimaz is quite possibly one of the best creatures in Standard, if not just the best. It’s cheap, it doesn’t die to Wild Slash or Lightning Strike, it demands to be answered immediately, and it pairs well with removal spells. Brimaz is also one of the best brick walls you can have against aggressive strategies, which are sure to be prevalent early on in a format’s progression.

I think that this W/B deck has a lot of potential and it’s something I intend to work more on in the weeks to come. There are a lot of options available when building a deck like this. I wasn’t playing Secure the Wastes or Elspeth, but I easily could have been. Myth Realized offers an interesting effect that scales well in multiples and it can make combat downright annoying for the opponent. Myth Realized can also make cards like End Hostilities a powerful option, which is another route the deck can take.

G/R Beats by Dra(gonlord Atarka)

The last style of deck that I’ve been working on is G/R. With the addition of Roast, G/R decks now have the ability to kill Siege Rhino in a cheap and effective fashion, giving them an enormous boost. Dragonlord Atarka is also easily the most powerful card from the new set and is a card that decks simply should be working on trying to cast.

I started with this list:

Then I transitioned to this build:

Lastly, I’ve been experimenting with something more like this:

This archetype suffers from a few weaknesses. For one, despite a wealth of options, there aren’t very many good three-drops. Perhaps it’s time to just bite the bullet and play Courser of Kruphix, even though it isn’t a very aggressive card, just because it actually has a high enough power level to be relevant.

All of the other three-drops just bite it to Wild Slash or aren’t powerful enough to really impact the board. Goblin Rabblemaster is probably the most powerful option in a vacuum, but without a lot of removal spells it is also probably the worst of the bunch. It’s impossible to punch through, the Goblin tokens just run into your opponent’s creatures and die.

Deathmist Raptor was cute, but wasn’t good enough. Yasova could do some cool things, but also was invalidated way too easily. Boon Satyr I do like, because it can play multiple roles, and flash is very relevant against control decks to punish them after a wrath effect.

I’m also not a fan of Shaman of the Great Hunt. It dies to Wild Slash, and it isn’t big enough on its own to push through cards like Courser of Kruphix.

I’ve also found that Xenagos, the Reveler is just by far the best four-drop in the deck. Roast really improves the power of that card a lot. Now you can play a Xenagos, use the plus ability for two mana and Roast whatever creature your opponent has that’s big enough to kill the Xenagos. Roast really lets Xenagos thrive.

All of these revelations have basically pushed me toward a deck that looks like the final Temur deck I posted. Instead of Deathmist Raptor, it should be Courser of Kruphix or Boon Satyr, but the idea is that you put pressure on your opponent early in the game with powerful threats like Savage Knuckleblade and then you go super-big, hammering your advantage home with planeswalkers.

Sarkhan Unbroken is a card with a very high power level, but it’s one that’s hard to find a home for. I think an aggressive R/G deck splashing blue is that home. When you play big creatures and pull ahead on board, Sarkhan is the perfect top-end threat. Stormbreath Dragon can just bite it to Ultimate Price, but Sarkhan pushes any existing board advantage into a state where you simply can’t lose.

Once you have both Xenagos and Sarkhan in your deck, then playing Dragonlord Atarka as a top-end threat makes perfect sense. Both planeswalkers push board advantages incredibly well, but they can also provide mana to cast the Dragonlord in a pinch. Dragonlord Atarka is the kind of card that just completely shifts a game into your control immediately.

It’s also possible that once I have Xenagos, Sarkhan, and Dragonlord Atarka in my deck that I should be playing a lot of copies of Surrak, the Hunt Caller. Surrak has really impressed me in my limited testing with the card so far, and I feel like being able to give Dragonlord Atarka haste is very big game. 8/8-sized game, to be precise. Surrak was kind of mediocre when your next threat was Stormbreath Dragon and it already had haste, but it’s pretty impressive when you’re giving a free Sarkhan dragon or the Dragonlord itself haste.

All told, I think that R/G/x has a lot of new tools from Dragons of Tarkir, such as Roast and Dragonlord Atarka, and I really expect to see R/G be powerful at some point. I like this direction with Xenagos and Sarkhan together, but figuring out exactly how to build it is going to be the important part. I feel like I am often good at identifying powerful strategies, but I struggle at actually putting them together into the right shell. My lists are usually off by a number of cards. Hopefully I will have a chance to iron out some of those details with more testing.

This weekend we are going to get our first look at the metagame with the Season One Invitational and Standard Open in Richmond. I’m excited to see how things shape up, and how I can tune and alter these lists to be effective against whichever decks end up rising above the fray. I definitely recommend paying close attention to the results of this tournament because it is going to set the groundwork for what will be successful at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir in two weeks and will set the pace for the entire metagame moving forward.