Hangarback Jeskai

What is the next step in Hangarback Walker’s evolution? That next step is likely also the next evolution for the Standard format as a whole, and that is an important question ahead of both Worlds and the Season Three Invitational this weekend!

Every couple of years, an artifact come along with both the power to reshape Standard and the versatility to find its way into a great variety of different decks of every color.

Hangarback Walker has certainly not been a victim of under-exposure. From the first week of the format, where it saw play in U/W Control and R/W Midrange, Hangarback Walker has continued to show up in new decks week after week. At the Pro Tour itself, it made possible one of the biggest decks of the weekend, U/R Ensoul, as well as making appearances in Hardened Scales. Grand Prix San Diego brought with it the emergence of Hangarback Walker in G/W Aggro and U/B Control. Finally, Grand Prix London saw an overwhelming dominance by Abzan Aggro fueled by the Walker.

What’s still left for Hangarback Walker to conquer?

What deck hasn’t already been Hangarbacked?

The interaction between Hangarback Walker and Jeskai Ascendancy is actually profoundly powerful on a number of levels. Right off the top, Jeskai Ascendancy’s untap trigger mean we can actually grow our Walker much faster than normal. Each counter still costs a mana, but with an Ascendancy in play a 1/1 Hangarback threatens to become a 4/4 if an opponent attacks with their Fleecemane Lion and you have just three mana and a single Wild Slash. Spend a mana to get a +1/+1 counter, cast Wild Slash getting +1/+1 from Ascendancy and untapping the Walker. Then block and tap for another +1/+1 counter. Even setting aside Ascendancy pumps, the Walker can easily get +2/+2 or +3/+3 a turn while you are just hanging out, doing your thing.

Hangarback Walker’s synergy with Jeskai Ascendancy doesn’t stop there, of course. Once you actually have an army of Thopters, Jeskai Ascendancy’s +1/+1 ability goes through the roof. Token-makers are good with Ascendancy to begin with, but flying tokens are especially potent as we’ll often just be able to kill people outright rather than giving them an opportunity to do a bunch of chump-blocking.

This bring us to the real puzzle: how do we kill our Hangarback Walker? Abzan and G/W have relied on Dromoka’s Command, U/R has Shrapnel Blast, and the various blue decks have white and black sweepers.

My first thought is to try to get a little bit from a few different places:

This list exemplifies the style of deckbuilding in which we are maximizing for learning as opposed to maximizing the chances that this list is the one we should play in a tournament right now. The many one-ofs aren’t just experiments, however. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy rewards you for a variety of options to choose from.

Jace is a powerful card in his own right, and he works great in a deck with cheap removal and blue Delve cards. However, he can also be a bit of a combo with Jeskai Ascendancy, letting us untap him a couple extra times before flipping. He can also be a useful way for us to destroy a Hangarback Walker that has grown enormous by letting us flashback a Valorous Stance used earlier in the game.

We discussed these two at length recently, but they remain two of the pillars of Standard and are extremely well-positioned. They dominate the green matchups, which is something we very much need, and they give us a lot of powerful options for solving hard problems. Elspeth is also a great token-maker to complement the Ascendancy, and both Elspeth and Tragic Arrogance give us a natural way to kill our Hangarback Walker in the mid-game.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar is a bit of a speculative inclusion that serves primarily as a token-maker… but also gives us another path to sacrificing our HOUS (Hangarbacks of Unusual Size).

While the above list plays up the control Jeskai aspects a bit, we could easily slant things towards a much more token-based strategy. In fact, going to an extreme, we could build something like this:

This version is probably suicidally low on removal, but it is an interesting experiment to be this focused on the interaction between Hangarback Walker and Valor in Akros.

Thopter Engineer works great with Valor in Akros since all of the Thopters you make will be extra large when you cast them, getting extra mileage out of the haste. This is especially true when you kill your Hangarback Walker pre-combat. Stoke your 4/4 Hangarback when your only other creature is a Thopter Engineer and you are attacking for 25 right there (since four Thopter tokens means all five of your creatures get +4/+4 until end of turn).

This list is going to struggle at times to kill its Hangarback Walkers. What if we just pulled the trigger and embraced Shrapnel Blast?

This list takes a fairly Standard U/R Ensoul strategy, and splashes white for Jeskai Ascendancy. This is a risky splash, given our reliance on Darksteel Citadel as well as our creature count being higher than most Ascendancy decks. For what it’s worth, the Darksteel Citadel problem is somewhat reduced because of Springleaf Drum, but may require a slightly higher mana count.

The looting aspect of Jeskai Ascendancy is actually utilized very well here, as Ensoul is such a synergistic strategy that it often ends up with really bad cards in hand when it draws the wrong cards at the wrong times, it really places a premium on finding the right card at the right time.

In addition to Shrapnel Blast to “kill” our Hangarback, Ensoul Artifact actually works great, since opponents can’t ignore a +5/+5 Hangarback for long. We also get a little extra mileage out of some of the other Ensoul synergies. For instance, if we Ensoul Artifact a Spring Leaf Drum, we can net mana every time we cast a spell. We can also do some cute tricks with cards like Ghirapur Aether Grid, tapping all of our Thopters to ping, then casting a spell to reload the machine gun.

Of course, Jeskai Ascendancy isn’t the only possible new home for Hangarback Walker. The card is so versatile and can go so many places. For instance, what about some kind of an Evolutionary Leap deck?

Evolutionary Leap is an excellent way to sacrifice Hangarback Walker, giving you another creature in hand and one or more Thopters in play that can also be sacrificed for even more cards.

This pushes us towards a little bit of a toolbox direction. Even though we don’t have a straight-up Tutor, per se, we can keep cycling through our deck with Evolutionary Leap until we find what we were looking for. Den Protector is key here, letting us reuse whatever key creature we found. It’s also nice to have the ability to rebuy something later if we need to sacrifice it at some point to get the engine going.

Fleshbag Marauder gives us another sacrifice outlet for our Hangarback Walker. It’s also a nice combination with Evolutionary Leap, since we can play it (edicting our opponent), then sacrifice it to the Leap before the trigger resolves.

It’s possible we should just be using Gather the Pack based on its raw power, but I wanted more ways to find Evolutionary Leap since it is so good here. Besides, it is fun to find Dictate of Erebos, which combines with Evolutionary leap to basically lock opponents out of the game.

Evolutionary Leap and Commune with the Gods change the relative value of sideboard cards we might play. Whatever sideboard creatures we play, we’ll find them earlier and more often. This is worth remembering whenever we have type-specific tutoring or card drawing (for instance, Collected Company makes creatures that cost three mana or less better out of the sideboard than normal).

An alternative take on B/G Hangarback Leap is to build more to a Black Devotion theme.

This build probably has too much cuteness going on, but I do wonder about playing lots of the weird black enchantments as a way to fuel Devotion (beyond the usual Erebos’s Titan).

I can’t help the nagging feeling that Shadows of the Past is just a much better Constructed card than we realize right now. Maybe Dromoka’s Command steps on it too hard, but all those scry triggers add up. Besides, the inevitability is a nice finishing touch for a Gray Merchant deck that wants to burn people all the way out.

Palace Siege is another way to drain people out going long, whether two at a time or by bringing back a Gray Merchant (or whatever) every turn. I’d love to use even more Palace Siege, but Gray Merchant ensures we are already long on fives. We don’t even have Dark Petition or Sidisi, Undead Vizier, and the Dictate of Erebos combos are super attractive, too.

While not a lot of Black Devotion decks have historically made that much use of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, this list has enough black permanents to think it could actually really start to get up there. We also have plenty of manasinks, like Hangarback Walker, Shadows of the Past, Whip of Erebos, and just casting the many creatures we draw off of Evolutionary Leap.

With the World Championships rapidly approaching, it’s anyone’s guess what the latest Hangarback Walker deck will be. I suppose it’s possible that the Hangarback-lash becomes so great that people move away from it, but it’s a hard card to fully hate out.

Of course, blue control is well-positioned against both Hangarback Walker and Dromoka’s Command (not to mention Tragic Arrogance and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion). I also like Siege Rhinos, but…

…I actually think this is the weekend blue control makes a comeback!