Week 2 of this Standard format, I played Sultai Midrange in the SCG Baltimore Team Constructed Open. I spent a week testing Esper, lost non-stop to competent Sultai players, and just wanted to see if someone could beat me.
They really didn’t, as I went 10-3 in completed matchups. Only one loss to Nexus of Gates felt like a legitimately bad matchup, and my testing with Gate decks after quickly revealed their core issue of being deterministically dead on the draw against most of the format. Izzet Phoenix was also tried and it failed to impress.
After more testing, nothing really beat Sultai Midrange. I played it at my RPTQ as Corey Burkhart played the deck at Grand Prix Memphis. I didn’t lose a match and got the invite to London; he lost in the Grand Prix finals.
At the Mythic Championship, I continued to play Sultai Midrange. I went 7-3, losing a match to Mono-Blue Aggro where I didn’t play a third land either game and twice to mirrors.
I remain unconvinced anything actually beats normal Sultai Midrange. I’ve beaten multiple World Champions along the way. I’ve beaten Mono-Blue Aggro, Esper Control, Izzet Drakes, Azorius Aggro, honestly just everything. Once you know your plans, it’s all easy.
So here’s the list I played, the single card update I would make, and the plans.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Carnage Tyrant
- 3 Hostage Taker
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Hydroid Krasis
My suggested list after this event is one card different.
Take the Trash Out
Worse than a land, because when you explore this it goes right in your graveyard. Adapting Incubation Druid is win-more, and unlike Llanowar Elves it doesn’t let you double spell in the early turns. Also, you sideboard out mana creatures a ton, so running more isn’t what you want.
Both these cards fall to the same issue. They produce card advantage but are just more back-and-forth play and not direct interaction. Jadelight Ranger is a body and cards right now; these cards don’t do both. Aggro doesn’t care about them. Neither does Nexus of Fate. In mirrors or versus Esper Control, Carnage Tyrant is just better.
Not only is Thief of Sanity actively bad against half the matchups in the format, it’s worse Game 1 against Esper opponents with too much removal. In mirrors it’s fine but manageable, even more so as people look to answer Hostage Taker, whereas Carnage Tyrant just isn’t a solvable problem. The only reason to play Thief of Sanity is to get some overlap against Nexus of Fate decks.
Hostage Taker’s creature swing is game-breaking against Azorius Aggro and Mono-Blue Aggro if it occurs, hiding creatures from sweepers helps versus Esper Control, and a more powerful card and the Hydroid Krasis interaction are more important in mirrors. Ravenous Chupacabra is better versus exactly Mono-Red Aggro, and even then, Hostage Taker often is better after Turn 4 and versus Treasure Map.
Vraska, Golgari Queen is the closest of these cards to making the cut, but it’s fighting for removal slots with key exile effects and efficient Cast Downs. It’s this against the third Hostage Taker or Assassin’s Trophy right now, and I like broader coverage over a fairly low-impact planeswalker.
Deploy the implacable death lizard instead.
Sultai Midrange VS Azorius Aggro
Let’s start with a softball. There’s three ways you win these games.
The easy way is you cast Finality and put all their creatures and hopes of winning in the graveyard.
You can get an early Wildgrowth Walker or two and just outsize them. When you have the Wildgrowth Walker draws, if you don’t have a Finality or Hydroid Krasis to slam the door you may actually need to start attacking them. Figure out if you’re in danger of losing the race, and if your hand looks light on the resources needed to keep up going long, hit them with big green creatures before they assemble Knight tokens and pump effects.
Viven Reid used to be a reasonable card against Boros Aggro and their sideboard copies of Experimental Frenzy, but it’s very bad against Azorius Aggro. It doesn’t kill their creatures, and you shouldn’t need the slow card draw. Kraul Harpooner is not good, but it can at least block a creature and eat a Healer’s Hawk if you’re really lucky. I used to bring in the Midnight Reaper here to make those early trades profitable on cards if not mana.
Their two sideboard cards to watch are Tocatli Honor Guard and Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants. Vraska’s Contempt is really mediocre against their normal threats, but both of these sideboard options require the more expensive removal spell.
If you play Cry of the Carnarium, it’s almost exclusively for this matchup but isn’t even always good here. It cleans up nonsense, but your main plans are generally good against unbacked nonsense.
If you see them sideboarding multiple counterspells in Game 2, consider a Duress as the last card over Kraul Harpooner. It can still take History of Benalia or Legion’s Landing or a removal spell that would clear Wildgrowth Walker.
Sultai Midrange VS Mono-Red Aggro
Sultai must start off as the control deck in this matchup and then quickly try to win. Usually the corner is turned by one of your large lifegain threats, but sometimes it comes via a late Hostage Taker.
If you just need more time to deploy your cards to neutralize their cards, there’s nothing wrong with chump blocking. Random 2/1 Merfolk Branchwalkers rarely add up to much and blocking a 4/4 Runaway Steam-Kin so you can Hostage Taker it next turn is often their best purpose. You might even just do it to stop an easy spectacle on Light Up the Stage.
Vivien Reid’s job is to act as a five-mana Naturalize for Experimental Frenzy. When casting it in other scenarios where it might be a bit less protected, first think about what your plan is if it falls on loyalty and they cast Experimental Frenzy and what you’re actually digging for with it compared to what’s in your hand.
Llanowar Elves dies to Goblin Chainwhirler, but just as importantly it doesn’t line up with your good cards in the matchup. Your relevant four- and five-drops are largely reactions to their four-drops, so being faster to cast them doesn’t help. Your best early plays are two-mana Wildgrowth Walker and Cast Down, not your three-mana Jadelight Ranger.
Your opponent will sideboard in Treasure Map, making these games even more about managing their artifact and enchantment threats that can snowball you out of a game. Duress is among your best cards as everything it takes would otherwise be a two-for-one. Don’t forget Hostage Taker can steal artifacts like Treasure Map!
Their other scary sideboard card is Rekindling Phoenix. Hostage Taker might be a bit of a liability against removal, but it gives you six direct ways to exile Rekindling Phoenix. Duress backing Hostage Taker on Turn 5 is a common way to handle the big firebird. If you get the chance to trade a creature and a Cast Down for a Rekindling Phoenix and hold a Vraska’s Contempt for a second copy, it’s often worth keeping your coverage in place.
That all said, early interaction is still key. Don’t keep a clunky hand that can’t stop random creature beatdown.
Sultai Midrange VS Mono-Blue Aggro
Games of this matchup tend to snowball. On the play, Sultai Midrange can establish a Wildgrowth Walker and explore before Mono-Blue Aggro can afford to leave up counters or just double removal and break up a Curious Obsession draw. On the draw, Sultai Midrange will struggle to beat a Curious Obsession draw backed by counters, so you might just have to take a risk and hope they have nothing.
You aren’t blocking most of the time, so get really into attacking. Your creatures can often race if your opponent isn’t doing anything special. Bashing people with my “slower midrange deck” is basically just my favorite place to be, and I have felt really comfortable in this matchup even if none of my hitters are named Siege Rhino.
Timing your removal is key against answers, but most of their protection costs one. Leaving up removal for their turn best exploits them casting an expensive Tempest Djinn, where it is hard to have multiple protective answers after, or for forcing them to spend mana and fall off Wizard’s Retort mana, letting you stick a threat like Jadelight Ranger.
If they’re a bit short of adapting Pteramander and the race is close, consider if giving them something to counterspell pushes them over the line.
If you’re just trying to keep them from connecting with Curious Obsession and have whatever creature the Aura is on covered after, Crushing Canopy targeting the enchantment is safer against Dive Down and Siren Stormtamer.
Hostage Taker can target your own explore creatures and recast them in rare scenarios. I did this at the Mythic Championship, it was wrong, but it was awesome and I still won, so scoreboard. Hostage Taker also isn’t stopped in any non-2/3 capacity by Merfolk Trickster despite it looking like an ability you could remove.
On the play, I have considered leaving in a Vivien Reid or Vraska’s Contempt over the last Llanowar Elves. Similar to the Mono-Red Aggro matchup, your good plays cost two and you get to the double spell point just early enough without Llanowar Elves that another interactive spell is just great.
Sultai Midrange VS Simic Nexus
Just hit them and hope they fail Game 1. Being this aggressive can also force them to expose Wilderness Reclamation to Vivien Reid a turn before they go off, rather than just playing their enchantment and starting the combo in their end step.
Search for Azcanta might honestly be more important than Wilderness Reclamation, as it’s how they use all the mana to chain off and find more copies of Wilderness Reclamation. If you must choose which one to Vivien Reid and aren’t closing the game out almost immediately, kill the card selection and hope they fizzle out on things to do with their mana.
Your opponent will have Biogenic Ooze and possibly Incubation Druid. Keep your removal around so they can’t steal games that way. I slightly prefer Hostage Taker, as it has power and toughness when they don’t draw those cards, but if they show you mana accelerants, the cheaper Cast Down is likely better. Vraska’s Contempt is slow and bad, but if your opponent is Bant Nexus, you want it over Hostage Taker to cover against Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Sultai Midrange VS Esper Control
Game 1 is almost entirely decided by how many of your bad cards you draw early. If you keep pressuring them properly until Hydroid Krasis time, you will just win, but if you miss a beat and they get Teferi, Hero of Dominaria unopposed, you will die. Those bad cards, for the record, are Cast Down and often Wildgrowth Walker or Llanowar Elves.
If you’re still playing around Kaya’s Wrath, Hostage Taker can often hide your own Jadelight Ranger to ensure a free threat after the fact. Worst-case scenario, you can recast the Jadelight Ranger later if they don’t sweep things up.
If you’re already applying relevant pressure, adding Carnage Tyrant to the battlefield is often overkill. Try to force their hand on a Kaya’s Wrath and then resolve it, preferably with a Find in hand to just do it again.
If they’re low on life but your beatdown squad is anemic, consider if casting a spell might just let them Absorb to gain three life and buy time.
Look at that sideboard stack. Esper Control as a control deck has no hope of winning a sideboarded game against Sultai Midrange. Their lone hope is to juke into a midrange deck and hope Kaya’s Wrath is enough to stop your attacks.
Your sideboard plan is set up to play around their creatures. Everyone knows about Thief of Sanity, but you also must contend with Hostage Taker. So Sultai Midrange just loads up on answers to Esper’s threats and plays assuming they will win any game those threats don’t get to provide repeat card advantage.
The one sideboard plan change I’ve considered is having some Hostage Takers on the play as something you can hit with Vivien Reid to recover from their Hostage Takers. On the draw, you absolutely need Cast Down for Thief of Sanity instead of a four-mana kill spell, to the point I’ve considered having Crushing Canopy or the third Cast Down in the deck those games. On the play, even if they kill Hostage Taker on their fourth turn, you can use that to bridge into a Turn 5 Vivien Reid that kills their flying Thief of Sanity.
Sultai Midrange VS Sultai Midrange
If you go aggro, it’s often on the back of Wildgrowth Walker and lifting that card out of Finality range. Not that forcing your opponent to cast Finality and not Find isn’t good anyway, just that if you don’t have Wildgrowth Walker, you need a good play on the post-sweeper turn to keep up the pressure.
Hostage Taker cleans things up a bit compared to the early format mirror matches. The stupid decking games people talk about shouldn’t happen because there’s another tool to leverage getting ahead on mana or creatures early on and force removal to be used. If things go long, often someone runs out of an important resource like Find, Hydroid Krasis, or Hostage Taker and the other player gets to cast that hard-hitting spell a couple more times to seal the deal.
“Clean things up” might be the wrong term, though, as the card is definitely complicated. Here are all the tricks I know.
Generally, you don’t cast Hostage Taker unless you are casting the thing you are taking. Unless it’s Hydroid Krasis, which dies returning as a 0/0 and forces a removal spell before you recast the Krasis.
If you Hostage Taker their Hostage Taker and have spare mana but no good target, you often want to cast their copy exiling yours. That way, if the living Hostage Taker dies, the exiled one comes back under your control.
Hostage Taker stealing Llanowar Elves is a good way for the player who hit five mana first to keep their opponent off a bigger Hydroid Krasis or Carnage Tyrant. Llanowar Elves is also much more important in mirrors, since the mana advantage gets magnified by earlier Hostage Taker recasts.
Cast Down in response to the Hostage Taker trigger negates the entire ability. Already having Cast Down in hand to protect against Hostage Taker is one of the best reasons to leave up mana when casting Hydroid Krasis
While Wildgrowth Walker aggression can win games, people sideboarding additional Hostage Takers and ways to stop them makes that plan much harder to implement. Your sideboard cards just focus on winning the Vivien Reid or Hostage Taker fights and being better at bridging to Carnage Tyrant.
There are a couple of cards your opponents might have that force you to adjust your sideboarding.
If your opponent has Thief of Sanity, Assassin’s Trophy gets a bit better on the draw and Disdainful Stroke a bit worse. You can also consider a Kraul Harpooner over a Merfolk Branchwalker if they’re really heavy on the flier.
If your opponent is on Ben Friedman’s list with Hadana’s Climb and Incubation Druid, you want Assassin’s Trophy to cover against Winged Temple of Orazca. You also want to really pressure their mana accelerants early, because their deck is short on lands and you’re clear to start down the Hostage Taker mana advantage route to victory if they ever miss a land drop.
Sultai Control VS The World
While that covers the top decks of the format and literally every deck I played against at Mythic Championship Cleveland, there are a few other decks deserving quick hits.
Izzet Drakes is similar to the Mono-Blue matchup, but more susceptible to your aggression. Trim Llanowar Elves more aggressively as you have more time before you start trading, but they have more things to trade with and you need more action. Duress is worse because it doesn’t directly line up with a Curious Obsession-level threat, but you still want some.
Jody Keith’s Rakdos Midrange is effectively the same as post-sideboard Mono-Red Aggro. Try to use your answers to cover their main threats of Rekindling Phoenix and Treasure Map, power right through Siege-Gang Commander, and don’t lose to Dire Fleet Daredevil on Find. Carnage Tyrant to just skip the nonsense and kill them is a delight. Duress or Negate is reasonable. Llanowar Elves dies to Goblin Chainwhirler and sucks. Think about Carnage and Angrath, the Flame-Chained when playing your extra lands.
Gruul Aggro depends on their exact build, but you’re a huge favorite on card quality. You don’t want Llanowar Elves against Goblin Chainwhirler. You want Vivien Reid way more if they have Skarrgan Hellkite, and generally just aim to kill their creatures.
The Gates matchups are easiest to win when Wildgrowth Walker outpaces Gates Ablaze. Approach them similarly to Nexus of Fate decks even if they don’t have that card, with maybe even a bit more removal and Hydroid Krasis. Duress is still phenomenal against the creature lists as it hits Gates Ablaze and Guild Summit.
Selesnya decks have very similar routes to victory as the Sultai mirror, but you care about putting them into a spot they must start chump blocking instead of them having planeswalkers or Hostage Takers. Aggression is good, specific answers less good.
Everything else? Your cards are just great. Theirs probably aren’t. Figure out which of their cards come remotely close to matching yours, line up those answers, and go beat everyone with a dominating midrange deck.