In Closing On This Standard Format

If you want the best road to the future, use the past as your map! Ari Lax is ready to be all over Dominaria Standard, but to do that, he needs to show and share exactly where we’ve been since Standard was saved!

A month later and this is still true. Rivals of Ixalan Standard is
everything the format has been missing for a while. The format has been
dynamic since day one, with aggro, midrange, control, and combo all having
had their turn at the top of the metagame.

Playing Catchup

Not being into this format from day one post-Attune with Aether ban is
perfectly understandable. Here’s the quick version of what lead to this

The first phase of the format takes place early on, around the January SCG
Tour Classics in Dallas and Philadelphia and similarly timed MOCS events.

Unsurprisingly, the aggro deck that changed no cards and was still good was
the first best deck. Ramunap Ruins got much worse post-rotation and
Rampaging Ferocidon wasn’t even a consensus three-drop.

The immediate question asked was how do you beat Hazoret the Fervent? The
reactions and lessons from this stage:

Removal that exiled became a requirement. Lots of decks moved towards
black, which had real cards. Some moved towards white, which was literally
just removal.

Hazoret mirrors quickly resolved with Earthshaker Khenra dominating
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Heart of Kiran, much like what happened in the
pre-ban metagame. Play Mardu when everyone cuts Abrade and Fatal Push. Play
Dread Wanderer and Scrapheap Scrounger when grinding supplants attacking.
Apply haste and Mountains to their face otherwise.

The stage two time frame is around Grand Prix Memphis in February. Here we
saw the rise of various midrange decks and Mono-Red Aggro starting to
disappear, with zero copies making the Top 8 of that event.

Despite playing one of these midrange decks
Naya Monsters – I’m not actually convinced they were actually big
favorites against Mono-Red Aggro. The matchup was just close enough and
real edges could be gained in that sector of the metagame.

The reactions and lessons from this phase,
beyond the pre-event ones I already wrote about

Holy crap Approach of the Second Sun is still terrible. I’ve never seen a
card with such a gap between how much people want to play it and how much
people only wanting to win play it. Stop doing this to yourself. Negate,
Duress, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are all cards.

Exile removal only became more important. The good ones both handle runaway
Chandra, Torch of Defiance and it turns out The Scarab God is still
unbeatable if you untap with it.

The end of this phase registered the need to beat Carnage Tyrant. In
midrange battles with lots of removal, often the unleashing the giant death
lizard is the best option. This might be what triggered some of the next
phase strategic shifts.

Today’s Format

I want to say the turning point from the last phase to this one was Owen
article about Grixis Energy.
Even if my bias is that Naya was underrated and Grixis overrated, that
piece solidified a picture of the metagame as Mono-Red on the decline with
positioning battles between The Scarab God decks.

It turns out there’s a lot you can do to exploit B/U Midrange.

Gerry Thompson
was probably a bit ahead of the curve in talking about various white
go-wide strategies

. If your opponent has Rekindling Phoenix, Chandra, Torch of Defiance,
Glorybringer, Magma Spray, and Sweltering Suns, you’re just gonna have some
bad lineups because all their cards are great and fly. Or if they are
making massive Walking Ballistas and flying double sized hexproof Bristling
Hydras. If they’re 54 pieces of trash, no sweepers, exile-able The Scarab
Gods, and Torrential Gearhulk on Essence Scatters on things you don’t care
about, things look much better. If you’re all lifelink tokens to their
Hazoret the Fervents, your Vampires will have plenty to feast on.

If your opponent’s counter magic is focused on Essence Scatter, you can
also get them with God-Pharaoh’s Gift.
The point I made about [card name="Negate"]Negate[/card] being a clunker and [card name="Duress"]Duress[/card] being the
actual good tempo spell last week is largely based on these decks

. Their mediocre beats force action, but tapping out is possibly lethal,
but also going long means they cast their Gifts and eternalize Champion of
Wits and transform Search for Azcanta.

For those looking to combo, the Ben Friedman-endorsed
U/R Gift is pretty darn good
, as is U/W Refurbish Gift, so you have a choice. Search for Azcanta is so
absurdly good in U/W and Chart a Course helps with some of the raw card
quantity issues U/R can have, but U/W has a larger combo fail rate compared
to the deck that gets to play Trophy Mage. That said, U/W had a ton of
successful finishes at last weekend’s monthly MOCS event, so I would be
hard pressed to say it isn’t now a tier one option.

The last category of weird stuff is best described by the card Arch of
Orazca. Unshockingly, a land that draws cards is super powerful. I don’t
think we have quite figured out the right build of it yet, but there’s a
lot of options. I would stay super far away from the Bant Approach lists
from last month. I think the Naya Dinosaurs build with Gishath, Sun’s
Avatar and Zacama, Primal Calamity is more cute than good, but I like
splicing the heavy Carnage Tyrant elements of that deck into the
Mastermind’s Acquisition G/B shell. This sample Magic Online 5-0 list isn’t
perfect, but it’s a lot of steps in the right direction. Bounty of the Luxa
as extra card draw and ramp, bonus colors for The Scarab God and/or Profane
Procession–or even just Ipnu Rivulet to break control mirrors–and Commit
are the highlights. I used to really like The Immortal Sun in these decks,
but that phase quickly went away as God-Pharaoh’s Gift forced people to
play real Shatters instead of Vraska, Relic Seeker and Ixalan’s Binding.

The last deck that isn’t really an exploit but is just putting up tier one
results is Sultai Constrictor. Despite Aaron Barich making it to the finals
of Grand Prix Memphis, I struggled to see the staying power of this deck.
Anything Glorybringer and Chandra-based like the G/R Monsters deck that
beat him in that last match is not good at all.

It turns out this turn to weirdo decks has not been good for those red
midrange decks. U/W Gift is especially an uphill struggle, and The Scarab
God decks all adopting Commit has also been a bit rough. Sultai
Constrictor, on the other hand, can just wombo combo those decks and has

So to summarize, the top tier of the format has turned from Hazoret the
Fervent, Glorybringer, and The Scarab God to God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Winding
Constrictor, and The Scarab God with a splash of Adanto Vanguard in a mix
of sub-flavors.

The Key Tidbits

So with all that in mind, here are the small tips and tricks I’ve found
playing with and against those best decks.

Various The Scarab God decks:

Owen wrote about half an article last week about how good
Commit//Memory is

. It might have been an understatement. The insane Ixalan’s Binding-River’s
Rebuke-Memory line he wrote about is much closer to the norm than you would
expect. I’m honestly wondering if the entire color white is worth playing
anymore because Ixalan’s Binding is just a liability.

Playing Champion of Wits in these decks is a joke. Spending three mana on
the front half of that card is embarrassing unless you’re following it up
with Refurbish. The only upside of playing four of this card is sometimes
you have the obvious discard of even more Champions to the first one. Even
if Whirler Virtuoso is half the card it was in the Attune with Aether days,
I’d rather have a three-drop that can chump a Winged Temple of Orazca

Again, Owen is just right, and Field of Ruin is criminally underplayed in
these decks. Or honestly Standard, in general. Killing Sultai Constrictor’s
Winged Temple of Orazca or U/W Gift’s Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is a big

Basically every deck without The Scarab God or Refurbish should sideboard
two or three Silent Gravestone. It shuts down those cards and Torrential
Gearhulk and Rekindling Phoenix, the latter of which is really prompting me
to reconsider how (and if) I want to build my Glorybringer decks.

If you’re going to play a U/B deck, you need to be really familiar with
what a winning hand looks like against each of the relevant decks. Often,
half of your deck is pretty bad, but there are some cards in the other half
they can’t beat. Being able to sideboard and mulligan to maximize your odds
of a good draw is how you win these days, not just keeping The Scarab God
and whatever answers you find.

God-Pharaoh’s Gift:

One of the interesting parts of the Gift decks is that there isn’t a good
overlap on hate between the two builds. A lot of this is because U/W
Refurbish can shift over to a Fumigate control deck and play a long game,
but the various Gate to the Afterlife builds back up into creature
midrange. Duress and Silent Gravestone put in work against one where
Deathgorge Scavenger and Glorybringer hit the other, but nothing great hits
both. Your best overlap bet is Naturalize or Abrade, and there’s only so
far leaving up two mana gets you.

Nothing about Gift is easy. U/W has a ton of decisions about how to
sequence your spells to see the most cards for a combo, decisions about
whether to keep an Angel of Invention to cast or discard it to reanimate,
the same decisions about God-Pharaoh’s Gift, as seven mana is very real.
U/R is all about figuring out how to get to the six creatures in graveyard
point and then some. Then in the face of interaction… ugh. They have The
Scarab God, but you have removal to dig to, but if you take too long they
get to set up Commit on a Cast Out and immediately activate it, so you then
sideboard Negates, but then… Oh yeah, and you have to sideboard and not
cripple your deck. Neither of these are decks to pick up and go with.

Even if it seems like these are decks looking to minimize the impact of
good removal, and even if they do a great job of it in game 1s, spot
removal can be a key part of post-sideboard plans of keeping them off
balance. A Vraska’s Contempt on their Angel of Invention or first Combat
Celebrant buys a turn against an active God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and if your
other disruption pushes them into slim margin scenarios, that can be
enough. Just don’t try this with Fatal Push as the tokens are copies with
the appropriate mana costs.

Sultai Constrictor:

Holy crap you can’t ever beat a Solemnity. Honestly the biggest draw to
some Vampires-style nonsense at this point is that you get to play
Solemnity and Silent Gravestone without any issues of your own. This alone
might mean it’s time to mix up your high end a bit, possibly going from
just Verdurous Gearhulk to a mix of that, The Scarab God, or even
Skysovereign, the Biggest Boat in the Sky.

Bristling Hydra is the super-duper combo kill with Hadana’s Climb, but
outside of that it kinda sucks. There just isn’t enough spare energy to
make it survive double blocks, and if you have Winding Constrictor active
to go that big, why is a giant non-trampler the good payoff?

I also hate Blossoming Defense, but I think this plays a little more into
how this deck has changed since the builds we have been used to since Aether Revolt. We like to think of Winding Constrictor decks as
really Delver-y: a lot of powerful two-drops that run away with the game,
maybe a bit of a high end to crack some games open. This just isn’t the
case anymore. Longtusk Cub was cut because now you just don’t get free wins
from your early drops. Sometimes an enhanced Walking Ballista spikes a
specific matchup, but Sultai Constrictor now is more of a setup deck with a
combo payoff in Hadana’s Climb, closer to Affinity with better interaction.
Playing Blossoming Defense in this deck just puts more cards in your deck
that aren’t payoffs with the hope that you line everything up perfectly.

Just a reminder: cycling lands have a real cost. While they’re perfect for
wedge tri-color mana like Naya, Jund, or Grixis when paired with
Dragonskull Summit, they’re super awkward with the Kaladesh fast
lands. Your sequencing of trying to play a tapped land on turn 1 but play
all your fast lands before turn 4 is strained at best. Even in two color
decks like U/W Gift, I have found myself wanting to play a ton of lands and
also curve out early.

What The Future Holds

After Grand Prix Seattle and the SCG Tour Milwaukee Classic, Rivals of Ixalan Standard is done and Dominaria is here
to stay. While a large set with as many heavy hitters as it looks like Dominaria has is bound to change some things, I would keep the
following in mind:

Beware the lure of medium-sized creatures with medium-sized stats. The 3/3
for three Goblin Chainwielder is going to get outclassed by Hazoret the
Fervent or The Scarab God too fast to matter much of the time. Siege-Gang
Commander and Goblin Warchief, on the other hand, do something bigger than
the individual pieces, and I expect those Goblins to shine.

Llanowar Elves is getting a lot of hype. It’s a really good card, but I
think some people have skewed memories of the card. G/R Devotion had a lot
of other powerful support behind it. The disappearance of one-drop green
mana creatures was never intended to be permanent, just that always having
them makes cards like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar unprintable.

The format is not going to be static. The good answers to specific card
types aren’t good against everything. Enchantments, artifacts,
planeswalkers, and creatures exist. If your The Antiquities War deck isn’t
good one week, that doesn’t mean it won’t be good for your next event.

Until some event forces me to do anything else, I’m going to be goldfishing
weirdo combo decks. Stay tuned in future weeks for some Paradox Engine,
Song of Freyalise, and/or Powerstone Shard action.

Fight with Fire



Kicker 5R (You may pay an additional 5R as you cast this spell.)

Fight with Fire deals 5 damage to target creature. If this spell was
kicked, it deals 10 damage divided as you choose among any number of
targets instead. (Those targets can include players and planeswalkers.)

My favorite card no one is talking about is Fight with Fire. Three mana
five damage is close enough to playable, and nine mana is close enough to
castable that I expect to be lighting people up with this spell a lot. It
might be time for Hour of Promise to find some Desert of the Fervents