Pro Tour Aether Revolt is in the books, and I must say I am disappointed in a few of the outcomes. The talk of the town is still Mardu Vehicles and its ability to dominate with old technology.
Innovation isn’t everything, however, and it could be a positive if spun correctly. The format could possibly be healthy and balanced, leading to the decks that were already discovered to run their course at the highest level of play. Each of the decks displayed in the SCG Tour events prior made a splash at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. I personally played against G/B Aggro, B/G Energy, Mardu Vehicles, Jeskai Control, U/R Control, Grixis Control, and even U/R Emerge. This represents a diverse set of decks in the ten matches of Standard that I played, which doesn’t involve any variation of Saheeli Combo. Even though the Top 8 and the best-performing Standard decks, consisted entirely of aggressive decks, that is only one event that is skewed by the inclusion of Draft, which takes away six potential rounds of data.
Mardu Vehicles was a known entity going into the event for me and was one of the decks I tested against the most, but when it came down to my play in Dublin, I fell short. I have a ton of excuses, the most defensible one being that I arrived 7 A.M. the morning of the event, which led to disastrous play early in the tournament. That, for the record, will never happen again. This plan may have worked for a twentysomething, but over a decade later, it simply wasn’t possible for me to perform well.
The only other excuse that is worth noting is the deck I chose was not built well for the tournament, and I paid the ultimate price for that. A matchup that I was winning over, and over again, became difficult to defeat all of a sudden. I tried to be clever by playing around an influx of Negates when my opponent cast Metallic Rebuke targeting Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, and I lost instantly.
There were a few tweaks made by the Mardu Vehicles pilots; however, the deck was barely edited outside of the manabase. I played nearly the same list that I posted about in the last article I wrote, which was primed to defeat G/B Aggro and Saheeli Combo variants. I also believed that the list could fight off any new strategies developed by some of the best in the game that had time to devote to breaking the format. I was mistaken, and my tournament was torpedoed.
There are two silver lining moments of the Pro Tour for me. The most important thing that happened was my teammate, Donald Smith, member of Lingering Souls, Top 8ed the event! This put our team on the map, and we are currently fourth on the leaderboard. He is a young buck and achieved greatness due to a ton of dedication and hard work. I’m super proud of him, and if any of you see him around the block, give this Lingering Soul a congratulatory high-five for me.
The second important thing that happened was my performance in the Limited portion. I defeated two Hall of Famers and a Pro Tour champion on my way to a 5-1 record. I typically do very well in Limited, but being put against Rich Hoaen, the best Limited player of all time in my opinion, and winning was something special for me. My only loss was to my good friend Christian Calcano, who defeated me with a preconstructed-grade U/R Energy deck, which was to be expected. This bodes well for a couple of Team Limited events soon, as well as some Sealed competitions that I can’t wait to battle in.
Back to Blue
As I mentioned across my social media platforms, I have returned to blue for both the Grand Prix last weekend in Pittsburgh, as well as in preparation for #SCGBALT (wow!). Let me first introduce my squad for this team extravaganza before we hop right into strategy.
Shaheen Soorani: Standard Esper Professor
Daryl Ayers: Legacy Mastermind
Daniel Musser: Modern Mediocrity
The titles give away which formats we are battling in, but I’m not worried. I have had a lot of backlash on my recent experimentation with Forests, so I have been hard at work with old reliable. This list is honestly U/B Control splashing Shambling Vents. I initially only wanted a few white sources to activate the best creature-land in Standard but realized that the manabase could easily handle some white spells.
Blue-based control has struggled in this Standard format because of its inability to defeat planeswalkers. Nearly every loss comes from an unchecked Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or one of his evil friends that dominate the battlefield against control mages across the globe. Anguished Unmaking is a clean answer to threatening artifacts, combo kills on our opponent’s turn, and that pesky planewalker that would end the game in loss if not dealt with immediately.
Torrential Gearhulk feeds off powerful instants but has only been showcased using creature removal, card draw, or counter magic. Anguished Unmaking adds another element to the mix, allowing Torrential Gearhulk to fly in at instant speed and destroy any nonland threat. The life loss is a concern that I’ve had while testing out Esper Control, but the Shambling Vents; Sorin, Grim Nemesis; and a few sideboard cards provide life replenishment to offset the powerful removal spell’s drawback. I’ve learned from a young age that “answer-alls” play a pivotal role in tournament-winning control decks, so the addition of white is welcomed for this U/B Control shell.
This wouldn’t be a Shaheen deck without an additional six-mana spell! Sorin, Grim Nemesis is a fantastic one-of that can take over the game instantly. With the power of Torrential Gearhulk, control decks in the current Standard can keep the battlefield relatively clear, opening the true potential of planeswalkers.
The obvious drawback of any planeswalker in this style of deck is the fact that tapping out can lead to disastrous outcomes. The one Ob Nixilis Reignited is a punishing card, used for opponents that attempt to meddle in an end-step Glimmer of Genius on turn 4. Sorin, Grim Nemesis is much more of an all-star in every matchup outside of Saheeli Combo, so do not sideboard it out unless that is your foe. Against all other decks, the end-game planeswalker destroys enemy planeswalkers and creatures, provides card advantage/pressure, and has a game-ending ultimate. My original Esper Control lists had two copies, but even this expensive spell mage understands when the six-drop cap has been reached.
The final white card in the maindeck is Fumigate. This looks like an odd splash, being double white, but the manabase is built so that mana requirement is easily met. Without double white, Shambling Vents is nothing more than a mediocre tapped land, so providing enough resources for Fumigate wasn’t too difficult. With the popularity of B/G variants, Mardu Vehicles, and G/R Energy, Fumigate is a card you want to include in the 75.
I was a huge advocate for Descend upon the Sinful, but delirium is not easy to get in this list and that worrisome six-drop cap has already been maxed. Many of you were probably expecting to see copies of Yahenni’s Expertise somewhere in the list, but sadly the powerful new sweeper did not make the cut.
With the popularity of Mardu Vehicles booming, the ability for G/B decks to outgrow -3/-3 instantly, and the lack of spells to cast for free in the instant category, Yahenni’s Expertise will be a four-of in my binder for the time being.
The most powerful sweeper out of the sideboard is easily Flaying Tendrils, which can dispatch the best starts from Mardu Vehicles opponents. Flaying Tendrils is the perfect card to partner with Fumigate, providing answers to the fast early-game of Mardu Vehicles and punish the big late-game of G/B Aggro.
I am not going to sugarcoat the matchup between any control versus Mardu Vehicles. My comrade, Brian Braun-Duin, was looking really strong going into the Standard rounds on Day 2 at the Pro Tour. He then got walloped by Mardu Vehicles over and over, pushing him to an 8-8 finish. His Jeskai Control strategy was no match for the speed that Mardu Vehicles is capable of, so I examined his list when developing my control version. Flaying Tendrils is the key to victory against this deck, but even with the devastating exile sweeper, the matchup is still tough.
The U/B Shell
The rest of the deck utilizes the true control elements in Standard. Fatal Push was a card that I was iffy on at the beginning of Standard unless aggressive decks became more powerful. We didn’t have to wait long for that reality to invade ours. With the aggressive decks dominating Pro Tour Aether Revolt, it is time to arm ourselves to the teeth with removal. Four Fatal Push join forces with four Grasp of Darkness, to give us powerful interaction in the early-game. The mandatory amount of Anticipate is of course four, which provides land drops early and necessary disruption/win conditions late.
The copy of Liliana, the Last Hope in the maindeck is for Mardu Vehicles and B/G Energy and as a way to return a fallen Torrential Gearhulk back to life. The card is too powerful to not include, and I added a second copy to combat those two specific matchups. Oath of Jace has been a superstar, providing me an outlet to pitch lands during flood, excess disruption after board, or simply land drops early. Playing only one copy is safe, and I wouldn’t add more. The rest of the list is straightforward with a sideboard dedicated to stopping Mardu Vehicles from wiping the floor with us.
I tried playing more removal than that, but I found my hands overloaded and me staring at a planeswalker. Transgress the Mind, Negate, and Sphinx of the Final Word give us the edge in the control mirrors that aren’t dipping into black for powerful disruption.
A key omission that you may notice in the sideboard is Thing in the Ice. It was included in most the pros’ control decks, so I decided to give it a whirl. I was beyond unimpressed with the card, finding that most of my opponents refuse to cut removal. I asked multiple opponents for their reasoning and found that they expected Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to come in, which forces them to keep a couple Grasp of Darkness in with their To the Slaughters (or similar removal depending on color). Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet has too much upside to not be included, compared to Thing in the Ice. Another problem with the defender is the amount of time it takes to cast four instants/sorceries before they find an answer to the creature.
Dynavolt Tower already rewards us for casting spells regularly, but too many of these spell-hungry effects have proven to be ineffective. One of my few wins at the Pro Tour was against a Grixis Control deck that resolved Thing in the Ice six times in two games. He had an impossible time flipping them and could have been drawing spells instead of additional copies. I can see playing one or two, but I decided to drop them completely for additional removal spells.
Let’s hope that this Esper pilot can outmaneuver the aggressive onslaught that is about to take place this weekend at #SCGBALT !