On The Eve Of The Standard Pro Tour

Ben Friedman can’t wait to battle! Which decks does he feel stand the best chance of conquering all at the PT (and SCGCON)? A new contender is on the horizon…

It’s time.

Pro Tour Dominaria is upon us, and every one of the competitors
has been hard at work in their respective laboratories trying to figure out
how to get an edge in this rapidly solidifying Standard format. This
weekend, we’ll get to take a long, hard look at a format that sort of
resembles Duel Decks: Teferi vs. Karn writ large.

With pundits like Brad Nelson claiming that it’s incorrect to play anything
but U/W Control and events like Grand Prix Birmingham showing Lebron James
levels of dominance from R/B Aggro, it seems like the testing ground of
Richmond is going to be a place where some folks are going to end up
missing the mark completely. Of course, with the ever-looming question of
“did someone break it?” hanging over every tester’s head, there’s always a
bit of healthy uncertainty about what you can expect from the format.
God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Constructs, and even New Perspectives are all out there
and ready to wreck those who don’t know what is going on.

To that end, it seems appropriate to compile a comprehensive viewer’s guide
of the state of the format going into the event, to give everyone the same
information as the players themselves, and see if they come to the same
conclusions as the best in the game.

To start, of course, is the most obviously successful deck of the new
Standard format. Popularized by streamer Matthew Foulkes and taken to six
of the top 8 spots at GP Birmingham, this aggressively-slanted midrange
deck with a heaping helping of powerful Planeswalkers is one of the axes of
the format. This is the true descendant of Mardu Vehicles in a format
pressed by Goblin Chainwhirler. By eschewing Toolcraft Exemplar, you’re
able to use Chainwhirler yourself to excellent effect, and with a pile of
quality threats in Scrapheap Scrounger, Walking Ballista, Heart of Kiran,
the aforementioned Goblin Chainwhirler, Rekindling Phoenix, and even
Glorybringer, you’re hard-pressed to be behind on raw card power. There are
a number of popular lists out there, but Simon Nielsen’s winning deck from
the GP is a great place to start.

The only weaknesses of this deck, at least the stock version seen here, are
Hazoret the Fervent and the whole U/W Control deck. Incidentally, that’s
part of the reason the U/W Control deck was so successful the subsequent
weekend and why Brad Nelson felt compelled to tell everyone how broken it
is. Of course, the deck has evolved over the past two weeks due to the
rapid iterations tested by the best Magic Online grinders. With three
Doomfall, three Duress, a copy of The Eldest Reborn, and two Arguel’s Blood
Fast in the sideboard, the deck is significantly better-equipped to beat up
on U/W Control after sideboard. As for big Hazoret, the options are
Vraska’s Contempt and Hour of Glory. Contempt is hard on the sensitive
manabase, and Hour of Glory doesn’t gain two life or hit Planeswalkers,
both of which are important against Mono-Red Aggro (or nearly Mono-Red
Aggro). They exist, and they are the only game in town, but at four mana
they’re certainly not a desirable solution by any means.

One of the amusing aspects of this format (and part of the reason that Hour
of Glory and Vraska’s Contempt are awkward answers to Hazoret) is the
abundance of wealth that these decks have at the four-drop slot. Chandra,
Torch of Defiance competes with Rekindling Phoenix, Karn, Scion of Urza,
and (in the more aggressive versions of the deck) Hazoret. This leads to
seemingly disorganized and non-optimized mixes like you see here, with a
sampler platter of two Chandra, two Karn, and two Phoenix. Good against
Ixalan’s Binding, but bad when it comes to actually figuring out what
four-drop is the best.

Now, the most important schism in the red aggro macro-archetype is how
aggressive to make the strategy. Bomat Courier and Hazoret are both stellar
cards, both work extremely well together, and neither one is in this
ostensibly aggressive deck. What we’ve seen is a hard reaction to the
presence of Goblin Chainwhirler in the format, where any creature with one
toughness is deemed completely unacceptable. The push-pull of Bomat Courier
is weak to Chianwhirler, but Hazoret is extremely strong against the rest
of the R/B deck makes for an interesting dynamic in metagaming. As the R/B
decks got a higher and higher average converted mana cost, the opportunity
arose to position a deck to sneak in damage under the Chainwhirler and
finish things off with a Hazoret. This is where Mono-Red has an
opportunity, and in recent weeks it’s increased its metagame share on MTGO
significantly. If the U/W decks aren’t able to contain the early pressure,
and the R/B decks get too inbred, this could be Pro Tour Hour of Devastation all over again!

On the other end of the spectrum is the scourge of round clocks everywhere,
U/W Control. The Best Standard Player in the World(™) Brad Nelson has
claimed that it’s the best choice. It’s loads of fun to stick a Teferi and
draw cards while cementing your position, eventually winning with a
permanent-less opponent. As the midrange decks slow down and pack more
removal, they’re more and more susceptible to just being countered right
out of the game. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think this deck would be
highly popular at the Pro Tour, with the biggest strike against it being
the fear of too many mirror matches (and subsequent unintentional draws) in
the field.

The sideboard juke of History of Benalia and Knight of Grace is a great way
to switch things up for the mirror match, although with most decks keeping
in a little removal as a safety measure against potential copies of Lyra
Dawnbringer, it’s not super likely to break open any other matchups. For
the most part, the best way to beat U/W is to stick an early card draw
engine and use a few Duresses and/or Doomfalls to disrupt them long enough
to drag a win across. Arguel’s Blood Fast, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Treasure
Map, or any powerful Planeswalker are great options.

Now, the aforementioned decks are easily going to be the most popular
strategies at the Pro Tour this weekend. However, they aren’t the only
pressures on the Standard metagame. W/B Aggro, a la
Gerry Thompson’s excellent article
about his deck from Birmingham, is likely to be the next most popular
macro-archetype. It runs Toolcraft Exemplar and Heart of Kiran to open up
the possibility of a nut draw and it sideboards into an excellent midrangey
Planeswalker deck against R/B Aggro. Seems like everyone sideboards into a
slow Planeswalker deck these days, but if that’s the best way to make
opposing sideboard plans look silly, so be it. Sharky_ on MTGO has a solid
example of a way to make this archetype look its best:

Where R/B Aggro tries to maximize Goblin Chainwhirler in a midrangey shell,
this deck is looking to maximize History of Benalia in the same midrangey
Planeswalker-oriented shell. It gains a small edge against U/W Control with
this plan, specifically against cards like Seal Away, but it cedes ground
against the green creature decks that have also begun popping up on MTGO
more and more. Fumigate is a concession to the deck’s bad matchup against
none other than G/B Constrictor, which has been coming back with a
vengeance to combat U/W Control.

Jeff Cunningham, known now more for his incredible writing (capped off by
the wonderful ”

Untold Legends of the Million Dollar Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour

” series) has come back with a vengeance on MTGO with the best pile of
creatures Standard can accommodate. This deck has some truly powerful
openings, with Llanowar Elves fueling early Verdurous Gearhulks, Winding
Constrictor making for 6/5 Jadelight Rangers on the third turn, and the
ever-powerful Walking Ballista showing people what’s what as either an
early removal spell or a late mana sink and game-ender. Ffej will tell you
that his deck is favored against all these midrangey piles, but I’m a bit
skeptical. There’s a structural weakness to Goblin Chainwhirler, to
Fumigate, to the good old-fashioned sequence of “removal, removal, removal,
Chandra” that I can’t quite shake off. It’s playable, to be sure, but I
don’t quite see it dominating Pro Tour Dominaria.

And then there are the rest. God-Pharaoh’s Gift exists, but it’s become
significantly worse now that the control and midrange decks all maindeck
some answers to the flagship card in Abrade, Blink of an Eye, or Cast Out.
Goblin Chainwhirler is no joke against the mostly one-toughness crew of
enablers and throwaway creatures. It’s just not the same world as it was
before Dominaria jumped on the scene. The deck will need a more
defined metagame to sneak up on, and I’m confident that such a metagame
will reappear in the next few months, but it’s just not the right time
right now. Even the U/W Refurbish version is behind against R/B Aggro with
all the Abrades, Duresses, Doomfalls, and the like. If that deck
diminishes, then it will be time to Gift again, but it’s just too
structurally powerful against Gift to give the deck much breathing room in

U/B, Sultai, and Esper Midrange are all options for the brewer, tweaker,
and tuner out there, although they will likely not be heavily represented
at the Pro Tour unless one of the super teams ends up finding a list they
believe covers all the bases of the format. Nearly Mono-Green Aggro is
another one of the decks that might put up a solid finish, but is so
one-dimensional that it’s hard to imagine it making it all the way to the
finish line at a huge event like the Pro Tour. Mono-Black Control is my
secret pick for a solid deck that is being ignored by the best players
because it fits a pattern of decks that semi-competitive players try to
make work without much success for years and years. This time, the deck
might be the real deal. Walking Ballista for twenty is not unheard-of, and
it might be the winning line at this event.

And then there is my favorite deck for the Pro Tour. It’s not going to win
the event, but boy oh boy is it fun to play. And with a solid finish in a
recent MTGO PTQ, who’s to say a boy can’t dream?