Preparing For Pro Tour Ixalan

Sam Black eventually played the same deck at Pro Tour Ixalan that Mike Sigrist used to make the Top 8. That’s not the whole story, of course! Get Sam’s insights into the decks left behind along the way…decks that may still hold a kernel of greatness!

Preparation for Pro Tour Ixalan was a unique experience because it was the first PT in many years that wasn’t shortly after the release of a new set. I’d already put a lot of work into these exact formats preparing for the World Championship, but I still had several weeks to put in more work between the two events. Personally, I found it difficult to motivate myself to take full advantage of that time, because a lot of the reason I enjoy testing for PTs is that I get to explore a lot of new ideas, and this format’s pretty hostile to that. I don’t really have it in me to enter League after League with Temur Energy,

My plan was to attend GP Phoenix and then begin testing in earnest with my team in Albuquerque the week leading up to the Pro Tour. I was working with a huge group centered around Team CFB and Team UltraPro, with a wide assortment of old teammates of our various members from previous teams. We were all staying at a hotel by the airport in Albuquerque and renting a large conference room there to test, and getting back into an environment where I was completely surrounded by Magic with no other distractions helped me come up with a lot of new ideas to test, so the process was a bit more fun than I expected.

A lot of people have told me this weekend that they’re surprised that I wasn’t playing Tokens (spoiler: I didn’t play Tokens). I answered that it’s not so much that I enjoy finding objects other than cards to put on the table, but that I like trying to attack Standard from unexpected angles, and I happen to have found a variety of token-based strategies in the past that let me do that. I wouldn’t be any happier playing an expected token-control deck than any other expected deck.

That said, I did start my testing with Hidden Stockpile, but not the way I used it before, or how others have been using it since. Specifically, I was trying it in aggressive token strategies without Anointed Procession. I think the card is powerful enough by itself, and I think that the control version of the deck is popular enough that people are planning to attack enchantments, so I don’t want to invest in a four-mana enchantment that doesn’t necessarily do anything by itself, but I’m still interested in a powerful two-mana engine card.

I guess it’s not exactly right to say I “started” here. Before that, I played a bit with a Mono-White Vampires deck, but I didn’t like how bad white was at interacting. I knew that I could add black, but I didn’t like what that did to the mana.

My solution was to use Renegade Map to make the mana work while powering up Hidden Stockpile. After some tuning, I ended up here:

Between Renegade Map, Evolving Wilds, Aethergeode Miner, Finish, Deserts, the legend rule with Legion’s Landing, and combat, I was able to trigger revolt most turns without sacrificing a token, which meant I didn’t need two copies of Anointed Procession to make progress. Not playing Scrapheap Scrounger is weird, but I felt like the energy package was really important; specifically, I wanted Glint-Sleeve Siphoner to help get enough cards that I could get all my pieces working together.

In general, I was impressed with Trial of Solidarity and Adanto Vanguard, and Trial of Solidarity felt like one of the best ways to attack energy specifically, but ultimately I decided the energy matchup wasn’t quite good enough, even if I might have been slightly favored (I’m really not sure) because it was hard to beat white control decks as much as I’d want.

The deck was fun, and I really wanted it to be good enough, but it just didn’t feel quite there.

One thing that really stood out to me while I was playing Leagues with this and other decks was that I almost never beat God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks. No matter what I played, their deck just always seemed to work perfectly and I felt hopeless.

A couple of people on my team had played with them some and said the decks felt inconsistent and not good enough, so we weren’t really tuning them as a team, but I was worried that the right build might be great. Eventually, I tried a little with a fairly normal build, except that I was playing Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. Putting a card in the graveyard with Seekers’ Squire is nice, but I felt like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner was just a better card, and my opponent would have to spend time immediately answering it, which would get a creature in my graveyard, or the extra cards would translate to more creatures in my graveyard, or just winning the game. I only played one League with the deck before concluding that it wasn’t really my style, but Glint-Sleeve Siphoner did feel great, and I still think it belongs in this archetype.

I like this maindeck quite a bit, but I’m less sure about the sideboard or the best way to sideboard with the deck. Still, I do think this archetype has some real potential and that this is a good maindeck, but by the time I started working on it, it just didn’t make sense to follow through on it rather than continuing our work on Energy.

As more and more of my ideas failed and more and more of the team was becoming sure they were going to play Attune with Aether, I went back to wondering whether I should just play U/B Control again, but every time I tried it, it became clear that it’s just not good enough right now. There are too many decks that are attacking from angles it’s not ready for, and it’s not even that great against Energy decks with counterspells and a lot of planeswalkers.

I put less time into them, but I did brainstorm a bunch of other sweet decks that almost certainly aren’t good enough, but as always, the decks that weren’t quite good enough for the PT still might be the most fun options for lower-level tournaments, so I want to offer a few more interesting ideas if you’re tired of making Thopter tokens.

Basically, I wanted to see how good Captain Lannery Storm is if you have a lot of cheap removal to get her through and expensive spells to cast with the Treasures.

The answer was that she was actually pretty impressive, but the rest of the deck wasn’t. My hope was that Glint-Sleeve Siphoner; Chandra, Torch of Defiance; and Rowdy Crew would provide enough card advantage to let you get away with playing a lot of one-for-one removal and grind an opponent out with Demon of Dark Schemes to sweep up Thopter tokens. But that’s not really how it played out. Rogue Refiner is just too good, as was Vraska, Relic Seeker.

Mardu plays a lot of good spells, but the mana just doesn’t seem good enough these days, so I wanted to try building a Mardu deck that could cast its spells a little more consistently.

The idea here was that if all of my creatures were Dwarves, I could rely on Unclaimed Territory for colored mana, meaning I would need to use Aether Hub for colored mana very rarely, and could basically save it for Unlicensed Disintegration.

Unfortunately, I think you really need more removal spells than this, at which point you can’t really rely on Unclaimed Territory and there’s no reason to build the deck this way.

Going a bit deeper, I was curious as to whether it was possible to build a deck around Grim Captain’s Call, and when I tried, I was surprised by how much synergy there was between the creatures I wanted to play:

Gifted Aetherborn and Deathgorge Scavenger gain life, which makes up for life lost by Ruin Raider, and Duress and Kitesail Freebooter protect Ruin Raider. Merfolk Branchwalker and Kitesail Freebooter can likely attack on Turn 3 to trigger raid, and Merfolk Branchwalker can potentially help fill the graveyard for Grim Captain’s Call.

Ultimately, I’m pretty sure this would play out like the B/R Midrange deck, where there’s just not really enough value to keep up with the Energy decks, and I have no idea how good Grim Captain’s Call actually is; even if you draw the right mix of creatures to return three or four, I just don’t know if a card like that is good or not, because there hasn’t really been anything too similar before. Unfortunately, it’s definitely going to be “matchup-dependent” at best, so while this shell looked pretty sweet, it didn’t really seem worth putting together to play real games with in a limited time frame.

Another brainstorm that I had was whether Ripjaw Raptor was really the weak link in the Dinosaur decks, and whether Samut, the Tested might be a better four-drop.

It’s a little weird to play Otepec Huntmaster and not play a four-mana creature that it can allow you to cast on Turn 3, but the thinking is that I can play a three-mana Dinosaur and Savage Stomp or Commune with Dinosaurs, and most likely, Huntmaster will die anyway and I’ll want a three-drop to cast. It’s largely there for the haste ability anyway.

Carnage Tyrant over additional Burning Sun’s Avatar was a hedge because this archetype is so bad against U/B Control, but with the metagame as it is now, it might just be better to ignore U/B Control and play Burning Sun’s Avatar, which is probably better in more spots.

Dinosaurs probably needs another set to really come together, but this is a pretty good Heart of Kiran deck, and Samut, the Tested represents a lot of damage.

Ultimately, I played Temur Black, the same deck that Mike Sigrist made Top 8 with, and both Team CFB and Team UltraPro put up great results with the deck.

Until we get another set, I think the energy cards are just the most powerful cards in Standard, and the fact that Aether Hub, Attune with Aether, and Servant of the Conduit offer better mana than anything else means the deck just has the most options in tuning and sideboarding, so I think the reality is that Temur(-based) Energy is just the best deck, and any other deck can only succeed as a metagame call, which is to say that Temur can be tuned to beat basically anything, but as it shifts for some matchups, it’s possible for the right thing to catch it off-guard and win an event.

That said, while 47% of the field in the Pro Tour played Attune with Aether, the Top 8 was remarkably diverse, so Standard is now at a point with both a clear target and a variety of second-tier options to play. As I remember some complaints about recent formats being too open, I suspect this focus will be a welcome change for some. Personally, I think it’s not a terrible format, but it’ll get old fast if Energy is still the best after Rivals of Ixalan comes out.

In addition to rounding out at least some of Ixalan‘s tribes, I’m really hoping for more lands. That feels greedy, given how many good two-color and five-color lands are already in Standard, but somehow, it’s still very hard to build a two-color aggro deck, which doesn’t feel right to me.