Rallying To A Good Finish At #SCGATL

Michael Majors couldn’t crack the Top 8, but he certainly could see it from where he was sitting! Read about Michael’s Standard prep as he approaches both #SCGCOL and #PTOGW!

This past weekend at #SCGATL I went 11-4 with Four-Color Rally, losing my win-and-in during Round 15. Here’s the list I played:

Objectively, placing in the top 16 of a 500+-person tournament is certainly a great finish, but this tournament was fairly disappointing. I still firmly believe that Four-Color Rally is the best deck in Standard by a wide margin and I really enjoy playing it.

My deck reverted back to being fairly normalized following my article last week.

Ultimately, I concluded that while four Catacomb Sifters were no longer necessary with the advent of Reflector Mage from Oath of the Gatewatch, having access to a Sifter during the earlier stages of the game as a means to Scry into more important spells and creatures is an invaluable effect.

As I’ve harped on repeatedly, Four-Color Rally is a collection of creatures with abilities of varying utility. Denying yourself access to Catacomb Sifter eliminates a unique aspect of the deckand ultimately isn’t worth the cost in power, even when it results in a small increase in mana consistency.

Once we’ve reached the conclusion that Catacomb Sifter is worth it, there’s no reason to not go ahead and play Elvish Visionary. Palace Familiar is not “bad,” but it is worse than its Elf counterpart. While having a flying blocker is certainly not irrelevant, there are two major advantages of Elvish Visionary: it digs into additional lands in the early turns, and it is capable of being bounced by Sidisi’s Faithful to get deeper into your deck.

After tournaments like these, especially when playing decks that I’ve already spoken about at length, I think it’s typically easiest to organize my sporadic thoughts with:

What I Did Right

· Play with Oath cards. I’m certainly not special for simply doing this. Every single Rally deck in the Top 16 of #SCGATL played Reflector Mage and I think everyone would agree that Reflector Mage is pretty busted. That being said, Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim was still a little underrepresented by most folks, but she overperformed for me. Rally is excellent at leveraging chip shots, and Ayli is both great at dealing consistent damage past “more valuable” blockers while also holding the ground herself. I never actually reached her ultimate ability throughout the tournament, but she was able to keep me alive singlehandedly in a Rally mirror where my life total swayed between single digits and over 30 within a few turn cycles.

· Get the details (mostly) right. I will of course get to the several flaws in my decklist, but when I saw that Sam Black registered an incredibly similar Four-Color Rally list for the Super Sunday Series championship (which he won), I could at least feel some validation. If one wasn’t well versed in the specific cards or ideas present in Rally but looked at my deck, they would probably conclude that it’s just plain ugly. I have a smattering of three-ofs and two-ofs that might look like I have very little clue as to what I actually want to play in my deck, but that’s (again for the most part) simply not true. When you begin to look at the Four-Color Rally deck as having twelve deck manipulation creatures, six bounce effects, eight sacrifice outlets, and six sources of lifegain, the whole shell begins to look a lot more cohesive and easier to digest in terms of how to manipulate it to a desirable form.

· Find the right number of three-drops. I believe twelve is the number and I would never go higher. Rally lives and dies on being able to get on the battlefield in a reliable manner. The more often the deck is able to actually play a two- and three-drop on curve, the more it is likely to win. While the three-drops are much more powerful (except for Jace of course,) there are only a finite number you can play in your deck without getting completely choked on mana. Finding the minimum number you can utilize while still having the requisite effects present in your deck (including the powerful Reflector Mage) is a tricky balancing act.

· Get the theory right. This largely alludes to a lot of my discussion of hate cards. I still think Infinite Obliteration is just horrendous against Four-Color Rally. Several of my opponents played it against me throughout the tournament, including in my on-camera match against Joseph Herrara, and it did next to nothing. My sideboarding style with Rally is heavily predicated on aggressive shaving and evolving my deck to be more controlling by leveraging interactive elements and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. As a result, it becomes much easier to go toe-to-toe with opponents who are bleeding cards to disrupt my combo elements when I’m much more interested in playing a normalized grindy game. The addition of several new awesome elements to the deck and the simple diluting of four-ofs has also just naturally made this card worse.

Flaying Tendrils was another new Oath card that several of my opponents played against me, probably in anticipation of it being effective against Rally and Atarka Red. If one were to look at Four-Color Rally decks pre-Oath, then Tendrils does look significantly better, but Ayli and Reflector Mage are 2/3 creatures! This card did effectively nothing but be a Hero’s Downfall for my Jaces on occasion.

I also predicted a weakening of Anafenza, the Foremost in terms of her applications against Rally due to the new inclusions of Ayli and Reflector Mage, the latter for its ability to clear a path and make room for Rally to do its thing without any impending enter-the-battlefield effects and the former for its ability to brick-wall the legend as an effective attacker. I think I mostly got this right as the only time Anafenza beat me was because the third copy was simply able to clock me effectively.

Taking this a step further, I got the impression that my Anafenzas would be a lot weaker in the rat race that is the Rally mirror. Throughout the tournament I felt like a solid favorite in post-board scenarios in mirror matches, as I wasn’t bothering trying to fight directly on the battlefield. It was going to either be too difficult because of Reflector Mage or things would be too gummed up because of my Ayli. As a result, I only focused on fighting my opponents’ Collected Company and Rally the Ancestors with countermagic and Hallowed Moonlight, while trying to leverage a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy advantage by boarding in all of my Murderous Cuts. My opponents’ Anafenzas remained largely ineffective while all of my sideboard cards were great.

What I Did Wrong

· Forget to register Fleshbag Marauders. This one is just plain embarrassing. I’m originally from Georgia and came into Atlanta a few days earlier to hang out with friends and celebrate a birthday. This resulted in both falling asleep and waking up a little later than desired on Saturday. While I thought it was strange that I suddenly had two extra sideboard slots when registering my deck online, I was a little too tired for it to fully process. Thankfully I didn’t get max punished by playing against something like Esper Dragons where Fleshbag Marauder is absolutely vital, but I certainly missed it throughout the weekend, and deservingly so.

· Play Liliana, Heretical Healer. She tested so well too! It’s not that Liliana is bad, it’s just that the mana is extremely stressful and it is quite difficult for her to be played early. Every time she’s hit off a Collected Company you’re on cloud nine, but something has to be cut in order for make room in the “Rule of Twelve,” which leads me to my next point:

· Not play four Nantuko Husk. That’s actually a fairly misleading blanket statement, so let me explain: I don’t mind trimming on Nantuko Husk because, as I keep saying, I like taking Four-Color Rally in a different direction in sideboarded games. Nantuko Husk is more or less a strict combo piece that enables aggression. With the inclusion of Ayli, the deck is not generally lacking in sacrifice effects, so from a pure Rally-enabling and grinding perspective, not much is lost by cutting a Husk. All of that being said, Nantuko Husk is absolutely vital for beating Eldrazi Ramp, which I believe to be Rally’s worst matchup. Playing the Eldrazi Ramp matchup, particularly in the first game, is all about racing them to the finish line. It is this reason that it is Rally’s worst matchup: Ramp is capable of forcing a multi-dimensional strategy into playing one way. The only change I know I would make to the main deck is replacing Liliana with the fourth copy of Nantuko Husk.

· Register Disdainful Stroke. This card just didn’t cut it. I wanted something that would be effective against Ramp, but with the inclusion of World Breaker it’s even more difficult to hold up mana and Rally is not great at devoting several mana in a turn to being reactive. I need to find something else for this matchup, but I don’t know what it is yet.

Beating Four-Color Rally

I believe the honest answer is to register Eldrazi Ramp.

Other than that, I do not believe Four-Color Rally to have a bad (or even bordering on poor) matchup on paper. What major weakness Rally does have is that it is fickle and has subpar mana. What this means it that it stumbles reasonably frequently, which is particularly devastating for the Rally deck due to the fact that its general card quality is lower than that of other Standard decks. As a result, aggression backed by targeted interaction is capable of beating weaker draws. These are the types of games where Anafenza, the Foremost or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet can shine the most, as they are a relevant piece of disruption that couple as an aggressive attacker to constrict the length of the game.

In general, the longer the game goes, the more Rally is likely to be favored unless it can be covered on multiple bases. Play relevant sideboard cards! Infinite Obliteration is honestly next-to-worthless and even Hallowed Moonlight, while fairly effective, is rather elementary to play around. If you are forced into leaving up multiple mana every turn, it is unlikely that I’ll ever feel compelled to cast a Rally unless you are somehow also presenting insurmountable pressure while still being able to hold up mana.

Even so, Dispel is a clean answer to Hallowed Moonlight and it’s fairly easy to bait Moonlights with Collected Company, which ultimately ends up not costing Rally any additional resources. My favorite trick for beating Hallowed Moonlight is pre-emptively giving DispelFlashback” with a flipped Jace on my main phase.

If you aren’t a deck that is capable of being proactive and disruptive, the best way to beat Rally is to be constrictive on multiple angles. Play Cranial Archive! Put Rally in a choke with removal spells and both hand disruption and countermagic. The less pressure, whether that be through actual aggression or a ticking time bomb that is an incoming Duress, that Rally is under, the more likely they are to assemble a critical mass of resources and protection.

#SCGCOL is Coming

I may have not gotten the result I desired this past weekend at #SCGATL but I learned a great deal. The Pro Tour is in a mere two weeks, so it isn’t clear to me whether I will be attending #SCGCOL this weekend or spending the time and energy to continue testing for the PT. The fact that I have access to a deck as powerful and enjoyable as Rally certainly leans me more towards attending than I might would normally, and until folks begin to wisen up as to what is actually effective against the deck, I believe it to continue to be the best strategy moving forward into the heart of Oath Standard.