Taking Down Chainwhirler With Magic 2019

Ross Merriam has already begun the brewing! He’s looking at strategies and decklists to take down red aggro decks with the coming of the new Core Set! How are you aiming for the tyrant of Standard?

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Standard has once again found
itself under an oppressive bogeyman, this time of the red variety. Goblin
Chainwhirler takes most of the flak as it’s the newest addition and thus,
the easiest to link to the deck’s rise from tier one strategy to complete
dominance, but really the issue is the color red having such a high density
of powerful, advantage-generating threats that you get to play a buttery
smooth mana base without any sacrifice in power.

Between Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, Goblin Chainwhirler, and
Rekindling Phoenix you have enough threats that playing a second color,
while appealing in some ways, isn’t necessary. The main draw to splashing a
color is to get better removal for big creatures, but Fight with Fire is a
fine option for mono-red decks.

What I’ll be looking for out of Magic 2019 are cards that can elevate the
other colors onto a similar density of high-powered threats and from the
early previewed cards there’s a certain planeswalker that has caught my

Before we get into the card itself, there are two other signs that point to
this card being an important new addition to Standard. The first is right
in the name. Standard is overrun by red tyrants and WotC is subtly hinting
to us that this is the card that will rise to combat them. Is it the most
compelling piece of evidence? No, but I really want to unleash my inner
pedant and yell “Sic Semper Tyrannis” to all the red opponents I beat with
the card.

The second, less secret sign that this card is the real deal was a tweet
over the weekend from Tom Ross:

Now, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Tom played this card heavily in
WotC’s internal testing since it’s right up his alley as a planeswalker
that supports aggressive strategies, but having lived with Tom in Roanoke
for almost two years I can say that he’s a man of few words, so I learned
to listen carefully to what he said. If he was playing a lot with this
card, then that suggests to me that he expects it to see Constructed play
and I’m going to take that endorsement as a starting point for what to
explore for the upcoming Standard season.

Okay, with the borderline conspiracy theorizing part of the article out of
the way, let’s get down to the actual Magic part of the card. It’s clear
that we want to pair Ajani with cheap creatures. Curving into it will allow
us to maximize its +1 ability immediately and having a high density of
cheap creatures will ensure that some of them die so we can -2 to overload
opposing removal spells.

It’s also important to have creatures that synergize well with +1/+1
counters. Ajani is going to be most useful when it forces the opponent to
utilize removal on your creatures immediately or fall too far behind on the
battlefield, thus allowing Ajani to survive and activate again so finding
the best creatures to receive the counters is important. Walking Ballista
is a clear example but also any creature with certain keyword abilities
that allow it to dominate combat, like first strike and vigilance will
appreciate the extra stats more than most.

And lastly, there’s the incredibly synergy with History of Benalia, already
one of white’s most powerful threats. To maximize Ajani’s +1 you really
want to have at least two creatures on the battlefield when you untap on
your fourth turn, which can be tough with so much good, cheap removal in
Standard. Between Seal Away, Magma Spray, Abrade, Fatal Push, and Cast Down
it can be tough to keep your early drops on the battlefield, so having a
threat that creates two bodies if your first creature dies is excellent,
and the bodies have vigilance so they accept +1/+1 counters well while
protecting Ajani once it’s on the battlefield.

The way these cards curve together and support each other is what gives me
hope that it can elevate the color white to compete with red in the new
Standard season. They are already individually powerful cards, but they
bring out the best in each other, which is the kind of synergies I’m
looking for when building for Constructed, rather than try to find the
niche cases where weak cards become strong.

Taking the W/B Midrange decks as guidance, here’s my first pass:

Glint-Sleeve Siphoner has suffered under the yoke of Goblin Chainwhirler,
but it’s still an incredibly powerful card and easily the best two-drop to
return with Ajani on turn four as far as forcing your opponent to answer
your battlefield or fall very far behind. The two maindeck copies of
Aethersphere Harvester are a nod towards enabling the closest card to Dark
Confidant in a long line of mediocre Bob Maher clones. It’s important to
note that Ajani does help insulate Glint-Sleeve Siphoner from Goblin
Chainwhirler, though it being a four-mana answer to a three-mana threat
makes it unlikely that it lines up favorably that often. Regardless, lining
up at all will be a significant gain.

The Knights were my next choice for two-drops because first strike and
hexproof make them great repositories for +1/+1 counters, as well as the
synergy with History of Benalia. Despite a relatively high curve for an
aggressive deck, this deck can easily kill on turn five with a curve out.

I may end up moving more Ravenous Chupacabras into the deck since Ajani
lets you get value out of any body that is left laying around when the dust
of the early game settles, but I’m worried about the mana consistency with
so many stringent color requirements.

This deck is likely the most powerful shell for Ajani, but I don’t think it
maximizes the aggressive potential of the new planeswalker, especially
without any one-drops to speak of. Those one-drops have fallen out of favor
due to Goblin Chainwhirler, but perhaps Ajani helping to insulate them from
the mini-sweeper is enough to make the most powerful among them viable
again. Toolcraft Exemplar is on top of the list and W/B Vehicles was a
popular deck in the early days of the format before red decks took over, so
let’s revisit that archetype:

This deck gets to play Ajani in a more aggressive shell while also gaining
the synergy with Walking Ballista to give the deck reach. I also like how
Heart of Kiran plays with the planeswalkers in the deck, all of which have
high loyalty and loyalty-adding abilities that you don’t mind activating
each turn. Heart also functions as another vigilant carrier of +1/+1
counters, eventually dominating combat against the likes of Rekindling
Phoenix and Glorybringer.

The downside is between Heart of Kiran and Walking Ballista, there aren’t a
lot of slots left over for creatures that can be recurred by Ajani’s -2
ability. This deck certainly wants to curve out and +1 as often as
possible, but that versatility is important and returning Toolcraft
Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger isn’t ideal. Striking that balance between
enabling the +1 with the most powerful cheap threats and enabling the -2
with enough solid targets that stay relevant in the midgame is going to be
important in tuning decks built around Ajani.

The last deck I want to explore is one that goes even more aggressive, with
only a light splash of another color, so we can simulate the buttery smooth
manabase that Mono-Red decks get in Standard right now. That will
necessarily mean playing further into Goblin Chainwhirler, but between
Ajani and the overlooked Benalish Marshal we may have enough proactive
countermeasures to make things work:

These lists have typically played Sram’s Expertise to go with Servo
Exhibition, but I think Ajani is a more powerful four-drop for that slot
and doesn’t expose you to Goblin Chainwhirler. I have opted to play another
newly previewed card, Cavalry Drillmaster, as the role-player two-drop over
Knight of Grace because I like the idea of getting Servo or Knight tokens
in early and having Ajani’s -2 act as a pump spell to make combat more
difficult for the opponent, but if black removal continues to be very
popular than the hexproof creature will likely get the nod in the end.

Because of the ubiquity of Goblin Chainwhirler, decks like this have been
suppressed, but that also means that other hate card against them, like
Golden Demise and the like, are less popular. Even Fumigate has seen less
play recently as the red decks morphed into something closer to Jund than
an aggro deck. Shalai, Voice of Plenty makes an appearance to help out
against Settle the Wreckage, while your vehicles and planeswalkers help
against other sweepers.

If Ajani and Benalish Marshal are enough to combat Goblin Chainwhirler,
then a deck like this becomes a great surprise option for the early days of
a new format, taking the large portion of the field that is still operating
under the constraints of the previous season by surprise. It’s scary to
move into a space that has been seemingly invalidated by the top deck, but
the decks that most players dismiss out of hand have the most potential
because they are the least expected. All it takes is one new card to shift
the balance of power and create an opening that only the most daring
players capitalize on.

Standard has had the misfortune of living under one tyrant after another
for the last several years, but it hasn’t been the same tyrant the entire
time. We’ve seen Collected Company, Smuggler’s Copter, Attune with Aether,
and Mardu Vehicles all take their turn on the throne, with some rotating
out and others being overtaken by a new challenger. It would be foolish to
automatically assume that Goblin Chainwhirler and friends will retain the
top spot for another three months without figuring out if the new tools can
bring the Mountains down.

Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants has the pedigree in its name, and it’s the
champion of aggro-master Tom Ross, and while we may not have a great hoser
like Kor Firewalker it has historically been white decks that do the best
job of preying on red cards, so there’s a lot to inspire hope here. The set
hasn’t been fully revealed yet, so we may see another great cheap creature
to further bolster these decks, or another good anthem effect to blunt the
effectiveness of Goblin Chainwhirler.

It’s only a matter of time before this latest tyrant is defeated.