Taming Dragons In London

Brad is back from London with a plethora of experiences that all need to be processed in order to figure out what to do next with the Standard metagame, but he thinks he has the beginnings of an answer for how to fight this latest shift of the format’s top decks…

This past weekend was an interesting one. On the upside, I got to scratch traveling to the UK off of my bucket list, the locals were an absolute blast to meet, and I even got to pie someone in the face. On the downside, I spent sixty hours traveling due to missed connections and found myself losing four rounds in a row to not make the Top Eight, the first time I’ve failed to convert a 9-0 Day One finish into a Top Eight. Disheartening isn’t the word I would use though. Instead, I would say I finally ran average.

The deck of choice was G/R Dragons. I didn’t know what I wanted to play on the eve of the event, but some conversations with Martin Juza left me sleeving up Stormbreath Dragons. We figured out that the metagame would be much more hostile for G/R Devotion, making it easier to justify the deck. Well, that and the fact that this was “the” weekend to play Dromoka’s Command. With U/R Sphinx’s Tutelage wining the GP San Diego and Abzan Constellation having a runner-up finish, a trend was starting to develop. It was also the breakout weekend for G/W Megamorph.

When Kibler builds them, the masses play it.

Just because we came to the conclusion that we wanted to play G/R Dragons didn’t make it easy to finalize a list. In fact, we still couldn’t agree on some specifics and ended up playing slightly different lists.

I know for sure that Martin was correct on not playing Trail of Mystery. I can finally put that card to rest and say it’s bad. I do, however, still think I am correct with playing Magma Spray over Wild Slash. Exiling creatures is just too good right now when so many decks play problem threats like Hangarback Walker. I never saw a situation where I wanted to go to the face and I never got Fogged, making Magma Spray a superior card for me. At the end of the day we are putting that card in our deck for a specific reason, and that reason is to kill creatures.

Martin decided to hedge by playing Wild Slash. Testing for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, I made a rule in this format that hedging was always incorrect. Regardless of whether this is true or not, I have followed it blindly to this day. In fact, I can look back on many of my disheartening losses and point out the turn I hedged and realize that was the reason I lost. Even in this tournament, I lost round fourteen due to not playing Stormbreath Dragon when I had an opportunity to do so. I got in my head about a sequence of spells my opponent might have that makes that a bad play and followed a line that easily lost me the game. Who does that?

Enough people have talked about G/R Dragons this week that I feel that I don’t need to explain why the deck exists again. Standard is cyclical and right now Hornet Nest and Arbor Colossus are nowhere to be found. The spell of the hour is Tragic Arrogance, which makes playing G/R Devotion less of an option. This opened a hole in the format, letting Stormbreath Dragon be good while also complementing the Megamorph package.

The real question you came to hear is if this deck can still stand up to the metagame. My answer is yes. Not a strong yes, but I do think it is a fine choice moving forward. The real deck of the hour is Abzan Aggro with Hangarback Walker. This may in fact end up becoming the “solved” version of Abzan:

So what makes this deck so special? Well for starters, it’s extremely resilient. Hangarback Walker, Den Protector, and Fleecemane Lion all do an excellent job of interacting in the early turns but also having built-in upgrades in the later turns. They all are great topdecks when both players have run out of cards to play and usually give a deck with Siege Rhinos a high-enough threat density to win most topdeck wars.

Once you finish off the rest of the creature package, you see a theme of making your opponents’ removal extremely situational. This is much like what Yuuki Ichikawa did with the initial version of Abzan Megamorph early this year when Foul-Tongue Invocation was all the rage. The threats are each only properly answered by a wide spread of removal spells, yet they curve so smoothly. This puts a lot of stress on the opponent having the right removal at the right time; when they don’t, they die.

The creature base also does an excellent job at staying alive. Hangarback Walker does a fine Doomed Traveler impression against red decks in a pinch. Backed up by a Dromoka’s Command, this card becomes a win condition on its own by putting pressure on the opponent while blocking any topdecked Lightning Berserker.

This level of resiliency and power puts a lot of pressure on the opponent to be aggressive. When that doesn’t work out, this deck simply has to have a timely Siege Rhino or Den Protector to quickly take over the game and we all know how fast a crash of Rhinos can end a game.

What really makes this deck potentially the best Abzan deck ever created is the ability to actually beat G/R Devotion. Abzan has always had difficult in defeating Dragonlord Atarka and her army of ferocious followers, but the two-card combo of Anafenza, the Foremost and Tragic Arrogance solves the ever-so-dreadful issue of Whisperwood Elemental. Due to Anafenza, the Foremost’s static ability, this deck can easily keep the horde of Manifests at bay by never allowing the fallen to touch the graveyard.

So how do you attack this deck?

Oh, you wanted an answer? Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have one. I have no clue how to beat this deck. I can give you ways to gain an edge, but I don’t have a clue how to say you have a great matchup against it. That is what makes it so good. It’s hard to straight-up beat on paper, which makes it a great choice for good players. It’s just too resilient, powerful, and aggressive. I would highly suggest playing this deck if you are going to a WMCQ this weekend.

But don’t feel discouraged if you came here looking to summon Stormbreath Dragons this weekend. I’m here to break down everything I know on this archetype. I might not suggest playing this as your first choice, but I don’t fault anyone for playing this deck. It’s explosive and can never really be counted out of a game due to how much damage output it has.

I haven’t change much about my maindeck, but did readjust the mana. Drawing two copies of Mana Confluence was excruciating when I was on the draw, and I found myself sideboarding one out for good measure in a few matchups. Rugged Highlands isn’t the most optimal land, but I feel the deck needs another dual land to work right. Outside of that, I still like my maindeck.

One thing to keep in mind is that this deck does not need 24 lands to support the spells. Without any more high drops, the deck could easily play 23 lands, but I choose to play the extra land in the maindeck due to always needing to curve out. This is something that not enough people do. Game one is usually faster than sideboard games due to the removal not lining up exactly how it was intended. With this mismatch of spells comes lopsided games that you want to take advantage of. Things change after sideboard, and oftentimes a land comes out to alleviate flooding in the later turns when removal spells killed both players’ creatures.

The biggest change to the sideboard is the addition of Twin Bolt and Arc Lightning to the sideboard. Atarka’s Command is coming back. I don’t know how much damage the card will do, but Atarka Red (with or without the focus on Goblin tokens) would be well-positioned right now. Now, there isn’t much you can do against the deck with G/R Dragons besides get on the front foot against the deck. This is where tiny sprays of damage really come in handy. As long as they aren’t taking over the board in the early turns, you should be fine.

Outside of that, the deck looks the same. I’m not sure if the Arbor Colossus is actually needed, but it is the best card in the mirror match. I’m just not sure how many people will be playing this deck moving forward.

I normally will do a sideboard guide, but this deck in particular shouldn’t use one. The deck is very malleable in its sideboarding decisions and constantly needs to be changing removal and threat numbers based on whether it is on the play or on the draw and your opponent’s specific deck configuration. It also can change drastically based on how you think they will sideboard. We are back in the most fun cat-and-mouse sideboarding games that this format was designed around. Jeskai has a control sideboard again, Abzan Aggro is casting Wrath effects, and Esper Dragons has two-mana creatures in its sideboard.


VS Abzan Aggro

Let’s start with the most relevant one. Abzan Aggro is a fairly unique matchup thanks to the fact that both decks need to change their gameplans based on whether they are on the play or on the draw. We become much more reactive on the draw by bringing in all of the Roasts, the Rending Volley, and even keep in some of the maindeck removal. Dromoka’s Command is much better for them when on the play, making Crater’s Claw a weaker card.

On the play, we want to get way more aggressive while they want to take a more controlling approach. We take out most of our removal in favor for threats. This allows us to bring back in the Goblin Rabblemasters and even sideboard in some copies of Xenagos, the Reveler. They will become more controlling by bringing in Tragic Arrogance, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and even Thoughtseize.

VS Abzan Control

This matchup is much more difficult. They have Thoughtseize, Languish, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and enough card advantage to bat cleanup. We have to be fast, but also at the same time we have to pace ourselves. One good thing about this deck is that it shouldn’t be too highly played. It has a very difficult time beating Abzan Aggro because (for some reason) that’s a thing now. This deck feels like a worse version of Abzan Aggro, which makes me think many players will be moving over to that deck anyway. This is a big help for us.

The only successful way to play this matchup is to not get ahead of yourself. They have so many ways to gain advantage, which makes it appealing to get very aggressive, but at the same time they can just Languish away the board and with it our chances to win for just four mana. You have to make sure you have a follow-up play to continue adding to the board.

VS G/R Devotion

This is easily one of the deck’s worst matchups, but also an easy one to know your way around.

This is easily the best card in the matchup, which makes it almost worth trying to mulligan to. No other card in the deck can win as many free games as Goblin Rabblemaster. Deathmist Raptor is far too slow, which opens up room to bring in every removal spell for early creatures and try to get lucky. Even Den Protector can help in the early destruction of their Devotion in an attempt to steal the games.

I have seen this matchup be very die-roll dependant, but at the same time, it is draw dependant. You just have to go fast and have a hand that can put pressure on them. If it doesn’t have a direct plan to get them dead, you have to mulligan. It is as simple as that.

VS Mono-Red Aggro

This matchup is purely die-roll dependent the way both decks are built. We have a difficult time winning on the draw, but they have a tough time dealing any creature damage on the play. Your best bet in this matchup is to cut all of the Stormbreath Dragons as well as the Mana Confluence and bring in all of the interactive early burn and Den Protectors. Never take damage from creatures if you can avoid it. Never! This damage is crucial for them, if they are to be successful in burning you out. Without the early damage, they will have to resort to killing creatures to stay alive, which is never a winning position for them.

VS Jeskai

This is another deck that is picking up some steam. I thought this deck would have a breakout performance at the Pro Tour, but teams seemed to not figure out all the numbers for the deck. That or they got hooked on the idea of scissoring people with U/R Thopters. Regardless, this deck is here and probably to stay. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Soulfire Grand Master work so well with Ojutai’s Command that this deck has such a resilient early- and late-game plan. Not only that, but Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon can fly over any Hangarback Walkers desperately in need of a Red Bull.

This matchup somewhat plays out like Mono-Red Aggro in the early turns. You simply cannot take creature damage. Sideboard in extra removal to help out in this ordeal, but Mantis Rider damage equals death. You need to build a board presence, but you can’t allow yourself to get raced by a creature. I tend to sideboard out a land in this matchup as well as the Goblin Rabblemasters, but sometimes I will bring them back on the play if I sense they don’t have mass removal against us.

Lower your curve, lower your land count.

Outside of that, I can’t think of a matchup that is that important to talk about. People play so many of the fringe decks these days, but these will be the most prevalent. You do know your local metagame better than I, so I could see making changes based on that information.

Now it is time for me to get on a plane and head to Seattle where I will be competing in the World Championships for the very first time. I could sit here and say how honored I feel to finally be a part of this prestigious event, but that would be a lie. I am scared to death right now. Preparing for four formats is daunting enough, but added to that daunting task, I also have to play against the best of the best, which makes me more stressed out than ever before. I’m not going to say it’s a bad thing, but it has been a while since I felt pushed out of my comfort zone for a tournament. I guess I will just have to take one out of my first-ever Pro Tour book and put everything I’ve got into testing and playing while expecting nothing. I have no foundation for how I should do, so I won’t worry about it.

One match at a time.