The Holistic SCG Syracuse Breakdown

How much did two weeks change the Standard metagame between SCG Richmond and SCG Syracuse? Ari Lax shares his perceptions and predictions for the future!

Before I kick off, I want to say Arena Decklists was on point last week. Almost all the big-picture things that did happen were predicted there, so take a listen and see what else might be in store for the future.

What happened at SCG Syracuse? If you haven’t checked the results, get ready for a lot of talk about planeswalkers.

Teferi Does It Again

You can’t talk about this Standard format without telling it as a story of Teferi, Time Raveler. A full 23 copies made the Top 8, and the three other decks elected to register twenty basic Mountains. If that land could cast Teferi, you bet there would be even more at the top tables.

Two weeks ago, I said: “I also don’t understand the massive love everyone has for Teferi, Time Raveler. No one ever played Crashing Tide or Arrester’s Admonition, so is splicing one of those onto an anti-Wilderness Reclamation hate card really enough to make it playable as a three-of?”

This prompted a certain Nick Prince to DM me: “I have a question that might sound snarky but isn’t meant to be: have you played Teferi, Time Raveler yet?”

My response: “It reads a lot like a card that is busto in Week 1 then as the meta spreads out is just fine”

My second response: “I was dumb. Are you even allowed to play creature tokens or instants any more?”

Holy crap I was wrong about this card.

Over half of the three-mana planeswalkers ever legal in Standard are from War of the Spark. Almost all the previous ones have been playable, though in a wide variety of circumstances. The three-mana planeswalkers from War of the Spark share a “tick down for value, maybe plus for basically nothing, static ability” setup. That doesn’t compare to any of the three-mana planeswalkers we have seen for a long time. It isn’t like Saheeli Rai; Nissa, Voice of Zendikar; or any Liliana. If you say it’s like Jace, Cunning Castaway, I would argue that no one has actually seen that card on the battlefield despite it being a Mythic Champion.

We have to go all the way back to Jace Beleren to get something close to Teferi, Time Raveler or Narset, Parter of Veils. Your planeswalker comes down, locks up a bit of value, and then if not immediately pressured brings home a ton more. Your opponent still has to clear the planeswalker from the battlefield before it does even more, in this case the static ability shutting off lines of play or Teferi ticking back up to another bounce.

And now there are about seven different cards playing this same Jace Beleren role, with Teferi, Time Raveler being the best one.

The other Jace that Teferi, Time Raveler reminds me of is Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The combination of efficient bounce and card draw on a planeswalker creates a lot of the same play patterns.

Your opponent casts some dumpy three-mana creature on a clear battlefield, like Mayhem Devil. You cast Teferi, Time Raveler; bounce it; and draw a card. They spend an entire turn recasting their three-drop, you get to do whatever with your turn to get things back to parity, Teferi ticks back up, and you are rapidly on the way to a second Teferi bounce. At that point your one card has drawn you two cards, forced two recasts, and locked your opponent out of interaction. Recovering from that is rough.

So, like I said, can you even play creature tokens or instants in this format? Or four-drops that don’t have enters-the-battlefield abilities? I know I tried to cast Tibalt, Rakish Instigator once or twice, but as soon as my Devil token got hit by Teferi I knew I was done with that. And I haven’t even bothered trying to cast Absorb.

Another card that is punished by Teferi, Time Raveler is Prison Realm. You exile a planeswalker. They Teferi, bounce Prison Realm, draw a card, and then activate that planeswalker. What are you going to do, cast Prison Realm again down multiple cards? Good luck with that one.

These are the current rules of War of the Spark Standard. I don’t make them. Teferi does.

The Rest of the Crew

You know what Teferi, Time Raveler doesn’t Repulse? Planeswalkers. So not only are they defining card type of the format as threats, they are the best threats against the premier answer of the format.

Across the top lists, we see a wide variety of SuperFriends decks. Esper and Jeskai faced off in the finals, while Sultai-based Command the Dreadhorde lists ended up just short of the elimination rounds.

Here’s the full cast of other planeswalkers that showed up in Top 32 midrange decks at SCG Syracuse.

Narset, Parter of Veils is the no-brainer after Teferi, Time Raveler. She finds more planeswalkers, shuts off the card draw half of their abilities, and is great in multiples.

I feel like Dovin, Hand of Control suffers from Teferi, Time Raveler overlap. You already have a three-mana planeswalker that punishes clunky standalone threats, but that one draws cards and reloads counters. All Dovin, Hand of Control has going for it is slowing down Command the Dreadhorde.

Dovin, Grand Arbiter is slightly more exciting, but not convincing. It won’t run away with a game by itself and it’s still trying to fight Teferi with creature tokens. I could be convinced that Dovin, Grand Arbiter is the best card to round out your three-drops, but it won’t be crucial.

Kazu Negri Top 8’ed SCG Syracuse with a copy of this card in his deck with no Dragons, and that’s about the end of the good things I can say about Sarkhan, Fireblood. Do you even want to cast Niv-Mizzet, Parun against Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils?

Vivien, Champion of Wilds slots into the Bant decks that are slightly more traditional midrange. The strongest argument for her is that instant-speed creatures line up really well against decks leaning on planeswalker abilities for interaction. That’s good enough for me and I would expect to see a lot more of this card next weekend.

Part of the reason I’m so down on Dovin, Grand Arbiter is that Saheeli, Sublime Artificer plays that part with more starting loyalty. Saheeli can tank a hit and then protect your planeswalkers without worrying about running out of counters. Her presence as a three-of in Jeskai SuperFriends mainly speaks to her being bad in multiples, not raw quality.

Karn, Scion of Urza is almost exclusively tied to Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. Construct tokens work with Servo tokens, and without the -2 making a relevant body, I don’t think Karn is great. It is yet another high-loyalty baseline, repeating the trend of having breathing room to establish a planeswalker stack against light pressure.

Vraska, Golgari Queen eats smaller planeswalkers. Until those leave, she has an important role to play.

Tamiyo, Collector of Tales is just Regrowth with upside. Her +1 is 25% to hit a four-of, so any value there is leaning on self-mill or drawing a card you explored to top. Don’t just throw her into a deck unless you’re getting more out of her than face value. Future metagames might also include The Eldest Reborn, or will until Tamiyo shows back up to stop sacrifice and discard.

Kasmina, Enigmatic Mentor is not a card I expect to see stick around. She is a liability against both Teferi, Time Raveler’s -3 (creature tokens) and Narset, Parter of Veils (forced discard without a draw).

Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord largely reads “your creatures have lifelink,” which in turn largely reads “you can cast Command the Dreadhorde.” More on that in a minute. If you’re attacking Mono-Red Aggro, it’s debatable if the lifegain is worth a card.

Nissa, Who Shakes the World making three-power haste creatures really turns the screws on opposing planeswalkers. Haste on the pseudo-token means it gets something before Teferi gets it. The double mana works with Hydroid Krasis. I’m unsure she fits in a true SuperFriends shell, but expect good things from her elsewhere.

A Sarkhan the Masterless Dragon, on the other hand, is a joke against Teferi, Time Raveler. The role of Sarkhan is not as a solo threat, but to turn all your planeswalkers into Dragons, kill their planeswalkers, and kill them. He tends to make life totals irrelevant, directly turning a planeswalker advantage into twelve or sixteen damage a turn.

Vivien Reid… uh… kills Experimental Frenzy? Try again when an expensive flying creature is actually playable.

Since smaller Teferi has banned the card type instant, bigger Teferi has gotten a lot worse. His -3 tuck ability is not the best way to answer opposing planeswalkers. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a five-mana answer to cheaper value problems, and so many other planeswalkers let them quickly redraw that third card down.

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God is better than Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, but how are you making the mana to cast it?

Ugin, the Ineffable does what you want Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to do in planeswalker mirrors. It actually kills the planeswalker, and making a 2/2 is way better against Narset, Parter of Veils.

Liliana, Dreadhorde General just isn’t the card that fights opposing planeswalkers, and her six-mana sorcery, Command the Dreadhorde, has a bigger immediate impact.

Standard Creatures Flipped Around

Since Guilds of Ravnica, we have lived in a world where the most important creatures in Standard sit on top of the curve. Carnage Tyrant, Venerated Loxodon, Rekindling Phoenix, whatever. All the small-ball creatures only existed to steal games where your opponent didn’t do something relevant or to set up a later play. People were literally talking about cutting Merfolk Branchwalker or Jadelight Ranger from Sultai because they were just cogs in the machine.

In planeswalker land, you must do better than that. Attackers that can battle into a Turn 3 Teferi, Time Raveler are now the most important creatures in the format. Merfolk Branchwalker is the hero we need these days. Or maybe a bit of villain too, because bouncing your own Branchwalker with Teferi to re-trigger Wildgrowth Walker looked nice all weekend.

Speaking of Wildgrowth Walker, it’s in a weird spot. At two mana, it isn’t a huge investment and gets down in time, but a lot of the value is baked into the +1/+1 counters that Teferi, Time Raveler can reset. It makes sense in the Command the Dreadhorde deck that uses the lifegain as a resource, but just be aware it isn’t the runaway killer it could be in Ravnica Allegiance Standard.

If you start pushing over the three-mana boundary where Teferi, Time Raveler gets mana parity on a bounce, you need immediate value. Card draw or discard off Elite Guardmage or Basilica Bell-Haunt might count, but I’m more into haste. Legion Warboss is just the pinnacle of this. The one-power attacker picks off a just-activated planeswalker, it cascades out of control if not killed, and in Mono-Red Aggro mirrors, just making a second body in the face of their Shock to kill it is enough.

Which SuperFriends Deck?

Esper, Jeskai, or Command the Dreadhorde? Which SuperFriends deck plays the right role for the future metagame?

Esper and Jeskai are the closest comparison, so let’s start there. Somehow both have removal capable of dealing damage to planeswalkers, so the question is whether one-mana removal in Shock is more important than the swingier expensive removal. My vote sits solidly in the Shock camp. It gives you a chance of double-spelling before Turn 6 and saves you as much life as Oath of Kaya gains if you kill a one-drop on the spot.

What about discard versus countermagic? I don’t have a great answer here. There are enough three-mana planeswalkers that discard isn’t sure to give you an open turn, but Spell Pierce has a very specific window and more expensive cards run into the Teferi, Time Raveler issue.

We have established Legion Warboss is good, so in order to really make Esper an interesting option, you have to make the argument that The Elderspell is a true mirror breaker. Oliver Tomajko is certainly trying to make that argument with a full set of Teferi, Hero of Dominara to load up and ultimate. I remain unconvinced it’s actually better than Legion Warboss due to the issue of traditional removal versus an already activated planeswalker, but it’s still up in the air.

Which brings us to our last contender. Command the Dreadhorde is fighting on a completely different axis. If it reaches the mid-game, it has the one-card comeback machine, barring a Sarkhan the Masterless swinging back for lethal. One more point to Jeskai.

That said, it cost a lot of deck space to play planeswalkers and the explore creatures and Command the Dreadhorde. Jim Davis is literally on Massacre Girl and planeswalkers for interaction. If you fall behind in any way, you are fighting an uphill battle back if you can’t cast your namesake sorcery. I would describe Command the Dreadhorde as a fairly inbred metagame step for a world where planeswalker dominance is the fight that matters and Teferi, Time Raveler has shut down countermagic. I don’t think it has consistent long-term legs in the format.

Non-Planeswalker Decks?

The Mono-Red Aggro argument ended with “play Chandra, Fire Artisan and Experimental Frenzy.” This makes sense. Drawing one of each is definitely better than multiples of either. I think I would still be closer to playing the third Experimental Frenzy than the third Chandra due to all the awkward interactions with your opponent having hexproof, but this is about the only deck decision to make with basic Mountain these days.

I don’t really get the whole Izzet Phoenix thing. It’s the same deck it was months ago, which means that it punishes reactive opponents without exile removal and struggles against bulkier proactive opponents. It also has about a million spells that lose to Narset, Parter of Veils; can’t beat a Lyra Dawnbringer; has the new “tech” Finale of Promise get shut off by Teferi, Time Raveler; and doesn’t pressure early planeswalkers that well if it doesn’t draw Arclight Phoenix.

I did see some chatter about a Dreadhorde Arcanist list of Izzet Phoenix, though, which gets me closer to liking it. Make your deck more proactive and then come talk to me.

If any creature token stands a chance against Teferi, Time Raveler, it’s the second Knight token off History of Benalia, but I approve of loading up with Gideon Blackblade. He doesn’t get bounced by Teferi.

The other minor decision is that I would want one or two Tocatli Honor Guard to cover the Command the Dreadhorde bases. I wasn’t even on the full four in Azorius Aggro in the true Sultai Midrange era, so definitely don’t max out.

I don’t really understand why Zachary Kiihne is playing these cards, but he might be living in the future. Half of the top tables can’t beat The Immortal Sun. Once that sticks, it’s Servo tokens or bust.

Five Predictions

There’s a Modern Open next week at SCG Louisville, but what do I expect at that event’s Standard Classic and the Magic Arena Mythic Qualifier Weekend?

1. Mono-Red Aggro remains the consistent best or second-best deck in the format. None of the other moving pieces are shaking the foundation to make it significantly worse.

2. Bant Midrange makes some additional shifts and pushes back towards the statistical dominance it had at SCG Richmond.

3. Lots of people put The Immortal Sun in their sideboard. Most of them lose to whatever new sideboard plan these decks show up with involving the forgotten card type of creatures. Or Thought Erasure.

4. Mono-Blue Aggro is about two weeks away from a randomly good performance once things get a little weird and people adjust their answers around Teferi, Time Raveler. It immediately gets dumped again after that.

5. Gruul Spellbreaker is the card people are refusing to play for no reason that they should be winning with instead. Basilica Bell-Haunt is the card people will keep playing and it makes no sense to do so.