The Most Important Lessons To Take To SCG Richmond

A variety of decks reached the Top 64 of SCG Columbus, but there are some clear winners. Ari Lax dives into top performers, puzzles over some seeming anomalies, and gives a prediction for SCG Richmond this weekend that you might not expect!

The SCG Tour has come and gone through #SCGCOL, and with it we have Aether Revolt and a refresh of the Standard format. The bannings of Smuggler’s Copter, Reflector Mage, and Emrakul, the Promised End have hit the format, and Aether Revolt has possibly hit harder. Two decks took the spotlight, and it’s time to take a look at what little tools for them the hive mind has found.

Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian = Good

To no one’s surprise, the Saheeli Rai plus Felidar Guardian combo was one of the top-finishing decks on the weekend with around a quarter of the top decks featuring it. Turns out, threatening six-mana instant wins and turn 4 kills is really good. Yes, the mana is good enough to play this. We were playing full-on Jeskai Control before any winning combo because the mana was legitimately great and the cards were good, so why redoubt what we already know?

The interesting part comes in the details.

The question everyone really should have been asking is, “What do we do with our combo pieces when not comboing?” This isn’t like Modern Splinter Twin outclassing other linear decks; Standard is like playing head-to-head grind fests against Snapcaster Mage and Inquisition of Kozilek decks. In Modern, the answer was usually shaving on your combo and playing their game, but in Standard we can do much better.

Oath of Jace is a really nice find. Standard doesn’t have cheap filtering cantrips like Ponder or Serum Visions, but Oath of Jace does a lot of digging. Felidar Guardian blinking it definitely passes the playability bar for a creature, and with Saheeli Rai it digs you twice as quickly to your end-game. Oath of Chandra is more of the same build-your-own-value-creature, this time turning Felidar Guardian into a Skinrender and making Saheeli Rai a little better a fighting opposing planeswalkers.

The other super-interesting card to blink is Rogue Refiner. The layers of value just keep going! That said, just drawing a card is pretty mild when Oath of Jace offers us the same plus one card with two more cards of filtering.

The energy has to go somewhere. I don’t think Whirler Virtuoso does enough, quickly enough, to matter and Longtusk Cub just feels out of place, but Team Cardhoarder’s Shielded Aether Thief seems really great. You are approaching Mulldrifter levels when you combine Rogue Refiner and Shielded Aether Thief. The only issue with the 0/4 is that it is pretty bad in multiples and without support, limiting the number you can play. Just one seems low, but even three is questionable.

Of course, Tyler Hill just showed us the boring, actually good use of the Felidar Guardian flicker: recycling planeswalkers that don’t go arbitrarily large. A Felidar Guardian lets Chandra, Torch of Defiance kill a creature and immediately reload or can be rebought to “loop” with Nissa, Vital Force. The 1/4 body also does a fine job of holding off attackers threatening Chandra’s and Nissa’s loyalty counters.

Green Is the New White

On Magic Online for the past week or two, there has existed a weird overlay format where the recent bans are in place but Aether Revolt is not available. If you looked at the lists from that period, it was dominated by various white midrange decks. There were tons of versions of these, ranging from default G/W “cards that already won a Pro Tour” to B/W “G/W except all your copies of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar are replaced with Liliana, the Last Hope” to U/W “these cards are still good and some other stuff fills in,” but they all just played the core threats of Archangel Avacyn and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

White also had a number of reasonable answers to the Saheeli Rai combo. It has direct hate in the form of Authority of the Consuls and Thalia, Heretic Cathar; instant removal in Stasis Snare; and whatever your second color brought to the table. Maybe G/W got a little worse, but W/B was a deck with Grasp of Darkness, W/U had Spell Queller, and maybe even W/R with Shock and Harnessed Lightning could make it to the table.

Instead we saw a new color combination snake its way into the spotlight…or, really, an old color combination of G/B that had been waiting for a new chance to shine. While the old pure B/G Delirium deck took a huge hit in the loss of Emrakul, the Promised End as a capstone finisher, it was able to refactor as a proactive deck thanks to Winding Constrictor and crush both the Open and the Classic.

What happened?

First was just a general outclassing on creatures. To use Hunter Nance’s G/W Tokens list as an example, are his two-drops actually able to fight a Winding Constrictor once it gets the bonus going once?

Even in the head-to-head, they get stuck at parity or only slightly ahead. The floor isn’t much higher and the ceiling isn’t remotely close.

The disappearance of Reflector Mage had ripple effects that were also especially hostile towards Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Big creatures with abilities like trample and flying and not “enters-the-battlefield” or flash were suddenly playable again, and as we saw when Siege Rhino and Mantis Rider were legal, Gideon became much more conditional.

The other part was Walking Ballista. Turns out that recursively killing things is good, especially when the list of things includes planeswalkers and your opponents. Sure hope no one showed up with Selfless Spirit, because that would be really embarrassing for them when their opponent got to curve Winding Constrictor into Walking Ballista and just eat it.

All of these things have resulted in a five-drop switcheroo. You are attacking, not blocking. You want +/1+/1 counters. The random small fliers are handled by Walking Ballista, not Spider tokens. You can have Walking Ballista spew off counters and die if needed, but why lose one of your best cards when you can just load it up with counters, gun everything down, and still have it if you want?

Also, as noted above, nice try paying 1W for a 2/1.

All of these factors have put Verdurous Gearhulk in the spotlight it had oddly avoided for so long. Have you read the card? That’s so much power and toughness. Have you ever cast a second one? It sure isn’t legendary, though you don’t have both on the battlefield for very long because your opponent just dies.

Note that on top of the Saheeli Rai combo, Verdurous Gearhulk is another push towards instant-speed removal to help blunt the initial boosted attack. Unfortunately, the two want you to play slightly different cards. Shock is great at shutting off Saheeli Rai while letting you advance your battlefield, but against Verdurous Gearhulk it might miss a potential counter carrier, whereas Murder hits anything but requires you to lock in too much mana doing nothing against Felidar Guardian. Again, Grasp of Darkness and Harnessed Lightning are a perfect medium, and any deck without either of these cards really has to prove itself.

Fighting Verdurous Gearhulk is weird for those used to the old guard. The plan against Ishkanah, Grafwidow was go a level bigger than Spider tokens can handle, but you can’t really go bigger than an 8/8. The plan against Archangel Avacyn was kill it on sight and make conservative attacks around the indestructible trigger, but the counter distribution of Gearhulk makes one removal spell still leave half a body around.

The new plan has to be “kill literally everything” so they are just playing a five mana 8/8 that also dies, or else fly over without dying to Walking Ballista. As a result of the “kill it all” plan being realistic, I really like the Bristling Hydras in Daniel Guajardo’s Classic-winning list, but that plan will let your opponents playing Mindwrack Demons fly over for the win and playing both seems unfeasible. It might be time for some sideboard adjustments to make it all work.

The Rest

After the raw power of those two decks, it really feels like every other deck was coming in and got blindsided by one or the other. After this weekend we have two huge targets, but there are lessons to be learned elsewhere.

Heart of Kiran is not Smuggler’s Copter. Crew 3 is not Crew 1, and Thraben Inspector isn’t quite the same card. With Aethersphere Harvester we might be getting somewhere, but unless you want the Clue for artifact synergies, this is not the time for 1/2 cyclers.

Or maybe you just want to stay away altogether. I forgot your 3/2 Toolcraft Exemplar is actually a 1/1 that trades for one Walking Ballista counter.

Big six-drop cards that kill things looked pretty good in green mirrors, even if planeswalkers are pressured a bit in the case of Ajani Unyielding. Just realize that, against a large part of the metagame, tapping six mana for a sorcery is also known as conceding the game.

Raymond Perez and Jim Davis had near-misses with two-color control decks. There aren’t a ton of interesting card choices, as they are just the best removals and counterspells with the eight actually good blue cards (Torrential Gearhulk and Glimmer of Genius), but it feels like the question posed by both lists was, “If you are paying the cost of a third color, why are you combo killing?” I generally hate the allied-color combinations, as creature-lands are so good and there aren’t answers in U/G, so I would assume Ray is closer to the truth than Jim is, but I would love to be surprised.

On the other side of the mana spectrum, Matthew Longville proposed another interesting question by seeing how far the Winding Constrictor mana could stretch. I don’t think just playing Harnessed Lightning over Grasp of Darkness is worth it, but it is worth remembering that Attune with Aether and Aether Hub make it easier to reach a little outside the box than you would think. The Winding Constrictor synergy is just a minor bonus.

Two mana for protecting a single permanent is not the place to be, and neither is indestructible against Yahenni’s Expertise. You have to be really hoping for Radiant Flames or Fumigate to show up with this card…and also be able to hold up the mana and not just die to a Torrential Gearhulk. Heroic Intervention is most likely a giant trap.

Similarly, I’m going to need someone to explain this one to me. After I figured out Cataclysmic Gearhulk was almost always worse than Bastion Mastodon in Limited, I stopped assuming it would go anywhere in Constructed. I get that you can blink or copy it to keep the effect up, but I can’t imagine a 4/5 holds up to your opponent’s best creature and artifact or that it is better sweeper than Fumigate.

We’ve seen this many times before. Linear combo deck does its thing super-well and crushes a bunch of normal nonsense. It then plays against Splinter Twin and is laughed out of the room. Replace Splinter Twin with “Saheeli Rai and Negate” and you get a peek at why we barely saw Aetherworks Marvel. The double down is neat, but just makes your deck exposed and unable to interact, much like the Living End Twin hybrids or other nonsense did in the past.

I have no idea what this deck is actually trying to do besides cast Eldrazi, but it sure is cool. Thought-Knot Seer is still great, but five power of hasty trample power is actually below rate for the format. Sorry, Reality Smasher. Verdurous Gearhulk is just better. This is less of an endorsement of this specific deck and more of a reminder that some of these cards till exist.

One card oddly under represented from Aether Revolt was Metallic Rebuke. I think some of this has to do with the drop-off in Thraben Inspector’s power level, but Mana Leak is a heck of a card. Are games taking too long for it to be good? Is the support wrong or too easily crushed by Walking Ballista? The last one seems odd, as your bind of soft counters for high-costed spells and Spell Queller for low-costed ones seems like a nice place to be.


The interesting thing here is what happens next. The Saheeli Rai combo decks cast a long shadow, but G/B Aggro is literally just a creature deck with good rates. That has to be exploitable, which in turn has to be something the G/B players can re-level.

All I can say is this: I plan on writing a similar article for next weekend’s SCG Tour stop at #SCGRICH, and I would not be surprised to see a completely different format arise to scrape for takeaways.