What We Learned About Ixalan Standard

Ari Lax saw the signs of SCG Dallas’s dominant decks in Magic Online results last week! Get his insights into the cards that mattered and where the metagame goes from here!

I’ve been buried in Draftland since set release, which is a pretty magical place. That said, seeing Sultai Energy win an event is no shocker to me. It’s an already great deck that added even better cards.

If you want to know how Sultai became a viable color combo in Standard, you have to start a bit earlier than this weekend.

The story starts from the weird overlap period on Magic Online. All set legality updates have to be implemented in a Wednesday downtime, but set releases don’t occur until Mondays. Don’t ask why; only know that presumably changing this breaks a demonic seal.

This leads to a couple of days where all the reprints from a new set are legal in their old versions and any sets rotating out are gone, but none of the new cards exist. In that period, Thiago Saporito, aka bolov0, 5-0’ed a League with Sultai Energy. Not Sultai with Winding Constrictor (more on that later), but a deck more aligned with the Temur Energy deck.

Attune with Aether got really good. It went from being one of the best cards in the format to…being one of the best cards in the format, but better. A big part of this was the change from Sunken Hollows to Drowned Catacombs making your first Attune lock in untapped mana in the midgame.

Importantly, in Sultai, you can use Blooming Marsh or Botanical Sanctum to cast your Attune with Aether, find a basic land, and now have untapped U/B checklands. Thiago took full advantage of this, basically splashing Attune with Aether to make a potentially inconsistent U/B land set work for both early blue Censors and early double-black Gifted Aetherborns. This deck is basically the surviving version of the U/B Scarab God Control deck from the end of last season, slanted to beat the suddenly legal Duresses with more creatures like I suggested a couple weeks ago.

This new mashup of great cards should have foreshadowed what we saw this weekend, where Andrew literally proved he was the better Jessup en route to winning the event. While they didn’t even play Drowned Catacomb, the not-Temur G/U pairing still proved well worth it.

Hostage Taker is really, really good. In modern Magic, where creatures are often two-for-ones, finding two-for-one creatures that advance your battlefield position over just drawing cards is huge. Shriekmaw-style effects are great, and Hostage Taker one-ups that by being a potential three-for-one Mind Control plus body. We haven’t seen that in this price range since Sower of Temptation, and unlike Sower, there’s a finite window for them to kill Hostage Taker and not still be down cards.

Look at these cards people had serious concerns about killing! Guess what? The base G/R decks playing them are the ones that have the biggest problem managing them. Great job playing good cards; sucks you can’t beat your own deck.

Oh no, another indestructible God, how can I ever beat it! If only I could exile it or cast my own!

I’ll take this moment to point out the Magic Online PTQ was won by Four-Color “Temur” Energy…with Hostage Taker. Welp, Hazoret down, that’s one less talking point.

Hostage Taker also performs another important function against Ramunap Red by exiling a cheap creature for immediate recast in the mid-game, giving you a very stable battlefield against future haste creatures. A three-body swing makes it very difficult to randomly die.

The Scarab God is a weird case. Getting your The Scarab God exiled by Hostage Taker is often an absolute nightmare. I’m not sure how anyone ever beats The Scarab God, let alone beating their own copy. But due to the return-from-graveyard ability, you have a bit larger window for an answer than normal against Hostage Taker, as just Harnessed Lightning on The Scarab God cast means you get it back, and the card is basically unbeatable if you get to return a Hostage Taker with it. Given that The Scarab God is in the realm of “too good to not see play,” in the same colors as Hostage Taker, and works well with Hostage Taker to bury non-mirrors, I expect to see a lot of it, but I would also be interested to see if sideboarding it out in mirrors is a worthwhile plan.

The genius of the Sultai (Constrictor) Energy deck played by the Jessups last weekend was that it had breakers for the Hostage Taker mirror matches. The big breaker was Blossoming Defense to counter their four-mana removal spell, but Walking Ballista is also something you can do to extend onto the battlefield but also use as a way to clear Hostage Taker in response to the ability.

Also worth noting on Blossoming Defense: you get to dodge all of the Hostage Taker mirror match dynamics. There are weird issues when you get into the six- to eight-mana range about not letting them immediately cast the “hostage,” and Blossoming Defense lets you initiate those fights many turns earlier.

Also, nicely done to all the Jim Davises who thought U/W Approach was a good idea. You won some, but basically every deck is playing the two colors flooded with the best answers to their cards. Most of them are also playing green for another obnoxious (though beatable) card in Carnage Tyrant.

The deck to beat for next week is some pile of cards containing Attune with Aether and Hostage Taker. Whether there are Harnessed Lightnings, Winding Constrictors, or something else, I have no idea, but those are the best cards and mana Standard lets you buy.

What I want to look at are some of the other decks in the format that have popped up. It’s still mostly Temur and Red, but some highlights have slipped through the cracks.

_Megafone_ is the alias of yet another Brazilian Pro Tour player: Pedro Carvahlo. I want to discuss his take on B/R here because he was the one I was referencing when looking at future updates with his Kaladesh-era Grand Prix B/R Eldrazi deck. While basically none of the same cards are legal or see play, the strategic overlap means he has probably tried a lot of things that carry over to this deck build.

Mono-Black is basically an alternative to Mono-Red that offers real two-power creatures. Okay, maybe not really two power, but all twelve one-drops here attack for two damage, which is more than you can say about Bomat Courier. You are also much more resilient to removal, with Dread Wanderer and Scrapheap Scrounger in addition to Hazoret the Fervent.

One thing that looked weird on paper to me is Yahenni, Undying Partisan over Ruin Raider. When you look at the decks B/R Aggro is going to struggle against, this actually makes a lot of sense. Black aggro is almost always naturally soft to red aggro’s hastier creatures and more efficient removal, even if the red deck has to play awesome garbage like Pyreheart Wolf. Yahenni, Undying Partisan is notably difficult for Ramunap Red to handle if you are at all established, and the Aethersphere Harvesters suggest even more choices pushing in this direction.

Compare this to Ruin Raider, who is basically unplayable in the matchup. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner provides similar card advantage but is 100% less likely to kill you against Mountains. Ruin Raider is also pretty bad with the splashed Hazoret the Fervents too, and we know that card is great. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner again wins on this metric by letting you choose not to draw if you can’t effectively dump your cards. Oh, and it lets you cut tapped Canyon Sloughs for Aether Hubs to support your splash.

There’s also the bonus of Yahenni, Undying Partisan plus the format’s most efficient Wrath effect in Bontu’s Last Reckoning. Sweepers are really good against Winding Constrictor decks, so that duo might be worth exploring in the near future. I’m just skeptical that a deck with twelve one-toughness creatures is the plan versus Walking Ballista.

Just as a reminder: Hostage Taker hits artifacts too. I was excited about the Vehicle-based B/R decks until I remembered that.

Coming in just short of a Top 8 in the Dallas Standard Classic was W/B Anointed Procession. This is a bit less of a combo deck than the Sam Black versions of the deck, focusing on heavy removal and using the Anointed ProcessionHidden Stockpile engine where old B/W control decks used planeswalkers to pull ahead. This list doesn’t show case some of the unique potential options, but I want to discuss those.

One of the questions W/B Tokens has had is how to replace the card advantage engine of Ulvenwald Mysteries. Arguel’s Blood Fast is a fine way, as shown by Sam Black a couple of weeks ago. Note that the transform is a may ability, allowing you choose between making the sacrifice outlet Temple of Aclazotz to serve up a bunch of copied Anointer Priests or leaving your card advantage intact if you are “just okay” gaining half a million life or so.

The inclusion of Vraska, Relic Seeker in some lists is a bit of a mystery to me. Cool, you do get double Pirates or double Treasures and the card closes games quickly where this deck can sometimes fail. Is this card that good that it warrants a splash? Is doubling down on expensive noncreatures good in a Duress and Spell Pierce format? I don’t actually know. Maybe just having the potential best planeswalker in your B/W shell is good enough.

Adding to the millions of Hostage Taker decks, we have a combo-midrange hybrid in Esper Gift. Worth noting is a Magic Online list with Search for Azcanta as a way to find and fuel your combo. Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is not great in Game 1s but likely fuels some Game 2 transitions to answers over threats if people show up with graveyard hate. It also ramps you into a hard-cast God-Pharaoh’s Gift, which I think will prove more important in the Refurbish lists that play three or four copies of the namesake artifact and just always draw one.

Brennan’s Vona, Butcher of Magan and sideboard The Scarab Gods have to be concessions to Ramunap Red Week 1. I’ll presumably let him talk more about it later this week, but this feels like something that will change quickly now that we are out of the woods.

That all said, I’m skeptical this is a great choice given how good Hostage Taker is against the deck. You do get the first God-Pharaoh’s Gift trigger, but it isn’t a reliable engine when they can just exile it. On top of that, you don’t have many ways to answer Hostage Taker compared to other decks. Are you prepared to beat your own God-Pharaoh’s Gift? It’s iffy at best.

So what’s next? For most people, the best plan is just to wait for the World Championship. The smaller metagame and testing groups are going to lead to some great ideas that are just isolated from what we saw in Dallas. The key is going to be meshing all of those ideas together to figure out what’s the next step. If Sam crushes people trying to take Hostages by only having irrelevant tokens, that’s the next set of cards you have to worry about beyond Mountains, midrange Hostage Takers, and control.

If I had to place a single bet, it would be on Carnage Tyrant. It can’t be taken hostage, U/W has only a select set of ways to answer it, and it hits hard. You need some way to make it slightly pushier to ensure it wins combat against a bunch of random bodies, or maybe just recursion to make sure you can jam until they die. I know the shell should be playing blue to punish Fumigate with counters, but the rest is just up in the air.

My heartfelt advice is that trying to beat these best decks is going to suck at first. Most of what you try is going to fail. The aggro and control extremes of the format are super-punishing, and the individual cards in the midrange ones are possibly more so. Latch onto cards or card pairs that work out, throw everything else away, and start again with those in mind. Beating them is possible, but it certainly looks really hard.