After last weekend, Sultai Ramp is the deck to beat in Core Set 2021 Standard. However, unlike decks like Jeskai Lukka Fires (Yorion) and Temur Reclamation, Sultai Ramp doesn’t have the over the top power to dominate across a wide spectrum of matchups, and as such, I think the metagame will be able to adapt to limit its success in the remaining weeks of this Standard format. This should get even easier as players quickly adjust to combat the mirror, inbreeding their lists and taking away key slots in both their maindecks and sideboards from other matchups.
So I’m ready to be on the side of good to Sultai’s evil in the coming weeks, and my weapon of choice is set: Rakdos Sacrifice.
I had initially written off Rakdos Sacrifice in the wake of Cauldron Familiar’s ban because it was a critical card in the deck in combination with Witch’s Oven, which gave you consistent pressure on your opponent’s life total, and an easy way to exploit sacrifice synergies, particularly Mayhem Devil. However, its performance in the second SCG Tour Online Season Two Championship Qualifier, putting two players into the Top 4 caused me to revisit the archetype.
Ultimately, I came away impressed enough to play the deck in the third Championship Qualifier last weekend, coming away with a solid 6-2 record and sneaking into 16th place. But my list was quite different than those that found success the previous weekend. Here’s what I registered:
- 4 Gutterbones
- 4 Priest of Forgotten Gods
- 4 Mayhem Devil
- 3 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 4 Woe Strider
- 3 Mire Triton
- 2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
- 4 Serrated Scorpion
The key difference here is the removal of Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Simply put, Lurrus was terrible in my testing. You give up access to a lot of powerful cards in order to play it as a companion, and it doesn’t pull enough weight to make that cost worthwhile. The added card advantage is welcome because you’re not under as much pressure to end the game as in the Temur Reclamation era, but Lurrus is painfully slow and clunky, and that’s a tough sell in Standard where you need to find ways to generate card advantage while simultaneously competing on the battlefield. The turn you take off to buy Lurrus is a killer on that metric.
My other major problem with Lurrus is what it did to the deck’s curve. You’re pretty limited on the one-drops that are viable unless you want to play Archfiend’s Vessel, which is a terrible card. Seriously, the 1/1 body is irrelevant and you go out of your way to make a Demon token that every deck can answer rather easily. Petty Theft, Claim the Firstborn, Heartless Act, Eliminate, and Primal Might are all clean answers and decks like Mono-Red Aggro and Mardu Winota can go wide around it. Archfiend’s Vessel is a classic trap card that only performs well in metagames where the token it makes is difficult to answer. This is not one of those metagames.
So fitting Lurrus into the companion slot mostly requires replacing your three- and four-mana creatures with two-mana ones, condensing the curve in that spot. This makes it both more difficult to use your mana efficiently in the early-game, and makes you more vulnerable to Extinction Event, which is incredibly common in the current metagame.
In exchange for eschewing Lurrus, you get access to Woe Strider and Rankle, Master of Pranks, two individually powerful threats that can absolutely dominate a game and provide that easy card advantage that also affects the battlefield. Woe Strider is never obviously dominant but the card advantage, card selection, multiple bodies, and free sac outlet are all valuable in the deck in a myriad of different ways. It’s the glue that holds the deck together.
Rankle is my favorite card in the deck, so at the risk of sounding biased, it’s hard for me to take a Rakdos list seriously that doesn’t include at least a couple copies. It’s a great card for reach, it can restrict resources if you’re ahead or flood your opponent on resources and let them struggle to deploy their hand while you dig for your key spells. Versatility is a hallmark of successful Standard decks, and Rankle and Woe Strider offer similar versatility to Lurrus without sacrificing individual card power. There’s some worry that players will move towards more Shark Typhoons to combat Sultai mirrors which hurts Rankle, but I’ll adjust if and when that happens.
Lurrus has consistently underperformed in Standard, and I don’t see that changing until at least after rotation. Stay away.
What I Learned Last Weekend
Despite my solid record, I recognized several places where I wanted to change my list, which I take as a good sign. If a substandard list is still performing well, then a well-tuned one can be even better. There are two major changes I want to make moving forward:
First is to add Whisper Squad. We haven’t seen much of the black Squadron Hawk since the companion era when Obosh, the Preypiercer saw significant play, but now is the time. I thought my curve was a touch high and Whisper Squad is a quality one-drop right now. As I noted earlier, Sultai Ramp doesn’t have the over the top power that previous dominant Standard decks had, so you can afford to slow down against them and fight back with some card advantage and resilient threats of your own. Whisper Squad lets you do that without sacrificing aggression, and provides plenty of fodder for Village Rites and Priest of Forgotten Gods.
Second is that Mayhem Devil isn’t what it used to be. With Cauldron Familiar + Witch’s Oven, Mayhem Devil was among the best cards in the deck, spraying damage all over the battlefield or to your opponent’s face. Now you only do that once you’ve established a significant battlefield with Woe Strider or Priest of Forgotten Gods, making the card win more unless you’re trying to catch up from behind against an aggro deck.
The one common matchup where Devil shines is Mardu Winota, so cutting it would require some more deference to that matchup be paid elsewhere, but it’s been thoroughly mediocre for me and I’m ready to see what else can be done with that slot. Remember, there are no sacred cows.
With these points in mind, here’s the list I’m starting with this week:
- 2 Judith, the Scourge Diva
- 4 Gutterbones
- 4 Priest of Forgotten Gods
- 3 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 4 Woe Strider
- 2 Mire Triton
- 2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
- 2 Serrated Scorpion
- 4 Whisper Squad
- 2 Liliana's Standard Bearer
To replace Mayhem Devil, I’ve opted for Judith, the Scourge Diva and Liliana’s Standard Bearer. Both of these cards play well with Whisper Squad, providing additional reach and card advantage when you have a battlefield with plenty of expendable bodies. Judith can combine with your other sacrifice outlets to mimic Mayhem Devil when that effect is important, but also allows for some explosive starts to punish any stumbles from your opponents.
I went for Liliana’s Standard Bearer over Midnight Reaper because of the value of flash. Being able to hold up a spell against your opponent’s sweeper, even if it’s an exile effect like Extinction Event, is so valuable, because it’s important to maintain pressure against midrange and control decks that are looking to get to the late game. Also, Standard Bearer has incredible synergy with Priest of Forgotten Gods, and any way to use the mana from its ability is quite valuable. You sacrifice a lot of your battlefield to use Priest’s ability, and being able to immediately deploy something with that mana recoups that loss, never mind the additional card advantage from Liliana’s Standard Bearer’s trigger.
The sideboard here is focused on cheap removal to help against aggressive decks, and disruptive elements against bigger decks that specifically target Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Uro is the card that most often takes over the game, so exiling it with Soul-Guide Lantern or Agonizing Remorse is a big help. The Bolas’s Citadel is a bit of tech I picked up from Marcio Carvalho, whose wheels came off after a hot start to finish 5-3. I like Bolas’s Citadel because it helps attack Uro from another angle. It goes over the top of it in many games, even without the aid of Mayhem Devil for the easy one-shot kill.
Lastly, I wanted to remark on the singleton Bedevil. Most lists have multiple copies of Embereth Shieldbreaker, but I’ve been unimpressed in a world with only Lucky Clover as a common target. Bedevil provides valuable versatility without sacrificing shatter effects, and that versatility is quite valuable when lists of Sultai and other archetypes vary so much. I like having a card which can kill both Shark Typhoon tokens and Nissa, Who Shakes the World in one matchup, but then Embercleave or Torbran, Thane of Red Fell in another. You don’t want to sacrifice too much efficiency for versatility in an aggressive deck, but this one card helps round out your sideboard plans quite a bit.
If the metagame narrows considerably then you can find a more targeted card for that slot, but as long as Sultai Ramp lists are up in the air it’ll be worth the slot.
The Sultai Ramp Matchup
It’s by far the most represented deck in the current Standard metagame, so let’s talk about how to approach the Sultai Ramp matchup with Rakdos Sacrifice. It’s clear that you’re the aggressive deck in the matchup, and they are favored going long. But it’s important to remember that that dynamic doesn’t mean you have to be blindly aggressive at every opportunity. Because Sultai Ramp doesn’t close the door in the same way as Temur Reclamation or Jeskai Fires before it, you have the ability to pace your threats and win in the mid-game. You have the inherent card advantage to reload several times in a single game.
The key is to maintain pressure while not allowing them to gain traction. They gain traction primarily with three cards: Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Nissa Who Shakes the World, and Extinction Event. Uro is the primary of them, letting them generate card advantage, pressure your life total, and pad their own life at the same time. Nissa similarly runs away with the game by turning their extra lands into effective cards and also pressure your life total. Extinction Event lets them gain traction if you’re overexposed. If it decimates your position so you have to spend too much time recovering, they’re going to have the time to work towards their more powerful end-game.
Against Uro, you want to pay attention to their graveyard and not accelerate them to the requisite number of cards to escape without an answer to the Elder Giant. Save a removal spell whenever possible, but when you’re forced to answer a large Hydroid Krasis or Nissas that can be impossible, hence why the sideboard is slanted toward other answers for it.
The more subtle dynamic of these games is the squeeze that Extinction Event and Nissa put you in. If you play too aggressively, then you risk losing too much material to the sweeper. If you play too passively, then you may open a window for them to land a Nissa safely. If you can find a course of action that limits Extinction Event to a two-for-one while also letting you answer a Nissa immediately, then you should be in good shape to keep reloading through their disruption and whittle their life total to zero before they can fully take over.
To help you in navigating this balance, it’s important to pay attention to how your opponent is playing and suss out what they may be holding. If you’re confident that they don’t have the sweeper or planeswalker, you can shift your play accordingly and reap the rewards of a calculated risk. Moreover, outside of these key cards, you’re trying to sequence in a way that makes the game as hard as possible for them. So if you suspect they have a removal spell, don’t run out your Priest on Turn 2. Activate Whisper Squad or cast a discard spell instead.
You’re going to be playing what looks like a midrange mirror against them where both players are exchanging resources turn after turn, but amidst all those trades, you’re constantly attacking until suddenly they have to play to protect their life total and you can hopefully shut the door.
When things are going badly and you find yourself falling behind, then it’s time to look to get aggressive. Take risks, figure out your best outs, and play to them. A timely Claim the Firstborn can steal a lot of games.
I’ve been happy to play against Sultai Ramp with Rakdos Sacrifice thus far, and I’ll be even happier to do so if players move to adopt the counter-heavy lists that performed well last weekend. Cutting Mayhem Devil makes Aether Gust significantly worse and often a dead card, while the low curve makes it easy to get ahead and force your opponent to tap out, thus stranding their counterspells. If you don’t want to join the side of the evil Simic Combine, Rakdos Sacrifice is what I’d recommend.
VS Sultai Ramp
VS Mardu Winota
VS Temur Adventures
VS Mono-Red Aggro
VS Mono-Green Aggro
VS Temur Flash