The Three Best Proactive Decks in Standard

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
2/22/2013 12:01:00 PM
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This week I would like to discuss the three proactive decks that rose to the top of my team's testing gauntlet in preparation for Pro Tour Gatecrash: Jund Aggro, Geist Deck Wins, and The Aristocrats. I believe these were three of the best decks for the Pro Tour and continue to be three of the best decks today. I call them ‘proactive' instead of ‘aggro' because they can each transition to a more defensive role better than most aggressive strategies when necessary. They are also less vulnerable to traditional anti-aggro cards such as Supreme Verdict. If you're looking for something proactive and powerful to play this weekend, I have three strong choices for you today.


Jund Aggro, Geist Deck Wins, and The Aristocrats

A couple weeks ago I wrote about three new decks, the most promising of which was a BWR deck that I called ‘The Knightly Aristocracy' that to my knowledge no one had yet written anything about. The following weekend, a remarkably similar deck won the Pro Tour in the hands of Tom Martell. It appears Team SCG had independently arrived at the same deck around the same time I did, but they chose to keep it a secret in order to gain a strategic edge in the Pro Tour (as most teams do) while I instead chose to share it with everyone in my article.

After the final week of Pro Tour Gatecrash testing, I was going to play the Aristocrat deck, a Jund Aggro deck, or an aggressive UWR Geist of Saint Traft deck that we were calling ‘Geist Deck Wins.' I ended up playing the Geist deck, but all three were approximately as good as the other two.

Ari Lax and Manu Sutor played the Jund Aggro deck. Manu went 8-1 with it and then intentionally drew into eleventh place in the final round:

Jund Aggro by Emanuel Sutor
Main Deck
Sideboard
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
3 Dreg Mangler
4 Experiment One
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
4 Flinthoof Boar
4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Mogg Flunkies
4 Rakdos Cackler
Creatures [31]
2 Abrupt Decay
3 Dreadbore
2 Searing Spear
Spells [7]
4 Blood Crypt
2 Dragonskull Summit
2 Forest (270)
1 Mountain (265)
4 Overgrown Tomb
3 Rootbound Crag
4 Stomping Ground
2 Woodland Cemetery
Lands [22]
Deck Total [60]


1 Abrupt Decay
2 Domri Rade
3 Duress
1 Kessig Wolf Run
2 Olivia Voldaren
1 Searing Spear
3 Vampire Nighthawk
2 Wolfir Silverheart
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!


The deck has favorable matchups against most aggressive and midrange strategies since its creatures are slightly larger than those of other aggro decks while having just enough point removal and bloodrush to break through the defenses of midrange decks. Esper and Bant Control are tough, and a lot of matchups ended up around 50-60%, but the deck is very good and I would not be surprised if Manu puts up another strong finish with it at Grand Prix Quebec City this weekend (assuming he plays it again). I would also not be surprised if this deck takes off and becomes a long-term tier one contender. Tomoharu Saito already gave his stamp of approval to the deck in a tweet concerning it.

Gabriel Carlton-Barnes and I went with the Geist Deck Wins:

Geist Deck Wins by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
Sideboard
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Geist of Saint Traft
4 Restoration Angel
4 Snapcaster Mage
Creatures [16]
3 Azorius Charm
2 Blind Obedience
2 Boros Charm
2 Mizzium Mortars
3 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
2 Spectral Flight
2 Unsummon
Spells [20]
4 Clifftop Retreat
3 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
1 Plains (250)
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Slayers' Stronghold
4 Steam Vents
3 Sulfur Falls
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]


2 Assemble the Legion
2 Glaring Spotlight
2 Izzet Staticaster
3 Negate
1 Pillar of Flame
2 Supreme Verdict
3 Tormod's Crypt
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!


The only significant difference between our lists is that he ran four copies of Knight of Glory and a third Unsummon over Azorius Charm and Blind Obedience. He also ran a third copy of Spectral Flight over the fourth Snapcaster Mage.

The original list had Spark Trooper, but it quickly made its way out of all our lists as Blind Obedience made its way into our gauntlet lists. We also had Silverblade Paladin for a time, but after playing against aggro and midrange decks a lot, we determined that Boros Reckoner is much better in the deck than the Paladin.

The deck is basically a burn deck that leverages Geist of Saint Traft as a big, recurring burn spell. Against aggro decks you play the role of a control deck, using your burn spells to kill off their creatures before beating them down with a Restoration Angel or Geist of Saint Traft. Between Snapcaster Mage and Boros Reckoner, we have lots of ways to 2-for-1 them and gain an advantage in the mid-game. We also have Azorius Charm to gain life if they start chump-attacking to get us into burn range. There is also the infinite life combo with Boros Charm, Azorius Charm, and Boros Reckoner, but we went down to just 2 copies of Boros Charm because without having the other two cards (which are great on their own), Boros Charm is pretty miserable on its own against aggro decks (though good on its own in most other matchups).

Slayers' Stronghold and Blind Obedience are great ways to combat midrange decks. Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk don't look so good when they enter the battlefield tapped. Our creatures likewise look better when they enter with haste, +2/+0, and vigilance. These two cards also help against control for similar reasons, except the Extortion on Blind Obedience comes up a lot more against control than it does against midrange decks. It is basically more copies of Boros Charm worth of damage, which is great when our plan from the beginning is to burn them out.

The other thing I really like about this deck, and probably the main reason I chose to play it over our other two proactive decks is because it has such a variety of threats and answers that it can often maneuver into a winning line regardless of matchup or board state (within reason). Mizzium Mortars can handle Loxodon Smiter, Restoration Angel, or a creature enchanted with Volcanic Strength. Pillar of Flame can handle Strangleroot Geist or first turn Rakdos Cackler. Searing Spear can handle most things at instant speed, including Hellrider. Azorius Charm and Blind Obedience can handle Falkenrath Aristocrat and Thundermaw Hellkite, among other things. Unsummon can save our own guys or clear out a blocker, and works especially well with Blind Obedience (as does Azorius Charm) since each buys us essentially twice as many turns as it otherwise would without Blind Obedience.

The creatures are also for the most part great at playing offense or defense. Geist of Saint Traft is the one exception, though I consider its ability to kill an opposing Geist of Saint Traft its unique defensive ability. Boros Reckoner is MVP against creature decks, almost always forcing at least a 2-for-1 while also buying us time. Restoration works great with any of our other creatures, or on its own. Snapcaster Mage can kill two creatures or can greatly increase our clock. Knight of Glory was a great way to get on the board early, make it more difficult for opponents to block our Geist profitably, and can incidentally block a Rakdos Cackler or dodge Orzhov Charm , Dreadbore, or Ultimate Price. I chose to cut them in favor of some more defensive cards (Azorius Charm and Blind Obedience), but Gabe stuck with the original plan, and the decision is admittedly very close.

Sideboard:
3 Tormod's Crypt
2 Glaring Spotlight
2 Assemble the Legion
3 Negate
1 Pillar of Flame
2 Supreme Verdict
2 Izzet Staticaster

For the sideboard, Tormod's Crypt is for Human Reanimator and for the One-drop Jund Immortal Servitude deck that I thought Team Channel-Fireball would be on. Crypt was better than Rest in Peace because it doesn't require us to spend our whole turn playing it, and it also doesn't turn off our Snapcaster Mage. Glaring Spotlight is for Bant Hexproof, though with the decline of that deck, maybe these can be removed in favor of a different card. Assemble the Legion is our trump for Midrange Jund and the control decks. Negate is for Sphinx's Revelation and various control decks, and for decks running Rakdos's Return (i.e. Jund) as that card is very good against us. Pillar of Flame, Supreme Verdict, and Izzet Staticaster give us more protection against creature decks.

Between Verdict and Spotlight, we will likely draw one of the four game-winners against the hexproof deck, and between Verdict and Mizzium Mortars, we will likely draw one of the four game-winners against the GW or Naya Humans decks. Izzet Staticaster is a great way to get rid of mana creatures, tokens, or to double up with Restoration Angel to kill two-toughness guys. It makes all our burn spells that much better, allowing Searing Spear to kill Restoration Angel and Loxodon Smiter, and allowing Pillar of Flame to kill Thragtusk and other three-toughness creatures. There are also cute tricks that can be done with it if you have one or more Boros Reckoners in play.

As I said before, Geist Deck Wins, Jund Aggro, and The Aristocrats is each approximately as good as the other two. In my opinion these are the best three proactive strategies in Standard right now.

. . .

As for the rest of the team, Adam Yurchick and Harry Corvesse ran American Midrange (similar to the list Joel Larsson finished second place with). Mike Gurney, Alex West, and Rich Shay ran Esper Control (similar to the deck Ben Stark finished in third place with). Steve Rubin was the only player on the team to run Cartel Aristocrat, but it was in Human Reanimator instead of the Aristocrats deck.

The team was divided among our deck choices, but not because we didn't like any of the decks we had. On the contrary, we liked multiple decks we had! The results of the Pro Tour indicate that we had in fact zeroed in on the best decks, with most of the top performing decks at the event closely resembling our top gauntlet decks and the decks we played. If only we had a couple more Limited experts on the team or had assigned more players to test limited exclusively (like Ben Stark and Martin Juza do for Team Channel-Fireball), we likely would have done better overall.

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The one deck that was among our frontrunners that no one on the team ended up playing was the Aristocrat deck. It was putting up big numbers against our control and midrange decks, but it was having difficulty with the aggro decks, especially those that included a heavy amount of red burn spells. I tried fixing this problem with Nearheath Pilgrim, Boros Reckoner, and even Alms Beast, but the red matchup was still no better than 33%. In hindsight I should have been more willing to have a tough matchup against red decks, given the impressive stats the deck was putting up against all the other decks, combined with our prediction that red burn decks would likely not crack the top eight. Unfortunately time was running out and Gatecrash had just been released on MTGO, so we had shifted our focus more toward Limited by this point. As a result, instead of fine tuning the Aristocrat deck, we just went with the decks that we had pages and pages of data for. In hindsight it was probably a mistake for none of us to run the Aristocrat deck, given that it won the Pro Tour.

Fortunately Sam Black and Team SCG had also arrived at the Aristocrat deck, and unlike us, decided to spend the final week tuning the deck to a point where nearly everyone on their team played it. The result was that Tom Martel won the event, being very well-positioned against most of the other decks in the top eight.

My own tournament was pretty much over before the Constructed portion even began (since I started the tournament off by going 0-3 in the draft portion of Day 1), so I was very unlikely to win no matter what deck I played. We figured out how best to draft Esper Control and Orzhov, but we had not figured out the 14-land Gruul deck that Channel-Fireball was high on, nor how to draft five-color control effectively. This was the team's major downfall. Any limited masters that are willing to help me figure out Dragon's Maze > Gatecrash > Return to Ravnica for Pro Tour San Diego would be much appreciated. I struggle with figuring out Limited formats in the beginning (i.e. in preparation for the Pro Tour). I'm much better once I've had time to digest everything (i.e. the ensuing Grand Prix events). So if you or anyone you know is good at figuring out archetypes and pick orders quickly after the set's release, sharing this information with me will be of great assistance to me for Pro Tour San Diego.


How Close Were We to the Aristocrat Deck?

One unique aspect of the Pro Tour is that the world's most competitive players form into teams and labor intensively for approximately three weeks, from the release of the newest expansion right up to the day of the tournament. As a result, we often find strange and powerful new decks that take the tournament by storm and/or help to re-shape Standard thereafter. Most of these teams are highly secretive of their ideas and so the tournament itself and the following week of articles are when these new ideas really get shared with everyone outside the professional testing groups.

Interestingly, I chose to publish a new and powerful deck the week prior to the Pro Tour. Looking back at what transpired thereafter, I learned a few things, most notably that forum responses to an article about a new deck can lead to productivity that matches even the highest level of productivity generated by the strongest professional teams in the game. As we will see, the article and ensuing forum comments could have gotten us to within 59 of the 60 cards that won the Pro Tour the following weekend! When appropriately structured, an article and a forum can even match the progress of the team that wins the Pro Tour!

Here was the starting configuration from the article:

The Knightly Aristocracy by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
Sideboard
4 Cartel Aristocrat
4 Champion of the Parish
4 Doomed Traveler
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
4 Knight of Glory
4 Knight of Infamy
4 Silverblade Paladin
Creatures [28]
4 Lingering Souls
4 Orzhov Charm
Spells [8]
4 Blood Crypt
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Plains (250)
4 Sacred Foundry
2 Vault of the Archangel
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]


3 Duress
1 Fiend Hunter
2 Glaring Spotlight
2 Nearheath Pilgrim
2 Oblivion Ring
3 Tormod's Crypt
2 Ultimate Price
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!


And here is the version Tom Martell won the Pro Tour with the following weekend:

The Aristocrats by Tom Martell
Finished 1st Place at 2013 Pro Tour Gatecrash - 2/16
Main Deck
Sideboard
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Cartel Aristocrat
4 Champion of the Parish
4 Doomed Traveler
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
3 Knight of Infamy
1 Restoration Angel
2 Silverblade Paladin
2 Skirsdag High Priest
2 Zealous Conscripts
Creatures [30]
2 Lingering Souls
4 Orzhov Charm
Spells [6]
4 Blood Crypt
3 Cavern of Souls
1 Clifftop Retreat
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
3 Plains (250)
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Vault of the Archangel
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]


2 Blasphemous Act
2 Lingering Souls
1 Mentor of the Meek
2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
2 Rest in Peace
1 Skirsdag High Priest
2 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
3 Tragic Slip
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!


Let's consider the similarities:

4 Cartel Aristocrat
4 Champion of the Parish
4 Doomed Traveler
4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
3 Knight of Infamy
2 Silverblade Paladin
2 Lingering Souls
4 Orzhov Charm
4 Blood Crypt
3 Cavern of Souls
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Plains
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Vault of the Archangel

And here are the differences:

(version in article)
+4 Knight of Glory
+1 Knight of Infamy
+2 Silverblade Paladin
+2 Lingering Souls
+1 Vault of the Archangel
+1 Cavern of Souls

(version in PT winning deck)
-2 Skirsdag High Priest
-4 Boros Reckoner
-1 Restoration Angel
-2 Zealous Conscripts
-1 Clifftop Retreat
-1 Plains

So it turns out we were eleven cards off from the starting 60 that won the tournament, but this is where the forum comments were particularly instructive.

In the discussion of the deck, I mentioned that Skirsdag High Priest and Boros Reckoner are among the short list of eight cards worth considering for the deck, alongside Searing Spear, Boros Charm, Loyal Cathar, Precinct Captain, High Priest of Penance, and Fiend Hunter.

Dan Parish, Will Sumners, Nicholas Pi'opi Redmond, and multiple other people in the forum mentioned that they liked Skirsdag High Priest in the deck and that I should fit them into the main. Taking their advice, this would have gotten us two cards closer.

I failed to notice and thus mention an important interaction in the deck. Since we had eight creatures that allow us to sacrifice a creature (the eight Aristocrats), Zealous Conscripts and/or Mark of Mutiny are a great fit for the deck. Fortunately no less than four people mentioned it in the forum of the article, and I was quick to agree that it belonged. Thanks to Sporter M. Gooder, Joao Magalhaes, Jose Antonini, and Samuel James for this suggestion, we would have been two cards closer.

I also mentioned that if we fit Boros Reckoner into the deck, the mana would have to be adjusted, specifically pointing out Cavern of Souls. This would account for the 1 Cavern and 1 Vault being replaced by 1 Clifftop Retreat and a third Plains.

Furthermore, the majority consensus among readers was that the Aristocrat deck was the best of the three and the one most worth pursuing further. Brent Shoap and Joaquin Rivas Rojas mentioned they were having success with the deck and that it was worth continued testing.

So after reading the article and considering the feedback from readers in the forum of the article, one could reasonably have had 59 of the 60 cards from the deck that would end up winning the Pro Tour. The one copy of Restoration Angel was the only card not suggested for the deck.

Given these observations, I think it is reasonably safe to draw the following three conclusions:

1. When it comes to Champion of the Parish, Doomed Traveler, or white aggressive strategies in general, I quite literally explore every single possibility – even ones that require splashing for a large Rakdos vampire. And the decks I discover are in fact the best white aggressive strategies available. So if I know nothing else, I at least know my white weenies and how best to make them good. The fact that Team SCG arrived at nearly an identical deck via a very different path shows that my range encompasses just about anything involving white creatures and is fairly exhaustive in that it includes even the strangest iterations of white weenie.

2. Secondly, my credibility with respect to sharing my best knowledge is hard to refute. Writers are often accused of withholding their technologies and instead giving misleading or at least second-rate information in their articles, especially in the weeks leading up to a major tournament of the respective format. I practically published the winning deck the week before the pro tour, a deck that had not existed prior to Gatecrash and was not being talked about anywhere else on the Internet. If I were ever to withhold information from my readers for my own benefit, this would have been the optimal time to do it. This should prove that I write what I believe to be true, despite the potential payoff for not doing so.

3. If utilized appropriately (i.e. engaging in an active interchange of ideas with forum posters on a given deck or topic), the forum of an article can provide a comparable level of productivity that a team of professional testers can yield, even to the point of arriving at a deck powerful enough to win the Pro Tour (as we saw with Tom Martell and the Aristocrat deck). As Benjamin Tyler Rinauto put it in the forum of the article, even before the Pro Tour happened:



“I commented earlier, but I just want to say that I think what you are doing right now has the potential to be INCREDIBLY productive. I haven't seen this level of follow up by the author of any mtg article... ever. I'm sure that whenever you repeat this your guidance and insight combined with the innovation and testing done by your readers will make tier 1 lists.

This is literally the fastest way to find the best decks.”



Considering these three conclusions, I've decided the time has finally come where I must take up streaming. Having a team of players watching and critiquing my plays will help me to find lines that I would otherwise overlook. And having a team of players suggesting solutions to problems in deck construction can likewise lead to a better tuned deck. With only twelve pro points this season, barring another big finish, Pro Tour San Diego (Dragon's Maze) will be the final Pro Tour I'm qualified for. I've tried the team format, I've tried going solo, and each time I feel that my testing has been less efficient than it could have been. This time I am turning for help to whoever wants to be involved in my testing process. Look for streaming to be a thing that happens for me in the coming weeks. I will send out tweets concerning it when it begins.

I'm offering an open invitation to anyone interested in testing with me for Pro Tour San Diego, regardless of whether you are qualified to compete in the actual event or not. If you want to improve as a player, be part of cutting edge technology, and/or help me to do the same, then you are welcome to join me when I begin my stream. There is room for everyone to improve (including me) and I'm more than willing to help you if you're willing to help me.

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter



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