Standard's 8 Most Improved Cards - and the Decks that Use Them

Feature Article from Adam Yurchick
Adam Yurchick
2/16/2017 11:00:00 AM
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Pro Tour Aether Revolt proved that the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo was not the top deck in Standard, because it fell prey to the aggressive Mardu Vehicles deck that was equipped to cut through it and nearly anything else in the field. The stage was set for Mardu to run roughshod over Standard, but there was a solution to be had. While the deck fell shy of the Top 8, two players finished 9-1 in Standard at the Pro Tour with Black-Green Energy decks sporting Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballista, a combination that spells trouble for Mardu decks filled with small creatures. Savvy players realized black-green decks were the next evolution of the metagame, and its growing popularity on Magic Online came to a head at Grand Prix Pittsburgh, where the metagame reacted to Mardu with a flood of black-green variants.

The archetype filled the Top 8 and ultimately won the Grand Prix, but two Mardu decks breaking through to the top four and one making on to the finals revealed that Mardu still has plenty of steam left in its engine. Jeskai Copycat also reached the Top 8, and a four-color version finished in ninth place by taking advantage of the suppression of Mardu and preying on black-green decks underprepared to stop the combo. Each of the top decks in Pittsburgh were filled with innovations and adaptations that gave them an edge over their opponents. Today I'll explore the cards these decks used to stand out from the crowds.

Gifted Aetherborn

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 Gifted Aetherborn
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$0.25
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Gifted Aetherborn had a breakout weekend at Grand Prix Pittsburgh, where it could be found in many of the black-green decks at the top tables, including four in Hunter Cochran's Top 8 decklist.

Gifted Aetherborn is a Vampire Nighthawk on the ground, but for only two mana it's more efficient and an even better card overall. Deathtouch allows it hold off larger attackers or attack into blockers with impunity, and its lifelink ability makes it a perfect candidate to receive +1/+1 counters. With enough counters – like four from a Verdurous Gearhulk – it will get out of hand and take over the game against aggressive decks like Mardu and the mirror match by winning the damage race. On its own, it holds off creatures like Winding Constrictor and Inventor's Apprentice, and it trades up with big threats all the way to Verdurous Gearhulk and Torrential Gearhulk. Gifted Aetherborn has an outsized impact for its low cost, and it's a fantastic new staple for a deck built around +1/+1 counters.

Gonti, Lord of Luxury

Mid
Low
 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
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Another piece of technology in Hunter's deck is Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Previously we saw this card being used at the Pro Tour by world-class players including Seth Manfield, Brian Braun-Duin and Brad Nelson in their Black-Green Energy decks as a powerful piece of card advantage, and it has now gained widespread popularity in black-green decks of all sorts. Sitting somewhere between Nekrataal and Diabolic Tutor, Gonti, Lord of Luxury develops the battlefield as an excellent defensive play that creates time to use the action it finds. Gonti, Lord of Luxury is a fine body to put counters on, and it's a great way to crew an Aethersphere Harvester – ideally one that came down the turn before, which the following turn will hopefully gain four +1/+1 counters from the Verdurous Gearhulk that Gonti, Lord of Luxury stole from the opponent. Gonti is also ripe for abuse by being reused by Liliana, the Last Hope or Grapple with the Past, and it's an excellent inclusion into a Traverse the Ulvenwald toolbox.

Gonti, Lord of Luxury is fantastic against other black-green decks, which are grindy affairs that often come down to attrition, so the card advantage is backbreaking. The deathtouch body is a fantastic defensive tool that will trade up if it doesn't draw out a removal spell from the opponent, which is also a fine exchange. It's also very strong against control decks as a source of card advantage and a threat. It's against control decks where the extra card tends to be at its best both because these decks allow time to use it and because they play relatively powerful cards. The most attractive targets of all are counters, and a timely one will be hard for control to beat.

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

Mid
Low
 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
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$2.81
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Nissa, Voice of Zendikar had a big weekend at the Grand Prix, where the champion used three copies in his deck, and four copies could be found in the fourth place Black-Green Energy deck.

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar isn't stellar against Heart of Kiran, but it's perfect in black-green mirror matches that grind down into board stalls where opponents will have a difficult time getting it off the table. It will generate a stream of tokens, which are fantastic blockers in a world without Smuggler's Copter, or help build battlefield presence to place counters on later. Its ability to create +1/+1 counters is especially good in a deck with Winding Constrictor doubling the effect. Over time it will give its controller a large advantage that the opponent won't be able to beat. With black-green as the top deck in the metagame, the mirror match will be the most important opponent to consider, and coming equipped with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar will be a great way to get an edge.

Harsh Scrutiny

Mid
Low
 Harsh Scrutiny
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Another way to earn an edge in the mirror match is Harsh Scrutiny, which can be found as a two-of in the sideboards of Brad Nelson's and Frank Skarren's Top 16 decks.

The card certainly raises scrutiny because it hasn't previously been considered very playable, but those players realized that the rules of Standard have changed. The top decks, black-green variants, are dense in creatures and leverage synergy that's vulnerable to disruption. As technology for the mirror match, Harsh Scrutiny serves as a first-turn play in a deck without any other one-mana plays. It breaks up the opponent's best draws by taking Winding Constrictor or Rishkar, Peema Renegade, or it can be cast later to preempt Verdurous Gearhulk. It even answers Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, which broke mirror matches all weekend. Harsh Scrutiny is also suited to breaking up the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo, and would certainly prove fantastic against the creature-rich Four-Color Copycat deck, which in the wake of the Grand Prix is becoming more popular online a foil to the black-green decks. Harsh Scrutiny also comes with a valuable scry trigger, which is especially strong for smoothing draws when Harsh Scrutiny is cast on the first turn, which helps find a turn-two Winding Constrictor, and later in the game it's not as poor a topdeck as traditional discard.

Oath of Nissa

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 Oath of Nissa
$2.07
$0.42
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One of the more interesting pieces of technology in Pittsburgh was Oath of Nissa in the winner's deck.

Where Delirium plays Traverse the Ulvenwald, and Energy uses Attune with Aether, the winner used Oath of Nissa, which fulfills the role of finding lands but with the added utility of being able to find action. Black-Green Energy decks are at their best with a turn-two Winding Constrictor, and Oath of Nissa means that this deck will make that happen more often than other builds. Along with its ability to find other key creatures, like Walking Ballista early, Rishkar, Peema Renegade to move things along, Verdurous Gearhulk to end the game, or even Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, it's no surprise that Oath of Nissa is so strong in this deck. It's hard for me to believe it did not play an instrumental role in the champion's victory, and it could be a big step forward for black-green decks looking to be as consistent as possible in the early game. Oath of Nissa is also integral to Four-Color Copycat, where it can find either Saheeli Rai or Felidar Guardian, or any of the other powerful creatures and planeswalkers in the deck. It's also important as mana-fixing to help cast planeswalkers, or find lands in a pinch.

Four-Color Copycat is well-positioned against a black-green deck tuned to beat Mardu and the mirror match, and their increased metagame share onlin since the Grand Prix might be matched by increased paper popularity in the near future.

Fumigate

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 Fumigate
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Fumigate is usually seen as a tool for control decks that need a board sweeper to stop aggressive decks and buy time for their power cards like Torrential Gearhulk to take over the game, but at Grand Prix Pittsburgh it was most effective as technology in the sideboards of Mardu decks for stopping the black-green decks dead.

After a Pro Tour dominated by Mardu, black-green decks with Walking Ballista powered by Winding Constrictor became extremely popular online and in Pittsburgh because of their strong matchup against Mardu. The typical plan of Mardu is to cut creatures vulnerable to Walking Ballista and play a more midrange plan with Chandra, Torch of Defiance as extra removal and card advantage, and savvy players realized they could crush black-green decks by going a step further with a pair of Fumigate. Two of the top four decks were Mardu builds with two sideboarded Fumigate, which is a strong case for the card given that these players fought through black-green decks all weekend. These Fumigates were also accompanied by Needle Spires, which makes the expensive card more castable, and additional cards to support the control plan, notably Archangel Avacyn.

Horribly Awry

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 Horribly Awry
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Horribly Awry has been around for over a year without seeing any significant competitive play, but it finds itself with a niche in control decks in this new creature-centric metagame.

The black-green decks are squarely midrange and lack one-mana creatures, so Horribly Awry will always trade for at least mana parity, and it often generates a tempo advantage by countering three and four-drops. It's seeing play in sideboards, but it's also been given main deck consideration because it finds itself serviceable against Mardu and it's very useful against Jeskai Copycat as an answer to Felidar Guardian. Horribly Awry also deserves some special attention now that Four-Color Copycat combo decks have been picking up in popularity online, because it's stellar in the matchup. I've seen control decks online sideboard up to four copies, and Fournier's Top 8 sets precedent for playing it in the main deck.

Natural Obsolescence

Mid
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 Natural Obsolescence
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Playing main deck artifact removal has been standard practice during past Standard formats with an artifact-centric block like Mirrodin, and now the world of Kaladesh and Aether Revolt may be such a place. Main deck artifact removal saw success in Grand Prix Pittsburgh, including a copy of Natural Obsolescence in Anand Khare's Top 8 Black-Green Delirium deck and two in Ben Rubin's 11th-place deck.

Natural Obsolescence is the most effective card for the job because unlike Natural State it hits more expensive artifacts like Verdurous Gearhulk and Torrential Gearhulk, and not hitting enchantments is irrelevant in a metagame where Stasis Snare is now a rarity. Natural Obsolescence is also still a fantastic sideboard card, where it has began to replace Natural State as the artifact disruption of choice in the majority of black-green decks. Main deck Natural Obsolescence could start a trend of other decks including main deck artifact removal, like Decommission in decks with Torrential Gearhulk.

Is now the time for main deck Release the Gremlins in Standard?! What cards are on your most-improved list? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.

-Adam




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