Saddling Up in Standard

Feature Article from Riley Knight
Riley Knight
8/29/2017 11:02:00 AM
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Despite the approach of Ixalan and the rotation it will bring, Standard is still wide open for attack. If you're wanting to stay ahead of the field and dominate the last few Standard events before rotation, you need to have serious game against the three decks that consistently put up the numbers – namely, Ramunap Red, Temur Energy and Mono-Black Zombies. With new innovations and brews all over the place, is there another angle of attack waiting to be found? Perhaps it's horses for courses, but while thinking of ways to contest these dominant decks I was reminded of when I was in Kyoto for Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. I visited the Australian contingent, and found them astride a herd of proud stallions led by the mighty Crested Sunmare.

The “Frill-Necked Wizards,” as no-one calls them, were obviously looking to put up the numbers at the Pro Tour. Led by Australian Captain David "Minesy" Mines, they initially weren't settled on a deck. During this testing process, Tim "Hughsey" Hughes had discovered that his Crested Sunmare deck absolutely crushed Ramunap Red, and took Zombies to the cleaners for good measure. Given these decks were very high on everyone's radar going into the Pro Tour, he was getting busy finding the best version.

With the patience and diligence of equestrian trainers everywhere, Hughes knew that when trying to break any horse you need a clear gameplan with definite objectives. The raw power level of Crested Sunmare is champing at the bit to be exploited, but this noble steed requires a lot of support before it's going to gallop down the track for you. Obviously the most important concession to make to the Sunmare is consistent and repeatable life gain, but it's not the only one. Expecting to live after playing a five-mana 5/5 on turn five isn't necessarily a realistic proposition in such an aggressive format – this means you need to get on the board and ensure you survive long enough.

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Nonetheless, the way the deck came together meant that it wasn't just winning on the nod – it was lengths ahead of the two premier aggressive decks. Given that both Ramunap Red and Zombies are amongst the best decks in the format, Crested Sunmare begins to make a very compelling argument as to why you should play it. Hughes' unbridled enthusiasm for the deck going into the Pro Tour raised more than a few eyebrows around the testing table, but he put the deck through its paces and began to refine his ideas.

The Past

Starting from scratch, Hughes put together a deck looking to maximize the available synergies, as well has the odds of having Crested Sunmare trigger on the turn it came down. Affectionately titled “Spring Carnival,” after the traditional month of horse-racing in his native Melbourne, this is where the deck started out.

Between lifelinking creatures (like the on-flavor Lone Rider), Crypt of the Eternal triggers, and – critically – Pious Evangel, this list maximizes the chance of the Sunmare immediately bringing along a running mate. Generating two 5/5s (one of which is indestructible!) is obscenely strong play, reminiscent of the turn-five Wingmate Roc in the olden days of yore. That's not all there is to it, however: the deck went much further in trying to exploit the strength of its cards with Oketra's Monument.

Oketra's Monument has already shown its colors in other white-based creature decks, and it's no less impactful in this list. Not only allowing you to play the Sunmare on turn four (hopefully with the nut-draw Crypt as your fourth land, or a lifelinker ready to get frisky), it also powers up the synergies with Pious Evangel and Shefet Dunes. A truly critical component of the deck, Oketra's Monument leads to draws that are absolutely busted and can put you a long way ahead very early. Not only that, but in drawn-out games it provides extra bodies to stall out the board and overwhelm your opponent.

One of the hidden strengths of this deck is its capacity to both get out of the gates and charge down the track, or play a longer game with cards like Bygone Bishop. A flurry of cheap creatures and a Shefet Dunes would sometimes be more than enough, but this deck could grind with Clue tokens, Pious Evangel, and of course the mighty stallion itself; Crested Sunmare is neigh-on impossible to contest going long.

Hughes had reservations, however – and here they are, straight from the horse's mouth. "The deck at this point is incredibly weak to Liliana, the Last Hope as many of the creatures die to her, and the rest don't have enough power to contest her even if they live," he admits. "Additionally, Abrade was really good against you, and Kalitas was very good mainly because you didn't have any removal spells that really kill him."

Further work was required if this deck was to become the odds-on favorite.

The Present

Hughes continued to adjust things, and through further innovation was able to increase several key synergies while also shoring up some of the deck's weaknesses.

With the mana base already very... stable, there was room for some techy lands to be added. Scavenger Grounds (in addition to Forsake the Worldly in the board) meant that the God-Pharaoh's Gift matchup was very favorable, but also Hughes got the inside tip on another land and found it was hugely effective. "A big revelation was playing four Westvale Abbeys," he revealed. "You don't need a ton of white sources, and you have a decent number of uses for colorless mana in Clues, Oketra's Monument, etc."

An updated sideboard also improved the deck's odds. Sunscourge Champion hit the bench, mainly due to Incendiary Flow, and both Fragmentize and Repel the Abominable ended up being scratched altogether. Gideon remains a potent post-board threat against sweepers and removal, and Solemnity neuters Temur Energy, a matchup that's a bit of a photo finish.

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Despite the lack of synergy with the rest of the deck's gameplan, removal became a necessary concession to areas in which the deck was struggling. Declaration in Stone goes up against threats like Kalitas and Torrential Gearhulk before they can wreak too much havoc, and gives the list a little more breadth. Aside from this, however, the deck is lean, mean, and highly focused - and very ready to tussle with the best decks in Standard.

With incredibly favorable matchups against both Ramunap Red and Zombies, this deck is looking to make an impact in Standard. Despite having a plethora of cheap creatures, don't look to out-aggro other aggressive decks. Going long with the Sunmare and the engine cards that surround it will generally result in a horde of 1/1 warriors, a herd of indestructible 5/5s and half a million life. Zombies, which also has a very strong late game, can't contest this. Keep the board stalled, ensure they can't get through with their anthemed-up hordes, and seal the deal with Ormendahl, Profane Prince.

One of the most important tools in going long is Aviary Mechanic. Outside of the obvious synergies with cards like Thraben Inspector and Bygone Bishop, if you have Oketra's Monument and Pious Evangel in play, Aviary Mechanic receives some pretty hot errata: "W: gain 2 life, create a 1/1." Between this, Westvale Abbey, and of course the Crested Sunmare itself, locking up the late game is much more straightforward than you'd think – especially for a deck with an aggressive curve capable of blazing-quick starts.

The Future

Should Standard continue to be heavily populated with aggressive decks, Crested Sunmare will remain in a strong position to attack the format. Even with the recent trend of Ramunap Red decks going a little bigger, this deck couldn't care less – it doesn't matter if the red deck goes big or goes small, it's still terribly placed to tangle with so much incidental life gain. Similarly, Zombies has no way to deal with Oketra's Monument, which also very handily ensures the undead hordes will be kept at bay behind an army of 1/1s. Additionally, God-Pharaoh's Gift is effortlessly turned aside with the Scavenger Grounds package and infinite chump blockers. So far, so good.

The deck is not without its flaws, however. Despite absolutely crushing the premier aggro decks of the format, it's neck-and-neck with Temur Energy, as they can go very big very quick and Wreak Havoc with Abrade. Solemnity is beginning to pick up traction as a way to get a leg up on the Energy deck, but after Grand Prix Denver witnessing one of the most dominant performances of a 75-card list in recent times, Energy's stock will be going up and it may be time to adjust accordingly.

Given that this deck is already the odds-on favorite a good percentage of the dominant decks, what can be done to tighten the deck up, and to address some of its ongoing weaknesses? After reading that Seth Manfield had been dunked on by a Crested Sunmare deck in Denver , I was excited to see that a Sunmare deck also performed very well indeed at an RPTQ – Harry Shipley came in a very respectable third in San Diego. I liked the list a lot, but didn't want to move too far away from the synergies in Hughes' list.

The addition of black not only gives the deck an even sweeter name, but also allows us to harness powerful new options. Principally these come in the form of removal: Fatal Push is a multi-format all-star, and Anguished Unmaking shines in a deck with so much life gain. Additionally, another lifelink creature in the form of Shambling Vent will keep the Sunmare triggers coming, and Aethersphere Harvester does the same except with evasion as an added bonus. I like Angel of Sanctions better than Cast Out, and Dusk // Dawn gives us another edge on Energy. I'll be testing this list out in the leadup to GPs Turin and Washington D.C.!

Riding off into the Sunset

Despite the end of this Standard format being relatively close, there's still plenty of time to attack the format with decks a little out of left field, just like this one. I know I'll be enjoying the final weeks of this excellent format astride a herd of noble 5/5 steeds – how about you? Will you saddle up as well, or do you have a different idea for how to succeed as we close out Hour of Devastation Standard?

- Riley Knight




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