Updating Existing Standard Decks

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
9/14/2017 11:02:00 AM
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I've talked about this before when new sets come out, but I'll go ahead and say it again. It's really easy to get caught up by the novelty and excitement of new cards and go overboard in putting too many in your decks. It's also easy to want to build a strategy based around a new mechanic and end up building what basically amounts to a block constructed deck off of the new set instead of capitalizing on the powerful cards from previous blocks. In some cases, when extremely powerful sets like Kaladesh roll around, this is actually a winning strategy; W/R Dwarves was a strong week-one strategy at the onset of Kaladesh Standard. In most cases, however, you're better off updating an existing, proven shell at a format's onset. To take a very simplistic look at things, there are four established sets in Standard right now coming into Ixalan Standard, and it's fairly unlikely that a deck built heavily from Ixalan cards will be able to outpower decks built mostly from the other four sets.

One of the first things I like to do is take a look at what kinds of decks or strategies don't get hurt too much by rotation and see how they can be updated to still be competitive. Let's take a look at some decks and see how they might evolve with the massive changes coming to Standard.

Mardu Vehicles

Matt Severa won Grand Prix DC with an interesting take on Mardu Vehicles. There are no sacred cows in Magic, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, one of the cards believed to be a focal point for Mardu, was relegated to the sideboard in favor of Thought-Knot Seer. Matt's willingness to abandon Gideon was a bold and smart move that paid off big.

If Gideon isn't necessary for Mardu Vehicles to thrive, then it stands to reason that the deck is likely to be able to survive rotation. Let's first look at the cards rotating out.

Thraben Inspector
Archangel Avacyn
Thought-Knot Seer
Needle Spires
Shambling Vent
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Nahiri, the Harbinger

This looks like a lot of cards, but in actuality, only a handful are really big losses for the deck. Shambling Vent and Needle Spires can be replaced by other lands. Archangel Avacyn and Thought-Knot Seer can be replaced by other reasonable four and five-drop threats without a huge drop in power. Gideon and Nahiri are, in this list, merely sideboard options. The big card this deck loses is Thraben Inspector. There really is no replacement for a 1-drop that can crew vehicles, generate an artifact, increase consistency, and help transition the deck for alternative sideboard plans.

I don't think the loss of Thraben Inspector is enough to kill the deck, though. There are still plenty of tools and toolcrafts to make Mardu stick around.

I think the first place to look is a more vehicle-oriented version.

The biggest problem here is trying to have enough artifacts to make Toolcraft Exemplar, Spire of Industry, and Unlicensed Disintegration good. Walking Ballista isn't very good in this deck, but feels necessary to keep the artifact count high enough. I also would prefer not to play three copies of Aethersphere Harvester, but again it's good for keeping the artifact count high and also increases the value of a card like Walking Ballista by giving a 1/1 Ballista something to do in crewing a Harvester.

Perhaps black isn't needed at all and a pure white-red version that leans heavily on a dwarf and vehicle theme is superior. This version could play Depala, Pilot Exemplar, a powerful card many have forgotten about. This version wouldn't have Unlicensed Disintegration or Spire of Industry and thus wouldn't need nearly as many artifacts to support the synergies of the deck. This would allow for the deck to play more powerful cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, and Depala without harming the rest of the deck and would allow for smoother sideboard transitioning without as many constraints on what must remain in. The downside here is that it loses access to Unlicensed Disintegration, which is one of the most powerful cards in Mardu, providing exceptional board control and reach.

It's possible that there is even a version that is somewhere between the list I made above and the hypothetical white-red list I spoke of that splashes black for Unlicensed Disintegration and Scrapheap Scrounger but isn't going all out on artifacts and has a mana base that doesn't rely on Spire of Industry. This list wouldn't depend entirely on having an artifact to turn on Unlicensed Disintegration, but it would be a nice benefit.

I'm thinking something along these lines:

Mardu has always been a deck with a plethora of options. I suspect that Mardu will remain a powerful strategy in the new format, but as always, the key to success will be figuring out which cards are the right ones to play for any given weekend.

If you're looking for which cards from Ixalan could potentially make the cut in this deck, I'm thinking Huatli, Warrior Poet, Vona, Butcher of Magan, Lightning Strike, Duress, Captain Lannery Storm, and Ixalan's Binding all have a chance of seeing maindeck or sideboard play.

Ramunap Red

Ramunap Red is another deck that loses very little. This is a deck that might conceivably even improve after rotation, which is a scary thought. Ramunap Red was already one of the best decks in the format, and a lot of the best cards against the deck are rotating out. Dark Salvation, Grasp of Darkness, Stasis Snare, and Declaration in Stone, all good removal options for dealing with Hazoret are going to be gone. Zombies is also losing a huge swath of its deck, making it unlikely to remain a playable archetype, which also means that a natural predator for Ramunap Red is straight out of here.

This list of Ramunap Red loses the following cards:

Falkenrath Gorger
Incendiary Flow
Collective Defiance
Warping Wail

With Lightning Strike being printed in Ixalan to replace Incendiary Flow, Falkenrath Gorger and the oft-maligned Village Messenger are the only real losses. Neither Gorger nor Messenger are even focal points of the deck, as John Rolf made the semifinals of Grand Prix Denver a few weeks back without either in his deck.

I wouldn't probably change much about the core strategy of Ramunap Red. I'd be looking to play a fairly generic list that looks something like this:

I could also see playing a lower-to-the-ground list that ran the full 12 1-drops, playing a full complement of Rigging Runner, the new one drop red creature from Ixalan. That said, I think that strategy may end up being a bit weaker overall than just having a bigger but more robust plan. While Rigging Runner seems like a decent card, the fear I have is that it's a one-drop that isn't good on turn one and you can end up with way too many creatures that aren't good later in the game, putting you in situations where you're stuck topdecking Soul-Scar Mages and Rigging Runners when you need some heavy hitters. The tradeoff of having a stronger earlier game isn't even a guarantee because a turn-three Rigging Runner isn't that great and it takes a nice triple one-drop draw to be able to get a buffed Rigging Runner early enough to matter.

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 Rampaging Ferocidon
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Rampaging Ferocidon seems like a pretty good card to me. I think it's weaker than Ahn-Crop Crasher overall, but I don't mind playing a few copies alongside the crasher. Menace is one of the best combat abilities in the game: weaker than haste, but generally superior to first strike, trample, or vigilance. Ramunap Red is especially great at taking advantage of menace with so many creatures that make blocking hard and so much cheap removal to punish or prevent double blocking. Rampaging Ferocidon's other abilities are also really good. Shutting out life gain invalidates strategies like the Crested Sunmare deck or cards like Aethersphere Harvester that are heavy hitters against Ramunap Red. The ability to ping for each creature that enters play also really weakens cards like Whirler Virtuoso that otherwise do a great job of completely stabilizing against the early rush.

I don't think Captain Lannery Storm is actually that good. I've seen a lot of comparisons to Goblin Rabblemaster, and I don't think those comparisons fit. Rabblemaster could win a game entirely by itself, whereas Captain Lannery Storm better fits as an enabler. Captain Lannery Storm is really nice if you're trying to curve into Glorybringer or if you want to be able to attack with her and then Fatal Push a blocker. I'm not sure she's very good in this deck where she will just trade at best with most opposing creatures, leaving behind a Treasure token that can help do things like eternalize Earthshaker Khenra, but will oftentimes just go unused. My gut says it won't be a big player in Ramunap Red, but I'm also not confident enough in that opinion to stake much on it. I'd still be testing the card anyway.

Temur Energy

Temur Energy loses almost nothing from rotation. This deck became an completely dominant part of the format at the tail end and there's really no reason to think that will stop moving forward. Energy is a broken mechanic and it's impressive that what is basically a block constructed deck is powerful enough to not only be a part of the Standard format but to even be a defining part of it for some time.

The cards that Temur Energy loses access to are:

Game Trail
Tireless Tracker
Radiant Flames
Chandra, Flamecaller
Elder Deep-Fiend

That's almost nothing. Most lists don't play Elder Deep-Fiend anymore. Chandra, Tracker, and Radiant Flames are all sideboard cards, and none of them are really essential parts of the sideboard experience. Radiant Flames and Chandra were both fairly narrow cards, both at their best against Zombies, a deck that loses almost all of its power with rotation. Tireless Tracker had lost a lot of its strength as the format evolved and grew faster and faster. By the end of the format, it wasn't really a necessary part of the sideboard, just a nice upgrade in a few matchups.

I don't think the maindeck of Temur will change much. I think Ripjaw Raptor, Opt, and Lightning Strike all have a chance to make the maindeck in some capacity, but as a whole I think the maindeck is going to remain fairly similar to what it looks like now, the energy creature base with Harnessed Lightning and Abrade as removal spells and Glorybringer and/or Skysovereign, Consul Flagship as a top end. Regisaur Alpha could also fit the bill here, but I'm having a hard time seeing it outperform Glorybringer.

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 Confiscation Coup
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Another card that I expect to thrive in the new format is Confiscation Coup, which might become good enough for maindeck play. Coup is great against God-Pharaoh's Gift decks, The Scarab God, and the mirror match. Coup also seems like a phenomenal answer to the new powerful Enrage creatures, Ripjaw Raptor especially. I think that a number of creature-centric decks will spring up after rotation and Mind Control has always been great against creatures.

I'm also excited for some sideboard options. Carnage Tyrant seems like a really powerful play against control decks or removal-oriented midrange decks. Carnage Tyrant's six toughness dodges Hour of Devastation and attacks through Torrential Gearhulk, which makes it a premier threat against U/R Control specifically.

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 Shapers' Sanctuary
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Shaper's Sanctuary is an interesting one. This card may be too ineffective of a topdeck late to be impactful, but the fact that it costs one mana and absolutely destroys decks looking to just kill all of Temur's creatures means that you can curve this card into a bunch of threats and leave your opponent in a spot where they basically have to have a sweeper or bust or they will just get drown by the card advantage of trying to keep up. It's also very easy to slide this into the curve if you draw it in the first few turns of the game, which makes it a nice card for anything but topdecking late.

One last comparison I want to discuss is Ripjaw Raptor vs. Bristling Hydra. I think Bristling Hydra is just too powerful to not play a full set of. It's a devastating card on defense and offense against Ramunap Red, sometimes unbeatable in the mirror, sometimes unbeatable against control decks. Ripjaw Raptor is my favorite card from Ixalan and one I suspect will be a very powerful player in Standard, but I'm not sure it's superior to Bristling Hydra in this specific deck. Ripjaw Raptor's card advantage can be eclipsed in a lot of games where Bristling Hydra's hexproof and fast clock cannot. With that said, I suspect a split is possible, and depending on the format, playing 1-2 copies of Walking Ballista might not even be out of the question.

W/U Approach

This deck loses the following:

Blessed Alliance
Immolating Glare
Summary Dismissal
Port Town
Prairie Stream
Westvale Abbey
Blighted Cataract
Descend upon the Sinful
Dispel
Sphinx of the Final Word

Approach of the Second Sun will likely remain a powerful win condition after rotation. It's seven mana to buy a turn, followed by another seven mana to just outright win the game. With enough early interaction, it's actually a pretty good clock for a control deck.

The loss of lands is easily offset by the reprinting of Glacial Fortress, which is generally a much superior card to Port Town and Prairie Stream by nearly always coming into play untapped. The real losses here are Blessed Alliance and Immolating Glare—Blessed Alliance especially. Blessed Alliance was critical to the deck by serving as an early removal spell that could sometimes kill very problematic creatures like Longtusk Cub and Bristling Hydra coupled with the ability to gain some much needed life to prolong the game to reach the stage where you could just double Approach to win.

Aether Meltdown is a potential card that can sort of replace Blessed Alliance. It's good against cards like Heart of Kiran or Scrapheap Scrounger but really weak against others like Winding Constrictor, or anything that produces value simply by being in play. If Aether Meltdown doesn't prove to be a viable alternative, then W/U Approach may have to resort to becoming something like Jeskai Approach that splashes red for the powerful removal options it offers, such as Harnessed Lightning, Abrade, and Magma Spray and possibly even Hour of Devastation.

As for upgrades to this deck, there are a few immediate cards. Opt, for example, slots very nicely into this deck, serving both as a cheap cantrip early and a way to dig for Approach later. Opt is likely better than Hieroglyphic Illumination, slightly worse on four mana, but way better early game. Search for Azcanta is another interesting card that I think slides perfectly into this archetype, although perhaps as a sideboard card for slower matchups. It increases consistency every turn and when transformed helps ramp into Approach number one and digs for Approach number two. Settle the Wreckage might also be worth playing in low numbers as a great answer to threats that Fumigate doesn't always handle.

Assuming that splashing red for superior removal isn't necessary, I'm thinking of a list that looks like the following:

There are a few other decks that I think will survive rotation, such as blue-black Scarab God strategies and black-green Snake strategies, but I will have to take on those decks at a later time. I also want to note that while these strategies are mostly headlined by non-Ixalan cards, that doesn't mean that I don't think that Ixalan will have a Standard impact. I focused this article on updating existing strategies, which are mostly well-defined decks that don't require much from the new set.

I think that Ixalan will result in some new decks springing up. Dinosaurs are looking stronger and stronger every day as new cards get spoiled to increase the speed and consistency of what this tribe can offer. I'm not sold that pure Dinosaur tribal will likely turn any heads, but there seem to be enough Dinos to facilitate some sort of big aggro or midrange strategy. I also think that Pirates have enough disruptive elements to maybe bring about an aggro or tempo strategy. These new strategies will have to be well-tuned, however, because despite Standard losing four sets, decks like Mardu Vehicles, Ramunap Red, Temur Energy, and W/U Approach all remain nearly entirely intact and will be decks to beat week one.




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