Breaking Down Rivals of Ixalan Standard

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
3/2/2018 11:01:00 AM
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Believe it or not, Grand Prix Memphis was the first major Standard event with Rivals of Ixalan legal, nearly a full month after its release. Usually Standard tournaments are commonplace right after a set release, but a Modern Pro Tour followed by two back-to-back Modern GPs and the SCG Tour moving away from Standard Opens bucked that trend.

Going into the GP, based on my experiences on Magic Online, it seemed like the field was fairly open. Decks like Tokens, Mono-Red, Blue-Black Control, Grixis Energy, and various Black-Green Constrictor builds were my front runners in terms of how much play they would see, but not necessarily in terms of how they would perform.

I traveled to the GP with Brad Nelson and Todd Anderson. With Memphis only being a brisk 11-hour jaunt, it made sense to make the drive. In actuality, I really wanted to just fly there because I'm tired of driving long distances to tournaments all the time, but flights to Memphis were prohibitively expensive, and by that I mean I couldn't actually fathom how much they cost. It was mind-boggling, which is not to be confused with Slippery Bogling.

On the drive, I suggested that Constrictor was a deck that would make the Top 8 of the Grand Prix since I was playing against it constantly on Magic Online. This became a point of frustration, as all my favorite decks are go-wide strategies that lose horrifically to Walking Ballista combined with Winding Constrictors and Verdurous Gearhulks. Brad and Todd scoffed at my Constrictor-will-Top-8 assertion, but history has proven how wrong they eventually were, as Sultai “Snakes and Ladders” did make the finals of the Grand Prix.

I make a point to share this story of me being right and those two being wrong, because it was probably the last time I won anything the entire weekend. Gotta get in my punches where I can.

 Winding Constrictor
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Last GP Memphis, back in 2015, I ignored Brad Nelson and played my own deck instead of his Abzan list. I scrubbed out of the GP and four copies of Abzan made the Top 8, including Brad himself. This time, I vowed not to make the same mistake, so I just played Brad's 75, which he was winning a lot with on Magic Online, over one of my own decks, which I wasn't winning that much with online.

Again, I scrubbed out of the GP. Last time I made the mistake of not playing Brad's deck, this time I made the mistake of playing A Brad Nelson DeckTM . It's okay to play the same deck that Brad Nelson is playing in a tournament, but it is never okay for me to play A Brad Nelson DeckTM. Over the past few years I've learned that every single time I play A Brad Nelson DeckTM I do really badly with it.

What constitutes A Brad Nelson DeckTM? It's usually some sort of midrangy pile that sacrifices power in a lot of spots for “play.” What that means is that instead of playing more rigid – but abstractly powerful – cards that can completely take over and win the game by themselves, Brad prefers to play less powerful cards that give him more options over the course of the game. Brad wants to play games where both players have a lot of decisions to make, even if he has the less powerful options available to him, and then he relies on his opponents making mistakes and falling victim to the various tricks and traps he lays for them. Brad is also a very intimidating opponent to play against in a tournament and a lot of people just naturally play scared and worse against him in Grand Prix settings, which plays into his deck choices.

I completely suck with those decks. I'm not good at tricking players into falling into my traps or tricking my opponents into making mistakes. I lack the Intimidation that Brad possesses. All the decks that I do well with are powerful strategies that eventually get banned in their respective formats! I need the raw power, I can't make do with finesse. Lesson learned, once more. Don't play A Brad Nelson DeckTM.

All in all, however, GP Memphis was a success for Standard. I counted something like 17 unique archetypes in the top 32 decks, which is a very welcome change to the past few years, which have seen the frustrating dominance of a few certain archetypes, all of them energy-based. Granted, Grixis Energy put the most copies of a single deck into the Top 8, but I still hold out hope that it won't take over and dominate the format again!

While there are a lot of different and unique decks in Standard, all fall into certain categories, and the decks in each respective category mostly share the same strengths and weaknesses as each other. While it may seem overwhelming to know and understand the myriad of decks that exist in Standard, being able to categorize them and understand what kinds of cards and style of play is good against each respective category goes a long way toward figuring out and solving the format.

So, let's go ahead and break down Standard.

Go-Wide Strategies

Go-wide strategies sprung up in the format as an answer to the two extremes of the format. These decks are generally very good against both Mono-Red and Blue-Black Control. Spraying the board with threats is a great way to be able to be able to effectively block creatures from Mono-Red as well as to dodge or invalidate all the spot removal spells that Blue-Black Control lists play. Fatal Push is less good when it must contend with three tokens from Sram's Expertise or when the only opposing creatures have embalm or eternalize.

The pro to playing a strategy like this is that these go-wide strategies can do very explosive and powerful things when left untouched. Green-White Aggro, for example, can deal huge swaths of damage even through multiple creatures on defense with the simple combo of Adorned Pouncer and Appeal // Authority. Tokens can gain enormous amounts of life and churn out multiple tokens per turn every turn, which is too much value for nearly any deck to beat.

However, these decks are also extremely exploitable. Cards like Golden Demise are devastating at clearing up a board of tokens or small creatures, sometimes also allowing a lethal attack on the same turn. These decks are all also synergy-based strategies, which carry their own set of problems. If you simply don't draw the payoff cards, you're left playing a bunch of Sacred Cats against your opponent's Torrential Gearhulks. Playing synergy-based decks also gives your opponent a chance to disrupt your synergies, leaving you stuck with cards that do nothing or cards that are extremely underwhelming. Walking Ballista is an example of a card that can completely devastate the synergies of some of these decks.

Lastly, another problem with these decks is that a card like The Scarab God is capable of replicating and going over the top of nearly any board state that these decks can produce. So while you've got two Hidden Stockpiles and an Anointed Procession active and creating a lot of value each turn, an unanswered The Scarab God can make multiple 4/4's a turn, start draining you out without needing to enter combat, and can scry to more gas every single turn. Eventually, the damage and pressure from an army of 4/4s along with a good card being drawn every turn will be enough to take a game.

While these strategies often have answers for The Scarab God, like Ixalan's Binding, if they don't draw one of their limited answers or the opposing deck is able to protect their God, the game usually just ends.

Red-Based Aggression

Red aggression is the basic level one pillar of the format. Red aggro has been the top deck on Magic Online since the start of the format, winning most tournaments and consistently putting up results. However, that notoriety doesn't stop it from still being good, as we saw last weekend with Red-Green Monsters winning the Grand Prix in the hands of Tyler Schroeder.

Red aggression has two big draws to playing it. The first is that it is fast, aggressive, and punishes opponents who stumble. Getting free wins is always a draw to any strategy, and this is no different. If your opponent doesn't know you're playing Black-Red Aggro and they keep a slow hand, you can just curve out on them and get a very easy win.

The second draw is that red four and five-mana cards are all extraordinarily powerful. Hazoret the Fervent still wins so many games. Rekindling Phoenix is disgustingly good on defense the turn it is played and offense every other turn the rest of the game. Glorybringer needs no introduction, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance is a great threat against slower decks.

 Hazoret the Fervent
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These are all cards that are capable of just winning games completely by themselves, and when it comes to cards like Hazoret, Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer, they are also cards that require removal spells to beat, as you cannot trump these cards in combat alone. Glorybringer and Phoenix both have evasion and Phoenix and Hazoret both have protection mechanisms that make them impervious in combat.

The drawback to red aggressive strategies is that these decks are naturally weak to cards that can cleanly and efficiently handle their big threats, like Ixalan's Binding, Cast Out, Thopter Arrest and Vraska's Contempt. These red decks are also unable to easily handle opposing threats, with only a few answers to cards like The Scarab God, and no main deck way to deal with enchantments like Ixalan's Binding or Profane Procession. If your opponent brings a deck that is built to effectively stop your early rush and also handle your big creatures with exile-based removal, then it can be very difficult to win, especially when there is no guarantee your Magma Sprays and Abrades can deal with their threats.

Midrange (Alternatively: Scarab God decks)

Sultai Constrictor, also known as Snakes and Ladders, a Jadine Klomparens special that Aaron Barich took to the finals of this GP, doesn't cleanly fit into the midrange category. It's more of a big aggro deck, an archetype style that I personally have championed many times in the past. Big aggro is something that I would like to have canonized as an official archetype, along with aggro, combo, ramp, control, midrange, etc. A lot of decks in Magic's past, like Extended Zoo, Abzan Aggro, Modern Abzan Little Kid, and various Constrictor strategies don't really fit into any other category, but they all neatly fit under the “Big Aggro” moniker. Big aggro refers to decks that are generally looking to beat down, but unlike traditional aggro decks, they play massive creatures that usually go up the curve from 2-5 mana. Big aggro decks are also usually able to play a slower and grindier game if they need to, and often also feature the kinds of spells that are traditional to midrange decks, like efficient removal spells and hand disruption.

Other than the Sultai Constrictor deck, which I have unfortunately lumped into this category, every other deck basically follows the same general formula, which is to play efficient and effective removal spells and The Scarab God in a non-control shell. Control decks are also playing good removal and The Scarab God but they are running countermagic and Torrential Gearhulk as their primary strategy, whereas these midrange decks are running a creature package instead.

The advantage of these midrange decks is that they never run out of things to do with their mana. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner provides extra cards, as does Champion of Wits, which is featured in some of the builds. An unchecked The Scarab God in play also provides a nearly endless source of things to spend mana on, and cards like Gonti, Lord of Luxury and even Commit // Memory can provide extra mana sinks. If you're looking to grind in Standard, nothing truly grinds better than these decks do, even decks like Tokens can't out grind an unchecked The Scarab God.

 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
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Another advantage of these decks is that they can be built to beat anything, and they also have game against any deck in the format. I played Brad Nelson's Blue-Black Midrange deck at GP Memphis, and while I went 1-3, I felt like I definitely didn't lose by that much in the rounds I lost. I lost, but not that badly, and it's a shame that doesn't get recorded onto my final record. I was in every game. I didn't win any of them, but I was in them all. Remember that! If you're looking for a deck that nothing will streamroll but is 47% against the field, look no further.

In all seriousness, these decks can be tailored to match any metagame, and correctly predicting the metagame and having the right tools to beat it will yield wonderful results with decks like this. One drawback to midrange decks like this is that they are also vulnerable to the two extremes of the format, at least in game one. Mono-Red and Blue-Black Control are both favored in game one against these various midrange decks, which leaves you having to win both post-board games a lot of the time. While doable, it can be tough to go super deep in a tournament when all your matches are really close three-game sets.

These decks are also vulnerable to enchantments. Ixalan's Binding on The Scarab God can be a problem in some games, and Profane Procession – a card that should be seeing more play – completely and utterly Decimates all of these decks, with the exception of the versions playing Vraska. Without Vraska, none of these decks can remove a Procession and these decks generally aren't quick enough to tempo through it.

Control and Combo-Control

It may seem weird to lump the various Hour of Promise ramp decks in with more traditional control strategies like Blue-Black or Grixis Control, but they play out like most non-countermagic control decks have always played out. Control doesn't have to mean countermagic, which is why Shaheen Soorani is completely and utterly wrong when he says that Lantern Control isn't a control deck. Control just means that your game plan is to stop what your opponent is doing until they have nothing left to do, and then win with whatever is left.

If anything, White-Black God-Pharaoh's Gift is less of a control deck than the various black-green ramp decks, even though it is in a traditional control color combination. I've lumped it in here, though, because it plays like a control deck with a combo finish and in many matchups, I've seen them actually just side out the entire combo aspect of the deck and just turn into a control deck with Angels as finishers.

 Hour of Promise
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These control decks all share one thing in common, which is that they are all really good decks in game one. The huge advantage to playing control in this format is that nearly every deck is playing a lot of removal spells and you get to completely dodge those. A lot of decks are also not fast enough or equipped to handle a card like Approach of the Second Sun. These decks all win a lot of game ones and then need to find a way to squeak out a game two or three against the hate people will be siding in.

The major drawback to playing control is the post-board games. The combination of Duress and Negate in this format – as well as a high number of decks that can and do actually play both – means that your hand and spells will be completely picked apart. For decks relying on cards like The Scarab God or Approach of the Second Sun to win, most black decks in this format also play Lost Legacy, which can throw a huge wrench in those plans.

Another problem with playing a control deck is that control is exploitable. Control decks function by having minimal threats and lots of answers. Decks can exploit those strategies by having threats that avoid all those answers, like Carnage Tyrant, or by effectively answering all of control's threats. For example, a card like Profane Procession can come down early underneath Blue-Black Control's countermagic, and it will sit in play the rest of the game, preventing the control deck from being able to effectively deploy a Gearhulk or The Scarab God to win, unless they first find something like Consign // Oblivion.

There are also some other decks that I didn't cover in this guide, like Mono-Black Aggro, or traditional Vampire aggro and so forth that didn't really fit neatly into any category, but those decks also make up a very miniscule part of the metagame, and I wanted to stick more to some of the more popular strategies that fit cleanly into the basic four archetypes that break down our current Standard format.

No matter which style of deck you end up picking, it is important to have a plan to handle decks from each of these categories. While there are way too many individual decks to have cards dedicated to fighting each and every one of them, each of the decks in these categories mostly have the same strengths that you'll need to address and fall victim to the same weaknesses, which are exploitable.

I imagine that over the coming weeks, a lot of these decks will be weeded out as the format starts to become more and more well-defined, but in the meantime, enjoy playing a diverse and enjoyable Standard format!

- Brian Braun-Duin

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