Taking the Top 8 to the Top of Game Day

Posted in How to Build on April 28, 2016

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

What a Pro Tour Top 8!

Not only did Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad feature one of the strongest Pro Tour Top 8s of all time, not only was it full of dynamic games and great moments, but it also held a whopping eight different archetypes! For a brand-new format, there's nothing I'd rather see. It's a wonderful time to be playing Standard!

Game Day is this weekend, and any one of these decks could be a great choice to shuffle up and bring down to your local store.

But with great options comes great decision making. This lovely situation poses a different problem: There are so many choices for you to pick between, so how do you even know where to start?

Well, let's go over that today!

I'm going to take a look over all eight decks, the archetypes they represent, what they're trying to do, and some tips on how to tweak them for your local metagame if you want to pick one up and go sling down at your local store. I'll also include some advice on how to beat them, if you are worried about sitting across from any particular one.

Ready? Let's get rolling!

Flood the Board!

If you like flooding the board with creatures, there are definitely a few decks for you here.

Let's start with one of the headlining decks going into the tournament: Bant Company!

Andrea Mengucci's Bant Company—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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Going into the tournament, this was the deck that many had their eyes on as the deck to beat. And for good reason—it's got a lot of flexible, raw power.

Look at that card quality. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. Nissa, Vastwood Seer. Sylvan Advocate. Reflector Mage. And, of course, Collected Company—just to name a few.

The thing that makes this deck so potent is that not only do you get to play with some of the format's best cards—but unlike many midrange decks of years past, you get to have a bunch of instant-speed interaction. Collected Company and Archangel Avacyn (along with Bounding Krasis, to a lesser extent) let you muck up your opponent's plans. Your opponent has to question every attack they make as long as you have mana up, because of the blowout potential. Even on an empty board, you're always just a Collected Company away from a combat massacre.

If you want to play some of the most powerful cards in the format with a side of tricky interaction, this is the deck for you.

If you're looking for ways to tweak this strategy for the new metagame, something I would definitely be prepared for is Languish. That is a sweeper that Archangel Avacyn doesn't protect against, and (as I'll get to in a bit) all three of the black control decks packed it last weekend. If you're expecting a lot of control, you could even main-deck a couple counterspells like Negate or Clash of Wills. You can't play a ton—you need a critical mass of cheap creatures for Collected Company to be effective—but they can buy you the breathing room you need to navigate a victory.

If you're expecting a lot of the mirror—which is pretty reasonable—then adding additional Tireless Trackers or even a main-deck Tragic Arrogance could be the way to go. The mirror can go very long—and a gigantic way to punch through is important.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is another card to consider out of the sideboard as a weapon against control and the mirror. An endless stream of tokens and a threatening emblem go a long way.

Speaking of mirrors, Bant is not the only color combination sporting Collected Company from this Top 8. Let's move along to Black-Green Aristocrats!

LSV's Black-Green Aristocrats—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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This concoction comes from the minds of some of the best players in Magic, and was represented in the Top 8 by Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas.

How does it work? Well, like the previous deck, it uses Collected Company and likes to flood the board...but that's about where the similarities end.

This build of the deck uses a bunch of smaller, individually less-important creatures. (Which also happens to give you an excellent edge against decks like Bant Company, because Reflector Mage becomes a lot weaker.) But while each individual creature may be a bit piddly—the Blisterpods and Elvish Visionaries of the world—it all sets up a strikingly powerful engine thanks to this combination:

Whenever one of your creatures dies, Zulaport Cutthroat drains your opponent for 1. Nantuko Husk lets you sacrifice creatures at will. On the surface, this doesn't sound too crazy...until you begin to realize that this deck is full of token creation, like Blisterpod and Catacomb Sifter, as well as a Collected Company engine that can find multiple pieces of your combo.

The second Zulaport Cutthroat is downright frightening, meaning every creature that dies drains opponents for 2. It's not uncommon to fill up your board, hit a bit of a stall, then find your second Cutthroat and realize your opponent is just dead on board.

And part of the new Shadows over Innistrad juice fueling this deck?

The Rite lets you power out your entire hand with ease...and, perhaps most absurdly of all, activate your Duskwatch Recruiter an incredible number of times. When you're digging to set up your combo, this will help you find exactly what you need.

Another powerful new card here is Westvale Abbey. Not only can it churn out the occasional token, but you can also awaken the beast below and smash in with Ormendahl, Profane Prince. Note that the Prince has haste, which means you can totally catch your opponent out of nowhere with the transformation—sometimes it is even correct to just hold Westvale Abbey in your hand until you can surprise your opponent with it in one fell swoop!

Oh, and did I mention this is also just a fairly efficient midrange attack deck?

Luis's deck has a lot going for it. However, it does have a sworn enemy: Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. If I were bringing this deck to Game Day this weekend, Kalitas would be my number-one enemy. I would definitely make sure you have an answer. This deck sports four Ultimate Prices in the sideboard, and you could consider main-decking one or two.

I would also be on the lookout for both Languish and Kozilek's Return as sweepers that really punish this deck. Keep those in mind while playing, and if you think control is going to be popular in your area you could load up on a couple main-deck Transgress the Minds or even a pair of Evolutionary Leaps to make sure your hand is always full through removal.

Moving on, last, but quite definitively not least, is the eventual champion: Steve Rubin's Green-White Tokens deck!

Steve Rubin's Green-White Tokens—Winner, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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This deck uses a few tricks from both of the last two strategies—but puts a very different spin on them. While this deck does similarly aim to flood the board, it eschews Collected Company—instead relying on token creatures to get the job done!

And while it might seem crazy to lay down the Collected Companies, it becomes a lot more reasonable when you realize the cards you're swapping them out for are powerhouses like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Hangarback Walker!

Not only are the cards here strong, but the deck is also very well positioned. Planeswalkers are strong against all of the sweeping removal spells that control decks were using to fight the go-wide strategies, and they can also flood the board versus the Company deck. Archangel Avacyn and Secure the Wastes provide the deck with a little bit of added resilience, and give you some instant-speed play as well.

With that said, I would definitely expect people to be gunning for this deck this weekend. One place where it is a little weak compared to similar decks is—outside of planeswalkers—is that it doesn't really have a card-advantage engine. While other decks use Collected Company and cards like Duskwatch Recruiter, this deck sports a single Evolutionary Leap as a way to make sure your hand is full in case of a sweeper.

To help fight back against a world of board sweepers, I could see playing another main-deck Leap to start, and a third Secure the Wastes helps you build up a board against Languish (but doesn't help versus Kozilek's Return) and can provide you the all-important swing into transforming Westvale Abbey and killing off your opponent. Tireless Tracker is another card you could consider sideboarding to help give you card advantage and a single-card threat.

Okay—so there's the decks that like to build up a board. So now how about some decks that go big rather than wide? Introducing:

Go Big or Go Bigger

A card that had seen only a little play in previous Standard seasons heading into this weekend was Pyromancer's Goggles.

Well, that certainly changed.

With the format unshackled from the Khans of Tarkir mana bases and strategies, the powerful Goggles now have a chance to shine—sending two people into the Top 8 with two different takes on the strategy!

Up first, let's take a look at the red-white version piloted by Luis Salvatto:

Luis Salvatto's Red-White Eldrazi Goggles—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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Red hasn't always had the tools to be a heavy control color—but it certainly does a great job here.

First of all, the namesake Pyromancer's Goggles give you an excellent source of card flow. Not only are you doubling up on every red instant or sorcery you cast with it, but the Goggles turns Magmatic Insight and Tormenting Voice into huge sources of card advantage. If you cast either of them with the Goggles, you only have to discard for the original spell—meaning that you draw four cards for the price of discarding one! This keeps your hand full and your options high.

What kind of options, you might ask? Well, the big red control card you can expect to see is Chandra, Flamecaller. She keeps the board clear and also provides a lovely win condition. Alongside her are an array of hard-hitting Eldrazi, with Thought-Knot Seer providing the disruption this deck was missing.

Oh, and if that fails, there's always the option of a Pyromancer's Goggles–fueled Fall of the Titans to the face for lethal as well.

So, how to fight this deck? Well, it's easy to get hung up on the Goggles—but I wouldn't go reaching for your Smash to Smithereens quite yet. (Though if your deck has access to Kolaghan's Command, that's certainly a nice one to consider.) This deck is really powerful when it gets rolling, but I would try instead to get underneath its game plan with some discard of your own or light countermagic on key spells. This kind of strategy can have a real tough time against blue control decks. (Interested in those? Keep reading onward!)

So, naturally, if you're looking to play this deck I would worry about said blue control decks. You just want to overload them on threats. So if you think you're going to be in a control-heavy field, some of the removal spells could easily become additional planeswalkers and Goblin Dark-Dwellers.

You already have a pretty reasonable matchup against the more aggressive decks, but if you're in the market to clear the board, then Kozilek's Return (not truly red, unfortunately, so it doesn't synergize with Goggles) could be a fine card to play a copy or two of as well.

Speaking of Kozilek's Return in Goggles decks, that makes for a nice transition into the "Go Bigger" portion of this segment. Here's Brad Nelson's awesome Red-Green Goggles deck:

Brad Nelson's Red-Green Goggles Ramp—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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The deck that Brad and his team came up with is maybe more like what you'd expect with Goggles: a ramp deck that uses Goggles to both ramp and fuel powerful spells!

It features some of the same culprits—Magmatic Insight, Tormenting Voice, Fall of the Titans—but uses the aforementioned Kozilek's Return in the main deck to help stabilize the board.

The key win condition here? World Breaker! This is the threat that just won't go away, thanks to the power of Drownyard Temple. Not only does the Temple cast World Breaker, but it can be sacrificed to bring the World Breaker back—and then pop right back out of your graveyard onto the battlefield to do the whole thing again. It's an endless cycle that gnaws on your opponent's mana base in the process. Traverse the Ulvenwald even helps out with finding it—or your singleton Dragonlord Atarka, if necessary.

A brutal option against this deck is Infinite Obliteration. While I wouldn't go too gung-ho on it, drawing one copy can get rid of their World Breakers and really cause some problems with the deck. You still have to worry about Fall of the Titans to the face—but with enough time, perhaps you can set up to mitigate that.

Similar to what I said about the red-white version, I'd be worried more about the control decks than anything else. World Breaker is an excellent tool here, and you only need to be worried about them getting underneath you with something like a Dragonlord Ojutai. Main-decking some cheap answers for that is pretty reasonable, considering it also does double duty against the creature decks. I wouldn't go as far to main-deck Rending Volley, but I could see borrowing a note from Luis's version with one or two Lightning Axes. Otherwise, this is a great well-rounded deck for the current metagame, with a reasonable chance against anything when given a good draw.

All right. So we've seen some creature decks. We've seen some bigger ramp decks. What does that leave us with?

Well, it's time for...

Control Season

There were three different brands of control sitting in the Top 8—two somewhat similar, and one that was really doing its own thing entirely.

The first one we'll look at is Shota Yasooka's take on a recent Standard fixture: Esper Dragons!

Shota Yasooka's Esper Dragons—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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Ever since Dragons of Tarkir hit, Esper Dragons has been a reasonable choice. Featuring powerful Dragons and Dragon-themed spells such as Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation, this deck has tons of removal at its disposal—and gets to actually play with counterspells, which are strong against a lot of the top decks in the format.

But the real stars here are the Dragons. Dragonlord Ojutai is still an incredibly potent card, and sneaks underneath what a lot of other cards are doing. A turn-five Dragon can pose a major problem even for the Collected Company decks—they can't target it with Reflector Mage, and, unless they have Avacyn to stop it, Ojutai is going to truck through and begin a quick clock. The fact it can be backed up by removal and counterspells makes it all the more potent. Shota even has a pair of Transgress the Minds to strip away any top-end threats his opponent may have.

Languish is the real staple of the control decks in this tournament, sweeping the board against the variety of green decks while being unfazed by Avacyn's protection. That's a card any aggressive deck must fear.

If you think people will have a bullseye on Esper Dragons in your local metagame, one card to consider is Always Watching. This lets Ojutai attack (and defend!) while never opening itself up to removal. (Clip Wings aside.) The downside, of course, is that Always Watching is pretty weak in this deck outside of Ojutai, so I would only include it if I was really concerned about people packing cards like Rending Volley.

The card function I would definitely want more of going forward is forced discard. Duress is doing good work in the sideboard, and I could even see main-decking more Transgress the Minds. Taking away your opponent's Collected Company or planeswalker is a huge game changer.

However, it's going to be hard to say that Esper Dragons is going to have a ton of hate pointed at it—when another deck is likely going to split the difference with it. Take a look at Seth Manfield's Esper Control decklist:

Seth Manfield's Esper Control—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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While the colors may be similar, these two decks create pretty different effects on the game.

With Esper Dragons, the idea is to ride your Dragons to victory. This can often be quick and brutal, with four consecutive Ojutai hits ending your opponent's game. Here, the plan is still to stick early threats—but the card type is planeswalker rather than creature.

Seth's build of Esper Control is going to eke out continual advantage from his planeswalker suite. And since planeswalkers, unlike Dragons, can be attacked directly, protecting them is paramount.

A full set of Grasp of Darknesses, Languishes, and Ultimate Prices—alongside a pair of Ruinous Paths and a Planar Outburst—aim to keep your opponent's creatures in check while you slowly maintain a larger and larger grip of cards. Eventually, a planeswalker ultimate should be able to close out the game—and if that's not good enough, Sphinx of the Final Word will have its say on the matter.

Because of all the removal, Manfield's deck is a little light on countermagic—only a pair of Spell Shrivels and a Silumgar's Command represent counterspells—and it could fall short of some top-end threats that decks like those using Pyromancer's Goggles can produce. I could see adding a couple more counterspells, or some Transgress the Minds, to help with the situation.

Dark Petition is an excellent card to have to tech yourself against your local metagame, since you can get away with playing one or two copies of a card and being able to find it if you need to. For example, one main-deck Infinite Obliteration could be an incredible weapon against the World Breaker Goggles deck. Playing a couple Kalitas, Traitor of Ghets main deck gives you something you can find against the black-green deck before launching off a Wrath if Zulaport Cutthroat has you down. (If you Languish with Kalitas on the battlefield, it still exiles your opponent's creatures and gives you Zombies even if Kalitas dies.)

But enough about Esper. Finally, the third deck of the arsenal. My personal favorite, and perhaps the most unique—Seasons Past Control:

Jon Finkel's Seasons Past Control—Top 8, Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad

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Leave it up to a superteam to come up with this concoction, which Jon Finkel took to his sixteenth Top 8 finish.

If the decklist doesn't help make clear how this deck works, it's a control deck that uses this combination to its advantage:

You start off by playing a control game. Then, at some point, you cast Dark Petition for Seasons Past. (If you haven't drawn it naturally.) Then, you Seasons Past a slew of cards—including Dark Petition. And because Seasons Past goes back into your library instead of exiling itself, that means the Dark Petition can find it once again. This cycle can repeat over and over again until...well, until all of your opponent's hopes and dreams have properly been crushed.

Not only are you cycling through removal, but one-ofs like Infinite Obliteration and Nissa's Renewal mean you can strip your opponent entirely of threats and gain life over and over again while thinning your deck.

This deck is nothing short of a work of art.

With that said, be careful about just picking it up and taking it straight to your Game Day. It's a very complicated deck, which was played by some of the best players in Magic on Team Pantheon, and only Jon Finkel managed better than a 6-4 record. (Though, interestingly, Scott Kirkwood had his own crazy Abzan version that he finished 7-3 with, which you can find here.)

To make matters more perilous, now people know it exists and what's going on. Too much countermagic, hand disruption, or even just playing around the right cards can cause headaches for you. If I was looking to fight this deck, I'd keep an eye on cards like Spell Shrivel, Transgress the Mind, and Void Shatter as ways to keep this strategy down. Bant Company also sports a favorable matchup against this deck, with its disruption and ability to boast instant-speed threats, and that's no doubt going to be a popular deck.

With that said, if its game plan gets rolling for a few turns, practically any deck is going to fall to its onslaught of card advantage and options.

Speaking of options, if you're looking to tweak this deck for your local metagame, I'll once again bring up the power of Dark Petition. You can main-deck all kinds of one-ofs in good faith, knowing that Petition can find them.

This deck is a blast—at least for the person playing it.

Options within Options

Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad served up a delicious feast of decks. Now it's just a matter of narrowing it down, and hopefully this helped you get a clearer picture of what they're doing—and which one might be the deck for you!

Of course, just as viable is bringing your own rogue concoction or favorite deck to the table. If these results have proven anything, it's that a wide range of decks can succeed. And hopefully now you have the right tools to fight them!

Game Day is this weekend! Build up your favorite deck, get it ready for the metagame, and prepare yourself for battle. There's nothing quite like a fresh Standard format, and this one looks far from figured out.

If you have any questions or want to run a deck past me, you can always reach me by sending me a tweet or asking me a question on my Tumblr. Shoot a message my way and I'll be sure to take a look.

Have fun playing Standard! I look forward to talking with you again soon.




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