Taking a Stance on Standard

Posted in Top Decks on October 23, 2015

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Now that the battle is over, what did end up happening at the Pro Tour? Were Eldrazi running rampant? Did Abzan really disappear? Is Jeskai great? Have the Atarka Red decks become an immense part of the metagame? Let's find out!

Abzan Is Dead—Long Live Abzan

I can't remember the last time a Standard Pro Tour was won by anything other than Monastery Swiftspear or Siege Rhino, and I guess it was Siege Rhino's turn this time. Here's what the Top 8 ended up looking like:

  • 2 Abzan (winner)
  • 1 Atarka Red
  • 3 Jeskai
  • 1 Green-White Megamorph
  • 1 Jeskai Tokens

Abzan is looking suspiciously prevalent for a deck that was largely absent in the first couple weeks of the format, so much that "largely Abzan" starts to sound like a more fitting description. That being said, there were roughly one-third as many Abzan players as Jeskai players, so the effect of a smaller sample size can be deceptive. It could be that Paul Dean and Kazuyuki Takimura had great lists, played great, or got lucky—or most likely some combination of the three. At the end of the day, it does take both luck and skill to attain victory, and Takimura was the one hoisting the trophy.

Kazuyuki Takimura's Abzan—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

In comparison, here's Paul Dean's decklist as well:

Paul Dean's Abzan—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

There are fewer flavors of Abzan than there used to be, as the loss of Elspeth on the high end and Fleecemane Lion on the low end have pushed Abzan more toward the middle. It's a solidly midrange deck, and even Warden of the First Tree and Anafenza, the Foremost—previously indicators that we'd be calling it "Abzan Aggro"—are just what the deck plays now. I still would classify it as midrange, as it doesn't win particularly quickly and has plenty of board control elements as well as plans for the long game.

Notable Features of Takimura's List (many of which made the Dean's list as well):

Both of these cards are too good not to play four of, and in particular, Anafenza is one of the main reasons to play Abzan over green-white. Anafenza makes Hangarback Walker much weaker, shuts down entire decks like Rally the Ancestors or any other graveyard deck, and even makes cards like Ojutai's Command or Dig Through Time substantially worse. It may seem risky to play four copies of multiple legendary permanents, but between cashing Gideon in for emblems and Anafenza demanding an immediate answer, I would not recommend skimping on either.

Only because that's the legal maximum allowed.

  • 9–10 removal spells

Abzan has access to higher-quality removal than green-white, so it makes sense that it'd play more overall. Abzan Charm is an especially big reason to play this deck, and I'd have trouble playing anything less than the max. You do certainly want some split of Dromoka's Command and Murderous Cut as well, since all of this interaction is important for a deck that doesn't win incredibly quickly.

Despite being a staple in previous Abzan Control lists, Nissa doesn't fit this deck's plan quite as well anymore. Anafenza, Warden of the First Tree, and Hangarback Walker make this a more aggressive strategy than what Nissa supports, so don't be surprised to see her absent from most decks like this.

Abzan Moving Forward

I wouldn't expect Abzan lists to change dramatically after the Pro Tour. The deck's core is very solid, and most of the gains you could make would involve tweaking the mix of removal spells and finishers. Tasigur, the Golden Fang is not a bad threat, and balancing the number of Wingmate Rocs and Den Protectors could be good.

As for how well-positioned Abzan is, I'd give it a solid "medium." There's nothing Abzan is particularly great or awful against, and it's still hurting from the loss of Thoughtseize. Yes, this deck did just win the Pro Tour, but there's nothing leaping out at me that says this is a great choice. It's certainly not a terrible one, given how powerful all its cards are, but it's definitely on the fair side when it comes to deck choices.

Living a Jeskai Charmed Life

The Khans of Tarkir should have no fear about their role in Standard (and when I say "Khans," I mean the literal chiefs of each clan), since Jeskai also put multiple representatives into the Top 8. There were two flavors of Jeskai that made it to Day Three: one original and one extra crispy, thanks to the addition of burn spells such as Crackling Doom and Kolaghan's Command.

The first Jeskai list is that of the finalist Ryoichi Tamada. It has a card I'm currently obsessed with in Standard, Jeskai Charm, and eschews black for a very undemanding mana base.

Ryoichi Tamada's Jeskai—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

Notable Features of This List:

  • No black spells

Tamada kept his deck to "just" three colors, which certainly made his mana better. Granted, it isn't terribly costly to splash the fourth color right now, but not needing a fourth color of mana is strictly easier than needing it. Tamada got to fetch for more basics and have fewer games where he couldn't cast one or multiple spells (including avoiding turns where he needed to cast many spells, which the black version can run into).

Tamada was not messing around when it came to dealing with creatures. Valorous Stance was not the most-played card coming into the Pro Tour, thanks to the departure of Courser of Kruphix and Polukranos (and the estimated weakness of Siege Rhino), so seeing a list jamming the full four is a rarity. Jeskai Charm is a card I played in the Pro Tour and was very happy with, despite getting crushed in Standard. I just love how flexible and powerful it is. It deals with Hangarback Walker very effectively, is great at killing Gideon (the usual play of casting Gideon and making a 2/2 leaves Gideon at 4 loyalty), and giving multiple attackers lifelink is a hugely relevant ability to have in the mid to late game. I'm a big fan of playing four Jeskai Charms, and assume they did a lot of work for Tamada over the course of the tournament.

I'm also a big fan of Seeker of the Way, and Tamada runs more than enough spells to make it an effective attacker. Seeker leads to huge life swings and blowout games, and does all that for only two mana. It fits much better in an aggressive Jeskai list that isn't trying to set up Ojutai's Command, and pairs nicely with Gideon. Hangarback is another good option, and it also combines well with Gideon and Jeskai Charm.

I really like that Tamada's list is focused—all of his cards work toward the same plan of getting ahead on board and staying there, a plan that dovetails naturally with standout Jeskai cards such as Mantis Rider and Jace.

  • Transformational sideboard plan

As seen in his semifinal match against Jon Finkel, Tamada had the plan of sideboarding out Jace, Seeker, and some odds and ends for two Mastery of the Unseens, some counterspells, and a bunch more removal. That is not a typical sideboard plan, and given that Finkel was siding in cards such as Radiant Flames, it gave Tamada a huge advantage post-board. That plan looks very good to me, and I'd expect it to be solid even after people know about it. It just puts the onus on your opponent to guess right as to how many Wild Slash targets you have left in your deck, and punishes them when they get it wrong way more than it rewards them for getting it right. If they get it right, it's an even trade (your Jace for their removal spell). If they get it wrong, they either have dead cards in their deck or they are unable to kill Jace, both of which are disastrous.

Speaking of Jon Finkel, both he and Owen Turtenwald made Top 8 with another take on Jeskai. One could even call it a grittier and darker reboot, as it includes black mana and plenty of black spells.

Owen Turtenwald's Dark Jeskai—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

This is almost a straight four-color deck, as the black "splash" is a full eleven cards—though I guess "Damp Mardu" doesn't sound as good as "Dark Jeskai."

Crackling Doom, Kolaghan's Command, and Ojutai's Command add a lot of power to an already powerful deck, and enable the use of cards such as Dragonmaster Outcast as finishers. This deck still has the game plan of playing Jace or Mantis Rider and riding them to victory, but all the Commands and Dooms give the deck a lot of late-game options.

Notable Features of This List:

Tasigur brings the beats and is a much larger creature than anything most Jeskai lists play. He can come out as early as turn three and takes advantage of anyone who cut Valorous Stance from their list (something you'll notice Tamada did not do). He's a good place to spend your "delve points," and having played this deck after the PT, I can attest that he's a good addition.

An aside on "delve points":

Delve spells tend to offer a very powerful effect at the cost of devouring your graveyard. However, most decks don't care what happens to cards once they go to the graveyard (cards like Den Protector not withstanding), so by playing zero delve cards you are letting a potentially valuable resource go to waste. Every deck with good delve options (for example, blue and black for Dig Through Time/Treasure Cruise/Murderous Cut/Tasigur and green for Become Immense, if the deck is aggressive) should look at playing at least a couple delve cards. Fetch lands fill your graveyard so efficiently that it would be a crime not to make use of that. The flip side is that you don't want to end up with too many delve cards, as they don't stack nicely—that's why you see most decks running between two and five.

I touched on this before, but I just want to mention again that this is a Jeskai deck with a serious late game. It's designed to grind out games and use various tricks to establish a commanding lead on cards. It will certainly take a free Mantis Rider win here and there, but most games will revolve around trading cards more than fast beatdowns.

Jeskai Moving Forward

Both of these lists are very different, about as different as you can get while still both being identifiably Jeskai.

If you want to attack, Tamada's list does a much better job. I'd investigate cutting a couple of the Valorous Stances, because Jeskai Charm helps cover your bases against big creatures and four seems like overkill. I don't hate the idea of a Wild Slash as the fifth Fiery Impulse, and one Dispel in the main deck can go a long way.

If controlling Jeskai is more your style, I'd go with the Pantheon list. I would try cutting a Kolaghan's Command and a Dispel for a Jeskai Charm and a Valorous Stance.

Seeing Red

For the first time in three Standard Pro Tours, Monastery Swiftspear did not walk (run?) away with the title. Paulo Vitor was the lone representative of the Gruul clan, and his poor draws led to him losing quickly to Jon Finkel in the quarterfinals.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's Atarka Red—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

The game plan here is the same as all Atarka Red decks: Pressure the opponent with one-drops and tokens and deliver a killing blow with Become Immense, Temur Battle Rage, or Atarka's Command.

Notable Features of This List:

  • It's very well-tuned

I don't have a ton to call out that's different about this list than what I expected to see going into the Pro Tour. Paulo and his team put together a good version of this deck, and all the numbers make sense. If I were to advocate any changes, it would be to maybe play three Fiery Impulses and two Wild Slashes, since killing Mantis Riders and leveled-up Warden of the First Trees is valuable.

Atarka Red Going Forward

This deck is good and will remain good. It's the fun police of the format, as it keeps every deck honest. If you don't have enough early interaction, the fun police come knocking. It's healthy to have a deck like this around, and the power level dictates that it will remain, even if it didn't crush the Pro Tour (both in total win percentage and success in the Top 8).

The Alpha and the Omega(morph)

Green-White Megamorph was one of the other big decks coming into the tournament, and Ricky Chin was the only one able to pilot it to a spot in the Top 8. It turns out that playing a solid deck full of good cards can work out well for you, and his two-man testing team paid off.

Ricky Chin's Green-White Megamorph—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

Green-white and Abzan essentially swapped places from the last format, with green-white being the new green midrange of choice and Abzan being the less-played version. Both decks are just "good stuff" decks, with a bunch of resilient creatures and efficient removal spells, and both gained a ton with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

Notable Features of This List:

  • It's very well-tuned

Like PV, Ricky played a list with no obvious standouts in either a good or bad way. This is gauntlet green-white at its finest.

Green-White Going Forward

Just because two Abzan decks and one green-white deck made Top 8 doesn't mean the popularity of these decks is going to swap. I still expect plenty of green-white to show up at tournaments, and you should be prepared for it.

The Token Ascendancy List

The last deck to make Top 8 may be the sweetest. Martin Müller continues his impressive year by Top 8ing with a Jeskai Tokens list, which is an archetype that many had written off.

Martin Müller's Jeskai Tokens—Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar

Download Arena Decklist

Because this deck lost Stoke the Flames, it's less explosive than previous versions, but the basic plan of "play a bunch of tokens and pump them with Ascendancy" is still great. Jeskai Ascendancy fuels Treasure Cruise, and the deck draws a bunch of cards, builds up an overwhelming board, and wins from there.

Notable Features of This List:

This is the biggest innovation that Müller's team came up with. Silkwrap may look just like a normal removal spell, but what it does is protect Ascendancy from Dromoka's Command. That's huge, and makes a deck based around a three-mana enchantment way better than it would be otherwise. I'm loving the way this deck is built, and this is a big part of it.

Other than that, the deck is a tuned collection of Jaces, token-makers, removal spells, and Treasure Cruises. That's a good setup, and the deck seems quite sweet.

Tokens Moving Forward

If people move toward playing more Valorous Stances and Jeskai Charms, Tokens is a big winner. It doesn't care much about either of those cards, and will run over any deck that leans too heavily on them. I would like to see more Fiery Impulses here, because I think that card is just fantastic, but otherwise this looks like a good deck and a fine choice.

Solving Standard

There's still a lot to figure out when it comes to Standard. Battle lands mean that any combination of colors is feasible, and deciding on the right spells to play isn't based on mana restrictions anymore. The decks I talked about today all seem good, and the format as a whole has a lot more options. Hopefully, looking at what these people did differently than normal (or, in some cases, didn't do differently) is useful for seeing what could work going forward, and I'm excited to see what ends up on top.


Bonus: Josh Utter-Leyton wrote about the deck we played at the Pro Tour, a deck that I sadly didn't do well enough with to truly call a Top Deck.

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