Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

Posted in Top Decks on February 21, 2013

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Pro Tour Gatecrash is in the books and Tom Martell, innovator of Lingering Souls and iconic multiple superteam veteran, is our Pro Tour champion. Tom didn't disappoint; once again, he packed four Lingering Souls in his seventy-five. And the Top 8 as a whole didn't disappoint, either. Pro Tour Gatecrash showed us all manner of Boros Reckoners. We saw the resurgent return of Esper Control and another take at Bant Control with an off-color utility land... and Bant's pilot was herself a history-maker. Pro Tour Gatecrash—thanks to Melissa DeTora—gave us our first Top 8 appearance in a Pro Tour by a female player.

Just wow.

Wows all around.

Here's how Pro Tour Gatecrash's Top 8 lined up:

The Aristocrats

Tom Martell's The Aristocrats

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The Aristocrats is a difficult deck to categorize. It has no single plan and little coherent redundancy; instead, this is a deck that can mold its plan to different stages of the game and against each individual opponent. If there is one overarching concept, it is—as Sam Black reported to Brian David-Marshall—the abuse of Magic's most powerful ability: the ability to sacrifice your own creatures.

This format is becoming in large part defined by the Gatecrash threat Boros Reckoner. The ability to sacrifice your own creatures allows you to block a Boros Reckoner but get your blocker out of the way before damage is dealt (allowing you to avoid the Reckoner's fearsome damage-sharing ability). Falkenrath Aristocrat can sacrifice creatures to stay in play against the sweep spells of control deck, and Cartel Aristocrat can do the same to sneak past blockers to close damage later in the game.

Cartel Aristocrat
Falkenrath Aristocrat

Many of the creatures in The Aristocrats do double duty or provide multiple bodies for the self-sacrifice strategy. Doomed Traveler and Lingering Souls both give you multiple 1/1 creatures; Skirsdag High Priest, multiple 5/5s. Again, the ability to sacrifice your own creatures comes into play with Skirsdag High Priest... morbid requires a death, but in this case the payback can be huge and flying.

Doomed Traveler
Lingering Souls

The Aristocrats is first and foremost an aggressive deck. It can start on Champion of the Parish like a conventional Humans deck... and follow up with Knight of Infamy. I wonder if this is the first time those two highly played cards have ever met in a single deck. Knight of Infamy buffs Champion of the Parish with its +1/+1 counters ability... and when the Champion rumbles into the red zone, the Knight can give the Champion an additional exalted +1/+1.

Champion of the Parish
Knight of Infamy

The same Cavern of Souls that set up your first-turn and second-turn can give you a late-game for Zealous Conscripts... possibly a game-ending one against a powerful blocker or near-ultimate Planeswalker. New card Orzhov Charm makes the strongest possible debut (a Pro Tour win)... and can showcase many different parts of the veritable buffalo. Creature elimination is pretty straightforward (if sometimes painful), but what about blinking the aforementioned Zealous Conscripts? The Aristocrats may only play one copy of Restoration Angel, but Orzhov Charm's ability to bounce one of your own creatures can give you double duty out of a powerful enters-the-battlefield (ETB) ability like Zealous Conscripts... even if there are no beneficial Auras attached.

Cavern of Souls
Orzhov Charm

And, of course, out of the sideboard, Martel's Aristocrats could pair the mighty Boros Reckoner with premier dance partner, Blasphemous Act. In addition to being a pretty solid creature sweeper—one that gets more efficient the more creatures start littering the table—Blasphemous Act can force the opponent to take 13 along with those creatures, provided one of them is your Boros Reckoner.

RWU Reckoner Decks

Now, speaking of the Boros Reckoner + Blasphemous Act combo, we have Joel Larsson's version of RWU.

Joel Larsson's RWU Reckoner

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Larsson's deck has WU Flash elements—including piggybacking the creature base, in large part—but, above and beyond the inclusion of Boros Reckoner and Blasphemous Act, it has a potentially even more powerful combination: lucky charms.

If you can assemble Azorius Charm, Boros Charm, and Boros Reckoner, any damage catalyst can potentially end the game... sort of.

First, use Azorius Charm to give your creatures lifelink.

Next, use Boros Charm to make your creatures indestructible.

Azorius Charm
Boros Charm

Now, find a way to deal damage to your Boros Reckoner. An Izzet Charm would work... whatever damage source. The first two Charm catalysts are instants, so you can just rumble in and maybe draw a block, then apply both Charms before anything dies.

Your Boros Reckoner will have lifelink, meaning every time it deals damage, you can gain that much life.

Your Boros Reckoner will be indestructible, meaning that it doesn't matter how much damage it takes, it will not die.

So say your opponent blocked with an Arbor Elf. That puts a point on the Reckoner. The Reckoner now gets to put a point somewhere else. What about to itself?

Boros Reckoner
Arbor Elf

Reckoner deals a point to Reckoner, you gain a life... and the Reckoner now has another point to distribute. Rinse and repeat until you are tired of gaining life.

To infinity and beyond!

Gerry Thompson's RWU Reckoner

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Gerry Thompson continued his long string of successful play with RWU Flash decks with this Gatecrash update. Most interesting to me is that Gerry elected to eschew the Blasphemous Act combo... and the only Charm he played was the stock-flash Azorius Charm. No lucky charms combo, either.

Instead, Gerry played a single Harvest Pyre.

Harvest Pyre

Gerry could put twenty or more cards into his graveyard and then send the Harvest Pyre at his Boros Reckoner, killing the opponent with the damage replication.

Harvest Pyre takes the place of both Runechanter's Pike and Moorland Haunt in this deck, giving the deck a path to inevitability that can also be used early on as a regular point-removal spell. This version of RWU plays four copies of Thought Scour. Thought Scour, of course, fuels the Harvest Pyre... it doesn't matter if you accidentally flip the Harvest Pyre into your graveyard (or use it for defense early); Snapcaster Mage can bring it back when you need it.

Thought Scour
Snapcaster Mage

Naya Zoo

Eric Froehlich's Naya Zoo

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Eric Froehlich played a Zoo deck chock full of great new Gatecrash cards!

Whoever picks Top Decks previews did a great job this time around... first Pro Tour down and we already see both Gyre Sage and Domri Rade in starring roles in a RG-based creature deck. But those aren't all!

Gyre Sage
Domri Rade

Burning-Tree Emissary looks like it is going to be one of the most successful cards of the new set. It has already made some appearances in Modern! In this deck, Burning-Tree Emissary can set up double two-drops on the second turn, ideally a 3/3 Flinthoof Boar.

Burning-Tree Emissary
Flinthoof Boar

This Zoo has a fair number of three-drops, from the undercosted Loxodon Smiter to the increasingly ubiquitous Boros Reckoner. These creatures are great stop signs for other aggressive decks and make for good fighters with Domri Rade's -2 ability.

Jund Decks

Jund produced two Top 8 performances at Pro Tour Gatecrash, presenting any number of unambiguously good cards, tons of flexible removal, and few if any nightmare matchups. On balance, the sometimes-overwhelming concentration of creature removal in Standard Jund decks will often put a creature-reliant opponent into a spot where he or she has serious problems winning.

Owen Turtenwald's Jund

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Owen Turtenwald added quite the feather to his already quite-decorated hat with this innovative look at Jund. You might think there isn't much to say about the archetype... but Owen managed to play three copies of Arbor Elf!

The additional jump in mana, especially when combined with Overgrown Tomb, can give him a turn-two Liliana of the Veil.

Arbor Elf
Overgrown Tomb

Also at three, Owen played Murder in both his main deck and sideboard. Murder costs more mana than most of the other options, but unlike Ultimate Price, Pillar of Flame, and other commonly played point removal, it can take out a Boros Reckoner.

Stephen Mann's Jund Midrange

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Mann played a ton of removal, including Dead Weight, against some of the faster decks. Keenly aware of aggressive decks, Mann's Jund not only played everything from the aforementioned Dead Weight on one through Mizzium Mortars... he had Vampire Nighthawk as some main-deck source of lifegain.

Dead Weight
Vampire Nighthawk

Wolf Run Bant

Melissa DeTora's Bant Control

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Bant Control decks splashing a fourth color for a land-based finisher are not new to this Standard. For months, Bant + Nephalia Drownyard was one of the premier decks in the format. With Kessig Wolf Run Bant, we have a version that instead touches red to activate Kessig Wolf Run, in a shell that plays substantially more creatures than we have seen in Bant colors.

What should be obvious is that this deck really wants to gain life. In addition to Thragtusk, we see main-deck Centaur Healer (and a fourth Centaur Healer in the sideboard). Together, these various X/3 creatures can gain a fair amount of life and combine beautifully with the blink ETB of Restoration Angel.

Centaur Healer

Having lots of creatures in general is effective with Kessig Wolf Run. Any of the creatures can potentially go lethal long, even the tiny 1/3 Augur of Bolas.

Augur of Bolas is actually at its weakest in this build. There are only twenty dance partners in this deck, meaning that your Augur of Bolas will miss a fair amount of the time; that said, it is necessary to slow down the various cheap drops in opposing creature decks. Anyway, Sphinx's Revelation is there to make up card advantage.


Augur of Bolas
Sphinx's Revelation
The goal here is to use Sphinx's Revelation to gain an advantage, maybe draw two to four extra cards, gain some life, live long enough to draw another Sphinx's Revelation, and then really blow out the game with a second big X-spell.

Kessig Wolf Run Bant does many of the really powerful, desirable things you want to do in this format. It might not have any kind of Boros Reckoner (and therefore none of the shiny new Boros Reckoner combinations) but it can unlock the Thragtusk + Restoration Angel achievement, chain Sphinx's Revelation into Sphinx's Revelation, and gain tons of life doing so over time. After boards you can take over a game with powerhouses like Gisela, Blade of Goldnight or make all that lifegain even better with Rhox Faithmender.

Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
Rhox Faithmender

Esper Control

Rounding out this Top 8 is Ben Stark's take on Esper Control:

Ben Stark's Esper Control

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This is certainly not the first Esper Control deck we have seen in post-Return to Ravnica Standard play, but there is some amazing new technology here that can be very helpful for control players moving forward.

First of all, like with Kessig Wolf Run Bant, we see a higher concentration of creatures than you might be used to seeing in an Esper Control deck. Many such decks have played no creatures at all (winning with just their quartet of Nephalia Drownyards). All nine of Stark's creatures gain an advantage when hitting the table, from the two-drop Wizards and the extra instants and sorceries they bring along with them, to Restoration Angel, who gives you a Wizard-rebuy or can at least mug an attacker mid-combat—like a Simian Grunts of old.

Restoration Angel
Simian Grunts

Having all those creatures allowed Stark to get an advantage with Dramatic Rescue: lifegain on top of the ETB card advantage (allowing for further card advantage).

Most of the rest of the deck includes defensive instants—permission, creature removal—and card draw. Ben played the full four Think Twices and the full four Sphinx's Revelations. Between having four Sphinx's Revelations and four copies of Nephalia Drownyard, this deck potentially starts with a huge natural advantage against other control decks.

And then there is this:

Planar Cleansing

It is no secret that control decks need a sweeper; we are not surprised at seeing a quartet of Supreme Verdicts, for instance. Most such decks have been supplementing with six-drop Terminus... Planar Cleansing is something else altogether, though.

Planar Cleansing deals with all the problem permanents that opposing midrange decks use to try to get past the relatively thin permission of Standard control decks. It can take out every Garruk, Primal Hunter and Staff of Nin intended to keep pace with Sphinx's Revelation. Every one, and all at the same time.

Pro Tour Gatecrash has certainly done its job ushering in a new set of different, powerful, and interesting decks that showcase familiar angles like Jund or control... but with new twists and tools. The beatdown decks like The Aristocrats offer shifting and complex lines of play, and Boros Reckoner challenges us with a card that can be played either in beatdown or control... that looks like it will be even more format-defining than Thragtusk before it.

With these changes and exciting new cards and decks, we are left with lots of questions...

What is going to happen next?

What kinds of decks will be successful?

How will players learn to cope with (or further adopt) Boros Reckoner?

What are you going to play at FNM tomorrow night?

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