Card Spotlight: Steel Leaf Champion

Posted in Event Coverage on June 2, 2018

By Tobi Henke

After people saw Steel Leaf Champion, it didn't take long for the efficient Elf Knight to appear in decklists. It was recognized early as one of the standout cards of Dominaria. Its popularity took a hit when Goblin Chainwhirler became a leading threat to its 1-toughness friends, but Steel Leaf Champion decks remain a fixture of Standard.

At Pro Tour Dominaria, forty players chose to run some version of Steel Leaf Stompy. These decks were mostly green, but only a fifth of them were actually mono-green. The popular choice was a tiny splash of black to support Scrapheap Scrounger and a smattering of sideboard support. The most common black sideboard cards were Hour of Glory and Vraska, Relic Seeker, but a relevant minority packed Duress and/or Cartouche of Ambition too.

On Friday, I spoke with two-time Pro Tour semifinalist Patrick Dickmann about Steel Leaf Champion, the Steel Leaf Stompy deck, and its place in the wider context of the format.

"Steel Leaf Champion is natural best buddies with Llanowar Elves, of course. Getting a 5/4 on two is crazy. Like many people, I was surprised to see mana acceleration of this caliber back in Standard."

Dickmann argued that Steel Leaf Champion alone wouldn't have made the deck possible. It was more a case of reaching critical mass quickly. "Rhonas the Indomitable has been my personal favorite God for a while now. This is the third time I played the card at the Pro Tour, and it's never been easier to get it active than with Llanowar Elves and Steel Leaf Champion."

This trio, Dickmann said, was crucial to race even the most aggressive decks. "Traditionally, green decks never fared well against red decks, but if you manage to stick one of your power plays on turn two, you'll often be too far ahead for them to catch up."

He also pointed out Blossoming Defense as an important piece of the puzzle. "Your threats are so strong that it's actually worth it to invest in some protection. Similarly, I've had a lot of fun playing against Settle the Wreckage. I found I could often attack with a single big creature, or even with a small creature backed by Rhonas, and they still had to use Settle."

Circling back to Steel Leaf Champion itself, Dickmann noted that most burn spells were dealing only 3 damage. Also, the Champion couldn't be blocked by cards like Gifted Aetherborn or Gonti, Lord of Luxury either.

Patrick Dickmann admits red decks provide a challenge, but thanks to powerhouses like Steel Leaf Champion, things are looking up.

"The combo of Soul-Scar Mage and Goblin Chainwhirler is tough," he admitted with an expression of pain crossing his face. "That's just something you have to live with. Although I added some Verdurous Gearhulks to the deck to get back on track afterward, and because it's just generally great against the red decks. They're often going big with Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer, and Verdurous Gearhulk allows you to get multiple attackers out of their range."

Dickmann mentioned that his list differed from earlier versions in that he wasn't running any creatures that explored, such as Merfolk Branchwalker or Jadelight Ranger. "You'd have to be crazy! They hardly ever generate card advantage anymore. If you hit a spell, they don't, and if you hit a land, they'll die to Chainwhirler for free."

Instead, Dickmann was a big fan of Thrashing Brontodon. "That card matches up well against essentially the whole format. A lot of the removal that White-Blue Control packs are enchantments, and neither Seal Away nor Cast Out will stop your attackers even for a turn if you destroy them in response to their triggered abilities. 3/4 is also great against Chainwhirler and Scrapheap Scrounger, and Brontodon's ability is relevant against Vehicles."

Patrick Dickmann's Steel Leaf Stompy

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Results for the version splashing black were all over the place, mostly due to its popularity. A different take on the archetype, however, was racking up quite notable results.

In a lucky coincidence, this had been the first piece of tech I heard about this weekend, when I ran into Pro Tour Aether Revolt quarterfinalist Jan Ksandr at the hotel. Ksandr, along with some members of both teams Catharsis and EUreka were splashing blue for two copies of Commit // Memory.

"Commit is our catch-all solution to literally everything," Ksandr explained. "Whether it's The Scarab God, Lyra Dawnbringer, some planeswalker, or Settle the Wreckage—Commit handles them all. Particularly Settle the Wreckage. If you can attack into it with everything, they just have to commit to Settle, and then you can Commit that and win. That their card goes into their library second from the top doesn't matter most of the time. The game should be over before they redraw it."

Ksandr explained another innovation: Territorial Allosaurus. "Being 5/5 is so much better than what Ripjaw Raptor is offering. The control decks' removal isn't damage-based, there's Unlicensed Disintegration, and the red decks often have Soul-Scar Mage anyway. The Allosaur's extra point of power is often relevant, whether it's attacking into blockers or no blockers, and the kicker has come up too."

Other than that, they had come to many of the same conclusions Dickmann already mentioned: Thrashing Brontodon and Verdurous Gearhulk in the main deck in lieu of exploring.

At the end of Day One, Ksandr calculated that the people playing the deck reached a combined win rate of 70 percent. This included two players who went 5-0. On Saturday, I spoke with one of them, two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Pierre Dagen. He was possibly the biggest champion of Steel Leaf Champion I could find.

"When Steel Leaf Champion was first published, I wrote an article, calling it the best of the triple-colored cards in Dominaria. Others may disagree, but I maintain that I was right," said Dagen, emphatically. "I stand by my word."

To make his case, Dagen rattled off the long list of things which weren't able to harm the Champion. "Immune to Fatal Push and to red burn spells, can't be blocked by all the 2-power deathtouch creatures, can't be blocked by lots of others too, and can be blocked effectively by even fewer.

"In a lot of formats, Steel Leaf Champion might not be this great, but it matches up so well against basically everything in today's Standard. It's a close call between this, Goblin Chainwhirler, and The Scarab God, but I'd say Steel Leaf Champion is the best creature in Standard."

Pierre Dagen's Steel Leaf Stompy

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