e certainly live in exciting times!
Just this past weekend, David Williams took sole possession of the "player with most Team GP wins" moniker when he and his all-star squad of Matt Sperling plus Pro Tour Champion Paul Rietzl took apart the 1,700 player team event in San Jose, CA. Top Decks is, as a rule, tasked to competitive Constructed, but even we could appreciate the absolute glee expressed by so many who were at the massive event. Congrats to them all (but especially the singular achievement of Mr. Williams).
Precinct Captain | Art by Steve Prescott
Okay, back to our typical discussion of Top Decks: for this episode, we will spend the first half discussing exciting Standard decks featuring Return to Ravnica cards-slash-new set-enabled strategies. And then pop over to the Modern end to speculate on the same for the upcoming Modern Pro Tour this weekend.
Part 1.1: All Manner of Aggro
2012 TCGplayer Open 5k - Standard (RTR)
This is a deck from last week's TCGPlayer 5K (though we saw some inheritors at some of the various 2012 State Championships). Azorius Aggro... Or "White Weenie" as we called it when I was a kid, is one of several fast, two-color, aggro decks that we are going to look at in this first block of decks.
Basically, the offensive white creatures are very good, and you can play a whole bunch of them together in a synergistic way to produce a pretty effective beatdown deck. The curve starts with Champion of the Parish or War Falcon... And the beats just keep coming. The majority of creatures in this deck are some kind of human, which is good for Champion of the Parish; and there are plenty of Knights and Soldiers to keep War Falcon's beak sharp for the red zone.
Geist of Saint Traft is one of the relatively few non-Human creatures in this deck... And is pretty much the same beat stick that you loved (or were terrified of) back in the long gone, nearly forgotten, Delver of Secrets days of three weeks ago. As a hexproof creature, Geist of Saint Traft is Azorius Aggro's most likely Spectral Flight target. When those two get together you have one of the best threats in the format... that no longer has the potential liability of being blocked. Or, a 4/4 flyer that makes another 4/4 flyer each attack; which together add up to precariously close to 50% of a player's starting life total.
Lyev Skyknight joins Geist of Saint Traft at three mana, a fine "this is what detain can do" banner. It has evasion as well, but moreover it helps get Azorius Aggro's attackers through potential blockers.
Those attackers are quite specifically chosen, Elite Inquisitor is pretty good in terms of return on your mana investment, but particularly so in a world where Zombies is one of the top decks; ditto on Knight of Glory, now graduated to the main from the Delver sideboards of not-that-long-ago.
All-in-all, Azorius Aggro is potentially a very effective beatdown deck, that will likely prop up one wall of the emerging Return to Ravnica metagame.
2012 States - Massachusetts - Standard (RTR)
The 2012 Massachusetts State Champion earned his title with Selesnya Aggro which is pretty much what it sounds like.
Starting on your choice of Avacyn's Pilgrim or Arbor Elf, Selesnya Aggro grows up to make a second turn Loxodon Smiter, line up a Silverblade Paladin, or eventually get to the lethal Sublime Archangel.
Rancor is one of the best creature buffs available; and Ajani, Caller of the Pride proves itself useful in a deck with 20+ creatures.
Selesnya Aggro wins on essentially just one setting (attack you) and has relatively few ways of actually interacting with the opponent (Selesnya Charm). But it seems so good at what it sets out to do, those are just details.
2012 States - Wisconsin - Standard (RTR)
Jacob Pleasants kind of smashed together the above two aggro decks to yield the Bant brand of the same genre.
Like Azorius Aggro, the Wisconsin State Champion's deck can start a Humans-focused attack on the first turn with Champion of the Parish, but subtly switches up the two spot with Precinct Captain.
Precinct Captain has the same power-to-casting cost advantages of the iconic WW, but does a little something special when combined with green: Rancor!
The fact that Rancor gives Precinct Captain trample in addition to its natural first strike is truly something special. Can you remove this? No? This is going to be a problem for you then! Too big on the offense for most creatures to contain with a block, first striking through defenders anyway, this Precinct Captain can grow quickly into a proud purveyor of 1/1 tokens.
In most other ways Bant Aggro behaves like the Azorius Aggro with a slightly more prickly mana base; but you do get to play with toys like Ulvenwald Tracker, and of course the highly applicable anti-Detention Sphere two-for-one Ray of Revelation out of the sideboard.
2012 States - Vermont - Standard (RTR)
Most surprising for me to come out of this year's crop of States decks was 2012 winner Cory Lack's Vermont Champion deck: Gruul Aggro.
Unlike many of the other Ravnica-powered, guild-proud decks, Gruul currently doesn't have Stomping Grounds. Lack was successful however by relying on Rootbound Crag.
That said, in terms of card quality, it is hard to argue with the combination of red and green. Arbor Elf and Avacyn's Pilgrim enable you to cast Borderland Ranger to fetch a Mountain on turn two, and the deck can play a superb chain of defensive threats from Huntmaster of the Fells to Thragtusk on the successive follow-up turns. Those guys can punch but they are just as great at blunting the attack.
Pillar of Flame is a superb anti-Zombies tool, taking the advantages away from Gravecrawler, Geralf's Messenger, and even Return to Ravnica's Lotleth Troll; it is of course also a fine executor of Champion of the Parish or other people's Arbor Elf / Avacyn's Pilgrim.
Oh, and the ability to miracle Bonfire of the Damned hasn't stopped being one of the most powerful plays in Standard.
Part 1.2: Control
Last week saw fanfare for Todd Anderson's White-Blue-Red control deck which put Pillar of Flame together with Jace, Architect of Thought and Terminus to produce an impressive win at the Star City Games Open Series's first outing featuring Return to Ravnica. This week we can look at both a different third color and no color at all for the control set.
2012 StarCity Open Standard - Providence - 10/13 - Standard (RTR)
Edgar Flores, longtime terror of Caw-Blade, returned to Top 8 play last week with a straight U/W deck. Not a lot of sharp corners, bumpy edges, or weirdo surprises here: Edgar's U/W deck is very straightforward... Six copies of Jace and Tamiyo are the centerpieces. The rest of the deck is creature defense from Detention Sphere and Oblivion Ring to a miraculous Terminus. You have a little permission, a Sphinx's Revelation, and a couple of Snapcaster Mages.
Four copies of Azorius Keyrune tell us that yes, perhaps Keyrunes are a real thing. Certainly in this deck you can go from three to the five mana necessary for a Tamiyo, and depending on what your opponent does that can be exactly what you want.
U/W Control does quite a number of powerful things and most of its good stuff is eminently castable.
Montana States saw four copies of some similar-strategy Bant Midrange / Control decks all make Top 8.
All of these decks tried to do two of the most powerful things you can do in the present Standard:
- 1. Blink a Thragtusk with a Restoration Angel
- 2. Make a third turn Jace, Architect of Thought with the help of Farseek.
Details varied. One deck was more Augur of Bolas in its 187s, and one deck worked its way all the way up to Armada Wurm. But at the end of Montana's day, it was Chris Schafer's Bant that took the Championship:
2012 States - Montana - Standard (RTR)
In many ways this deck operates like a U/W deck but faster thanks to Farseek.
From my own experience, I find Bant to be the most difficult deck in the current Standard to play and sideboard against. Like other U/W decks it has bombs like Jace, Architect of Thought; but unlike them you can't just go mono-Izzet Charms to defend yourself. Bant's five turn play might be a Thragtusk! The successful Bant player forces you to simultaneously respect its control elements and deal with its creature threats.
This deck in particular has a lot of the same defensive qualities as a Junk midrange deck. Centaur Healer into Thragtusk as big blockers while just leaning on blue for Jace, more card drawing, and adding a bit of permission rather than Unburial Rites and the graveyard play that comes with being even a third black.
Part 1.3: Speaking of Reanimator
Last week at the TCGPlayer 5K the guys behind the great podcast Pardon the Interrupt put together a tandem Top 8 with a pretty identical Junk Reanimator deck. Bryan Gottlieb and Joel Paradee did it with this:
12 TCGplayer Open 5K - Hartford - Standard (RTR)
The basic strategy of the Junk Reanimator deck is this: Bring out an awesome threat!
You can start on a first turn Arbor Elf, drop a second turn Centaur Healer, annoy the heck out of your opponent with Restoration Angel, and then give your opponent a heart attack with Thragtusk (all of this especially annoying if he is an aggressive deck).
Or you can play either Mulch or Grisly Salvage to catalyze your graveyard. Ideally you want to flip over both an Unburial Rites (which costs only four out of the graveyard while you fix your mana) plus one of your juicy targets.
Your preferred target, Angel of Serenity, doesn't just humiliate your opponent's creatures (though it is great at that). Any other creatures you may have flipped over with that Mulch or Grisly Salvage? You can stock up for later!
Obviously this is one of the most powerful strategies in the format, kind of doing better what many of the aggro decks try to do well, plus presenting a next level threat, often on turn three. It is the midrange deck that can play a bit of combo.
Some cards to note:
Deathrite Shaman: You can open on this on turn one, then set it up for success with your second turn Mulch / Grisly Salvage. Deathrite Shaman can now make for your third turn Unburial Rites, luck willling. But in addition, it is one of the best options against an opposing Unburial Rites deck, and hell on a Snapcaster Mage.
Divine Reckoning: Super gratifying to finally see this card in the winner's circle! We both keep one? You've got a 1/1 token there? I choose this 5/6.Divine Reckoning obviously comes in when you can bias your best creature against an opponent's far crappier little guys; but when it works? It more of a wreck-oning.
Just an Idea: Lotleth Troll
This guy is in-color, works with the beatdown draw strategy (especially when you don't have an accelerator one-drop) and actually plays like a Wild Mongrel catalyst to your reanimator side. All that in one card! Can one of the best creatures in Return to Ravnica make a great case not just in Zombies but all the way over to Reanimator? I'm thinking probably, yes.
2012 States - Florida - Standard (RTR)
One of the Modern format's favorite deck designers, Bronson Magnan, ran a red-splash version of Reanimator. His deck has much of the same strategy as the Pardon the Interrupt guys, but with Faithless Looting and the defensive Dreadbore.
It's a shame Magnan was not on the one drop creature plan, as Liliana of the Veil would make a heck of a two drop but I suppose Avacyn's Pilgrim is not the most powerful "BB1 on three" enabler.
Despite that criticism, everything that makes Deathrite Shaman potentially good makes it perhaps even better in this style of deck! Here you can actually use the color fixing to make a Faithless Looting off the Mulch or Grisly Salvage second turn. Ergo, if you opt for the four-color build, you might seriously consider that new one drop.
Part 1.4: The Heretofore Unrevealed Boogeyman
2012 StarCity Open Standard - Providence - 10/13 - Standard (RTR)
Marc Blesso took down last weekend's Star City Games Open in Providence, RI with what I predict will be a strategy to watch. You can kind of see how reactive R&D was to certain cards that next to no one has been talking about.
What does Thundermaw Hellkite do again?
Ever scratch your head at Jace, Architect of Thought's [+1] ability?
Lingering Souls -- especially backed up by Intangible Virtue -- is the forgotten Batman and Robin of the Standard format. Here we have a deck that plays not only that one-two but more token generators via its Planeswalker set, plus Selesnya Charm!
In addition, Marc's deck packs much of the punch of the Junk Reanimator deck (just without the actual reanimation part), with quite a few of the same tools (and even ending up at the same place of Thragtusk and Angel of Serenity).
Oh, and Armada Wurm at the six. That guy is pretty exciting as well (even when its sidekick is not a 6/6 with vigilance).
My early verdict on Standard? Lots of card power, obviously many viable strategies stretching across many different disciplines... And hopefully, tons and tons of fun!
Part 2: Some Return to Ravnica Cards to Watch
Next week we will do more of a wrap-up of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica (which returns us to the Modern format). Last time around, at the Players Championship, mid-range creature decks seemed to be the order of the day, with Restoration Angels blinking Kitchen Finks, and 187 two-for-one creatures (often played for free via Æther Vial) as some of the format headliners. What can Return to Ravnica add to this fascinating format?
Here are ten ideas:
We talked a couple of times about this card in the previous section. Imagine everything I just said... But factor in a first turn Misty Rainforest.
Bonkers, right? The superior mana options in Modern make cards like Deathrite Shaman even more powerful. And when a deck based on flashing out Eternal Witness was most recently one of the most successful builds? Or where there is a viable Past in Flames across the table? I predict Deathrite Shaman finds a spot.
Ash Zealot hasn't made its mark in Standard yet but what about Modern? Critical mass of great burn: Meet critical mass of great creatures! As a follow up to Goblin Guide, Ash Zealout makes for a pretty scary one-two punch, in particular on the play. Anything that can soften up the opponent for the eventual burn flurry is welcome; and Ash Zealot is actually hyper efficient and features-rich for its cost, a red two drop almost worthy of the historic WW casting cost (it even has first strike!)
A year ago one of the most fearsome openings in Modern was the super fast Karn Liberated. Today? A third turn Karn might not be as scary. You are still going to be behind, sure; but it's not going to be over, and chances are... The opponent might not have much left in hand. Dreadbore makes the printing of some powerful threats a bit more palatable, and gives beatdown decks options against big spell decks' most compelling openings.
Also... It is priced to please! This card can slot right into a Jund deck or it could play nicely with Snapcaster Mage. Your best days might be behind you Terminate.
I can't wait to see the red Ritual combo decks that try to play this as a neo-Mind's Desire.
Just like Deathrite Shaman is a mite better given more options in Modern, these Junk colored cards might also have some additional play. Angel of Serenity, if nothing else, can drop a 187 on some of its impressive competitors. Lotleth Troll is actually priced to make noise in Modern.
If the format has a large number of mid-range value decks as expected, what is better than a recurring card advantage tool? Underworld Connections lets you choose if you want to draw (or not). So, for the cost of an additional land, it has the up-side of a Phyrexian Arena, but you can actually "turn it off" if you need to stay alive.
I have learned not to underestimate a four mana Jace.
Cards like Slaughter Games have always held high end strategies in check. When Cranial Extraction was first printed, it forced Psychatog decks to diversify their top ends, and tangentially helped pave the way for an Affinity win. Memoricide stared at itself in a mirror match for a World Championships. And this version? Like Abrupt Decay, Slaughter Games actually gets to exploit its invulnerability to permission if played in Modern.
Some Pros tend not to like cards that don't affect the battlefield immediately, but I feel like Slaughter Games could be potential spoiler.
Do you know who you are cheering for this weekend?
Check out the Tournament Center and live streamed coverage all weekend to see Return to Ravnica and your favorite Pro Tour personalities duke it out for dominance in Magic: The Gathering's own home town — Seattle!