I tested for Pro Tour Ixalan mainly by playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild, watching Mindhunter and Stranger Things on Netflix, and visiting Albuquerque museums.
— Riley Knight (@rileyquarytower) November 2, 2017
Although I paid for my lack of preparation with a 3-5 exit, I have no regrets. Given that the Ixalan release was months ago, the Limited and Standard formats were already well-established by the time of the Pro Tour, and I didn’t feel like I would substantially increase my chances by cramming Leagues in the days leading up to the event. Besides, I didn’t feel a strong competitive drive anymore, and there were other fun things to do. Still, I was happy to have gone to Albuquerque, if only to attend the Hall of Fame induction ceremony of Martin Juza and Josh Utter-Leyton—congrats again, guys!
Of course, I still did some preparation: I brewed decks, played a few Leagues, and theorized a bunch. In this article, I will share some of the things I tried and provide a deck guide for the list I eventually registered.
I ended up playing Ramunap Red, which was my plan B from the start. Early on, I was already sure I wanted to play an aggro deck, as I enjoy building and playing that style of deck. I knew it had to contain 4 Hazoret the Fervent and at least 24 lands. Hazoret is one of the most powerful and hard-to-answer threats in Standard, and I wanted enough lands to ensure that I could consistently attack with Hazoret on turn 4 after a mulligan to 5. Especially since I was planning to mulligan aggressively for 1-drops, having such free wins is invaluable.
The obvious Hazoret deck was Ramunap Red—hence it was my plan B—but plan A was to break the format with some new deck.
The non-Ramunap-Red options I tried:
I may have gone a bit too deep with this one, but let me explain. Mardu Vehicles is the deck I played for pretty much the entirety of the 2016-2017 season, and it holds several advantages over Ramunap Red: Its 1-drops can reliably attack for 2 or 3, it has enough pilots to support Heart of Kiran as a premium threat, and it has access to Unlicensed Disintegration as a powerful removal spell. But stock Mardu Vehicles also has various issues in the current Standard, all of which I attempted to solve with the above version.
The first and biggest issue is the mana base. Sometimes you are color screwed, sometimes your lands enter the battlefield tapped, and sometimes you don’t have the right mana to play a 1-drop on turn 1. That’s especially an issue when you want to empty your hand quickly for Hazoret. I tried to solve that by adding Unclaimed Territory, which has got to be one of the most powerful cards from Ixalan that hasn’t found a proper home in Standard yet. The available mana fixing often drives a format.
The second issue is that Unlicensed Disintegration didn’t feel as strong as it once was. In the previous Standard, it could kill such must-answer creatures as Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet at an efficient mana point. Or you could redirect the damage to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to net a 2-for-1. But what are you going to target in the current Standard, really? Whirler Virtuoso? Rogue Refiner? Bristling Hydra? Ahn-Crop Crasher? Hazoret the Fervent? None of these are appealing targets. Sometimes you live the dream by destroying Glorybringer while redirecting the damage to Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but that’s a rare occurrence. Even worse, there are several decks, such as W/U Approach or Abzan Tokens, without any good targets at all. So I wasn’t even convinced I wanted the full 4 Unlicensed Disintegration in my deck, and Fatal Push had similar strikes against it. I tried to solve this issue by cutting the unappealing black removal spells altogether.
The third issue is that there is no good replacement for Thraben Inspector, which was the glue that held the deck together. Bomat Courier is the obvious candidate, but it sucks when you don’t have Earthshaker Khenra, Ahn-Crop Crasher, and loads of removal spells to take care of their blockers. Hope of Ghirapur is also underpowered. I tried to solve this issue by adding Consulate Dreadnought as the 1-drop artifact. It could help push through a board stall, and it was a perfect combo with Siege Modification. Although that combo is easily answered by Abrade or Fatal Push, Ixalan contained Kitesail Freebooter to exile their spot removal spell. (And it could be conveniently splashed via Unclaimed Territory on Human.) I was optimistic that I could win some games by attacking with a 10/11 Vehicle on turn 3.
The fourth issue is that you are often behind when you are on the draw against other creature decks. Toolcraft Exemplar, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Consulate Dreadnought aren’t the best blockers, after all, and I didn’t want to draw too many of them on the draw after sideboard. I tried to solve this issue with a transformational 15-card aggro-Wrath plan that could help me play from behind. Rhonas could be splashed via Unclaimed Territory on God if need be, and it’s a sweet combo with Hazoret.
It was a fun brew, but there were still too many fail cases. The mana still sucked—Kitesail Freebooter couldn’t crew Heart of Kiran, Consulate Dreadnought didn’t impress, Siege Modification still gave opponents too many free 2-for-1s, and the sideboard plan couldn’t beat The Scarab God or Vraska, Relic Seeker. I discarded the idea and moved on.
Inventor’s Apprentice Red
We already have a nearly black-red aggro deck in Standard, but that one is base black. The main draws of that deck are the Yahenni, Undying Partisan/Bontu’s Last Reckoning combo and the 2-power 1-drops. But I feared that opponents would know about Bontu’s Last Reckoning and would either play around it or beat me with planeswalkers. That left Dread Wanderer as the biggest advantage, but I wasn’t willing to give up Sunscorched Desert or Chandra, Torch of Defiance to be able to play it.
I wanted to try a base-red deck with 2-power 1-drops, which led me to the above Inventor’s Apprentice version. The list has a perfect curve, and it was reliably attacking for 2 on turn 2. But 12 artifacts was still not a lot for Inventor’s Apprentice, and it was sometimes hard to retain that amount during sideboarding. Also, to support Inventor’s Apprentice, I had to make minor sacrifices in terms of card quality for my 2-drops and 3-drops. Ultimately, I felt that it was better to either play more payoff cards and emphasize the artifact theme more (which would lead me towards stock Mardu Vehicles) or to reduce my reliance on synergies by cutting the artifact theme altogether (which would lead me toward stock Ramunap Red). I ultimately chose the latter.
It’s a fairly standard list. If I had another playable 1-drop, then I would have happily replaced a Harsh Mentor and an Ahn-Crop Crasher for it, but Rigging Runner is sadly too weak as a turn-1 play. So I just had to settle for an imperfect mana curve and a mediocre creature base.
Ahn-Crop Crasher: I have seen lists without any Ahn-Crop Crashers main deck, but I think they are still valuable enough for game 1s where you want to be as aggressive as possible. I don’t mind boarding them out when they are bad. Also, I think you want at least eight 1-drops, at least seven 2-drops, and at least five 3-drops.
Abrade: I only played 1 Abrade in the main deck because I didn’t want to have too many dead cards against decks like Abzan Tokens, U/B Control, or U/W Approach. I actually considered playing 0 Abrades, but I figured that 10 noncreature spells to trigger prowess for Soul-Scar Mage was already low enough. As it turned out, there were few token or control decks at the Pro Tour, so it may be better to replace Harsh Mentor or an Ahn-Crop Crasher with an extra copy of Abrade going forward.
Chandra and 24 lands: With 24 lands, I like having a fifth 4-drop in the main deck. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is still excellent against Fumigate decks, and she can win games by herself when you are on the play and drop her on an empty board. I have seen lists with 25 lands in the 75, and I think that’s reasonable too. I felt like the ideal number of lands on the play after sideboard was close to 24.6, and a 25th land could help you go even bigger. I just wasn’t comfortable cutting any card for it.
Chandra’s Defeat: In the sideboard, I considered replacing Chandra’s Defeat with Magma Spray to improve against Scrapheap Scrounger decks, but I figured that Ramunap Red was going to be the most popular aggro deck and, after looking at my sideboard plans against Red-Black Aggro or Mardu, I didn’t need extra cards against them. So I stuck with Chandra’s Defeat.
My sideboard strategies were based on the following beliefs:
- Bomat Courier, Ahn-Crop Crasher, Lightning Strike, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are usually good on the play but could be cut on the draw.
- Glorybringer, Abrade, Shock, and Aethersphere Harvester are usually good on the draw but not as necessary on the play.
- Basically, on the draw you want more reactive spells that can help you catch up and fight a more grindy game. Trading a Shock for their 2-drop is perfect, for instance. Also, you have an extra draw step to find that fifth land for Glorybringer. On the play, you want to stay aggressive (i.e., more threats and fewer answers) as you’re ahead in the damage race and can establish a board advantage from the start. Also, you can empty your hand more quickly for a profitable Bomat Courier activation.
- My compatriot Bart van Etten, with whom I discussed sideboard strategies over dinner, knows what he is talking about. Indeed, he went 7-3 in Standard with Ramunap Red on his way to an 11-5 finish. Lekker!
- Barring extreme matchups, I wanted to keep at least 10 noncreature spells to trigger prowess on Soul-Scar Mage, and I wanted to limit the number of 4+ mana cards to 7.
I am lumping Temur Energy and 4-Color Energy together with the understanding that 4-Color Energy refers to a list with a minor black splash for The Scarab God and/or Vraska, Relic Seeker. As always, these plans are merely guidelines that you should adjust based on your opponent’s deck. For example, if the opponent is on a version without Longtusk Cub, then Lightning Strike becomes less important. If the opponent has Aethersphere Harvester, then you want to keep Abrade. And so on.
On the Play
On the Draw
Out of decks with at least 20 pilots at Pro Tour Ixalan, Sultai Energy had the highest percentage of players that ended up 6-4 or better in Standard. The deck also won the event in the hands of Seth Manfield. Congrats, Seth!
My sideboard plan differs from the one I use against Temur. Glorybringers are better because they don’t have Harnessed Lightning, Kari Zev becomes less appealing on the play due to Fatal Push, Ahn-Crop Crasher lines up much better against Fatal Push than against Magma Spray, they have no Whirler Virtuosos that can be punished by Harsh Mentor and Rampaging Ferocidon, but they do have Winding Constrictors that you need to answer.
On the Play
On the Draw
Ramunap Red and Other Aggro Decks
My sideboard plans against Ramunap Red are similar to those against Black-Red Aggro or Mardu Vehicles, so I will only show my plans against Ramunap Red below. There are still small differences though—in particular, don’t board Chandra’s Defeat or Chandra, Torch of Defiance against Black-Red Aggro or Mardu Vehicles. Instead, I planned to keep Ahn-Crop Crasher against Black-Red Aggro and Harsh Mentor against Mardu Vehicles. With that in mind, here is how I boarded in the mirror.
On the Play
On the Draw
Guillaume Matignon’s Jeskai Approach had the best finish out of all control decks. If people start copying his version, then it’s important to remember that they don’t have Fumigate but that they do have Fiery Cannonade in the sideboard. My plan is the same on both play and draw, as I take the same aggro role in both cases. Sideboarding against U/W Approach or U/B Control is similar.
Every flyer is good against them. Sometimes Pia Nalaar is even better than Hazoret because they are very good at gumming up the ground with tokens. Remember that Harsh Mentor doesn’t trigger off of a Hidden Stockpile activation. Sideboard plans are still roughly the same on both play and draw in this matchup.
U/W God-Pharaoh’s Gift
The Refurbish version finished second at the Pro Tour in the hands of Pascal Maynard, so I expect it will rise in popularity in the coming week. But U/B Gift actually had a higher percentage of players with 6-4 or better records in Standard, and it is arguably the better version. Boarding against the U/B version is different, as Chandra and Harsh Mentor suddenly do something relevant. But here’s what I planned to do against the all-in Refurbish version.
That’s my take on Ramunap Red. I believe it is still the best Hazoret deck in Standard, and analyses by Love Janse and SaffronOlive agree with this. But it’s nothing new, and that’s why I wanted to close out with two questions for you. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!
Question 1: What if Attune with Aether and/or Aether Hub had been banned?
This would be similar to how Preordain and Ponder were banned in Modern in 2011. R&D banned the best blue card selection spells so that they didn’t have to issue individual bans for Goryo’s Vengeance, Through the Breach, Pyromancer Ascension, Hive Mind, Ad Nauseam, and every other fringe combo card. By taking out the best sources of consistency, we got to a point where these decks could remain as a diverse set of non-dominating, yet competitive strategies.
If Attune with Aether and/or Aether Hub had been banned instead of Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian, the current Standard might have been 10% all-in Marvel, 10% Jeskai Saheeli, 10% Temur Energy, etc., with none of those decks consistent enough to dominate. That would be more diverse than the 50% similar-looking energy midrange decks we had at the Pro Tour. It’s very well possible that Marvel or Copycat would still be too powerful in this scenario (in which case R&D was correct to make the “safe” calls) but it’s interesting to consider the ramifications.
What do you think?
Question 2: Is Willy Edel’s W/G double strike deck the real deal?
I hope to see a lot of this deck at GP Warsaw this weekend, where I will be doing commentary. It has a low curve, double strike synergies, late-game staying power, and flashy wins—what’s not to love for an aggro player?
I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but I’m curious to hear the opinion of anyone who has.