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Improvising a New Standard

Last week, I talked about the Standard trifecta, and what to do if you either want to join in or attack it from an outside angle. This week, I’m going to focus on the latter, and talk about a pair of decks from last weekend. Before that, I’ll briefly touch on my Mardu deck and some of the results from this weekend.

Two of my friends played the Mardu deck I posted last week to a Top 4 and Top 2 PPTQ finish, coming up just short. The main feedback I’ve gotten is that the Dark-Dwellers just don’t have enough room to shine, and without burn spells they are awkward against control. So if you want to hedge against a specific matchup, those would be the likely cuts. If you want to keep them, adding a 2nd draw spell in the board and subbing Painful Truths for something better to buy back would be recommended.

Gisela was a powerhouse since so few decks have clean answers. Harnessed Lightning is only really a concern out of the Saheeli decks, and B/G or Mardu only pack 4 answers to her. Between Gisela and Skysovereign, it can be difficult for them to save removal for the larger threats while still keeping your early aggression in check. The second Aether Hub may also be swapped for the fourth Spirebluff Canal if you want to keep the Rebukes in the sideboard. Otherwise, the deck performed well.

As for the actual decks I want to talk about, let’s start with the one that won ChannelFireball’s PPTQ this Sunday:

U/R Improvise

Jake Koenig won with a deck so off the radar I had to double check we hadn’t accidentally sanctioned a Sealed event. I’m not going to lie to you and pretend I had any idea what was going on when I saw it winning in the finals. Then I saw the deck list and remained befuddled. When you break it down, though, there’s definitely a method to the madness here.

First off, this deck has a way to win grindy games, which so many improvise decks do not. Key to the City is effectively a “free” draw when you’re tapping it to pay for improvise. You’re netting 1 mana off of it on each activation and not discarding a card, while also allowing you to bypass ground stalls later in the game. You can even tap it for another draw off your own Elder Deep-Fiends if you have a spare tap target.

Meanwhile, if you fall behind, Kozilek’s Return is still the best catch-up mechanism in the format. The Elder Deep-Fiend/Return/Sanctum of Ugin package is one of the more busted engines in this Standard and has been really underplayed outside of the U/R Emerge deck. Wretched Gryff or Elder Deep-Fiend with Inventor’s Goggles also safely blocks practically everything in the entire format. That’s right, we’re talking about the Goggles now.

One notable feature is that the deck doesn’t go out of its way to try and truly abuse improvise or Artificer. The bonuses are all there, but it doesn’t just run 16-20 Artificers to make full use of Inventor’s Goggles’ ability. It does make cards like Brawler and Thopterist much harder to kill, and is a nice way to catch-up after taking turns off to develop artifacts.

Now is this deck going to revolutionize the metagame? Doubtful. It does provide a fun alternative to the metagame triangle, however, and I respect that this improvise engine is much closer to using it “as intended.” People often write off these mechanics if they don’t break the format in half, but even if it is just a flash in the pan, it’s cool to see this type of deck get a spotlight now and then.

Marvel

Aetherworks Marvel is just not a fair card. If you can meet its demanding energy requirement, not only do you get access to one of the best digging tools in the format, you get to cast any broken card in your deck for free. If you build your deck correctly, then even when you whiff on the good stuff you’ll be halfway to another spin of the wheel on the next turn. Recently we’ve been seeing a resurgence of this in the 4/5c Saheeli decks as yet another way to get the combo out consistently.

After playing a number of Magic Online Leagues with various builds, I started to arrive at one key question. Why bother with the Saheeli combo at all if hitting anything big off Aetherworks frequently won the game?

So I started to dig for lists and found more and more either re-adding haymakers like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in addition to the combo or just cutting Saheeli outright and going back to the older builds. I tried an Aetherworks no-combo build, which kept the same general shell as the 4c Saheeli decks and went 4-1 in back-to-back Competitive Leagues. The kicker was that I won nearly half my games off the “fair” energy aspects of the deck, so maybe there’s something to this.

My current build is an offshoot of a build that Jaberwocki recently played in a League to a 5-0 record.

Temur Marvel

What’s interesting about the energy “package”* in 4c Saheeli/Aetherworks decks is that after those key cards you have a ton of flexibility. I’ve seen variations that run Elder Deep-Fiend, Tireless Tracker, Bristling Hydra, Verdurous Gearhulk, combo, no combo, etc. In fact I think there’s likely a “light” Aetherworks list that you could build in the vein of Temur Energy, and your main win condition could be Thopter tokens pumped by Verdurous Gearhulk.

*Energy Package:
4-of: Attune with Aether, Servant of the Conduit, Harnessed Lightning, Rogue Refiner, Whirler Virtuoso

One big feature I like about these builds is that your Mardu Vehicles matchup gets significantly better. Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot frequently buys 1-2 turns and your Aetherworks hits are high impact. Post-board, when you load up on anti-Vehicle hate and you trim some of the fat in your deck, it can be difficult for them to catch up with you if they fall behind. With eight 2-mana removal spells you can also consistently disrupt the Toolcraft Exemplar curve draws.

The B/G matchup is Saheeli/Aetherworks’ best because they can’t out-grind you and Aetherworks Marvel trumps their entire strategy of dominating the combat step. You can’t really plan around a surprise Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or even do anything against an end-step Aetherwind Basker. Even Bristling Hydra presents a threat they can’t easily interact with and can end the game on its own in 3-4 attack steps.

Switching to pure Aetherworks only seems to weaken you against the 4c Saheeli decks. In essence they have the same deck, but more filtering and an out to Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger by just winning the game. They can win before Ulamog becomes a threat and even after it hits the board. Besides that, they’re uniquely qualified to stall you out as Whirler Virtuoso is one of the most obnoxious mirror match cards. Not only can they chump everything, the person with more Thopters often wins the fair games in the matchup.

Like I said above, I’m not trying to claim this is the endgame for Aetherworks or 4c Saheeli decks, rather that the range of flexibility has yet to be fully explored. Some combo of Tireless Tracker, Whirler Virtuoso, and Verdurous Gearhulk may just be the correct setup to negate the advantages of every deck in the metagame. Maybe going heavier planeswalkers is worthwhile—Tamiyo in particular plays very well in the deck.

Maybe at the highest levels of play Standard simply devolves into a decision over which B/G deck to play. But what I’ve seen recently is at the local level, and even on Magic Online, there’s a lot more room to play around with deck choices.

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