Two weeks ago in Boston, there was not a lot of innovation at the World Championship. The field was mostly Ramunap Red, which didn’t end up winning many matches, and Temur Energy, which took down the trophy. The breakout deck of the tournament was arguably Blue-Black Control with Search for Azcanta: 2 out of the 4 players running the deck made it to the Top 4. But for more interesting deck developments, we had to wait another week.
Last weekend, a number of National Championship events were held all around the world. It’s great to have this tournament back once again, and several sweet lists appeared in the Top 8s worldwide. Today I want to highlight the five I found most interesting.
Nicky Woo, Top 8 at Malaysia Nationals
To provide the context for this Esper Tokens list, let me first mention the Abzan variation. In the week after the World Championship, Abzan Tokens started putting up results on Magic Online. This deck exploits one of Blue-Black Control’s few weaknesses, which is that it has no way of dealing with a resolved artifact or enchantment. Hidden Stockpile plus Anointed Procession are excellent at beating an opponent with a hand full of Essence Scatters and Vraska’s Contempts. Meanwhile, if you’re up against Ramunap Red, then Anointer Priest can easily get you out of burn range. (It also provides a fun math exercise if you embalm one while you have all 4 Anointed Procession on the table.)
While Abzan tokens put up decent results last weekend—Drew Bates piloted it to a Top 8 finish at U.S. Nationals, and several players did well with the deck at New Zealand Nationals—another color combination also made an appearance: Esper Tokens. The above list was piloted to a Top 8 finish by Nicky Woo at the Malaysia Nationals.
Thanks a bunch again to everyone that came to Nationals. Although very tiring, and not as flawless as we expect it to…
- Blue grants Champion of Wits, which adds much-needed consistency to the deck. You really need to find your key synergy pieces to set up your engine, and Champion of Wits helps you do that. While filtering through your deck, you can even discard creatures with embalm for value. Once you get to the late game with Anointed Procession and seven lands in play, an embalmed Champion of Wits allows you to look at eight fresh cards, which should be enough to win the game.
- You get access to The Scarab God, one of the best win conditions in Standard. In this deck, it’s better because of Anointed Procession. Just imagine that you have those two cards on the battlefield and manage to eternalize an opponent’s Whirler Virtuoso.
- The mana base improves because you can run the the allied color checklands from the Esper shard.
- You can sideboard Negate against Approach of the Second Sun, which would otherwise be a difficult matchup. A copy of Arguel’s Blood Fast might also help in that matchup, but the countermagic is certainly great.
These four reasons are enough to convince me that Esper Tokens is superior to Abzan Tokens. But no matter whether you prefer green or blue, the Hidden Stockpile strategy is for real. In the upcoming weeks, you’d better come prepared with cards like River’s Rebuke or Slice in Twain. Grinding back with Lifecrafter’s Bestiary is also an option.
Lucas Berthoud, 2nd at Brazil Nationals
The Brazilian National team will consist of three Pro Tour champions this year: Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Carlos Romao, and Lucas Berthoud. They’re an easy favorite going into the World Magic Cup, but what I want to focus on is Lucas Berthoud’s blue-black list.
As he explained in his post on Reddit, “I liked playing Kitesail Freebooter and The Scarab God in the same deck—you clear the way first and then run away with the game.” The main deck contains another cheap creature in Gifted Aetherborn, which can gain life against Ramunap Red and trade up against Bristling Hydra. By playing so many early creatures, Chart a Course becomes close to a 2-mana Divination.
Overall, this list has similar strengths to Blue-Black Control but gains another angle of attack with its proactive plays. To make room, there are no Censor and Hieroglyphic Illumination, which means that Search for Azcanta is a bit worse, but it’s still present.
Berthoud found the list among the published 5-0 deck lists from Magic Online Leagues. The person who got that 5-0 result was none other than Logan Nettles, a.k.a. Jaberwocki. Last year, Jaberwocki adapted and popularized the R/G Marvel deck (originally created for Pro Tour Kaladesh by Niels Noorlander, Peter Vieren, and myself) that ended up dominating Standard, so he has a good track record. This blue-black deck in particular might have all of the right tools to become a strong contender in Standard.
Ben Rinauto, Top 4 at U.S. Nationals
Mardu Vehicles (with Inventor’s Apprentice, of course) is a deck dear to my heart, given that it was my Standard deck of choice for the entirety of the 2016-2017 season. I knew that I could easily replace Gideon, Ally of Zendikar with Hazoret the Fervent, but I was sad to lose Thraben Inspector in the rotation. It was the glue that held the deck together. You need a critical mass of artifacts for Toolcraft Exemplar, Unlicensed Disintegration, and Spire of Industry, as well as enough 1-drops for the aggro mana curve, and Thraben Inspector bridged that gap.
Ben Rinauto chose to replace it with Bomat Courier. It’s far from ideal: It has poor size, it’s more easily removed than a Clue, it doesn’t make for an ideal pilot, and it won’t put many cards in the mail when it’s not supported by Earthshaker Khenra and Ahn-Crop Crasher. Hope of Ghirapur or even Consulate Dreadnought might be better. But at least Bomat Courier gets the artifact count to an acceptable level.
Somewhat strangely, this is now almost a black-red artifact aggro deck splashing for Toolcraft Exemplar. It might seem weird to splash for a 1-drop, but Concealed Courtyard and Inspiring Vantage provide plenty of “free” untapped white sources, and the card is an essential piece of the deck. Heart of Kiran is still one of the best threats in Standard, but to be able to put it in your deck, you need enough 3-power pilots for Heart of Kiran. Toolcraft Exemplar helps you get to an acceptable number while keeping your curve low enough to reliably turn on Hazoret the Fervent. It’s literally the only card in Standard that does that. Once you have white, you might as well run Veteran Motorist or Glory-Bound Initiate over Syndicate Trafficker, but make no mistake: Toolcraft Exemplar is what it’s all about.
Given how important these 1-drops are to the deck, the card that stood out to me most from Rinauto’s deck was Unclaimed Territory. The mana base for Mardu Vehicles has always been challenging, especially when you want to have enough turn-1 sources for both Inventor’s Apprentice and Toolcraft Exemplar. I usually ran a couple of Aether Hub to help cast my 1-drops, but Aether Hub sucks in a deck with little-to-no energy generation. Unclaimed Territory, on the other hand, is perfect. You can play it on turn 1, name Artificer or Dwarf, cast a 1-drop, and then tap it for colored mana later to cast Veteran Motorist or Pia Nalaar on curve. You could never do that with Aether Hub. Mana base tweaks always make me excited, and this one is no exception.
Another reason for excitement is that Mardu Vehicles may be well-positioned right now. In the quarterfinals, Rinauto defeated Seth Manfield, who wasn’t expecting to face Heart of Kiran at Nationals. Manfield’s Temur Energy list only had 1 Abrade in his 75, so Rinauto’s Vehicles cruised to victory unopposed. As long as Abrade is not played in high numbers, Mardu Vehicles should remain a fine choice.
Zen Takahasi, Top 8 at New Zealand Nationals
The other non-Ramunap Red aggro deck that I want to highlight is black-red aggro. What it has in common with Mardu Vehicles is that it can run hard-hitting 1-drops.
One of the main issues I have with the current incarnation of Ramunap Red is the lack of Falkenrath Gorger. Ramunap Red decks are now either filled with an abundance of 1-power creatures (which sucks) or have a higher curve that can’t always unload in time for Hazoret the Fervent (which also sucks). When you can’t reliably attack your opponent for 2 on turn 2, your aggro deck becomes substantially weaker. That’s why many aggro players are abandoning Ramunap Red and turning to Toolcraft Exemplar or Dread Wanderer.
The above black-red list from Takahashi, which he shared on Twitter, strongly emphasizes the Bontu’s Last Reckoning sideboard plan (which combos with Yahenni, Undying Partisan) and contains a full playset of Aethersphere Harvester. But apart from those tweaks, it’s very similar to Pedro Carvalho’s original list. If you want to learn more, check out Carvalho’s deck guide here.
Takahasi wasn’t the only player who found success with this archetype last weekend. Artur Villela and Alan Ngo also took it to a Top 8 finish at their Nationals in Brazil and Canadian, respectively. So the deck is for real. Don’t be caught off-guard when your black-red aggro opponent suddenly turns around the board state with Bontu’s Last Reckoning in game 2 or 3.
Adam Biakowski, 10th place at U.S. Nationals
As I showed in my Magic Math – Ixalan article, a deck with 4 Approach would in expectation have a 32.5% probability of hitting another Approach when you trigger Sunbird’s Invocation for 7. So you’ll “miss” in more than 2/3 of the games, and as I wrote in that article, I found the addition of an unreliable 6-mana card to a deck that already has a high curve dubious.
When I wrote that, I had a Jeskai build in mind where you might trigger Sunbird’s Invocation on turn 7 with Glimmer of Genius, hit a useless Censor, and lose because you hadn’t affected the board in a relevant way for two turns in a row.
Biakowski’s build is different. He has no blue, and he doesn’t even have 4 Approaches! He’s more of a red-white planeswalker deck that uses Sunbird’s Invocation as a value engine. There is no risk of hitting a useless counterspell, and you’re not clogging up your deck with blue card draw spells alongside expensive card advantage enchantments. What’s more, Sunbird’s Invocation helps transform Vance’s Blasting Cannons more quickly.
The best part of the deck is the sideboard. I’m sure that Biakowski caught many opponents off-guard with Glory-Bound Initiate and Heart of Kiran right after they boarded out most of their creature removal. Maybe they could have anticipated something like that would happen, but it’s always tough to guess what a rogue deck might do after sideboard.
The current Standard is still filled with plenty of possibilities. If you played or watched Nationals yourself last weekend, what was your favorite innovation?