The best-of-one Standard format on Arena creates a whole new world. Various people have already pointed out that one of the best ways to get ahead, or rather start out ahead, in games without a sideboard is to run a creatureless deck. Many opponents will be left with dead pixels in hand, which is akin to a forced mulligan or to not drawing a card every turn, or both. Imagine how much your win rate would go down if you played at such a disadvantage. Now imagine how much your win rate goes up when it’s a certain percentage of your opponents who are thus inconvenienced.
The following is my entry into the canon of literature on this phenomenon. More accurately, it is Bernhard Lehner’s, who shared his brilliant deck design with me. Lehner’s credentials include playing a ton of what-used-to-be-known-as Pro Tours, a Top 4 finish at a Grand Prix, a National Championship title, a second place in the team competition at what-used-to-be the World Championship, and co-designing Martin Dang’s winning deck from Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. So when this notable brewer told me he had been very successful with a strategy on Arena, my ears pricked up immediately. With his latest masterpiece Lehner made it as far as mythic rank 24.
To be honest, I haven’t been able to replicate Lehner’s results. Not yet, anyway. But I want to claim that this is purely because I didn’t have the time to play enough, and not because I’m bad at it. Either way, it would be an absurd assumption that these results themselves aren’t replicable. If you know anything about Arena’s ladder system, you know that such a rank necessitates a sample size that is way beyond any doubt.
I only played enough to develop an appreciation and understanding for the deck deep enough to write an article about it. In other words, I have spent countless hours with this thing, because it is quite hard to steer optimally, and because it is buckets of fun for the combo-minded enthusiast. So this is the workshare we agreed upon: Lehner gets the results and the fame, while I get to write about it.
Needless to say, I wouldn’t write a deck tech piece at this time if the deck didn’t also stand to gain a bunch of options from Ravnica Allegiance’s introduction into Standard. Without further ado, here’s the current list:
A lot of the tools this list employs may look familiar, and its endgame too is the same that we’ve seen in more standard Standard Nexus decks for a while now. You filter some cards, you push ahead on mana mostly by means of Gift of Paradise, you survive on some Fog derivatives, and eventually you chain Nexus of Fate ad infinitum, often helped along by Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. Almost as an afterthought, you eventually kill using the card that comes with the least cost as far as deck building is concerned, which at the moment happens to be a huge Explosion.
The actual way of achieving this goal, and of reaching all the goal posts along the way, differs notably from the usual approach. There’s no Teferi, Hero of Dominaria here. Instead we’re using Primal Amulet. Curiously, both the presence of one as well as the absence of the other bring about some advantages.
Sure, the time mage is a singular powerful card. But he also gets offed by Vraska’s Contempt, The Immortal Sun, Plaguecrafter, and The Eldest Reborn. This deck takes the blanking of opposing removal to a whole new level. The fact that opponents who see Hinterland Harbor and library manipulation expect Teferi even increases the likelihood of them having one of these mostly useless cards. Indeed, in my very first game against Golgari Midrange, they explored the top of their library, found Vraska’s Contempt and left it there, thank you very much.
On the figurative flip side, Primal Amulet works just as well as Teferi when you have 5 mana and Root Snare available. At the same time, it provides a discount for all of the card filtering spells. Radical Idea is a requirement in order to transform the Amulet reliably, but in this deck it’s often also better than Chart a Course. The sheer velocity with which Primal Amulet helps go through the deck and transforms is a beautiful sight to behold. For example, in many of my games, a Vivien Reid on turn 5 came too late to touch the artifact because it already turned into a land by that time (or in response to Vivien’s ability for extra value/daggers).
On the literal flip side then, Primal Wellspring is a true monster. When the goal is to move from one Nexus of Fate to the next, drawing two cards a turn with Teferi is great, but turning every Nexus into two Nexus is usually greater. Yes, you don’t get to abuse Azcanta quite as much as when the planeswalker is untapping lands, but you get to enjoy way more “time off”—turns in which you don’t need to cast another Nexus to keep going but can copy Opt or Discovery and/or deploy an additional Amulet or The Mirari Conjecture. Several times, I have taken all remaining turns of a game beginning with my sixth. The prospect of casting the Amulet on turn 3 in the future, thanks to the upcoming addition of Growth Spiral, seems legitimately scary.
I’m less sure which other cards, besides Growth Spiral and Breeding Pool, should find their way into the deck. Wilderness Reclamation has obvious upsides, but at the cost of adding a card that doesn’t trigger Amulet. My suspicion is that the enchantment will either enable an entirely different breed of Nexus decks, will more easily fit into the Teferi shell, or will prove not to be worth the initial investment of 4 mana and a card at all.
It’s also unclear to me which cards should be cut to make room for Growth Spiral. First on my shortlist of candidates is Grow from the Ashes. It sometimes allows crazy stuff to happen, is especially bonkers when there’s more than one Amulet and/or Wellspring involved, and regularly removes all remaining basic lands from the deck later on, dialing up the odds of a successful Nexus chain to a near certainty. On the other hand, the best cases are rare, the latter use may as well be a “win more” situation, and it’s abundantly easy to construct scenarios where Growth Spiral is a straight-up improvement. For example, in addition to the obvious benefits on the second turn, you often get stuck with more lands in hand than you can play when you first go off.
The prime reason to retain Grow from the Ashes is that it’s an additional sorcery for The Mirari Conjecture. Retrieving Discovery // Dispersal is the go-to option most of the time anyway, but even with all the filtering and six sorceries in the deck, this book was sometimes missing its second chapter.
Neither do I want to cut all Gift of Paradise. Growth Spiral might make up for the life not gained with the speed so gained. But against certain decks it is important to have access to black mana. Black mana, you say? Yes, read on to learn more!
A Few Notes on Playing the Deck
Whatever you do, don’t jump into ranked games with this deck right away! I did, and I was punished accordingly. Even if you’re used to running the Teferi version of Nexus, this one plays differently. There are plenty of mistakes to be made. Sequencing everything correctly takes practice in general. And in particular, you may not even realize you’re staring down an unusual path to victory unless you’ve been in that position before.
For example, while not the most common or easiest way of doing business, it is very much possible to win without ever resolving Primal Amulet. You just need to multiply your resources—cards and turns for the most part— at some points and The Mirari Conjecture is able to act as a stand-in for the Wellspring here. I repeat: take the time to do some pure test games first!
Learning one’s own deck’s ins and outs is only part one, though. Once I got the hang of this and felt reasonably confident to exercise the game plan itself, I still encountered many stumbling blocks and pitfalls in the form of irregular opposition.
The first time I ran into Ixalan’s Binding, for instance, I was almost in tears. Later, with more experience under my belt, I faced a particularly pesky Jeskai mage who took both an Amulet and a Conjecture into Binding on turns 4 and 5. This person must have felt pretty good about their life choices, being rewarded so handsomely for running so much clunky removal main deck. Unfortunately, a little while later the player tapped out at the end of my turn for Chemister’s Insight, at which point I cast Nexus of Fate… and went off. I don’t have a perfect record of the details, which were incredibly intricate and confusingly convoluted. But the game involved a number of Dispersals, a generous gift from Gift of Paradise.
In fact, Dispersal works as a Swiss-army knife whenever the battlefield turns ugly. Next to Ixalan’s Binding, permanents that must be dealt with sooner or later include Niv-Mizzet, Parun, as well as Shalai, Voice of Plenty and Lich’s Mastery. Bouncing this last one is of course one of the most enjoyable experiences one can have. Five stars, would cast again.
The same goes for the deck as a whole. Playing it is great fun, and that’s a legitimate concern when it comes to the grind of Arena’s ladder system. Climbing the ranks is a time consuming and often tedious process, so you may want a deck that will keep your interest, even after a hundred games.
A final word of warning: At least until the Ravnica Allegiance update, Arena had a bug. If you wanted to generate 2 blue mana with a Gifted land that could also produce 1 blue mana, you had to get the autotapper to do it. If you had some radical ideas, such as, say, using this land to first pay for one Radical Idea under Primal Amulet before deciding what to do with the leftover mana, then you were out of luck.
That Lehner still managed to do this well bodes well for the—possibly bug-free—future.