For this Pro Tour, I tested together with Fabrizio Anteri, Lukas Blohon, Stanislav Cifka, Robin Dolar, Ivan Floch, Martin Hrycej, Lukas Jaklovsky, Martin Juza, Adam Koska, Ondrej Strasky, and Matej Zatlkaj. We were known as Tabin Cabin Crew, after the mountain cabin in the Czech Republic where we tested for a week. Ivan Floch and Ondrej Strasky both Top 8’d the Pro Tour, so overall the tournament was a huge success.

As for myself: I went 12-3 at Grand Prix Orlando on the way to Hawaii, but used up all of my luck during that tournament. I failed to make Day 2 in Honolulu and had to watch the rest of the Pro Tour from the sidelines. Still, I have plenty of things to talk about when it comes to Standard. The team split between three Standard decks, and I’ll discuss all of them today. I’ll focus on card choices, discuss sideboard plans, and go over our view on the metagame.

The Constructed Testing Begins

Early on in testing, we determined that the best two decks were Green Devotion and Abzan Midrange, so we set out to find a deck that could beat Courser of Kruphix. Some people were trying out constellation and control decks, others were focusing on midrange decks, and I was trying to find a good aggro deck. I tried a bunch of decks with Goblin Rabblemaster and/or Mogis’s Marauder, but the only deck that I found that could claim a 50% or higher win rate against the Courser decks was Jeskai Fireworks. (The name Jeskai Wins seems horrible to me, and Jeskai Tempo or Jeskai Aggro wouldn’t be accurate either, so I’ll go with Jeskai Fireworks instead.)

After establishing Green Devotion, Abzan Midrange, and Jeskai Fireworks as the “Big Three” decks, we built sideboards and tested them against each other. Our initial feeling was that the metagame was like rock-paper-scissors:

  • Green Devotion beats Abzan Midrange. This is thanks to Genesis Hydra into Hornet Queen, which Abzan doesn’t have a good answer to.
  • Abzan Midrange beats Jeskai Fireworks—mainly on the back of the life gain from Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc.
  • Jeskai Fireworks beats Green Devotion, all thanks to Mantis Rider and other flyers followed by burn spells.

With further testing and tuning, all of the matchups inched closer and closer to 50/50. For example, Green Devotion added Arbor Colossus to block Mantis Rider; Abzan Midrange added Duneblast to deal with Hornet Queen; and Jeskai Fireworks added Hushwing Gryff to shut down Siege Rhino. All of these changes improved the decks against their previously bad matchups.

We also tweaked the decks for their respective mirror matches. Among other things, we added Doomwake Giant to Green Devotion, Wingmate Roc to Abzan Midrange, and Ashcloud Phoenix to Jeskai Fireworks. All of these cards were great in the respective mirror matches.

Meanwhile, we also tested a bunch of other decks (such as Jeskai Ascendancy, Mardu Midrange, and RG Monsters) but none of them were performing well enough. We still felt like these decks had potential and we expected at least some players to show up with them (or rather, versions that were better than ours) but we couldn’t get them to work in time and focused on other decks instead.

Stanislav Cifka and Ivan Floch, for example, kept working on their Blue/Black Control deck, and they eventually registered it for the Standard portion of the Pro Tour. The rest of the team didn’t want to play control and split between Jeskai Fireworks and Abzan Midrange because these decks were posting better testing results than Green Devotion.

Let’s go over the decks!

Abzan Midrange

Martin Juza, Matej Zatlkaj, and I played this archetype. The version I’m showing above is pretty much the one we had the day before the Pro Tour. At the last minute, we made some changes like putting Duneblast maindeck and cutting Erase from the sideboard, but in hindsight that probably wasn’t right. So, the version I’m showing you today is the one that I think I should’ve played.

Our list is squarely a midrange deck. There are other flavors of Abzan, such as Mike Sigrist’s aggro variant, Patrick Chapin’s control deck, or Ari Lax’s planeswalker version, which we all tested (or at least lists close to theirs) but we preferred our midrange approach. The aggro version had trouble overcoming the bigger monsters from Abzan Midrange and Green Devotion in the mid-to-late game. The control and planeswalker versions had a mana curve that was too high in our view and contained Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, who doesn’t actually do all that much in a format with so many flyers, 3-power creatures, Doomwake Giants, and trampling creatures.

Our midrange version was built around Wingmate Roc. We started with two copies, then added the third, and eventually went up to four because we always wanted to draw it.

What makes the Roc so good? First, it matches up very well against spot removal: even if Hero’s Downfall kills one of the 3/4 flyers, there’s still one remaining. Second, the 3/4 size is perfect for this format because it means you can profitably block Mantis Rider and dodge Elspeth. Third, it plays very well with Abzan Charm—when you attack your Siege Rhino into an opposing Polukranos, the opponent has to gamble on whether you are planning to put two +1/+1 counters on your Rhino or merely want to trigger raid—this really puts them on the spot when it comes to blocking decisions. Fourth, the life gain trigger is frequently decisive in any damage race. With the popularity of Siege Rhino or Mantis Rider, many games indeed come down to a damage race, and Wingmate Roc works wonders in those kinds of games.

There’s just one thing about Wingmate Roc: if it’s in your deck, you need to be able to consistently trigger raid when you hit five mana. As a result, I wanted to have no fewer than 18 attackers that cost less than five mana. Hence the inclusion of Elvish Mystic, Fleecemane Lion, Anafenza, and Polukranos. (Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino are no-brainers for a midrange deck like this one.) Rakshasa Deathdealer, Brimaz, and Sorin were options as well, but Rakshasa Deathdealer was unexciting when you’re playing big spells every turn, Brimaz was difficult to cast due to its double-white cost, and Sorin was too often a four-mana spell that didn’t have a substantial effect on the game before dying.

The third copy of Anafenza in the deck was somewhat risky because she is a legend after all. However, she comes at an insane rate. If you follow up a turn two Fleecemane Lion with a turn three Anafenza, then both of your creatures can attack through Courser of Kruphix, and her exile ability is randomly good against cards like Dig Through Time, Sidisi, and Whip of Erebos. (In fact, the existence of Anafenza was one of the main reasons why we didn’t include Whip in our deck.)

This was our removal suite. When you have 25 lands, 4 Caryatid, 18 attackers, and 4 Wingmate Roc, you only have room for 9 interactive spells, and we felt that the above configuration was a good mix.

Hero’s Downfall and Abzan Charm both have their advantages and disadvantages. Downfall can deal with Stormbreath Dragon, Elspeth, and Courser of Kruphix. Abzan Charm cannot take out those cards, but it is a much better answer to Ashcloud Phoenix, is easier to cast, and is not dead against U/B control. Furthermore, the two +1/+1 counters mode comes up frequently and can make blocking very difficult for your opponent. I liked the 3/3 mix.

This sideboard card was our answer to Hornet Queen and it even turned out to be good in the mirror match. We liked it better than Mass Calcify and End Hostilities. We also liked the interaction with Fleecemane Lion as its monstrous ability often allowed you to keep multiple creatures on the board after a Duneblast.

Having a land in the sideboard is one of the most underrated things ever. Urborg allows you to cut a Temple or Mana Confluence against aggro decks, provides an extra mana source when you want to board out Elvish Mystic, and complements Drown in Sorrow and Bile Blight from the sideboard very well.

Overall, I liked the deck, even though our results were far from good with it (Martin, Matej, and I went a combined 7-12 in Standard). There may be several things responsible for that bad performance: the deck doesn’t have a lot of synergy, sometimes floods out, lacks enough ways to interact at an efficient mana point, and was a known quantity that everyone was ready for. It’s possible that Jeskai Fireworks was just a better deck choice (and it actually put up slightly better numbers in our playtesting sessions) but Abzan Midrange fit my playstyle better and I think being comfortable with a deck is quite important. Still, if I would play an Abzan deck again, I would stick with my deck—I am still more convinced by our card choices than Ari Lax’s version.

Martin Juza talked about the deck in a bit more detail in his article this week, so make sure you read that if you want to learn more about the deck.

Sideboard Plans

I’m going to provide sideboard plans for all the decks today, but please note that these are only sketches that are meant as a starting point. Sideboard strategies need adjustment based on whether you are on the play or on the draw, based on the exact composition of your opponent’s deck, and based on whether your opponent transforms into a different deck. But having a baseline to start from is always nice.

Vs. Abzan Midrange

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Vs. Jeskai Fireworks

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Vs. Green Devotion

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Vs. U/B Control

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Vs. Ascendancy Combo

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Jeskai Fireworks

This is the deck that Ondrej Strasky, Lukas Blohon, Robin Dolar, Fabrizio Anteri, Adam Koska, Martin Hrycej, and Lukas Jaklovsky played. Their combined record was 29-26-1.

Let me go over some of the more unusual card choices.

We had Hushwing Gryff instead of Goblin Rabblemaster in the main deck. We liked the flier better for three reasons:

First, it shuts down Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc, Nylea’s Disciple, and Hornet Queen, which would otherwise be very problematic for Jeskai. Other relevant enters-the-battlefield triggers in Standard include Doomwake Giant, Reclamation Sage, and Eidolon of Blossoms.

Second, it has flying. When everyone has Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Siege Rhino, Polukranos, and so on, it is very hard for ground creatures like Goblin Rabblemaster to get in, but evasive creatures happily fly over.

Third, flash means that it plays very well with all of the instant-speed cards in the deck. If your opponent casts a card worth countering or burning, you just do that, and play the Gryff otherwise.

So, it is just very well positioned in the format, and most people who played the deck were happy with their choice of Gryff over Rabblemaster.

We ran this over Dig Through Time. Both cards have utility as late-game mana sinks, but Ashcloud Phoenix is a great on-curve evasive threat that is great in a damage race. It excels in the mirror match and against decks with lots of removal.

We were actually expecting more Ashcloud Phoenix in the Pro Tour because the card was performing quite well in testing, so we ran 3 Banishing Light in the main deck and 3 Magma Spray in the sideboard to fight it. In hindsight, Ashcloud Phoenix was not as popular, so Suspension Field or Nullify might have been better in the main deck and Dig Through Time might have been better in the sideboard.

Speaking of Nullify: Team ChannelFireball ran this card in their Jeskai deck, and I like it a lot. There are so many great 3+ mana cards in the format that it’s hard to find an edge there, but you can get an edge by running 2-mana cards that can still trade up in the late-game. Nullify fits that criterion admirably. It might require a bit of a retooling of the mana base, but that may very well be worth it.

Sideboard Plans

Same caveat applies: This is a quick-and-dirty starting point only.

Vs. Abzan Midrange

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Vs. Jeskai Fireworks

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Vs. Green Devotion

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Vs. U/B Control

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Vs. Ascendancy Combo

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Blue/Black Control

This is the list that Ivan Floch and Stanislav Cifka played to a combined 12-8-1 record at the Pro Tour.

The deck is based around efficient 1-for-1s in the early game and eventually wins with Prognostic Sphinx.

Ivan and Stanislav felt that this was a better win condition than Team Pantheon’s Pearl Lake Ancient. Pearl Lake Ancient is obviously better in the mirror match and plays reasonably well with Perilous Vault, but the situations where Sphinx is better come up more frequently. For example, when the opponent has cards like Mantis Rider or Wingmate Roc in play, the Sphinx is a much better blocker and additionally sets up your draw steps with removal each turn.

Speaking of Perilous Vault, it is a card that has a unique effect on the game, but it’s also very slow and mana-intensive. The U/B deck shown above is based more about mana-efficient 1-for-1 trades early on and tries to get ahead in the late game by chaining Dig Through Time or striving Silence the Believers. When everything trades 1-for-1, Perilous Vault would often be no more than a nine-mana 1-for-1.

Several cards in the sideboard (2 Returned Phalanx and 2 Drown in Sorrow) were geared towards aggro decks, but those types of decks underperformed. Stanislav told me that he would consider replacing them by Thoughtseize (the eighth discard spell), Dark Betrayal (to deal with cards like Rakshasa Deathdealer), Silence the Believers (the card is important especially if Herald of Torment catches on), Pearl Lake Ancient (for the mirror match), and/or Read the Bones (also for the mirror).

Sideboard Plans

Vs. Abzan Midrange

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Vs. Jeskai Fireworks

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Vs. Green Devotion

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Vs. U/B Control

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Vs. Ascendancy Combo

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A Bonus Table

The event coverage page has the deck lists of all competitors that scored 21 or more points in the Standard portion of the event, but it can be a little hard to get a quick overview of the top performing Standard decks from that. So I did that for you:

That’s all for today. I’m about to fly to the Big Island to see some volcanoes, and then I’ll be in Los Angeles next weekend to do text coverage at the Grand Prix. If there’s anything you would like me to analyze or write about (or not focus on at all) there then please let me know!