Before I get down to business, I’ll start off with a deck building warm-up exercise. Imagine a format with the following cards:
Your deck size is 60 (so no anti-Brain-Freeze 500-card decks), there are 15 sideboard cards, and you can add as many copies of the cards you like. What would you play and why?
I haven’t played Standard for half a year, but since I’m really looking forward to playing good old Nationals again this year, I had to get myself back in shape. Right after the Pro Tour, I started testing and tried to find a deck to beat Red, as well as the decks that beat Red. Right after the Tour, people started sleeving up Zombies and B/G Constrictor and a truckload of spot removal. The perfect environment for a control deck without creatures. Gearhulk decks and the “other” decks that dodge spot removal were soft against Red, so I tried to build something with more interaction in the early and midgame.
I started with a version with plenty of spot removal, Painful Truths, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Gideon, along with a Linvala to fetch with Nahiri. Painful Truths was insane against any non-aggressive deck, Nahiri seemed perfect to sort out spot removal in matchups you didn’t need it, and Gideon represented another inevitable threat. The deck performed well against Zombies and Constrictor, but without dedicated main-deck hate, the deck still regularly lost to Red, as well as any sort of blue deck. Nahiri didn’t impress me that much, and Gideon enables their spot removal and usually falls in the first attack in game 1. The first hidden gem I found was Cast Out, which was a surprisingly good main-deck card since it helped you sculpt a nice hand early in the game with its possibility to cycle, and it gave you a nice option to beat planeswalkers and Gods, both of which presented a huge problem, especially post-board.
Chandra was the next main-deck revelation. She was versatile and powerful, acting as a 4-mana removal with some life gain attached in most matchups, but against some decks, she was clearly your best card and stole games on her own. Sticking a Chandra, making 2 mana, and wrathing your opponent’s team with Sweltering Suns was an impressive play. Still, the deck felt weak in several matchups that went over the top of it, and the metagame evolved toward slower, grindier decks. I was able to adapt to beat most decks in game 1 by adding hand disruption, but I had to abandon the plan of beating Red in game 1. In the end, I found a main deck that had a fair or even good game 1 against the field except for Red, which was fine for me.
Cards I recently cut:
Needle Spires: Creaturelands are very good in a deck with such a low threat density. For game 2, most opponents board out their removal, and creaturelands become very good and relevant. At the moment, there are just too many white sources in the deck. I constantly swapped an Inspiring Vantage for Spires, but in the end, I opted for another untapped white source, mainly because of Authority of the Consuls in the sideboard.
Grasp of Darkness: While this is probably the best removal spell, it just doesn’t work with your mana in a 3-colored deck.
Liliana, the Last Hope: Lili is pretty good against creature decks, but you prey on those anyway, so you should win without her. And this deck can’t make any use of her -2 ability, so sometimes she doesn’t do enough in other matchups. Also, having double black mana on turn 3 can be an issue.
Gideon’s Intervention: I had this in my main deck for a long time and it was sweet. It felt like a split card of Runed Halo and Cranial Extraction, two cards I really liked in their time. In the end, there were better alternatives, mainly because it was too weak against World Breaker and Ulamog.
Favorable Matchups (60%+)
- G/B Constrictor, Energy, or Delirium
- Midrange (R/B, W/B, R/W)
- White Weenie
- Horse Control
Slightly Favorable Matchups (50%-60%)
- Eldrazi Midrange
- U/W Monument
Slightly Unfavorable Matchups (40%-50%)
- Gearhulk Decks
- Temur Energy
- R/G Ramp
- Mardu Vehicles
- God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks
- Approach Decks
- Graveyard Amalgam decks
As you can see, the deck has many favorable matchups, but also plenty you don’t really want to face. Basically, you’re fine against midrange, but stumble against decks that try to go over the top. Against nonred aggro, you’re also fine, since you have plenty of early interaction with creatures. Disruption is your best approach to beat unfair strategies like Approach, Ulamog, and Gift. Overall, I think the deck’s win percentages range between 40% and 65% against the field—you don’t have terrible matchups, but no free wins either (except for maybe dedicated hate decks against Red, which should be gone by now). A very good thing is that many opponents don’t really know what they’re up against, so sometimes they will sideboard suboptimally.
This matchup is pretty good. Since they have no burn, you can easily stabilize at a low life total without fear of dying to topdecks. This lets you slowroll your Sweltering Suns, which are key cards in the matchup. Try to shoot Cryptbreaker early in game 1 since you don’t want to let them turn their removal into Zombies with the discard ability. Also, pay attention to Relentless Dead, which is their best threat. You have good options to exile it with several cards, but they can still save it with their own spot removal, so don’t play right into it unless you need to.
Post-board, they have no more instant removal. This turns on your Shambling Vents, which is very good at pressuring Liliana in the midgame. Try to minus Chandra when you play it to create the best profit against Never // Return. Again, Sweltering Suns is your best card, and you should usually save it until they play Liliana’s Mastery or Dark Salvation.
Game 1 is pretty easy since they usually play 7 or more spot removal spells. You have good answers to their threats, and they give you the time you need to cast Painful Truths and protect your planeswalkers. Walking Ballista is very good since it can burn you out at low life, or kill your Chandra or Ob Nixilis after they’ve killed something.
After sideboarding, Tireless Tracker and Ob Nixilis are their best cards, but you still have enough answers for them. This matchup is very grindy, and therefore, Painful Truths is your key card.
Game 1 is in your favor since they have plenty of spot removal. Pay attention to Bristling Hydra and Whirler Virtuoso, as these are the cards that get out of hand easily. Save your Sweltering Suns for Virtuoso, and your Blessed Alliance or Doomfall for Hydra if you have the chance.
Game 2 is much harder since Negate is very good against you. You need to draw the right answers to their threats, and if you miss or stumble, this can mean game over pretty quickly. Still, you do have good answers, and you have card draw. Handle their threats as soon as you can because otherwise, Negate can blow you out even harder, since Temur is very good at playing a tempo game.
This is a very interesting matchup, especially in game 1. They don’t have many threats, but if the ones they do have come down too early, you are too slow at answering them. Most of the time you should save your second disruption spell until you are sure to hit an Eldrazi by waiting for them to crack Sanctum of Ugin. Doomfall is your best weapon against Ulamog in the midgame—you should wait for them to topdeck, play it, and don’t Doomfall their hand in the dark in the midgame. I usually try to beat World Breaker with Magma Spray plus Blessed Alliance. Don’t rely too much on Cast Out since their Eldrazi just eat it. Still, if you’re lacking answers, don’t cycle it in the midgame. It can buy you some time against their first Eldrazi. If you know what to do in this matchup, game 1 is in your favor.
Again, game 2 is harder since they board out their dead cards. Disruption into planeswalkers is your easiest path to victory here, but you can also grind and survive the late game. You usually lose in the midgame to their sideboarded threats plus an Eldrazi. If they have multiple Defeat targets, you can also bring in those for game 3.
The bad news: Game 1 is a total nightmare. You’re way too slow and in games where your opponent has a solid draw, you’re basically toast. The good news: There’s probably no other matchup that feels that bad in games 1 or 2. And things get way better after boarding.
Authority changes the whole dynamic of the game—suddenly, your Sweltering Suns turn from mediocre to excellent, and the life gain saves you from burn and damage from their lands. Since red players board out Abrade, your Shambling Vents become very good in the midgame, so you have plenty of options to deal with Chandra. Overall, over the course of 2-3 games, I think this matchup is still not favorable, but I expect to win around 65% of post-board games on the play and 50% on the draw. By the way, I tend to leave more Ob Nixilis and Painful Truths in the deck when on the play. On the draw, I prefer Doomfall.
This matchup is very close and difficult to play correctly. Game 1 feels pretty good since they have many dead cards while yours are not entirely useless. Even your worst cards, Spray and Alliance, play their part. Spray kills their creaturelands in response to their activation, and Alliance can kill Gearhulks. You basically have to overload their counters, which feels frustrating to play against, but still works in game 1. Playing against card draw makes you feel like you’re losing, but since 52 cards in their main deck are not really relevant, it’s not that bad. If you play around Censor, their only relevant cards are Gearhulk and Disallow, both of which you can beat. Eventually, they will die from an empty library or a planeswalker ultimate.
In game 2 and 3, your best shot at winning again is to disrupt their countermagic and stick a planeswalker. This usually works best if you play your disruption when they have 2 or 3 mana, and land your threat when they play to cast their card draw spells. Keep in mind that Disallow can counter your ultimates.
I think these are the matchups you will face most regularly. Let me know if you need help sideboarding in other matchups—I’ll gladly help you out. Playing the deck is tricky, but it rewards good play and makes up for many close and interesting games.