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Standard Primer for Grand Prix Los Angeles

Last weekend was Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir in beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii. I had a poor tournament myself, but it was still exciting to see the new Standard format and finally play some Khans of Tarkir Limited at a competitive level. This coming weekend is Grand Prix Los Angeles, a Standard event, which will likely feature many of the same decks that broke through at the Pro Tour, and hopefully some exciting new ones as well. This article will give you an overview of what to expect if you’re planning to make the trip.

The most played deck at the Pro Tour was Jeskai. Three Jeskai decks made Top 8 of the Pro Tour, which doesn’t come as a major surprise.

Here’s Yuuya Watanabe’s list:

Jeskai Wins by Yuuya Watanabe

Yuuya chose to play a very aggressive version of the deck with 15 creatures (plus 3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker) and 16 burn spells. The goal of Yuuya’s deck is to be as aggressive as possible, relying heavily on the incredible power of his three casting cost creatures: Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mantis Rider. The inclusion of two copies of Gods Willing in Yuuya’s main deck makes it clear that he believes the ability to keep those powerful creatures alive will allow them to easily do enough damage before he is able to finish his opponent off with burn spells. It’s interesting to note that Yuuya chose to play four copies of Suppression Field in his sideboard. A big part of the reason for this is because the Jeskai decks have a lot of burn, and the burn tops out at 4 damage. So cards like Siege Rhino and Polukranos, World Eater can pose major problems, especially when accelerated out with Sylvan Caryatid or Elvish Mystic.

Here’s another Jeskai deck that made Top 8 and was piloted by eventual finalist and Pro Tour Born of the Gods Champion Shaun McLaren:

Jeskai Wins by Shaun McLaren

Shaun’s deck is similar to Yuuya’s, but Shaun took less of an all-in approach. Shaun played 25 lands as opposed to the 24 of Yuuya, and included four copies of Dig Through Time. Dig Through Time is one of the best cards in Khans of Tarkir, and I wasn’t surprised that it had such a major showing at the Pro Tour. Shaun only played 9 creatures in his version of the deck, which allowed him to put two copies of Anger of the Gods in his main deck. This was likely a metagame call, expecting aggressive, creature-based decks. With four copies of Dig Through Time, having a small number of cards like Banishing Light or Anger of the Gods provide good utility, as you’re very likely to be able to find them in the situations where you actually need them.

Shaun’s sideboard is one of the highlights of his deck. In our testing, the Pantheon had a sideboard with a similar plan to Shaun. We had four copies of End Hostilities and a lot of counter magic. End Hostilities is very good against Green Devotion strategies, practically winning every game you cast it. If you end up being paired against Jeskai decks at the Grand Prix, remember to consider both Anger the Gods and End Hostilities in the post-sideboard games if they are effective against your deck. I actually had the pleasure of being paired against Shaun in round three of the Pro Tour. I was playing the U/B control deck designed by Andrew Cuneo that I’ll discuss later in the article. Shaun’s two copies of Keranos, God of Storms in his sideboard really shined in that matchup, and certainly shine against control decks in general. In our match, Shaun was able to resolve a Keranos in the third and deciding game, and I couldn’t come back from it.

The next most popular and best finishing decks at the Pro Tour were Abzan decks. The Top 8 had one Abzan aggro deck and two Abzan midrange decks, including the deck piloted by the Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Champion Ari Lax. Here is his list:

Abzan Midrange by Ari Lax

Abzan Midrange is very similar to the old Standard Jund deck. It contains many of the best cards in the format, including many of the most powerful creatures, removal spells, and planeswalkers. Siege Rhino is arguably the best card in Khans of Tarkir, and being able to accelerate into it makes it that much more devastating. Another feature of Abzan is that nearly all of the permanents provide value even if they are destroyed. Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc, and all the planeswalkers provide an additional effect, even if they are instantly removed with a card like Hero’s Downfall. Courser of Kruphix, especially in combination with fetchlands, can be used to ensure that you’re not drawing a lot of lands, and over the course of a long game, all these incremental advantages add up.

The two most interesting cards in Ari’s sideboard are the one copy of End Hostilities and the one copy of Duneblast. It’s clear that Ari felt that his deck was capable of getting into some complicated creature stalemates and the best way to break those would simply be to destroy all of his opponent’s creatures without losing all of his own. Duneblast is extremely powerful in the Abzan mirror, while Mass Calcify would shine in a matchup against a deck like Green Devotion.

The other Abzan deck that made waves at the Pro Tour was the Abzan Aggro deck. The best finishing player with that list was Mike Sigrist, who ended up losing in the Top 4. Here is his list:

Abzan Aggro by Mike Sigrist

As you can see, this is a much different deck than Ari used to win the Pro Tour, although it does share a fair amount of cards. Mike’s deck has ten two-mana creatures, all of which are aggressive. At three, rather than play a card like Courser of Kruphix to grind out incremental value, Mike played Anafenza, the Foremost to directly attack his opponent’s life total. Herald of Torment can act as a surprise, and is especially potent if bestowed onto a monstrous Fleecemane Lion. With Thoughtseize to clear the way of any answers to his best threats, it’s no surprise that Mike had such a successful tournament, and I expect the Abzan Aggro deck to be a staple of Standard for quite a while.

Because Mike’s curve is lower, his sideboard doesn’t have quite the game-breaking quality that Ari’s higher-end sideboard cards do, instead focusing more on cheap efficient 1-for-1’s to help his creatures get through and execute his game plan. Despite playing an aggro deck of his own, Mike was able to sideboard three copies of Drown in Sorrow for the even more aggro deck. Most of Mike’s creatures are actually able to survive a Drown in Sorrow, except for Heir of the Wilds, or an unpumped Rakshasa Deathdealer. Under optimal conditions, however, Drown in Sorrow will act as a one-sided Wrath of God.

Another second-time Top 8’er in Honolulu was no other than Pro Tour M15 champion Ivan Floch. Again navigating a control deck through the Swiss, this time his weapon of choice was U/B. Here is his list:

The control decks in Khans Standard don’t function quite the same as the control decks did in old Standard. Without a sweeper as effective as Supreme Verdict, or a life gain effect like Sphinx’s Revelation, it is much harder for the decks to come back after falling very far behind. Ivan chose to use Prognostic Sphinx to both control the board and focus on card quality rather than card quantity. Dig Through Time works along the same axis. While the control deck is trading 1-for-1 and maintaining control of the board, Dig Through Time can effectively and cheaply find answers to the opponent’s threats, or if the control deck is far enough head, simply find counterspells and allow the Sphinx to close out the game. Ivan chose to include two copies of Drown in Sorrow in his main deck to combat the decks where it’s almost impossible to not fall behind, like mono-red aggro. Although there didn’t end up being a lot of those decks at the Pro Tour, it was a worry of our team as well, who played a similar deck.

Here is the deck that several members of our team played, designed by Andrew Cuneo:

U/B Control by Andrew Cuneo

This list was played to Top 16 finishes at the Pro Tour by both Andrew Cuneo and Owen Turtenwald. Our approach was a bit different than Ivan’s. Our deck had more card draw, featuring three copies of Jace’s Ingenuity. We felt that when playing the 1-for-1 game, we wanted to have more than just Dig Through Times, and chose to focus on quantity, instead of just quality by playing a card like Prognostic Sphinx.

Our kill condition, Pearl Lake Ancient, came out a little slower, but played better than we expected before testing it. It was often able to eat the opponent’s last creature due to the fact that it had flash, preventing the need for spending a spell to clean up something like a Voyaging Satyr or Courser of Kruphix. Pearl Lake Ancient also proved to be a real trump card in any sort of control mirrors, extremely difficult for another control deck to beat in the first game of a match. We really liked Perilous Vault going in to the tournament. Although it is slow and unreliable against a deck like mono-red heroic, it was exceptionally strong in the matchup against Green decks. It was good against Genesis Hydra, which can be a real problem card, as it is able to sneak in a threat, often a large threat, through countermagic.

As you can see from our sideboard, we were quite worried about hyper-aggro decks as well, with 10 cards to board in those matchups: 4 Jorubai Murk Lurker, 4 Drown in Sorrow, and 2 Pharika’s Cure. In testing, Murk Lurker also proved to be relatively effective in the Jeskai matchup.

Another deck that made quite an impression at the Pro Tour was the Jeskai Ascendancy Combo deck. Lee Shi Tian piloted it to a Top 8 finish, and many members of Team ChannelFireball chose to play it as well. My team and I worked on versions of this deck quite a bit, but ultimately decided it was just too inconsistent to play at the Pro Tour. I really wanted it to be good enough, but just couldn’t convince myself that it was.

Here is Lee Shi Tian’s list:

Jeskai Ascendancy Combo by Lee Shi Tian

So, here’s how it works: The combo player puts a mana creature into play, and then puts Jeskai Ascendancy into play. Then cast Retraction Helix on the mana creature. Cast a 0-mana artifact like Briber’s Purse or Astral Cornucopia, generating a mana, and loot once due to the Jeskai Ascendancy. From there, the combo player can loot as much as he or she wants, due to the creature being able to tap to bounce the 0-mana artifact and replay it.

There are different ways to win from this point. Lee used Twinflame to create a second mana creature with haste. From there, the loop generates an additional mana, because the second mana creature also gets untapped when playing a 0-mana artifact. Lee could either then simply attack if the coast is clear or draw into Nissa, and cast and bounce her as much as he pleased, turning all his lands into 4/4 creatures, untapping them, and making them infinitely large to attack with trample.

The major problem with all of the Jeskai Ascendancy decks was their inconsistency. The deck relied very heavily on Sylvan Caryatid—in many matchups, it was almost a necessary combo piece. Also, in some percentage of games, your four copies of Jeskai Ascendancy or Retraction Helix were deep enough in your library that you simply didn’t have time to get to them. Dig Through Time certainly helped with this, but sometimes it still wasn’t enough. The inconsistency really showed in Lee’s Top 8 match, as both games were extremely uninteractive. Lee was hardly able to get anything going at all, and McLaren’s victory wasn’t much in doubt in either of the games.

Here was the ChannelFireball Jeskai Ascendancy deck, which our list was much closer to than that of Lee Shi Tian’s.

Jeskai Ascendancy Combo by Eric Froehlich

The kill is a little different in this version than in Lee’s. This is the same kill mechanism that we used. The difference is that instead of needing to cast Twinflame on your mana creatures after looting through your deck, you simply loot until you are able to find a copy of Altar of the Brood. You then cast it, untapping your mana creature, and go back to infinitely casting the 0-mana artifact, putting the top card of your opponent’s library into the graveyard each time. At the end, you simply make sure your mana creature is untapped and you have Swan Song in your hand, and there is very little an opponent can do to prevent drawing with an empty library. I think this is a much better kill condition, as it allows the deck to not play cards like Twinflame and Dragon Mantle, instead freeing up space for extra copies of Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise.

Another card that we found to be problematic to play against in playtesting was Crackling Doom. It’s obvious that ChannelFireball had the same experience, as Eric’s deck contained two copies of Satyr Wayfinder, most likely to combat that card. Unfortunately, the sideboarding for this deck is pretty tough. There just isn’t that much to add that really helps aside from more copies of Swan Song and Negate. Both Lee and ChannelFireball opted to include creatures in their sideboard to try to steal games, and likely this is just because there weren’t any better options.

Whatever you decide to play this weekend at Grand Prix Los Angeles, hopefully you enjoyed this overview of the format. I’ll be giving a Standard seminar on Friday Night with former Player of the Year Josh Utter-Leyton, and then participating in the bounty event later on Friday Night. ChannelFireball and Cascade always put on amazing events, so if you’re in the area and not planning to make it to the Grand Prix, you should definitely try to change your plans if you can. See you there!

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