Along with six other players on my testing squad—a combination of Team Revelation and Team Genesis—I chose to play Sultai Energy at Pro Tour Ixalan. Why did we choose to play that instead of Temur or Ramunap Red, two known and proven strategies?

As the format developed over Magic Online and in our testing, I was high on tokens. But the community took notice, and hate cards such as Slice in Twain and Unnatural Appetite, alongside Torrential Gearhulks and counterspells, started popping up everywhere. Temur also learned how to beat the strategy, and the process continued. As more lists started pouring in, a wealth of more greedy versions of Energy started to pop up. We saw more 4c lists, maindecking both The Scarab God, Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, and Vraska, Relic Seeker, or even cutting Longtusk Cub to get an edge in the Temur matchup. This made us somewhat scared of playing straight Temur, because it was hard to get an edge in the mirror match without giving up too much against other decks.

The Sultai deck thrived in a metagame where people were moving away from the the full amount of Glorybringers and 2-3 Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Through testing against more matchups, we learned that the deck had incredible nut draws that were hard to stop. We also got the straight Temur matchup to the point where it felt as even as possible. It was incredibly hard to play from both sides. With enough practice to make us feel comfortable and a good matchup versus practically everything else, we set a course for the Pro Tour.

Sultai Energy

The Essence of the Deck

The core of the deck is built around must-answer threats and their snowballing potential. Every 2-drop can get out of hand, whether it’s Longtusk Cub, Winding Constrictor followed by its partners in crime, or Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. To leverage that advantage, you try to play as many must-answer creatures as possible, meaning that if they leave one on the battlefield, they will have two to deal with the next turn and more after that, making life increasingly difficult. These put your opponent in a reactive position. Instead of playing threats they’ve chosen based on the strength of haste or enters-the-battlefield abilities, they will have to spend more of their time trying to remove your threats. That’s where Blossoming Defense shines, and most of your nut draws include one. Let me show you an example.

You’re on the play against Temur and land a Longtusk Cub on turn 2. Your opponent has the option to play their own Longtusk Cub, Servant of the Conduit, or remove it with Harnessed Lightning or Abrade. We all know how risky meeting an opposing Longtusk Cub on the play with your own is, and if they play Servant of the Conduit, there’s a chance you’ll kill it with Fatal Push alongside another 2-drop, or play a Rishkar, Peema Renegade, quickly turning the board in your favor.

Most of the time it’s correct to kill it. If they do that, say that you follow it up with a Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, either having a Aether Hub or an Attune with Aether on turn 1, meaning that it will draw a card next turn. The Temur player obviously don’t want to allow that, and targets it with another removal spell. Being able to Blossoming Defense it on this turn basically allows you to double-spell where both spells are worth an entire turn. You draw an extra card and deploy something that also has to be dealt with. With too many threats to deal with at once at this point, your board snowballs and takes over the game.

Say that you don’t have to use Blossoming Defense that turn or that you have multiples. Blossoming Defense is fantastic with both Hostage Taker and The Scarab God later in the game. If either survive for one turn, they dominate by themselves.

To take full advantage of Blossoming Defense and snowballing early creatures, the land count and the curve are quite low, so you don’t see too many expensive cards such as Vraska, Relic Seeker in the main deck or sideboard. But another strength of the deck is that it’s good at dealing with flood thanks to threats that scale well. Walking Ballista shines brightest here. Even if you have as many as 8 lands in play, drawing Walking Ballista will win you most drawn-out games. The Scarab God is also fantastic in such situations, as we all know. Even Hostage Taker is at its best when you have tons of mana both to cast it and its hostage.

Sideboarding

Mirror

A lot of the games are decided early, but some go late with Ballista and Hostage Taker. Remember that leaving up Fatal Push against Hostage Takers can be important, but if they have mana to cast the spell the same turn, you won’t have a window to kill it.

On the Draw

Out

In

On the Play

Out

In

In the mirror, winning with Longtusk Cub is difficult since it’s easily killed by Fatal Push and can be reset with Hostage Taker. With the Die Youngs added, this becomes even harder.

Ramunap Red

Ramunap Red is a close matchup where it’s important not only to try to survive, but to clock them as well. With a good draw, racing them isn’t at all out of the question, putting you in the driver’s seat since they have to respect so many of your creatures.

On the Draw

Out

In

On the Play

Out

In

On the draw, Rogue Refiner is too easily traded with for a card that costs less and you’d rather have Deathgorge Scavenger to make sure you can survive because most of the time you will be on the back foot trying to catch up. But on the play, it’s hard for them to beat you down and they usually will have to take a more reactive plan with Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer to win the game while Rogue Refiner and The Scarab God become a lot better.

Temur

Temur has a hard time competing in the early game, but can clog the board with Bristling Hydras and other ground creatures while trying to win in the air with Whirler Virtuoso and Glorybringer. It’s important to be wary of these facts and important to time your Hostage Taker, especially if you don’t have a Blossoming Defense. One of their best targets is Whirler Virtuoso, and if taken successfully often wins the game for you since you can block their flyers.

On the Draw

Out

In

On the Play

Out

In

Nissa, Steward of Elements is fantastic on the play in this matchup and Sultai is Nissa’s best home. The reason is that the deck plays a number of permanents that are good hits from its +0 ability. Since each is a must-answer threat or a Rogue Refiner, the board spirals out of control quickly with a Nissa in play. It’s important to understand how to sideboard depending on how your opponent does. Your opponent should board out Longtusk Cub, but not everybody will when they are on the play, so it’s still important to keep a few Fatal Push in case they have it.

4c Energy

This matchup is incredible because it’s basically Temur without a bunch of Glorybringers, which is their best card in the matchup. This means that you can jam your threats without being too worried about keeping mana up for Glorybringer, whether it’s because you have Vraska’s Contempt or Blossoming Defense.

On the Draw

Out

In

On the Play

Out

In

Control

Whether it’s U/B Control or U/W Control, the matchup can be rough in the first game, but is a cakewalk game 2 and 3. It almost feels like you’re playing Modern when you get to Duress (Thoughtseize), into Longtusk Cub (Tarmogoyf) or Glint-Sleeve Siphoner (Dark Confidant) post-sideboard. Nissa, Steward of Elements is also almost unbeatable on the play.

Out

In

U/W God-Pharaoh’s Gift

Game 1 is hard against their good draw where they Refurbish God-Pharaoh’s Gift on turn 4, bringing back a Champion of Wits or an Angel of Invention. But if they don’t do that, your clock is pretty fast and they don’t have tons of removal to stop you. Some games are also stolen by a protected The Scarab God.

Out

In

Post-sideboard, they board in their entire creature plan with Angel of Sanctions and Fairgrounds Warden. Even if you deal with them, these are good at resetting creatures pumped by Rishkar, Peema Renegade, which is the reason why it has to go in the matchup. You don’t really want to grind them out and you don’t have to refill too much because they don’t have tons of ways of dealing with your early creatures, meaning that Rogue Refiner isn’t as necessary as usual.

Mardu Vehicles

The Mardu matchup is similar to how you approach the Ramunap Red matchup, but instead of reach, they are trying to use their evasive Vehicles and Hazoret the Fervent to finish off the games. Walking Ballista and Fatal Push are your best cards in the matchup.

On the Draw

Out

In

On the Play

Out

In

Rogue Refiner can be too slow of a play on the draw and that’s where Deathgorge Scavenger comes in as a more solid 3-drop—it’s also able to remove Scrapheap Scrounger. On the play, Scrapheap Scrounger is less of a problem and it’s more important to curve out, which Rogue Refiner helps you with. Boarding out Rishkar, Peema Renegade means that their Dusk // Dawns will become close to useless.

Mono-White Vampires

Mono-White Vampires is another great matchup. Their removal costs a lot of mana and they can’t really deal with your creatures. Later on, a Blossoming Defense fizzling a Cast Out is usually game over. Walking Ballista is fantastic against them and you have ways to deal with both their indestructible creatures and Oketra’s Monument in the main deck.

Out

In

Rishkar comes out for the same reason as against Mardu Vehicles—it’s bad versus Dusk // Dawn. They basically only play exiling removal, so The Scarab God isn’t fantastic either. Die Young truly shines here, being one of the few removal spells to deal with Adanto Vanguard on turn 2 and Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle without having to trigger revolt for Fatal Push. Vraska’s Contempt complements the same idea.

Tips and Tricks

  • It takes time to learn how to time Hostage Taker perfectly. It becomes easy to play when you have a Blossoming Defense, but when you don’t, you have to know your opponent. Try to figure out whether they would have cast a removal spell earlier if they had one and learn what to take versus each matchup, whether it’s a Whirler Virtuoso against Temur, Hazoret the Fervent in Ramunap Red, or even sometimes a Servant of the Conduit for tempo when your opponent is stumbling.
  • Whenever you have The Scarab God and Hostage Taker in hand, it’s safe to throw The Scarab God out versus Temur. If they Confiscation Coup it, you can Hostage Taker it back. Even if they kill the Hostage Taker, you get the Scarab God back under your control. That also means that it will become hard for them to attack into the Hostage Taker, since you can simply chump with it that turn to save yourself from having to recast it the following turn.
  • If your opponent Confiscation Coups a Hostage Taker that exiled any creature, you can still cast the exiled creature, regardless of whether they control the Hostage Taker.
  • Learn how to sequence your 2-drops correctly. Most of the time, the first one bites the dust, so it’s important to understand which one you want to protect against different matchups. Against control, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner is most important—versus Ramunap Red, Longtusk Cub is. Leading with either Longtusk Cub or Winding Constrictor is often correct since the earlier they are cast, the more value you can extract from them. There’s no automatic play you can follow here, but with experience and perfection, your win ratio will go up significantly.
  • Taking the initiative with the deck is important. Sometimes it’s correct to wait with taplands or Attune with Aether to leave up Fatal Push. Having the initiative will mean that it’s harder for your opponent to stop all of your snowballing cards on time and will increase the value of your Blossoming Defense.
  • Remember your triggers. This is more important in this deck than ever and there are tons of them. It’s also important to keep in mind how Winding Constrictor changes the energy gain and plan accordingly.

How Did the Deck Perform at the PT?

Personally, I managed a 7-3 record with the deck, going 4-4 Day 1 and 7-1 Day 2—our preparation really showed. Out of the seven people that played the deck in both Team Revelation and Team Genesis, we put up a 7-3, 8-2, 8-2, 1-4, 6-4, 10-1 (Seth Manfield with two draws, but three more matches in the Top 8).

That is a ~71.2% win rate in Constructed, which is an incredible performance at the Pro Tour! In the following Standard tournaments, I expect Sultai to be one of the driving forces of the format. If you are thinking of picking it up, or want to learn how it operates to beat it, I hope this article helped you. If there’s anything you’re wondering, comment in the section below!