To prepare for Grand Prix Atlanta and Portland, I decided to try every archetype that had succeeded at the Pro Tour over at least 10 games. Consistently, I found that every deck tended to lose to the same couple of cards: Longtusk Cub, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Bristling Hydra. Siphoner took longer, but the card advantage translated into being just as dead when on the wrong end of an unanswered energy thief. I knew that I wanted to play Sultai Energy, but wasn’t so sure of the existing shells.

I tried the Team Genesis build Seth Manfield with which won the Pro Tour, but found that I didn’t love all of the cards in it. Walking Ballista felt terrible whenever I had to play it as a 2-drop, and it was only okay later in the game without Winding Constrictor to support it. Hostage Taker could be incredibly awkward, and a follow-up removal effect could leave you way behind on board. The Scarab God is an incredible threat, but one that has warped the format to be full of answers for it. All of these cards felt designed for midrange, but Brad had written an article that the key to beating Temur Energy was to be more aggressive, not to out-midrange them.

I found the right aggro technology in Patrick Dickmann’s U/G Pummeler deck. While taking it for a spin, I found Electrostatic Pummeler and Larger Than Life to be high variance: sometimes they won you the game from nowhere, and sometimes they sat on the board or in your hand without much effect. But I loved casting Cartouche of Knowledge. Sultai Energy makes the biggest creatures in the format thanks to Winding Constrictor. Those creatures can be contained with chumping and pile-blocks on the ground. But put a Longtusk Cub or Bristling Hydra in the air, and suddenly there is a serious problem. Backing this up is a mana base that supports Hashep Oasis, which gives the deck much more reach!

Once I put Cartouche of Knowledge in, it changed the fundamental nature of the deck. There were a number of decisions that follow organically, which make the deck more aggressive and more air-focused, leading to the deck I played to 10-5 finishes at both Grand Prix, and Dan Diamant (the only other pilot) went 10-3 to finish 16th with at Grand Prix Portland:

Sultai Skies

Alexander West

I sent Dan some notes on how to play the deck before the GP:

This deck requires a fair amount of clock math. You’re constantly weighing drawing cards vs. deploying damage vs. a reserve to protect your Hydra on every turn. You also need to ask yourself how that math will change if you draw a Hashep Oasis, if you draw a Blossoming Defenses, and if you draw a Cartouche. Hashep Oasis in particular can make life difficult for your opponent by making additional creatures potentially lethal, and therefore must block. Remember also that you know whether or not you have Blossoming Defenses for lethal (or to wreck combat math) in hand, but your opponent does not, yet still must respect it. There are opportunities to bluff here against an opponent smart enough to know what you are threatening.

Temur Energy (and 4c Energy) – 38% of Metagame

Removal: Magma Spray, Harnessed Lightning, Abrade, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Confiscation Coup, Glorybringer, Vraska Relic Seeker

In this match, your objectives are:

  1. Disrupt their mana.
  2. Apply pressure quickly.
  3. Create multiple threats they will want to chump with Thopter tokens.
  4. Avoid getting blown out by Confiscation Coup.

Cartouche of Knowledge, and to a lesser extent Skysovereign, are our technology for this matchup. Your fundamental goal is to chip them for damage as often as possible, and then to enchant a Longtusk Cub (ideally protected by Blossoming Defense, but a read for them being out of removal works too) or Bristling Hydra to come over the top for a kill. This changes when they are just chumping with Thopter tokens, at which point huge ground creatures don’t need flying to be Abysses, and it’s often good to enchant a creature that otherwise can’t attack well (like Winding Constrictor) to create another source of pressure.

Sequencing of your 2-drops is tricky. Their removal generally deals 2 or 3, so Glint-Sleeve Siphoner needs Blossoming Defense the most often to survive. But Siphoner makes an energy when it comes into play, so it also provides the most value even in the face of immediate destruction. When your hand has a good mix of lands and spells and plays for future turns, it’s fine if it dies.

Winding Constrictor is one of the ways you beat Temur. It allows you to stockpile more energy and use energy more efficiently, and sometimes they just can’t keep up with this. Longtusk Cub is excellent on the play, or when you have a Cartouche of Knowledge and they lack Thopters to chump it. When I can, I try to get 4 energy banked before playing it so that it can resist removal spells, but not to the point where I give up on efficient mana sequencing. Greenbelt Rampager starts out of range of their removal and is a fine clock. I like them since they tend to draw out Harnessed Lightnings, which can otherwise kill a big Cub.

As a note, I’ve found a lot of success using Fatal Push on Servant of the Conduit, either leaving a black up on turn 1 on the draw, or using it on turn 3 along with another 2-drop. They will often lead with Cub here if they have it, but Servant is basically just as good a target. Them ramping into Chandra is bad, especially when they are on the play. Your goal is to kill them fast so that they die with cards in hand since their cards are generally better than yours, so don’t let them have the mana to deploy everything!

vs. Temur

Out

In

They generally sideboard out 2-drops, so Fatal Push gets much worse after board.

vs. 4c Energy

No change.

Sultai Energy – 9% of Metagame

Removal: Fatal Push, Walking Ballista, Hostage Taker, Vraska’s Contempt, Vraska, Relic Seeker
Tricks: Blossoming Defense

This match plays similarly to the Temur match, except their cards are less dangerous and flying threats are a much bigger problem for them. You want to apply steady pressure on the ground until you can go to the air and smash them. Consider sandbagging Skysovereign to cast it in reply to a Ballista or Hostage Taker that would be problematic. Also consider casting it ASAP to completely destroy their board and life total.

Walking Ballista is great against your Glint-Sleeve Siphoners, so you will take them out after sideboard.

vs. Sultai

Out

In

vs. Sultai with Skysovereign and Walking Ballista

Out

In

Ramunap Red – 15% of Metagame

Removal: Shock, Lightning Strike, Abrade, Chandra, Torch of Defiance

In this match you have three objectives:

  1. Preserve your life total.
  2. Develop a creature that can block Hazoret the Fervent.
  3. Find profitable attacks to race their inevitability from lands and Hazoret.

In general, blocking will be very difficult. They play 10-12 removal spells, creatures with menace, and 4-8 creatures that prevent a target from blocking. Bristling Hydra is the best because hexproof allows it to ignore most of those interactions, and it can outsize even Hazoret. Sequencing your threats so that it makes their mana use inefficient is important because the more slowly they play their hand, the longer it takes for Hazoret to come online. In particular, do not play Glint-Sleeve Siphoner into only 1 open mana if you can help it. Like all red-based removal decks, your goal with Longtusk Cub is to build up enough energy to put it out of range of a single burn effect (4 energy to pump twice to get to 4 toughness) before playing it.

As a note, try to kill Bomat Courier if you’re not confident that you will have a blocker sticking around through removal. It may look innocuous, but the reality is that it’s often a draw-4 or -5 if left unchecked from turn 1.

Post-board they will usually either go big, adding Chandra and Glorybringer to go over the top against you, or pursue a life taxing plan with Harsh Mentor and Rampaging Ferocidon. If Dragons, you are going to need your Cartouche of Knowledge to be able to interact with them and get to Chandra through blockers. If it’s taxing you can let these go in order to get more fat into your deck, as well as mana to make up for the loss of a cantrip while still supporting Skysovereign. In all cases, Cartouche of Ambition will be the key to the match.

vs. Red (Chandra and Dragons)

Out

In

vs. Red (Mentor and Ferocidon)

Out

In

God-Pharaoh’s Gift – 4% of Metagame

Removal: Cast Out (white versions, usually 2 copies), Fumigate (maybe 1-2 copies pre-board, more post-), Settle the Wreckage (0-4 post-board, varies by sideboard plan), Fairgrounds Warden (0-4 post-board, varies by sideboard plan), Angel of Sanctions (0-2, varies by sideboard plan)

Black versions care about their graveyard body count, and it’s often correct to take damage from them in combat rather than put a creature in the ground. They use Gate to the Afterlife, which requires six in the graveyard to search for God-Pharaoh’s Gift. The white versions just use Refurbish, so it doesn’t matter much at all.

vs. God-Pharaoh’s Gift

Out

In

Approach of the Second Sun – 7% of Metagame

Removal: Cast Out, Settle the Wreckage, Fumigate, Fiery Cannonade (if Jeskai), Harnessed Lightning (if Jeskai), Fatal Push (if Esper), Vraska’s Contempt (if Esper)

Game 1 goes well if you don’t draw too many Fatal Pushes and they don’t draw too many sweepers. When they have 2WW up, you’re forced to consider how much power worth of creatures you can afford to lose to a Settle the Wreckage. Also consider that they won’t be forced to use it if your attack doesn’t represent enough damage. Siphoner or a huge Hydra are the best things to keep back since they give you large advantages when they are on the table. Game 2 and 3 they have considerable difficulty fighting through your countermagic. Don’t forget, though, that Gearhulk can appear and block even while you’re holding up Negate!

vs. Approach of the Second Sun

Out

In

In the end, Dan and I both loved the deck. Going forward, we both agree that the deck should have a 21st land, likely a Fetid Pools, so that the deck can consistently hit the number and color of lands we need. (All of my losses involved one or more games where I stumbled on mana.) With this, Dan’s 2nd Swamp should go back to being the 4th Hashep Oasis. (It was his change to my suggested main deck.) Though it’s an excellent card, neither of us liked the 3rd Skysovereign in the sideboard, so that’s what should be cut to make room for the land. I have also considered changing the sideboard to include Spell Pierce and Commit since the former requires less mana be held up than Negate, and Commit is a catch-all for every kind of problem card in the format.

If you have any questions, hit me up in the comments!