Grand Prix Memphis once again saw the proliferation of red/white strategies on the top tables on day 2. RW Midrange was once again the most played deck, and the second-most played deck on Day 2 was Jeskai, a fundamentally similar “Stoke + Rabblemaster” deck. Over a third of the Day 2 metagame was represented by these two strategies.
However, the Top 8 was instead dominated by Abzan control decks. With five copies in the Top 8, this deck appears to have sliced through the field of RW decks—maybe even as a direct foil to the strategy.
Let’s take a look at Alex Majlaton’s version of the deck:
This deck tries to blank early removal and fight the board with removal spells rather than creatures of its own. Abzan Control punishes threat-light and removal-heavy hands from RW. However, given a painful mana base and card draw that requires life payment in the form of Abzan Charm and Read the Bones, RW’s best chance against this deck is to burn it out before Siege Rhinos take over.
That said, Ben Stark’s version of RW defeated Abzan Control players in back-to-back rounds of the Top 8, making it look easy along the way.
Most importantly, Ben’s list makes substantial departures from the versions we looked at last week:
Ben Stark’s RW Midrange
Ben has taken his deck a much more aggressive route, cutting Stormbreath Dragon and the more expensive threats for additional copies of Soulfire Grand Master. The Grand Masters still provide some value in the late game, especially against control decks where you can sandbag burn spells to double up on them. Rather than trying to power through with Stormbreath Dragon, Ben made sure to play threats that are hard to answer efficiently. Hero’s Downfall trades up on mana against Dragon, but even or down on mana against all of Ben’s threats.
Soulfire Grand Master improves drastically with the removal of Sylvan Caryatid from the Abzan decks. The two most popular builds of Abzan (aggro and control) both do not play the 0/3—making Soulfire Grand Master much less likely to be blanked on the ground than in previous metagames.
He pushes this plan further by including all four copies of Outpost Siege, which get better and better with a lower mana curve and a plan oriented on early aggression and late-game burn. Ben decided that he always wanted to be on the 2-drop + removal tempo plan, arriving at two spells per turn earlier than virtually any other deck in the format. Getting ahead on board and on life also makes Outpost Siege on Dragons a much more effective plan to lock out the game than it was previously.
Simply put, Ben’s deck is set up to play tempo-burn in game one, and go over the top with big threats in post-board games.
This is a perfect example of evolving the best deck around the metagame. The rest of the world chose to play Abzan Control or similar long-game decks to contend with Stormbreath Dragon. As they played for the long game, RW has changed to play a much shorter game. Fighting Abzan on its own terms is a dangerous proposition.
This newer version of RW takes on a similar plan for the mirror. The RW mirror often lends a huge advantage to the player on the play—letting them use their removal aggressively with a creature already in play, rather than defensively to prevent falling behind. The inclusion of eight 2-drops allows lower-curve RW to essentially hijack the play even while on the draw. Four copies of Wild Slash and only three copies of Lightning Strike display a dedication to the “cheap-spell” game plan.
A wrench in the plan for RW is going to be Jack Fogle’s tournament-winning Sultai Control deck:
This deck is going to be tough for RW because it goes one step further in blanking removal spells with only 4 Satyr Wayfinder as legal creature targets in the main deck.
I said last week that control decks like UB are fundamentally bad matchups for RW, but that their inability to close out the game allows RW to burn them out. Sultai Control is a bit better at finding threats than UB with Satyr Wayfinder-fueled delve spells. In addition, the singleton Garruk is surprisingly relevant as a way to gain life and lock the game up. Kiora, the Crashing Wave is also an interesting gap spell that helps ramp to an early Ugin while randomly soaking up damage and smoothing your draw.
Access to Sultai Charm also makes resolved Outpost Siege much less scary for Sultai than UB, suggesting that a personal Howling Mine fueling additional burn isn’t quite as effective. Pharika’s Cure and Tasigur are also really scary cards out of sideboard—the latter making it awkward to cut too much removal, which are otherwise dead cards in the matchup.
Against RW specifically, I think Sultai combines the individual strengths of UB and Abzan making it difficult to contend with.
On the flip side, Sultai Control is the weakest of the three-control decks against Jeskai—falling prey to a tempo plan backed up by counterspells. If Sultai emerges as a popular player after Grand Prix Memphis, Jeskai only gets better.
With Grand Prix Miami in a couple weeks, I expect many RW players to shift over to the more streamlined version. This improves the stock of cards like Drown in Sorrow, Bile Blight, and Anger of the Gods. If people decide to fight against RW like it is an aggro deck, that improves the stock of decks like Abzan Aggro which have more resilient and bigger individual threats.
I’m personally looking at playing Jeskai in the MTGO PTQ this weekend—but still undecided for the Grand Prix itself.
Thanks for reading,