In every Standard format, there’s usually a deck that is capable of performing at the highest levels but falls to the wayside for one reason or another. This can be due to lack of refinement or thinking that the deck is an inferior version of an already existing tier 1 strategy. Other times it’s less clear why a deck gets left behind. I feel like it has gotten worse recently once the frontrunners become established.
For this Standard season, Gift builds may have been the decks the field gave up on too soon. That became clearer after this past weekend, where U/W Gift racked up a win at GP Singapore and a Top 4 at GP Pittsburgh. Nothing changed that suddenly made recurring a 6/6 Angel of Invention with haste or a Champion of Wits that drew four cards worse than before. If anything, most of the hate it was facing had left sideboards altogether.
Regardless of the reason, after some initial flirtation, most players threw Gift decks aside and stopped exploring outside of the traditional builds. Goblin Gift was the only experimental version of the deck seeing mainstream play, while a handful of grinders worked on U/R and Jeskai builds. Finally, U/G builds ended up bringing up the rear despite having the best results besides U/W Refurbish.
So it wasn’t a surprise to me that Bant Gift never took off or grabbed any attention. Here was the core Bant Gift build, within a few cards. My primary changes are having a Chart a Course, only three Rivulet, and I shaved the second Gift until The Scarab God comes back into style.
There was also a variant that I thought could be better, which was straight U/G Mana, and gave up on ever casting Angel of Invention. RyderW took charge of that angle and I highly recommend looking at that version as another possibility.
In the end, the build that was my primary ended up roughly 36-24 for a respectable 60% match win rate. My total, including all the variants I tried, is closer to 44-36. Multiple people I tested with had roughly similar match win rates and Magic Online crusher of worlds Char_Aznable in particular had a 66% match win rate as the highest of the group. This data is from a month ago and we were on a roll. It’s not reflective of the up-to-date record, but it gives you a good idea.
We had a deck that was even to slightly favored against mono-red, favored against R/B, and absolutely demolished U/W Control. Theoretically, we had busted the Pro Tour metagame wide open. The problem we kept running into were the other decks people kept playing. While people kept screaming about Goblin Chainwhirler, Esper Control, U/B Midrange, and G/B Snake kept seeing consistent play on Magic Online.
So we have a deck that’s very good for a specific field, but Magic Online is open enough that it didn’t become immediately obvious that we had a very good deck. Patrick Chapin once wrote an excellent piece about information cascades and how they can impact tournament metagames and preparation. Had things shaken out differently we could’ve had a deck that was perfect to win a single weekend. Instead, we ended up in a weird position where we never had enough pilots until the metagame had settled back into this holding pattern where you were most likely to see a base red deck, but you could also end up with a streak of others.
It didn’t help that no one really picked it up or wrote about the deck at all. Part of that was on accident, as at one point our little group had something like 12+ 4-1 League finishes and not a single 5-0. It really was that ridiculous. We had more total washouts than actual 5-0s, so with no 5-0 results, the deck never ended up in the 5-0 dumps every couple of days.
This is one of the only times I’ve ever felt like I could’ve shared a legitimately excellent deck and didn’t because nearly everyone in the group was going to play an RPTQ with it. So there was a month where I just kind of ignored it. Bant Gift had two players at the Pro Tour, both had minimal prep, and disappointing records. I wish that I had written about the deck sooner. Perhaps someone could have at least tried the thing out.
It all comes back to the centerpiece of the deck, which is GPG bringing back Angel of Invention. It is an incredible combo that can win against the most popular decks in Standard. The combo itself is relatively compact and since the pieces are colorless and can be utilized via discard, it also means that you aren’t chained to any specific colors. This means that you can go hog wild with deck construction, either by going creature-heavy with Gate to the Afterlife or Gift-heavy with Refurbish and more discard.
The number of games you lose to red decks if you get even one attack off with a 6/6 Angel of Invention is low. I can remember about half-a-dozen that involved clawing back into the game and then losing to an alpha strike that turn (usually due to Pia or Crasher), or Soul-Scar Mage plus burn and not having a second Angel to buyback. If you have any sort of board you can often survive these attacks and still win off Angel. In fact, even if they Abrade the Gift immediately they’ll lose to the Angel by itself.
Once this established itself as the common pattern (recur Angel as 6/6 + attack = win) then it became a no-brainer to keep Angel of Invention in every single iteration of the deck. Red decks were only getting more popular and having an “I win'” button to push was one of the selling points of playing God-Pharaoh’s Gift to begin with. This is the primary deviation from the other Gift builds we’ve seen crop up. Most of the Gift decks with a creature plan B and using Gate to the Afterlife stopped utilizing Angel of Invention.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now see that the Angel of Invention Gift builds are basically the only surviving iterations of the strategy. Go figure. Obviously, I do not know the exact circumstances that Jason Chung had with his U/G build at PT Dominaria, but I feel strongly that had the deck ran Angel of Invention he would’ve been better off. It did provide another point toward why explore is such a strong mechanic for the Gift decks, though.
Specifically, why should you go in on explore creatures over cheating Gift out with Refurbish? Primarily because the U/W Gift decks had major faults against control strategies that didn’t tap out. They could win, thanks to the power of Champion of Wits, but it was a struggle and highly dependent on opponents misusing their resources. The benefit of U/G Gift was that its plan B against blue decks was rock solid. Improve the consistency of your draws while at the same time pressuring with mediocre creatures and the threat of Gift. Pressuring them also allowed you to strain their resources and force Settle the Wreckage, which made Champion of Wits eternalize even better.
See, the thing about U/W and the control decks in general is that all of them rely on long-term card advantage to bury you. This deck is difficult to bury with Teferi alone, simply due to the high creature density combined with good mana sinks. So when decks were minimizing Torrential Gearhulk, it simply became a fight around Teferi all the time and winning in the interim before they could re-establish their engine. Nowadays this is a bit harder because the decks are better at closing and some have gone Esper, which brings The Scarab God into the equation, which is clearly a very scary card for any Gift player.
The other big reason for keeping green and going U/G or Bant was Wildgrowth Walker, which with eight explore creatures and filtering to hit them more often was just a complete beating against red decks. So much so that we ended up favored against them post-board because our plan B went from non-existent to nearly as scary as the Baneslayer plan. That’s not an exaggeration, either. I’ve easily won more games with unanswered Wildgrowth Walkers than with the Gift plan post-board.
Once the jig is up game 1 and they know what to be scared of, the majority of red players make the error of overboarding against your Gift/Angel plan. They significantly slow their deck down and usually leave in trash threats like Earthshaker Khenra or think multiple Goblin Chainwhirler in the opener is a solid keep. So what leaves? Half the time it’s burn spells and the other half of the time it’s some number of 1- and 2-drops. Most red players go heavy on 4s and 5s because they want to win a grindy style of game and not be cold to Angel. What ends up happening is that it plays into your game plan of slowing the game down and setting up one of your two combos. It also means that you can flip the board and pressure them, which is huge because on both sides creatures are awful in blocking situations (besides Chainwhirler and Walker, respectively) and good at attacking.
While red decks can make themselves better against you, most of the time people would be better off submitting their game 1 configuration. If the Bant Gift player isn’t on the back foot by turn 4, it is very hard for the red deck to turn around and Abrade becomes an albatross around people’s necks. Many winnable games were lost because they either saved Abrade and ignored a Wildgrowth Walker, or refused to tap out for a Chandra or Glorybringer because they were worried about a Gift, even if it wasn’t getting back Angel.
R/B variants had it even worse because there were so many cards that seemed good and so few threats to cut to make room. They became full-on midrange after board and that’s exactly the kind of deck you want to see every single game. Eventually they run out of resources and you sneak through something scary or you bury them, buying back Champion of Wits over and over. Hard casting Angel was also very common in these scenarios where they would often only have Abrade or Disintegration as instant speed ways to deal with it. Obviously, Glorybringer and Chandra were real as well, but those opened them up to the aforementioned 5-mana sequences that won Bant Gift the game.
Sadly, the time has come and gone and none of us successfully got invites. The silver lining is that I can finally talk about the deck that almost was. While I don’t think it was as good as Dark Jeskai in terms of smashing the format in half, I firmly believe that had it gotten some traction, this deck would’ve at least pushed into the upper tier of Standard. I don’t think M19 has given us anything to make the deck better—at least, nothing that jumps out—but I remain confident that Gift decks are strong and underexplored at the moment. So if you’re sick of the normal stuff, I’d give it a shot.