With the week 1 Open event in the books, we can now begin to define the metagame. While the loss of so many sets clearly had a much larger impact than the addition of Ixalan, it was still nice to see some of the new cards immediately make an impact. Whether any of the tribal archetypes will be able to perform without a wider card pool has yet to be determined, though.
Still, there ares plenty of cards seeing play right out of the gate. Widespread use of Hostage Taker was as big a story as the domination of The Scarab God throughout the weekend. Cards like Opt and Search for Azcanta found fresh homes in U/W Approach along with Settle the Wreckage to cover the gaps left by Blessed Alliance and friends. Meanwhile, red saw copious use of Lightning Strike and even had Rampaging Ferocidon in the sideboard.
So while deck innovations may be slow to start, individual cards are already shaking up the format, and archetypes like Sultai and 4c Energy are playing around with new variations. Speaking of those, let’s start with the two front-runners in the format.
Besides the shared cards, both decks are similar in their primary game plan. Both attempt to snowball early via Longtusk Cub and Rogue Refiner, minimize resources spent on threats, and retain value into the midgame. Both of them lean on The Scarab God as a late-game threat that can single-handedly win the game. I’m sure some people will also play around with Hostage Taker in the 4c Energy deck as well, further blurring the lines between them.
The key difference between the two decks is how they handle plan A vs. plan B. Sultai Energy is more committed to winning quickly and supporting its early threats. Cards like Winding Constrictor and Blossoming Defense go a long way toward making Cub an even deadlier threat. 4c Energy, on the other hand, is happy to present other threats the opponent has to deal with—Glorybringer and Bristling Hydra are tough cards to shrug off. Both decks have low land counts, so neither one is at real risk of stalling out in a late game, but 4c Energy definitely has more dead draws early.
One key to Sultai’s early dominance is its 2-drops. Cub, Siphoner, and Constrictor all demand a level of respect, or start running away with the game. Mix and match them, and often you can get better results from doing that than drawing multiples of one. You want a deck that either has access to immediate answers (and in large quantities) or you want one that can reclaim the board down the road like U/W Approach via Settle the Wreckage and Fumigate.
Before I move on to the other early performers, I want to point out that beating Sultai Energy is going to be frustrating. The deck is a cross between Mardu and Faeries post-board. It has lots of cheap disruption and protection (Spell Pierce, Duress and Blossoming Defense, for a start) and the ability to sideboard into a bigger midrange deck if it needs to. While it doesn’t outright transform like Mardu Vehicles, it has access to Vraska, Gearhulks, Carnage Tyrant, and more Scarab Gods.
For those who want to play the deck, I do recommend mixing the sideboard up week to week based on your metagame. You can gain some free percentage against the unprepared. For those who want to beat the deck, decide whether you want to try and go under them or go wide. As an example, Sultai isn’t well equipped to deal with board floods, so perhaps B/W or Abzan Tokens is worth looking at again. Leaning on only 4 Fatal Push game 1 also leaves it open to being overwhelmed by similar-sized threats backed by more removal. A Jund deck capable of dealing with the early game threats while presenting its own could be a good answer.
As for everything else, Ramunap Red decks are still out in force and performing at a high level.
While not the best performing list at the Open, it was one of the most intriguing. It shook things up with Rigging Runner alongside the usual 1-drops and didn’t need to overload on Chandra’s Defeat or other nonsense to dominate the mirror. Harsh Mentor may also be an overlooked gem if energy decks continue their rise in popularity. Punishing people for wanting to use their energy cards is a lot better when they can’t just take 2 and push out an Ulamog.
Right now the red decks look like they’re leaning toward a higher curve, and by sticking to a lower curve, you can take better advantage of all your haste and fervor effects. While Rigging Runner may not look particularly impressive, making it a 2/2 means a lot of free attacks into Temur/4c Energy creatures. Between your usual burn suite and the potential for some sort of combat trick, I imagine it’s difficult to set up any sort of free block outside of Bristling Hydra. There’s a lot of risk for the energy player and not a whole lot of reward. Against other small aggro decks, having a 2/2 that wins every combat is nice and against U/W all you care about is that it turns sideways.
Moving forward, we may see less reliance on creatures if the black removal and Hostage Taker count increases and more Chandra/Vance’s Blasting Cannons. Glorybringer isn’t bad by any means, but it all depends if you still want to try and go big post-board. Against the current crop of decks, that may no longer be a winning strategy.
Before I leave off, let’s take a look at the other big archetype coming into the weekend: U/W Approach.
While we aren’t treading new ground here, one surprise was that despite losing a lot of early removal the deck is still well equipped to beat other creature decks. One big misconception about this deck is labeling it as control when it really plays more like a slow combo deck. I actually couldn’t think of a great Magic parallel—Freeze Mage from Hearthstone actually feels more appropriate. The deck feels good in its current configuration because it can buy time until you hit that magical 7th mana to initiate the “win the game” part of the plan.
As far as adding hard counters goes, Essence Scatter has impressed me and every relevant deck seems to run 20+ hits except for the mirror. If you expect a ton of mirrors, Negate and Disallow gain in value, but Disallow feels worse than Supreme Will. Meanwhile, Settle the Wreckage and Opt have made huge impacts on the early game and Search for Azcanta is tailor-made for this deck.
Right now, I think the only thing the deck lacks is a solid sideboard plan against disruption. It is extremely soft to Duress, and while I’m dubious of the strengths of Lost Legacy, it has been cast against me in more than one League match. Sometimes they aren’t even aiming for Approach! Taking out Fumigate or Settle the Wreckage can be a crippling blow if you were relying on them to clear out an entrenched Sultai or G/B Energy board. Meanwhile, Regal Caracal is better at buying time for other cards rather than taking over a game.
On paper, Torrential Gearhulk is typically touted as the answer, but I’ve been less than impressed by how that actually plays. At this point I’m willing to try Kefnet the Mindful as a brick wall and alternate win condition, or even splash for The Scarab God if things get that bad. Frankly, the mana wouldn’t take that big of a hit for a pair of Scarabs and you can easily configure the deck to perform well in that type of mirror match.
Right now though, the biggest deckbuilding constrictions seem to be The Scarab God, Hostage Taker, Approach of the Second Sun, Glorybringer, and Longtusk Cub. If you have a deck that doesn’t immediately fail against these, you’ve probably got something worth working on. Going in-depth on the current metagame feels silly with the World Championships coming up. The metagame will almost assuredly shift based on what performs this weekend, especially if we see something new. So let’s see what the best and brightest have cooked up.