Grand Prix Shanghai this weekend showcased a world devoid of Islands and the return of devotion in a big way. In a way we saw this coming, but this weekend cemented a few notable changes to the metagame.
With the decline of control came a huge spike in GR Devotion and Dragons decks. Mono- and Atarka Red as a result have been nearly pushed out of the metagame, and while you can still succeed with red it’s possibly the hardest it’s been since the release of Dragons of Tarkir.
There isn’t a lot of payoff in going low right now, while going over-the-top has become more attractive thanks to Esper Dragons’ decline. Part of the deck’s fall from the top is the result of the push toward Den Protector, and part of it is that players have universally adopted many strategies that exploit Esper’s natural weaknesses.
The red decks still have a reasonable power level, but everyone else is far more focused on board control than the past month. This plus the universal adoption of cards like Arashin Cleric makes red a very all-in choice.
With this heavy push back to midrange though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a streamlined Esper Dragons return. Straight UB Control is also possible, but that feels much more likely to be a week-to-week development unless Magic Origins brings a game changer. One of the biggest questions right now is whether focusing so much on controlling the tempo of the game with counters and discard is even worthwhile against the Den Protector engine. One possibility is that the deck moves toward tapout control territory, simply reacting, jamming Dragons and rebuying with quantity over quality. Treasure Cruise and Dragonlord’s Prerogative may be better than Dig if the deck moves toward 4-ofs.
If the metagame becomes too midrange, Esper Dragons, UB Ashiok, or perhaps a Bant build based on Den Protector/Deathmist or Elspeth a la Abzan Control will be the best choice. Instead of upgraded removal, instead you focus more on board control and a smattering of countermagic. I would first look to Yuuki’s winning GP list for ideas.
Abzan Megamorphs by Yuuki Ichikawa – 1st at GP Shanghai
This is what I originally wanted to do once I saw the power of the Den Protector/Deathmist Raptor package. Unfortunately I never got it to work well enough, but obviously Ichikawa figured it out. The key difference is that he focused more on Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and streamlined his spell package.
A lot of Abzan decks play a variety of options while this is basically just Abzan Charm and Thoughtseize with a few extra removal spells thrown in. Satyr Wayfinder makes it’s way back into this Abzan deck, but with the morphs it makes a lot more sense than past builds. While it lacks a formidable 2-drop, its 3s are better for attrition matches and you can afford to trade or even chump early with Crux of Fate waiting in the wings. Wayfinder into Tasigur is a very strong play and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is the traditional Abzan mirror trump, so you’re good in that match.
The most talked about aspect of this deck may be the 61-card maindeck. If you feel like any of your cards are just better than other ones, you should be chopping down to 60 barring some weird circumstances. The extra card stands out even more here as Abzan is typically a mana-hungry deck and handles flood respectably, but this has a 37/24 spell-to-mana ratio! Wayfinder helps, but it definitely isn’t the same as having Sylvan Caryatid.
Based on my experiences with Abzan Control I’d start my potential cuts with a Thoughtseize and Tasigur, the Golden Fang to get the 25th land in there. I would also eye Satyr Wayfinder as even with Den Protector the card is very underpowered and drawing multiples early can torpedo what would otherwise be a reasonable hand. So I think the safest overall cut would be a Wayfinder or Thoughtseize as both are cards you don’t want to draw multiples of.
Maybe you don’t want to battle with another Abzan variant though, maybe you want a little spice in your life. If that’s the case, go play another format! However, if your definition of spice is playing Dragons then I’ve got you covered!
5-Color Dragons, Yuuya Watanabe – 11th place at GP Shanghai
If there was going to be a breakout deck from the Grand Prix, this is the one. It feels like an evolution of the 5c Dragons decks that Mike Flores was battling with. Instead of going all-in on the Dragons theme and running Silumgar’s Scorn and all eight Dragon lands, it borrows the power inherent in the strategy and puts it in a more consistent shell.
Instead of desperately trying to make devotion work as well to run Master of Waves or specialized cards, Yuuya’s deck asks, “what’s the best engine in the format?” He relies on the inherent power of the dragons themselves and doesn’t stretch himself to play them or take advantage of every weapon you could have. Instead he takes the engine of Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor and utilizes it with the normal black removal we’ve come to expect and let ‘s that do the heavy lifting.
Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix mitigate the hardship that playing all the Dragonlords brings and give the deck more to do in the early game. Satyr Wayfinder is also one of the best tools at filtering early and getting a payoff later in the game when looking for Haven of the Spirit Dragon or just hunting for a specific Dragonlord to buy back. The deck actually shows discipline by not running any delve cards past a single Murderous Cut.
This type of strategy is traditionally very grindy, and while it doesn’t feature as many fetches as you may first think, it still runs the full set of Satyr Wayfinder. A card like Treasure Cruise or Tasigur wouldn’t be out of place here, but the Yuuya resists the urge.
The taplands are also kept down to just 10, running less than the typical Abzan or Esper Dragons build. This may be the better version of Bant some people wanted, Dragonlord Ojutai is obviously powerful, but all the other Dragonlords play well here. Both Dromoka and Silumgar can completely flip a game if the opponent doesn’t have removal at the ready and Dragonlord Atarka is the perfect card to take out an Elspeth or overpower other Dragons in a straight fight.
The numbers could be tweaked, specifically Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall, depending on what you expect to battle. Dragonlord Dromoka may also be better as additional Silumgars and Atarkas if you expect a lot of Abzan over other green midrange decks.
So, based on the success of GR Devotion, Dragons, and Abzan Aggro, what do we play this weekend? Well Elspeth still lines up well against a lot of that, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon seems well placed to make a comeback and clean up large quantities of Raptors. Dragon Devotion is also a fun deck that could be so powerful that it makes up for the shaky curve. Magic Online user McWinSauce has a fun little UW Control deck I want to try out at some point.
Next week I’ll be jumping on the Modern Masters 2015 bandwagon before Grand Prix Las Vegas and back to Standard after that. If you haven’t registered for the GP yet and plan on going, do it now!