I'm going to the Pro Tour. No, don't worry, I didn't suddenly discover how to play Magic better than a 12 year old. I'm going because I want to see, first-hand, how this new Standard metagame shakes out. I'm going because our Insiders deserve better than to have someone regurgitating what they see on Twitch all day. I'll be on the floor bright and early Friday AM, and Doug will be in the office firing off alerts and tips throughout the weekend.
I think one of the best ways to figure out what's going to be played in a new format is to...wait for it.....play Magic. Theory-crafting is the biggest mistake Magic players make when trying to evaluate new cards. It just doesn't work. Theorycrafting didn't yield any big insights on cards like Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Hangarback Walker. Had those been properly evaluated by the masses, they'd have been $10 out the gates. The fact that they were not tells me that people mis-evaluted them.
The reason they missed the boat? They never cast the card, with mana, against a live opponent trying to kill them, before forming an opinion. My goal here, and now, is to form an opinion (albeit a preliminary one) by playing with Magic cards. To that end, I wanted to test my hypothesis that a Hardened Scales deck could be Tier 1.
I have been long on this card since day 1, but I had resigned myself to wait until rotation to start brewing with it in earnest. A deck made some noise at the last Pro Tour, thanks to the insane Hangarback Walker being released, but it was quickly eclipsed by Siege Rhinos and Ghostfire Blades (as well as Walkers in other decks).
Before I get to the deck I built to test my theory, let's lay out a few assumptions and ground rules about the format.
Assumption: A lot of people want to cast Dragonlords and Eldrazi. Dragonlord Atarka is terrifying, and 7 mana ain't what it used to be. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is equally so (perhaps more) and 10 mana certainly isn't as hard as it seems.
Actionable: Decks that want to ramp like to spend their early turns building a mana advantage, rather than a board presence. Rattleclaw Mystic is crucial here, but it's small enough that a truly aggressive deck can run right over it. So, the key is to put on tremendous early pressure. This will force opponents into sub-par combat choices, like trading away their Mystic for something of yours.
Assumption: There are some common themes and numbers in this format. "A lot" is one of them; either in terms of mana, slamming giant monsters as described above, or in terms of creature count when dealing with Eldrazi Scions and other such tokens. "5" is another; the toughness of Siege Rhino and the requisite toughness to survive Siege Rhino. (Man am I ever sick of this card, by the way). "2" is another important number; that's the number of basic lands you need to have your Prairie Streams and such enter untapped.
Actionable: Respect the format, don't try to fight against it. Make sure that your game plan doesn't revolve around 4/4s, or casting stuff that's worse then Atarka and Ulamog when you have tons of mana. Pay attention to evasive creatures, so you don't get chump-blocked out of the game by Goblins and Scions. Make sure that you can use your 2-drop turn effectively with untapped lands, rather than burning the turn playing a basic-dual. More on this in a moment.
Assumption: Mana bases are versatile, but versatility comes at a tempo cost. You can play Sandsteppe Citadel alongside Windswept Heath, alongside Canopy Vista alongside Llanowar Wastes. You can cast just about any spell you want! This is fun, but as I said, there is a price.
This is not Theros block, where you can rely on your opponents playing lots of lands that ETB tapped. In Theros block, you could rely on a slower tempo when Temples were the predominant dual land. We had pain lands too, which helped, but mana bases were fundamentally slower as a result.
Actionable: Play lands that come untapped. You can steal tempo from decks that want to be casting 3-color spells by not playing 3 colors. Yes, you lose access to cards like Abzan Charm and Siege Rhino, but you can build a much more aggressive early game by ensuring that you'll curve out 1-2-3 style most games. Design your mana base and your mana curve around this, and you'll be at a huge advantage on the play, less of a disadvantage on the draw.
A mana base built around basic lands, fetch lands, and basic-duals is smooth. So smooth. Like "shave your face with the new Mach 27 razor ( with 27 razor blades in one! ) smooth". That's not a real product, but if it were, fetch lands and basic-duals would be their spokesperson. "The only pain I feel is when I crack a Windswept Heath. No razor burn, no mana burn, no problem".
Assumption: People will want to try out new cards, new mechanics, new themes. We all do. But, if your goal is to predict the financial future of Magic and keep your MTG costs low, then focus on what's actually great, not what's cool and flashy. Landfall is a great mechanic, but is it supported well enough to build around? Likewise with Ingest (which has almost no support in KTK or ORI).
Actionable: Play the best cards in the most optimal combinations. Sounds easy, doesn't it? It's amazing how a simple focus like this can bring a deck together. Locate huge webs of synergy, not just good 2-card interactions. As you'll see below, I have chosen one specific "linear" to build around, as I felt that it offered the most powerful, aggresively-costed cards within a theme that is innately powerful. You can try to get cute and grind out value with Ingest, or you can just play cards that smash through all that nonsense.
Assumption: Ramp decks, in particular, spend a lot of time building up resources and usually rely on one or two haymakers to end the game.
Actionable: Outlast them. If you have more gas, and you can deal with their threats, you can win. Ulamog is mighty hard to kill, but if all they do is 3-for-1 you for 10 mana (2 exiles, plus your removal spell), then you're ahead of the game as far as I'm concerned. Better that than taking 10+ damage to the face. They probably spent a few cards to generate that 10 mana as well, so you might not be too far behind after all.
So, where does this leave us? Well, about half-way there. We know what our core criteria are, so let's drill down into some specifics. Let's talk about "best cards", "best interactions" & "webs of synergy".
For starters, lets talk about the Titan in the room. Ulamog. According to my testing, he is everything you think he is. Possibly more. He's like Dragonlord Atarka gone wild. He's the best thing you can do with a large amount of mana, considering he offers you 2 win conditions while clearing the board.
Personally, I don't want to build around him, but I want to play around him, and build to avoid him. The best way to do that? Kill the opponent before they hit 10 mana! I cannot overstate just how hard to remove Ulamog is once he hits play. You must have an answer to this card in your 75 or you will lose games and matches to it, because sometimes you just can't ramp up your aggression fast enough.
Let's also talk about the fact that between Languish, End Hostilities, Tragic Arrogance and Planar Outburst, there are a lot of great board-wipes out there. We need to be resilient to those while still putting on early pressure. So, we can look at cards that get value even when they die. More on that later. The bottom line is that you don't want to be over-extending into a wipe, despite the fact that you're trying to kill the opponent quickly.
Now let's focus on card interactions that fit the above criteria, and are worth building around.
Hardly breaking new ground here, but it's among the best interactions in the format. Den Protector should be considered a 3/2 Eternal Witness for 4G, with the benefit of being able to spread the 5 mana into "payment plans". It's almost always a 2-for-1 on its own, and with Deathmist Raptor it's a 3-for-1 (and the best kind; one where the 3rd card is being "cast" for free). Having played decks without this combo, I quickly wonder how I'm going to actually win the game when faced with it across the table.
Crucially, Den Protector comes with the clause that it can't be chump-blocked. This evasion gets particularly important when you start pumping it up with megamorph and Dromoka's Command, as you'll be able to swing through mana dorks and tokens all day long.
You can decide whether to time this such that Walker dies, or does not, but the versatility here is undeniable. Dromoka's Command is premium removal, especially considering its 2 mana cost, and Hangarback Walker is simply one of the best creatures in the format. Both are shockingly versatile on their own, and when combined they make for a really great pair.
My favorite interaction so far was casting Command after my Walker got blocked. The timing worked out such that I was able to 2-for-1 the opponent and let my Walker die, creating an army in the sky ready to take over the game.
Not much to explain here. Deathtouch turns Dromoka's Command into superpremium removal, you can put the +1/+1 counter on a different creature (or use the enchantment-edict mode if necessary), and you'll likely be able to re-buy the Raptor for value.
Undergrowth Champion & Fetch Lands
Yeah, obvious I know. But worth mentioning here because Undergrowth Champion gets out of hand very quickly. Like, you think you know how good this card is. Let me tell you, it's better. Fetch lands are a key to this format, undeniably, and the Champ makes the best usage of that fact by far. Delve'ing away the lands is a distant second in my esteem.
Insiders who listened to the QS Podcast know that our team has been huuuuuge on Champ since Day 1, and it's my pick for one of the top performing cards at the Pro Tour. It's outright shocking how big he gets in the course of organic game play.
Another obvious synergy, made slightly awkward by the fact that they both de-facto share the 2-drop slot. That said, I see nothing wrong with casting the Avatar on turn 3 (as a 4/3, with trample and reach) and pumping the Walker up to a 2/2. The two form a powerful pair, and Avatar can quickly become "Tarmogoyf" big when played right.
Trample is crucial because we assume that cards like Scion tokens, Goblin tokens, and small mana creatures like Rattleclaw Mystic will run rampant. Avatar runs right over them, ensuring you'll be able to close out a game in spite of a clogged board. The same is true for Hangarback Walker's Thopter tokens with flying. Combined with Den Protector, we've identified a solid core of 12 cards that can avoid the ground stall.
Collected Company & Magic Cards
This doesn't need much explaining. CoCo is a filthy card. It'd have been nasty at sorcery-speed but at instant? Forget about it. Unreal. You all know this to be true anyway, so I won't spend much time on it. I will admit that cards like Den Protetor and Hangarback Walker are real dogs in a CoCo deck, but if that's the worst problem we have, then I feel good. I hate playing anti-synergies in a deck, but the odds of hitting gas with CoCo is high enough that it's worth the risk.
There's one card that I haven't mentioned, because it doesn't fit into the above model of "two cards that go well together". You may be screaming it at your computer screen (which is obnoxious, stop that, it's a computer, it cannot hear you or parse spoken language). That card is Hardened Scales. Duh.
Hardened Scales & All the Above
Before you say "oh good another gimmicky Hardened Scales deck", look at the rationale I've used for the above list. Nowhere in it do I make any mention of +1/+1 counters as a pivotal theme. These are all great cards on their own. The fact that they can all make use of Hardened Scales is intentional, but tangential.
The reason for its inclusion is simple: the math works out strongly in our favor. Hardened Scales costs a single mana. For that mana investment, you can expect at least 2 or 3 free +1/+1s. Most games involve resolving one in the early turns, and if you stick it on turn 1, you might be able to get 5 or 6 free counters. If you go off with fetch lands and Undergrowth Champions, you're looking at double-digits. Not bad for one mana. It just makes the deck roughly twice as good whenever you draw it, and as described above, the deck is already above power level in most cases.
So, where does all that lead? To a deck list, of course!
Let's go back to our assumptions & actionables above, and see how this fits in:
Does this deck apply early pressure? Yes, resoundingly. Almost everything in the deck comes out swinging. Avatar of the Resolute as a 4/3 on turn 2, when paired with Servant of the Scale, is really unfair, and swings through everything. An early Hardened Scales turns every creature into an undercosted threat. Undergrowth Champion can hit for huge quantities of damage when the game plays out your way, and Dromoka's Command lets you pump your team while removing blockers and/or mana dorks.
Does this deck just lose to Siege Rhino? No. You have profitable ways to chump block it (Servant, Walker, Raptor), preventing a race. You have profitable ways to attack through it; Raptor offers a favorable trade, Avatar can easily get big enough to trade, if not outright kill. Undergrowth Champion quickly eclipses it in power level. Siege Rhino is still everything you think it is, but this deck doesn't just roll over and die.
Does it stand up against giant monsters? This may be its weakness; it's hard to kill Atarka with Dromoka's Command, and there are so few ways to deal with Ulamog once he hits the board. I am considering playing Stasis Snare in the sideboard to deal with these monsters, as it is one of the very few options available. Had we black mana, I'd use Abzan Charm, but it's too awkward to make the mana work (as much as I do love me some Abzan Charm).
Can this deck out-last the opponent? Den Protector & Deathmist Raptor goes a long, long way here. I enjoyed casting the same Dromoka's Command 3 times in one game. That was fun (and won me the game, obviously). Collected Company can be a 2-for-1 as well, though it's not 100% guaranteed. Hangarback Walker and Servant of the Scale preserve value when they die.
Does this deck represent a "web of synergy"? Resoundingly, yes. Almost every card in this deck cares about +1/+1 counters, and rewards you for working with them. The fact that the Den Protector / Deathmist Raptor engine benefits from Hardened Scales is huge.
The fact that Dromoka's Command interacts with +1/+1 counters and gives you premium value on Raptor is similarly huge, and when you combine all 3, you get a ridiculous engine that can blow out a board in no time, while growing a big, unblockable threat all the while. Hangarback Walker, one of the best cards in the game right now, fits equally well into our strategy. Likewise with Raptor, it can get killed by your own Dromoka's Command for value.
Does this deck use the best cards available? With the exception of, maybe, Servant of the Scale, emphatically yes. I don't think this needs much elaboration. Most of the cards in the deck, and the interactions between them, are proven Tier 1 contenders. The cards like Hardened Scales and Servant are not proven yet, but they form a very important supporting cast around these "best cards".
Overall I believe this deck checks all the boxes. It's not a refined build by any stretch of the imagination, and I won't even venture to guess what a sideboard might look like, but I think that a brew like this has a chance of doing some real damage at the first events of the season.
My favorite quote in Magic is, "There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers". This should be front-of-mind for anyone preparing for the Pro Tour; if you build a control deck, you have to guess what the "decks to beat" will look like and tune appropriately. If you're on aggro, as I would be, you just have to find a streamlined, synergistic and consistent strategy and learn it inside and out.
I'll close this essay with one highly specific piece of financial advice during our "pre-release limbo" period. It's been echoed by other writers today, and in fact, all week. Avatar of the Resolute. How this has remained stagnant for months, I have no idea. In another world, this would have been a $10 rare. We don't really get many of those these days, nor am I suggesting this is a candidate for one (it's not Hangarback Walker), but it's better than "less than a buck". It's already seen some surges on MTGO, and the paper price cannot be too far behind. Get on this train if you believe what I'm saying here, or disagree vocally in a comment.