15 Oct 2014

Of Rhinos and Rocs

The Abzan outlasted the Jeskai to be named the dominant deck of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir.

The Jeskai had put in a strong performance but their prowess was not enough to take on the resilient Abzan. Going into the top 8 there were three Abzan decks - two midrange and one aggro -three Jeskai Wins, one Blue Black control deck and one Jeskai Ascendency combo.
The break-out cards from the tournament for me were Siege Rhino, Wingmate Roc and Abzan Charm; with 12 copies of the rhino, six Rocs and 10 of the WBG instant in top 8 main decks.
Dig Through Time, Mantis Rider and Jeskai Charm also did a lot of work but a lot of people had already seen what Jeskai could do and were prepared with life gain and large creatures to counter the pesky Jeskai. 

 Siege Rhino truly is a beast. A 4/5 with Trample for four mana that provides a six point life swing in your favour when it enters the battlefield presents a headache for your opponent.
In the final game of the Pro Tour, Shaun McLaren had burnt Ari Lax down to 10 life and Dissolved a Sorin, Solemn Visitor. At the end of Lax's turn, McLaren used Dig Through Time and picked up Lightning Strike and Jeskai Charm; drawing Stoke the Flames on his turn and passing with six mana up. Then the game changed when Lax peeled a Siege Rhino off the top of his deck; taking him up to 13 and McLaren down to 17.Watch here

Needless to say that the Abzan's creatures offer a lot of power backed up with effective removal and solid planeswalkers.
So do I plan on playing Abzan?
If Abzan and its Rhinos do take off, I think the format may change in control's favour.
Ground based aggro decks need to be super aggressive to beat Abzan. The combination of Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc presents an uphill struggle for players attacking with small creatures on the ground; and the life gain from the latter three cards puts the nail in the coffin. Even taking to the air with Mantis Rider no longer seems effective, owing to the prevalence of Wingmate Roc, Abzan Charm's exile ability and other forms of removal.

I'm currently looking at building one of two control decks; traditional control Jeskai or Sultai Planeswalkers. I'm not settled on either list yet but I'll deal out my thoughts based on what I have.

Jeskai Control

Lands x25 

Temple of Enlightenment x 3
Temple of Triumph x 3
Temple of Epiphany x 1
Mystic Monastery x 2
Shivan Reef x 1 
Evolving Wilds x 1
Island x 4
Mountain x 5
Plains x 5

Creatures x 6 

Brimaz, King of Oreskos x 3
Stormbreath Dragon x 3

Other Spells x29

Chained to the Rocks x 2 
Magma Jet x 2
Lightning Strike x 3
Disdainful Stroke x 2
Anger of the Gods x 3 
Banishing Light x 2

Jeskai Charm x 3
Stoke the Flames x 2
Steam Augury x 1
Jace's Ingenuity x 1
Dig Through Time x 2
End Hostilities x 1
Chandra, Pyromaster x 2
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker x 1
Elspeth, Sun's Champion x 2 

I've opted to test Brimaz over Mantis Rider and Goblin Rabblemaster because he comes with four toughness, something pretty relevant in a world full of Lightning Strikes and Bile Blights, while also surviving Anger of the Gods. Mantis Rider's Flying and Haste is relevant in a deck that wants to win quickly, something that this deck isn't geared towards. The king of cats isn't likely to hit the battlefield on turn three anyway as this deck is geared towards disruption in the early game.

 Stormbreath Dragon has been a creature sat in the wings; biding its time on the mountain top since the days of R/G monsters. Is now the time for the 4/4 hasty flyer to strike Standard once again? 
The dragon's protection from white means it can block Siege Rhino and eat Wingmate Rocs and Mantis Riders all day. It also can't be targeted by three of the Khans charms and Banishing Light. 
Again the four toughness makes it resilient to red removal, while Monstrosity helps close the game.

In recent weeks people have said that control is dead. Having seen the strangling era of Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict and Sphinx's Revelation rotate out with the release of Khans it's easy to see why some would think this.
Jeskai offers two sweepers to tackle different angles of the format - Anger of the Gods and End Hostilities. Anger sweeps away aggro's quicker creatures, while also knocking out Caryatids. But what makes this wrath of the gods stand out is that it can be cast on turn three and that it exiles; banishing Bloodsoaked Champion to the void. Sure it only hits creatures with toughness three or less but more often than not three is the Magic number for aggro.

Whereas Anger of the Gods punishes the puny, End Hostilities wipes up everything else - but may not actually end the hostilities. The latest white wrath destroys creatures great and small, along with any equipment or enchantments they may be packing, including those that have been Bestowed. People moaned that it costing five mana meant it was no good. Now that Rhinos and Rocs and other big monsters have crashed their way into Standard a five mana sweeper looks more appealing.
The question now is how the control player dictates the game up until casting the chosen sweeper.

Looking ahead, Jeskai aggro/tempo/wins will continue to burn a path through standard, it will just have to adapt to tackle the bigger threats in the format, while other aggro decks such as Monogreen devotion will also look to smash their way in.
Banishing Light and Suspension Field backed up by Magma Jet, Lightning Strike and Stoke the Flames should provide answers early enough to answer faster decks. There's even Jeskai Charm's first ability to put a creature on top of the library to buy more time.
Chained to the Rocks serves as another flavourful anger of the gods. (In Greek mythology Zeus chained the titan Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle would eat his liver each day, as punishment for restoring the gift of fire to humans). The cheap enchantment hits creatures of all sizes but comes at the downside of needing a mountain so the mana base may need to be adjusted.   

Another card that stood out for me was Disdainful Stroke. A two mana instant that counters spells with converted mana cost or four or greater has got to be taken seriously in a format set to be full big creatures and planeswalkers. Stroke cancels Siege Rhino's life drain ability, Wingmate Roc, Stoke the Flames, Dig Through Time and every planeswalker except Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. It can also negate Gods, apart from Thassa and Pharika. Against the more aggressive decks it can be sided out but if you want more counters then Dissolve, Dissipate and Negate are still standard legal.  

Chandra, Pyromaster is a planeswalker I've wanted to test for some time. Her plus one ability kills of weaker aggressive creatures and mystics of the elvish and rattleclaw variety. At a stretch it can combine with Lightning Strike to burn Courser of Kruphix to the graveyard or mean that the centaur and others can't block Brimaz.
The Pyromaster's main use is card advantage. With the loss of Jace, Architect of Thought, blue based control decks will have to look elsewhere to get ahead on cards. While Chandra doesn't offer the raw card advantage of previous walkers, I think she could have a home in this shell. Scrying can help decide when her 0 ability is going to be affective and can also help you hit a spell or land drop when you need it. In one of the Pro Tour feature games, Brad Nelson used Chandra to cast Elspeth a turn early to apply greater pressure.   
Her ultimate isn't too relevant but can be reached quickly; and if you hit Stoke the Flames or Jeskai Charm that's 12 points of burn for free. Casting Dig Through Time and copying it thrice, resulting in you picking the best six of 21 cards, is appealing albeit unlikely. 

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker adds another flying threat to push through damage and his ability to deal four damage to a creature also helps clear up the opponent's board. Again, the ultimate has a nice allure but most times you'll want to fly in for four rather than kill him off to draw three cards.

The impact of rotation on Elspeth was another talking point of the Pro Tour. The Sun's Champion had shone with her ability to create an army out of nowhere; building up to one of the best ultimates in the format. Elspeth's power was also best when Polukranos, Stormbreath Dragon and Desecration Demon were the most played fatties in Standard, owing to her ability to destroy creatures with power four or greater. 
Then Wingmate Roc and its wingman arrived and Elspeth's role as a finisher of choice began to be questioned as the Roc soars over her soldier tokens and dodges her monster destroying ability. Indeed, there were only three copies of Elspeth in top 8 maindecks, with other Abzan players opting for Wingmate Roc and its flying life gain. Interestingly the three maindeck Elspeths were in Ari Lax's deck - the winner of the Pro Tour - partnered with two copies of Ajani, Mentor of Heroes and Sorin, Solemn Visitor - another surprise card of the tournament.
It's safe to say that Elspeth still has a role to play in the new standard but her effectiveness looks to have been somewhat reduced and I may cut one copy of her to smooth out the curve. 
That's it for now but I'll to post my thoughts on a Sultai control brew soon.

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