Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, I am well on my way to my first ever Pro Tour Top 8 on the back of a superb deck and an unprecedented (for me) comfort with the Ixalan Draft format. Now, you didn’t think I wore a pirate hat at GP Phoenix (and Pro Tour: Ixalan) in order to not draft Pirates, did you? My love for Pirate's Cutlass in Limited knows no bounds, and if I can get my grubby mitts on a pair of those in each draft, may God have mercy on my opponents, because I won’t. But celestial intervention solely for Limited won’t be sufficient, no way. This article is about an absolutely incredible Constructed deck poised to break open a “solved” format. Temur Energy, Control, Approach, Mono-Red, Mardu Vehicles, Sultai Energy, Abzan Tokens, all will bow before the only deck with the God-Pharaoh’s seal of approval. Please pardon the hyperbole, but this is the closest a Standard deck has been to Four-Color Saheeli since, well, Four-Color Saheeli. The best predictor of a busted deck is a robust fair shell with an ultra-powerful (or game-winning) combo grafted on top of it, and this Gift build is exactly that. It’s not too reliant on winning with the card God-Pharaoh's Gift itself, and the threats it plays demand fair interaction at every stage of the game. Then, suddenly, when the opponent is about to break through with their well-built machine, the Gift deck can kick into overdrive and just flatten any resistance with massive swingy monsters like 4/4 Hostage Taker, Gifted Aetherborn, and even Noxious Gearhulk. It’s beautiful and fun to see in action, and there should be no shortage of sweet stories from this Pro Tour when my presents from Nicol Bolas get unwrapped. Energy isn’t the busted mechanic of Standard, not by a long shot. It’s 4/4 Zombie versions of all your favorite value creatures, and it isn’t particularly close. Here’s the list:
U/B Gift ? Ixalan Standard | Ben Friedman
- Creatures (28)
- 1 Noxious Gearhulk
- 1 Trophy Mage
- 3 Minister of Inquiries
- 3 The Scarab God
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Hostage Taker
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Walking Ballista
- Instants (2)
- 2 Fatal Push
First off, and the basis for any fundamental analysis of a deck, the mana base. With a full nineteen Black sources and seventeen Blue ones, Gift very rarely gets color-screwed, even when casting the demanding 2-drop, Gifted Aetherborn. Your lands always come into play untapped when you need them (with the exception of a mere four Fetid Pools), and you have neat utility out of Ipnu Rivulet to boot. Sacrificing Ipnu Rivulet to get up to six creatures in the graveyard is a normal and common occurrence, and the land has proven its worth time and again. It’s a great start to a solid deck, but Control also has the joy of a clean mana base. What else is going on here?
Well, unlike some decks (ahem, Temur Energy, ahem), Gift never gets mana flooded. How many mana sinks are there in this deck? Let us count. There is The Scarab God, of course, as well as Walking Ballista, and then there’s the Eternalize cost of Champion of Wits, as well as the ever-present looting power of Gate to the Afterlife. If you ever even draw a Champion of Wits, you are essentially set up for the entire game, as you will never run out of things to do with your mana, up through and including a full twelve lands in play. Contrast that with Temur Energy, which somehow manages to get both manascrewed and mana-flooded in the same game! Temur Energy has no mana sinks, and relies on high-powered individual threats like Bristling Hydra, Glorybringer, and Whirler Virtuoso to do enough work on turn ten to “out-kick their mana cost”, so to speak, and be relevant and potent threats despite an inability to pump extra mana in to get a greater return on the card. Stock Temur has little use for every land drop past the sixth or seventh, which leads to its greatest weakness (flooding out), as the deck is literally half mana sources.
Not so with Gift, which makes excellent use out of every land drop, and rarely gets either screwed or flooded. It’s remarkable the difference a few mana sinks make, and you’ll see the difference immediately.
Gift, like Temur Energy, has must-answer threats up and down the mana curve. Kitesail Freebooter is a Duress that blocks Thopter tokens all day, and demands an interactive spell quickly. Gifted Aetherborn is a roadblock that laughs at Bristling Hydra and Carnage Tyrant, while gaining much-needed life on the back half with God-Pharaoh's Gift in play. The difference between an uncastable 5-drop (read: Angel of Invention) and an irksome 2-drop as your lifelink source is night and day, and Aetherborn trades extremely well while filling the graveyard happily for a chance to become a 4/4 later in the game. Then we get to Hostage Taker. Oh, Hostage Taker. The Sower of Temptation that could, Hostage Taker demands an answer right freakin’ now or that threat is gone for good, and you can enjoy a nice 3-for-1 deal from your main Pirate pal. Hostage Taker off of a Gift is just filthy, requiring no mana investment up front to immediately steal and cast your opponent’s best threat. It’s unbelievable how good these early threats are in Gift, as they demand answers on-curve while gladly throwing themselves away for later use as mummies.
Walking Ballista and Champion of Wits are obvious mana sinks that also improve the deck’s ability to consistently blast off with an early God-Pharaoh's Gift. There are disgusting turns with this deck that involve two sacrificial Walking Ballistas to turn on Gate to the Afterlife as early as turn four or five, with no way for many opponents to reasonably interact. The fact that individually powerful cards also combine perfectly with the unfair package in the deck is simply brutal.
Of course, there are a few outliers, including the two Fatal Pushes, one Trophy Mage (fifth Gate to the Afterlife), one Noxious Gearhulk (fun universal answer to problem cards like Glorybringer that also counts as lifegain), and the three Minister of Inquiries (originally there were four, but the deck needed another land and this card often gets cut against all the matchups where its 1/2 body isn’t relevant). These are easily swapped around, and it is definitely possible to play a few different fun cards in these spots. Another land, another Trophy Mage, or another Minister of Inquiries might help with consistency or explosiveness, but for the truly adventurous, there is only one true fun-of to play. Demon of Dark Schemes, anyone?
Which brings us to the God-Pharaoh's Gift that somehow doesn’t require any setup, comes with a 5/5 unkillable body, and can reanimate multiple creatures in a single turn. Yeah, The Scarab God is absolutely broken, and after this Pro Tour, it might just hit $80 a pop. The fact of the matter is, this deck has no need to ever draw any of its combo pieces to win, because a curve of Fatal Push into Gifted Aetherborn into Champion of Wits into Hostage Taker into The Scarab God is plenty good enough on its own. What more needs to be said? The Scarab God might be the best card in Standard, and Gift maximizes it. That’s it, and that might be the best reason to play this deck.
As we move to talk about the sideboard, something becomes even more glaringly apparent than when I first mentioned it. This deck does not, I repeat, does not need to get a God-Pharaoh's Gift into play to win. There is no reason to be all-in on a combo that the opponent is preparing to beat, not when you can turn into a fake version of the Jaberwocki Midrange deck and run a well-timed juke on your opponent’s best-laid sideboard plans.
Against Temur Energy, you can sideboard in three Vraska's Contempt, a Noxious Gearhulk, and two Supreme Will. You cut a Gift, a Walking Ballista, a Gate, and three Minister of Inquiries in the exchange, and suddenly none of your deck is particularly reliant on executing a combo to win. You just win the normal way, with a fistful of removal and Kitesail Freebooters to soak up opposing answers to The Scarab God. Supreme Will is a tremendous answer to expensive cards like Glorybringer, The Scarab God, and Confiscation Coup, while Vraska's Contempt and Noxious Gearhulk both answer many of the opponent’s best threats with value added. Oftentimes, your Temur Energy opponent will be thrilled to Confiscation Coup your slam-dunk threat of The Scarab God or God-Pharaoh's Gift, and a simple Hostage Taker puts them in a no-win position, where they can’t kill the Taker for fear of giving you back the better threat, but they can’t leave it alone because you’ll simply re-cast the threat the next turn. It works like a charm, and the matchup is squarely favorable as a result.
Against Control and Approach, you can sideboard in three Duress, two Negate, two Supreme Will, and some number of Vraska's Contempt (if they’re ) for Fatal Push, Hostage Taker, Noxious Gearhulk, and some number of Gifted Aetherborn/Minister of Inquiries. Pretty obvious stuff, you end up with seven Duress effects, four counterspells, and a high threat density that almost always ends with you sticking something potent. If this is a concerning matchup, it is reasonable to play a Field of Ruin or two as a nice clean answer to Azcanta, but some Search for Azcanta of your own might be even better!
Against Abzan Tokens, the best card is River's Rebuke, with honorable mentions to Duress and Negate. Here, you just have to tear their hand apart, try to keep them from landing both Anointed Procession and Hidden Stockpile, and win at your leisure. River's Rebuke is the emergency reset card, which undoes upwards of five turns of work all in one fell swoop.
Against Red (the hardest, but still winnable, matchup) and the various derivatives (Mardu or Rakdos Vehicles, both way easier than straight Red), your objective is to become as lean as possible. Cheap creatures are the name of the game, and Minister of Inquiries shines more as a clean answer to Bomat Courier than as an enabler for Gate to the Afterlife. Here, you’ll sideboard out a Trophy Mage, a Gift, a Scarab God, a Champion of Wits (or two), and possibly a Noxious Gearhulk for three Vraska's Contempt and two Fatal Push. It’s conceivable to board out a Hostage Taker since you are bringing in three more four-mana spells, but the Takers actually do provide a valuable service as an answer to Hazoret the Fervent (provided you can fade a removal spell from the opponent for a turn, of course!)
The mirror match (or pseudo-mirror) is rather luck-based, but there are elements of skill involved in proper Hostage Taker timing. River's Rebuke is a great way to reset an opponent’s board if you have fallen behind, and Hostage Taker is one of the best cards in the matchup. Walking Ballista is a weak card on its own, but it’s nice to allow for surprise turns with Gate to the Afterlife. Vraska's Contempt is a nice answer to The Scarab God and Hostage Taker, but it’s expensive, not a creature (for purposes of Gate activation) and not interactive with much else. Duress and Negate are fine to board in, but they can become dead cards easily against a mirror match of mostly creature cards. Fatal Push looks weak, but the ability to protect your permanents from Hostage Taker by holding up a single mana is not to be underestimated. Basically, my only advice here is to try to win the Hostage Taker battle, and try to keep your opponents on their toes.
By the time this article hits the digital presses, we’ll have some firsthand knowledge of just how correct I was in my prediction of Gift as the future of Standard. With some luck, this will be a great called shot, and an awesome way to kick my Pro Magic career into a higher gear. And if I’m wrong, well, at least I’m a lock to have some great games at this event. Here’s to hoping I unwrap some victories in Nicol Bolas’ Gift Basket this Pro Tour!