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And Now For Something Completely Different

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As far as I can tell, Golgari is the top strategy in Standard. Golgari is a value deck, with most of its individual cards capable of generating card advantage. This can come both from a Merfolk Branchwalker drawing an extra land or a Ravenous Chupacabra killing one of the opponent’s threats when it enters the battlefield.

As a result, many Golgari decks have de-emphasized instant speed spot removal. Not that they’re not playing Assassin's Trophy (they still largely are, if not all four), but remember: Vraska's Contempt was one of the top cards in Standard before Guilds of Ravnica hit. You could easily imagine Golgari playing an eight-pack, but it doesn’t anymore.

All these spot removal cards are a little less good when everyone is getting two-for-ones. Many of the creatures are themselves unremarkable; the aforementioned Chupacabra is only 2/2, and we see both 1/2 and 1/1 for two in various builds. Spending a card to kill one of them might not be the best deal. It gets worse when you figure they already got a two-for-one with that creature, and worse yet when Assassin's Trophy gives them yet another card. Plus there is a lot of competition at 2bb, with the 2/2 winning out over the Hazoret-killer in the post-Hazoret world.

This creates an opportunity.

  1. The dominant deck in the format operates in a kind of grinding / exchange fashion. While it is generating a lot of card advantage, much of that card advantage is unremarkable. You know, a basic land here or there.
  2. Odd given the presence of Assassin's Trophy, but there might be a sweet spot for high impact permanents. Either the opponent just doesn’t have the right instant speed removal, or you are taxing them with great permanents early enough that when you get what you really want, they’re already spent.

Huh?

When the cards are super solid, when so many cheap plays are drawing extra cards, one successful strategy is to go completely over the top. Example: At the height of Caw-Blade in Standard I debuted ur Splinter Twin. That deck just executed on a two-card combination (Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin) to kill the opponent for essentially infinite damage, often while they were tapped for a main phase source of card advantage.

Was that deck better than Caw-Blade? I thought so at the time (and it was great for me), but maybe not. It certainly played at a different speed than the rest of the format, and could accumulate different advantages. The ability to kill the opponent with a two-card combo when they weren’t quite looking was also nice.

Current Standard gives us similar opportunities. There are at least two cool two-card combos that you can play in Standard; I chose to play both in the same deck!

Can We Turn a Flavor Win Into a Real Win?

Star of Extinction

Star of Extinction is one of the most beautifully designed, aesthetic, cards in the history of Magic: The Gathering. The destroying target land part is so flavorful. It is reminiscent of the asteroid strike that we largely believe ended the age of the dinosaurs. Dealing 20 points of damage to every creature and Planeswalker is so red. Dealing 20 damage makes so much sense, aesthetically. 20 is how much you are I start with, so dealing 20 to “everything” feels earth-shattering. Game ending, for all of them; Planeswalkers, too!

Of course I put “everything” in quotes just now. That is because Star of Extinction doesn’t do 20 to everything, only to creatures and Planeswalkers. Can we harness its power to add someone else to the death toll?

Truefire Captain

If you have Truefire Captain in play, then Star of Extinction will deal 20 to your opponent. How Trix that would be! This is a two-card combo that wins the game on the spot.

Combo-Combo

But wait! There’s more!

As cool as Star of Extinction can be with Truefire Captain, it is not the only combo - nor even two-card combo - in this Standard.

You might also call this a combo:

Sunbird's Invocation
Star of Extinction

It’s not a 100% slam dunk or anything, but seven is a lot. With the Invocation in play you can cast Star of Extinction and have a look-see at the top seven cards of your deck. If Truefire Captain is among them, you can play it and kill the opponent per usual.

But how about this card?

Azor's Gateway

The structure of this deck is very conducive to Azor's Gateway. It is chock full of removal cards. Deafening Clarion has no text - or at least little text - sometimes. So get rid of it! Azor's Gateway lets you make lemonade out of lemons. While this was certainly not part of the intentional structure of the deck, it is also full of different casting costs. Deafening Clarion, Settle the Wreckage, Cleansing Nova, and even Star of Extinction itself can sweep the board. They’re all good cards, and are all the best pull, sometimes. They’re all low impact other times. When the opponent doesn’t have a ton of toughness, Azor's Gateway can help you turn your commitment to main-deck creature removal into, well, anything else. Because the cards have so many different casting costs… You know the drill.

How about a Banefire?

Banefire

My favorite card in Standard, more or less, is Banefire. It’s great a lot of different ways, but here, it also completes a two-card combo kill with Azor's Gateway. You can literally play Azor's Gateway on turn two, be stuck on lands, never make another drop [against a deck that is not pressuring your life total], and flat out win the game a few turns later. You can also make enough mana to do something like play Sunbird's Invocation, drop another Sunbird's Invocation, and then a Star with a very high likelihood of turning over your Truefire Captain (if not three).

A deck list:


Putting it All Together

I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is a “better” deck than Golgari.

But it is a novel, and shockingly viable (at all!) way you might approach Standard; say, on a Friday Night.

My first test match out on MTGO I happened to be up against a library exhaustion deck based on Drowned Secrets and Psychic Corrosion. I was unsure of the commitment to the full basic Forest in this deck for two cards total between deck and sideboard. It took my opponent a while to figure out that he had no meaningful way around Gaea's Blessing. Cha-ching! He literally didn’t have a card that could kill me between deck and sideboard. Providence? Dumb luck? I took it as a sign.

I played a bit against Golgari, Izzet, and Dimir Surveil decks. It was all very shocking that I wasn’t just getting blown out. Izzet in particular seemed like a scary opponent that had better control elements than I did. But the problem was that they still had to kill me and I had lots and lots of ways to kill Crackling Drake, so it just didn’t kill me. It took a while for me to understand why he wasn’t flipping that Search for Azcanta. “Oh,” I realized; “He can’t get around these three copies of Field of Ruin I have sitting in play.” Moreover, my Thaumatic Compass was doing everything that it possibly could to annoy him. I was drawing an extra card early, and then I had Drake protection built-in; later, if I drew a Compass, I could use it at least once before it flipped. The cards I was just playing to find my one Forest were conspiring to sand off the Izzet edges. Huatli of all cards eked me out of Lightning Strike range and I had enough Banefires for his Planeswalkers. Gaea's Blessing kept drawing Ionize, but at some point, Invocation stuck.

The most uncomfortable lesson I learned was how to play through Disinformation Campaign. Basically, you have to assume you’re going to have no hand. Luckily, they have relatively little pressure. But you’re going to have no hand at all. That doesn’t mean you don’t have play… You just have to assume that for most of both players’ turns, you’re going to have zero cards. But there is a golden moment each turn that they pass that you can 1) draw an extra card with your Arch of Orazca, and 2) maybe tuck something with your Azor's Gateway. You can have as many as three cards to think about on your own turn… Just know that number is usually going to go back to zero. They can bounce and force you to discard! I realized one “OK” click too late that you can spoil their fun with a Treasure. Their lack of pressure does get you get a little flexibility. Eventually lace a play together. Going long enough, you can get some breathing room due to your card advantage-generating permanents, long game acceleration, and the fact that they keep pulling Walk the Plank. Just don’t give them anything to point it at. It can be a very slow grind, but you’re shockingly not-automatically-dead despite having, again, literally zero cards in hand for much of the game.

Am I going to sit here and say, “Oh yeah, playing with no cards in hand is my favorite thing to do against an opponent with a bunch of card drawing and Sinister Sabotage” or something? No. This strategy is not in fact “better” than Golgari. But you’re not automatically dead. They still have to put a bunch of work in, and you ultimately have a lot of give.

Most importantly, I found the deck could in fact go over the top of Golgari. The current builds of bg don’t emphasize main deck disruption. It is unlikely you can go card-for-card with them because all their cards gain card advantage; but you can go mana-for-mana with them. They don’t put a ton of pressure on you; and if they’re one of the decks with big threats like Carnage Tyrant main deck, you are one of the rare decks with Cleansing Nova and Settle the Wreckage that can actually stay alive through that. Use your life total as a resource here. Wildgrowth Walker into Jadelight Ranger is a hell of a one-two punch against Red Aggro… But they’re not that scary for you when you can kill multiple creatures at a time.

It can be ambitious to think you’re going to untap with your first Sunbird's Invocation… But between the other two and Azor's Gateway (or even just a 4/3 you put into play) you are taxing their Assassin’s Trophies pretty hard. You might look behind most of the game - seven versus four cards in hand for many turns, say - but if they don’t kill you, you are probably going to kill them. Spectacularly.

“This deck isn’t even tuned.”

-Bob Maher, Jr.

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Bob said that after making Top 8 of a Pro Tour with a combo reanimator deck that someone basically just handed him.

My Star of Extinction deck isn’t really tuned, either.

The deck needs to be able to make rr and ww for our friend the Captain; but outside of that, you can go in many different directions. I toyed with being base-Green, for instance. What if I just played traditional accelerators? Is there a gigantic Dinosaur I should play if I am flipping the Gateway anyway?

Instead (as you can see) I played essentially a White board control shell… Leaning much more on Cleansing Nova and Settle the Wreckage. The Clarion is there as a three-mana sweeper, but I didn’t play either Red or White super fast stuff. There is probably a build that likes the one-mana Red removal cards; or could make good use of Lightning Strike main for more Planewalker defense.

Right now this deck is more of an idea for a deck than an actual deck. But it’s an idea with some legs. Now that these combos are out there, maybe you’ll make something great out of it! Splinter Twin + Pestermite was just something that some folks grafted onto the backs of their Grixis Control decks at one point… Until Deceiver Exarch was printed in Standard. Squandered Resources + Natural Balance was a not-that-cute idea that some kid at your Arena League lost with every week… Until it won a Pro Tour. I realize that Truefire Captain is fragile, and Star of Extinction is seven… But damn if they don’t kill the opponent when you lace one into the other.

Two cards.

Twenty Points.

In Standard!

LOVE

MIKE