How do you take an existing deck during spoiler season and make it better? The obvious answer is when a card comes out that is a clearly better version of a card the deck is already playing, but what about the non-obvious upgrades? What about adjusting a deck based on new possibilities? Today I want to walk through the thought process I had when rebuilding Sultai Midrange for War of the Spark standard.
What is Sultai Midrange?
Sultai Midrange is a Find//Finality midrange deck that leans on explore creatures to consistently make land drops and to allow Find to have targets in the yard when Finality is not the half we are aiming to cast. The deck uses Vivien Reid alongside lategame creature threats like Carnage Tyrant and Hydroid Krasis to scale into the endgame with a level of inevitability in grindier matchups. Sultai plays a modicum of spot removal to ensure it doesn’t get run over and has the ability to interact with the opposing board. Some of the spot removal takes the form of creatures, as recurring Hostage Taker or Ravenous Chupacabra with Find can allow you to repeatedly answer the opposing board and bury the opponent under these two-for-one creatures. The deck often plays Llanowar Elves, a very powerful and efficient mana dork that allows you to cast your spells ahead of time and often get to cast two spells in a turn sooner than your opponent.
What New Cards Appeal to Sultai Midrange?
Enter the God-Eternals is kind of synergistic with the shell in that it’s a two-for-one “creature” that can help fill our yard and recoup life, but traditionally blue is the splash color, making Enter difficult to cast. Additionally, it can’t be found with Vivien and can’t be recurred by Find, and competes with Vivien herself at the 5 mana slot.
Soul Diviner can leverage the existing explore shell and survives a Finality if chosen. Another sturdy creature that can scale later into the game and supply card advantage is exactly the kind of card Sultai is interested in, and can let us trim down on Wildgrowth Walker, a creature that can definitely feel bad to draw multiples of in several matchups.
Tyrant’s Scorn is a neat new removal spell that could supplant Cast Down in Sultai, as it largely kills the same creatures but has an additional mode. The Unsummon mode means that your cast downs are no longer dead in control matchups, as you can bounce your own creatures to save them from removal or re-use their enters the battlefield effects.
Liliana, Dreadhorde General is a potent new planeswalker with the ability to protect herself and clear up the opposing board. Her triggered ability allows us to draw cards while we clear up both sides of the board, and means that even if they answer the creatures protecting Liliana we still come out of the exchange ahead.
How Can We Fit These New Cards In?
Given that we want to lean more into blue spells than previously, we probably can’t cut wildgrowth as we need the lifegain to offset the additional shocklands, but an additional sturdy two lets us trim down on it a little bit. We still want to be playing three Find//Finality, three Vivien, our 8 explore creatures, and a couple Hostage Takers. Let’s say we start with 2 Wildgrowth, 4 Soul Diviner, 4 Merfolk Branchwalker, 4 Jadelight Ranger, 4 Hydroid Krasis, 3 Find//Finality, 3 Vivien Reid, 2 Tyrant’s Scorn, 2 Hostager Taker, and 24 lands. This is a 52 card starting point with 8 more cards to fill in.
Llanowar elves is a very powerful card, and we probably still include it, but that gets us to 56 cards, and we would only have 4 remaining slots to fit everything else. Soul diviner doesn’t do a ton of work in multiples, so let’s shave one , giving us nine total two drops in our deck. At this point I want to stop and look at the mana and see what we are allowed to explore in our last 5 slots.
Without getting too wild we can get to 24 lands that supply us 17 green sources, 14 black sources, and 13 blue sources, and 12 untapped sources of green to cast a turn one Lllanowar Elves. At this point we may want to consider cutting Llanowar Elves, as supporting both Elves and Soul Diviner with our manabase is difficult, but let’s see what a build with both looks like first.
We still want the ability to answer opposing planeswalkers, so I want a pair of Vraska’s Contempt, and a single Assassin’s Trophy allows us to answer a variety of threats and cover our bases without going too far up the curve for our catchall. Finale of Eternity is a very powerful card against opposing creature decks, and I’d like to include a copy as a way to answer the go-wide decks cheaply that also scales for larger creature decks. The last slot I’m going to fit in is a singular Liliana, Dreadhorde General. Arguably Vraska, Relic Seeker is a more flexible include that “goes ultimate” faster, and I would consider that in this slot as well, but being able to accelerate Liliana with Llanowar Elves is powerful, and Llanowar elves make for good throwaway creatures to her -4 to preserve our stronger creatures.
At this point it I want to strongly consider cutting Llanowar Elves, as we cannot cleanly support Elves, Soul Diviner, and our powerful double black spells all on curve at the same time. Removing Llanowar allows us to reduce our forest count and potentially support Thought Erasure instead as a powerful tool to clear the way for our potent threats and deny our opponents theirs. Cutting Llanowar Elves allows us to cut our forests down to just one, allowing us to better support our double black spells, our two mana UB spells, and even allows us to start considering Enter the God-Eternals. We don’t want to play too many copies, as it’s very easy to have too many cards that cost five or more mana, but a pair of these allows us to offset the damage we will take by slowing down slightly and gives us additional threats that double as removal. Without Llanowar Elves, Liliana is a bit slower and has less fodder, and her -4 will increasingly be symmetrical in an unfavorable way. I want to play a Vraska, Relic seeker in her place as she can still generate a board presence and remove opposing threats, and Vraska pairs better with Thought Erasure due to her ability to ultimate a full turn sooner uncontested.
How Can I Do This for Other Decks?
The general outline of my process for improving an existing deck with new cards is:
1)Determine what the deck does and why, find the core of the deck and understand why it’s the core, look at the gameplan of the deck
2)Look for new cards that cleanly upgrade previous cards 1:1, find cards that work well with the core of the deck, find cards that work with the deck’s overall gameplan
3)Make sure that you are accounting for these changes in your manabase and in your curve, and make sure that you haven’t negatively affected the deck’s core functionality
Don’t be afraid to cut key cards, but make sure that whatever you do has a good reason with solid support behind it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Most importantly, make sure that you evaluate the new deck and learn from the experience. Even a failed attempt at an upgrade can shed new light on a deck, dissecting why a change didn’t work out can tell you more about how a deck works and give you better insight for future changes.
What’s the Best Deck for War of the Spark Standard?
If you know, please tell me! I’m just winding down my exploratory deckbuilding, looking at what’s possible in the format. The next steps are to find what matters in the format, followed by determining what deck to play in the format, followed by practicing how to play that deck in the format. I’m going to be hard at work this week and next looking at those next three steps in preparation for the upcoming MCQ season, which is entirely WAR standard. As soon as we have access to the new cards on Arena and MTGO, I’ll be streaming a good amount of this process at twitch.tv/yoman5, and
ranting discussing it on Twitter @yoman_5. Please let me know in the comments what decks you all are looking forward to playing, especially if you have a busted 75!
Adam “yoman5” Hernandez is an up-and-coming pro player, recently earning an invite to MC Cleveland with a top 8 finish at GP Milwaukee. He has a strong focus on figuring out key aspects of decks, matches, and gameplay, digging past the what to figure out the why. In addition to his written content, Adam regularly streams on Twitch.