In the weeks leading up to SCG Philadelphia, I had access to the knowledge of three different testing groups, including Arena Decklists Discord. Our evaluations of the best deck shifted, but gradually we all came to the same conclusion: Golos was very good.
Jon Rosum mentioned that he thought Golos was more than slightly better than other decks in the format, and not playing it was a mistake. Rosum would back up his words by winning the tournament we were all testing for. I was skeptical as the deck felt reasonably good but not great when I tested it last week, but once I got the hang of playing it I started winning most of my matches on Arena, hitting Diamond with relative ease.
Golos looks like the deck to beat after the first weekend of Standard, and I took it to a good weekend in Philadelphia, reaching the finals of the Standard Classic before losing to Aaron Barich. These were my results over the course of the weekend:
Win 2-1 vs Rakdos Aggro (1-0)
Win 2-0 vs Bant Golos (2-0)
Draw 1-1-1 vs Jeskai Planeswalkers (2-0-1)
Loss 0-2 vs Bant Golos (2-1-1)
Win 2-1 vs Jeskai Planeswalkers (3-1-1)
Win 2-0 vs Jund Adventures (4-1-1)
Win 2-1 vs Jeskai Cavaliers (5-1-1)
Win 2-0 vs Bant Golos (6-1-1)
Win 2-0 vs UG Food (7-1-1)
Loss 1-2 vs Gruul Aggro (7-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Esper Dance (8-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Jeskai Planeswalkers (9-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Sultai Control (10-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Bant Golos (11-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Orzhov Knights (12-2-1)
Win 2-1 vs Bant Golos (13-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Golgari Adventures (14-2-1)
Win 2-0 vs Golgari Adventures (15-2-1)
Loss 1-2 vs Selesnya Adventures (15-3-1)
A good record was not an uncommon story for Golos players this weekend. On Day 2 of the Open, Golos decks made up a staggering 54% of the metagame, with 15 of 28 players registering the deck. Golos was not quite as prevalent at the top of the Classic, but put a more than respectable four copies in the top 16.
Many teams that finished near the top of the standings came to the conclusion that Bant Golos was the best choice for a tournament. While team tournaments can result in skewed results with many players having mediocre records, it is telling that so many Standard players on successful teams chose to play Field of the Dead strategies.
In the Open, seven of the Top 8 teams’ Standard players played Golos variants (the other played Simic Food). Five Golos decks were the standard Bant Golos with Realm-Cloaked Giant. The other two were teched out to beat the mirror, one using Fires of Invention and the other using Yarok, the Desecrated. Jeremy Bertarioni’s second-place deck combined the Golos core with a Fires of Invention / Fae of Wishes plan, which could be used to great effect against Golos by Jeskai Planeswalkers were the rest of that deck not so anemic. Zach Allen’s Sultai Golos deck used Yarok, the Desecrated in conjunction with Risen Reef and Agent of Treachery.
Jeremy’s choice to cut Arboreal Grazer and worsen his mana with Deafening Clarion likely results in a worse matchup against aggressive strategies. Zach also made concessions in aggressive matchups, eschewing Realm-Cloaked Giant and Teferi, Time Raveler, and adding the slower sweeper Finality and the irrelevant body and inconsistent ability of Risen Reef. But both lists gain points in slower matchups, including the Golos mirror, as Jeremy gets the Fae of Wishes package and Zach gets the explosive Yarok and the split wrath/recursion element in Find/Finality.
Why is Golos so Difficult to Attack?
Despite purportedly having good matchups against Golos, Gruul and Mono-Red failed to show up in the Top 8 of either the Open or the Classic last weekend. Golgari Adventures and Selesnya Adventures put up good showings in the Classic, but floundered in the Open, where many competent Golos pilots remained in contention deep into Day 2. Simic Food and Esper Dance, two decks with strong matchups against much of the field but notably poor matchups against Golos, were nearly non-factors. Even Jeskai Fires seems hard to justify over Jeremy Bertarioni’s deck, as its shell cannot measure up to Field of the Dead in a longer game and sweeping the board repeatedly can be bypassed by keeping up Fabled Passage to find Zombies on Fires’ end step and pressure its planeswalkers.
Bant Golos’ strong results indicate that it will continue to be a force, but they are not a guarantee. So why do I think the many people who have claimed they have a plan that beats Golos should just be playing Golos themselves?
Golos’ gameplan is in and of itself not particularly hard to attack. There are not many dimensions to their defense of their life total: Arboreal Grazer, sweepers, Hydroid Krasis, and 2/2 ground creatures. This makes them vulnerable to an aggressive plan backed by threats like Questing Beast and Skarrgan Hellkite that pressure their draws to include more than just Realm-Cloaked Giant. Pure aggressive strategies like Mono-Red and Selesnya Adventures can also be effective.
The problem lies in having to attack Golos while not weakening yourself to other strategies. The angles Golos is good at defending, like big creatures and grindy control games, force opponents to beat it with narrow plans which are themselves weak and easily attacked.
Mono-Red’s army of 1/1s match up poorly against an army of creatures that are slightly bigger than 1/1s, backed by bigger creatures like Questing Beast that make red burn spells look silly with both players at 15 life. Similarly, Gruul’s plan of curving medium-sized creatures into a big haymaker matches up poorly if the big creatures it wants to turn the corner with run into Oko’s inexplicably strong +1, or if Nissa and Wicked Wolf favorably interact with their board and slow them down.
Mono-Black looked even more promising against Bant Golos, using Ayara, First of Locthwain and Priest of Forgotten Gods to grind down Golos’ life total and Rankle as a finisher that was good against many different Golos draws. Unfortunately, Mono-Black had very few tools to beat cheap planeswalkers and tended to fall flat when its best cards didn’t go unanswered.
There is also a question as to how effective it is to attack a deck that can play a critical mass of ramp on curve and still have flex slots for cards like Realm-Cloaked Giant and Once Upon a Time, or sideboard cards to replace them. Golos has several options against Gruul, like Oko, Devout Decree, and Aether Gust, to slow them and neutralize their important threats. Oko is similarly effective against Mono-Red. Bant Golos is especially good at protecting its life total, so it’s harder for aggressive strategies to attack.
In a small field like the Mythic Championship (where I expect many players to play Golos), I would expect more players to opt for a strategy that directly targets Golos. In an open field, however, this is too risky. People will still play decks like Simic Food or Jeskai Fires, even though these decks are weak against Golos. With the assessment that Golos is at worst slightly unfavored against a deck like Gruul, and Gruul’s poor matchups against other decks make it a bad choice, Golos is protected from being hard targeted unless a large number of people find a deck that can beat Golos harder than it loses to everything else, or if the decks that beat Gruul but lose to Golos see a sharp decline in play (though even in the latter world, Golos is still a reasonable choice).
How Does Golos Beat The Mirror?
Having come to the conclusion that Golos is the best deck in Standard and is relatively unassailable, the next question is how to configure Bant Golos to beat the mirror.
Golos Mirrors revolve around one card: Field of the Dead.
In an average game, the player who controls more copies of Field of the Dead will usually win. In addition to normal measures to get Fields in play, the mirror is a tug-of-war: players steal each other’s Fields with Agent of Treachery and weaken each other’s life total with Hydroid Krasis. Finally, Kenrith, the Returned King comes in, giving an army of Zombies trample and haste to suddenly rip the rope out of the opponent’s hands.
The early turns are better spent preparing for a long game than a short one. Blockers matter very little, but having a critical mass of lands and as many Fields as possible matters a lot. It is better to make sure you have a Field advantage than to put cards in your deck that just deal with the Zombies that come from being at a disadvantage, so Arboreal Grazer and Realm-Cloaked Giant are two of the weakest cards in the deck in the mirror.
The mirror is one of the primary reasons to play Kenrith. It is unintuitively easy to go from an even board at the beginning of the turn to activating Kenrith and winning the game. With four Fields on the battlefield, a Fabled Passage adds sixteen power at the cost of a land drop. A Circuitous Route in the same situation adds sixteen power for four mana, without using a land drop. Add Kenrith’s five power, and it’s often possible to find lethal.
Teferi, Time Raveler and Oko, Thief of Crowns are both strong in the mirror. Teferi can immediately bounce Agent of Treachery to steal another permanent, like a Field. Oko is particularly good against Hydroid Krasis and Golos. Oko turns the opponent’s Krasis into a threat that can easily be chump blocked while clearing the way for your own Krasis to get through, and makes Golos a non-threat to activate or even threatens to steal an opposing Golos and activate it yourself.
While I only had two Agent of Treachery and wanted to play a more aggressive game, I was okay boarding out a Circuitous Route in the mirror. With four Agent, I now want four Route to help ramp into them.
Given the options available, it is possible to gain extra points against aggressive decks while not sacrificing much in the mirror. Drawing multiple copies of Arboreal Grazer is never amazing, but the first one can absorb a lot of damage against aggressive decks while advancing your gameplan. I want to play the fourth Fabled Passage because of its applications in stabilizing life total, in winning quickly with Kenrith, and against decks with sweepers like Jeskai. I want a 29th land in general so I don’t miss land drops while I’m ramping.
Currently, I think I want Aether Gust in my sideboard, as it is a cleanish answer to Gruul and Mono-Red’s pressure. Devout Decree is important as a way to deal with both black aggro and JeskaI Planeswalkers. Oko is a hedge against aggressive decks.
With so many cards to board in against the mirror and so few cards to board out, Deputy of Detention does not make the cut. It is hard to find pieces to trim or cut in the mirror after getting past obvious cuts in Realm-Cloaked Giant and Arboreal Grazer. I am okay cutting one land, especially since I am also cutting all of my Grazers. This land would probably be Tranquil Cove.
This is the list I would register if I were playing a Standard tournament in the near future:
1 Agent of Treachery
3 Arboreal Grazer
1 Azorius Guildgate
2 Beanstalk Giant
1 Blossoming Sands
2 Breeding Pool
4 Circuitous Route
1 Dimir Guildgate
4 Fabled Passage
4 Field of the Dead
4 Golos, Tireless Pilgrim
4 Growth Spiral
1 Gruul Guildgate
1 Hallowed Fountain
4 Hydroid Krasis
1 Kenrith, the Returned King
4 Once Upon a Time
1 Overgrown Tomb
2 Realm-Cloaked Giant
1 Selesnya Guildgate
1 Simic Guildgate
2 Teferi, Time Raveler
1 Temple Garden
1 Temple of Mystery
1 Thornwood Falls
1 Tranquil Cove
3 Aether Gust
3 Agent of Treachery
3 Devout Decree
1 Kenrith, the Returned King
2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
1 Realm-Cloaked Giant
2 Veil of Summer
+3 Agent of Treachery, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, +1 Kenrith, the Returned King, +2 Veil of Summer
-3 Arboreal Grazer, -2 Realm-Cloaked Giant, -2 Once Upon a Time, -1 Tranquil Cove
+3 Aether Gust, +3 Agent of Treachery, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
-3 Arboreal Grazer, -1 Kenrith, the Returned King, -1 Once Upon a Time, -1 Overgrown Tomb, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler
+2 Agent of Treachery, +3 Devout Decree, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, +1 Kenrith, the Returned King
-3 Arboreal Grazer, -2 Realm-Cloaked Giant, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler, -1 Tranquil Cove
+1 Realm-Cloaked Giant, +3 Devout Decree, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
-1 Arboreal Grazer, -1 Beanstalk Giant, -1 Once Upon a Time, -1 Overgrown Tomb, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler
+3 Aether Gust, +3 Devout Decree, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, +1 Realm-Cloaked Giant
-1 Agent of Treachery, -1 Arboreal Grazer, -2 Beanstalk Giant, -2 Once Upon a Time, -1 Overgrown Tomb, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler
+3 Devout Decree, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, +1 Kenrith, the Returned King, +2 Veil of Summer
-1 Agent of Treachery, -3 Arboreal Grazer, -2 Realm-Cloaked Giant, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler
+3 Aether Gust, +3 Devout Decree, +2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, +1 Kenrith, the Returned King
-1 Agent of Treachery, -2 Beanstalk Giant, -1 Hydroid Krasis, -2 Once Upon a Time, -1 Overgrown Tomb, -2 Teferi, Time Raveler
You might be wondering why I play Teferi, Time Raveler maindeck, even though I sideboard it out for Oko, Thief of Crowns a lot of the time. In Game 1, I don’t know what removal I will need, and the opponent doesn’t have as much relevant interaction in their deck. Both of these factors make executing a proactive gameplan (as opposed to trying to interact with my opponent) more appealing, and Teferi’s card draw and immediate tempo setback for the opponent are both generally okay at this. Postboard, I expect a proactive plan to be weaker, and there is less of a need for me to kill or stabilize quickly with interaction like Aether Gust and Devout Decree.