As 2016 comes to a close and 2017 awaits us, it is important to look back on the last year of competitive Magic. It was a year of big changes — from the transition to a twice-yearly Standard rotation (and eventual return to annual rotation); #paythepros; Eldrazi Winter; and even the introduction of Frontier (Note to the Editor: This format will not live to see 2018) in an effort to fight against a stale Standard season.
Magic is a game that is constantly changing, and with three major constructed formats and a card pool that grows every three months, it is easy to lose track of it all. I’d like to reflect on the last year of Magic by taking a look at how these formats have changed over the last 360ish days.
When 2016 began, we were in the middle of one of the most expensive Standard formats in the time that I’ve been playing Magic. With every deck starting off with twelve fetchlands and four Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Standard decks were approaching or even exceeding $1,000. Fetchlands themselves created a high amount of tension between Standard players across all skill levels, whether it was players who no longer could afford to have a deck to play at their local FNM’s, or the competitive player who was so worried about all the time spent in a match shuffling that it sparked numerous debates over slow play and how it should be called.
The top deck at this point was 4-color Rally, a deck that had seen a fair amount of play before Oath of the Gatewatch was released. The floodgates opened as the year of under-costed and slightly over-powered creatures began with the release of Reflector Mage. I don’t need to go into detail about how annoying this card was to play against until the end of Collected Company’s days in Standard.
4-color Rally, Owen Turtenwald
1st place, Grand Prix Houston
Moving forward to April and the beginning of the semi-annual rotation, with the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, we bid farewell to Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged. This was when the white cards started taking over. Archangel Avacyn was the end boss of this format, and if you cared about small creatures, you didn’t want to make her angry. The most dominant of white decks from that format was G/W tokens. The deck made its debut at Pro Tour Shadows Over Innistrad in response to the dominance of Bant Company at the Baltimore Open and Columbus Invitational in the weeks leading up to the Pro Tour.
G/W Tokens, Gerry Thompson
3rd place, SCG Atlanta
Spoiler alert: It was Emrakul.
As if the Eldrazi takeover wasn’t enough from Oath of the Gatewatch, the final eldrazi titan made her appearance in a big way. At Pro Tour Eldritch moon, Emrakul decks flooded the field in response once again to the dominance of Bant Company (this time juiced up with Spell Queller) Emerge and Delirium Ramp strategies came to the event with one purpose in mind: put a 13/13 flying, trampling, protection from instants Mindslaver into play for as cheap as possible.
Temur Emerge, Owen Turtenwald
2nd place, Pro Tour Eldritch Moon
This brings us to the current format. We are sitting in a Rock-Paper-Scissors format where if you’re not playing with a deck that doesn’t play either Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; Aetherworks Marvel; Smuggler’s Copter; or Emrakul, the Promised End, you better have a good reason, but you probably don’t.
This has been a hot topic now that we are in the days of turn 4 Emrakul via Aetherworks Marvel, but Emrakul is just the most zero-sum card I’ve played with and I hope something does change with the release of Aether Revolt, because with the return to annual rotations, another ten months of Emrakul is just too much to deal with.
If you had asked me on Jan. 1, 2016 what my favorite format was, I’d say Modern without hesitation. Throughout 2015 I spent most of my time working on mastering Splinter Twin in all of its variations. I picked up the deck in the middle of 2014 and only briefly put it down for Delver during the Treasure Cruise era.
I could go on about how Twin was wrongfully banned as a victim of the need to shake things up before the final Modern Pro Tour, but those conversations are so almost-last year. However, Summer Bloom was a card that needed to go. At the time I wasn’t sure if there was another deck that could consistently win as soon as the second or third turn, but we’ll keep that thought in the back of our minds for a second.
With the banning of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom, Modern had begun the transformation from a “Turn 4” format to a turn 3 format. And it took a few weeks but a new monster had arose and it was like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from. As Splinter Twin had been a mainstay of Modern since its inception at Pro Tour Philadelphia, Oath of the Gatewatch paved the way for the new Modern format, and it was ruled by our Eldrazi overlords.
Without question, 2016 was the Year of the Eldrazi. The creature type that had been mostly a part of Magic lore with some select cards seeing competitive play suddenly took its place at the top of tribal decks across every format from beginning to end. Eldrazi winter was a storm not even Chicago itself could prepare for (and we’re usually pretty good at handling winter.)
At inception, the Eldrazi decks were more midrange decks rather than Stompy/Prison decks. They used the Processor mechanic with Wasteland Strangler and Blight Herder by utilizing exile effect such as Relic of Progenitus and Scrabbling Claws. At Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, Luis Scott-Vargas made a deal with the devil (or in this case, spaghetti monsters) to begin his insane three consecutive Pro Tour Top 8s run and his weapon of choice was the original Colorless Eldrazi deck. This Top 8 showed quickly that something had to be done it included three copies of Colorless Eldrazi and two copies of U/R Eldrazi.
Colorless Eldrazi, Luis Scott-Vargas
Top 8, Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch
U/R Eldrazi, Jiachen Tao
1st place, Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch
In the weeks after this event, public outcry for an emergency ban was denied and we had to move on to find a way to combat the deck until April’s update of the Banned and Restricted List. A few weeks before SCG Louisville and Grand Prix Detroit, deck builder extraordinaire Andrew Tenjum had success with a U/W Eldrazi version that abused Eldrazi Displacer and Drowner of Hope as well as technology for the mirror in the form of Worship. This became the go-to version for the remainder of Eldrazi Winter (Editor’s note: Finally, a decklist that actually should include Adarkar Wastes.)
U/W Eldrazi, Andrew Tenjum
7th place, SCG Louisville
Eldrazi Winter finally came to an end with the banning of Eye of Ugin upon the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, and we were rewarded for our suffering with some unbannings as well: Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek. While Sword of the Meek hasn’t seen much play since its unbanning, Ancestral Vision quickly made its presence known by giving new life to blue control decks that had all but left Modern.
In addition to Ancestral Vision, Shadows Over Innistrad gave us Nahiri, the Harbinger as a tool that brought Jeskai Control decks to the forefront of the Modern metagame during the early parts of the summer. Traditionally these decks leaned on planeswalkers such as Ajani Vengeant or Gideon Jura to be their end game in addition to Celestial Colonnade beatdowns. With Nahiri and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Jeskai Control felt kind of like a Splinter Twin deck, being able to race aggressive decks with this quick 1-2 punch winning as soon as Turn 6.
Other cards from Shadows Over Innistrad also gave new life to an archetype that is the boogey man of Vintage, and has been scattered among the top tables of large modern tournaments ever since August. Since Golgari Grave-Troll was unbanned in January 2015 it has been relatively unplayed — until the printing of Prized Amalgam and Insolent Neonate, which helped give Dredge the footing it needed to be fast enough to compete in Modern. The Dredge deck didn’t stop there; at SCG Milwaukee Team Cardhoarder brought Dredge with four copies of Cathartic Reunion, which just lets you go turbo. It’s really hard to not feel dirty when you’ve dumped 30 cards into your yard and gotten 10+ power into play all before your opponent can play their Turn 2 Rest in Peace.
Looking forward to 2017, I’m honestly hoping to see some bannings happen in this format, as we’ve been dealing with some serious offenders as of late. (I’m not banhammer happy, I promise!) Golgari Grave-Troll and Become Immense are my two picks to get the axe, as they outpace the rest of the format by such a large margin and regularly enable Turn 2-3 kills in their respective decks. Of course I’d also love to see some unbannings happen as well; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Bloodbraid Elf; and Splinter Twin are my three choices to unban, and I’m hoping we get at least one of them if not all three.
Legacy is usually pretty consistent about what decks are performing well and not too many cards shake up the metagame, But this year, we saw a ton of innovation and new cards seeing Legacy play. Conspiracy: Take the Crown and assorted cards from various Standard sets (again, I’m looking at you, Oath of the Gatewatch) creating new decks as well as giving existing ones a lot of new tools to play with.
The Colorless Eldrazi deck that started it all in Modern quickly made its way into legacy as getting to free roll “Sol” lands like City of Traitors and Ancient Tomb made the deck feel even more explosive. After the debut of the deck at SCG Philadelphia in February, it didn’t really have much tournament success until it made its return as the break-out deck at Grand Prix Columbus.
Tireless Tracker made its Legacy debut as a sideboard card in Lands, giving the deck some grind power in matchups where they see fit, and having instant speed ways to draw cards is a great way to protect Life from the Loam from getting taken care of by Deathrite Shaman or a Surgical Extraction.
Conspiracy: Take the Crown made Legacy players feel like Christmas came early, as the set made it snow White Weenies. Good ol’ Death and Taxes got the biggest boost from Conspiracy, as it gained Recruiter of the Guard, Palace Jailer and Sanctum Prelate, in addition to Thalia, Heretic Cathar from Eldritch Moon. As I mentioned back in October, Conspiracy gave Sultai players access to Leovold, Emissary of Trest as a great new tool.
The biggest winner in 2016 as far as decks that gained the most has to be Aluren. The deck was always a very powerful creature combo deck that showed up in low numbers due to the fact that the combo included four copies of Imperial Recruiter. With the printing of Recruiter of the Guard, this deck became much more accessible and the deck has started to take tournaments by storm.
Moving into 2017, I’m looking forward to GP Louisville in a few weeks, where I’ll most likely be playing some fair blue deck. Every event I had the opportunity to travel to in 2016 was a great experience and the people I’ve met are irreplaceable. I’ve learned a lot and look forward to applying it as I set new goals for 2017.
Justin Brickman is an SCG Tour grinder from suburban Chicago who began playing Magic during Innistrad block. His Magic accomplishments include an SCG Regionals Top 16 and a Super Sunday Series Top 4.