The Winning Decks of the Innistrad Championship

The Winning Decks of the Innistrad Championship

Tom Anderson Historic, Standard

As of this Sunday, the Innistrad Set Championship is officially in the books: the first premier event in the new seasonal schedule leading towards the 2022 Magic World Championship. But even for players more interested in their MTG Arena daily quests than World Championship qualifier points, this weekend was among the most important tournaments of the year.

Nowhere else will you find more aggregate brain-hours dedicated to solving Constructed formats – or brains better qualified to do so. And prior to the Set Championship, one could argue both Standard and Historic were in need of solving. Standard appeared to be settling down post-Crimson Vow, but it was still hard to be sure of the exact shape, particularly when so many elite players were presumably holding their best tech back for this event. As for Historic, this Set Championship was the first really significant event to feature that format in months.

So, what new pro-approved ideas can we take back to the MTG Arena ladder?

SIMON GÖRTZEN’S STANDARD ZOMBIES

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Germany’s Simon Görtzen turned in a laudable performance on Izzet Phoenix over the weekend, but it was his relatively unique Standard deck which grabs the attention from his second-place run. But identifying the right supporting cast among the mixed bag of available Zombies has been a challenge for its first few months in Standard. 

By staking his Set Championship hopes on this Mono-Black build, Görtzen seems to have provided aggro-lovers with a firm direction for further undead experimentation. Having access to black’s discard as well as a fast clock sounds great in the current Izzet-heavy meta.

As far as key choices go, the most obvious is Faceless Haven. At least in this Turns-heavy meta, where you’re always racing to finish the game a turn sooner, having creature lands to switch on for the final swing is essential. As the best creature land in the format, Faceless Haven alone is better than anything we’d gain from a second color like blue. Take note that its death can trigger Headless Rider, since its creature form counts as another Zombie. Three seemed to be the correct number for one-drop-heavy lists over the weekend.

champion of the perished

Champion of the Perished is the main reason the deck is called “Zombies” at all — there’s surprisingly little in terms of actual tribal synergy besides this and Headless Rider. We’re built to grow Champion in a hurry with additional Zombies – whether through the token creation of the Rider, Tainted Adversary, and Jadar, Ghoulcaller of Nephalia, or the slower card advantage of Undead Butler and Fell Stinger.

The Meathook Massacre is the best overall card here, having dominated not only in Görtzen’s Standard run but also in the Japanese team’s winning Historic Food list. It’s also frequently the finishing blow of the game plan which starts with Champion — the Zombie’s size often allows us to sweep away the chaff on the board while it stays alive (un-alive?) and swinging. If there are a bunch of Headless Rider triggers to grow it even bigger, so much the better! This is the best Massacre deck we’ve yet had in Standard — one which really leverages the offensive triggers to pressure enemy life totals even against creatureless opponents.

lolth spider queen

Lolth, Spider Queen may look slightly out of place here. She’s quite high-costed for a deck with an average mana value of two and lots of creature lands and MDFCs. She also has nothing to do with the Zombie tribe. But we do need a backup threat to Champion that’s more reliable than just a big late game Tainted Adversary, and Lolth has the best credentials of black’s current planeswalker suite. Having blockers with reach can be quite important against Alrund’s Epiphany or Clarion Spirit, and she gives us another way to recoup value from Massacre-ing our own board.

YUUKI ICHIKAWA’S HISTORIC GOLGARI FOOD

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Everyone has had to make their peace with “Cat-Oven” decks being a pillar of Historic at this point, but the archetype’s position in the present meta and the dominant build heading into this Set Championship were not widely agreed upon.

That uncertainty extended to the pros themselves. Only 21 of the 47 registered Cat-Oven decklists at the event resembled the winning list, with more than half instead choosing Jund builds centered on Mayhem Devil, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King or Bolas’s Citadel. But by the end of the weekend, the Golgari list was clearly ascendant, putting three members of the same Japanese testing team into Top 8; Jund builds only had one Top 16 and one Top 32 finish.

This level of dominance in a premier event is a great testament to both the Japanese team and their deck choices.

The biggest takeaway from the dominance of this Food build is where the shell’s best payoffs lie. More than half the players in the archetype held onto Jund because Korvold, Mayhem Devil, Citadel and Collected Company are its most powerful, explosive cards. Cutting them takes us back to just the basic Cat-Oven combo plus interaction, and Ichikawa didn’t even play that much interaction. 

But what he did play was Lurrus of the Dream-Den, and the statistical superiority of this list is maybe more believable if we dub it “Lurrus Food” rather than Golgari.

Yep, this familiar face was the “Cat” in “Cat-Oven” all along. 

Ultimately, what we lose in engines by submitting to the demands of Lurrus is replaceable. Whatever shortcomings Ravenous Squirrel may have compared to Korvold, or Trail of Crumbs to Citadel, they make up for in consistency and speed. The Meathook Massacre has practically zero shortcomings compared to Mayhem Devil, and was most likely the key card tipping the scales toward a Lurrus-friendly build of this deck.

Other recent card additions include the hard-working combo of Shambling Ghast and Deadly Dispute. Notably, the latter gives you an out to sacrifice the vital Witch’s Oven in the face of exiling removal, leaving it safely in the yard for retrieval with Lurrus.

This deck went huge in the Historic section, in part thanks to the heavy presence of both Izzet Phoenix and Selesnya Humans. These somewhat-slow creature aggro archetypes make the Cat-Oven combo look great, as it stonewalls them indefinitely through life drain and chump blocks. It’s possible that one of the Jund Food builds would be more successful in a different metagame, or at least a version with more discard spells. But it’s hard to ignore the Lurrus option in any Constructed format these days, so expect this to be the default Food deck going forward.

HERE COMES THE NEW META, SAME AS THE OLD META?

In the end, what we saw in both the Standard and Historic portions of this weekend was more refinement than revolution. Only a very small number of players saw notable success on brews, and established top archetypes like Standard Turns and Historic Phoenix and Food improved both their metagame shares and win rates. It’s the kind of thing that makes for easy sport when players are in the mood to complain about bannings, card designs and format balance.

But if you look at the specific choices and intricacies behind these dominant shells, there is still plenty of room for flexible card choices and for different decks to prey on expected match-ups. Christian Hauck had the best Swiss record of the event playing Mono-Green and Selesnya Humans, and the highest win rate for a major archetype was Rakdos Arcanist in Historic (59.7%). Ichikawa and his teammates dominated Standard Turns mirrors thanks in part to a splashed sideboard copy of Check for Traps, which could easily be doubled- or tripled-up with Lier, Disciple of the Drowned and Galvanic Iteration to cripple opposing hands in a late game standoff. 

Even in a field with the highest median skill level possible, there were still players showing up with supposedly similar archetypes and achieving remarkably different results. To me, these are signs of some interesting formats – and hopefully this article has given you something new to explore in them.