The State of Standard and My Insights About Sultai Ultimatum

Arne Huschenbeth

Arne Huschenbeth

Introduction

I have played a ton of Standard since the Release of Kaldheim ranking up to High Mythic and playing in three SCG Satellites plus the SCG Kaldheim Qualifier. The fire is burning bright in my Magic heart currently, I have been really enjoying exploring this fresh Standard format. I want to share my insights with you in this article and give you my current take on the new “hotness” Sultai Ultimatum.

Start Testing Standard

Showdown of the SkaldsGoldspan Dragon

Let me begin by reviewing my testing, the decks I tried and failed with, and the ones I succeeded with. The new decks from Kaldheim shortly after release predominantly had 《Showdown of the Skalds》 in them and of course the Izzet Flash with the best dragon since 《Glorybringer》, 《Goldspan Dragon》, leading the charge.

I tried my luck at Izzet Flash, realizing that the deck is good, but when the metagame is full of Rogues and low to the ground aggressive Gruul and 《Showdown of the Skalds》 decks it might not be the best choice. The interaction of 《Goldspan Dragon》 and two mana instants was very impressive though. I think we will certainly see the Dragon make an appearance in a variety of decks in the future.

The Akroan WarThe Great HengeEmbercleave

Next on was Naya Adventures, basically Gruul splashing for 《Showdown of the Skalds》, which I quickly dismissed as being worse than normal Gruul. The mana was lackluster, 《Showdown of the Skalds》 was not that good either, especially with Gruul already wanting to play 《The Akroan War》, 《The Great Henge》, 《Embercleave》 and/or 《Goldspan Dragon》.

Later I played on Arena Ladder against someone piloting Naya Adventures going full on Adventure creatures just playing two 《Embercleave》 and four 《Showdown of the Skalds》 as their 4cmc or higher cards. I think this approach is better than just putting 《Showdown of the Skalds》 into your Gruul deck, but if you really want to play 《Showdown of the Skalds》, I believe Boros Aggro to be superior over the Naya version. Then, this made me try Boros Aggro, first splashing just White in a Red Build, then Splashing Red in a mainly White Build.

Seasoned Hallowblade

In the red build I was missing the strong white two drops, especially 《Seasoned Hallowblade》 performed phenomenally. The mainly white Build felt a tad too inflexible on the other hand. I was missing Haste, Escape creatures against Rogues, and 《Bonecrusher Giant》.

Well, that was the moment I started to realize that you should just play both colors evenly, the mana was good enough to do so. Around the same time, my fellow Hareruya Pros Grzegorz Kowalski posted a very similar-looking Boros Aggro list on Twitter confirming my findings to my satisfaction.

Temur Rump

Next up I tried a Temur Ramp list that had success in a couple of Online Events, I figured 《Ugin, the Spirit Dragon》 and red removal is looking good in a creature heavy metagame and Ugin is also fantastic against various Yorion decks that were popping up to pray on the creature decks. Here is the list I decided to play in one of the SCG Satellites.

The deck performed reasonably well. But it still wasn’t a deck I was comfortable choosing for the SCG Qualifier last Sunday. The deck was fairly one dimensional and poor against countermagic and really quick starts from aggressive strategies. It also did not feel great against Sultai Yorion Control. They had discard, removal for your expensive threats and countermagic.

Seeking The Best Sultai

Binding the Old Gods

I was starting to be impressed with 《Binding the Old Gods》, it seemed like exactly the type of card I want in my Ramp strategy. In the same Satellite #1 I lost against the deck shown below and I got to learn what anyone who plays Standard nowadays well knows.

Emergent Ultimatum

《Emergent Ultimatum》 for 《Valki, God of Lies》, 《Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider》 and 《Alrund’s Epiphany》 or 《Kiora Bests the Sea God》 feels like cheating. Who would have known, paying seven mana and getting a worth of 13-14 mana out of it, is quite good, even if your opponent can have a choice in what you get.

Elder GargarothToski, Bearer of SecretsCultivate

I looked at my opponents decklist and I just couldn’t make sense of these card choices, 《Elder Gargaroth》 in the main in a world of 《Giant Killer》 and 《Heartless Act》. 《Toski, Bearer of Secrets》 didn’t make any sense at all. My opponent wasn’t playing 4 《Cultivate》 either.

I liked the 《Emergent Ultimatum》 and the concept around having a card so powerful to make you win the game by just casting it, but the list seemed so off, that I did not feel like trying it. I tried to build it myself, but dismissed it quickly because of time reasons and feeling overwhelmed building an 80 card deck. I have not played with Yorion decks at all since it was introduced to Standard, I am not a fan of 80 card decks for obvious reasons. So I may have made a crucial mistake by moving on to other decks.

Showdown of the SkaldsBrushfire ElementalSoaring Thought-ThiefKroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

I focussed my last day before the event on the known strong strategies in the format – playing Boros, Gruul, Rogues, and the emerging Rakdos Sacrifice. None of the decks above were performing outstandingly well. Everything felt like Rock, paper, and scissors. The format was completely open, not settled. When I pick up one deck I win against one side of the metagame and lose against the other and so on.

I really did not know what to play, I knew for myself that I did not want to play a creature deck in the face of Rakdos Sacrifice gaining in popularity, almost each of the Satellites played until then had one Rakdos player at a 6-0 record. I could not play Rogues with the threat of Rakdos in the format. But when I picked up Rakdos I got beaten up by Yorion decks. I went into the evening feeling frustrated, not knowing what I was going to play the next day.

I spent the morning with my fiance and put Magic aside until half an hour before decklist submission closes. When I came back to Magic to register a deck on MTGMelee for the tournament I surfed through the last Satellite results and I found my deck for the tournament. I registered it without playing it a single time, that confident I was that this is the deck I need to play right now. I just felt it. And even though I was not a big fan of playing 80 card decks, here is the list.

Shadows' Verdict

I just made some minor changes, adding a third 《Shadows’ Verdict》 to the deck and, 《Ketria Triome》 instead of a 《Forest》. 《Shadows’ Verdict》 was absolutely incredible in the metagame. Exiling can be crucial against 《Lurrus of the Dream-Den》, 《Seasoned Hallowblade》 and Rakdos Opponents. Additionally, almost all of the creatures played currently have converted mana cost of three or less.

Midnight ClockEsika's Chariot

I put a 《Midnight Clock》, a pet card of mine, into the board against Rogues and other slower decks. Logan Nettles’ Sultai build was clean and made sense to me. His numbers made sense. I did not feel frustrated anymore, I felt relieved and excited. Then, I want to thank Logan for making it easy for me to be just a netdecker for a day. I was unsure of 《Esika’s Chariot》 but trusted Logan on his choice. Copying an 8/8 Hexproof Kraken seemed enticing.

The tournament was a blast, each match was a challenge because I had to figure out how to play and best utilize 《Emergent Ultimatum》. The rope on Arena did not help in thinking all the possibilities through either. This deck is certainly not a deck you should bring to a tournament without proper testing beforehand.

For example, I lost my first match in game 3 because I decided to get 《Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor》 instead of 《Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider》 with 《Emergent Ultimatum》 in a crucial spot, which was certainly wrong. I just didn’t have the time and/or experience to think it through to help me find the right decision.

Playing for the 7-1 I lost the match because I forgot to hold priority in a long nerve wrecking game 3, a mistake that can happen when you play Online I suppose. Overall the tournament was really fun and I felt like I had made the right deck choice.

In the end, the tournament was won by Sultai Ultimatum and it certainly looked like the deck of the tournament. Now some people might say that this was just the second week of the format, an early strong performance does not mean much, the format will adapt, and so on and on. But I believe Sultai Ultimatum is here to stay. A seven mana “I win the game” spell is extremely powerful and Sultai has the ability to adapt their own strategy to whatever you will expect the metagame to be.

Metagame With a Focus on Sultai

Is the format slow and grindy? Play more counter and card draw. Aggro is performing well? Play your removal and sweepers in the main in high numbers. If Sultai Ultimatum would just be a control deck with a slow finisher, you could attack it more easily, but Sultai being this proactive Control-Combo sort of deck, makes it much harder to interact with.

The more interaction you play the slower and reactive you make your own strategy against Sultai. Which gives the Sultai player time to develop their mana and in the long run they will ultimately beat you on card advantage and high impact cards.

MiscastNegateDisdainful Stroke

There will certainly be ways to defeat Sultai Ultimatum. A counter heavy Rogues build, Izzet Flash or Aggro decks splashing for 《Miscast》 or other counterspells come to my mind. Fairly certain that counter-heavy Sultai built without the Ultimatum package will have an advantage against Sultai Ultimatum too. I might try out this direction if Sultai Ultimatum takes over the metagame.

However, in general, if those decks will concentrate most of their ammunition on Sultai other decks will emerge that will beat those decks and will have weaker chances against Sultai. The cycle of the Metagame.

The days after the event I played mostly Sultai Ultimatum trying to figure out the best optimal list. This is where I am currently. Slots are changing around constantly.

Yorion, Sky Nomad

For me, who is changing and adapting my strategy constantly as I play, it gets even more complicated with 20 more cards in my deck to tinker with. I probably spend too much time tanking on what cards 79 and 80 could be any given time.

On the matter of 60 cards and Sultai Ultimatum, I also tried a 60 card version of the deck. I was not convinced though. You lose a lot of flexibility and it becomes fairly easy to just deal with your Ultimatum and beat you that way.

Against the non-interactive aggressive decks it is probably slightly better to have 60 instead of 80 cards, but overall in the metagame, I believe Yorion is the way to go, you won’t always have Ultimatum, but if you reach the point of the game where you could cast it, you should have other things to do and going for you.

Elder Gargaroth

Now to my card choices. I wanted a creature to block flyers and to gain my life against aggressive decks, that’s why I am playing 《Elder Gargaroth》 as a fetchable target with 《Emergent Ultimatum》.

Wolfwillow Haven

I started playing 《Wolfwillow Haven》 and I think the card is good in a lot of matchups, especially when you want to ramp into your sweepers or to give you a turn 3 《Binding the Old Gods》. The main weakness though is that it gives your opponents 《Binding the Old Gods》 a good target in the mirror.

Migration Path

《Migration Path》 makes more sense to me, it guarantees an 《Emergent Ultimatum》 by itself on Turn 5 and can be cycled in the lategame. A turn 4 《Migration Path》 is also the best thing you can be doing in the mirror, getting ahead on mana is very important.

NegateDisdainful StrokeThassa's Intervention

You have to play some number of counterspells right now, I decided to go with two 《Negate》 and two 《Disdainful Stroke》 as well as one 《Thassa’s Intervention》 to defend myself against opposing Ultimatums. Only two 《Jwari Disruption》, you don’t want to draw too many of them, I count them more like a land that can be a spell. With Logan Nettles version, which is playing the full four 《Jwari Disruption》, I felt like I am flooding too often.

Shark TyphoonKoma, Cosmos Serpent

On the sideboard, I like playing 《Shark Typhoon》 and 《Koma, Cosmos Serpent》 for the slower matchups and the mirror. In the postboard games when there is much less removal around they gain in strength, ramping into a 《Koma, Cosmos Serpent》 can give you a quick victory. Keep in mind that you can also sacrifice 《Yorion, Sky Nomad》 to 《Koma, Cosmos Serpent》 and that you can Tap lands in your opponent’s upkeep to prevent them from casting their 《Emergent Ultimatum》. And there is nothing better than cycling 《Shark Typhoon》 against an opponent having expensive spells and countermagic sitting in their hand.

Extinction EventShadows' Verdict

I play one 《Extinction Event》 to have the ability to wish for two different named Sweepers. In addition, people are starting to play around 《Shadows’ Verdict》, so catching them off guard with 《Extinction Event》 is a nice bonus.

Mazemind TomeMidnight ClockElspeth's Nightmare

I am not a fan of 《Mazemind Tome》, 《Midnight Clock》 or 《Elspeth’s Nightmare》, cause they all perform badly on the draw against 《Binding the Old Gods》. I want to make my deck as good as possible against 《Binding the Old Gods》. Those cards have their merit and I am willing to change my stance, but currently, this is the opinion I have formed.

Bala Ged Recovery

I am usually a fan of playing 《Bala Ged Recovery》, but I think this build uses its mana better and rarely runs out of gas, to make a 《Regrowth》 unnecessary. 《Tangled Florahedron》 gives your opponents a target for a removal game 1 and you usually have stuff to do on turn 2 anyways. It is nice to just play as many spell lands as possible, but coming in to play tapped or paying three life to be untapped can be a real cost.

Sideboard Guide

I will leave you with a sideboard guide to give you some orientation for how I board with Sultai Ultimatum. I hope you could gain some knowledge from this article and I wish you the best of luck in any tournaments or laddering coming up on your timeline. Enjoy!

Mirror

vs. Mirror

Out

Heartless Act Heartless Act Heartless Act Heartless Act
Eliminate Eliminate Emergent Ultimatum Elder Gargaroth
Shadows' Verdict Shadows' Verdict Shadows' Verdict

In

Duress Duress Koma, Cosmos Serpent Koma, Cosmos Serpent
Shark Typhoon Shark Typhoon Behold the Multiverse Soul Shatter
Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute

Boros Aggro

vs. Boros Aggro

Out

Disdainful Stroke Disdainful Stroke Behold the Multiverse Negate

In

Shadows' Verdict Soul Shatter Eliminate Cling to Dust

Gruul Aggro

vs. Gruul Aggro

Out

Negate Negate Shark Typhoon Behold the Multiverse

In

Shadows' Verdict Soul Shatter Eliminate Cling to Dust

Dimir Rogues

vs. Dimir Rogues

Out

Disdainful Stroke Disdainful Stroke Negate Elder Gargaroth
Emergent Ultimatum Shadows' Verdict Extinction Event

In

Shark Typhoon Shark Typhoon Duress Duress
Behold the Multiverse Eliminate Cling to Dust

Rakdos Sacrifice

vs. Rakdos Sacrifice

Out

Negate Negate Disdainful Stroke

In

Shadows' Verdict Soul Shatter Cling to Dust

Izzet Flash

vs. Izzet Flash

Out

Binding the Old Gods Binding the Old Gods Binding the Old Gods Binding the Old Gods
Emergent Ultimatum Kiora Bests the Sea God Extinction Event Jwari Disruption
Shadows' Verdict Shadows' Verdict Shadows' Verdict

In

Duress Duress Koma, Cosmos Serpent Koma, Cosmos Serpent
Shark Typhoon Shark Typhoon Soul Shatter Eliminate
Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute Mystical Dispute

Arne Huschenbeth (Twitter / Twitch)

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Arne Huschenbeth

Arne Huschenbeth Arne is an enthusiast for Standard and won GP Rimini which was held by exact his favorite format. He also achieved impressive 10-0 record at Pro Tour Hour of Devastation. He has 3 more GP top 8s past seasons, and earned 41 Pro Points during 2017-2018 season which was good enough to become a Gold Level Pro. Read more articles by Arne Huschenbeth