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May 5, 2016

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Going for Gold in Toronto: A GW Tokens Primer

There and back again.

The last article I wrote was about the Jund deck splashing Lingering Souls that carried me to my first Top 8 at Grand Prix Toronto 2012. Four years later, with Lambholt Pacifists replacing Tarmogoyfs, Toronto was once again kind to me, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I was Gold for two years before falling back to Silver last season, using the floating invite on the first Pro Tour in Milwaukee. I won my last match of that tournament to qualify for Atlanta, and then hit Silver for the current season just in time to qualify for Madrid. In short, it’s been a grind.

Without a qualification for Pro Tour Eldritch Moon in Australia, however, and sitting eight points shy of Gold, I felt like a beleaguered veteran who should be considering retirement, not the upcoming tournament schedule. I still had an RPTQ and a bunch of GPs, but, after having only achieved middling success over the past year and a half, confidence was waning. My Pro Tour team had even started to consider how to fill my role if my last ditch efforts proved to be in vain.

Second place at GP Toronto 2016. Locked for Gold.

It has taken a few days for this result to sink in. In means a lot more than the newly-inflated prize check, though that is certainly nice. While I will have managed to qualify for and play in every Pro Tour this year, the struggle was real. Now, almost overnight, I’m qualified with flights for Sydney, Honolulu, Dublin, Nashville, and Kyoto. Those aren’t cheap destinations and I’m especially excited to have the opportunity to go back to Japan. Achieving my post-Madrid goals on the first attempt is a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I can finally relax a little, and re-focus on making a run for Platinum.

I’ve had a lot of messages asking me for updates to my GW Tokens list or explanations for certain card choices. For reference, here’s what I registered at the Grand Prix:

Jon Stern’s G/W Tokens

Creatures (20)
Hangarback Walker
Lambholt Pacifist
Sylvan Advocate
Thraben Inspector
Archangel Avacyn

Planeswalkers (8)
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

Spells (6)
Dromoka’s Command
Secure the Wastes

Lands (26)
Forest
Plains
Canopy Vista
Fortified Village
Westvale Abbey

Sideboard (15)
Evolutionary Leap
Quarantine Field
Stasis Snare
Clip Wings
Secure the Wastes
Dragonlord Dromoka
Sigarda, Heron’s Grace
Declaration in Stone
Planar Outburst
Tragic Arrogance

Those paying close attention will notice that the main difference between this list and what Steve Rubin used to take home the trophy in Madrid is the inclusion of four Lambholt Pacifists main deck, eschewing Oath of Nissa. This was a change I pushed for prior to the Pro Tour, but ultimately couldn’t convince the rest of the team on. To be fair, we arrived on the deck fairly late and were operating with a very small amount of test data. At the time, my opinion was that the deck performed at its best when it was able to establish a board presence before it started casting planeswalkers, and the earlier it could do this, the better. Cutting Oath of Nissa is a real cost that I’m not sure is correct, but, expecting 40-45% of the Pro Tour field to be on Humans or Bant Company, I felt that Lambholt Pacifist was more likely right than wrong, and played the full set at the PT as well.

After playing more with the deck, the main thing I realized is that, without Oath, you definitely need the twenty sixth land. GW Tokens isn’t a traditional aggro deck with cheap threats that can afford to miss a land drop. It relies on deploying increasingly powerful threats that are hard to deal with. Losing Oath of Nissa also means you can’t play some powerful silver bullet enchantments like Evolutionary Leap and Stasis Snare because of their vulnerability to Dromoka’s Command. Those were moved to the sideboard since you still want them for other matchups where having a single enchantment isn’t a liability.

I was reasonably happy with the main deck at the Grand Prix. The Pacifists were good, but it’s hard to say if cutting the Oaths are an acceptable cost. Going forward, the card that’s actually on my chopping block is Thraben Inspector. While it remains a good road block against aggressive Human decks, the body is too small to be relevant against midrange or control where you want your threats to matter. I may just play Oaths instead, or try out something else like Tireless Tracker, a card that I think has a lot of potential.

As always, the sideboard is a work in progress that needs to be constantly tweaked for the metagame. While I generally like to stay flexible and adapt to my specific opponent, I always try to have a default strategy for key matchups. Here’s a breakdown of what my game plan was for the decks I expected to face at the GP:

Versus Humans:

 

This is the one deck that will almost certainly put you on the back foot starting as early as the first turn. After sideboard, your plan revolves around sweepers and taking over with Archangel Avacyn. At the Pro Tour, we played Linvala, the Preserver, but I made the switch to Dragonlord Dromoka because I thought it would be more useful in other matchups. The jury is still out as I only drew it in games where I was stuck on lands. Although we were shaving Gideons at the Pro Tour, I decided to cut them altogether as I felt that it didn’t buy enough time for a turn four play and was too susceptible to Gryff’s Boon. Nissa was still valuable as it comes down earlier and can’t be ignored. Hangarback Walker is a little too vulnerable to Declaration in Stone, but you still want to draw one at some point to help transform Archangel Avacyn.

Versus Bant Company:

-2 Thraben Inspector
+1 Dragonlord Dromoka
-2 Secure the Wastes
+2 Evolutionary Leap
 
+1 Tragic Arrogance

Stasis Snare would be good if it wasn’t so vulnerable to Dromoka’s Command. Evolutionary Leap is a little more tolerable since being able to sacrifice a creature in response usually prevents them from getting a two-for-one, and the effect of both finding your Archangels and transforming them on command is very powerful. Dromoka dominates the skies and wreaks havoc on their game plan of playing their threats on your turn.

Versus GW Tokens:

-4 Thraben Inspector
+3 Declaration in Stone
-2 Secure the Wastes
 
+1 Tragic Arrogance

Tragic Arrogance is probably the best thing you can be doing in the mirror, and after seeing so many copies at the top tables in Toronto, I’d probably want to find space for a second. With Declarations to take out tokens or transformed Westvale Abbeys, Secure the Wastes just isn’t worth the effort, even if it will sometimes be good. Hangarback Walker is a card that can also be boarded out, but taxing their Declarations isn’t the worst idea, and neither is casting it for zero to flip Avacyn.

Versus BG Aristocrats:

-4 Thraben Inspector
+3 Declaration in Stone
-4 Lambholt Pacifist
+1 Tragic Arrogance
 
+2 Evolutionary Leap
 
+1 Stasis Snare
 
+1 Secure the Wastes

This matchup revolves around Archangel Avacyn and Westvale Abbey. You have to be careful since they can kill you out of nowhere if they sandbag Zulaport Cutthroats or find them off Collected Company. Tragic Arrogance is a little awkward since they can basically choose which creature to keep by sacrificing the rest to a Nantuko Husk, and because they often scry with Catacomb Sifter triggers looking for another Company. That said, it’s still probably better than Planar Outburst. If you expect a lot of this deck, you might want to upgrade one of your sweepers to Descend upon the Sinful. I was reluctant to make that switch because I wanted access to all three five mana Wraths against Humans.

Versus Esper Dragons:

-4 Lambholt Pacifist
-3 Dromoka’s Command
+2 Clip Wings
-2 Thraben Inspector
+2 Evolutionary Leap
 
+1 Stasis Snare
 
+3 Declaration in Stone

My original plan was to board out all four Dromoka’s Commands, but with people playing multiple copies of Virulent Plague, relying on Secure the Wastes is a little more risky. This is one matchup where the absence of Oath of Nissa is really felt, since games where you resolve Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are much easier to win. Boarding out cheap creatures against a control is also not really where I want to be, but some of these early drops are so anemic that I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. This is one matchup that I would like to figure out a better solution to.

Versus BG Seasons Past:

-4 Lambholt Pacifist
+1 Sigarda, Heron’s Grace
-2 Dromoka’s Command
+1 Dragonlord Dromoka
 
 
+2 Evolutionary Leap
 
+1 Secure the Wastes

This matchup plays out similar to Esper Dragons, but you have a little more flexibility since you don’t need Clip Wings. Sigarda, Heron’s Grace dodges Languish, Ultimate Price, and Grasp of Darkness, and can only be killed by Ruinous Path, which they usually have to use on your planeswalkers. Dragonlord Dromoka sort of fills the same role for one more mana, but is still probably worth bringing in since you don’t want too many copies of Dromoka’s Command clogging up your hand.

Versus RG Goggles Ramp:

-4 Lambholt Pacifist
+3 Declaration in Stone
+1 Quarantine Field
 
+1 Stasis Snare
 
+1 Secure the Wastes

Westvale Abbey is your key card as the Goggles deck has no answer for Ormendahl, Profane Prince. For that reason, land heavy hands are much better than they look. Developing your mana is more important than having an early threat, and you should try to sandbag Westvale Abbey whenever possible rather than expose it to World Breaker. Gideon is once again MVP as you can put them on a fast clock while keeping mana open to threaten an end of turn Secure into Westvale if they ever tap out to play a threat. Archangel Avacyn is also a great answer to Chandra, Flamecaller and occasionally worth holding back in your hand even if it means not using your mana for a turn.

With another Grand Prix this coming weekend in New Jersey, I’m very likely to play an updated version of the same deck. While the full Pro Tour story is not always told at the feature tables, our team’s GW Tokens deck was nothing short of dominant. The nine players who played the deck posted a combined record of 58-22-2 versus the field, good for a win percentage of 71.5%. Some of the emerging decks do have game against it, but I have not seen enough evidence to contradict my opinion that GW is the defacto best deck right now. That said, I do expect some innovations to make their way into the metagame and the field to level slightly. The deck is great but not unbeatable, but should have what it takes to stay on top for another weekend.