Hello, everyone! I’m Aaron Torres, and this is my first Frontier article for Matchup Gurus. For those that aren’t familiar with what Frontier is, it is a player-made, non-rotating format that consists of cards released in Standard from Magic 2015 onwards. It has existed for quite some time now, and while some would refer to the format as one that is “dying, if not dead”, it remains living and growing in the communities that have come to form from it.
The focus of my column will be to bring you all a weekly dose of Frontier content, to entertain those who belong to the current player base, and hopefully attract more players to a format that I have come to enjoy playing. With the short introduction out of the way, let’s get right into it.
A common misconception is that Frontier is purely Standard+, a format that takes old Standards’ top decks and makes little adaptation to form its best decks. These allegations are not unwarranted; many decks of Standard past have indeed found success for a lot of Frontier’s short history, and continue to do so. However, with more sets being released, and the power levels becoming higher and higher, this former commonality is beginning to be challenged, as the extensive card pool has begun to lead brewers to success, building decks that are just a ways away from becoming the pillars of a format completely different to anything seen before. With that, here are a few decks unique to Frontier that are just at the cusp of becoming top contenders.
One of those fan-favorites that just never panned out when it was in Standard, GB Elves has been a deck a lot of people have wanted to make work since the majority of the Elf Tribal strategies were released in Magic Origins. The core of the deck has always been designed to go wide and abuse cards like Shaman of the Pack and Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen, which are the best payoffs for going wide with Elves. The deck only saw some fringe play during ORI Standard, largely falling to the wayside when rotation took aways it’s key piece in Chord of Calling. Furthermore, the power level of the decks it had to compete against were just so high, and given how low the number of decent Elves there were, it just mostly didn't do enough.
After more cheap Elves such as Sylvan Advocate, and Rishkar, Peema Renegade were released, Elves finally got some good filler card quality and Collected Company became a card that the deck could finally utilize, adding a new level of power to the deck that wasn’t there before. Another one of the amazing additions to the deck is Westvale Abbey, which has single-handedly given the deck a backup plan it was severely lacking beforehand. Add that to a recent welcome addition to the deck in Driven // Despair, and you’ve got a relatively powerful deck that has an abundance of avenues to victory. Smuggler’s Copter is a niche choice that some like to play over Collected Company, but it remains to be seen which the better route to take is.
Chord of Calling also used to be a pretty monotonous card in the deck in ORI Standard, often searching only for Shaman of the Pack, and the occasional Dwynen. However, with the release of more sets, we got access to some amazing silver bullets, such as Minister of Pain, Watchers of the Dead, Thought-Knot Seer, Manglehorn, and the like. These cards allow us to sideboard fairly well against a plethora of decks while taking next to nothing away from our amazing linear plan, which is not something any other deck in Frontier can say for itself.
It is still lacking a feasible answer to early board wipes like Kozilek’s Return or Flaying Tendrils. Elves has always been a go-wide aggro deck that happened to have combo finishers that cared about how many Elves there are on the field, thus the best way to deal with them has always been these kinds of effects, pseudo-Pyroclasms that clear the board early and effectively. These come as early as Turn 3 and stifle any and all of Elves' best starts. Some people have been trying out Selfless Spirit as a Chord target in the sideboard, but that only somewhat solves the problems, as Flaying Tendrils, and the occasional Languish are existent boardwipes that the two-mana 2/1 can't save us from. Vraska's Contempt is also the most commonly played card that can deal with our Ormendahl, at 3 copies in most UBx Control lists. In addition to that, their clock is still relatively slow when compared to the format’s premier aggro or combo decks, which at the moment is too much of a drawback to be mitigated by the fact that the deck can play either role. Be that as it may, it would just take a few more key pieces, and possibly a meta shift away from controlling strategies to really give Elves their shot at taking the top tables.
Red Deck Wins has always been a mainstay of any format, and Frontier is no exception. Atarka Red, as it was dubbed when Martin Dang won Pro Tour Magic Origins with the deck, stuck around in the format and remains one of its powerhouses to this day. However, as it is indeed the most commonly known denomination in the format, every deck has consequently needed to adapt to have a plan to beat it, which has really made its power level go down a notch. The perfect example of this are the UB Control lists, which often run a full set of Gifted Aetherborn, along with 2-3 copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet just solely to win that matchup. In the online metagame, some players took it upon themselves to innovate the strategy to combat these changes.
Shrapnel Blast is a card that has mainly seen play in Ensoul Artifact decks for all of its Standard life, and the same is true for most of its time in Frontier as well. Recently though, some innovations to Red Aggro led to the birth of this archetype. Rather than taking a page out of Standard past's book, it builds around the powerful two-mana, five-damage spell, running artifact creatures that just happened to be very strong in an aggressive strategy themselves. The deck was built to be a Red Aggro deck that could punish all the slower strategies with fast starts, while not easily losing to UB Control, which at the time was heavily prepared for these kinds of decks post-board as a consequence of Atarka Red's prevalence at the time. The deck achieves this by running creatures like Bomat Courier, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Hazoret the Fervent, which can be hard to deal with, and all eventually win games if left unanswered, as well as Ramunap Ruins, which can deal those last few points of damage to end the game.
However, the deck's main strengths lie in the versatility of its post-board plans. This list foregoes any of the usual token-based, go-wide strategies Red has been known to pack, and instead brings a healthy amount of burn and resilient creatures, which give us a hedge in the Control matchup, and make a powerful sideboard card in Sweltering Suns playable in the deck. Because of all the recursion and midrange elements we can bring to the table, we can comfortably play this sweeper and get off ahead of our aggressive opponents, and ultimately puts the deck in a favored position post-board. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is also the best card in the market if you're looking to shut down a Turn 4 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, killing the threat that can single-handedly win the game for them while placing down your own. There is indeed a loss in the raw speed Atarka Red can bring, but the payoffs are well worth it in the correct metagames.
As the deck’s proponent, I can tell you that this deck was built specifically for a metagame where I expected much UBx Control and Atarka Red to be up against, and a shortage in decks running Dispel and Dromoka’s Command. Recently, we've seen a rising trend in decks like Bant Humans, which is particularly hard to fight because of the presence of Glory-Bound Initiate. In a similar vein, Siege Rhino is a natural problem for Red Aggro decks, advancing Abzan's game plan while giving them both a large blocker and a pretty big life buffer. This deck will succeed if you put it in the metagames where it was built to excel, but on any day that its GWx predators exist in any meaningful way, shape, or form, this is not the deck you’d want to bring out.
Combo has been one of Frontier’s pillar strategies from the very beginning. Both 4c Saheeli and Temur Aetherworks are established Tier 1 decks. However, neither Combo deck has ever been popular in metagames where the other has been the frontrunner. This is because Saheeli struggles in aggressive metagames, for which Marvel has a slightly better albeit still unfavorable time against, and because Marvel struggles to beat the speed of the Saheeli Combo whenever it’s around. Thus, it is normal to see hate come out of people’s sideboards to counter which one of the two happens to be in vogue. An amalgamation of two of Standard past’s most degenerate combo decks, Marvel Saheeli, or Marvelli, is a dual-combo deck. The premise behind the deck is to win with either of the two combos, whichever ends up being more convenient. The main draw to the deck exists in the trends I mentioned above, where it can choose to sideboard into the plan the opponent is less prepared against, thus allowing you to catch opponents off-guard.
A common misconception about the deck is that its plan is very glass-cannon, and that the deck just falls over and dies once there is combo disruption up. It seems to be commonly ignored that they are still up against the core of a very solid midrange strategy that has dominated Standard ever since these cards have been released. Attune with Aether just makes the manabase versatile enough to support the 4-Color strategy without the inclusion of an excessive amount of fetchlands, Harnessed Lightning is basically a damage-based Terminate with the absurd amount of energy this deck can produce, Rogue Refiner is hands-down the best card in any midrange Energy deck, and Whirler Virtuoso can stall for insane amounts of time, and in some cases even win the game if left unchecked. Without the very strong fair game core, this deck would be nowhere near as good.
The deck also features a rather versatile sideboard, with tools for various matchups. The way sideboarding often goes is that one combo goes out of the deck, whichever is worse into the opponent. We have Kozilek's Return for the aggressive decks, Bristling Hydra for Control, Glorybringer for the midrange matchups, and Abrade actually was Naturalize for a long time, but now that Authority of the Consuls has fallen off along with Starfield of Nyx decks, it is definitely better to be on Abrade right now, which also acts as more removal for the particularly difficult creature-based aggro decks. Overall, the list is at a pretty acceptable spot right now, and while playing seven copies of two-mana removal in the board isn't always ideal, it is a necessary evil if you want to stand a chance at beating the most powerful hate card against the deck.
It's given that there will be answers to any combo deck. Negate has always been a common foil to every combo deck, and though we run a healthy amount of basics, Thalia, Heretic Cathar can still lock our mana quite punishingly while also being a foil to the Saheeli Combo. Spell Queller decks have also always been good into combo since the UW Flash deck was strong in Standard, and that doesn't change here. The deck has been able to fight through those in the past, but ever since the printing of Sorcerous Spyglass, decks have been equipped with a powerful hate card that can hit either combo, thus weakening the deck’s core strategy. Furthermore, the deck was built as a foil to all the midrange decks that dominated at the time. These factors coupled with the metagame shift towards more aggressive decks make Marvelli pretty poorly positioned until now. It likely needs a major metagame shift, or some powerful upgrades to make a resurgence. Be that as it may, this deck has always capitalized on being able to occasionally catch opponents off-guard. If you're in a metagame where people are largely off Spyglass, you should really try to get some games in with this.
An original brew by Ryan Schwenk, also known as thejapanhobbyist, this deck utilizes cards like Legion's Landing, Raise the Alarm, and Secure the Wastes to secure a strong aggressive board early on, then pump them up with Reckless Bushwhacker or Sorin, Solemn Visitor to swing hard and fast. The deck can have some crazy starts, especially with Bushwhackers involved. These kinds of strategies are especially strong when put up against some of the slower midrange decks in the format, who find themselves with single-target removal that is weak to the multiple bodies the deck can produce.
The deck is somewhat innately vulnerable to sweepers, but that doesn't mean it can't win a game through one. Between powerful and resilient cards like Smuggler's Copter and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, it'll take more than just a Sweltering Suns to put the game away. It also has some long game potential off of Adanto, the First Fort, and Westvale Abbey as ways to come back from a game after being put at an early disadvantage. The deck is rather linear, in a sense, but the avenues to victories are more numerous than meets the eye.
Although the deck is very explosive, its aggressive plan is still very much vulnerable to 3-mana sweepers, Kozilek’s Return in particular. Kolaghan's Command is also always going to be strong against any Smuggler's Copter deck. It can somewhat rely on a Gideon to help grind out at times, but the plan still pales in comparison to what something like Mardu Vehicles can do if it gets stopped in its tracks early on. The deck is honestly not that far off, and my take on it is that it’s just a few additions and adjustments off to really making it up there.
These are just a few of the viable strategies that have popped up in the format that are sufficiently distinct from their Standard ancestors to be called different decks altogether. The format is, as the name implies, truly an unexplored Frontier where the next innovation and epiphany is just right around every corner.
Thank you for reading this article. Feel free to follow the rest of the team @Matchup_Guru and you can keep up with me personally on my Twitter account, @som_nambulist. I’m always happy to respond to feedback in the comments or on social media; if you have any questions, suggestions, and the like, don't hesitate to hit me up! You can also learn more about Frontier from our articles here, or the always helpful subreddit r/mtgfinalfrontier. See you next week when I'll write about the most powerful additions to Frontier from Rivals of Ixalan, and potential decks they can go in.
Matchup Guru Editor-in-Chief. Frequent caster of Torrential Gearhulk into Dig Through Time.