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The Return of Challenger Decks


On Thursday, Wizards announced that Challenger Decks will be returning for a second run this coming April, which is pretty exciting. The Challenger Decks that were printed last year were widely considered to be some of the best products of 2018 and among the best preconstructed decks of all time. Unlike past preconstructed decks, which tended to be mostly casual-focused, the idea of Challenger Decks was to give players an FNM-playable Standard deck right out of the box, with an upgrade path to a full tier deck. While preconstructed decks have been around for a long time, Standard-legal preconstructed decks traditionally have been underpowered casual affairs, rather than ways for players to get access to cards and decks that they can use to compete in a tournament setting at Friday Night Magic or other places. Last year's Challenger Decks raised the bar and, along with it, the expectations for the 2019 edition.

What made the Challenger Decks so special? Really, there were two reasons. First, the decks themselves were obviously built to mimic known tier decks, and while each was missing a few cards around the edges, they were close enough to competitive that, especially with a few upgrades, you could buy a Challenger Deck and immediately compete at your local FNM, making the product a great gateway into Standard for new and returning players. Second, the Challenger Decks all had solid value compared to their MSRP (and having high supply made sure that pretty much anyone could pick up decks for MSRP from their local big box store). When the decks were announced, cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance were selling for roughly the same price as the entire deck, so from a player's perspective, you could buy a Challenger Deck for a few key cards and get the rest of a functional deck essentially for free. 

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The other, less obvious victory of Challenger Decks is that Wizards actually put a lot of four-ofs in these decks. Traditional precons contain a lot of one-ofs and two-ofs, especially for higher-rarity cards, which not only keeps the value of the decks down but also firmly stamps the decks for casual play only. To compete at FNM, your deck need to be both powerful and consistent, and consistency is where Challenger Decks shined. You didn't just get a single Heart of Kiran in the Vehicle Rush deck, you got a full playset. The same is true of Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Bomat Courier, and a bunch of other important cards. 

The reason why Wizards feels comfortable putting full playsets of powerful and playable cards in Challenger Decks is timing. This year's Challenger Decks will be released on April 12, roughly the same time as last year (when the decks were released on April 6). This puts the release of Challenger Decks about six months before rotation. Furthermore, the Challenger Decks are typically full of rotating cards, so if we use last year's decks as our guide, this year's Challenger Decks will be overflowing with cards from Ixalan block, Dominaria, and Core Set 2019.

The trick here is that, being six months from rotation, people aren't really buying Ixalan block, Dominaria, or Core Set 2019 anymore. Instead, we'll be buying the third Ravnica set and looking forward to the release of Core Set 2020, so reprinting a lot of powerful, expensive, but soon-to-be-rotating cards allows Wizards to pull out a lot of the stops when it comes to Challenger Decks, since instead of pulling sales away from their most recent releases, these decks offer an avenue for Wizards to squeeze some more money from older sets before they ride off into the Modern sunset and most of the cards lose their value forever. 

The end result is a win-win. Wizards gets an additional product to cast out soon-to-be-valueless cards, while players get an extremely cheap window into Standard over the spring and summer heading into rotation. More importantly for players, looking back on last year's decks today, even six months after rotation, most of the 2018 Challenger Decks were still a fine deal:

2018 Challenger Decks Today
Deck Value Today Key Cards Today
Hazoret Aggro $37.85 Chandra, Torch of Defiance (x1 = $11.21), Hazoret the Fervent (x1 = $3.89), Soul-Scar Mage (x3 = $4.98), Abrade (x2 = $3.70)
Vehicle Rush $37.86 Heart of Kiran (x4 = $4.00), Concealed Courtyard (x1 = $2.83), Dragonskull Summit (x1 = $3.70), Inspiring Vantage (x1 = $3.00), Unclaimed Territory (x4 = $4.74), Spire of Industry (x4 = $4.00)
Second Sun Control $31.17 Settle the Wreckage (x1 = $6.60), Field of Ruin (x2 = $5.80)
Counter Surge $40.86 Walking Ballista (x1 = $15.76), Fatal Push (x1 = $4.04)

As you can see, even today—nine months after they were first printed and almost six months after most of the key cards rotated from Standard—all of the 2018 Challenger Decks are still technically worth more than they cost. The problem is that the total value number includes all cards, which along with some solid rares includes a lot of unplayable, lower-rarity stuff that isn't as valuable as their price tag suggests to most players. Even if you just look at the chase cards, however, many of the decks outside of Second Sun Control contain at least $20 in value, which means you could have bought any of these decks last April, played them in Standard for six months, and then counting the value of the chase cards left over, only spent around $10. This is an amazing deal for anyone looking to get into Standard for the first time or for players who already have one Standard deck but want to try out some different options over the summer heading toward rotation.

Anyway, now that we've discussed the awesomeness and importance of Challenger Decks in general, let's speculate a bit on what we might see in the 2019 edition of the Challenger Deck series.

Predicting 2019 Challenger Decks

Based on last year's decks, here's what we know about Challenger Decks: Challenger Decks aren't brews but rather designed based off well-performing tier decks in Standard. Challenger Decks are composed primarily of cards that will be rotating at the next rotation, although exceptions are made in small numbers and for lower-rarity cards. Challenger Decks contain a lot of four-ofs and are designed to be fairly competitive right out of the box and can become legitimate top-tier decks with a small number of upgrades. We also know that this year's Challenger Decks are already designed, which means we should be expecting them to be based off of current decks, not decks that might arise in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. Finally, the prices for cards in Standard right now are high—cards that rotate in the fall will be worth less by the time that the Challenger Decks are released in April, so some of these guesses might look slightly on the high side value-wise, but when you consider prices dropping over the next three months, hopefully they'll end up in the right range (last year, most of the decks were worth around $90 when they were first previewed, give or take a few dollars).

By far the easiest prediction is Golgari Explore / Midrange. The deck is legitimately one of the best decks (if not the best deck) in Standard, and it's made up mostly of cards that will be rotating in the fall. Plus, it has a couple of rotating chase cards that have a splashy high value right now but are unlikely to see play in Modern in Carnage Tyrant and Vivien Reid. These are the perfect chase cards for Challenger Decks since they allow Wizards to chase their value while they're high from Standard, but since these cards don't really see play in older formats, reprinting them doesn't hurt Wizards' long-term reprint equity for things like Masters sets and other booster-based supplemental products (unlike something like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, which Wizards likely wants to use to sell a booster-based supplemental product in the future).

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As you can see, the guess comes in pretty high value-wise at $140, although this should be more like $115 when the set is actually released. If there's too much value, it's an easy fix: we simply cut the one Carnage Tyrant or the one Vivien Reid, and the deck drops by $20 or $30. More importantly, from Wizards' perspective, the only important cards that aren't rotating are three Midnight Reaper and three Find // Finality—neither of which are especially high-value rares anyway—and a single copy of Overgrown Tomb. Speaking of shock lands, my hope is that we get one in each deck (assuming it's a multi-color deck), although this might be asking too much, since shock lands don't rotate in the fall and they have a lot of long-term reprint equity because of Modern. This being said, we did see a single fetch land show up in some supplemental products back at the tail of end of Khans of Tarkir Standard, so I don't think having one-of shock lands is impossible. 

Otherwise, the Challenger Deck version of Golgari Midrange looks solid. Actually, it might be too solid. Apart from being a bit light on dual lands, it's a deck that you could take from the box and possibly win an FNM with, and with some upgrades to the mana base and perhaps another Carnage Tyrant and some Vraska's Contempt, you'd be pretty close to owning the current best deck in Standard from a $30 preconstructed product!

For deck two, we have Izzet Drakes, which is basically our control deck. While I'd love to see Teferi, Hero of Dominaria get reprinted in the Challenger Deck series, I'm not convinced we'll have a straightforward UW Control list this year, mostly because the Second Sun Control list last year seemed like one of the least popular Challenger Decks, and new and semi-casual players (who Challenger Decks are designed for, at least to some extent) have an almost irrational hatred for Teferi and control in general. Izzet Drakes gives us a somewhat controlling deck that avoids the Teferi issue altogether and has the added bonus of being a top-tier deck in Standard.

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Oddly, pretty much all of the cards in Izzet Drakes rotate in the fall, outside of some good uncommons and the one copy of Niv-Mizzet, Parun (which I almost didn't include in the deck—it could easily be an additional Murmuring Mystic, if Wizards is worried about reprinting a chase, non-rotating card too early), while the rotating Treasure Map and Search for Azcanta will help juice the value a bit. The biggest issue with the deck is that the mana is rough, thanks to our "only one shock land and only one check land" rule, although this does give players an easy pathway to upgrade their Challenger Deck

Perhaps the biggest vote against Izzet Drakes being a 2019 Challenger Deck is that it might be better off as a 2020 Challenger Deck. The problem is that, unless we get another reprinting, Enigma Drake will rotate from the format, so by the time 2020 rolls around, who knows what the deck will look like or if it even will exist, so it might be better for Wizards to take advantage of the deck's tier status now and cash it in while there is still time.

So far, we have a midrange deck with Golgari and a more controlling deck with Izzet, which means we're about due for an aggro offering. Last year, it was Mono-Red Aggro, and while Wizards could simply run it back (the current Mono-Red Aggro build in Standard would work for a Challenger Deck, outside of maybe four copies of Experimental Frenzy and the four Runaway Steam-Kins), doing the same deck two years in a row might be too boring and predictable. As such, for our aggro deck, we turn to white rather than red, with Boros Aggro. 

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Boros Aggro is actually pretty well set up to be a Challenger Deck, with very few non-rotating cards and a couple of nice, high-value, rotating reprint possibilities in Legion's Landing and History of Benalia. Figuring out the exact numbers on these cards is tricky. With four copies of each, the deck probably has too much value from Wizards' perspective, but both are too important to just be one-ofs, so we're going with two each. The upside of having two-ofs in Challenger Decks is that it allows players to buy two copies of the deck and end up with a playset. With four History of Benalia and four Legion's Landing (along with some mana base upgrades and maybe some more Experimental Frenzy in the sideboard), the end result will be a tier version of Boros Weenie / Aggro for just $60 (assuming you buy two copies of the deck). Meanwhile, the deck is good enough to make waves at FNM right out of the box with its aggressive game plan and Heroic Reinforcements to close out the game in one big attack.

With aggro, midrange, and control covered, it seems likely that our last Challenger Deck will be tribal, especially considering that Ixalan block will be the primary focus of this year's edition and Ixalan block was overflowing with tribal themes. In theory, we have four options: Dinosaurs, Pirates, Vampires, and Merfolk. Dinosaurs don't really fit the bill, since they aren't really tribally based, instead being more of a midrange deck with some light tribal synergies. Plus, making the three-color mana base work for a Challenger Deck seems like a nightmare. Meanwhile, Pirates haven't done much in Standard and probably aren't as popular casually as Vampires and Merfolk, with the latter two tribes almost certainly ranking among the most popular creature types of all time.

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This leaves us with Vampire and Merfolk. The Challenger Deck could easily feature either tribe, but we're going with Merfolk, which have a bit more of a track record of being playable in Standard than Vampires. Otherwise, the Merfolk deck basically builds itself: you throw in all of the best Ixalan Merfolk, with value coming from Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca and a Jadelight Ranger, pepper in a couple of sweet new Merfolk from Ravnica Allegiance, and we're good to go. 

The one weird problem with the Merfolk deck is that is might not have enough value. Initially, I didn't include any copies of Jadelight Ranger, but the deck felt like it might not be worth enough for people to buy, especially in comparison to the other Challenger Decks. To solve this issue, along with the one Jadelight Ranger, the Merfolk deck is the one Challenger Deck that gets a full playset of a check land in Hinterland Harbor. While Merfolk wouldn't be the highest-value Challenger Deck and would probably the worst of the bunch in terms of being Standard playable, in theory, it would make up for this with casual appeal. Plus, since Merfolk is a common starter deck on Magic Arena, it would offer an easy and familiar way for players brought into the game with the new digital client to test out paper Standard over the summer months, which adds some additional appeal from Wizards' perspective.

Other Possibilities

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  • On paper, Mono-Blue Tempo looks like a great Challenger Deck option. The problem is that the value is pretty low (although Wizards could literally just copy and paste the tier version of the deck and print it card for card without any issues). Would people buy a low-value Challenger Deck knowing that they wouldn't have to make any upgrades at all? I'm not 100% certain, but Mono-Blue Tempo is certainly worth keeping in mind as a likely possibility for Challenger Decks 2019, potentially replacing Izzet Drakes in the control slot (which would then allow Wizards to use Izzet Drakes next year and add in Ravnica cards like Niv-Mizzet, Parun and maybe Ral, Izzet Viceroy).
  • UW / Jeskai Control seems pretty unlikely to me this go-around. Last year, it worked because Approach of the Second Sun was the finisher. This year, pretty much every control deck is winning with a playset of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria (which has a lot of long-term value for Modern and Legacy) and Niv-Mizzet, Parun (which isn't rotating). This will make it really, really hard to make a Challenger Deck version of the tier control lists in our current Standard format. It seems much more likely that something like Izzet Drakes or Mono-Blue will fill the control slot this go-around, which will mean no Teferi, Hero of Dominaria reprint.
  • Speaking of control, a more dark horse candidate is a non-blue control deck like Boros Control. Karn, Scion of Urza, Rekindling Phoenix, and random artifacts like Treasure Map and Azor's Gateway would offer some solid value, along with rotating wraths like Star of Extinction, Cleansing Nova, and Settle the Wreckage. That said, we do have a couple of problems. First, Boros Control isn't really a top-tier deck, and based on last year's offerings, Challenger Decks are designed based off of the best decks in the format (although we made an exception for Merfolk, so anything is possible). Second, Boros Control is one of the most expensive decks in Standard, which will make getting it down into the $100–125 range while still having a functional deck somewhere between hard and impossible.

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  • Mono-Red Aggro could be a Challenger Deck, although the combination of Runaway Steam-Kin and Experimental Frenzy (neither of which is rotating) will make things tricky. Some sort of big red deck could work—Rekindling Phoenix is a solid reprint target, since it's expensive right now but has little Modern value. But when you combine these challenges with the fact that we got Mono-Red last year, going the White Weenie / Boros Weenie route seems much more likely in 2019.
  • Selesnya Tokens, Dimir Control, Izzet Phoenix, and Boros Aggro (the non-White Weenie version) are decks to keep in mind for the 2020 edition of Challenger Decks. For 2019, these decks all have too many chase, non-rotating cards (Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice, March of the Multitudes, and Arclight Phoenix) to really be in consideration. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Personally, I'm super excited to have Challenger Decks back. They are a great product for helping both new and returning players get into Standard. While it's certainly true that the decks are only good for about six months thanks to rotation, paying $30 for six months of Magic is a great deal, and as we saw in evaluating last year's decks, the 2018 decks hold a reasonable amount of value even now.

Now that you've seen my guesses for the 2019 edition of Challenger Decks, what do you think? What will I get right? What will I get wrong? What other possibilities are there for the 2019 Challenger Decks? What are your predictions for the series? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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