A Sultai Food Deck Guide – Playing With and Against the True Evil

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Hello and welcome! I’m Drifter, back with another deck guide for my deer readers. The last couple of times I was going over either my own brew or my take on a more fringe deck (links at the end!) but while Fires of Invention is sweet, fun and still a solid contender, we’re looking at an entirely different animal today and it’s no ordinary deer. This time we’re going to be looking at the fun police, the metagamed monstrosity; the top dog of the format – what happens if we combine our own Okos with a bunch of efficient answers to their Okos? Well, what happens is we win. A lot.

Check out our Standard Metagame Tier List for more decks and deck guides!

Sultai Food Decklist

The True Evil in all its cervine glory:

4 Breeding Pool (RNA) 246
3 Fabled Passage (ELD) 244
1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General (WAR) 97
4 Gilded Goose (ELD) 160
4 Hydroid Krasis (RNA) 183
1 Island (ELD) 254
7 Forest (ELD) 266
4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World (WAR) 169
4 Noxious Grasp (M20) 110
4 Oko, Thief of Crowns (ELD) 197
4 Once Upon a Time (ELD) 169
4 Overgrown Tomb (GRN) 253
4 Paradise Druid (WAR) 171
2 Swamp (ELD) 258
2 Vraska, Golgari Queen (GRN) 213
4 Watery Grave (GRN) 259
4 Wicked Wolf (ELD) 181

2 Thrashing Brontodon (M20) 197
2 Legion's End (M20) 106
3 Veil of Summer (M20) 198
2 Massacre Girl (WAR) 99
2 Negate (M20) 69
2 Assassin's Trophy (GRN) 152
2 Duress (M20) 97

Deck updated: November 4, 2019

All Sultai Food Decklists

This is Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa’s decklist from the MPL Eldraine Pearl Split Division (6 of the 8 decks from that division were Sultai Food), the most prestigious recent tournament in Standard magic, which you can watch on twitch.tv/magic. It is the list I would recommend for now, crafted by one of the strongest players in the world, and tried and tested. It’s intended for Bo3 and this article’s focus is mainly on that, but I’ve also played it a decent amount in Bo1 and it still performs great there. In this article, I’ll be writing both for people who may not have been keeping up with Standard that much but are looking to get into it, and for people who follow Standard, know the deck and are merely looking to improve their game with and against it.

I’ll be including plenty of tips and strategies: both for playing with Emperor Elk, and to avoid becoming chopped venison.

What spawned the True Evil?

First, let’s talk about the idea behind the deck and its murky roots. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Sultai Food broke the meta – the meta was long gone already, and the deck very much stands on the shoulders of Simic Food. Simic Food was the previous boogeyman of the format, an amalgamation of all its best cards: from Nissa, Who Shakes the World: breaker of the previous standard, to Wicked Wolf: a great removal spell and resilient threat wrapped in one, to The Elk Lord himself. He broke the Magic subreddits at least as much as he broke the meta; the collective groan of the magic community: Oko, Thief less of Crowns than of wallets. Even Gilded Goose is an incredibly powerful card – t1 ramp that has great synergy with Oko and Wicked Wolf, and that is still surprisingly useful late is a great place to be. In Simic or Sultai Food, you want Goose in every opening hand without fail.

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This goose is very much loose

The core of Simic Food is resilient and hard to disrupt for any opposing deck. The removal options to hit planeswalkers with so much loyalty are very limited; creatures aren’t usually big enough early to do to the job, and Wicked Wolf’s indestructibility makes it very tough for many decks to deal with. Even if you have the removal, you won’t be able to get clean 1 for 1 exchanges with any of its core threats as they all give value even if they’re removed: Nissa produces a 3/3 haste and gains them 2 mana that turn, Oko gives you a food token (which the deck has a ton of synergy with, from producing mana with Goose, making your next Oko immediately make a 3/3 or enabling your Wicked Wolf activations) or makes one of their creatures/ artifacts much less frightening, Wicked Wolf kills a creature, and removal is downright pitiful an answer to Hydroid Krasis. This all combines with these cards’ ability to snowball the game out of control very quickly unanswered to put your opponents in an ugly Catch-22 of being forced to remove the card that already gave you a lot of value because they can’t afford not to.

When a deck becomes as ubiquitous as Simic Food has been in the last few weeks and when it’s not really countered by anything popular, the focus becomes on tackling the mirror rather than answering other decks. We saw this when the Golos decks started packing 4 maindeck Disdainful Stroke to fight the mirror late in the last format – from this same approach, Sultai Food was born.

What does the True Evil have over its predecessor?

Oko, as the best card in the deck, is so hard to answer efficiently and takes over so many games unanswered by himself that the focus has become on doing so by any means necessary. 4 Noxious Grasp is the definition of by any means necessary – the card is not just good against Simic Food, but against a lot of the field. We’re seeing the near unprecedented dominance of a single colour in Standard right now – green decks are everywhere, the best cards are green, and Noxious Grasp is 2 mana Hero’s Downfall that gains you a life when you face those. There’s a lot less white around, but it’s still a nice addition that keeps the card from being dead in too many matchups – it is a good answer to several threats in the knights decks or to Teferi/Kenrith in the Fires decks for example. Even when it is mostly dead, you still get to play up to 2 games where you can board them out in bo3, and it’s not like you’re unfavoured against most decks game 1 even if you draw one – being a card down against mono red aggro is usually not a huge deal, since the matchup is already hilariously lopsided. Even in matchups where Grasp seems completely dead, that’s not always the case – remember that Oko makes their creatures into green elks, and will turn Grasp on for you.

Another powerful mirror breaker that still pulls her weight against most decks is Vraska, Golgari Queen – this femme fatale is a fantastic answer to not only Emperor Elk but to Hydroid Krasis, Brazen Borrower, Voracious Hydra and ramp creatures in Simic Food, and she recycles your food tokens, ramp creatures and spare lands to make real cards in any matchup. For the few turns in which your opponent chooses to continue playing while you have both Oko and Vraska safely in play, they can combine forces to let you draw two cards a turn while making them harder and harder to kill.

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The Adventure decks sometimes give the Food decks a rough time, since early Innkeeper draws are very powerful, and their threats are cheap, efficient and resilient to removal. Massacre Girl is a fantastic haymaker against them that Simic Food doesn’t have – she slices and dices through their whole army and is nice enough to leave a decent threat behind. It’s also the nail in the coffin against the already good aggro matchups, and you can set it up to do some filthy things against basically any creature deck – remember you can attack your elks into 4/4s or even 5/5s (if you have a Paradise Druid you’re willing to throw away or they have an x/1) if you can then slam her onto the board.

How do I exploit this evil to my own ends?

Mulligan to your best draws

Sultai Food is capable of fast draws aplenty, like turn 1 Goose t2 Oko or t1 Goose t2 Paradise Druid t3 Nissa, while being incredibly resilient and able to take down even the longest games on the back of Hydroid Krasis and your million planeswalkers. You want to work to maximise these fast draws, where you can land pressure early and never stop, and the entire deck is geared to do that. This is why we have 4 Once Upon a Time – the card adds a great deal of consistency in that it can dig for our 8 ramp creatures when we need it to, and it’s still a fine topdeck in the late game – Once makes the explosive draws not at all unlikely since all you really need is a ramp card and a good midgame spell.

Ideally you have more than that, but I would not recommend keeping any 7 without a t1 or 2 ramp creature or a Once, and really there’s no need to keep sketchy hands in general here – the deck’s threats are so difficult to deal with that it can easily come back from being a card down, if it has one of its explosive draws. If Oko is battering away at your opponent with free elks, invalidating their creatures, and threatening to steal the smaller ones for a huge tempo swing, then being a card down probably isn’t going to be deciding the game. It’s reasonable to also throw away hands with just Paradise Druid as your ramp source on the draw – even if you go to 5 and have Goose into Oko, it’s absolutely worth it.

Keep your proactive game alive in your sideboarding

There’s a reason this deck has a bunch of proactive creatures in the sideboard – you don’t want to dilute your fast pressure draws. If you bring in too many do-nothing cards and keep hands on the basis of having them, you give up the primary draw of the deck – the number of free wins it can net you where you put on rapid unanswerable pressure and run your opponents over.

On that basis, don’t oversideboard and don’t cut your core great cards: I would never recommend cutting Gilded Goose, Oko or Nissa, and I would only recommend trimming at the most 1-2 Krases or Wolves, or 2 Once Upon a Times. Cut Noxious Grasp where it’s bad – that includes where it only has a couple of targets in their deck and especially when they’re bad targets like Teferi, Time Raveler. Cut or shave Vraska where the minus isn’t hitting important stuff – again Teferi doesn’t count because it’ll probably get minus and get value before you can kill it, and you’re better off just attacking it. Cut Paradise Druid in control matchups or when you’re adopting a grindier approach in games 2/3. Cut Massacre Girl where they’re not swarming the board or it’s not getting consistent kills; if you’re playing the Sultai Food mirror, that is more reason to cut Paradise Druid since it makes Massacre Girl far better.

Above all else, don’t board in too much reactive stuff and not unless you have good reason to do so – if you’re playing against control or Fires and they’re obviously going to have a ton of good Duress hits, that’s good reason. If you’re playing against a fellow Food deck, don’t board in Legion’s End just for their geese and Krases – that’s not good reason. Do board it in against Adventures – Innkeeper is integral to that deck and it’s well worth it to have the potential to snipe it early.

Remember that the most common sideboard card in the format – Veil of Summer – makes your black removal less good, so if you’re playing against a green deck then you might want to shave on some of your worse black removal like Vraska post-board – it’s probably still good enough against Oko decks, but I will often cut it against Adventures and Gruul. This also makes boarding in stuff like Legion’s End in green matchups less appealing.

How do I defeat the evil?  Can it really be done?

a) Go over the top. Azorius Control has emerged as a deck that claims to have a good Oko matchup and it does this in the classical way that control has hosed midrange throughout magic’s history: it packs a bunch of wraths and efficient early answers, seeks to survive the early game and then be unstoppable later on. Noxious Grasp is almost useless here, with only Teferi, Time Raveler in the maindeck as a target (and Grasping Teferi after they minus is a terrible exchange).

One of the main draws of Oko is that he invalidates creature and artifact threats in such a painless manner; even adding to his gigantic loyalty to do so. This deck solves that by simply not playing many creatures at all, none that don’t generate value before they become elks, and no artifacts in the main.  Wicked Wolf dodges wraths, but is vulnerable to a lot of other cards in the deck – like Prison Realms and the bounce effects in Teferi/Borrower – so ultimately the card isn’t that problematic here, given the large number of those.

Here is the list that came second place at MagicFest Nagoya:

3 Absorb (RNA) 151
2 Aether Gust (M20) 42
2 Agent of Treachery (M20) 43
2 Brazen Borrower (ELD) 39
2 Castle Ardenvale (ELD) 238
3 Castle Vantress (ELD) 242
4 Chemister's Insight (GRN) 32
3 Dovin's Veto (WAR) 193
4 Fabled Passage (ELD) 244
1 Gadwick, the Wizened (ELD) 48
4 Hallowed Fountain (RNA) 251
6 Island (ELD) 257
2 Mass Manipulation (RNA) 42
1 Mystical Dispute (ELD) 58
1 Narset, Parter of Veils (WAR) 61
4 Plains (ELD) 253
3 Prison Realm (WAR) 26
1 Tale's End (M20) 77
4 Teferi, Time Raveler (WAR) 221
4 Time Wipe (WAR) 223
4 Tranquil Cove (M20) 259

2 Aether Gust (M20) 42
2 Apostle of Purifying Light (M20) 6
4 Deputy of Detention (RNA) 165
1 Devout Decree (M20) 13
1 Finale of Glory (WAR) 12
3 Glass Casket (ELD) 15
2 Sorcerous Spyglass (ELD) 233

Will this actually work?

It is worth mentioning that all 7 other decks in the top 8 including the winner were various Food decks, including 4 copies of Sultai Food. In general, I don’t think this deck yet has the numbers to be considered a true counter to Food decks – every deck in the format is going to struggle with fast Oko draws and in my experience, this deck does too. Azorius has good game 1s against Sultai Food since so many of their cards are dead, but the games become a lot harder post-board, when Sultai gets to replace its dead cards with fantastic anti-control tech like Duress and Veil of Summer. It is much harder to counter all your opponents’ stuff when a Veil of Summer invalidates your counterspell and draws a card: such exchanges are absolutely crushing and you don’t have a good way of preventing them since Veil only costs 1 mana.

It is true that Teferi -3 and Aether Gust can get around Veil (and Veil is pretty bad in general when Teferi is in play) so it’s not like the deck doesn’t have any counterplay against it, but these are still just delaying their Veil blowout and Teferi is very hard to keep in play against a deck with as much fast pressure as this one. Even in the late game, Veil threatens to blank Agent of Treachery and Mass Manipulation so their trumps in the matchup are not nearly as effective. The existence of a ridiculously efficient anti-control card that is present in so many sideboards is always going to hurt this strategy a lot in sideboarded games – and some people are even playing the card maindeck in other Food builds.

m20-198-veil-of-summer
Turns out green has the best sideboard options too…

Part of this comes down to good anti-control play: the Sultai player should avoid overextending onto the board and playing important threats into obvious countermagic. Generally post-board, you should wait until you can play your Duress or Veil before trying to resolve an important threat into open mana – t4 Duress + Oko is much more likely to work than slamming t3 Oko into a bunch of open mana.

It’s worth noting that the Azorius deck is very reliant on Prison Realm as the only clean answer to Oko or Nissa – unfortunately that makes it very vulnerable to Vraska who can come down after a planewalker has been realmed, destroy the Realm and immediately allow another planeswalker activation for a gigantic blowout.

Another issue with playing a deck that tries to counter the best deck, is that you lose equity against every other matchup. Azorius Control is a lot more likely to lose to aggro than the Food decks – they have a fantastic aggro matchup, while Azorius is trying to play a game from behind and make a bunch of expensive counters useful against a horde of 1 and 2 mana threats.  

Overall, I think Azorius has a much better bo1 game against Food than in bo3 and it still struggles there. The matchup is likely more favourable than with other decks, but the old adage still applies here – if you want to win, play the best deck. Don’t play the deck that might beat the best deck.

b) Make sure your cards line up well into The Evil

This is less a strategy in its own right, more a general piece of advice to limit the damage Oko and friends do to your deck. If you’re just playing regular old creatures then you will be absolutely preyed on by Oko – he removes the main draw from playing a card like Doom Whisperer or Thief of Sanity because they just become 3/3s with no other effect and then you’ve spent 3 or 5 mana to play a vanilla 3/3 in Standard (or sometimes to play a food token and give them a Thief of Sanity). It’s not like you’re hurting Oko by doing this either – sure, he might not be able to generate his own 3/3s or food tokens this turn but he’s still gaining loyalty, and he’ll be harder to kill and be threatening to steal your small creatures just fine.

The solution is to play mostly creatures where you don’t care if they become elks – and these are generally three kinds of creature: those that have immediate value, are really cheap and/or have +1/+1 counters.

When Oko makes a creature into an elk, it retains any counters on it – a 3/3 Hydroid Krasis will become a 6/6 which should still hopefully be very capable of pressuring Oko. You can both use this as the Oko player – for example to make a 6/6 with a Nissa land-creature – and against the Oko player. If you’re playing creatures like Wicked Wolf or Hydroid Krasis (funnily enough, both in the Simic Food deck…), you’ll be much better able to pressure Oko and take advantage of the turns he has to take off to elk your creatures.

Value creatures don’t just refer to creatures that draw cards or replace themselves – haste creatures like Questing Beast are also good against Oko as the immediate damage and impact they provide is value, and hopefully will kill him or make taking a turn off to elk them a dicey proposition.

Flooding the board with cheap units plays into Oko in sort of a different way – Oko is good against strategies that try to do that, because he gains a ton of life, the 3/3s he creates will block cheap units well, and because he threatens to steal them, not because you care if he elks them. There is no easy solution to that except to kill Oko, or to apply so much pressure so quickly that you don’t care about the elks or food tokens. The latter is more a question of being on the play and having a draw that lines up well, so focus on the former – play black red or adventure decks, not mono red.

Another test to consider alongside the Elk Emperor test is the Wicked Wolf test – does your deck line up well into Wicked Wolf? Do you have ways to bounce, exile or otherwise stop it from pressuring you/preventing your pressure? Are the creatures you’re likely to lose to it important to your plan, and what can you do to alleviate that?

Having efficient answers to Nissa is incredibly important; Nissa threatens to curve right into a gigantic Krasis that refreshes their hand and with 4 Once, it’s easy for this deck to dig into a Krasis. Answering Nissa inefficiently also puts you far behind, as you still have the 3/3 haste creature to contend with. Luckily, efficient answers to Nissa are usually also good answers to Oko, so we’re back to Noxious Grasp and Murderous Rider mainly.

Don’t play expensive artifacts – you can sleeve up your Great Henge when Oko gets banned but if your main goal is to win, don’t do that before.

Truly Evil Closing Thoughts

As you might have guessed, there isn’t an easy answer to Sultai Food in Standard – that’s why it’s the best deck. I’ve given some general advice on how to beat them but really, if you want to win above all else then you should play this deck or another build of Sultai Food. The core of the deck is too powerful and resilient, its threats are mostly impossible to cleanly answer, and its starts are too fast for most decks to be able to compete that well with the limited card pool available. If you choose to play something else then you need to absolutely have a good plan for this matchup, and I hope I’ve properly illustrated that that’s not at all easy.

I had plenty more to write, but this article is already quite long and I don’t want to bore you; the subject was sort of against me on that anyway. Touching on a popular subject briefly, I wholeheartedly support an Oko ban and do feel that it’s necessary at this point. However, I suspect that the core of this deck is so powerful that it will be a major contender even after that, and I may well do a follow-up if/when a ban occurs. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Other Info

Find my articles here: https://mtgazone.com/user/drifter/?profiletab=posts. I also do draft articles! My last Standard article: https://mtgazone.com/four-color-fires-deck-guide/

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3 Responses

  1. Beau says:

    You can’t invalidate a teferi-3 with veil because you can’t play at instant speed with teferi on the board

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