Last weekend there were three Standard Grand Prix, and they challenged their competitors to beat the Aetherworks Marvel deck that has dominated the post-Felidar Guardian metagame to such degree that there have been calls for yet another banning. There's been discussion in the community that this one of the worst, if not the worst, Standard metagames ever, so there was a lot of pressure on these Grand Prix to prove that Standard isn't a lost cause until rotation or an emergency banning.
The results show that while Aetherworks Marvel is a very powerful strategy, Standard does contain the tools to beat it. Brad Nelson perfected the Temur Aetherworks deck for the metagame and used it to seize the trophy in Omaha, but in Amsterdam Lukas Blohon used a new and improved Black-Green Delirium deck to cut through the field to the top, and in Manila Ryoichi Tamada brought White-Flash back from the dead and used it to best Marvel decks all weekend en route to first place.
Aetherworks Marvel provided the metagame with a clear target to beat, which reacted with an all-out assault against a common enemy. Every successful deck was designed first and foremost with beating Aetherworks Marvel, which is reflected in their sideboard and even main deck card selections. A glaring example of this is the rise of Dissenter's Deliverance, which functions as removal for Aetherworks Marvel at very low opportunity cost because of its ability to cycle for one mana. It has been elevated to the level of main deck staple, and it can be found in two of the three winning decks last weekend. It's used in both Black-Green Delirium, where it also aids filling the graveyard for Delirium, and in Aetherworks Marvel itself, where it provides an edge in the mirror match. Dissenter's Deliverance also destroys Heart of Kiran and Metallic Mimic, and even Walking Ballista, so it has applications that stretch across nearly the entire top-tier of the metagame. It's a card that any green deck would be wise to include as long as Aetherworks Marvel is around.
Aetherworks Marvel also changed which strategies are viable in the format, and has dramatically altered the composition of the metagame. Zombies, which was the winning deck at the Pro Tour and a clear top-tier contender, has been mostly wiped from the field by the Aetherworks Marvel deck it struggles to stop. Mardu Vehicles was a stalwart of the metagame before it was pushed out by Aetherworks Marvel. The aggressive niche that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar holds has shifted to blue, which offers Spell Queller and other countermagic to keep Aetherworks Marvel off the table. There has been a complete revival of the White-Blue Flash decks that went defunct after the banning of Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage.
Ryoichi Tamada was victorious in Manila with his simple approach to the White-Blue Flash deck. It's reminiscent of the original version of the deck, except it has adopted a new aggressive two-drop to replace Smuggler's Copter, Glory-Bound Initiate. The card was good enough to Top 8 the Modern Grand Prix in Kobe in an Esper control deck, and it looks great in Standard as an efficient source of pressure that with its exert ability will grow bigger than blockers and win races. It is cementing itself as an all-around strong creature without gimmicks like Always Watching, and it's something I'd expect to start seeing a lot more of.
As far as beating Aetherworks Marvel is concerned, Tamada goes beyond Spell Queller with main deck Negate to give him a critical mass of counters and the ability to consistently keep Aetherworks Marvel off the table. If it does resolve, the deck even has a pair of Cast Out to potentially clean it up. The deck also uses a set of Stasis Snare, which in the worst-case scenario can take Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger off the table and buy time to win. Note that Tamada opted not to include any Irrigated Farmland, meaning he decided coming into play tapped was never worth the benefit of cycling later on, which is a testament to this deck's tempo-oriented game plan that seeks to win the game quickly and not get into the longer games where cycling would be beneficial.
In the sideboard, three Dusk // Dawn is a great sweeper against all variety of aggressive decks, whether they be Zombies, Black-Green Constrictor or Red-Green Energy variants. The aftermath effect is strong in a deck with many cheap creatures, including Thraben Inspector that can be returned and replayed to generate another Clue and more value. In the first time I have seen it in competitive constructed play – and what must be its first constructed Grand Prix win – Vizier of Many Faces is a great way to copy large creatures like Verdurous Gearhulk, and with embalm generating value from the graveyard it helps to grind out black removal.
Stretching beyond the White-Blue core is Esper Vehicles, which had a breakout weekend with a finals appearance in Manila and a top four in Amsterdam.
The strategy is very similar to White-Blue Flash, but it's closer to Mardu in its card composition and fundamentally more aggressive stance with Toolcraft Exemplar and Heart of Kiran, which are supported by the Scrapheap Scrounger for which it splashes into black. These artifacts help towards the improvise cost of Metallic Rebuke, which Esper uses as a more flexible alternative than Negate, and one that in the more aggressive Esper deck carries less risk of becoming dead in the late game than it would in Flash.
Another approach to this strategy is to stretch the mana and retain red, or compared to Mardu Vehicles, add blue. The deck retrains Veteran Motorist for its valuable scry ability and aptitude for crewing vehicles. The deck also gets to keep Unlicensed Disintegration, which will do heavy lifting in a world where black-green decks are again a major factor.
Black-green has been streamlined and has returned to the metagame with a vengeance, winning in Amsterdam and reaching the finals of Omaha.
The newest trend for these decks is to main deck Dissenter's Deliverance, which is both easy fuel for delirium and an answer to Aetherworks Marvel. It's a concession to the bogeyman of the metagame, but it's one this deck is glad to make. The Aetherworks Marvel matchup, and Aetherworks Marvel itself, have always been a major problem for black-green, so playing a main deck answer gives the deck a real fighting chance against it and forces them to hit Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on the first attempt or risk being run over.
The inevitability of the Marvel game plan means that black-green decks need to end the game ASAP, which has meant the return of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar as an efficient way to add power to the board and pressure the opponent, especially when combined with Winding Constrictor. Marvel decks do little to pressure the planeswalker, and with a decline in Zombies and Mardu decks with Heart of Kiran that do, the conditions are right for it to thrive.
Making even better use of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is the more aggressive and creature-dense Black-Green Energy Aggro deck, which last weekend reached the Top 8 in Manila, put two players in the Top 8 of Amsterdam, and even won the Pro Tour Qualifier on Magic Online.
Taking this aggressive approach to the extreme is Red-Green Pummeler, which takes on an almost combo feel when it combines Electrostatic Pummeler with a wealth of energy sources and ways to push it through blockers. The deck appeared immediately after the release of Kaladesh, but in the face of broken cards like Smuggler's Copter it fell by the wayside as a novelty and not a serious competitive option. Now, with a deck like Aetherworks Marvel to prey on with its speed, it has returned with a vengeance and has put players into the top four in both Amsterdam and Manila.
The deck has gained a major pickup in Rhonas, the Indomitable, with its ability to pump power and give trample, is the perfect support for Electrostatic Pummeler. It's effective for pushing any of the deck's large creatures through blockers, and it will often be able to attack as a threat on its own. It's also an ideal mana sink for the late game in a deck that doesn't otherwise have one.
On that same point, Sheltered Thicket is a subtle but important addition that with cycling helps to mitigate mana flood later in the game. It also improves the mana as an additional dual land, and it coming into play tapped comes at a low cost in a deck without turn-one plays.
Prowling Serpopard is a great addition to the sideboard, because hosing countermagic is very relevant now with Spell Queller and Metallic Rebuke on the rise. White-Blue Flash pilot Ryoichi Tamada even sideboarded in Essence Scatter, a plan that is wrecked by this creature.
Manglehorn means Aetherworks Marvel enters the battlefield tapped, and against an aggressive deck like this that could be the speed bump that gets it killed. Manglehorn also gets it off the table if played after the fact, so it's effective in the matchup and against any Heart of Kiran decks, so it's a great addition to the sideboard.
Another deck that has seen a surge in recent success is Temur Energy.
This is a squarely midrange take on energy that loads up on mana acceleration in Channeler Initiate and Servant of the Conduit, plays energy creatures up the curve to Glorybringer, and then tops out with Elder Deep-Fiend. It's a simple but powerful and consistent strategy, and it uses the same aggressive principles as the other decks in the format that can contend with Marvel, while using its blue disruption to give it an extra edge. The deck uses many of the same top-tier quality energy cards that form the core of Marvel and formed the core of Copy Cat before that, but it's not vulnerable to any sort of specific disruption or hosers.
Blue-Red Control hasn't lived up to being the anti-Marvel deck that many hoped it would prove to be, but it's still fighting in the metagame. Some high-profile players including Martin Juza and Tomoharu Saito played it to cash finishes in Amsterdam and Manila respectively, and it made it to the finals of Amsterdam.
There's nothing too special about this build, but it is built with beating Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in mind. Summary Dismissal is a simple and effective way to clean it up along with the trigger. This card was a staple in the days of Emrakul, the Promised End, and it has become strong yet again.
While Aetherworks Marvel gets a bad rap, there's a beauty in seeing the best and broken deck get taken even further, like the build Brad Nelson used to win Omaha.
The deck is tailored for beating the mirror match. Dissenter's Deliverance provides a big edge in that battle, as does Negate, but the really exciting addition is Shrine of the Forsaken Gods. The backup plan of the deck is to hardcast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and adding two mana towards that makes Shrine of the Forsaken Gods invaluable. This extra jump in mana may be especially important in the mirror match, where lacking a good Aetherworks Marvel spin, victory will go to whoever reaches 10 mana first.
Taking this plan further is the technology of Ulvenwald Hydra, which can search for land, including Shrine of the Forsaken Gods, as an additional way to help ramp mana. It's great to cast and a fine Aetherworks Marvel hit, and two copies in the sideboard help give an edge in the mirror match and against control decks. As a threatening creature, it is an an especially strong sideboard plan because it matches up very well against opponents that Overload on anti-Marvel cards like Negate and Ceremonious Rejection while skimming on answers to giant creatures.
Another way to gain an edge in the mirror match is to splash into white for Nahiri, the Harbinger, which can get a tapped Aetherworks Marvel off the table. It also provides valuable card selection and can even pitch Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger for a new card. A build with the planeswalker reached the Top 8 in Omaha, and it contains another interesting piece of technology. Spawning Bed is an alternative to Shrine of the Forsaken Gods that with the investment of mana will help accelerate to 10 even faster.
Marvel decks filled six of the top eight spots in Omaha, so it is very much still on top, but just one copy each in the Top 8 of Amsterdam and Manila shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that there is still hope Standard can be fun and interesting. It certainly seems like enough evidence that Standard isn't as completely broken as it seemed, and that calls for banning were premature. What do you make of the Grand Prix results? Does Marvel still need a banning?