Collected Company and Reflector Mage have turned Standard into a world that revolves around making the most from every drop of mana available. Card advantage can be found everywhere, and not a deck can be found that doesn't have some way to keep resources flowing. Grinding out opponents with the typical combination of card drawing and creature removal is all but impossible. Victory comes from developing a battlefield advantage, and the best decks are designed to create and maintain this advantage while preventing the opponent from doing the same.
To fight back against Collected Company, players are wielding Green ramp decks that go over the top with powerful trumps that make up for enormous deficits in tempo and card advantage. Cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Dragonlord Atarka, and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger Erase the opponent's battlefield and present them with a threat that they can't deal with. As these ramp decks have gained popularity, the metagame continues to evolve to defeat them while still competing with the Collected Company decks. Where is the metagame headed now?
Magic Online sits on the cutting edge of the metagame, so it's a window into the future. Last weekend was the monthly Magic Online Championship Series qualifier, which drew over 400 competitors to play ten rounds of Standard. The resulting Top 8 is filled with insight into the deeper truths of how to win in the current Standard environment.
Esper Dragons has a difficult time contending with a metagame where value is everywhere. Collected Company allows opponents to build boards from nothing. Deathmist Raptor has been punishing Esper Dragons ever since it was printed, and things haven't changed. Goblin Dark-Dwellers is another card that gives Esper Dragons issues, and that's not to mention the increase in Crackling Doom it has spurred. Grinding against green ramp decks is impossible, because World Breaker and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger will inevitably win the game through any amount of counterspells and removal. Silumgar's Scorn, the closest thing to Counterspell since Mana Leak was in Standard, is still very good, but how is Dragonlord Ojutai supposed to survive? It requires ditching the focus on black cards in favor of red.
Swapping Foul-Tongue Invocation for Draconic Roar not only makes the Dragons deck faster, it also shifts it towards a decidedly aggressive role, which is exactly where the deck wants to be. Draconic Roar simultaneously destroys opposing creatures while working towards killing the opponent. This aligns with the plan of being as aggressive as possible, compared to Foul-Tongue Invocation's ability to extend the length of a game.
Red also provides Mantis Rider, which is an ideal threat in a format defined by ground creatures. Collected Company decks and green ramp decks are weak against flying creatures, so Mantis Rider is well-positioned in the metagame and one of the quality threats available in Standard.
Mantis Rider makes Jeskai Dragons more aggressive than Esper Dragons, but this deck ups the ante further with a set of Thunderbreak Regent. Access to another aggressive flying creature means this deck is an entirely different animal than Esper Dragons, and one better-equipped for the realities of the current Standard metagame. Thunderbreak Regent provides value even against creature removal or bounce like Reflector Mage, and combined with hasty hits from Mantis Rider and damage from Draconic Roar, this deck is able to quickly and reliably finish opponents. Thunderbreak Regent also reduces the need for Dragonlord Ojutai, which while powerful is slow and subject to the legendary rule. This deck isn't so interested in drawing cards as it is winning the game as fast as possible, and it's the reason why Dragonlord Ojutai has a diminished role in the deck.
The idea of Grixis Control succeeding in a format that appears so hostile to control decks is counterintuitive, but digging deeper provides some insight into how this deck can survive. The driving force behind this Grixis Control deck is Chandra, Flamecaller, which at the top of the curve has the ability to dominate the game in nearly any situation. Chandra, Flamecaller can deal six damage a turn to the opponent, starting with the first turn it hits play, so it's an expedient clock for closing out the game on a stable battlefield. If behind, the -X ultimate ability sweeps the battlefield and brings things back to parity, ideally with a Planeswalker left behind to turn the aggression back on the opponent. In other situations, her 0 ability is card-drawing with upside, and it's the sort of incremental advantage that wins attrition wars. With the ability to clear the battlefield, generate cards, and kill the opponent, Chandra, Flamecaller does it all, and it has never been better-positioned in Standard. It's comparable to Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and understanding it as such makes Grixis Control more familiar.
This deck also leans on Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which, combined with loads of creature removal, turns into a Zombie-creating machine. It helps this deck to stay proactive and aggressive, and it keeps the opponent honest by requiring creature removal. With Jace, Vryn's Prodigy likely to draw early removal spells, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet will be free to dominate the mid-game. Lifelink is surprisingly useful in a Grixis deck that doesn't typically have access to lifegain effects.
The remainder of this deck is composed of the best disruption spells available to the colors, split between counterspells and removal. Grasp of Darkness is notable for being the most efficient two-mana removal spell in Standard, but because of its restrictive mana cost, not many decks can support it. It's a valuable tool for this deck that allows it to destroy a wide range of creatures without sacrificing efficiency. It's subtle additions like this one that have a huge impact on the viability of a control deck. The versatile Void Shatter is another excellent addition, and its ability to remove cards from the game is very useful in a format filled with graveyard value. Supporting the disruption is four Dig Through Time and a pair of Painful Truths, which are a necessity to ensure this deck finds the right cards at the right time and never runs out of action.
Another subtle thing that makes this deck possible is Wandering Fumarole. It allows the deck to be opportunistically aggressive without the need to invest mana ahead of time. It's also a win condition that doesn't require dedicated spell slots, so it's a threat that doesn't dilute the deck's control strategy.
In a metagame where card advantage is secondary to battlefield presence, Soulfire Grand Master isn't particularly attractive. The ability to create an endless stream of cards is great, but that's just not what most Standard matchups are about. Meaningfully developing the board is more important, and that's why Sylvan Advocate is a better choice of two-drop in Mardu Green.
Sylvan Advocate provides Mardu Green with a two mana play more robust than Soulfire Grand Master. That one extra point of toughness goes a long way in holding up to removal spells, blocking attackers, and attacking through blockers. Vigilance is an added bonus that allows the deck to stay aggressive while maintaining a defensive posture. Later in the game, where Soulfire Grand Master excels, Sylvan Advocate shines brighter. Rather than produce extra card advantage, it produces extra board presence, doubling down on its initial purpose. Sylvan Advocate does an excellent impression of Tarmogoyf in this deck, and it's a tool that makes this deck better-suited for this metagame.
If being aggressive is important, why not just build the most aggressive deck possible? This new breed of Atarka Red attempts to do just that.
This deck is built around the classic Atarka Red package of Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst with Atarka's Command. When we first saw this deck emerge after rotation it went big with Temur Battle-Rage and Become Immense, but Oath of the Gatewatch provides incentive to ignore that plan and instead focus on going even wider. Reckless Bushwacker provides this deck with an additional way to pump its creatures, and this redundancy means the deck is more consistently paid off for building a large army. Pia and Kiran Nalaar serves this deck as Dragon Fodder/Hordeling Outburst numbers nine and ten, and they help to make the pump effects in the deck even more effective.
The biggest innovation in this deck is Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, which has the dual role of being a pump effect and a token generator. It provides another way to take advantage of token-generators, but it also produces creatures of its own when a hand is already flush with Atarka's Commands and Reckless Bushwhackers. This is the sort of consistency and power that only Planeswalkers can provide, and fitting a Planeswalker into a strategy like Atarka Red makes it all the more difficult to deal with. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is particularly great against opponents relying on creature removal and sweepers like Flaying Tendrils, which will eventually be overwhelmed by a stream of creatures from the Planeswalker.
This deck takes further advantage of going wide by including three maindeck Outnumber. This removal spell is more versatile and efficient than Roast, and it's more powerful than Fiery Impulse. It's important that this deck includes disruption to deal with important opposing creatures, and Outnumber is the best card for the job and a unique advantage to playing such a creature-dense strategy.
The Eldrazi have been slowly creeping their way into Standard, but a dedicated Eldrazi deck has yet to make a lasting mark in the metagame. A new mono-blue version seeks to make the most of Ghostfire Blade, but instead of being focused on aggression like the monoblack versions, this version is centered around evasion and value.
Dimensional Infiltrator, Eldrazi Skyspawner, and Whirler Rogue are each evasive threats that also play well against removal spells. Ghostfire Blade is best on creatures that get by blockers, and all of these accomplish that. They also help this deck to produce the stream of threats necessary to make sure Ghostfire Blade always has a target.
This deck includes Eldrazi Mimic, Ruination Guide, Thought-Knot Seer, and Reality Smasher, which gives it the potential for the same great curve-out draws as the Modern version, just on a slower timeline. This deck doesn't get two-mana lands, but it does get various colorless lands that generate value, whether it be life from Tomb of the Spirit Dragon, Foundry of the Consuls, or Sea Gate Wreckage. This value from lands gives this Eldrazi deck a major draw to playing such a strategy.
TCGplayer Invitational Champion Chris Fennell took a page out of the Modern playbook with his U/R version of the deck:
Red provides Vile Aggregate, an impressive piece of board presence that scales up through the game, and it's even better with Pia and Kiran Nalaar producing extra colorless creatures. Red also provides Roast, which is higher-quality removal than anything available to a mono-blue version. Wandering Fumarole is another benefit of playing two colors, but coming into play tapped is a drawback in a deck that needs to curve out.
This version of the deck gives up the power boost of Ghostfire Blade and the aggression of Eldrazi Mimic for a focus on a bigger game plan. Hedron Crawler gives the deck a speed increase and allows it to start deploying its curve of powerful Eldrazi ahead of schedule. Drowner of Hope is as much a trump in Standard as it is in Modern, and it will contain creatures like Nantuko Husk, Deathmist Raptor, World Breaker, and Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury with ease.
An interesting facet to this deck is Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in the sideboard. This card has traditionally been used as a trump for midrange matches, where it clears the board and eventually kills the opponent. Its -X ability misses colorless Eldrazi creatures, so this deck breaks the parity to make it a one-sided sweeper. Eight mana is expensive, but Eldrazi Scions make the cost manageable.
A metagame in motion remains in motion. Standard will continue to evolve, and as soon as players become comfortable with the decks from last weekend, something new will rear its head and threaten to upset the balance. How are you attacking the metagame? Where is the metagame headed next? Share your thoughts, and I'll answer any questions in the forums.