How is going to a tournament like opening a booster pack? Consider a big two day tournament, like an Open or Grand Prix. These have fifteen rounds, just like a booster pack has fifteen cards. Each round is a card, and just like you never know what cards you are going to open, you never know what decks you're going to face. But wait — you do have some idea of what you're going to open, right? You know (roughly at least) the list of cards that are possible to open in a pack. Further, you know that most of the cards you open will be common in rarity, a few will be uncommon, and one will be rare or mythic. So you don't know which specific cards you will open, but you do have a good idea of what kind of cards you will get and how many of them. Funny, doesn't that remind you of something?
Oh right, that metagame thing. Turns out we also have a good idea of what decks we can possibly play against in a given format. We even know what decks are more likely to turn up than others: which decks show up at common, which at uncommon, which at rare and mythic. A lot of people talk about metagames with numbers. They will estimate each decks' meta-share, the percentage of people in the field playing that deck, and use those numbers to decide what decks to care about more when constructing their decks. I have never found this to be useful, as I have difficulty translating abstract percentages to intuitive feelings on how much play a particular deck sees. Understanding how much more often you will face a 20% deck than a 12% deck is really important and numbers don't let me feel that difference in the way I need to.
Instead, I utilize a paradigm based on a frequency metric that years of drafting and general merriment have caused me to internalize very well — card rarity. I don't talk about 15% decks, I talk about common decks. Instead of 7% decks, I will talk about uncommon decks. So on and so forth, you get the idea. Each of the card rarities ends up being a broad grouping of a range of meta-shares. But Jadine, you say, doesn't reducing percentage data down to four broad groupings mean a loss of precision that we could use to inform our decisions? Well, yes, but I hold that the precision we end up losing isn't useful precision.
There's variance in opening packs, right? That's one of the first things we mention to people getting into the game. Don't buy packs to build a collection, just buy the singles you need. There's no way to just buy the singles in a tournament. Just because you estimate a deck to be 33% of the field doesn't mean that you will play it in exactly a third of your matches — so preparing for it as if you will isn't super great. Having groupings of common decks (which you need a good plan against), uncommon decks (which you should understand) and rare decks (which you could see, but aren't likely to) is more useful Furthermore, no one, not even the greatest metagamers, can estimate meta-shares all that accurately. To be honest, my belief is that percentage estimates that are not multiples of ten are claiming significant digits they haven't earned — it's too imprecise a science. As such, a lot of the data we're ditching by going down to four broad groupings is just noise anyway.
Magic is deep enough and complex enough that there is room for several different people to look at the same puzzle and all see different things, and all be right in equal degree (or rather, wrong in equal degree). But metagaming is all about seeing the format through the eyes of others, so every perspective you add to your collection is very valuable. Without further adieu, let's crack a pack and dive into this Standard metagame. Ah, I sure do love the smell of a freshly opened self-referential metaphor.
The first deck I want to talk about is not, strictly speaking, a deck. Not a single deck, at least. Jeskai Black and Mardu Green have so many strategic similarities that I find it to be more useful to just consider them as a unit when discussing the metagame. These decks (and not just the two examples, there's some lesser-played options here as well) are the various four-color midrange decks that seem to make up the plurality of my online opponents. They are designed to survive and grind, and not always in that order. These decks are a lot of the reason this Standard format is so slow — they play to keep playing, are chock full of removal, and play more fetchlands than mana-producing lands. The differences between these decks mostly come down to what threats you want to eventually end the game with and how you want to be positioned in the mirror. These things matter a lot if you are considering playing a deck in this category and very little otherwise, so I do not intend to discuss them here.
These decks, in my experience, have no slam dunk match-ups. They have game against everything, but no auto wins. In general, this is exactly what I want out of my deck, but I'm still currently avoiding these decks. The reason is that while they don't have any strong positive match-ups, they do currently have a lot of strong negative match-ups. Rally in particular is a match-up I do not want to face while piloting one of these decks, even with one of the blue versions with ample sideboard countermagic. In a similar vein, the recent meta shift towards Collected Company decks is very bad for these decks. The new aggressive Collected Company decks seek to compete primarily on the tempo axis of the game, something these decks are severely lacking in. Dying with tons of cards in your hand is worth no match points. Reflector Mage is the big Oath of the Gatewatch game-changer here, allowing decks to achieve a tempo advantage sizeable enough to decide the game. Despite my opinion that these decks are not a strong choice, there are enough players who disagree with me that these decks will continue to be a common matchup. Plan accordingly.
At its core, Four-Color Rally is an aggressive strategy. Every card in the deck is low-impact on its own, and each matches up poorly against anything an opposing deck does. And yet the deck is incredibly good. The synergy between all of its terrible creatures creates power and the combination of Collected Company and Rally the Ancestors gives the deck inevitability. Turns out an aggressive deck with inevitability is a scary thing. Rally plays to the board early and often, making winning quickly against it difficult for any deck not specifically designed for the purpose. There has been a target on Rally's back for weeks now, and yet it still managed to win the MOCS Quarterly last weekend. This deck is the real deal and appears to have the rare ability to retain its best deck crown through thick and thin, no matter how much hate people are bringing. That's a dangerous thing, and because of it it's impossible to warn against playing Rally right now.
Rally preys against almost anyone whose game plan hinges on increasing the length of the game. Spot removal is laughably bad against the deck, but siding all of it out means that Rally can achieve a winning board even if you keep it off its spells, and even Rally's mediocre creatures can turn a board advantage into a won game. However, Rally is certainly a known quantity at this point. Anafenza, the Foremost and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are making their way into more and more main decks as serviceable-to-good cards that also turn off Rally's key synergies. We have a lot of the pieces to the anti-Rally puzzle, now we just need to find the optimal way to put them together.
Next up at common is another pair of similar decks: Abzan and Abzan Blue. The core of this deck is the aggressive curve of Warden of the First Tree into Anafenza, the Foremost into Siege Rhino. This deck is, for my money, the most overplayed deck in Standard. In an ideal metagame, I don't think this deck would be played above the uncommon level. However, there are plenty of people who love the fact that this is an aggressive deck that gets the power of Siege Rhino and the mainboard hate of Anafenza, the Foremost, and I don't really blame them for that. Abzan Aggro has historically been the archetype that punishes stumbling and mandates a minimum level of consistency to compete in the format. The problem is that the current incarnation of Abzan Aggro stumbles too much itself, reducing its ability to keep the rest of the field honest.
These decks have good game against Rally. I think that's the only matchup I have going their way, with the possible exception of Atarka Red. But neither of those match-ups are resoundingly in their favor, and I find that Abzan mostly loses to everything else, especially the four-color midrange strategies. This might be the archetype that was most punished by the printing of Reflector Mage, even though some versions of it adapted the card themselves. Surviving the initial onslaught and deploying your own game plan is the key to beating Abzan Aggro, and it's not all that difficult.
Ah, Atarka Red. I like this deck a lot like now, and consider it a very strong choice. Despite being in the common grouping, it is still probably a little underplayed (I have it as the last of the commons). The current fashion of going wide over tall with this deck has greatly increased its consistency, and it currently seems well-positioned against the field. The switch may have caused the loss of a few percentage points in the Rally matchup, but that matchup is still fine and every other matchup is improved as a result.
The key to beating red right now is to consistently have early plays and some kind of plan against Dragon Fodder into Hordeling Outburst with the threat of Reckless Bushwhacker or Atarka's Command. Not having anything productive to do until turn three usually spells defeat, as does hoping to stabilize by casting a Reflector Mage to bounce one of their tokens. Kozilek's Return is phenomenally good, much better than Radiant Flames, even in a deck with no Eldrazi to trigger Kozilek's Return. Instant speed on your sweeper does so much here. Finding any way to gain board advantage is the key, as this deck's reach is limited — block to maximize your relative board presence, not your life total.
Bant Company may very well move up to common in a week or two with how much buzz it has got over the past few days. The deck seeks to use the same powerful Collected Company strategy that Rally implements, but trading the inevitability of Rally the Ancestors for more of a tempo strategy. In this exchange it also gets to play a whole lot more individually powerful creatures, which is a nice signing bonus. The deck is a huge dog against ramp and probably something like mildly unfavored against red, but good against everything else, which makes it a solid choice.
This is probably the most underplayed deck in Standard. Ramp crushes the decks it beats and gets crushed by the decks that beat it. Right now, it's doing a good deal of crushing. Having a late game that beats the deck with the most inevitability (Rally) and the decks seeking to prolong the game (Jeskai Black, Mardu Green) is a really powerful strategic trump. This incarnation of ramp still suffers from the same historic problems that always plague the archetype: low interaction, weak to red, draw dependant, minimal ability to change post-board. Thought-Knot Seer, however, does a lot of work in a lot of these categories, making this ramp deck a real force in the metagame.
Last but not least, B/R Dragons. This is a deck built to attack the format's overall weakness to fliers. As such, it is naturally strong against Rally, able to consistently kill them before getting overwhelmed by synergy. Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury is in my mind the most impressive card in the deck, capable of tons of damage output with minimal board presence. Thunderbreak Regent is also well-positioned, as it's not the best Reflector Mage target in the world. I don't like this deck's positioning against the four color midrange builds or against red, but this deck is a contender at the very least.
There's plenty of rare decks that will cycle into and out of uncommon as the meta shifts, as well as mythic decks that you might someday see, but just like in limited, it's the commons and uncommons that drive the format. Right now, these are the decks that matter.
Thanks for reading,