Just when I thought I was going to have to switch back to grinding Magic Online, CFB Events announced a new kind of tournament series: Magicfest Online. Standard Qualifiers running on Arena every six hours (barring any unexpected downtimes) during the week give invites to a $25k, two day Standard tournament on the weekend. Suddenly, what appeared to be a format that had run its course has renewed attention on it, and it's time to wade back in.
The bad news: Standard has been abundantly explored and, for the most part, solved. Sure, there will continue to be ups and downs each week as archetypes rise and fall in the metagame, but it's unlikely that we're going to see any new players in the metagame. Sure, some former competitors might hop back in for a minute, like Azorius Control, but for the most part we know what everyone will bring to any given tournament.
The good news? The format is balanced. There is no clear best deck, and in the span of four days, each of the formats' players have put up good results. There are also few heinously bad match-ups. The format is more about in-game play and tuning decks tournament to tournament to stay on top of the metagame than it is about staying one step ahead of the rest of the format.
This especially rewards players who know a deck thoroughly. Just like Modern from a couple years ago, it's likely that understanding one deck completely is going to be the best way to win in these qualifier tournaments. If you already have a deck you love and know well that you've been winning with: great. Focus on knowing everything about that deck inside and out, learning the purpose and time for each sideboard card, and mastering the archetype.
But if you don't know exactly what to do and are looking for a recommendation, these are the decks that I'm considering playing at this point:
First up, from this weekend's Standard Challenge, a name that should be familiar to any Magic Online player, VTCLA. Baker has been a force to be reckoned with for a few years at this point, but recently he's been especially on fire. When he's doing well with a deck, it's worth it to sit up and take notice.
In this case, Temur Reclamation's biggest enemy, Azorius Control, has completely disappeared from the metagame, morphing into the Bant decks that are more haymakers than counterspells. While that deck can still present problems for Temur, and is undoubtedly its worst matchup, it would still rather play against these Bant decks than one that's a pile of countermagic and Azorius planeswalkers.
What this deck preys on well is the many decks that don't have a good way to shut down Wilderness Reclamation. Mono-red can only try to race the deck, which is going to be tricky in the face of maindeck Aether Gust, Scorching Dragonfire, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Storm's Wrath. For the grindier matchups, he has Chemister's Insight to better use all of his mana every turn and Hydroid Krasis in the sideboard to transition from an Expansion // Explosion combo deck to a grindier midrange deck that can exploit its mana advantage to get its two-for-ones quicker than something like Sultai and eventually cast fair but ultimately back-breaking Explosions for 4+ cards.
My biggest warning with this deck, though, is be aware of what win conditions are left. It's not uncommon for this deck to be reduced to only a few ways left to finish the game against an opponent who has played several Uros in a long game and now has 30+ life. Without Wilderness Reclamation, the deck is literally incapable of dealing more than 21 damage with Explosion. Even with Wilderness Reclamation, it's uncommon to have every land in play, and the deck doesn't often deal chip damage with just some Uros and a Brazen Borrower. Something like Sultai can take apart the key cards and strand the deck with very few routes to victory.
Working from home might not have given me the time to play Magic all day, but it is very easy for me to spend time watching the best players in the game stream. Tuesday, I spent the afternoon watching MPL member Chris Kvartek crush opponent after opponent with (almost) this exact list, going from 98% in Mythic all the way to #10 on the ladder at one point. While he eventually lost a match to variance, he had made his point: this deck is a serious contender.
The maindeck featured a few changes from what was stock, but nothing radical. On Wednesday, a similar list with an identical maindeck also qualified Mattia Oneto for the Magicfest this weekend.
Here's why I prefer Chris' build: broadly speaking, there are four pillars of Standard: Growth Spiral decks, Embercleave decks, Fires of Invention decks, and Mayhem Devil decks. There are a few players on the fringes of the metagame, like Temur Clover or the Azorius Blink deck that I've never actually seen win a match, but the vast majority of decks in Standard are based around one of these four cards: two red, one Rakdos, and one Simic. Because of that, Aether Gust is everywhere.
Every single blue deck is playing Aether Gust somewhere in its 75. Decks have had four copies in the sideboard for the better part of March now. I played maindeck copies in Fires of Invention recently, and Sultai Midrange, Bant Ramp and Temur Reclamation players have done the same. The card is just all over the place.
The secret to Chris's deck is that it's essentially a mono-black list with just a few key Red cards. It barely cares about Aether Gust. Losing a Dreadhorde Butcher to the bottom of the library is completely acceptable. Claim the Firstborn rarely gets Gusted because the things it targets in Simic (Uro, Hydroid Krasis, Nissa lands) usually cost them more than three mana. Nissa lands often have to become tapped to play them, effectively removing the land for the turn anyway. Mayhem Devil is annoying, but because the deck is built to exploit the card, Aether Gust only buys them one turn worth of time.
And… that's it. There are no Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger to be punished by Aether Gust in this list, only a host of black creatures and spells, including most of the sideboard. Instead, Chris is looking to exploit an Aether Gust metagame by getting aggressive with Rotting Regisaur post-board. A deck like Temur Reclamation has effectively two ways to answer the big dino: the adventure half of Brazen Borrower, or an Explosion for six. Jeskai Fires needs to double Clarion or draw one of just a couple very taxed Devout Decree to answer it, and it trades or outsizes most all of Jeskai's threats. Only the Bant decks have reasonable ways to remove it from the battlefield, but this deck preys on Bant's mopiness so much already that a little discard goes a long way.
The only change I made from Chris's list, which he approved of, was to add a third Noxious Grasp to the sideboard over a Scorching Dragonfire. Having an extra answer to Teferi, Nissa, Uro, and Hydroid Krasis is more valuable than a third removal spell against mono-red or the mirror presently, though with how quickly things are moving, that may change again by Friday.
The last archetype is one that's floated on the edges of the metagame for a while, and seems to be coming into its own now: Sultai. The deck has gone through several iterations, but the main concept is to pair the incredibly popular Growth Spiral/Uro/Nissa/Hydroid Krasis shell with cheap spells like Thought Erasure or Tyrant's Scorn pair well with Uro, both as a way to take advantage of its untapped mana occasionally and to fill the graveyard for it to escape. Instead of cards like Elspeth Conquers Death, Dream Trawler, or Agent of Treachery, it plays Casualties of War as a hammer versus its cousins that removes several pieces at once.
Until recently the deck struggled to find its footing because the question of which spells to play kept shifting, and there wasn't a consistent, cheap spell that worked against everyone. A pile of discard spells might be good against Azorius Control, but what happens against mono-red? Or what happens when Azorius disappears and the only answer to a Lucky Clover is a six mana sorcery? The pieces never quite came together to let this deck perform.
Aether Gust is the rug that ties the room together.
Out of the sideboard, it also gets to play potentially the most effective silver bullet in this standard format: Thought Distortion. Against Wilderness Reclamation, unless the opponent has some very specific cards, the card is a One-Hit-KO on its own, both removing the opponents relevant cards in hand and exiling them and any non-creatures/lands from the graveyard to make escaping Uro nearly impossible. If that deck continues rising in popularity, I'd be happy to add a second Thought Distortion as well.
What I like about this deck is that it feels like it has no bad match-ups. It, like many midrange decks across every format, has a roughly 50% match-up against everyone. What scares me is that it also feels like it has no good match-ups to prey on. But if the goal is just to 5-1 a qualifier, you can do a lot worse than a coinflip each round.
These are what's on my radar this week, but that doesn't mean that nothing else can win. Looking at the recent Magic Online and Magic Arena events, every archetype, from mono-red to Bant Ramp to Azorius Control has won recently. Some decks might be worse off than others, but knowing an archetype inside and out can make up some of this ground over the course of the tournament. Play what you know, stay hydrated, and most importantly stay at home, and you'll have fun with any of the options in Standard.