It's the time of year where I lock myself in a house full of fellow players who have the same goal as I do: win the Pro Tour. At the time I am writing this, I have just made the most critical decision of the testing process, and that is selecting a deck. Since this article will be going out during the Pro Tour I won't be going into detail on the deck I have chosen right now, as to keep that information somewhat hidden. What I can do is talk about how I came to my deck choice, and provide my perspective on where the Standard format lies right now.
After testing, I believe Standard is in a more stable environment than it has been in a while. This shouldn't be a Pro Tour with six of the same archetype in top 8, like the last one. I could be eating my words if there is someone who "breaks the format," and comes up with a completely unknown deck that is somehow the clear best deck though. We have some decks that are clearly tier one, and have been for a while now like Mardu Vehicles. There are also new decks like Zombies that are suddenly looking very good as well.
I want to go over what I believe are the five best decks In Standard, or at least the decks that I am expecting to show up at the Pro Tour in large numbers.
This one is a no-brainer. Mardu Vehicles was the best deck in Standard before Amonkhet, and the deck has only improved. Mardu Vehicles does suffer from the same issues it has always had with its manabase, but the cards are incredibly powerful. The most recent Magic Online monthly event was taken down by none other than Mardu Vehicles!
This is a classic take on Mardu Vehicles, similar to some of the first versions of this archetype. There was a long stretch where Veteran Motorist was nowhere to be found, as Walking Ballista was the two drop of choice. Now, Mardu Vehicles is starting to shift back towards playing additional vehicles in Cultivator's Caravan, to go along with a playset of Veteran Motorists. Pia Nalaar is another creature that hasn't been seeing a lot of play until very recently. Thalia, Heretic Cathar has been the three drop of choice, but here they have been cut.
By taking out Walking Ballistas you still need to keep the artifact count high, and that's where Pia Nalaar and Cultivator's Caravan come in. The other creature that has been coming in and out of the deck is Archangel Avacyn. Archangel Avacyn has been fighting with Glorybringer, as both five drops are extremely powerful, and there are good arguments why both should be in the deck. Cultivator's Caravan makes getting to five mana easier, but you still have to be careful which five mana creature to put in the deck. Here is a look at an alternative direction to go with Mardu Vehicles:
This version of Mardu Vehicles isn't as popular as the other one, but it is definitely important to be aware of all the cards Mardu Vehicles has access to, whether playing with or against it. Most lists are going to have access to discard, more planeswalkers, and sweepers after sideboard. This is a three color deck that doesn't have to be aggressive; it still has the ability to be more of a midrange controlling deck. Sometimes you want to board out Toolcraft Exemplar in favor of more disruptive spells.
There are a few Marvel variants which are popular right now, but even if the colors are different, each version has a similar gameplan to the others. Temur Marvel is the most popular version, but Sultai, Bant, and other color combinations will definitely show up at the Pro Tour as well. The core of the deck is still the various energy producers alongside Aetherworks Marvel, and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Without Four-Color Saheeli, Aetherworks Marvel strategies are the premier combo decks of the format. This is the creature based version:
The combination of Whirler Virtuoso, Servant of the Conduit, Rogue Refiner, and Tireless Tracker add another element to the deck. There need to be plenty of ways to get lots of energy so that you will consistently be able to keep spinning Aetherworks Marvel, these creatures fill that role nicely. The creatures help protect your life total so that you have time to get to your lategame, or even can become win conditions. There will be times where this deck doesn't draw Aetherworks Marvel and needs to win the old fashion way.
Chandra, Torch of Defiance isn't a card you see in every list, but it's a versatile planeswalker which can make life difficult for the opponent. Having a planeswalker can be a necessary distraction to help buy you more time. Being able to tick it up and dig through your deck is essentially a form of card draw too. The Magma Sprays provide some more removal against aggro decks like Zombies or Mardu Vehicles as well. There are a variety of Temur Marvel lists, but this is another deck which clearly has access to a variety of tools, so don't rely on a single Dispossess to beat it. There are a variety of ways the deck can win outside of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.
I believe this is the best control deck in the format. Adding Magma Spray to the deck allows you to have enough time to do everything you want to later in the game with Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk. Once you are able to start casting card draw spells it is likely that the deck also has a wall of Counterspells which can't be penetrated. The best way to beat this deck is still an aggressive curve with difficult to deal with threats. Mardu Vehicles used to run over Blue-Red Control, but I believe the matchup is much closer now.
Sweltering Suns is another removal option the deck can use as a crutch against aggressive starts. The Zombies matchup gets much easier once you start adding these to the maindeck. Censor is a card that opponents can play around, but if they aren't casting their spells on curve, the control player is happy. Then there will be times when you play around Censor and the Blue-Red Control deck has something else instead. To go alongside Glimmer of Genius there is even more lategame card advantage in this version.
Pull from Tomorrow and Hieroglyphic Illumination are more ways to be up on cards. The games often play out with the Blue-Red Control deck trading its Counterspells and removal spells one for one with the opponent. Then the big card draw spell puts the game away, as long as the board is relatively stable. The deck often sideboards into additional creatures like Dragonmaster Outcast, or Glorybringer. This is the classic situation of the opponent taking out removal because it is bad game one, only to lose to the creatures in the Blue-Red deck after sideboard.
I have been talking about Zombies a lot lately, because I believe this deck is extremely good. This deck has the best manabase out of all the top decks, and is also the most consistent. In a format full of bad mana, and combo decks that rely on a single card, consistency is nice. Cryptbreaker provides a card advantage engine that allows the deck to get ahead on cards as well. Initially I believe many players wrote Zombies off as not being quite good enough, but now they are revisiting the deck. Zombies has what it takes to be a tier one deck.
This is the list Jacob Baugh made top 8 of the Richmond Pro Tour Qualifier with. There isn't much difference in the Mono-Black version of the deck from list to list. The maindeck and sideboard has already been battle tested, and is exactly where the deck wants to be. I have been testing primarily against Mono-Black Zombies, as I believe it is better than going White-Black.
Black-Green decks won't be as well represented as some of the other decks here, but I do believe the deck is still worth be prepared for. Black-Green Constrictor has often been considered the foil to Mardu Vehicles, and the matchup hasn't changed that much. There are still a few different directions the deck can go. The energy version is the most aggressive, while delirium with Ishkanah, Grafwidow is the most grindy. Here is the straight up midrange variant:
The issue with this deck is that it didn't gain many new tools from Amonkhet. Manglehorn has been a card that has looked good in my testing though, so I would suggest Caleb add some more of those to the sideboard. I will not be playing Black-Green at the Pro Tour, as I have found that it is outmatched by Aetherworks Marvel and matchups that look good on paper, like Zombies, are much more difficult than you would think.
These are the known archetypes, and we live in an information age where many players use Magic Online as a primary testing tool. This makes it more difficult for a really strong deck to slip through the cracks for the Pro Tour. What I do expect is for players to have unique version of certain decks, and to try to build on these lists and improve on them. New sideboard cards and having some sort of surprise factor are always good, rather than trying to come up with a completely new deck.
I have a feeling after this Pro Tour we will learn that there isn't much room for midrange decks anymore. Even though one turn four combo deck got banned, turn four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is practically the same thing as winning the game. My recommendation is to either come out of the gates swinging, play combo, or go with a full on control deck. This is about knowing the metagame and what other decks are capable of doing.
I have been looking at the latest results from Magic Online Standard leagues every day. Being aware how the format changes from week to week is important. A few days ago Glorybringer was the five drop of choice in Mardu Vehicles, but now it seems to be Archangel Avacyn so I could see it going either way this weekend. Knowing which card from Amonkhet are actual improvements to known archetypes, and which may look better than they actually are is also a key part of testing. Right now, I feel good about my deck choice, but we will see how I feel after this weekend!
Thanks for reading.