I have arrived back home after travelling to Las Vegas, where I competed in the inaugural TCGplayer Invitational. Looking back, it's astounding to consider just how much talent there was in the room. With $50,000 on the line, and just shy of 100 competitors, I consistently overheard fellow players exclaiming that this was the highest expected-value tournament they had ever played, meanwhile bemoaning the fact that it was also the most difficult tournament they had ever played.
Taking place just days after Grand Prix Las Vegas, the largest Magic event in history, the TCGplayer Invitational forced the most competitive players to Rethink their travel plans, and held them in Las Vegas for the week. The World Series of Poker, which had begun just over a week prior, meant even more talent was in town. There are also a handful of elite Magic players and pros who live in Las Vegas, and they were assuredly in the building.
The competitors brought a wide variety of archetypes to the event, and the Top 32 featured a healthy assortment of different decks that showcase some of the diversity in the format. The results provide a revealing look at the current state of the Standard metagame, and serve as a valuable resource. Today I'll explore these decklists, paint a picture of the Invitational metagame, and explain how these archetypes are positioned going forward.
At the end of day one, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa was on top of the standings as the sole 7-0 player, and on day two he eventually made it all the way to the finals. He was piloting his trusty Esper Dragons deck, which he used to win GP São Paulo a month prior to the invitational.
With Silumgar's Scorn functioning as Counterspell, Esper Dragons is a classic control deck, but it's capable of turning the corner quickly with Dragonlord Ojutai. Dig Through Time is the finest card drawing spell in the format, and it allows the deck to find the cards it needs, when it needs them. Dig Through Time fuels the deck into the late game, where Esper Dragons beats opponents in battles of attrition and overpowers them with some of the impactful cards in the format, including Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
Esper Dragons, once the hype of Standard, earned a large target upon its head, and it was knocked down to size by an exaggeratedly hostile metagame. The deck fell from the spotlight and into a normalized role as just another player in the metagame. With players complacent, Esper Dragons was poised to capitalize. I'm certain Paulo never seriously second-thought his decision to play Esper Dragons at the Invitational, and in retrospect Esper Dragons was an excellent choice for the event, and will be a great choice going forward.
With loads of cheap disruption in the form of Counterspells and creature removal, Esper Dragons has a strong matchup against Green/Red Devotion decks, the most popular archetype at the Invitational. Devotion decks suffer three major problems against Esper Dragons. One, its threats are more expensive than Esper's disruption, so it can quickly fall behind and find itself unable to ever gain a board presence. Two, its loads of mana acceleration means it has a low threat-density, so it will fall to the card drawing-fueled attrition end game of Esper Dragons. Three, it's very difficult for Green/Red Devotion to stop Dragonlord Ojutai.
Red Aggro decks are commonly believed to be strong against Esper Dragons, and in game one some builds of red may be favored, but history shows that in post sideboard games and entire matches, Esper Dragons has a significant advantage over red decks with its overwhelming amount of removal, like Drown in Sorrow and Bile Blight, and life gain from Foul-Tongue Invocation.
Mardu Dragons presents a potent combination of aggressive creatures and disruption, but its creatures are not resilient against Esper's removal suite. Over an extended game, Mardu Dragons is susceptible to falling to the card advantage and overall more powerful cards of Esper Dragons.
Abzan Aggro gives Esper Dragons trouble with its relentless onslaught of powerful and robust threats backed up by discard, but it had few champions at the Invitational, and will continue to be held down in any metagame filled with Abzan Megamorph and Green/Red Devotion decks.
Esper does have issues with the inexhaustible card advantage combination of Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector backed up by discard, so Esper Dragons has difficulty contending with Abzan Megamorph decks. Many of the strongest players at the Invitational piloted this archetype, but Paulo managed to navigate through them with his play skill and the raw power of his archetype, especially with Dragonlord Ojutai, which flies over the green megamorphs.
Green/Red Devotion was the most popular archetype of the event, put the most players into the money, put the most players into the Top 8, and ultimately won the event in the hands of Team TCGplayer member Chris Fennell:
The answer to the question of what I played and how I finished at the Invitational can be found here:
While much of the success of Green/Red Devotion at the Invitational was the result of its vast presence in the event, it achieved such popularity because it's the most powerful deck in the format. Highly proactive and focused, and featuring little interaction with the opponent, it leverages its mana acceleration creature suite, backed up by Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, to quickly build a sizable board presence and enable some of the most impactful cards in Standard, including Dragonlord Atarka, Hornet Queen, and Genesis Hydra.
Green/Red Devotion's greatest strength is against green midrange decks, especially Abzan Megamorph decks, which Green/Red Devotion crushes with its sheer size and speed. Elspeth, Sun's Champion, once a big problem for Devotion decks, falls to Dragonlord Atarka, as does Siege Rhino. These matchups often comes down to an attrition battle, so Green/Red Devotion's best tools include Whisperwood Elemental and planeswalkers Xenagos, the Reveler and Nissa, Worldwaker, as well as Deathmist Raptor of its own.
Green/Red Devotion suffers against the cheap disruption of Esper Dragons, but with the correct draws it's able to overwhelm Esper and earn a board presence. One strength of Green/Red Devotion is that its threats are individually strong, especially the card-advantage generating cards like Courser of Kruphix, Whisperwood Elemental, and the planeswalkers, so if left in play they will quickly grow out of hand for Esper Dragons. The full suite of mana acceleration isn't necessary against the attrition game plan of Esper Dragons, so it's advisable to trim some mana acceleration, but Elvish Mystic in particular can give Green/Red Devotion the jump on the opponent with an early threat. Putting Esper Dragons on the back foot forces them to reactively deal with threats in play, and this leaves them vulnerable to more powerful threats down the road.#####CARDID=28351 #####
Green/Red Devotion has a tough time beating the efficient threats and excellent removal suite of Mardu Dragons, especially the dragons themselves, but Green/Red Devotion's best draws can exhaust the removal of Mardu Dragons and race the dragons. The most important facet of this matchup to consider is post-sideboard, when Mardu Dragons is likely to take on the control role with Anger of the Gods, Crux of Fate, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and even Outpost Siege. Green/Red Devotion must adjust its strategy accordingly, focusing on large, card advantage generating cards like Genesis Hydra and Dragonlord Atarka, and it must measure its threats in the face of board sweepers.
Red aggressive decks can pose a problem for Green/Red Devotion, which lacks cheap removal spells, and with Devotion's cards being relatively clunky, it's vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a swarm of fast red creatures. Courser of Kruphix is the most useful tool, but Polukranos, World Eater and Dragonlord Atarka can take over the game, so ramping into these power cards should be a priority. The sideboard provides important tools, including Hornet Nest and Disciple of Nylea. Some players even turn to Seismic Rupture, though it's poor with Green/Red Devotion's own mana accelerations, so Arc Lightning may be the more effective option.
The one matchup Green/Red Devotion is truly loathe to see is Heroic. Without creature removal, Green/Red Devotion is completely helpless against Heroic, which is essentially given free reing to execute its game plan at its own leisure. The fastest Green/Red Devotion draws are capable of racing some Heroic draws, but Heroic is simply too fast and powerful to be beaten reliably.
Abzan comes in many flavors, but at the invitational Abzan Megamorph was the clear dominant Abzan deck, and the second most popular archetype overall. Some of the best players in the tournament, including William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and Shuuhei Nakamura were on the archetype, as was Top 8 finisher Simon Harnden:
Abzan Megamorph - with Siege Rhino, Abzan Charm, Thoughtseize, Courser of Kruphix, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion - plays a game similar to a typical Abzan Midrange decks, but it uses Satyr Wayfinder to enable card-advantage generating graveyard synergies with Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector. With an effectively endless supply of fuel, these decks rarely run out of action. A typical rock deck, Abzan Megamorph doesn't earn many free wins from its opponents with busted draws, but it rarely just loses either, and it puts up a fight in every game in every matchup.
Abzan Megamorph has an advantage over Esper Dragons, and it struggles against Green/Red Devotion. The best draws from red aggressive decks can pose problems, but the combination of Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino gives red decks fits. Red struggles against Megamorph's typical sideboard package that includes a variety of Arashin Cleric, Drown in Sorrow, Dromoka's Command, and Sorin, Solemn Visitor.
Owen Turtenwald's decklist includes two Wingmate Roc in the sideboard, which will not only put a red opponent away, but provide a very potent tool against other Abzan Midrange decks especially. They also have great merit against Green/Red Devotion, and I witnessed Owen using them against Esper Dragons as well.
The most solid deck in the format overall, Abzan Megamorph will weather any metagame changes and continue to exist as one of the key decks in Standard, though expect the finer details to change from week to week as it's continually tuned.
Red Deck Wins
Never to be counted out, Red Deck Wins finished in third place in the hands of Anthony Armenio:
Nothing in particular about this decklist stands beyond the fact that it's monored and not Atarka Red with Atarka's Command, meaning Armenio chose consistency over power, and it served him well. His sideboard is well-tuned, featuring two Impact Tremors to hate on control decks relying on removal, and two Magmatic Chasm to combat the blockers of Green/Red Devotion.
Red aggro is always a consideration in Standard, but it's best when opponents are least expecting it.
Mardu Dragons grew popular after its finals finish at Grand Prix Toronto, and while the hype has cooled off, the archetype has earned itself a spot in the metagame. Yam Wing-Chun used the archetype to earn himself a Top 8 berth:
Eric Froehlich played a similar deck to a Top 16 finish:
Crackling Doom and Draconic Roar are among the most powerful removal spells in Standard, but they are best in an aggressive deck. Mardu Dragons builds around these cards and Thoughtseize with a powerful creature shell that thrives off of the disruption suite, including Goblin Rabblemaster, Seeker of the Way, and Soulfire Grand Master. Thunderbreak Regent and Stormbreath Dragon top the curve, and are particularly well positioned against a field of Abzan Megamorph and Green/Red Devotion.
The final archetype to reach the elimination rounds is UB control in the hands of Adrian Sullivan, who recently played the archetype to the Top 8 of Dragons of Tarkir. While Adrian demonstrates mastery of the archetype with his play, his true strength seems to be in tuning his deck, which he re-positions before every tournament to attack the metagame he expects.
The tech of this tournament has to be four Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. This planeswalker is extremely strong against Green/Red Devotion, Abzan Megamorph, and Esper Dragons, and it earned Adrian a countless number of free wins over the weekend. Played on turn three, it's capable of winning the game singlehandedly. Over a long game, it can be used to deck the opponent, a strategy Adrian employs with some regularity.
Christian Calcano played his own UB Control build to a Top 32 finish:
UB Control is somewhat similar to Esper Dragons in its strategy, execution, and matchups. Lacking Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Scorn, it relies on Dissolve and extra removal. To win the game, it relies more heavily on planeswalker, including two Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Liliana Vess, and the set of Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver.
One of the biggest strengths of UB control is that the extra control elements mean it has an edge against Esper Dragons. Perilous Vault and Silence the Believers are both powerful tools that exile Deathmist Raptor, so UB often fares better in the Abzan Megamorph matchup than does Esper Dragons.
The invitational was also home to some less-popular archetypes, including:
An interesting Sultai deck using Whip of Erebos and two Dragonlord Atarka reached the Top 16:
While not as explosive as Green/Red Devotion decks, Sultai Reanimator retains some ability to go over the top of opponents, and takes advantage of a disruption suite that enables to play interactive games. It's also full of card advantage, and is thus able to win long, grindy games against control opponents.
Heroic, which is extremely strong against Green/Red Devotion, was a great metagame call at the Invitational. It served Cody Lingelbach well, who followed up on his finals finish at last fall's MaxPoint Championship with a Top 16 finish at the Invitational:
On Day 2 I was personally on the receiving end of this deck, and it was a brutal and quick affair. I was particularly impressed by Center Soul, which, with Rebound, could push a creature through blockers twice and, combined with Temur Battle Rage, gives this deck an almost combo-like feel.
A traditional UW Heroic deck also finished in the Top 32:
Five-Color Dragon Midrange
Five-Color Dragons was not a popular archetype at the Invitational, but it earned a Top 16 finish in the hands of Timothy Rivera:
This deck beats Abzan Megamorph by using its powerful Dragons to fly over blockers. Green/Red Devotion, which is mostly forced to rely on sideboard cards Plummet and Arbor Colossus to efficiently deal with Dragons, is also susceptible to these powerful flying creatures. Esper Dragons struggles against the inexhaustible Megamorph package, but also against Haven of the Spirit Dragon.
The Invitational also featured two interesting Abzan decks in the Top 32:
Abzan Collected Company
Eddie Sutton Jr's deck combines the strength of the Den Protector / Deathmist Raptor package with Abzan Aggro creatures like Fleecemane Lion, Warden of the First Tree and Wingmate Roc. Collected Company completes the deck a card advantage and tempo-generating spell, which seems particularly useful in Abzan mirrors and against blue control decks.
Finally, the most unique deck in the tournament has to be Matthew Carlyon's Abzan Aggro deck that splashes into blue for Dragonlord Ojutai and Stubborn Denial.
Dragonlord Ojutai is an extremely powerful top-end threat that would serve Abzan Aggro well, especially because its early threats demand removal and will clear the way for the Dragonlord. Stubborn Denial is sure to draw heads, but it has merit in a deck with Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino, and when buffed by their respective abilities, both Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion can trigger ferocious.
The additional strain on the already tenuous Abzan Aggro mana base is a pill too hard for me to swallow, so I won't be playing this deck, but it's certainly an impressive innovation and something I'll be keeping in mind for the future. I'd like to experiment with splashing red for access to Crackling Doom.
No one can claim to have Standard solved, because Standard is not static. The Standard metagame is a dynamic, living, being that evolves from week to week. Success in Standard comes not just from mastery over a given archetype, but from deeply understanding the format as a whole. The most successful players effectively tune their decks from week to week, yet they are also not tethered to anything, and are willing to change gears when the metagame conditions for a given archetype are unfavorable.
As the Standard metagame currently stands, I expect Green/Red Devotion, Abzan Megamorph, and Esper Dragons to be the top three decks in the near future, and recommend any of them for events this weekend. UB Control and Mardu Dragons are also quite promising and offer rewards to those willing to wield them.
Want more decklists from the TCGplayer Invitational? You can check out all Top 32 decklists here.
Share your thoughts in the comments, and please ask any questions you may have!