There's an old concept in Magic that says formats can take the shape of a "rock-paper-scissors" game, where there are three major decks that each beats one of the others. Deck A beats deck B, which beats deck C, which beats deck A. It's an oversimplification, but it's a trend that can be observed by looking at historic metagame cycles. The current Kaladesh Standard environment exemplifies a rock-paper-scissors metagame, and recent tournament results provide a revealing look into how players are breaking this paradigm. Today I'll travel back to the first days of Kaladesh Standard to explain how the metagame has reached this point, and I'll explore what players are doing to gain an edge over the competition.
Going back to the beginning, Aetherworks Marvel decks defined the metagame at Pro Tour Kaladesh as the single most powerful thing to do in the new post-rotation format, and a natural foil to the disruption-less Red-White Vehicles deck that emerged as the metagame frontrunner after the format's debut weekend at SCG Indianapolis. The popularity of Aetherworks Marvel meant they found some success at the Pro Tour, but the bigger story of the event was their failure in the face of decks designed to beat them - blue-based control and White-Blue Flash decks with maindeck Counterspells. As these decks were copied by the masses, players learned that Flash was favored against control, which was pushed from the metagame without anything to prey on. Flash proved its strength against all variety of decks, and it quickly became the most popular deck and the metagame's driving force.
With Aetherworks Marvel decks out of the picture, the stage was set for Black-Green Delirium, which cut through a field of White-Blue Flash decks to take both finals berths at Grand Prix Providence the weekend after the Pro Tour. This controlling deck has all of the tools to beat Flash decks, with Grasp of Darkness destroying Smuggler's Copter and Liliana, the Last Hope handily containing all of its small creatures like Selfless Spirit. The best tool against Flash is Ishkanah, Grafwidow as a defensive tool to half opposing aggression. A threat in its own right, its main use is to buy time for Emrakul, the Promised End - which will inevitably win any long game. Starring a cast of some of the best rare and mythics Standard and the consistency provided by Traverse the Ulvenwald, Black-Green Delirium proved it had game against the wider format, and it quickly grew to rival Flash decks in popularity.
In a world where half the metagame is Flash and Delirium, these decks have started to focus on beating both each other and the mirror match, which can be observed in the evolution of decklists and specific card choices. One example would be Ben Stark playing four Mindwrack Demon in his Grand Prix Warsaw Black-Green Delirium deck to give himself an extra edge on Flash decks. To help beat the mirror, Delirium decks might run two Noxious Gearhulk, or maindeck Transgress the Mind like some pros did in Warsaw.
Then the innovation of Distended Mindbender as a mirror-breaker earned a player victory over a field of Delirium decks.
A more extreme way to shift Delirium decks against the metagame is to add another color.
Declaration in Stone gives the deck efficient removal as a supplement to Grasp of Darkness, and it's specifically strong in the mirror match against Spider Tokens. Anguished Unmaking is extra help against planeswalkers and adds extra versatility. Gisela, the Broken Blade is even better than Mindwrack Demon against Flash, and Thalia's Lancer's is an extra source of card advantage that can find it or any of the other powerful legendary creatures. A Bruna, the Fading Light can meld with it in grindy post-sideboard games.
A subtle change that impacts the mirror match is using Sylvan Advocate instead of Grim Flayer, which has a size advantage in the extended grinds that mirror matches devolve into, and it even survives Grasp of Darkness. It's a card choice made even better by a set of Shambling Vent, combining with a set of Hissing Quagmire to give this deck a ton of value in its manabase.
White-Blue Flash decks have been forced to adapt to better confront a field of their own mirror matches.
Thalia, Heretic Cathar has become a popular addition that adds an edge in the mirror because it's able to slow opponents down. It has many small implications, whether it be tapping nonbasic lands or creatures that would otherwise crew a vehicle or block, and it's valuable for lessening the blow of defensive flash creatures like Archangel Avacyn. It's also a significant presence on a battlefield filled with small creatures, so it's hard to block and a defensive stalwart.
Gisela, the Broken Blade rules the skies in the mirror match with first strike and win any race with lifelink, so it's emerged a sideboard staple and maindeck consideration. It also provides inevitably in long games when combined with Bruna, the Fading Light.
The rise of Black-Green Delirium decks weigh heavily on White-Blue Flash decks, but they have begun to fight back.
Flash has adopted some potent countermeasures against the relatively slow midrange Delirium deck, specifically Revolutionary Rebuff as an efficient piece of disruption that is effective for stopping the two most important cards in the matchup, the sorcery-speed Liliana, the Last Hope and Ishkanah, Grafwidow. Unable to lean on its key cards to reclaiming tempo, Delirium loses some of its edge in the Flash matchup in the face of maindeck Revolutionary Rebuff.
Flash and Delirium decks polarizing themselves to beat one another means that they sacrifice percentages against the rest of the field, which is constantly evolving to exploit these weaknesses. This world opens up space for the forgotten Aetherworks Marvel deck, which finds plenty of easy prey in the Delirium deck. It now has an easier time defeating Flash decks that have mostly discarded their sideboard Ceremonious Rejection and generally shifted to beat Delirium and creature decks. Aetherworks Marvel has also evolved since the Pro Tour, and the all-in combo version has mostly been replaced by a Red-Green midrange version that is better at playing a fair game and casting its threats the old-fashioned way.
This deck is highly effective because of its ability to play a traditional game as a midrange deck that doesn't rely on Aetherworks Marvel to win. The core delirium plan allows it to realistically cast and win with Emrakul, the Promised End, but the key card to its success is Ishkanah, Grafwidow as a superb solution to Flash decks. A playset of Harnessed Lightning further attacks Flash decks and their ability to keep Spell Queller in play, especially with Kozilek's Return clearing away any Selfless Spirit. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is fantastic against Delirium decks, which struggles at attacking planeswalkers, and it supports the fair game plan as a source of card advantage or tempo. It's also mana acceleration, which helps get Emrakul, the Promised End into play early.
The sideboard of the Red-Green Aetherworks Marvel deck allows it to further shift into a midrange gameplan when opponents will bring in Counterspells and other disruption. Tireless Tracker is the gold-standard green midrange creature because it generates card advantage and scales up in size throughout the game. Additional planeswalkers gives the deck better ability to grind, and extra removal spells contain aggressive decks.
Going even further into the realm of midrange is this Black-Green Aetherworks Marvel deck.
Liliana, the Last Hope joins Ishkanah, Grafwidow as another tool for beating Flash decks. Combined with Grasp of Darkness, they give this deck plenty of removal and the ability to very effectively play a fair game, supplemented by Noxious Gearhulk atop the curve as a great Aetherworks Marvel hit and another fantastic midrange threat. The ability to play discard from the sideboard is an exciting way to attack control decks and gain an edge on any Aetherworks Marvel mirror matches.
Some decks defy the rock-paper-scissors cycle and fight the metagame on their own terms. The onus is on these decks to beat the top-tier, but they can compete if they are built correctly for the metagame in any given tournament. The biggest example is Mardu Vehicles or Four-Color Vehicles. These are the evolution of the Red-White Vehicles deck, but they use the reliable mana provided by Cultivator's Caravan, Aether Hub and fast lands like Concealed Courtyard and Spirebluff Canal to dip into some of the best sideboard cards available.
This deck takes a page out of the white-blue playbook by splashing Revolutionary Rebuff as an easy way to steal games against Delirium decks.
Established rock-paper-scissors metagames defined by a few clear top decks are predictable by definition, by so they can preyed upon by rogue decks that have been designed with beating them in mind.
This Temur deck attacks the metagame from all angles, starting from the bottom with the aggressive Longtusk Cub threatening to convert a quick start into an unstoppable threat. Alternatively, Servant of the Conduit ramps into larger threats like Bristling Hydra, which with Energy support from cards like Attune the Aether is nearly impossible for opponents to destroy in a metagame where sweepers are exceedingly rare. Whirler Rogue is great against the one-for-one removal that pervades the format, including Reflector Mage, and the ability to convert extra energy stores into multiple tokens make it a great threat throughout the game. A handful of planeswalkers pressure Delirium and control decks or win any midrange battle with their steam of value. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship is one of the finest cards in the format against White-Blue flash decks, which lacks great solutions to the card with immediate impact and the potential to take over a game.
A large suite of removal spells contains the must-kill threats coming from every deck in the format, including Incendiary Flow to stop Scrapheap Scrounger, and its ability to hit opponents provides a form of reach that few decks in the format have. Confiscation Coup goes a step further than a removal spell by stealing creatures for a massive advantage, which proves to be a nightmare for Delirium or any opponent without Reflector Mage. Temur Energy also has access to a versatile sideboard with an array of possible disruption spells.
Another approach to breaking the metagame cycle is Black-Red Artifact Aggro, which presents the fastest and most coherent aggressive deck in the format, and its card choices are made with the realities of the metagame in mind.
Inventor's Apprentice is an aggressive one-drop that is more robust than Toolcraft Exemplar against Liliana, the Last Hope. Fiery Temper is a more efficient and versatile spell than Harnessed Lightning when powered by madness, and combined with Unlicensed Disintegration gives the dark a coherent burn plan that is also fantastic for taking out planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The newest innovation to the madness deck is Bloodhall Priest, which is not only a large threat but with its hellbent ability will immediately impact the battlefield, while threatening further incremental value.
A big strength of Black-Red Madness is its sideboard, which allows it to shift gears into a slower midrange deck that can control the opponent with disruption and grind them out with Chandra, Torch of Defiance. It strains opponents by pulling them in two directions because they must still respect the deck's ability to play aggressively.
A game of rock-paper-scissors underlies the Standard metagame, but results show that there are many ways to change the rules. One option is to alter the fine details of a deck, which changes how it performs against the others. The second option is to throw something else entirely, in hopes of disrupting the cycle. How are you approaching this Standard metagame? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions!