Arena has redefined how Standard develops. Because of the increased playerbase and number of eyes on the format, Standard moves faster and faster every time a new set comes out on the program. Last week we had the Streamer Showcase event, and got our first look at Throne of Eldraine Standard, and nobody outside of Wizards of the Coast had ever even played with the cards. Since then, Throne of Eldraine has not even technically been released, but there have already been significant developments to the metagame that have defined and redefined Stanard. The first paper tournament of this format is this weekend, and we are going into it knowing more the shape of Standard than any other week-one format ever.
As someone attending the Team Trios event in Philadelphia this weekend, this is both exciting and terrifying. There's much less risk of completely missing something, or having a critical weakness to an archetype or interaction that I had not even considered before. But there is also a risk that never existed so early in a format previously, where deckbuilding decisions or entire archetypes that seem reasonable on Monday might be completely invalidated by Friday as our understanding of the format changes.
Because this format moves so fast, this week I want to take a look at how exactly we got here, before sharing with everyone just what lessons I've learned and am taking to heart going into release weekend.
This tournament was largely defined by the various green decks that streamers brought to the event. Fully half of the tournament was on green, largely paired with either blue for Oko, Thief of Crowns, or black for powerful cards like Murderous Rider // Swift End and the Rotting Regisaur / The Great Henge combo. It was also very strongly populated by midrange decks looking to grind opponents out and win through both superior card quality and effective two-for-one abilities. The Top 8 really only featured one aggro and two control lists, and the rest were midrange.
The winner, however, was famed control player and a regular winner of these streamer-only tournaments, Bryan Gottlieb playing an Esper Control deck featuring Doom Foretold and Dance of the Manse. This deck is extremely well prepared to win drawn out games of Magic with velocity through eight two-mana artifacts that draw cards and fix the mana and a host of Kaya's Wrath and Doom Foretold to handle multiple cards from an opponent at once.
Doom Foretold was the breakout card of the tournament, regularly putting opponents into situations where, after a Kaya's Wrath, they were forced to deploy a single threat and play directly into the enchantment's hands. Any time a Doom Foretold is able to force an opponent to sacrifice a lone creature or planeswalker, they are put in an impossible situation where they can't play another without sacrificing it on the following turn—and if they don't have an instant or sorcery to play instead, their mana is effectively wasted. When Doom Foretold gets sacrificed the next turn, the opponent loses a card as well, effectively making it a white-black Time Walk!
Dance of the Manse is a great way to tie this whole plan together. Golden Egg and Guild Globe are useful fodder to sacrifice to Doom Foretold, and they're all targets for Dance of the Manse, making for an effective package of cards. However, it is far from necessary, and the big takeaway from Bryan's list is just how good Doom Foretold can be when your opponents are all playing very fair Magic. In a world of big creatures and two-for-one abilities, the combination three-or-more-for-one and Time Walk is king.
If you played Arena at all this past weekend, especially the "First 12 Games Free" event that Wizards hosted, the format was overwhelmingly Doom Foretold decks, punishing midrange decks heavily.
The Fandom Caster's Cup this last weekend was even smaller than the Fandom event, but full of noteworthy names: professional-level players Carlos Romao, Gabriel Nassif, Mike Sigrist, Shahar Shenhar and Alexander Hayne, streamers Semulin and LordTupperware, and Fandom professional Bryan Gottlieb who, yet again, won the event.
Most of the players adjusted to Bryan's prior Fandom win in their own way. Shenhar and Sigrist brought Simic Ramp, trying to go over the top of the midrange strategies with big Hydroid Krasis and powerful, fast planeswalkers like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Alexander Hayne and Gabriel Nassif brought Mono-Black Aggro, trying to go under the Esper list with the incredibly powerful Knight of the Ebon Legion and recursive or difficult-to-answer creatures that pressured the deck faster than Esper's light spot removal could handle. Semulin and LordTupperware tried to build an advantage faster with Edgewall Innkeeper, a card that can absolutely embarrass Kaya's Wrath if that is the first removal spell they have.
But at the end of the day, Bryan won by going even bigger than all of them with Field of the Dead, one of the two banes of the prior Standard format. With Standard largely becoming "go bigger or wider," a strategy that turns each of its lands into Zombies does both effectively. The major innovation here was Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off, which serves as both a threat and turn three or four mass removal spell against most creatures currently seeing play. Despite costing five mana, the deck puts one or two extra lands into play on turns one through three so regularly that Cast Off rarely has to come down on turn five or later.
The other new addition is the incredibly powerful Once Upon a Time. Almost tailor-made for this deck, it allows the Field of the Dead strategy to find Fields, Hydroid Krasis or Realm-Cloaked Giant // Cast Off at a much faster rate, while almost never whiffing because of the 28 lands the deck also plays. Once Upon a Time also makes every sideboard card much more useful for a deck that plays it, as looking at five additional cards for an effect like Deputy of Detention or Knight of Autumn means that you will, on average, find them much more consistently while using fewer sideboard slots on them.
While most of us are playing MTG Arena, there's a devout group of people still playing Magic Online as well. And while Arena felt like it was going bigger in response to most of the midrange battles that were going on, MTGO was going faster, largely in the form of mono-black or mostly-black aggressive strategies.
The Monday dump of decklists doesn't tell the whole story. My podcast co-host Baker (VTCLA) appeared twice in the list of 5-0 decklists, but reported that he saw versions of the sole Mono-Black Aggro list from this spread of decks frequently this weekend, playing against it twice each league. Several of the other prominent MTGO grinders in the community were also on this deck, punishing the slower midrange or control decks that people began the format playing. The combination of good removal in Priest of Forgotten Gods, Murderous Rider // Swift End and Rankle, Master of Pranks to punish creatures, and discard effects to punish spells like Dance of the Manse or Doom Foretold, backed up with a quick clock positions this deck as the disruptive aggressive deck of the format, similar to the Vampires decks from Core Set 2020 Standard.
There are three big lessons to be learned from the decks that are succeeding in online events, as well as my personal experience with the format so far:
The third point is a bit of an assumption on my part that there isn't a way to go bigger than putting most of 28 lands into play and gaining value from nearly every one of them. Without Nexus of Fate or Omniscience, something like Flood of Tears or Tamiyo, Collector of Tales lacks a way to go bigger than Field of the Dead. And as of right now, there isn't a combo deck that can exploit Field of the Dead's relative weakness: just how slow it is to actually win.
That said, there is at least one card that can potentially ignore Field of the Dead almost entirely: Questing Beast. Buried in a textbox that's longer than many Twitter threads is a clause that gives Questing Beast evasion specifically against creatures with power 2 or less. Haste means that Teferi, Time Raveler can't keep it from attacking unless the Questing Beast player chooses not to redeploy it, and deathtouch means that a big Hydroid Krasis or Realm-Cloaked Giant can't block it profitably. Between maindeck and sideboard there are very few ways for Field of the Dead to even answer Questing Beast.
This makes me really favor a deck like VTCLA's: aggressive creatures that force the Field of the Dead deck to react with Cast Off, and then evasive, hasty threats like Rankle, Master of Pranks and Questing Beast to continue pressuring them in ways their deck is not naturally ready to handle.
While he has presented one option for this kind of deck, another that seems well positioned in many ways is Gruul. Growth-Chamber Guardian, Gruul Spellbreaker, Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, Zhur-Taa Goblin and Domri, Anarch of Bolas are all extremely good cards right now. With the removal in the format looking pretty slow between three-mana cards like Oath of Kaya or Swift End and four-plus mana versions like Kaya's Wrath, Cast Off and Planar Cleansing, haste is incredibly well positioned. And thanks to the riot mechanic, Gruul cards have more of it than any other color combination. The entire color combination seems to punish Murderous Rider // Swift End specifically, as nearly all of its targets cost less than Swift, have hexproof on their turn, or have haste. The creature half of the card can't effectively block most any of them because Gruul has so few 2 toughness creatures, making Murderous Rider mostly a way to recoup a little life while chump blocking.
The downside to Gruul is the mana. Two-color mana is… embarrassing. While Fabled Passage is a very powerful card, it is a little bit worse than we all assumed it would be, and it isn't the salvation for allied color mana. With so many gold cards, Gruul is an aggressive deck that has to play five to eight lands that enter play tapped between Fabled Passage and Rugged Highlands. The deck building challenge would be creating a list that can harness enough of the raw power of Questing Beast in a deck that needs early red mana.
For Philadelphia, my fallback plan is currently an updated version of a deck I wrote about a couple weeks ago, Orzhov Prince.
I've found this deck out-grinds even the grindiest midrange decks, has so much removal and incidental life gain that aggressive matchups feel excellent, but largely loses to Field of the Dead every time. Game one is mostly just a concession, and games two and three are all about trying to grind them out of a hand while Ashiok, Dream Render buys time. Often it doesn't work, as their deck is capable of getting lands into play a little too fast sometimes to be shut out by Ashiok before they get enough mana to resolve Golos and a "small" Hydroid Krasis for around six mana. That said, if Field of the Dead isn't a big concern, I've greatly enjoyed this deck both as a deck building challenge and an archetype.
There's still a few days left until the release of Throne of Eldraine, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it shift again before the first paper Magic card is played on camera at the SCG Open in Philadelphia. Wish me luck in the Standard seat, because with so much going on, I'm going to need it!