It has now been over six weeks since the release of Rivals of Ixalan and the coinciding bannings of Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner and Rampaging Ferocidon shook Standard to its core. This season has been unique in that Rivals of Ixalan was the first new set released in over two years, since Oath of the Gatewatch, where the corresponding Pro Tour was not Standard, meaning the pros did not immediately set out working to break the format. These Pro Tour decklists are widely copied and typically set the course of the metagame in the event's wake, but this season players have been left to figure things out on their own. Furthermore, SCG is no longer holding Standard Opens beyond the very first week after release, so there has not been a consistent stream of high-profile events to help shake out the metagame. Players have been accustomed to Standard being all but solved within the first few weeks after a set release, but the peculiarities of this season, compounded by the bannings bringing great uncertainty to the metagame, has led a huge length of time where nothing was clear. It was not until this past weekend's Grand Prix Memphis that we have seen a true picture of where the metagame sits.
Up until Memphis, the biggest source of Standard information has been Magic Online events, which has been made intentionally murky by Wizards with the restriction of the decklists they release. Mono-Red Aggro emerged as an early frontrunner, in part because it was the strongest deck in the metagame after Temur Energy was gutted. It also took advantage of the slower-than-normal metagame development while players worked on figuring out what was going on in Standard after the bannings and with the new cards added. Historically, aggressive red decks start out very strong in the early days of a new format but begin to fall off as other decks adjust and catch up in their development, but this season the process has been more drawn out.
With Memphis in the books, it now seems the format has matured, because Red failed to break into the Top 8. Instead, the metagame was dominated by midrange and control decks. The frontrunner in the metagame now looks to be Grixis Energy, which has broken through to fill the void left by Temur Energy as the format's premier midrange deck, placing three copies in the Top 8 of the GP.
After the bans hobbled green Energy decks, it was predicted that Grixis Energy decks would take their place at the top of the metagame, and while they had their fair share of early success, the builds of the decks varied wildly from week-to-week and player-to-player, and the archetype failed to put up consistent finishes. There's now no denying its results, and there is also more of a consensus on the builds, with Glorybringer and Rekindling Phoenix being left out in favor of a more controlling base.
One piece of new technology in the Grixis Energy toolbox is Dire Fleet Daredevil, which was played as a two-of by Matthew Kling in the list that brought him a 12-0 start and ultimately earned him to a Top 4 finish.
In a pinch, Dire Fleet Daredevil can be played on turn two as an aggressive threat against Blue-Black Control or as a blocker against Mono-Red, but its real value comes in its ability to cast a spell from the opponent's graveyard as a flexible way to generate card advantage. Every deck in the metagame offers great targets, like Shock and Lightning Strike from Mono-Red to destroy one of their small creatures or a Vraska's Contempt from Blue-Black Control or the mirror to handle The Scarab God. Like Snapcaster Mage, Dire Fleet Daredevil provides utility by offering multiple options and molding itself to whatever the situation at hand calls for, which fits right into the disruption-centric Grixis plan. It also generates value even if it's destroyed, so in some ways it's more reliable and efficient than something like Glorybringer.
In a similar vein, Confiscation Coup is a much more powerful and removal-proof option than Glorybringer in the five-drop slot, and is fantastic for dealing with the hard-to-kill creatures that define the format: The Scarab God, Hazoret the Fervent and Rekindling Phoenix. Kling played two main deck copies, and Hunter Cochran played one in his own Top 4 build, so it's strong evidence that Grixis Energy should include the card in the future.
The other successful decks in the event contained innovations and technology of their own, so today I'm going to focus on identifying what these decks did differently that made them surpass other builds of their archetypes and explain why it helped give them an edge over the competition.
The second most successful archetype in Memphis was Blue-Black Control, which was the only archetype besides Grixis Energy to place multiples copies into the Top 8, and the Grixis Control build in ninth place is further proof of the strength of control in the metagame. If Grixis Energy preys on Mono-Red decks with its wealth of removal and copies of Whirler Virtuoso to clog up the battlefield, then Blue-Black Control preys on Grixis Energy with its wealth of card advantage, counters and its lack of good target for creature removal.
Control deck tend to struggle against aggressive decks, which explains why Blue-Black Control has adjusted to Mono-Red by playing three main deck Moment of Craving in addition to sets of Vraska's Contempt and Fatal Push. Savvy control players are now going even further by including Contraband Kingpin in the sideboard, which was played as a three-of in both the Top 8 lists.
In the past, we have seen control decks sideboard Gifted Aetherborn against Mono-Red as a lifelink creature that blocks well, but it's vulnerable to Lightning Strike and Abrade, which Mono-Red is typically going to have in the deck even after sideboard. Contraband Kingpin offers less lifegain, but its four toughness is a huge hurdle for Mono-Red . It can profitably block Earthshaker Khenra and Bomat Courier, so it will leave them at bay, or will draw out a burn spell after blocking and create a two-for-one, which is great exchange. It can block Ahn-Crop Crasher, so it will lead to the opponent exerting it. Any of these scenarios will soak up damage and buy the control deck the critical time it needs to get into the midgame where it can dominate with its bigger spells, so it's an ideal speedbump. It can even turn the tables and start attacking to pad the life total once the battlefield is clear, and it's a devastating card to eternalize with The Scarab God.
Blue-Black Control looks to be in a great position in a world where Grixis Energy and other midrange decks are on the rise and where Mono-Red is in decline, but Contraband Kingpin is well worth the space as insurance against its most threatening opponent.
Making it all the way to the finals of the event was Sultai Constrictor, which put up some results in the SCG Team Opens but never really caught on as a popular deck and failed to grain traction online. One likely reason that Aaron Barich excelled where others failed was his adoption of a piece of very powerful tech into the archetype, Hadana's Climb.
Hadana's Climb offers obvious synergy with Winding Constrictor, which causes it to add an extra counter each turn. It can be used to spread counters around and grind out the opponent with continuous value that they will have trouble keeping up with, or these counters can be loaded onto one creature so the enchantment flips into Winged Temple of Orazca and threatens to end the game quickly with a large flying threat.
Hadana's Climb could be seen being used successfully online in a reboot of Green-Blue Electrostatic Pummeler, and this deck takes a page from that plan by including a set of Bristling Hydra, which is a reliable place to put counters and an ideal target for Winged Temple of Orazca to pump for the win.
Instead of the glass cannon Electrostatic Pummeler, this deck plays the set of Walking Ballista typical for Winding Constrictor decks, which is another excellent target for Hadana's Climb. The cards combine to create a continuous source of direct damage that will whittle down the opponent's board. In situations where grinding is more important than going for the kill, Walking Ballista can soak up counters and ensure that Hadana's Climb doesn't flip, or alternatively, it can help flip the enchantment ASAP because it enters play with counters and can even add counters to itself.
Everything in the deck meshes together to create a perfectly balanced and stable midrange deck but with a powerful combo-like finish, and it worked incredibly for Barich. Traditional Black-Green Constrictor decks were completely absent from the Top 32, so this approach is the clear path forward for the archetype.
Mono-Red Aggro may have failed to Top 8 Memphis, but it still remains a defining deck in the metagame and it will become more threatening than ever if players see last weekend's results as reason to discount it and grow lax. The highest finisher at the GP with Mono-Red was John Rolf, who played the old Ramunap Red deck to the to the Top 4 of both Grand Prix Denver and Pro Tour Ixalan, and he showed why he is currently leading the Pro Tour Constructed Master Leaderboard with his innovation to the archetype.
Rolf completely removed Sunscorched Desert from his deck in favor of Grasping Dunes, which can convert into a -1/-1 counter to shrink or outright destroy an opposing creature. Sunscorched Desert offers a free damage, but without Ramunap Ruins to convert it into two more damage, it has lost the bulk of its value, so Rolf reasoned that the option of cashing in a Grasping Dunes for a -1/-1 counter was superior. One downside of Mono-Red is its lack of mana sinks and thus vulnerability to flooding when it doesn't have Hazoret the Fervent to convert extra lands tro damage, so the ability to trade an extra land for tangible impact on the battlefield is an attractive proposition.
What makes Grasping Dunes especially strong in the current metagame is its ability to destroy the 0/1 Elemental Token left behind by Rekindling Phoenix. One of the big trends in Mono-Red decks over the past couple of weeks – and one employed by Rolf – is Fanatical Firebrand instead of Soul-Scar Mage, which has developed in part because of its ability to help take out Rekindling Phoenix, and Grasping Dunes double downs on this with an additional way to remove the token.
Rekindling Phoenix has become a standard addition to the Mono-Red main deck, so Rolf's list has a clear advantage in the mirror match, and with Red-Green Monsters featuring four Rekindling Phoenix winning the Grand Prix and due to see an increase in play, Grasping Dunes will become even better.
On the topic of Rekindling Phoenix's ascension, it has also been adopted into Mardu Vehicles as an alternative to Hazoret the Fervent, as seen in the list that reached the Top 8 of Memphis playing a split of the two creatures.
Since Gideon, Ally of Zendikar rotated from the format, Hazoret the Fervent has been used as Mardu's top-end threat of choice, but Rekindling Phoenix does much of the same work but without many of the downsides. One advantage is it lacks the restriction of requiring one or less cards in hand to function. It can't convert extra lands in hand into damage, but it does have flying so it avoids the issue of chump blockers that Hazoret the Fervent often faces. The biggest advantage of Rekinding Phoenix is that it avoids Hazoret the Fervent's problem of being a legend, so diversifying the threat base allows the deck to have multiple haymakers in play at once. This helps to make the deck both more consistent and more powerful, so it looks like a great way forward for the deck that many had discounted before the Grand Prix.
What cards are you using in your Standard deck to gain an edge on your competition? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.