Monday took most people by surprise. Sure, people talked about how Oko, Thief of Crowns was obnoxiously powerful and proceeded to make more Elk jokes than Oko himself made Elks. Sure, most people can see by now that Once Upon a Time isn't just a good card—it's laughably efficient at making every game play out in an identical way by providing so much consistency. And sure, everyone had made the Veil of Summer is one-mana Cryptic Command reference by now, which is probably selling Veil of Summer short since it's generally the stronger card.
But who would have called that the same deck would receive three separate bans?
Frankly, I'm just happy Wizards of the Coast wasn't timid this time. The week before Field of the Dead was banned, the evidence was already starting to pile up that the food decks were too strong. Field of the Dead was what was keeping Oko, Thief of Crowns suppressed and even then it was still able to put up an incredible performance in Long Beach at Mythic Championship V. Worse, after failing to make Standard palatable once, they really couldn't risk another iteration of the format where Food was the only top deck. So kudos to Wizards for making the responsible choice!
In the meantime, that leaves the rest of us wondering, again, where does Standard go after all of these bans?
Last time around, there was a clear frontrunner. This time, it's much less clear. Field of the Dead suppressed many strategies, keeping Oko, Thief of Crowns from running the format. Oko, meanwhile, was suppressing everything else. And now, that "everything else" is able to run free.
Even though it's been a pretty short amount of time since the bans were announced, people have jumped back in to ranked, including yours truly. There's more interest both because the format is, fingers crossed, much more fun again, and also because of the Twitch Rivals event that was announced the week prior to the bans. As I write this there has been a lot of interest in figuring out what is good in Standard now, and the first day of matches of the Twitch Rivals event have happened. Because of all of this, I have a pretty good idea of what seem to be the early pillars of this format, and the questions they have to answer.
The deck that seems to get the most attention right away is...
a Food deck.
Witch's Oven and Cauldron Familiar are nothing new to the format, and people have been trying to make these decks work since week one of Throne of Eldraine Standard, typically in Aristocrats-style shells that try to use early aggression to enable the decks slow but consistent reach to lock up a game. But the real turning point for this archetype seemed to be the discovery of Trail of Crumbs as a way to turn the deck from a strange mix of aggro and inevitability into a card advantage engine. Food decks with Trail of Crumbs were the unexpected standout in Richmond at the Mythic Championship, adding in the Cat/Cauldron/Trail engine to a Sultai Food shell to grind out the mirror, resulting in a solid win rate at the tournament that featured more mirror matches than non-mirror matches over all.
It was impossible to watch Twitch Rivals streams without seeing "Cat Food" decks all over the place. While it was definitely much lower than 60+% of the field, it was still one of the most represented decks in the tournament from what the matches I could watch and reports from the competitors, typically as a black-green deck, but sometimes also splashing white, red or blue off of cards like Gilded Goose or Paradise Druid. Some even came close to being just the former Sultai lists minus the banned cards.
Having watched these decks for the better part of two days, though, I'm not convinced this is how the deck needs to be built, though. In Oko mirrors, there were really only a few cards that mattered: Oko, Thief of Crowns, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and Hydroid Krasis. The reason why Trail of Crumbs worked so well in the Oko deck was that these twelve cards were taking slots from cards that didn't directly support the gameplan of playing an early Oko or Nissa. Wicked Wolf is a good Magic card, but when the board is going to be gummed up with indestructible Wolves staring at each other and piles of animated Forests from Nissa, it doesn't really matter if that Wolf is indestructible or is a Cauldron Familiar that just won't stay in the graveyard: both play a similar role. And in games where nobody can make any forward progress because the board is stalled out, the player with a plethora of extra card draw from Trail of Crumbs is going to win as a Plan B.
Now that Trail of Crumbs is the star player, however, it feels like it's going to need a few more payoffs alongside it to make it look better. The format is no longer about stalled battlefields and long, grindy games where the Trail of Crumbs player could count on naturally drawing the Trail of Crumbs to break the mirror open. Instead, decks are looking to enact their own game plan. Without Trail of Crumbs, Cauldron Familiar and Witch's Oven is a way to drain one life every turn while maybe saving a few points of damage off another attacker.
Hybridizing the Aristocrats-style decks with the straightforward black-green food decks feels like the way to go. The Jund Sacrifice deck was surprisingly solid prior to Monday's bans, and was the only list that actually got me to play Standard last week. It walks a fine line between synergy and power, and still has some degree of problem when it finds enablers without payoffs, but to a much lesser degree than the other Cat Food decks.
Free mana is always worth looking at, and the red Wilderness Reclamation is no exception. Outside of the mirror, Oko decks were actually pretty effective at killing people quickly with various 3/3 creatures and a mild amount of disruption from countermagic, which Fires of Invention is quite weak to. Now, however, there are a lot fewer counterspells running around, and the combination of Fires of Invention is potent enough that, while people are unprepared for it, it's likely to be a contender.
The jury's still out on how best to build the deck: does it rely on planeswalkers and Sarkhan the Masterless to turn the corner quickly, like the planeswalker decks from War of the Spark Standard, or is it a Fae of Wishes deck that looks to have an answer to every card with its wishboard? Or is it a sort of midrange deck with a combo finish using Cavalier of Gales and Cavalier of Flame?
To me, the solution that Zvi's list, and others like his, have to the countermagic problem is to play their own countermagic alongside Teferi, Time Raveler in the maindeck and Legion Warboss in the sideboard. Mystical Dispute is unimpressive while Fires of Invention is out, but if the plan is to try to win with creatures and mostly forego the flashy Fires of Invention finishes anyway, so it doesn't really matter much if it doesn't work well with the namesake enchantment.
There are a lot of strategies this deck seems like it would have problems with: aggressive creatures that take advantage of the deck's relatively low amount of removal, creatures with four or more toughness, Narset, Parter of Veils (nice Cavalier of Gales), and the effective unbanning of Thought Erasure. But at the moment, Standard seems to be fixated on Golgari decks with Cauldron Familiar, and there is a lot of room for Fires of Invention to exploit this. Whether or not it can stay a key player in the format, we'll have to find out.
The other big mana deck of the format. Wilderness Reclamation gets to take advantage of the incredibly strong interaction between it and Expansion // Explosion, as well as the ability to use countermagic better than just about any other deck in Standard. It also gets to play one of the most efficient cards that's legal—Growth Spiral—which almost no other decks presently even try to do. On the shortlist of cards that seem like they have the ability to break Standard wide open, Wilderness Reclamation is near the top.
Not only does Seth's deck look incredibly good for the week one metagame, he's finally found a list that Nightpack Ambusher fits well in! The trick to Wilderness Reclamation, as with all of the decks I've written about thus far, is what to do when the deck doesn't have its namesake card, and how to account for that post-sideboard when people are more likely to be able to answer a card like Wilderness Reclamation. Nightpack Ambusher, which is able to both take advantage of the Wilderness Reclamation trigger the turn that its played, and can capitalize on the fact that the opponent likely has much less removal both in hand and in their deck post-sideboard if they have Naturalize effects that can remove Reclamation.
Just like Fires of Invention, this deck doesn't have a ton of removal. Bonecrusher Giant, Brazen Borrower and Flame Sweep can all handle some problems, but there are sizes of creatures that are just going to be difficult for this deck to deal with quickly. If the deck isn't "comboing" off with Wilderness Reclamation and Expansion // Explosion, it is going to spend a lot of time spinning its wheels before it's able to answer some reasonable sized threats.
Unlike Fires of Invention, though, this deck has a big problem, and his name is Teferi, Time Raveler. The Teferi player can't do nothing, but either countermagic or a proactive plan to back him up means that Wilderness Reclamation decks can't deal with him for the most part. Teferi, Time Raveler is almost a silver bullet against this deck, and there is not a great answer once it's resolved.
If I'd had to register a deck to play in the Twitch Rivals event (stupid work), Wilderness Reclamation would have been my pick Monday evening. The deck is strong against an open field that doesn't yet know what to focus on, and a well built version can especially pick apart grindy black-green piles of good cards with sheer card quantity stapled to a Fireball effect.
What do Cauldron Familiar, Fires of Invention, and Wilderness Reclamation decks all have in common? They seem to have a specific weakness to one big threat. There isn't a whole lot that a Deafening Clarion or Flame Sweep is going to do to handle a four-toughness creature. And that's where Embercleave finds its opening to combo for tons of damage like its name is Trinity Force.
There are essentially two flavors of Embercleave decks right now: Gruul and Rakdos.
Both archetypes have some degree of pedigree since Throne of Eldraine was released, each with some strengths and flaws, but the core game plan is effectively the same: use some early creatures to deal enough damage that a big turn three or four threat can attack for lethal when equipped with an Embercleave.
Gruul uses either generically impactful cards like Zhur-Taa Goblin or Gruul Spellbreaker, or Edgewall Innkeeper with Adventure creatures to do the job. Innkeeper is better both in longer games and at creating a wild battlefield to deploy Embercleave at a lower cost, but there's more raw power in the riot cards from Ravnica Allegiance and other efficient green creatures from the last few sets.
Rakdos generally tends to favor using Knights as the B-Team instead of "generically" powerful cards like Gruul can. There's two main reasons for this: one, Tournament Grounds as a bonus dual lands to fix the deck's mana is very relevant, and second, there are fewer cheap red and black creatures that are powerful enough on their own to justify passing on the small Knight synergies that are otherwise available.
They actually remind me a lot of old Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury decks from Dragons of Tarkir Standard, in that when they have the "combo" of cards that deals a massive amount of damage out of nowhere, they look incredibly powerful… but when they don't, they're lackluster aggro decks.
Personally, if the archetype is going to be primarily about executing that combo, I would rather play the version of it with the biggest threat to put it on: Rotting Regisaur. Daniel's version also uses Spawn of Mayhem, which he said on his Twitter he has found to be a very solid card right now as well (note that four points of toughness in this metagame comes in handy!) and is a reasonable Embercleave target that also pressures the opponent. His list is 100% focused on the combo game one, with Blacklance Paragon as the only "removal" spell. The only question mark in the deck to me is Gutterbones, which feels out of place, if only because it's so low power without a way to take advantage of its relatively lackluster recursion. It feels like the card would be better as just about any other one drop, even if it were something mediocre like Weaselback Redcap. At least that could be cast off Tournament Grounds!
As I write this, Aaron Barich is one of three undefeated players with one of her favorite decks: Mono-Red. The deck has certainly struggled since it lost so many of its burn spells and Goblin Chainwhirler to handle other small creature decks, but she seems to have found a way in week one Standard:
While it may seem unintuitive for a Burn deck to do well in a metagame where one of the most popular decks actively tries to make many Food Tokens, there is at least some reprieve for Mono-Red because it is so much harder for those decks to actually make so much Food for free now that Oko is banned. Further, the Once Upon a Time ban makes them much less consistent, and no deck punishes stumbles quite like Mono-Red.
Looking at the rest of the metagame that people were discussing and anticipating, mono-red seems pretty well prepared. Most decks were looking at fighting Golgari slogs, and don't have a ton of efficient spot removal. Both Wilderness Reclamation and Fires of Invention can have a lot of trouble getting a Runaway Steam-Kin off the table if they're on the draw. At three mana things start looking reasonable, but that's not always a guarantee. A savvy Red player against those decks can try to just leave Steam-Kin as a 4/4 that they can't really handle, and that will likely be good enough for the burn to finish them off.
That said, this is still effectively "week one" Standard, and the biggest thing mono-red exploits the first weekend of the format is that the other decks in the field aren't yet tuned. As these archetypes become better explored, it's likely that mono-red will start to fade into the background as it often does.
Most decks use one core card to create a game-winning advantage quickly. Whether that's cards (Trail of Crumbs), Mana (Wilderness Reclamation / Fires of Invention) or damage (Embercleave), these decks are built to support one of these effects. Notably, three of these are enchantments. These decks are more focused on synergy than power. Without the key card, their cards are underwhelming, or may not even function at all.
Wilderness Reclamation and Embercleave are surprisingly weak to Teferi, Time Raveler. To exploit this, I'd be looking at what deck can best use one (or more) of these three cards:
Knight of Autumn
Teferi, Time Raveler
While they both will pay their cost in mana back, both Wilderness Reclamation and Fires of Invention don't generate all that much advantage on the first turn they're played most of the time, so there is a brief window to remove them and keep the game competitive. Knight of Autumn as both a relatively efficient threat and a way to remove an enchantment from play that leaves a body behind for them to deal with fits the bill perfectly. Somewhat conveniently, it has an overlap in colors with Teferi, Time Raveler, who loves having the ability to recur enter the battlefield effects.
Speaking of Teferi, limiting Wilderness Reclamation, countermagic and instant-speed Embercleaves is a lot of roles that the format already wants. The ability to buy some by bouncing a key permanent against both Fires of Invention and Trail of Crumbs decks is just icing on the cake that adds up a well positioned card. The biggest question is: outside of Jeskai Fires, what deck can play it?
Once one of the best cards in Standard, Thought Erasure was relegated to the sidelines for months because of Veil of Summer. The day-one metagame definitely hasn't had time to adjust to everything, because despite being almost entirely decks that can be picked apart by a Thoughtseize-style effect, there are almost none to be seen.
If there's one place I'll be taking a good hard look at, it's what the best Thought Erasure deck will be. None of the current archetypes in Standard can even play it, which means that it's likely going to be something new to this format that picks it up. It's been a while since blue and black cards weren't hard-countered by Veil, and I think the next step of the metagame will be determining how best to remind everyone just how much cover Veil of Summer gave everyone from them.
If you have any ideas, be sure to let me know on Twitter, I'll be happy to discuss them!