Khans of Tarkir Standard is a format defined by decks jockeying for a tempo advantage against one another.
In the early months of the new format, until and including the Pro Tour, things were simple and the format was primarily dominated by Abzan Midrange and Jeskai Tempo decks battling for the top spot. In a midrange world, players are often trading cards with each other at parity or close to it, such as Hero's Downfall on a Mantis Rider. Lightning Strike might have a small edge on Mantis Rider, and Abzan Charm gains a mana on Siege Rhino, but it was difficult for these archetypes to obtain a large tempo advantage in the average game. There were some ways to gain an edge, like Goblin Rabblemaster leaving a token behind, or Elspeth, Sun's Champion making a few Soldier Tokens before falling, but real advantages were small and difficult to come by.
As they currently stand, the traditional Abzan Midrange and Jeskai Tempo decks have been relegated to second class citizens in the metagame. In their old forms they are unable to profitably deal with the tempo plays that now define the format. That doesn't mean they aren't trying, and as the metagame continues to develop I expect some variations of these decks will rise once again; the card quality available to these wedges is too high.The Rise of Tempo
Soon after the Pro Tour, Mardu Midrange appeared and it achieved great popularity and success because it beat these midrange decks at their own game. It did so by taking advantage of tempo. By playing threats that weren't easy to Remove, like Hordeling Outburst, and by playing answers that were hyper-efficient, like Chained to the Rocks, Mardu Midrange broke the tempo parity that defined the midrange mirrors; by changing the equation, it earned itself a considerable edge over the field. I have recently written extensively about tempo in Standard and the impact of Hordeling Outburst in particular, so I recommend turning to that article for a deeper explanation.
As far as Chained to the Rocks, which must have a friendly Mountain to target, for one mana it Removes any creature from the game. This is extremely efficient from a tempo standpoint, and it's the perfect card for gaining an advantage against opposing threats. The fact that it Removes the creature from the game is also relevant, not only because of delve cards in the format, but more importantly because it helps to maintain Whip of Erebos. Chained to the Rocks does come with disadvantages, namely that it can be removed by cards like Banishing Light, and it can allow creatures like Siege Rhino to trigger if they re-enter the battlefield, but it's impossible to completely Erase the initial tempo gain.
Chained to the Rocks is primarily played in Mardu Midrange, which has recently seen a decline in popularity, but the card is beginning to see more play in other red/white archetypes, particularly in Sam Black's RW Tokens deck from the World Championship and the most recent SCG Invitational.
This deck is completely focused on the tempo battle, and it relies on Chained to the Rocks as a crucial piece of the puzzle. It also abuses the Aura synergy with Heliod's Pilgrim as a tutor. This deck has additional tempo elements that I'll explore when I revisit the deck shortly.
I expect more decks will catch on to Chained to the Rocks in the future, and for example, I'm interested in experimenting with the card in a red-focused Jeskai Midrange/Control deck utilizing Evolving Wilds to find a Mountain.The Battle for Tempo
The Standard format has evolved beyond the midrange battle of Pro Tour: KTK, and to a large degree it is the battle over tempo that has warped the metagame and left it as it currently stands. In a world where players are fighting Tooth and Nail, turn by turn, breaking even throughout a game, games tend to go into the late stages. Hornet Queen is the ultimate late game trump, a card that can't be removed by traditional removal without costing the opponent serious tempo and card advantage; it's Hordeling Outburst on steroids. Whip of Erebos is the ideal supplement because it can get Hornet Queen into play ahead of schedule, which generates a large tempo gain in itself, and later in the game it serves as a repeatable tempo and card advantage-generating engine.
Perhaps the most important tempo-generating disruption card in current Standard is Murderous Cut. It comes with the restriction of delve being required to optimize the card, but it can potentially destroy any creature for just one mana. In dedicated graveyard decks Murderous Cut can be reliably cast cheaply, but it's functional all the way up to five mana. Murderous Cut plays a huge role in the gameplan of these graveyard decks and is a critical component of their successful formula. Murderous Cut is part of the payoff for playing these graveyard-centric Whip of Erebos decks, and furthermore it's much of the reason for playing them in the first place.
Murderous Cut is at its best in focused decks full of enablers, particularly Satyr Wayfinder and Commune with the Gods, but it also sees some minor play in archetypes including Mardu Midrange, Abzan Midrange, and UB Control. It's something to seriously consider for inclusion in any black deck.
A major factor in the current metagame is Jeskai Tokens, which plays not only the aforementioned tempo card Hordeling Outburst, but also Raise the Alarm, which fills a very similar role. This deck doubles-down on its token plays with Jeskai Ascendancy, which with its +1/+1 clause drastically capitalizes on any board advantage these tokens are able to generate. Much like Whip of Erebos, Jeskai Ascendancy also functions as a card advantage engine because its ability to loot through the deck improves card quality and enables Treasure Cruise to be cast as a hyper-efficient card drawing spell.
The disruptive tempo card of choice for Jeskai Tokens is Stoke the Flames. Much like Murderous Cut, it's serviceable for full price, but with a bit of synergy the cost can be drastically reduced all the way down to 0 mana. The tempo impact of destroying a creature or planeswalkers for free is massive, and its game impact cannot be understated. Relative to the typical tit-for-tat midrange tempo battle, this is equivalent to taking an extra turn, and its game-swinging ability can bring its behind controller right back into the game or snowball a board advantage into an insurmountable position.
Stoke the Flames is particularly strong with Hordeling Outburst, so it's most often seen alongside that card to form a formidable tempo package. This forms a solid core for any deck, and it's utilized not just by Jeskai Tokens, but also by traditional Jeskai Tempo, variations of Mardu Midrange, Monored aggro, and Sam Black's RW Tokens deck. This combination could be played in any number of other decks, and it's the first place I'd start when building a red deck in Standard.The Future of Tempo
As the Standard metagame develops, and as players become more cognizant of the importance of tempo, they will begin to incorporate more tempo-generating cards into their decks, whether they be threats or disruption. Savvy players have been focusing on tempo for a while now, and their decklists hold valuable secrets.
One card in particular has been growing in popularity every day, and it blurs the line between threat and disruption. Reclamation Sage is both an efficient answer to artifact and enchantments and a reasonable threat. It's the perfect tempo play because not only does it disrupt the opponent, but it also advances its controller's own board position.
Reclamation Sage is a great card when it actually has something to destroy and the current Standard metagame is full of targets. Courser of Kruphix is all over Standard, and as an enchantment it's an ideal target that shares the same spot on the curve, so Reclamation Sage is the perfect solution that leaves a valuable body in play for aggressing the opponent or their planeswalkers. Reclamation Sage is particularly important as an answer for Whip of Erebos in the mirror match. Reclamation Sage also kills Doomwake Giant and Eidolon of Blossoms, but its utility goes far beyond into various other matchups.
Reclamation Sage is a great answer to cards like Chained to the Rocks and Banishing Light. Destroying these cards is often a surprise to the opponent, and, depending on what's removed, this can be devastating.
Reclamation Sage is also of particular importance as an answer to Jeskai Ascendancy, without which the Jeskai Token deck can be underpowered.
Reclamation Sage is also great alongside Whip of Erebos as yet another creature that can be returned to play for value. It started out in the sideboard of these decks, began seeing some isolated maindeck play as a one-of, and it's now a maindeck two-of in some lists, often with more in the sideboard. It has proven itself to be an extremely powerful tool against the metagame, and it's not a card I would want to leave home without. I expect other archetypes to incorporate Reclamation Sage into the maindeck, especially Abzan Midrange, which needs to reinvent itself for the realities of the current metagame.
Another card that has been gaining traction is Sultai Charm. Sidisi, Brood Tyrant is the most popular of the Whip of Erebos decks, and Sultai Charm is a natural fit into the archetype. It's not as powerful from a tempo standpoint as Reclamation Sage, but it comes with the same ability to disrupt enchantments on-curve. It destroys Whip of Erebos for a tempo gain. It's quite flexible, and it will often be used as a creature removal spell to supplement Murderous Cut. Sultai Charm also has a useful third mode, which cycles through the deck to find action and improve hand quality, can help fuel delve, and may even set up a Whip of Erebos play.
On the topic of Sultai Reanimator, Disdainful Stroke is among the premier tempo-generating spells in the format. It has been popular in a variety of decks for a while now, usually in the sideboard, but it's important to appreciate just how strong of a tempo play it can be. It's something to consider for any deck with access to blue mana.
Erase is primarily a sideboard card, but it too has been earning maindeck slots, such as in Sam Black's RW Tokens deck. It's not flexible, but spending one mana to destroy an enchantment is a huge tempo swing. Erase is a clear inclusion in the sideboard of any white deck, and going forward in this metagame I'd consider playing a full playset.
I have focused primarily on answers that generate tempo, but there are also some tempo-generating threats that are coming into their own.
For six mana, See the Unwritten has the potential to discount a mana from Hornet Queen, but its real value as a tempo play is when ferocious is triggered. It's not necessarily easy to trigger in an environment full of disruption, but it's capable of putting two creatures into play for the price of one, which will create a large board presence and put the opponent in a difficult spot. See the Unwritten also has the secondary ability of functioning something like a massive graveyard enabler, so some of the mana spent can theoretically be recouped by Delve cards like Murderous Cut.
Wingmate Roc has not had a ton of love over the last few weeks, but it's important not to forget just how powerful of a tempo play it can be. Creating two unique threats for the price of one is not only card advantage, but also a tempo play that can be difficult for the opponent to recover from. Sam Black's RW Tokens deck takes advantage of a playset of Wingmate Roc, and it's a great example of how to leverage the card for fighting the tempo battle. Recent incarnations of Abzan Aggro have also been heavy on Wingmate Roc, including Brian Braun-Duin's list from the SCG Player's Championship:
There are decks that seek to ignore tempo and play their own game. Variations of Jeskai Ascendancy combo are built to largely ignore the opponent and win with a gameplan that will overcome any opposing board state. Control decks like UB and UW supplement loads of pinpoint removal with massive tempo-erasing board sweepers and impossible to deal with threats. The reason these sorts of decks haven't found large degrees of popularity or success is that they are, for the most part, fighting a losing battle. Both disruption and threats in Standard are extremely efficient. It's quite difficult to assemble a combination of cards that can weather the disruption while surviving the threats, and it's quite difficult for a control deck to maintain a hold over threats that are so individually efficient, powerful, and even tempo-generating. The reality is that no deck can truly ignore tempo, and decks that attempt this do so at their own peril.
UW Heroic decks attacked the metagame like a rising tide, and they found some success and popularity, but they appear to be falling back into the sea. This archetype seeks to play its own version of the Standard tempo game. It can largely ignore much of what the opponent is doing by going over the top, or right under, while it leverages protection cards like God's Willing to counteract opposing disruption. A huge issue with these decks is that they are inherently quite vulnerable to losing a tempo battle because they invest so much mana into their threats beyond the initial expenditure. While the archetype does have various pseudo-counterspells for removal spells, it's entering a difficult and losing battle with a natural disadvantage, and that's not a great place to be.Winning the Tempo War
When Caw-Blade was dominant, Splinter Twin combo and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle were part of the metagame, but they were simply second class to the egregious tempo plays created by a threat like Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull or Sword of Feast and Famine, and by answers like Dismember and Mana Leak. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was a question and an answer rolled into one. It's this dominance over the tempo battle that made Caw-Blade so stifling and eventually worthy of multiple bannings.
The current Standard format doesn't have egregious offenders like the Caw-Blade era, but it is a metagame revolved around tempo, and it's important to fight the tempo battle every turn from every angle in order to get an edge. In a world where every card is so powerful, falling behind just a little can quickly turn into a loss. It's a hostile world. The future of Standard belongs to the decks that are designed with the battle over tempo built into their very core.