Standard has been phenomenal so far. There are whole new archetypes, along with updated versions of the strategies from before Ikoria, and as a community we're still discovering potential new avenues to explore.
One of the primary motivators behind these innovations is the game-warping new mechanic, companion. While it's proven to be a bit too strong in older formats where the combination of Lurrus of the Dream-Den and zero-cost artifacts is overly efficient for such a low deck-building cost, in Standard there is a real price to pay for most of the companions. Decks need to find the right balance of spells to utilize these cards and unlock their real potential, and we're just in the beginning stages of figuring that out.
Certainly there is a risk that, like with a few other cards over the past year, Wizards overshot on companions as well. Companions are already the bulk of the decks in Standard, and we're likely to continue seeing them define the metagame as long as they're legal, or until something gets printed that can supercede them. If the same five or so companions define the format in a couple months, that joke could get old. For now, however, it's a fascinating puzzle for us to solve about how far we want to push on a companion's particular themes, or pull back so they're less exploitable by other strategies.
I've played a lot in the last days of April, and have a bit of experience with all of these decks. My goal today is to give everyone an idea of what to expect from the top decks in the metagame, what to play and how to tune them before this weekend's events, and what direction they will possibly go. These are the five companion decks that are primarily defining Standard right now.
Rakdos Obosh, the Preypiercer won the first MagicFest Online Weekly Championship. Presumably it got there by being ahead of its competition, but a whole new week of events capped by another large tournament means that it needs to stay ahead of everyone else's moves.
From that position, the deck should be looking at two things: what will people do to fight you, and how do you approach the mirror?
My first thought is that Claim the Firstborn might have been hot tech at one point, but the format has by and large moved away from cards it even hits. Hydroid Krasis is only in a single deck that makes up between 5 and 10% of the metagame. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is still a part of Temur Reclamation and Bant lists, but Claim the Firstborn is predictable at this point and both decks usually have a sizable amount of leeway to not play into it. The only other decks that play realistic targets are sacrifice decks that have access to Witch's Oven to negate it completely. Otherwise, what will you even steal? An Arboreal Grazer?
On the other hand, Witch's Oven and Cauldron Familiar rely on three-drops surviving to make them worthwhile without two-drops like Dreadhorde Butcher or Priest of Forgotten Gods to make use of the individual pieces when they aren't together. Cauldron Familiar and Mayhem Devil for example don't actually do anything together. And neither actually… works with Obosh, the Preypiercer specifically, making it an odd choice for a deck that is building around Obosh.
I spent early days of the week trying to make some ideas with Rakdos work, but had trouble separating the pieces. Judith, the Scourge Diva and Mayhem Devil are such powerful cards that they feel worth trying to make work.
Aaron Barich, though, wasn't afraid to cut some red cards.
What Mono-Black lacks in synergy, it makes up for in over-statted monstrosities. Rotting Regisaur isn't new to Standard, but Hunted Nightmare with it means that Aaron should always be deploying a threat that makes Jeskai Fires' creatures look small two turns before them.
For the mirror, 19 Swamps means that Aaron has access to one of the biggest hammers against Sacrifice decks: Cry of the Carnarium. Claim the Firstborn might be terrifying, but if they can play around it, Mono-Black should win the mirror.
Rakdos Lurrus was the deck after the first weekend of the format, and by and large failed to perform whatsoever by the end of the week. Where some decks like Obosh, the Preypiercer or Yorion, Sky Nomad should be pushed as hard as possible in Standard, Lurrus of the Dream-Den doesn't have the tools that makes its reliance on the graveyard worth going all-in on. There's a big difference between recurring Mishra's Bauble in Modern and Serrated Scorpion or Whisper Squad.
Meanwhile, Grafdigger's Cage became one of the most played sideboard cards. Having so many cards that look downright embarrassing when a Cage is in play was a death knell to the deck. It needs to rethink its card choices to not just lose to Cage and the Leyline of the Void some people are playing for the Zenith Flare decks.
This deck from the MTGO leagues posted Monday is a step in the right direction, and I think I'd want to push it another step further. I spent time playing Knight of the Ebon Legion to start the week and upped the count on Rix Maadi Reveler as the sort of cards that can work in the maindeck with already existing pieces while acting as a reasonable topdeck when the game has gone a turn or two longer than they anticipated.
To borrow tech from the Obosh, the Preypiercer decks, I'd also be interested in trying Rotting Regisaur in the sideboard as a mix-up threat. The cards that people play for this deck are small damage sweepers like Deafening Clarion and Cry of the Carnarium or graveyard hate. What opponents tend to take out are top end and awkward spot removal. Cards like Teferi, Time Raveler are atrocious against most of the deck, and it's for someone playing Jeskai Fires to leave it in for exactly four cards that may or may not even come in. Creating mismatches post board is what this deck should be looking to do when the opponent has to make choices on what to cut for Grafdigger's Cage, and Rotting Regisaur fills the role perfectly.
Bant was a comparatively small amount of the field day one of the MagicFest, but almost doubled its share of the metagame from 6.2% to 10.9% by day two. It was also the deck that I played in that tournament after doing well in two different MFOs. While I didn't make it to day two after a punt in one match, a close loss to Jeskai Fires in another, and a game three mull to four, I never thought the deck choice was bad.
What I did think was that, like a few of the companion decks, the companion portion of the deck can be a bit at odds with the deck it evolved from. Hydroid Krasis, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Nissa, Who Shakes the World don't play well with Yorion, Sky Nomad. Meanwhile, Yorion is a format-defining card in its own right. And unlike Lurrus of the Dream-Den, it doesn't have weaknesses to basic sideboard hate.
Kannister's list was, naturally, one step ahead of the rest of the metagame by cutting Hydroid Krasis and Nissa, Who Shakes the World completely. Instead he maxed out on Elspeth Conquers Death, upped the number of Narset, Parter of Veils and Agent of Treachery, and also added Shark Typhoon. Typhoon in particular is the sort of card that might not make sense at first blush, but the ability to pressure planeswalkers early, act as a surprise win condition late, and generally let the deck use its mana well if it floods out all works surprisingly well in the deck. The mistake I've seen playing this week is people actually casting it, when it almost always seems correct to draw a card, make a massive flash creature and end the game instead. Who wants a couple small sharks later when one big shark will do the trick?
What this deck probably wants is a good plan for the mirror. If I were to pick a deck that was going to do well this weekend, it would be this one.
Last week's most winning deck in the qualifiers (23% of the day one metagame, 31% of the day two meta and an absurd amount of the ladder in the last few days of the season), Jeskai Fires is the deck I'm most looking to target this week. Bant Yorion feels so poised to pull ahead this week in large part due to its good matchup against Jeskai.
Jeskai put one copy into the Top 8 last week, and the deck made cuts to fit in Shark Typhoon at the top end. With a guaranteed five-drop in Keruga, the Macrosage, it doesn't need to play as many in the maindeck, and can focus on playing a card like Typhoon that functions the first few turns of the game and turn eight or nine against control. Uncounterable and flash has never been better, and is a big part of why true control has a closer matchup than before against Jeskai.
With Jeskai Fires as such a large part of the metagame and Yorion on the rise, there are more Elspeth Conquers Death than ever. A recurred ECD is disgusting to play against as Jeskai, and finding a way to sidestep this metagame would be the goal. One problem with Keruga, the Macrosage specifically is that it makes almost the entire deck a target for the enchantment as well.
The card I'm most curious about in the deck, though, is actually Bonecrusher Giant. It's a reasonable attacker and blocker, but this feels like the sort of week where the existence of Stomp is probably enough to keep the cards it's good against at bay without actually playing it. The targets I wanted it against are essentially just Priest of Forgotten Gods, Legion Warboss, Kaheera, the Orphanguard… and almost nothing else. Forgoing early interaction entirely is likely a poor idea, but I'm curious if Brazen Borrower can fill the role on its own, or at least partially in conjunction with some Bonecrushers.
Overall, though, I would be looking to avoid this deck this week. There's a big target on its head, and people are even going back to Simic Flash-style decks to combat it. Unless you crack the code on fighting these types of strategies and Bant, Keruga Fires could have some problems that it just doesn't have great answers for right now.
I'll be honest, Gruul Fires looked like a deck that was powerful, fun, but inconsistent when I first saw the deck last week. I had the good fortune to be paired in a MagicFest Online qualifier against who I believe created the deck, Carson Bell, while playing Mardu Humans. By the end of the week, it had started putting people into the MagicFest weekend event, then the Top 8 of that same event. I picked it up with the same feeling that it was going to be a blast to play but not a good deck. Except, then I kept winning.
The deck definitely has some gimmicks that are carrying it. If letting Jeskai have Fires of Invention is dangerous, letting this deck have them is outright lethal. Vivien, Monsters' Advocate is both a lethal threat with Cavalier of Flames and a way to grind the other deck out. Questing Beast and Shifting Ceratops come in fast even without the Cavalier, and Ceratops specifically has matchups where opponents can't even remove it. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath? Explosion // Expansion? Brazen Borrower? Good luck, Simic Reclamation, take another five.
The best card in the deck is either Fires of Invention or… Arboreal Grazer. What?
It turns out just getting ahead one turn in this format can actually be lights out for decks. Everyone is playing slowly right now. Turn-one Arboreal Grazer, turn-two Kaheera, the Orphanguard, turn-three Questing Beast leaves them at 10 life on turn three. Any of the four-drops a turn early tends to be a win, however. It got to a point where I was keeping just about any hand I saw with Arboreal Grazer and three or four lands, because I knew that I would always start reasonably and I had a couple turns to draw in to the rest.
To say that it's defining the metagame might be a little bit of a stretch, but the deck has been creeping up in popularity every day, and at some point we'll need to take notice of it.
The list above is what I came to after playing it for the first half of this week. I've been regularly smashing Fires and Yorion, and it feels like it could actually have a place in the metagame. That said, it could also be that people are more unprepared for beefy haste threats, pointing toward a metagame where a non-Fires of Invention Gruul deck could similarly shine. Only time will tell!
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These decks feature the flashiest new cards from Ikoria, but they aren't the only option in Standard right now. If you're interested in moving cardboard in the pursuit of the world's largest Lightning Helix, or casting "classics" like Thought Erasure and Hydroid Krasis, there still are strategies out there to explore that don't use companions. The burden is on these decks to fill a hole in the metagame that companion decks can't do themselves, which can be a tall order.
If any of these decks do catch your fancy, hopefully you have a few ideas on how to stay ahead of the rest of the metagame.
As for me, I'll probably keep casting Arboreal Grazer.