What does Standard look like after Marvel? In many ways, it's exactly what one might expect. But not in all ways. I certainly had some initial ideas of what things would look like once Marvel was gone from the format. For one, I expected Mardu Vehicles to immediately ascend to being the top dog. Mardu Vehicles has had the distinction of being "the second best" deck in the format for quite a while now. It was second fiddle to Copy Cat combo decks and then played second fiddle again to Aetherworks Marvel decks.
With both of those decks gone and with Mardu Vehicles continuing to remain untouched by the banhammer it would make sense that it would suddenly find itself the undisputed best deck. I also expected various anti-Mardu decks like Black-Green Delirium to also pick up in popularity, now that their prey has transitioned from being a fringe player to being an alpha predator.
We're still in the infancy of The New Standard Order without all the broken bannable cards, but things haven't played out like this yet. There was one key ingredient that is easy to overlook, but that makes perfect sense in hindsight.
What did Four-Color Copy Cat and Temur Marvel decks have in common? They were both fueled by being part of an energy framework. It's kind of like a "what came first, the chicken or the egg?" kind of paradox. Was the energy support so powerful that it propped up other cards like the Saheeli Combo to the point where they needed a ban or were those cards powerful enough that they would have found shells eventually that required their bans, even without these ultra-powerful energy support cards?
I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that question, but the fact is that energy cards are extremely powerful and arguably the best deck after the Marvel ban actually remains Temur Energy.
When I first started playing Magic years ago, card advantage was the only thing that seemed to matter. Unless you were trying to do things like burn your opponent out of the game, the only thing that ever mattered was getting card advantage, or at least that was the prevailing theory of the times. These days, cards are so powerful that traditional card advantage doesn't actually matter anymore. That's why decks like Blue-Red Control seriously underperform. They are trying to win with raw card advantage in a world that has passed them by.
In the New World, everything is ruled by virtual card advantage. Cards are so powerful that we don't really have time to waste trying to cast raw two-for-ones. Instead, we need to rely on our cards to be so good that they end up being worth multiple of our opponent's cards to deal with. That's virtual card advantage. A great example of virtual card advantage is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Gideon doesn't draw you extra cards. In some regards, Gideon can actually be card disadvantage if you end up with extra Gideons stuck in hand that you can't deploy. However, Gideon is the king of virtual card advantage, because sometimes it takes your opponent multiple turns and huge investments of time, resources, and their own life total to get Gideon off the board.
Energy is another form of virtual card advantage. Energy doesn't actually produce extra cards, with rare exceptions, like Shielded Aether Thief or Rogue Refiner, but what it does is generate a small incremental advantage that can end up invalidating opposing cards or force your opponent to expend extra resources to deal with an incidental aspect of your card.
Every time Bristling Hydra requires two removal spells to kill, it's creating virtual card advantage. Every time Attune with Aether makes you hit your land drop and also creates a Thopter from Whirler Virtuoso, it's creating virtual card advantage. Every time your opponent has to chump block a Longtusk Cub, that's virtual card advantage.
Cards like Rogue Refiner and Attune with Aether are very far ahead of the curve in terms of what they offer to energy production. They generate too much energy for what they do, and that extra energy value is why they have and will continue to show up in top decks. If good enough payoffs exist, then energy decks will always be a powerful force in Standard. Bristling Hydra and Longtusk Cub aren't as good as Aetherworks Marvel, but they're still Really Damn Good.
Speaking of energy, another early contender for best deck in Standard right now is G/B Energy.
Black-Green Energy is higher powered than Temur Energy but it sacrifices consistency in that quest for power. This archetype is fragile in that many of the cards are synergy-driven. Rishkar and Nissa are weak without support. Walking Ballista needs Winding Constrictor or other cards to be worth playing. Blossoming Defenses is either a blowout or a dud. However, this deck easily has the most powerful and explosive starts. Curving into Nissa, Plant Factory of Zendikar followed by a Winding Constrictor and a -2 on Nissa is going to blow the pants off of most opponents, especially now that you can't just die the next turn to Felidar combo or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger.
But like I said, the deck has a high level of variance to it. Sometimes Nissa does those disgusting things, and sometimes all it can do is create a 0/1 Plant Token and gain four life as Heart of Kiran swoops in from the sky, like an instrument of death. Still, this is the kind of deck I would be looking to play in the new format. I've always been a sucker for high-powered aggressive strategies, and this is that. I love me some power.
I expected that Delirium would rise up From the Ashes, like a phoenix, ready to take over the new format without these busted combos that ruined the deck before. The heeby BG is good against decks like Mardu Vehicles and other creature decks, right? Why isn't this deck dominating? Why hasn't this happened?
The key point here is that Ishkanah is a tool, not an endgame. What made the deck so dominant before wasn't the raw power of Grim Flayer and Ishkanah, but rather the top end of Emrakul, the Promised End. Without Emrakul to close games out, this deck often finds itself spinning wheels and generating incremental advantage only to find that advantage doesn't actually amount to a win without an over-the-top threat to just close the door on the opponent.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow is a great tool and a huge thorn in the side of aggressive decks, but the power of cards like Scrapheap Scrounger and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar means that even against decks like Mardu Vehicles it can only be a roadblock, a way to buy time, and not actually a win condition. Without a powerful endgame, Delirium is missing a step.
I do think that Delirium can exist in this format, but it needs to find an endgame against which there is no coming back and to ensure that its dominance in the midgame can easily translate to a win. It needs a way to turn that advantage into a sure-fire victory and not just "hope it is good enough." As a result, I suspect that the Delirium decks that end up pulling out ahead will either find that endgame or turn into the Sultai Delirium decks that were fringe players in a previous format. Those Sultai decks relied on Torrential Gearhulk as the endgame. Torrential Gearhulk is powerful enough to finish a game, both by providing a huge body as well as a level of card and board advantage that swings the game too quickly to rebound from.
Zombies won the Pro Tour but then started to experience a huge and immediate drop in market share afterward. This was a result of Temur Marvel decks being able to exploit Zombies' one-dimensional gameplan with cards like Chandra, Flamecaller and sweepers like Radiant Flames or Sweltering Suns. Zombies was always fairly decent against other creature decks, being able to outgrind them and outscale them as the game progressed.
It makes sense that Zombies would therefore vault to being an immediate dominant force in the new format. This hasn't exactly happened, and I think the reason for this is that while Zombies might be well-positioned right now, the issue with the deck is still that it is one-dimensional. If decks want to beat Zombies, they totally can. Zombies can't adapt their gameplan in sideboard games, but other decks can. Without having to stretch to extreme lengths to be able to beat Aetherworks Marvel, decks like Temur Energy or Mardu Vehicles can now dedicate more resources to beating Zombies. Mardu Vehicles no longer needs to do radical things like play Spell Queller or Metallic Rebuke, and Temur Energy doesn't need things like Ceremonious Rejection or the like. These cards can and do get replaced with tools to slay the undead hordes.
To be fair, I think Zombies is a way better choice now than it was during the bleak period of Marvelous dominance, but I can't imagine that it will ascend to being the best deck for any real period of time. There may be weeks where it is the best choice as people forget about hate for it, but it is always eminently beatable, and that is a problem for any deck trying to be the best.
Where then does that leave Mardu Vehicles? Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Always a fiddle, never the first fiddle. Always a contender, never a pretender, but scarcely a format-bender. I'm running out of idioms here, but you get the point.
I think Mardu will continue to do what it does best. Be the second-best deck in the format. Mardu has some disgustingly powerful cards that go well-beyond what a reasonable card should look like in Standard. Gideon is not fair. Heart of Kiran is not fair. Scrapheap Scrounger? Unfair. These cards outdo themselves. They are too good.
But with all that fanfare, Mardu and all its busted Mythics is still not good as Energy. We've seen it twice now where Mardu ended up being bested by an energy strategy, and I think we're going to see it a third time. Not even the might of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar can match up to the small, incremental, virtual edges of Rogue Refiner, Attune with Aether, and so on and so forth.
Mardu may be more abstractly powerful. Nothing beats Mardu in terms of the raw power of its individual cards. But Mardu lacks consistency. It can't do the same thing every single game. Energy can. With energy, every game builds up to the same endgame. Interact with your opponent as you build energy. Eventually dump that energy into a payoff card, and force them to burn their hand to catch-up.
It's still early in the format, and Hour of Devastation may shake the game up, yet. What I'm going off here is an initial glance at what Magic Online has done to shape the fledgling new format. Who knows what things may look like in a few weeks or a month.
With that being said, you won't find me betting against Energy. Time after time, banning after banning, it keeps coming out on top. I don't expect that to change anytime soon, and as for me and my kin, we will become attuned to it.