Last week I explored the Standard metagame in the wake of Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica, where white-based aggro decks filled the Top 8. A Pro Tour Qualifier on Magic Online the day after the start of the Pro Tour ended with mono-red as the frontrunner, revealing that Goblin Chainwhirler was a perfect solution to white aggro deck's swarm of one-toughness creatures. It became clear that the white decks were beatable, so the next task was to predict where the metagame would head next. I expected mono-red to rise up in paper to defeat white decks and have a big weekend in Grand Prix Milwaukee, which in turn would bring about a rise in Golgari decks as their natural predator. Things played out a bit different at the GP. Today I want to explain what went down at the Grand Prix and why, and where things might head from here.
The story of Grand Prix Milwaukee centers around the incredible success of Jeskai control, which won the event and put a player into the semifinals. It also finished in 9th place, put two additional players in the Top 16, and held seven more of the top 32 spots. That's 11 Jeskai decks in the Top 32 published decklists—more than a third of the winning metagame. That's a world of difference from the ~10% metagame share it held at the Pro Tour and in the PTQ top 32 last weekend. Why was Jeskai suddenly so popular and so successful, and what does that mean for the future?
White aggro stole the spotlight at the Pro Tour, so overnight it became the deck to beat. This brought about a rise in natural foils like Mono-Red, but also meant that everyone else in the metagame started making changes to fight back against white decks. This effect is most extreme in Golgari, the most popular deck of the Pro Tour, and the deck that white aggro was designed to prey on. Golgari requires significant modifications to fight back against the white decks, but it does have the tools to make the matchup manageable. Four maindeck Wildgrowth Walker and additional spot removal like Cast Down have become the norm. Combined with more sideboard hosers like Golden Demise, the Golgari matchup is no longer so easy for the white decks. That explains why white aggro has declined and took just one Top 8 spot at the Grand Prix, but also ties into the rise of Jeskai.
See, Golgari is generally considered a favorable matchup for Golgari, at least Golgari expert Willy Edel tweeted that he thought so right before the finals of the Grand Prix, and while I personally have always enjoyed playing against control decks with my Duress-toting midrange decks, it's not up for debate that any modifications to Golgari for beating white aggro do not help against Jeskai control, which laughs at cards like Wildgrowth Walker and Cast Down. To help make room for these cards, Golgari has been cutting some of its best tools against control, and that's why Jeskai has had such an easy time.
Golgari started by trimming Planeswalkers, which are vulnerable against aggressive decks but a tremendous threat to control decks and a key part of Golgari's toolbox for fighting against them. The trend of playing maindeck Carnage Tyrant has reversed, as it's too slow against white aggro. Golgari decks have even cut Golgari Findbroker, a great tool against control. With Golgari contorted to beat aggressive decks, they've opened themselves up to Jeskai.
Jeskai also has the strength of being well-suited to beat aggressive decks. Deafening Clarion is the best sweeper in the format, and Jeskai has plenty more removal spells to go along with it. With a known metagame, control decks like Jeskai can be designed to perfectly fight back against the competition.
With a full four Niv-Mizzet, Parun as the centerpiece of the deck, along with two Enigma Drake, it plays out more like a midrange deck than true control. The deck even includes a pair of Dive Down, which protects these threats, ensuring they'll lock up the game. It's a different approach to Jeskai than what we've seen up to now, but Adrian Sullivan knows what he is doing with a control deck and certainly showed that off last weekend.
Where Eli Kassis's GP New Jersey-winning Jeskai deck had a set of Azor's Gateway for early consistency and long-term inevitability, Adrian Sullivan's uses Treasure Map, which has a similar early-game effect but an explosive effect in the midgame that comes at least a couple turns earlier than does from Azor's Gateway, which seems superior in this faster, more aggressive metagame.
By making his control deck more midrange, Adrian Sullivan was able to stay lean and fast against the aggressive decks, for example, by playing Enigma Drake instead of Crackling Drake, reasoning that the cheaper cost made up for the extra card, which he could recoup later with his powerful top-end. Against control and midrange decks, the power of Dive Down shows, as does the threat density that comes with having a full set of Niv-Mizzet, Parun. I am not sure how Jeskai will evolve, but Adrian's deck looks like it could be the best version for this metagame. I imagine that a full four Niv-Mizzet, Parun goes a long way in the Jeskai mirror, as does the value from Treasure Map, which is difficult to stop, which helps to explain why he cut through a field of Jeskai and Golgari on day two.
There was one white aggro deck in the Top 8, and coverage showed a Mono-Red deck losing playing for Top 8, but the rest of the Top 32 was loaded with Jeskai and Golgari. There were presumably a bunch of aggressive decks that fell by the wayside and placed lower in the standings, so it's not like these decks are dead, but certainly the balance of power has shifted. I imagine that now with white in decline Golgari has much more room to breathe, so it can begin shifting back to beat control and the mirror. That means a return to more Planeswalkers and Carnage Tyrant, and a move away from so much removal.
Seth was forward-thinking last weekend when he played a deck full of Carnage Tyrant and Planeswalkers. He was more susceptible to aggressive decks, but I imagine he didn't see many of these through the weekend, maybe less than normal day one because of his three byes, and then especially on day two where there seems to not have been many to be seen. He likely cut through a field of Jeskai decks and mirror matches en route to the Top 8.
Seth has been piloting a similar deck for weeks, first before the Pro Tour with a similar decklist, then to a Selesnya version of a similar deck at the Pro Tour, and now back to Golgari, so maybe he was simply stubborn and his strategy just hit a perfect metagame this weekend, but either way it looks like a great way forward for the deck. One card of note is Midnight Reaper, which is amazing in the mirror and against Jeskai but is a liability against aggressive decks, so should make a comeback along with the other tools I've mentioned.
There's an argument that when a very strong player wins with a deck it means the deck itself might not be the reason why, and that he would have succeeded with any competitive archetype, but that discounts that one of the skills that great players rely on is deck selection, and the choice looked fantastic for a field of Golgari and Jeskai, both considered favorable matchups, and will be great going forward if these two decks define the metagame. With that in mind, Owen's decklist is designed to allow him to play the control role after sideboard, which helps it to beat the aggressive decks that it might struggle with game one. I repeat my sentiment from last week that Izzet Drakes is one of the overall best strategies in Standard in a vacuum, so I see it playing a part in any metagame, especially because it does have some room for adaptability, and it seems better than ever now given the results of the GP.
In the same way that the Magic Online PTQ the weekend of the Pro Tour gave us a look at the future, there was a Magic Online PTQ last Saturday during the Grand Prix. The PTQ during the Pro Tour was after day one of the Pro Tour, so the white decks were already out of the bag and a bigger target compared to Jeskai and Golgari this week, since the Grand Prix was just getting started when the PTQ began, but it does represent the state of the MTGO metagame, which tends to be a look at the future, and is at least some food for thought.
The finals of the PTQ saw Boros taking down mono-red, followed by two Izzet Drakes decks in the top 4, while the lower half of the bracket had Golgari and two Jeskai decks, along with another Izzet. That's a pretty good representation of the overall metagame as I see it developing, and makes me think that Izzet Drakes will be the best deck to play this weekend. Putting three in the Top 8 is impressive, especially in an event with over 350 players. Furthering this point, the SCG Standard Classic last Sunday in Las Vegas had two Izzet Drake decks in the Top 8, along with three Golgari and a pair of Jeskai.
If it's true that Izzet Drakes is the new deck to beat, then the next question would be what handily beats Izzet Drakes, but I am not sure what does. I know white aggro generally fares well against it, which could explain it winning the PTQ top 8, so maybe we are due for that to rise again, especially if it gets some time away form the spotlight and players cut back on removal spells and sweepers. We could also see an increase in graveyard hosers to fight back, which might quell the Izzet Drakes decks for a while, or could force it to evolve. It will be interesting to see what happens, but so far all signs point to a very diverse and dynamic metagame, and that's great news given Standard's turmoil over the past couple years.
For fun, I wanted to share a couple decks from last weekend that need to be seen. The Grand Prix Milwaukee Last Chance Trials on Friday were a hotbed of innovation, and a couple really interesting decks put up a 4-0 record to earn byes for the main event.
The most extreme deck from the trials was a Dimir Arclight Phoenix deck that uses Stitcher's Supplier as a graveyard enabler to power a self-mill strategy.
A mono-blue version of this deck showed up a while back. Black fills in the holes the deck had against aggro by providing creature removal like Ritual of Soot and Fungal Infection.
Another Dimir deck to win a trial was Pirates—it was only a matter of time before the archetype broke through as a top-tier Standard strategy.
With Dive Down and a set of Curious Obsession, this deck clearly has roots in the Mono-Blue Tempest Djinn strategy. Some of those decks began splashing Thief of Sanity, but this deck takes it to an extreme by replacing most of the blue creatures with black. Gaining cards like Kitesail Freebooter and Hostage Taker is awesome, and the addition of removal like Cast Down is great. The Pirate theme even opens up access to Lookout's Dispersal, which does a fine impression of Counterspell and is the likely best version of the effect available in Standard when it does cost two mana.