It's been a hot minute since I last played Standard. And by that, I mean I just finished up a match on Magic Online exactly one minute ago. I won, for those who were curious, which I know is none of you, but I just wanted to brag about increasing my record in this league from 1-2 to 2-2. Duin it. Esper Control is broken!
Standard after the Pro Tour was a Goblin Chainwhirler world and we were all just living in it. Now it's still a Goblin Chainwhirler world that we're living in, but we've advanced to the status of autonomous beings within that world that have real decisions to make. Basically, what I'm saying is that Goblin Chainwhirler is still the top dog, but things aren't so black and white anymore. You aren't necessarily making a colossal error if you don't play Goblin Chainwhirler.
Standard has changed, and while the decks look different, the basic archetypes remain mostly the same. I'm going to look at each of these archetypes, and the decks that comprise them in my quest to break down the state of Standard right now.
After the Pro Tour, both Mono-Red Aggro and B/R Aggro or Midrange all seemed to have a fairly even market share of Goblin Chainwhirler's success. Since then, black-red decks have seemed to slightly underperform Mono-Red Aggro to the point where I'd list black-red as a slightly but not significantly worse choice than mono-red for any upcoming events.
There are basically two versions of mono-red right now and both seem to be doing pretty well. The first is the more traditional red deck, like what Wyatt Darby won the Pro Tour with. This version cemented itself further the following week by making up both decks in the finals of Grand Prix Copenhagen, which was eventually won by Tobias Maurer. Both Maurer's list, as well as his opponent's list in the finals, were almost identical to the list Darby won the Pro Tour with.
This deck is the best deck in Standard until proven otherwise.
The other red deck is more interesting, and one I could see picking up more and more as people begin the painful process of adjusting to the traditional take on mono-red. This version is much lower to the ground and utilizes Ghitu Lavarunner and Soul-Scar Mage in order to make Wizard's Lightning into Lightning Bolt a reasonable amount of the time.
In terms of black-red, the most successful versions seem to be very similar to the versions that Team Ultimate Guard played at the Pro Tour. These versions still utilize Heart of Kiran, but in lower numbers than the four copies played by the original versions of the deck, and they make use of Pia Nalaar, a card that has greatly impressed me. Pia Nalaar provides good value in the red mirrors and is also extremely annoying for any control strategies to fight through.
Earlier in the format, midrange was basically a nonexistent archetype. The format was polarized almost entirely between various red aggressive decks and various control decks, with some green decks sprinkled in (but generally losing to both red aggro and blue control).
Since the Pro Tour, that has shifted, and midrange has picked up in a big way. The first midrange deck that has picked up is U/B Midrange, which was consistently one of the top-performing archetypes from Rivals of Ixalan Standard.
It turns out that the rumors of The Scarab God's demise have been greatly exaggerated. I've been high on The Scarab God since about July 14th, 2017, and that high has never ended. I love me some Scarab action, and I spent a lot of time working on an Esper Mediums deck featuring TSG for the Pro Tour that I gave up on because I didn't really have the time or support to work more on it, although I regret everything.
U/B Midrange can prey on mono-red strategies the old fashioned way: by combining the power of great removal like Fatal Push and Vraska's Contempt with an unbeatable endgame in The Scarab God. The major problem is Goblin Chainwhirler, which destroys Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Champion of Wits while also adding a creature to the board that bests everything in combat, including Gonti and Gifted Aetherborn. Just that? No big deal.
The resurgence in U/B Midrange is partially because it has a decent matchup against the rest of the field, but also because it can actually still beat red, despite the Goblin Chainwhirler problem. They don't always draw Goblin Chainwhirler and sometimes you can still play around it by timing your spells to avoid it or by having the right answers at the right times, like Essence Scatter. U/B Midrange wouldn't be my preferred deck to take into a field of only mono red, but I think it has enough good matchups elsewhere and enough of a chance in that matchup to be a reasonable play. I'm still way more excited about the other midrange deck, though.
Early on in the format, W/B Vehicles was one of the major players in the format, but it quickly dropped away. I felt like if the deck could find a way to get away from the heinously bad Toolcraft Exemplar and friends that it could actually be a strong part of the metagame.
Well, it's finally found that way, and it's basing new success off the power of the Knight package backed up by the absurdly powerful History of Benalia that is often just straight up unbeatable for many decks.
This deck reminds me a lot of a former favorite deck of mine, Abzan Aggro, from Khans of Tarkir-era Standard. Like Abzan Aggro, this deck is capable of some fast and punishing starts, like a turn-two Knight of Malice into turn-three and four History of Benalia, where the opponent is basically dead almost regardless of what they do. Also like Abzan Aggro, it is capable of playing a longer and grindier game thanks to cards like Karn, Scion of Urza and Angel of Sanctions.
Knight of Malice and Knight of Grace are two cards that seem relatively unimpressive on paper, but end up being quite good in practice. Knight of Malice dodges most removal against W/U Control and Knight of Grace dodges most removal against U/B/x control strategies. Most of the time, these cards will be "turned on"—the'll be 3/2 first strikers for two, which is a reasonable rate, although not usually enough for Standard. What pushes them over the edge, however, is how insane they are with History of Benalia. When the History pops, the Knights don't stop.
If there is a drawback to this deck, it is how reliant it is on History of Benalia. If there is an advantage to this deck, it's how insane it is when you do draw the History. I'm interested to see where this deck goes next and if it has legs or ends up being yet another flash in the pan that gets swallowed whole by Goblin Chainwhirler or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria decks.
W/U Control decks have gone through a number of iterations. They started out with Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk, then moved to pure creatureless Teferi, Hero of Dominaria Control, then back to Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk (or Approach of the Second Sun), and now things have swung back around again to pure creatureless control once more.
Personally, I think creatureless is the best version of the deck right now. I really liked the list that Thomas Enevoldsen played at the Pro Tour and I played a similar version to a stellar 2-2 record at the SCG Invitational 2 weekends ago.
W/U Control does have a number of flaws. For one, the nature of white-blue's removal base is exploitable. Fumigate doesn't do the trick against the likes of Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Rekindling Phoenix, or Hazoret the Fervent, and while Settle the Wreckage takes care of everything, it can be beat by careful management of the combat step or by cards like Shalai, Voice of Plenty.
Cards like Syncopate, Essence Scatter, and Negate come with their own set of problems, namely that they are all situational and thus are going to all have moments where they are awkward and don't appropriately interact with your opponent.
What makes all these cards playable is that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can take over a game so easily that all these situational cards are worth it to set up for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to win the game. Players are adapting to that as well, and we're seeing a huge increase in numbers of cards like The Eldest Reborn, Vraska's Contempt, and even Never//Return to go after Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Since W/U Control has a lot of exploitable cards, and players were beginning to build their decks to combat W/U Control, a lot of players have actually switched over to Esper Control instead.
Esper Control solves a lot of W/U Control's problems in that Esper's removal spells always work. Fatal Push doesn't care if the creature is tapped or attacking. Vraska's Contempt doesn't care about indestructible or egg-laying Phoenixes or eternalize. These cards just kill what they are supposed to kill and they work end of turn, main phase, draw step, or whenever you could imagine.
However, Esper isn't without its own set of problems. For one, Esper's mana base is a little more fragile and involves a higher density of enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, which can slow the deck down. Secondly, Esper doesn't have access to any sweeper effects, and players know this, which allows for them to exploit the deck by deploying as many creatures to play as they want and attacking with all of their creatures every turn, because they know they won't get blown out by Settle the Wreckage or Fumigate. Esper can't catch up nearly as well as W/U Control can.
Personally, I am still winning a decent bit with W/U Control, and I can't win with Esper at all, so I don't know what to tell you all. If my results are to be trusted, I think W/U Control is still a good deck and Esper is a very overrated deck, but I know that Brad Nelson thinks Esper is the best deck in Standard, and Brad's track record is pretty good, so take that as you will. The logical conclusions in my mind are either that Esper is good, but I'm personally bad piloting it, Esper isn't good and I'm right, or that Esper is merely ok and Brad wins a lot because he's way better than most of his opponents, and I lose a lot because I am not.
One strategy that has basically completely fallen off the map for everyone except exactly Jeff Cunningham is B/G Constrictor. Personally, I think that B/G Constrictor is not favored against many decks in the format, including being unfavored against B/R Aggro and control decks. Somehow, he continues to win with the deck, though, so perhaps there is something that myself and everyone else is missing here.
The one deck that seems to be picking up a bit in popularity lately is W/U God-Pharaoh's Gift. Zac Elsik took it to the finals of the SCG Invitational and I've played against it a few times since that point on Magic Online. W/U GPG is a deck that has hung around the outskirts of the format, consistently not being quite good enough, so I am skeptical that it will take over the format this time, but I guess we'll wait and see. The cards in the deck are powerful, but it has just always been an easily-enough exploited strategy to not quite get there.
In the past The Scarab God was a defining part of Standard, and that is no longer the case, so perhaps that is enough of an incentive to kick it old-school with W/U GPG again.
Another deck that's started to notch it up a bit in terms of popularity is W/G Mediums. It's a white-green deck that plays medium cost creatures of medium quality. Weirdly enough, this actually tends to work out pretty well, as I think this deck is actually pretty decent. It's hard to imagine this deck ever being the best deck in the format because of how one-dimensional it is—it is just a bunch of random midrange green and white creatures, after all—but yet it does seem pretty good against red strategies, and as far as I can tell it's not the worst against Control either.
When Goblin Chainwhirler dominated the Pro Tour, I made the comment that I thought the format would be able to adjust to Goblin Chainwhirler and that the card wouldn't be too oppressive. Personally, I think that the format has adjusted, and while red decks continue to be the best decks, I think there are actually plenty of reasonable options in the format. I don't think you have to play red decks to win, and that's good enough for me. I don't think the card is oppressive—if anything, I think Glorybringer is a more offensive card—but your mileage may vary on that. I think once rotation happens and we are finally rid of Kaladesh, things will ease back into normality once more.