Ixalan is here, Standard has rotated, and everyone is eager to see how the metagame will shape up. A weekend of premier events on Magic Online and on the StarCityGames Tour means we now have some hard data in our hands, so we can form a realistic idea of what the metagame will look like heading into Pro Tour Ixalan. Today I'll briefly touch on the top decks from last weekend and what they mean for the metagame, and then I'll dig deeper into some lower-profile decks that could have the potential to unseat the new top-tier.
The front-runners heading into rotation were Ramunap Red and Temur Energy, and as expected these decks were among the top performers last weekend. The trend of Temur Energy splashing into black for The Scarab God has continued into rotation, and some decks have gone deeper into the splash to include the single most successful Ixalan card so far, Hostage Taker.
Hostage Taker so excels in its role of controlling the battlefield and generating card advantage that it has compelled numerous other decks to splash it, like the base Black-Green Energy deck that won the SCG event and placed another copy in the top four.
Black-Green Energy was seen as a tier below the Temur version because it lost more in rotation, but by embracing the tools it has remaining and utilizing the best of the new cards it has transitioned into rotation as one of the very best decks in the metagame.
Another deck that was expected to perform well after rotation was God-Pharaoh's Gift, but it was unclear how the deck would look after losing some of its pieces. Rather than continue the tradition of Jeskai, reverting to white-blue, or moving beyond white to blue-red, the most successful version was an Esper build with Hostage Taker.
Another major piece of the winning metagame last weekend was White-Blue Approach of the Second Sun control, which put two copies into the SCG Top 8.
This style of control deck has served as a way to counteract slower midrange decks that are vulnerable to sweepers, so I expect the Approach deck to rise in popularity alongside the rise of Black-Green, which should contain control's difficult Ramunap Red opponents.
That what the top end looks like, but there are some other significant trends forming below the surface that could break through and change the metagame as we know it.
Both of Ixalan's Pirate and Vampire tribes have brought new aggressive black creatures to the card pool, and early results show that playing these cards within their tribe is not necessary. A generic Mono-Black Aggro deck using all of the best black cards across tribes and blocks has shown some promising results.
Vicious Conquistador provides the strategy with an efficient one-drop that makes the deck capable of starts even more aggressive than what post-rotation Red can muster, and Kitesail Freebooter gives the deck a source of disruption and minor evasive threat, but the most exciting new card is Ruin Raider. Dark Confidant has always been at home in aggressive black decks filled with low-mana cost cards – which explains the set of Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in the deck to generate card advantage – and the new raid version is easy to trigger with the deck's many threats. Ixalan also gives the strategy an efficient and powerful removal spell in Walk the Plank, which is difficult support in decks with multiple colors but an excellent inclusion here.
The Mono-Black Aggro deck is full of cheap threats that allow it to get under the midrange and control decks and finish them before they are able to get the game in their grasp. The deck presents few high-impact targets for Hostage Taker, and its removal spells allow it to take the Pirate off the battlefield at an efficient rate. Mono-Red decks seem like they could be a problem, but they will decline in response to the rise of midrange decks, and that could create excellent conditions for a deck like Mono-Black Aggro.
An adaptation of the mono-black strategy is to splash into red for its best aggressive tools, and it's gaining popularity online with multiple 5-0 league decklists in recent days, so it may be even better than the mono-black version.
Hazoret, the Fervent is the most important card behind the success of Ramunap Red, and this deck applies it to an aggressive black deck that may be even better at emptying its hand and enabling the God to pressure opponents. Red also provides the newly reprinted Lightning Strike as a removal spell that's able to help finish off opponents, which makes it a more well-rounded aggressive deck.
The success of aggressive black decks makes me curious about splashing into blue for Hostage Taker, which would give them one of the best new cards available. Doing so would increase the overall power level of the deck, and would specifically make the deck better at fighting back against the midrange decks that are rising to the top of the metagame. Dipping into blue would also give access to countermagic like Negate, which alongside Duress would make the deck excellent for dismantling White-Blue Control. The deck could also go higher up the curve for The Scarab God, which could also be an excellent sideboard plan that allows the deck to turn midrange when the opponent loads up on creature removal. Here's what I have in mind.
Another direction for aggressive decks is to play a Ramunap Red base but dip into black for Unlicensed Disintegration, which is at its best against midrange decks like Temur and Sultai Energy.
Another payoff for including black mana is Scrapheap Scrounger, which is exactly the sort of threat that Red can make great use of because it allows the deck to grind out the long game against opponents with creature removal. Key to the City adds another artifact to support Unlicensed Disintegration, and it's an excellent way to push through damage against midrange decks that rely on blockers to stop red's creatures. Black mana also enables the back end of Cut // Ribbons, which turns an efficient removal spell into a powerful late-game burn spell that gives the deck an extra source of reach to finish games. Duress in the sideboard gives the deck the sort of disruption it couldn't get otherwise, and combined with all of the main deck additions makes a great case for the black splash.
The best way to fight against Hostage Taker is to minimize its impact and potential targets, and taking that approach to the extreme are token decks that present few real creatures to take hostage.
Legion's Landing is among the best cards in Ixalan and is waiting for its breakout. Its best home so far are token decks that combine it with Anointed Procession, which doubles the tokens it generates when it enters play and that it generates with Adanto, the First Fort when it flips. The lifelink of these tokens is especially valuable with Red in the metagame, as is the life gained by Anointer Priest. Hidden Stockpile creates an engine with Anointed Procession that will generate a steady stream of free tokens each turn, and the scry ability ensures there is a stream of action on the top of the deck. From there, the deck takes a very aggressive approach with both Servo Exhibition and Sram's Expertise flooding the battlefield with tokens, and Master Trinketeer pumping them. The Servo lord is also a mana sink that works well with Anointed Procession, as is the Oketra, the True that the deck uses as a finisher.
An Abzan version of tokens is gaining significant popularity on Magic Online.
This build splashes into green for Vraska, Relic Seeker, which gives the deck a huge top-end play that it can use to go over the top of midrange decks. It's devastating against Temur and Sultai Energy decks where it has high-value targets to destroy, and it's generally excellent in the deck because of its multiple synergies with Anointed Procession. Not only does the enchantment double the number of 2/2 Pirate tokens the planeswalker generates with its +2 ability, it also adds to any Treasure tokens generated by its -3 ability.
Abzan tokens is further designed to punish midrange decks with its multiple sweepers, which goes beyond a set of Fumigate to include Bontu's Last Reckoning. The deck's own token creatures are expandable and easy to replace, which allows the token deck to punish midrange creatures with a sweeper at minimal cost to its own side of the battlefield.
This version of the deck makes fantastic use of Legion's Landing as a mana accelerator, because flipping it provides an extra land and source of mana that can help it ramp into a sweeper or planeswalker a turn early.
Rotation has brought Energy decks to the forefront of the metagame because the mechanic is the most powerful thing to be doing in Standard, but another Kaladesh mechanic is making a great case for itself. Improvise has suddenly become much more attractive now that it has less competition in the metagame, and some preliminary online results have been backed up by an outright win at the SCG Standard Classic that ran after the main event.
Improvise works quite well with Treasure tokens, but this list doesn't use any, and instead focuses on all the best cards it previously had available. The biggest payoff for Improvise is Herald of Anguish, and Maverick Thopterist provides another card worth ramping into. Contraband Kingpin is very attractive against a Red-heavy metagame, and it will do good work against aggressive black decks. The deck also provides the first real home for Tezzeret the Schemer, which helps the deck to accelerate with Ethereum Cell tokens, which are essentially the same as Treasure tokens, and to control the battlefield as a removal engine.
Dinosaur decks have been expected to be the most successful tribe to come out of Ixalan, but they are off to a slow start without any high-profile finishes to its name last weekend at the SCG events or online. That doesn't mean players aren't trying, and this 5-0 list from a league is a promising approach.
This list embraces the tribe's ability to go big, which seems like a great plan against a midrange metagame. I haven't seen Burning Sun's Avatar being used in other lists, but it gives this list a huge dose of power that will be fantastic against decks like Sultai. Its trigger also happens to be perfectly suited for destroying Hostage Taker, which would otherwise give a midrange deck like Dinosaurs problems. Embracing a blue-tinged mana base similar to the one used by Temur Energy gives the deck access to fantastic sideboard disruption Negate and Spell Pierce to fight back against control decks, and Confiscation Coup is more valuable than ever with midrange on the rise.
Energy decks are on top of the Standard metagame, and Red aggro is nipping at its heels, but it's also clear that there are other very viable strategies that have the potential to compete. After nearly a year of a miserable Standard dominated by infinite combos and broken engines, the metagame found a balance over the last couple months and led to a fun and interesting format. It's the hope of R&D and players alike that rotation and Ixalan won't offset the balance and will hopefully lead to an even more interesting metagame, and it looks like that's shaping up to be the case. I can't wait to see what decks this weekend brings. What are you playing in Standard? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions!