For the first time since MTG Arena's debut, we have a Standard format that hasn't had its development accelerated by a tournament the day of release. Further, there is a lot less attention on Standard from the majority of professional players and grinders; the upcoming Players Tours in Brussels, Nagoya and Phoenix are all Pioneer, and the Star City Games Open in Richmond is split between Standard, Pioneer and Modern. With the majority of Standard play happening on Arena, which doesn't report decklists, the Standard metagame feels like it will be open for the first time since Guilds of Ravnica.
That doesn't mean that we don't have some idea of what's good though. New cards shift the dynamics of what's best positioned in the metagame, or add entirely new archetypes to the mix, but there is some data for us to work with between Magic Online, experience on the Arena ladder, and the Throne of Eldraine Standard that we only just left.
Personally, I'm still unclear what I'll be playing in Richmond, and I intend on using as much time as possible to figure it out. But until then, here are the decks that are on my radar as important parts of the Standard metagame for this week.
Some people, myself included, would tell you that this was the best deck in Standard previously. A proactive strategy built around using Fires of Invention to double or triple your available mana and supplement cost-effective mythic rares is a substantial hurdle to overcome. That it also can use its few remaining slots to play versatile cards like Brazen Borrower or Bonecrusher Giant means that it has a decent number of threats and answers, despite such high mana costs in the deck.
The deck didn't get much out of Theros Beyond Death. Some decks are playing a couple Thassa, Deep-Dwelling or Dream Trawler to supplement the Cavaliers and Kenrith, but realistically when the deck has Fires of Invention it doesn't really matter what rare or mythic rare card it's casting. All that matters is that the deck takes advantage of its double-spell, ten-mana turns before the opponent can stabilize.
For reactive spells, there aren't any noteworthy upgrades to cards like Deafening Clarion or Justice Strike. Shatter the Sky is an improvement of sorts to Deafening Clarion, but the double-white casting cost is actually pretty taxing on the deck when it doesn't have Fires of Invention (and, again, the deck didn't need to get better when it had its namesake card). Enchantments like Oblivion Ring or Elspeth Conquers Death are exceptionally risky, as everyone in Magic will be sideboarding in enchantment removal. Even the manabase didn't improve. Temple of Enlightenment is actually a downgrade to Temple of Epiphany and Temple of Triumph, since the deck wants to prioritize red and then blue mana, with just enough to white to make the deck function.
And boy does this deck never, ever want to play against The Akroan War.
Personally, I don't think this deck is above tier 2 now. That doesn't mean people won't play it, and it will still win games. The strategy is fundamentally powerful, even if it's starting to lag behind in the metagame. Maybe now its win percentage will only be reasonable, instead of quietly obscene like it was previously.
The other deck considered the best of the prior Standard, Jund Food is built around building incremental advantages with Cauldron Familiar, Witch's Oven, Trail of Crumbs and Gilded Goose. There are multiple shells that can take advantage of this, whether they're Golgari, Jund or Abzan, but all of them are fundamentally built out from this core of cards that will, given enough time, grind out any opponent. The most popular build uses Mayhem Devil and Korvold, Fae-Cursed King to close out the game and backs it up with a pile of removal.
While Food definitely got more cards out of Theros than Jeskai Fires, it still didn't get a ton. The two upgrades seem to be Treacherous Blessing, which allows the deck to rebuild more quickly when its engine is disrupted or it draws one too many lands, and Dryad of the Ilysian Grove. Not every version is playing Dryad, but I've been a huge fan of the card in the shells I've played. The deck is extremely mana hungry, and can easily find ways to use ten-plus mana every turn in a lot of cases. The problem is, of course, deploying one land at a time slows that down considerably. With the ability to play a Dryad of the Ilysian Grove on turn two off of a Gilded Goose, and enough one-mana plays to actually use the third land drop, the deck now has starting hands that let it get the engine up very quickly.
What's ruining this deck's chances is a little unexpected: everyone is now incredibly prepared for artifacts, enchantments and recursive graveyard elements because of the design of Theros Beyond Death. When Knight of Autumn is suddenly a four-of in someone's sideboard, it might not be the wisest choice to build a synergy deck completely around Witch's Oven and Trail of Crumbs. Adding a three-mana enchantment creature like Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, even if it's currently breaking Modern, also lines up poorly against the rest of the format.
Another deck that didn't gain many cards, Gruul did pick up one of the most seemingly powerful cards in Theros in the form of Klothys, God of Destiny.
Graveyard hate, potential mana acceleration, and almost-guaranteed damage in a deck that can reliably hit seven devotion to red and green makes Gruul worth revisiting just to see how strong Klothys made the deck. The First Iroan Games is another interesting addition, because it makes the Gruul deck better able to actually use Lovestruck Beast—previously, it had trouble running enough 1/1 creatures. The Saga is even likely to draw cards off the other creatures in the deck as well!
The problem with Gruul is the same as it has been for months: its mana stinks. The Temples just don't play nicely with aggressive decks that want to spend ten mana by turn four, and any Temple along the way means that something isn't getting played on time. Unfortunately for Gruul, its cards are very strong when played on their respective turns, but scale poorly in to the game. A Pelt Collector on turn one is going to deal a substantial amount of damage. A Pelt Collector on turn two is bait for a removal spell. Honestly, it's not even clear to me that the Temples are an upgrade to just basic lands in this deck, and its cards are so bad at playing a midrange game that if I have to raise the curve to improve the mana, I'm more likely to switch decks.
Unsurprisingly, powerful Simic cards continue to be a strategy in Standard, as they have been since the printing of a certain Jellyfish Hydra Beast. There's not a ton to explain about Simic Ramp… the early game is focused around putting more lands into play, the midgame is about sticking and protecting a Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and then the end game is tapping out to draw ten cards, or steal all of the opponent's permanents, or give every creature in play +100/+100. Whatever uses all that mana.
What is surprising is just how much Simic managed to get out of Theros Beyond Death. The flashy card is Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, who is showing up in some lists as a four-of to double the number of Growth Spiral they get to play. The real hero, though, is Wolfwillow Haven. Even if it looks like yet another two-mana accelerant in the same vein as the Druids of Incubation, Leafkin and Paradise varieties, it's actually closer to Rampant Growth than we've had in Standard in a long, long time. Guaranteed mana acceleration that can't die to Shock or Bonecrusher Giant makes such a difference to how reliably the deck can reach the midgame safely.
The big question for Simic Ramp is how exactly it's supposed to be built. Any number of Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath seems up for consideration, as does whether the deck should play Gilded Goose, Arboreal Grazer, or skip one-mana plays altogether. And once all that mana is in play, does the deck focus on casting progressively larger copies of Hydroid Krasis, or does it win with Agent of Treachery and Thassa, Deep-Dwelling and eschew the mutant Jellyfish?
There might not be any color combination that got as much as white-blue did.
If Azorius stabilizes at all, Dream Trawler puts the game out of reach for opponents in just one attack. Card draw, life gain, evasion and hexproof make for a control finisher that's as good, or possibly even better, than a card like Aetherling. And unlike most control finishers, this one actually gets better in multiples.
But that's not all! Birth of Meletis, Omen of the Sea, Thirst for Meaning and Banishing Light mean that the deck picked up a package of enchantments that complement each other perfectly, and let the deck return to a true Absorb control deck. Birth of Meletis even forces opponents to overextend into the deck's new Day of Judgment effect, Shatter the Sky. Even if they occasionally get a card draw, the mana advantage and tempo gained is worth shaving one mana off of Time Wipe. And let's not forget that Teferi, Time Raveler is still legal to speed up sorceries!
Unfortunately, there are currently a lot of ways in Standard to punish control strategies. There's a lot of discard, including multiple main-deckable cards like Agonizing Remorse and Thought Erasure. There are cheap engine effects like Trail of Crumbs and card draw spells like Treacherous Blessing that can run an opponent out of removal. The deck's only spot removal, Banishing Light, plays into the enchantment hate that everyone else is playing anyway. Other than Whirlwind Denial, Hydroid Krasis doesn't particularly care how much countermagic an opponent is playing. And of course, as the deck gets more popular, Dovin's Veto will mean that Azorius decks turn inward rather than focusing on the rest of the metagame. So while Azorius Control is powerful, it's unlikely to stay on top for long.
Maybe it's a little disingenuous to call Esper Hero a "new" deck when it existed for the last six months before rotation, but the deck has made a return to the metagame after seeing literally no play in Throne of Eldraine Standard thanks to the new blue-gold cards in Theros: Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths and Dream Trawler. The deck is decidedly midrange, playing the best cards at every point on the curve in its colors, and taking advantage of the new Temples to smooth over its draws and mitigate flooding. The individual cards are so strong that some lists, like the one above, are playing ten or more Temples, because it can afford to play a turn behind any other deck. When a deck takes advantage of both new cards and new lands, that's usually a sign that it's a serious contender.
What strikes me most about this deck is that it seems to be good, but mostly limited by its namesake card… which really doesn't need to be there. Who exactly is Hero of Precinct One supposed to be good against? I'm not keen on playing an early creature that dies to the Stomp half of Bonecrusher Giant, and the extra 1/1 bodies aren't particularly useful against cards like Shatter the Sky, Embercleave or Questing Beast. A deck like Mono-Black is mostly looking to avoid ground combat anyway, and Simic Ramp goes so over the top of it that it's a footnote in a losing game.
All of this suggests to me that there's actually a considerable amount of room for the archetype to develop into Esper Midrange, ignoring Hero of Precinct One entirely and loosening up its mana requirements now that it doesn't have to jam as many gold cards in as possible. If someone can crack what the deck will look like, they'll have a winning combination on their hands.
After a brief trip away for the winter, Mono-Red Aggro is back and refreshed. Unlike the last time it was a serious player in Standard, it isn't a burn deck, but an Embercleave combo deck.
Rakdos Knights existed last Standard largely because it is the only color combination that can play both Rotting Regisaur and Embercleave, a combination that single-handedly won a lot of games against opponents who couldn't reasonably interact with it. At the time, that made sense, because there was no red card that held an Embercleave well.
Now, red has Anax, Hardened in the Forge.
With just an Embercleave, Anax is a 5/4 with double strike that, if killed, becomes two 1/1 tokens. Any battlefield presence, especially a mass of one-drop creatures, makes Anax terrifying. And unlike Rotting Regisaur, which came with a substantial drawback, Anax actually makes the deck resistant to wrath effects, which is particularly relevant in a world where one of the decks is playing Shatter the Sky. Mono-Red Aggro even has a built-in way to use a swarm of creature tokens in the form of Castle Embereth!
What's interesting about this deck, though, is that it flips a script we've been used to. Sweepers range between solid-but-unexciting and actively bad against this deck, but spot removal is actually better than it has been. Without Anax or something like Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, the deck is a pile of tiny creatures that barely assemble to be more impressive than a Lazotep Reaver.
Mono-Black is the deck that everyone had on their mind going into this new Standard, and the hype hasn't really died down. I've mentioned the deck at least once a week since I started writing about Standard, so I'm not going to dwell on it too long, but it's worth noting the developments that have already occured. The deck has likely been tested more than anything else on this list at this point.
Mono-Black Devotion has mostly tried to be a low-curve midrange deck with Agonizing Remorse to remove threats that it previously had trouble answering, like artifacts and enchantments. Most of the rest of the deck is configured to take advantage of Nightmare Shepherd and build devotion for Gray Merchant of Asphodel. The Cauldron Familiar / Witch's Oven combination has largely exited the deck, despite how nicely it played with Ayara, First of Locthwain. The combo has been replaced by Gutterbones to build a slow Howling Mine with Ayara and also act as a recursive threat. With the rise of both an aggressive red deck that wants to play Embercleave on turn three or four and various blue control shells, the extra discard and an early blocker that can return later are both welcome changes to the archetype.
This is just a look at the most popular decks of Standard at the moment. There are still plenty of decks that are waiting to make an appearance, if the time and cards are right: Selesnya Auras, Mono-White Life Gain, various Kroxa shells, Enigmatic Incarnation, and a host of other strategies could make appearances this weekend in Richmond.
As I'm writing this, I'm not sure what I'll be playing yet. My plan at the moment is to order cards for several archetypes as I continue to explore the format, because there is a lot more to explore in this Standard.
Nick Prince is a competitive Magic player and member of the L.A. Gayming Society leadership team.
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