Standard is in a strange spot right now. At a quick glance, it looked like it might develop into a classic rock-paper-scissors metagame, with the three top-tier decks being Azorius Control, Mono-Red Aggro and Temur Reclamation. The problem, though, is that this metagame isn't sustainable.
Imagine if in rock-paper-scissors, paper beat rock 60% of the time, scissors beat paper 80% of the time, and rock beat scissors 60% of the time. The obvious choice is to pick scissors, because you're more likely to win. The next level is to pick rock, because it is the deck people are most likely to jump to. The bad choice is to pick paper, because so many more players would have to be on rock than scissors to justify the bad matchup.
In this example, Mono-Red is Paper, Temur Reclamation is scissors, and Azorius Control is rock. Temur Rec has all the tools to function as a very good anti-aggro deck: its removal lines up very well with swarms of creatures, it has instant-speed interaction for Embercleave, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath provides incremental life gain, ramp and a large body, and it can turn the corner quickly with a large Wilderness Reclamation / Explosion turn once the deck is set up. Mono-Red largely lacks the tools to fight back against this sort of a strategy, so there isn't anywhere for it to maneuver to turn the matchup around.
Temur Reclamation, surprisingly, has an awkward matchup against Azorius Control. When I played the deck in a PTQ last Saturday, I was very confident in the matchup, and by the end of the day I was decidedly less so. It would seem that Temur Reclamation has all the tools to fight Azorius: recursive threats with built-in card advantage, large card-draw spells, a good suite of countermagic and, most importantly, the ability to play many of these at instant speed.
Making the Azorius player fight both on their end step and on Temur Reclamation's turn is exactly how I would want to fight control decks in general. Azorius's threats in the matchup are all also sorcery speed, which I figured would be enough for Temur Reclamation to be favored in three games. The problem is that Azorius gets to sideboard in more countermagic, including the ultimate trump card, Dovin's Veto, and swing the matchup around.
Further, Temur is incredibly susceptible to the prison elements of Azorius. Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Time Raveler both close off ways for Temur Reclamation to capitalize on its core game plan. Temur Reclamation might be able to overcome these planeswalkers with threats or a card like Fry, if it weren't for one card in particular:
Elspeth Conquers Death answers Wilderness Reclamation, Brazen Borrower and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath single-handedly. Chapter II taxes most all of Temur Reclamation's plays, and then chapter III undoes work from earlier by returning a Narset or Teferi. It's a non-blue spell, which makes it much easier to cast into Mystical Dispute, and Temur Reclamation's other countermagic tends to be the incredibly mana-intensive Thassa's Intervention. And sometimes, if there's nothing to return, or they just want to dunk on the Temur Rec player, they can bounce it with Teferi. All in all, I don't think the matchup is terrible, but it's definitely in the Azorius player's favor.
At #MTGPhoenix it was fascinating to actually see all of this play out in real time, because there were three Standard PTQs on the weekend. On Friday, the metagame was a mix of Mono-Red, Azorius Control and Temur Reclamation. On Saturday, the metagame was almost exclusively Temur Reclamation and shades of Azorius Control. Having borrowed Gerry's deck with a couple changes from the tournament the day before, I played against white-blue every single round.
I say "white-blue" because players had already started adapting to what they thought the metagame was becoming. Two players added black for cards like Agonizing Remorse, Thought Erasure, Mortify and Ashiok, Nightmare Muse. While this is technically Esper, all of these decks were functionally the same as Azorius, but with a few black cards and some extra Temples to support them. This gave them an edge in the longer matchups since they could safely ignore aggressive decks like Mono-Red Aggro after the first round or two.
Ultimately that tournament was won by Temur Reclamation playing Hydroid Krasis and maindeck Mystical Disputes with another eight cards in the sideboard for slower matchups, and shaving on cards like Storm's Wrath and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.
Having seen a lot of the matchup then and since, I'm not sure this is enough to turn the matchup around, and the Sunday PTQ reflected that. I was busy getting my butt kicked in the Pioneer PTQ, and had plenty of time to watch the event and cheer on friends. Temur Reclamation had dropped off substantially. Instead, there were a number of aggressive or ramp decks designed to prey on Azorius's slow game plan and lack of early plays, especially while it's gunning for the mirror and Temur Reclamation.
Despite one of its best matchups drying up, the deck still saw three decks in the Top 8 of the tournament. What isn't clear is if this was on the strength of the deck, the strength of the players playing it, or sheer amount of the metagame. 3/8 is a solid amount of a Top 8, but if the tournament was 40% or more of the metagame, the deck would actually have performed exactly as expected. Alternatively, I would expect Edgar Magalhaes to Top 8 any PTQ he entered, no matter what 75 cards he registered. But for now, it appears that Azorius Control is the deck to beat.
Going back to the rock-paper-scissors example, what we need now is a better "paper." The aggressive pole of the metagame up until now has been Mono-Red Aggro, but that hasn't been sufficient to hold up long term. Can we build something better?
After my Saturday PTQ, our Airbnb squad of constructed minds (me, VTCLA, Felix Sloo, Liam Cahalan and GerryT) had brainstormed various Rakdos decks that seemed like they would be well positioned. Both Azorius and Temur rely heavily on sweepers to do the work for them against aggro, and aggressive creatures backed up by discard to take Shatter the Sky or Storm's Wrath before they can cast it seemed like a good way to exploit this metagame.
The next day, two players with almost identical lists both Top 8ed the Sunday Standard PTQ, and one of them won the whole thing:
This deck looks pretty well poised to handle the control-heavy metagame. Its threats are generally very low to the ground, with few opportunities for Elspeth Conquers Death to be anything more than a bad Final Death. The full playset of Midnight Reaper acts as both a card draw engine with Witch's Oven / Cauldron Familiar and mitigates the wrath effects from Azorius and Temur. Claim the Firstborn works well against Temur Reclamation, which strangely only has creatures that cost three or less in their deck, and can be serviceable against Azorius by stealing a 0/4 Wall token from The Birth of Meletis (though you probably want to sideboard them out anyway). Rankle, Master of Pranks's discard mode backed up by a small pile of discard from the sideboard is a simple and effective plan.
If anything, I think I would want to just move a couple Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger into the maindeck over some Claim the Firstborn. Four of that effect is a lot, though I probably want access to them against something like Mono-White or Mono-Red to combine with all the other sacrifice outlets in the deck, and Kroxa can provide a little bit of a long game in case things go sideways later. Crucially, unlike Uro, Kroxa dodges Elspeth Conquers Death as well.
As the online metagame develops, this deck probably needs to reconfigure to be better against other aggressive and midrange decks (I suspect that Rakdos really does not want to see a Nissa, Who Shakes the World enter play), but for now this seems like a very reasonable place to be.
Another reasonable way to build the deck would be to return to a tried-and-true strategy: Rakdos Knights.
You know what card survives Storm's Wrath? Rotting Regisaur. Azorius can bounce it, or remove it, but definitely can't ignore it. It feels like Mono-Red opponents can still be tough, since many of the creatures in Rakdos don't block well and Red is set up to use Embercleave a little better, but it's very likely that the matchup is heavily play/draw dependent anyway.
All the sweeper effects running around aren't desirable for Rakdos Knights, but it definitely isn't insurmountable. Going back to Dylan Nollen's Grand Prix winning deck, it's fairly trivial to add in Midnight Reapers for the slower matchups and rely on the strength of Rotting Regisaur / Embercleave to slice through everything else. The deck doesn't get much from Theros Beyond Death, but it doesn't need to. It already had most of the tools before to be a top deck, and it can do it again. At this point we're pretty aware of the power level of the various new additions Theros brought. There's no need to jam in new cards for the sake of being novel.
It's distinctly possible that there is an aggressive mono-black deck as well that could take advantage of this metagame, since the allure of all these Rakdos decks are the black cards anyway: Drill Bit, Agonizing Remorse and Midnight Reaper don't need to be played with red cards to be effective. While I haven't had time to explore the archetype, it could be worth experimenting with if you have time.
I also have one more pick for a deck that will be good, but hasn't so far: Mono-White Life Gain.
The biggest problem Mono-White had before Richmond was that it couldn't beat both Mono-Red Aggro and Azorius Control. With one of those decks disappearing, the metagame has become Azorius and decks looking to beat Azorius, for the most part. This leaves an opportunity for Mono-White to step into the picture.
This version is heavily skewed toward beating Azorius Control: four maindeck Tithe Taker act as a way to turn off the countermagic they play and provide some stickiness through a Shatter the Sky. Gideon Blackblade provides another threat that they cannot wrath away and attacks through Birth of Meletis 0/4 tokens. Giant Killer does a reasonable job of stopping Dream Trawler later in the game, so that Azorius has to react to it before deploying one. Out of the sideboard, Gideon's Triumph has been strangely effective as a way to answer Dream Trawler. Because they often have to use it as a blocker to survive, they wind up playing in to an effect that hasn't seen play in several Standard seasons and losing their Hexproof threat.
Against the various decks that are trying to beat Azorius, this deck seems like an absolute killer. It has a straightforward game plan and the tools to race most opponents, as well as good options out of the sideboard: a mix of removal, enchantment/artifact hate, more planeswalkers, and a combination anti-sweeper and Overrun in Unbreakable Formation.
But most importantly, it gets to play one of the best cards in Standard currently: Elspeth Conquers Death is good in Azorius, but in Mono-White its an all-star against certain matchups as a way to exile their biggest threats and to return a Gideon Blackblade or Ajani, Strength of the Pride that died earlier.
As the format rebalances, this is the deck I plan on using to get back to Mythic after a couple weeks off.
Standard is in a state of flux, and there aren't as many large tournaments going on until after the World Championship, so this is likely the clearest picture of Standard we're going to have until the end of the month, when the Mythic Points Qualifier takes place. To everyone grinding the Arena ladder with me: good luck!
Nick Prince is a competitive Magic player and member of the L.A. Gayming Society leadership team.
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