I'm really enjoying M20 so far. The cards across the board feel powerful enough to be impactful, and unlike a traditional core set, the Limited format feels like "real Limited" and not "core set Limited." Instead of nothing but random medium creatures like vanilla 3/2 flying creatures for four mana, we have things like Winged Words or Cloudkin Seer that really push the envelope on power level. This isn't your father's core set Limited.
I'm used to core sets being boring and underpowered. The handful of cards we tend to see are either utility reprints, like Shock, Duress, Negate and friends, or they are really pushed rares that sometimes end up being too good. M20 doesn't feel like that. There are a lot of interesting cards with applications yet unseen, and the power level of the set isn't exclusively tied up in a handful of pushed mythics. Cards in M20 feel versatile and new, and I don't think we've really figured how good some of these cards are yet.
That being said, we're now eight sets deep in Standard. This part of the year is when Standard is densest and thus most powerful. Most new Standard sets at this point just end up supplementing the format rather than defining it. That is again the case here. I'm interested to see how M20 shakes up after rotation, but for now it's mostly just providing a helping hand for existing archetypes—some of which, like Boros Feather, got a lot of small-but-meaningful upgrades that have pushed them up a tier.
I haven't been grinding Standard as hard as I often do, but I'm still top #25 Mythic this season on MTG Arena and have been playing at minimum a few matches a day to stay up to date on the format. Based on my experiences and what I've been playing against, these are my picks for the top three best decks in the format.
It's been pushed around, beaten down and scorned, but Blue-Green Nexus just won't die for good. The deck won the last Mythic Championship and is still a big contender in the format, even as people go back to respecting the deck in their card and deck choices.
Blue-Green Nexus benefits right now from the mayhem of people trying out new things with M20. Nexus is one of those strategies that crushes people who are playing untuned decks. It's incredibly powerful in a vacuum and is only held back by the wealth of cheap and effective interaction that exists in the format. Decks that aren't fast enough or are skimping on interaction to try to maximize new synergies, like Risen Reef, will get shredded by Nexus.
There are two basic versions of Nexus right now.
Brad Nelson's version of the deck utilizes Risen Reef and elemental synergies to play a midrange/ramp-style game that culminates in Nexus of Fate. This version of the deck is similar to the one that Simon Gortzen played at Mythic Championship III. Nexus of Fate isn't as easy to get degenerate with, as there is no Wilderness Reclamation. However, each Nexus is often a higher-impact play, simply as a Time Walk effect, since there are a higher number of planeswalkers and creatures in play to benefit from one more turn.
In the past, I haven't been a big fan of these hybrid Nexus lists, as they've always felt worse to me than going all-out on the pure combo. That said, Risen Reef is way more powerful than Jadelight Ranger as a card. Once you have Risen Reef, you also get Cavalier of Thorns which combos with the Reef. Cavalier of Thorns also does a lot to play defense, ramp to Nexus of Fate, thin your deck of non-Nexus cards, and both fuel and protect Tamiyo, Collector of Tales.
The other version of the deck is the more traditional pure combo version. There isn't much to say about this deck, as it's essentially the same as it was before M20.
The one thing that all versions of Nexus have gained is that they now have some incredible upgrades to the sideboard. Blue-Green Nexus's biggest flaw in the past is that it had a fairly weak sideboard, especially compared to what decks like Esper could muster.
Veil of Summer is an incredibly pushed card that happens to be cheap and effective against the cards that are best in the format against Nexus. How fortuitous. Veil of Summer replaces itself while countering Duress, Negate, Thought Erasure, Dovin's Veto and Despark. Dovin's Veto can't be countered, but it can be rendered completely ineffective, and that's what Veil of Summer does.
Aether Gust is another huge upgrade to the sideboard, providing a cheap piece of interaction that can be either a Remand/Flashfreeze hybrid vs. cards like Nissa, Who Shakes the World that you don't want to resolve, or it can answer cards that have already hit play. This is a huge card to gain for matchups that have traditionally been on the tougher side for Nexus, like Mono-Red or prepared Red-Green opponents. Aether Gust gets rid of any Runaway Steam-Kins that have hit play and can counter any spell in the deck for a turn. That is huge.
Cerulean Drake is another option for the sideboard to improve the Mono-Red matchup, although I'm not certain how impactful it is. Protection is a heck of an ability, but Red can still just swarm past it or go way over the top with Runaway Steam-Kin and Experimental Frenzy.
Two of the most problematic matchups for Nexus were Mono-Red and Esper Hero. M20 offers powerful and cheap pieces of interaction that happen to be good against both of those decks, which is exactly what Nexus needed. By the time rotation rolls around, this might easily be the de facto best deck in Standard. I have it ranked #3 right now, but unlike the #2 deck, I don't see this one getting knocked out of the top tier until rotation. It's all up from here.
Feather, believe it or not, is a deck that I have long respected as being both a good and very underplayed deck in Standard. I thought it would show up in some capacity at the last Mythic Championship and was surprised it did not.
Feather suffered hard from two major flaws. The first was that, for a two-color deck, its mana base still really sucked; the second was that it was very inconsistent. It was really easy to draw too many augment spells for your creatures and not enough threats or vice versa. It was really easy to draw too many underpowered creatures without the spells to push them over.
M20 has helped tremendously to improve the consistency of the deck by giving it Temple of Triumph. Another dual land helps make Feather significantly easier to cast, and doesn't even ruin the curve very often. Shock is the only turn-one play in the deck, so a turn-one Temple is basically a free way to fix mana and balance a hand between creatures and interaction.
The other big draw from M20 is Gods Willing. Sheltering Light was really underwhelming. It did nothing against bounce or exile effects, and while it could win in combat, it couldn't push damage through blockers. Gods Willing protects a creature from way more than Sheltering Light could dream of, still wins combat, and also can push through damage by providing protection from the color of blocking creatures. Getting to replace a borderline unplayable Sheltering Light with the tried-and-true power of Gods Willing is no joke.
Another huge benefit for Feather is that people (in their zeal to play with new toys from M20) have started to shift away from playing excessive amounts of Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi, Time Raveler's static ability makes life very difficult for the Gods Willing deck, and the bounce was also highly effective against Adanto Vanguards or Tenth District Legionnaires that had gotten too big for their britches.
Feather isn't really capitalizing on format shifts that much—although more Risen Reef and less removal does strongly benefit it—it's just finally enjoying the benefits of consistency. Consistency and power are the hallmarks of the best Standard decks. It's been this way for as long as I can remember. Feather sacrifices power for synergy, usually a losing bet, but the synergy is good enough to make it worth considering. Without consistency, however, it all just falls apart, and that's why seemingly innocuous upgrades like Temple of Triumph or Gods Willing are actually massive reasons why it went from nowhere to top tier overnight.
That's right. Good old fashioned Esper Hero. No new cards, no new friends, just a classic, reliable butt whooping.
People seem to have forgotten about Esper. They seem to have forgotten that last season it was the best deck in Standard. It's gonna take some convincing for me to think it isn't still the best deck now. You can call me biased, and you're damn right I am, but until I start losing with this deck, I see no reason to put it down. I haven't been. Losing that is. Or putting it down.
While I am not playing any non-land cards from M20, that doesn't mean they don't exist as playable possibilities. Aether Gust, Noxious Grasp or Devout Decree all are options for the right metagame, and Grafdigger's Cage is also a good sideboard play in an Experimental Frenzy/Command the Dreadhorde metagame.
That said, you don't have to gain upgrades from M20 to remain a playable archetype, and Esper Hero is actually very well-positioned right now as decks like Feather, Nexus, Mono-Red and White Aggro make up big shares of the field. Those decks are all traditionally good matchups. While they have gained not-irrelevant upgrades against Esper, the question presents itself: is it enough to dethrone the king? I think not, but we'll see.
One really interesting question to answer is how Esper stacks up against Risen Reef decks. Esper was the undisputed king of midrange last format, but Risen Reef is way better than what other midrange decks could muster previously, and gives decks like Temur Midrange a fighting shot against Esper. Last year's midrange superhero Jadelight Ranger is embarrassing compared to the glorious power of the Reefer. How that matchup plays out will determine the fate of the multiverse. And by that I mean it will be interesting to observe over the next few months until rotation.
My list of Esper Hero is built to combat Risen Reef strategies. A number of the Reef decks have low amounts of creature interaction, making Hostage Taker a delight. Even the ones that do (like Temur) often have Shock or Omnath, Locus of the Roil, which aren't always able to muster up the three points necessary to slay a Hostage Taker before it Takes control of the game.
Hostage Taker is also just absurdly effective against those decks. Stealing Omnath, Locus of the Roil means you have a removal spell lined up for future Risen Reefs. Stealing Risen Reef is solid value, and Hydroid Krasis has always been juicy target #1 for Hostage Taker aficionados around the world.
Originally I was going ham on Command the Dreadhorde as it was also very impactful against Risen Reef. Reef decks often struggle to directly assault the life total early on and they have a lot of must-kill threats that litter their graveyard and interact favorably with Command the Dreadhorde, like Omnath, Locus of the Roil and Risen Reef. All signs are a go on that one.
The problem is that other decks like Nexus were also starting to increase significantly in popularity, which pushes a card like Bolas's Citadel over the top of Command the Dreadhorde. Bolas's Citadel is a legitimate threat in those matchups, providing unprecedented means to dig toward the cards that actually matter—especially when life total often doesn't matter.
There are three (four if you want to count the much-maligned Liliana, Dreadhorde General) solid six-drop options for Esper Hero. Ugin is great against an aggro metagame. It's a solid threat vs. Red, White, and Red-Green. Command the Dreadhorde is great against other midrange decks like Esper mirrors or Risen Reef strategies. Bolas's Citadel is a blue-slayer. Citadel is great against Blue-Red Phoenix, Blue-Green Nexus and other blue ramp strategies or control decks.
I think it is important to play some number of six-drops in Esper Hero because it's very easy to flood out and die if you don't have enough high-impact finishers in your deck. Which one to play is a metagame call. Right now, with Risen Reef falling somewhat out of favor and Nexus rising in metagame share, I've shifted back toward Bolas's Citadel. I also just enjoy playing it the most, and would potentially play it for the fun factor even if it wasn't good. Fortunately, it is good.
You haven't lived until you've cast Command the Dreadhorde off the top of your deck, paying 6 life via Bolas's Citadel, to then pay additional life in order to return creatures and planeswalkers to play. It's what sweet dreams are made of. Who am I to disagree?
I think, as a snapshot of our present Standard, these are the three best decks in the format. However, I think that will change as the format grows and develops. My prediction is that in a month's time, both Blue-Green Nexus and Esper Hero will remain top 3 decks in the format, but Feather will eventually cycle out and be replaced by whatever the best Risen Reef deck is, be it ramp or midrange. It will take time to figure out how to build around this card, but, in the immortal words of Teferi: "Time is a malleable thing." We'll figure it out.
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