I've been playing a lot of Modern lately. I've been testing a wide variety of decks. Lantern Control is one of them, of course, but also I've been playing with flavors of Grixis and other assorted Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks. I even went so far as to play Shaheen Soorani's famous Esper Control list through not one, but two entire leagues on Magic Online. That's right, I went back to the fridge for a second helping of the deck that is labeled in my Magic Online client as "Soorani Horrific Esper Control." What does it say about your life when you're willing to send that one through the washer a second time? Once just wasn't enough. Surprisingly, the deck wasn't actually horrific, despite any descriptions to the contrary. If I'm being completely honest, Shaheen and I are good friends, he's a great player and a true control master, but I'm forced contractually and by all laws of gods and humanity to dagger him relentlessly as often as I possibly can. It's not that I want to do it. My hands are tied. Sorry, Shaheen. I wish it didn't have to be this way. I really do.
You would think with all this Modern grinding that I wouldn't also have time to play any Standard.
A few weeks ago, my serious relationship came to an end after three years. One week we were discussing marriage, and the next we decided to call it quits. Neither of us did anything to ruin the relationship, it just suddenly became clear that it wasn't really working out, which in some ways is even worse to recover from. At least when both people hate each other, it's easier to move on.
Maybe that is a bit too personal to share, but it sets the stage for why I've been playing about 10 hours of Magic Online a day, and why I've had time to still play a bunch of Standard even though I've also been grinding countless hours of Modern. For one, I suddenly had a lot of extra free time. Secondly, I found myself with a need to self-medicate. Distracting myself via focusing my time and energy on Magic to prepare for upcoming events was my vice of choice. So far, it's working. I think.
I spent about three weeks getting my butt handed to me in Standard. I was getting destroyed regardless of which deck I was playing. I went to GP Memphis, went 1-3 drop, then came back, played the Standard Magic Online Championship Series Monthly Qualifier, also went 1-3 drop, and realized that I am horrifically bad at this Standard format. Yeah, I'm also noticing that I'm overusing the word horrifically, but it would be a hideous and atrocious mismanagement of my clearly limited free time to check the thesaurus to come up with a better word.
Anyway, I don't really know what changed, but all of a sudden something clicked, and suddenly I figured it out. Now I've been winning a lot in Standard and I feel like I finally have a grasp for what is supposed to be done in the format.
Every time I cast The Scarab God, I audibly say his name in slow, drawn-out words, as if daring my opponent to have some way to beat it, knowing full well that they never do. Sure, they might have the Vraska's Contempt, but can they beat the second one? A second Vraska's Contempt? Alright, fine, you got me, but what about the third copy of…
Yeah, that one killed them.
Don't fear, though. There are a few viable strategies that don't involve The Scarab God.
Not many, but they exist. Here are the five best decks in Standard in order.
Magic Online superstar Lighdar, who finished in the top four of last year's 24-player Magic Online Championship, reinvigorated what I thought was a dead archetype. Green-White Tokens is actually my favorite deck in the format right now, and I have toiled away for hours and hours and leagues after leagues trying to make this deck work. I couldn't find the right formula, eventually giving up on the deck. The deck was really powerful against opponents who didn't know what to expect. They would gleefully tap out at 17 life, thinking they are safe from your board of three creatures, not realizing that next turn Sram's Expertise into Appeal // Authority on an Adorned Pouncer represented lethal. Against savvy opponents who weren't interested in tapping out, however, it became very difficult to win, especially through a morass of Golden Demises and Moment of Cravings.
Lighdar found the right formula. It starts with Aethersphere Harvester, a card that I had been slowly adding more and more copies into my green-white decks because of how well it plays with Appeal // Authority and because it's also a cheap, giant flying creature with lifelink that mostly dodges Fatal Push in a format where Abrade isn't as heavily played as one might expect.
One card that I didn't play with enough, however, was Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, and that card is what puts this list over the top. You would think we'd learn by now, but we never do. Every single standard environment since Kaladesh has eventually progressed to the point where everyone has forgotten about Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, and then people start remembering, and it starts to take over the format again. This Tokens list got the jump on Skysovereign's resurgence, and it gave Lighdar a PTQ win.
Another huge boost to this deck is the removal of Huatli, Radiant Champion, a card that has gotten worse and worse as the format as adapted to go-wide strategies like this one. Not wasting any slots on a card that only presses the advantage when winning was a wise choice.
Lighdar figured out the formula, and now Green-White Tokens is a player again instead of an also-ran.
Michael Bonde played this list to second place last weekend at GP Madrid. This list is a carbon copy of the same Blue-Black Midrange list that Yugiohplayer1942, a Magic Online grinder and streamer has been piloting incessantly en route to having the second most Standard Competitive League trophies on Magic Online.
I personally played Blue-Black Midrange and went 1-3 at GP Memphis, but I'm pretty sure I was just bad at playing the deck or got unlucky or both. At any rate, I can't win consistently with this deck and I really do not enjo it, but I must begrudgingly admit that it is still a very good deck.
The power here is that the deck never runs out of things to do. Walking Ballista, The Scarab God and Champion of Wits are all ways to ensure that you have something to spend mana on as the game progresses. Worst case, if truly desperate, you can cast Memory either by paying six at sorcery speed like a commoner, or by flashing in a Torrential Gearhulk to do it on your opponent's end-step when they tap out, like royalty.
Because of this, Blue-Black Midrange can basically grind through every single deck in the format. The issue is that it's often very awkward and slow to get going, which leads it to sometimes just getting slaughtered by quick draws from red aggressive decks or Winding Constrictor strategies. I've found that the deck is often just at the mercy of the opponent's draw. If they have a nut draw, there often isn't much that can be done, but anything slower and they are going to need a lot to get through everything.
The other flaw of is that there is a hole in the removal suite. Fatal Push at one mana takes care of 1-2 drops easily and Vraska's Contempt is there to handle the big things, but the deck has a notorious void when it comes to dealing with good three-drops, which sometimes means cards like Whirler Virtuoso or Ahn-Crop Crasher can be very difficult for the deck to beat on curve. Yes, Fatal Push can sometimes kill those creatures, but triggering revolt isn't always a guarantee.
If you can get past these known flaws, which I personally can't really do, then Blue-Black Midrange is a very potent deck that continues to put up good results.
Patrick Cox took this list to an 11-1 record in the Magic Online PTQ last weekend, with that one loss unfortunately coming in the finals to the Green-White Tokens deck that won it all. This is another deck that I keep thinking is starting to fall out of favor, but eventually it comes crawling back with yet another good finish.
What I like about this deck is that the raw power level is off the charts. The only charts that can calculate such a thing are whatever charts they use on Chart a Course. No regular charts will do. This deck is capable of some disgusting draws, including a turn four kill involving only three cards – turn two Winding Constrictor, turn three Hadana's Climb and attack for four, and a turn four Blossoming Defense and pump, flip Hadana and climb the Winding Constrictor represents the remaining 16 points of damage.
Even beyond that, there are a number of other great combos, such as the typical Winding Constrictor, Walking Ballista and Verdurous Gearhulk synergies, along with the energy theme of Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Bristling Hydra also getting boosted by Winding Constrictor. Hadana's Climb, in addition to being great with Constrictor, is also very good with Ballista, Bristling Hydra, Jadelight Ranger – and being able to ramp and generate any color of mana when it flips can also be very clutch to be able to cast Vraska's Contempt.
Speaking of which, I like that this list Patrick played cuts down on Fatal Push for more Vraska's Contempt. This format is all about The Scarab God, and even to a lesser extent cards like Glorybringer and Rekindling Phoenix are way more important to kill than whatever one- or two-drops your opponent is playing. This format is heavily skewed toward midrange and control decks dominating, which in turn makes skewing your deck toward fighting those strategies worthwhile.
The big drawback to playing this deck is that it has some extremely clunky draws, and I think it has a rough matchup against control decks and Grixis Energy decks, which can bury this deck with the strategy of just killing and countering every single threat it presents. A good draw will beat those hands, but this deck stumbles often enough that I think those decks have favorable matchups against Sultai Constrictor.
Elias Watsfeld's Blue-Black Control from the Top 4 of GP Madrid is really awesome. He's maindecking two copies of Arguel's Blood Fast over Search for Azcanta, which is offset by the full four copies of Moment of Craving in the main deck. Building the deck like this serves a few purposes. It opens up sideboard space for proactive cards like Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, and Metallurgic Summonings that would otherwise be occupied by Blood Fast and Moment of Craving.
It also basically pre-boards against other midrange and control decks, which isn't a bad place to be. Those decks are a huge chunk of the format right now, including nearly all the dominant decks. Getting an extra edge in game one will go a long way toward winning matches.
Lastly, Search for Azcanta is too slow to transform in this format, so replacing it with Blood Fast isn't a bad plan. Other decks generate too much advantage too quickly for Search to easily catch up, and there are also a lot of Field of Ruins being played, which ruins the effectiveness of Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin. Arguel's Blood Fast doesn't have to flip to be effective, and when it does flip, it can gain some much-needed life off of The Scarab God or Torrential Gearhulk. It also doubles as a way to protect The Scarab God from Ixalan's Binding, by sacrificing it to gain five life in response.
I've played a good bit of Blue-Black Control in this format and I think it is very close to being the best deck. It is very good in game one against pretty much every single deck in the format and it doesn't lose that much of a step after sideboard. In fact, the only reasons I don't have it as the best deck in the format is that it also suffers a bit from the same removal problems that Blue-Black Midrange suffers from and I think midrange decks with a good enough plan are favored enough in post-board games to be able to take most matches.
I think Elias's build with more threats after sideboard is a step in the right direction toward beating teched out midrange decks in sideboard games, and might be enough to inch Blue-Black Control ever closer to that number one spot. If nothing else, it is putting up insane results. There were five Blue-Black Control decks in the Top 16 of GP Madrid and three in the Top 16 of the SCG Classic last weekend.
Well, well, well. What do we have here? Energy is once again the best deck in Standard? I wish I could say I was shocked, but honestly, nothing will shock me anymore. When will it end? When will the utter and unending dominance of energy finally stop? They've banned it so many times that we're now on the C Squad of energy creatures, and they are still good enough to get the job done. After the next banning takes out Whirler Virtuoso and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, I fully expect Aether Swooper to take over the format. Energy just won't stop being the best deck.
This is my current Grixis list, which is very close to what Brad Nelson has been playing with as well. I'm confident about my claim that this is the best deck in the format. Grixis annihilates any red-based aggressive deck, thanks to its sweet removal suite and the top end of The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk on Vraska's Contempt to seal the deal. It has game against control decks even in the first game thanks to Chandra and Whirler Virtuoso and has a ton of tools to upgrade into after sideboard. It does well against Sultai Constrictor, thanks to early and effective removal spells in Abrade and Harnessed Lightning leading into Doomfall to clean up Bristling Hydra.
It can sometimes feel a bit behind, like against Blue-Black Midrange, but even though it lacks the same raw power, it makes up for it in versatility. Grixis can tempo out Blue-Black with energy creatures, something that isn't really true in the reverse. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is basically always a two-for-one or better, which also taxes their Vraska's Contempts, making The Scarab God sometimes stick. Blue-Black Midrange might have a better late game, but Grixis has a better mid game, and they call it midrange for a reason!
If you cast your cards in the right order, you can often utilize that superior midgame to make enough favorable trades to where their end game advantage doesn't matter as they're too far behind to catch up and have to keep making unfavorable exchanges to stay alive. Those kinds of unfavorable exchanges you force on them, like making them cast Vraska's Contempt on a Whirler for example, invalidate a lot of the usefulness of them pulling ahead on card advantage. When they have to spew their card advantage away to survive the day, it defeats the point.
One thing I love about Grixis is that it's the best The Scarab God deck. Tons of creatures die, in combat or from your plethora of removal spells fueling TSG's insatiable hunger, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance is the best lead in to The Scarab God you could ask for. Turn four Chandra is a lightning rod to bait out their Vraska's Contempt to set up the turn five God, and if Chandra doesn't die then on turn seven you can plus her for the mana to both cast and activate The Scarab God in one turn, which is often enough to win.
When it's all said and done, I don't think Grixis has a single bad matchup in Standard, with the exception of sometimes Blue-Black Control if you don't have the right tools, which is impressive. With that said, I'm sure that there are tons of people out there right now perfecting ways to destroy Grixis, so I'm intrigued to see where the format develops, but for the time being, I'm perfectly happy playing a Grixis deck that seems miles ahead of the rest of the field.
One thing I want to note is that not a single red aggro deck, be in Mono-Red Aggro, Black-Red Aggro, Mardu Vehicles, or Red-Green Monsters made it into my top five decks. Those decks easily litter the top 10, with Mono-Red Aggro being very close to edging out Tokens for the fifth slot. They are playable decks, but I think they are worse choices than these decks, and I think they are pretty easy to beat for decks like Grixis or Blue-Black Control if you're set up for them. The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk are just so insanely good against these decks. They have to go through so many hoops to beat The Scarab God, and if they don't have one of their couple Struggle // Survive, they'll just lose on the spot. No thanks. I'll stick to Grixis or Blue-Black Control, personally. When in doubt, you can do worse than playing...
It's what I'll be doing for the foreseeable future.