Last weekend featured two Grand Prix on both sides of the Atlantic, where pros and hopefuls displayed their best Guilds of Ravnica Standard decks. There's been a question mark hanging over the metagame since rotation a month ago, and now we finally have some answers. These events provided an opportunity for the best decks to rise to the top, and they will set the stage for the metagame going forward into the Pro Tour next week.
The was a great amount of diversity in the metagame last weekend, with at least eight unique archetypes represented across the two Top 8s, and plenty farther down the standings. Today I want to cover the decks from last weekend you should be aware of, including the top finishing decks that are going to be widely copied and fill the metagame, some more obscure decks with room to improve, and even decks that are somewhere in-between, like my first deck.
Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Gabriel Nassif took the Mono-Blue Tempest Djinn deck, which has become something of a meme deck at this point, a deck that he admittedly chose because it was an easy-to-acquire budget option, and upset the entire GP Lille field until the finals, where I caught him when I tuned into coverage. He was in the midst of being closed out by Mono-Red, facing near-certain lethal damage, yet after pondering his options for what felt like an eternity, he chose to put Curious Obsession on his Tempest Djinn – his only blocker – and sent into the red zone. It probably looked suicidal to the casual observer, but rest assured he took the line because it gave him the best chance at winning the game, even if it required the perfect topdeck from his card draw trigger and his opponent to have nothing. I imagine that Nassif put on a masterclass with the deck all weekend, showing what the deck is capable of when played at 100%, and proved the deck is something to be taken seriously.
One of the most impressive cards to appear during Guilds of Ravnica spoiler season was Circuitous Route – an upgrade over past staple Explosive Vegetation – and I was sure it would spawn a new era of ramp decks, but until last weekend I hadn't heard even a peep from anyone about the card nor seen it in any decklists.
Along with Grow from the Ashes, Circuitous Route is the glue that hold this deck together, by ramping into and fixing the mana for some really powerful spells, which it uses it an attempt to "go over the top" of opponents in classic ramp deck fashion. These haymakers include Star of Extinction, which entered my radar when it appeared in the sideboard of a Blue-Red Control deck as a sweeper that kills even kills Carnage Tyrant, making it a potent card against Golgari, and it can even catch Memorial to Folly for extra value. Star of Extinction does good work as a sweeper in a Golgari-dense metagame and is even more useful now that Carnage Tyrant is seeing main deck play. Not that this deck has a big issue with the hexproof creature, as the deck also includes a pair of Cleansing Nova to clean up the battlefield. Deafening Clarion fills in the holes by sweeping the fastest aggressive decks like Mono-Red, and the lifegain clause can come in handy with some of the deck's heavy hitters, like Pelakka Wurm, which gains its own life and helps lock up the game against aggressive decks.
The deck has a bunch of card draw elements, which is very helpful for ensuring the deck finds the action it needs and doesn't just ramp mana but fizzle out without a payoff. Treasure Map and Azor's Gateway smooth early draws while packing a bigger punch later and The Immortal Sun and Arch of Orzaca fuel the deck in the late game. The Immortal Sun has become very popular lately because it shuts down planeswalkers, and it's perfect in that role in this deck without any other real answers to them.
When it comes time for actually finishing out the game, this deck has a set of X-spells to ensure its mana doesn't go to waste. March of the Multitudes looks a little out of place in a nearly creatureless deck with few ways to convoke, but it can be seen as something like a Secure the Wastes – which has seen success in Modern as a finisher for control decks – but has midgame utility because it can churn out blockers or pressure planeswalkers.
A ramp deck with multiple colors obviously offers a lot of options, so there is a ton of room to tune this deck and try different cards, and this sort of strategy will only get better with time as it becomes more refined and the metagame becomes clearer.
The talk of Standard going into last weekend was Golgari, and while it did put up strong finishes in Lille, it was completely locked out of the New Jersey Top 8. Everyone was gunning for the deck, and a perfect example of that in action is Brad Nelson's Red-White Angels deck.
Brad Nelson is known as a Standard expert and seems to do best of all when he is cracking a metagame in motion, just like this one. The deck is designed first and foremost to beat Golgari, down to a full set of Tocatli Honor Guard in the main deck. The creature saw some fringe play last season but it has come into its own as an anti-Golgari hoser, where it shuts down everything from explore creatures and Ravenous Chupacabra to even Izoni, Thousand-Eyed, turning their value-laden creatures into overcosted vanilla bears. Golgari has few good answers to the creature, especially cheap answers, but it's also something of a must-kill. Because it does draw out removal, that means it clears the way for the curve of hard-hitting creatures above it, all of which demand removal spells in their own right, starting with Resplendent Angel on turn three – which threatens to generate tokens eventually – up to Lyra Dawnbringer. Alternatively, Adanto Vanguard and Rekindling Phoenix are relatively immune to most removal spells, and History of Benalia is two creatures for the price of one. These creatures add up to make life a nightmare for Golgari, but they also put a stress on control decks, which can see their life total quickly pressured by the resilient threat base of the deck.
Supported by a suite of removal spells, you have a well-rounded deck that is designed to attack the metagame while having a strong proactive gameplan of its own. This deck is definitely one of the new frontrunners of the field, and I assume we'll see it make a big impact at the Pro Tour next week.
Red-White Angels and Tocatli Honor Guard was a known entity going into last weekend – it was just refined by Nelson. What I had not seen was a version that replaced red with green, which is what Kellen Pastore played to the Top 8 of New Jersey.
The theory behind this deck is very similar to the Red-White Angels deck, with the same core of Tocatli Honor Guard, Adanto Vanguard and History of Benalia providing early pressure and disruption, and Resplendent Angel and Lyra Dawnbringer as hard-hitters that can end the game on their own. From there the decks start to diverge, but even Shalia, Voice of Plenty is a flyer like Rekindling Phoenix.
The main difference between the two angel decks is in the removal spells, with Brad turning to red for its cheap removal Shock and Lava Coil, while Pastore completely lacks cheap removal. Instead the deck has a bolstered creature count, with Knight of Grace and Thorn Lieutenant giving this deck more early proactive plays than Boros, which takes a more defensive midrange approach than this aggressive deck. The high creature count helps support planeswalkers like Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants, which has plenty of great targets to put +1/+1 counters on. The deck also makes great use of Flower // Flourish, which gives the deck more closing power in the late game, or just helps fix mana in the early game.
This deck shows that white has a really strong core of creatures, one of the very best in the format, and it's a foundation that can be built on in various ways. This green version of the deck will continue to be developed and find its place in the metagame. It also makes me believe we will see other versions in the future once we have more shock lands, with white-black and white-blue both looking strong when Ravnica Allegiance is released in January.
Green-white had a big weekend, and the Angel version was only one of multiple variations that put up strong finishes. Selesnya Token decks cracked the Top 8 in both New Jersey and Lille, reaffirming that the deck is very competitive, which was somewhat put into question after mostly disappearing since its results in week one of the format. That said, the Green-White Angels deck shows there's more than one way to build the color combination and looking further down the standings reveals even more options. My favorite has to be Ben Yu's Explore deck, which takes a page from Golgari by combining the green explore creatures with Wildgrowth Walker, but supercharges the deck with a full set of Path of Discovery.
Path of Discovery turning every creature into an explore creature leads to a lot of value, whether it is in the form of free cards or +1/+1 counters. It makes Wildgrowth Walker an impressive threat and lifegain engine, and it gets nuts when combined with March of the Multitudes. The token generator also works quite well with The Immortal Sun, which the deck takes great use of for its anthem effect. This effect can also be found on Trostani Discordant, which I see filling the role of midrange value/tempo creature similar to Ravenous Chupacabra in Golgari, but also really helps the deck get aggressive.
The big hype story of last week was Arclight Phoenix, which finally started receiving due attention as the amazing graveyard threat that it is. The card has been recognized for its incredible potential in Modern and has already made its presence felt in the metagame, and last weekend was its Standard breakout, earning a Top 8 in both Grand Prix.
Last week I shared a bunch of Arclight Phoenix decks, and now the strategy has been further refined and improved. I like Eduardo Sajkalik's build, which has a full set of Enigma Drake on top of Crackling Drake and Arclight Phoenix. One issue with the Arclight Phoenix strategy is it requires a very spell-dense deck to function properly and that can make it light on action, but Enigma Drake adds another threat that works perfectly with the plan. It also gives the deck another potentially game-ending target for Maximize Velocity, which adds an almost combo-like element to the deck.
For me the most startling decklist to appear during the first week after rotation was a Jeskai Control deck that reached the top four of the MTGO PTQ with the combo of Azor's Gateway and Expansion // Explosion. I never expected to see four of the X-spell in a deck, especially not with Sanctum of the Sun to fuel it, but the results did not lie. I didn't see the deck replicated in the weeks since and wrote it off as something of a fluke or gimmick, but then Eli Kassis went and took the strategy to win GP New Jersey.
Add Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and a bunch of disruption, and you have yourself a control deck. There's some interesting tuning here, like the one Banefire to take out planeswalker or help finish the job with Explosion, and even a Star of Extinction to take out Carnage Tyrant. At this point it's very clear that Azor's Gateway and Expansion // Explosion is more than a gimmick and might just be one of the best things to be doing in Standard.
If you had to see just once deck from last weekend, Ali Aintrazi's Five-Color Lich's Mastery deck is it.
Ali helped popularize a Mastermind's Acquisition deck last season, and this deck is the clear spiritual successor. Like last season it includes the tutor and a toolbox of one-ofs across colors, with a set of Gift of Paradise to fix the mana, but what's new is Lich's Mastery, which the deck leans on as a way to protect itself and a card advantage engine in one. The card obviously needs a lot of support to thrive, and whether because it has been too hard to figure out or because the pros have been hoarding their secrets, the card has been absent from results until now. Ali seems to have figured it out, because he didn't just do well enough to have his list posted – he outright won the SCG Standard Classic weekend.
There's a lot to unpack here, enough for an article in itself, so I don't want to dig too deep into it without having played the deck, but I want to point out a couple key cards. Revitalize is absolutely critical to Ali's Lich's Mastery plan, and with it will draw a whopping four cards. It's also a functional card on its own in a control deck, and in fact there were a full playset in a Jeskai Control deck that Top 8ed New Jersey, so it is starting to prove itself and could become a real Standard staple. The wildest card with Lich's Mastery is Chance for Glory, which combined with "You can't lose the game" turns it into a straight up Time Walk. Add The Mirari Conjecture to return it and then maybe copy it, and you have the ability to take a ton of turns and bury an opponent. With Mastermind's Acquisition to help put the pieces together and a set of Discovery // Dispersal to help dig into the deck, it's probably a lot more consistent than it might appear to be on paper. There's no contest that this is the coolest deck to appear this week, and for all we know it might even be the most broken. Rest assured the pros have taken notice, so there's a real chance we'll see some Lich's Mastery at the PT next week.
What's your favorite Standard deck from last weekend?