A double-GP weekend showcasing the new post-rotation Standard format gave us a lot of valuable data points. With the Pro Tour still two weeks away – at which point Standard will undoubtedly crystallize – things are still very much coming into focus when it comes to which strategies, decks and cards are in the best position to dominate the format.
There were some pretty clear winners and losers at both GPs, and not all of the results aligned with the expectations people had going into the weekend. With that in mind, let's get stuck into what happened, how it will impact the development of Standard moving forward, and what you can do to put yourself in the best position to succeed leading up to the Pro Tour.
Arclight Phoenix was a clear winner from the weekend, with breakout Top 8 performances on both sides of the Atlantic. Any card that has the potential to come into play for free always warrants heavy investigation, and both Arne Huschenbeth and Eduardo Sajgalik were rewarded with excellent results thanks to their respective takes on the archetype.
Izzet Phoenix is obviously a deck centered on cheap instants and sorceries, but Huschenbeth and Sajgalik took different avenues in seeking to abuse its recursive abilities. While Huschenbeth filled his deck with two-drop instants and sorceries to make the most of Goblin Electromancer, Sajgalik instead played all the cantripping one-drops he could find.
Ultimately, and while both decks are obviously capable of putting up results, I don't want to play a deck that runs cards like Crash Through and Warlord's Fury. For that reason, I favour Huschenbeth's approach.
Goblin Electromancer – as its Modern pedigree clearly indicates – has the potential to be absolutely busted. If your aim is to cast three spells in a turn, wouldn't you rather chain Chart a Course and Tormenting Voice instead of Crash Through and Warlord's Fury? Still, that's not to say Sajgalik's approach isn't worth looking at. While less powerful in a vacuum, being less reliant on a relatively fragile 2/2 is certainly a good thing.
Beyond all this, one thing is clear – Arclight Phoenix is the real deal, threatening to be a strong ongoing contender in Standard. A free 3/2 haste creature can end games quickly, but its defensive capabilities are what really push it over the top. For example, it can act as recursive blocker to hold off damage while cycling through the deck to find a Drake to end things quickly
With strong support creatures in Crackling and Enigma Drake as well as a consistent gameplan enabled by so much card draw, expect to see a lot of Arclight Phoenixes in the near future.
Golgari Midrange was well and truly on the radar as we headed into the double-GP weekend, and while it had some rather ordinary results (especially in New Jersey), it was remarkable to see the sheer breadth of how this deck was built and tuned. There seemed to be no consensus whatsoever when it came to which specific cards were played, let alone in what numbers.
Time and time again, however, Carnage Tyrant ended games. Against Teferi control and in the mirror, the 7/6 was pivotal in snatching victory, and was backed up marvelously with Find // Finality. Against Jeskai, Find recurred the Dinosaur again and again, while in the mirror, Finality cleaned up the board while leaving behind a 7/8 – the perfect size to rumble with opposing Tyrants. For these reasons, I really liked this Christian Hauck's approach to the archetype.
Hauck, this year's captain of the German WMC team, fell just short of a Top 8 berth in Lille, finishing in 12th place. His list, however, was incredible. With full playsets of both Carnage Tyrant and Find // Finality – along with four Llanowar Elves and four Druid of the Cowl to ramp towards these huge spells – Hauck did a masterful job of recognizing the decks he needed to beat this weekend, improving his Jeskai and Golgari matchups immensely with this build.
Many Golgari pilots played three or even just two Carnage Tyrants, and sometimes just a single Find // Finality. Despite costing six mana, the impact of Carnage Tyrant and Finality really can't be overstated, especially in the mirror – and with Golgari ruling the roost as the most popular deck in Standard, you want to be able to win the mirror.
People will adapt to Carnage Tyrant. We'll see Jeskai decks make heavier commitments to white to play Settle the Wreckage and Cleansing Nova, or The Eldest Reborn will be used in conjunction with judicious point removal. We even saw some people come ready for the Dinosaur with copies of Detection Tower! The reign of the Carnage Tyrant may not be long, but the card was a clear winner this weekend, cementing itself as a Standard powerhouse.
With the rise of Golgari Midrange, this unassuming two-mana 1/3 Torpor Orb has had a second chance at greatness. It has "sideboard card" written all over it, but many of the world's most powerful wizards were playing it – as a playset, no less – in the main deck. Brad Nelson, widely considered one of the greatest Standard minds on the planet, registered four copies of Tocatli Honor Guard, and snagged another GP Top 8 with them.
This exciting new technology has important implications for the format at large, not just against Golgari. Of course, again Golgari it's something of a Blood Moon – almost their entire suite of creatures is rendered useless, with two- and three-mana vanilla 2/1s looking enormously embarrassing in the face of the Honor Guard. More broadly, however, playing a two-mana 1/3 isn't the worst thing in the world against Mono-Red and its one- and two-drops – especially Viashino Pyromancer!
If your creature suite can afford it (sorry, Venerated Loxodon), you should be playing a playset of Tocatli Honor Guard. Whether that's in the main deck of Boros or Selesnya or in the sideboard of a Teferi control deck, this card is bonkers. It forces Golgari decks to spend their precious, premium removal on a two-mana 1/3! Not only are you completely interrupting their value-focused gameplan, it also means their Vraska's Comtempts and Assassin's Trophies aren't being pointed at your top-end threats. Nice!
While white-based aggro decks had a relatively quiet weekend in Lille, they ran Amok in New Jersey, locking up half the Top 8. Amongst the top decks, Adanto Vanguard and History of Benalia were the first- and second-most played cards, respectively, enabling fast and resilient starts for the decks in which they were housed.
These decks included the Boros lists like Nelson's, above, but more intriguing were the various flavors of Selesnya. The "default" version, Tokens, was also joined by an Angel-heavy build in the Top 8, with some more midrange-focused versions falling just short of the Top 8. All these sub-archetypes featured either (or both) Adanto Vanguard and History of Benalia, and Dustin Taylor's list in particular really caught my eye.
Finishing a very respectable 23rd, Taylor put together an impressive list with some innovative synergies. "Midrange" is a little misleading, as this deck definitely has an aggressive bent to it, but a little poking around under the surface reveals some pretty sick engine-like qualities to the deck.
Ajani is obviously a terrific value card, especially when the two-drops he can Reanimate are as potent as Adanto Vanguard, Knight of Grace or Thorn Lieutenant. That's not what impressed me most about this list, however – what I found most remarkable was the ability to use Militia Bugler to find creatures that attack for more (and in some cases a lot more) than just two. All those aforementioned two-drops, Knight of Autumn, and even Trostani Discordant. This is the best Militia Bugler deck I've seen in Standard.
This list puts Adanto Vanguard and History of Benalia to their best use, as sticky threats that require a lot of resource investment from opponents to properly manage. As a result, the standalone power level of the other cards in this list, from Ajani to Trostani, is better able to influence the game in your favor, given the fact the opponent is forced to heavily commit to dealing with these early threats. It's a weird way to gain value, but it works.
Just in case there was any doubt in anyone's mind about the role of sweepers, the weekend's results demonstrated very clearly that Jeskai is the best Teferi deck running around at the moment. There are more reasons for this, sure – Expansion // Explosion, Lava Coil, Justice Strike – but mostly, it's having both a cheap sweeper with a ton of utility and a huge one that deals with all your problems in one fell swoop.
Eli Kassis took down GP New Jersey with his take on Jeskai (another archetype like Golgari that has very little internal consistency), that included a full playset of Deafening Clarion as well as the one-of Star of Extinction. Both of these cards are critical to the deck's success, and not even for totally different reasons.
Carnage Tyrant is a must-kill threat for Jeskai, a difficult task given the 7/6 has hexproof. Kassis has so many ways to deal with this supposed control-killer than he may have not broken a sweat in getting it off the board – not only was there Settle the Wreckage, but also Star of Extinction and, oddly, Deafening Clarion.
Deafening Clarion probably isn't the card you think of when considering how to kill Carnage Tyrants, but its six toughness means that two copies of Clarion kill it real nice – or, one copy and an Expansion // Explosion. It's often not even a clear one-for-two, either – Golgari usually has smaller explore creatures than get cleaned up by the first Clarion.
Star of Extinction solves other problems too, specifically, planeswalkers. Jeskai Control has something of an issue dealing with planeswalkers, bereft as it is of Vraska's Contempt. For that reason, a last-minute Star of Extinction blowing up the world is a terrific reset button against such a board-centric format.
While we saw some Esper and straight white-blue takes on control crop up here and there over the weekend, Jeskai absolutely eclipsed them, and these two sweepers (and their power against Golgari in particular) were the driving force behind that.
Doubtlessly, the information we gained from this weekend will strongly inform the direction the format takes in the lead up to the Pro Tour. We've had a sneak preview of the cards destined to do well in the coming weeks – all the cards we've discussed today are sure to be seen in the decks that most strongly contest the Standard format from here on out (which, incidentally, means that now is the time to pick them up, before the post-PT price spike).
There's a lot of convergence and homogenization that is yet to take place as the best builds of the best decks emerge. One thing is for sure, however – whatever these best decks look like, they're sure to include this week's winners.
- Riley Knight