High-profile events serve as benchmarks for Standard formats. Sometimes a Standard format will make big moves on its own—this primarily occurs at the early stages of the format—but often Standard will kind of exist in a holding pattern, slowly developing until a big event. Once that big event hits, we disseminate and develop the ideas from that event and iterate the format until the next big event offers a chance to shake things up again.
Big events in this case can be any number of things. Sometimes it's something as simple as a MTG Arena qualifier tournament. While that may not seem like a big event in the traditional way we think, it's still a benchmark tournament that will impact the format. In some cases, an event like that will actually impact Standard more than a traditional big event, like a SCG Open or Grand Prix.
There is one idiosyncrasy I've noticed about this process that is likely to become more prominent with the way organized play structures are trending. That's the scenario where a big event will have far-lasting implications to the format, even though the players involved in the tournament aren't engaging with Standard in the same way that normal players do.
Last weekend was the World Championship, and Worlds will serve as a benchmark event for Standard and the metagame shifts of the format. However, the players in Worlds aren't playing the same Standard that everyone else plays. Due to the nature of it being a small, 16 player event with defined competitors, players have external motivators to picking decks or how they design their decks. Those are things like "what are the other 15 players going to play?" Normally, that question is unanswerable in a regular tournament, but in a small, fixed event like Worlds, you can begin to answer those questions and choose your deck and cards based on that answer.
Seth Manfield and Andrea Mengucci both played a Mono-Red Aggro deck that didn't play any copies of Shock. They did this because they didn't expect a lot of other red decks, where Shock is good, and they also expected a number of matchups, like Temur Reclamation and Azorius Control, where Shock is mediocre. In an open field, this is a risky choice, because you'll most likely run into a higher variety of decks, but in Worlds, it's pretty unlikely that people are going to play random tier 2 or tier 3 decks where Shock is great. They developed the red deck based on an expected, inbred metagame, but because Worlds is a high-profile tournament with some of the best competitors in the game, their inbred deck choice will now likely become fairly stock in the greater field as a whole.
Interestingly, local store metagames function in a similar way. A metagame develops within the store itself based on the decks that the regulars like to play. One can successfully metagame against those decks. That particular local field may resemble Worlds in that it's likely to be a similar number of players that can be metagamed for, but the metagame itself will vary.
I love how something like Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa's Azorius Control deck could immediately become the stock version of Azorius Control, even if it was never built to take on an open field. I don't think that's exactly the case here—Paulo's deck is very strong, and will only need a few tweaks to handle a more open field—but the inertia in how decks become stock versions of the deck, even sometimes with known flaws, fascinates me.
Thoralf's version of the deck is along the lines of what was previously considered stock going into Worlds. Paulo and Ondrej Strasky's version of the deck will likely be what is considered stock coming out of Worlds.
I like the updates to Azorius Control that Paulo and Strasky provided for this event. From what I understand, the list originated with Stanislav Cifka, who might well be the best current deck builder in the world. I know that is high praise, but I don't think it is misplaced.
The format had adapted to Azorius's strategy of "tap out for Dream Trawler and beat everyone with it." Temur Reclamation could punish them for spending six mana on a sorcery-speed threat. Decks like Mono-Red were hoping to go under it. Jeskai Fires was hoping to either go under it or through it, both totally reasonable possibilities.
Paulo and Strasky's version of the deck still offers proactive elements, but isn't beholden to tapping out all the time to execute on their plan. Archon of Sun's Grace is a card that I really liked when I saw it in preview season, and I'm happy to see that it has found a home. The play pattern of casting an Archon on turn 6 while holding up Dovin's Veto to protect it or Omen of the Sea to provide value from it is strong, and probably better than just jamming four Dream Trawlers in the current field.
It pains me to do this, but I must admit that I was wrong. I've stated numerous times that I believe Azorius Control is an inherently flawed archetype and not good in Standard, but I have to admit that in this particular case, I am wrong. This format's version of Azorius Control is good, has survived a few iterations, and is likely to remain good.
I think the main reason behind that is the value of proactivity. I would like to revise my statement from the idea that control decks are inherently flawed to the idea that reactive control is inherently flawed. Being a proactive control deck offers a lot of stress points for your opponent. Their primary goal is to exhaust your defenses, but if they must also be worried about your offensive capabilities, that creates a strain on the opponent to have the right mix of cards to win the game. Whereas if your control deck is one-dimensional, they can Overload on one type of card to beat you.
We see this with decks like Dimir Inverter in Pioneer and the once-legal Splinter Twin in Modern. Those decks exist in the world of control decks with proactive game plans.
The last time we saw this in Standard was Esper Control, also with a proactive game plan that relied on Command the Dreadhorde to K.O. the opponent once you hit six mana.
Speaking of which, I think that Esper is a reasonable way to approach this deck moving forward. Despark is incredibly powerful against Temur Reclamation and Jeskai Fires, while also providing a good Safeguard against Mono-Red's best cards: Torbran, Thane of Red Fell and Embercleave. I also think that Simic Flash is a relevant counter-strategy to some of these decks and that Despark is also a premium card against that deck.
Butchering the mana for Despark when Elspeth Conquers Death largely does the same thing might be incredibly loose, but I never said I was a tight player. It also might be incredibly smart, because it's possible that there's almost no limit to how much of that kind of effect you want in this format, and punishing people for tapping out for big threats seems to be a trend we're moving toward. Esper as an evolution to Azorius Control is something to contemplate, for sure.
Most of this deck is fairly set in stone. The creature package is mostly just the best creatures and it's going to be hard to find better ones. Some metagames will value Phoenix of Ash over other options, but for the most part you only have a few flex slots to play with.
My main takeaway from this event is that Mono-Red's great performance means that the deck will be heavily played again, and that means that some card choices will likely change to compensate. A few copies of Shock might be worthwhile to shore up the early creatures in the mirror match, and Redcap Melee is probably an auto-include four-of in the sideboard. Yeah, four is a lot of copies—the maximum even—but in a Mono-Red deck where options dry up quickly, having four slots on a high-quality hate card is pretty much always worth it.
I suspect Mono-Red will continue to remain a player in Standard, even if only as a tier 2 deck, largely due to Anax, Hardened in the Forge. Mono-Red was a strong player for a long time in Standard because of how well it utilized Experimental Frenzy to win games that went long. No longer is that a viable strategy when other decks can match the card advantage Frenzy provides or just straight up power through it, like what Jeskai Fires can do. Winning long, grindy games is no longer a viable option, and when forced to be a creature deck, Mono-Red flailed.
Anax, Hardened in the Forge helps to massively shore up that weakness by offering a mixture of high power, fast closing speed and resilience. Anax is also part of a line of legendary creatures that provide value to copies beyond the first. Playing four copies of a legendary creature in one's deck is no longer the drawback it used to be, because the London mulligan helps reduce the variance in extra copies. Plus, the legends are so good that it often doesn't matter if you have extra copies—the first is winning the game. Anax takes that to an extra level by making extra copies of itself not only playable, but in some cases actively great.
This was a surprise 25% of the field, although that 25% was just two teams of two players each on the deck. Jeskai Fires had fallen from favor in Standard and I'm a bit surprised it jumped back up into prominence. I attribute that to Simic Flash being a natural predator to the deck, but Simic Flash has been on a downtick and didn't show up to Worlds at all. As Simic Flash wanes in popularity, Jeskai Fires picks back up again.
On that note, I think Simic Flash will make a resurgence in the format as a natural reaction to Azorius Control and Jeskai Fires becoming two of the major decks to beat. Tithe Taker seems like a strong anti-flash Jeskai card, should that happen, but I'd probably wait to adopt it until it's clear that Flash is actually back and not just a… flash in the pan.
Jeskai Fires is way too powerful to stay away forever. This feels like one of those decks that you know will dominate a Standard format, it's just unclear when that will be or what build of the deck will accomplish it. Fires of Invention plus the Cavalier package is just too good of a package to drop to obscurity. The supporting cast is pretty weak, but as each new set comes out, they start to fill those holes with stronger and stronger cards.
This deck, on the other hand, is weak enough that it will always fall short as a format develops past initial stages. Temur Reclamation always comes off as the kind of deck that destroys unfocused or too-slow strategies. Early in a format, that's everywhere. People have too much creature removal, their decks are built wrong in many different ways, and so on. Temur Reclamation is great in that format. As a format develops, however, Temur Reclamation starts to fall behind because it just doesn't match the other good decks on power level.
Temur Reclamation got a power boost this time around from Storm's Wrath and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, which together provide a viable midrange plan B (or maybe even plan A). I still don't think it is enough. Temur Reclamation is a great deck when it has Growth Spiral on turn two and too slow to compete when it doesn't.
Temur didn't have a great showing at Worlds. I suspect the deck will drop off a bit, and as other decks get refined more and more, I'm unsure if it will jump back to tier 1 again. Temur Reclamation will likely be relegated to what it was before: a metagame choice for specific fields that will otherwise underperform overall and have polarized matchups.
I don't think Worlds represents the final form of this format. Nissa, Who Shakes the World was all but absent from the tournament, only showing up in one deck, and it's hard for me to fathom that this is correct. Blue-green-based Ramp decks with Nissa have started to pick up more interest and rise in popularity, and Simic Flash might see a resurgence if the format shifts once more to a metagame that enables it.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Nissa is so good and has plagued Standard for so long that I'm not ready to accept a format where it isn't a defining card. I feel like the hermit in the shack yelling about the apocalypse when everyone seems to be doing just fine, but I always expect that Standard will go back to Nissa again and again every cycle.
Don't mind me, I'm just waiting in the corner patiently for Nissa to ruin my spot once again.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.
Connect: Twitch Twitter