Standard sure has come a long way from the era when it saw a record four separate rounds of bannings over the course of about a year, with the first coming in January 2017 and the last in January 2018. It's amazing how things have evolved since, and now rather than having a stale format dominated by a single deck, we have a wide-open format with an incredible array of strategies. Much of this diversity is driven by War of the Spark, which besides proving itself to be one of Magic's most important sets ever for Eternal formats is also seeing its high-power cards reshape Standard.
Last weekend was the first Standard Grand Prix since War of the Spark was released, which along with some other large events around the globe provide us a great picture of Standard as it currently stands. The first thing that stands out is the wealth of competitive options compared to years past. The Top 8 of Grand Prix Kansas City featured seven distinct archetypes in the Top 8, and results of other events like the God of Standard tournament in Japan and Europe's MKM Series event in Paris each had unique decks of their own.
For the most competitive Spikes among us, I recommend taking a closer look at the Esper deck Ben Friedman used to take down Kansas City.
This specific decklist traces its lineage back to Martin Muller's Arena MCQ deck and through Andrea Mengucci, and received a lot of attention on social last week, so it's no surprise to see the deck be successful. The deck is on the cutting edge of the metagame, designed to beat other planeswalker decks like Jeskai and Four-Color Dreadhorde, while simultaneously combating Mono-Red. Brian Braun-Duin's love of the strategy is well-documented, so I'd refer to his latest piece on the deck for more details on why it's one of the best decks in Standard.
Another strategy that's ahead of the curve is Bant Mass Manipulation, which is essentially just a midrange ramp deck that takes over the late game with its namesake Control Magic effect. The true breakout strategy from Kansas City, it's the only strategy with two copies in the Top 8.
There are some differences in the specifics of the two decklists, but they both have the same gameplan of using green creatures to generate value and set up a late-game designed to go over the top of anyone in the format with Mass Manipulation.
One key similarity between the decklists is Nissa, Who Shakes the World, which has emerged as one of the best cards in War of the Spark, and is still only beginning to be explored. Anyone who has played with or against the card quickly becomes aware of its power as both a threat and a mana engine, which together allow it to quickly take over a game. I suspect that these Mass Manipulation decks are really more of Nissa, Who Shakes the World decks that win most games with the planeswalker, and I expect to see more decks emerge designed to make the most of it.
Take for example this mono-green deck that it making rounds on Magic Arena and Magic Online, which includes plenty of Forests for Nissa to make mana from.
While this deck is an example of making great use of Nissa, Who Shakes the World, it's primarily an at attempt at abusing Karn, the Great Creator in Standard. The planeswalker has reshaped Vintage and is making a big impact in Modern and Legacy, so presumably the card is at least playable in Standard. There may not be any truly broken cards like Mycosynth Lattice to find, but even Crucible of Worlds combined with the deck's maindeck set of Field of Ruin does give it a way to eventually lock the opponent out of mana and the game. It also works well with Blast Zone, which can be used to essentially lock out opposing permanents. Karn, the Great Creator also opens up access to a decent assortment of utility spells, so it's a solid role-player, and one that's likely to improve as more artifacts are printed in coming sets.
When I first saw the Mono-Green Karn deck I was tickled by what I thought was a relatively cool deck to have in Standard, but it's just the beginning of some of the cool things going on in Standard right now. The most extreme deck from last weekend is certainly the Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle combo deck that reached the Top 8 of MKM Paris. I remember first hearing about the combo from Simon Nielsen after Fblthp, the Lost was spoiled, but I don't think anyone, him included, really took it seriously. Michael Schlegel did, and Top 8'd a large competitive event to show it's a real contender.
This is one of the most convoluted combo decks I've ever seen, but when assembled will create an infinite loop that can be leveraged to win the game.
The combo requires a copy of Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle in play, two copies of Rona, Disciple of Gix between the graveyard and the battlefield, and two copies each of either Chamber Sentry or Mox Amber. The idea is that the free historic spells trigger Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle to reanimate Rona, Disciple of Gix which can then play a zero-mana historic spell from the graveyard to reanimate a second copy of Rona, which will legend rule the first back to the graveyard to be reanimated again by the second Rona's free spell, and so on. Along with Rona either the 0/0 Chamber Sentry or the legend-ruled second copy of Mox Amber will immediately go to the graveyard each time, so the loop is infinite.
The question of course is what to actually do with the loop, since Chamber Guardian creates no value, but Mox Amber can be used to generate infinite mana. Diligent Excavator is included as a simple win condition for once the Chamber Guardian loop is assembled, but there is a trick for finding it. If the deck has infinite mana with Mox Amber but no win condition, Lazav, the Multifarious can be looped infinite times by copying Rona, which creates infinite surveil triggers to eventually dig into Diligent Excavator. Alternatively, with infinite mana the deck can also loop two Fblthp, the Lost to draw infinite cards.
When milling the opponent isn't quite good enough, like against Nexus of Fate or a burn opponent ready to kill you on their upkeep, this list includes yet another loop to use with infinite mana. Two copies of Teferi, Time Raveler can be looped repeatedly, each time bouncing Oath of Kaya, which can be used to whittle down the opponent to 0. The deck can't actually do this infinite times since Teferi draws a card each bounce and will eventually force decking, but as long as there are six cards left in the deck, or one card for each additional three damage assuming the opponent is at 20, it will be a win. It's a nice little win condition to work into the deck, since Oath of Kaya is a decent card on its own and not an otherwise dead dedicated win condition. And of course Teferi, Time Raveler is one of the best cards in Standard.
This deck is more competitive than people realize. I wouldn't exactly recommend it to anyone except those who are really into combo decks, but if this is up your alley I would seize every opportunity to play a kind of deck that we don't often see in Standard.
It's not a true combo deck, but synergy is the name of the game for the W/R deck based around Feather, the Redeemed, which broke out into the Top 8 at Kansas City.
Feather, the Redeemed has generated a ton of interested in Commander, where it's the ideal general to build around with all sorts of great spells to use repeatedly. Such an efficient and powerful card should also work in Standard, which includes great spells of its own. I'm most impressed by Reckless Rage, which combines with Feather to work as a repeatable, instant-speed removal spell capable of taking over a game.
Building a deck around having a specific card is a tough sell, but this deck makes it work by including many other creatures that work well with the same spell suite. This is essentially a Theros-era Heroic deck ported to 2019, full of creatures eager to be targeted and great spells to do it with. Tenth District Legionnaire is built in the mold of a true heroic creature, while Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin will generate massive advantage when it's targeted by pump spells. Dreadhorde Arcanist allows the deck to squeeze extra value from the spells, which also help to ensure it can push into the red zone. Add in Adanto Vanguard as one of the most reliable threats in Standard, and it's no surprise the deck cut through the field.
At the aptly-named God of Standard tournament in Japan, the victor played a unique deck presumably of their own design: a W/U Planeswalkers deck based around four copies of Urza's Ruinous Blast.
This deck is built in the mold of Jeskai or Esper Planeswalkers, but simplifies things down to two colors. Beyond a more consistent, less painful manabase, this allows for supporting a full set of Mobilized District, which certainly helps give this deck an edge against other planeswalker strategies. The colors contain plenty of quality legendaries, including Dovin, Hand of Control, which isn't typically seen but is useful for protecting the deck's other planeswalkers. The true unique card is Urza's Ruinous Blast, which doesn't offer much against other planeswalker decks but must be devastating against creature-based decks like Mono-Red and various flavors of green. I imagine it's also quite effective against U/R Phoenix, where it exiles Arclight Phoenix and Crackling Drake.
Another piece of tech to come from the God of Standard tournament was Rakdos, which unlike Red-Splashing-Black takes a true two-color approach that allows it to utilize cards like Dreadhorde Butcher and even Rakdos Firewheeler.
Unlike a true aggro deck, Rakdos doesn't include one-drop creatures and instead goes bigger with Skarrgan Hellkite. This strategy makes sense given the great card advantage capabilities of Rix Maadi Reveler, which allows Rakdos to grind out opponents with removal spells.
This deck isn't too flashy or doing anything groundbreaking, but it's an example of metagaming and deckbuilding at its finest. I'm most impressed by Bedevil, which was spoiled to fanfare but failed to convert. It's clear now that it simply required the planeswalker-rich world of War of the Spark to thrive, and should now be considered a staple. It makes me wonder what other cards are still out there waiting to make a mark.