Metagame Mentor: Dominaria United Hits Standard

Posted in NEWS on September 8, 2022

By Frank Karsten

Hello and welcome back to Metagame Mentor, the weekly column in which I highlight the decks to beat in Constructed on the path to the Pro Tour.

In this article, I will take a first look at the post-rotation Standard metagame, based on the results of several online tournaments. But first, I'll highlight last weekend's biggest events and how they tie into the Regional Championship qualifying rounds.

Modern at SCG CON Columbus

Last weekend, SCG CON Columbus featured two $20K Modern tournaments. Although Dominaria United was already available on Magic Online and MTG Arena last weekend, it is not yet legal in tabletop Magic until its release Septembet 9. So we didn't get to see any newly released cards in action, but the winning decks in both tournaments were surprising choices nevertheless, each using Urza's Saga in a different way.

In the first tournament, both Corey Baumeister and Ross Merriam made the Top 4 with Grinding Breach, a combo deck that aims to repeatedly mill itself by sacrificing Mishra's Bauble to Grinding Station, which in turn allows you to recast the Mishra's Bauble via Underworld Breach, untap Grinding Station, and loop until you win the game with Thassa's Oracle. Yet it's also perfectly capable of winning a fair game with its creatures, and it could even shave some of its combo pieces after sideboard if opponents overboard on artifact or graveyard hate.

Grinding Breach has been quickly cementing itself as a major player in Modern. Last week on Corbin Hosler's "The Week That Was", you could read how Jesse Robkin used the deck to take down the $5K RCQ at NRG Series St. Louis. When two well-known players use it to crush the biggest Modern event of the subsequent weekend, then that's a clear sign that it's the real deal.

In the second tournament, the finals featured more Urza's Saga decks: Brady Munroe's Prison Tron versus Duo Yang's Jund. In the end, a Tron-fueled Walking Ballista carrying Basilisk Collar took it down for Munroe.

Congratulations to them and the other top finishers! The Top 4 players from both events earned an invitation to the Dreamhack Atlanta Magic Showdown on November 19-20, which is the Regional Championship for the United States. Regional Championships for all eleven geographical regions will be held late November or early December, and their format is Pioneer. Top finishers at these Regional Championships will qualify for the first Pro Tour in 2023.

If you aspire to earn an invitation to this first round of Regional Championships, then you can do so up to and including September 25. To find qualifier events around you in a variety of formats, you can use the store and event locator with the filter "Regional Championship Qualifier" (RCQ) and/or visit your regional organizer's website.

After this first qualifier season closes, qualifiers for the second round of Regional Championship start. This second qualifying round runs from October 1, 2022 through December 18, 2022. So, RCQs held in that period do not qualify for the aforementioned Regional Championship in November or December but rather for the second round of Regional Championships, which will take place in the first quarter of 2023. This second round of Regional Championships, which qualifies players for the second Pro Tour in 2023, will feature the Standard format.

Which brings me to the format for today's metagame roundup.

Standard Metagame Breakdown

Standard rotates every fall. With the release of Dominaria United, the oldest four sets (Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, Strixhaven, and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms) rotated out, giving rise to a fresh, unexplored format. Moreover, for the first time since January 2017, no cards are banned in Standard anymore.

To analyze this new Standard, I used the decklists from Magic Online Challenges on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to all Standard decklists with non-negative net wins from MTGMelee events held since the release of Dominaria United, including Crokeyz's tournament. Net wins is given by a deck's number of wins minus its number of losses in its tournament. In total, I analyzed 224 decks. That's not a large sample size, but it can offer a valuable first glimpse.

The most-played cards overall (i.e., the cards other than basic lands with the largest sum of copies across all main decks and sideboards in my data set) were Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and The Meathook Massacre. This should not come as a surprise, as they were already prominent staples of the format before the rotation.

What's more interesting is when we zoom in to the most-played cards from Dominaria United.

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These top six new-to-Standard cards paint a clear picture: In the early days of Dominaria United Standard, black is king, by a large margin. Keep in mind that these are very early results from the first days of a new format, and the metagame is unlikely to stay this way.

To provide a useful breakdown that combines both popularity and performance, I assigned archetype labels to all decklists and awarded to each deck a number of points equal to its net wins. For example, a deck that went 5–1 in the Swiss in a Challenge event followed by a loss in the quarterfinals was assigned three points. The sum of these numbers for every archetype was then used to determine its record-weighted metagame share, which represents its share of total net wins.

Archetype Record-Weighted Metagame Share
1. Mono-Black Midrange 15.6%
2. Rakdos Midrange 14.9%
3. Rakdos Sacrifice 12.6%
4. Grixis Midrange 11.4%
5. Jund Midrange 10.2%
6. Esper Midrange 8.7%
7. Orzhov Midrange 4.7%
8. Mono-Red Aggro 3.1%
9. Naya Reanimator 3.1%
10. Mardu Midrange 1.7%
11. Mono-White Reanimator 1.7%
12. Mono-White Aggro 1.4%
13. Mono-White Reliquary 1.4%
14. Jeskai Control 1.2%
15. Gruul Werewolves 1.2%
Other 8.2%

The "Other" category includes Mono-Black Aggro, Gruul Modified, Azorius Heroic, Rakdos Vampires, Dimir Tempo, Jund Reanimator, Izzet Tempo, Defiler of Vigor, Temur Control, Selesnya Aggro, The Kami War, Dimir Zombies, Cosmic Epiphany, and Esper Legends. Each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist that is close to the aggregate of the archetype.

The breakdown in the table above could be interpreted as a winner's metagame, i.e., a distribution of the types of decks that you can expect to face at the top tables if you make a deep run in a Standard tournament.

Ten Standard Decks to Beat

To figure out what a good, typical list looks like for top-tier archetypes, I used a proprietary aggregation method that combines popularity and performance. The core of the method was explained in an article, but I have since extended it by considering win rates, sideboards, land counts, and other relevant aspects, inspired by the theory behind artificial neural networks. It provides a systematic way to pinpoint the "Decks to Beat" in Standard right now. Let's start with number one.

Aggregate Mono-Black Midrange

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Mono-Black Midrange uses some of the best creatures, the most powerful planeswalkers, and the most efficient removal spells available in Standard. It's all packaged in a smooth mana curve that starts on turn one and goes up to Invoke Despair on turn five. The quadruple-black cost in that sorcery is one of the key reasons to stick to a pristine mono-color mana base.

From Dominaria United, this deck gained Evolved Sleeper; Liliana of the Veil; Sheoldred, the Apocalypse; and Cut Down. With these flexible cards, the deck has the tools to go on the offense and close out a game quickly, but it can also defend itself well and grind back over a long game. Evolved Sleeper and Liliana of the Veil's +1 can also give you something to do with excess lands in the late game, which has become more important now that creature lands have rotated out. All in all, it results in the prime midrange deck in the format.

If you don't want to play black yourself but are looking for ways to beat these decks, then there are many angles to explore. Here are three ideas, each of which will come with an example decklist later in this article:

  • You could go over the top with a strategy that revolves around powerful noncreature spells and artifacts. This allows you to turn Mono Black Midrange's removal suite into dead cards in Game 1.
  • You could overpower them by putting Titan of Industry or Sanctuary Warden onto the battlefield on turn four or five. These creatures are too large to be swept by The Meathook Massacre, enter the battlefield with a shield token to shrug off Infernal Grasp, and bring along a token to sacrifice to Liliana of the Veil or Invoke Despair.
  • You could go under them with a hyper-aggressive strategy that contains the right evasive, recurring, and/or properly sized threats. You need to be able to bash through Sheoldred, the Apocalypse while not folding to The Meathook Massacre. This means that you may have to stray from more obvious card choices, but I don't think it's impossible.

Aggregate Rakdos Midrange

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Rakdos Midrange is very similar to Mono-Black Midrange. It gives up perfect mana and the black one-drop creatures to gain access to Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker.

Whether or not that is worth it is up for debate. What I can say is that this mana base can cast the red spells and the quadruple-black Invoke Despair consistently, but it does come at the cost of pain[/autocard] and speed[/autocard]. There are also a few Rakdos Midrange decks that went deeper on red and cut Invoke Despair, but that was only a small fraction.

If you were to combine Mono-Black Midrange and Rakdos Midrange and add up their respective 15.6% and 14.9% record-weighted metagame shares, then nearly a third of the winner's metagame is comprised of the same core of black cards. That's a lot, but it's a small sample size, and the first days of post-rotation Standard are rarely a good indication of how the format shakes out long-term.

Aggregate Rakdos Sacrifice

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Rakdos Sacrifice will be a familiar archetype to players who played Standard before the rotation. Oni-Cult Anvil and Voltage Surge will still happily much on Experimental Synthesizer or Voldaren Epicure's Blood token for value. Although Blightstep Pathway and Deadly Dispute were lost in the rotation, Sulfurous Springs and Reckoner's Bargain are decent alternatives.

From Dominaria United, the deck gained Liliana of the Veil and Braids, Arisen Nightmare as powerful new three-drops. Braids in particular synergizes well with Oni-Cult Anvil: When you sacrifice an artifact to Braid's ability, Oni-Cult Anvil will trigger to keep the train rolling. Moreover, opponents usually won't control an artifact, leaving them with no choice but to lose 2 life and grant you a card.

Aggregate Grixis Midrange

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Grixis Midrange was one of the top decks before the rotation, so it's not surprising that it made the transition. In a way, you could see it as Rakdos Midrange that gains several blue cards in exchange for a slower and more painful mana base. The overarching strategy, however, is similar. As Corpse Appraiser shows, the goal is to generate favorable resource exchanges over time.

Notable new Dominaria United cards in the aggregate main deck are Sulfurous Springs; Liliana of the Veil; Cut Down; Shivan Reef; Sheoldred, the Apocalypse; and Ertai Resurrected. Yet there is no consensus whatsoever on the best version. Some Grixis players were going heavier on Ertai Resurrected; others were trying out Sol'Kanar the Tainted instead of Evelyn, the Covetous; others were investing deeper in Vampires. Additionally, there are a lot of different possibilities for your interactive spells and your mana base. In the early days of Standard, everyone is trying out different options.

Aggregate Jund Midrange

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There are many ways to build Jund Midrange. Some of them look like Rakdos Midrange with a tiny green splash, but the aggregate list shown above is a breath of fresh air. Gone are Tenacious Underdog; Liliana of the Veil; and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. Instead, we have a package of Teachings of the Kirin; Old Rutstein; Jaya, Fiery Negotiator and The Elder Dragon War. These are far from universal inclusions, but they featured prominently in the best-performing Jund Midrange lists.

Most of these cards, as well as Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, allow you to discard or mill yourself. There are several payoffs for doing so. First, Soul of Windgrace can use lands in your graveyard to ramp. Second, the third chapter of The Cruelty of Gix can return Titan of Industry. Thanks to these new Dominaria United cards, your graveyard turns into a valuable resource.

Additionally, the creature tokens from Teachings of the Kirin and Old Rutstein can be sacrificed to opposing Liliana of the Veil or Invoke Despair, and they also enable Jaya, Fiery Negotiator's -2 ability. So, all cards work together as a coherent package.

Aggregate Esper Midrange

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Like Grixis, Esper Midrange was a popular archetype before the rotation, and it made the transition fairly easily. Reaching WUB mana for Raffine, Scheming Seer on turn 3 gets a bit more difficult without Pathways, but Adarkar Wastes and Caves of Koilos pick up the slack. I am a bit surprised to see almost no legend-heavy versions with Plaza of Heroes, but perhaps these will be discovered over the next few weeks.

At the moment, there is no consensus on the best Esper Midrange build, but looking over the aggregate decklist, several white Dominaria United cards stand out. Resolute Reinforcements may not be as inherently powerful as Luminarch Aspirant, which was lost in rotation, but the two tokens do enable a bigger Raffine trigger on turn three. Meanwhile, Serra Paragon and Archangel of Wrath provide staying power in the mid-game.

Aggregate Orzhov Midrange

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Orzhov Midrange was yet another popular archetype before the rotation, but there's no consensus on how to build it with Dominaria United in the mix. Some builds look close to an aggro deck; others have more of a control plan. Roughly half of the Orzhov decks exploit Invoke Despair along with a lot of tapped lands to fix the mana. The aggregate list above, however, embodies the belief that adding Invoke Despair to a deck with double-white planeswalkers is too taxing.

The biggest question for Orzhov players after the rotation was how to replace Luminarch Aspirant. The aggregate list shown above answers this with pairs of Cathar Commando and Raffine's Informant, but these creatures represent massive big drops in card quality. Orzhov didn't put up impressive numbers, and other black decks looked more powerful to me at first glance.

Having analyzed seven black archetypes in a row, you may be feeling a bit tired of that color by now. Fortunately, many nonblack options are viable in Standard. The remaining three decks in today's article won't feature Tenacious Underdog, Graveyard Trespasser, Liliana of the Veil, Infernal Grasp, or The Meathook Massacre anymore. Instead, we have Mono-Red Aggro, Naya Reanimator, and Jeskai Control. These are archetypes numbers 8, 9, and 14 from the table, and each exemplifies one of the angles of attack I outlined when discussing Mono-Black Midrange.

Aggregate Mono-Red Aggro

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Mono-Red Aggro is always around, no matter the format. Yet I was surprised to see that the best-performing builds for early Dominaria United Standard relied on Ancestral Anger and Reckless Impulse. It makes sense, though. Most red two-mana creatures would not be able to attack profitably into Graveyard Trespasser or Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, and they easily get swept away by The Meathook Massacre. But Electrostatic Infantry is an exception! You just need enough spells to enable the Wizard.

All other Dominaria United card choices make sense in the context of a black-infested metagame as well. Phoenix Chick will fly over all of black's creatures and is the perfect sacrificial fodder for Liliana of the Veil or Invoke Despair. Defiler of Instinct can usually attack into Sheoldred thanks to first strike. And Lightning Strike is a no-brainer in an aggressive red deck that needs to trigger Electrostatic Infantry. If you like blazingly fast starts, then this list may have the right card choices for the current metagame.

Aggregate Naya Reanimator

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The dream with Naya Reanimator starts with Fable of the Mirror-Breaker on turn three. Then on turn four, you discard Titan of Industry or Sanctuary Warden to its second chapter, attack with the Goblin to create a Treasure, and finally cast Invoke Justice. The reanimated creature, as I mentioned before, will be too large to be swept by The Meathook Massacre, can enter the battlefield with a shield token to shrug off Infernal Grasp, and can bring along a token to protect it from Liliana of the Veil or Invoke Despair.

This is an awesome strategy, and it even gained an important new tool from Dominaria United in The Elder Dragon War. While most decks would be primarily interested in its first and third chapters, the second chapter is essential for Naya Reanimator because it allows you to put Titan of Industry into the graveyard.

Eliott Boussaud's Jeskai Control

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What is Mono-Black Midrange filled with? Creature removal spells.

What nonland permanent type is ignored by Invoke Despair? Artifacts.

So what do we do? Build a creatureless control deck that just sweeps all of the opponent's threats, casts Timeless Lotus, and wins the game with enormous X-spells. Perhaps you first cast Silver Scrutiny, shuffle back Light Up the Night with Witness the Future, and finally point the red spell at your opponent. For Games 2 and 3, when opponents board out their removal spells, you could surprise them with Hullbreaker Horror.

It's a brilliant feat of deck building, but I expected nothing less from Eliott Boussaud. When there is a clear Deck to Beat, it only becomes easier to target it in a dedicated way. With fascinating options like these, I am excited to see where how the Standard metagame will develop in the coming weeks and months.

Looking ahead

This weekend, September 10-11, notable tabletop events include the Modern Open at the F2F Tour Stop in Edmonton and the venue-changed Malaysia Open in the Standard format. In my subsequent column on Thursday September 16, I intend to highlight the metagame developments in Pioneer with Dominaria United.

Next weekend, September 17-18, features the Limited Qualifier Weekend on MTG Arena, in addition to several high-profile tabletop events in the Modern format. These Modern events include the Team $10K at Card Monster Con in Lexington, the Singapore Open, and the Grand Open Qualifier at the Magic Showdown in Paris. The Paris event will have live video coverage, and I am looking forward to analyzing the Modern results of all of these events in my column on Thursday September 23.