Team Unified Standard Metagame Breakdown

Posted in Event Coverage on December 14, 2018

By Frank Karsten

After starting with three rounds of Guilds of Ravnica Team Sealed on Friday morning, the format for all remaining rounds of the 2018 World Magic Cup was Team Unified Standard. I have a breakdown of all 222 decklists below, but let's start by introducing the format.

Deck Construction Rules

In Team Unified Standard, each team of three players must build three Standard-legal decks and assign them to player A, B, or C.

There's one restriction, though: with the exception of basic lands, no two decks on a team can feature the same card. This means that if one player's deck contains Lava Coil, then no other player on that team may put Lava Coil in their deck. You can't even split them two and two—only one player on any team can use Lava Coil.

This team-wide restriction sends players looking for a three-deck configuration that minimizes overlap. The Lava Coil restriction, for example, makes it impossible to run complete versions of Izzet Drakes and Mono-Red Aggro on the same team. In a similar vein, due to overlap in Steam Vents, you can't put Izzet Drakes alongside Jeskai Control. And since you can only have one History of Benalia deck, you have to choose between Boros Aggro and Selesnya Tokens.

But all things considered, the dual lands are arguably the most important cards in Team Unified Standard. We have both check lands and shock lands, but the shock lands are more unique because we currently only have five of them. In any case, any competitive deck requires a consistent mana base, so each guild should be used by no more than one player on each team.

The Breakdown

With those restrictions in mind, let's take a look at how the 74 teams solved the Unified Standard puzzle. Below, you can find the raw numbers. The first table provides the number of players for each archetype. The second table provides a structured overview of the three-deck configurations that were chosen by at least two teams.

Deck Number of Teams
Golgari Midrange 70
Selesnya Tokens 38
Jeskai Control 30
Izzet Drakes 28
Boros Aggro 16
Big Red 10
Mono-Red Aggro 10
Boros Angels 4
White Weenie 4
Dimir Control 2
Jeskai Drakes 2
Turbo Fog 2
Abzan Explore 1
Chromatic Black 1
Golgari Undergrowth 1
Grixis Dragons 1
Mono-Blue Tempo 1
Selesnya Aggro 1

As you can see, the most popular deck by far was Golgari Midrange, closely followed by Selesnya Tokens and Jeskai Control. Given that, the most popular three-deck configuration won't come as a surprise.

Golgari Deck Steam Vents Deck Third Deck Number of Teams
Golgari Midrange Jeskai Control Selesnya Tokens 16
Golgari Midrange Izzet Drakes Selesnya Tokens 12
Golgari Midrange Izzet Drakes Boros Aggro 10
Golgari Midrange Jeskai Control Mono-Red Aggro 5
Golgari Midrange Jeskai Control Big Red 4
Golgari Midrange Jeskai Control White Weenie 4
Golgari Midrange Izzet Drakes Boros Angels 3

In addition, four teams fielded Golgari Midrange/Selesnya Tokens/Big Red, and two teams fielded Golgari Midrange/Selesnya Tokens/Mono-Red Aggro, but since neither lineup included a Steam Vents deck, these choices didn't fit snugly into the above table. Finally, there were fourteen unique three-deck configurations that are not listed.

Almost Every Team Ran Golgari Midrange

Almost every team (70 out of 74 teams, to be exact) included Golgari Midrange in their lineup. Find // Finality has wonderful synergy with value creatures like Ravenous Chupacabra and Merfolk Branchwalker, and all the explore creatures add to the consistency of the deck. With a high density of good cards, versatile answers, a consistent mana base, and powerful late-game threats, the archetype has the right tools to tussle with everything, and Golgari Midrange has been the most popular deck at individual Standard events in recent memory.

Since it has little to no overlap with the other top Standard decks, its prevalence at the World Magic Cup was to be expected. If anything, it's a surprise that four teams went for alternative black decks in either Chromatic Black, Golgari Undergrowth, or Dimir Control.

Although most Golgari Midrange decks looked similar, I did notice a trend of putting more and more The Eldest Reborns and Plaguecrafters in sideboards. These cards are the perfect answer to the Niv-Mizzet, Parun plus Dive Down "combo" that many Steam Vents are relying on.

Most Teams Had A Steam Vents Deck

Most teams (65 of 74) had a blue deck, usually either Jeskai Control or Izzet Drakes. (The ones that didn't run a blue deck usually fielded a History of Benalia deck and a Goblin Chainwhirler deck next to their Golgari Midrange player instead.)

The 28 Izzet Drakes decks, all of which packed Crackling Drake and cheap spells like Chart a Course and Shock, were split equally between fourteen versions with Arclight Phoenix and fourteen versions without. If you also factor in the two Jeskai Drakes decks, which were Phoenix-less decks splashing for Deafening Clarion, a small majority of teams eschewed Arclight Phoenix in their Drakes list.

Since Arclight Phoenix requires a lot of spells in the same turn, which is sometimes hard to assemble and potentially reliant on the fragile Goblin Electromancer, the Phoenix-less lists that relied on Enigma Drake and/or Niv-Mizzet, Parun to round out their creature base looked more consistent. Usually, those lists ran additional Dive Down and Spell Pierce to protect their big fliers. Especially in the Izzet Drakes mirror match, Arclight Phoenix is underwhelming compared to the bigger fliers, whereas you will almost surely win if you untap with Niv-Mizzet.

As a final random observation, I noticed that Raptor Hatchling had become a reasonably popular sideboard inclusion. This makes sense, given that it's pretty apt at trading with Viashino Pyromancer or Dauntless Bodyguard.

Jeskai Control tries to do more or less exactly what control decks are famous for: keeping the board empty with removal or sweepers, dominating the game with countermagic, and eventually locking up the game with a planeswalker. But although Deafening Clarion and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria were universal inclusions, there was a lot of variety in the remaining card choices, especially regarding win conditions.

Most interestingly, two players had a play set of Rekindling Phoenix as their primary win condition, which looked much better than the more typical Crackling Drakes against a field full of Cast Downs and Ravenous Chupacabras. Next to that, two players were on a build that aimed to transform Azor's Gateway and cast an enormous, game-winning Expansion // Explosion, in line with the build that Eli Kassis used to win Grand Prix New Jersey.

And five players were planning to transform Treasure Map to ramp into Niv-Mizzet, Parun with Dive Down or Spell Pierce protection mana up, akin to the brew that Adrian Sullivan used to take down Grand Prix Milwaukee. It's a powerful strategy, and if it weren't for the fact that Treasure Map was also needed by Mono-Red Aggro or Big Red, we might have seen a larger fraction of Jeskai Control players with 4 Treasure Map and 4 Niv-Mizzet, Parun. But since overlap was a consideration at this event, only a minority of Jeskai Control players relied on this plan.

The Third Deck Was Usually a History of Benalia Deck or a Goblin Chainwhirler Deck

The third deck was usually either a History of Benalia deck (either Selesnya Tokens, Boros Aggro, or White Weenie) or a Goblin Chainwhirler deck (either Big Red or Mono-Red Aggro). This choice was usually informed by the blue deck. If the blue deck was Jeskai Control, then this excluded Boros Aggro due to overlap in Sacred Foundry. And if the blue deck was Izzet Drakes, then this eliminated both Mono-Red Aggro and Big Red due to overlap in Lava Coil.

One of the biggest surprises at this event, at least to me as a coverage writer, was that Selesnya Tokens was the second-most popular deck overall. Especially given that the Top 8 of Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica featured six Boros Aggro decks (a name that encompasses all versions, from nearly mono-white ones with a few red cards in the sideboards to lists that go much deeper in red with Boros Challenger and the like), I had fully expected that Boros Aggro would be the History of Benalia deck of choice at the World Magic Cup. But that prediction was completely off—Selesnya Tokens was far more popular.

The general strategy of the deck is to use cards like Saproling Migration and March of the Multitudes to build up a critical mass of tokens, and then to exploit the global boosts from Trostani Discordant, Venerated Loxodon, and Flower // Flourish to turn your wide army into one that is both wide and tall.

The deck had already been growing in popularity in individual events in recent weeks, especially after two copies of Selesnya Tokens made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Shizuoka. From what players told me, Selesnya Tokens got better positioned because spot-removal-heavy Golgari Midrange decks had been taking up a larger metagame share, and decks with one-for-one removal spells are weak to the go-wide strategy of Selesnya Tokens. And for Team Unified Standard, the fact that you could easily put Selesnya Tokens alongside Jeskai Control without having to worry about overlap in Sacred Foundry was another reason for picking it over Boros Aggro.

Speaking of overlap, one issue was Vivien Reid. As a powerful planeswalker with a unique set of abilities, she's is usually played in the sideboard of Selesnya Tokens as well as in the main deck of Golgari Midrange. However, since her plus ability is better in Golgari Midrange, every team with both Golgari Midrange and Selesnya Tokens put the powerful planeswalker in Golgari Midrange. In lieu of Vivien Reid, many Selesnya Tokens players added Kraul Harpooner to their sideboards to combat fliers. Some teams went further by realizing that without the mana pressure of double-green cards, the mana base could be adjusted to fit Benalish Marshal into the main deck. In any case, if you are interested in copying a Selesnya Tokens deck from this event, you have to keep these overlap issues in mind; if you want to take it to an individual event, then consider adding Vivien Reid to the sideboard.

At the Pro Tour, Mono-Red Aggro was the most popular Goblin Chainwhirler deck by far, using the firepower of Ghitu Lavarunner, Wizard's Lightning, and Experimental Frenzy. Most shells looked similar to the one used by Etienne Busson to win Grand Prix Lille. There was only one player on Big Red at the Pro Tour: Ben Weitz. Still, he had put a lot of work into his take on mono-red, and it paid off for him with a 7-3 record there. He stuck with the archetype for an 11-4 finish at Grand Prix Milwaukee and a 7-1 result in the MOCS. Since then, more and more players have picked up the deck. This weekend, the Goblin Chainwhirler decks were split equally between ten Mono-Red Aggro and ten Big Red players.

Even though it's a mono-red deck, Big Red plays a much slower and grindier game than Mono-Red Aggro. A stand-out card is Treasure Map. The artifact helps smooth your draws early on, digging for lands and finding key removal spells. Once it transforms, the Treasures can either generate card advantage, turn on Arch of Orazca, and/or produce mana to be sunk into Siege-Gang Commander or an enormous game-winning Banefire. Many games are won by a Banefire for X=10, all fueled by Treasure Map. Since there is no Abrade or other efficient answer to Treasure Map in the current Standard, the artifact has proven to be one of the premier card advantage and mana ramp engines in the format.

The selection of threats also give the deck better matchups against Izzet Drakes and Boros Aggro than Mono-Red Aggro would have. Siege-Gang Commander basically spells game over against Boros Aggro and is excellent against decks filled with spot removal. Meanwhile, Dire Fleet Daredevil can flash back an Izzet Drakes player's own Lava Coil to exile one of their fliers. If you want to learn more about the deck, then I recommend checking out the Deck Guide by Ben Weitz himself.

Several Sweet Brews Showcasing Diversity

Although the majority of teams settled on established archetypes, there were still several players who took off-beat strategies to the tournament. My favorite was the Chromatic Black deck that could generate massive amounts of mana with Cabal Stronghold and then combine Chromatic Lantern and Mastermind's Acquisition to cast various off-color finishers from the sideboard. Another player registered Golgari Undergrowth, which uses Stitcher's Supplier to set up Molderhulk, which in turn gets back Memorial to Folly to keep the value chain going. Yet another player showed up with Grixis Dragons, featuring Sarkhan, Fireblood; Dragon's Hoard; Nicol Bolas, the Ravager; and more.

If you're curious about any of these decks, then you will be able to find all 222 Team Unified Standard decklists on the coverage page Sunday, once the Top 8 is in progress.

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