The Evolution of Standard

Posted in GRAND PRIX BRUSSELS 2015 on November 14, 2015

By Frank Karsten

The Standard metagame is always changing and marching ever onward. As you can see in the following picture, the top archetypes have experienced some notable shifts in popularity over the course of the past few weeks.

The numbers are based on the Day 2 metagame breakdowns at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Grand Prix Quebec City, Grand Prix Indianapolis, and the StarcityGames Open event in Philadelphia. I limited the chart to the seven most popular archetypes, which in total comprise around 80% of the field, but each individual archetype's share of the metagame has changed substantially from week to week. In this primer, I'll analyze these changes, the reasons behind them, and developments in card choices.

Daniel Lanthier's Dark Jeskai – Grand Prix Quebec City 2015 champion

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Dark Jeskai (which, in the "collapsed" categorization that I used, includes three-color Jeskai decks as well) was the second-most-popular Standard deck in Day 2 of the Pro Tour. Due to all the Shock effects and strong sideboard options, it has a good matchup against Atarka Red, which was the most popular deck there. Although there was much initial disagreement about the right way to build Dark Jeskai, the Command-heavy version that Jon Finkel and Owen Turtenwald piloted to the Top 8 became the default.

The weekend after the Pro Tour, several pros at Grand Prix Quebec City proclaimed that this version of Dark Jeskai was the "best" deck in Standard. Dan Lanthier confirmed it by winning the trophy, and the deck continued to put up good, stable numbers after.

But small tweaks always happen. Recently, many Dark Jeskai players have put back Disdainful Stroke into the sideboard and have started to replace Dispel with Negate. The main reason is that Planeswalkers, most notably Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, are the deck's main enemies. Other oft-seen adjustments are to replace Nomad Outpost with another land or to replace Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker with a second Utter End, a Jeskai Charm, a third Kolaghan's Command, or a Dragonlord Silumgar.

Brent Clawson's Abzan – Grand Prix Indianapolis 2015 champion

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Abzan was not very popular at the Pro Tour, possibly because players feared the matchup against red aggro decks or were scared of running into a sea of Valorous Stances. But Kazuyuki Takimura wasn't afraid, found a well-tuned version, and managed to win the whole thing. The fact that Silkwrap (and not Valorous Stance) has become the white removal spell of choice is good news for Siege Rhino. Abzan also has the bonus that Anafenza, the Foremost can provide a free win against decks based around Rally the Ancestors and/or Liliana, Heretical Healer.

Since the Pro Tour, Abzan has been the number one deck in the Day 2 metagame breakdowns at all major events, and it turns out to be tough to beat. Brent Clawson won Grand Prix Indianapolis with a list that was very similar to Takimura's original base, which has proven to be very solid. In fact, the Top 4 decks at the last SCG Open event were all Abzan. As Fabrizio Anteri, who won Grand Prix London 2015 with Abzan, said yesterday evening during the Standard seminar at the event site: "A lot of people are expecting Abzan to be the most popular and most powerful deck. The deck doesn't have many weaknesses."

Although there is not a lot of variety between Abzan lists, some players have experimented with Heir of the Wilds over Hangarback Walker; a small blue splash for Stubborn Denial, Disdainful Stroke, or Dispel; and Surge of Righteousness or Tragic Arrogance in the sideboard.

Scott Kirkwood's Red-Green Landfall – Grand Prix Indianapolis 2015 Top 8

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There are two main red aggro variants: Atarka Red (which features Zurgo Bellstriker and other small creatures in addition to Wild Slash) and R/G Landfall (which instead contains Scythe Leopard, Den Protector, and extra Windswept Heath). Atarka Red was the most-played deck in Day 2 of the Pro Tour, but overall it put up an unspectacular performance. R/G Landfall won a larger percentage of its matches at the Pro Tour, possibly because it has a better late-game presence and because its green creatures can shrug off Surge of Righteousness. As a result, many aggro players have moved to R/G Landfall. Although Atarka Red is still more popular on Magic Online, R/G Landfall has gradually become the prevalent red aggro variant in Day 2s of major Standard events.

As a whole, however, Red Aggro decks have fallen out of favor. One reason is that opponents have gotten a better understanding of how to play against the Become Immense plus Temur Battle Rage combo. Another reason is the rise of decks such as Esper Tokens that have a good matchup against the red decks. But as Matej Zatlkaj said yesterday during the Standard seminar: "Atarka Red has been on the downswing lately, and I think people may be skimping on the hate against red decks. So it may be well-positioned this weekend."

Regarding card choices, Scott Kirkwood's list above is very similar to the list that Corey Baumeister piloted to a great Standard record at the Pro Tour, except for the addition of Roast to the sideboard. This is a logical response to the rise of Abzan.

Valentin Mackl's Bant Megamorph – Grand Prix Indianapolis 2015 Top 8

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G/W Megamorph was quite popular after the Pro Tour, mainly because it boasted a good matchup against Dark Jeskai. There were several versions of the deck. We saw Autumn Burchett put up a 9-1 Standard record with Knight of the White Orchid and Archangel of Tithes rather than casting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Hangarback Walker. We saw Michael Majors, Brian Braun-Duin, and several other players put up good results with Avatar of the Resolute instead of Hidden Dragonslayer and a Warden of the First Tree. The lists with a red splash performed poorly, however.

So what happened after the Pro Tour? Well, we already saw many Jeskai players move to the dark side, but in a later episode, even the most harmless-looking G/W Megamorph players revealed their true Gungan colors and replaced their Deathmist Raptors and Nissa, Vastwood Seer by the more powerful Anafenza, the Foremost and Siege Rhino. Now don't get me wrong: some players (like Valentin Mackl) stuck with the light megamorph theme and the more consistent mana base, but G/W Megamorph took a plunge in popularity after the Pro Tour.

For players like Mackl, a small blue splash has become the norm: Evolutionary Leap and Tragic Arrogance—popular sideboard inclusions in the two-color lists—have been cut to make room for Disdainful Stroke, and other players added Negate to their sideboards as well. These cards help a lot against decks with Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Rally the Ancestors, which would otherwise be poor matchups.

Jake Mondello's Eldrazi Ramp – Grand Prix Quebec City 2015 Top 8

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Hardly anyone dared to play Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger at the Pro Tour. There were a few brave souls like Victoriano Lim, who put up a 7-3 record in Standard with a list that aimed to buy enough time with Languish and Crux of Fate, but overall it wasn't a big factor. A key problem was that there are not enough reliable early ramp cards. Rattleclaw Mystic is nice, but it's no Rampant Growth because it dies too easily to a removal spell.

In Quebec City, Jake Mondello showed what the good version of the deck was: He registered a list that was originally designed by Mike Sigrist, and he crushed everyone on his way to the Top 8. Sylvan Scrying for Shrine of the Forsaken Gods is kind of like a Rampant Growth, and it can even fetch another threat via Sanctum of Ugin. This version of Eldrazi Ramp can go over the top against slow, controlling decks like Dark Jeskai or Esper Control (unless they dedicate enough sideboard slots and go as far as including Infinite Obliteration) although it is typically too slow to beat red aggro decks.

Because the deck is relatively new, many brewers are trying out different builds. Different splashes, or no splash at all, are possible. Some lists have Rattleclaw Mystic in the main deck and Jaddi Offshoot in the sideboard; some have explored Nissa's Renewal as an alternative ramp option; others have cut the fourth Hangarback Walker for the fourth Ulamog; and so on. In the sideboard, not everyone is playing Ruin Processor, the full set of Seismic Rupture, and/or Nissa, Vastwood Seer: Jaddi Offshoot (if not already in the main deck), Gaea's Revenge (against Esper Control), and Void Winnower (for the mirror match) have also seen play. It will be interesting to see the card choices in the best-performing Eldrazi Ramp decks in Brussels.

Patrick Chapin's Esper Control – Grand Prix Indianapolis 2015 Top 8

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Esper Control comes in many variants: it can be based around Dragons, around Planeswalkers, or around more traditional control elements. At the Pro Tour, Esper Dragons did very poorly: out of the 23 Esper Dragons players on Day 1, only one managed to go 7-3 or better in Standard. Dragonlord Ojutai is not the card you want in a sea of Crackling Dooms. Decks with lots of Planeswalkers and sweepers like Languish did well, but most of them transformed into the Esper Tokens list that we'll treat in the next category. Finally, heavy-control lists with Mage-Ring Network, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, and lots of countermagic and spot removal spells did great.

Reid Duke piloted such a deck to a decent record at the Pro Tour and followed it up with a Top 8 at Grand Prix Quebec. Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin then tweaked the list and piloted it to a Top 8 at Grand Prix Indianapolis. Right now, this is the style of Esper Control that is the norm.

Chapin's list has a few noteworthy one-ofs in the main deck: Surge of Righteousness (which will find a target against every major deck archetype except for G/W Megamorph) and Hallowed Moonlight (sweet tech against Hangarback Walker, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Rally the Ancestors). Most lists don't include these cards, however, and for example have a fourth Ojutai's Command, a second Murderous Cut, or a first Complete Disregard instead.

Raymond Perez Jr.'s Esper Tokens – Grand Prix Indianapolis 2015 Top 8

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It's not entirely clear what the dividing line between Esper Control and Esper Tokens is, but if I see Hangarback Walker, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Secure the Wastes and no traditional control elements like countermagic or sweepers, then I'll file it under Tokens. A deck like this doesn't care much about facing spot removal spells like Crackling Doom or Fiery Impulse.

There were similar decks at the Pro Tour—Team Eureka had a version with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy but no Secure the Wastes; Patrick Chapin had a list with sweepers and countermagic instead of Wingmate Roc; and Sam Black built a Bant version with Retreat to Emeria—but it took a while for the players to assemble all the pieces in a coherent, well-tuned list. It wasn't until Fabrizio Anteri came in second place at the Magic Online Championships Series on the weekend of Grand Prix Quebec City that the deck gained a following, and Raymond Perez Jr. took a list that was a couple cards off of Anteri's to a second place at Grand Prix Indianapolis.

Many different card choices are being explored. For instance, Duress and Stasis Snare instead of Ultimate Price. Another example is Arashin Cleric instead of End Hostilities in the sideboard.

These seven archetypes are not the only possibilities in Standard. There are plenty of build-around cards that have spawned entire archetypes by themselves, such as Rally the Ancestors, Liliana, Heretical Healer, Retreat to Emeria, Bring to Light, Hardened Scales, Thunderbreak Regent, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Woodland Wanderer. Decks built around these cards have already put up some results, and we'll be keeping a close watch on the decks at the top tables here in Brussels to discover the next breakout deck!