Unless you've been living under a Barrage of Boulders, you know that this Standard format is one of the most diverse in a long while. Every deck type is played in one form or another; every clan is played in one form or another; and just about everything that's good, can have a deck built around it.
One of the only truisms of the format is that midrange is good. So if you aren't going to be straight midrange, a good strategy is to do one of three things: Go over, under, or around. Decks like big control, or "big midrange" (like Sidisi Whip) try to out-advantage midrange with an all-out slugfest. Decks like Boss Sligh try to go under—stealing 20 points of damage before midrange can get its shoes on. And "around" are decks that have a lot of combo potential, like White-Blue Heroic, Astronomer Ascendancy, or even Jeskai Ascendancy Tokens, that can deal oodles of damage out of nowhere, even if they get a slow start.
I talked to representatives from a couple archetypes around the Day 2 field to see what strategy people were doing—Beat them? Join them? Over, under, or around?
Abzan Aggro – (13) Eric Froehlich
The most name-heavy deck at this tournament is definitely Abzan Aggro. People playing it in Day 2 include: (8) William Jensen, (13) Eric Froehlich, (21) Tom Martell, (1) Owen Turtenwald, and Pro Tour Magic 2015 Top 8er Matt Sperling (who is currently the sole undefeated player) are all on the build.
"Actually, we all decided to play it independently," Froehlich said. This deck choice is a shift from most of the season, when Abzan Midrange was clearly most of the field. What caused the shift? Earlier in the weekend, Froehlich already talked about the variability of Standard. He went further now, saying that you "can play what you want to play," and that "proactive is a good place to be." Froehlich is known for liking when he can play to his preferences, and this format has given that to him.
He continued, "I wanted a deck that could consistently turn on Wingmate Roc, and that allowed me to play four of them." Froehlich said that Wingmate Roc is key to a lot of match-ups, as is, of course, the obvious—Siege Rhino. "I fought it for a long time. I mean, I knew he was good, but I didn't realize how good he was."
Froehlich talked about this format being driven by midrange, so the way to rip yourself from the herd is to go over or under them. With a bevy of two-drops and nary a Sylvan Caryatid in sight, Eric decided with the under route. And it certainly has its advantages. "Caryatid on turn six is awful; Rakshasa Deathdealer is actually pretty good."
This "under" strategy has been going well this weekend. Not only were all these pros on the deck, but it has by far the most representation in the Day 2 field, with almost 30 players on the deck.
Abzan Midrange – Paul Cheon
In the beat 'em/join 'em question, ChannelFireball big-shot Paul Cheon chose the latter. He's running the more traditional Abzan Midrange strategy—but just barely. "I'm playing maindeck End Hostilities and Duneblast. It's basically control with Siege Rhino." He found a way to play the midrange deck, while skewing to go over the top, a super-hedgy strat.
Cheon stayed true and traditional for a very good reason: "It's hard to hate out." This metagame has shown time and again that Siege Rhino is a card you want to be playing. And Cheon, who generally skews control, has worked within in that parameter to play the most powerful card, while still staying the course that fits his playstyle.
He's quite happy that Abzan Aggro is the top dog here; he's happy to play that match-up again and again. "They have to play creatures; I have a lot of creature removal." Though he considered a different "over" deck, Sidisi Whip, he said simply, "maindeck Anafenza, the Foremost is bad." By playing a deck that can't be "hated out" Cheon positioned himself to have decent match-ups all over.
Though it's still a tougher game against hyper-aggressive strategies, those are few and far between here—so Cheon's "over" strategy has been reaping the rewards.
Jeskai Ascendancy Tokens – David Ochoa
"I'm just playing this because "Wrapter" [No. 16–ranked Josh Utter-Leyton] said it was interesting." He smiled. "I'll trust Wrapter." Humorously both Utter-Leyton and Pat Cox, who are playing the same deck, didn't make it to the second day. However, seventeen other players did, making this archetype the second-most played in the Day 2 field.
"This build is basically White-Red Tokens [the deck No. 18 Sam Black is playing] splashing Treasure Cruise and Jeskai Ascendancy." The deck is basically an "around" strategy for beating midrange. It can go under it, but it can also skirt certain situations then win out of nowhere. "I killed something with two 1/1 tokens from 15 life," Ochoa said. A really tricky, well-placed Raise the Alarm can surprisingly break a game open. Both that and Hordeling Outburst are good against "traditional removal" as Ochoa put it. And so, like Mardu Midrange, you can capitalize on opponents' cards like Hero's Downfall that are terrible against tokens.
But it wasn't all sunshine about the deck from Ochoa. "It feels underpowered right now; maybe I should just be playing Siege Rhino." He continued along this path, "I like feeling clever, but at what cost? I mean, I like playing good cards, and Raise the Alarm is not a good card."
"Honestly, we were between Dragon Mantle and Elspeth, Sun's Champion for our fifteenth card in the sideboard." He cocked his head sideways. "That's not really where you want to be with a deck."
Despite Ochoa's reservations, a large percentage of the field is performing very well with the new top-played Jeskai build. Only the end of the day will prove if it has some sea legs.
Abzan Whip – AJ Sacher
Magic streaming, personality, and theorist AJ Sacher brought a deck that tries to trump the midrange match, without sacrificing his aggressive strategies. "[Abzan Whip] has the powerful parts of Sidisi Whip and Constellations, but you can also just Siege Rhino people out." The Whip of Erebos plays the same role that it does in those big-game decks, giving late-game virtual card advantage and board presence. But with some of the powerhouse efficient plays like Siege Rhino, it's not like White-Red Tokens will just aggro him out.
And plus he gets to play with one of his favorite removal spells in the format: "Utter End is completely insane right now," he said. "There are Gods, Whips, Ascendancy, Planeswalkers—all types of crazy permanents."
But some of his match-ups are less than perfect. When I asked about his Abzan Aggro match, all he could say was, "Terrible!" But with the elasticity of the deck itself, and then the sideboard shores up certain games, there is still play for those matches. "By far it's the worst against [Sidisi Whip and Black-Green Constellation]." Because he's hedging in the maindeck, the decks that are devoted to going over the top will always trump. But as those decks go out of favor, Abzan Whip gets better and better positioned.
Abzan Whip, like Cheon's "Big Abzan" is a way to still play to traditional strong suits and still attempt to go over the top.
White-Red Tokens – (11) Sam Black
No. 11 Sam Black wasn't exactly sure which deck he would be playing this weekend. The White-Red Tokens deck he played about both the Magic World Championship and StarCityGames Invitational, or the flavor of the week, Abzan Aggro. "I played a lot of games on MTGO [with Abzan Aggro], and I was unsure how to sideboard." He continued, "I brought both decks this weekend, but when I saw basically everyone was playing Abzan Aggro, and the [White-Red Tokens] matchup is good against that," well, it was an elementary decision from there.
Like Froehlich, Black chose to go under the midrange beasts. But as always, it's a bet. Are midrangers skewing more aggressive, or more controlling? However, there have been a good amount of people converting into the second day with the White-Red strategy. So it's fair to say a deck that spews out early-game beats is a pretty good strategy.
The deck could get better with the release of Fate Reforged, but that's not really something Sam's thinking about. "I hope to be playing something totally different." He laughed again, "I try not to get too attached to decks."
His words are well headed in this format that people have been calling "possibly the best Standard format ever." Each week has brought us new surprises, new avenues, and most importantly, new decks. Here are just five of the top-performing archetypes going into Day 2, but there are at least fourteen more out there, tearing it up.
Chose your weapon, chose it well; but make sure it's a weapon you enjoy.