STANDARD, WEEK BY WEEK

Posted in GRAND PRIX SANTIAGO 2014 - COVERAGE - EVENTS on November 2, 2014

By Rich Hagon

Rich Hagon combines a deep knowledge of the players of the Pro Tour with a passionate love of the game. He's a regular commentator for Pro Tour and Grand Prix live video coverage, and is the official Pro Tour Statistician. He has been covering Magic events since 2006.

Whatever comes our way over the next couple of months, the current Standard has already delivered a ton of awesome. With each passing week, we've seen improvements, metagame shifts, the emergence of new strategies (particularly out of the Sideboard), and a format that continues to show outstanding diversity. With Grand Prix Santiago the fifth link in a chain that stretches back to the StarCityGames Open Series in Indianapolis, it's time to take a look at how Standard has evolved, and where it might go next.

Week 'Zero' – SCG Open, Indianapolis

We have to take care with the data we use from Week 'Zero'. It seems like Khans of Tarkir had been legal in Standard for approximately 14 seconds before the start of round one of the SCG event, and that inevitably leads to a very unusual and unrepresentative metagame. For one thing, players don't like change. They've had success with a deck, and they believe that they can continue to have success with a deck. That leads to an over-representation of 'old' (read: Theros Standard) decks. The second factor is card availability. Simply, not everyone has access to all the cards they'd ideally like, and that in turn leads to cards that are in trade binders being favored over those that aren't. And the third pillar of this particular triple whammy is that even those players who do embrace change are unlikely to be truly creating masterpieces right off the bat.

That's a lot of ways to say that the results from Week 'Zero' don't necessarily mean much. They do mean something, however. Samuel Valentine won with Abzan Midrange, and faced another Abzan Midrange deck in the final. The interesting choices were an Ashen Rider, a couple of Necropolis Fiend, and 3 Nyx Weaver, which seems to be coming back into fashion this week. There's also a quasi-random Empty the Pits. Although nominally the same Midrange archetype, the second place deck of William Comminos looked very different – a full suite of Elspeth, Sun's Champion, 4 Fleecemane Lion, 3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos, plus a serious chunk of removal that included a mix of Bile Blight, Abzan Charm, Hero's Downfall, and Utter End.

Elsewhere in the field, there was a fair amount of buzz around the Jeskai Ascendancy Combo played by Andrew Baeckstrom, who not only recently won the TCGPlayer 50K tournament, but will be representing Team USA at the World Magic Cup in Nice next month. Everyone knew before Khans came out that Jeskai Ascendancy represented a seismic shift in Modern. The question was whether it could do the same in Standard, and the next part of that story takes us to...

Week One – Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, Honolulu

Even now, four weeks removed from the Big One, it's hard to get a true handle on what kind of Standard we were seeing. Here's a reminder of the Top 8:

Sean McLaren – Jeskai
Ivan Floch – Blue-Black Control
Ari Lax – Abzan Midrange
Mike Sigrist – Abzan Aggro
Ondrej Strasky – Jeskai
Thiago Saporito – Abzan Midrange
Yuuya Watanabe – Jeskai

Lee Shi Tian – Jeskai Ascendancy Combo

Ari Lax

So, it's possible to spin this two ways. You can look at the Top 8, and see five distinct decks – Abzan Aggro, Abzan Midrange, Jeskai, Blue-Black Control, and Jeskai Ascendancy Combo. That's clearly not untrue, and it hints at diversity. Once you include all the lists that put up a 7-3 record or better in Standard at the Pro Tour, you get these additional archetypes to play with:

Black-Green Devotion
Esper Control
Mardu Midrange
Mardu Planeswalkers
Naya Midrange
Red-Green Monsters
Red-White Tokens
Temur Monsters
Unwritten Devotion

We can quibble over exact nomenclature, but let's stick to the big picture. We leave Honolulu with the sense of almost anything being viable in new Standard. But wait, let's look at the Top 8 another way:

There were, in fact, only two decks in the Top 8! One was Abzan (which had some flavorful distinctions between Sigrist's 'Aggro' and the other 'Midrange' lists). The other was Jeskai. Then all that's left are the single copy of Jeskai Ascendancy that sorta got the job done (and would largely fail to do so in the future), and a Blue-Black Control list that the previous Pro Tour Champion, Ivan Floch, vowed he couldn't win with – and he was right! So which is it? An open format where anything is possible? Or a two-powerhouse format where you need a very good reason not to be Abzan or Jeskai? That I don't have a definitive answer for you isn't meant to be a cop-out. Rather, it's meant to show that there are very different interpretations to be made on the data coming out of each major event.

Week Two – Grand Prix Los Angeles

While the SCG Open event had its own unique pressures, a different set of factors would be at work in Los Angeles, six days after Ari Lax's victory over Sean McLaren in Honolulu. Many of the PT field were in attendance, and they had a fundamental question to answer – did they really like their PT decks? For some, L.A. was the chance for redemption, a chance to prove that the deck they'd put so much faith in was indeed up to scratch, and that they hadn't blown their chances in the Pro Tour through poor deck choice, but just the vagaries of tournament Magic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were those players who couldn't wait to bin their horrible 75 from Honolulu and make a fresh assault on the fledgling Standard. In this camp sat Ivan Floch and Stanislav Cifka. Pro Tour Champions both, they were eager to jettison the Blue-Black Control list, and came to Los Angeles with a Black-Green deck that would variously be called 'Constellation', 'Enchantress', or, depending on the specific build, 'Black-Green Devotion'. All flavors would run the signature pair of Eidolon of Blossoms and Doomwake Giant.

Then there was inertial. For many Pros, the desire to sit and test for 3-4 more days, coupled with lengthy travel days to return from Hawaii, was distinctly lacking. Their replaying of their Honolulu deck was more a symptom of their unwillingness to test rather than any especial affinity for what they played. As for the rest of the field, the temptation to play a 75 card-for-card copy of something from Honolulu was very strong. Competing against that was the enticing prospect of an at-least-vaguely defined Metagame, a Metagame that could be attacked if it could first be understood. So what happened in Los Angeles? Here's the Top 8:

Daniel Scheid – Red-Green Monsters
Denis Ulanov – Boss Sligh
Eric Pei – Boss Sligh
Carlo Falcis – Abzan Midrange
Tamada Ryoichi – Abzan Aggro
Brad Nelson – Mardu Tokens
Isaac Sears – Abzan Aggro
Christopher Goldsmith – Abzan Midrange

At this point we could broadly say that Abzan was top of the pile, and that a core package of Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Siege Rhino, and Wingmate Roc was starting to emerge. Goblin Rabblemaster was seeing a ton of play, and Brad Nelson was doing much flag-waving for a going-wide strategy that employed Hordeling Outburst.

Once you stepped outside the Top 8, however, you could see a format in huge flux. If you were Aggro, there were day two players running Jeskai, Jeskai Tokens, Warriors, Rabble Red, RW Aggro, RW Aggro/Burn, RW Heroic, Temur Aggro – that's on top of the headliners Abzan Aggro, Boss Sligh, and the winning Green-Red Monsters. Abzan, Mardu, and Sultai all had Midrange versions on day two, as well as Sidisi-Whip, which would be such a big player for Christian Seibold in Stockholm a week later. Floch and Cifka ran their Constellation Green-Black decks, and there was even room for a Villainous Wealth or two.

As for Control, Floch's negative views were likely reinforced. There was still Blue-Black Perilous Vault Control (Owen Turtenwald ran this, as he had a week earlier in Hawaii), but also Blue-White, Red-White, Mardu, and full-on Esper Control. None were especially successful. That left Combo, and while you could argue about the designation of Blue-white Heroic as a Combo deck (although Jan van der Vegt would describe it thus in Stockholm), you couldn't mistake the fact that Jeskai Ascendancy wasn't getting the job done, and we could expect to see it almost vanish entirely during...

Week Three – Grand Prix Stockholm

Let's start with the Top 8:

Thiago Rodrigues – Abzan Midrange
Lukas Blohon – Green-Black Constellation
Matteo Cirigiliano – Green-Black Constellation
Matej Zatlkaj – Jeskai
Einar Baldvinsson – Temur Monsters
Alexander Pasgaard – Jeskai
Christian Seibold – Sidisi Whip
Giovanni Rosi – Boss Sligh

Matej Zatlkaj

A Top 8, then , split down the middle between four Aggro decks and four Midrange. Combo? Gone. Control? Gone. Who's the Beatdown was quickly apparent for the most part, and the final saw the Icelandic Einar Baldvinsson take his Temur Monsters into battle against Matej Zatlkaj with Jeskai. It was widely expected that Zatlkaj would have lost his semifinal to Thiago Rodrigues, who had already beaten him in the Swiss. Once in the final, he despatched Baldvinsson with ease 2-0. So apparently the Aggro versus Midrange debate would be finely balanced, but what happens when we add in the data from the next best, placing 9th-16th?

Sidisi Whip...Abzan Midrange...White-Red Aggro...Mardu Midrange...Abzan Midrange...Mardu Midrange...Mono-Red...Sidisi-Whip.

That's quite the grindfest, with six out of the next eight filling Midrange roles. It now looks as if the Aggro decks had to really struggle to overcome the sea of Midrange, and in a sense that Midrange handle is a misnomer. If there's no true Control deck in the format – and the evidence of Stockholm is that there really doesn't seem to be – then those Midrange decks are Control.

It's worth highlighting the astonishing match between Christian Seibold (Sidisi-Whip) and Lukas Blohon (Green-Black Constellation). With both set up for a long-ish game, a true slugfest emerged. Seibold was as many as 68-2 ahead on life, before Blohon stabilized, reached 55-54, then 94-24, before dying to decking the turn before he would have killed Seibold! Quite apart from the entertainment value, it showcased what can happen when neither deck is especially concerned with how it wins, but with how it doesn't lose. Blohon would have his revenge in the quarterfinals, but there were numerous tables near the top of the standings on day two that were jampacked with permanents.

Week Four – Grand Prix Santiago

And so we come to week four, a week in which both Combo and Control look to be largely absent, where Jeskai is the latest top dog, and where midrange Abzan and Sultai-ish decks abound. But what did we learn from the Chilean metagame here this weekend? For that, it's time to turn you over to my colleague Josh Bennett, who has spent his Sunday morning analysing the day two metagame. What comes next? That's for you, the players, to decide.