STANDARD METAGAME EXPECTATIONS AND PAYOFFS

Posted in PRO TOUR KHANS OF TARKIR - COVERAGE - EVENTS on October 13, 2014

By Marc Calderaro

It's no secret that the Return to Ravnica's rotation out and Khans of Tarkir's rotation in has shaken Standard to its core. We saw that three post-rotation archetypes were the most played decks overall (Jeskai Wins, Abzan Midrange, and Mardu Midrange). Then in Day Two we saw the rise of Jeskai Ascendancy Combo into the top three best-performing decks.

As far as older archetypes go, neither Black-Green Devotion, Green Devotion, nor Red-Green Monsters did much of note. While Green-Black Devotion had three players finished at least 7-3 in Standard, Red-Green Monsters had only one, and Green Devotion had zero, zip, goose eggs.

What do the pros think of how the format shook out? Team ChannelFireball The Pantheon didn't have any of their Unwritten Devotion decks at the top of the standings (though Makihito Mihara's own version did quite well). Everyone knew that Jeskai Wins was a real deck, but why couldn't these tuned decks beat it?

There were some surprises in the format that caused this unsettled feeling in metagame predictions. Though there were some nay-sayers (No. 17 Pat Chapin said the only thing that surprised him was that he thought Jeskai Wins would be the second-most played deck, but it was the first), but looking at the field, it's undeniable that something happened here. And I think it's a result of three things.

Courser of Kruphix's Disappearing Act

First, green decks seemed nowhere to be found. Jamie Parke said further, "there were just not many Courser of Kruphix at all." To the uninitiated, that might seem like a weird statement, as you stare at the Top 8 decklists showing eight copies of the green 2/4. But for those of us familiar with Standard, that number is an interesting surprise. It is likely that many people lost bets this weekend of how many copies of that there would be in the Top 8.

This unlikely disappearance changed how many people played controlling builds that prey on the green strategies. Boards weepers and Planeswalkers were out in full force expecting to counter tons of Polukranos, World Eater. Mardu Planeswalkers like the one Raphaël Lévy and Team Revolution played, and even big blue-based control decks. Greg Orange did great in Standard with Esper Control, and No. 2 Owen Turtenwald, Andrew Cuneo, No. 5 Ivan Floch, and Adrian Sullivan all did well with a deck that no one thought possible, Blue-Black Control.

Lots of testing was invalidated by an expected deck, unexpectedly exiting stage left. This leads to the second surprise

Blue-Black Control Is Actually Playable

Because of all the green some people though would show up, control came out in more force. And I'm sure it helped add to the demise of its favorite prey. But I talked to basically all the testing groups, and very few of them had worked with that color combination.

"We just didn't think it was any good at all," Brad Nelson told me. I think there was an assumption that Elspeth, Sun's Champion was such a mainstay in the last format, there was no way a control deck could survive without using it at the top end. But Pearl Lake Ancient seemed to be just good enough. Apparently returning lands that gain you life or let you scry can actually be of use. And Prognostic Sphinx was an all-star, blocking beaters all day long.

The appearance of the Blue-Black Control deck was a giant spoiler for many decks that had assumed it didn't exist. Nelson was convinced it's the only bad match-up for his Red-White Transforming Tokens deck. It's aggressive in the first game, then can play board control in the second and/or third. But neither version interacts on the axis that Blue-Black does. It really stirred up things everywhere. Decks that thought they wouldn't have to deal with counterspells did, and were punished severely for it.

This being said, even the pilots of the deck, one of whom finished in the Top 8, doesn't actually think the deck is good. "It's really, really bad," Floch said of his own deck that got him his second Pro Tour Top 8 in a row. It's likely not a coincidence that the best performers with the deck are also some of the best players in the world. This might not work well at your local FNM.

Few Respected Jeskai Ascendancy

The last big surprise was the resilience of Jeskai Ascendancy Combo. This one didn't surprise everyone, but it sure surprised some. Many players told me, even up to the day of the event, that the deck just wasn't resilient enough to win. As a result, not only did they not play the deck, but they figured no one else would either. But some people didn't get that don't-play-this memo, including Hall of Fame member Luis Scott-Vargas and No. 16 Lee Shi Tian.

"We weren't exactly sure how good that deck and the other Jeskai deck would be," said Scott-Vargas. But they thought that Jeskai Ascendancy Combo could have been must better than Jeskai Wins might have been. So some of them suited up the combo. Of the ChannelFireball team only Eric Froehlich did 7-3 or better in Standard, but another player used the combo to dramatically whisk himself into the Top 8 in memorable fashion—Hong Kong player Lee Shi Tian.

Much like the Blue-Black Control deck, it's likely Jeskai Ascendancy isn't the best deck in the format—it might not even be that good—but if you're not prepared for it, it will kill you out of nowhere.

But as (8) Shaun McLaren showed, if you are afraid of it, you can beat it. Though McLaren went with a more tried-and-true Jeskai Wins deck, he believed so much in the power of the combo that he dedicated much of his sideboard to cards that could combat the deck. Handily dismantling Lee in the quarterfinals showed that a healthy respect for the deck can do wonders for your win rates. And Ari Lax too wisely had Erase sitting in his sideboard for just such an occasion. It might not be a surprise both those decks are in the finals.

Looking in extremely broad strokes at the final standings, anyone can say, "I knew that." The two most popular, known decks—Abzan Midrange and Jeskai Wins—faced off in the finals. But the road to top, the specific card choices, and even the deck choices themselves were much more nuanced than simply the last left standing.

The Pro Tours after format rotations have been getting better and better. There's only so much anyone can predict what will show up and what's actually good. And pretty soon, those events will be happening twice a year.

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