The State of Standard: 7,000 Miles of Magic
The weekend of November 17 was jam packed with Magic the Gathering Standard tournament action. The StarCityGames Open Series visited Seattle (SCGSEA) with nearly four-hundred players in attendance. Three-thousand or so miles east, Grand Prix Charleston (GPChar) kicked off with 661 players. Another 4,000-some miles east, and the largest tournament of the three, Grand Prix Bochum (GPBorchum), hosted 1,731 players.
This article focuses on the combined top 16 decks of these three tournaments and will examine the strategies and archetypes used. Helping me go deep on a few of the more interesting decks played is my fellow ManaDeprived author Jay Lansdaal. Look for Jay’s deck breakdowns in the cleverly titled “Jay Talking” sections below. Then I’ll close things out with a look at some removal options in the current metagame.
The following graph displays the deck strategies used by the top 16 of GPBochum, GPChar, and SCGSEA:
The weekend’s results point to a highly aggressive Standard metagame: 42% of the total top 16 decks were aggro strategies, and that number jumps to 71% when you include the creature-heavy midrange decks. The three tournaments had pretty similar results with six or seven aggro decks and four or five midrange decks in the top 16 of each.
Digging further into these results, we can see that creatures are king: the top 16 decks across all three venues averaged twenty-six creatures per deck. This does not include cards that produce creature tokens like Lingering Souls (37 total), Moorland Haunt (21 total), and Garruk, Primal Hunter (18 total), or tokens created by creatures like Thragtusk (85 total) and Huntmaster of the Fells (23 total).
Midrange decks dominated the Standard metagame when Return to Ravnica was released in early October, but the march toward aggression has been underway this last month. We saw this in the SCG Open Series, and the top-16 results of Grand Prix Bochum andCharlestonfit right into this evolution of the metagame. The following graph shows the trends in strategy used by top 16 decks at SCG Opens since Return to Ravnica was released.
As you can see, the blue aggro line trends upward from three decks at SCG New Orleans on October 27 to seven at SCG Seattle this past weekend. Aggressive decks have come on strong thanks to their ability to race midrange decks like Jund. Playing creatures such as Silverblade Paladin and Sublime Archangel and pump spells like Rancor and Selesnya Charm has allowed aggro decks to avoid getting outclassed by midrange creatures if they can’t close the deal fast enough. The current aggro archetypes have the further advantage of being two color semi-tribal decks that can play three to four Cavern of Souls without sacrificing much. This helps their matchups against blue-based decks playing counter-spells such as UWR Tempo, UW Flash, and Bant Control.
Midrange decks took a nose dive after SCGINDY and SCGNOLA, where they comprised half of the top 16, to only three in SCGSTL. This corresponded to a large increase in counter magic deployed against Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, and other threats.
The UWR Tempo deck that won SCG Cincinnati in the hands of Todd Anderson the first weekend after rotation evolved from a midrange deck into a control deck. It used to be the case that the deck tried to land a Geist of Saint Traft on turn three and later turned to Restoration Angel and Thundermaw Hellkite if needed. It then utilized heavy counterspells and other threat mitigation like Azorius Charm and Unsummon to protect its current win condition and cruise to victory. The deck eventually picked up Runechanter’s Pike to improve Geist’s survivability and match up better with Thragtusk and Centaur Healer. Most recently, it morphed into today’s UW Flash deck, which dropped Geist altogether in favor of the faster and sturdier Augur of Bolas.
The share of control decks has been pretty steady, averaging about three in each top 16 of the weekly SCG Opens. Bant Control has been the most consistent control deck of late and won SCGSEA. The deck relies on control elements (Supreme Verdict and counters for example) to get to an endgame powered by the massive card advantage and stabilization of Sphinx’s Revelation. It finishes off the opponent with planeswalkers or creatures like Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, and Angel of Serenity. Check out Jay Lansdaal’s article on building a control deck for more on this archetype.
Let’s move from strategies used to the deck archetypes played in the combined top-16 results. This next graph is a breakdown of the most-played archetypes. Only decks with two or more pilots making a top 16 are displayed.
Reanimator had the most top-16 finishes across the tournaments with seven. Reanimator players finished fourth at SCGSEA and took down GPBochum. A pair of UW Flash pilots made the top 16 in each tournament for a total of six, and Selesnya colored decks claimed nine spots in a top 16 between GW Aggro (4) and the faster more tribal WG Humans (5) archetypes. These decks have done well over the last couple weeks at SCG Opens and on MTGO, so there should be no surprises (aside from some new tech here and there).
Zombies, on the other hand, had all but disappeared from the SCG Open scene until SCG Open:Dallasa on November 10 and experienced a competitive resurgence with five top-16 finishers last weekend. A BG version finished third at SCGSEA, and BR variants finished third and fourth inBochum, as well as first and third inCharleston.
Jund Midrange once dominated the Standard metagame but has fallen off in the face of decks built to beat it. Aggressive UW and WG Humans decks swing in under Thragtusk and race it. UW Flash counters Thragtusk and other threats, flies over ground-pounders with Restoration Angel, and turns any creature into a first-striking machine with Runechanter’s Pike. Jund seemed alive and well inGermany, however, taking three of the top 16 spots at GPBochum. This is most likely due to fewer overall UW Flash and Control decks at that tournament.
The time has come to zero in on some of the decks played at GP Bochum and GP Charleston. For a closer look at the top 16 decks of SCGSEA please check out my Standard Analysis article from earlier this week.
I’ll kick it off with Zombies. The status of the Zombies archetype has been at the top of a lot of player’s minds since rotation. It rode into Standard on a tidal wave of hype and expectation only to crash headlong into a barrier of hate cards. I’d separate questions and comments I’ve seen over the last couple months into three stages.
- Stage 1 – Fear: “Zombies is going to be the best deck post rotation by far! You better be prepared and play four Pillar of Flame maindeck.”
- Stage 2 – Regret: “I wish I hadn’t bought all of these Zombie cards since the deck is horrible now!”
- Stage 3 – Anticipation: “Is Zombies ready for a comeback now that people aren’t playing Pillar and Terminus?”
Cards like Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger are extremely powerful and synergistic, and Zombies tribal definitely has the tools necessary to formulate a strong game plan. Therefore, Zombie decks will be worth consideration while Innistrad block remains legal in Standard. Wizards of the Coast knew this, of course, and has printed plenty of sources of zombie repellent. The success of the archetype will depend largely on the current metagame.
It’s a bit of an arms race, and we’ve seen it unfold in the last couple of months. At first, the Zombie menace was feared and Pillar of Flame was an automatic four-of in every deck that can even splash red. Decks looked to play creatures that gain life and outclass the walking dead quickly, and midrange strategies rose to the top. This opened a vulnerability to counter magic and creatures like Restoration Angel that could exploit a lack of instant speed removal. Tempo decks and slower control decks gained metagame share. Decks that could play Cavern of Souls and race these decks then got an opening, which is where we are at now.
Cavern is now all over the place. There were twenty-nine copies played in 13 of the top 16 decks at SCGSEA. This was an increase of sixteen copies from SCG Dallas the prior week. Even more could be found in the top 16 decks of the Grand Prix tournaments: thirty-five at GPBochum (in 13 decks) and thirty-seven at GPChar (in 15 decks). Unsurprisingly, four of the five Zombie decks in a top 16 played four copies of Cavern of Souls. The other deck went with three.
I’ll turn now to Jay Lansdaal for a deeper dive into the BR Zombies deck played by Kamil Napierski at GP Bochum.
Jay Talking: BR Zombies
"BR Zombies by Kamil Napierski"
Though Jon Bolding won the GP in Charleston and Napierski’s list wasn’t even the highest BR Zombie finisher in GP Bochum, Napierski’s list is the most educational one. Where everyone thought Zombies was dead and buried, they proved to be… undead? This list is quite different from what we’ve seen before (unless you’ve been reading my articles), with some sweet Bloodthrone Vampire plus Mark of Mutiny shenanigans going on: steal your creature, hit you with it, and then sacrifice it to never give it back.
This list is strong right now because it is very good against public enemy #1, Thragtusk. Mark of Mutiny, Falkenrath Aristocrat, and Bloodthrone Vampire combined with Blood Artist give you a lot of extra reach that help mitigate the lifegain Thragtusk provides. These cards also allow you to steal it, sacrifice it, and get a bonus Beast token. Hellrider, which also played a prominent role in Bolding’s Grand Prix-winning decklist, assists with reach. Remember that Hellrider doesn’t have to attack for its ability to trigger, so feel free to suicide in those Gravecrawlers!
If people start preparing for this deck by playing more early blockers like Centaur Healer or chump blockers like Lingering Souls, feel free to take a page from Bolding’s book and add some Thundermaw Hellkites and the full suite of Knight of Infamys to your 75.
Three of the Reanimator lists that made a top 16 last weekend played Bant colors (WUG) and included a ramp or reanimate strategy featuring Somberwald Sage. Jay dives into how this deck works.
Jay Talking: Bant Reanimator
"Reani-Crater by Martin Jùza"
While Martin Juza was the one hoisting the trophy, this list was actually Brad Nelson’s, with some minor changes accounting for the expected metagame. In game 1, this Reani-Crater deck focuses on winning in one of two ways: through reanimating or ramping into Craterhoof Behemoth to turn a bunch of spirit tokens and mana dorks into flying and trampling monsters; or through using Gavony Township to turn the mana dorks into threats. In games two and three, it can shift gears completely, depending on the deck you are playing against. You could become the beatdown with Loxodon Smiters and Restoration Angels, you could become a “regular” reanimation strategy with Angel of Serenity, or you could become a midrange deck ramping into Thragtusks.
Because almost nobody is playing removal for cards like Somberwald Sage and the other mana dorks, this deck is very good right now. There is no Gut Shot in the format, and nobody has dared to touch Electrickery yet. Thus, the Reani-Crater deck is allowed to fire on all cylinders (it can ramp, beatdown, and kill you with giant Craterhoof turns). As soon as people start playing Bonfire of the Damned or other cheap sweepers again, expect the Angel of Serenitys to move back to the main or for the deck to return to a midrange backup plan with more resilient creatures like Centaur Healer and Restoration Angel.
WG Human decks are another aggressive strategy gaining popularity and success. This type of deck can thrive in an aggressive format as its creatures can match up well in combat. There are plenty of under-costed, highly aggressive creatures in Selesnya colors, many with first strike, and it’s relatively easy to throw trample into the mix. Three of the top 16 decks at GP Charleston were WG Humans, and Jay returns to give us the lowdown on one of them.
Jay Talking: WG Humans
"WG Humans by Peter Kelly"
Peter Kelly, who claimed no previous Magic accomplishments to this point, beat some well-known players to get to the top four of GP Charleston with this hyper-aggressive WG Humans list, and looking at the deck, I hope he will have more accomplishments to come.
A lean, mean, killing machine is how I would describe this deck. An incredibly low curve, a dangerously low land count (20), and a ridiculously high creature count (35) makes this one of the best Rancor decks in the current Standard. Kelly cuts down on his number of Sublime Archangel and Silverblade Paladin, previously sacred cows of the archetype, and does away with other three- and five-drops like Loxodon Smiter and Wolfir Silverheart. He was a man with a plan: he would kill his opponents before they knew what hit them.
With UW Flash, Reanimator, and Bant Control as big players, and small-creature removal at an all-time low, this deck took a lot of people by surprise with its four Thalia, Guardian of Thrabens, supported by another four Judge’s Familiar. This tag team slowed down the bigger decks, while pounding through other aggressive decks thanks to first strike and flying. Thanks to the full playset Knight of Glorys main and some Elite Inquisitors out of the board, the deck can hold its own against the return of the Zombie menace as well.
If people start preparing for this deck, you might want to go bigger again, like Kibler’s GW aggro deck did, or at the very least add some more Gavony Townships (but this probably means playing more lands).
We had a Delver of Secrets sighting at Grand Prix Bochum! You all remember that card, right? Well, he’s back in seventh place, piloted by Lukas Tajak. What was the game plan and could it continue? Jay is here to answer those questions.
Jay Talking: UW Delver
"UW Delver by Lukas Tajak"
A variant on the UW Flash deck, Lukas Tajak went back to the bane of previous Standard: Delver of Secrets. Instead of being a control deck that kills people with Runechanter’s Pike, Tajak can use his creatures to pressure an opponent. A flipped Delver and a Geist of Saint Traft kill in two turns if the opponent played an untapped shockland. A Snapcaster Mage and a Restoration Angel out of UW flash need twice as long and cost two more mana.
UW Flash was already a good deck, but people came prepared with graveyard hate to prevent the Pike from destroying them and enough Cavern of Souls to blank a lot of UW Flash’s counterspells. Delver cares a lot less about both kinds of hate. It can kill you quickly without Pike, and its counterspells are more tempo plays, like in the old Delver deck, than true answers. For those worried about missing Ponder and thus having to “blind flip” Delver, this is not as much of an issue as you think. You are probably playing Augur of Bolas in your UW Flash deck because you expect to almost always have an instant or sorcery in the top three cards, thus on average you’ll flip Delver the second turn.
With the drop in Pillar of Flames and other small removal spells, Delver of Secrets can run rampant until people adjust, and like the previous iterations of Delver proved: it is very good at not caring about Thragtusk. In a format full of Thragtusks, this deck seems well-positioned.
Evolving the Metagame
We have an aggressive metagame being overrun by creatures big and small and deck archetypes that turn them sideways for the win. So what’s the takeaway here? If creatures are king then removal is queen.
More than half (54%) of the non-token creatures in Standard have a toughness of one or two. The Craterhoof ramp/reanimation deck relies on twelve one-toughness mana dorks to ramp out the Behemoth and become big-time threats or powers up over time with Gavony Township. The Zombies deck is overflowing with two toughness creatures. Humans decks rely heavily on one-toughness creatures like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (41 total across the three tournaments), and two toughness creatures like Silverblade Paladin (45 total). Delver starts out as a 1/1 and ends up as a 3/2.
Choosing the right removal is key, and there are a couple primary areas to focus.
Sweep it Away:
The current state of Standard makes mass removal critical. Supreme Verdict (52 total) is certainly seeing plenty of play and is a great option for UW decks. Jay mentioned Bonfire of the Damned (12 total) and Electrickery (2 total) as well. At 4R Bonfire will clear out one and two toughness creatures and is a bargain at the miracle cost of 2R.
Electrickery is well positioned against decks with lots of one toughness mana dorks, Lingering Souls tokens, and other creatures like the WG Humans deck discussed above. Golgari Charm (2 total) serves the same purpose for black and green decks and has the additional versatility of destroying a Detention Sphere (28 total) or Oblivion Ring (24 total) or regenerating your creatures after an opponent’s board wipe.
Rolling Temblor (0 total) will do two damage to all creatures without flying for 2R and will do it again via flashback for 4RR. The flashback is great against the mana dorks in Reanimator but will miss fliers like spirit tokens, Lyev Skyknight (12 total), and War Falcon (16 total).
Magmaquake (0 total) has the benefit of being instant, which allows you to clear away one-toughness mana dorks before a Craterhoof Behemoth (20 total) resolves for 1RR. If you want to get to two toughness, after a Gavony Township (27 total) activation for example, it’ll cost you 2RR, which is similar to Bonfire but without the direct damage or miracle potential. It also does not target fliers but will hit planeswalker,s which might give it an edge over Rolling Temblor for decks that need help there.
There are also a couple of quasi-sweepers worth considering. Flames of the Firebrand (4 total) provides flexibility in how you deal the damage, and it can target your opponent. Curse of Death’s Hold (0 total) effectively turns off mana dorks, spirit tokens, and any other one-toughness creatures like Delver of Secrets (4 total), Gravecrawler (20 total), and Champion of the Parish (28). The trick is disrupting your opponent until you have five mana to cast it.
In an Instant:
Instant speed removal is also critical in the current metagame. You need a way to deal with a Restoration Angel (79 total) that flashes in at the end of your turn, some of the damage from a Craterhoof Behemoth (+X/+X and trample will still be on the stack), a Sublime Archangel (27 total) played during your opponent’s first main phase before attacking, and anything carrying a Runechanter’s Pike (17 total).
One of the best options in all of these cases is Ultimate Price (19 total). It’s not a catch-all answer; you can’t target Loxodon Smiter (41 total), Deathrite Shaman (36 total), or Huntmaster of the Fells (23 total) for example, but Ultimate Price does efficiently handle a lot of the bigger problems in the metagame. It should be considered in any deck running black, probably alongside other removal reserved for problematic non-mono colored creatures somewhere in your 75.
One such option is Victim of Night (3 total). This card fits snugly in your Zombies sideboard and can come in against pretty much any deck other than Jund Midrange and the mirror. Mayor of Avabruck (20 total) and Stromkirk Noble (12 total) are the only vampire, zombie, or werewolf creatures seeing much play outside of those archetypes.
That wraps it up for this analysis of GP Bochum, GP Charleston, SCG Open: Seattle and what they mean to the metagame. I hope you enjoyed it. A special thanks to Jay Lansdaal for helping me out. Make sure to check out Jay’s articles here on ManaDeprived and to follow him on Twitter.
Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)