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Actually The Best In Standard

Want to get a leg up on the competition before your next Pro Tour Qualifier? Then be sure to read Patrick’s analysis of the state of the Standard metagame over the past month!

"Which devotion deck is the best in Standard right now?" –WotC Coverage

"I think it’s between Mono-Blue and Mono-Black . . . " –Magic: The Gathering 2013 World Champion Shahar Shenhar

Fall expansions generally lead to major upheavals of Standard formats losing half of their legal cards. Theros Standard in particular has made for a radical departure from the world we used to know. If it seems like the endless Thragtusks battles, Thundermaw Hellkites, and Restoration Angels were just a few months ago, you aren’t wrong.

Now we bring the format to a close for the year with a metagame dominated by monocolor or nearly monocolor decks. Amazing how fast things can change . . .

But where is the format at the moment?

What are the best decks to actually play?

To begin with, let’s take a look at the state of the metagame over the past month.

Table

As always, this is a breakdown of the metagame at the top tables, featuring Top 16 performances (and players that went X-1 in Standard at the Invitational) weighted by finish. The expected metagame combines the results of the previous month weighted by how current they are.

As a note, I have listed "Black" as an archetype, or more fully Mono-Black Control (or Nearly Mono-Black Control), rather than using the Devotion moniker. Yes, generally they feature Gray Merchant, Erebos, and some number of Nykthos, but it really is the same deck as the B/W Midrange decks that use Blood Barons instead of Gray Merchants.

Still, it would seem that of the devotion decks Blue Devotion and Black Devotion are neck and neck (and clearly ahead of Red Devotion and Green Devotion). Amusingly, Zvi’s notorious prediction that Heliod would prove the loser of the bunch has long since come to fruition.

While this looks like a lot of decks, there really aren’t all that many types of decks at play. They can be further condensed into basically six categories:

  • Control
  • Nearly Mono-Black
  • Nearly Mono-Blue
  • Nearly Mono-Red
  • Nearly Mono-White
  • Green/x decks

Once you combine the control decks (U/W, Esper, and U/W/R), Sphinx’s Revelation actually takes back over the top spot. Black, blue, and red are all in the same ballpark, however, leading to a fairly balanced metagame at least during Swiss. White decks trail, with Brave the Elements and Banisher Priest not quite making up for the lack of a Sphinx’s Revelation, a Thoughtseize, or a Thassa.

Red doesn’t have an all-star either, but it does have an ensemble cast providing more real devotion than Blue or Black while utilizing a higher depth of quality creatures than either. Nevertheless, the lack of a franchise player has left Red always a little behind the two top dogs of the format.

Green?

Sadly, Green is kind of a joke in this format. Green’s shtick is usually that it is the permanent color. It’s got good creatures and it has good mana. Well, in this format most people are monocolor, so the fixing is irrel. Nykthos is the best acceleration, so there’s that. As for creatures? Each of the other colors has more to offer on the creature front. Polukranos is quite good, but Thassa, Aetherling, Banisher Priest, Blood Baron Vizkopa, Desecration Demon, Nightveil Specter, Precinct Captain, Boros Reckoner, and Gray Merchant set a high bar.

While green can be used for devotion as well, the payoff just isn’t that big. Many have tried to combine green with other colors as well, resulting in G/W Aggro, R/G Monsters, Naya Midrange, G/B Aggro, and more, but none of these decks have reached tier 1. This format is a deck stacked against green, with everyone featuring creatures that need to be killed (that green cannot) or Supreme Verdict (thrashing green’s very existence).

One of the defining decks of the format even uses four Tidebinder Mages maindeck!

Here is a breakdown of the six major types of decks:

Table

Yes, blue is a little on the high end, but all things considered this is actually a pretty good color balance minus green. All of the control decks are also white, not to mention a fair number of the green decks, so while it is often a support color white gets played every bit as much as the other nongreen colors.

Let’s take a look at each of these categories and figure which are actually that good and which should be avoided. First stop? Well, I guess it’s control, if only by raw quantity. The battle between Esper and U/W for control deck du jour has raged since the first day of the format, and while Esper was generally viewed as slightly ahead in the early days of the format, the pendulum appears to have swung the other way.

The go-to control deck in the format at the moment?

What do you know, another Andrew Cuneo joint:


Wilson’s Invitational list, like GP Dallas-Fort Worth finalist William Jensen’s list, is an Andrew Cuneo creation that strips away almost any trace of aggression. Aetherling? Why bother when you can just win the long (long) game with Elixir of Immortality.

When I was working on Esper a couple of weeks ago, I also found Aetherling to be poorly positioned. It isn’t what the control mirrors are really about and is generally only good when you are already winning against Blue or Red Devotion. It would be a good card against black, but Thoughtseize really does a number on Aetherling, whereas Elixir of Immortality can be safely slipped into play at any point. Elspeth is the only concession to actually finishing a match in time, and even she is a very powerful control card that can help recover when you are behind on board.

While I did play Esper at the last GP, looking at the numbers it is pretty clear that U/W has had a better win percentage than the other control variants. It’s not just that it is more popular at the top tables; it is getting there at a great frequency than Esper (which has actually featured more competitors in Swiss despite less top table penetration).

Want to play control? This is the control deck to play in my opinion.

While I think Esper is clearly worse than U/W at the moment due to its mana, Esper still has merits. Its numbers aren’t mind-blowing, but it has done all right quite a number of times at this point. Most recently Esper aficionado Shaheen Soorani piloted it to his fifth(!) Invitational Top 8:


While I would be caught dead before being caught with less than four Sphinx’s Revelations in a Sphinx’s Revelation deck at the moment, this list doesn’t stray too far from the widely accepted "Wafo school of Esper" that originated at Pro Tour Theros.

Blood Baron of Vizkopa has long since become standard operating procedure primarily because of the massive increase in black control and white aggro compared to the PT. The more important stylist choice made by Shaheen is the abandonment of Divination. Shaheen uses one less Revelation and two less Divinations than most, instead featuring an extra Elspeth, a Merciless Eviction, and an extra cheap reactive card.

This approach is very much the opposite of the Cuneo approach above, but some of the motivations are the same. Shaheen has moved towards a more tapout big-spell deck in order to brute force games where true control can’t be established. How is this the same as Cuneo? Both players tried to escape the wishy-washy halfway point between draw-go and tapout. Cuneo’s is certainly more pure, but Shaheen does manage to move a little away from the halfway point that people have been targeting.

Particularly interesting is the use of Trading Post with two Pithing Needles to win drawn-out control battles. Personally, I think it might be a little fancy, but it does hit from a slightly different angle than most are prepared for. Pithing Needle on Elixir of Immortality is not enough on its own due to Detention Sphere, but Trading Post can make this awkward for U/W.

The only other control deck to put up noteworthy numbers is U/W/R. What’s interesting is that despite beginning as a board control deck featuring many burn spells U/W/R has been moving further and further away from the red burn that differentiates it from U/W. Take for instance Steven Phillips list from the finals of the Standard Open in Vegas this past weekend:


Look familiar? This is literally a take on Cuneo’s list that mostly just replaces two of the Dissolves with Counterfluxes. Nine red sources isn’t a lot, but you don’t exactly need red mana with this one. Still, isn’t that a lot of trouble to go through for just a couple of Counterfluxes?

Sort of. Really, you are just adding five shock lands though because many people (myself included) would like to see three or four Temples in our U/W list anyway. Additionally, we do have some red sideboard cards, right?

Oh, a Shock, a Wear // Away, and another Counterflux . . .

That’s it?

Ok, that’s not a lot of red, but clearly the biggest payoff here is that Phillips is getting a lot of free wins against U/W on account of Counterflux trumping the Elixir of Immortality battles. I’m not sure I like the red in any other matchup besides control, but depending on the metagame you are expecting it is at least defensible.

Is control a big part of the metagame? Definitely, but really it is just that Sphinx’s Revelation is a pretty disgusting card and Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, and Jace Architect of Thought provide enough support that it is an important part of the metagame despite having a shortage of good things to do on turns 1 or 2. The control decks have a lot of good cards, but they exist on such a predictable and beatable axis that I think control is only barely tier 1 if at all.

By contrast, the black decks really are that good and define tier 1. Black Devotion kind of snuck up on people at Pro Tour Theros, with Kentarou Yamamoto’s Top 8 performance revolutionizing the face of Standard.

Maybe we should all remember this era the next time Mono-Black Control isn’t good for a year.

It is one of the most successful archetypes of all time and has been the best deck more times than any other archetype, with the possible exception of control, if you are willing to merge various color combinations and types of control decks.

Since the Pro Tour Nightveil Specter has mostly replaced Lifebane Zombie and Pack Rat has become a ubiquitous four-of, but the core strategy remains the same:


Mono-Black Control has succeeded when the following are true:

1. It has a powerful card draw engine (Necropotence, Yawgmoth’s Will, Skeletal Scrying, Phyrexian Arena, Dark Confidant, Underworld Connections). Something to do with your extra mana is a part of this, and lands like Strip Mine, Mishra’s Factory, Lake of the Dead, Dustbowl, Wasteland, Inkmoth Nexus, Temples, and Mutavaults all factor in.

2. It can meaningful interact with opponents’ strategies off the table (Hymn to Tourach, Duress, Persecute, Mind Sludge, Inquisition of Kozilek, Thoughtseize).

3. Spot removal is good contextually (Contagion, Vicious Hunger, Chainer’s Edict, Smother, Go for the Throat, Hero’s Downfall, all in formats where people had to play creatures these cards were good against).

4. It has good victory conditions relative to the format (Hypnotic Specter, Pump Knights, Steel Golem, Skittering Skirge, Nantuko Shade, Dark Confidant, Phyrexian Crusader, Desecration Demon, many Drains).

That really is the entire formula. If one of those four ingredients is missing, the probability that Mono-Black Control is good diminishes rapidly.

The original way to combat Mono-Black Control still holds true today: creatures with protection from black. We have come a long way since White Knight and Order of Leitbur, with today’s pro-black champion being Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Blood Baron originally enjoyed success in B/W Midrange decks like Paul Rietzl and I used for Dublin, but the proliferation of Mono-Black obsoleted the archetype.

From there Esper adopted the card, but now more and more Esper players are abandoning black altogether. Who does this leave to carry the torch for Blood Baron Vizkopa? What do you know, black control decks that want to win the mirror!


Replacing Gray Merchant with Blood Baron Vizkopa doesn’t actually change much at all about this deck’s core game plan. At the end of the day, you are just attacking their hand with discard, using removal to kill key creatures, drawing extra cards with Underworld Connections, and finishing the game with some superstars. Yes, we do gain the extra life we need to fuel connections with Blood Barons instead of Gray Merchants, but that changes very little about the texture of the games.

It has already been good many times and is targeted by basically everybody, but I think black control is the true best strategy in the format. Blue Devotion might be the best in terms of strength regardless of context, but the black decks are just positioned a little better and fighting them opens you up to losing percentage against many of the fringe decks. That the format will always contain a certain percentage of rogue and fringe decks leaves me having to give the top spot to black.

I don’t love these black decks, but I would play one tomorrow. Which one? Honestly, there isn’t a big difference between them, but I would lean slightly toward B/W. The Blood Barons are great no question, but having to trade Nightveil Specter for Sin Collector is actually pretty appealing at the moment.

Nightveil Specter was really well positioned for a long time, dodging Doom Blade and Ultimate Price and being one of the best answers to opposing Nightveil Specters while providing a big devotion boost. Without Gray Merchants their value obviously drops in the devotion area. As for how resilient they are, Dark Betrayal is now more popular than Doom Blade and Ultimate Price put together, to say nothing of Devour Flesh and Hero’s Downfall.

Meanwhile, Sin Collector isn’t a superstar, but it combines very well with Blood Baron by taking their one answer. Additionally, it gives us a powerful tool against blue decks that tip the scales in our favor. It is still too bad against Blue Devotion or Red Devotion to maindeck many, but the card is a major boon post-board against black and control.

Where does B/W suffer? You are losing some points against Blue Devotion and Red Devotion, so it is still a close call and which is better will likely fluctuate from week to week.

If black and control are two pillars of the format, the third (really the first) is Blue Devotion. Blue Devotion has been great literally every week since its unveiling in Dublin. What’s interesting is that the deck has changed very little since the week after the PT when the best lists were merged. Oh sure, people occasionally splash other colors, but for the most part every Thassa deck is almost the exact same. Despite being the most tested against deck in the format, it continues to put up great numbers.


Which is the best God? It’s a rap—God of the Sea wins hands down. While black is slightly better positioned, Thassa has proven unreal resilient for a deck full of 0/1s, 1/1s, and 1/4s.

The biggest innovation of the past month has been the massive adoption of Domestication. There are just so many decks that feature a ton of creatures and a real shortage of ways to punish it. Brave the Elements can be a pain, but that card is going to be an all-star against monocolor decks regardless.

Can I recommend Blue Devotion?

Sadly, definitely.

It looks pretty clear that while the format is well aware of Blue Devotion’s strength enough people are consistently trying to escape the format’s established order that it is never going away. That said, Blue Devotion’s numbers are dropping. This week featured roughly half as much success for Blue Devotion decks as last week, which was roughly half of the week before.

What has been causing this trend? The format has contained a lot of "hostile" decks for quite some time, but things are finally getting to the point where Mistcutter Hydra and Skylasher are getting a lot of maindeck play! For instance, take a look at Andrew Shrout’s Top 4 list from the Invitational:


That’s right, he literally maindecks eight(!) pro-blue creatures, trimming staples like Scavenging Ooze, Fleecemane Lion, and Boon Satyr. This is some pretty serious devotion to combating blue.

The resilience of this breed of G/W is worth closer examination. In addition to all of the protection from blue, there is hexproof, Voice of Resurgence, regeneration, and Boon Satyr all designed to fight through the powerful removal used by black and control decks.

What holds G/W back? Voice of Resurgence is awesome, but the deck is a little underpowered and starting to move squarely into "hate-bear territory." Hate-bear decks can work, but they are prone to drawing the wrong types of hate in the wrong matchups, such as Skylasher against black or Mistcutter Hydra against white aggro.

The format is becoming predictable enough to actually try to hate out, so while I am not a believer of G/W yet I do think the archetype has potential and is already nowhere near as embarrassing as it was last month.

Remember, the archetype was actually successful pre-Dublin until Blue Devotion presented it with an 85-15 matchup. Still, the use of eight pro-blue creatures and Banisher Priests maindeck is a big step toward actually catching up. Despite how hateful this appears, we are starting in a bigger hole than most. If you can actually get ahead against Blue Devotion without throwing away too much from your other matchups, you might have a real winner on your hands.

In a similar vein to G/W, Naya has shown up a little, but I think it is just a G/W deck with worse mana:


The G/W deck was already cutting "good cards," so using even more isn’t as enticing as it would normally be. If the mana were a little better, we might have a contender on our hands, but as it is I would avoid this direction.

Of course, these are far from the only decks to try to give a home to Mistcutter Hydra. For instance, there’s Green Devotion, which has proven less able to adapt than the other top decks:


The deck does powerful things on its own but sure does struggle against control. Now that Wafo has pointed the way, there is no shortage of well-crafted control decks. Additionally, black control and Thassa have made minor tweaks that give them points, while green has gained nothing besides more Mistcutters (which blue decks were tuning against anyway).

Recommendation: Avoid.

Almost a month ago I rocked G/B aggro at GP Albuquerque, another potential Mistcutter home. I thought it was passable but generally a worse black deck. Still, the archetype has enjoyed modest success, such as Zacarias Milton’s Top 8 finish from a week ago:


For an in-depth look at G/B, look here or here.

I don’t hate it, but I don’t recommend it.

I’m not sure it’s better, but Matt Costa’s Jund deck is another attempt at the same idea with a few additional avenues of attack:


Stormbreath Dragon, Rakdos’s Return, and Anger of the Gods are some pretty big expansions to the scope of the deck. Slowing the deck down a little helps mitigate the costs of the mana base, but it remains to be seen if these changes push the deck into the higher tiers.

Overall, this archetype is more appealing to me than G/B, if only because I don’t yet know all of its flaws. If you are looking for a speculative deck to work on, this one has some room to explore. I’m not sold yet, but the door isn’t closed.

Finally, Mistcutter Hydra is so clearly just about the only thing green has to offer that some Red Devotion decks have gone back to R/G rather than the R/W they have been in recent weeks.


While Red Devotion first burst onto the scene at the PT, it took at least a month to tune the lists to actually match up right against the format. Additionally, the metagame has finally moved to a place where the archetype isn’t just a worse Blue Devotion deck.

This deck’s biggest advantage is that it is less prepared for than the other top decks, which might be enough to make it a serious consideration, but I still don’t think it’s quite there yet. It has been the fastest growing major archetype of the past month (if you also count R/W), but I think the ceiling isn’t much higher on this one.

For reference, here is the R/W style of Red Devotion that was more popular:


Chain to the Rocks instead Domri Rade?

Assemble the Legion instead of Mistcutter Hydra?

Kind of funny swaps, but the core of the deck is still the same. More interesting on the Boros front is the return of W/R aggro. Two weeks ago W/B aggro managed to steal a fair bit of spotlight, but it appears to have been a passing fad. Once again the white aggro deck of choice is Boros, such as James Redmond’s Top 4 list from this past weekend:


The reason to go back to red? Access to Mizzium Mortars to kill Blood Barons, which are just too devastating for the W/B version. Now that B/W Control is gaining some of black’s popularity, this weakness is just unacceptable.

If you want to play an aggro deck, I would recommend Blue Devotion. However, if that isn’t in your wheelhouse, this is the best of the mediocre aggro decks in my opinion.

One last Boros deck has emerged this month—the somewhat odd R/W Burn deck that is sort of a Big Red control deck:


An ungodly amount of spot removal with almost no card advantage, putting Skullcrack and Chain to the Rocks side by side? Suffice it to say this is not a deck built on traditional deckbuilding principles; however, it is an extreme attack on a format that has gone off the deep end with decks full of dorks with a back-up plan of being a weird slow burn deck against creature-light strategies.

This sort of duality in deckbuilding is uncommon but was largely popularized by Michael Flores a few years back where he would find clever ways to attack the top decks of the format in very different ways but using the same cards. I’m not sure he would approve of this specific build, but if he writes about the archetype, I would pay heed. If he co-signs it, I would give it a closer look, as few know this unusual style as well. If he isn’t into it, it is probably worth setting down.

Basically, that’s the whole story.

I slightly prefer devotion to control and am not impressed by the fringe decks. Which devotion deck is the best in Standard right now?

That’s a close one. I think it’s between Mono-Blue and Mono-Black, and I can’t honestly tell you which one. It matters so much what you’re playing against in the actual tournament.

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding