My Standard Brewing Phases

Like a teenager trying out new identities, Bryan Gottlieb has gone through several phases in his Standard brewing! Will one of them help you grow into a champion?

When reflecting on my journey through adolescence, I often sort time periods by the “phase” my self-expression had taken on. For me, a phase was usually inextricably linked to whatever music and style of dress I loved at the time. Angsty me blasted Rage Against the Machine and Deftones and skipped school regularly. Goth me grew his hair long, put on a lot of black clothes and played Disintegration by The Cure on repeat. Jam band me grew his hair even longer, went for long drives in the country listening to Phish and did… jam band stuff. Rave kid me bought ridiculous pants and a lot of glow sticks. It all feels very performative in retrospect.

I think my tendency to move through these phases was reflective of the fact that as a teenager, I had no idea who I truly was. I could use my musical and stylistic likes as a stand in for a personality or value system while I went about the business of figuring out what defined me as a person. While some parts of these phases remain in my personality to this day, I’m happy that none became my final form. They were just steps on a journey.

I mention this experience because of just how closely it tracks with the adolescent era of my experiences with Guilds of Ravnica Standard. My past week of testing has been one of the more successful early Standards I’ve had in recent memory. All the decks contained in this article have posted winning records in Magic Online Leagues, and some feel quite powerful and worthy of further exploration. Despite that, it feels like my last week has been a series of phases where a different deck captures exactly what I’m looking for every single day.

Part of this experience can be chalked up to just how many exciting tools are present in the format, and another part should surely be credited to just how quickly this Standard continues to evolve. The result, though, is that I am only a few days out from the first big Standard tournament of the season, and I have no clue what I will be playing. Despite a lack of clarity, I do think that, like my phases in high school, these Magic phases are ultimately going to lead me to finding my true identity for Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Hopefully, I’ve already found it with one of these decks, but it’s possible I’ll just look back at my early decks from Guilds of Ravnica the same way I now look at pictures of myself in oversized rave pants—with a good laugh.

The Golgari Innovations Phase

There are basically unlimited ways to build a Golgari-based Standard deck and it seems like all of them are excellent. The following is probably the deck I have won the most with in this format.

There are three basic theories that this deck seeks to maximize:

  • Planeswalkers are the best possible source of value in multiple matchups. Vraska, Golgari Queen is a strong card, but the better planeswalker to play ahead of curve is Karn, Scion of Urza. In mirror matches and against Jeskai, Turn 3 Karn is probably your single best possible play. Seven mana-producing Elves help maximize our chances of making this play.
  • The second-best play against Jeskai and Golgari is Carnage Tyrant. By again leveraging the seven Elves, we have access to faster average Carnage Tyrants than our opponents.
  • Average Golgari builds are fountains of value and two-for-ones, and decks that are viable in this format have already adapted to account for this fact. Militia Bugler gives Golgari builds a little nudge in the direction of even greater card selection and value, reconfiguring the calculations on what a successful resource battle looks like while still coming down on Turn 2 or 3 to pressure opposing planeswalkers. While it is similar in many respects to Golgari Findbroker, its lower mana cost and vigilance provide extra insurance against getting run over early.

In practice, this all played out beautifully, and it felt like I was strongly advantaged in mirrors. Then the middle of last week brought out a new piece of technology.

I like Midnight Reaper in most Golgari builds at this stage, but with eight mana-producing Elves we have even more bodies to throw to the slaughter. Reaper’s appearance also convinced me to bring back a couple of copies of Vraska, Golgari Queen, while our recommitment to black mana enticed me to include a couple of Vraska’s Contempts to account for the current planeswalker-heavy metagame and a projected uptick in Phoenixes of all kinds.

These decks transitioned me directly into my next phase. I was having success leveraging a mana advantage—how far could I push that approach?

The Big Mana Phase

Elves decks have made several appearances in Magic Online’s 5-0 lists, but I haven’t seen anyone attempt to include Tishana, Voice of Thunder.

How soon we forget Regal Force. Tishana, Voice of Thunder is the card that makes this deck sing. Mono-green versions are getting by with an anemic beatdown plan. Forget that. I want to make 40 mana in a turn and draw my entire deck. And this deck does that with frightening regularity.

The cost? A pronounced weakness to Deafening Clarion and other sweepers. In post-sideboard games we can slow down our plan and seek to keep Negate mana up. This occasionally works, but taking away our explosiveness can give control decks time to establish unassailable positions. In general, I’d rather hope our first attempt to generate an army leaves me with enough in reserve to rebuild a battlefield after a Deafening Clarion. It’s a tricky line to walk, and I wouldn’t look to play this deck into any meta defined by sweepers.

The Arclight Phoenix Phase

As a believer in Modern decks built around Arclight Phoenix, I knew I had to give this deck some run after spotting it in the Magic Online 5-0 decklists. Having done so, I am telling you now: this is one of the best decks in Standard. It can produce velocity not typically seen in non-Eternal formats. In fact, this deck feels more like a Modern deck than any Standard deck in recent memory. It is extremely consistent, fast, and powerful, and should not be slept on.

My build is mostly stock except for the one-of Gravitic Punch and a couple of Sarkhan, Firebloods in the sideboard. The Gravitic Punch has routinely won me games that no other card can win at very little cost. I’m not inclined to add any more copies, but given this deck’s velocity, you will end up with a Gravitic Punch in your graveyard in far more instances than you would expect. Don’t cut it.

As for Sarkhan, I’m less sold. GP Providence Top 8 competitor Cain Rianhard won a PPTQ this weekend after discussing the deck in the GAM Podcast Discord, and he chose to use Rekindling Phoenix as an additional threat in post-sideboard games.

I like this approach but need to better understand the effect of crowding the four-drop slot before I get entirely on board. There are a lot of points of customization to be figured out. Should I have four copies of Niv-Mizzet, Parun? Should I be sideboarding Wall of Mist? Can I play Search for Azcanta or Expansion // Explosion? Finding the correct answers to these questions could very well net someone a trophy this coming weekend.

The Chamber Sentry Phase

Okay, here are the parameters for discussion around Chamber Sentry. Maybe I’ve got this one wrong, and Chamber Sentry is just a Limited bomb, destined to never see the light of day in Standard. I’ve certainly gotten plenty of other things wrong in the past. However, I’m not going to accept anyone’s opinion on the card until they’ve played with or against it. I certainly did not regard Chamber Sentry very highly upon reading it. Then I cast it, and everything changed. First, a list.

Let’s make a list of what Chamber Sentry does in this deck.

I like the approach of just maximizing proactivity in Game 1 and leaving a limited suite of answers in the sideboard, but Chamber Sentry gets to be a small hedge and gives us access to some form of light removal. Selesnya Tokens came out of the gate swiftly, but the deck does have a problem with inconsistency. Chamber Sentry is like grease for the gears of this deck. Every other card just works better with Chamber Sentry in the mix.

While this version of the deck attempts to maximize Song of Freyalise by getting as wide as it can as quickly as possible, I’ve also explored a Selesnya build with a little more card quality and less vulnerability to something like Fiery Cannonade.

We get to add an additional synergy in this list, as now our Chamber Sentries can be found by The Bugler. Bugler grabbing Trostani Discordant is fast becoming one of my favorite plays in this format. I’ve had success with using The Bugler to grab another Guilds of Ravnica legendary creature as well.

This deck didn’t come out of the Chamber Sentry phase but was instead the product of my best efforts to find the best deck capable of playing both Tocatli Honor Guard and Remorseful Cleric. Given the rise of Arclight Phoenix and the continued presence of Golgari, I surmised that a deck leveraging both creatures could be well-positioned. It just so happened that Chamber Sentry was able to benefit from many of the same synergies as Tocatli Honor Guard and Remorseful Cleric.

We now have access to Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice; Boros Challenger; and Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants to get some additional ammunition strapped to our Chamber Sentries. Again, don’t undervalue how important it is for this deck to just get access to a flexible one-drop. Icatian Javelineers impression aside, I’m sure people are shocked to see this card appearing in a deck that has no means of producing more than two colors of mana. I never would have gone down this route if Chamber Sentries of all sizes had not impressed me so much in other games I played.

I recognize the Militia Bugler / Tocatli Honor Guard anti-synergy. We get to sequence our spells and have access to plenty of other two-drops. If Honor Guard’s ability is unlikely to matter, just think very carefully before playing it for its body.

Okay, here’s where a week of almost non-stop testing probably got to me a little bit. Why not just mash all my favorite cards together!? A friend clued me in that maindeck Duress might be the correct way to go about protecting a Thief of Sanity, and this deck was built around that premise. I think it has a distinct lack of strategic focus, but the card quality is absurd, and you have a lot of flexibility in post-sideboard plans. I’m surprised more hasn’t been done with greedy but functional manabases like this. I was tempted to squeeze the one white source in there just to live the dream and get access to Chamber Sentry recursion, but even I have limits.

The Control Phase

After a week of testing, I saw some pretty clear signs across the format. Carnage Tyrant had mostly taken over as the top end in Golgari. Phoenixes of all types were on the rise. These changes led me to push Jeskai in a new direction, leaning harder into white for more exile-based removal. My instincts tell me that a list like this is hitting the sweet spot of being appropriately adapted to rising technology while still retaining all the core aspects that established Jeskai as a top contender in the first place. I do think builds with Crackling Drake have merit, but I like our chances in a head-to-head showdown with these lists. Drakes will do little besides turn on our otherwise blank removal.

I’m still not sure who typically comes out ahead in Teferi versus Niv-Mizzet showdowns. I think I want to be on the Teferi side of the equation, but Niv-Mizzet occasionally makes winning a game trivial. Both options have merit.

If I had to choose a deck for Grand Prix: New Jersey today, I would choose the Arclight Phoenix deck. Players are only beginning to understand how good it is, and it is very possible that lists will not have adapted appropriately by this weekend. Despite this fact, I’m not ready to say I’ve cast off my other phases entirely. So many of these lists feel like they are on the precipice of being “the deck” for this weekend. Hopefully I’ll figure things out before the clock strikes midnight.