The Return of A Dynamic Standard

Ross Merriam is thrilled to see the return of a Standard where careful metagaming is rewarded! Get his take on the past few weeks and how the wheel might turn as Grand Prix Washington DC approaches!

It’s been a long time, but it gives me great pleasure to be able to declare:

Standard is back!

The format once prized for its dynamism is here again after a lengthy stay in the doldrums of stagnant metagames and broken cards. Collected Company; Emrakul, the Promised End; Smuggler’s Copter; and Aetherworks Marvel are all firmly in the rearview mirror. Despite a scare in the early days of Hour of Devastation Standard, during which Ramunap Red looked like it could be the next in a long line of oppressive decks, the metagame has been able to adapt nicely, leading to several weeks of surprise showings from unexpected decks.

Zombies was the first deck to emerge in the post-Pro Tour metagame, as it was a natural foil to Ramunap Red, coming out of the gates just as quickly with efficient creatures and removal, much of which cleanly answered Hazoret the Fervent. The major tribal payoffs, Diregraf Colossus, Dark Salvation, and Liliana’s Mastery, all create huge swings in position that red decks have trouble dealing with, and the buttery-smooth mana of another mono-colored deck means there are few stumbles to milk for free wins.

Zombies hadn’t had a mass breakout tournament performance in paper, but if you followed results on Magic Online, it was clearly the top contender to Ramunap Red’s crown after the Pro Tour. Thus, going into GP Minneapolis, we had a metagame dominated by two aggressive decks, and a narrow metagame is an exploitable one. B/G Constrictor and Mardu Vehicles, two midrange decks, put multiple pilots into the Top 8, while Zombies and Ramunap Red each managed a single copy.

Packed with cheap removal and trump cards like Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, these bigger decks were able to adjust to the narrower metagame and prepare more heavily for aggressive decks than they could at the Pro Tour, leading to greater success.

Grand Prix Denver continued the trend toward midrange, but this time with Temur Energy taking over with its bevy of haymaker threats like Glorybringer; Skysovereign, Consul Flagship; and Confiscation Coup alongside the endless card advantage of Tireless Tracker. And don’t underestimate the power of Servant of the Conduit powering all these threats out a turn early.

Last weekend also saw a shift in focus away from aggressive decks for the first time and toward beating midrange decks, as evidenced by the Four-Color Energy lists splashing for The Scarab God and the return of God-Pharaoh’s Gift, placing one copy in the Top 8 and another six in the Top 32 decklists between U/W and Jeskai variants.

Aside on Brad Nelson:

You may be tempted to dismiss some of the metagame data from these recent tournaments due to the incredible dominance from Brad Nelson and Corey Baumeister, both putting up back-to-back Grand Prix Top 8s and, along with Brian Braun-Duin, taking three of the top four slots in Grand Prix Denver. Maybe the results have less to do with the decks than the pilots.

No doubt all three are world-class players, but from someone who has now lived near and worked with Brad and Brian for over a year, I can say that few, if any, players take the process of deck selection for every tournament as seriously as they do. No one maximizes that advantage as consistently as they do, and Brad’s insufferable Twitter posts detailing his indecisiveness should be taken as proof to the affirmative, not the contrary.

Brad, if you make another post before crushing #GPDC, make sure I don’t see it.

End aside.

So we find ourselves in a situation that is simultaneously familiar and new. Standard hasn’t been this unpredictable since before Rally the Ancestors emerged, but in the years before the dark times, the format was constantly in flux, and being ahead of the metagame via deck choice, deck tuning, or both was incredibly important.

For example, the autumn of Khans of Tarkir Standard started with linear aggressive decks and Devotion strategies and quickly moved to Jeskai and Abzan decks of various flavors. Mardu decks briefly rose to fight Jeskai and eventually the latter morphed into a pure control deck. Then there was the brief surge of Jeskai Tokens, followed by a move to Whip of Erebos decks, both Abzan and Sultai. Traditional Abzan was omnipresent and lasted through all these shifts, but week to week the metagame moved rapidly and those playing catch-up rarely put up results.

So what are we to do now? Are there parallels to be drawn between older Standard formats and the current one? Here’s how I see it breaking down.

Ramunap Red and Zombies Are the Safe Choices

If you like analogies, these are the Abzan of the format. If you like idioms, they are the straw that stirs the drink. Neither deck will ever be too bad of a choice, but their consistent success also means that they will rarely, if ever, be the best choice for a given weekend because they will always have targets on their back. No one is ever going to a tournament thinking they will dodge either of these decks.

Unlike most linear aggro decks, both of these archetypes can effectively transition into a slower, aggressive-midrange plan against hate. Dark Salvation and Liliana’s Mastery can both stand on their own. Cryptbreaker is a great source of card advantage, and many of your threats recur themselves.

For Ramunap Red, you have great utility lands, a very powerful threat in Hazoret the Fervent, and a late-game you can bolster with Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance. These are aggressive decks that are powerful enough to force the opponent to react early, yet are far from cold to that early interaction, which is the recipe for a Tier 1 aggro deck.

Importantly, the two decks are tactically different enough that they are nearly impossible to hate out simultaneously. Zombies doesn’t like to see sweepers, but the sheer number of haste creatures in Ramunap Red means sweepers aren’t nearly as big of an issue. Ramunap Red uses the threat of reach to force the opponent to sacrifice position to protect their life total, while Zombies, with no reach, forces you to fight on the battlefield. This dichotomy helps keep the aggro hegemony in place, giving the format a fulcrum around which the metagame can bend and turn.

If you’re like me and enjoy picking a deck, sticking with it, and learning it intimately, then one of these two decks is likely your best choice. You’ll always have a good chance of doing well and you’ll never have a lost weekend to a poor metagame. And as you learn the deck more intimately, you can effectively tune your list for the expected metagame, thereby mitigating the edge gained by the Bardley Narsons of the world.

Midrange Is High-Risk/High-Reward

By midrange I mainly mean Temur Energy, B/G Constrictor, and Mardu Vehicles. These are all on the aggressive side of midrange, but they play a great long game, provided they can get to it. In talking with a lot of other players, the word on these decks all seem to be that they have a poor Game 1 against the aggro decks, but they can beat them with proper sideboarding, which is about as surprising as sitting down to a tablecloth that’s half off the table in Round 3.

The most aggressive elements in these decks are rarely good against the aggro decks because they can’t win that game in those matchups, so they have to swap those out to play closer to a true midrange strategy, the issue being that it’s hard for them to prepare for everything.

That’s why these are decks of the week. Their success comes from being able to tune appropriately to the given metagame, at which point the metagame evolves to a point where they are no longer the best choice.

And since aggro decks are the top targets, the variable that is most important in choosing between them is the removal. Black gives you access to Fatal Push and Grasp of Darkness where red has Magma Spray, Abrade, and Harnessed Lightning, among others.

Black’s removal is best situated against Ramunap Red, with a cheap answer to their early creatures and a clean answer to Hazoret the Fervent and Glorybringer, along with sideboard options to answer Chandra, Torch of Defiance if they go big.

Red’s removal is better-situated against black. Magma Spray is great against the sticky threats in Zombies. The other spot removal can handle Cryptbreaker, Lord of the Accursed, and Diregraf Colossus, as there’s no consistently huge creature that gets out of range of the damage-based removal. Most importantly, red’s sideboard gives you access to great sweepers in the matchup. Radiant Flames, Hour of Devastation, and Chandra, Flamecaller are all excellent, where black only has Yahenni’s Expertise.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to see B/G Constrictor perform well in the wake of the Red-dominated Pro Tour or for Temur Energy to come along to counter a more balanced metagame after Zombies emerged. Temur Energy had the further advantage of being well-positioned against Fatal Push, so a format where Zombies and B/G Constrictor were receiving lots of hype would be even better for it. Several Zombies pilots astutely trimmed on Fatal Push for the weekend, instead maxing out on Grasp of Darkness in their split.

Moving forward, you’ll have to gauge just how popular the aggro decks are relative to each other and make your decision between Temur and B/G from that prediction.

Mardu Vehicles is the odd one out here with the flexible and powerful Unlicensed Disintegration as its removal spell. Unfortunately, the extra mana in its cost has never been more punishing, nor has the three damage been less relevant. Midrange decks are being forced to use their removal reactively more often than ever, which is bad news for Mardu. Combine that with the inconsistency of its mana and the fact that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is difficult to defend against the aggro decks, and I can’t suggest Mardu Vehicles right now. How the mighty have fallen.

God-Pharaoh’s Gift Is the Wildcard

The deck that was getting all the hype going into the Pro Tour was quickly squashed by Ramunap Red and the quick proliferation of Abrade. But as artifact removal is leaving the metagame, the powerful engine deck has made its way back into the format.

This deck represents a separate metagame puzzle that has to be re-evaluated every week. If artifact removal and red decks are low, then this deck can dominate the midrange decks while holding its own against Zombies. If people bring their Hazorets and Abrades, then you’re in for a short weekend.

It was a heady choice for last weekend, especially since the Jeskai variants have some more tools against aggro. There were several lists that nearly made the Top 8, so a few draws here or there and we could be talking about it instead of Temur as the deck of the weekend.

It’s a tricky deck, one you need to put a lot of work into to pilot effectively, which should reduce its numbers even on a favorable weekend. But the important takeaway here is that you can’t forget about it. Keep it in the back of your mind and have it as a final test to see if your list is settled or you need to revise a card or two to remain competitive in the matchup.

Or, if you’re already comfortable with a deck, you have some time now to start working on this one as a backup, should you see favorable metagame conditions forming. Having options in the face of unpredictability is the best place to be.

With two weeks before #GPDC, it’s hard to say exactly where the metagame will be. The next step is for Zombies to take a step back relative to Ramunap Red, which already started to happen in Denver. We could easily be shifting back towards the black creatures by the end of next week, which brings me to my final point about metagaming in a dynamic Standard format:

Don’t Lock in Too Early

A lot of people like to make their deck decision early so they have time to test and tune, but deck choices should be made on the most recent available information, so you often do yourself a disservice by ignoring the most relevant data.

Working with Brad Nelson, it can be infuriating to see how many times he switches opinions in testing, but that’s because his assumptions about the expected metagame are constantly evolving. One of the keys to his metagaming success has always been in maintaining his flexibility as long as possible and constantly adjusting to new information.

With any luck, we’ll enter another long stretch of vibrant, dynamic Standard formats moving forward, so these lessons should carry over after the arrival of Ixalan and the rotation. Modern and Legacy are the formats that reward learning a deck intimately and playing it for months or years on end. Standard is where we get to flex our deck selection chops, and I’m happy to see that environment return, even if it doesn’t play that well to my skill set.

(Fade in. A handsome, bearded man frantically taps his phone while throwing clothes into a suitcase.)

“Brad! What do I play this weekend?”