The Standard Metagame

Stuart Wright, one of England’s finest deckbuilders and players, takes a romp through the Standard metagame in time for the approaching Nationals tournaments. He presents a breakdown of the more popular archetypes (with sample decklists) and provides some handy hints on how to play against these powerful, proven workhorses. A fine article, packed with solid advice.

In this article I am going to take a look at all the Standard decks that I feel are popular enough that you have a realistic chance of playing against at a high-level event. The decklists are meant as a sample, not as new tech, with the view that you are playing against these decks and want to know what to expect. This is, of course, very subjective. I can only offer what I think people will play. The first thing you need to figure, when playing against any sort of deck, is the roles that both of you will play… who is the beatdown? Often this is simple, but when both of you are playing control decks or mid-range aggro (B/W Aggro and the like), it is important to consider how aggressive you need to be. The simplest way is to work out which deck will win in the long term, and if that isn’t you then you need to be the beatdown.

This analysis can be pretty complicated, and the best way to figure these things out involves playing lots of games and seeing how they end. If one deck wins most of the time, it is possible that you need to play differently in order to win that matchup. Some matchups are heavily in your (or your opponent’s) favor, and if you know this then you want to minimize the risk by mulliganing away the more questionable hands and taking fewer risks while playing – or doing the opposite if you are likely to lose anyway.

This deck will be one of the most popular, as it has solid game against everything – probably because no single card bothers it that much. It is, however, not particularly fast when it is forced to play aggro, you can afford to get fairly low before sweeping the board as, unlike Zoo, they can’t burn you out from any distance. As a control deck, if you can deal with Dark Confidant then trade one-for-one, you should be able to gain card advantage and overwhelm them, as the game goes long and drawing things like Tidings can massively swing the game for you. Beatdown decks have more of a problem, as getting damage through can be tough. They have plenty of early drops. Try not to play out too many x/1s into Orzhov Pontiff, and remember they can use cards like Nantuko Husk to give all your creatures –2/-2 by just sacrificing the Pontiff if you have one x/1 in play, but they have to lose one of their own if you don’t. From the sideboard, control decks have to be aware of Mindslicer, so even if you don’t have a counter, tapping out for Compulsive Research on the draw might not be the best plan. Some of these decks will have more ninjas, and you might want to kill single creatures with cards like Pyroclasm if an Okiba-Gang Shinobi would wreak you. If you have Wildfire and you can afford to wait until you have eight mana, counter their Shining Shoal to stop them keeping a threat in play. Beatdown decks also have to fear Shoal, but the only real answer you have is responding by burning the creature. If you don’t have that option, then you need to take the risk. As they have more removal after sideboarding, you need to play out more creatures and try and finish them as quickly as possible.

This sort of U/G aggro deck is fairly new, but there is definitely a type of player who loves builds of this type. Also similar is the U/G Snakes deck, which is slower but has more long-game with recursive snakes. Both decks are quite similar to play against, as they have cheap threats backed up with counters. This deck’s game-plan against control is to put down one or two threats, then back them up with lots of tempo counters. Therefore you should make a real effort to deal with each threat as they come down (if possible). This means not holding back Pyroclasms and Wrath of Gods in the hope of getting a two-for-one, instead just dealing with creatures the turn they tap out for them. Of course, sometimes they will be beating you down for four or more per turn and sitting back with UU2 mana up. Then you need to think hard about how to get around their counters. This normally involves casting an answer at the end of their turn, and then untapping and casting a second one. The other option is to play out lots of lands through card drawing and mana acceleration. Then you can get around their situational counters by being able to pay three, or by casting multiple spells. When you are the beatdown, the card you need to be most aware of is Umezawa’s Jitte, as this card can turn around games where you are way ahead. If you are ahead, try to hold back removal so that if they equip and swing you can stop them. If you come out fast, often they will be stuck with a number of counters in their hand, so bear this in mind if you are Charring them. If you can afford it, wait until you have six mana.

This deck can bring in Spell Snare against other decks with counters or Pyroclasms to force its threats, so they might be able to double-counter even if they only have UU1 open. They will often take out some counters for more defensive cards against beatdown, so there is less need to play around them in games 2 and 3.

This deck has had some recent popularity, and is different enough from U/G Aggro for me to cover it on its own. There are a lot of different ways to build this deck; it can vary from being U/G just splashing Char to Rumbling Slums and Moldervine Cloaks. This deck has ninjas, so if Birds start attacking this is probably why. Thoughts of Ruin can be very powerful when backed up with the card draw and counters, so much like U/G you want to try and keep too many threats off the table. Be careful not to declare blockers then cast removal spells, as this might let them ninja you.

Overall it plays pretty similar to U/G, but it has a little more reach with burn, so you can’t afford to get so low before stabilizing. With beatdown, ninjas are much less of a threat. Even if they do slip one through, the loss of tempo can be pretty bad. Large creatures are more threatening, such as Rumbling Slum. Beware Trygon Predator, as it can kill your Jitte. After sideboarding, this deck will have more counters in Spell Snare, making the ninjas even more of a problem… they can now counter Pyroclasm and the like. If you don’t have any legends main, then Iwamori is likely to show up. This gives them even more four mana 5/5s, so you need to be able to deal with those.

This list is a little different from normal, with no Red in the main, but it still functions in the same basic way and has the ability to bring in the second win condition against Cranial Extraction. This deck often gives control decks lots of dead cards, and anything without hard counters or a fast clock will struggle to win. A lot of folk like to play combo best, and this is the only realistic option for them, so some people will turn up with it. With control, it depends if you have anything that can stop them from comboing off. For example, a Tron deck without Hinder needs to move quickly, as soft counters like Mana Leak won’t stop them. Something like B/W control can focus on searching up Cranial Extraction and forcing it through, and then use the time that provides to find a win condition. However, even if you do remove Heartbeat or Early Harvest, they can still generate enough mana with the one left and lots of lands, so you still need to finish them off. Remember that to kill you they normally play out a Heartbeat which doubles your mana, so factor this in when working out what threats you can afford to play while still keeping mana up for counters. With beatdown, you just need to try and kill them as fast as possible. While things like Kami of Ancient Law will slow them down, they can still kill you around them given time.

Some decks play one Pyroclasm or Savage Twister main, so don’t play out more creature than is required, but you will normally get a turn’s notice while they transmute for Twister. Again, remember Heartbeat doubles your mana, so when they start to go off you might be able to cast a number of Chars off the extra mana. After sideboarding this deck has a large number of options against control; they can bring in large creatures such as Simic Sky Swallower, and they can also have Gigadrowse. This means that Extraction is a lot less powerful, as they have more threats and might have Research/Development to undo your Extractions. Gigadrowse means that you can’t just sit on counters and wait, but you can end up with five untapped lands by using Rewind, which is plenty when they all tap for two. With beatdown, if they didn’t have mass removal game 1 they will certainly have some for the second. Cards like Crime / Punishment mean you can’t just make a bunch of Pithing Needles to stop them going off. Any card the kills lands is very effective against this deck, as although they have lots of land search they do need a large number of lands in play. Cards like Thoughts of Ruin are effective against them.

I’m going to cover Zoo and R/G beats together here, as playing against them is fairly similar. People will always turn up with Red decks and try and burn you out, and this year will be no different. People often think these decks are a lot easier to play, and while that isn’t strictly true you can afford to play these decks pretty badly and still win with a good draw. These decks have a long reach, and sometimes even though you deal with all their creatures you will still die to ten points of burn. This is particularly true if you gain control but don’t finish them off quickly. Therefore it is important to minimize the damage you take and not get too greedy with Wrath-style effects. If you can get to the late-game their small men will be outclassed by your more expensive ones, but you need to get to that position and use your superior guys to kill them quickly.

Unless you are playing a mirror match, you pretty much have to play control in this matchup. This means you don’t really want to trade damage and race unless you are a long way ahead. This deck can use the transformational sideboard and bring in the Glares and Vitu-Ghazi against other creature decks, giving it a way around big creatures and letting it alpha strike and burn you out. Not everyone will have this plan, but try not to take out cards like Koala in case they do. Be careful about Flames of the Blood Hand if you are bringing in lots of Loxodon Hierarchs and the like. Bathe in Light can be game-ending in respond to Wildfire, so try and bait them out with lesser removal spells. Of course, you will often have no choice.

I personally like this deck, and it has been reasonably popular. For more on this deck look at my last article, which covers it in more depth. With control, your goal is to not get too far behind in mana. This mean that you can let a few land destruction effects resolve and then counter card drawing. They often run out of gas. To do this, you need to get enough mana to prevent them being able to back spells up with Mana Leak or cast multiple threats. While this deck doesn’t contain too many land destruction effects, the card draw with mana advantage lets them overpower you. You are generally better off holding back counters rather than tapping out for something like Keiga or Meloku, because these threats are outclassed by Magnivore and Wildfire. Letting them resolve something like a Tidings is very bad for you. However, if both players just play out lands and pass, this favors you. Their Stone Rains become less and less effective, so they are forced to make the first move. Therefore rather than casting turn 3 Compulsive Research and maybe getting it Mana Leaked, you can hold back and counter their spell and cast Research while they are tapped out.

With beatdown, the game is a lot easier. Try not to play out too many x/2s into Pyroclasm, but other than that try and kill them fast. At the start of the game, Magnivores will be too small to hold you off. If you are playing a deck that can run off only two or three lands, hold some back to recover from Wildfire. Remember that if you Volcanic Hammer a 3/3 Vore, it doesn’t die… so don’t be that guy. You can sometimes Char the Magnivore to finish it off from a Wildfire.

After sideboarding, this deck will contain a lot more counters, so be aware that they will often able to back spells up by turn 5. If they find a Boseiju, you need to try and get a threat down fast to put some pressure on their life total, otherwise it will be hard to beat lots of unstoppable card drawing. When you are playing a more aggro deck, they will normally take out some (if not all) of their land destruction. This means you don’t need to take out cards like Rumbling Slums… in fact, you should be bringing them in, as they can’t just burn them away so easily. Shining Shoal is powerful against them, but be careful not to base your whole gameplan around it – they do have counters, and even if you Shoal a Pyroclasm you are still down cards.

This deck is very powerful against most control decks, as the huge mana advantage overwhelms them. It’s not quite as good against aggro, but it can still put up a fight with cantrip removal and Wildfires to sweep their board. Other versions of this deck run Green for Simic Sky Swallower, making the mana slightly worse and adding some pain for a more powerful win condition that is much harder to deal with. Control decks really need to try and play a fast game here, as the late game favors this deck. It will assemble the Urzatron eventually, resulting in multiple spells a turn ending with an unstoppable X spell to the head. However, in the early game this deck won’t always have UU to be able to counter twice in a turn, and they can’t normally play hard counters like Hinder so you can use this to resolve threats. If you have Repeal you can wait for them to Demonfire you for lethal, then return a Signet and counter it. You want to use any soft counters like Remand or Mana Leak very aggressively, as later in the game they will become less useful. If you can stop spells like Research, it will be a lot harder for them to assemble the Tron, effectively extending the early game. With beatdown, some of these Tron decks don’t even play Pyroclasm anymore, so you want to play out lots of threats quickly and try and finish them before they can use their slow card advantage answer to deal with your threats. Again, hold back lands so you can recover from Wildfire and burn them out. It can be hard for them to deal with creature with toughness three or greater, so these are your best threats. It isn’t really worth holding back burn if they don’t tap out, as Wildfire might kill all your lands and they might draw full Tron and be able to make Keiga with mana up anyway.

For sideboarding, if you want to bring in Blood Moon remember that they still have loads of Signets, so cards like Tin Street Hooligan help with this game plan. You can’t reliably stop them casting Blue spells, but a control deck can benefit from leveling the mana playing field. If your control deck plays bounce lands, you have to be careful to play around Annex. Most people have them, and such a huge mana swing is pretty much game over. This – plus the Giant Solifuges – means that you can’t afford to tap as much as before sideboarding. With beatdown, the U/R decks are just bringing in a little more removal. No change in play is needed. However, some of the U/R/G decks have Savage Twister, so you need to be a bit more careful about overextending.

Final Analysis

These decks aren’t really mean to be cutting edge tech. They’re here to show you what other people might be playing. Hopefully, I have given you some idea on how to play against these decks, no matter what you are planning on playing.

Good luck at your tournaments.