It was the best of times. It was the blurst of times…or something like that. It was a busy weekend in Magic for everyone except yours truly, it seemed. There were major tournaments being contested all over the world, including Standard Grand Prix in Providence and Kuala Lampur, and after a string of disappointing finishes left me a little lost in the current Standard format, I was looking to take a step back and learn what I have been missing.
Going into the weekend, the most notable decks to me were Temur Aetherworks, Jeskai Control, and W/U Flash. These were all significant decks at the Pro Tour but had question marks surrounding them.
Temur Aetherworks was the most popular deck in the tournament and easily the most powerful. Casting big Eldrazi on turn 4 is unfair in the plainest sense of the word, and if it could be done with any consistency, we could have a serious problem with the health and playability of the format. That said, the deck did not perform that well, putting a single copy into the Top 8 in the hands of Matt Nass and demonstrating an alarmingly high fail rate.
In a post-PT conversation with the illustrious Bradley Nelson, we both expressed our trepidation about the deck moving forward, expecting it to fall to the fringe of the format, although I was not quite as bearish as he was. Truthfully, I was nervous that someone might find a better list than the ones we had seen, one that would give the deck the consistency boost it needed to dominate Standard, so looking out for that was my first priority.
Jeskai Control and Torrential Gearhulk in general formed the other major talking point of the Pro Tour, with the oversized Snapcaster Mage taking both slots in the final match. Many were worried about the viability of control decks in Kaladesh Standard and the Pro Tour eased those concerns to an extent, but not completely. Would control continue to perform well as a known quantity, or would the Empire strike back?
Last, there was the matter of W/U Flash. Anyone who took the time to dig through the top-performing Pro Tour lists in the Constructed portion of the tournament found that this deck quietly dominated the tournament with all four of the 9-1 lists being some variant of the deck, despite it not being played in large numbers. The deck would not be under the radar this week, and how it could perform with a limited surprise factor and a sizable target on its back would tell me a lot about whether or not this was a lasting staple of the format or a deck which merely found a very favorable metagame in Hawaii.
The results are in, and they are starker than I could have possibly predicted.
Aetherworks Marvel? That is a name I have not heard in a long time…
The most popular deck at the Pro Tour was nowhere to be found this weekend in either #GPPVD or #GPKL. I haven’t seen a bandwagon abandoned so quickly and so thoroughly since LeBron James left the Miami Heat a few years ago.
Part of this was certainly due to preparation. No one predicted the deck to show up in the numbers it did at the Pro Tour, leaving some players unprepared, but that wasn’t going to happen twice. The decks that did well at the Pro Tour showed up in greater numbers last weekend, and even decks like R/W Vehicles were splashing blue for Ceremonious Rejection off Aether Hub, Spirebluff Canal, and sometimes Cultivator’s Caravan.
The deck’s high fail rate means that even a small loss of percentages in the games where your deck operates is going to have a significant impact on its overall win rate. It looks like Brad was right (man, I hope he doesn’t read this) and this deck is ready to fade into obscurity. Maybe it will pop up from time to time when there aren’t as many counterspells and discard spells but in the face of disruption, this deck doesn’t seem to have the necessary consistency to compete on a weekly basis.
Aside on Pro Tour Metagames
It may seem strange to see a deck that was so popular at the highest level of Magic so quickly drop out of the metagame. We like to think of the Pro Tour as the tournament that sets the metagame. After all, those are the best players in the world and for the most part they are all putting in countless hours preparing, trying different decks in order to find what is best.
But the Pro Tour is the same as any other tournament in that it only captures the metagame at a specific moment in time. You don’t get extra match points for bringing the deck that becomes Tier 1 in two weeks, nor are you penalized for succeeding with a deck that ultimately does not last. The only goal is to bring the deck that is best for that weekend.
Moreover, the Pro Tour naturally has a limited amount of information, which is going to lead to weaker lists. Going in, red aggressive decks were Public Enemy #1, but beyond that, the metagame was amorphous. Trying to pin down a metagame from such little information is always going to involve a fair amount of guesswork, and being wrong can lead to an embarrassing deck choice.
After the Pro Tour, as the metagame takes shape, those mistakes become less and less likely. We are all the beneficiaries of the work the pros put in for that one tournament, and if we have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. So it’s important to keep in mind that while the Pro Tour metagame is significant, it is still just one stage in the evolutionary timeline of Standard, and an early stage at that. We should internalize it, learn from it, but not be beholden to it.
My second point of interest, Torrential Gearhulk, also disappointed. There was only a smattering of control across the Top 64 decklists at the two Grand Prix and none threatened to break into the Top 8 to defend the title.
Instead, Torrential Gearhulk decks were largely supplanted by B/G Delirium, which was a breakout deck of the weekend. This was an obvious archetype that failed to perform in great numbers early on, so to see its resurgence is somewhat surprising. But these lists differ from the early ones in a few key areas.
First, they overwhelmingly opted to play Grim Flayer instead of Sylvan Advocate as their two-drop of choice. Sylvan Advocate matches up quite poorly against Smuggler’s Copter, Selfless Spirit, and the other early creatures of the format, so its defensive capabilities are not what they have been in the past.
Moreover, Grim Flayer serves as an enabler for delirium, which allows these decks to trim on Vessel of Nascency and Grapple with the Past. The previous Standard format was significantly slower than this one, so any cards you play that don’t affect the battlefield are liabilities. Some number of these cards will be necessary for the deck to function, of course, but if you look at the lists from the Top 8 in Providence you’ll see that they all play between five and six of them, whereas early lists were in the seven-to-eight range.
The same creatures (Toolcraft Exemplar, Veteran Motorist, and Selfless Spirit) that have pushed Sylvan Advocate out have also made Liliana, the Last Hope and Ishkanah, Grafwidow much better, so the archetype is a better metagame choice than it was before. It features the best removal spell in the format, Grasp of Darkness, which answers nearly every creature up the curve, including Archangel Avacyn, for the low price of two mana.
And compared to the Torrential Gearhulk decks, B/G Delirium builds to the more powerful end-game. In fact, it builds to the most powerful end-game: Emrakul, the Promised End. With the capability for aggression, powerful threats in the mid-game, and the strongest end-game effect in Standard, I don’t see much of a reason to play counter-based control decks over this unless Aetherworks Marvel decks have a resurgence.
There is still a lot of variation in how these decks are built, especially in the singleton targets for Traverse the Ulvenwald, and I expect that these lists will be the most malleable for those that like to stay ahead of the metagame, but the basic shell is very powerful and matches up quite well against the top deck in the format, W/U Flash.
And make no mistake: W/U Flash is the top deck in Standard. Across the two Grand Prix (results can be found here and here), it put seven copies into Top 8s, another nineteen into Top 32s, and another 22 into Top 64s. That’s 48 out of 128 decks, or 37.5%. The rise of B/G Delirium is certainly in large part due to the density of W/U Flash decks, and I would expect the numbers between the two to balance out into a predator-prey equilibrium.
As I noted earlier, my primary concern with W/U Flash was whether its performance at the Pro Tour was mainly due to the favorable metagame there. Spell Queller was the single best card you could have against Aetherworks Marvel, and the white creatures, especially Archangel Avacyn, match up quite well against red aggressive decks. But even on a completely different weekend and without the benefit of being under the radar, this deck was a resounding success.
That’s the calling card of a number one deck, folks.
There’s nothing fancy here, just a pile of powerful and efficient creatures, a smattering of versatile removal, and a consistent manabase. The flash elements of the deck give you some tactical flexibility, especially with the tension between Stasis Snare and Spell Queller. Does your opponent play into your Mystic Snake or waste their mana and let you remove their only creature?
Pro tip: the key here from the Flash side is to have it all.
W/U Flash is popular enough right now that it will form the most significant barrier to entry into the format. It may not find Reflector Mage as often as Bant Company did, but playing creatures that match up poorly against the card is still not advised. Same with Spell Queller.
Cards like Natural State and Fragmentize that cheaply answer Smuggler’s Copter and Stasis Snare to gain tempo can be powerful, but you have to be careful not to overload on them and get caught with dead cards in your hand.
And more than anything, you can’t fall too far behind against this deck. Reflector Mage and Spell Queller are devastating when you’re already behind and Selfless Spirit protects their best threats from removal. You have to be able to gain early initiative to blunt the effectiveness of their tempo plays and not allow them to react to you with their flash threats. Cards like Ishkanah, Grafwidow that can catch you up from behind are great tools to have but not something you should rely on.
The Pro Tour did a great job of showcasing what is possible in this Standard format, but the meatgrinder of Magic tournaments quickly devours the weak strategies, leaving only the most brutally efficient decks alive. Barring a new archetype breaking out, I think we have the blueprint for Standard over the next few months.
Through all this complicated analysis, the story of Kaladesh Standard has thus far been a classic one. Aggressive decks dominated on the opening weekend, at which point combo and control decks could be designed to beat them. With the bounds of the format in place, we have now come to the weekend of midrange, and the top representatives of each supertype have made themselves known. Mardu Vehicles, W/U Flash, and B/G Delirium are the Tier 1 decks, and Jeskai Control and B/R Zombies among others comprise the tier below.
We’re still early and there is certainly room for more innovation, but such innovation will have to be done within this established paradigm. Standard has gone through its Enlightenment phase, and we are now progressing into the refined Victorian age. The rules of Victorian society are strict, but the rewards of industrialization are immense. These decks are well-oiled machines, and learning the intricacies of how they match up against each other may be a tedious process, but it retains an air of nobility, like fencing compared to a drunken fistfight.
Let the unwashed masses play with their toys and immerse themselves in their beloved serials. We have more important matters to attend to.