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Who Beats Whom in the Current Standard Metagame?

I’m sad to say my Standard preparation for Magic Fest Detroit was in vain, as many upcoming Magic conventions worldwide have been cancelled due to public health concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. It’s obviously a bummer to see an event like #MTGDetroit (in my backyard!) nixed, but public safety has to come first.

While I won’t be able to sleeve up cardboard and use what I’ve learned in a paper tournament, I’ll still take the opportunity to share it with my fellow gamers! Over the past few weeks I’ve done a Standard MTG deep dive in preparation for the Detroit tournament and today I’d like to present what I’ve learned, how the format has evolved in recent weeks (and continues to evolve!), as well as strategies for jumping in and finding the right one for you!

Admittedly, I came to Standard a little late in the game… I gave up playing the format in favor of Pauper and Pioneer after a lot of the broken 2019 stuff started to pile up. I will say, after taking a break and coming back to the format post-bans that it’s much improved and quite enjoyable!

Know Your Limitations and Pick the Right Deck 

While there isn’t an event like Grand Prix Detroit for me to take what I’ve learned and put it into practice, I’ll take you through my process.

When it comes to MTG, it’s important to recognize your limitations. Of course, it’s ideal to overcome them, but assessing your strengths and weakness to devise a coherent plan for success is your best starting point.

My two biggest liabilities going into a 15-round Standard event boil down to format experience and grinder stamina.

I know my most challenging opponents will likely have a greater depth of Standard games under their belt than I do. Also, because I’ve played significantly fewer large events, the mental wear and tear of a 10-hour slog could lead to fatigue-related mistakes in complicated matches as the tournament winds on.

The best way to insulate against these likely conditional advantages would be to play an aggressive strategy, or an archetype that I have a lot of general experience with. I don’t want to get bogged down in grindy control mirrors and tax my mental energy trying to figure out intricate scenarios for the first time.

Fortunately, aggressive decks are very good in Standard, and it’s not just my eyeball test that says so—the results back it up. Also, Temur Reclamation is quite powerful (and well positioned!) and I have a ton of experience playing variants of that archetype in the past.

Ultimately, I would have been comfortable and happy to play either Temur Reclamation or Mono-Red Aggro in the event because both meet my criteria of being well-positioned and within my range to pilot well.

Midrange on The Rise! 

MTGTOP8 data compiled over the past two weeks supports the claim that “aggressive decks are good.”

Adventure – 22%
Red Deck Wins – 16%
Bant Ramp – 10%
U/W Control – 8%
Jeskai Fires – 8%
Gruul Aggro – 6%
Temur Control – 5%

The most significant Standard trend over the past few weeks is how the metagame has adapted and evolved to U/W Control being a dominant strategy. U/W’s success has declined and decks that prey upon U/W have done extremely well.

The decks that tend to give U/W Control problems are ones that are extremely threat dense and also churn card advantage. Clover and Bant Ramp are both great examples of anti-meta strategies that have been successful enough to inform the new metagame.

Let’s take a look at Clover:

Temur Clover (Standard) - Luis Scott-Vargas, Mythic Point Challenge

Temur Clover is more midrange than pure beatdown. It presents sticky threats, nets card advantage (since most of its spells are inherently two-for-one Adventures), and has ways to sustain and craft card and board advantage over the course of a game via its linchpins:

Lucky CloverEdgewall Innkeeper

The popularity and success of Adventures has also led to a shakeup in how other control decks approach the format. Pure U/W Control has fallen out of favor in lieu of Bant Control which has a significantly improved interaction with midrange decks such as Clover, but is also inherently good against other U/W builds because of its higher threat density and a “ramp centric” early game.

Uro, Titan of Nature's WrathHydroid KrasisNissa, Who Shakes the WorldTamiyo, Collector of Tales

Whereas traditional U/W Control decks interact on the stack with an attrition-based approach to winning games, Bant is much more of a “tap-out” deck that deploys powerful and versatile threats:

Bant Ramp (Standard) - Norbie Mendoza, 1st at WPNQ

While traditional U/W Control decks are still a part of the metagame, their role as the “deck to beat” has diminished in the face of midrangey Adventures decks and tap-out ramp.

We Got the Beat! 

The key to understanding the metagame trend is that decks that beat U/W are extremely popular in the metagame. While the “controlling decks to beat” may have traded places, Mono-Red Aggro has remained a consistently strong performer regardless of how the format shifts around it.

Red Deck Wins (RDW)

RDW has impressed me since I began learning the Standard format. It has extremely efficient and compact threats to provide pressure as well as some big splashy synergy combos that can put an opponent away at any point in a game if the shields go down.

I have a lot of experience with Red Aggro with a flair for the combo-flare. Atarka Red was a focused beatdown deck that could kill from left field (and against opponents with absurdly high life totals, thanks to Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage).

EmbercleaveTorbran, Thane of Red Fell

Both of these cards provide a huge boost of damage output on the turn they are deployed and are the premier ways to put an opponent away (especially when Rimrock Knight joins the adventure!).

There’s not a ton of deviation to building a great Red Deck. In fact, I’m inclined to believe the further we push away from the proven base, it’s hurting more than helping. Here’s the 75 I would have played in Detroit:

Mono-Red Aggro (Standard) - Brian DeMars

RDW’s greatest asset is mana efficiency in the early turns which is a fantastic way to punish clunky decks that are trying to “go bigger” than one another… The key is we need to deal the final death blow before the opponent is able to stabilize, turn the corner, and lock us out of the game with more expensive threats.

Even in a Midrange Meta, going small and fast isn’t necessarily a bad place to (provided the Aggro deck is well thought out). Specifically, it’s important there is tension between Adventures and Bant trying to go bigger than each other, since the harder those decks hedge for each other the less they are hedging for RDW with cheap interaction.

It is also worth noting that Pure U/W Control is the deck I’d least want to face with a Mono Red Deck. U/W is a tough match up and it gets worse after sideboard when the opponent can frontload on Devout Decree and Aether Gusts! However, with U/W backed into a corner by Adventures AND Bant Ramp it feels like an ideal time to spam some Mountains.

The primary predator for Red Decks are Adventure Midrange strategies since they are fairly low to the ground and play blockers that line up well against Red. The configuration of my Red Deck, with 4x Embercleave, is hedge against Adventures as combing through their blockers has proven the most consistent and realistic plan to defeat them.

Rakdos 

While Rakdos decks don’t have the same consistency of mana (18 Mountains is nice!), they add some powerful options to the mix. I was unimpressed with Rakdos Knights’ weak matchup against Mono-Red, but I’m intrigued by the sweet Rakdos Sacrifice deck.

Rakdos Sacrifice (Standard) - Chris Kvartek, Mythic Point Challenge

Sacrifice takes a less direct path toward dealing damage but has a lot of potential to grind out long games.

If you expect to play against a lot of Adventures, Rakdos is a great tool for the job. My biggest issue with Rakdos is that I don’t necessarily want to play a creature deck that extends the game against a Bant Ramp deck (I want to put them away before the late game!).

Another weakness of the Rakdos deck is that while it can play a lot of close games with Mono-Red, it has problems with a big Embercleave turn.

If my focus were to play a strategy that is great against Adventures, I’d likely gravitate toward Bant Ramp (Since it’s equal in the mirror and favored against U/W). However, it’s also true that Rakdos is an interesting choice for a player (such as myself) who wants to beat Adventures without slogging through a bunch of tricky Bant mirror matches.

When you’re up against Rakdos, be wary of Claim the Firstborn.

Claim the Firstborn

It’s extremely powerful and capable of swinging a game.

Temur Reclamation 

The second deck I was considering playing (and honestly gravitating toward) was Temur Reclamation. While it doesn’t typically fit my mold of being a straightforward deck to play in a long event, it’s also true that I’ve played it a ton in the past and really enjoy the style of gameplay.

Temur Reclamation (Standard) - Brian DeMars

The reason I’d be inclined to take this strategy to a large event (other than the fact I’d have the most fun playing it) is that like RDW, Temur Reclamation’s natural predator is traditional U/W Control.

Dovin's VetoTeferi, Time Raveler

While it’s true that Bant Ramp does play these cards, the nature of the beast is different. Bant Ramp is top-loaded with expensive threats. When the shields come down, we can pretty easily make a move and go off.

Temur Reclamation’s value in the metagame is closely tied to the popularity of U/W Control, so if U/W’s metagame percentage is down… Temur’s is up!

Standard Metagame Cheat Sheet

If you’re thinking about jumping into Standard and experiencing this interesting metagame firsthand, I’ve put together an easy cheat sheet to think about how the various top strategies line up with one another.

Keep in mind, just because you get a favorable matchup doesn’t guarantee anything! These decks are all powerful and have a high degree of nuance to build and play. With that said, these are trends that I believe tend to be true in the abstract:

DECKFAVORED AGAINSTUNFAVORED AGAINST
Mono-RedTemur Reclamation
Bant Ramp
B/R Sacrifice
Temur Clover
U/W Control
B/R SacrificeTemur CloverBant Ramp
U/W Control
Temur Reclamation
Mono-Red
Temur CloverMono-Red
U/W Control
Bant Ramp
Temur Reclamation
B/R Sacrifice
Bant RampU/W Control
Temur Clover
B/R Sacrifice
Mono-Red
Temur Reclamation
U/W ControlTemur Reclamation
Mono-Red
B/R Sacrifice
Temur Clover
Bant Ramp
Temur ReclamationBant Ramp
Temur Clover
B/r Sacrifice
Mono-Red
U/w Control

Some matchups are really close. For instance, the hive mind tends to believe Mono-Red is favored against Temur Reclamation. In my experience, the matches are extremely tight and Red is favored by only a slim margin given a dedicated hedge in construction. I play 4x Aether Gusts, which likely informs my opinion of the matchup.

It makes a lot of sense to me that U/W has slipped in popularity given the success of Clover and Bant. Given my spreadsheet, however, I’d predict that Clover may have reached its peak already. It may be the case that players switching from Temur Clover to Mono-Red (an extension of following the trend of U/W into Bant) could once again make U/W a savvy choice!

The crux of U/W’s problem will be finding a way to gain percentage against a formidable predator in Bant Ramp. Since finding a way to grind uphill against Bant with U/W was decidedly against my “don’t mess around with strategies where I can get out-experienced,” and my event is off the table, that is where the buck stops for today…

Overall, Standard is a pretty sweet format and it was fun to explore the various decks and how they line up against one another. For the time being, it looks like it will be a format I continue to explore largely from my desktop computer until the current health crisis passes. Stay safe, healthy, and remember to wash those hands (and I don’t just mean mulligans!)!

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