This has been one of the most fun Standard formats to grind Leagues in a long time. I’m learning from most of my games, and it feels fresh compared to pre-Dominaria. Here are my takeaways from the past two weeks of jamming Standard (47 matches), taking in results, and watching games.
1) You have to work for card advantage now
For the past couple of years it felt like if you woke up on time, brushed your teeth, threw on some clothes, and cooked some eggs and toast that you were rewarded with three extra cards. In other words, everything relevant you played gained real or virtual card advantage, so it just kind of stopped mattering. You never had to work to get ahead of your opponents, because the best card advantage engines were already in your deck.
Flash forward and we see a format where you get more for their mana, but in things other than drawing yet another card. I panned Karn because I felt like it didn’t do enough—I was used to your best cards naturally generating card advantage while attacking or dealing 2 damage or whatever. Now you have to buy some time to get card advantage going, but it actually feels worth it when you do. You can bury people with Teferi and Karn given some time, and Glimmer of Genius feels better than ever.
All of this requires time, which is good news for midrange and aggro. You can’t just pull ahead by playing your Rogue Refiner into Chandra, or Collected Company a few times, and automatically generate 5-6 extra cards. Watching your investment get eaten by a Cast Out or hasty Dragon is part of the game. The resource battles matter again.
2) White is the removal color of choice, but every color has a couple of playable answers
A big reason why it’s taking longer for a remake of U/B Control or Grixis Energy to pop up is because the black removal doesn’t line up nearly as well as it once did. It can be difficult to trigger revolt for Fatal Push, and not being able to kill Benalish Marshal or Steel Leaf Champion on command is a big strike. Cast Down not hitting Heart of Kiran fundamentally changes the usefulness of the card against aggro and midrange. Having a bunch of mediocre sweepers means that any deck can safely go wide against you and you either play trash like Golden Demise or you can’t do anything about it.
At the same time, Seal Away is amazing, Blink of an Eye is respectable to buy time and draw a card later, Cast Out does a great Vraska’s Contempt impression, and Settle the Wreckage is the best sweeper in the format. So much so that it has helped catapult Walking Ballista into “this card is in every deck” territory. Then for the decks that can play around Ballista, you can jam Fumigate in your sideboard and get ‘em anyway!
3) Walking Ballista is everywhere, and Kaladesh Block continues to be a honking mistake
&*$@ Walking Ballista and just all of Kaladesh block. I think we’ve now settled that artifact blocks are bad, terrible, NO GOOD, AWFUL, ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY THINGS. Somebody write it on a sticky note and post it on the work fridge. Thanks.
As far as the ubiquity of Ballista goes, it’s a combination of factors:
- Lots of relevant X/1s in the current format, which makes it a removal spell.
- Lots of synergies between Gate to the Afterlife, Karn, Scion of Urza, and so on.
- Settle the Wreckage makes Ballista relevant in the mid- and late-game even if you’re playing an aggro deck.
If you were playing on Magic Online and were surprised to learn that your card doubled in price to the most expensive Standard card, there’s why. Oh yeah, and your Scarab Gods are worth about 15 tix now. Enjoy.
4) Piles of “good cards” are overperforming due to metagame instability
One of the best ways to have game against everything is to limit the number of dead cards for certain matchups. The same reasoning applies to jamming a bunch of cards that are a 6-8 on the power scale, instead of trying to build a synergy deck or a strategy around protecting a handful of 10s. G/W Midrange winning the first Magic Online PTQ shouldn’t surprise anyone when you consider what a solid base it runs.
U/W Control somewhat falls under this umbrella now that it no longer has to play embarrassing early removal and has a real card advantage engine in Teferi. It has fewer bricks than similar control decks and can switch to a snowball of card advantage easily. Most of the U/W Historic decks were running 7-10 mediocre cards and still performed well early on because of the strength of the U/W cards.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see W/B move toward a more midrange version either. The deck can easily support it thanks to Heart of Kiran/Karn synergies and already tries to switch plans after sideboarding. Red and green decks are probably also looking at cards like Treasure Map to help balance things out.
5) The threat-to-answer ratio is the most balanced it has been in years
This is probably the least useful advice from an actual metagame perspective and more of a format health insight. The reason it’s good to think about this though is because it means tricks are worth a bit more than they were in the past. Blossoming Defense is great right now because your threats are worth saving and people are generally paying within 1 mana to answer them. Shalai is underplayed at the moment for how well it shuts down Settle the Wreckage.
Bonus: The 5 Decks Worth Playing
- U/W Control
- W/B Vehicles
- Mono-Green Aggro
- B/G Constrictor/Sultai Energy
- Red God-Pharaoh’s Gift builds, U/W if you have time
Note that while your specific matchups may vary, these represent the pillars of the metagame. In other words, if your deck is good against W/B Vehicles, odds are you have a reasonable “normal” White Aggro matchup. The same goes for B/G and Sultai—both represent a midrange deck with a bit of card advantage and removal with post-board interaction.
U/W Control is the frontrunner because none of the splashes offer any improvements. Teferi, Lyra, and Seal Away have catapulted it beyond other control decks. Esper is fine, but can have a lot of clunky draws due to so many tapped lands, and unless you run the Glint-Sleeve Siphoner/Champion of Wits versions, doesn’t really fill the gaps. Vraska’s Contempt is great, and the same goes for sideboard options like Duress, but nothing compares to what white gives the deck.
While The Scarab God would be a top 5 card in most Standard formats, here it’s too slow or too vulnerable to the removal. It is one of the best cards when you’ve stabilized, but so is Teferi. If you don’t have that key turn to stabilize, just running out your 5/5 is not a sound plan unless it has lifelink like Lyra. As the metagame shifts, it’s possible we’ll see a better format for The Scarab God, but for now the U/B decks feel like weaker U/W decks.
Mono-Green Aggro is scary and may be the best deck in the format. While straightforward in strategy, it has just enough tricks up its sleeve to make you think twice when you’re playing against it, and the green deck finally has a decent sideboard. Not only do you have great on-curve threats, you have the best 3-drop in the format in Steel Leaf Champion, you can duck removal with Vehicles and Blossoming Defense, and you have a snowball card against decks with minimum removal in Ghalta, Destroyer of Worlds. Between Karn and Lifecrafter’s Bestiary you also have plenty of relevant card advantage against decks trying to outlast you.
The one failing is that its plan is so linear that it benefits greatly from a varied metagame. The bigger a strategy it becomes, the more decks will adjust to beating it instead of each other. A card like Ravenous Chupacabra is a rough decision right now, but if Mono-Green and another creature deck were tier 1, you might see 2-4 main deck.
W/B Vehicles had an amazing weekend for the same reason I think Mono-Green is poised to do very well. It combines a few good interactive elements with a bunch of solid threats and game against Settle-Teferi-Gearhulk. It plays a lot like the classic Mardu lists of Standard past, which means that if history is an indicator, decks like B/G Constrictor or U/R Control (or Abrade plus card advantage decks in general) look stronger.
We’re starting to see the metagame streamline as the stronger options stand out, but there’s still a ton of room to refine these strategies. Don’t overreact to W/B Vehicles decks doing well—Magic Online was already here a week ago and the real life metagame is almost caught up. The two should converge before the Pro Tour and then things should finally shake out.