With Grand Prix Kansas City in the books, we got a fresh look at high-level Standard for your MCQ needs. Here are the main takeaways I found looking at the metagame and how the tournament shook out.

1) Nissa, Who Shakes the World shook up the metagame in a big way

Nissa, Who Shakes the World

Nissa is seeing more and more play as people want to either ramp into late-game threats that practically end the game on the spot or simply gain so many resources it becomes very difficult to lose. Even aggressive strategies benefit from Nissa; turning lands into 3/3’s while demanding a non-creature answer is quite strong at pressuring other planeswalkers and closing out games. Nissa is one of the few cards that makes an immediate impact, can play offense and defense and set up game-ending plays while not being tied to an ultimate.

For those who haven’t been keeping track, here’s a rough list of where she’s shown up in higher-level play.

  • Mono-Green Ramp with Karn
  • Simic Mass Manipulation (Simic Ramp)
  • Simic Nexus
  • Bant Ramp
  • Bant Midrange
  • Sultai Midrange
  • Sultai Command
  • 4c Command
  • Selesnya Ramp
  • Gruul Aggro

Whether she shows up as a 2-of or a full playset, whatever you play in Standard needs to have a plan if your opponent slams a Nissa on turn four. We’re also seeing the huge X-spell plan of either Hydroid Krasis or Mass Manipulation stick around, meaning you also must respect these giant haymakers moving forward. While she’s not the only reason these cards are good, she’s by far the best support for these cards and strategies.

2) Gruul Midrange was the big metagame winner at KC

While the Top 8 was diverse, just lurking one match win outside were another four Gruul Aggro decks, two Sultai Command, Mono-Red, White Weenie and Sultai Midrange. Standard is still quite the diverse metagame, but Gruul absolutely earned the praise it was getting prior to the tournament. If things had shaken out slightly differently, we may have had a less-refined narrative of ‘Format Solved, Gruul Midrange new best aggro deck. Drink Slurm Cola!”

Gruul Spellbreaker

Another big takeaway is that while Mono-Red remains the most popular deck and a reasonable choice, its meta share is slowly but surely being taken up by Gruul, which features a better range of matchups and far more sideboard options. We don’t even have a 100% agreed-upon build for the deck itself!

Here’s the card and numbers Byars, Nakamura, Crone, Maijlaton and Locke agreed or mostly agreed upon:

Maindeck

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Gruul Spellbreaker

4 Rekindling Phoenix

Skarrgan Hellkite (2, 2, 4, 4, 4)

Domri, Anarch of Bolas (3, 3, 3, 3, 2)

Shock (2, 2, 2, 2, 3)

Lightning Strike (4, 3, 2, 2, 4)

Cards in at least 4 of the 5 lists

4 Growth-Chamber Guardian (none in Byars list)

Legion Warboss (4, 4, 4, 3, 4 sideboard for Byars list)

3 of 5 lists

Thorn Lieutenant (4, 4, 3)

Nissa, Who Shakes the World (3, 3, 2)

As for sideboard choices, almost every list had Lava Coil and Thrashing Brontodon. The rest were usually split among utility answers or extra card advantage such as The Immortal Sun, Chandra, Fire Artisan, Vivien Reid, etc.

You get a general idea from the above overview, but you can build Gruul a fair number of different ways and still succeed. Byars’ list is probably the most unique of all the top-finishing Gruul lists and he made the finals. Meanwhile, Maijlaton had an 8-mana dork base with 4 Llanowar Elves and 4 Paradise Druid along with a slightly higher curve as a result.

Gruul Aggro

Michael Byars

7 Forest (347)
1 Gruul Guildgate
9 Mountain (343)
4 Rootbound Crag
4 Stomping Ground
4 Gruul Spellbreaker
3 Living Twister
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Rekindling Phoenix
4 Skarrgan Hellkite
4 Thorn Lieutenant
4 Lightning Strike
2 Shock
3 Domri, Anarch of Bolas
3 Sarkhan the Masterless

Sideboard
4 Lava Coil
4 Legion Warboss
2 The Immortal Sun
3 Thrashing Brontodon
2 Tibalt, Rakish Instigator

Outside of the very obviously strong Gruul cards and a smattering of burn, all the decks are somewhat tweaked for personal preference and metagame expectations. Don’t just netdeck a list an expect it to be optimized for your metagame or MTG Arena.

Speak of Arena…

3) Don’t Read Too Much into the Arena Metagame

The top end of Arena can mimic the top end of paper play, but don’t read too deeply into it.

One of the big things people don’t quite understand when chasing down top-performing Mythic lists from Arena is how ephemeral the meta at the very top of the Mythic ladder can be. Decks can perform amazingly well for a few days and then get completely hated out before the end of the week. There are plenty of flash-in-the-pan decks that high-level players do well with and then discard.

The flipside of this however is that just like Magic Online before it, you can find decks that are legitimately ahead of the curve and will be everywhere in the next two weeks. It already happened with Jeskai Superfriends, and now it’s happened with Gruul Aggro and Bant Manipulation. Before major tournaments, these decks had largely been the go-to on Arena and the meta had been adjusting to them. Meanwhile in paper, small (but notable) chunks or players would show up and smash a largely under-prepared metagame.

As the old adage goes, take everything with a grain of salt. It’s fine if you want to just follow top Arena players and Arena Decklists on Twitter and try to keep up-to-the-minute, but don’t just blindly play them at your next major tournament without considering some context. Try them in their current form to get a feel for them and then you’ll usually quickly figure out if it was just designed to prey on a specific Arena meta or just be good in general. And it can be both over the course of time.

Look at Simic Ramp and Command the Dreadhorde decks. They’ve evolved from being only midrange-killers to being legitimately well-rounded decks that are still soft in certain matches, but nowhere near as linear as the originals were. Sultai Dreadhorde is essentially just the final evolution of Sultai Midrange, a deck thoroughly outclassed by everything else coming out of War of the Spark. However, people thought it still worth exploring thanks to its inherent strength against red and grafted on a strong backup engine going toe-to-toe with other planeswalker board control and decks that preyed on Midrange.

Picking a deck for this weekend really comes down to what you feel comfortable with and what level you think your metagame is on. I’ve been playing a lot of Sultai Command with a lean back toward beating creature decks and having a good time with it. Honestly, for a random tournament I think Gruul Aggro is a gimme as far as straightforward, strong decks go. But as we saw in the Top 8, as long as you know your deck well and have reasonable matchups, you can play nearly anything you want.

It should just probably have Nissa or a way to steal Nissa in it.