After the weekend of every major Standard tournament I write a brief analysis and review of the tournament in terms of numbers, lessons to be learnt and the direction we should be moving in going forward. This is typically quite an informal document which I share internally with Team Axion and it’s intended to help keep everyone up to speed and shape our discussions, testing, and decision making with regards to the Standard format. The weekend just gone is no exception as we had the most important of tournaments, Pro Tour Amonkhet, which likely will define the metagame for the duration of this format. There is one important difference with this analysis though - I will be sharing it with everyone, in this article!
Firstly it is important to frame the discussion with the numbers to give context to the tournament and the deck specific points. The metagame at Pro Tour Amonkhet (PTAKH) looked like this:
There is substantial data posted on the mothership by Frank Karsten which one can peruse at their leisure but I tend to filter out some of the statistics due to the nature of the Pro Tour as a split format event. The conversion rate of a deck or archetype is heavily influenced by the success of the pilots in the first Draft and the metagame is often quite varied on the first day compared to the second day where you develop a clearer winner’s metagame. Therefore I break down the decks which finished with strong constructed records as follows:
Decks with 21 points (7-3) or more:
Mono-Black Zombies - 18
Mardu Vehicles - 13
Temur Marvel (Spells) - 6
Temur Marvel (Traditional) - 5
White/Black Zombies - 3
Sultai Marvel - 3
Temur Marvel (Chandra) - 2
Temur Energy - 2
Black/Green Snake - 2
One copy of the following - Blue/Red Control, Jund Gods, 4C Marvel, Green/Black Energy, Black/Red Control, Black/White Control, Bant Marvel
Decks with 18-20 points:
Mardu Vehicles - 16
Mono-Black Zombies - 10
Temur Marvel (Traditional) - 10
Temur Marvel (Spells) - 4
Temur Marvel (Chandra) - 4
BG Energy - 4
Sultai Marvel - 2
Blue/Red Control - 2
One copy of the following - Abzan Tokens, Jeskai Control, Bant Marvel, Black/White Zombies, Blue/Red Emerge, Temur Midrange
The lists which achieved 21 points or more are the ones which I would tend to focus on as these results are truly good finishes but the other positive records are included for completeness and to give a wider sense of the metagame as a whole.
The Aetherworks Marvel decks came in many flavours and I have divided the Temur decks into three different categories. Whilst the primary gameplan of all three is to cast a turn four Ulamog by activating Aetherworks Marvel, their secondary gameplans diverge between value creatures for the traditional build such as Marc Tobiasch’s deck, a spell dense instant speed value plan, such as Yuuya Watanabe’s deck and the build with Chandra Flamecaller to provide value or a wrath effect which Team Genesis played.
The first thing which stands out when reviewing the numbers is that the lack of Mardu Vehicles on camera or in the Top 8 was not completely indicative of a poor tournament for the perceived ‘best deck’ going into the event. Mardu Vehicles does not have an especially favourable match up against Marvel decks and the match up against Zombies can be rough if you aren’t bringing sideboard wraths for it. Given that the two most successful and next most represented archetypes were Marvel and Zombies this would naturally lead to Mardu not having the dominant performance some may have expected. However, I would strongly encourage you not to dismiss Mardu too quickly and assume that it is finally dead. Mardu can still play a strong aggressive game and has some of the most efficient and best cards in Standard such as Heart of Kiran and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The main issue Mardu faces moving forward is a rough Marvel match up and the fact that Unlicensed Disintegration isn’t very strong against either Marvel or Zombies.
Both Kelvin Chew and Andrea Mengucci brought back some old technology to fight the Marvel decks in terms of sideboarding counterspells in their Mardu decks, a trend which I believe will pick up in popularity as it is the best way to fight that match up. It requires a slight change in the manabases that people have previously been running but will be more easily facilitated by the reinclusion of Cultivator’s Caravan in the more recent Mardu builds. Ryan Cubit had a slightly different take and made his Mardu deck even more aggressive by including some Inventor’s Apprentices and the full playset of Reckless Bushwhacker. I like this conceptually going into the Pro Tour by simply making the deck faster and more aggressive but I would not suggest it going forward as I believe red-based sweepers will become increasingly popular to fight the Zombies decks. Those red-based sweepers even turned up in some Mardu decklists as Oliver Tiu had three Radiant Flames in his sideboard in anticipation of the popularity of Zombies. This is the kind of tech I would expect to see more of in the future with the number of Fumigates increasing and being supplemented by either Radiant Flames or other low cost interactive removal spells.
I think that Mardu retains a lot of the power it previously held but the deck should be constructed differently now with the removal suite potentially including fewer than a playset of Disintegrations and looking to include perhaps some Declaration in Stone to answer both Ulamog and Zombie hordes. The sideboard is the main area, which will require reconstruction in light of the new expected metagame with the counterspell suite alongside some number of wraths becoming standard and the heavy planeswalker plan perhaps being reduced.
The Marvel decks at the Pro Tour were the choice for many of the top players and several have described the archetype as the best and most successful at this event. I don’t necessarily agree with this when one takes into account the pilots and the eventual finishes of the decks but Marvel was undoubtedly one of the best performers at PTAKH. I’ve briefly mentioned the three types of Temur build and will discuss them in some depth but it would be remiss not to mention the other colour combinations of Marvel which were present at the Pro Tour. Jaichen Tao played a four colour variant primarily based around the Bant Marvel shell but with red to include red removal and additional sideboard sweepers. There were also some straight Bant Marvel players, which has the advantage of playing Fumigate. I would expect this build to be defunct given the innovation of Chandra, Flamecaller brought to the event by Team Genesis. The other flavour of Marvel was of a Sultai variety and was headlined by Reid Duke and Huey Jensen; it features a more midrange gameplan with Ishkanah and the potential to reanimate an Ulamog with Liliana, Death’s Majesty. This build was growing in popularity prior to the Pro Tour on Magic Online but again I believe the advantages it has over Mardu Vehicles pale in comparison to the Temur builds which were present and now will likely come to be the default for Marvel decks.
The traditional Marvel builds performed well but looked far less impressive than either the spell-heavy build or the Chandra, Flamecaller build. The inclusion of Chandra, Flamecaller by Team Genesis was a stroke of genius as it provided a pseudo-wrath against Zombies and I would credit much of their success to this technology. I suspect that we will see this as an automatic inclusion in some number in all Marvel decks in the future. I would also expect that the more spell-heavy version of the deck as piloted by Eric Froelich and Yuuya Watanabe will become the default shell, utilising instant speed spells such as Glimmer of Genius and Censor alongside Torrential Gearhulk to give them the most robust back-up plan for when they don’t Ulamog on turn four. I don’t believe that there is any real doubt that these builds were the most impressive on display and that this is the route that Marvel decks will take from now on. The more pressing issues are how to construct the deck to include the tools to beat the pressure Zombies can pose whilst managing your sideboard to be prepared for the mirror match and the likely uptick in counterspells from the metagame in general. Some players had already prepared somewhat for this with some sideboard tech; Martin Müller and Team Genesis had copies of Sphinx of the Final Word in their sideboards alongside a playset of Tireless Trackers. However, I would expect that having your own counterspells, such as Negate, will be an important part of playing in the new metagame. There was another very minor but very important piece of technology displayed by Yuuya Watanabe - Shrine of the Forsaken Gods, this card looked very impressive for him over and over as it allowed him to hard cast Ulamog a turn ahead of schedule on numerous occasions and the inclusion of it is incredibly low cost; this undoubtedly should be in your Marvel decks.
Marvel is often a high variance deck but the spell heavy builds look like they have the best plan for winning if they miss on a fast Ulamog and this will give you the percentage points needed to win a tournament. Marvel has the huge advantage of free wins when you do simply Ulamog people on turn four, and even if people come with a significant amount of hate and preparedness for the deck then you still likely have this as a viable out to winning before any of it is relevant. This deck will be a mainstay for as long as the format exists and it remains legal.
The other major deck of the tournament and the deck which I believe was the best deck at the event and incidentally won the whole thing, was Zombies. There were two flavours of Zombies, the Mono-Black variety and the White-Black variety with the primary differences being that the White included Wayward Servant and Binding Mummy at the expense of Relentless Dead and Metallic Mimic and perhaps more importantly it also included Anguished Unmaking. The creatures in the Mono-Black version and the consistency are certainly superior to that of the White-Black version, however, Anguished Unmaking answering Ulamog and Aetherworks Marvel is an incredibly relevant thing to be able to do, not to mention the powerful sideboard options afforded to the White-Black version in the form of Declaration in Stone and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The Mono-Black version was vastly more popular at PTAKH and this leads me to believe that the players had mostly concluded that this version was better in their expected metagames. This makes sense given that it is consistent and will goldfish faster. Relentless Dead also provides excellent insurance against the sweeper effects which can otherwise be back-breaking for the Zombies deck.
Moving forward though I would strongly consider the White-Black version over the Mono-Black for two reasons; better interaction with Marvel decks and better interaction for the mirror match. The Zombies mirror can be complex and lead to huge board states and I suspect that Wayward Servant can provide a lot of value in this scenario if one player isn’t simply dominating the other with an overwhelming advantage. Declaration in Stone is also a card I am extremely interested in playing in the metagame now as it can cleanly answer hordes of Zombie tokens or exile a key card such as Cryptbreaker or Diregraf Colossus and the exiling is very relevant with the presence of Relentless Dead, Diregraf Colossus and Liliana, the Last Hope. The other major reason I’m looking to the slightly less aggressive White-Black version is that the glaring weakness for Zombies is the same as with all other tribal aggro decks - board sweepers. The Zombies deck has the capability of playing around them reasonably well as it can rebuild from a minimal base and can sit behind some pressure with a Cryptbreaker drawing cards to ensure a good amount of action post-sweeper. It is possible that this is sufficient but sometimes you won’t be able to put all of these pieces together and white sideboard cards provide better insulation against sweepers. The specific cards which I’d be looking to test and potentially include are Make a Stand, Selfless Spirit and Archangel Avacyn as these will straight-up counter any wrath effects from the opponent and you will likely win the game immediately thereafter. William Lou actually included three copies of Selfless Spirit in his sideboard for this very reason. He also had a maindeck copy of Cast Out rather than the Anguished Unmakings, I don’t especially like this as I would have the cheaper card in the maindeck but the option to have both in the 75 is certainly appealing and worth being aware of when constructing your deck.
The card which wasn’t necessarily a playset in every Zombies deck but probably should be as we refine our lists is Liliana’s Mastery. The card is simply a good rate as a stand alone card and when the anthem effect is being given to more than just the tokens it provided then it is incredibly strong. It is a card which costs five in a low to the ground aggressive deck but it is powerful enough to include a playset in your deck and I don’t believe you will regret the decision.
Another of the key differences between the Mono-Black and White/Black decks is the inclusion of Westvale Abbey in the Mono-Black version. I haven’t had time to test this extensively but the card has proved impressive when I have tested it and it is possible that the utility it provides might be a large enough advantage when coupled with the added consistency and speed that it pushes Mono-Black ahead in the race between the two variants. At this point it is still unclear exactly which of the two one should play but it is worth noting that winner of PTAKH, Gerry Thompson, and his team had determined that the copies of Lost Legacy in their sideboard weren’t good against Watanabe’s Marvel deck. This means that they were relying on Transgress the Mind as their only disruption, which, whilst good, is perhaps not the ideal place to be in the match up. There are some other sideboard options for Mono-Black Zombies such as Dispossess, which was seen in minimal numbers at PTAKH leading me to believe it is simply not that good either and that white sideboard or maindeck cards might be required for the expected metagame.
There are a few decks I would strongly advocate avoiding: Blue-Red Control, Black-Green of any variety and New Perspectives Combo. Blue-Red Control had a shockingly poor Pro Tour performance, which is a surprise given that it typically contains Sweltering Suns which should be strong against Zombies and countermagic which traditionally has been strong against Marvel decks. Despite the perceived advantages the Blue-Red Control decks have on paper they had very poor results with the only truly good result coming from Peter Vieren, who is a highly regarded control specialist and frequently performs well with control archetypes whilst others flounder. I’m unsure as to the exact reasons why this deck performed so poorly when it theoretically should have done much better but the conclusion one has to draw is that the deck isn’t actually very good and I would work under this assumption until further evidence is presented.
Black-Green put a pilot into the Top 8 with Ken Yukuhiro taking an innovative and incredibly mana efficient Energy Aggro build to the semifinals. However, his record in Constructed was 7-3 and his deck didn’t look that good on camera unless he was casting Bone Pickers at a much reduced cost. I believe that the mana efficiency of his threats would allow him to quickly beatdown opponents and whilst hugely impressed by his deck-building ability I don’t think this is a deck I would advocate if you hope to win a tournament in the near future. The more traditional Black/Green decks are hopelessly behind to Marvel and can’t really compete with Zombies in the short or long game and I would discount these from existing as successful decks at all for the foreseeable future.
New Perspectives Combo looked staggeringly consistent and resilient prior to PTAKH and in our testing with it but the numbers in events just prior to PTAKH and at the event itself sadly put it firmly into the second tier of decks. There isn’t much room for improvement on the decklists I suspect, and the deck will suffer further from the hate being levelled at the more powerful combo deck in the metagame too. Not a viable option for success.
There were a few fringe decks which is it worth being aware of at PTAKH: Jund Gods from Patrick Dickmann, Black-Red Control from Alexandre Habert (who was part of the innovation in Mardu’s transformational sideboard at Grand Prix Utrecht recently), Abzan Tokens from Sam Black, White-Black Control from Alex Stok and Temur Energy from Michael Brierley. These are the fringe decks which look like they may have some viability going forward and it is possible that one or more of these can compete and even find success in the expected metagame but they would need to be tested and adapted to some degree before taking them to a tournament.
In terms of upcoming tournaments I would recommend playing Mono-Black Zombies with the playset of Liliana’s Mastery included and with a sideboard updated to include a playset of Transgress the Mind and no Lost Legacy. I would suggest testing Dispossess against Marvel builds to see if that is a reasonable method of attacking them or not. I would also recommend practising the mirror matches as they can get complicated and have some interactions which are important to note, such as targeting your opponent with Dark Salvation or Relentless Dead tricks. The key card is Cryptbreaker and so Liliana, the Last Hope is an important sideboard card for both killing their copy and recurring your own. White-Black Zombies is also a deck I would recommend with potentially changing the Binding Mummy slots into something else and increasing the number of Declaration in Stone available to you, although I do think that Fennel’s sideboard was excellent. I would also look to include some kind of sweeper protection, as previously mentioned, testing Avacyn to see if the mana works and if not then looking to play Selfless Spirit. Marvel decks are a strong contender and you should be looking to focus on the spell-heavy builds with at least two copies of Chandra, Flamecaller in your maindeck. The sideboard should include additional sweepers and some hard counterspells with some expectation of facing control decks. If you plan on playing Mardu I wouldn’t fault that at all but I’d look to adjust the removal suite slightly to be better against Zombies and I would certainly adopt a build which can include some counterspells in the sideboard. Ceremonious Rejection is a strong consideration alongside Negate and Metallic Rebuke with Eduardo Sajgalik’s tech of Spell Queller from the last Pro Tour not out of the question. I would also look to include at least three sweepers with some split of Fumigate and Radiant Flames as well as some Declaration in Stone in the 75.
The cards that you want to be playing for future tournaments are Sweltering Suns, Magma Spray (although this isn’t as good as you’d hope against Zombies), Radiant Flames, Declaration in Stone, Negate, Ceremonious Rejection, Transgress the Mind, Yahenni’s Expertise (this card is a real sleeper currently but I suspect will trend up a lot), Incendiary Flow (three damage is so much better than two against Zombies and exiling is very relevant).
Things to avoid playing: Black-Green anything, Blue-Red Control, Lost Legacy.
There are some Standard Grand Prix events happening this weekend so we’ll see how the metagame reacts to the Pro Tour results but I strongly expect to see Marvel and Zombies everywhere with both decks having hate levelled against them and the main things to look for are the adaptations to Marvel decks and how well Zombies can deal with hate in the form of multiple sweepers.
24-27 Point Decklists from PTAKH:
21-23 Point Decklists from PTAKH:
18-20 Point Decklists from PTAKH:
PTAKH Coverage Page including Frank Karsten’s statistical articles:
MTGGoldfish’s PTAKH By the numbers:
About George Channing:
George has been playing competitively since 2014 and is a true grinder; with a huge number of competitive events under his belt, his results have been improving year on year. With a Grand Prix Top 8 in Modern and a few Pro Tour appearances, he aspires to become a regular on the biggest stage. George’s role on Team Axion is frequently related to metagame and decklist analysis, whilst also providing a lot of raw testing data. He most enjoys Standard with the speed and frequency of the metagame developments keeping it interesting.