Since the release of Guilds of Ravnica the Standard metagame has shifted several times; Golgari seemed to be on top at the start of the format but was then answered by the extremely hateful maindeck Tocatli Honor Guard decks at Grand Prix New Jersey. We saw the breakout of Izzet Phoenix decks on the other side of the Atlantic at Grand Prix Lille and the eventual winner in New Jersey was a Jeskai Control deck based around Azor’s Gateway. The Pro Tour shook things up again with six copies of White based aggressive decks in the Top 8. The next weekend the White aggressive decks dropped back significantly in the face of a Golgari Midrange onslaught at Grand Prix Milwaukee but the event was won by an innovative Jeskai Control deck centered around the power of Niv-Mizzet Parun.
It seemed like the Standard format was relatively settled after Grand Prix Milwaukee with most events showing the four top tier decks; Golgari Midrange Jeskai Control, Izzet Drakes and Boros Aggro, as the consistently high finishers. There were some variations on builds but the stock versions had become established and the metagame looked stable even if it was not solved.
This weekend, however, saw a Standard Grand Prix in Shizuoka in Japan. Japanese deck-builders rarely disappoint when you are looking for innovation or an injection of spice into your metagame. There are a few key stories from Shizuoka but the biggest one is that Selesnya, which had remained firmly in the second tier of the Standard metagame, had a very successful weekend. Towards the start of the format the Selesnya Tokens decks had looked quite impressive and had access to a lot of powerful tools but this had never really converted into any strong finishes and the archetype had languished behind the big four. The deck builds have certainly become more refined over time but the success of Selesnya Tokens can be mostly attributed to the winner’s metagame it faced at this Grand Prix. Golgari Midrange, one of the better match-ups for the Tokens deck, made up a significant portion of the winner’s metagame, which allowed Tokens to rise to the top of the standings. Further to this the builds of Golgari Midrange were typically focusing on Carnage Tyrant as their top end threat with the intention of beating mirror matches and Jeskai decks. This can be seen not simply from the number of Carnage Tyrants in the decklists of the Golgari decks but also in the inclusion of maindeck Detection Tower in three of the four Top 8 decklists. These players had focused very strongly on the ability to interact with opposing Carnage Tyrant or potentially Hexproof Niv-Mizzet Paruns and were not prepared for the Selesnya Tokens match up at all, where a big dumb ground dinosaur is not especially strong. Whilst the Green-White guild had a good weekend in Shizuoka I believe that this will naturally bring the deck back into the spotlight and it will recede somewhat in the winner’s metagame as players take it into account when deck-building. Selesnya Tokens is a deck which can prey upon an unsuspecting and unprepared metagame but the lack of results earlier in the format’s lifespan suggests it cannot retain a spot as one of the highest tier of decks.
Whilst one of the guilds from Guilds of Ravnica had a breakout weekend, another had a weekend which continues to demonstrates a decline. Boros Aggro decks continue to hold a reasonable share of the metagame but the results of the archetype have waned somewhat since the success at Pro Tour Atlanta. There were three copies in the Top 16 at Shizuoka and interestingly all three diverged from the near Mono-White builds which proved so successful at the Pro Tour. All three included copies of Lava Coil, Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice and Boros Challenger, putting them firmly in the Boros colours. Two of these lists also chose to maindeck Tajic, Blade of the Legion, which is a card targeting mainly the Jeskai Control decks, which can struggle to beat the Boros Aggro decks without the power of Deafening Clarion to sweep the board. The trend with these decks seems to be one of taking a slightly slower and slightly bigger approach; playing individually more powerful cards and not relying on all-in aggression from the first turn. This is further demonstrated by the sideboard copies of Fiery Cannonade, which the trio of decklists all sported. These decklists are not yet into the Midrange territory of the Boros Angels decks we saw at New Jersey but they are trying to juke the most obvious hate which can be brought against Boros Aggro decks by taking one or two steps up the curve. The heavily White version of this deck seems to have fallen into the second tier and this new style of pinker Boros has slotted in to replace it at the top tier.
This trend of becoming slightly slower and slightly bigger is also true of the innovative Izzet Drakes deck that Japanese Hall of Famer Yuuya Watanabe took to a 16th place finish. Taking a similar approach to Adrian Sullivan’s Milwaukee winning decklist, Yuuya is playing a Niv-Mizzet deck. There are other threats and the deck is replete with cantrips and removal but at the core the deck is trying to abuse the awesome power of the Izzet Parun as the primary method to win the game. This is indicated by the three copies of Dive Down, coupled with two copies of Spell Pierce, which allow Yuuya to protect Niv-Mizzet easily once it has come down to the battlefield. The converted mana cost of the spells in the deck is incredibly low, which means that if he ever untaps with Niv-Mizzet he is likely going to be capable of chaining multiple spells together and taking over the game. It is also indicated by the two copies of Search for Azcanta, alongside the cheap spells. Search for Azcanta has fallen out of favour recently in the Control shells but it can still provide an additional mana source ahead of schedule to help power out the Parun and plays well with the cheap interactive spells and cantrips the deck has access to.
Yuuya was not the only pilot to play a ‘Niv-Mizzet combo’ deck as Kensuke Kato played a Jeskai Control list, similar to Adrian Sullivan’s, to a 10th place finish. The ability of Niv-Mizzet to completely dominate a game has become quite apparent in Standard and to see Jeskai Control lists running the full playset of a legendary creature before they run the playset of Teferi is a huge indicator that building decks around the Parun is a good place to be in the format.
Finally, there is the Tyrant in the room. Golgari Midrange has re-established itself as the de facto best deck in the format. The fortunes of the other archetypes have risen and fallen, and whilst this has happened to Golgari to a lesser extent, it has remained as a consistently successful archetype throughout the format. As previously mentioned the inclusion of maindeck Detection Tower was a popular piece of tech at this Grand Prix and was innovated by Team Axion’s Autumn Burchett at Pro Tour Atlanta (although they had it in the sideboard). The Golgari mirror is so centered around Carnage Tyrant that having access to a way to deal with it, even at the deckbuilding cost of having a Wastes in your manabase, is something these players felt was worthwhile. Most of the successful Golgari pilots also had several copies of Midnight Reaper in their maindecks, which is one of the more powerful cards to have access to against Jeskai Control as it mitigates the impact of their sweepers.
Having spoken about Carnage Tyrant’s importance and the extent to which players are building their decks to beat it, the winner of Shizuoka actually had a split of two Carnage Tyrants and two Doom Whisperers as his high end finishers. I believe that this deckbuilding decision was critical in allowing Atsushi Nakashima to win the event as Doom Whisperer is the best threat Golgari can present against the White decks, such as Boros Aggro or critically against Selesnya Tokens.
As this Standard format continues to develop and evolve the specific card choices for each weekend will prove critical if one is looking to succeed. The format remains relatively open still, with the four top tier decks being assailed by the second tier of decks and each of the less well represented decks being capable of having a breakout weekend if the more popular archetypes forget to prepare correctly for them. The pillars of the format seem to be developing as well, with Golgari Midrange sitting atop the pile but without a clear way to build it and Niv-Mizzet centric decks of all kinds being developed and refined further week on week. The low to the ground aggressive decks seem to be falling behind at the moment but that is typically the point at which players begin to ignore them and allow them to once more surge back into the winner’s metagame. Standard is in one of the best places it has been in the last several years and I am looking forward to seeing how it will develop in the new year!
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.