The current Standard format is widely seen as one of the least interesting Standard formats in years. Even though innovative decks do pop up here and there, the level of innovation is still fairly low and the overall percentage of legal cards being played is also lower than usually. Why is this? And is there any way out?
I think that in order to understand what's going on now and to be able to predict what will happen next, we first need to look back a few months. Since the release of Kaladesh, Standard has been in a pretty unusual situation. The format that is typically the "default" constructed environment, the one that the most articles are written about and most games are played in, hasn't exactly been going through a great period. First, Aetherworks Marvel dominated the early stage. After the Pro Tour, things stabilized with B/G Delirium and U/W being the two best decks, but a bit later on, Temur Marvel returned to rejoin the trio of Standard hegemons. Three decks that constitute the bulk of the metagame, with a couple of rogue archetypes like B/R aggro or Jeskai control thrown in, that's not such a disaster for a Standard format, in terms of diversity. But still, Standard was receiving very low marks in terms of player satisfaction and was largely seen as a pretty miserable experience. Why? Mostly because of the too high power level of the top three engines and also a lack of interaction. Especially with Marvel and Emrakul ramp, you would frequently play games where the level of interaction was minimal. Splashy plays did happen, but when flipping an Ulamog out of a four-mana artifact became the norm, not the exception, the excitement of this quickly disappeared too. In terms of how linear the decks relying on Marvel, Emrakul or Gideon were, the format got on a similar level as Modern, except for the fact that instead of twenty different decks, there were only three, so even the experience of diversity - what's keeping Modern so popular - was not present.
Wizards responded in an exceptionally strong manner, banning Emrakul, Smuggler's Copter and Reflector Mage. As much as I dislike bannings in Standard, I think that Emrakul very much deserved the axe - it was both overpowered and miserable to play against and the ban weakened two out of the three top archetypes: B/G Delirium ramp and Marvel. Smuggler's Copter probably got banned simply because of how over-powered it was. As for Reflector Mage, the ban was most likely a move in advance against Jeskai Saheeli, where the Mage would certainly excel.
So, armed with almost three months worth of knowledge of the post-ban format: how effective was this move? In terms of diversity, we're pretty much in the same spot as we were a couple of months ago. The big two decks now are Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor, with the third deck changing from one week to another, but always being some kind of U/R/x based combo/control deck. Everything else is a good deal behind. In the top 32 of GP Utrecht, the most recent Standard Grand Prix, there were thirteen Mardu Vehicles decks and nine B/G Constrictors - 22 out of the top 32 decks were only these two archetypes. The MTG Online Championship played by sixteen participants saw eight Mardu Vehicles and two B/G Constrictor decks, meaning 10 out of 16. Mardu, in particular, seems to be not just good, but oppressive in that no other aggro deck seems to be viable, since it would simply never do things as effectively as Mardu.
So, is there any hope for Standard? In my opinion, it may lie in the "third deck" of the format and the influence it's going to have. In Utrecht, it was Temur Dynavolt Tower - three of these decks ended up in the top 32 and players such as Ondřej Stráský, Petr Sochůrek, Lucas Florent or Oliver Polak-Rottmann picked up the deck, which shows that at least some Pros had a lot of confidence in it. And while none of them managed to squeeze into the top 8, Lucas Florent went 12-2-1 and Ondřej Stráský 12-3, which put both of them into the top 16. At the MTGO Championship, this "third" deck was 4C Saheeli, with five players in the field of sixteen sticking to this deck and both Lukas Blohon and Ryosuke Urase navigating the tough field to a top 4 result on the back of the four-color combo deck. Mardu Vehicles and Black-green are likely going to remain parts of the metagame for as long as their key pieces remain legal (that is until the September rotation or until another ban-hammer hits Standard, which doesn't seem all that likely, though). Also, the synergies they use put a great restraint on other aggro decks (because of Mardu) and midrange decks (because of B/G). Considering how over-powered their engines are, I don't think that there can be any competition with these fine-tuned machines in their area of expertise - seeing a better aggro deck than Mardu or a better midrange / board stall deck than B/G seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, certain areas still seem to be worth exploring: notably control (such as the Temur Dynavolt Tower decks) or midrange / combo (such as 4C Saheeli). Also, certain hyper-aggressive strategies that try to go "under" Mardu Vehicles might be viable - straight R/B aggro has seen some success on Magic Online in the recent weeks, for example. If I see any hope for Standard, it's in innovation in these areas. It also means that Mardu and B/G will have to keep evolving and improving in order to fend off these threats that change from one week to another.
In the recent weeks, the most successful representative of this "third" category of decks was 4C Saheeli, so let's have a closer look at how it operates and what the deck's gameplan against the "big two" looks like. For reference, here's Lukas Blohon's list from the MTGO Championship:
|Converted Mana Cost|
2nd place at the MTGO Championship
The 4C Saheeli deck is an intriguing one because of how many game plans it can adopt, and if you watch the replays of the top 4 matches from the MTGO Championship, where Lukas played against great Mardu Vehicles pilots both in the semifinals and the finals, you will see several different ways how the game can be won. One of the keys is that no matter what you do, the opponent always has to respect the Copycat combo, so once you can reach six mana on your turn (four to play Felidar Guardian, blink a land, play Saheeli Rai, go off), they can never tap out. Even in games where the opponent seems to be in a better position the whole time, they can never be sure and the Saheeli deck can steal games and win out of nowhere. The first game in the finals against Josh Utter-Leyton is a great example of this: Josh is in the driver's seat and unless Lukas has the combo, Josh is certainly going to win. With Lukas having only two cards in his hand, Josh taps out and hopes that he's not dead - except for Lukas is holding the two combo pieces and wins out of nowhere.
This sole fact is super-important for how the matchup plays out, because regardless of the cards 4C Saheeli draws, the fact that the Mardu Vehicles player has to keep open mana whenever possible slows them down considerably. As a result, Mardu actually seems to be a weaker deck against 4C Saheeli compared to the rest of the field, where they can simply tap out and go all in on their aggro plan. This is a huge benefit and helps a lot even in games where we don't draw the combo. Also, the Mardu player has to play a lot more conservatively with their removal in general - playing that last Unlicensed Disintegration might not be such a great idea when you're left with no defense against the Copycat combo after that.
Because of this permanent threat, the cards that would otherwise in a vacuum be weaker, can actually compete with Mardu's planeswalkers and vehicles. And again, the deck offers multiple paths to victory apart from the one that says "make nine hundred forty-seven cats and win". Whirler Virtuoso is a key card against Mardu. Thanks to the abundance of cards that produce energy, we can easily find ourselves with an energy count of 9+ and make three or more thopters, which is important for multiple reasons: thopters can help pressure Gideon, but also defend your planeswalkers against an incoming Heart of Kiran or Gideon himself. With Tamiyo, they offer attackers that can get through and draw you some cards. And if nothing else, they can simply peck off the opponent's life total, which might not seem important, but with cards like Oath of Chandra, decent creatures and plenty of removal, we can even assume the aggro role from time to time. I particularly liked one of Lukas's semifinal games against Marcio Carvalho, where, with an Oath of Chandra in play, he went the aggressive route, ignored the Gideon the opponent had in play and instead started attacking Marcio's life total. On the last turn, with six mana in play, he played Saheeli Rai, copied a random bear, played another Saheeli, copying the same bear once more, creating two surprise attackers and finishing Marcio off with the Oath of Chandra trigger at the end of his turn. In this regard, the deck does resemble Faeries to some extent, sometimes being able to completely switch gears and go from defense to offense in a heartbeat.
One important aspect of this deck's matchup against Mardu is the sideboard: in Lukas's list, we bring in Natural State, Baral's Expertises and all copies of Release the Gremlins (plus a Negate on the play when it can counter Heart of Kiran). Release the Gremlins is incredible in this matchup, even more so because the opponent is likely going to bring in cards like Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. The role of Baral's Expertise is twofold: first, it can help bounce blockers to make sure you can kill the opposing planeswalkers and second, bouncing their entire board will often set them back significantly when they can't simply recast everything, since they need to keep mana up for removal for your combo. This should often give you enough time for your slower cards to take over.
The B/G matchup is an interesting one too. They typically have less removal and more expensive cards like Verdurous Gearhulk, which means your combo is more threatening. On the other hand, their creatures are much better at dominating the board, so it's harder to win the "fair" way without the combo. I think that as long as you keep the Winding Constrictor - Walking Ballista engine in check (which should be manageable thanks to Oath of Chandra and Harnessed Lightning), you should be relatively fine. Post board, they have a lot more removal, so again, relying on the combo is not easy, but fortunately, this deck can play the "value" game as well, with Tireless Trackers and planeswalkers.
As I've already mentioned, I think that the 4C Saheeli deck is a great example of the "third" deck in the current metagame. One important thing that you should be able to do something "unfair", since beating Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor the fair way is an extremely challenging task. This is why I like the Copycat engine, in whatever form - be it Jeskai, 4C or something else. Hopefully, Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor are not going to dominate the format to the point that playing anything else just means lowering your win percentage. I'm still hopeful that the format can evolve, although it seems that because of the absurd power level of the Mardu and B/G core, we're dangerously close to the point where these two decks will be simply way better than anything else.
Thanks for reading and see you next time!
About Adam Koska
Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:
- 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
- 9th at Worlds 2009
- 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
- 64 Lifetime Pro Points
- Three times Czech Nationals Top 8