The Standard metagame often revolves around the idea of “the best deck.” Whether there is a strategy with a clear best winning percentage—or simply a deck that is the most popular, “the best deck” should always be on your radar.
I know many players consciously try to avoid playing popular decks, but I use them as a starting point. You need a good reason to not play the default best deck. While I’m always searching for that reason, I think it’s important to have the deck in your back pocket should you decide it’s the best choice on any given weekend.
In this column, I’ll explore the evolution of the most popular deck in Standard over time. As a new top dog emerges, I’ll introduce it and familiarize readers with the ins and outs of the deck. In future installments, I plan on looking at the rest of the metagame’s reaction to the deck, which strategies and cards are good against it, and how the deck has changed to combat this reaction and the presence of the mirror. My hope is that the best deck in Standard changes often enough that I get to explore new strategies early and often.
Fate Reforged Standard: RW Midrange
The early days of Fate Reforged Standard have seen RW Midrange emerge as the most popular deck. Magic Online results, Open Series events, and Standard Grand Prix suggest that a big percentage of the field has chosen to play RW. This is honestly a good sign for Standard, since it’s not like RW has been dominating the Top 8s of these events. In fact, there were 0 copies in the Top 8 of GP Seville, although close to 20% of the remaining players who cashed chose to play RW.
These aren’t crazy numbers, but if you sit down for round one of your local PPTQ, RW is the single most likely pairing.
This was the best-performing version of RW from Grand Prix Seville, with a record of 12-3:
Chained to the Rocks
The most important card that differentiates RW Midrange from other Standard decks is Chained to the Rocks. The best cards in Standard right now all cost between 3 and 5 mana, so most games of Standard are defined by each player developing their board (or removing the opponent’s) at a rate of one card per turn through the midgame. Usually, if a player stumbles through this midgame stage, they might end up too far behind moving into the late game, because their spells are too inefficient to catch up.
Chained to the Rocks fundamentally breaks this paradigm by answering a 3- or 4-mana creature for only one mana. This allows a RW player to play two highly impactful spells in the same turn, taking control of the game from a tempo perspective. Typically in this format you get the choice between removing an opposing threat or adding your own (something that highly favors the player on the play). Chained to the Rocks lets you do both in the same turn.
But unconditional one-mana removal is very rare and Chained to the Rocks comes at a steep price: putting a huge strain on the number of basic Mountains in your mana base. Chained to the Rocks is out of reach even for most R/W-based decks, requiring the deck to consist of mostly red cards and have very few requirements of other colors. I personally don’t even love the inclusion of Brimaz in this deck—something I’ll get to later.
Note that Stoke the Flames in concert with Hordeling Outburst or Goblin Rabblemaster also helps play a similar role to Chained to the Rocks. Casting a Rabblemaster or Outburst and killing Courser of Kruphix in the same turn helps you gain a substantial tempo advantage.
Stormbreath Dragon is the defining top-end threat of RW Midrange. Haste and flying are both highly relevant abilities in the world of midrange green decks. In addition, Stormbreath is resilient to a decent subset of the commonly played removal in Standard: Abzan Charm, Valorous Stance, Utter End, and even opposing Chained to the Rocks. In a deck with so much burn, even hitting once before losing the Dragon to Downfall or Stoke the Flames is substantial.
RW was a good deck before Fate Reforged, but Outpost Siege put the deck over the top. The issue previously was that the deck had no card selection or form of card advantage, which puts you at the mercy of mana flood or screw. Outpost Siege helps provide long-game card advantage in much harder to answer package than Chandra, Pyromaster.
Outpost Siege lets you take the control role against aggressive decks and even mirror matches, creating inevitability. It’s particularly good with cheap removal like Chained to the Rocks and burn spells. Siege plus burn is a win condition on its own if you get in for damage early and rely on a steady stream of burn to close out the game.
Outpost Siege’s ability to draw cards is also contingent on not playing highly situational cards. “Drawing” something like Hero’s Downfall might go unused on an inconvenient or empty board. When in doubt you can just aim an extra Lightning Strike or Stoke at the opponent and count on that damage being relevant down the line.
Outpost Siege is also good with Stormbreath Dragon and Soulfire Grand Master by fueling extra land drops toward monstrous or activation without risk of flooding. When you are very, very far ahead, the Dragons mode might even lock up a game through a potential sweeper.
The cards that don’t go quite as well with Outpost Siege are the midgame threats like Brimaz and Ashcloud Phoenix. Sure, any extra card you draw is going to be good, but it’s tough to reliably be able to cast a more expensive threat if you already had a better line planned out. As a result, sometimes drawing these cards might go to waste.
Given this, the version of RW Midrange I would suggest is the following:
I like this list because it is a bit more streamlined to take advantage of Outpost Siege and the prowess on Seeker of the Way. As I’ve stated before, getting ahead in the early game and then having your opponent stabilize the board isn’t the end of the world for a deck with access to so many burn spells and a few haste creatures.
The deck looks to be a bit more threat-light than previous versions, but Outpost Siege is truly a threat against matchups that are trying to beat you with attrition and removal.
In general the easiest swap to make with this deck is to bring in Hushwing Gryff against midrange green decks in place of Hordeling Outburst. Flying is a great route to victory against Caryatid/Courser decks, and the Outburst tokens tend to not be that useful on the ground. With that basic premise in mind, let’s look at the specifics.
Abzan Aggro is now comparable in popularity to Abzan Midrange, and is defined by 2-drops like Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer. This is a fairly easy matchup, mostly due to how much damage the Abzan deck deals to itself. With Lightning Strike and Chained to the Rocks to keep creatures in check, you rarely get run over in the early game.
I don’t love Sarkhan in this matchup, as it dies to both Abzan Charm and Hero’s Downfall, and often might just get attacked down by a big green creature. In addition, I think it’s fine to board out Soulfire Grand Master, but the life can be really important when the matchup degenerates into a race. Against versions with Heir of the Wilds and Warden of the First Tree in significant numbers, I would support leaving Wild Slash in and shaving Grand Master and another Stoke instead.
Abzan Midrange is a bit different than the aggro decks because your burn spells are not effective as removal. However, Sarkhan is much better in this matchup than the aggro version.
This is also the matchup where being on the play or draw influences sideboarding the most. I like Arc Lightning on the play, but not on the draw. I also generally don’t like Stoke in the mirror, but it’s an important concession to Stormbreath Dragon and opposing Brimaz.
On the Play
UB Control is in some ways a very tough matchup because you have a number of dead removal spells and their removal lines up relatively well against your threats.
However, UB doesn’t do a very good job of closing the game out (which is why it isn’t a very good deck), and will often get burned out before locking the game up.
The Gryff isn’t exactly what you are looking for here, but at least it is a threat that can get in for some damage and make counterspells awkward by having flash. It’s entirely possible that you just want all of the Lightning Strikes for reach and only 2 Gryffs.
I think some people would be tempted to bring in Erase against Heroic, but I believe it is a mistake to do so. You’d rather interact with creatures than get a small amount of value by getting rid of an Aura.
Green Devotion has popped up fairly recently and to good success. They have little to no interaction (making Rabblemaster great), as long as you keep the board clear. The best way to beat devotion is fight their mana and land an early threat, saving Chained to the Rocks and Valorous Stance to blast a big guy out of the way as you stay aggressive. In general Outpost Siege is also bad here because they have inevitability and you rarely have the time to cast it. You truly are a tempo-oriented deck in this matchup.
There are many more matchups in this diverse Standard format, but I think these are the most common. The Jeskai deck Martin Juza played at GP Seville is also exciting, and something I’ve been playing quite a bit of myself online the past few days. In many ways that deck is a derivative of RW as a Stoke/Rabblemaster/Seeker deck, but with different strengths and weaknesses.
I’m interested to see the direction Standard takes. Will RW continue perform well, or will the top players figure out how to position themselves against it?
Until next time, I hope that this serves as a good introduction to RW Midrange and to this column. I get that every reader won’t want to play the most popular deck—but the first step to beating it is understanding it.
Thanks for reading,