Unified Standard Primer for the World Magic Cup

The World Magic Cup (which will be held on December 11-13) is fast approaching. One of the formats that each national team has to figure out is Team Unified Standard. In this format, each team must construct three decks with no more than 4 copies of any Standard-legal card (except for basic lands) across all of them. In other words, each team has access to one trade binder with four of every card in Standard, along with as many basic lands as they want, and they have to build three decks from that pool.

This restriction yields an interesting deck construction puzzle, and today I’ll provide several tools for solving it. I’ll start with a (non-exhaustive) list of pivotal Standard cards that overlap the most between decks. By matching those cards to the “best” Standard archetypes, I then find the “best” three-deck configurations with little to no overlap. I’ll conclude with some metagame considerations and final recommendations.

Key Overlap Cards

Hangarback Walker

Hangarback Walker is one of the most played cards in Standard, in no small part because it’s an artifact. Nevertheless, in Unified Standard, you can only have 4 Hangarback Walkers across your three decks. You can have one deck with all 4, or you can split them 2-2, 3-1, or 2-1-1. But one way or another, 4 is the team-wide maximum.

But how important is Hangarback Walker, really? Let’s go over the most popular Standard archetypes that tend to include the card:

  • In Abzan, Hangarback Walker is a fine 2-drop, but the deck doesn’t really rely on it. In fact, several players have recently been exploring Heir of the Wilds as an alternative.
  • In Bant Megamorph, it is a good 2-drop, but again, not a complete necessity. Some decks have included Knight of the White Orchid instead.
  • In Eldrazi Ramp, Hangarback Walker buys time and triggers Sanctum of Ugin. It’s not a mandatory 4-of, and some versions don’t play the card at all, but the “stock” RG Eldrazi Ramp list typically contains some number of Hangarback Walkers.
  • In Bant Tokens, Abzan Tokens, or Esper Tokens, the Thopters allow you to capitalize on the boost effects from Gideon or Sorin. Seeker of the Way could act as a substitute 2-drop, but I’d still prefer to have the artifact creature.
  • In Bant Hardened Scales, Hangarback Walker is an essential creature for Hardened Scales.
  • In UB Aristocrats, Hangarback Walker is necessary due to its synergy with Nantuko Husk.

My overall impression is that you have to be mindful of Hangarback Walker overlap, but it’s largely a malleable constraint.


The fetchlands are by far the most important cards for Unified Standard. Most Standard decks run 12 fetchlands, but that adds up to 36 fetchlands per team when they only have access to 20. This is a huge difference and a prime reason why the metagame at the World Magic Cup is likely going to differ from the metagame at a regular Standard event. Competitors in Barcelona will have to play fewer colors and/or adjusted mana bases.

I’ll have an overview table later, but for now let me go over the possibilities with the most popular archetypes.

  • Most Abzan decks have 4 Flooded Strands and 4 Wooded Foothills (which can fetch all three colors) as well as 4 Windswept Heath. You could replace Wooded Foothills with Sandsteppe Citadel, but that leads to more enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, and you may have to rethink certain cards as a result. For instance, you may have to replace Warden of the First Tree with Knight of the White Orchid. You could also replace Flooded Strand with Caves of Koilos, but that comes at the cost of more frequently tapped battlelands and fewer green sources.
  • Dark Jeskai decks typically run 4 Flooded Strand, 4 Polluted Delta, and 4 Bloodstained Mire. If you want play with both Mantis Rider and Crackling Doom, then I don’t think you can cut any of the fetchlands. You can add Nomad Outpost or Evolving Wilds, but it will be hard to curve out when half your lands enter the battlefield tapped. If you need to shave fetchlands, then I think it would be best to cut Crackling Doom and move toward a 3-color Jeskai deck. Such a deck would not need Bloodstained Mire, for example.
  • Red aggro decks need Bloodstained Mire and Wooded Foothills. RG Landfall additionally needs 4 Windswept Heath, but Atarka Red typically only plays 2 Windswept Heath and can conceivably replace them with the 3rd and 4th Cinder Glades. There is also RB Aggro with Drana and Thunderbreak Regent that would really like to have access to Polluted Delta, but it should still be possible to put together a 2-color aggro deck with fewer than 12 fetchlands. A purely mono-red deck is an option as well, although I believe such a deck would be a little underpowered.
  • Most Bant Megamorph decks run 4 Flooded Strand, 4 Windswept Heath, and 4 Wooded Foothills. 12 fetchlands is arguably overkill for a deck with only 2 base colors and no delve cards, so it’s not too bad to cut 4 Wooded Foothills for, say, 1 Evolving Wilds, 1 Forest, 1 Plains , and 1 Lumbering Falls. This still gives enough colored sources and access to the blue splash.
  • Esper Tokens and WB Aggro usually play 4 Flooded Strand and 4 Polluted Delta, but that may not be a necessity, especially since these decks already have Shambling Vent and Caves of Koilos for fixing. If you don’t mind giving up the small blue splash for cards like Disdainful Stroke, then you will still have a serviceable mana base with 2 Plains and 2 Swamp instead of 4 fetchlands. Scoured Barrens is also an option if colored-mana sources are an issue.

Shambling Vent

This card is an important element of any deck with both black and white, such as Abzan, Esper Control, Esper Dragons, Esper Tokens, Abzan Tokens, and Mardu. It may be tough to play 2 black/white decks on one team.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

This card is a staple in Abzan, Bant Megamorph, Bant Tokens, Esper Tokens, Abzan Tokens, and Mardu. Most of these decks already overlap in plenty of other cards, such as lands or Silkwrap, but Gideon is the final nail in the coffin. I would be surprised to see two of these decks in the same configuration.

Den Protector

This card is often a 4-of in Abzan, Bant Megamorph, and RG Landfall. So, if you want to play both a Dromoka’s Command deck and a red aggro deck, then you’ll have to pick Atarka Red or RB Aggro rather than RG Landfall.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy

Jace is still one of the best cards in Standard, and I wouldn’t like to build Dark Jeskai, Esper Control, Esper Dragons, 4-color Rally, or 5-color Bring to Light without him.

Miscellaneous Overlaps

Cards like these see a bunch of play, especially Silkwrap, but most decks only have 2 or 3 copies in their 75. So while a team may have to discuss the exact split, it is unlikely to have a huge impact on the deck choices.

An Overview

The following table provides a summary of the key overlap for the 9 most popular Standard archetypes right now (according to Magic Online data from MTGGoldfish).

unified table 1

Click to enlarge.

As I explained, some of these constraints are malleable, and it’s not always clear whether or not an “X” should be placed in certain cells. Another factor is that certain decks can be easily replaced by others. A quick rundown:

  • I did not mark Hangarback Walker for Abzan, did not mark Windswept Heath for red aggro, and did not mark Wooded Foothills for Bant Megamorph. I did mark Hangarback Walker in the other relevant decks, and kept the other relevant fetchlands as constraints. These choices are mostly judgement calls on which cards are important enough to certain decks.
  • You can replace Bant Megamorph with Bant Hardened Scales or Bant Tokens.
  • You can replace Esper Dragons with Esper Control if your lineup doesn’t contain an Eldrazi Ramp deck with 4 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
  • You can replace Esper Tokens with WB Aggro. You don’t even need Hangarback Walker in that case!
  • The red aggro category includes Atarka Red, RG Landfall (which additionally needs Windswept Heath), and RB Aggro.

With the nine archetypes from this table, we can form 84 configurations of three different archetypes. After enumerating them, I found the following combinations with overlap in at most one key card.

unified table 2

This essentially lays down the gauntlet. Most configurations start with Eldrazi Ramp and red aggro, so the metagame in Team Unified Standard looks to be vastly different than the metagame for a regular Standard event. Instead of focusing on your Abzan matchup, you now have to tune your decks against Eldrazi Ramp and red aggro!

The Three-Deck Configuration to Beat

The configuration of Eldrazi Ramp plus Atarka Red plus Esper Dragons seems to be the one to beat mainly because there is no overlap between these three decks. (I think Esper Dragons is a slightly better deck than 4-color Rally. Moreover, it doesn’t vie for Windswept Heath.) Below are three sample lists, all with some small tweaks for the “triple mirror match.”

Eldrazi Ramp

To prepare for the Eldrazi Ramp mirror match, I added Conduit of Ruin and Void Winnower to the main deck and cut Dragonlord Atarka. The sideboard contains Desolation Twin and From Beyond so that you still have a big threat to tutor up after your Ulamogs are hit by Infinite Obliteration—a card I’d expect to see a lot in Barcelona because Eldrazi Ramp will likely be a popular choice.

Atarka Red

I chose to go with a token version of Atarka Red for several reasons. First, I don’t want to frequently flood out with a 24-land deck. Second, I want to have token producers to gain an edge against Foul-Tongue Invocation. Third, I want to have access to a lot of Shock effects to break up the combo in the mirror match.

Esper Dragons

It’s a fairly standard list. With the “triple-mirror match” in mind, I moved some of the sweepers to the sideboard and put an extra Ultimate Price in their place. I also made sure to have Infinite Obliteration and Monastery Mentor in the sideboard as a plan against Eldrazi Ramp.

Metagaming in Unified Standard

The main problem with playing Eldrazi Ramp plus Esper Dragons plus Atarka Red is that you are playing Eldrazi Ramp in a field that is hostile to it. Almost one-third of the field will likely consist of red aggro decks, which can usually easily defeat Eldrazi Ramp before their big spells come online. You also won’t face a good matchup in Dark Jeskai all that often, and every opponent will be ready with Disdainful Stroke, Infinite Obliteration, and so on. Heck, even the mirror match will be a nightmare if players try to get an edge with Void Winnower.

So is there a reasonable three-deck configuration without Eldrazi Ramp? In the table, there is only one: Bant Megamorph plus red aggro plus Esper Dragons. (You have to split up Flooded Strand somehow, but that seems doable.) The problem with this approach is that Bant Megamorph tends to have a poor matchup against Eldrazi Ramp and red aggro. Perhaps you can tweak some cards to improve those matchups, but I would consider other options first.

If I were playing in the World Magic Cup, then I would focus on exploring a mono-red aggro deck or three-color decks with tri-lands and painlands instead of fetchlands. I’ll offer two decklists as a source for inspiration.

Mono-Red Aggro

By Shane Houston, 11th Place at SCG Standard Open Kansas City

No Bloodstained Mire or Wooded Foothills necessary! I do think this list is a little underpowered compared to 2-color red aggro decks, but it is a valid option if you want to free up fetchlands.

Abzan Tokens

By Bob Culp, 12th Place at Grand Prix Indianapolis

You could also run Anafenza and Siege Rhino instead of Catacomb Sifter and Sorin to get closer to a “normal” Abzan deck. Either way, with a few manageable mana base adjustments—you have to split up Flooded Strand and Shambling Vent somehow—you could run an Abzan deck like this next to Atarka Red and Esper Dragons. This may be better than Eldrazi Ramp, especially if everyone expects Ulamog.

I’m looking forward to see what all the National teams will bring to Barcelona. Meanwhile, I’m curious to see your solutions. How would you approach the Unified Standard deck construction puzzle?


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