What Made This Standard Format So Great?

With Regional PTQs and Grand Prix Denver in the books, there’s only a handful of relevant events left for a small portion of the competitive community. It turns out that the 3rd time was the charm and banning Aetherworks Marvel left us with quite a diverse format. While some may complain about certain quirks of the format, nobody can deny the massive step up in quality Standard has seen compared to the last year.

Not only do we have old archetypes cycling back into the metagame (U/W Monument and Temur Energy), we’re seeing unique archetypes perform (Jeskai and U/W Gift). Going into the next two weeks you can make a reasonable case for at least half-a-dozen decks—bump it up to 8-9 if you include metagame calls like G/X Ramp or U/W Approach.

I’m not quite sure how it’ll all pan out, but I’m interested in seeing how these final weeks play out before rotation and Ixalan brings its Dinosaurs and Pirates.

Moving forward, we can see the trends that indicated a healthy format.

1) There’s no endgame that automatically trumps everything else.

While God-Pharaoh’s Gift comes close, it requires a whole lot of setup to become an insurmountable endgame advantage. Approach of the Second Sun requires you to cast a 7-mana spell twice before you win the game, and the first time doesn’t even give you much. If Torrential Gearhulk was half as powerful as people like to claim it is, U/R Control would be tier 1 somewhere other than on paper at the beginning of every newly released set.

Removing the high-end “good luck beating this” threat of Emrakul, the Promised End from the format and ways to cheat other Eldrazi into play was all we really needed to give midrange decks a reason to exist. You can still trump them, but they aren’t punished for having the audacity to play 5- and 6-mana spells instead of jumping straight to 10+. It provides a good idea of where the line is for strong endgame threats vs. overwhelming ones. There’s no Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Consecrated Sphinx, or Grave Titan at 6, and Ulamog isn’t even that bad when you have to cast him fairly.

2) Cheap and powerful answers make it OK for powerful threats to exist.

It’s debatable whether Smuggler’s Copter would’ve needed to be banned if we’d have had access to Abrade and Fatal Push. It’s possible, since crew 1 made it an easy addition to every deck remotely interested in playing creatures, but it would’ve at least had a counter-argument. Look at how quickly Mardu fell off when other decks weren’t getting run over by Toolcraft Exemplar, flying 4/4s, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

Remember those calls to ban Heart of Kiran? It was reasonable at the time and even felt correct. Now if you said Heart of Kiran needed to go, someone would look at the Top 32 from Denver and say, “go from where?” It went from one of the most played cards in the format, despite only seeing heavy play in Mardu, to a non-factor in your average Standard tournament.

Cards like Winding Constrictor and Longtusk Cub would be outright disgusting if the answers in this format were any worse than they are. Cub in particular is still very capable of snowballing a game, and no obscene decks sprang up because of good early game removal. If anything, the removal printed in the last couple of sets has helped keep the Ramunap Red deck in check.

3) Blue has fully embraced a supporting role.

Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate, but blue is now a color that supports a strategy or another color. Rarely are blue’s greatest strengths the highlight of a deck anymore, and when they are, it’s almost always creature-centric. A deck like U/R Control or U/W Approach almost feels out of place and is rarely tier 1.

One persistent curiousity since Sphinx’s Revelation rotated is that blue often isn’t even best at drawing cards. That honor has often gone to green decks—Collected Company, Tireless Tracker, and their planeswalkers generally all provide more card advantage than anything in blue. Every other color has had their card draw stapled to a threat at an equal or cheaper cost than if the card simply said “draw X” on it.

Blue decks likely wouldn’t have been losing so many late games if a card like Glimmer of Genius imitated Harnessed Lightning and scaled with additional energy. Instead, anything that provides a large amount of raw card advantage often has a massive drawback or mana cost attached. Meanwhile, its ability to cantrip has been removed from spells and changed to cycling or added to cards like Champion of Wits.

Countermagic has also dropped off dramatically in power, which is arguably not a bad thing. We’ve been slowly inching back to where the bar should likely be with cards like Disallow and Censor, while keeping former staples Negate and Essence Scatter relevant. If we see a slight buff to general countermagic, perhaps we’ll see a return of pure control strategies to the metagame.

4) Being on the play isn’t as important.

Obviously, the existence of cards like Longtusk Cub and strategies like the Ramunap Red deck mean it still matters. But in stark contrast to Mardu-land or even Temur Marvel, being on the backfoot really doesn’t feel that bad. A combination of the first two points makes matches feel less atrocious when you’re a turn behind. Curving out is still powerful, but not quite the back breaker it once was.

A lot of this is because you can actually answer cards with reasonably costed spells. You almost never get rolled when you miss an early drop, because the power of those drops has declined. Decks are better than ever at getting to the midgame, which is why Temur Energy just won a GP and put three very good players in the Top 8 with the same 75. The door doesn’t slam shut on you as quickly as it did before, where you had to decide to go for a threat and risk losing to a turn-4 Ulamog, or let a Rally player have free reign to produce an unbeatable board.

So what’s the right call for the last few weekends of Standard play? Realistically, the majority of you are best sticking to whatever deck you’ve practiced with and have the most reps on. For the brave or those who feel their deck is now outdated, U/W or Jeskai Gift will likely give you the best bang for your buck. Not only is the deck very consistent between all the draw effects and Trophy Mage, plan B is considerably better than it was in the first builds of the deck.

We’ve already seen how effective the Chandra/Glorybringer sideboard plan is out of both Red and Temur, and the Jeskai Gift deck has no problems taking that line. Meanwhile, straight U/W can grind the game out by hard casting their creatures, casting Refurbish on Cataclysmic Gearhulk, and just generally grinding. Since the primary hate is either Dispossess or Scavenger Grounds, these plans tend to beat both unless the hate is backed by a strong clock. You can go even further by bringing in Boats and Harvesters to fetch off Glint-Nest Crane.

Zac Elsik had a Top 32 finish in Denver with a straight U/W version of Gift and it would be my starting point if I was looking for a new direction in Standard.

U/W Gift

The only mainstream deck I wouldn’t recommend at this point is B/G Constrictor. Typically I’m not one to write a deck off after a single no-show weekend, but if Sam Pardee isn’t playing it at an event, then I’m off that bandwagon. In fact, I’d say that’s just a good rule of thumb.

Pardee Rule: If Sam Pardee sticks with one deck for the majority of the season and then dumps it out of nowhere for a normal tier 1 deck, it’s time to look for other options.

Enjoy the last few weeks of Standard, especially if you’re a Zombies player, since that seems to be the only deck losing a ton from rotation. Meanwhile if you hate Standard, at least you have a few more weeks of Modern PPTQs to grind!


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