This weekend, the gates will open, and all the creatures and chaos of M14 will be released into Standard. The first tournament with a new set always presents a special challenge, as there are no previous results to go off of. It takes careful consideration of the current state of Standard as well as the dozens of hot cards from the new set in order to get to a reasonable prediction of the tournament field. I'll be playing in the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Richmond, Virginia on Sunday, so today I'll walk through my predictions—my thoughts about what everyone else will think and what I'll be preparing to face.
With M14, we have a single set being added to Standard with nothing rotating out. Therefore, the framework of the format remains intact, and we simply need to consider the small (maybe) changes that the new cards will bring. The most popular decks right off the bat will be ones that already existed and have already proven themselves but get some obvious upgrades. Bant Hexproof fits this bill perfectly.
There are two new creatures with the hexproof keyword that now fit the theme of Bant Hexproof. These cards seem weaker to me than Invisible Stalker and Geist of Saint Traft but might have a place alongside them. Now, if you are so inclined, you can play a deck where every single creature has hexproof; Strangleroot Geist, Voice of Resurgence, Wolfir Avenger, and everything else are still options but are not necessary.
Bant will still have the same vulnerabilities it had before, like sacrifice effects and board sweepers. However, those cards were not enough to keep Bant down before M14, as it's proven itself to be one of the most powerful strategies in Standard. Now, it will also no longer have those awkward draws where it lacks a safe target for its Auras and hence will no longer "lose to itself" as the expression goes.
It seems to me that most savvy players expect Bant Hexproof to be both popular and successful right away. That means that you'd be foolish not to come prepared with an excellent sideboard. Personally, I'll be packing my Liliana of the Veils and Barter in Bloods, perhaps alongside enchantment destruction like Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm.
Like Bant Hexproof, Junk Aristocrats was a top strategy before the release of M14 and only seemed to be gaining in popularity. In addition to some possible new tools, it's simply a solid and resilient strategy that's a great choice for a tournament this weekend.
While it's important to remember that Junk is a deck that thrives on cheap creatures, Xathrid Necromancer may be good enough to warrant consideration. With the sacrifice theme of the deck, such a card seems to add a whole new layer of power with Doomed Traveler, Skirsdag High Priest, and Cartel Aristocrat all being Humans. It also offers more resilience to sweepers. It's important to note that the Necromancer's ability tacks on above and beyond everything else, meaning that when a Doomed Traveler dies you'll get a Spirit and a Zombie and that with multiple Necromancers in play things get wild!
Archangel of Thune is an impressive new card. The question isn't if it will find a home but simply when and where it will do so. Junk Aristocrats is one possible place. To point out the obvious, the ability to pump up all of your creatures scales with the number of creatures you can have in play, so it's perfect for a token deck featuring weenies and Lingering Souls. What's more is the ability to gain life almost at will with Blood Artist means that Archangel will do some serious work when things play out a certain way.
Bant Hexproof and Junk Aristocrats are my primary targets. The unfortunate thing is that it takes basically opposite approaches to handle each deck. While sacrifice effects are one of the only ways to combat Hexproof, they're unreasonably awful against Junk Aristocrats. The configuration I've settled on is to be as good as possible in game 1 against Junk and have as good a sideboard as possible against Hexproof. I do this because cards like Barter in Blood are extremely potent and have the potential to almost decide a game on their own, whereas against Junk the best I can do during sideboarding is to make minor improvements to my removal suite. All that said, don't be surprised to see me with a Curse of Death's Hold or two as well!
Beyond Bant and Junk, there are a number of rock-solid decks that I expect to hold firm in terms of popularity despite the change in the Standard card pool. U/W/R Flash is the format's premier control deck right now, and its appeal is strengthened by its recent strong results and a well-respected champion in Matt Costa.
The biggest reason that I expect U/W/R Flash to be so popular is that there's a huge variety of ways to build it. If there's any card in the color combination that appeals to you, you can find a configuration of U/W/R Flash that makes good use of it. From aggressive builds with Geist of Saint Traft to ultra-controlling versions that can only win with Aetherling, there seems to be a U/W/R Flash deck for everyone.
Chandra is a unique new planeswalker, and many players won't be able to stay away. Of all the established decks in Standard, she fits most easily into U/W/R Flash. Her one damage ability combines well with the wide range of burn already in the deck, allowing you to use a tag team to take down larger creatures in a convenient way. Warleader's Helix is the perfect spell to have in your deck if you want the threat of a -7 triple cast to really strike fear in your opponent. The only inconvenience of Chandra is that her 0 ability doesn't combine well with permission, but I could easily see a build with three or fewer counterspells making good use of the planeswalker.
While playing a different role than Augur of Bolas, Young Pyromancer is a remarkably powerful card that could do some remarkably powerful things in an instant-heavy Flash deck. Pouring out an endless stream of tokens, particularly in combination with something like Runechanter's Pike, can make you both hard to kill and hard to withstand.
I expect a lot of players to show up with Hallowed Fountains and Steam Vents sleeved up, and I expect those players to be playing a huge range of difficult-to-predict cards. Consequently, I won't overprepare for anything specific, but I'll be sure to include catchall cards like Duress so that I can handle whatever my opponents throw at me.
It seems appropriate to discuss U/W/R Flash and Jund Midrange hand in hand. Both decks strive to play a midrange game with a mix of efficient threats and answers; both decks have solid game against the entire field; and both decks have been fixtures in Standard for many months. Jund is my weapon of choice for this weekend, and I don't see any reason why it can't remain one of the best strategies in Standard.
While the cards being added to Jund may not be as flashy as the options in U/W/R Flash, they're more direct upgrades that fit easily into the strategy.
This is fantastic, efficient creature that's perfect for Jund. It's inexpensive, which is crucial for a deck whose mana curve otherwise starts around four. Ooze also has the potential to dominate a long game, which is perfect for the controlling nature of Jund. Be aware of how this card will impact graveyard-based cards like Snapcaster Mage and Unburial Rites.
"Destroy target nonblack creature" sounds pretty broad and all encompassing, but we have no such luck. At least not in a format full of undying, regeneration, and hexproof! Doom Blade is a great, efficient removal spell, particularly against haste creatures, but it's not the be all and end all for Jund. Doom Blade will settle in as another one or two copy removal spell in the mix.
Naya Midrange is one of the decks I most respect in Standard, and it's typically the first deck I recommend to people who are undecided before a tournament. It plays many of the format's best cards and has a focused, proactive gameplan but also attacks from many angles at once.
Everything that Ooze does for Jund also applies to Naya Midrange, but remember that Naya also typically plays nearly 30 creatures! Perhaps most importantly, it represents a much-needed way to interact with Reanimator without slowing down the deck.
Of the decks I'll cover in this article, Naya Midrange probably changes the least with M14 and doesn't have particular strengths against Hexproof or Junk Aristocrats. Nonetheless, it remains a top contender that should not be ignored.
I've gotten in the habit of referring to this as "Red Aggro" since it's been so popular in this Standard format to splash green (or black before Stomping Ground was printed). However, a couple of cards from M14 are potential improvements to the "Red Aggro" archetype, and both cast their vote towards staying truly Mono-Red.
This old favorite may not find a home right away in a Standard format of challenging three-color mana bases. Cards like Boros Reckoner and Geralf's Messenger also complicate the issue. Nonetheless, a manland is a manland, and Mutavault will be a great boon to any deck that can support it. In particular, a Mono-Red deck would gleefully make use of a free 2/2 body!
While we're on the topic of challenging three-color mana bases, let's discuss Burning Earth. On one hand, it competes with Hellrider for a spot on the mana curve, but on the other, it really puts the nail in the opponent's coffin in a way that a creature that dies to Doom Blade really can't. The existence of Burning Earth puts opponents to a tough test: are they willing to sideboard and bring in enchantment removal against a Mono-Red deck that otherwise has no targets? A fast Mono-Red draw is not very forgiving to someone with a dead card in their hand, but Burning Earth is even less forgiving to an opponent who's caught with their pants down!
Those are the six decks that I consider the "decks to beat" right off the bat when M14 is released. Of course, Standard will remain a diverse format with Bant Control, Esper Control, The Aristocrats: Act 2, Naya Humans, and every other strategy under the sun. However, I believe that the six I've mentioned above will be what most players who are undecided on their deck choice will gravitate towards.
Considering the current hot decks, you may notice a curious omission from my list: Junk Reanimator. I don't think this is a particularly good time for Junk Reanimator because of the printing of Scavenging Ooze. I don't believe that we've seen the last of the strategy, as there are likely some adjustments to be made in deck construction or play style that can make Junk Reanimator more resilient to Scavenging Ooze. Also, I don't think the deck will be entirely absent from this weekend's metagame. My main point is that there will not be a large number of players switching to Junk Reanimator or picking it up for their first Standard tournament; it will only be the diehards that continue to run with it.
All things considered, I think that the best strategy for the first weekend with M14 is to gear your maindeck for the aggro matchups, specifically Junk Aristocrats. Your sideboard should allow you to shift to a configuration that crushes Bant Hexproof and have a fighting chance against the various builds of U/W/R Flash.
Most of my individual card choices are informed by my list of "decks to beat." While I have no good solution to Burning Earth, I believe that Jund can afford a few basic lands, which may provide a small reprieve. This particular list does not lean too heavily on red mana and can therefore support three basic Forests. From there, it's only a small leap to return to my beloved Arbor Elfs, which get the nod over Elvish Mystic because they can help with double-red or double-black mana costs and combo well with Underworld Connections.
I've tried my best to provide a realistic prediction of the M14 Standard field. However, my final piece of advice is to expect the unexpected. This is certainly a time for brewing and for trying out new cards, and people will come prepared with a huge number of creative card choices and brand-new strategies. Aim for a well-balanced list that's prepared for everything, but also expect to have to beat the six decks listed above if you want to make it all the way to a first place finish!