Three Mantis Rider decks, three Siege Rhino decks, U/B Control, and Jeskai Ascendency combo. This was the top 8 of Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. Green Devotion (with or without black) was the next most popular archetype after Mantis Rider and Siege Rhino, followed by Mardu Midrange, then Jeskai Ascendancy and U/B Control. I do not expect Standard to be a reflection of this Pro Tour moving forward. Last year, Mono-Black Devotion was barely a deck at the Pro Tour, and the list that made the top 8 was significantly misbuilt (it only had two Pack Rats). At this point, I think the optimal Mantis Rider and Siege Rhino decks are still a mystery, and I think we can expect a lot of articles explaining why people settled on various configurations for those decks. Both cards are extremely powerful and extremely versatile, such that decks built around them can easily plan to play any pace of game.
Jeskai Aggro was the most popular deck, and the basic concept was pretty universal--play a relatively small number of creatures and a lot of burn, but even in the top 8, the number of creatures ranged between nine and seventeen creatures, and interestingly, the seventeen creature deck didn't even play all nine of the creatures in that deck, eschewing Goblin Rabblemaster to focus on fliers. Jeskai Aggro is a very weird deck. It often plays like an aggro deck, except that most of the time, it doesn't really do anything before turn 3. However, starting there, it comes out very aggressively, and the opponent's life total is always one of the most important things in the game--it's mostly a burn deck, except that it can freely use burn spells as removal to clear the way for creatures, and it can easily sideboard into playing as a control deck--not unheard of for burn, but this deck does it in a fairly unique way.
We see similar departures in Abzan decks. Ari's deck, which focuses its early plays on defense and mana with Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix, is looking to play a longer game. It relies heavily on seven planeswalkers. Contrast this with Mike Sigrist's deck, which has a lower curve and starts with aggressive creatures--Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer at the top of the list, but also taking advantage of Herald of Torment to avoid blockers. In my testing, our aggressive Abzan decks generally felt outmatched against other Abzan decks--with so much lifegain and so many big bodies, cheap creatures would easily get outclassed and become meaningless. Dave Shiels explained to me that he decided to play the more aggressive deck when he played a set and realized that when he was in a topdecking war with eight lands in play, the cards he most wanted to draw were his two drops, Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer. There's a lot to be said for cards that are good early and good late, and those creatures and Heir of the Wilds allow you to be aggressive early with cards that don't get blanked in the mid to late game.
- 2 Arbor Colossus
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Hornet Queen
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Voyaging Satyr
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 4 Doomwake Giant
- 2 Eidolon of Blossoms
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 1 Nylea, God of the Hunt
- 1 Pharika, God of Affliction
This isn't usually my style of deck, but I saw that the deck was experiencing success on Magic Online, but no one was playing See the Unwritten. See the Unwritten was a card Reid Duke added in testing to try to take advantage of constellation by putting two enchantment creatures in play at the same time, which would both trigger off each other, getting more value than one would normally get off them. The creature matchups felt like they all came down to being better at Doomwake Giant than the opponent, and See the Unwritten doesn't just give you more shots at Doomwake Giant, it gives you more shots at double Doomwake Giant, giving the opposing team at least -4/-4 until end of turn, but you could often set up to do even more than that.
See the Unwritten is also particularly incredible with Pharika, God of Affliciton as it can both help find and fuel the god while also setting up constellation creatures to take advantage of the snake production. The card quickly felt like the best card in the deck outside of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and having that card felt like such a huge advantage over people who didn't that I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Moving forward, I expect See the Unwritten to become standard in Green Devotion unless counterspells become extremely popular. At the moment, blue control decks occupy less than ten percent of the field, but I could see that completely turning around. Despite his top 8 finish, I don't really like Ivan Floch's build of U/B Control. In general, I prefer Andrew Cuneo's take, which wins only with two Pearl Lake Ancients and uses Perilous Vault as a sweeper. Perilous Vault is incredible, but it's at its worst against Jeskai Aggro, where Prognostic Sphinx can actually shine. It's possible that Ivan's maindeck is better configured for the field that showed up, but I think the sideboard at least needs access to Perilous Vault, the best card against every midrange creatures and planeswalkers deck, and Jorubai Murk Lurker seems clearly better than Returned Phalanx to me.
Dig Through Time is an incredibly overpowered card. It often feels about like casting and flashing back a Mystical Teachings, but for only 2-4 mana total. U/B is one of the decks that best takes advantage of it, but the community hadn't really seen a good list of the deck do well. I think most teams tried to work on the deck some, but it's hard to build a control deck for an open field. Now that there are a few solid builds that everyone has access to, I think we'll see a rise in this archetype, as I think more than 10% of Magic players just want to play blue control decks, especially when there are powerful incentives.
Jeskai Ascendancy combo is a deck that I think everyone knew about, but everyone knew that the best list wasn't known, and no one knew how seriously other teams would take the deck. I don't think Lee Shi Tian played the best build of the deck, and I don't think the deck overall did well enough to become one of the main decks in Standard. The deck is playable, and there are people who really like playing goofy combo decks, so you can always expect a few people to show up with the deck, but for the most part, I don't think it's worth being too scared of. This is awkward because I think the deck can easily be favored against a huge portion of the field, but I felt like the deck's failure rate was high enough that I just couldn't win a tournament, so I mostly recommend just hoping to not get paired against it, or that the deck falls apart when you do play against it. I also imagine it has to be particularly poorly positioned against aggressive Abzan decks with Thoughtseize.
Mardu Midrange mostly feels like a worse Abzan deck to me, though Crackling Doom is an impressive card, especially against Jeskai Ascendancy and U/W Heroic. The focus on removal makes it potentially relatively well positioned against decks like Green Devotion that just rely on expensive creatures, but leave it horribly positioned against a deck like U/B Control. Because I expect U/B Control to see more play, and because it didn't manage to top 8 the PT, I think we'll see a drop off in Mardu Midrange, which I think is appropriate, because I don't think the deck is very good.
So what will happen here? By default, I think Abzan preys on Jeskai because Siege Rhino is so good against them, but there are certainly configurations of each deck that can minimize that. I think Green Devotion preys on Abzan unless the Abzan deck is set up to become a control deck with a lot of copies of End Hostilities. I think Green Devotion and Jeskai have a fairly even matchup that depends on things like how many Arbor Colossuses the green deck has and how much white removal the Jeskai deck has. U/B Control's matchups likely depend on its configuration--I think the Perilous Vault build, which I'm more familiar with, is far ahead against green and slower Abzan decks, but can be a little behind against Jeskai and fast Abzan. I imagine Prognostic Sphinx improves the bad matchups and hurts the good matchups for U/B with Vault.
In other words, the format looks relatively balanced to me for now, so I think the developments we'll see at first will be tuning and improving each of these archetypes, rather than an immediate shift where one takes over and pushes out the others. As the builds get tuned and optimized, we may eventually setting on configurations such that one is better than another, but I think Grand Prix: Los Angeles will feature a diverse top 8 that rewards better deck construction and matchup familiarity more than deck selection.
The decks that I've mentioned so far are only 67.5% of the field, which means that it was about half again as likely that you'd play against some archetype that had fewer than ten pilots than that you would play against the most played deck in the field at the PT, so even ignoring the balance of powers at the top of the field, the format is a lot more diverse than that. Merely getting an edge on the top decks won't necessarily be more important than just having a good list that makes internal sense and lets you beat the wide variety of decks you might face in this incredibly open field
The highlights of the "other" Category include G/R Monsters, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant and Whip of Erebos-based Sultai decks, and U/W Heroic as the most played other decks to watch. Outside of the top decks that are easy to classify and where some rounding errors don't change things much, I'm not sure that I trust the numbers coverage lists in its metagame breakdown. For example, I think Brad Nelson and Denniz Rachid at least, and possibly others, were playing a similar deck that I can't find a category for. This deck is currently listed as R/W Aggro, but if you look at the sideboard, if often plays out very much as a control deck. Even in game 1, it has a few creatures and a lot of removal. I think any of the fringe decks could disappear almost entirely or could gain ground if they find a prominent spokesperson who does well in an upcoming event with a current fringe deck.
The defining cards of the format are Mantis Rider, Stoke the Flames, Siege Rhino, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Dig Through Time, Sylvan Caryatid, and Courser of Kruphix. Thoughtseize, oddly, seems less important than it used to be at this point, but that could change. Elspeth, Sun's Champion is another card that's still played and still great, but not the powerhouse it used to be now that there are so many flying creatures with haste and Doomwake Giants to keep it in check.
Of these, Dig Through Time feels like the strongest card, but the one that's hardest to find a home for. If the balance of the format is broken and one deck takes over, I expect it to either be a tuned Abzan deck functioning like Jund, or a Dig Through Time deck functioning like the best Mystical Teachings/Sphinx's Revelation decks. Jeskai Aggro still has the chance to play like a Delver deck: a highly flexible, largely instant speed deck that can turn the corner and choose the pace of the game very efficiently-and it may even be the best shell for blue's powerful new instant.