We haven't seen a lot of Standard happening these days. Consumer confidence in the format was at an all-time low as Temur Energy continued its yearlong dominance on the format, leading to a shift away from Standard on the SCG Tour, and the most recent Pro Tour saw a return of Modern to the big stage. So even though the format is rather new with the introduction of Rivals of Ixalan and the banning of four more cards, bringing the total in the last year and change up to 842, no one has been quite sure exactly what decks are good in the format and what decks are pretenders.
You see, in the early days of a new Standard format, there is always a metagame where some portion of the successful decks drop out as they mostly preyed on other decks that weren't viable over the long term, leading the format to narrow around the most potent strategies. With so little Standard coverage recently, we have yet to reach that narrowing stage in this Standard format, but last weekend's Grand Prix in Memphis should go a long way toward pushing the format along to the next stage in its evolution.
I was an excited spectator for this tournament, and following along this weekend, I was able to witness which cards and strategies overperformed and which ones failed to meet expectations:
Going into the tournament I was hyped to see Adanto Vanguard finally take its rightful place as a format staple. It's an aggressively costed creature that matches up very well against removal spells, and most reactive decks in the format are trying to contain opposing creatures with removal rather than blockers.
However, looking at the top 32 decklists from last weekend there are zero copies of the two drop. What went wrong? As it turns out, there are more than enough cards that match up well against Adanto Vanguard to make up for the fact that Fatal Push and red removal doesn't. Moment of Craving is a popular card that has made its way to the maindeck of U/B Control decks and the sideboards of many others.
Also, Vraska's Contempt, while trading poorly on mana, doesn't find many other targets against the decks Adanto Vanguard appears in, which prefer to flood the battlefield with small creatures rather than present big threats, and Whirler Virtuoso can easily make the card awkward in combat; trading three energy for four life a couple times makes it very difficult to protect the card later on, thereby turning on removal that would've otherwise been rendered useless.
Combine this with the card's natural weakness in aggro mirrors due to being a poor blocker and you have a card that just doesn't slot well in the current Standard metagame. It's still more than powerful enough to see play, and if the metagame shifts in a way that decreases the density of cards that match up well against it, you can bett that it will return. That said, it doesn't appear to be a powerful enough card to see play in metagmes that aren't favorable for it, thus precluding it from being a staple of the format.
I don't think anyone has ever doubted Torrential Gearhulk's power. The card immediately made waves by taking first and second at Pro Tour Kaladesh and afterward became a staple of control decks when combined with efficient removal and Glimmer of Genius.
However, during the reign of Temur Energy, the card's stock dropped significantly since playing attrition against that deck was incredibly difficult, leading to a rise in Approach of the Second Sun as a means of going over the top of Rogue Refiner and company. It seemed as though Torrential Gearhulk's time in the sun had passed.
Now that the energy menace has been contained, Torrential Gearhulk has returned to the top spot for control finishers. U/B Control put two players into the Top 8 of the Grand Prix and is clearly the best control deck in the format. The midrange decks aren't as threatening going long, but they still have access to the Negates and Duresses that give Approach opponents fits after sideboarding, so the consistency in the face of disruption provided by a simpler template of Torrential Gearhulk, counters, removal, and card draw is once again preferable.
I imagine most control players didn't enjoy playing Approach of the Second Sun since it offends their "I'm going to drag this game out for as long as possible and take great pleasure in watching my opponent desperately try to squeeze out the last few points of damage" sensibility, and I enjoy the sequencing game of trying to limit the impact of Snapcaster Mage's older cousin, so all in all a welcome change to the format.
Everyone expected energy cards to be banned in January, but many players, myself included, were surprised to see Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon leave the format. Attacking a linear aggro deck didn't seem nearly as difficult as competing against a flexible midrange deck that could punish stumbles with Longtusk Cub and play three or four colors with few mana issues, but it appears now as if WotC's fear of a format dominated by Mono-Red was somewhat well-founded.
Despite the loss of two of its better cards, Mono-Red Aggro had been easily the most popular deck in the early weeks of the format and performed well over that span. However, in its first major test, the deck failed to take a spot in the Top 8, showing that in its weakened state it is indeed beatable. The talk about Standard has been around Hazoret and The Scarab God, and it's the latter that won the battle last weekend.
Having vanquished its primary enemy and taken the undisputed title of "Best Card in Standard," The Scarab God is a winner despite not making the finals of the tournament. Five of the other top 8 decks featured the card though, and it's a staple of both the best control and the best midrange deck in the format. It's simply the most powerful threat in Standard and has the benefit of overlapping with the color with the best removal. You can't ask for much more than that so expect this one to be winning games all the way until its rotation.
It's been almost six months now since Ixalan was printed, bringing with it the next wave of tribal cards and in that time no deck built around those payoffs has been able to have more than fleeting success in Standard. Given that we're unlikely to see further additions to any of these tribes as we move from Ixalan to Dominaria it also seems unlikely that any of the tribes will be players in the format.
Over the fall we had the excuse that Temur Energy was simply too powerful for tribal decks to compete, but now it's clear that Merfolk, Dinosaurs, Vampires, and Pirates were all simply lacking. It takes a lot of pieces to build a tribal deck, and with the incredibly high quality of removal that exists in Standard right now it's hard to consistently assemble those pieces to take advantage of the tribal synergies.
In the face of such disruption, tribal decks either need to be nigh unbeatable when things do come together, or have enough powerful individual pieces that they can stand on their own. None of the Ixalan tribes have been demonstrated to have either characteristic. In fact, they seem rather inconsistent because the mana for aggressive decks in Standard is quite poor.
Of course there's one person who simply won't let the tribal dream die:
I have no idea if this deck is good, but I sure hope it is. It would be a shame to not have the Ixalan tribes appear in Standard at all, and Crested Sunmare has long been a pet card of mine. Token makers are quite well-positioned in a Standard format defined by the quality of its spot removal, and I'll gladly pay a life to cast the best card ever printed:
But despite Jack's valiant efforts, it's clear that tribal decks in general just aren't up to par in Standard. If you're looking for well-developed, high-synergy decks you still have Modern, but it's raw power that rules in Standard and that's not changing any time soon.
For those not in the know, this is the self-styled nickname of Brad Nelson and Corey Baumeister as they spent the better part of the last year tearing apart every Standard Grand Prix they attended. It looked like they were poised to do the same in Memphis after a great Saturday, but the wheels finally came off on Sunday and they had to settle for 26th and 11th place respectively, a combined record of 23-6-1.
Only a 78.3% win rate, well below their running average of 103%. Come on, guys, it's time to step it up a bit. I mean, is it even worth it to show up if you're only going to win $1500 between the two of you? It's like you're not even trying.
On the bright side, other people get to win Standard GPs now. Though I imagine Brad is now going to isolate himself completely from the outside world and play 22 hours of Magic Online a day until he has played 1000 matches with every possible seventy-five card configuration in Standard, emerging from his cocoon having ascended to his next stage of existence as a radiating ball of light and a mastery of Standard the likes of which no one has ever seen.
Or, maybe he's just on his couch trying to keep his cats off his keyboard. No one knows for sure...
All of us. Standard.
I mentioned earlier that consumer confidence in Standard has been at an all-time low. That was an understatement. It was in the basement. Standard hasn't been good since the release of Battle for Zendikar with the exception of brief periods of time where we were still figuring out which deck was literally broken.
And unlike other times when Standard has been broken, it wasn't a single, easily identifiable culprit. It seemed like every time one problem card rotated or was banned, another one popped up. There was Collected Company and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Then it was Smuggler's Copter and Emrakul, the Promised End. Then Felidar Guardian and Aetherworks Marvel. Then Rogue Refiner and Ramunap Ruins. The cycle had gone on long enough that I was happy to forget Standard even existed outside of a few tournaments and focus on Modern.
Thankfully, it looks like the dark days are behind us. Standard looks healthy, with aggro, midrange, and control decks all represented in the top echelons of the format, with a smattering of options at the lower levels including those base archetypes and some cool engine decks like W/B Tokens and God-Pharaoh's Gift.
This is the first time I've been excited to play Standard in a very long time, and that's despite none of the current decks having any particular appeal to me. It's just that the format I saw in Memphis had a great balance of deck/archetype diversity and interesting play patterns.
In the "I hate this format and you're wrong/I love this format and you're wrong" debates we love to engage in you often find players choosing sides between those two traits, trying to argue why one is significantly more important than the other, but the best formats always have a balance of the two, and while Temur Energy mirrors may have been skill-intensive, not having any variance in play patterns makes a format grow stale rather quickly, so you need archetype diversity to keep the format fresh.
As the format continues to evolve and we continue to explore it I'm sure there will be some retraction in the spectrum of competitive decks, but that's to be expected in any Standard format. But all indications from Grand Prix Memphis are that Standard is once again healthy and fun.