Trivia: The original name of Magic: the Gathering was Mana Clash. It's a fitting name, given that, in general, the player who uses more mana will win most of the time. The game is very much about optimizing your ability to generate and spend mana.
Indulge me while I engage in some oversimplification of history:
Historically, there weren't that many ways to draw cards. Early Magic theory focused on card advantage, because getting a two-for-one was relatively rare and put a player significantly ahead, especially because cards that exchanged one-for-one were so efficient and reliable. Creatures were smaller and answers were better, so games didn't usually end before players had opportunities to cast all of their spells, so having the last card remaining when the dust settled was key.
Then people learned to build better aggressive decks and they were capable of ending the game before their opponent could use all of their cards. There still wasn't a lot of card draw, so the game was largely about curves; if the deck with the lower curve could end the game fast, they'd have spent more mana over the course of the game because the deck with the higher curve would have had early turns where they weren't able to use their mana. If the deck with the higher curve could make it to the lategame, they could catch up on mana spent very quickly because the opponent would run out of cards to play and maybe spend around two mana a turn playing the card off the top of their deck, while the player with the higher curve might still have several four+ mana spells to deploy over several turns in the mid to lategame, easily overpowering the top of their aggressive opponent's library.
At some point, most expensive threats started doing something when they entered the battlefield. If you spend more than 2-3 mana on a card, it was just expected that your card would be generating a two-for-one of some kind. This made card advantage a lot more fluid, but still didn't change the fundamental trend that the deck with the higher curve would win a longer game, and the deck with a lower curve would win a shorter game, still in a way that reduces to when the decks are best at efficiently using their mana.
I personally love the transition to card advantage being a more fluid concept. I kind of think the game is best when players always have multiple things to spend their mana on so that they always have interesting choices to make. I kind of wonder if the game would be more fun if players drew two cards a turn or something.
Anyway, I believe recent set design has shifted the dynamics a bit again. Not only are expensive cards expected to trade for more than a single other card, but powerful mana sinks exist all over the place. The story about the lower curve deck running out of things to do just isn't how games of Standard play out anymore, at least not reliably.
Thanks to cards like Arguel's Blood Fast, Experimental Frenzy, Find, Dawn of Hope, Explosion, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Search for Azcanta, and too many others to list, decks of all sorts can easily play powerful mana sinks that can let them continue profitably spending mana for as long as a game lasts.
This pulls us in both directions - the higher curve decks now don't necessarily spend more mana if the game goes longer, because the low curve decks can also keep doing things. Now, the way to spend more mana in the lategame is simply to have more lands on the battlefield so that you have more mana to work with. Theoretically, this pushes us to want higher land counts so that we can always keep up. So, decks want lower curves and higher land counts. A bit of a tall order, but totally reasonable if you're building around keeping your mana sinks in mind.
This is why explore creatures play so well - they let you keep pace early while making sure you hit your land drops to maximize the chances that your deck has as much mana to work with as possible throughout the game.
Okay, so that's the basic theoretical framework that I'm approaching Standard from, but how does that play out? What does it mean for our actual deck choice and deck construction?
I believe the goal should be to break the basic mana generation of the game; do something to play more than one land per turn so that you'll out-mana your opponent. There are a lot of ways to pull ahead here.
Early on, I was optimistic about Skirk Prospector and Runaway Steam-Kin as easy ways to generate extra mana to fuel the mana sink of Experimental Frenzy. My concern with that now is that I worry that Goblins just don't add up to enough impact. They're too easily dealt with efficiently and don't match up well against the size of green creatures.
I believe Elvish Rejuvenator is underplayed. It falls behind on sizing and/or cards against Jadelight Ranger, but I don't think the opposing Golgari decks are aggressive enough to do a great job of punishing you for playing an undersized creature, and I think you can build your deck to not run out of cards in hand such that the card advantage matters much less than getting an extra land on the battlefield, allowing you to spend one more mana each turn than your opponent for the rest of the game.
My other comment on Golgari is that Assassin's Trophy is a really clever design for Standard right now. The card is so extremely powerful and versatile, it looks way too good for Standard, but the truth is that giving your opponent a land is much worse than it's ever been. I'm open to the possibility that the versatility is necessary, but I'd love to try to avoid playing it or only to play it in small numbers. So far, most of the time my opponent has cast Assassin's Trophy, regardless of what they're targeting, I'm pretty happy with the exchange.
My own take on Golgari might look something like:
- 4 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 3 Golgari Findbroker
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 3 Plaguecrafter
- 3 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Seekers' Squire
- 1 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
Moving beyond Golgari, I think other decks need to find ways to pull ahead on mana. So far, I've been really impressed by Treasure Map. When you transform it, you have an extra land on the battlefield and three more mana lying around for a rainy day. I'm not even that into sacrificing the Treasures for cards, I'm mostly just excited about all the extra mana I can generate for my control deck. I've been playing it in Izzet, but I'd expect it to play well in all sorts of decks. No one's really playing efficient ways to answer it, so it's a pretty reliable way to get ahead on mana in the lategame, which offers a massive advantage.
It's particularly great in Izzet, thanks to Explosion, and I've even been loving Spell Swindle for similar reasons. Generating four+ Treasures while countering a spell feels like one of the most powerful things you can do in Standard. You can cash them in for a giant Explosion or they can just give you the privilege of tapping out every turn while still being able to cast a counterspell if you have to.
Where I'm currently at with Izzet is:
The next cards that I'm optimistic about but haven't gotten to fully explore are Legion's Landing and Song of Freyalise. These seem like they have the most potential to generate way more mana than the opponent, but they're also fragile and decks that play them have a tendency to be constructed in such a way that they can actually run out of things to do, or only do things that can't keep up with the power of things the opponent is doing in the late game, which would defeat the purpose. I'm less excited about trying to empty my hand quickly and make a big attack than I'm about just pulling ahead on resources and pressing that advantage.
I suspect that decks build around these cards need to have a focus on planeswalkers, either attempting to use Huatli, Radiant Champion and/or Vivien Reid or splashing for Vraska (either or both). The problem with Huatli is that the tension between going wide with tokens and casting creature spells is difficult to navigate, so I think trying to splash for black planeswalkers is likely best. Alternatively, or additionally, maybe Camaraderie is the best thing to build up to.
There's a lot to explore here, but here's where I might start with Abzan:
- 4 Doomed Dissenter
- 4 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 3 Plaguecrafter
- 3 Emmara, Soul of the Accord
Maybe these aren't trying hard enough to really break the mana advantage you can get in Standard. Here's an effort to dial this up to eleven rather than just trying to get an extra mana source here or there:
- 3 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 4 Glowspore Shaman
- 2 Golgari Findbroker
- 1 Kraul Harpooner
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 3 Plaguecrafter
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 3 World Shaper
- 2 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
- 1 Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar
This deck is looking to throw as many lands into the graveyard as it can with Stitcher's Supplier and Glowspore Shaman before sacrificing World Shaper to Plaguecrafter or Vraska, Goglari Queen to get a big mana advantage on the opponent to carry you into a dominating lategame with Izoni, Thousand-Eyed and Memorial to Folly.
If the format shifts again and everyone's trying to burn you out as fast as possible or stop you from resolving any spells, the dynamic of Standard could change, but as long as Standard looks to be a midrange grindfest of Golgari mirrors, rather than trying to cram one extra big effect into my deck to hope to have a slightly better lategame, I'm going to look for some way to break the paradigm. To me, it looks like mana is the bottleneck and Standard has plenty of ways to get an advantage there, so I think finding the best way to do that will offer the best results.