Yesterday, our own Ari Lax took a look at the MTGO PTQ Top 8 from last weekend, Standard's first major, individual tournament after the release of Guilds of Ravnica. Ari's focus was on the individual card choices of the top 8 decks, which makes sense given the diversity in those elimination rounds. Those are the decks that are going to have the most eyes on them, and without a clear dominant archetype or two, there isn't a lot to be gleaned in terms of big picture ideas of the format, so it's better to focus on the small-scale choices, like individual removal spells and the efficacy of splashing or adding a full third color.
However, this was a 322-person tournament, and we have access to the entire top 32, which gives a lot more information on which decks did well and which ones underperformed. After all, the decks from 9th to 26th all finished with the same record (7-2) as the two players that snuck into top 8 at 7th and 8th, so the margin of difference here is tiny.
We're also operating in the first week of the format, when both the metagame and the decks comprising it are taking shape. A gem of a deck could fall short because it wasn't tuned properly or missed out on a key innovation, a phenomenon that's less likely to happen later on when we have a more complete understanding of the format.
So it's important to look through all the data we're given to get an idea for what's going on in this format and go from there to determine where it's going in the coming weeks. Here are my major takeaways from the 9th-32nd place decks:
Red Is Good, But Not Dominant
Red Aggro was far and away the most popular deck in day two of the Team Constructed Open in Columbus . Despite losing a lot in rotation, it gained three very powerful cards from Guilds of Ravnica in Runaway Steam-Kin, Risk Factor, and Experimental Frenzy, the latter two of which continue red's run of surprising card advantage which helps it fight through the typical anti-aggro hate and lifegain that packs sideboards in the early weeks of Standard.
But that success wasn't replicated in the PTQ. There was a healthy amount of red, five decks in the top 32 contained Goblin Chainwhirler, but only one of them was of an aggressive bend, with the other four taking the deck firmly into the midrange. And that one aggressive list was all the way down in 27th place, finishing the swiss rounds with a solid but uninspiring 6-3 record:
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Goblin Banneret
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 1 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 4 Viashino Pyromancer
- 22 Mountain
There isn't anything fancy going on here, but the cards are powerful, the curve is low, and there's plenty of reach. So what went wrong? After all, it's common wisdom that aggro decks perform well early because they get to prey on untuned decks and brews that turn out to be non-competitive.
Ultimately, I think the incentives to be aggressive aren't there. Red decks last season became midrange decks before taking on more aggressive bents to best combat the mirrors. There aren't as many red midrange decks around as last season, the best card for more aggressive takes in the red mirror, Hazoret the Fervent, is gone, and your best replacement threat, Rekindling Phoenix, is now cleanly answered by Lava Coil.
In a wider sense, I'm not scared by any of the early creatures in this deck, save Runaway Steam-Kin. Neither of the one-drops come anywhere close to the power of Bomat Courier and while Goblin Banneret is a nice mana sink later in the game, it's not very powerful on the opening turns when you're ideally using your mana to develop your battlefield, not pump it so it can pump your other creatures via mentor.
Without a threatening early game and access to solid card advantage and powerful creatures like Goblin Chainwhirler and Rekindling Phoenix, there's no reason to play underpowered cards and pigeonhole yourself into being the beatdown every game. Go bigger:
- 3 Dismissive Pyromancer
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Goblin Cratermaker
- 3 Legion Warboss
- 3 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 3 Siege-Gang Commander
This list is a lot more powerful and still has the capability to end the game quickly with a strong early curve backed up by some removal spells. Going long, it can take over with card advantage from Experimental Frenzy and Treasure Map while its two-drops, Dismissive Pyromancer and Goblin Cratermaker, become more functional than mere Grizzly Bears.
There are two takeaways here. The first is that while Goblin Chainwhirler will be around, it won't be ubiquitous in the way it was last season. Good one-toughness creatures will see plenty of play, and decks with lots of them will be weak to red, but that won't be enough to doom them. As someone who has played more than their share of one-toughness creatures, I'm happy about that.
Second, the common denominator for red decks is reach. The midrange lists may not be filled to the brim with burn spells but Fight with Fire and Banefire can end the game in one turn and Siege-Gang Commander has a lot more than its own tokens to throw at your face. Along with stabilizing the battlefield and gaining resource advantage you have to mind your life total against red decks of all stripes.
Of course, simple lifegain spells aren't going to be effective against a midrange deck, so you need to find ways to incidentally gain life while enacting your own gameplan. Which brings me to my next takeaway.
Wildgrowth Walker Is Breaking Out
In his article, Ari was high on the combination of explore creatures with traditional midrange elements (planeswalkers, removal, etc) since the former ensure you hit your land drops without falling behind on the early turns.
For me, that's only part of the equation. The top 8 had two base Golgari decks that featured explore creatures, but the winning list had but a single copy of Wildgrowth Walker and it was in the sideboard. If you look deeper, Wildgrowth Walker was very successful when paired with the heavy explore package of Merfolk Branchwalker, Jadelight Ranger, and sometimes Seekers' Squire. There were sixteen copies of the uncommon in the top 16 and four more in the seventeenth place list, making it, alongside its explore brethren, one of the most played creatures in the top 32.
Wildgrowth Walker is the perfect card for incidentally gaining life against aggro decks, since it also blocks effectively, and with two or three triggers becomes big enough to rumble with more powerful and expensive creatures and survive most red removal. If you're gaining six life, it becomes a lot safer to take the four damage off of Risk Factor, further blunting those decks' ability to play into the middle and late game.
Of course, you can't just explore and gain life to beat red decks, not to mention the rest of the format. So the question is how to best surround the explore package to compete with the format at large. The most common answer is Gruesome Menagerie:
- 1 Doom Whisperer
- 1 Golgari Findbroker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 1 Molderhulk
- 4 Plaguecrafter
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Seekers' Squire
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 2 Izoni, Thousand-Eyed
I struggled with building an effective Golgari deck and it looks like I missed hard on the most effective cards for the guild. Charnel Troll and Midnight Reaper are nowhere to be found here. Instead there's Plaguecrafter as the primary source of removal and card advantage from Find and Gruesome Menagerie.
Menagerie is perfect here since you can bring back Wildgrowth Walker along with Jadelight Ranger for immediate value and life, or go for one of your explore creatures and Plaguecrafter to pair your card advantage with some removal. Each individual explore trigger may not seem like much, but this deck is going to be doing it on most turns of the game, giving it a ton of velocity. It won't be uncommon to find two or three Menageries in one game and that's going to make it hard for most decks to keep up. Planeswalkers could be a problem but between Plaguecrafter and your density of creatures you should be able to keep them in check.
What worries me most here is other midrange decks going over the top of you. Big fliers like Lyra Dawnbringer and Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice can potentially ignore your incremental card advantage and end the game in a hurry, as can a Selesnya deck setting up a huge March of the Multitudes into one of its many anthem effects. You don't have a lot of targeted removal, though Kraul Harpooner helps after sideboarding, and while Izoni, Thousand-Eyed and Plague Mare can contain March of the Multitudes, an anthem follow-up is going to be problematic.
The issue with big fliers is easy to mitigate with Assassin's Trophy, Vivian Reid, or Vraska, Relic Seeker, all of which are good in the deck anyway, but March is a bigger problem because there's no good instant speed way of stopping it and you don't have the removal, save for Finality, to keep their battlefield free of convoke fuel. You're going to need to time your Duresses well in that matchup and likely dodge the top of their deck, but having a deck that excels against aggro and control is still a good place to be.
StarCityGames.com's newest writer, Abe Stein, will be tackling Golgari decks later this week, so I'm looking forward to how he tackles these issues. But to me, the most elegant solution would be to fuse the explore package with some Selesnya elements, as the tenth-place finisher did in this innovative list:
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Knight of Autumn
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 1 Militia Bugler
- 2 Thorn Lieutenant
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
- 3 Trostani Discordant
This list trades the card avantage of Gruesome Menagerie for the ability to play its own copies of March of the Multitudes and anthem effects in Trostani Discordant and Path of Discovery, which puts Wildgrowth Walker into overdrive. Can you imagine curving Walker-Jadelight Ranger-Path-Trostani? Uninterrupted, you'll have gained fifteen life and your two-drop will be a 7/9. Oh, and after exploring five times I'm going to assume your turn six will be good too.
This deck also gains access to Knight of Autumn, which I think is well-positioned right now since all its modes are relevant. You can gain life against aggro decks, trade with Steel-Leaf Champion, or destroy a host of powerful permanents, ranging from History of Benalia and Search for Azcanta to Conclave Tribunal and Experimental Frenzy. It's going to be good against nearly every deck and slots perfectly into the deck.
I'm starting to view the two-drop as this generation's Kitchen Finks because of its ability to blunt aggro decks while still being effective against midrange and control decks. It survives a lot of early removal (Justice Strike, Shock, Dead Weight, Moment of Craving) and will eventually demand an answer. You don't have to surround it with underpowered cards to make it work, and there's a high payoff for building around it.
If Standard becomes a haymaker fest, Wildgrowth Walker could get left behind, but the power of Teferi, Hero of Dominance and control decks in general will keep those strategies in check so I'm betting that Wildgrowth Walker's place in the format will be secure for a while.
You Can Go Over the Top, Literally
If Wildgrowth Walker does catch on, however, then there are ways to go over the top of it. I mentioned March of the Multitudes, and I do think Selesnya decks will see significant play, but I was more surprised by the presence of so many decks relying on big fliers. Owen Turtenwald recommended that players maindeck Lyra Dawnbringer if they weren't playing red last weekend, and it looks like many players took his words to heart and were successful in doing so:
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Knight of Grace
- 4 Resplendent Angel
- 3 Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
- 4 Lyra Dawnbringer
- 3 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
Lyra Dawnbringer was the only creature to crack the top 4 in terms of most played among the top 32 that didn't contain explore in the text box, and it shouldn't surprise anyone. The removal right now is quite good, but it only takes a turn or two of Lyra to generate an incredible advantage, especially if it comes down following Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice.
Often, a turn 5 Lyra Dawnbringer leads to a stalemate where it's hard for the Angel's controller to attack without opening themselves up to a counter attack, but with the vigilance from Aurelia, Lyra can play both sides of the ball with the same brutal effectiveness. Turning the corner is simple, and any attempt to go wide can be met with Deafening Clarion.
There's a host of good removal options in Boros, but I like Justice Strike here for its versatility in killing early threats as well as opposing Lyra Dawnbringers. Lightning Strike still has a place in helping you win tight races, while Ixalan's Binding provides a bit of versatility against non-creature threats and the rare threat that survives your other removal (like Wildgrowth Walker).
This deck isn't interested in playing an attrition game since it lacks in the card advantage department, but if your removal doesn't line up against its threats I don't care how many cards you draw, you aren't beating these Angels. That makes this deck a risky choice moving forward, and likely one that will cycle in and out of the metagame as the removal changes, but it's one to always keep in the holster to be deployed when the metagame is unprepared.
If you'd rather your flyers be in a shell with more staying power if they're answered, you'll have to shift from Angels to Dragons:
- 2 Sailor of Means
- 3 Wily Goblin
- 3 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
- 3 Niv-Mizzet, Parun
- 1 Rona, Disciple of Gix
- 2 Verix Bladewing
I'm not sure what exactly to make of this list, but I like when midrange decks have the ability to ignore some threats and race in the air, since it affords them greater tactical flexibility. With the commitment to red and blue necessary to play Niv-Mizzet, Parun, you can't play Vraska's Contempt reliably, and red removal is going to miss on some big creatures so ending the game before too many of them show up is important.
I do like the singleton Price of Fame since it hits a few important threats, namely Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Lyra Dawnbringer, and Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice, but you're really hinging on the flyers here to contain opposing planeswalkers, at least in game 1 before the counterspells and Duresses can come in. There are some concerns here, but the deck is very powerful and Sarkhan, Fireblood is a very powerful card selection engine to have. You can even shift into a protect the queen strategy with it if you don't have a window to tap out in a control mirror.
As the game goes long, all three of the Dragons will provide card advantage and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager can simply take over a game. If that doesn't come together, you can still play an attrition game with Dragon's Hoard, Treasure Map, The Eldest Reborn, and Spit Flame, among other sources of card advantage. It's a strange one for sure, but this deck is doing very powerful things so I'm going to keep an eye on it.
Control and Selesnya are Enigmas
Despite the oft-repeated mantra that control struggles on the opening weak, the power of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and other control elements was enough to convince players to go for it and one thing is clear: control is good. What isn't clear is what build of the archetype is best.
The top 8 of the PTQ had control decks of the Jeskai, Esper, and Izzet variety, which already offers little to go on. Digging deeper isn't any more help since the top 32 has Azorius, Esper, and a very different flavor of Izzet. The only color that isn't represented is green, and I think we've all had enough of Nexus of Fate and fogs for now.
Much was said of the mana surrounding Teferi not being good enough to support it, but the card is still incredibly powerful, likely the most powerful in the format, so it's no surprise to see it force its way into decks. You just have to be disciplined with your mana:
The title says Esper, but this deck is really Dimir, splashing for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. A few other white cards come along for the ride, but they wouldn't be nearly enough without the dominant planeswalker and the check lands are enough to cast it reliably.
This was the most represented control deck and it's my pick for the best, although I'm very high on Cleansing Nova, which is too prohibitively costed to make it here. Access to the more powerful sweeper is the primary advantage I see Jeskai and Azorius builds having, but black has the edge overall for a few reasons:
First, I think retaining an instant speed answer to planeswalkers in Vraska's Contempt is too important. Downgrading Cast Out to Ixalan's Binding is huge and while Settle the Wreckage is powerful, the format right now is very punishing to that card with things like Experimental Frenzy, March of the Multitudes, and Banefire.
Playing black gives you access to Thief of Sanity, which is excellent at punishing players for boarding low on removal against you. Yes, white gives you access to History of Benalia, but that falls victim to both Negate and Duress, so it's less likely to resolve.
And lastly, playing discard spells like Duress and Thought Erasure is huge in control mirrors. The information advantage, as well as the ability to efficiently force your key threats through counterspells is huge. As the metagame takes shape, building control decks only becomes easier, so control mirrors become more prevalent. Black is the color that wins control mirrors, so don't leave home without it.
Selesnya was my pick for the best guild in the set in large part due to the mana fixing and consistency provided by Flower, but I also was attracted to it because of the sheer density of quality cards it has at its disposal. That density was on full display last weekend, as we saw Selesnya decks of many shapes and sizes.
The Team Constructed Open had two midrange token strategies in the finals, and I already featured Tulio_Jaudy's base Selesnya explore deck. But the most successful list in the PTQ was closer to Mono-White Aggro:
- 4 Benalish Marshal
- 4 Hunted Witness
- 3 Snubhorn Sentry
- 4 Thorn Lieutenant
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
- 3 Emmara, Soul of the Accord
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
With eleven one-drops and Benalish Marshal, this deck is capable of some very powerful starts while March of the Multitudes and Shalai, Voice of Plenty give it enough staying power to compete into the lategame.
The triple-color three-drops from Dominaria are among the most powerful threats in the format, but the multi-colored nature of Guilds of Ravnica means the opportunity cost of committing to them is quite high. You're typically staying in just the one color and thus, giving up access to a lot of powerful cards, but with Flower, Selesnya has enough fixing to play either Benalish Marshal or Steel Leaf Champion with a small splash, in this case for some powerful two-drops and March as the end game finisher.
Normally, a splash for two-drops would be too awkward on the curve for an aggressive deck, but this one isn't trying to push a ton of damage on turns 2 and 3, but set up for devastating attacks on turns 4 and 5 that either literally or effectively end the game. A start of Flower into Thorn Lieutenant or Emmara, Soul of the Accord is perfectly fine, and a triple one-drop into turn 3 Flower+two-drop opening is excellent, even though neither is putting the opponent under immediate pressure.
And should you have a dual land, starting on one-drop into two-drop sets you up for either Benalish Marshal or Venerated Loxodon and thus, a huge lead on development. The one-drops in a convoke-centric deck are acting more like mana creatures than typical aggressive creatures like Savannah Lions, and the one-drops here are perfectly suited to that job. Legion's Landing and Hunted Witness leave something behind when removed, making it harder for the opponent to keep you off curve, and Snubhorn Sentry plays solid defense against other aggressive decks while being the biggest one-drop when you've built your battlefield and are ready to attack.
I'm partial to the midrange Selesnya decks because they're a bit more flexible and more powerful with cards like Trostani Discordant, but Benalish Marshal is the more powerful anthem effect, and it's very appealing to have nearly every maindeck card that costs more than three have convoke. This deck is going to cast five or more spells on the first three or four turns of the game with regularity, at which point a single Conclave Tribunal likely ends the game before your opponent's more powerful elements can take over.
These are the decks that I think have the most promise moving forward, and as you can see every guild in Guilds of Ravnica as well as a wide range of archetypes, is represented. The format looks very healthy for the moment, although it's clear that Ixalan block was held back by more than just the power of Amonkhet and Kaladesh. The block is underpowered, and Guilds of Ravnica is significantly better so it's not a surprise that the format is being dominated from the beginning by decks built around the five available guilds from the new set.
The biggest question has been what the best way to build around those guilds would be, and the top 32 from the MTGO PTQ has gone a long way towards answering those questions, at least for the time being. This is the most exciting time for Standard in years, and I'm expecting innovation to occur for a longer time than is typical simply because players are excited to brew and tune decks with these cards. That's going to make for a more dynamic metagame that rewards players for staying up to date. One thing's for sure, and that's if you plan on entering Standard tournaments this season, you're going to have to put in the work and stay current.