Standard Turns a Corner

Worlds and Nationals are firmly in the rearview mirror, with Ixalan Draft and Standard as hot and fresh as they’ll ever be, and the Pro Tour in Albuquerque is a short two weeks away. It seems like just yesterday that we were in Japan getting smacked around by Earthshaker Khenra and Hazoret the Fervent, and now it’s time for round two. Will the format show resilience and diversity, or will it collapse into a rock-paper-scissors of Red Aggro, {U}{B} Control, and Temur Energy? From the results of many major recent tournaments, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes”, but the truth is a bit more nuanced. Of course, Gerry Thompson and Oliver Tomajko won invites to the WMC with Temur Energy and {U}{B} Control, respectively, and Huey Jensen is our World Champion on the back of the same Energy shell; but, if one reads between the lines, there are a few contenders waiting in the wings. Aside from the obvious three decks, which do each have their own weaknesses, there are at least seven other archetypes that range from playable to potentially amazing, and they deserve almost as much attention as the major winning decks.

Those decks, in no particular order, are:

  • Mardu Vehicles
  • Abzan Tokens
  • Esper God-Pharaoh’s Gift
  • {U}{B} Creatures
  • Mardu Tokens
  • Sultai Energy
  • {W}{U} Approach

Let’s take a brief look at these pretenders to the Standard throne, and analyze why each of them could be the next breakout deck at Pro Tour: Ixalan.


Hazoret the Fervent
With the losses of Gideon, Avacyn, and Thraben Inspector, the easy initial conclusion was that Mardu Vehicles could not see play in anything resembling its original configuration. Unquestionably, Bomat Courier and Inventor’s Apprentice are weaker replacements for Thraben Inspector, but Hazoret is an incredible four-drop replacement for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and the power of Unlicensed Disintegration is still simply so high that the entire deck can exist based solely on its existence. Where Mono-Red is streamlined and linear, Mardu has the edge in its flexibility of role, its better removal, and its more varied threats. Mardu cannot be defeated with a single Authority of the Consuls, nor does a Contraband Kingpin pose an impenetrable roadblock. The mana is worse, to be sure, but the deck is better against cards like Longtusk Cub and Whirler Virtuoso, which make a world of difference in a Temur-heavy metagame.

If you simply can’t come to terms with the fact that Thraben Inspector is no longer with us, this deck might just be the one to reignite your fire for disintegrating your opponents’ creatures.

For those who wish to recreate the joy of {W}{G} Devotion mirrors of old, though, there is another amazing option for a deck that can easily get to 400+ life in a single game, a deck that can make it legitimately impossible for most opposing decks to win while assembling a board that would make even Owen Turtenwald’s head spin.

Abzan Tokens — Ixalan Standard | Drew Bates, US Nationals, 7th Place


Hidden Stockpile
So much lifegain. This deck is a casual player’s dream, as it allows the pilot to play so much Magic as it assembles an insurmountable board and life total. It’s fairly solid against Temur, which counts for a lot, and a single resolved Hidden Stockpile can quickly pull the game out of control against {U}{B}. The massive quantity of random 1/1 creatures with lifelink are a natural foil to Red, which means that overall, the deck is theoretically able to go toe-to-toe with the big three decks of Standard. The only issue with the deck is its own tendency to do a whole lot of nothing for the first three or four turns, as curves like Renegade Map, Anointer Priest, Treasure Map + Scry, Anointed Procession are very vulnerable to getting run over by powerful aggressive draws.

That being said, with a little bit of luck and drawing the pieces in the right order, Abzan Tokens could frustrate a whole lot of people at the Pro Tour!

One deck that I like a bit more as a setup + payoff archetype is actually {U}{B} or Esper God-Pharaoh’s Gift. This deck has been reasonably popular on MTGO, and for good reason. It’s just a ton of fun to reanimate 6/6 vigilant flying lifelinkers and swing the game around in an instant! The deck has a super high power ceiling, and it’s got a lot of play even without a supercharged Gift start.

Let’s look at the SCG Classic winner:


I like a lot of things about this list, as it reminds me of the next deck on this list with a busted God-Pharaoh’s Gift package stapled to a random value creature shell. Nothing wrong with curving a few dinky dudes into a Hostage Taker or two, and Search for Azcanta is a stellar way to dig deep and find the Gates to put the game away. If this Standard format is to have an equivalent of Four-Color Saheeli (i.e. a decent midrange deck with an absurd combo slotted in), then this is that deck. I’m optimistic about my chances if it does end up being the deck I pilot come the Pro Tour!

Now, noted MTGO ringer Jaberwocki (who in real life goes by Logan Nettles) has been tearing up the Standard leagues with his own take on a {U}{B} midrange deck, which takes the powerful {U}{B} Control shell and adds in more low-end creatures to act as interactive pieces against Temur Energy and Red, while applying some pressure to true control decks in the semi-mirror. A great innovation for powerful control decks is to sideboard in a creature plan, but with The Scarab God as such an integral part of the format, it’s justified to just use Gifted Aetherborn maindeck as a fake version of Vicious Hunger that also applies pressure in the control matchup.

Here’s Logan’s list:


Gifted Aetherborn
The deck is way lower to the ground than normal {U}{B}, with Gifted Aetherborn and Kitesail Freebooter providing blockers, disruption, lifegain, and pressure depending on the matchup. Because the deck plays those low drops, it can afford to play Chart a Course as its velocity piece, allowing it to use a dramatic aggro-control plan to totally shift the control matchups. It gives up slower universal answers like Dissolve and reduces the Glimmer of Genius count to a mere two copies, but in a fast format those slower cards are liabilities more than benefits. When MTGO opponents (and, truly, most average opponents) get stuck in play pattern ruts and become inflexible in their sideboard plans, a shift to a creature plan can actually ruin their well-laid strategies. Metagaming starts when the opposition gets rusty, and Logan is singlehandedly pushing the metagame forward with his innovations.

Speaking of metagame innovations, while Mardu Vehicles attempts to supplant Ramunap Red by being a more flexible, less linear aggressive deck, Mardu Tokens actually puts the pedal to the metal even harder with a humongous vulnerability to Sweltering Suns-style effects (not to mention zero removal spells!), but incredible aggressive draws that leave opponents dead on the fourth turn with regularity. It’s by no means resilient, but the deck is uncompromising and fast, which might be good enough to take Standard by storm if it stays under the radar. Fortunately for all of you, I’m blowing up its spot nice and early, with a decklist from a MTGO 5-0:


Toolcraft Exemplar
Try a few sample draws on for size. Imagine Toolcraft Exemplar into Bomat Courier and Legion’s Landing, attack for four damage, then play Trial of Solidarity, attack for eleven, flip Legion’s Landing, and wait for the concession.

Or, if you prefer, Inventor’s Apprentice, Servo Exhibition, Legion’s Landing, attack, flip Landing, post-combat Pia Nalaar, then cast a turn-four Trial of Solidarity and attack for super-overkill. Hell, there are also Shefet Dunes to pack pump spells into the mana base, which is in some ways even better than Ramunap Red’s use of its lands as extra reach! This is a deck worth getting excited about, as it is uncompromising and potent. Get ready for some beatdowns!

Now, there are a number of other contenders that just haven’t seen the adoption of the biggest archetypes, chief among them Sultai Energy and {W}{U} Approach. I fully expect to play against each of these decks at upcoming Standard events, and they are great options for players who want to play something a little different than Temur Energy or {U}{B} Control, with the same rough power level as those proven top-tier decks. Andrew Jessup is no fool, and he knows how to make a Standard deck to beat up on Opens and Grand Prixs. I have immense respect for his knowledge of the format, and his week one champion deck is still a powerful choice:


Walking Ballista and The Scarab God providing plenty of uses for excess mana, and no Servant of the Conduit to provide a bad topdeck in the midgame. Blossoming Defense is a tremendous card when people don’t expect or respect it, and Andrew certainly got more than his fair share of opponents with the spell over the course of his tournament. Additionally, Hostage Taker is another incredible card, incredible way to use excess mana, and a superb card to protect with Blossoming Defense. The deck is well-crafted, with no obvious flaws except for a large vulnerability to Glorybringer, and that can be fixed with a few small shifts in the numbers to allow for the inclusion of more Vraska’s Contempts. Bravo, and come Albuquerque, there’s a greater chance I play this deck than Temur Energy for the aforementioned reasons. Try it out! The last Tier 1.5 deck of the week to tinker with is none other than the combo-control {W}{U} Approach archetype, with a Top 4 finish at US Nationals to add to its resume. Peter Villarubia’s list is a decent place to start testing, and if you prefer the thrill of sweating Approach topdecks to the thrill of a Scarab God rout, {W}{U} Approach is the deck for you:

Gideon of the Trials is a decent card, as it essentially blanks a creature, forcing the opponent to over commit to the board and run headfirst into a Fumigate or Settle the Wreckage. It also pressures control opponents, though it will generally run into a Vraska’s Contempt before it does much real damage. The real weakness of Approach is the two-mana interaction, with Aether Meltdown as a very weak substitute for the real removal in Black and Red. It’s a testament to the power of Fumigate, Settle the Wreckage, and Approach itself that the deck exists, because you’re often going to be playing from behind until you curve those huge game-swinging effects into each other. It’s refreshing to play a control deck on semi-autopilot once an Approach hits the stack, so let this be a training wheels tutorial for aspiring control mages in Standard.

Now, let me be clear. There are a ton of variants on the above archetypes, as well as a few rogue archetypes in the mix (Spell Swindle + Marionette Master, anyone?), but the above seven decks make up the bulk of the metagame scalpels folks will use to attack the stagnant Standard format and bring in some fresh life come Pro Tour Ixalan. Here’s to hoping that you (and I) can get in ahead of the curve and rack up a few W’s!


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