Standard Check-In: Ixalan at 3 Weeks⁠⁠⁠⁠

It's been three weeks since the release of Magic: The Gathering's latest set, Ixalan, kicked off a big rotation, with two entire 2-set blocks, Battle For Zendikar and Shadows Over Innistrad, leaving the Standard format. From a format that spanned 8 sets/4 blocks, we are now down to just 5 sets/3 blocks. The rotation was also significant in that it took away with it some major Standard powerhouses in terms of both individual cards such as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and deck archetypes such as Delirium. We are also now fully into the new development-and-release cycle of Magic sets where a rotation happens with every Fall set and incorporates the major lessons learned over the last two years of the game.

What this boils down to as far as Standard is concerned that we are in a very new and different phase of the game, just as we were two years ago when Battle For Zendikar was released. That set heralded lead designer Mark Rosewater's stated vision of Metamorphosis and the 2-set blocks that have now become ubiquitous, although not for long once April 2018 comes around. With Ixalan Standard, we are in very much a new format, and the results of high-level competitive events over the last three weekends have shown that while there are still powerful holdovers from the months before, there are also new strategies and cards fighting to establish their own dominance over the metagame.

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A shifting metagame is an important aspect of the health of any competitive format for Magic. It means that decks rise and fall in both power and popularity, which keeps players interested and invested in playing those formats. For a format as "small" as Standard which only consists of a small pool of cards to draw from, this becomes all the more crucial compared to the "bigger" formats like Modern and Legacy.

Going into Ixalan Standard, many people were concerned that the metagame would be dominated by decks like Ramunap Red, Temur Energy and Mardu Vehicles. While the first of these is a relatively new quantity all things considered, the other two have been around since Kaladesh released last year and unleashed the Vehicles and Energy mechanics on Magic. These are all powerful strategies that have proven to be flexible enough to adapt with changing metagames and lost little in the rotation with the new set.

That concern was certainly justified in the first three weeks of the new format. We've had a large number of results already thanks to SCG Dallas Standard Open (Top 64) and Classic (Top 32), the Magic World Championship (24 players), SCG Charlotte Standard Classic (Top 16) and the various Nationals (Top 8, although for US we also have Top 16) events from last weekend. The overall picture presented is of the dominance of the expected decks.

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As you can see from this graph, which combines results from both the Open and the Classic, the most dominating decks at SCG Dallas were various Energy decks, specifically Temur, Sultai and 4-color, and then Ramunap Red. Some other flavors of various strategies did show up but didn't leave much of a mark beyond singletons or two copies the entire weekend. SCG events are rarely diverse in the release weekends and if anything, SCG Dallas showed that Energy was a very powerful mechanic and that The Scarab God and Hostage Taker were the big cards to watch out for if you wanted to play in the new format. While the coverage was interesting and the resulting Top 8 had four big archetypes, the outlook for the future was not exactly a positive one. People often look to the release weekends to set a trend and to build off of. With the World Championship the following weekend, these results were even more important but a key difference this time was that the Pro Tour for Ixalan would not take place until five weeks after release instead of the usual three. Time to brew right? Perhaps.

It is important looking at these results to notice that midrange and fast-aggro were absolutely dominant. Control decks had a difficult time at the two events and while WU Approach did put up some numbers, it is a control-combo deck thanks to its namesake Approach of the Second Sun. Zac Elsik's win in the Classic with Grixis Improvise was nothing but a flash in the pan, so to speak, and while the deck certainly seems to have some legs, those aren't fast or sturdy enough to compete with the big boys.

Overall, results are as expected with no deviation. The only thing to determine after the Open was which flavor of Energy deck would rise to the top and that's where the World Championship made a huge difference.

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As soon as the Standard decklists were published for Worlds once the first round of Standard (round 4) began, the big story of the tournament was how more than a third of the 24 players in attendance were all on Ramunap Red. Social media and Reddit couldn't stop talking about how the deck was broken, how Hazoret, the Fervent was a bad card for Standard with the rotation of one of its biggest answers, and how weak the format was going to be to it. But then, as the tournament progressed, Ramunap Red began to fall to the wayside, and Temur Energy and UB Control began to establish themselves as the decks to beat.

The tournament was won by William Huey Jensen on Temur Energy and that was the big success story of the weekend. UB Control also had a very good event as it put two copies in the Top 4 with another in the Top 8. However there are some important takeaways from Worlds. The first of these is that Worlds is a mixed-format event where players participate in six rounds of Booster Draft and eight rounds of Standard. So how well a player placed in the event depends on both their Standard and Draft performance. So while Temur Energy and UB Control were the king and queen of the event, we would need to look at each player's performance in the Standard rounds only.

Still, we did learn that Temur was entering a transition period where it was adapting to beat all other top decks in the format. It was the alpha predator and perhaps deservedly so because it is in essence just a very efficient midrange creature deck. For those interested, it is highly recommended to watch the Top 4 matches of the event to see how four of the best players in the world put up a Standard masterclass. The margins of victory in each game were thin, determined largely by edging out little advantages and the finals is just superb.

The second takeaway from Worlds is that, as Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa said in a video soon after, is that the pro players' choice of Standard deck had a lot to do with how they mind-gamed against the other players. Plus the risk vs reward maths of the event is heavily in favor of playing the best deck possible rather than experimenting with something new. After all, the prize purse for first place was a cool hundred thousand dollars, and that carries a hell of a lot of weight. You don't risk that on a wacky brew against some of the absolute best players in the world. And given that many of these 24 players test for the event in teams of two to four, the metagame itself is just completely weird by itself. So it is good to not put too much stock in the particular diversity of the event. That's not what this event was about at all. For that, we must look to the third weekend of results, with no less than fourteen Nationals events across the world as well as a Standard Classic at SCG Charlotte which was a Modern Open.

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Across the fourteen Nationals events across the world last weekend, we have a combined total of 120 decks to look at to see where the various players landed on for their choices. As was expected, Huey's dominant performance at Worlds injected more vigor into the Temur Energy players and they showed up in force, constituting some 29% of top-performers for the weekend. The next best was Ramunap Red and we see how sharp that decline is with just 18 players on the deck. And so on down the line with 4C Energy and Sultai Energy rounding out the big performers with some input from Abzan Tokens, UB Control and WU Approach decks.

What's interesting to note is that various Tokens made some decent inroads into the metagame. As we saw from the coverage of the US Nationals, the previous champion Ali Aintrazi and last year's World Champion Brian Braun-Duin were both on Esper Tokens and Drew Bates made the Top 8 with the more popular Abzan version. The archetype has been making some noise in the MTGO dailies although that success hasn't quite made its way to the paper metagames. From experience, the deck requires you to be quick on your feet with all the triggers and the mathematics involved when multiple Anointed Procession and token-producers are in play, not to mention that it doesn't actually play that many cards that are good on their own. Decks like Temur Energy and Ramunap Red don't quite have that problem.

Control decks also didn't fare well over all with UB Control remaining the best example of the archetype and the Approach decks also making a play in the same space. Esper and Grixis Control decks are still sadly very underrepresented at the top tables, showing that going forward with the ally-color manabases is the best way forward, and even then just restricting yourself to two colors instead of going into the three-variety shards colors.

Looking at overall results, six of the fourteen events were won by Temur Energy and that's a staggering number, although not as unexpected as one might think. If anything, this performance shows how well suited the deck is at combating all others and how resilient it is. You add in the popularity factor and that just rounds it all off.

Now, if we were to combine the decks into more simple archetypes, we get a very interesting picture that shows how good the mechanics and strategies introduced in the last year are for our current Standard format.

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Energy decks being dominant as practically half the metagame is very worrying. Granted, each Nationals event had a very different metagame, but the combined results do show how powerful Energy as a mechanic and a resource is. There have been decks in other formats that have been punished for lesser crimes. But Energy gets a pass for now because it is indeed being kept in-check to some degree by other decks like Ramunap Red. Standard metagames are as much a popularity contest as they are a raw power contest and that's a situation where the Energy decks absolutely thrive since they are some of the best midrange creature-based decks in the last few years. And we don't have much that can directly interact with Energy outside of Solemnity and that in itself isn't that powerful a hate card that can combat these decks. Time will tell what happens next, but in the meantime, let's see how the Standard Classic at SCG Charlotte panned out.

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We got the Top 16 results from this event and it was won by Esper Gift, which was pretty neat. These results don't tell us much however because the spread is very diverse. Eight different strategies and archetypes without a clear dominant one unlike Nationals. This also has to do with the fact that the Classics are small events taking place on the second day of the SCG Opens and are usually indicative of different meta than the larger Opens. And, there was far more prestige and bragging rights at stake at the Nationals compared to the Classic, so that factors in for the discussion around the best deck and what deck to play at a given tournament. Still, it is no mean feat to Top 16 these events, or even take it all down with what many consider is a tier 2 strategy at best, so kudos to all the players who placed.

When all is said and done however, take the results of the Classic with a grain of salt. Energy decks are not going anywhere. By design, Energy is a parasitic mechanic that doesn't really interact with mechanics outside of the Kaladesh block and it was very clearly pushed so as to make a significant impact on Standard.

Looking at all these decks in totality, we clearly observe some worrying trends that the Nationals events seem to have exacerbated. We have just had a Banned & Restricted Announcement as well that gave us no changes to the Standard format. Which is actually a great thing. This entire year, the big conversation has been the Standard bans that have shaken up the format so much. We don't really need any more bans and to be honest, we just need to tough out the next year until Kaladesh (and Amonkhet) block rotates out of the format.

Going into the Pro Tour in about ten days, I am not expecting much diversity from the pro players. There has been a lot of conversation in the last two weeks about how various new strategies have been tested and have come up short against the Energy decks and against Ramunap Red. That's not to say that something wacky can come out of all this and we have a genuinely entertaining Pro Tour experience, but all the same, I am keeping my expectations low.

I expect at least three Energy decks in the Top 8, with a split of two Temur and one Sultai. Hostage Taker has shown up here and there in the Energy decks and while it is a key component of the 4-color Energy decks, it is still behind the curve in representation, so I'm expecting one UBx deck with that card in the Top 8. Perhaps the UB Control decks could find some use for it as well since they have such a damn tough time against artifacts especially. The rest of the Top 8 I cross my fingers includes one Tokens deck, and the rest can be a mix of Ramunap Red and Approach decks.

The reality might very well be that Energy decks are over-represented at the Top 8 and is nowhere near as diverse as some people are hoping right now. But with all the results we've had so far, a grand total of 256 decks at 18 major tournaments, things need to change significantly before we see the kind of shift that can indicate a truly evolving and healthy metagame. For people who really are into the competitive side of things, the current metagame is great because they can play with the small edges in the local scenes to get the advantages they need to spike their tournaments.

Anyhow, that's all I have for now. We'll check back later after the Pro Tour and see where the chips finally fall, but in the meantime, I think there are some good indications of how the format isn't just a 3-deck meta between Temur Energy, Ramunap Red and UB Control. I'm most excited to see how the Tokens decks develop in the coming weeks, as well as the Mardu Vehicles lists which have fallen off from their heyday in the previous format and are running in the middle of the pack for now.

Until next time.