Standard Week One in Arena

The world is finally put to rights! Standard is live in Arena, everyone still hates the economy, and content creators like yours truly are playing a million and one games of Magic, scrambling in an effort to get to grips with the changes.

For myself in particular, this has been somewhat taxing. Prior to Arena I hadn’t played Magic at all for at least a year and I hadn’t played Standard for even longer still. I’d watched ProTour Dominaria, but hadn’t really had exposure to much current Standard beyond that. I needed to arm myself with a list of decks that would be entertaining for my viewers to watch me play but would also allow me to cover whatever might be going on in the Arena meta-game once everything settled down.

After a day or two of thinking about this problem, it seemed to make sense to me that being relevant would probably be the most useful approach for my viewers. I decided to take a look at the general standard metagame and see what I could build with my existing card pool. It actually turned out I had most of the key cards for all of the top decks, and the huge pile of freebies I’d received in MTGA made up a good portion of what I would have been missing. This meant with a few rare and mythic wildcards here and there, I could put together a pretty decent stable.

I expected Arena’s standard meta-game to basically look like this:

  • Red Decks: RB Aggro, R Aggro, RB Midrange and Red Midrange
  • UWx Control Decks: UW Control, UW Creatureless Control, Esper Control, UWR Control
  • G/x Midrange decks: Steel Leaf Stompy, BG Constrictor, UG Karn
  • Outliers: UW Gift, UB Midrange, UR spells decks
  • Budget ballers: Mono U Skies, GB Saprolings, existing arena decks with sideboards

I already owned the Mono U Skies deck which got a couple of slight improvements and a sideboard post-update. I also already owned the Mono Red Aggro deck, that wasn’t miles away from the one that won the ProTour. I had almost all of the cards for either version of UW Control and even the Esper variant and I had a gift deck that probably would have got me close to the more expected Standard version. Where I was somewhat lacking was on green cards, and I knew at best, I’d probably only be able to put together a single green deck so I definitely needed to be selective there.

What did you do with this information, MrShy?

Firstly, I put together the decks that I knew I for sure had most or all of the cards for. This would allow me to spend minimal wildcards and get playing to see what the lay of the land was. Initially, I built UW Control (with Gearhulks), RB Aggro and UB Midrange. These were all decks that I knew that I would, at worse, be a few commons and uncommons from completing and fortunately, I had common and uncommon wildcards in droves. I had also built an Arena version of the midcarding ProTour Esper Benalia deck so I decided to throw together the last few pieces and sideboard for that. That gave me four early decks to venture out with, covering an Aggro deck, two midrange decks, and a control deck. “I should be covered,” I thought. Adding to this, the existing Mono U Skies deck, for when I felt like playing something silly, I went into week one feeling pretty good.

How long did that last?

Weeeeellll… it was definitely a week of ups and downs. I absolutely love the UW control deck, but apparently so does everyone else who plays Arena and the mirror is one of the most miserable affairs in the history of both misery and affairs. If you miss just one land drop, you fall miles behind. If you draw all of your removal, you fall miles behind, if you’re second to make a Teferi, you fall miles behind. If they find a Search for Azcanta and you don’t, you fall miles behind. As I’m sure you can imagine, I was quite hurt to find that playing my favourite deck in the format meant enduring probably around 60% of my matches being mirrors. Maybe more.

The red decks are also very heavily represented. Strangely, I seem to be encountering them slightly less than UW Control, but all the same, they’re very present. Whilst this does mean that playing RB Aggro involves a lot of mirrors and near mirrors, this time round it’s actually far less of a bore. The RB mirrors generally involve both players getting to reload with a Bomat Courier at some point so you feel a lot less like variance is killing you and much more like the best player wins, which does wonders for your motivation.

Next, there’s the two less popular decks. First let’s talk about Esper Benalia, Steve Hatto’s somewhat underperforming deck from PT Dominaria. Was it a good deck that got unlucky? Or did it just not have the tools to handle the meta-game? Well, I was pleased to see that it does a reasonably good job of beating up on the red decks. Blanking a portion of the RB decks removal is very powerful and the remainder of their removal struggles to keep up with how wide the deck goes. Add to this that many of the red creatures get outclassed fairly quickly into the mid and late game and I certainly found I wasn’t too scared whenever I realized I was paired against any of the red decks. Your first striking creatures are also excellent at making their attacks unattractive so the deck can do some really good work.

Sadly the same is not true of the UW Control matchup. Blanking some of their removal is indeed good and definitely helps but your deck is slow and if the opponent manages to Essence Scatter a turn two Knight or Negate a turn three History of Benalia they will soon reach Settle the Wreckage, Teferi and Fumigate mana without having had to worry much at all. From this point on, they don’t struggle in the slightest to keep you under control and I found I was almost never winning.

UB Midrange is sadly an even sorrier story. You can get lucky and draw exactly all your removal first and then your threats. Against the red decks and you might be in with a reasonable chance but your tools just do not line up great against what the red decks are doing and, by the time you find The Scarab God, you’re usually too far gone to fight back. Against the UW control decks, you’re forced to try to play aggressively to get under their top end but again, lack the tools as many of your creatures do not present enough of a clock to pressure their spot removal and their sweepers make short work of the rest. I think perhaps the UB Midrange deck does best against other midrange decks where the efficiency of cards like Gifted Aetherborn is at its most potent. Sadly, this is not the present meta-game though.

So what would you actually recommend playing?

Well, an excellent-looking BW Midrangey kind of deck has started to arise and I definitely need to get a good look at that to see what it can do because I have a feeling it might be well worthy of attention. The deck took down an SCG Standard Classic a couple of days ago so it certainly isn’t bad. I have also recently moved on to GB Constrictor (video available at https://youtu.be/PsIA7dXzUvA), which has been beating up badly on the red decks and doesn’t feel like it has a particularly awful UWx matchup.

There’s something so satisfying about casting Verdurous Gearhulk.

Interestingly enough, if both GB Constrictor and the BW decks do well, I get the feeling that the UB Midrange deck will have sufficient answers to make both of their lives difficult. With this considered, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if we start to see a more midrange-oriented metagame soon – something which isn’t at all uncommon at this point in the life of a Standard format.

If I wanted to put my hard-earned cash on something, I think GB Constrictor is the one to play. The matchups between the midrange decks are probably all quite close but GB seems to look like it will struggle the least Vs UWx Control. Instead of trying to beat it at its own game or playing irrelevant cards like Gideon of the Trials, the GB deck looks to establish an early, fast clock – something which the current run of control decks struggle with. All of these decks universally give Rx Aggro a very hard time and even the more midrange red decks with main decked planeswalkers have a real struggle standing up to Vraska’s Contempt, big tramplers, and the explosive starts that a turn two Winding Constrictor can produce.

With all of this said, I can’t count out the BW list because I simply don’t have enough experience either against it or piloting it to pass fair judgement on where it lies presently. In fact, nobody does, since it’s only just emerged. I can certainly look at lists and see cards that scare me, but seeing how they come together is the only true way to make judgments. If truth be told, I think it’s very hard to call but I’m happy to throw my lot in with the snake and his friends for now.

What is the future for the red decks?

Honestly, the red decks are still very good. They have a lot of redundancy and Bomat Courier may well be the most broken card in Standard. Red aggro will have so many games where it will curve out perfectly and simply disregard what’s happening on the other side of the table. However, I would exercise caution if you were thinking of building it today. They’re a known entity and the lists are basically optimal whereas the midrange decks that are starting to make the red decks miserable all feel like they still have more to give and I have a feeling that, as more people sleeve them up, the red decks will start to look less and less favourable.

I don’t think by any means that the show is over for red, but I definitely think the Pro Tour was the peak of its performance and things can only get worse from here. We’re also not a million miles away from some new cards entering the pool. This could either reinvigorate red or seal its doom. Only time will tell. One thing is for certain, if you have the cards and don’t want to invest in anything new right now, the red decks are definitely a good hedge, you’ll just want to hope that you dodge a lot of midrange and get lucky when you do face it (if that happens, I can absolutely still see red putting up results).

Wrap up

Of course, it’s also worth baring in mind that everything I’ve said here is slanted for how things are looking in Arena. Arena is still in beta testing and has a much smaller player base than paper Magic so it can’t be held as a perfect example of what is happening in the world of Standard. Perhaps Arena and Paper both have lessons to teach each other so whichever way you prefer to play Standard, I would still be keeping an eye on the midrange decks of the format.

If you want to see the decks I’ve mentioned and make some calls for yourself, please head over to http://www.twitch.tv/thatmrshy and check out the stream. Live shows are Mon, Weds and Fri at 8:30pm GMT, but of course, everything is available to watch back if you miss it. As Standard matures, I will be sure to explore every corner of the higher tiered decks to try to find out where I’d like to settle.