With Ixalan’s official release, there is a huge amount of excitement for it and with good reason. New sets are almost always highly anticipated. Playing with and against the same decks that have existed without much change for the last three months gets old. Coupled with spoiler season and all the hype that increases the excitement to play with new cards, rotation sometimes feels like it could not come sooner. This feeling is especially prominent in release cycles that rotate whole sets out. But strangely, for the first time since I’ve started playing again in 2013, I’m actually kind of sad that rotation is happening. Hour of Devastation Standard is incredible! There are a plethora of different archetypes you can play and all of them have a legitimate shot to win any given tournament. Your gauntlet has to contain more than two decks. You need to have tested against so many different cards and archetypes:
You should really have a game plan for all of these cards and know how to play against them, because odds are you’ll be seeing them over the course of a tournament.
For the last few years, Standard has gotten to a more or less “solved” state by the time a new set is coming up.
This is the sole reason why for almost every set release in the last few years I have looked forward to standard changing. Let’s look at the last few years’ standard formats and what the meta was like at the end of them:
BFZ-SOI-KLD-AMN: Aetherworks marvel featuring Ulamog, Zombies
BFZ-SOI-KLD-AER: 4 Colour Saheeli, Mardu Vehicles
BFZ-SOI-KLD: UW Flash, Aetherworks marvel feat. Emrakul
DTK-ORI-BFZ-SOI-EMN: Bant Coco, Emerge
DTK-ORI-BFZ-SOI: Bant Coco, GW Tokens
KTK-ORI-BFZ-OGW: 4 Colour Rally
KTK-ORI-BFZ: Dark Jeskai, Atarka Red, Abzan, Esper Dragons
Remember any of these cards?
Since the relatively diverse standard of Khans Block, Magic Origins, and Battle for Zendikar, standard has consistently had only a handful of decks that were clearly stronger than all the others. That’s not to say that there were no changes or new decks during these formats, but usually by the time a new set was due to release, Standard had more or less been “solved” for a relatively lengthy period with the one or two best decks floating to the top. There were definitely other decks that you could play, but if you were looking to maximise your win percentage, you’d be looking to play the best deck. One of the biggest reasons why this has been an issue in Standard as of late is because the best decks have been so much stronger than the next tier of decks. If you really wanted to beat them, you’d have to build in such a way that the deck would be losing so much percentage in other match ups. Unless you were playing against a specific match up 100% of the time, it would cost you too much against the rest of the field. For example, doing a drastic build like having 4 mainboard Hallowed Moonlight may improve the Collected Company match ups quite a bit, but would severely hurt you against other decks.
I believe that this happened for two reasons: answers haven’t been anywhere near good enough, and there have not been enough different ways to build effective decks. The former reason is just a recent trend in Magic design. Answer cards like Doom Blade have been deemed too “feel bad” to play against, so even straight up one for one cards that you’re usually trading even on mana to deploy have become less and less frequent. That’s a whole different article by itself. The latter reason seems to be because certain cards/strategies/archetypes are just much better than the alternatives. For example, in the Aether Revolt Standard (Battle for Zendikar block, Shadows Over Innistrad block and Kaladesh block), far and away the two strongest decks were 4 Colour Saheeli, and Mardu Vehicles.
If you didn’t want to play either of these decks, you had to have a very good reason not to, and usually there wasn’t one. The Saheeli deck was able to pressure too well: deal with the pressure and they hit you with the combo, play around the combo too much and the pressure crushes you. Mardu Vehicles was a low to the ground aggressive deck with diverse threats and good late game finishers. Mardu was able to establish a strong enough board early enough to race the Saheeli deck, and then be able to leave up Mana on the combo turns. All the other decks that were being attempted to be played at the time simply could not compete with these two decks. How could you construct a deck to deal with both an aggro deck with an insane curve, and a deck that pressures your life total and threatens an instant win combo? People tried, and couldn’t. Temur Tower shook things up for a few weeks, but as the Mardu players adapted to it and learnt the match up, it fell out of favour. By the end of the format, almost everything had been tried and tested and the duo of Mardu and Saheeli stood up to it all.
This has happened in basically every Standard format since the Khans of Tarkir block rotated out. What was different about the Standard of Hour of Devastation? Unlike the “best decks” of Standards past, the “best decks” by the end of the format (Ramunap Red and Temur Energy) could be beaten without having to design a deck completely tailor made to do so.
Zombies and GB had very favourable match ups against Ramunap Red while Control and Ramp decks had extremely good match ups against Temur Energy. Zombies and GB just innately have a good match up against Mono Red. You don’t have to do anything crazy like mainboard 4x Authority of the Consuls or crazy life gain effects. Control and Ramp innately have a good match up against Temur Energy. They don’t apply pressure fast enough so you can deploy your game plan, which goes much bigger than what they’re trying to do . You don’t have to go completely out of your way and play something like Solemnity to try and shut them off. So Standard became a format of levels. The level 1 deck was the best deck: Ramunap Red. If you wanted to beat them, you could choose a deck to. By playing something like Zombies, GB, or Temur Energy, you were playing a deck that beats the Level 1 deck, or a Level 2 deck. You could then try and play a deck that beats these decks by playing something that beats those. This third level included decks such as UW approach, God Pharoah’s Gift, and GW ramp. But if you go too far down the rabbit hole, you end up having a bad match up against Mono Red, and we go all the way back to level 1. When choosing a deck for a Standard tournament, you had to consider these levels.
Preparing for Nationals felt like preparing for a Modern tournament. The field was just so wide open, you had no clue what to expect. Of course, Ramunap Red and Temur energy would be present, but everyone knew that. How far would the rest of the field go to beat them, or to beat the decks that beat them? There were so many options. If we expected Mono red to be the most popular deck, Energy or Zombies were the obvious choices. In the end, we decided that Temur Energy would probably be the most represented deck. I went with UB. I usually gravitate towards control decks, and UB felt the best positioned. UR was just not an option in my mind, Bristling Hydra was basically unbeatable. UW was another interesting choice, but a lot of the Energy decks had adopted black, and Transgress the Mind and Lost Legacy were serious issues for that deck. UB was much better against these cards, and happened to have a somewhat reasonable match up against Mono red, unlike UR and UW. The only issue would be other decks that were also looking to go bigger than Temur Energy. Both UW, UR and GW ramp were very good against the level 2 decks like Temur Energy, GB builds and Zombies, and also happened to beat UB control, but I didn’t expect there to be too many of those. In the tournament I played against Temur Energy 3 times, 1 UR Control once, Mono Red once, and Mardu Vehicles once, with my losses coming from UR Control and Mardu Vehicles, a deck that had re-entered the meta not even a week prior, and something that we didn’t test against.
And then the format ended. With the meta still in flux. What was the best deck? Temur Energy and Ramunap Red seemed to be the best performing decks, but they were in no way dominating the meta. If you wanted to beat them, you absolutely could, you just had to be aware of the weaknesses of your deck. Additionally, developments in the meta kept occurring right to the very end. Mardu Vehicles had just re-entered the meta and was threatening Ramunap Red as the aggro deck of choice. There was a Mono White Eldrazi deck that made top 8 of Grand Prix DC a week prior to Nationals that people were still trying to decide if it was real or not. Control and ramp decks were being tweaked and retweaked, as were decks that were trying to leverage God Pharaoh’s Gift. Japanese Nationals showed a mardu midrange deck that eschewed the vehicles plan completely and tried to go toe-to-toe with Temur Energy in the midgame. Who knows what the meta would have looked like and what decks there would be if it had continued for 3 months? I personally am of the opinion that it would still not have settled anywhere. This has been one of the best standard formats in the last five years.
With the release of Ixalan, I can only hope that the new Standard format we find ourselves in is even a fraction as good as what the Standard of Hour of Devastation was.