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A Year of Standard by the Numbers

May 12, 2022
Frank Karsten

Although we still have many months of play with the current Standard format, Streets of New Capenna is the last Standard set release before the rotation. When Dominaria United releases later this year, the oldest four sets will rotate out of Standard, which will lead to massive metagame shifts.

In this article we'll review the format-defining cards that will rotate out of Standard, followed by a look at the deck-defining staples sticking around with a retrospective on what has changed in Standard from the release of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt until now.

The Most-Played Cards: Zendikar Rising to Adventures in the Forgotten Realms

When Dominaria United releases later this year, Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, Strixhaven: School of Mages, and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms will rotate out of Standard. To pinpoint the most significant cards from those sets, I ran the numbers. Based on all major Standard events held on MTG Melee from February 2021 until now, I determined the most-played cards across all main decks and sideboards, and I isolated the top seven still-legal new cards for every set. Let's check them out!

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Based on the Standard decklists in my data set, the essential Standard cards from Zendikar Rising are the Pathways and various white creatures. In fact, Brightclimb Pathway, Luminarch Aspirant, and Legion Angel are the most-played cards out of all four rotating sets overall, and together they nicely summarize what Standard has been like recently: A bunch of white aggro and midrange decks, often paired with black.

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Kaldheim also has five Pathways, which naturally see a lot of play. The set also introduced the snow lands to Standard, although they haven't seen as much play recently in large part due to the popularity of Reidane, God of the Worthy.

Yet the truly format-defining cards from Kaldheim are Goldspan Dragon, Doomskar, and Esika's Chariot. Goldspan Dragon is a centerpiece of Izzet Dragons, an excellent curve-topper in red midrange decks, and a mana engine in wacky Jeskai combo decks that aim to target their own Dragon repeatedly. Esika's Chariot provides massive battlefield presence for green aggro, midrange, or ramp decks in a way that is difficult to cleanly answer with a single removal spell. And Doomskar showcases how Kaldheim‘s foretell mechanic could yield a sweeper as early as turn three, which is awesome for Azorius Control players.

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Strixhaven: School of Mages was filled with sideboard staples. Cards like Go Blank and Test of Talents are frequently brought in to fight against control decks, especially ones that rely on graveyards or specific spells. Lessons like Environmental Sciences or Mascot Exhibition, which would often be grabbed by Eyetwitch or Professor of Symbology, further enlarged Strixhaven's impact on sideboards. But arguably the most format-defining cards from this set were Vanishing Verse and Expressive Iteration. These cheap spells have acted as foundational centerpieces of white-black and blue-red decks.

The final Strixhaven card I wanted to highlight is Elite Spellbinder. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's likeness is already the third three-mana white creature we've encountered in this article (after Skyclave Apparition and Reidane, God of the Worthy) which shows how heavily saturated that slot has been in Standard. Still, several disruptive and/or aggressive white three-drops will remain as alternatives after Dominaria United releases.

527545 527399 Deadly Dispute Portable Hole Ray of Enfeeblement 527540 Shambling Ghast

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms introduced five creature lands, including Hive of the Eye Tyrant and Cave of the Frost Dragon, that could mitigate the impact of mana flood in the late game. Other important main deck cards from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms include Lolth, Spider Queen, a powerful planeswalker for most black midrange or control decks, and the duo of Shambling Ghast and Deadly Dispute. This duo is often seen together in various sacrifice-themed shells.

The Most-Played Cards: Midnight Hunt to Streets of New Capenna

When Dominaria United releases later this year, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and Streets of New Capenna will remain legal in Standard. From these sets, several key cards have emerged.

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Based based on all major Standard events held on MTG Melee from February 2021 until now, the seven most-played Standard cards from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt are all nonbasic lands and interactive cards. To me, this exemplifies the current state of Standard: There's good mana, and there's good interaction. Nonbasic lands frequently put limits on what color combinations are viable, but currently we can easily splash multiple colors and run three-color decks without any problems.

In terms of interaction, The Meathook Massacre is one of the most format-defining cards in Standard right now. It stops early rushes by killing small creatures, and then it turns into a win condition by slowly draining out the opponent. Yet the power of The Meathook Massacre wasn't immediately obvious. In the first couple of weeks after Midnight Hunt's release, as seen in the World Championship metagame breakdown, Standard was largely dominated by Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-White Aggro, and Izzet Epiphany.

The Meathook Massacre

To be fair, the card pool was slightly different back then. The mono-color aggro decks leveraged Faceless Haven, which was banned on January 25, 2022. And Izzet Epiphany exploited Alrund's Epiphany and Divide by Zero, which were also banned on that day. In today's Standard, these archetypes are still around in different forms, but they are no longer as dominant as they once were.

The existence of Alrund's Epiphany back then explains why it took a while for The Meathook Massacre to catch on: Dedicated ramp or control decks could not go over the top of opponents who took multiple extra turns in the late game.

It also seemed like Wrenn and Seven might turn into the premier mythic rare from Midnight Hunt. A powerful planeswalker, it turned out the token was too easily answered by Brutal Cathar, Fading Hope, or Infernal Grasp, and the planeswalker was too easily discarded by Duress, exiled by Rite of Oblivion, or countered by Malevolent Hermit. All of these efficient answers stem from Midnight Hunt and currently see far more play than Wrenn and Seven.

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After the release of Innistrad: Crimson Vow, as exemplified by the Innistrad Championship metagame breakdown, the top decks in Standard were still Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-White Aggro, and Izzet Epiphany. Mono-White Aggro adopted Valorous Stance, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Hopeful Initiate, which allowed it to gain ground over Mono-Green Aggro. It has held the role of the premier aggro deck in the format ever since. Izzet Epiphany players were happy to gain Stormcarved Coast, Abrade, and Hullbreaker Horror.

Another important cluster of cards from Innistrad: Crimson Vow, even if they're not in the top seven most played, were the Blood-generating Vampires in Voldaren Epicure and Bloodtithe Harvester. They did not see much competitive play at first, but they would become more important when synergistic artifact sacrifice engines were introduced later in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.

Wedding Announcement

But let's stay around December of last year. Orzhov Midrange and Esper Control decks still struggled against Izzet Epiphany, but they gained traction in the metagame thanks to cards like Wedding Announcement, Shattered Sanctum, and Sorin the Mirthless. New dual lands provided fixing to all enemy color combinations, and the value-generating permanents yielded reliable streams of card advantage in the mid-game. Right now, in fact, Wedding Announcement is now the most prominent turn-three play in Standard. Back then, however, the trio of Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-White Aggro, and Izzet Epiphany continued to dominate the Standard metagame.

Then, shortly before the release of the next Standard set, Faceless Haven, Alrund's Epiphany, and Divide by Zero were banned. This was a massive upheaval. Aggressive white decks stuck around, either replacing Faceless Haven with Crawling Barrens or exploring splashes, but Izzet Epiphany had a more difficult time. Hullbreaker Horror or Lier, Disciple of the Drowned couldn't cleanly replace Alrund's Epiphany as the end-game plan, and this provided the opportunity for midrange, ramp, and control decks to shine.

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The set of most-played cards from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty almost looks like half an Esper Control deck. With the introduction of The Wandering Emperor, Rockoner Bankbuster, Farewell, Kaito Shizuki, and March of Otherwordly Light, Esper Control decks massively rose in popularity. They would typically have an Orzhov core, splashing blue for Kaito Shizuki and Malevolent Hermit, and some would exploit the fact that Farewell exiles every permanent type except for planeswalkers.

The Wandering Emperor

But most white decks benefited greatly from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. The Wandering Emperor slotted nicely into both Mono-White Aggro and Orzhov Midrange, and it prompted the emergence of Selesnya Tokens as a relatively new archetype. Standard players soon realized that white had it all: It had the best creatures, good interactive spells, and value permanents. Over the last few months, The Wandering Emperor has been the most-played card in Standard—aside from basic Plains.

The only colored non-white card in the top seven from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. It provides mana consistency and card advantage with each of its chapters, and splashing red in Orzhov decks became competitively viable. The Saga also found its way into Naya Runes, which emerged as a new archetype after Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty introduced Generous Visitor, Jukai Naturalist, and various other green-white enchantment-themed spells.

After Neon Dynasty's release, Orzhov Midrange (plus variants with a blue or red splash) were the driving force in Standard. For weeks, Orzhov Midrange was both the most-played and the best-performing archetype, even though it came in many varieties. There was no clear consensus on how to build it, and each decklist leaned into different sets of cards. That said, Naya Runes and Mono-White Aggro were not far behind in terms of popularity and performance.

Hinata, Dawn-Crowned

Other brand new options were explored as well. A prominent example was Jeskai Hinata, enabled by Neon Dynasty‘s Hinata, Dawn-Crowned. The dream with that deck, which has since fallen in popularity, was to cast a Magma Opus for just two mana by targeting six different permanents. Another Neon Dynasty archetype that took even longer to catch on was Rakdos Anvil. It would exploit Oni-Cult Anvil, Experimental Synthesizer, and various other red-black artifact-themed spells, and it turned out to be pretty powerful.

And I haven't even mentioned the legendary lands like Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire. They smoothed out your draws by providing a way to turn excess lands into useful effects. All in all, Neon Dynasty had a massive impact on Standard. In the month before the release of Streets of New Capenna, the top-tier Standard decks based on popularity and performance in major MTG Melee events were Orzhov Midrange, Esper Control, Mono-White Aggro, Naya Runes, and Selesnya Tokens.

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Streets of New Capenna was released two weeks ago, and it has shaken up Standard. The four most-played cards from the new set so far (Ob Nixilis, Tenacious Underdog, Strangle, and Ziatora's Proving Ground) are all non-white and indicate that the biggest benefactors are Rakdos Anvil and Jund Midrange.

Ob Nixilis, the Adversary

Ob Nixilis, the Adversary provides two planeswalkers for the price of one on turn three, which is something we haven't seen before. There are various spicy answers available (such as Shadows' Verdict; Burn Down the House; Orvar, the All-Form; Magic Missile; and Pithing Needle), but curving Oni-Cult Anvil into Ob Nixilis now looks to be one of the more powerful starts in Standard.

Raffine, Scheming Seer

Another early standout is Raffine, Scheming Seer, an early threat that lines up perfectly against the most-played interactive cards in the format. It's not easily swept by The Meathook Massacre thanks to its high toughness, it can't be exiled on turn four by The Wandering Emperor due to ward, and it can't be targeted by Vanishing Verse because it's multicolored.

To take maximum advantage of Raffine, you want to lead with a creature on turn two—the newly printed Tenacious Underdog is perfect, for example, as is Luminarch Aspirant—which means that many Esper Control players moved to Esper Midrange shells as a result. Plus, thanks to newly introduced lands like Raffine's Tower, you can now consistently cast a white, blue, and black multicolored spell on turn three.

Elspeth Resplendent

Beyond these cards, Elspeth Resplendent has also seen a fair amount of play already, and there are various build-arounds that players have already been toying around with in competitive events. Some of my favorites include Giada, Font of Hope; Titan of Industry; Brokers Ascendancy; and Arcane Bombardment. With another week to evolve the format, I'm excited to see what Standard will look like at the upcoming New Capenna Championship!

Conclusion

Over the past few months, the defining cards in Standard have been The Wandering Emperor, Wedding Announcement, and The Meathook Massacre, but Streets of New Capenna is shaking things up with Ob Nixilis, the Adversary and various other upgrades.

When Dominaria United releases later this year, the oldest four sets will rotate out of Standard and I anticipate that the most important losses will turn out to be the ten Pathway lands.

A few specific archetypes will disappear. For example, I don't see Izzet/Jeskai Dragons without Expressive Iteration and Goldspan Dragon. And Naya Runes without the Runes will have to adopt a new name, even if an enchantment-based aggro deck that runs Michiko's Reign of Truth and Weaver of Harmony remains.

Many of the top-tier decks in Standard right now are collections of good midrange cards. Luminarch Aspirant, Legion Angel, and Skyclave Apparition, for example, are all excellent, and their loss will be felt, but none of them are giving their name to an archetype, and they're all replaceable. The same goes for Vanishing Verse; Lolth, Spider Queen; and many of the other rotating cards. This means that if you enjoy playing a certain style of deck right now, then that will likely still be competitively available after the rotation, albeit in slightly different form.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rotation is still many months away. In the more immediate future, we'll soon have the New Capenna Championship, where Standard and Historic will be on display at the highest level. Watch the best in the game battle it out live, May 20–22!

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