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Metagame Mentor: From Black Lotus in 1994 to Aftermath Analyst in 2024

March 21, 2024
Frank Karsten

Hello and welcome back to Metagame Mentor, your weekly guide to the top decks and latest Constructed developments on the path to the Pro Tour. Over the past few weeks, Standard play has been booming: it's currently Magic's most-played format, with numerous players participating in Regional Championship Qualifiers, Store Championships, and Standard Showdown tournaments. In this article, I'll provide a metagame snapshot, detailing the various flavors of Aftermath Analyst decks that have started to dominate recent RCQs.

Afterwards, in a new weekly addition to my column, I'll examine a deck from a World Championship by providing historical context, explaining its underlying deck building principles, and teaching useful lessons. This week will focus on the deck that won the 1994 World Championship, and you'll find a memorable deck from 1995 next week, 1996 the week after, and so on until we reach the present day—the 30th Magic World Championship, which will be held in October of this year. I'm eagerly looking forward to that event in Las Vegas and excited to start this journey through the past.

The Standard Metagame in March 2024

Standardis a rotating 60-card format that currently allows expansion sets fromInnistrad: Midnight Huntforward. To grasp the latest metagame developments, I analyzed over 1,200 successful decklists from competitive events held from March 1 through March 18. Specifically, I used all Standard tournaments on Magic Online, all Standard tournaments on Melee, and a selection of otherwise published decklists from in-store events. Most of my data stems from Magic Online and from tabletop RCQs, including the ones at SCG CON Philadelphia, Hunter Burton Memorial, Thailand Open, MINT Yokohama, Playtime Merate, Rolling Dice, Batoloco Takadanobaba, Atlantis Hobby, Hareruya Fukuoka, and Hareruya Mito.

To each Standard decklist, I assigned an archetype label and awarded a number of points equal to its rectified number of net wins (i.e., its number of match wins minus losses if positive and zero otherwise). Each archetype's share of total rectified net wins can be interpreted as its share of the winner's metagame. In the following table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist close to the aggregate of that archetype.

Archetype Winner's Metagame Share
1. Esper Midrange 13.1%
2. Domain Ramp 11.6%
3. Golgari Midrange ↑↑ 11.2%
4. Boros Convoke ↓↓ 9.3%
5. Dimir Midrange ↑↑ 8.7%
6. Azorius Control 8.4%
7. Temur Analyst ↑↑ 6.8%
8. Mono-Red Aggro 5.6%
9. Bant Toxic 3.7%
10. Gruul Aggro 2.8%
11. Rakdos Midrange 2.3%
12. Sultai Analyst ↑↑ 1.6%
13. Dimir Control 1.3%
14. Azorius Mentor 1.2%
15. Dimir Reanimator 1.1%
16. Orzhov Midrange 1.1%
17. Four-Color Legends 0.8%
18. Azorius Soldiers 0.7%
19. Other 8.5%

The "Other" category included such deck archetypes as Azorius Artifacts, Mono-Red Prowess, Boros Pia, Golgari Mill, Dimir Hidetsugu and Kairi, Esper Legends, Azorius Midrange, Esper Control, Rakdos Sacrifice, Mono-White Midrange, Five-Color Analyst, Invasion of Alara, Rakdos Control, Simic Cookies, Gruul Counters, Sultai Reanimator, and more.

While Esper Midrange, Domain Ramp, Boros Convoke, and Azorius Control have remained top-tier strategies, Standard is wide open at the moment, with numerous twists and turns. Several weeks ago, the story from MagicCon: Chicago was that Rei Zhang won the Standard $75K Open with a 68-card Sultai brew featuring Slogurk, the Overslime; Nissa, Resurgent Animist; and Aftermath Analyst. Since then, this strategy has soared in popularity, and most of the recent Standard innovation has revolved around its further development.

Starting from that winning Sultai brew, players tweaked the number of cards, branched out to different colors, and explored new win conditions. In all cases, the key engine underlying all versions remains Aftermath Analyst, which is now included in approximately 8-9% of Standard decks. Aftermath Analyst can return the fetch lands from Streets of New Capenna; is an Elf for Nissa, Resurgent Animist; and will ramp you towards enormous amounts of mana quickly. In recognition of this pivotal card, I have labeled all of these decks as "Analyst" decks in the breakdown. Let's take a closer look at three recently successful, new takes on Aftermath Analyst.

Is 80 is the New 68?

Many Sultai Analyst players stuck with Rei Zhang's original 68-card version, but others tweaked the number of cards. The reason for running 68 is that you need a critical mass of New Capenna fetch lands to combo off, but you also need enough fetchable basic lands to play a normal game, and 68 allows you to reach certain desired ratios. Nevertheless, it's not obvious that 68 is the optimal number. Some players shaved down to 60 or 63 cards, whereas others increased the count to 69 or even 80 cards. Even without Yorion, Sky Nomad in the format, Hitachi Kyle earned qualification rights in Japan with the 80-card list shown above.

With a higher card count, Kyle's list manages to effectively smash Sultai Reanimator and Sultai Analyst together. Additional self-mill effects such as Picklock Prankster and Founding the Third Path fill the graveyard, enabling Squirming Emergence to return Aftermath Analyst for a mana boost or Atraxa, Grand Unifier to win the game. The added focus on self-mill effects, which necessitated the removal of Memory Deluge, also unlocks Wail of the Forgotten as a powerful interactive effect.

Meanwhile, graveyard hate is becoming more prominent in today's Standard metagame. Kyle's sideboard already features a single Tranquill Frillback, and Golgari Midrange with multiple copies of Tranquil Frillback main deck is making a major comeback. Moreover, the number of Unlicensed Hearse in sideboards has been ticking up, which makes a lot of sense. Graveyard hate is one of the best ways to answer Aftermath Analyst decks, and everyone can use Unlicensed Hearse. Reanimation strategies are also particularly vulnerable to it, which may be bad news for this marriage between Sultai Reanimator and Sultai Analyst. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating new direction.

Temur Analyst is Hot

On March 10, former MPL member Chris Botelho posted that he had won an RCQ with "recless Temur Rec", referring to the play style of the Wilderness Reclamation decks of old. Slightly earlier, Reddit user just_a_normal_shark posted that they had reached 7 wins in the MTG Arena metagame challenge with a similar brew. When it's firing on all cylinders, this Temur Analyst deck is incredible. It was quickly adopted on Magic Online, took down at least one more RCQ last weekend, and it's the latest hotness taking Standard by storm.

Temur Analyst is capable of generating an enormous amount of mana. By taking New Capenna fetch lands from your graveyard, an Aftermath Analyst activation or a Worldsoul's Rage for X=2 will allow you to ramp ahead on turn four, enabling you to slam Virtue of Strength on turn five. You're even gaining life in the process to stave off non-poison aggro decks (Bant Toxic may be a more difficult matchup).

After tripling your mana production while controlling seven or more lands, what are you going to do? Well, how about Worldsoul's Rage for X=20? After fetching all of your basic lands, which is easy to do, you can even cast it for X=49! This deck will basically Fireball the opponent for the win, and you can reliably find the winning X-spell because this is a consistent 60-card deck featuring Memory Deluge, Fallaji Archaeologist, and Ill-Timed Explosion as card selection.

The game plan is single-minded, making it somewhat vulnerable to The Stone Brain or Deadly Cover-Up, but the sideboard unlocks the alternative plan of infinitely looping Shigeki, Jukai Visionary; Colossal Skyturtle; and Doppelgang. In the end, regardless of which X-spell you choose, this deck can set the battlefield or your opponent ablaze, and it's really impressive to see in action.

Five-Color Analyst is Succeeding

On March 17, coming off a 14th place at Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, Jason Ye posted that they had made the finals of an RCQ with "5c Analyst" (I often ignore Atraxa, Grand Unifier when choosing archetype colors in my breakdown, but this deck can ramp into anything).

With access to all colors, you could view this deck as a variation on Sultai Analyst that is splashing Worldsoul's Rage instead of looping Slogurk, the Overslime. Alternatively, you could view it as a Temur Analyst deck that splashes for black sweepers and removal spells. Regardless of your perspective, it combines the best ramp payoffs and support spells across the board, and all the different fetch lands increase the likelihood that the mana will work out.

In conclusion, there are a lot of different ways to build around Aftermath Analyst in Standard. You can add a reanimation theme with Squirming Emergence. You can go for an enormous, game-winning Worldsoul's Rage. You can play 60 cards, 80 cards, three colors, five colors, or any number in between. With so many options, the optimal build for the current metagame probably hasn't even been found yet. Standard is a brewer's paradise right now, and Outlaws of Thunder Junction previews begin next week.

Nearly 30 Years Ago: Magic's First World Championship

In a little over 30 weeks, Magic World Championship 30 will take place at MagicCon: Las Vegas. The World Championship has always been the crown jewel of Magic organized play, and the 30th edition is one to celebrate. As we count down the weeks until the World Championship trophy will be handed out on October 27, 2024, we're going to take a year-by-year stroll down memory lane.

Each week at the end of my column on Thursday, I will highlight an outstanding deck from a past World Championship, explaining its game plan, adding historical metagame context, and using it to teach general deck building lessons. Then on Friday, my column mate Corbin Hosler will share the most memorable moments and player stories from that event, bringing the premier tournament experience and the best competitors from the game's history to life.

Starting today, let's go back in time to the very first Magic World Championship in 1994. On August 19–21, one year after the commercial release of the game, a crowd of 512 players gathered at Gen Con to compete for the right to be called the first-ever Magic World Champion. The event was single-elimination, and it was the only World Championship tournament in the game's history that was open to anyone who registered.

Magic tournaments were different back then. While nowadays we have a plethora of Constructed formats, back then there was just…Magic. Only the original Alpha/Beta/Unlimited series, Revised Edition, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends had been released, so there was no need for different official formats. Earlier in 1994, the Duelist's Convocation (later the DCI) had formed and formalized the rules, including familiar elements such as the 60-card minimum with a 15-card sideboard, the 4-card limit, and a list of banned or restricted cards. The most powerful cards were restricted to one copy per deck, while the likes of Shahrazad, Contract from Below, and card sleeves were banned. The first World Championship was basically an unsleeved Vintage tournament where matches could be decided by Chaos Orb flips.

It was truly different times.

Information in 1994 was typically disseminated via magazines and newsletters, so the second issue of The Duelist was "pleased to announce the first annual World Open." After America's Zak Dolan read about the event, he put additional effort in perfecting his deck, determined that nothing would stop him from clinching the trophy. His opponent in the finals, France's Bertrand Lestree, managed to take the first game with the iconic Channel-Fireball combo, but Zak Dolan used Library of Alexandria to find the right answers in the final two games, emerging victorious as the first Magic World Champion.

Zac Dolan (right), the first Magic World Champion

After his victory, Zak Dolan wrote an article for the third issue of Duelist magazine, entitled "On the Road to the World Title." In this article, he discussed his introductions to the game and the deck construction principles that guided him to victory. Many of his lessons remain relevant today, so let's review them.

  1. Speed: Zak used the term speed to describe ways to "draw more cards, get more mana, or take extra turns." Increasing your own speed and decreasing the opponent's was a core principle to his card selection, steering him towards the inclusion of Library of Alexandria and Sol Ring. These restricted cards were not used by his finals opponent Bertrand Lestree or by fellow Worlds '94 competitor Mark Rosewater, but Zak had Strip Mine and Disenchant to destroy opposing ones if needed. Moreover, Zak increased his deck's speed by exploiting the entire Power 9: Mox Emerald, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl, Mox Ruby, Mox Sapphire, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister, and Black Lotus, all of which were restricted as well. In early Magic, the lands and noncreature spells were far better than creatures, but early ideas of mana advantage and card advantage were already evident in Zak's card choices.
  2. Killer combinations: "The second principle I used in deck design was killer combinations," Zak wrote. For example, his deck could use Icy Manipulator to tap Howling Mine or Winter Orb, making their effects one-sided. Siren's Call would destroy anything that was locked down by Stasis. And after sideboard, creatures stolen by Old Man of the Sea could be fed to Diamond Valley. These synergies wouldn't win the game immediately, but small edges would add up over time. When the whole is greater than the sum of its cards, you obtain a successful Magic deck.
  3. Flexibility: "I liked playing with only one of each non-land card because it gave my deck variety," Zak wrote. "If the only cards in your deck are Plague Rats, Swamps, and Dark Rituals, it's easy to find a way to beat it. If you have mostly unique cards, however, it can be a lot harder." Whereas many control players in the tournament used more streamlined decks with four copies of Wrath of God or Mana Drain, Zak gained an advantage by running singleton copies of each. This kept his opponent guessing, made it more difficult to sideboard against him, and reduced the risk of drawing too many cards with narrow applications. Meanwhile, Zak's interactive deck supported long games, so one-of haymakers that he could draw eventually would make a big difference. As a fellow singleton afficionado, I concur with his reasoning.
  4. Locks: "When you have achieved a lock, you are in complete control of the game," Zak explained. "No matter what card your opponent draws, no matter what deck she is playing, she can't do anything." His deck could establish such a lock with Stasis and Kismet, ensuring that the opponent could no longer untap or use freshly played cards. Serra Angel—one of the best creatures available at the time—could then soar in for the win, as vigilance made her Stasis-proof. Alternatively, Time Elemental could continually bounce Stasis to keep the lock going. While more recent Constructed formats generally don't involve mana denial cards as potent as Stasis anymore, proactively building towards a dominant game state remains a formidable guiding principle for control or ramp decks.
  5. The sideboard: According to Zak, "tournament games are won and lost with sideboards." Like many players, Zak understood that you play more games post-board than pre-board and that the sideboard is used to defend against your opponent's deck. But he was ahead of his time by recognizing that you shouldn't just tune your deck to beat their Game 1 configuration—rather, it's about their configuration for Game 2 and 3. Zak figured out that many sideboards at the time were filled with color hosers like Gloom or Tsunami, so he was one step ahead by including Sleight of Mind and Magical Hack in his sideboard, allowing him to defeat opposing sideboard cards with his own answers. This concept remains essential in high-level competitive Magic today.
  6. Mana: Zak's first tournaments in 1994 reinforced his belief that "decks work better when you have the correct mana for your spells." Although the math on mana bases has developed further since then, Zak's numbers-based approach was visionary. His article recommends upward of 23 mana sources in total, with a minimum of 9 sources (lands/Moxes/Birds) for each color; his World Championship deck contains 10 sources for each. Based on an improved understanding of the underlying probabilities and risks, I would now recommend 13 sources of each color and a higher land count, especially since mana denial cards were popular at the time. For example, I would cut Ley Druid, Recall, Vesuvan Doppelganger, and Siren's Call for additional Plains or Islands if I were to reconstruct Zak's deck. But his general insight was spot-on: a solid mana base is the foundation of a winning tournament deck.

"If you keep in mind the principles of speed, killer combinations, flexibility, and locks, you should do well," Zak concluded. "The best decks will operate predictably for you, while thwarting your opponent's deck and keeping the competition guessing."

All in all, the 1994 World Championship was a huge success for Magic, and many of the champion's words of wisdom still hold up today. While this year's World Championship will certainly be different than the original—for one, it's an invite-only tournament—it will surely be just as awesome. As we count down to the prestigious Magic World Championship 30 on October 25–27, 2024, check back each week for historical deck analysis in Metagame Mentor and memorable player stories in The Week That Was. I already can't wait to study the 1995 World Championship next week!

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