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Metagame Mentor: Explorer and Standard at Magic World Championship XXVIII

October 20, 2022
Frank Kartsen

Hello and welcome back to Metagame Mentor, the weekly column in which I highlight the decks to beat and the latest Constructed developments in competitive Magic. Soon, the most exciting event of the year, the culmination of Magic premier play, is coming up: the World Championship! Featuring Standard and Explorer as the Constructed formats, the full metagame breakdown will be out at 9 a.m. PT on Thursday October 27, and live coverage will begin at 9 a.m. PT on Friday October 28.

Right now, however, the competitors are trying their hardest to break these formats and pin down their deck choices. There's a lot on the line, including the first-place prize of $100,000 and the opportunity to have your likeness feature on a Magic card like Fervent Champion or Elite Spellbinder.

Fervent Champion 513494

To put you in the competitors' shoes, today I have an introductory primer to tell you all you need to know about Standard and Explorer.

Last Weekend's Biggest Events

But first, as always in this article series, I will start by summarizing last weekend's biggest events across all formats.

The Pioneer Grand Open Qualifier in Warsaw, which awarded 32 slots for the Regional Championship in March 2023, was dominated by Green Devotion. It was the most-played archetype in the field, put three players in to the Top 8, and claimed the trophy in the hands of Andrea Piemonti. In the finals, Piemonti defeated Michael Kelly, playing Enigmatic Incarnation. Kelly may have had one-mana Leyline Bindings, but they could not prevent Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx from generating game-winning amounts of mana.

In the Standard Qualifier Weekend on MTG Arena, several big names made deep runs on Day 2, including Czech superstar Ondřej Stráský. Seven wins would have guaranteed an Arena Championship 2 and Pro Tour qualification, but six wins was already good enough for an at-large leaderboard slot at Arena Championship 1. There's no guarantee this will be the case for Arena Championship 2 as well, but one thing is clear: Stráský has not retired yet.

Explorer Primer: 7 Decks to Beat

The World Championship features six rounds of Explorer on Saturday October 29. Explorer, introduced in April 2022, is a true-to-paper format that features all Pioneer-legal cards on MTG Arena. Over time, all the Pioneer cards that matter will be added to MTG Arena, but we're not there yet.

Pioneer, created in 2019, is a non-rotating 60-card format that allows expansion sets and core sets from Return to Ravnica forward, and the most notable cards on its ban list are the fetch lands. It is the format for the upcoming Regional Championships and first Pro Tour. For an in-depth introduction to the Pioneer metagame in October, I refer you to my article from two weeks ago. The biggest Pioneer metagame developments since then are a downtick in Rakdos Midrange and Azorius Control; an uptick in Mono-White Humans and Izzet Phoenix; and the emergence of Gruul Stompy.

Yet the Pioneer metagame differs from the Explorer metagame. There are several important Pioneer cards that are not available on MTG Arena, such as Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; Brave the Elements; Treasure Cruise; Spell Queller; Mutavault; and Hidden Strings. As a result, decks like Green Devotion, Mono-White Humans, Izzet Phoenix, Bant Spirits, Gruul Stompy, or Lotus Field can't really exist in Explorer, at least not their typical Pioneer forms.

Given the dominance of Green Devotion in last weekend's Grand Open Qualifier in Warsaw, I would argue that the lack of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx (plus Oath of Nissa and The Chain Veil) on MTG Arena represents the biggest divergence. Although Green Devotion is not unplayable in Explorer, it misses multiple key cards and it's unclear how to build it as a result. Perhaps innovative World Championship competitors will show us the right way and crush the tournament, but I've left this number one Pioneer archetype out of my Explorer primer for now.

Overall, there is very little data or tournament decklists available in the Explorer format. Instead, I drew from my own experiences, on what other content creators are talking about, and on the set of top Pioneer decks that don't miss key cards on MTG Arena. This resulted in seven archetypes that, to the best of my knowledge, represent the top tier of the Explorer metagame on the MTG Arena ladder right now. All seven will surely be on the minds of the Magic World Championship XXVIII competitors, either as a potential deck to play or as a deck to beat. Let's take a closer look.

In Pioneer, there are two main pillars: Green Devotion and Rakdos Midrange. In Explorer, there's arguably only one, as the metagame largely revolves around Rakdos Midrange. It is heavily played and filled with some of the best and most efficient creatures, value-generating permanents, and interactive spells in the format. Rakdos Midrange is the premier midrange deck in Explorer, and it has game against everything. The recent additions of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse and Liliana of the Veil from Dominaria United have only improved it further.

The decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Rakdos Midrange deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, with all cards not legal in Explorer replaced by reasonable alternatives. Specifically, I changed 3 Dreadbore into 1 Heartless Act, 1 Bedevil, 1 Tenacious Underdog; I changed 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth into 1 Takenuma, Abandoned Mire; and I swapped 2 Rending Volley in the sideboard for 2 Leyline of the Void.

Abzan Greasefang is the premier combo deck in both Pioneer and Explorer. The plan is to put Parhelion II into the graveyard on turn two and to crew it with Greasefang, Okiba Boss on turn three. Abzan Greasefang is the main reason why players have Leyline of the Void in their sideboard, and it's arguably better-positioned in Explorer than in Pioneer. That's because the relative lack of Mono-Green Devotion means that there are fewer Karn, the Great Creator to stop your vehicles from being crewed.

The decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Abzan Greasefang deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, with all cards not legal in Explorer replaced by reasonable alternatives. Specifically, I changed 4 Satyr Wayfinder into 2 Corpse Churn, 1 extra Witherbloom Command; and 1 extra Stitcher's Supplier; I changed 2 Eldritch Evolution into 2 additional copies of Liliana of the Veil; and I swapped 2 Abrupt Decay in the sideboard for 2 Assassin's Trophy.

Mono-Blue Spirits is the premier tribal tempo deck in Explorer. Featuring cheap creatures, mana-efficient interaction, and Curious Obsession to keep going, it has a powerful game plan. One draw to the deck is that you're not missing any relevant Pioneer-legal cards on MTG Arena.

Indeed, the decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Mono-Blue Spirits deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, which is fully legal in Explorer. You may also see versions with more copies of Slip Out the Back or Combat Research instead of Brazen Borrower in the maindeck. Likewise, Cerulean Drake and Aether Gust are popular sideboard inclusions as well. But regardless of the specific card choices, one thing is clear: every Explorer player dreads the turn-two Curious Obsession with Geistlight Snare backup.

If I were expecting a field full of Rakdos Midrange, then I would be looking to go over the top with a card type that black-red is traditionally weak to: enchantments. I would dream of casting Leyline Binding on turn two or turn three, followed by Enigmatic Incarnation for Titan of Industry on turn four. Alternatively, using Fires of Invention to cast multiple free spells on turn five, including the companion Yorion, Sky Nomad, should overpower any midrange opponent. Using Zur, Eternal Schemer to turn Leyline Binding into a 6/6 is pretty neat as well.

Since the archetype relies heavily on Leyline Binding from Dominaria United, it's still relatively young, and there is no consensus yet on the optimal collection of silver bullets or the mana base. The decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Enigmatic Incarnation deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, with all cards not legal in Explorer replaced by reasonable alternatives. Specifically, I changed Nylea's Presence into Urban Utopia, I changed Chained to the Rocks into Baffling End; I changed Mana Confluence into Blood Crypt; I changed Dragonlord Atarka into Agent of Treachery; and I swapped Rending Volley in the sideboard for Fry.

Mono-Red Aggro is the premier aggro deck in Explorer. Many different builds are possible: You could craft around Obosh, the Preypiercer; Skewer the Critics; Embercleave; and various other pivotal cards. All would result in a different decklist. Yet the common theme is to combine burn spells and hasty creatures to take your opponent down to zero life as quickly as possible.

The decklist shown is based on the one that brought me success in Day 1 of the Explorer Qualifier Weekend several months ago, with several updates. For example, I revived Fanatical Firebrand after Elvish Mystic and Mausoleum Wanderer were introduced in Explorer Anthology 1, and I'm currently trying out Phoenix Chick. While burn-heavy builds using Eidolon of the Great Revel and Monastery Swiftspear are currently the top approach in Pioneer, these cards are not legal in Explorer, and I believe an Embercleave build is the superior way to go.

My inclusion of Reckless Rage and creatures that can survive it is atypical, but I believe Reckless Rage is criminally underplayed. It deals with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet; Greasefang, Okiba Boss; Esika's Chariot; Supreme Phantom; Zur, Eternal Schemer; and Torbran, Thane of Red Fell for a single red mana at instant speed, and it's the only red card in the format that does this at no additional cost. If a World Championship competitor would ask me for a mono-red list, then I would suggest my list as a starting point. The best way to beat Rakdos Midrange for red aggro players is to believe in the 'Cleave.

Spot removal, counterspells, card draw, sweepers, planeswalkers—Azorius Control has all the tools a control player might want, and it's the premier control deck in Explorer. While normally control decks are great against midrange decks, Rakdos Midrange has a surprisingly strong matchup against Azorius Control due to its efficient discard spells, card advantage, and planeswalkers. Yet if you manage to correctly predict the metagame, which is easier to do in a 32-player field where various players are specialized in a preferred playing style, then you can fine-tune your control deck to have the perfect set of answers for the field. That's not easy, but it could pay off.

The decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Azorius Control deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, with cards not legal in Explorer replaced by reasonable alternatives. Specifically, I changed 2 Detention Sphere into 1 Settle the Wreckage and 1 Fateful Absence, and I swapped 2 Elspeth, Sun's Champion in the sideboard for 1 Hullbreaker Horror and 1 Dream Trawler. Versions with Lotus Field alongside Strict Proctor exist as well, but they are not as popular.

The final Explorer deck to highlight is Rakdos Sacrifice. Witch's Oven, Cauldron Familiar, and Mayhem Devil has been a popular combination in various formats for years, and Explorer is no different. The decklist shown is equal to the aggregate Rakdos Sacrifice deck in Pioneer over the past two weeks of competition, with a singleton Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth replaced by a Swamp.

I should note, however, that Oni-Cult Anvil versions are better and more popular in Explorer than in Pioneer. Since Green Devotion is not as big of a factor, there are fewer Karn, the Great Creator around to stop activated abilities on artifacts. Accordingly, Rakdos Sacrifice lists with Oni-Cult Anvil and Voldaren Epicure, often supported by Priest of Forgotten Gods and Braids, Arisen Nightmare, have less to worry about in Explorer.

In conclusion, Explorer bears many similarities to Pioneer, but the metagame is vastly different, as several top-tier Pioneer decks are not available in Explorer. The seven archetypes I highlighted give a good idea of what to expect, but many other archetypes are competitively viable as well. The challenge for the World Championship competitors is to predict and attack the Explorer metagame when there's very little tournament data available beforehand. I am excited to see what they come up with.

Standard Primer: 7 Decks to Beat

The World Championship features five rounds of Standard, starting right after the conclusion of the Draft, on Friday October 28. The Top 4 double-elimination playoff on Sunday October 30 is all Standard as well.

Standard, introduced in 1995 as "Type II", is a rotating 60-card format that currently features expansion sets from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt forward. It rotates every fall, most recently with the release of Dominaria United. Although the ban list was empty for a full month after the rotation, The Meathook Massacre was banned one week ago.

In last week's Metagame Mentor article, I analyzed the impact of the ban and gave my first impressions. To quote myself: "I believe that the ban of The Meathook Massacre is not earth-shattering. It won't change that much. I'd anticipate that black midrange decks will remain dominant in post-ban Standard. Out of the black midrange decks, I expect that Esper will take the role as the Deck To Beat, for two reasons. First, Esper players ran the lowest main deck number of The Meathook Massacre on average, so they will miss it the least. Second, Wedding Announcement gets stronger when opponents no longer have The Meathook Massacre to conveniently answer multiple 1/1 tokens."

The data from last weekend's Standard events confirm my expectations. Based on the decklists from the Saturday Challenge and Sunday Challenge on Magic Online, The Pizza Box Open on MTG Melee, and most important of all, Day 2 of the Qualifier Weekend on MTG Arena, Esper Midrange had the highest record-weighted metagame share overall.

This is the definitive Deck To Beat in Standard right now. The card quality is off the charts across the mana curve: Dennick, Pious Apprentice or Tenacious Underdog on turn two; Wedding Announcement or Raffine, Scheming Seer on turn three; and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse or The Wandering Emperor on turn four. There's even a pair of Plaza of Heroes to gain free utility in the mana base. Sometimes you'll curve out and go aggressive; sometimes you'll use a bunch of interaction and take a control role. Esper Midrange is capable of doing both, and The Meathook Massacre was never necessary.

Over half of the decklists that scored four or more wins in Day 2 of last weekend's Arena Qualifier were Esper Midrange, including Ondřej Stráský's 6-2 decklist shown above. His roommate Ivan Floch went 4-2 with a nearly identical decklist, only differing in the numbers of Kaito Shizuki and Negate between main deck and sideboard.

Reaching Day 2 in a Qualifier Weekend is already a feat, as it requires a 7-1 or better match record on Day 1. And in my experience, the level of competition in Day 2 is akin to a Pro Tour Day 2, so starting 4-1 or better is just as impressive. If the raw results were not evidence enough, then pay attention to the names: Stráský and Floch are members of the Czech Magic House who have broken numerous Constructed formats in the past and who have an abundance of premier event trophies at home. When they find competitive success with almost the same deck in a fresh format, then everyone should pay attention. Especially the World Championship competitors.

Based on the results of the Qualifier Weekend, I'd say that Standard players have a choice: Either play Esper Midrange or find a way to beat it (or at least go 50-50 against it). Ignoring it is not a realistic option. That is the main message of this Standard primer in a nutshell.

Now, is it possible to beat Esper Midrange? Generally, there are two approaches: "going under" or "going over". I believe that "going under" will be difficult. Blazingly fast red aggro deck may have gotten better as a result of The Meathook Massacre ban, but Esper Midrange still has too many high-toughness blockers, too much efficient removal, and too much life gain.

Yet it may be possible to "go over" Esper Midrange with a finely tuned ramp, control, engine, or tempo deck. To do so, you need to keep up in the mid-game and then dwarf Esper Midrange with heavy-hitting top-end cards in the late game. You'll need to do a lot of focused testing to arrive at a proper build, but at least it's clear where to point your arrows. Perhaps the most innovative and dedicated World Championship competitors will show how to hit the mark.

Before I get to such options, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the alternative black midrange decks. They were slightly less prominent than Esper last weekend, but they are strategically similar, will match up close to even, and shouldn't be discounted.

The second-most popular color combination in Standard, based on last weekend's events, was Jund. It comprised nearly one-third of the record-weighted metagame, which is not far behind Esper, although it comes in both midrange and reanimator variations. On the pure midrange front, there are black-heavy versions with Invoke Despair that merely splash red and green, and there are non-Invoke versions with cards like Workshop Warchief and Riveteers Charm. The latter approach was more popular in the non-Arena events, but I highlighted an Invoke Despair decklist because two players, Chase and Dispel, used it to score six wins in Day 2 of the Qualifier Weekend.

A big draw towards the color combination is Unleash the Inferno. Burning Sheoldred, the Apocalypse while destroying Reckoner Bankbuster is pretty sweet, although that's more for the mirror match—most Esper decks don't run the vehicle because their three-drops don't crew it. Against Esper, burning a smaller creature or planeswalker while destroying Wedding Announcement is a great exchange. This will come up more frequently in the post-ban metagame where many Mono-Black Midrange players have moved towards Esper. In any case, one-upping your opponent with a two-for-one is a good way to get ahead in a midrange mirror.

I haven't yet decided whether I should count graveyard-based decks with Titan of Industry, The Cruelty of Gix, and Soul of Windgrace as Jund Midrange variations or whether I should label them separately as Jund Reanimator. The dividing line may be thin. Regardless, Taka scored four wins in Day 2 of the Qualifier weekend with four copies of Titan of Industry. Between mana ramp and The Cruelty of Gix, they can come down as early as turn four, at which point they will overpower any opposing midrange player. It's a great way to "go over the top," but since it relies on synergy, it's more vulnerable to disruption.

Jund Reanimator, especially if you believe that believe that Fable of the Mirror-Breaker is better than Raffine, Scheming Seer and Wedding Announcement combined, may turn out to be a good choice in Standard, depending on how the metagame shakes out.

The third-most popular color combination in Standard, based on last weekend's events, was Grixis. It's much less prominent than Esper or Jund, but OniB still managed to score five wins on Day 2 in the Qualifier Weekend with the list shown above. There are Rakdos Midrange decks as well, but thanks to the cycling tri-lands, the addition of a third color is relatively painless. Also, the additional interactive options in the third colors made it easier to adapt to the loss of The Meathook Massacre.

A big draw towards Grixis is Corpse Appraiser. Exiling Tenacious Underdog or Dennick, Pious Apprentice from the opponent's graveyard while getting ahead on cards is a sweet proposition in a midrange mirror.

All in all, the various black midrange decks comprised well over two-thirds of the record-weighted metagame in last weekend's Standard events. The next two non-black archetypes, according to that breakdown, are Domain Control and Mono-Blue Tempo. After a bit of a gap, Boros Reanimator and Five-Color Humans had decent results as well. I'll briefly highlight all these non-black archetypes, as they exemplify the various approaches that players might consider to beat Esper Midrange and the like.

Domain Control aims to ramp into The Kami War and leverages its raw power to go over the top of the black midrange decks. The five-color mana base also supports a package of powerful domain spells: Herd Migration, Leyline Binding, and Drag to the Bottom. This all comes at the cost of having to run loads of tapped lands, but most midrange decks are not fast enough to punish that. In Day 2 of Qualifier Weekend, AFKGOLDBOTELITE took this list to four wins.

Mono-Blue Tempo contains an enormous amount of instant and sorcery spells to transform Delver of Secrets, boost Haughty Djinn, and reduce Tolarian Terror's cost. Many of these spells (such as Fading Hope, Slip Out the Back, or Spell Pierce) provide mana-efficient ways to net a temporary battlefield advantage. This allows you to sidestep what your opponent is doing, while your undercosted creatures soar in for the win. Breckoroni took this list to a Top 4 in a Standard Challenge.

Five-Color Humans uses Plaza of Heroes and Secluded Courtyard to consistently cast a motley assortment of legendary Humans. Cards like Adeline, Resplendent Cathar and King Darien XLVIII are at their best when you control a lot of creatures, so this archetype gained a lot from the ban of The Meathook Massacre. And if Jodah, the Unifier lives, then you'll be able to go over the top of any opposing midrange deck. SeventhProphet took this list to a Top 8 in a Standard Challenge.

Boros Reanimator aims to discard Sanctuary Warden to Raffine's Informant, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, or The Restoration of Eiganjo and then reanimate it with Invoke Justice. This, again, is a good way to go over the top of Esper Midrange. Since it's reliant on the graveyard, the game plan is weak to Graveyard Trespasser, but Esper Midrange runs alternative three-drops. Boros Midrange aims to exploit that gap, and Mogged took this list to a Top 4 in a Standard Challenge.

In conclusion, Standard is still fresh after the ban, but the black midrange decks, most notably Esper and Jund, remain dominant. World Championship competitors will have to figure out whether to play one of these decks themselves or whether there are ways to reliably beat them. As I highlighted, there are ways to "go over the top" of Esper Midrange in theory, although I am not sure what the most consistent or successful approach might be in practice. In any case, the incentives are there, and I am excited to see what the World Championship competitors come up with.

Looking Ahead

While the World Championship competitors are agonizing over their deck choices, this weekend of October 22-23 features several other large Magic events. In Birmingham, England, there Axion Now's "The Gathering" convention, which features a giga Modern RCQ and a giga Pioneer RCQ. On the other side of the ocean, in Newark, OH, there is the NRG Series Trial Weekend, featuring a $10K Pioneer/Modern/Legacy team event and a $5K Modern event. Coverage will be broadcast on NRG's Twitch.

But the week after is what it's all about. I'll be back on Thursday October 27 with the actual Standard and Explorer metagame breakdown of the World Championship. Then, beginning Friday October 28 at 9 a.m. PT, you'll be able to watch every minute of Magic World Championship XXVIII live on!

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