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Metagame Mentor: The Best Standard Decks Before Pro Tour March of the Machine

April 27, 2023
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. Today, we'll take a look at the top Standard archetypes, discuss how they evolved through a full cycle of Regional Championships, and analyze what's likely to change with March of the Machine.

Standard has great over the past month, and the new set offers many exciting cards and strategies. As a result, I'm hyped to see what it will look like at Pro Tour March of the Machine at MagicCon: Minneapolis next week, where the best players in the world will battle it out on the big stage.

Standard at the Regional Championships

The second cycle of Regional Championships for the 2022-23 season took place in March and April, inviting the best players from each region to compete in the Standard format for cash prizes, World Championship seats, and 166 invitations to Pro Tour March of the Machine. These thrice-yearly Regional Championships are the new focal points for competitive play in each geographical region and offer a chance for players to qualify for the Pro Tour.

To provide an overview of all these events, I collected their MTG Melee pages, which yield decklists, results, and standings after the Swiss rounds. For each region, the listed number of Pro Tour invites include the start-up bonus invitations that Wizards of the Coast awards for the 2022-23 season only:

You can find Top 8 brackets, photos, and more in our event coverage archive. With more than 2,700 Regional Championship competitors in total, a lot of Standard decklists are available to sink our teeth into. By crunching the numbers on these decklists, I determined the metagame share and non-mirror, non-bye, non-draw win rate of every archetype. While this analysis heavily weighs the results of the U.S. Regional Championship, which had an attendance of over 900 players, it accounts for developments from all regions throughout the entire cycle.

Archetype Percentage of Field Match Win Rate
1. Grixis Midrange 20.6% 50.5%
2. Esper Legends 12.3% 55.0% ✓✓
3. Mono-White Midrange 11.3% 50.6%
4. Rakdos Midrange 7.0% 54.4% ✓✓
5. Mono-Red Aggro 6.6% 48.6%
6. Rakdos Reanimator 5.2% 50.9%
7. Selesnya Toxic 4.9% 52.1%
8. Azorius Soldiers 4.3% 48.4%
9. Mono-Blue Tempo 3.9% 44.5%
10. Domain Control 3.4% 50.6%
11. Grixis Reanimator 3.4% 45.9%
12. Jund Midrange 2.4% 44.4%
13. Rakdos Aggro 1.2% 51.8%
14. Jund Reanimator 1.1% 48.4%
15. Selesnya Enchantments 1.1% 51.9%
16. Mono-Black Midrange 0.8% 46.6%
17. Mardu Midrange 0.8% 43.3%
18. Esper Midrange 0.8% 42.7%
19. Other 8.8% 43.4%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing, representative decklist. The "Other" category included such spicy deck archetypes as Four-Color Legends, Jeskai Control, Mono-White Aggro, Izzet Powerstones, Rakdos Sacrifice, RataBlade Combo, and Gruul Modified, all of which carried at least one player to a Pro Tour invite.

The most-played nonland cards across all main decks and sideboards were Cut Down; Fable of the Mirror-Breaker; Reckoner Bankbuster; Go for the Throat; Bloodtithe Harvester; and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. These cards are considered staples of the format, especially for interactive midrange strategies.

Although Grixis Midrange started out as the number one deck to beat in Standard, Esper Legends slowly took over that mantle. Across all events, Esper Legends had the best win rate against the field, and it performed well in nearly every matchup. However, it struggled against Rakdos Midrange, which proved to be the superior version of Grixis Midrange near the end of the Regional Championship cycle.

Rakdos Midrange, in turn, was weak to Mono-White Midrange. This yielded a rock-paper-scissors metagame at the top tables, where Rakdos Midrange beat Esper Legends, Esper Legends beat Mono-White Midrange, and Mono-White Midrange beat Rakdos Midrange. However, the advantages were typically small: these matchups were close to 60%-40% or 55%-45% across the Regional Championships, which means that good technical play or clever sideboard tweaks can swing things around.

If I were competing in the Pro Tour and there would not be a new set release, then I would focus my efforts mainly on these "big three" decks, ignoring Grixis Midrange as it fell out of favor near the end. Aggro decks like Selesnya Toxic or Mono-Red Aggro performed poorly against these big three, so they would not be my prime candidates for consideration. Instead, I would look at Azorius Soldiers, Domain Control, and Rakdos Reanimator as decks that have an inherently strong matchup against Mono-White Midrange, and I would try to shore up their weaknesses against Esper Legends and Rakdos Midrange by finding the right sideboard configurations. Alternatively, I would test Selesnya Enchantments, which did well against Rakdos Midrange, and figure out how it can be tuned to improve against Mono-White Midrange and Esper Legends. That's how I would start my approach in the absence of a new set release.

However, we did get a brand new set. March of the Machine is brimming with potential, and it offers many new exciting options. Let's take a closer look in the context of the ten most popular archetypes from the Regional Championships.

The Top 10 Standard Deck Archetypes

To frame the discussion, I used an algorithm to provide a list for every archetype close to the aggregate from the Regional Championships, before the release of March of the Machine. For each, I'll highlight several March of the Machine additions, informed by my own ideas, the opinions of other content creators, and the results of last weekend's Standard tournaments on Magic Online or MTG Melee. If I were competing in the Pro Tour, then I would study the possibilities in a similar way.

Grixis Midrange was the most popular deck across all Regional Championships combined, and 42 players used the deck to qualify for the Pro Tour. It dominated in the early weeks of the Regional Championships cycle, featuring an adaptable suite of answers for almost any matchup. At first, Grixis Midrange was around 28% of the field, and most players wanted an edge in the mirror match. This led to large numbers of Reckoner Bankbuster, Negate, Abrade, and Bladecoil Serpent. Such versions were used by Zen Takahashi to won the Australia/New Zealand Regional Championship and by Adriano Melo to win the Brazil Regional Championship.

As the Regional Championships progressed and Esper Legends and Selesnya Toxic emerged as major contenders, successful Grixis Midrange decks added Graveyard Trespasser and went up to four main deck copies of Cut Down. Michael Rohrböck won the European Championship with such an anti-aggro list. Afterwards, as more and more opponents tried to punish the three-color mana base, Grixis Midrange didn't perform as well anymore, and it dropped to 10% of the field in the last weekend. Nevertheless, its raw card quality remains unparalleled.

From March of the Machine, I would consider adding several cards:

  • Chandra, Hope's Beacon could be a strong top-end. She can come down and kill two creatures, and her passive is quite strong in a deck filled with instants and sorceries. Copying Invoke Despair will be game over, and even copying Make Disappear is useful in the late game. Indeed, the best-performing Grixis Midrange lists from the first Standard Challenges on Magic Online used the new planeswalker.
  • Volcanic Spite is an alternative to Abrade that makes it easier to keep two-landers. It can't destroy Reckoner Bankbuster, but it can hit planeswalkers, and the card filtering shouldn't be underestimated.
  • Halo Forager could also be a solid value card, akin to Corpse Appraiser.
  • The color hosers look like strong sideboard cards. If the first Standard Challenges are any indication, then Lithomantic Barrage is the most important one, as it's a one-mana answer to Raffine, Scheming Seer. In addition, Glistening Deluge can turn into a one-sided sweeper against Azorius Soldiers or Selesnya Toxic. I have less high hopes for Change the Equation, as green is not a popular color in Standard and it doesn't counter staples like Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, The Wandering Emperor, or Atraxa, Grand Unifier, but it's also an option.

At the Regional Championships, 35 players qualified for the Pro Tour with Esper Legends—nearly the same number as for Grixis Midrange. Although Esper Legends never managed to win a Regional Championship, several players came close: Kenji Sego finished second in Japan, and Thoralf Severin finished second in Europe. In a vacuum, Skrelv, Defector Mite into Dennick, Pious Apprentice into Raffine, Scheming Seer into Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is the strongest thing you can do in Standard, and the deck climbed from around 7% of the field in the first weekends to over 18% of the field in the end. It will be the prime deck to beat at the Pro Tour.

The distinguishing feature of Esper Legends is its mana base. Thanks to Plaza of Heroes; Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire; and Otawara, Soaring City, you can run high land counts to ensure you hit your land drops. The channel lands offer spell-like interaction, but they are not actually spells, so they don't get taxed by Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. In the nearly all-creature Esper Legends deck, Thalia is an all-star.

From March of the Machine, I would try out various cards:

  • Rona, Herald of Invasion is a natural fit in a deck consisting of legends, as it will be easy to activate multiple times per turn. Rona blocks well against aggro decks, turns into a huge late-game threat, and has awesome synergy with Toluz, Clever Conductor or The Raven Man. In the first Standard Challenges on Magic Online, I've already seen that synergy in successful lists with four copies of Rona, so this is bound to be a one of the biggest upgrades from the new set.
  • Two powerful top-end legends, which could perhaps replace a few copies of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse or Ao, the Dawn Sky, are Elesh Norn and Sheoldred. Transforming Elesh Norn would be doable in versions with Wedding Announcements, and Pile On may also be a suitable removal spell in such token versions. Transforming Sheoldred may be more difficult, but the front face is perhaps already powerful enough.
  • Invasion of Fiora is taxed by Thalia, Gaurdian of Thraben, but you can discard it to Rona in the early game. In the late game, it could provide a one-sided sweeper by destroying all nonlegendary creatures, and the back face is a massive threat.
  • Surge of Salvation looks like an excellent sideboard card, countering cards like Cut Down, Brotherhood's End, and even Invoke Despair. If the first Standard Challenges are any indication, then it will become a staple in most white sideboards.

At the Regional Championships, 18 players qualified for the Pro Tour with Mono-White Midrange. It is arguably the most consistent midrange deck in Standard, as it sticks to a single color and has two-mana creatures that help find land drops. The mono-color mana base allows you to exploit Lay Down Arms, which deals with Sheoldred, the Apocalypse for a single mana and even denies the death trigger on Ao, the Dawn Sky. With cards like Farewell and The Eternal Wanderer, Mono-White Midrange often takes the control role in many matchups.

Mono-White Midrange took three Regional Championship trophies: William La Hay won in West Canada with 4 Field of Ruin and 4 Demolition Field; Jiang Yiren won in China with two copies of each "Strip Mine"; and Philippe Gareau with zero copies. While the right number of these lands changed every week as the metagame marched on, they pressured greedy mana bases that skimped on basics.

From March of the Machine, I would be interested to add several cards:

  • Guardian of Ghirapur, blinking cards like Spirited Companion, provides card advantage and good board presence. In the first Standard Challenges, a list with 4 Guardian of Ghirapur and 4 Spirited Companion already did well.
  • Sunfall could easily prove superior to Depopulate or Farewell, as exiling matters against the likes of Razorlash Transmogrant or Ao, the Dawn Sky, and the Incubator token is a sweet bonus.
  • Archangel Elspeth looks generally worse than The Wandering Emperor, but an additional four-mana planeswalker might still fit the deck well.
  • Elesh Norn could be easy to transform with tokens from Wedding Announcement and The Wandering Emperor.
  • Surge of Salvation will surely become a sideboard staple for all white decks.
  • Monastery Mentor and Boon-Bringer Valkyrie may provide transformational sideboard strategies when opponents take out their creature removal spells.

At the Regional Championships, nine players qualified for the Pro Tour with Rakdos Midrange. It's like Grixis Midrange without Corpse Appraiser and Make Disappear, and the archetype has been on a meteoric rise as of late. Rakdos Midrange started the Regional Championship cycle at a measly 1% of the field, but as more and more players adopted cards like Furnace Punisher, Field of Ruin, and Razorlash Transmogrant to punish three-color mana bases, Rakdos took over Grixis in terms of popularity and performance. The leaner two-color mana base with fewer tapped lands and more basic lands is a big benefit.

From March of the Machine, many of the red and black possibilities that I highlighted for Grixis Midrange would also fit in here. To add a few more:

  • Sheoldred could be a useful sideboard swap for Invoke Despair when white players bring in Surge of Salvation. Perhaps Sheoldred can even find a slot in the main deck. Rankle and Torbran may suit a more aggressive build.
  • Invasion of Tarkir, which was the most-played mythic in the Early Access event, might fit nicely in Rakdos Midrange builds with Capricious Hellraiser, which is a Dragon.
  • Nahiri's Warcrafting is an excellent answer to Sheoldred that can also double as a card advantage spell when damaging smaller targets. And if you run battles (like Invasion of Tarkir or perhaps Invasion of Azgol, Invasion of Innistrad, or Invasion of Fiora) then Nahiri's Warcrafting also handily defeats those.

At the Regional Championships, eight players qualified for the Pro Tour with Mono-Red Aggro. This aggressive deck uses haste creatures and burn spells to take the opponent down to zero life as quickly as possible. If left unopposed, it can easily win as early as turn four. Furnace Punisher was an important innovation, as it typically deals 5 damage per turn cycle against most decks.

From March of the Machine, there are a lot of new tools for mono-red decks:

  • In the Early Access event on MTG Arena, Invasion of Regatha, Stoke the Flames, Khenra Spellspear, and Invasion of Tarkir were among the most-played cards, and I personally had good results with a battle-centric mono-red deck using Bloodfeather Phoenix, Nahiri's Warcrafting, and Rampaging Raptor to defeat battles with ease.
  • Alternatively, you could focus on raw firepower, using Stoke the Flames, Invasion of Regatha, and Voldaren Thrillseeker to go face.
  • You can also equip Sword of Once and Future onto Khenra Spellspear and recast Lightning Strikes, which has been the most successful build in Standard Challenges so far. Overall, there are a lot of different ways to revitalize mono-red.

Rakdos Reanimator, which aims to return Atraxa, Grand Unifier to the battlefield via the third chapter of The Cruelty of Gix, qualified ten players for the Pro Tour and took two trophies. Jesus Adan Calzada won the Regional Championship for Mexico/Central America/Caribbean, and Joshua Willis defeated Isaac Sears in a Rakdos Reanimator mirror match in the finals of the U.S. Regional Championship.

As they showed, Rakdos Reanimator is well-positioned when counterspells are on the downswing. Indeed, as the metagame had shifted from Grixis Midrange decks towards Rakdos Midrange, there were fewer copies of Make Disappear or Disdainful Stroke around. This meant that Atraxa, Grand Unifier resolved more frequently to go over the top. That doesn't imply that Rakdos Reanimator crushes Rakdos Midrange—the matchup is close to even—but it fares better than against Grixis Midrange. Standard has been dynamic, and attentive players who exploited new weaknesses were rewarded.

While Rakdos Reanimator has a lot of overlap with Grixis Midrange and Rakdos Midrange, March of the Machine also offers Etali, Primal Conqueror as an alternative reanimation target and several battles that could incentivize a splash. As battles offer an extra card type to grab with Atraxa, Grand Unifier, they could be particularly powerful in a deck like this:

  • For Jund Reanimator, Invasion of Ergamon doubles as a ramp spell and a discard outlet, allowing to you reanimate Atraxa on turn four. Such a list may also be interested in Kogla and Yidaro as an additional reanimation target.
  • For Mardu Reanimator, Invasion of Tolvada offers another reanimation spell, and so does Kroxa and Kunoros. This can make the reanimation plan more consistent. A version with Kroxa and Kunoros has already done well in a Standard Challenge.
  • For Grixis Reanimator, Invasion of Amonkhet can potentially mill Atraxa, and then Lazotep Convert on the back side can enter the battlefield as a copy of Atraxa. That could be a very powerful new angle, and a Dimir version of such a deck already took down a large event on MTG Melee last weekend.

Selesnya Toxic, which uses a powerful curve of cheap toxic creatures to give the opponent 10 poison counters, qualified nine players for the Pro Tour. Rei Sato put the deck on the map with his victory at the Japan/South Korea Regional Championship, where every single nonland card in his main deck stemmed from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. Since then, Selesnya Toxic proliferated, and sweeper effects rose in popularity to contain the infection.

March of the Machine does not offer a lot to the archetype, which means that it may tick down, but I would still be interested to try a few cards:

  • Storm the Seedcore could provide four Venerated Rotpriest triggers in one go.
  • Surge of Salvation will surely become a sideboard staple for all white decks.
  • Invasion of Gobakhan can be a useful sideboard card against sweepers like Depopulate.

At the Regional Championships, seven players qualified for the Pro Tour with Azorius Soldiers, roughly split between Thalia, Guardian of Thraben versions and Protect the Negotiators versions. Cheng Han Lin won the Regional Championship for Chinese Taipei with a flashy Azorius Soldiers deck featuring Protect the Negotiators and The Wandering Emperor rather than Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Siege Veteran. Since then, Protect the Negotiators became a popular main deck inclusion, although no consensus on the ideal build was reached.

March of the Machine does not offer a lot to the archetype, which means that it may tick down, but I would still be interested to try a few cards:

  • Dusk Legion Duelist is a Soldier that benefits from Siege Veteran, which is a sweet bit of synergy. To draw cards consistently, additional cards that add +1/+1 counters may be needed, such as The Wandering Emperor.
  • Surge of Salvation, once again, is a solid sideboard tool, especially for a deck that can be weak to Brotherhood's End.
  • Knight-Errant of Eros could help in the grindy matchups, using the tokens from Resolute Reinforcements to convoke effectively.

At the Regional Championships, only three players qualified for the Pro Tour with Mono-Blue Tempo—a disappointing performance. Nevertheless, Haughty Djinn and Tolarian Terror provide an enormous amount of power for their cost, and counterspells could be well-positioned if players don't respect them.

From March of the Machine, I would be interested to try several cards:

  • Faerie Mastermind is a flash threat that is good against Fable of the Mirror-Breaker; Wedding Announcement; Invoke Despair; and Raffine, Scheming Seer.
  • Assimilate Essence is an efficient counterspell with more utility in the late game than Scatter Ray.
  • Ephara's Dispersal could be valuable against aggressive decks when you want more than just four copies of Fading Hope.
  • Invasion of Segovia has potential as Haughty Djinn can easily defeat it. Moreover, giving convoke to all of your noncreature spells could be really powerful. Perhaps another deck is a better home for it, but I've read quite a bit of buzz around this battle, so it shouldn't be underestimated.

Domain Control, which leverages Leyline Binding and Herd Migration in a five-color shell, qualified five players for the Pro Tour and took two trophies. John Daroen Sahagun won the South East Asia Regional Championship, and Francisco Benitez won the South Amercia Regional Championship.

Supporting the domain spells requires many tri-lands, but the resulting mana base makes it easy to cast Atraxa, Grand Unifier, and some versions even managed to incorporate Lay Down Arms. While the archetype provides a lot of customizability and every deck looks different, hardcasting Atraxa, Grand Unifier remains a good way to go over the top of slower midrange decks.

From March of the Machine, I would be interested to try several cards:

  • Battles were teased first on Atraxa, Grand Unifier, so they're a natural place to start. Invasion of Zendikar would curve perfectly into Atraxa, Grand Unifier or Herd Migration, while Invasion of Ixalan, Invasion of Alara and Invasion of New Phyrexia are inherently powerful. The big question is how we can defeat all of those battles. Perhaps Cemetery Desecrator could defeat Invasion of Alara in one go, but that's probably going too deep. Perhaps the best option, inspired by a Gruul Ramp deck from a Standard Challenge, is Topiary Stomper, as curving it into Invasion of Zendikar makes for an amazing turn four.
  • Vorinclex searches for Forest cards, not basic Forests, so the tri-lands are fair game. Perhaps that yields enough value.
  • Sandstalker Moloch could be a useful sideboard card in grindy matchups, especially when The Wandering Emperor or Make Disappear already support a flash-style game.

All in all, Standard has been in good shape. The metagame has fluctuated throughout the cycle, there's a diversity of competitively viable archetypes, and I haven't even been able to mention the RataBlade Combo deck that broke out at the U.S. Regional Championship. While Esper Legends appears to be the prime deck to beat, the format feels fresh and wide open, and I am excited about the March of the Machine shakeups.

Brand new Standard Contenders

Based on the results of last weekend's Standard tournaments on Magic Online or MTG Melee, March of the Machine turned various fringe decks into top-tier contenders. For example, Chrome Host Seedshark and Sunfall have boosted Jeskai Control and Azorius Control, which were on the rise last weekend. In addition, the new set enabled brand new archetypes. Let's take a closer look at five innovative decks that stood out to me.

Boros Midrange, which was a fringe archetype before March of the Machine, received a big boost with the introduction of Etali, Primal Conqueror. Etali's power is on par with Atraxa, Grand Unifier, yet far easier to slot into your mana base. Blinking Etali with Guardian of Ghirapur is particularly absurd. IslandGoSAMe went 5-2 in a Standard Challenge with the list shown above, and several other Boros Midrange players also did well in last weekend's events.

If Hidetsugu and Kairi dies and you reveal Explosive Singularity, you'll deal 20 damage in total, wining the game on the spot. You can time the legend's death by sacrificing it to A Little Chat. This powerful combo was used by Koki Kondo in a Grixis Midrange shell to finish second in a 100+ player online tournament last weekend. Several other players also found success with Hidetsugu and Kairi in a variety of builds, showing the potential.

The synergy between Chrome Host Seedshark and Tezzeret, Betrayer of Flesh is the real deal. Tezzeret makes it so that transforming Incubator tokens is free, and his -2 ability turns them into enormous threats. Indeed, the +1/+1 counters are added to the base power and toughness. For example, if you curve Chrome Host Seedshark into Tezzeret and create a token with four +1/+1 counters, then Tezzeret animates it into an 8/8. Using this combo, MJ_23 made the Top 8 in a Standard Challenge last weekend.

There are a lot of Phyrexians in Standard, and March of the Machine introduced several cards that care about the creature type. Grafted Butcher is a powerful lord and was the most-played rare in the Early Access event, while Bloated Processor will happily munch on the tokens from Skrelv's Hive. Phyrexian Censor may be another option for this archetype, but it's not included in this token-heavy list that TraceOn used to go 7-0 in the Metagame Challenge on MTG Arena.

This wild brew exploits the synergy between battles and All Will Be One. For example, when Invasion of Ergamon enters the battlefield, you put five defense counters on it, allowing All Will Be One to send five damage upstairs. To assemble these combos consistently, Storm the Festival does a lot of work. Moreover, curving Topiary Stomper into Invasion of Zendikar means that you can immediately defeat the battle and ramp into your powerful spells.

These five decks are only the tip of the iceberg. At the Pro Tour next week, we may also see Jeskai Dragons with Zurgo and Ojutai and Invasion of Tarkir; Azorius Angels with Errant and Giada; Abzan Legends with Thalia and The Gitrog Monster; Mardu Legends with Djeru and Hazoret; Poison Ivy with Invasion of Ikoria; Mono-Green Stompy with Polukranos Reborn; Selesnya Counters with Botanical Brawler; Jeskai Tokens with Monastery Mentor; and so on. The list of possibilities is nearly endless, and it's up to the Pro Tour competitors to find the best options.

Looking Ahead

The last few months of Standard have been great, and March of the Machine is overflowing with potential. Its impact may even exceed Phyrexia: All Will Be One, which is a great sign this late in the Standard season. There are powerful buffs for existing archetypes, such as Rona, Herald of Invasion and Lithomantic Barrage, as well as an abundance of new possibilities for spicy brews. I can't wait to see what the Pro Tour metagame will look like and how battles will perform on the biggest stage.

To find out which new cards will be the key to victory at Pro Tour March of the Machine, tune in on May 5—7! As described in more detail in the viewer's guide, approximately 250 of the world's best will compete for $500,00 in prizes, several World Championship invites, and the prestigious first-place trophy. The formats are March of the Machine Booster Draft in the morning of Friday and Saturday, followed by Standard for five rounds afterward each of those days. Standard is also the Top 8 format on Sunday. Don't miss the live video coverage on!

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