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Metagame Mentor: The Story of 2023 Standard in 10 Steps

December 07, 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. As the year is drawing to a close, I'll be taking a look back at 2023 over the course of the next few weeks. Today, I'll highlight the biggest stories and metagame advancements from Standard in 2023. Next week, I'll review the year for Modern, and the week after I'll cover Pioneer.

Of course, the biggest news of the week was the Banned and Restricted Announcement, featuring changes to Pioneer and Modern. I'm excited to dig into the first big Pioneer and Modern events after the bans and analyze their results in the coming weeks. Indeed, this weekend there are huge Modern Regional Championship Qualifiers at Legacy Magic Showdown in Barcelona and at the Eternal Weekend in Pittsburgh. And the weekend after, there's the U.S. Regional Championship at Dreamhack Atlanta in the Pioneer format. But today, I'll first focus on Standard, combining an analysis of the current state of the format with an overview of the most important developments from 2023.

The Current Standard Metagame

Standard is a 60-card format that rotates every fall. Currently, it allows expansion sets from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt forward. It's the most popular format on MTG Arena, and it will be the format for the upcoming cycle of Regional Championship Qualifiers, which runs from January 6 through March 24. Before diving into the top 10 Standard stories from 2023, let's start with a metagame snapshot.

To grasp the state of Standard with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, I analyzed nearly 400 successful decklists from competitive events over the past three weeks. Specifically, I used all published Magic Online decklists from scheduled Standard events held from November 19 through December 4, along with all decklists from the Players Convention Aichi 2023 Open with net positive wins. To obtain a metric that combines popularity and performance, I awarded a number of points to each deck equal to its net wins (i.e., its number of match wins minus losses). Each archetype's share of total net wins can be interpreted as its share of the winner's metagame.

Archetype Winner's Metagame Share
1. Esper Midrange 26.4%
2. Domain Ramp 16.7%
3. Azorius Midrange 12.3%
4. Azorius Soldiers 6.2%
5. Mono-Red Aggro 5.5%
6. Boros Humans 4.2%
7. Rakdos Control 3.6%
8. Boros Convoke 2.3%
9. Golgari Midrange 1.8%
10. Gruul Aggro 1.7%
11. Mono-White Midrange 1.6%
12. Bant Control 1.2%
13. Orzhov Midrange 1.2%
14. Esper Control 1.1%
15. Dimir Midrange 1.1%
16. Esper Legends 1.1%
17. Jund Midrange 1.0%
18. Bant Toxic 0.8%
19. Mono-Blue Tempo 0.7%
20. Gruul Dinosaurs 0.7%
21. Rakdos Sacrifice 0.7%
22. Izzet Pirates 0.7%
23. Other 7.3%

The "Other" category included archetypes like Grixis Reanimator, Rakdos Midrange, Selesnya Enchantments, Azorius Control, Azorius Craft, Sultai Midrange, Mono-White Humans, Jeskai Legends, Naya Tokens, Simic Artifacts, Grixis Descend, Orzhov Control, and more.

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan has shaken up the metagame, injecting new cards and new strategies into the format. To accentuate the impact of the new set, my picks for the top 10 Standard stories from 2023 will put a special emphasis on the most important additions and innovations from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Let's dive in!

10. The Evolution of Azorius Soldiers

Starting at number ten, Azorius Soldiers has been a mainstay in Standard throughout the year, though the strategy has undergone considerable changes.

Simon Nielsen's Top 4 list from Magic World Championship XXIX gave him enough match points to clinch the Player of the Year title, but Azorius Soldiers didn't always look this way.

At the start of the year, the deck generally used Valiant Veteran, Skystrike Officer, and Siege Veteran as early-game payoffs for focusing on Solders, along with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to disrupt the opponent. This heavily typal-focused strategy archetype was 13.0% of the winner's metagame at the start of the year and 9.2% in March.

607043 Zephyr Sentinel

While Azorius Soldiers dropped a bit in popularity during the Standard Regional Championships and Pro Tour, deck builders innovated by cutting Soldiers and adding more inherently powerful cards. Cheng Han Lin became Regional Champion at the MIT Championship by shaving Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Siege Veteran while adding Protect the Negotiators and The Wandering Emperor. This allowed him to better control the game at instant speed. Then at Pro Tour March of the Machine, Haruki Usui cut Skystrike Officer to incorporate Knight-Errant of Eos, going 7-3 during the Standard rounds. His version could consistently convoke Knight-Errant of Eos on turn three and return it with Zephyr Sentinel later, providing overwhelming staying power.

At the World Championship, Team Handshake's Azorius Soldiers build further emphasized these developments. They removed Valiant Veteran to make room for Lunarch Veteran and Wedding Announcement, limiting the Soldier theme to Zephyr Sentinel, Harbin, Vanguard Aviator, and Fortified Beachhead. More recent versions with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan usually cut Regal Bunnicorn and Yotian Frontliner, adding Virtue of Loyalty as a flashy early drop instead, but they remain very similar to Simon Nielsen's list. Over the past few weeks, Azorius Soldiers was 6.2% of the winner's metagame, and it remains a strong strategy.

9. The Endurance of Mono-Red Aggro

Mono-Red Aggro, which uses haste creatures and burn spells to take the opponent down to zero life as quickly as possible, is one of the most perennial archetypes in the history of Standard, and 2023 was no different.

Mono-Red Aggro was 8.6% at the start of the year, 9.2% in March, 6.6% across the Regional Championships, 2.4% at Pro Tour March of the Machine, 3.2% in August, 9.5% at the World Championship, and 5.5% right now. While there have been minor ups and downs, the deck has remained a fixture of Standard throughout the year.

The representative list shown above, which Deleon91 used to clinch a second-place finish at a Standard Challenge last weekend, looks fairly similar to the way it was built a year ago. Nevertheless, Mono-Red Aggro has gained several upgrades throughout the year. During the Regional Championship cycle, Furnace Punisher was found to be the most important addition from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. From March of the Machine, Lithomantic Barrage easily claimed sideboard slots, but the set didn't add much to the main deck, and Mono-Red Aggro entered a bit of a slump for months as a result.

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Wilds of Eldraine, however, revitalized the archetype with Charming Scoundrel and Goddric, Cloaked Reveler. Charming Scoundrel adds pressure on turn two and provides flexibility in the late game. Goddric, Cloaked Reveler is amazing when a turn-one Kumano Faces Kakkazan exiles itself and returns to the battlefield on turn three, enabling celebration with no additional effort. Finally, Witchstalker Frenzy is a hyper-efficient removal spell, especially against Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. With the addition of these new cards, the deck was a popular choice at the World Championship.

Although The Lost Caverns of Ixalan hasn't added much for Mono-Red Aggro, the declining presence of Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is a boon—due to the presence of efficient removal spells, she is not even among the top 30 most-played cards in Standard anymore at the moment. In any case, when entering a Standard tournament, you have to expect and respect Mono-Red Aggro.

8. The Explosion of Domain Ramp

March of the Machine introduced the new Battle card type, and arguably the most impactful one was Invasion of Zendikar, which led to the emergence of Domain Ramp.

At the beginning of the year, domain spells like Herd Migration and Leyline Binding were typically combined with tri-lands like Spara's Headquarters into a control strategy. During the Regional Championships, John Daroen Sahagun used such a Domain Control deck to clinch the trophy in South East Asia, while Francisco Benitez emerged victorious in South America.

Yet it all changed when March of the Machine introduced Invasion of Zendikar and a group of Canadians unleashed their streamlined Domain Ramp deck onto Pro Tour March of the Machine. The key ramp cards in their deck were Topiary Stomper and Invasion of Zendikar, allowing them to ramp into a quick Atraxa, Grand Unifier. David Olsen took the deck to a Top 4 finish, and the deck has remained a big part of the metagame ever since. It climbed to 11.0% in August, took 8.6% at the World Championship, and was 16.7% of the winner's metagame over the past few weeks.

While Up the Beanstalk was not available at Pro Tour March of the Machine, it was available at the World Championship. Encouraged by the synergy with Leyline Binding, Reid Duke cut Ossification to make room for the green enchantment, making it all the way to the Top 8 of the World Championship. Since then, Up the Beanstalk, which recently got banned in Modern, has become a common inclusion in Domain Ramp, and it adds to the formidable late-game power of the deck.


Domain Ramp recently gained another boost from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Cavern of Souls was the most-played card across all Standard decks in my dataset over the past three weeks, and in this deck it can make Atraxa, Grand Unifier uncounterable. Make Disappear and Disdainful Stroke used to be reliable answers, but now Atraxa, Grand Unifier can rule the late game unopposed. Snusnumrick took down the recent the recent Showcase Challenge on Magic Online, featuring four copies of Cavern of Souls. Due to the introduction of the land, many blue decks in Standard are cutting some of their countermagic.

7. The Advancement of Boros Humans

Cavern of Souls also enabled a whole new archetype in the form of Boros Humans.

Ever since the release of Coppercoat Vanguard in March of the Machine: The Aftermath, Mono-White Humans has remained a popular strategy in Standard, featuring an efficient curve of aggressive Humans. Notably, it was 6.7% of the field at the World Championship, where many of the game's top players put their faith in the strategy.

But The Lost Caverns of Ixalan unlocked a whole new chapter. Boros Humans takes everything that was great about the mono-white version and upgrades it with powerful new red creatures. For example, SoIMBAGallade made the Top 8 of a recent Standard Challenge with the list shown above. Since every creature is a Human, Cavern of Souls is effectively an untapped dual land that makes all of your creatures uncounterable!

Warden of the Inner Sky Inti, Seneschal of the Sun Anim Pakal, Thousandth Moon

The key new additions are Inti, Seneschal of the Sun and Anim Pakal, Thousandth Moon. Both of them affect combat the turn they come down, making them similar to Adeline, Resplendent Cathar. The two red legends also synergize well together—if Inti puts an extra +1/+1 counter onto Anim Pakal, then you'll create an additional Gnome as a result.

Similarly, putting a +1/+1 counter from Inti, Seneschal of the Sun onto Warden of the Inner Sky helps you unlock the flying and vigilance boost more easily, and Warden of the Inner Sky has been embraced as a solid one-drop as well. Other notable new cards from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan are Get Lost, which is an efficient removal spell, and Kellan, Daring Traveler, which essentially draws a creature or mills a land when it attacks.

At a 4.2% of the winner's metagame over the past three weeks, Boros Humans is one of the hottest new decks to emerge out of the latest set, although another new strategy takes the crown.

6. The Emergence of Azorius Midrange

Combining all of the best value cards in white and blue, Azorius Midrange is the breakout deck of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan Standard.

Featuring value-generating threats, efficient permission, and the ability to operate at instant speed, Azorius Midrange has proven to be a formidable contender in the current Standard environment. Masashiro Kuroda made the Top 8 of the Players Convention Aichi 2023 Open with the list shown above, and many others found success with similar builds as well.

637005 Spyglass Siren 636782

Subterranean Schooner is the second-most-played card from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, just behind Cavern of Souls. It's easily crewed by Spyglass Siren or Warden of the Inner Sky, and it is particularly sweet when it puts +1/+1 counters onto Warden of the Inner Sky.

Overall, the deck makes good use of the explore mechanic, creating Map tokens with various cards to draw additional lands or to put +1/+1 counters onto fliers or lifelinkers. With a low curve, the deck can go wide with global boosts from Wedding Announcement or Virtue of Loyalty, but it can also play at instant speed to disrupt the opponent, especially with Tishana's Tidebinder in the main deck and Get Lost in the sideboard, both of which also come from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan.

Over the past three weeks, Azorius Midrange climbed to 12.3% of the winner's metagame, and it's the hottest new development this month. But now let's go back in time and revisit what happened earlier in the year.

5. The Change Towards a Three-Year Standard Rotation

As the first step of the multifaceted plan to revitalize Standard, it was announced on May 7, 2023 that the lifecycle of all cards in Standard would be extended by one year. The extension of Standard rotation to three years was intended to make tabletop Standard more enjoyable, by giving cards more longevity and by allowing mechanics and archetypes to be built on over time. To facilitate the change, the release of Wilds of Eldraine did not trigger a Standard rotation, giving cards like Wedding Announcement, The Wandering Emperor, Make Disappear, Raffine, Scheming Seer, Spara's Headquarters, and Dennick, Pious Apprentice another year in the spotlight.

Since then, additional steps have been taken to give players and stores more enticing Standard events. Indeed, in 2024, there will be a slate of Standard play at every level. At local WPN game stores, Store Championships have shifted to Standard, and a weekly Standard play program will also be brought back in February 2024. For even more competitive opportunities, the upcoming cycle of Regional Championship Qualifiers and the subsequent cycle of Regional Championships will feature Standard, and MagicCon: Chicago will host a $75,000 Standard Open.

There will be plenty of opportunities in 2024 to demonstrate your mastery of Standard. Although cards from Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and Streets of New Capenna will eventually rotate out in the fall of 2024, they remain legal in Standard tournaments over the next few months.

4. The Rise (and Fall) of Mono-White Midrange

Mono-White Midrange was one of the top decks in Standard during the Regional Championship season earlier this year, but it fell out of favor afterwards.

Mono-White Midrange exploits Wedding Announcement and The Wandering Emperor, two of the most powerful cards in Standard that unexpectedly got to stay for a third year. The deck uses a mono-color mana base to unlock Lay Down Arms, which is arguably the most efficient removal spell in Standard. It was 10.0% of the winner's metagame at the start of the year, grew to 15.9% in March after adding Ossification and The Eternal Wanderer from Phyrexia: All Will Be One to improve its control role, and claimed 11.3% of the field during the Regional Championship cycle, where it won three trophies in the hands of William La Hay, Jiang Yiren, and Philippe Gareau.

William La Hay won the West Canada Regional Championship with, as he described it, a "Mono-White Strip Mine deck". With 4 Field of Ruin and 4 Demolition Field, he could really punish greedy mana bases that skimped on basics. His opponent in the finals, for example, ran zero basic lands, and you can imagine how that ended.

Afterwards, the deck fell out of favor. It was only 3.6% of the metagame at Pro Tour March of the Machine, as without discard or countermagic it struggled in the face of powerful new top-end cards like Chandra, Hope's Beacon and Etali, Primal Conqueror. After the ban of Reckoner Bankbuster—more on that later—it dropped further to 1.6% in August and was non-existent at the World Championship. However, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan looks to have reinvigorated Mono-White Midrange to some extent.

Clay-Fired Bricks 637010 636991

New options like Clay-Fired Bricks and Treasure Map can take the role of Reckoner Bankbuster, providing cheap card advantage. Moreover, Sunken Citadel can activate Demolition Field and Field of Ruin as early as turn two. With these new additions, various players have picked up the archetype again, and it perked up to 1.6% of the winner's metagame over the past few weeks. The first half of 2023 showed us the power of Lay Down Arms, and it's important to recognize that it's still around as an option.

3. The Dominance of Rakdos and Grixis

In the first half of 2023, the red-black core of Bloodtithe Harvester, Reckoner Bankbuster, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and Go for the Throat was everywhere. In terms of raw efficiency and card quality, it was simply the best available.

The power of Rakdos Midrange was best displayed by Nathan Steuer, who had been on a historical run the past season, topping off with a victory at Pro Tour March of the Machine. After the Swiss rounds, Javier Dominguez, Karl Sarap, Simon Nielsen, and Nathan Steuer had made Top 8 as first, second, third, and fourth seed respectively, so Team Handshake dominated the Standard Pro Tour in historical fashion. Ultimately, Steuer's tight technical play rewarded him with a well-deserved trophy.

Nathan Steuer, Pro Tour March of the Machine champion

A few months prior, after that same Nathan Steuer used Grixis Midrange to win the World Championship in 2022, the dominant strategy in Standard was Grixis Midrange. It was 24.2% of the winner's metagame at the start of the year, 22.7% in March, and 20.6% of the field across the Regional Championships. Grixis Midrange was the most popular deck across all Regional Championships combined, and 42 players used the deck to qualify for the Pro Tour. Featuring an adaptable suite of answers and higher individual card quality than opposing decks, Zen Takahashi, Michael Rohrböck, and Adriano Melo all won their Regional Championships with the archetype.

Near the end of the Regional Championship cycle, however, more and more opponents tried to punish the three-color mana base with cards like Furnace Punisher, Field of Ruin, and Razorlash Transmogrant, and many players switched to Rakdos Midrange. By replacing Corpse Appraiser and make Disappear with Graveyard Trespasser and Duress, the resulting Rakdos Midrange deck retained high card quality with a superior mana base. In addition, Rakdos Reanimator variants that aimed to return Atraxa, Grand Unifier with The Cruelty of Gix rose up as well. Using Rakdos Reanimator, Joshua Willis won the U.S. Regional Championship, and Cain Rianhard finished second at Pro Tour March of the Machine.

Yet regardless of whether they were classified as Rakdos, Grixis, Midrange, or Reanimator, all decks with Bloodtithe Harvester, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and Go for the Throat combined were well over half of the field at Pro Tour March of the Machine, and they had an excellent performance overall at the Pro Tour. As a group, these decks won 56.1% of their matches against decks without this black-red core. And at Arena Championship 3, where Benjamin Broadstone won with Rakdos Breach, decks with a black-red core also made up half of the metagame.

All in all, black-red decks dominated Standard in the first half of the year, but Reckoner Bankbuster, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and Invoke Despair did not last forever.

2. The May 29, 2023 Banned & Restricted Update

To help shift the metagame to a more fun space, the May 29, 2023 Banned & Restricted Announcement banned Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Invoke Despair, and Reckoner Bankbuster in Standard.

Fable of the Mirror-Breaker 548399 Reckoner Bankbuster

The announcement, which marked another step in the multifaceted plan to revitalize Standard, removed these cards to reduce the power of black-red decks. The three cards were chosen based on their power level, ubiquity, lack of counterplay, and/or negative impact on card diversity.

Banning these format staples certainly led to a shake-up of the format. Black cards like Go for the Throat, Cut Down, and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse remained popular, but they relocated to Dimir Midrange, Esper Control, and Mono-Black Midrange in August before Esper returned to the fore. Nowadays, Grixis and Rakdos decks still exist, largely as slower control strategies featuring sweet interactions like Archfiend of the Dross into Burn Down the House, but they claim only a few percentage points of the current metagame. Sheoldred, the Apocalypse is seeing very little play at the moment as well.

The May 29 announcement also introduced a change to the cadency of changes to the Standard format. To reduce unpredictability and to build confidence in building and playing Standard decks, format changes would now be made once a year before fall previews begin. Although ban windows were retained after every set release, it was announced that it would be very rare to use these ban windows to make Standard changes. Indeed, the December 4 announcement had no changes for Standard:

"We view Standard as healthy when each of the macro-archetype strategies (aggro, midrange, control, and combo) are present and when new sets add cards to existing decks and spawn entirely new decks. We've seen this happening since the bans in May, even as Standard has grown to now incorporate ten sets in total ... It remains true that our goal is to make Standard changes only once per year during the fall rotation window, barring any extremely warping outliers, of course."

1. The Supremacy of Raffine, Scheming Seer

Esper Legends and Esper Midrange decks with Raffine, Scheming Seer escaped the bans, and they represent the defining Standard strategies that lasted throughout the whole year 2023.

At the Regional Championships, 35 players qualified for the Pro Tour with Esper Legends—nearly the same number as for Grixis Midrange, even though Esper Legends was only 12.3% of the combined field. Thoralf Severin finished second with a well-tuned version of the deck at the European Championship, and the deck was rising in popularity throughout the entire cycle, boasting the highest win rate among all heavily-played archetypes.

In a vacuum, curving Skrelv, Defector Mite into Dennick, Pious Apprentice; Raffine, Scheming Seer; and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse was seen as the strongest thing you can do in Standard, and utility lands like Plaza of Heroes; Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire; and Otawara, Soaring City offered an excellent payoff for focusing on legends. Moreover, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben remains a giant nightmare for all decks that rely on noncreature spells.

At Pro Tour March of the Machine, however, Esper Legends ticked down in popularity and had a disappointing win rate. Despite gaining Rona, Herald of Invasion from March of the Machine, many opponents gained access to Lithomantic Barrage, which answered their threats too efficiently after sideboard. Lithomantic Barrage was the most-played card overall from the new set at the Pro Tour, killing Raffine, Scheming Seer for a single red mana while dodging the ward tax.

After Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Invoke Despair, and Reckoner Bankbuster were banned in May, many players expected Raffine, Scheming Seer to dominate, but this didn't immediately happen—creatureless Esper Control decks and other black midrange decks became even more popular, and Esper Legends dropped to 1.5% in August. However, it rebounded to 8.6% at the World Championship, where it claimed the trophy!

At the World Championship, 29 out of 105 players registered Raffine, Scheming Seer, clearly one the best three-drops in the format. Their builds diverged into two different versions: nine players were on the creature-heavy Esper Legends build with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Plaza of Heroes, and 20 players were on the spell-heavy Esper Midrange build with Wedding Announcement and Make Disappear. In any case, Raffine's connive triggers proved to be the key to success at Magic World Championship XXIX.

In the end, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, playing a mostly stock build of Esper Legends, took it all down. It was a well-deserved victory for the Frenchman, who has been widely regarded as one of the strongest players in the game for years. His decklist looks strikingly similar to the one used by Thoralf Severin in his Regional Championship; changing Razorlash Transmogrant and Adeline, Resplendent Cathar into Faerie Mastermind and Lord Skitter, Sewer King are the only minor differences.

In the finals, Jean-Emmanuel Depraz defeated Japan's Kazune Kosaka, playing Esper Midrange featuring Virtue of Loyalty. As more and more players recognized the raw power of the white adventure spell, the Esper Midrange version eclipsed the Esper Legends variant in subsequent weeks, especially after the release of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan.

Esper Midrange was 11.1% at the start of the year but then dropped to nearly non-existent numbers before rebounding with a whopping 19.0% at the World Championship. The deck does not have a single-minded focus on legendary creatures, allowing it to run the best threats and interaction across blue, black, and white. The individual card quality in the Esper shard remains amazing, featuring powerful three-drops like Raffine, Scheming Seer and Wedding Announcement, and it's capable of overpowering many Standard decks.

Deep-Cavern Bat 636782

The addition of Deep-Cavern Bat and Subterranean Schooner from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan has only improved it further, while Restless Anchorage and Get Lost provide additional options. Deep-Cavern Bat is surely the most important addition, as it provides interaction against slower decks, even exiling a potentially uncounterable Atraxa, Grand Unifier. It has found a spot in nearly every black-based midrange deck as a result, and since it's not a legend, it's another reason to choose Esper Midrange over Esper Legends. Deep-Cavern Bat is particularly potent when Raffine puts +1/+1 counters onto it, allowing you to race opposing creature decks. TheManLand won a Standard Challenge with the well-rounded list shown above.

Although the most prominent Esper version has changed over time, Raffine, Scheming Seer has reigned supreme throughout the year. Esper stands out as the defining Standard color combination of 2023 to me, and I expect that it will be a big part of the coming Regional Championship Qualifier cycle in the coming months. Surely, the World Champion would agree.

Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, Magic World Champion XXIX

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