Magic: The Gathering‘s Standard metagame and environment can shift and change drastically, with its yearly rotation and constant influx of new cards. A dominant deck or archetype is usually crippled when key cards rotate away or Wizards of the Coast decides to slip a juicy hate card into the next set to let some steam out. Other times, and I’d argue we’re in one currently, Standard is defined less by decks and archetypes as much as it’s by individual cards. The decks function less on synergy and more on inclusion of a couple key format-defining cards all wrapped together in a list. During these times, it can be useful to see a snapshot of which cards are being played most, as a new deck might very well be waiting in the wings just by experimenting with how you can combine a few of the top cards.
This list is based on the Top 8 deck lists for the 2014 Grand Prix Cincinnati, Star City Games Open: Los Angles, GP Buenos Aires, SCG: Seattle and GP Melbourne. These represent the five most recent larger tournaments, which not only give us a good sample size but also have the added benefit of being fairly diverse. The metagame for a South American GP is going to look pretty different than one in Australia, so only the truly best cards should be bubbling up.
If you’re interested in seeing the raw numbers you can see the compiled deck list: here. Before we move into the individual cards, there are a few immediately interesting things that stand out. Not that anyone needed to see the math backing it up necessarily, but there are a lot of [mtg_card=Swamp]s in Standard right. While decks like Green/Red Monsters and Red/White Burn have been making strides lately, the current Standard metagame is still 35% Black. The other colors round out at 26% Blue, 17% White, 12% Red and 10% Green. This is perhaps no better encapsulated than there are equal numbers of [mtg_card=Dark Betrayal] as there are basic [mtg_card=Forest]s in these lists. Yes, you read that right. Black decks killing other Black creatures is just as important as playing anything in Green right now.
For the purposes of this article I’m dealing just with the raw counts of each card. While looking at the % appearance gives us a different view, and helps to note cards that are important but not playset worthy – something like [mtg_card=Ætherling] would fit that role, I’m most concerned with the core frequency of which cards you’ll be seeing across the table.
But before we jump into it…
Honorable Mention – Scry Lands
I’ll admit. I grumbled about scry lands initially, like a lot of us did. I thought I was rather clever musing that if they had the basic land types on them they would be much more interesting for other formats, which they probably still would. But Scry lands have proven a lot of naysayers wrong; they end up higher on this list than Shocklands. Certainly there are times when having a tapped land is going spell doom, but ultimately the free scry is worth it in the long run. Smoothing out your draws, ensuring you’re getting better odds of drawing the lands or spells you need is pretty crucial for decks of all types. Heck, the latest iteration of Esper Control runs a full 12.
10. [mtg_card=Pack Rat] – 44
No longer just the bane of Return to Ravnica block limited, [mtg_card=Pack Rat] stomped onto the scene at Pro Tour Dublin – though Mono-Blue ultimately stole the spotlight. While it was initially run as a 2-of in most lists, it didn’t take long for everyone to adopt its 3rd and 4th brothers. It might be weak to a few mass removal spells, but against spot removal heavy lists you can simply hit 3 mana and start to overtax that removal by making every draw another rat. Eventually your tide of rats will simply overwhelm them. Not even the introduction of [mtg_card=Bile Blight] has stemmed the numbers. It’s also a card that’s benefited from having a few built in synergies. [mtg_card=Underworld Connections] if nothing else draws you an extra [mtg_card=Pack Rat] each turn, and [mtg_card=Mutavault], even just animating itself, will suddenly [mtg_card=Glorious Anthem] your team of rats. The damage jump from the first few turns of [mtg_card=Pack Rat] activations with a [mtg_card=Mutavault] in play is impressive and surprising if someone isn’t carefully doing the math.
9. [mtg_card=Detention Sphere] – 44[mtg_card=Oblivion Ring], but with an upside, was no doubt going to see some play. Even putting aside its ability to generate advantage when your opponent plays out more than one target, [mtg_card=Detention Sphere] has been useful for its catch-all properties. Enchantment, Planeswalker, Creature, etc. it doesn’t matter; [mtg_card=Detention Sphere] is here to put it in time out. It’s been an invaluable tool in Blue & White based control decks, and is likely making this list based on its increasing play in other decks as well. One of the new directions for Mono-Blue has been to splash into White for [mtg_card=Detention Sphere], [mtg_card=Ephara, God of the Polis] and some choice sideboard tech. If you have some room in your 75, some enchantment removal isn’t the worst inclusion, since you’re inevitably going to be facing down this card.
8. [mtg_card=Desecration Demon] – 45[mtg_card=Desecration Demon] might be worthy of some kind of award for best reversal ever, at least in recent memory. Punisher-style cards have always been a bit contentious, but the dream of an evasive 6/6 for 4 was basically dashed upon a sea of [mtg_card=Lingering Souls] tokens and undying creatures for the first half of [mtg_card=Desecration Demon]’s life in Standard. I personally remember chuckling every time I saw one resolved; knowing the Naya Blitz deck I was on at the time was going to run them over the next turn. While the big demon can still be a little awkward against some fast draws, these days though, that kind of hyper aggro is in remission. Getting to play an under-costed creature is a greater reality when the format is as slow as it is.
7. [mtg_card=Jace, Architect of Thought] – 46
Honestly, there hasn’t been a bad Jace yet, and [mtg_card=Jace, Architect of Thought] is essentially a near-perfect trifecta of planeswalker abilities. Combined with a high loyalty count, Jace protects itself with a +1 activation. Against any kind of aggressive deck that’s looking to go broad and swarm instead of big this is almost a nightmare, forcing you to put a lot of resources into getting him off the table and often playing into their sweeper. All the while dragging the game longer. His -2, affectionately called mini-[mtg_card=Fact or Fiction] because Magic players must name everything based on something that came before, is a source of card advantage, and it’s somewhat key that some non-zero percent of the time your opponent is going to incorrectly assess the piles giving you both the card you wanted and a bonus. Jace’s -8 ultimate is generally rare to see, because of the temptation to start ticking down for cards, but getting to find and cast the best cards in your and your opponent’s deck is usually game ending.
6. [mtg_card=Nightveil Specter] – 47
While [mtg_card=Pack Rat] made the jump from crushing drafts, [mtg_card=Nightveil Specter] came right out of the dollar rare bin. A 2/3 flyer for 3 was never the worst deal, though nothing exciting enough for constructed, but it wasn’t until Theros and its devotion mechanic that those 3 Blue and Black mana pips suddenly became a lot more valuable. In addition to that, [mtg_card=Nightveil Specter]’s ability started to really show its stuff. It doesn’t take too many hits for things to get really out of hand, and heaven forbid you’re playing the mirror and you just played a 2 power flying [mtg_card=Scroll Thief].
5. [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall] – 53
Whether you like to call it [mtg_card=Murder] with upside of instant speed [mtg_card=Dreadbore], [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall] is undoubtedly seeing lots play for its ability to not be a dead card regardless of what kind of deck you’re facing. At its most basic level, Magic is a game about exchanging resources. One deck is asking questions and the other is trying to line up the right answers. The more versatile the card is, the less chance that it’s going to end up stranded in your hand. This is why the cycle of charms are highly valued; paying a little more is worth having options. For instance with [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall], the most common thread of this is that control decks love to prey on the fact that a lot of the opposing decks are stuck with a bunch of almost worthless creature removal spells. When your opponents’ win conditions are [mtg_card=Ætherling] and [mtg_card=Elspeth Sun’s Champion], cards like [mtg_card=Ultimate Price] are almost worse than a basic land. [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall] gets around this issue by being able to trade off equally well against a creature or planeswalker.
4. [mtg_card=Lifebane Zombie] – 54[mtg_card=Lifebane Zombie]’s life in standard has been directly proportional to the expected number of targets it’s going to hit, and some decks have even needed to shift their color density because of it. It’s certainly doing no favors to the number of Green/White decks we currently see in Standard. Recently, we’ve seen the rise of the Jund and GR Monsters decks and more White creatures like [mtg_card=Archangel of Thune] coming out of the sideboards of control decks. Also, there’s this little card that every Black deck really hates to see. What was it again? Oh right, [mtg_card=Blood Baron of Vizkopa]. While you’re always at the mercy of top decks, [mtg_card=Lifebane Zombie] gets to operate as [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] five through eight for specific problem cards, and at the end of the day the 3/1 intimidate body that lets you see your opponent’s hand is pretty respectable.
3. [mtg_card=Doom Blade] – 63[mtg_card=Doom Blade] riding high at number three kind of flies in the face of everything else we’ve discussed so far. Over a 1/3rd of the format is Black, and none of the creatures we’ve discussed on this list so far die to it. But you just can’t keep a good removal spell down. Even with all the Black running around, the clean efficiency of removing every other creature around for cheap cost of one and a Black is just too good to ignore. Much of this season of Standard has been the dance and shuffling of Black removal suites. [mtg_card=Ultimate Price] hits most targets, but not [mtg_card=Mutavault], [mtg_card=Nightveil Specter] and a few other important cards. [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall] is good, but not every deck can afford to run 4 on the mana base and it’s a little slow. [mtg_card=Devour Flesh] can in theory answer any threat, but once that [mtg_card=Elvish Mystic] and such hits the table it looks pretty bad. Ultimately being live for the other 2/3rd of the format is worth the price of being awkward in the face of Black decks. Well, at least that [mtg_card=Mutavault] isn’t ever surviving an activation.
2. [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] – 91
In addition to Shocklands in Return to Ravnica and cards like [mtg_card=Mutavault] in M14, [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] represents a major push by WotC to get more of these cards into players’ hands for Modern. The original Lorewyn [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] was up in $60s and higher before the reprint. If you weren’t paying attention when we discussed [mtg_card=Hero’s Downfall], then [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] reinforces that versatility is king. As long as it isn’t a land, [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] can pluck it out of their hands, making it much more valuable to have around as opposed to something like [mtg_card=Duress]. There’s also the often unsung secondary value of seeing your opponents hand. While stripping their hand of a problematic spell or non-land permanent is certainly the main appeal, by knowing what your opponent is holding you can use that information to craft your next few turns. Once you’re playing out threats that your opponent is forced to top deck the right answers for you’ve got them on quite the back foot.
1. [mtg_card=Mutavault] – 120
Which finally leads us to the end, and the most heavily played spell in the current Standard format: [mtg_card=Mutavault]. [mtg_card=Mutavault] has been perhaps one of the most subtle format warping cards, while [mtg_card=Thoughtseize] is not the most distant second [mtg_card=Mutavault] is outpacing every other card by a fair margin. Certainly a lot of that has to do with the simple nature of a colorless land, it can in theory be played in a deck running any color – though granted once you start discussing triple color decks [mtg_card=Mutavault] gets to be a little too greedy to include. So what makes [mtg_card=Mutavault] so good? Other than [mtg_card=Pack Rat] and [mtg_card=Master of Waves] there aren’t a ton of other relevant tribal considerations. [mtg_card=Grizzly Bears] with upkeep isn’t exactly lighting up the world either. In truth there isn’t any one thing that propelling it, it’s a mountain of little interactions and the effect [mtg_card=Mutavault] has on your consistency as a whole. [mtg_card=Mutavault] is essentially ½ a land and ½ a spell. This means you’re free to run a more comfortable number of lands without the risk of necessarily flooding out. It’s a land when you need the land and another creature when you need a creature, and it also does a pretty good job of pressuring your opponent and avoiding playing into sorcery speed sweepers like [mtg_card=Supreme Verdict]. All while letting you use your mana efficiently each turn, got 2 mana open that you won’t use and think the cost is clear? Get in for 2 with [mtg_card=Mutavault]. This all comes at the simple cost of including a few lands in your list that don’t make colored mana, and with enough other dual lands in the format to ensure you hit your recommended color sources its inclusion is essentially free for many decks.
Whether your a competitive grinder, rogue deck brewer or kitchen table casual, I hope this look into the top played cards of Standard was interesting. We’ve got a few more weeks of the current metagame, but Journey to Nyx is only a few more weeks away, promising the last 2 gods and scrylands for UR and GB. What else are you hoping to see in Journey to Nyx? Sound off in the comments to let us know.