Seasons change and so does the format of this series
Last season, I began this meta rewind series by picking out four decks to highlight for four different reasons (the most consistent deck, the deck with the highest win-rate, the deck that changed the most over the season and a newcomer). After some feedback from readers on Reddit, I have decided to take it in a different direction this time and see how it goes. This season, I will be instead highlighting each deck in the top tiers of the tier list and going over how each deck performed and adapted throughout the season.
I should note that this season’s rewind is made possible by PlayingExplorer team member TyrantofTales and his diligent data collection throughout each Arena season, and he is credited as an author for this reason.
This Explorer season was the most stable season we’ve seen thus far in terms of tier list movements and new decks entering the format. Of course, that was shaken up a bit toward the end of the season when twenty cards (though only a few of them were meta-defining) were printed into the format. It’s still a week too early for me to include any shifts caused by the Explorer Anthology in this article, but check out our tier list on Thursday for a short article digging into the post-Anthology meta.
On the best-of-three side, Rakdos Midrange remained S-Tier and stable throughout, only to be joined by UW Control in the last week of the season. With the printing of Supreme Verdict and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet we expect the war between Rakdos Midrange and UW Control to wage on, defining the meta for all other decks in the format.
Like I mentioned in the Anthology Announcement article linked above, I expect the cards chosen for the first Explorer Anthology to throw Explorer best-of-three into its first true “rock-paper-scissors” (or triangle) format, with an equally-strong representation of aggro, midrange and control battling it out each week for the top slots. If the meta does shake out this way, you can expect a much more dynamic tier list, putting on full display each week which part of the triangle Explorer is living in.
The only true breakout deck best-of-three saw this season was a few different Humans variants; my preference being Abzan, and of which I wrote a deck tech and sideboard guide for here.
On the best-of-one side, a similar war is being waged in S Tier between Mono-Red and various Angels builds – the top-performing version being Selesnya Collected Company. As far as breakout decks, best-of-one didn’t see much ingenuity this season, with Fight Rigging being the only deck that really adapted and moved around the tier list. We don’t expect this to change too much with the printing of the Explorer Anthology, as best-of-one is a format that will be less affected by the twenty cards printed in the set than the best-of-three side. Elvish Mystic might shake things up a bit, but cards like Kalitas and Supreme Verdict are less powerful at best (and a liability at worst) in best-of-one.
Editor’s note: the decklists on PlayingExplorer.com will be updated along with this Thursday’s tier list update. While we have slotted in the relevant cards printed in the Anthology into each deck, we have not had sufficient data to provide context for these additions.
The true-to-paper, sideboarded version of Explorer (and the format that the Arena Championship will be played in), saw much more meta movement throughout the ranked season than the best-of-one side did. One deck in particular, though, remained constant in play rate, win rate and tier list position through the entire season: Red/Black Three-Drop Tribal.
This month, Rakdos continued its unbroken S-Tier record every week. In the first week of the season, though, it looked for a second like this could change, with UW Control seeing a drastic increase in playrate and Rakdos Midrange dropping to the 13th most-played deck. This shift only lasted one week, and never caused the deck to leave S Tier. In the second week of the season, Midrange returned in full force as the second most-played deck while maintaining its 64% win-rate, which dropped to 60% toward the end of the season, falling more in line with Azorius Control.
As mentioned, UW Control started the season with a bang, representing the most-played deck by a wide margin in the first week while maintaining a 60% win-rate. Both of these metrics were maintained going into the second week and continued through to the present. It has always been in contention for S-Tier consideration alongside Rakdos Midrange, but only broke into the tier in the last week of the season. The printing of Supreme Verdict was, of course, tremendously good for the archetype in best-of-three.
Abzan and Selesnya Humans broke into the top tiers beginning with the very first week of the season, where it stood as the fourth most-played deck and held a 58% win-rate. As pilots started shifting away from Selesnya and toward Abzan (which started happening in the third week of the season), it started to see more success – ending the season with an increased play rate and a 59% win-rate.
Golgari and Sultai Fight Rigging started the season off weak in terms of representation, but the Sultai version boasted a whopping 68% win-rate in the first week of the season – the highest out of every deck tracked at the time. Eventually, Sultai started to become the only deck with any high-level representation at all, which continued through the middle of the season, when the deck moved into A Tier.
As Rakdos Sacrifice (-4 Anvil, +4 Claim the Firstborn) started gaining traction in Pioneer, so too did the Explorer version. Its tier list rise didn’t really begin until the third week of the season, when it started boasting a 61% win-rate and began its rapid rise in play rate.
Already over-performing in best-of-three and even best-of-one, Mono-Blue Spirits was also treated well in the first Explorer Anthology, with Mausoleum Wanderer filling out the deck and providing copies 9-12 of one-drop spirits. In the first week of the season, Spirits weren’t tremendously well-represented, but showed up ready to win with a win-rate of 67% – the second-highest win-rate on opening week. It maintained a 60%+ win-rate all season, not moving too much in either direction, even without Mausoleum Wanderer gracing it yet.
Lost but Seeking
Between the “chonky” Embercleave version and the various lower-to-the-ground strategies that saw play on the ladder, Mono-Red started the season off strong in best-of-three, representing the third most-played deck and holding onto a 63% win-rate. Mono-Red started to slip a bit in season week two and continued that slight slip in playrate up to the present time. Notably missing any support cards in the Anthology (possibly due to its dominance in best-of-one), Mono-Red’s success will be tied to UW Control’s prominence to some extent going forward.
Bonus: The Deck to Watch?
Vampire decks have seen play in Explorer from the beginning, but never quite had the representation to be considered for anything above D Tier. That being said, its win-rate has hovered in the mid-60% range all along, including in the July Season. While all of the hype for Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet has been relegated to its inclusion in Rakdos Midrange, Kalitas is a powerful Vampire that adds both a strong hard-cast play and a decent Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord cheat target. This is purely speculation, here, but Vampires is one of the decks I’m extremely excited to pick up again once the meta settles in a bit more.
Bane of Red Fell
Angels kicked off the season as the most popular deck in the best-of-one format, but held a four percentage point-deficit to Mono-Red decks. Angels soared to the top last season as a direct response to the top-tier best-of one decks, including Mono-Red, Mono-Blue Spirits and even Greasefang variants. Angels dropped to second place playrate-wise, behind Mono-Red, in the second week of the season and stayed just behind it throughout the remainder of the season. In terms of win-rate, the deck never dropped below 60% and continuously knocked percentage points off of Mono-Red throughout the season.
The Hard-Fought Winner
Mono-Red started the July season the same way it ended the June season: with the highest winrate on the tier list at 64%. The battle between Mono-Red and Angels started last season, but was more evident this season, with Mono-Red’s win-rate dropping as Angels’ playrate increased. Toward the middle of the season, the best-of-one menace was creeping toward 66%, only to drop below 62% in the final week. Without anything from the Anthology and the ability for Greasefang to include Kalitas, the downward trend could continue.
Slayer of Angels
UW Control also started the season off strong, as the fourth most-played deck (behind Angels, Mono-Red and Greasefang), while putting up a respectable 61% win-rate. While not the strongest choice into Mono-Red, the increasing presence of Angels decks gave Azorius something to feed off of in the early season. Things only got better for the deck through the middle and end of the season, maintaining the 61% win-rate throughout while moving up to the third most-played deck in the format even before the printing of Supreme Verdict.
Mardu and Esper Greasefang variants have been a staple of the best-of-one ladder since Explorer first launched. If data between the two decks were to be combined, Greasefang would be an S Tier deck most weeks. In the early season, Esper boasted the higher win-rate at 64%, while Mardu was better represented in playrate. Toward the end of the season, the Mardu variant pulled away as the clear winner out of the two in terms of representation – though, the 59% win-rate remains the same between the two decks.
Lying in Wait
While clinging onto a respectable early-season winrate, Mono-Blue Spirits has a rough time against the two S-Tier decks in the format (Mono-Red and Angels), and with Mono-Red having the most appearances on the Platinum+ ladder by a factor of two, Spirits were falling out of the sky left and right. In week two (the strongest week for Mono-Red), Spirits had a terrible showing – dropping to the 11th most-played deck in the format – just to come back two weeks later to its more reasonable fourth-place position pre-Anthology.
Bonus: The Deck I Feel Like Should Be Doing Better
As a disclaimer, I don’t play best-of-one Arena anymore, but Fight Rigging seems to me to be the ultimate best-of-one deck. Enchantment-based combos are difficult for most decks to interact with even in sideboarded games, and some of the potential payoffs for Fight Rigging’s hideaway, like Titan of Industry or Elder Gargaroth can just end games against Mono-Red, Spirits and Angels. Outside of this combo, most builds of the deck can fall back on a regular ol’ stompy plan – especially the versions that run Collected Company alongside Fight Rigging. Maybe I’m missing something, but it just seems like the relatively low playrate is the only thing keeping the deck down in best-of-one. With a 65% win-rate in the later season, maybe August is the time for Rigging to shine.
This season’s reset, being timed right along with the Explorer Anthology printing, is in some sense more of a look into the past than a glimpse into the future – but I believe that in all things, it is important to know where we were before we start looking into where we’re going. While the oft-lamented Rakdos Midrange-dominated ladder isn’t just going to disappear on the best-of-three side, and Mono-Red is likely here to stay on the best-of-one ladder, I believe the Explorer Anthology will shake things up just enough to keep the format fresh and balanced until Dominaria United shakes it up completely.
In terms of deck suggestions, I can only speak to the best-of-three side, where I will suggest against expending all of your wildcards building something entirely new in reaction to a meta shift, as I fully believe that meta shifts will be much more temporary than we have seen up to this point. If you have been playing Humans and you’re getting hit with Supreme Verdict after Supreme Verdict, I would tech the sideboard with cards like Guardian of Faith for now, rather than craft a UW counter like Mono-Red or Heroic from scratch. Eventually, other players will do just that, and UW will start to fall off again. If you’re playing Spirits and facing nothing but Mono-Red, I would tech the sideboard with Cerulean Drake, etc. instead of crafting something like Rakdos Midrange from scratch, again waiting for Rakdos Midrange players to flood the ladder in response to Mono-Red and take them down a peg.
Of course, if you want to play an entirely new deck, definitely go for it! I would just personally hold off on spending a ton of wildcards specifically in response to a temporary meta shift right now. Save them for Dominaria if you can!
I have been having a great deal of success with Mono-Blue Spirits so far, with Mausoleum Wanderer bringing the deck fully to Pioneer standards. Two copies of Unsubstantiate in the sideboard to “counter” Supreme Verdict has helped quite a bit, and our Rakdos Midrange matchup seems to have improved with Mausoleum Wanderer either racing them to death or countering an otherwise backbreaking Stomp.
I’m also still having success with Rakdos Midrange, of course, though Kalitas is less powerful of an addition in a world without Phoenix or an overabundance of Mono-Red, Prowess or Heroic. I think the deck will continue to tech against the decks that go over it rather than the ones that try to go under it, but the novelty of Kalitas and its presence in Rakdos’ Pioneer equivalent is keeping a few copies in Explorer mainboards for now. I think Kalitas might be a bigger boon to Vampires decks than it is to Rakdos Midrange in the current meta, honestly.
Since the Anthology printed, I’ve swapped Abzan Humans for a five-color Pyre build (with a fun-of copy of Alesha, Who Smiles at Death), which I find better into the UW Control matchup, as they can’t counter Pyre of Heros’ activations the way they can counter Collected Company or hard-casted humans – and Supreme Verdict fills my graveyard for Extraction Specialist.
In terms of brews, I’ve been playing Rakdos Fires and Mono-Red Golos Fires (which are fun but don’t love the massive increase in counter-magic that Spirits and UW bring to the game) and Mono-Black Devotion, which got a new toy in Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next month!