Keeping Tabs

Sam looks at the results of SCG Standard Open: Seattle and Grand Prix Buenos Aires to analyze the metagame before Grand Prix Cincinnati and SCG Standard Open: Los Angeles.

This past weekend there were two major Standard events, SCG Standard Open: Seattle and Grand Prix Buenos Aries, which gives us a good chance to update the Standard metagame before Grand Prix Cincinnati this weekend.

The Top 8 of GP Buenos Aries featured three Mono-Blue Devotion decks, two Mono-Black Devotion decks, one Esper Control deck, one B/R Midrange deck, and one Jund Monsters deck. Fernando Pietragallo’s Mono-Black Devotion deck actually featured a red splash for Mizzium Mortars and Slaughter Games in the sideboard. Presumably Mizzium Mortars (which would be almost impossible to overload in this deck) is just there to kill Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and Slaughter Games is to help against Esper Control. This seems like a lot of work to improve a matchup that I thought was already pretty good, which to me just indicates that Fernando thought it would be very important to beat Esper this weekend.

Three Mono-Blue Devotion decks in the Top 8 isn’t terribly unusual for this Standard season, but there are a few noteworthy takeaways from these lists. First of all, all of them are mono-blue rather than U/W, and they’ve all moved away from maindeck Domestication, which was popular for a while. And only one played Jace, Architect of Thought.

Demian Tejo, who lost in the finals, played three copies of Rapid Hybridization and two copies of Cyclonic Rift, which is the most instant speed interaction with the board that I’ve seen in a Mono-Blue Devotion deck. The matchup that this shift would be best in is Monsters (but it wasn’t enough to let him win the finals against that deck). Moving away from Jace, Architect of Thought shows concern about Mono-Black Devotion and midrange creature decks, which makes sense given the popularity of G/R Monsters, and moving away from Domestication is about the popularity of Esper Control and likely G/R Monsters yet again, where the card is passable but relatively weak. I think these decisions make sense in the current metagame, and I like what these players did with the deck, particularly Demian.

Sebastian Martinez Beltrane’s B/R Midrange isn’t like other decks we’ve seen lately. A similar style of deck made a splash before Pro Tour Theros but usually splashed white. This deck benefits dramatically from the printing of Temple of Malice of course. Compared to Mono-Black Devotion, B/R Midrange is substantially less aggressive, as it drops Pack Rat and plays fewer creatures aside from that. Instead of Underworld Connections against control, the deck has two copies of Chandra, Pyromaster as its card draw and two copies of Rakdos’s Return as its powerful finisher. Against aggro, the deck gains access to Anger of the Gods. Hero’s Downfall shifts to the cheaper Dreadbore, but that means that it doesn’t answer Master of Waves or Mutavault.

For the most part, I don’t really understand this deck. Anger of the Gods would be great against decks like W/x Aggro and R/x Devotion sometimes and is good against some draws from Mono-Blue Devotion or Mono-Black Devotion, but to me it doesn’t seem like that big of a draw. While I can see this deck being good for some metagames, at the moment it just looks like a worse Mono-Black Devotion to me.

Most of the other lists in Buenos Aires were relatively standard in my opinion, but I’m simply not as likely to pick up on small adjustments for other decks as I am for Mono-Blue Devotion.

Meanwhile, in Seattle Neil Hartman won with R/W Burn. As far as I know, that’s the first big tournament win for a deck that’s been gaining some momentum. Despite the fact that the deck didn’t make Top 8 at the GP, it did put two in the Top 12 there, and coverage indicated that it had a significant presence and had performed well against Esper Control.

In Buenos Aries, the deck had significantly more burn spells, with Shock, Skullcrack, and up to four copies of Warleader’s Helix replacing Boros Reckoner; Chandras, Pyromaster; Stormbreath Dragon; and a land. Two of the R/W Burn decks in the Top 16 in Seattle where also more burn heavy, while the third looked very much like Neil’s deck. It’s interesting to me that none of these players used Satyr Firedancer, a card that I didn’t like the look of but has been performing well against me on Magic Online.

Boros Reckoner is a strange choice to me—I feel like the reason to play this deck is to punish people for putting too many removal spells in their deck without enough counterspells or pressure, and Boros Reckoner seems like it just turns on opposing black removal. I assume this decision was made out of respect for G/R Monsters, where the card is outstanding, but it feels more like a sideboard card to me or at least like it should be if you expect a lot of the other three big decks—Mono-Blue Devotion, Mono-Black Devotion, and Esper Control—all of which it seems relatively weak against.

Apart from the individual card choices, I think R/W Burn is doing things that make sense, and the card quality is remarkably high for a burn deck. This isn’t a deck that’s just exploiting niche cards like Lava Spike and Hellspark Elemental; the cards in this deck, while slightly less efficient at damaging players than those, are more well-rounded ones that just look like reasonable spells to cast in a vacuum. When combined they happen to be good at burning the opponent out, but in a deck like this they can just as easily be used to control opposing creatures while the few creatures this deck plays do the work of killing the opponent. This is to say the spells in this deck are more flexible than what we’ve seen in similar decks in the past.

Six of the Top 8 at #SCGSEA, second through seventh place, were black decks. Two copies of B/W Midrange, two copies of Mono-Black Devotion, one W/B Humans deck, and a Mono-Black Aggro deck to be precise. W/B Humans is the only one that isn’t essentially a black deck—it’s white aggro with a heavy black splash for Tormented Hero and Pain Seer to go with Xathrid Necromancer, five black removal spells, and four copies of Thoughtseize.

This deck looks pretty good to me, but I imagine it struggles against black (particularly if they splash Blood Baron of Vizkopa) and G/R Monsters (though I can certainly imagine lopsided games in either direction). I could also see it having trouble against R/W Burn. I think it’s probably good against Esper Control and Mono-Blue Devotion, though really all of these are going to be 60-40 type matchups rather than 70-30 or 80-20 blowouts.

Jackson Knorr opted for a Pack Rat backup plan in his Mono-Black Aggro deck rather than a more aggressive card like Spiteful Returned or Thrill-Kill Assassin, which isn’t a direction I like, but that might just be because I want Spiteful Returned to be good (I really like bestow). I feel like this deck should either be a better or worse version of Mono-Black Devotion, but I can’t really tell which. I also wonder if these decks should just be playing Gray Merchant of Asphodel as additional reach, something aggro decks are often interested in, but it might just be too expensive.

Looking further, I see that Donovan Hammond actually did straddle the line between Mono-Black Aggro and Mono-Black Devotion. While is his deck is listed as Mono-Black Devotion because he plays Gray Merchant of Asphodel, he has no Underworld Connections or Read the Bones—the closest he has is Pain Seer, but despite Pain Seer and Herald of Torment, this is very different from Mono-Black Aggro as well since he doesn’t have Rakdos Cackler or Tormented Hero.

He’s just a midrange aggro deck in game 1, and in the sideboard he has the four Underworld Connections to bring in against control when he wants to play as a more traditional Mono-Black Devotion deck. I actually like this list a lot at least in theory, though I don’t know if it’s better or just more interesting than the traditional approach.

The final deck in the Top 8 in Seattle was U/W Devotion with Ephara, God of the Polis and Detention Sphere. James Gardiner played a third Godless Shrine over the fourth Temple of Enlightenment (to avoid having another land that comes into play tapped), which seems absurd to me. Outside of that it’s a fairly typical U/W Devotion deck, although he also made some sideboard choices that I don’t agree with, like the inclusion of Aetherling (which admittedly might be slightly better with white in the deck) and Pacifism and Essence Scatter (I don’t have a huge problem with either of those cards, but four anti-creature cards here in addition to four copies of Detention Sphere and two copies of Domestication just feels like too much).

So what does all this mean going forward?

Well, Esper Control had a bad week. This can most likely be attributed to the presence and success of black decks and of R/W Burn, though a potentially shaky G/R Monsters matchup can also be an issue. I think this might be a sign of things to come, as I believe we’ll see more R/W Burn before we see less of it and don’t see why black decks would be any less popular in the immediate future. There’s some chance that it will eventually fall out of the top tier, but I’m certainly not ready to proclaim that yet.

I want to have a good plan against black decks next weekend, which for me is a reason to play a blue devotion deck, but for others it might be a reason to play R/W Burn or Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I’m not sure exactly what’s generally good against black decks other than blue devotion to be honest, and I know even that’s a close matchup.

Monsters had a relatively weak showing overall despite winning the Grand Prix, but I don’t think the deck is badly positioned or going anywhere. It’s the kind of deck a lot of people like to play—just a bunch of good big creatures with planeswalkers and removal—and it definitely has the tools to fight anyone.

It’s tempting to predict the rise of R/W Burn since it should gain attention by getting a win, but that’s not necessarily the kind of deck that does better when people are paying attention to it. And the fact that there were more in the Top 16 than the Top 8 coupled with personal experience that I’ve seen quite a bit of it on Magic Online suggest that the deck has already been popular and might not actually be performing particularly well for its numbers. For the moment, I don’t think I have enough experience with the deck to predict what will happen with it next, which is something I might have to work on this week.

Small non-flying creatures seem really poorly positioned to me. They don’t fight well against Sylvan Caryatid or Courser of Kruphix, and then they get eaten by Domri Rade; Polukranos, World Eater; or Mizzium Mortars. Or maybe they get blocked by Frostburn Weird and Elemental tokens or nullified by Jace, Architect of Thought. Perhaps they just get killed by Searing Blood and Warleader’s Helix while the opponent gains value. Overall, things seem hostile to them, which is why I like Donovan Hammond’s move away from the one-drops in his potentially aggressive black deck. As a result, I think we’ll see things stay the same more than we’ll see a resurgence of white aggro or Burning-Tree Emissary.

If I’m predicting stability, that’s something control decks can usually take advantage of, but an abundance of Thoughtseize and planeswalkers is a difficult niche for them to capitalize on.

Finally, a word on Born of the Gods Limited.

I’ve been drafting a lot more than I usually do on Magic Online lately (since I have a Standard GP coming up and love to do anything other than what I should be doing), and I think the advice people are following may be leading them astray.

I almost never get passed any playable white cards. Everyone seems to be climbing over each other for every aggro card, and most of the time when I find myself in a spot where I have to fight for those cards, I feel cut off and hate my deck. Granted, sometimes it works out, and those decks are great, which is why people gravitate toward them. But I’ve found that I can consistently end up with a winning deck by bucking the trend and looking to build a controlling deck from the beginning.

I haven’t been crushing my drafts, but I was getting destroyed early. After trying a variety of approaches, it was when I thought "I’m going to try taking Divination a lot higher" that I finally started winning more. My favorite decks are U/B, U/G, BUG, U/R, B/W, and U/W. I almost never end up B/W or U/W because white is never open, and I try to avoid red because I’ve lost a lot when I’ve been red. I only really like green paired with blue, but because I like to get into black early, I sometimes find myself in B/G when blue isn’t open.

This advice is weird. Often in the past I’ve felt like I was drafting (and telling people to draft) the best deck in the format; here I don’t think I’m doing that. I think I’m drafting the most open decks on Magic Online because people are drafting in a way that’s really skewed at the moment. This means that if too many people follow my advice and look to draft control decks, the advice will quickly become wrong, and people should go back to drafting aggressive white heroic decks. I’m not sure what that says about the equilibrium point of the format, but I currently think too many people are forcing one particular "best deck" in a format that isn’t actually as narrow as it’s perceived.