Magical Hack – Chasing the Trendsetters

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Time Spiral Block began this season with a small number of known “good” decks. White Weenie was the presumed eight-hundred-pound gorilla, which U/B Teachings the 799-pound-gorilla stealthily hid behind and kept force-feeding Twinkies so the Internet wouldn’t see past the Great White Hype. Mono-Red was surprisingly playable, and Red/Green worked pretty well too.

Block Constructed is often thought of as a hard format to love. Traditionally, a smaller card-pool has led to somewhat small metagames, as there are very few “top tier” choices one can really work with… but this tradition of thought has been outdated since at least Ravnica Block, if not before. Admittedly there really were only four or five respectable options for Kamigawa Block, with White and Black weenie decks, awkward Blue control decks and a Blue-Green hybrid control deck, and the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room, the Gifts deck. Mirrodin Block was worse, since really there was one strategy, and a few reasonable metagame choices such as the Kuroda Red deck or Tooth and Nail. Ravnica Block brought a philosophical sea change to how R&D sets these things up in the first place, but we were robbed of our Block Constructed summer, as the Block format became completely useless five minutes after its Pro Tour was won.

Time Spiral Block began this season with a small number of known “good” decks. White Weenie was the presumed eight-hundred-pound gorilla, which U/B Teachings the 799-pound-gorilla stealthily hid behind and kept force-feeding Twinkies so the Internet wouldn’t see past the Great White Hype. Mono-Red was surprisingly playable, and Red/Green worked pretty well too. Our Grand Prix experience showed that White Weenie was functionally invalidated by G/W Tarmogoyf, which easily racked up an early leaderboard for itself with a Grand Prix win and a subsequent metagame shift. We also saw a few new contenders if we’d just look past the Top 8, with a surprising variety of decks floating around out there winning matches and deserving respect. Each week we’d see something new floating out of the woodwork, like R/W/U Control popping up in places like Richmond, Virginia to capture the curiosity of the observer… after all, this R/W/U deck did not look like Blink Riders, which was the “known” and previously dismissed strategy using those colors.

At least at present, it would seem that despite cries of “Stagnation!” and the preaching of Grand Poobah Feldman and the Beard of Doooooom, we have a reasonably healthy and reasonably varied metagame. From my distant vantage point – known to some as “the loser’s bracket at this week’s PTQ” – I saw a lot of variety, and a definite change in how the metagame has been ticking lately. Rather than the polarized spectrum of pure aggressive versus pure control, a metagame made up of “just” G/W Goyf and U/B Teachings, we are now seeing a lot of ground being ceded to the middle of that spectrum: aggro-tempo or aggro-control, depending on how you want to think of it. Blue/Green aggro-tempo and Mono-Blue Pickles, advocated by a large number of American pros and Kenji Tsumura, respectively, have at least in my neck of the woods started to capture a downright respectable piece of the metagame pie. Magic Online is of course somehow still infested with this awful Virulent Sliver deck, which does not bear any resemblance to the real-life metagame where such things apparently do not function sufficiently to bring us anywhere near the Top 8. Whether MTGO is in this case horribly inbred and thus a backwater of bad technology or far ahead of the pending metagame progression cannot really be said.

That being the case, in my perusing of the Internet to search for my weapon of choice for this week’s PTQ, I’d made some interesting jumps… beginning with a deck that looked like the bastard love child of Kenji Tsumura and Kyle Sanchez (argument may now commence as to who’s on top!) and ending up with a bastard cousin of Feldman’s “Iron Man,” and sitting on the sidelines at 0-2 wishing I’d in fact had the gumption to make the last last-minute jump I’d considered… back to week 1 Red-splash-Tarmogoyf.

At the start of last week, technically, I was still playing Magus of the Tabernacle and Boom/Bust. And it’s even a decent deck… for that highly polarized metagame. It does good work at beating the Green/White decks, and can do good work against the Blue-Black deck by abusing their “tap out” strategy. After all, it’s awfully hard to “tap out” when one has no lands to tap, and with just a single Pact of Negation and Venser, Shaper Savant in the “average” PTQ Teachings deck it’s not exactly hard to force out an earth-shattering kaboom. I was, however, finding myself bubbling over with poison counters and losing the game to U/G on the back of a single Snapback entirely too often, and adjusting to a wider metagame than I’d targeted left my strong start the week before as a distant memory of back in the good old days when I could win a game. By midweek I was testing the following:

For some reason or another, though, I found the deck underwhelming. I was in love with the fun trick of Blinking an Epochrasite, and had somehow convinced myself that going back to Brian David-Marshall’s original “turbo” Pickles combo, unmorphing Brine Elemental on the cheap with Momentary Blink, had to be the superior approach. Because, y’know, clearly I’m a better deckbuilder than Kenji. (If this were Evan’s show, you’d see me rolling my eyes there. Instead you’ll just have to trust in plain-text sarcasm, which has worked for Tim Aten for years.) I kept running into problems. The Pickles part of the deck never wants a land to come into play tapped, but splashing came at that cost, not to mention the need to have at least some copies of Nimbus Maze, which is awful outside of a true 50-50 split of colors or some help from Ravnica’s duals. I kept finding secret hidden costs in every little accomplishment I was aiming for, and by the end of the week I was more or less willing to concede the point that vanity in this case was for losers. Everyone else at Neutral Ground was testing mono-Blue Pickles decks and it was outperforming the “Dirty Kenji” version, even if Epochrasite did conceptually provide a fun reason for wanting to put Blink in the Pickles deck.

And then I saw “Iron Man,” which conceptually melded with all of the issues I’d had holding me back from running U/B in the current format. Useless Shadowmages and Take Possessions that were being invalidated by every aspect of the metagame, from maindeck Disenchants to more Cloudskates running around everywhere. I took Richard’s approach and ran even further with it, trying to craft a tool that I could learn to play in a day and which I felt brought the right tools for a shifting metagame, because if nothing else I could expect the Neutral Ground players to follow where Ravitz led and shoot for the middle path. Prepared at least somewhat more than I thought Feldman was for the Pickles matchup, I took the following to battle:

The differences from Richard’s deck are very subtle… and thankfully, I hope, also small. I honestly didn’t expect much in the way of Blue-Black, thanks to the fact that the prior weeks’ U/B mages were all switching to pray at the altar of Kenji as preached by Ravitz… so the utility of a maindeck Vesuva seemed small, and I was drawing problems from too many lands always coming into play tapped. We’ve also seen fewer and fewer Aeon Chroniclers lately, and no Detritivores, making the splash for Pull from Eternity absolutely useless but potentially damaging when that Plains doesn’t do something useful. I’d never needed nor wanted the Disenchant, so I used the room and ditched the Plains. With fewer dedicated aggro decks around I wanted to swap the fourth Tendrils to the sideboard for something swingy, and thus the Draining Whelk came aboard.

I then proceeded to face Josh Ravitz round 1, and we all know what he was playing; this time I got a game off him, forcing the third, largely off the fact that having a second Teferi after sideboarding let me set up a very damaging sequence where his second Chronicler and impending Ancestral Visions were just gone, followed up by Haunting Hymn to empty his hand and kill his sole attacker, the first Chronicler. Game 1 I got mauled with no help from my own small series of misplays, each small enough to not really prove worrisome but add them together and it’s clear I wasn’t doing myself any favors… and game 3 the mana-hungry deck couldn’t provide enough lands to develop, as pressure mounted and Careful Considerations still failed to turn up that much-desired real estate.

My match at 0-1 was against a Red deck that didn’t get the memo, and with the game count at 1-1 we hit the five-turn barrier just as I was starting to finally make progress at controlling a dangerous game involving many fine Gargadons. As I attempted to navigate a series of plays that would allow me to close the game before running out of time, I somehow neglected to pay attention to reality and made about the only sequence of misplays I could think of that would involve me eating hot Gargadon. I’d spent longer driving to the tournament than I did playing it, just like in Richmond. (Though admittedly in Richmond I’d have had to play seven or eight rounds to beat the drive time from New York, culminating as it did in a white-knuckled drive down I95 in the pouring rain at 2:30 in the morning, worried that even if we did somehow not crash and die that we would be eaten by werewolves before sunrise anyway.)

This of course leaves a bit of frustration… especially since that pesky U.S. Nationals interrupts my PTQ binging, since the nearest PTQ I could try to make it to is much further away than I can sanely consider. I can’t even try and forgive it by attending Nats anyway, thanks to a business trip to Colorado this weekend to attend a super-nerdy science conference in Colorado Springs. I can MTGO it but again, poison counters do not equal actual reality and “just” playtesting with one of the several potential partners that volunteered last time I hinted I might want to develop more contacts don’t actually help to keep my finger on the pulse of the metagame.

We can, however, examine and compare trends. So rather than listen to me gripe about dealing with frustration that truthfully has very little root in the fine game of Magic: the Gathering right now and a lot to do with the events in my life right now, we’ll be skipping far ahead to the part where we play with math and numbers. Let’s start counting PTQ results…!

(Thankfully this isn’t a dialogue, or I’m sure I’d have just walked into an Avenue Q one-liner. It’s my column and I’ll be dry if I want to, be dry if I want to, be dry if I want to…)

Archetype: Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Wins
U/B Teachings 14 3 4 5 6
U/B Relic 0 3 3 2 0
Mono-Blue Pickles 0 2 4 2 2
U/G Tarmogoyf 0 1 1 4 0
G/W Tarmogoyf 2 5 5 0 1
G/W/r Tarmogoyf 7 3 0 2 0
G/W/u Tarmogoyf 5 0 1 1 1
Red Deck Wins 8 0 0 1 0
Wild Pair Slivers 0 0 3 1 0
Aggro Slivers 0 0 0 2 0
White Weenie 5 0 1 1 1
U/G Pickles 0 2 1 2 1
U/W Tempo 1 0 0 3 1
R/W/U Control 2 1 0 0 0
Reanimator 3 1 1 1 4
”Other” 9 3 0 4 0

Just tracking the PTQ wins, you’ll see that U/B Teachings is currently cleaning up… but it did most of its work early in the season, and has only picked up two PTQ win out of the last three weeks as opposed to the four snagged during Week 1. Its closest rival is Reanimator strategies, with four tournament wins… and it has won four out of its six appearances, meaning we have an official “stealth” deck here that has been quietly winning 66% of the PTQs it Top 8s in and nobody noticing. While the design of these decks are all somewhat different, the core similarity is still there in the fundamentals; heavily Blue and Black with reanimation targets and discard outlets and Dread Return / Body Double. Aggro Tarmogoyf decks have won exactly two PTQs so far despite a whopping 37!!! PTQ Top 8s in the past four weeks, and that’s when we lump G/W, G/U, G/W/u, and G/W/r all together in the same basket. I’m sure there’s a Clerks joke in there about sucking, but this is a family-friendly website so you’ll have to make it yourself.

Results don’t lie, and these results aren’t pretty for the aggressive decks. The best decks to pop up have all been control decks or could play out like one, such as Mono-Blue Pickles and the odd Reanimator strategies that outmaneuver the opponent and close with a more powerful threat than an aggressive deck can rush past. As far as trend-watching, though, we’re seeing a strong start for U/B quickly eroding into a somewhat minor Top 8 presence… but still picking up a strong number of slots, like in Philadelphia where the sole Teachings deck in the Top 8 played by Jim Davis beat out the competition to earn the trip to Valencia. Pickles-oriented strategies are actually starting to push forward, presumably as a response to the solid control orientation a good chunk of the rest of the field has. We’re seeing both U/G and mono-Blue Pickles decks, and even Pickles is sometimes going Blue/Black, either as actually a two-color deck or as mono-Blue with a Damnation sideboard against the aggressive decks, powered by Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. And it seems even if the aggressive decks are making the Top 8s, they aren’t winning them… contrary to whatever impressions seem to be floating around out there about this being a more aggressively-dominant metagame right now than it actually is.

Predator decks intended to beat up on the metagame, such as the new poison Sliver deck, aren’t even putting up as good a performance as your average little-respect niche strategy, like the R/W/U Numot the Devastator deck and/or Blink Riders descendants that have three PTQ Top 8s to Aggro Slivers’ two. Even the online metagame that spawned Poison Slivers is seeing it slowly but surely die out even there, fading from an 8% share to just 5% of all appearances, two PE Top 8s per five PE’s… and as we learned on Wednesday even Frank Karsten didn’t Top 8 with the poison slivers deck, in the two events he played it in. Early rumors about it beating the tar out of U/B Teachings decks or utterly demolishing G/W Tarmogoyf decks do not seem to be matching up with reality, even if Richard Feldman’s 9-1 win with U/B over Poison Slivers isn’t exactly indicative of an average reality either. With it becoming apparent that the matchup is “only” reasonable rather than insane, expect this deck to fade away back into obscurity once again.

The metagame on MTGO appears to be a lot more vibrant, with a variety of decks winning each tournament and a reasonably mixed spread of decks in each top eight… and a format in which the aggressive decks seem to win their PE a fair bit more than they have been winning the PTQs. I can’t honestly suggest any mechanism for this effect… it doesn’t seem to suggest that either medium is clearly “ahead” of the metagame than another, though as always the MTGO “early adopters” are usually weeks ahead of the real-life “early adopters”… the first Kenji Pickles deck appeared in a PTQ Top 8 during Week 2, which makes sound sense given that the Grand Prix was Week 1. Online, the first Pickles deck likely appeared five minutes after the Grand Prix results included a Top 8 decklist for it, and has been steadily picking up steam, to the point where it now has a 17% share of all the professional event Top 8s, quite a significant number and currently tied for first with U/B Teachings.

Presuming that MTGO’s trends are the future of the PTQ trends… a shaky proposition I attempted to “prove” here during the Extended season earlier this year but could at best show evidence that this “might” be a reasonable belief… then it would seem the growing trend in Tarmogoyfs will continue to be leaning towards U/G Aggro. Likewise, it would presume that as two of the better performers on the market that U/B Teachings and Mono-Blue Pickles will continue to be both popular and successful, with a consistent decline in the Grand Prix-winning G/W Goyf deck. Slowly but surely I had been noticing the trend in local PTQs that Blue/Green and Pickles were starting to creep up and bash the opposition, just as the PTQs started to become flooded with Green-White and related beatdown decks following the Brazilian win in Montreal.

Advancing this trend further would suggest that Blue/Green Goyf will in due time supplant Green/White Goyf entirely as “the better Tarmogoyf strategy.” We’ve seen a few other small hiccoughs… like a B/G/w deck similar in design to the G/B Tarmo-Rack decks from Regionals… but as a whole it seems to suggest that aggro-tempo is proving more successful than the G/W “aggro but built to bounce back from Damnation” approach that we saw in Montreal. G/W and its close relatives G/W/r and G/W/u have been disappointing as a whole on the PTQ scene, and not because they haven’t been making Top 8… they’re disappointing because they are getting steamrolled.

Blue/Green Tarmogoyf is presumably winning more online for a good reason, and not just because all Green cards get better when you play them with Blue cards. Having at least some elements of control puts a much-needed bottleneck on the U/B decks, specifically how fast they can effectively deploy their Damnations and Tendrils to stop you from killing them. A Damnation three turns from now will not save you now, after all, and Tendrils can’t gain you life if you’re already dead. Pongify is an excellent “counterspell” for those lifegaining Tendrils that seem to be driving the design of the U/B decks, preventing the life-gain and still leaving a significant threat in play, all for an amazingly low cost. Several elements of the Blue/Green deck seem to be working well in concert together, not the least of which is the added “reach” that comes from swapping your Griffin Guides for the “no creature need apply” Blue Char.

For upcoming weeks of the PTQ season I would suggest focusing in on Teachings, Pickles, Reanimator, and U/G Goyf as the chief strategies of interest, as these are pretty clearly the most effective decks in real life and three of them are also the most effective decks at the moment on MTGO. The PTQ trend tends to follow the prior week’s MTGO results, and that means even though U/G Goyf and Kenji Pickles seem to be “newcomers” to the PTQ scene there will be more of them next week than we saw this week.

… As if anyone is PTQing this weekend instead of playing Nationals. Pshaw, that’s crazy talk.

Postscript: Hack The System

It’s come to my awareness that a year and a half after I started writing Magical Hack I still haven’t missed an article, nineteen months and something like 80 articles later. This is apparently a peculiarity; even Flores, he who ticks like clockwork, has missed a week or at least been late for his deadline. (Children happen.) My Thursday evening for a year and a half has resulted in an email to first Ted and now Craig, and now that’s Wednesday night instead… which feels downright weird after 75 weeks in a row of 6pm Thursday to jump to 6pm Wednesday.

It has occurred to me that I could use a vacation, and while I don’t get a “summer break” from work, I could at least ease up a little on the various commitments and responsibilities I’ve taken upon myself by taking a summer break from writing Magical Hack. However, who to replace me? The Ferrett has Eli Kaplan as his stand-in, and Blisterguy had Craig; I haven’t set up anything and can’t just waltz off, so it occurred to me we could have an accidental summer contest while we’re at it… why be replaced by just one person for five weeks when instead I can replace myself with someone new every week, letting five people show off what they’ve got on the stage of the public eye. There are of course going to have to be rules to doing this… Magical Hack was put into place to cover developments in the tournament scene and the PTQ / Regionals / whatever metagame, so my fellow Hacks are going to have to work with a little bit of a constriction for their one chance to show off what they can do.

So, stay tuned… the next month should be a little interesting. If you find the idea interesting as well and would like a chance to shine instead of wonder why nobody’s giving you a chance… well, my email is as always at the end of this article, and I’ve only locked in two of these five slots so far so three intrepid readers and would-be writers have a chance if they take the first step and let me know that they want it. All in one we have a neat little package of some variety to spice up our lives, a chance for some new talent to break through the submissions policy to get their name on the front page, and a neat little challenge for all the naysayers we’ve seen in the forums saying they could do it better. I could use a month on a beach somewhere with a margarita, but I’ll settle for a lightened workload and a chance to read someone else’s take on Magical Hack. Watch this space… it should be an interesting August.

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com