Magical Hack: Running With Numbers

Last week, when I left off, I’d intended to go into greater detail about my thoughts on control-oriented decks in Kamigawa Block Constructed, but in between there seems to have been a highly relevant Grand Prix that sums up all of the musing I’ve been doing on re-working a Splice-based control deck. We will get to talking about control decks in good time, but with the availability of excellent information being released every week in the form of PTQ Top Eight decklists, and a recent shift in the metagame to focus extremely on the White Weenie and Black Hand beatdown decks, I felt it important enough to interrupt what I had otherwise intended to talk about.

Last week, when I left off, I’d intended to go into greater detail about my thoughts on control-oriented decks in Kamigawa Block Constructed, but in between there seems to have been a highly relevant Grand Prix that sums up all of the musing I’ve been doing on re-working a Splice-based control deck with updates based on the printing of Kagemaro, First to Suffer and Death Denied. We will get to talking about control decks in good time, but with the availability of excellent information being released every week in the form of PTQ Top Eight decklists, and a recent shift in the metagame to focus extremely on the White Weenie and Black Hand beatdown decks, I felt it important enough to interrupt what I had otherwise intended to talk about.

I have been asked by many readers to try and go back to being “the numbers guy”, mining unlikely data (sometimes data that no one else has access to, such as my efforts to obtain the Pro Tour Philadelphia Last Chance Qualifier decklists and round information) in an effort to use statistical methods for following trend information that otherwise is watched, but not measured. We are now four weeks of PTQs into the Kamigawa Block Constructed qualifier format, and (prior to the Splice deck’s win at Minneapolis) that has become more and more about White Weenie and Black Hand as PTQ players saturate the format with those two decks. This trend started prior to the start of the season, when Gadiel Szleifer recently wrote A Little About A Lot, explaining his experience with the Splice deck in Philadelphia and why it was, all in all, not a viable choice for tournaments with fifty-minute rounds. This opinion percolated, and saturated the environment, perhaps single-handedly dismissing the deck’s existence in any numbers at all at PTQs. That it proved accurate, and could be backed up with play experience from anyone who bothered to try the deck, only helped to spread that belief, and PTQ players flocked to faster, if not necessarily “better”, decks. The other “good” decks in the format grew in population, and the Splice deck died, leaving White Weenie unchecked and growing.

Seeing this trend in action, know for a fact that as of this week the “fifty -inute round” Splice deck has been made public. This is the Splice deck that doesn’t have to sit back and repeat Ethereal Haze against beatdown decks, because Kagemaro, First to Suffer on full-auto fire doesn’t need to hit more than two or three times before you start getting in for significant damage against an exhausted opponent. Whether that is better, for its format, than the original Splice deck for its format, including round length time, is a moot point: this is what we’ve got to work with. The Splice deck can no longer be ignored in the metagame as it is lining up, and therefore the definite predator of White Weenie has been found, keeping the great white hype from spreading like kudzu.

Now, a quick explanation about what I did with all of this information, before I wave numbers in front of your face and claim legitimacy because of it. For each of the two decks being looked at, White Weenie and Black Hand, I collected all United States PTQ Top Eight decklists and entered them into a spreadsheet, including the date and finish of the decklist. I compiled all of these decklists and averaged their tallies, to get a sense of what the “average” White Weenie deck can be expected to look like. On a second worksheet, the same information is again presented, but a Top Four PTQ finish was accorded twice as much weight as a “mere” Top Eight, a loss in the finals of a PTQ accorded three times as much weight, and a PTQ win accorded four times more weight than a simple Top Eight finish, under the logic that you want to win the tournament, not just squeak into the Top Eight. [There are issues with this methodology, since something like 84.256% of PTQ wins are negotiated… – Knut] For the Grand Prix this past weekend, the same weight as a PTQ win was assigned to a Top Eight finish, while a cut to the Top Four was good for six times as much weight as your PTQ Top Eight finish, or 50% more than a Grand Prix Top Eight finish was worth.

A third table was likewise created, and set to bias results based on recent appearances; a Week One finish counted one time, Week Two twice, Week Three three times, and last week four times. We want to compare all of these things to each other, and so both of these weighted averages were then collected next to the original information on a fourth worksheet, which then let us compare these averages with the unweighted averages and determine if they are above the curve, and by how much. If you want to see the whole spreadsheet, and pick over this yourself, it can be accessed by emailing the Editor or by downloading it from my personal FTP site here.

White Weenie

First and foremost, we learned that the mana base of White Weenie can effectively be considered inviolate; neither bias over time or bias by finish significantly changed the land count, even though there were occasional individual differences. 21 Plains and one Eiganjo Castle is proving sufficient to run the deck, though a 23rd Land can be found commonly in decks with a greater number of four-drop control creatures in the main, either Hokori or Celestial Kirin.

Second, the only spells currently accorded as “automatic four-ofs” are Umezawa’s Jitte, which is clear, and Lantern Kami, which is less so but makes excellent sense. Stuck right in the middle between three-of and four-of are Isamaru, Hound of Konda, Kami of Ancient Law, and Eight-and-a-Half-Tails. A choice on either of those numbers, 3 or 4, is clearly supported by the numbers, and is split down the middle. Interestingly, the few times the fourth copy of Isamaru appeared in the sideboard, it counted to the weight by finish column, which suggests that you want four in your 75 cards, even if you don’t necessarily want four in your 60.

Caught at three-of, we have Hand of Honor, whose inclusion is becoming an automatic as the metagame shifts to support good, aggressive Black decks. Between two-of and three-of, we have Samurai of the Pale Curtain, with the decision between those numbers being close enough to 50% as to not really matter; most decks that ran any ran four, and there is not currently any correlation between having Samurai of the Pale Curtain and doing better in the Top Eight, or between not having Samurai of the Pale Curtain and doing worse. Expect that particular choice to change; Black Hand will be adding more main-deck Nezumi Graverobbers, making the Pale Curtain better than before in that matchup, while it will be extremely key in fighting the Splice matchup. Between one-of and two-of, we have Hokori, Celestial Kirin, Charge Across The Araba, Otherworldly Journey, Manriki-Gusari, Blessed Breath, and Shining Shoal. Celestial Kirins appeared more often in decks that did well in the Top Eight, presenting a clear advantage, in addition to increasing in presence over time. Use of Blessed Breath is going down, and tends to be associated with use of Tallowisp, who is planted at a strong one-of and is on the way out on average, as supported by the biasing by finish. That it may return soon, thanks to the upsurge in Black Hand decks packing Hideous Laughter and the return of the Splice deck, is not to be forgotten; neither should it be forgotten that this is a Spirit, for the purposes of interacting with Celestial Kirin, and can be used instead of Kataki, War’s Wage, who had begun appearing as a one-of in decks based on Celestial Kirin.

Otherworldly Journey had been on the way up because of its interaction with Yukora the Prisoner and Raving Oni-Slave, who consequently began going down while Otherworldly Journeys increased. Expect it to stay because of its usefulness in Jitte-fights, good interaction with Celestial Kirin, and the coming influx of mass removal thanks to the Splice deck. Indomitable Will and Cage of Hands have been on the way out, as Tallowisp became less and less relevant, but expect that to change again as the trend begins to reverse itself. Spirit / Splice based White Weenie decks, using Promise of Bunrei, Spiritual Visit, and Long-Forgotten Gohei, have broken even overall as far as success goes, but Promise of Bunrei without the other cards has been on a downward trend, not really supporting the rest of the White Weenie strategy without something to push it over the top, namely Long-Forgotten Gohei to reward the excess Spirit tokens. Why these decks play three each of these cards, rather than four each, I can’t tell you. They seem to complement each other, and get better in multiples, so I’ll have to settle for being confused.

Out of the sideboard, the only noteworthy points to mention are that Reverence is not the way to go after sideboarding, and likewise Ghostly Prison is underperforming; neither seem to be truly relevant to the White-on-White or White-on-Black plans currently in use. 2-3 Hokori are consistently present, with a total average of 3.5 Hokori between the main-deck and the sideboard. Just over two Empty-Shrine Kannushi have been present in most sideboards, and closer to 2.5 between the main-deck and sideboard, but the correlation between Empty-Shrine Kannushi and winning is a downward trend: Celestial Kirin is the more relevant card, and Kitsune Blademaster has likewise shown an upward trend when biasing the results to favor winning in the Top Eight.

Terashi’s Grasp has been consistently present, but has not consistently mattered, as new ways to break out of opposing Jitte locks have become apparent… Manriki-Gusari and Celestial Kirin both accomplish similar goals, and enchantments were never the concern anyway, thanks to Kami of Ancient Law already being effectively an auto-include in the deck. Charge Across The Araba has had a correlation with winning, suggesting to me that the proper number to include is not the 2-3 that have been commonly seen, but one in the main-deck and a second in the sideboard, especially if the proper tool turns out to be Hokori, Dust Drinker and not Charge Across The Araba for fighting the Splice deck.

The mathematical “average” White Weenie deck right now looks like this:

21 Plains
1 Eiganjo Castle

4 Lantern Kami
3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
3 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
3 Kami of Ancient Law
3 Hand of Honor
3 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
1 Tallowisp
1 Hokori, Dust Drinker
1 Celestial Kirin
1 Kitsune Blademaster

1 Charge Across The Araba
2 Otherworldly Journey
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Manriki-Gusari
2 Shining Shoal
1 Indomitable Will
1 Blessed Breath
1 Cage of Hands
1 Promise of Bunrei

Twenty-two lands, twenty-three creatures, and fifteen spells. Seven one-drops, thirteen two-drops, and three creatures that cost more than two mana. Other than that, we have some choices to make, and the question becomes very simply which of those choices is going to best profit against the key matchups: the mirror, Black Hand, and against control decks, especially the Splice deck.

Celestial Kirin is key against opposing Jitte-based decks, and can be considered to supplant the Manriki-Gusari strategy directly: it’s an out-and-out trump. It imposes design constraints, specifically the use of sufficient two-mana Spirit and Arcane cards to be worthwhile, but fortunately Otherworldly Journey is proving excellent in all three of the matchups we currently consider relevant. That Celestial Kirin for two is becoming more relevant against Black Hand, as will be seen in this same analysis for the Black Hand deck, is simply a bonus to make up for the prior benefit Otherworldly Journey used to get against Yukora, the Prisoner and Raving Oni-Slave, as its inclusion alongside Celestial Kirin can still prove good for more than just dodging removal.

With the return of the Splice deck, we can expect to see a return of the usefulness of Tallowisp, even though the three decks in the Top Eight of the recent Grand Prix did not have any such trend. As a Spirit, and as a creature with three toughness, it has extra usefulness for what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re facing off against, though the “full” number of Indomitable Wills will likely not appear, instead seeing one copy to search for and the rest replaced with Manriki-Gusari, a permanent boost effect that also has the benefit of being good in Jitte fights.

Assuming that the recent trend towards Hand of Honor is now in the process of reversing itself, as the metagame widens to include the Splice deck and Celestial Kirin becomes more common for fighting off Black Hand decks, the space formerly occupied by Hand of Honor is likely to fill up with Tallowisp instead. My expectation for the coming few weeks is for winning White Weenie decks to look more like this:

22 Plains
1 Eiganjo Castle

4 Lantern Kami
3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
4 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
4 Kami of Ancient Law
3 Tallowisp
2 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
4 Celestial Kirin

4 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Otherworldly Journey
2 Manriki-Gusari
2 Shining Shoal
1 Charge Across The Araba
1 Indomitable Will

1 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
1 Tallowisp
1 Indomitable Will
1 Charge Across The Araba
1 Otherworldly Journey
3 Cage of Hands
3 Kitsune Blademaster
4 Hokori, Dust Drinker

This lets you have the cards that matter in the mirror, especially since Celestial Kirin trumps Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, while still presenting the kind of tools you want to have against the other decks around and a high enough count of two-mana Spirit and Arcane cards for triggering Celestial Kirin. This is something of a composite of several strategies, and at least a little bit of hedging my bets about what will come to follow the impending metagame shift towards a broader field of decks more nearly balanced between the first four weeks’ results and those of Pro Tour: Philadelphia. I also break with at least one of the numbers analyzed above, leaving twenty-two lands behind and adding a twenty-third Land as I believe between Celestial Kirin and Hokori, Dust Drinker that you want that last Land. Eight-and-a-Half-Tails has been slowly but surely declining in numbers, first from four to three, and I don’t consider going from three to two an unreasonable reaction to the expected metagame change. It doesn’t protect against global removal, and is less relevant than Celestial Kirin, mostly present as a good two-mana creature with an ability that can prove troublesome at times.

Black Hand

As with White Weenie, the first and foremost thing we learn is that the Black Hand mana base is fairly consistent, one each of Tomb of Urami and Shizo, Death’s Storehouse and twenty-one Swamps. There is one result suggesting that a single change, dropping a Swamp and including Miren, the Moaning Well, has proven relevant in Top Eight matches for the deck, especially as the mana-base can certainly include a single colorless mana source. Moving on into the realm of four-ofs, we see that Umezawa’s Jitte sits the highest, at 3.77 per deck… but I blame this on an anomalous result, one player playing zero copies and having the four in his sideboard instead, for no reason I have yet been able to distinguish. Consider Umezawa’s Jitte a safe four-of to include in the deck, if nothing else you’ve read in this article has struck you as an absolute truth so far!

Hand of Cruelty weights in at just over 3.5, and I see no reason not to include four, it’s too good not to play. Takenuma Bleeder weighs in at three and a quarter, and after that we’ve got some contention in the ranks. Ogre Marauder sits comfortably as a three-of, Yukora, the Prisoner and Raving Oni-Slave are is falling down to a two-of together, and Nezumi Cutthroat is rising to a two-of, with Nezumi Graverobber, Ink-Eyes, Scourge of Numai, and Okiba-Gang Shinobi falling in the neighborhood of one-ofs.

Akuta, Born of Ash and Blood Speaker both appeared to have favorable results when weighted by final finish, suggesting that they may both have a place in the deck; Blood Speaker would seem to fit in the Demon-and-Ogre mixes that had first gotten the deck such results as it initially garnered, while Akuta, Born of Ash would seem to be a nearer fit for the more blatantly aggressive, Rat-based beatdown decks that are starting to supplant the original build to respond to the White Weenie deck’s spreading influence. This second design, which is the deck starting to include Okiba-Gang Shinobi, started to surface as of two weeks ago when Otherworldly Journey started appearing in greater numbers to deal with Raving Oni-Slave and Yukora, the Prisoner.

In the spells department, Sickening Shoal is a comfortable three-of, and O-Naginata and Distress sit at two-ofs, while Manriki-Gusari and Kiku’s Shadow are starting to make up for their initial absence from the deck entirely to pick up roles as key cards in the deck. From the sideboard, we have a very disparate mess, with two Cranial Extractions, and one each of Hero’s Demise, Hideous Laughter, Manriki-Gusari, Psychic Spear, Nezumi Graverobber, and Distress. Comparison to the weighted average for final finish suggests that Eradicate has been useful, when it appeared, continued to support the potential for Akuta to be a key card in the deck, and supported Nezumi Shortfang out of the sideboard against controllish decks.

The average Black Hand deck looks like this:

21 Swamps
1 Tomb of Urami
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

4 Hand of Cruelty
3 Ogre Marauder
3 Takenuma Bleeder
2 Nezumi Cutthroat
2 Raving Oni-Slave
2 Yukora, the Prisoner
1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
1 Nezumi Graverobber
1 Scourge of Numai
1 Okiba-Gang Shinobi

4 Umezawa’s Jitte
3 Sickening Shoal
2 Distress
2 O-Naginata
1 Manriki-Gusari
1 Psychic Spear
1 Hideous Laughter
1 Kiku’s Shadow
1 Horobi’s Whisper
1 Mark of the Oni

Again, the breakdown comes down to 23 Lands, 20 Creatures, and 17 spells. Of the spells, besides Jitte, 7 of them kill or otherwise remove creatures, some discard cards, and the rest are beatdown-assisting Equipment. Nine two-mana creatures, two Ninjas, six three-mana Ogres, and three four-mana Demons constitute the creature base and mana curve, and the choice of creature base is fairly clearly split down the middle into two very different treatments of the deck, one that’s full of reckless creatures and another that is more reactionary about facing off against White Weenie, full of evasive two-drops and more controlling equipment. Of the two, with the return of the Splice deck (and for making use of Hideous Laughter against White Weenie) I suspect the version playing riskier creatures, that have three or more toughness, is the version that will flourish more in coming weeks. More Rats made their way into the deck to fight against White Weenie, but that change should begin reversing itself as a real deck with Hideous Laughter makes its way back into the metagame.

This means we’ll be seeing a need for more pinpoint answers to the kind of problems posed by the Splice deck, without sacrificing usefulness against the other good decks in the format, so a balance of creature removal and dangerous equipment (O-Naginata) will likely appear, knocking Splice off balance for a few turns… and they’re the kind of cards that were good against other beatdown decks anyway. My expectation for the next few weeks is for Black Hand to start separating into more truly aggressive and more truly “controllish” builds, trying to be the beatdown against White Weenie and trying to play aggro-control against Splice decks:

The first deck is better suited to square off against Splice decks, with creatures resilient to Hideous Laughter and more pinpoint discard, while the second deck is better prepared to fight against White Weenie decks, with greater evasion and Manriki-Gusari to win the Jitte war. I believe the first version is more dangerous than the second, better resistant to the Splice deck and presenting a beatdown strategy that is more difficult to contain thanks to O-Naginata. Those two pieces of equipment tear the deck in very different directions, and so far the trend has been to favor Manriki-Gusari since it wins in a fight, but with the broadening of the format beyond “just” the Jitte decks, that may end up being less important than forcing an answer for every creature you play thanks to +3/+0 or +6/+0 and Trample. In both cases, the growing use of Kiku’s Shadow as the creature-kill of choice should come to be accepted as the primary means for killing creatures, for an acceptable mana cost and with very few limitations or restrictions.

Just as we were starting to get tired of the tedium of these two decks interacting with each other, and of a format in which Umezawa’s Jitte is king, somebody set us up the bomb. Have fun maneuvering to accommodate for it… and hopefully this analysis of trends, and extrapolating places to grow to, has proven useful to you.

Sean McKeown

[email protected]

“They say it’s the last song,

They don’t know us, you see…

It’s only the last song

If you let it be…”

~~Bjork, “The Next-to-Last Song”, from Dancer in the Dark