PT: Chicago Analysis: Why Is It So Limited?

The results are in! This weekend saw the culmination of Pro Tour: Chicago, the tournament that I had most hoped to attend. Alas, it was not to be; the closest I came to fame was finishing third in the Qualifier. Okay, the mandatory "my fifteen minutes of fame" moment is over with. The results are…

The results are in! This weekend saw the culmination of Pro Tour: Chicago, the tournament that I had most hoped to attend. Alas, it was not to be; the closest I came to fame was finishing third in the Qualifier.

Okay, the mandatory "my fifteen minutes of fame" moment is over with. The results are in, yes – but they may not be surprising. The results say: Rebels rule. As Pro Tour: Chicago wound down to a close, the primary thought among people following the tournament was this: Wow, Rebels are everywhere.

Really, did anyone really think they were dead?

I’m sure the Net’s going to be flooded with articles analyzing the results ad infinitum, ad nauseum, until we’re all sick of percentages and extrapolations and reading dry content that winds up jumbling into a blur five minutes after you read it.  If I have occasional trouble remembering where I left my wallet, all of those numbers are surely going to go in one eye and out the other (that’s pretty gross, actually) and all I’m going to be left with are the grandiose statements put forth by those whose sole claim to fame is number crunching.

Unfortunately, that’s more of a claim to fame than I have, but we’ll try and disregard that fact for now and get to the heart of the matter:

Analysis IS important.  The numbers aren’t important, the trends aren’t important. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many times a deck beats a certain deck in the Rock-Scissors-Paper-Hammer world of Magic.  It matters what the degree of success is to beat a certain deck AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT IN TIME. To borrow a phrase from football, "On any given Sunday." That’s what’s important.

For example, my Extended deck has a virtually nonexistent chance to beat "21." I know this. I accept this.  But my deck can beat any other deck – or, rather, it has a CHANCE to beat it.  That’s key, because when you get caught up in theoretical matchups, you do your deck – and thus yourself – a grave disservice.

My guide to metagaming involves studying the numbers, yes. Crunch away. But statistics are deceiving; you can interpret a set of numbers in many ways, and most of the time it has some sort of loophole or weakness that allows you to argue the converse of whatever is being proven.

Metagaming is typically a way of finding out how to beat certain decks.  I’ve taken a different perspective, as you’ve seen from my other articles.  Though I can’t claim to be a pro, or to have too much success, since I’ve started doing it "my way" I’ve had much greater success in being prepared for The Field.  Metagaming is about trends, people. It’s about recognizing the dominant philosophies and trying to beat those philosophies –  not necessarily the decks. It’s about giving yourself a chance to beat 90% of the decks out there.

I realize this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  There are a number of decks that are successful precisely because they were built to beat The Deck.  And, at times, we’ve seen those decks arise. Most of them have centered on broken cards, and the people have risen against them and brought balance to the game by designing decks to put That Deck in its proper place.

Rebels aren’t That Deck. Counter Rebels aren’t That Deck. Fires isn’t That Deck. They’re all dominant, yes – but they’re not untouchable, broken pieces of mischief that take your lunch money and kick sand in your face for good measure.

Standard is, perhaps, at its most balanced time in Magic that I recall.  I’ve only played it since the Tempest era, despite my Magic history that goes back to Arabian Nights.  But the synergy of the cards and the development of multiple power cards in multiple colors has me believing that nothing is broken – or perhaps we should say, nothing is unbreakable.

I’ve been focusing much of my attention on Extended lately in preparation for the upcoming PTQ, and have found that Standard seemed a foregone conclusion to many people. Certainly not everyone, but I read almost all of the Magic sites on a daily basis, and I’ve seen the same things stated repeatedly.  Without further ado, let me get into the nuts and bolts of this article, which IS analysis, and show you the numbers – and what lies behind them.

Rebels are, yes, a dominant deck. This doesn’t surprise anyone, because the searching mechanic is arguably the most powerful mechanic that exists in the Standard environment. It’s closely akin to the effect of Survival of the Fittest, except with two notable exceptions: 1) your creatures remain in play, and 2) your creatures enter into play when searched for.

Anyone who follows Extended knows how Survival has been dominant through the years.  Protecting your four Survivals was sometimes difficult – but protecting 8 or 9 Rebels isn’t as difficult, especially when having more than one in play is often useful, and only makes it harder to get rid of them.  Lin Sivvi’s recursive ability makes it very difficult to disrupt a Rebel deck over the course of a game, and they possess enough creatures that chump blocking is more than acceptable.

The Rebel chain’s upward mobility is far more useful than the Mercenary chain’s recruiting downwards; the balance wasn’t really there, and I have no problem with that because Dark Ritual would have made the Mercenary chain heavily imbalanced had it also been upward in nature.  With the wide range of versatile Rebel creatures available, you would think that there would be a myriad of different Rebel build options. However, evidence shows otherwise; the optimal builds are all very similar, including Sergeants, Lin Sivvi, Steadfast Guard, Vanguards, and Sky Marshals, with one or two variations that may even include Bear-like non-Rebels (apparently they’ve been recruiting some disillusioned Longbow Archer) and the ever-present Chimeric Idol.

By the time PT: Chicago was complete, we saw that Rebels were hugely representative of the field, in numbers that simply amazed me.  Sideboard Online had a breakdown of decks in their typical fashion – while they can’t dedicate the time to posting all of the decks, they provide the Day 2 decks, which is invaluable for research. I disagreed with some of their classifications, and differentiated the decks further:

Decktype Number Played
Rebels 26 (29%)
Fires    14 (16%)
Counter-Rebels 10 (11%)
U/W Control(Wrath) 10 (11%)
Rogue (comments below) 7 (8%)
Blue Skies 6 (7%)
Nether-Go 6 (7%)

G/W Armageddon

4 (4%)
U/B Control 4 (4%)
Rising Waters 2 (2%)

There’s clearly a line between Rebels and non-Rebels. Though I separated out the Counter-Rebels because it is a different strategic mindset than vanilla Rebels, if you combine the two of them, you find that 36 decks – an amazing 40% of the field – were Rebel builds.  There were variations amidst them; some splashed black for Snuff Out or limited removal; some put in Green for the sole purpose of utilizing Aura Mutation. But the engine is the same. Some threw in blue for Power Sink – that’s a Rebel deck. Throw in Absorbs and Counterspells or Foils, and it changes tempo and becomes Counter Rebel.

Kai Budde won the tournament with one of those 36 decks.  However, he was the only Rebel deck to make Top 8, and the numbers reveal an interesting trend.

Decktype   Top 8 
Top 16
Top 32
Rebels  1 (12.5%) 4 (25%) 9 (28%)
Fires  4 (50%)  5 (31%) 6 (19%)
Counter-Rebels 1 (12.5%) 1 (6%) 4 (12.5%)
U/W Control(Wrath) 0 2 (12.5%) 3 (9%)
Blue Skies 0 0 2 (6.25%)
Nether-Go 0 0 3 (9%)
G/W Armageddon 1 (12.5%) 1 (6.25%) 1 (3%)
U/B Control 0 0 1 (3%)
Rising Waters 1 (12.5%) 1 (6.25%) 1 (3%)
Rogue 0 1 (6.25%) 1 (3%)

41% of the decks in the Top 32 were either vanilla- or Counter- Rebels.  What happened, though?  Those thirteen decks declined by more than half, and only five of them performed well enough to rank in the Top 16.  From that point, only two survived into the Top 8, and somehow, despite declining numbers, the Rebels managed to seize victory as Kai Budde rebels beat Kamiel Cornelissen’s Counter Rebels for the championship.

What happened in between?

We’ll get back to that. ::pressing pause button::

Any time an analysis like this is performed, you have to realize that the number of decks in the field skews percentages. Since there were so many Rebel decks, there’s a proportionately larger probability that Rebel decks would end up in the Top 32.  The sheer prominence of Rebels guaranteed the archetype a certain degree of success. If half of the field runs a deck that is utterly horrible, there are still going to be a number of wins for them and a number of wins based on luck or matchups. I have lost a couple of games to decks where I was their only victory, because they happened to build something with the perfect answer to whatever I was working on. Wait; maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that.

::moving on::

A quick disclaimer: Not all of the decklists were available; I don’t know what Markus Bell ran, and he placed 12th, and I’d love to know.

While we’re on pause here, let’s look at the *other* decks:

1. Nether-Go: There were only 6 of these decks at the tournament. 3 of them finished in the Top 32.  That’s half of them; that’s a fairly impressive percentage out of the 89 decks that survived to Day 2.

Decktype Played Top 8 Top 16 Top 32
Nether-Go 6 (7%) 0 0 3 (9%)

Why is this? The Nether-Go decks featured plenty of countering, Fact or Fiction, Nether Spirit, and a host of silver bullets accessible via tutor.  Its ability to disrupt caused it to supersede expectations; I think a lot of people underrated it. That’s measured by the fact that Cremate, the perfect anti-Nether card, only showed up thirteen times. That’s thirteen Cremates, total, in the 5,263 cards in everyone’s decks!

2. Rogue decks: There were only a handful of these decks. Bob Maher’s excellent Tide deck (which isn’t TRULY Ankh-Tide because it incorporates so many Blue Skies elements rather than being built around the combo and protection of it) finished 11th. However, it was also the only rogue deck to finish in the Top 32.

Decktype Played Top 8 Top 16 Top 32
Rogue 7 (8%) 0 1 1 (3%)

The other Rogue decks, based on the data available, were thus:

W/G Beatdown: 34th
Void: 36th
Mono-Red: 56th
G/R Beatdown: 75th
Draw/Go: 86th
U/B/R Control: 96th

Do you remember reading about some deck called Machine Head? I think I do, but I’m not sure.  There was little to no showing by it, which is surprising because it’s received a lot of Net press. In fact, there were only four Voids played. And you can guess which deck they were in (quick, read the above list again. Okay, thanks.)

There was no Machine Head, there was no "true" Ankh-Tide, there was no rash of G/W Beatdown with Panthers and Trolls, there was no LD/Control, no R/B Recursion Control – and even G/W Armageddon, which was something a lot of people talked about, was virtually nonexistent.

When I looked at the results, for a minute I swore I’d accidentally taken my Extended analyses and confused them. "Look, a lot of blue. Look, a lot of creature tutoring." Then I realized there weren’t any broken combos.

Sigh of Relief
Target player is immune to effects of broken cards.
"Finally," Atalya said. "I can rest."

Rogue – my specialty, of course – is normally something that evolves after the first major Standard event.  Now that people know the dominant archetypes, they can design decks against them.  I’m still surprised, however, that there was such a clear disparity in deckbuilding.

The decks that didn’t show up en masse – particularly black/red – surprise me because they are the ones best equipped to handle Rebels and Fires.  Red has enough removal to keep up with the Rebels, and with Urza’s Rage, can beat Counter-Rebels. Urza’s Rage showed up thirty-one times – but those thirty-one cards were as often as not components in the Fires deck.

People went in expecting Fires and Rebels. But, they didn’t really seem to put the decks together to beat them. Peculiar? You have to look beyond the decks themselves, and look at the cards: Quick creatures. This is a creature-driven format, and it looks like it’s going to be that way unless Planeshift and Apocalypse, God forbid, introduce some broken enchantments or artifacts into the mix. The decks that were built to defeat creatures were noticeably absent aside from Wrath of God decks. Wrath is excellent, but it’s one-dimensional, and sometimes not as effective as recursive creatures and burn. No, I’m not using this as a lobby for what *I* want to build. What I’m saying is that the focus has been on beatdown and control, but not disruption. Disruption is what I metagame for; to mess with as many strategies as I can while still maintaining viability.

3. Counter-Wrath

Decktype Played Top 8 Top 16 Top 32
U/W Wrath 10 (11%) 0 2 (12.5%) 3 (9%)

While it had a decent showing, it wasn’t much of a powerhouse. It doesn’t disrupt; it waits and then sweeps the board.  However, Rebels and Fires generate enough that they can simply overrun it – and well-played Saproling Bursts don’t really mind a Wrath of God. Crunch, we’ll make more. Chimeric Idols don’t mind a Wrath.  Neither do Blastoderms – they’re going to die anyway, and I’m sure many a player wouldn’t mind trading a ‘Derm for a Wrath or a Rout.  It’s too passive, at current levels, to be hugely viable. Why?

The philosophy of Standard is creatures. The metagame therefore must be anti-creature, or better creatures.

Let’s go to the boss:

3. Fires: This deck, which is very good, did exceedingly well as expected. Its percentages are straight across the board.

Decktype Played Top 8 Top 16 Top 32
Fires 14 (16%) 4 (50%) 5 (31%) 6 (19%)

Out of the fourteen Fires decks, almost half of them were in the Top 32.  Out of that, only two of them were unable to make Top 8.  Fires had a far lesser chance of success than Rebels did, if you just look at the number of decks fielded. But for four of the fourteen to make Top 8 shows that despite Rebel victory, it’s probably the number one deck in the format.  

It typifies the environment moreso than any other deck. It has synergy of color and effect; it works well, and stronger, than Rebels, who usually wind up in the position of throwing out blockers and hoping that Mageta arrives soon from his vacation on the sideboard – and that he’s not Raged out of existence when he appears.  Fires is bigger, faster, and meatier; it’s the jumbo frank to your six-inch wiener.

No, I didn’t REALLY say that.  (You almost didn’t – The Ferrett, making a close call here)  

::moving on::

So, we need strategies that counter creatures, right? Right. So, lots of people played those decks, right?


All of the Top 8 players deserve kudos for their playing; it’s not coincidence that the same names appear again and again, and I want to be sure people realize that.  What’s interesting is that in the Top 8, the Fires decks didn’t succeed. Again, I ask: Why?

Zvi’s Fires lost to Kibler’s G/W Armageddon deck. See? There’s rogue disruption at work. It had Blastoderms, Hydras, Idols, Armageddons, River Boas – a whole load of ways to throw off both aggressive creature strategies and passive Wrath strategies.  

Budde’s Rebels beat Elarar’s Rising Waters deck in a matchup that I would have initially thought would favor Elarar.  It was a tight five-game match, and the person who played first won. A first-turn Sergeant is difficult to recover from when Elarar’s best hope was a Wash Out.

Kibler’s Armageddon lost to Budde’s Rebels. Kibler had repeated mulligans and opening draws; Budde’s deck was able to control each game from the outset and in one battle, won via Porting Cities of Brass. Cities are tremendously dangerous in this environment thanks to the Port, and I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to win from just one damage a turn, much less double-porting for two.

Finkel’s Fires lost to Cornelissen’s Counter-Rebel. Counter-Rebel can preserve the chain and stop the threats long enough to gain advantage. Cornelissen’s deck was able to take advantage of Fact or Fiction and utilize the card advantage to answer Finkel’s threats.

Pustilnik and Dougherty, the two other Fires decks, ran into each other; Dougherty emerged victorious in the mirror match, and then, just like Finkel, he lost to Cornelissen’s Counter-Rebel, causing the two Rebel decks of Budde and Cornelissen to compete for the championship.

What happened to Fires?

Fires lost because in sub-optimal draws; it doesn’t have the recovering ability of Counter-Rebels or Rebels.  Fires stormed into the Top 8, and with a 50% representation, you would have thought that it would have gotten someone to the Top 4. Well, it did – but not in the manner expected, as the only way it advanced was by beating another Fires deck.

Deck to beat? Sure. The deck to beat? List all of those decks, and the answer is: None of the above.  

They’re all beatable, and eminently so, because there are weaknesses to each that can be exploited.

So exploit them, dammit.

Look at the cards that exist, and ask yourself, why was the field so limited in such a wide-open format?  I could build an entire deck out of the cards that WEREN’T used, and it would be viable.

Why was only one  Thrashing Wumpus played?

Why were only two Pyre Zombies played?

But wait, there’s more.

3 Cursed Totems in a sideboard.  
4 Canopy "I kill Air Elementals and can be a finisher" Surges in a sideboard.
4 Hammer of Bogardan maindecked.
11 Massacres – 8 of them sideboard cards.
The 13 Cremates I mentioned earlier ("Goodbye, Rebel.")
31 Rages.

I think that once you hit 40 it’s a fairly decent amount, though it’s the 50s and higher that show people’s building patterns.  When you start getting into the 100’s, it’s downright amazing how crowded the fields are for certain archetypes, like Rebels.

But look at those cards above and you see the start of a deck, and you can make a case for each of them as being an answer to the decks that succeeded.  

There is an answer – and I have the feeling that people will realize this and the Standard environment will shape itself effectively. I just wonder why it didn’t happen sooner rather than later.

186 Rishadan Ports were played. That’s a lot, folks, that’s a lot. There were 52 Tsabo’s Webs played (31 maindeck), but Ports were dominant all throughout the day. Three Teferi’s Responses in some person’s sideboard.  Three. It’s card advantage and land destruction combined in one. "Draw two cards, bury your Port" seems like a good idea to me. And blue was being played so frequently that this has to be a shock. (Only two Shocks, just FYI.)

In addition, the card choices sometimes seem sub-optimal for the popular decks, like the fact there were only five sideboard Rappelling Scouts, which, by the way, stop Sky Marshals, are cheaper, and can block ‘Derms indefinitely.

I’m a bit surprised at only six maindecked Noble Panthers, which was being raved about such a short time ago and is an effective defense against the lesser red removal and Idols. I thought there’d be more Tangle Wires than 20 maindeck, 4 sideboard, as well.

I don’t have the stomach for many more numbers, but one made me smile: only three Enlightened Tutors (one in a sideboard, interestingly): Any more evidence that this isn’t a power-enchantment or artifact environment?

It’s creatures and beatdown. Disruption is the answer.

There have been a lot of numbers thrown about in this article. Take them or leave them at your leisure – what’s important is that you garner an understanding about what’s out there, what’s powerful in this environment, and most of all, what can disrupt the winning strategies.

Build those decks. Give Machine Head and its like another whirl. Don’t merely pattern yourself after Rebels or Fires because they seem to have done so well. Of course they did well – they’re good decks. But there also weren’t enough alternatives that were capable of beating them, because for the most part people didn’t think outside the box enough to create them. Build your R/B recursion, build your discard/board control black, build your crazy Plague Spitter/Charisma combos, because they work. Don’t let the numbers and analyses trap you into limiting yourself into defined ways of thinking about deck archetypes and power cards. You can do so; you’ll have some success doing so. But at the end of the day, remember one thing:  

That’s not what metagaming is.