Standard Analysis

Two-time Pro Tour Top 4 competitor Sam Black offers his analysis of the current Standard metagame after a busy weekend of events. Take a look before SCG Open Series: Dallas!

p>With so many tournaments happening last weekend, there are a lot of narratives one could write to describe what’s happening. [author name="Patrick Chapin"]Patrick Chapin[/author] wrote a compelling take on one such narrative, saying that what we’ve seen is a logical progression of decks emerging to prey on the previous winners. He ultimately alludes to a predictable pattern that would leave one to decide whether the circle will continue next week, whether people will try to move one step ahead to get a jump on the next week, or whether new innovation will cause a substantial deviation.

In general, at this point in such a cycle, I would lean toward expecting new innovation more than the continuation of a predictable cycle—such things are always much easier to narrate in hindsight than predict in advance, though that’s not to say they’re wholly unpredictable.

This situation brings up an interesting discussion about how we approach format analysis as a whole. Brad Nelson has been succeeding with a different deck every week and has always been a champion of the idea that the metagame shifts quickly and significantly and that it’s important to stay ahead of it and not play “last week’s deck.” At the same time other players have become known for playing the same deck over and over and always succeeding with it.

I would argue that playing Magic well currently offers a much larger edge than proper deck selection. As a result we see people like Brad succeed no matter what he happens to be playing and also see several of the same people making back-to-back Top 8s whether they’ve changed decks or not. I think Brad just understands Standard and knows the matchups well enough that he’ll probably win as long as he plays any deck he’s put some work into.

As far as deck selection goes, I still believe that Mono-Blue Devotion is the best deck. I don’t think it’s the best deck by a wide margin, but I don’t think we’ve seen a different “best deck” each week even when other decks have won tournaments.

As a data point, while only one Mono-Blue Devotion deck made the Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles last weekend, four decks in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Santiago had Master of Waves (three were Mono-Blue Devotion), and four decks including the winner in the Top 8 of a 50K tournament were Mono-Blue Devotion. In LA there were seven or eight different archetypes in the Top 8 depending on how you count things.

Patrick suggests that these results resemble the results from before Pro Tour Theros, where Mono-Blue Devotion first rose to prominence, and suggests that it may be time for it to “make a comeback” and prey on these decks, but I think it just never left.

The format has a lot of playable decks, and none of them has such a strong edge over another that it will generally trump play skill or the variance in Magic. To me, building a narrative based on the deck the winner of each of these tournaments was piloting tells a very simple version of the story.

The diversity that has perpetuated despite the strength of Mono-Blue Devotion is an interesting phenomenon. While I think it has been the best deck consistently, I don’t know that it’s ever really been the deck to beat. This is part of why I think it’s stayed on top—if it can be effectively hated at all, which is debatable but probable, it requires fairly narrow cards or strategies to properly hate it, and one can’t implement those strategies without weakening their position too much against the rest of the field.

I played in the Open in Los Angeles with Mono-Blue Devotion and didn’t do well. I lost my first match after a series of mulligans left me with only a single land for all of the second game and unable to cast a spell in the third and then dropped when I lost a three-game match against Ricky Sidher with W/R Aggro. I could write a narrative about how this happened because I modified my deck to make it better against control, with three Bident of Thassas and only a single Jace, Architect of Thought in the maindeck, no Omenspeakers in the 75, and seven counterspells in my sideboard, but really I don’t know how much these small changes matter compared to just being on the draw against Imposing Sovereign.

I will note that I felt like my deck played really well against control after sideboarding, so while I had viewed Esper Control as a potential danger of playing blue, I wouldn’t be too worried about it now.

Another issue of the shifting metagame is that to the extent that it happens it matters much more for some decks than others. Some decks are 55-45 decks and others are 80-20 decks to use terminology you’ve likely heard before. Mono-Blue Devotion is a deck that has a lot of pretty close matchups (and a few favorable blowouts) such that for the most part it doesn’t matter that much what you play against, but there are other decks that really need to accurately predict the field because they’ll do very well against some decks and very poorly against others.

I think the mana in Esper Control at the moment pushes it into being one of the higher-variance decks in terms of potential matchups—while I may not think things change all that significantly from week to week, I do think we saw more people choosing fast aggro decks that don’t give Esper time to catch up and that this was a particularly rough week for Esper.

I mention Esper Control specifically because my perception is that it was the deck that was most popular among the best players in the tournament. The fact that none of the pros who chose to play the deck reached the Top 16 suggests to me that this might not have been the best field for the deck, especially looking at the decks that succeeded instead.

In Santiago, one Esper Control deck made the Top 8 in a field with so much Mono-Blue Devotion that one might expect it to do pretty well, but after beating U/W Devotion, Nicolas De Nicola (I have to comment on how sweet that name is), the Esper player, was defeated by Matias Soler’s G/R Monsters deck.

Matias’ deck has shades of Brad Nelson deck from Pro Tour Theros (specifically the inclusion of Flesh // Blood) while focusing a little more on aggressive two- and three-mana creatures. I’m sure Nicolas didn’t expect to have to play against three maindeck Witchstalkers in addition to six planeswalkers, four sideboard Mistcutter Hydras, and four maindeck Boon Satyrs when he chose to play Esper Control. If Esper is popular in your metagame, Matias’ deck looks like an impressive foil.

The other major deck of note from GP Santiago is of course Luis Navas’ B/R Aggro deck. Meaning absolutely no offense to Luis, it’s unusual to hear that someone won a GP after learning Magic only one year before, as it’s hard to learn the game perfectly in that amount of time, so his success could point to the raw power of the deck he played.

Luis wrote that “Thoughtseize always felt like the best play possible,” so there’s some chance that the deck might want to play those in the maindeck, though obviously that would probably make the deck worse in the mirror if the deck gains popularity.

So what’s going on with this deck? Rakdos Shred-Freak isn’t necessarily a card you’d expect to see winning a Standard Grand Prix.

First of all, it has the baseline super-fast start that will punish the control decks in this format. On top of that, it manages to pack a good density of Humans so that Xathrid Necromancer can really punish sweepers. Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch exists in a similar space to Nightveil Specter in that it is immune to Ultimate Price and Doom Blade, but Exava happens to live through Searing Spear as well.

On top of simply having an aggressive curve with resilient creatures and access to Thoughtseize, sixteen creatures in this deck have haste, and none of them can be killed by Doom Blade. This deck is just an absolute nightmare for control decks like the deck it beat in the finals.

What’s more impressive to me is that this deck beat G/R Monsters and R/W Devotion in the Top 8. Throughout the previous Standard season, Mono-Red Aggro was the best deck to prey on the Zombie-based B/R decks since the better mana consistency and slightly more aggressive creatures tended to give it an edge, and the G/R deck looks like it should have bigger and better creatures that just brick the B/R attackers.

Reading the coverage, Luis beat the red deck despite Frostburn Weirds and Boros Reckoners on the back of Xathrid Necromancer creating an attrition advantage and board stall that Mogis’s Marauder was able to capitalize on. It’s worth noting that even in this matchup Luis still sided Thoughtseize in for the second game, which makes me wonder if he just concluded throughout the tournament that he wanted it against everyone.

Luis won the finals on the back of a nut draw, with his two most aggressive creatures followed by Madcap Skills to push them through and more threats to back them up and then a mulligan to four from his opponent, so we didn’t get a lot of information on how the deck plays against the larger green creatures. I will note that Luis’ dedication to playing cards that thwart blocking contributes significantly to the deck, giving it a reasonable plan against creatures like that, and Madcap Skills and Mogis’s Marauder likely give the deck a real fighting chance in those matchups.

It will be interesting to see if this deck pushes people to consider U/W/R Control as an alternative to Esper since Warleader’s Helix would be outstanding against this deck, as would Shock, and Searing Spear is probably the best available answer to Nightveil Specter.

Clearly, as an advocate of Mono-Blue Devotion, I have to wonder how it plays against this B/R Aggro deck. Traditionally, I’m happy to play against Mono-Red Aggro since I have Tidebinder Mage, Frostburn Weird, and Master of Waves, all of which are outstanding against them, but if Mogis’s Marauder allows the opponent to attack through those creatures and access to Doom Blade or Ultimate Price offers a counter to the trump Master of Waves, the matchup could play out quite differently.

Regardless, new decks like this emerging throw a wrench in the predictability of the model of a rotating metagame that cycles back to a predictable point we’ve seen before, so I expect that we haven’t seen the last new successful deck in Standard. Personally, I haven’t lost my devotion and trust Thassa and the Master of Waves to handle any new opposition.

@samuelhblack on Twitter