Stop Trusting Top 8s

For decades, players have summed up metagames just using the single elim decks. Why? Isn’t the distinction a bit arbitrary? Bryan explains what you’re missing here on the way to SCG Dallas!

Magic discourse is fascinating. Countless hours are spent every week
writing, analyzing, debating, and sometimes flat-out arguing, as Magic
players attempt to find conclusions they can state with authority.

  • “R/B Aggro is favored against Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome.”
  • “The Scarab God is unplayable.”
  • “You’re supposed to side out Thoughtseize in the mirror.”

These unequivocal statements are how we tend to discuss Magic, myself
included. Sometimes though, it’s beneficial to take a step back and
acknowledge that the language of Magic discourse is shorthand. We presume
that the people engaging in the discussion agree on the parameters for the
statement (e.g. what format, what timeframe, player skill, etc.) as well as
the baseline facts. Unfortunately, this can almost never be true in a game
like Magic that offers boundless options for optimization and creativity.

Think about how many variables a statement like “R/B Aggro is favored
against Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome” is attempting to capture.

Honestly, these types of questions could go on in perpetuity. This is why
players as great as Brad Nelson, Gerry Thompson, and Paulo Vitor Damo da
Rosa can play a matchup like R/B Aggro versus Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome
and make completely opposite assertions about which side is favored. It’s
not that anyone is incorrect-they’re simply not in agreement on the
variables, and their statements fail to reflect that possibility.

Ultimately, language will always be imperfect, and my purpose here isn’t to
demand that we all be more verbose and precise in discussing Magic.
Instead, I want to point out an area where the desire for a tidy summation
of events can do irreparable damage to your ability to prepare for next
week’s tournaments.

The embrace of narrative and shorthand has fostered an unhealthy
fascination with the Top 8 finishers of a tournament. Focusing on the Top 8
of events is the hallmark of the inexperienced metagamer. The prevailing
narrative routinely treats a Top 8 performance an analog for success, and
any deck which fails to achieve Top 8 status is deemed lesser. In a fifteen
round, single format tournament, the difference between a Top 8 and a Top
64 is minuscule. Collective disregard for this fact has routinely forced
metagames in the incorrect direction. Along those lines, consider the
narrative the Top 8 of GP: Brussels would suggest.

  • 3 Esper Control
  • 1 Bant Nexus
  • 1 Sultai Gift
  • 1 Sultai Midrange
  • 1 R/B Aggro
  • 1 Mono-Red Aggro

A headline encapsulation of this Top 8 might read “Esper Control Breaks
Out, as Goblin Chainwhirler and Nexus of Fate Falter.” This would also be
an incredibly damaging way to try to understand the results of this

Okay, so not everything about the headline was completely off-base. GP
Brussels was the breakout for Esper Control-a strategy that has played
second fiddle to U/W Control since Teferi, Hero of Dominaria showed up on
the scene. Black-based removal is exactly where a control deck wants to be
right now, since cards like Seal Away and Settle the Wreckage look less
than ideal in the face of Sai, Master Thopterist and Heart of Kiran. Access
to Duress is a tremendous boon in fighting the Bant Nexus decks, and
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner enables you to pressure your opponent’s life total
just a bit more in sideboard games.

The headline is flawed in its attempt to downplay the presence of Bant
Nexus and R/B Aggro in this tournament. The Magic Pro Tour Twitter account
tweeted out the following breakdown of day two archetypes.

We see R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus are the two most played decks on day two,
and all other archetypes are significantly less popular. It would be easy
to twist the narrative further and argue that the two decks’ flaws are
evidenced by their inability to convert metagame share into Top 8 presence.
However, stretch your definition of successful decks to include all
finishes falling in the Top 25, and the picture starts to look different.

  • 4 Esper Control
  • 4 Bant Nexus
  • 1 Sultai Gift
  • 1 Sultai Midrange
  • 9 R/B Aggro
  • 3 Mono-Red Aggro
  • 2 Grixis Midrange
  • 1 R/G Monsters

When we look at the Top 25 decks, we see Nexus comprises 16% of the winners
metagame, while R/B Aggro takes a whopping 36% metagame share. These are
not the type of numbers you can afford to ignore when you’re preparing to
sit in the Standard seat at the StarCityGames.com Dallas Open this weekend.
The decks that succeeded at GP Brussels did so because they had the tools
to beat Bant Nexus and R/B Aggro in the final swiss rounds. You need to be
sure you continue to do the same.

Unfortunately, less data is forthcoming from GP Orlando, but like in
Brussels, the tournament was taken down by a slightly off-the-beaten-path
control list.

The Top 8 in Orlando was comprised of the following archetypes:

  • 2 Grixis Midrange
  • 1 Mono-Red Wizards
  • 1 U/W Approach
  • 1 Esper Control
  • 1 R/B Aggro
  • 1 G/B Constrictor
  • 1 B/U Midrange

Again, R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus gained little traction in the Top 8,
despite comprising 33% and 13% of the Day 2 field, respectively. Top 25
decks haven’t been provided for this event as I write, but at those
numbers, it’s a good bet that both R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus performed well.
Indeed, four out of seven of Day One’s 8-0 decks were R/B Aggro. Given
reports from people at GP Orlando, I’d wager we were only a few game wins
away from the narrative this morning being all about the continued
dominance of Goblin Chainwhirler, and the problematic nature of Nexus of

If it’s true that the Top 8 narrative is not going to be useful for our
preparation, are there conclusions we should be drawing from these two
Grand Prix? Rather than looking for absolutes, I try to look for developing
metagame trends. Often, these trends will point me in the direction of a
specific archetype I can use to start my testing process. My brief
takeaways are as follows:

  • Control is on the rise.
  • R/B and Bant Nexus remain fine choices, but perception and the
    narrative are going to reduce the play rates of both. I’d expect
    R/B to remain the most played deck, but Bant Nexus may be less
  • Mono-Red decks and R/B decks will get lower to the ground to punish
    the greedier control decks.
  • Mono-Green Aggro has fallen off a cliff.

All this info has me anxious to revive the following archetype:

The GAM Podcast Discord server comes through for me again! Long-time
contributor VTCLA shared this U/B God-Pharaoh’s Gift list after picking up
a 5-0 earlier this week. U/B God-Pharaoh’s Gift started off the Standard
format as one of the early decks to beat, and quickly gave back metagame
share as Thrashing Brotodons increased in number. The Dinosaur is finally
trending down, and Kitesail Freebooter is anxious to get off the bench and
start punishing opponents who are trying to play a passive game. I’m unsure
if Angel of Invention is worth mucking up the manabase for, but for the
time being, I intend to see if I can get by without it. Overall, I think
U/B God-Pharaoh’s Gift is uniquely able to exploit the rise of control
while maintaining a respectable R/B Aggro matchup.

It’s unclear if this is where I ultimately end up for GP Los Angeles, but
I’m confident that avoiding a simplistic interpretation of the past
weekend’s tournaments has clued me in to some archetypes that are ripe for
exploration. It’s always good to check in on your shortcuts from time to
time. If you’ve been treating Top 8s as an infallible way to rank and
measure decks, hopefully this article inspired you to reevaluate that