The Standard Metagame, Pros, & The Five GP Cap

Eight-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Sam Black shares his thoughts about Standard going in to SCG Open Series: Seattle this weekend and the five Grand Prix cap for Pro Points.

As I mentioned in the intro of my video this week, I’m getting into Standard with Born of the Gods after an extended period of focusing exclusively on Modern. I’m still getting a sense of exactly how things have changed with the new set. Mono-Blue Devotion still seems to be a deck, but things have definitely gotten harder for it, so at the moment I don’t know what I’ll be playing at Grand Prix Cincinnati. Let’s look at the options and factors.

First off, there are still the popular old decks: Mono-Black Devotion, U/W/x Control, Mono-Blue Devotion (sometimes with a white splash), and R/x Devotion (previously green or white, but black is an option as well now thanks to Temple of Malice). There are also the less popular old decks, like the various flavors of W/x Aggro, a scale that slides into Esper Midrange, and G/R Devotion.

On top of those, there are some new decks—G/R Monsters, sometimes splashing black, is likely the most successful new deck. G/W Aggro got enough better because of Temple of Plenty that it basically feels like a new deck, and it sometimes splashes red. I’ve mostly seen it built as Naya Hexproof, and it’s definitely real. R/W Burn and R/W Aggro—utilizing the combination of Satyr Firedancer and Searing Blood, with the optional addition of Young Pyromancer—are fairly potent. Mono-Black Aggro looks substantially different from Mono-Black Devotion and relies heavily on the new bestow creatures, Herald of Torment, and sometimes Spiteful Returned (which seems good to me). I assume this can also be built with a red splash. B/W Midrange appears to be having a bit of a resurgence on Magic Online as well.

At Grand Prix Melbourne the metagame breakdown looked like this:


This is a fairly small sample size is not necessarily broken down in the most useful way, but the point is that the field might be around 25% Sphinx’s Revelation decks; 20% removal-heavy black-based decks; 15% Thassa, God of the Sea decks; 15% G/R Monsters; 15% aggro decks, and 10% unknown. I’m skeptical that those are the numbers in the world at the moment, but I do believe those are still the big decks.

I think black decks are the favorite against Sphinx’s Revelation decks, which are good against blue decks, which are good against black decks, so that’s a loose rock/paper/scissors starting point for the format. I’m not sure how G/R Monsters fits in exactly; it might be better than black against Sphinx’s Revelation but is likely bad against black, and my instincts say it should be slightly behind against blue. I’m guessing it’s good against aggro since it has bigger creatures, life gain, and removal and that would help explain its popularity. It also just looks to me like the kind of deck that should be good against aggro (because of guys and removal) and control (because of planeswalkers) but bad against devotion (not enough disruption, less power).

I thought Mono-Blue Devotion was good against black before Born of the Gods. Bile Blight helps Mono-Black Devotion a little bit, but the change is really marginal. Splashing white aids Mono-Blue Devotion substantially. I’m not sure that it’s right to do anyway, but as a Mono-Black Devotion player, you have to understand that some portion of the Thassa, God of the Sea decks you’ll be facing will now be much better against you so you’re worse against the archetype as a whole. Mono-Blue Devotion has always struggled against U/W/x Control, and that hasn’t changed. The sideboard plans I have to make the matchup not miserable still likely do that, but it’s not a deck I really want to have to play against.

There’s another problem for Mono-Blue Devotion, and I haven’t decided how serious this problem is yet—the deck is horrible against Naya Hexproof. Just putting some enchantments on a Gladecover Scout or Witchstalker is a difficult clock to race, but it gets even harder if they’re on a Skylasher. Skylasher by itself is a beatable card, but Skylasher with Unflinching Courage is a huge problem. Naya Hexproof is currently seeing some play, and it seems like a nightmare matchup based on my little experience and looking at the decklists. But I’m not sure how good Naya Hexproof is against the rest of the field—if it’s bad, I shouldn’t really have to worry about it as a blue player, but if I’m going to have to respect it, I’d probably just play something else.

It’s worth noting that Brimaz, King of Oreskos, one of the most powerful-looking cards in Born of the Gods, doesn’t seem to have a well-positioned home. I don’t think this is because people haven’t tried or haven’t succeeded at finding the right deck for it; I think it’s just that white aggro isn’t terribly well positioned against the popular decks, especially U/W Control and probably G/R Monsters. I’ve seen a few copies of Brimaz in B/W Midrange lists, and that seems likely the best place for it at this time.

As for my recommendations, the format looks to be behaving in a reasonable way—the best decks are the most popular, but none of them is particularly dominant over the others. The fringe decks look worse than the core decks, and I think the format will continue rewarding players who know the matchups with their (good) deck of choice, kind of like Modern but a little less volatile because sideboarding isn’t as powerful.

The next thing I want to talk about is an issue that’s been the subject of some discussion on Twitter over the last few days, and that’s the five Grand Prix cap. A lot of people don’t know anything about this rule because it impacts an incredibly small number of players. For most people when they hear "GP cap," they think about GPs like Las Vegas and Richmond that have had to announce a maximum number of players that can enter the event. Of course, in the context of a cap of five, this makes no sense, so some players assume that maybe there’s a rule that players can only play in five GPs or something. That’s not the case. The cap is a rule that really only impacts pros who travel to a lot of GPs, and the rule is that Pro Points earned from only your top five Grand Prix finishes count toward your total Pro Points for the year.

(You should really stop reading now if this doesn’t interest you, as there’s a lot more text and it pertains to very few people. But if you’ve been following the debate on Twitter and you’re curious about what’s going on, here’s the long version of my side of the issue.)

This rule exists to keep the thresholds for player levels down and to deemphasize travel in achieving those levels. It exists to make professional Magic less of a grind and to allow players with substantial obligations outside of Magic (like a non-Magic full-time job) to compete on more even footing with players whose profession is exclusively Magic and have the time and inclination to travel.

This rule was put into place when a number of established pros who have other jobs, like Brian Kibler, Paul Rietzl, Luis Scott-Vargas, and others, complained that the travel was too draining or that they simply couldn’t do it enough to maintain their involvement on the Pro Tour under the old rules. As one would expect, the most vocal people were the people who wanted change. Now that the rule has been implemented, people who it negatively affects are raising the issue of the problem with the rule. For full-time Magic players, such as William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, Martin Juza, Shuhei Nakamura, and me, the rule feels pretty bad.

The issue is that those of us who attend a lot of GPs generally really like doing it. We don’t feel that being obligated to travel is some kind of burden. We’ve chosen this lifestyle because we like going out and playing Magic and interacting with friends and fans at events. Compared to our previous expectations, the new system feels like it’s telling us to stop doing that.

The issue is that it’s not really clear what a "Magic pro" is supposed to be. If Magic is viewed entirely as a hobby game and all competitors are expected to be playing it as a hobby rather than as their real job, then it is clearly correct to accommodate the job schedules that players are presumed to have. However, if a Magic pro is viewed as something more like a pro athlete, the situation looks very different. It would be absurd as a professional sports league to schedule games that allow the sport’s players to fit the games into their 9-5 schedules. If professional Magic is understood as a full-time job, then its growth shouldn’t be hindered by appealing to people who choose to have a different job.

Now, the obvious reply is "of course pro Magic isn’t like a pro sport." Professional athletes make millions, and we’ve seen the lifetime earnings list for Magic pros—no one has even won half a million in their life, to say nothing of the incredibly low expected annual earnings. And more to the point, professional athletes are paid a salary, and Magic pros don’t have that; they just get some winnings, which are unpredictable. No one could sustain themselves on that.

Okay, sure, I’ll grant those points, but it really isn’t that simple. Professional Magic pairs very well with writing about Magic—writing doesn’t take very much time if you’re already spending enough time working on Magic to know enough to have something to write about, and writing can be done from anywhere so it’s compatible with an aggressive travel schedule. Writing offers a real and predictable salary. It’s not appropriate for me to get into my exact finances or for you to ask, but let me make it clear that between playing and writing, Magic offers comfortable and respectable employment (for the few at the top, but remember the rules in question are only about the top).

It’s obviously pretty selfish to say that Magic should have rules that are based on supporting my particular job and not other people’s jobs, and that’s fair; my perspective is incredibly biased. However, I will point out that my job actively contributes to Magic outside of my appearance at tournaments and on social media. It is reasonable for Wizards of the Coast to want to support and encourage Magic writing.

This argument is largely borrowed from William Jensen—given that there are real dedicated Magic pros, why should professional Magic go out of its way (creating a new rule just for this corner case) to accommodate professional lawyers, game designers, or whatever else? Why does a working professional have to be on equal footing at pro Magic with a dedicated Magic pro?

I’d argue that they don’t but that Wizards might want them to be. The important thing to understand is what WotC’s goals are and why.

It’s great for WotC if working professionals can play professional Magic because then all the working professionals who play Magic as a hobby can aspire to play Magic professionally as well without feeling like they’ll have to make a decision at some point to give up their career to do it. This is incredibly valuable for WotC because it allows them to market the dream of professional Magic to more people, particularly adults with large amounts of disposable income. This is why the cap exists and why it’s important to WotC to have people like Paul Rietzl and Tom Martell at the top of the game: to show that Magic (or gaming) doesn’t have to be your life in order for you to take it seriously and get a lot out of it.

So if I understand that WotC wants pro Magic to appeal to the working professional, why am I trying to change things? While this system is bad for me, it’s good for WotC and good for my friends, so I shouldn’t expect to be able to change it (and moreover shouldn’t want to since I understand that in the long term what’s best for Magic is best for me in a way that trumps things being immediately better for me).

Well, I think that dedicated Magic pros are valuable to WotC as well. I have a lot of experience being me and going to tournaments. While it sounds arrogant to say "WotC should care about having me personally attend as many events as possible," I can comfortably say that because I’ve experienced being at events and I’m regularly approached by people who express that they’re happy to see me there, who ask for signatures, or who thank me for writing something that’s helped them in some way. I know that people attend GPs to meet and compete against the pros. Yes, to some extent we’re interchangeable, and there will always be a few pros at every GP so it’s not that big of a deal. But I think it’s clear to people in the know that each additional pro adds real additional value.

Moreover, a huge part of Magic’s marketing is tied into selling the Pro Tour both as an event and as a lifestyle. Many people playing in PTQs just want to go once to see what playing in a PT is like, but I think more of them are going because they hope to get "on the train" and become a professional Magic player in either capacity.

As a result WotC needs to make that goal look appealing so that people care about reaching it. The question is does WotC want to sell the dream of being a dedicated Magic pro—does WotC want to advertise to high school and college kids who haven’t figured out the career they want? That if they’re among the very best they could choose competitive Magic as their career? I’m guessing some of you would be inclined to say, "Of course not. That career path is as undesirable as it is unattainable. Those kids should be told to keep working toward something real and shown that they can continue to play Magic in their spare time." The moderate goal is safer, more realistic, and maybe most importantly much less scary to parents.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you too much given that I am a dedicated Magic pro that I see things differently. I like what I do; I think it’s a real, stable, and responsible way to support myself that contributes at least as much to the world as anything else I could be doing. I don’t see myself as some kind of unemployable gambler who’s forced into this because I can’t get a real job. Let me explain a bit about how I see what I do.

I once wanted to be a teacher. Since then I’ve realized that I don’t think teachers currently teach things the way I think they should be taught. As I’ve mentioned before, I think that Magic is among the best tools that exist to teach people how to think or do anything else important. I see myself as a teacher of Magic who helps people get as much as they can out of the game—lessons that carry over into the rest of their lives and teach methods for solving other problems, ways to usefully apply creativity, data analysis, or anything else. Now, I’ll grant that my impact on the mental development of any particular individual may be relatively minimal, but I’m reaching several orders of magnitude more people than I would be as a school teacher.

Moreover, my job is not merely that of an educator. That’s the facet that I find most valuable, but I also serve the same role as any other writer or entertainer—I create content that people consume because it enriches their lives in some way. Maybe it teaches them something or maybe they just find it enjoyable, but I’m clearly creating real value.

As such, I don’t see what I do as something to be shy about promoting. I have a college degree, and for the most part I encourage others to go to college. But I certainly think that promising young Magic players, like Matt Costa and Jacob Wilson, should consider the path of making Magic their primary occupation as source of income as a valid option. For a long time I tried to find what I wanted to do as a "real job" when really Magic was all I needed to be doing.

I suspect some of you still think this is irresponsible and unrealistically shortsighted. Don’t worry about me. But what if Magic ends? I’ll have no job and no resume. First of all, there are no signs that I have any reason to think that will happen soon. Second, Magic really is a great tool for everything, and I’ve met and gotten to know a lot of really smart people through Magic. If I need to do something else, I’m sure I’ll be able to work with some of them to put something together.

All right, that was kind of a long tangent. Let me get to my conclusions.

I respect the goal of the five Grand Prix cap. As much as I believe that Magic could support a community where the top of the Pro Tour consists of dedicated Magic players, I think it’s economically important at the moment that the dream is available to working professionals. However, the current system does not make it economically responsible for dedicated pros to go to as many GPs as we’d like to. Having players like William Jensen and me stop going to events in the middle of our best streaks because we hit the cap is much worse for coverage than following the story of our journey through the rest of the season, and it’s much worse for GPs later in the season that don’t get as many pros. The cost to make it worth going to everything for those of us who actively want to is very small all things considered.

I understand how it looks selfish from the outside to claim that Magic owes those of us who are already succeeding in the system more than we already get, and I’m certainly not trying to argue that we are owed anything. I’m arguing that with benefits like the appearance fees and with everything that’s been communicated to me directly from WotC in person, WotC understands that they want pros at events, and speaking as someone who is personally doing the calculation for myself and actively trying to justify attending GPs, they come so close to letting me do that without quite getting there. To me that seems like such a clear case that it’s worth taking the extra step to actually get the results they’re going for.

My proposed solutions:

The first option is to increase the cap. This is the worst solution but the cheapest. It doesn’t really fix the problem since if the cap is still doing anything, people will still hit it and as the cap is increased, it’s less effective at reaching its stated goals. I only list this as an option because it would technically be preferable for me, but I don’t think it’s the right solution.

The next option is to offer additional rewards to people who have reached the cap. The first iteration of this idea that I came up with is this: after any event in which you earn points, for every point you earned that did not increase your total points for the season because of the cap, you get $500. So if you have five Top 64 finishes and you get a sixth Top 64, that point didn’t increase your total, so you get $500 instead. If you make Top 32, you get two points, but your total only increases by one, so you get $500. If you have four Top 8s and a Top 16 and you get a Top 16, earning three points but not increasing your point total at all, you get $1500. I think this is enough of an incentive to make the tenth GP you play as desirable as the first GP, which is the goal. Ideally, the money earned that replaces the points would actually be high enough to be more valuable than the points.

This would make hitting the cap feel like unlocking an achievement that makes going to events even better, which would get players who are doing well to keep competing and has to be a good thing. But will that lead to the same burnout the cap was designed to prevent? I think the burnout argument is a bit of a red herring. The purpose of the GP cap is to keep the point thresholds to achieve levels low enough to allow people who can’t attend as many events to still reach those levels. This system still does that. The problem with this system is that it’s difficult to know exactly how much it will cost WotC—and it will definitely cost them something—and the paperwork involved in figuring out these payments is more complicated than payouts are currently, which is going to have some real administrative cost.

A third option is simply to increase appearance fees at GPs. This helps get pros who receive appearance fees to attend more events, which accomplishes most of the same goals. That group isn’t always the same group as the players who have the most GP finishes in the current season, but it’s close enough and keeps pros attending events. As a player attending under this system, it would make me take the tournament a little less seriously than the system above since I’m going for the money I get for showing up rather than going because I have the potential to earn more money by doing well, but that’s not necessarily a terribly significant difference to Wizards.

All right, that was terribly long winded, and I apologize. But it’s nice to have a chance to explain my thoughts on the subject without a 140 character limit.

Oh, and if we’re changing things about GP Pro Points, can we please switch to awarding points by record instead of by standing? I’ve heard that this isn’t possible because they have to announce the total prize in advance, but I simply can’t believe that the laws are written to govern Pro Points, and even if they were, it would be possible to rewrite everything about the way pro levels function to be based on match points earned at PTs and GPs, so I really don’t believe that’s what’s going on.