"That’s impossible. How could they have known?"
Previously on The Theros Standard Metagame:
1. Control decks dominated; Sphinx’s Revelation was good.
2. A diverse mix of anti-control decks flourished.
3. Devotion decks exploded, crushing the anti-control decks.
4. Black decks took over, preying on devotion decks.
5. Control decks made a resurgence now that they just needed to beat devotion decks and black decks.
6. A diverse mix of anti-control decks climbed to the top again.
This past weekend’s metagame?
Week 7 saw a return of the devotion decks, including a new take on Blue Devotion and Green Devotion defeating Red Devotion in the finals.
Why were devotion decks the place to be this weekend?
A month ago the format was at a similar place in the metagame, with players using such a variety of strategies that control had trouble fighting all of them. Devotion decks beat up on a lot of those decks and just want to dodge control and black. Not surprisingly, control and black will likely experience a bump next week.
"It always ends the same." —MIB
"It only ends once. Everything before that is just progress." —Jacob
As cyclical as this appears to be, it is changing each time around. It isn’t just:
Control->Diverse Anti-Control Threats->Devotion->Black->
When control returned to the top week 5, it was informed by a month of evolution, of technology. It knew it wanted to beat black decks. It knew devotion decks existed.
When the diverse anti-control threats emerged (again) week 6, they knew they had to consider devotion decks. They knew spot removal needed to be beat. One-mana tricks like Brave the Elements and Gods Willing became popular, replacing cards like Unflinching Courage.
The week 7 return of the Gods (Thassa, Nylea, and Mogis . . . ) is not just a return to the PT metagame. It’s not just knowledge of other devotion decks and the sorts of tools people employ to fight them. It’s that people want to be one step ahead of the metagame, and it begins to recur. The weeks smear together as more and more people try to jump one level ahead in the evolution.
For instance, a lot of people anticipated this being a good devotion weekend and jumped straight to the anti-devotion approach of running control despite last week being a bad weekend to play control. This has had, well, other side effects . . .
"Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come and we want go home." —Harry Belafonte
Let’s take a look at these so-called devotion decks. After all, how devoted are they really if they all feature splashes?
SCG Standard Open: Dallas’ champion was Hal Brady piloting Green Devotion, including the now-standard red splash for Domri Rade and Xenagos, the Reveler.
- 2 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 1 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 1 Nylea, God of the Hunt
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 3 Arbor Colossus
- 4 Voyaging Satyr
This maindeck features almost zero spice, with just a single Ruric Thar, the Unbowed throwing the occasional curveball. The sideboard, however, is where things get interesting. While Mihara’s Green Devotion sideboard at the Pro Tour was quite varied, Brady has a more focused target to aim for it.
Mistcutter Hydra? Sure, get some points against both Thassa and control.
Burning Earth? With as diverse a mix of three-color decks as we saw last week? Sounds good. Besides, we could really use the help against Esper.
Wasteland Viper? An anti-aggro card that happens to hedge against fatties like Desecration Demon and Stormbreath Dragon thanks to Domri Rade and Polukranos (deathtouch combos . . . ). I’m into it.
Nylea’s Disciple? Red aggro variants were out in force last week, so sure, let’s get those guys.
Speaking of red decks, the line between Red Devotion and Red Aggro continues to blur. The finalist, Jared LaCombe, was definitely on the devotion side, using almost the same list as last week’s finalist James Gates.
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Fanatic of Mogis
At this point Fanatic of Mogis has completely overtaken Forge[/author]“]Purphoros, God of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] as the devotion payoff of choice. Fanatic doesn’t get shut down quite as hard against reactive decks that can keep Purphoros asleep while still paying you off big against removal-less opponents.
McCombe’s primary changes to the maindeck are the addition of an Assemble the Legion and Aurelia’s Fury, giving him some alternative ways to go big. Aurelia’s Fury in particular is pretty exciting. Obviously Nykthos puts us on some twenty-point Fireball type of time, but even beyond that this is not the worst format for a Fog or a Falter. Board stalls happen, and Aurelia’s Fury can completely tear a game open.
Another fun application is as an anti Supreme Verdict tool. Flood the board, Fury for one, and it will be a Time Walk of sorts. Good times.
This approach is a well-balanced one and will likely continue to be a player in the metagame for weeks to come. I would play the full four Nykthos, but you get the idea. If I were playing red, I’d rather be on the big side than say something like this:
- 4 Chandra's Phoenix
- 4 Rakdos Shred-Freak
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
Hinojosa’s list is totally reasonable; I just think the week before last was a better week to play Mono-Red Aggro than next week. We’ve got the tools to make it work, but they aren’t so good that the strategy comes out on top of a format that has it in its sights.
What about Dublin’s darling, Blue Devotion?
"And then the witch doctor, he told me what to do." —David Seville
In Dublin the blue decks were arguably the most devoted, with a mana-base strategy like the best browser strategy, mono-Chrome. No longer, however, as some mutations have brought us some unlikely additions.
- 3 Judge's Familiar
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Cloudfin Raptor
- 4 Nightveil Specter
- 2 Frilled Oculus
- 4 Tidebinder Mage
- 4 Thassa, God of the Sea
- 4 Master of Waves
While Blue Devotion decks had already been experimenting with splashing black for spot removal and white for Detention Sphere, Fain switches it on ’em and splashes green for Frilled Oculus and a Master Biomancer / Plummet sideboard.
Frilled Oculus is just a sweet card, and really I don’t think this is the last time his goofy head is showing up. Once you are into 1/3s for two ala Omenspeaker, the Oculus is one that can actually have a pretty reasonable impact on the board.
As for Master Biomancer? Obviously, this is Fain’s big plan. Master Biomancer gives him a trump for the mirror and semi-mirrors. Whether they are Blue, Red, or Green Devotion, Master Biomancer will just take over a game that stalls out a bit, letting you go over the top of removal-light decks.
Plummet along with Simic Charm and Fog gives us access to some removal of sorts, adding some dimensions to the otherwise narrow mono-blue archetype.
While it was the other two devotion decks that made the finals this week, it was Blue Devotion that took the most spots in the Top 16, with four out of the sixteen players paying homage to Thassa.
With eight of the Top 16 players in Texas playing devotion decks, it was definitely a devotion-centric weekend. That said, a number of players tried to get a step ahead of the metagame and played control despite being at a low point last weekend. This strategy is high risk, high reward, as there are still a lot of anti-control threats of all sorts all over. However, if you make it past the early rounds, the top tables generally get easier. The one exception? Red Devotion doesn’t roll over to control the way Green and Blue Devotion do.
As a result, despite control not having the best record in the Swiss, three control decks ended up in the Top 8, capitalizing on the wave of devotion decks wiping out the G/W decks, the Naya decks, and so on.
The top control decks of this past weekend were not without a few surprises however. To begin with, it was U/W Control, not Esper that had the most impressive numbers on the weekend. First, here is the top finishing Esper player using a fairly standard build:
Tran’s victory condition split of two Blood Baron of Vizkopas; one Aetherling; and one Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is standard these days, though some players use five rather than four. The Blood Barons are a concession to the black decks. Elspeth is the purest control kill card and what we want, while Aetherling is merely what we need.
The return of Doom Blade?
Doom Blade returns, with the number of mono-black decks in decline and the number of one-mana tricks making three-mana removal spells too risky of a place to start interacting with the board.
I just want to know what happened to Doom_Blade_Guy? The prophecy finally came true; Doom Blade was one of the defining cards of the format a month ago. It was so good in fact that people eventually had to find other removal spells to use instead because so many people were picking their creature base specifically to fight it. Through all of this there wasn’t a peep out of Doom_Blade_Guy.
So if Esper’s been the top control deck all season long, why did U/W overtake it this week? With half of the Top 8 featuring access to Burning Earth, it is not hard to see why people would look to cut a color from their three-color decks if at all possible. The tradeoff? Blood Barons can become more Aetherlings and Elspeths. Thoughtseize can become more bad permission. The real cost is that instead of nice things like Doom Blade and Hero’s Downfall you have to play cards like Celestial Flare, Last Breath, Ratchet Bomb, or Cyclonic Rift.
The trick to making it work? Lots of Divinations!
Why Divination? Divination isn’t breaking any efficiency records, but it is deceptively good in U/W for a few reasons:
- U/W doesn’t have enough "good" cards to fill a 60-card deck. You have to use some amount of "bad" cards just to get there. Divination may not be good, but at least it’s not bad, so we are talking about a power level increase.
- U/W has some good cards that are much, much better than most of the deck, and Divination lets you draw those cards more often.
- U/W doesn’t have as many tapped lands as Esper, so the tempo loss doesn’t hurt as much.
Here are the top finishing U/W decks from #SCGDAL. First, in third place, Grant McGuffee:
Four off-color Temples? Now that’s what I’m talking about! The scry lands really are that good. They don’t exactly support the whole "anti Burning Earth plan," but four black mana is not quite as taxing as the sixteen sources found in the above Esper list. Besides, McGuffee cut his Mutavaults to make room for them, so it’s kind of a wash.
If I played U/W, I would rather be on the high end of the victory condition spectrum next week, but as long as you have at least two, you aren’t just cold to every Thoughtseize deck. Besides, it’s never pretty, but Jace is still a fine backup win condition against most opponents. Fifth-place finisher Colin Chilbert ran four dedicated win conditions, making room by just cutting Last Breath and Celestial Flare and sucking it up against creatures, hoping to brute force them rather than "take control." This is a tactic that has become core to control strategies over the years, with haymakers getting pushed more and more often while cheap interactive cards and efficient lock cards becoming rarer and rarer.
- 3 Syncopate
- 2 Divination
- 1 Essence Scatter
- 2 Ratchet Bomb
- 4 Azorius Charm
- 4 Supreme Verdict
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 4 Detention Sphere
- 4 Sphinx's Revelation
- 2 Dissolve
Devotion and control were not the full story however. A third school put a couple in the Top 8: Boros. Ever notice how Boros players are always the most humble and most self-deprecating people? I half expect to see Paul Rietzl and Craig Wescoe jump up on a table during a tournament karaoke after party and start singing, "I’m just a teenage dirtbag baby.Listen to Iron Maiden maybe with me?"
Of course, they’re Boros players, so they’re not fighting for attention, meaning our odds of such a performance are sadly lower.
Both of the top Boros decks from this past weekend are very similar:
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Boros Elite
- 3 Frontline Medic
- 3 Daring Skyjek
- 2 Boros Reckoner
- 2 Imposing Sovereign
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 2 Azorius Arrester
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Frontline Medic
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
Tobey uses two Spear of Heliods instead of Ajanis number three and four and Imposing Sovereign instead of Azorius Arrester, but for the most part they are both just:
4 Brave the Elements + 4 Boros Charms + 52 other cards
Why is Boros succeeding at making it to Top 8 while other aggro decks like G/W and Naya manage to finish nine rounds about as often as a Magic Online PTQ or MOCS?
- A consistent mana base (assuming you aren’t playing three Chained to the Rocks with just four Sacred Foundrys to put them on).
- A less painful mana base (all the better to race you with, my darling)
- Brave the Elements
Ok, so this week was devotion’s weekend, control bounced back, and Boros reinforced its claim to "aggro deck to beat." What does this mean for next week?
Scrolls back to beginning of article to look at what was good week 4.
Ahh! Ok, I know this one, it’s . . .
Now, wait a second. Things are different this time. Yes, devotion was the macro-strategy of the weekend, but we probably don’t want to follow the old format’s dogma religiously. We can observe a number of differences between week 3 and week 7 that should in theory, breathe some life into the new format, leading to the creation of a different evolutionary track.
- Week 3’s other big strategies were black and B/W, while week 7 featured U/W and Boros.
- Week 3 was won by blue, while in week 7 green won the day.
- In week 3, not a lot of strategies were fleshed out as well as they are at this point.
What should we watch for next week? Where should we be aiming?
To begin with, early in the life of a format most players are a week behind. They copy what was good last week rather than beat what people are going to play next week. As the format matures, this tightens as the cycle gets smaller and more and more players play decks that beat last week’s decks. Eventually, the evolution is as such a fevered pitch, with players showing up with decks to beat the decks that beat last week’s decks. All of these approaches, however, are focused on last week rather than next week.
"To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven" —Pete Seeger and later The Byrds
Devotion was the most successful macro-archetype split between all four major types. It’s not just that it will have a bull’s eye on its head; it will occupy the brain space of the scene at large. This makes the logical place to go to control or black. Unlike last time, control is already big. This suggests we are actually further ahead in the cycle and that the pace is accelerating.
Control is going to be popular next week, and the format is moving so fast that people aren’t going to wait for it to come out on top before adopting anti-control strategies again. We appear to be closing in on an equilibrium point where each of the viable strategies gets played in roughly the correct proportion. When that time comes, well, that’s when it gets really fun . . .
When the format reaches an equilibrium point, that’s when the best strategy is generally to go rogue.
Going rogue for rogue’s sake is generally not advised; however, when formats are allowed to settle into a balance, it leads to an environment that is especially rewarding to those that can attack it from a completely different paradigm. It is the point in which people have focused and tuned their decks in the most predictable fashion since they all know what they need to beat.
Trying to "go rogue" before the format has figured out what is good can lead to a lot of accidental splash damage. When someone has fifteen different cards in their sideboard, the odds that some of them are good against you goes up. However, when things settle down and sideboards contain mostly threes and fours, it is easier to dodge.
It’s not just sideboards either. When the proportions of different archetypes become more and more stable, we can better develop rogue strategies that capitalize on this knowledge, and make up for a small decrease in raw power level with an increase in positioning and flying under the radar.
Next week is not likely to be full-on rogue madness. It is, however, likely to be the first crack. Perhaps there will be one big rogue deck in the Top 8 (which would probably not be the best deck the following weekend), but the more important thing is the relative stability of the format. Next weekend’s metagame will likely be the most stable and most well-balanced snapshot of the metagame in the format’s life, at least for Swiss. At most it will take one more week unless someone throws the format for a loop. Sure, we will see black decks get better, particularly those well set up against anti-control aggressive decks, and will see an increase in control, but the change won’t be as dramatic as it was last time.
What would I play this weekend? I would play either Mono-Black Devotion or B/W Midrange tuned against control. Without as much B/W to beat up on, Mono-Black is not as clear a choice as it was a month ago, but having consistent mana is pretty sweet.
However, this weekend I’ll be playing Legacy (and Vintage) and saving the Standard for next week. What would I want to play the following weekend in Albuquerque? Assuming nobody flips the table this weekend, that will be the perfect weekend to go rogue (and no, this is not just code for "play Grixis.")
We need to beat at least three out of four of the following:
- Sphinx’s Revelation / Supreme Verdict
- Devotion to permanents decks
- Black decks
- The various aggro decks, like Boros
What non-mainstream decks could be well positioned against at least three out of these four? Remember, it is totally ok to actually be quite bad against one of them as long as we have the appropriate edge against the others. This is the time for outside-the-box thinking. There are no bad ideas at this stage, so please share any and all thoughts on the subject no matter how probable it is that they end up failing.
Can we reanimate something?
Can we combo off somehow?
Can we Turbo Fog?
Can we hexproof?
Can we play a straight burn deck?
Can we play a tribal deck?
This is the time to dust off our notebooks and look at all of the sketches we made earlier in the format that didn’t pan out. Have we learned anything that might have solved problems they had? Were any of them not viable because of elements of the format that are no longer important? This is also a great time to get a refresher on the past two months of articles by your favorite rogue deckbuilders. What ideas have they discussed for this format besides those that have hit the big time?
Once we have an exhaustive list of possible ideas, we can organize them and figure out which ones are likely the most profitable to explore. At the end of the day, we still don’t want to play a rogue deck just to play a rogue deck. It needs to be good, so we’ll need a backup plan if we can’t find anything. At this point, however, we should all have at least one or two decks we are comfortable with that we can turn to if all else fails.
What does the world look like where we are willing to lose to control but beat the rest?
What about devotion?
What do all of our enemies have in common? What are they missing?
First, we need a list of 200 ways to use a paperclip . . .