Two Different Worlds

Join Patrick Chapin, author of Next Level Deckbuilding, as he examines the Standard metagames of #SCGSEA and #GPBA just in time for this weekend’s #GPCincy and #SCGLA.

The past month has featured a pretty heavy focus on Modern, from the Pro Tour Born of the Gods to Grand Prix Richmond. It’s not even clear how much Born of the Gods has been given its due. How much of an impact has the new set even had on Standard?

Okay, okay. The vacation was great and all, but it’s time to get down to business.

This past weekend’s SCG Standard Open in Seattle and Standard Grand Prix in Buenos Aires set the stage for the last SCG Standard Open of the season in Los Angeles and the first US Standard Grand Prix since Born of the Gods in Cincinnati this weekend. The stories these two tournaments tell?

Let’s just say that it’s pretty clear they didn’t get their stories straight.

It’s not that I don’t believe them. I do. Or rather, I believe that they believe. Which is to say that these two tournaments featured very different metagames at two very different stages in the format’s lifecycle. Both metagames are and were real; they’re just at different stops along the evolution of Born of the Gods Standard.

Looking at these two tournaments and watching all the games I did this weekend, I’ve got a feeling I know where I want to be at metagame-positioning-wise. Let’s take a look at #SCGSEA and #GPBA, and if you tell me whether you ended up with the same conclusions or not, I’ll tell you what I’m playing this weekend.


As always, this is a weighted metagame, a snapshot of what it looked like at the top. These metagame numbers are purely reflective of the Top 16 at each event, not the early round metagame at all. It’s not that the early rounds aren’t important; it’s just that this is the metagame we need to beat if we want to actually win the whole thing.

Focus on the early rounds and you’ll be more likely to start strong, sure, but you’ll also be more likely to lose in the final rounds once the metagame shifts. Most tournament players don’t realize that the metagame numbers at the beginning of the tournament don’t reflect the metagame numbers at the end or what it takes to win the tournament, at least not directly.

Imagine there is 50% Rock, 25% Paper, and 25% Scissors at the start of round 1 of a 256 player tournament.* It can be tempting to play Paper and feel really smart. After all, it beats the most popular deck in the room!

Paper starts out well, winning two-thirds of its non-mirror matches. Scissors wins just one-third, meaning worse and worse matchups for Rock. Rock, as you have no doubt surmised, starts out 50/50. The funny thing is that by round 4 Paper has won so much, that there’s more of it than there is Rock. Scissors is in shorter and shorter supply, meaning less and less prey for Rock. Another round goes by and Paper is more than twice as popular as Rock.

Paper is the new Rock!

Of course, once Paper is the new Rock, what Scissors decks remain turn into the best decks in the format. Imagine a Top 8 of five Paper, two Rock, and a Scissors. What are the chances of each deck winning?


Of course, Magic decks are nowhere near the 100/0 matchups found in Rock-Paper-Scissors, but the evolution of the metagame is informative nonetheless. The metagame literally evolves over the course of the tournament, and if you’re goal is to win the tournament, beating the winner’s circle metagame is far more important than playing the deck that gives you the best chance to make Top 8.

Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about a deck as being a Top 32 type of deck. While commonly mistakenly said about decks with 50/50 matchups, it is actually more accurately said about decks that are good against the early tournament metagame. Once the good decks rise to the top, however, the turbo Top 32 deck stops climbing.

Let’s take a look at that metagame data once again, this time a little more compacted by overall strategy.


This should make it pretty obvious that the metagame at the top of the US is not the same as the metagame at the top of Argentina. How can we explain this? Is one actually more evolved than the other? If so, which one is further along? Rather, the better question is actually “which one is the metagame to beat if I want to do well in Los Angeles or Cincinnati?”

The fundamental divergence between the two metagames is whether Thassa, God of the Sea or Thoughtseize is at the core of the format. The US metagame featured much less Mono-Blue Devotion than Argentina, leading to fewer victims for Esper Control, which generally has a solid edge over Thassa. Meanwhile, in Argentina Mono-Blue Devotion was everywhere, making Esper Control look fantastic.

Two GP Top 8s in a month? PVDDR’s back, baby!

His build isn’t particularly unusual, but it is well tuned. I like how (relatively) little damage he takes from his lands while still having enough black to reliably cast removal spells early.

Esper Control struggled in the US partly because of the lack of Mono-Blue Devotion decks but also because of the surge of R/W Burn decks, which are favored over Esper. Why did R/W Burn demolish the US metagame? The deck has edge over both Thoughtseize midrange and Esper, while its mild weakness to some creature decks is not such a big deal. The Argentinian metagame however featured so much more G/R/x Monsters and Mono-Blue Devotion.

At this point if you’ve seen one Mono-Blue Devotion list, you’ve seen them all. There are basically 53 cards locked in. Beyond that pick seven of:

A recent trend in the US has been the adoption of Ephara, God of the Polis and Detention Sphere, going the U/W Devotion route. This path is more resilient to black Pack Rat decks full of removal, but it does slow the deck down, making it more vulnerable to decks like R/W Burn. I suspect the US devotion decks should be going back to their roots.

While many use more U/W dual lands, Gardiner’s build has more Godless Shrine action (enabling Nightveil Specter) so as to limit his true tapped lands.

I particularly like Essence Scatter in the board and generally believe Essence Scatter and Negate are underplayed in Standard. Negate sees a fair bit of use, but I could see it being maindecked more often.

Why does the US scene have so much less Mono-Blue Devotion? The format has evolved, and quite frankly it’s not super well positioned. There’s so little room for the devotion deck to adapt, and its play is so scripted. Everyone has tested against it ad nauseam, and the technology exists to beat it. It’s still a good deck and might rebound slightly this weekend, but I would not recommend it. It may have slightly more prey, but Esper Control will be on the rise. Plus black decks have shored up most of their disadvantage to it.

Why didn’t people play G/R/x Monsters in the US? Well, they did actually. The early rounds of Seattle were full of Jund, which is just G/R Monsters with a black splash for removal. While some people still play straight G/R, most have adopted maindeck Dreadbore with a nice variety of spot removal in the board. I generally think the Jund build is better, though it has contributed to the circumstances surrounding R/W Burn’s rise to glory. Everyone is taking more damage from their lands and playing more tapped, which adds up to good stuff for red mages.

While everyone plays four copies of Polukranos, World Eater, the rest of the four-drops vary a little. Reaper of the Wilds is slow and durable and better against black, while Ghor-Clan Rampager is faster and better in the mirror.

Philippe’s GP winning list is a little bigger than most, with three copies of Xenagos, the Reveler; a Xenagos, God of Revels; and a Vraska the Unseen on top of everything else. How did he make room? He has just one Scavenging Ooze and four removal spells instead of the usual six to eight.

In many ways the Argentinian metagame looks like the US metagame from two weeks ago. My guess is that with the world’s focus on Modern information just had not spread as far as fast. US players certainly had access to this style of Jund deck, but it didn’t have quite enough raw power to keep up. This deck is supposed to be bringing enough Mizzium Mortars to keep Blood Baron of Vizkopa in check. With it falling short in the US, Blood Baron is just running rampant.

We discussed the emergence of R/W Burn as a major player in the US, though it did show up in Argentina’s metagame a little. This deck is not just a flash in the pan. It’s not the typical Mono-Red Aggro deck full of cheap creatures, but it’s not without precedent. It actually resembles the Shrine of Burning Rage decks that were popular about three years ago.

Most R/W Burn decks play Boros Reckoner in the sideboard rather than the main, but the rest of Neil’s list is fairly standard.

I expect a lot of R/W Burn in Cincy and with good reason. The deck is strong against black and control, it’s cute in a way people like, and the world at large doesn’t yet know exactly how to adjust for it.

The good news is that beating it isn’t exactly rocket science. Play more life gain. Play fewer shock lands. Play more lifelink. Play fewer cards that require you to pay life. Put Whip of Erebos back in your deck. Don’t get stuck with a million removal spells and no way to stop a Chandra’s Phoenix.

While R/W Burn was the breakout star of Seattle, the top dog of the US metagame appears to be B/W Midrange. This deck (and Mono-Black Devotion) is really strong, and even with people trying to pick on it, it can’t be totally hated out. Play the top Argentinian decks in the US metagame and they struggle, as they’re mostly just the early round decks from the US tournaments (aka one or two week ago decks). I prefer B/W Midrange to Mono-Black Devotion at the moment because B/W is better when people aren’t playing tons of G/R, which I don’t expect to do well in Cincy.

There is actually a fair bit of customization possible in B/W Midrange, and which way you go on each of the tuning choices actually has a pretty big impact on your matchups. Lifebane Zombie versus Sin Collector versus Nightveil Specter is constantly fluctuating. I prefer Lifebane Zombies, but like Harrison I don’t want that many threes at all.

The mixture of Underworld Connections and Read the Bones is actually pretty awesome. Without Gray Merchant of Asphodel, extra Underworld Connections lose a little value. Drawing one of each is just so much better than two copies of one.

Bile Blight is the strongest of the two-drop removal on its own, but I generally like a mixture. I prefer the first Ultimate Price to the first Doom Blade because of how strong and popular black is in the US, but I also like some amount of Devour Flesh because of the resurgence of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Ultimate Price and Doom Blade have made a comeback because of the popularity of G/R Monsters, but G/R really struggled last week so it might be slightly less important. Generally speaking, having tons of removal spells is great right now, though it has contributed to the rise of R/W Burn.

Not everyone plays Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in B/W Midrange, but I really like it. It’s never really “bad” against anyone, and when it’s good, it’s so good. The extra dimensions of having a sweeper and having a noncreature threat are great. Of course, I wouldn’t mind looking at sneaking an Obzedat, Ghost Council back in, like Markus Thibeau:

He didn’t even bother with the threes, meaning he got an extra Devour Flesh and an Obzedat, Ghost Council. Obzedat is excellent against R/W Burn while also giving us nice free percentage against Esper Control. Lifebane Zombie everywhere hurts it to be sure, and you can’t play too many expensive cards. But I’m planning on playing one Obzedat main and one in the side as of right now.

You know what card is underrated?


Yeah, of course everyone boards it, but I want to maindeck one and go up to four after boarding. With Mono-Blue Devotion dipping, now is the perfect time!

Mono-Black Devotion and B/W Midrange aren’t the only black midrange decks showing up by the way. Check out Sebastian Martinez Beltrane’s B/R Midrange from last week:

Obviously, this list has a lot of similarities to B/W, with Stormbreath Dragon instead of Blood Baron of Vizkopa; Chandra, Pyromaster instead of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; and more options for removal. I prefer B/W, but the B/R build does have one very appealing added option.

Rakdos’s Return is so hot that I would like to experiment with B/R/W decks to break open the mirror. Mizzium Mortars gives us Blood Baron of Vizkopa dominance, and Rakdos’s Return is the perfect way to fight midrange battles.

At a certain point I think you have to choose between Bile Blight and Boros Reckoner. Maybe Reckoner is better, but I’m not sure you can even afford to make him work with Desecration Demon and Thoughtseize. I just don’t know how to make the mana base not too slow. I also think this build is too vulnerable to Chandra’s Phoenix for my taste.

I’m not sure I’ll have time to make this work this week, so the tried and true B/W Midrange is far more likely to be my plan (with Esper Control as a backup).

Another American trend we are seeing is the rise of black aggro decks (also using Thoughtseize). Sometimes they are just slightly more aggressive builds of Mono-Black Devotion, such as Donovan Hammond’s Herald of Torment / Pain Seer approach:

I particularly love the use of two copies of Whip of Erebos here.

More often however people are going for the full-on beatdowns, such as Jackson Knorr’s Mono-Black Aggro list:

These decks are too cold to Blood Baron of Vizkopa for my tastes, but they are respectable. I would play four copies of Lifebane Zombie if I played MBA.

Thoughtseize has also been showing up in white aggro decks, making them very formidable against control, especially when paired with Xathrid Necromancer.

I’m not a fan of Tormented Hero off the splash or of so many Swamps. Yes, there is no Precinct Captain so it’s not as bad, but I think you want him back. I’d rather just settle for Dryad Militant and have a non-Human.

Before we call it a day, I’d like to take a look at the most exciting fringe deck in each of the two tournaments. The GP featured a Top 16 finish from G/B Dredge, a deck a lot of people have wanted to make work:

Part of Matias’ formula is the adoption of Herald of Torment, which doesn’t just add raw power but also adds some much needed reach. Lotleth Troll; Nemesis of Mortal; Nighthowler; and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord are all great targets.

Another key innovation is abandoning Abrupt Decay. You can’t play much removal in this style of deck, and Abrupt Decay doesn’t do what you actually need.

Deathrite Shaman is a nice twist, and I’d be interested to see how it plays. That said, cutting an Elvish Mystic seems crazy.

On the US side, Naya Hexproof was the talk of the early rounds of Seattle. Two players started out 6-0 and 7-0, but a few bad breaks in the final rounds knocked it slightly out of the Top 8.

It’s not pretty, but it’s clever. This deck uses Boros Charm much better than most. Yes, the four damage is always nice, but making your big threat live through Supreme Verdict is huge. And giving double strike to a Witchstalker with Madcap Skills and Ethereal Armor is awesome.

The mana isn’t great so you can get a lot of janky draws, but Naya Hexproof attacks the format from a direction many people are not prepared for. I kind of want to try Ghor-Clan Rampager in here, as we could use more creatures and it doubles as a great pump effect.

Okay, I’m out for today, but I’m looking forward to battling this weekend. Having done commentary two weeks in a row, I’m craving some battles. Standard had stagnated a little by the time Born of the Gods dropped, but every indication points to a reinvigorated format with a lot changing and a lot of opportunity. I still think Thoughtseize is a messed-up Magic card, and consequently black decks are a little too good, so that’s what I’m playing this weekend.

Will the US metagame keep steamrolling ahead or will GP Buenos Aires have a larger impact than I’m giving credit? What are your picks for the Top 3 decks of #GPCincy and #SCGLA? What’s the best deck flying under the radar? See you this weekend!

*Courtesy of Mike Flores, “The Basic Test of Metagaming Competence