Why Is W/U Flash So Popular?

The top Standard tables seem to show a two-deck metagame, yet one of those decks is losing to the other! So what gives? Ross Merriam explores why players remain drawn to W/U Flash and how they’re fighting back against the seemingly favored B/G Delirium deck ahead of the #SCGINVI!

After #SCGKNOX last weekend, I don’t think anyone doubts that Standard is a two-deck format. B/G Delirium and W/U Flash utterly dominated the tournament, taking seven of the Top 8 slots and 25 of the Top 32 slots. Familiar faces like R/W and Mardu Vehicles, Jeskai Control, and B/R Zombies make a brief appearance, but given that the top decks only formed about 60% of the Day 2 metagame, and undoubtedly an even smaller percentage of the entire field, it’s clear that the rest of the format can’t compete with these two decks.

So red…sorry, buddy. Early on it looked like you would be coming back in a big way. Aggressive decks with artifact subthemes are your jam and the format was filled with them. But your time at the top was fleeting, and much like Cubs fans up until a month ago, you’re going to have to wait ’til next year.

The fall is typically a dynamic time for Standard, as decks fall out of the metagame only to come back a few weeks later when the field is better suited toward their strengths. And for a few weeks, we had that with Kaladesh. Aggressive red decks utilizing Smuggler’s Copter dominated early, and Temur Aetherworks and Torrential Gearhulk looked to take over at the Pro Tour. But bubbling under the surface of that Pro Tour was W/U Flash, which was the clear best deck once we had all the data.

B/G Delirium quickly rose to combat W/U Flash, and we’ve been stuck with the twin bogeymen ever since. Why has the format not changed to account for the inflated presence of two decks?

To first understand this question, I’ll refer you to my articlefromlastweek. It’s clear to me that in the matchup between these two decks, B/G Delirium has the advantage. It’s not dominant by any means, but it’s significant enough that I think W/U Flash players are doing themselves a disservice if their only goal is to put up the best results.

The key to understanding the matchup is Ishkanah, Grafwidow.

That card completely blunts most attacks, even from a resilient threat like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. You can simply chump block it for a few turns before setting up another Ishkanah or an Emrakul, the Promised End that, as its name implies, will end the game. With Emrakul, the Promised End waiting for you, the obvious answer is to go underneath Ishkanah, Grafwidow, but W/U Flash lacks the tools to do that against Liliana, the Last Hope. You have to bring out your Selfless Spirits, a premier aggressive threat, because they are such a liability against the planeswalker.

Without Selfless Spirit, the one major threat that can stand up to Ishkanah, a transformed Archangel Avacyn, is nearly impossible to set up. Not to mention that it’s vulnerable to Grasp of Darkness, which is not a place I would want to be.

You can bypass that vulnerability by aggressively using Gideon’s -4 ability, which I noticed Emma Handy prioritize very highly last weekend on her run to the Top 8. It was strange to me to see Emma sacrifice her Gideons so easily, since typically the planeswalker is your premier threat against slower decks, but Archangel Avacyn allows you to attack with your smaller creatures and threaten to transform it if they make any sort of trade. I doubt that Emma’s change in tactics is enough to swing the matchup, but it was a heady play that was justly rewarded with an impressive finish.

As a result of this natural disadvantage, the W/U Flash player is forced to morph into a pseudo-control deck with a bunch of counterspells to handle Ishkanah, Grafwidow, despite the fact that you don’t really want to play a long game. The hope is that you can establish an early clock that goes unanswered long enough for you to untap with a counterspell to protect your lead in a classic aggro-control fashion. But the cards aren’t mana-efficient enough to make this plan reliable, and if a single major threat resolves, then your counterspells quickly lose their effectiveness, as you are forced to tap out to re-establish pressure or answer their threat.

So with a disadvantage in the key matchup in the metagame, why doesn’t W/U Flash decline in popularity? It dominated a Pro Tour metagame that was filled with aggressive red decks and Aetherworks Marvel strategies that were vulnerable to Spell Queller and other counterspells, and now those decks are a small fraction of the metagame, so it’s only natural to expect W/U Flash to decline in the absence of its natural prey.

A decline in W/U Flash would allow the Aetherworks Marvel decks to rise again due to their positive matchup against B/G Delirium. A turn 4 Eldrazi is just not something a plodding midrange deck is prepared to fight against. The fail rate of Aetherworks Marvel is always going to stop the deck from dominating on a consistent basis, but its status as the predator of B/G Delirium is important to jumpstart the metagame. A decline in B/G Delirium would help out aggressive red decks and W/U Flash and create the metagame cycle we’re so used to seeing in Standard.

But as long as W/U Flash maintains numbers as large as this, there’s no way the Aetherworks Marvel decks can compete. So why are we in this deadlock? I have a few theories.

Magic Players Are Not All Narrow-Minded Spikes

When we approach the problem of metagaming a tournament, it is often under the notion that everyone in the tournament is doing everything they can to win. Their deck choices, card choices, and sideboard plans are all made in the service of maximizing their chances of winning. While this is true for some portion of the field, it is certainly not true for everyone, and likely not true for a majority of players.

Plenty of people just show up with the deck they like to play, and the possibility of winning is a mere bonus for a fun weekend playing cards. But these players are much more likely to play fringe decks, so they are unlikely to be part of the group that is inflating the presence of W/U Flash.

The important players to focus on are those who take the attitude of a Spike but apply it with certain constraints. The obvious example here: archetype loyalists. Smuggler’s Copter could have put 32 copies into every Top 8 for months and you’d never see Shota Yasooka or Shaheen Soorani touch an aggressive deck. It simply isn’t in them to play something that isn’t control.

Aggro, midrange, and combo all have their share of devotees as well. And all these people want to win, but they will only optimize their win percentage within a certain framework. Because their skills with a single archetype are so well-honed, it may even optimize their win percentage overall, but I contend that with sufficient practice they could improve their performance by switching decks.

Similarly, there are players who despise certain archetypes and will play anything but. Personally, I don’t like dopey midrange decks, and for the most part, that’s what B/G Delirium is. I’ve tried very hard to convince myself not to play it for the foreseeable future, and I’m sure I will continue to do so, but Emrakul, the Promised End changes the calculus.

Normally midrange decks are vulnerable to stumbling against faster decks and being overpowered by slower decks and you can’t solve both problems simultaneously. But Emrakul, the Promised End is the most powerful end-game in Standard and B/G Delirium gets incredibly consistent access to it at the cost of one slot.

But if your hatred for midrange runs deeper than mine (good luck with that), you may be inclined to play a slightly worse deck for the sake of your own self-respect and/or sanity. (Must be nice to still have those.)

The biggest mistake we make when considering the metagame is to assume that everyone is working with the same tools we are and working toward the same ends that we are. To a lot of players, it not only matters that they win, but how they win.

W/U Flash Is Tricky

What do I mean by tricky? I mean that W/U Flash has a lot of intricate sequencing that you have to execute well in order to ensure that your counterspells and other interactive elements line up in the right way to stop your opponent’s most important cards.

And the question of what is important is a difficult one to answer because it’s so contextual. Sometimes you have to protect your own Archangel Avacyn and sometimes you should let it die. Sometimes you need to leave up your counterspell for a potential Ishkanah, Grafwidow and sometimes you can tap out for another threat because answering the tokens with Declaration in Stone will be sufficient.

The technical intricacy of playing a deck like W/U Flash is appealing to a lot of players because it’s a reasonable barometer of skill. Being able to attribute your wins to your skill and your losses to your mistakes creates a feedback loop that is often obscured in Magic through the variance in the game.

Being able to leverage a skill advantage against weaker players is also appealing to most spikes because that skill advantage will be present regardless of their draws or matchups, thus mitigating variance. If W/U Flash gives them that edge where B/G Delirium may not, then it tilts the scales in favor of the former.

But, in reality, you have to beat good players to Top 8 and eventually win a major tournament. So while I wasn’t surprised to see three copies of W/U Flash in the Top 8 of SCG Knoxville, I also wasn’t surprised to see B/G Delirium dominate from then on, albeit in a small sample size.

There are many angles from which to approach Magic, many opportunities to gain an edge, and technical prowess is only one of them. Deck design, sideboard plans, mulligan decisions…these are all important regardless of which archetype you pilot, so choosing a deck because it’s more technically intricate and thus more skill-intensive is taking a far too narrow approach to what the game of Magic entails. Most of the edge in a game of Magic is gained before the two of you sit down at the table and shuffle the cards.

All of these factors that have led to W/U Flash sticking around in a more hostile metagame are present in every format. And it’s important to understand that they are dampeners on what would normally be an even more dynamic format. Players who are attached to their archetypes or specific decks are unlikely to change, so the ever-transforming tapestry of the format is actually happening amongst a subset of the players.

That means, week to week, the format isn’t likely to change by a lot. The nature of tournament coverage means that you only see a tiny fraction of the entire field, and even small changes in the overall makeup of the metagame can change the expected win rates for every archetype, making it easy to think there is more change going on than there actually is.

So even though I think players should not be playing W/U Flash right now, I doubt its numbers will decline significantly in the coming months. At best it will steadily decline while skilled pilots continue to prop up its presence at the back end of tournaments. That means we’re going to have a stable metagame for about two months, which creates some interesting dynamics in deck tuning. Now is the time to try out a wacky card or sideboard strategy because players are going to have a narrow range of expectations of what card are in your deck and subverting those expectations is an easy way to gain an advantage.

Remember: even when the decks stay the same, the innovation should never stop.