Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #255 – MTGO Constructed Formats and Inbreeding

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, December 25th – I play (and follow) five Constructed formats on MTGO: Standard, Extended, Classic, Singleton, and Pauper. I have been toying with the idea of paying to play – in other words, entering tournaments in the formats. That got me wondering whether my decks were competitive, and whether – even if my deck was competitive – whether I could play with the masters of these formats. Are there really Masters of the formats? Time to do some digging.

I play (and follow) five Constructed formats on MTGO: Standard, Extended, Classic, Singleton, and Pauper. I have been toying with the idea of paying to play — in other words, entering tournaments in the formats. That got me wondering whether my decks were competitive, and whether — even if my deck was competitive — whether I could play with the masters of these formats. Are there really Masters of the formats? Time to do some digging.

Defining a master of a format can be tricky. I have been told that “for a master of format x, you should know better than…” Well, I’m not a master of any format — and the fact that I have been miscast as one shows the definitional problem. Anyone who talks knowledge — or sounds like they are talking knowledgably — could be cast as a master. We need some better data.

The best evidence of having mastered a format is to repeatedly do well in competition — to prove yourself against serious obstacles. In PEs, that means making Top 8 in a large event. My question was whether the Top 8s kept including the same names, or whether the Top 8s varied.

From the point of view of someone considering entering the format, seeing the same names making Top 8 repeatedly indicates one of two things: either the format is narrow, with very few players, or the format is dominated by a few exceptional players, who are probably so much better than me I have little chance. Either way, seeing a variety of names is healthier than seeing the same names over and over again.

Of course, the other possibility when seeing a lot of different names is that the format is really random, and anyone can win. Some pros are classifying Alara Sealed that way. Perhaps — but that should not be the case with Constructed formats.

Right now, MTGO has Premier Events in a variety of formats. Standard events run regularly. Shards of Alara Block Constructed events are also common, and are scheduled several times a week. Classic events run twice a week, on weekends. Extended events are also scheduled, but have not been firing recently. Finally, other Constructed events (e.g. Prismatic, Pauper, Singleton, etc.) happen occasionally, but not often enough to produce useful data.

The three formats that do fire often enough to have potential repeat Top 8 competitors are Shards of Alara Constructed, Standard and Classic. For each format, I looked at the Top 8 lists on the Decks of the Week pages. I chose six Top 8s from the most recent lists, and looked for repeated names. For Classic, which only fires a couple times a week, I had to look at the last couple weeks to get six Top 8s.

Six Top 8s mean a maximum of 48 participants, if everyone showed up just once.


The six Top 8s had a total of 38 unique players. One player (depardiue07) had three Top 8 appearances – a First, Third, and Fourth. Eight players made Top 8 twice (drVendigo, countmeout, MaXim_Top, strong sad, rastaf, sandydogmtg, Rogan_in, and The Pig.)

Shards of Alara Constructed:

The six Top 8s had a total of 41 unique players. Two players (hastur and Epattro) both made Top 8 three times in the six events I sampled. Two players (reisuke and Zasrini Amici) made Top 8 twice in the sample.


The six Classic events had a total of 34 unique players. One player (FatManInALittleCoat) made Top 8 four times and won twice. Three players (Javasci, moranl and prolepsis9) each made Top 8 three times. Four more had double Top 8 appearances (Bingo_bongo, s1mple, yorick, and Wizard not of the Coast).

Month to Month:

Another method of looking at the formats is to see whether the same names appear month to month. I went back a month and reviewed six Top 8s in Alara and Standard, and a couple in Classic (all there were).

In Standard, the number of unique participants in the Top 8 was slightly larger, and only a couple of names repeated month to month. Hastur made a Top 8 in a Standard PE in both months, and a few names seemed familiar, but I have been reading a lot of results, and hastur is the only name I could find in both monthly samples.

The Shards players were much more likely to repeat, month to month. I found that Ilikefoils, reisuke, G0D_L1K3, xnegator, Drac0n, heitkamp, lathe knight, and probably a couple of others had made Top 8 in the six events in November sample and in the December sample.

Classic had a number of repeats, despite having a very small November sample (just two PEs). People with Top 8 appearances in both months included RenatoArmando, Bear Named Snuffy, FatManInALittleCoat, mtgcollector, whiffy penguin, and Lucindo.

Interesting numbers, but they don’t tell me a lot, in the abstract. The question is how meaningful a Top 8 appearance is. If the total pool of players is 10, then being in the Top 8 is not all that significant. Of course, we know the number is greater than 10 — the minimum number of players to start a PE is 24. The numbers are not that much higher than 24, though. Event participation varies over the week — weekend are generally higher — but typically a Standard events are firing with player counts in the mid 30s to low 40s. Shards of Alara Block Constructed events generally have 30 odd to 40 players. Classic events generally just fire (or just fail to fire), with numbers of about 25.

From this, we can generate some statistics about the percentage of players that repeat Top 8 slots. To do this, we have to make some assumptions about how many players repeat form event to event, how many play now and then, and how many play once, then quit. Without having access to WotC stats, we have to make some assumptions. Let’s assume that roughly a third of the players play in every available PE. Another third play in every other event, and the other third play in just one event per week.

Standard events fire with somewhere in the high 30s, low 40s range. Let’s call it 42, because that is divisible by three. By my assumption, that means that 14 players — one third — played in all six PEs. Another 28 players played in three of the six events. The remaining participants totaled 76 players each playing in one event. That is a total pool of 108 players across all six Standard events. Nine players — or roughly 8% – made Top 8 repeatedly.

Let’s see how sensitive to assumptions that number might be. Let’s try a different calculation. Let’s assume that players tend to play as often as possible, but that not every player can make every event. Let’s assume a dozen players can make every event, another dozen can make five of six, and another dozen make four of six, and so on. That happens to work out: the number of players times matches exactly matches the number of slots. In that case, we end up with 72 players participating, and 12.5 %of the players making multiple Top 8s.

Worst case scenario: half the players (21) play in every event, one third (14) play in five of six, ten players play in every other event, ten play in two events, leaving six slots for players that play in only one of the events. In that case, about 15% of the players make multiple Top 8s. As a check of this idea, the six Standard events had 38 different players making Top 8, which would mean that 38 of the 61 players involved made Top 8 at least once in the six tournaments. This seems not unreasonable — if you don’t Top 8 at least occasionally, I would expect players to quit.

So let’s use the final assumptions: half the players play in every event, a third in five of six events, a quarter in every other event, and a quarter in two of six events. The rest play just once in the six sample tournaments. (No, this does not add to more than 100%. The one quarter of the average number of players that play in two events will take up 1/4th of the slots times 1/3rd of the events, or 1/12th of the total slots.)

I probably could have explained that better, but it works. The problem is that the more that I think about it, the less likely it seems that any one formula or ratio would work for all formats. Some formats will probably have a far broader appeal, while others will have a fairly narrow base of enthusiasts.

For that matter, a small number of players appear in Top 8s in different formats. When reviewing my lists of Top 8s, I noticed hastur, millenium9999, Zasrini Amici and a few others posting good results in both Standard and Alara Block Constructed. On the other hand, I did not notice anyone making Top 8 in Classic and in other formats.

Let’s look at the formats again. Standard: typical events have 35-45 players, a fairly low percentage of players that make Top 8 repeatedly, and the number repeating Top 8s month after month is low. Shards Block Constructed has a smaller number of players per event, a fair number of repeated names, but a very small number of players with multiple Top 8s in the last week. Classic, on the other hand, had the smallest number of players, a very high number of repeats and a very high number of players with multiple Top 8s in the last six tournaments.

The best explanation is that Shards Block Constructed is attracting a lot of new players, while Classic is not. The higher number of new players — many of who presumably do not play in most events, but some of whom do make Top 8 — makes for fewer repeat Top 8 appearances.

In theory, Classic and Shards Block Constructed should be very similar. Both are formats that are played only online. Neither format is going to be used for PTQs or GPs. In that respect, they should be quite similar — both should have the same small pool of enthusiasts. However, the results are different. Why?

I have one idea. Let’s look at the cost of the decks. Here are the winning decks from the first three event sin each sample. I calculated the cost of purchasing the entire deck, via paypal, from a reputable dealer. The costs follow each deck.


depardiue07 – 1st Place – Standard Event #121581 on 12/08/2008

3 Faerie Conclave
5 Island
4 Mutavault
4 Secluded Glen
3 Sunken Ruins
2 Swamp
4 Underground River

4 Mistbind Clique
4 Scion of Oona
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Stonybrook Banneret

4 Agony Warp
4 Bitterblossom
4 Cryptic Command
4 Sage’s Dousing

1 Consign to Dream
3 Flashfreeze
3 Infest
4 Peppersmoke
4 Thoughtseize

The big money cards are the Mutavaults and the Bitterblossoms. The lands are moderate. Total cost: $240.

Zasrani Amici – 1st Place – Standard Event #121582 on 12/08/2008

2 Arcane Sanctum
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Fetid Heath
4 Mutavault
7 Plains
1 Swamp
4 Windbrisk Heights

3 Figure of Destiny
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Safehold Elite
1 Soul Warden
4 Tidehollow Sculler

4 Ajani Goldmane
4 Bitterblossom
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
4 Glorious Anthem
4 Spectral Procession

3 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
2 Ranger of Eos
3 Soul Warden
2 Terror
2 Thoughtseize
3 Wrath of God

The big money cards, here, are Figures of Destiny, Mutavaults, Bitterblossoms and Elspeth. Fetid Heath and Thoughtseize are also not cheap. The total is about $320. A White Weenie deck as the most expensive deck in Standard — who’da thunk it?

strong sad – 1st Place – Standard Event #121583 on 12/08/2008

17 Plains
4 Rustic Clachan
4 Windbrisk Heights

2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
4 Cloudgoat Ranger
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Goldmeadow Stalwart
4 Knight of Meadowgrain
2 Ranger of Eos
4 Wizened Cenn

3 Ajani Goldmane
4 Spectral Procession
4 Unmake

2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Ranger of Eos
4 Stillmoon Cavalier
4 Wispmare

Figures, again, and Stillmoon Cavaliers, are big money cards. The rest of the deck is relatively cheap, and the whole thing specs out at almost exactly $200.

Shards of Alara Block Constructed:

reisuke – 1st Place – Alara Block Constructed Event #121590 on 12/09/2008

1 Crumbling Necropolis
5 Forest
4 Jund Panorama
1 Jungle Shrine
5 Mountain
4 Savage Lands
6 Swamp

3 Broodmate Dragon
3 Caldera Hellion
4 Elvish Visionary
2 Fleshbag Marauder
4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Viscera Dragger

4 Blightning
4 Bone Splinters
2 Jund Charm
4 Sarkhan Vol

4 Executioner’s Capsule
1 Fleshbag Marauder
2 Jund Charm
4 Naturalize
4 Relic of Progenitus

The deck has one playset of Mythic rares — Sarkhan Vol. They make up almost the entire cost of the deck. Sarkhan Vol runs about 7 tix apiece. The entire deck retails for $41.00. That’s not four hundred ten dollars — it really is forty-one dollars and change.

Aleyr_Lengiac – 1st Place – Alara Block Constructed Event #121591 on 12/09/2008

5 Forest
4 Jungle Shrine
5 Mountain
4 Naya Panorama
6 Plains

1 Akrasan Squire
3 Battlegrace Angel
4 Druid of the Anima
1 Feral Hydra
2 Mycoloth
3 Ranger of Eos
4 Steward of Valeron
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Woolly Thoctar

3 Gift of the Gargantuan
3 Naya Charm
4 Oblivion Ring

1 Battlegrace Angel
4 Magma Spray
4 Naturalize
4 Realm Razer
2 Relic of Progenitus

This deck does not run mythics, and the entire deck can be had for under twenty bucks – about $18.15, to be a bit more exact.

Epattaro – 1st Place – ALA Block Constructed Event #126882 on 12/13/2008

23 Plains

4 Akrasan Squire
4 Battlegrace Angel
4 Knight of the White Orchid
3 Ranger of Eos
3 Sighted-Caste Sorcerer
4 Sigiled Paladin

4 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Excommunicate
4 Oblivion Ring
4 Sigil of Distinction

4 Dispeller’s Capsule
4 Knight-Captain of Eos
4 Relic of Progenitus
3 Resounding Silence

This deck has four of the best Mythic rare, and the big money card in Shards: Elspeth. Of course, “big money” in Shards is a lot less than in other sets, so the entire deck, including a playset of Elspeths, sells for about $60.00

Could we be seeing a reason why more people are trying out Shards Block Constructed than other formats. Let’s do some more checking.


RenatoAmado – 1st Place – Classic Event #121603 on 12/07/2008

2 Bloodstained Mire
1 Forest
4 Godless Shrine
2 Nantuko Monastery
4 Overgrown Tomb
1 Plains
2 Savannah
1 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Windswept Heath

4 Dark Confidant
3 Kitchen Finks
2 Loxodon Hierarch
3 Spectral Lynx
4 Tarmogoyf

3 Cabal Therapy
3 Duress
3 Glittering Wish
3 Pernicious Deed
3 Swords to Plowshares
4 Thoughtseize
3 Vindicate

3 Extirpate
3 Gaddock Teeg
1 Mystic Enforcer
1 Pernicious Deed
3 Pithing Needle
1 Relic of Progenitus
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Vindicate

The big money cards are the Invasion block rares, and the lands, and — well, you get the idea. This deck retails for around $475, and I — as a long-time Rock player, I really wish I had the cards to play it. Some day.

Bingo_bongo – 1st Place – Classic Event #121604 on 12/07/2008

3 Badlands
1 Godless Shrine
2 Mishra’s Factory
1 Overgrown Tomb
3 Savannah
4 Taiga
4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills

3 Gaddock Teeg
2 Goblin Legionnaire
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Kird Ape
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

4 Duress
2 Incinerate
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Thoughtseize

1 Gaddock Teeg
4 Krosan Grip
3 Pyrostatic Pillar
1 Sphere of Law
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Tormod’s Crypt

Almost the entire cost of this deck is in the manabase. It is over two hundred and fifty bucks on its own. All told, this deck retails for almost 150% of the cost of the most expensive Standard deck — and it is cheap by Vintage standards. It sells for about $345.00.

whiffy penguin – 1st Place – GitG Prelim – Classic Event #114405 on 11/30/2008

3 Bloodstained Mire
1 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
2 Swamp
4 Underground Sea

4 Brainstorm
4 Cabal Ritual
4 Chrome Mox
4 Dark Ritual
4 Demonic Consultation
4 Duress
4 Force of Will
2 Gush
1 Mana Crypt
4 Necropotence
4 Ponder
4 Soul Spike
3 Tendrils of Agony

3 Hymn to Tourach
4 Pithing Needle
1 Tendrils of Agony
3 Thoughtseize
4 Tombstalker

Whiffy Penguin has been smashing fades, including mine, with this deck for a while. It includes playsets of two of the most expensive Classic cards in existence: Underground Sea and Force of Will. Just those 8 cards add over $300 to the cost of the deck, and the whole thing tips the scales at a total of almost $550. That is nothing compared to the price of a Tier 1 Vintage deck, even before pimping, but it is pretty damn hefty for MTGO.


The Standard format is well known, thanks to the big-name events in the paper world that have defined the decks to beat. Standard Constructed events have a relatively large turnout, and the Top 8 tends to be relatively diverse. Some good players can make Top 8 repeatedly, but they are few and far between. The cost of the format is reasonable.

Shards Block Constructed seems to be a growing format. It had a number of early adopters that showed a remarkable ability to consistently make Top 8, but that appears to be dropping as more players enter the format. The format is remarkably cheap to enter, making it fairly easy to obtain the cards to playtest decks. The format is pretty straightforward, with most strategies being fairly easy to understand. After looking, I expect to be building some Block decks shortly, although I don’t expect to play tournaments. I still have 2-3 copies of many rares, and a bunch of prize packs to draft through. I’m not buying a fourth Elspeth until I’m sure I won’t find one in draft, but that’s just me. The format looks to be growing.

Classic, on the other hand, is a narrow format. The PEs look to have many of the same names, which is not surprising. Classic now has two tournaments a week, on weekends, meaning that most of the same people will be able to play in both events. The decks are very expensive, and the format is not easy to get into. The release of cards like Gush and Daze, plus the refinement of control and combo decks, has pretty much eliminated the cheap entry decks, like Mono-Red burn. Even understanding what decks like Whiffy Pengins’ NecroSpike deck is doing is not easy until you play against it a number of times — something you really need a competitive deck even to attempt.

The change from paying out in MEDII packs to Tempest packs also seems to be negatively impacting the format. The big cost of Classic is Force of Will and the dual lands — and having more MEDII packs dumped into the pool was about the only way that the price of those lands can be kept in check. Tempest has some relevant cards, but they are not in the same league — either in importance or price — as the MEDII cards. Equally as important, MEDII will eventually be taken off sale. Tempest, as we learned form Mirage, will be here forever.

Just my two cents.


“one million words” on MTGO