This past weekend, the Challenger Gauntlet took place. This was a very high-level tournament with several world-class players and a hefty prize payout — the winners got upwards of $100,000 between the payoffs and invites to Magic World Championship XXVII, and everyone in the middle got the chance to try again in the Rivals gauntlet.
This was probably the most important tournament of the year so far, and for many of these players it will be the most important tournament of their lives, so we can assume that most everyone prepared very hard for it. We should, therefore, take a look at what happened there. The tournament was two formats (Standard and Historic), but since Historic is about to change radically with Jumpstart: Historic Horizons and there are no Historic tournaments before that happens, this article will focus on the Standard portion of it.
The first thing to note was that the breakout deck of the tournament was not Naya Winota, as I (and literally everyone else that I know) expected. It was Gruul Adventures:
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Edgewall Innkeeper
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 3 Rimrock Knight
- 4 Magda, Brazen Outlaw
- 3 Goldspan Dragon
- 4 Jaspera Sentinel
In total, eight of the 24 players chose Gruul Adventures for this tournament. This is a very interesting development, because this deck does not necessarily dodge the Winota hate cards.
Going into the tournament, everyone thought Winota was going to be the most-played deck, which means everyone reacted to it accordingly (for example, this build has three Redcap Melee and three Ray of Enfeeblement!), but a lot of the anti-Winota cards overlap as anti-Gruul cards. Stuff like Pestilent Haze, Redcap Melee, Elder Gargaroth, Crippling Fear, spot removal, Giant Killer — these are all good versus Gruul as well.
This to me means that Gruul Adventures was not a metagame choice that aimed to exploit a predictable metagame, because it is not well-positioned relative to how it could be, but that the players who chose the deck simply thought it was good, regardless of metagame considerations.
I imagine that the people who chose Gruul Adventures believed they were either favored or at least had game against Winota. It seems weird to choose that deck otherwise, unless you predict a radical metagame shift, which seems unlikely. I also imagine that they knew that people would adjust to beat Winota and they were fine with this — either they didn’t care that much about those cards and thought they could beat them with a combination of Esika’s Chariot and creature-lands, or they thought any potential deck that people played to beat Winota (e.g. Dimir Rogues) was always going to be a favorable matchup even if tweaked to beat aggro decks.
How did they do in the end?
(This matchup matrix is courtesy of @mtg_data on Twitter. I recommend you follow them for up-to-date statistics of the most relevant tournaments.)
As we can see, not so hot. Even though half the Gruul Adventures players chose to splash black for a better Winota matchup, the deck still had a very bad win rate against it. Obviously this sample size is extremely small and should not be taken as gospel, but it is still telling that this deck simply didn’t have a positive win rate versus the most expected deck in the field.
If we’re looking for a bigger sample (but less reliable, since it encompasses many different tournaments and not just the high-profile one), we can look at the overall data for the week:
In this matrix, Gruul Adventures still didn’t reach 50/50 versus Naya Winota (though they had the best overall win rate, handily beating a lot of its good matchups). This makes some sense to me — the decks are similar, except one side has Winota and the other has Embercleave, and whoever is on the play will definitely be favored, but if Winota gets going it can both kill more quickly and also strip Embercleave away from their hand with Elite Spellbinder, whereas Embercleave will deal ten damage and could still die on the back swing.
Gruul players also suffered a bit from a development that was, in my opinion, very hard to predict: the emergence of Naya Adventures. Previously, this metagame share was mostly taken by either Naya Winota or Gruul Adventures, but three players in the Challenger Gauntlet chose to play Naya Adventures. Three players might not seem like a lot, but it’s 12.5% of the field, compared to a 3.3% metagame share in the overall week.
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Giant Killer
- 4 Edgewall Innkeeper
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 2 Tangled Florahedron
- 4 Jaspera Sentinel
- 3 Elite Spellbinder
Naya Adventures plays a lot of the same cards as Gruul Adventures, but it sacrifices speed for disruption and staying power. Your nut draws are not nearly as good as Gruul’s, but you get to play a two-sided game rather than just flat aggression — Giant Killer kills creatures, Elite Spellbinder gets rid of spells, and Showdown of the Skalds refuels you. This makes you notably better in the Adventures mirror, as Giant Killer is excellent there (both sides in particular are good versus Embercleave). In return, you are worse versus Sultai Ramp (Yorion), since you’re not as fast and there’s no amount of grinding that can make up for that, as the long game is their domain regardless.
Naya Adventures had a very high win rate in the tournament, mostly by farming Gruul decks (though, again, with a very low sample size). Notably, it didn’t play against Winota decks a single time, though this matchup was Winota-favored across the week. This makes sense — you do get Giant Killer as extra removal, but keeping up three mana every turn is a tall order, and you miss out on Embercleave for your faster wins.
I’ve never been a big fan of Naya Adventures, as I felt you sacrificed too much in other matchups, but you do get Elite Spellbinder to make up for that, and Sultai Ramp is not nearly as popular as it was before, so it looks like this deck is well-positioned as far as the Adventures deck go. You certainly want to be on Naya if a third of the field is going to be on Gruul.
Then, we arrive at the bogeyman of the format: Naya Winota. Naya Winota had a very dimmed performance compared to what everyone was expecting — only four players played it, and only one of those players reached the Top 12 (which was half the tournament):
- 3 Lotus Cobra
- 2 Kenrith, the Returned King
- 1 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Winota, Joiner of Forces
- 3 Selfless Savior
- 1 Tangled Florahedron
- 4 Jaspera Sentinel
- 4 Elite Spellbinder
- 2 Blade Historian
- 4 Prosperous Innkeeper
- 2 Minsc, Beloved Ranger
At first glance, it looks like Naya Winota was successfully hated out — people prepared for it, they splashed colors to beat it, and they succeeded in keeping it down. However, closer examination paints a different picture. As is the case with those multi-format events, final standings can be a bit deceiving. Here’s Naya Winota’s performance for the weekend in the Challenger Gauntlet:
So, even though only one person broke the Top 12, Winota had the highest win rate of any Standard deck. It was mostly kept down by its pilots’ bad Historic records.
In my mind, Naya Winota is mostly a better deck than both Gruul Adventures and Naya Adventures. It feels favored versus both these decks, and not that much worse versus the rest of the field. Right now, if I were to play a Naya-colored deck, it would be Winota. If I wanted to dodge the Winota hate, I’d rather play something else entirely rather than something that also gets hosed by the same type of card.
The biggest problem with the “just play Winota” approach is the Winota mirror, which is notoriously bad — there’s not much you can do to have more agency over it, and being on the play with a good draw defines the game. Because of this, I understand that some people might not want to play the deck; however, at this point, I would not choose a deck that loses to Winota instead. I’ll take my coinflip over a bad matchup most of the time.
In the Challenger Gauntlet, there were two new control decks. The first was Sultai Control (without Emergent Ultimatum):
This deck is similar to Sultai Ramp, but in exchange for losing a seven-mana I-win button, it becomes a bit better in the mirror and much better against Dimir Rogues. There are metagames in which this choice would make sense, but I don’t think this trade-off is worth it in this creature-centric format we find ourselves in, and I would rather play Sultai Ramp if I’m going to play a control deck in these colors. In the end, I think people who chose this deck were expecting a metagame that didn’t materialize, and they suffered as a result.
The other control deck, though, is something radically different:
This Izzet Control deck takes the opposite approach and is tuned for an expected aggro field — which did materialize, resulting in a qualification for its only pilot. There have been Izzet Control decks in this Standard format (notably Andrew Cuneo played a version of it in the MPL at one point), but it’s never been any good, to a point where people mostly forgot this was even a deck you could play. The more I look at the deck, however, the more sense it makes, and I’m left wondering whether Noriyuki Mori is some kind of genius.
First, this is a control deck that incorporates Bonecrusher Giant, which is actually a great defensive creature right now. It blocks all the Cat tokens from Esika’s Chariot and trades with Chariot itself, and having a blocker is sometimes enough to turn a small Winota attack into a bad proposition if they don’t hit the right cards.
Then, it has a lot of removal for small creatures. Three copies of Cinderclasm and three copies of Spikefield Hazard, two copies of Burning Hands and two copies of Fire Prophecy on top of the Bonecrusher Giants — this is a whopping fourteen of them, with even more in the sideboard. Cinderclasm and Spikefield Hazard in particular are strokes of genius, as Edgewall Innkeeper; Lotus Cobra; Magda, Brazen Outlaw; Elite Spellbinder; and Rimrock Knight are all widely played.
These removal spells have trouble killing bigger creatures, but that’s where the blue spells come in. Essence Scatter, Jwari Disruption, Saw It Coming, Mystical Dispute, and Disdainful Stroke can all be reasonable answers to Winota, and you can keep mana up most of the time since the rest of the deck is mostly instant-speed (unlike, say, a Sultai Ramp deck that has to tap out much more frequently). These blue spells also give it game against other control decks, and help make up for the fact that there are so many removal spells in the build, but I’d expect the matchup versus other control decks to not be favored regardless (though you do have Midnight Clock versus Dimir Rogues as well).
The kill conditions are also very well thought out. Obviously Emergent Ultimatum is out of the picture, so Mori makes use of the next-best thing — Kiora Bests the Sea God. In a world where people are playing Burning Hands, The Akroan War, and Giant Killer sometimes in the maindeck (the Naya deck for example had four Giant Killer and one The Akroan War), it makes sense to play a creature that isn’t hit by any of those and also that can keep Embercleave in check.
Normally I’m not a fan of this type of deck (half removal, half counterspells, hope you draw the right half against each person), but the choices in this Izzet list make a lot of sense to me (and he qualified for Worlds on top of it) so I would definitely try this deck out in the near-future.
Here’s the full metagame chart for the gauntlet:
If the Izzet deck didn’t work out, I’d go back to either of my trusted decks (Sultai Ramp or Dimir Rogues; I think Sultai is better but Rogues might be better-positioned if a lot of people play Winota). I personally would not play either of the Naya decks — they’re super-targeted now, and your choice is either subjecting yourself to Winota mirrors or choosing a deck that has a bad matchup versus Winota, neither of which appeals to me. If I were to pick a Naya deck, though, it would just be Winota at this point.
Overall, there were more innovations in the Challenger Gauntlet than I expected, so I was positively surprised (in Standard, at least — Historic was boring with half Jeskai decks or so). The biggest question left is whether this Izzet Control deck can stand the test of time or whether it was just a one-hit-wonder. I don’t expect the metagame to change very much from here, so if it was well-positioned there, it will probably be well-positioned moving forward. In any case, I look forward to seeing what players come up with in the MPL and Rivals Gauntlets down the line.