I have made it clear that my prerogative when it comes to Magic is to find my deck and master it. In most instances, the edge gained from familiarity is much larger and more consistently present than that from winning the metagame with a new deck each week. At a given tournament, you play around ten opponents from a field of several hundred, and that sample is subject to great variance. Thus, even if you perfectly predict the field going in, there is no guarantee that you play against the expected decks in the expected proportions. You must always be prepared for rogue strategies or unforeseen nuances in existing archetypes.
Such preparation comes easily with familiarity. I can play against anything with Legacy Elves and determine a reasonable sideboard plan on the fly because I have hundreds of matches from which to draw parallels and an intimate understanding of how my deck functions against the broad macro-archetype (aggro, control, combo, etc.). From there I can adjust based on the specific cards my opponent has to fine tune a solid plan. This ability only comes with time, and I believe it to be invaluable for long-term success.
However, there can always come a time when the metagame shifts so dramatically that you are forced to re-evaluate the assumptions that brought you to a deck in the first place. I realized it was time for me to reassess my deck choices after two weeks of bad tournament results. I had my worst Open Weekend performance of the year with only a top 64 in Worcester, and two uninspiring finishes at Legacy Champs and a Sealed PTQ this past weekend.
Normally a bad run would not really affect me. I had a great summer, and these sorts of streaks are to be expected when you play often enough. But during these finishes, I found myself overly frustrated with variance to the point of fixation. Every game loss was a chance for me to bemoan my bad luck, whether it be drawing too many lands, not hitting a color, or failing to find a win condition in a reasonable time frame. It seemed as though my losses were out of my control.
Well I know better than that. Alarm bells immediately went off in my head. I was focusing on variance as a means to ignore my own failings, whether they were mistakes made inside the games or outside. I needed to reflect on every decision I made and escape the variance trap. Here I present my ruminations on G/B Devotion and Legacy Elves as they currently stand and where I see them moving forward.
Treasure Cruise? No Thanks, I Have Elvish Visionary
Part of why my plan of perfecting a single deck works so well in Legacy is because the format rarely changes quickly. Each new set has very few cards that are powerful enough to even see play in such a large format, and rarely do they make a significant impact. Khans of Tarkir successfully bucked this trend as the printing of Treasure Cruise has changed the format considerably, with Delver variants based around the card dominating recent events. The last time a set brought about such change, Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay forced me to put down my beloved Maverick, ultimately leading me to Elves.
The first step in evaluating the place of Elves in this new metagame is to examine its matchup against Cruise Delver variants. In the past I have counted the various Delver decks in Legacy (Temur, Sultai, Jeskai) as good matchups for Elves because it has such a high density of cheap spells and mana that the disruptive elements from the Delver decks (Stifle, Wasteland, Daze) could be played through consistently. The games that Delver would win usually involved a lot of early disruption to keep the Elf deck from ever starting to execute its gameplan until a reasonable clock has been established.
The U/R Cruise Delver decks have trimmed disruption to make room for Treasure Cruise, sometimes completely cutting the Stifle/Wasteland package and Spell Pierce. This often comes with an increase in removal spells, typically Chain Lightning and Forked Bolt to supplement the full set of Lightning Bolts. These changes make the matchup play out more closely to Shardless Sultai than Temur Delver. They do not attack your mana and instead focus on running you too low on Elves to function. Fortunately, Elves is well-equipped to play this game, and I have long considered midrange attrition decks like Shardless, Jund, and Deathblade to be among my best matchups.
Still, Treasure Cruise is such a powerful card that the matchup is not as good as that for the old midrange decks. Moreover, Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer are significantly better than Tarmogoyf at providing a clock, so the new Delver decks can use their removal spells more effectively as each turn they buy brings them another attack step. Part of the failings of the midrange decks against Elves is that they give you plenty of time to draw a haymaker (Natural Order, Green Sun's Zenith, Craterhoof Behemoth) to win the game once the board stalls.
Taking all of this into account, I found the Cruise Delver decks to be a good matchup for Elves, which left me optimistic about its place in the future Legacy metagame. That was a relief because I think there is a pretty big Legacy tournament coming up in New Jersey. Has anyone else heard something about it?
However, there is a more significant variable for Elves pilots to account for than their matchup against Cruise Delver. Treasure Cruise is poised to warp the format, forcing the old guard to adapt or face obsolescence. If the new metagme is particularly hostile to Elves, than even a great matchup against the top deck may not be enough to salvage its viability.
The most obvious impact of Treasure Cruise is a weakening of the aforementioned midrange/attrition decks. It is very difficult to run someone out of cards when they have four Ancestral Recalls in their deck. As I mentioned before, these decks are among the best matchups for Elves, so losing them is a significant blow. The shift away from Spell Pierce, Stifle, and Wasteland has also weakened the Delver decks against combo, and we have seen several copies of Reanimator along with other combo decks in the top 16s of the Minneapolis and Worcester Opens. Reanimator in particular is so fast that it can punish the Delver decks for not having enough early interaction, or flooding on Treasure Cruises that they cannot cast before turn 4. These fast combo decks are a nightmare for Elves since they are faster and have access to disruption in the maindeck.
If the metagame shifts towards these combo decks, the Delver decks will certainly adapt, but the equilibrium point could be poor for Elves. I actually tried an OmniTell deck based on Logan Mize's list from New Jersey in the Legacy Champs trial on Friday, but a disappointing 2-2 where the deck fell prey to the same issues it has always had, lack of speed and consistency, led me to revert back to Elves for the main event. I thought the power of Dig Through Time could be enough to mitigate the consistency issues of a three card combo, but it was not. I will continue to work on different decks for Grand Prix: New Jersey, likely Delver and blue-based combo, knowing that Elves is a solid default if nothing more promising materializes.
Mantis Rider is a Jerk
Now we come to Standard where my current deck of choice, G/B Devotion, has had a rough go of it as of late. The Pro Tour metagame was well-prepared for Doomwake Giant and friends with a sea of problematic Jeskai decks and Abzan decks with plenty of sideboard sweepers to give themselves some game. Some U/B Control decks emerged from the Pro Tour, and they look to be miserable for Devotion, since it is rare to have a significant board before they can establish their counter/removal wall, and Drown in Sorrow efficiently answers mana accelerants as well as Hornet Queen.
The red aggressive decks that I ran over in Edison were pushed out of the metagame, and while they have experienced a brief resurgence, the texture of Standard is not one that is particularly favorable for Devotion. The decks are becoming more and more tuned, and there is little that the Devotion deck can do to adapt since it needs so many cards devoted to its own engine.
I am honestly not too surprised that this happened since Devotion is such a linear deck. It leverages a high power level of its cards to dominate untuned decks, so naturally it will get worse as the metagame becomes more defined. Last year I started with White Weenie before dabbling with the rest of the format and landing on Mono-Blue Devotion in December. The year before, my first deck was an Abzan Tokens list that was excellent against the early metagame of Miracles and Zombies but completely unplayable once people remembered that Bonfire of the Damned and Thundermaw Hellkite existed. It is exceedingly rare to solve a format so early, and I had no delusions that I had done so in New Jersey.
That being said, the power level of the cards in the deck leaves some hope for salvaging it, and that is precisely what happened last weekend at Grand Prix Stockholm. In a reversal of the themes in my deck, two GB Enchantress lists with a devotion sub-theme made the top 8.
Dipping further into black, these decks play a more traditional midrange game by adding some removal with Murderous Cut and cutting the big creatures that are typical of dedicated devotion decks. They still can establish an overwhelming endgame, this time using Whip of Erebos and Hornet Queen to create an unbeatable board. Hornet Queen is excellent against the Abzan decks as they often have no answer to before sideboarding. The threat of recurring them should mitigate the effectiveness of their sweepers.
Whip also does great work against aggressive decks and the burn spells of Jeskai, while synergizing well within the constellation shell. Having a solid answer to Mantis Rider and Stormbreath Dragon should go a long way against Jeskai since the former was a huge issue for Devotion. The lower curve should also help against their sideboard Disdainful Strokes.
Enchantress should still struggle with control decks unless Whip goes unchecked, but Thoughtseize will help make sure that does not happen, so at least there is a plan. I am not overly concerned with combating these matchups since it seems as though U/B Control is not gaining a permanent place in the metagame.
While the strategy of the Enchantress deck is harder to hate out than Devotion, the density of important enchantments leaves it vulnerable to cards like Back to Nature and Erase, the latter of which can be played by both Jeskai and Abzan. It is possible that Enchantress's presence in the metagame waxes and wanes with the presence of these powerful hosers, but it is certainly at the top of my list of decks to work on moving forward.
At first glance, Lucas Blohon's list appears to be better tuned. The bevy of threes in Matteo Cirigliano's list is off-putting, and I am not a fan of See the Unwritten, despite the synergy with Whip. I like the lower curve of Blohon's list although I would like to see a third copy of Whip of Erebos given how good it looks within this shell. Still, I will likely begin with these lists before making any appreciable changes, merely keeping these initial thoughts in mind when I am testing.
What I have shown above is essentially the hypothesis stage of my method. I never like to enter a testing session completely blind because I feel it wastes time, so I am willing to bias myself in certain directions that are promising. I am not unique in this respect, as nearly everyone goes into a format looking to play a certain card or strategy. The important idea to keep in mind when reassessing a format in the middle is that many of the lessons you have learned previously are no longer relevant. When I was testing for New Jersey, there was no Jeskai deck in the gauntlet, and the Abzan deck was very primitive. Similarly, I believe that the Legacy format moving forward will be very different than the one I have grown accustomed to over the last year on the Open Series.
The fall is always an exciting time for Magic as the new Standard format takes shape. Khans of Tarkir has also made a huge impact in Legacy and Modern, and I am looking forward to breaking from the malaise of last season. I will be in Nashville this weekend for the Grand Prix so make sure to find me and say hello!