A strange phenomenon occurs within me after playing a non-Standard GP to want to play more Magic…the opposite seems to hold true as well.— eric froehlich (@efropoker) January 5, 2015
@efropoker I don't understand peoples rational for hating Standard. It's not high variance and there are tons of decisions.— Brad Nelson (@fffreakmtg) January 5, 2015
@fffreakmtg probably because it's extremely high variance and the decisions are rarely relevant— eric froehlich (@efropoker) January 5, 2015
@efropoker I'm just frustrated that people constantly complain about Std, but never play the right decks, make mistakes, and board poorly.— Brad Nelson (@fffreakmtg) January 6, 2015
Every so often, a debate like this springs forth to take over the Magic Twitterverse for a day or two before ultimately subsiding, waiting for another Standard format to show up before it can spring forth again. Different Standard, different folks, but yet every time the underlying question is the same. Is Standard ruled by skill, or does variance reign supreme? How much of Standard is controlled by skill and how much by variance?
Ultimately, the skill versus variance question is not one that can be answered definitively. There will always be biases, and without conclusive data, it's all just based on one opinion pitted against another. Yet, I think it's one that deserves to be addressed anyway. I can't tell you whether this is a more skill-intensive Standard format than the last, or what the percent breakdown between skill and variance is, but what I can tell you is my own personal experience, my own observations on this Standard format, and my own ideas of where the split between skill and variance falls.
I guess the first logical question is, does any of this even matter?
I firmly believe that it does. It's important to know whether there is skill involved in Standard or not. If Standard is all based around luck, then that means all the decisions you make testing, brewing, sideboarding, metagaming, and playing the game simply don't matter. If it's all skill, then it means putting hard work into the format can give you a real edge on your opponents.
Magic is certainly the most engaging game I've ever played, and it is important to know that the time I spend trying to improve myself, improve my decks, and improve how I approach the game isn't just a waste. If variance is more important than skill, why even bother? If I have no control over the outcome of the game, why not just go to a casino instead? Why would I ever test Standard for an upcoming event if it all just comes down to "who draws more Siege Rhinos?"
I'm here to tell you that it does matter. There is skill in Standard--quite a lot actually--and there is certainly plenty of room to improve by investing time into the format. Whether or not you choose to believe me will depend on your own experiences and ideas, but I can tell you from my own path that the work you put into Standard is the biggest factor in Standard success. Variance exists, but far less than everyone believes.
My Own Standard Journey
Two months ago, I held the same opinion as EFro did. I felt that Standard was just a bunch of people jamming their biggest creatures into play (Rhinos, Butchers, Sidisis) and seeing who came out on top. In essence, I felt that variance was a big factor in Standard success.
Not only was I wrong, but holding that opinion was also just extremely harmful and detrimental to myself as a player. It gave me an excuse to be like, "I did poorly in this tournament, but it was all just variance anyway" instead of stepping back and taking responsibility for my tournament performance. The reality of the matter was that Standard was heavily about skill, I just didn't understand it. To me, it seemed like variance was causing me to lose matches, when in actuality, I just didn't even understand all the areas where I lacked skill in Standard, and I was taking the easy way out. I was blaming something that can't argue back (luck) instead of learning from my mistakes.
At some point, I decided to really start to invest time into learning the format. That's when the R/W Wreck Em deck came about. Learning how to play with this deck and play it against the rest of the field is what started to really teach me about Standard and what I was missing out on before.
This is actually the hardest Standard format I have ever played. The reason is that the skill in this Standard format is tied up in different areas than we are used to. Generally, when we think of skill, we think of how we are actually piloting the games themselves. "Wow, he navigated the Squire mirror flawlessly. He truly is a skilled Magician!" What often goes overlooked, and wrongfully so, is that there are a lot of areas one can be skilled in Magic beyond just how you play the actual games themselves.
This Standard format really tests two areas of skill that aren't talked about as much as they should be: sideboarding and metagaming. Those are two areas of skill that I haven't put nearly as much time into improving as I should, and as a result, I have suffered for it in this Standard season. When I finally figured out that my weaknesses in those areas was what was causing me to do poorly in this format, it was like a light bulb clicked.
I started spending a lot of time working to better myself at sideboarding and metagaming and since that point, my Standard results have dramatically improved. Calling it a coincidence would be pretty short-sighted. When a football player realizes that they have a weakness in one area, and then they start working on improving in that area, and then they end up as a better player, you don't call that luck. You say "Wow, he really worked at shoring up his weaknesses as a player and now he's better." The same is true in Magic.
At the start of this Standard season, I failed at every tournament I played in. I did poorly in SCG Opens, I did poorly at the Pro Tour, and I failed to make day 2 at GP Los Angeles. During that period of time outside of the Pro Tour, I wasn't working nearly as hard at Standard as I could have been. I was going to events playing decks that I had tested only a few times and expecting success. Worse yet, I would leave the tournament feeling like I had just been "out Rhino'd" rather than take the time to realize how much I could learn from it.
Once I started putting a lot of work into the format, I began to reap the rewards. Once I discovered the Abzan Aggro deck that I played at the SCG Players' Championship, I basically tested nonstop with that deck up until the tournament. Since that point, I have spent countless hours testing the deck, theorizing about the sideboard, discussing ideas with other players, and trying out new things.
I have played the deck in three tournaments since the Players' Championship. Each time, I changed the deck to accommodate for metagame shifts and to better facilitate sideboard plans in matchups that I felt were hard. Each time, I have felt the deck improve. Over time, I have also improved at playing it. While the deck is straightforward in some regards, learning what role you are supposed to take in each matchup and sideboarding to best play to that role was not nearly as straightforward.
I finished second in the first PTQ. I identified areas that I thought needed improvement in the deck and played the deck again the following weekend in two more PTQs. In the first, I was X-1 in the last round, but my tiebreakers dropped and I was forced to play. I ended up being the only X-1 going into that round to miss top 8. Finishing second and ninth in two PTQs was a tough break, but I did the only thing I really could do. I put it behind me and focused on the next event.
CVM and I both played the same 75 in that event, and on the drive home we discussed changes we wanted to make to the deck. We both felt that Sorin underperformed and that Thoughtseize had overperformed. We also both felt like Elspeth had overperformed. As a result, we ended up with a list that maindecked Elspeth and two Thoughtseize and left Sorin in the sideboard. We both played it in the PTQ in Roanoke on Sunday, and I felt like it was the best version of the deck we had played yet. I won that PTQ.
Why do I share this story? Because the trajectory of going from bombing out in every event to working really hard to improve in Standard, to performing well in every event is not a fluke. That is simply not something that is possible in a format where variance matters more than skill. I did very poorly in four consecutive Standard tournaments, then I buckled down and started working really hard to improve at it, then I did very well in four consecutive Standard tournaments. This is a Standard format that rewards preparation and skill.
For another example, look at Brad Nelson. His Standard win percentage in this format is roughly 80%. That's an astronomical win percentage. You could argue that Brad is simply luckier than we are, or you could look at it more rationally. Brad works harder at Standard than anyone else. He also wins more than anyone else at the format. There is a definite correlation between winning in Standard and how much work you put into the format. It really doesn't matter how much natural talent you have in Magic. You can still improve, especially in a format as complex as this one, by really putting in some good hard work into it.
You don't win more at dice by working at it. That's because dice isn't a skill game. Magic is. Standard is. And if you want to improve at it, the best option is to ignore the effect of variance on Magic and instead focus on getting better. It worked for me, it worked for Brad Nelson, and it will work for you as well.
Before I go into talking about tangible ways to improve at Standard, I want to briefly cover one thing: biases. When I posited that there was a lot of skill in Standard, Owen Turtenwald gave this response:
Owen Turtenwald (@OwenTweetenwald) January 6, 2015
This is true, to some extent. However, the inverse is also true. It's easy to blow off something you're losing at and suggest that variance is the reason you're losing rather than own up to it as being your own responsibility.
Both sides of this coin are dangerous. It's dangerous to put too much value into your own skills. That road leads to complacency and an ego. It's also dangerous to put too much value into variance. That road leads to bitterness and an unwillingness to improve.
In this case, I don't agree with Owen's statement. The reason why is simple. I was losing at this format, a lot, I realized I was making mistakes, and then I started to win. Being able to identify mistakes, make corrections, and then improve results is the sign of a skill format. If it was just me winning all along, then he could easily be right. But to have started from a place where I was losing, and through hard work turn it around...well, I just can't agree with his statement.
Skill #1: Metagaming
This is where Brad Nelson jumps leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. He is a master of metagaming. Brad rarely plays the same deck more than one time. It's not because he wants to be cute, but rather because he realizes that what was good one week will not necessarily be good the next week.
One of the beautiful things about this Standard format is that it keeps changing. A month ago, Abzan Aggro was a blip on the metagame radar. It was a deck that put up results a while ago but wasn't good anymore. Fast forward a few weeks and all of a sudden it is the new hot deck.
Sultai Reanimator is one of the best performing decks in Standard. At GP Los Angeles, it didn't even exist.
U/B Control was a powerhouse at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. Then it did nothing for a long time. Now it just won a Grand Prix.
By staying ahead of these metagame shifts and picking the decks that will prey on last week's top decks, you give yourself an enormous edge in Standard. Even if you stick to playing the same archetype throughout the season, you can still gain an edge by changing cards around in your deck to better combat a shift in popular decks.
For example, I have played Abzan Aggro for the past three weeks, but I am constantly changing the list to account for what I expect the metagame to look like. I maindecked Elspeth, Sun's Champion in my Abzan Aggro deck because I identified that the mirror match was becoming a big deal, and planeswalkers were a way to break parity. I later added Courser of Kruphix and Duneblast to my sideboard, which gave me a way to change how I played the matchup when I was on the draw, since being on the play was so important in a matchup where Wingmate Roc ruled supreme, and being able to break serve is important to winning.
I went 5-0 against Abzan Aggro in the last 3 PTQs I played. My opponents were all skilled Magic players. Four of those five players made top 8, and the fifth (sorry, buddy) was CVM, who knows his way around a Magic card. I didn't win because I Rhino'd harder or had more Rhinos than my opponent all five times. I spent time and work to make my list better in the mirror, and as a result, I was able to win the mirror. I spent time learning how to play the matchup on the play and draw. I spent time constructing my sideboard to best facilitate my plans in the matchup. I worked hard at it, and it paid off.
Here are some easy tips for helping to be better at metagaming and deck construction:
1. Identify what decks are good against other decks in the format. When you notice that a deck has a good matchup against the other popular decks, swap to it. When Whip decks were dominating Standard, Abzan Aggro was a good foil. When Abzan Aggro dominates Standard, Mardu is a good foil. When Mardu dominates Standard, Whip decks are a good foil. The cycle repeats itself.
2. Identify cards that are powerful blowouts against the best decks. When those decks are popular, incorporate those cards into your lists. For example, things like Glare of Heresy, Back to Nature, Hushwing Gryff, and Nissa, Worldwaker are cards that are powerful against certain strategies and should go in and out of favor when those decks are performing or not.
3. Don't be afraid to experiment. Playing Elspeth main in Abzan Aggro was an experiment for me that ended up being a success. I had no clue if it would even be good, but it turned out that it was.
4. Put work into it. Test your ideas. Test changes to your deck to see if they are enough to swing matchups in your favor. Without investing time to work on ideas, they remain just that: ideas. It's the work that turns them from ideas to successes.
Skill #2: Knowing your Role
Another important skill in Standard in general, and especially so in this one, is to know what your role is supposed to be in each matchup. One beautiful thing about decks in Standard is that they are capable of shifting gears so effortless from game to game and even between games. Things like being an aggressive Mardu deck in game 1 and a Mardu Control deck in game 2 are part of what makes this format so fun and skill demanding.
However, as a result it becomes increasingly more and more important to know what your role is in each matchup and know how you are supposed to play to that. Assume the wrong role and you will easily find yourself losing and not knowing what went wrong.
Take, for example, my match against Gerard Fabiano in the top 4 of the SCG Players' Championships. I didn't understand my role in the matchup and I was beaten as a result. If I had known my role, I am confident I would have won that match, and likely the tournament.
I sided in a lot of reactive cards. I assumed that I could just control Gerard with all of my great answers to his threats and then win with whatever threats I found in the meantime. He had access to cards like Read the Bones and Treasure Cruise and planeswalkers along with as much, if not more, removal than I did. As a result, my plan was flawed, and I lost games 3, 4, and 5 to just getting simply outclassed in card advantage.
Now I understand that the matchup involves taking a different role. They will win the long game and the best chance you have is to take an aggressive role against them. More threats and less answers is the best way to approach the matchup, and I have had success with that gameplan since that match. It was an expensive lesson, but the lesson was learned anyway.
It's for that reason that I don't like cards like End Hostilities against the Whip decks out of Abzan Aggro. You're trying to fight the game on their turf, and you won't win that fight. End Hostilities might be a big spell, but does it beat Kiora? Does it beat Read the Bones or Treasure Cruise? The answer is no. But Rakshasa Deathdealer, Anafenza the Foremost, and Fleecemane Lion sure do. They kill them before those cards even begin to matter.
The best advice I can give for how to learn what your role is in each matchup is to envision the scenario where you win the game. When I was playing matches against Whip decks in testing for events, all the games I was winning were when I had aggression followed by Wingmate Roc and just one or two pieces of removal to clear out a blocker on a key turn to seal the deal.
If I had gone back and thought about that matchup and the kinds of games I was winning, I would have realized that those are the games I am supposed to try to replicate while playing. I think it's important in every matchup to think to yourself "What does the game look like when I win this game?" and then focus on taking the role that best facilitates that.
Another thing to note is that this skill is also important for sequencing within games. For example, the Abzan Aggro mirror is defined by Wingmate Roc. On the play it's important to deploy and protect your threats to try to Roc your opponent. On the draw it's important to kill their threats over deploying your own to keep them from Roc'ing you. Knowing your role in these matchups is a huge key to being able to succeed in Standard.
Skill #3: Sideboarding
Once you have your deck and know what your role is in the matchup, the last bit is sideboarding. This is the hardest part of Standard, without question. To state it simply, sideboarding is not easy. The reason I was doing so poorly in Standard early in the season and so much better now is almost entirely boiled down to me learning how to sideboard in this format.
All of the decks have these abilities to shift plans between games, and it's important to both know when to shift into those alternate plans, how to shift into those alternate plans, when your opponent is going to shift into an alternate plan, and how to beat them when they do.
It's a lot to take in and a hard puzzle to solve. For example, a card like Bile Blight has drastically different value against Mardu depending on how they board. If they cut their cheap stuff and bring in Anger of the Gods and End Hostilities, then Billy Blight is going to look really sad.
But if they keep in their cheap stuff and you get to make Goblin Rabblemaster take a one-way trip to the yard, then William Blight looks like the best thing since the invention of the three-legged sack race. And I love me a three-legged sack race.
So the question then becomes, how are you supposed to know how to sideboard in Standard? It isn't easy, and it's the single most important skill for improving in this format. It's the largest factor that separates the successful from the unsuccessful in this format.
Here are a few tips:
1. If your plan A is good against your opponent, then don't side into plan B. If beating them to death with Goblin Rabblemaster is really good against them, then don't even think about siding into End Hostilities.
2. Don't mix and match. Keep a coherent gameplan in all of your post-sideboard games. For example, leaving in Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer against Whip decks but also bringing in End Hostilities is going to be a bad time. You're mixing and matching two strategies and you're going to dilute both. When you have to wrath away three of your own creatures, you're going to be sad. When your opponent is almost dead and you draw End Hostilities where any threat would end it, you're going to be sad.
3. Anticipate how your opponent is going to sideboard against you. Sideboard against their sideboard. If Sultai Constellation brings in planeswalkers and card draw against you and cuts the enchantments, then anticipate that. Don't bring in your Back to Natures and keep all of your Hero's Downfalls and all the threats you can possibly muster.
4. Don't get too reactionary. One easy downfall to make in this format is to have too many situational cards. One thing that players like EFro and Owen Turtenwald are right about is that this format does have a lot of blowout games. I've won lots of games with turn 2 Fleecemane Lion, turn 3 Anafenza, turn 4 and 5 removal spell. That's lethal on turn 5, and sometimes there is nothing my opponent can do. The easiest way to have those games yourself (and to prevent your opponent from having those games) is to keep your deck threat dense and powerful. If you bring in too many situational cards, then you might suffer from drawing too many of them in the situations where they aren't even good.
5. Have sideboard plans, not sideboard cards. Think about every matchup for your deck. Think about your role in the matchup and how you want the game to end up. Then build an actual plan to accomplish that. Rather than just say "Erase is good vs. Whip; that's my plan for the Whip matchup," think deeper. "Drown in Sorrow is their plan against me. My plan is going to be to shift to a deck that keys in on cards like Brimaz to get around their Drowns, and then uses Erase to keep them from going over the top with Whip."
There is even more skill in Standard than just these three topics. I think there is still a lot of skill in how the games play out as well. There is also a lot of skill in mulliganing in this format. I keep a lot more hands with Abzan Aggro than most people do; I think it's important to my success with the deck. You have to be willing to take risks with this deck, because that's just the nature of a powerful yet low consistency deck. With something like Sultai Reanimator, I would mulligan a lot more frequently because that deck is the epitome of consistency (but lower overall power).
Another avenue of skill in Standard is simply knowing how to operate your deck. Decks like Jeskai Tokens are very hard to proficiently pilot, because they contain so many decision points. Even a deck like Abzan Aggro, which many to consider very straightforward, also has a lot of opportunities to gain slight edges. Learning how to proficiently pilot your deck of choice is also pretty important to gaining an edge in Standard.
For a quick example, I discovered after a lot of games that it is better to scry before casting Thoughtseize with Abzan Aggro. With Mono-Black Devotion last Standard season, the opposite was true, and I had that idea lodged in my mind. The difference is that with Abzan Aggro you are trying to be the aggressor. You're going to keep the same cards on top of your deck regardless of what your opponent is playing. If it's turn 2 and I see an Anafenza on top, I'm going to keep it, regardless. If I scry first to see Anafenza is on top, then I might take the removal spell from my opponent's hand instead of their four-drop when I cast Thoughtseize. Little things like that can make a difference, and, in fact, both CVM and I noticed a few situations in the PTQ where our decision to scry before Thoughtseize actually affected the game.
Those are things that will never be learned if you don't think your decisions matter and if you think that Standard is all just "Who casts more Rhinos." That kind of thinking is just detrimental to your growth as a Magic player and will only hurt in the long run.
If Brad Nelson can earn an 80% win rate in Standard, then it's clear there is skill there. Brad works harder at Standard and understands the format better than anyone else. If you want to succeed in this format, the best thing to do is to take the time to work at these three areas. More so than any format I can ever remember, the skill of the format is wrapped up in sideboarding, metagaming, and knowing your role in each matchup.
The skill is there. It's just different than what we're used to. We can either adapt and learn, or we can fall behind and complain.