Magic discourse is fascinating. Countless hours are spent every week writing, analyzing, debating, and sometimes flat-out arguing, as Magic players attempt to find conclusions they can state with authority.
- "R/B Aggro is favored against Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome."
- "The Scarab God is unplayable."
- "You're supposed to side out Thoughtseize in the mirror."
These unequivocal statements are how we tend to discuss Magic, myself included. Sometimes though, it's beneficial to take a step back and acknowledge that the language of Magic discourse is shorthand. We presume that the people engaging in the discussion agree on the parameters for the statement (e.g. what format, what timeframe, player skill, etc.) as well as the baseline facts. Unfortunately, this can almost never be true in a game like Magic that offers boundless options for optimization and creativity.
Think about how many variables a statement like "R/B Aggro is favored against Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome" is attempting to capture.
- Does R/B Aggro have Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Rekindling Phoenix, Hazoret the Fervent, or Glorybringer in its "big spell" slots?
- How many copies of Abrade does R/B Aggro have access to?
- Is R/B Aggro supposed to be sideboarding in Duress? Are they supposed to be sideboarding out removal?
- Does Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome have Glint-Nest Cranes? How many?
- Is Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome playing Aetherflux Reservoir or Karn, Scion of Urza? Both?
- How many Metallic Rebuke is Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome playing?
Honestly, these types of questions could go on in perpetuity. This is why players as great as Brad Nelson, Gerry Thompson, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa can play a matchup like R/B Aggro versus Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome and make completely opposite assertions about which side is favored. It's not that anyone is incorrect-they're simply not in agreement on the variables, and their statements fail to reflect that possibility.
Ultimately, language will always be imperfect, and my purpose here isn't to demand that we all be more verbose and precise in discussing Magic. Instead, I want to point out an area where the desire for a tidy summation of events can do irreparable damage to your ability to prepare for next week's tournaments.
The embrace of narrative and shorthand has fostered an unhealthy fascination with the Top 8 finishers of a tournament. Focusing on the Top 8 of events is the hallmark of the inexperienced metagamer. The prevailing narrative routinely treats a Top 8 performance an analog for success, and any deck which fails to achieve Top 8 status is deemed lesser. In a fifteen round, single format tournament, the difference between a Top 8 and a Top 64 is minuscule. Collective disregard for this fact has routinely forced metagames in the incorrect direction. Along those lines, consider the narrative the Top 8 of GP: Brussels would suggest.
- 3 Esper Control
- 1 Bant Nexus
- 1 Sultai Gift
- 1 Sultai Midrange
- 1 R/B Aggro
- 1 Mono-Red Aggro
A headline encapsulation of this Top 8 might read "Esper Control Breaks Out, as Goblin Chainwhirler and Nexus of Fate Falter." This would also be an incredibly damaging way to try to understand the results of this tournament.
Okay, so not everything about the headline was completely off-base. GP Brussels was the breakout for Esper Control-a strategy that has played second fiddle to U/W Control since Teferi, Hero of Dominaria showed up on the scene. Black-based removal is exactly where a control deck wants to be right now, since cards like Seal Away and Settle the Wreckage look less than ideal in the face of Sai, Master Thopterist and Heart of Kiran. Access to Duress is a tremendous boon in fighting the Bant Nexus decks, and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner enables you to pressure your opponent's life total just a bit more in sideboard games.
The headline is flawed in its attempt to downplay the presence of Bant Nexus and R/B Aggro in this tournament. The Magic Pro Tour Twitter account tweeted out the following breakdown of day two archetypes.
We see R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus are the two most played decks on day two, and all other archetypes are significantly less popular. It would be easy to twist the narrative further and argue that the two decks' flaws are evidenced by their inability to convert metagame share into Top 8 presence. However, stretch your definition of successful decks to include all finishes falling in the Top 25, and the picture starts to look different.
- 4 Esper Control
- 4 Bant Nexus
- 1 Sultai Gift
- 1 Sultai Midrange
- 9 R/B Aggro
- 3 Mono-Red Aggro
- 2 Grixis Midrange
- 1 R/G Monsters
When we look at the Top 25 decks, we see Nexus comprises 16% of the winners metagame, while R/B Aggro takes a whopping 36% metagame share. These are not the type of numbers you can afford to ignore when you're preparing to sit in the Standard seat at the StarCityGames.com® Dallas Open this weekend. The decks that succeeded at GP Brussels did so because they had the tools to beat Bant Nexus and R/B Aggro in the final swiss rounds. You need to be sure you continue to do the same.
Unfortunately, less data is forthcoming from GP Orlando, but like in Brussels, the tournament was taken down by a slightly off-the-beaten-path control list.
The Top 8 in Orlando was comprised of the following archetypes:
- 2 Grixis Midrange
- 1 Mono-Red Wizards
- 1 U/W Approach
- 1 Esper Control
- 1 R/B Aggro
- 1 G/B Constrictor
- 1 B/U Midrange
Again, R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus gained little traction in the Top 8, despite comprising 33% and 13% of the Day 2 field, respectively. Top 25 decks haven't been provided for this event as I write, but at those numbers, it's a good bet that both R/B Aggro and Bant Nexus performed well. Indeed, four out of seven of Day One's 8-0 decks were R/B Aggro. Given reports from people at GP Orlando, I'd wager we were only a few game wins away from the narrative this morning being all about the continued dominance of Goblin Chainwhirler, and the problematic nature of Nexus of Fate.
If it's true that the Top 8 narrative is not going to be useful for our preparation, are there conclusions we should be drawing from these two Grand Prix? Rather than looking for absolutes, I try to look for developing metagame trends. Often, these trends will point me in the direction of a specific archetype I can use to start my testing process. My brief takeaways are as follows:
- Control is on the rise.
- R/B and Bant Nexus remain fine choices, but perception and the narrative are going to reduce the play rates of both. I'd expect R/B to remain the most played deck, but Bant Nexus may be less prevalent.
- Mono-Red decks and R/B decks will get lower to the ground to punish the greedier control decks.
- Mono-Green Aggro has fallen off a cliff.
All this info has me anxious to revive the following archetype:
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Champion of Wits
- 1 Exclusion Mage
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 2 Hostage Taker
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Minister of Inquiries
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 2 Trophy Mage
The GAM Podcast Discord server comes through for me again! Long-time contributor VTCLA shared this U/B God-Pharaoh's Gift list after picking up a 5-0 earlier this week. U/B God-Pharaoh's Gift started off the Standard format as one of the early decks to beat, and quickly gave back metagame share as Thrashing Brotodons increased in number. The Dinosaur is finally trending down, and Kitesail Freebooter is anxious to get off the bench and start punishing opponents who are trying to play a passive game. I'm unsure if Angel of Invention is worth mucking up the manabase for, but for the time being, I intend to see if I can get by without it. Overall, I think U/B God-Pharaoh's Gift is uniquely able to exploit the rise of control while maintaining a respectable R/B Aggro matchup.
It's unclear if this is where I ultimately end up for GP Los Angeles, but I'm confident that avoiding a simplistic interpretation of the past weekend's tournaments has clued me in to some archetypes that are ripe for exploration. It's always good to check in on your shortcuts from time to time. If you've been treating Top 8s as an infallible way to rank and measure decks, hopefully this article inspired you to reevaluate that approach.