The combination of several weekends on the road and US Nationals at Gen Con has delayed Too Much Information quite a bit over the last two months. But the metagame has certainly shown no signs of slowing down. In fact Standard is as robust as it has been in some time — although that doesn't stop people from complaining. Just this weekend I read a tweet from one user complaining about all the Twin Pod Valakut Caw-Blade and Mono Red he was seeing on SCGLive.com — couldn't we find something different? Considering the sea of Stoneforge-on-Stoneforge action we were staring at just three months ago I think this format has shown a refreshing level of diversity thus far!
Just goes to show you that perspective is everything I guess.
I've decided to change how I manage this column a little bit and I'm going to try and focus more on metagame fluctuations than matchup data. Hopefully this will keep things more interesting from week to week and also provide us all with some experience learning the predictive elements of metagaming from a data set.
As always I'm making the original spreadsheet available here. As a special bonus this one happens to also contain the data for the Seattle and Pittsburgh Standard Opens. I decided to omit them from this article as the metagame has taken major strides since those events and Nationals completely changed everything. Still you might find some interesting nuggets in there.
Without further ado let's crunch some numbers.
Richmond Standard Open
The predicted increase to U/B Control's popularity in Richmond saw it overturning Caw-Blade in popularity and in overall win percentage. Most of these numbers are pretty mundane and the format appears to be in equilibrium. The only thing really standing out to me is U/R Twin clocking in at just over the threshold for Tier 1 while laying claim to the strongest win percentage in the field.
Richmond had the benefit of being a pretty simple metagame and Valakut seemed to convincingly solve it although there were some interesting highlights along the way. Naturally that wouldn't last. It's going to be tough for any major archetype to win two Opens in a row considering the savvy metagaming our grinders are capable of and Boston shook things up in a big way.
Boston Standard Open
The Valakut victory in Richmond paved the way for many players to pick up their Primeval Titans once again…and for those same players to get haplessly slaughtered by the wiser U/R Twin players. While no one was looking Twin managed to quietly evolve into a genuine solution to the metagame breaking clearly from the field over ten rounds and taking home the title in the hands of a relative unknown with a finely-honed list.
The other decks gaining ground in this event were Mono Red RUG Pod and U/W Puresteel Paladin. I'll attribute the Mono Red popularity to its localized popularity as the archetype certainly didn't fare especially well. RUG Pod and Puresteel happen to be the children of two different online personalities and each has seen some limited success since their debuts on the scene. Frankly it seems to me that only Caleb Durward is especially good at racking up wins with Flayer Husks in his deck but I'll give him some credit — the deck looks like it's both very fun and very interesting.
Hero-Blade has been declining in popularity since Tim Pskowski's victory in Cincinnati but both he and Ben Friedman have continued to push it for results. Hero-Blade is a bit tougher on Valakut than Caw-Blade lists like the one Gerry Thompson popularized but Hero-Blade is worse against Deceiver and not especially great in many other matchups. Despite a strong performance from the archetype in Boston even Ben Friedman was contemplating sleeving up something different for Grand Prix: Pittsburgh.
Caw-Blade – 14.15% of Richmond 19.00% of Boston
Best finish: Kyle Rose – 2nd place Richmond Standard Open
Caw-Blade remains the most popular deck in Standard but it has slowly begun to lose ground. The shift that I predicted back in Cincinnati has begun to equalize the metagame and Caw-Blade is now just another very good deck in a format with a well-defined Tier 1. Many players have continued to complain about Caw-Blade's popularity and metagame success but there are several factors to consider.
1) Caw-Blade had a lot of steam coming into this format given its success before the bannings and the release of Magic 2012.
2) Many of the best players on the Open Series were already so practiced with Caw-Blade that learning another archetype — even an archetype that might be better — is an unattractive option considering the work and risk involved.
3) Tweaking a known quantity is easier than building a new one and Caw-Blade responds very well to personal touches as Edgar Flores and Gerry Thompson have both proven.
4) Because so many players worked exclusively with Caw-Blade other decks became developmentally stunted. Players have now tuned those strategies competitively.
If you examine the matchups you'll see that Caw-Blade doesn't have anything incredibly exciting or unfair going on but these numbers are important. Over the last few events it's boasting one of its strongest win percentages against U/B Control — the very archetype Ali Aintrazi used to butcher Squadron Hawk after Squadron Hawk in pursuit of the US Nationals trophy. Are the Open Series U/B players that much weaker than Ali or have Caw-Blade pilots adapted their lists to defeat this new enemy? If you examine the data closer it's obvious that the latter seems most likely — U/B Control had the edge in Richmond winning 43.62% of its matches but Caw-Blade surged ahead with a massive 70.75% routing in Boston. As Ali himself said U/B is a deck that needs to adapt to survive and this metagame has started leaving old lists behind.
Outside that jump Caw-Blade's other notable matchup is against U/R Twin. Twin is a deck that has shifted slowly since being discovered as players have been faced with so many decisions — it appears that they've finally solved one of those puzzles. Not only do the results reflect an advantage; just watching these matches play out has convinced me I'd rather be on the Twin side right now. Gerry Thompson's adaptations sound like a start for improving the matchup as his Torpor Orbs allow you to play aggressively enough to take them out.
Caw-Blade's a frontrunner for the Grand Prix as it remains the most adaptable deck in the format in the hands of a veteran. It's also very popular in the New England area.
U/B Control – 10.49% of Richmond 8.40% of Boston
Ali's baby has experienced some tweaks since Nationals but it has lacked the same success. Ali and Shaheen both ran into Richmond with an updated list featuring Bloodghasts and fared well against the field. I especially like that this sideboard option offers U/B players a way to be aggressive in post-board matches siding in a proactive clock while leaning on its strong control game in the middle and later turns. In Richmond most players working with the archetype earned a reasonable record against the top tier.
Things changed in Boston and for the worse. Valakut and Caw-Blade were the major successes in Richmond making them the decks to beat in Boston—frankly U/B Control failed to do so. Valakut has tended to enjoy a reasonable matchup against U/B Control as the counter-based control deck has to tap out in order to resolve a clock and isn't prepared to fight Valakut's tempo. Answers like Memoricide and Despise are highly overrated in fixing the matchup and it's not likely to improve with the current model.
Valakut's resurgent popularity then makes U/B Control a less popular option. This weakness can present itself against U/R Twin as well but disruption has proven much more potent in that matchup since you don't have to worry about nonsense like Summoning Trap.
Against Caw-Blade I'm honestly not sure what happened. My guess is that many of the northeastern players turned towards lists reflecting Gerry Thompson's latest updates namely the willingness to maindeck fewer defenses against aggro and more answers to Jace Beleren in Oblivion Rings and their own Jaces. Combining those elements with their card advantage and cheaper counters along with more threats has given Caw-Blade some new life in a matchup that was terrible only two weeks before. This sort of predatory cycle has reared its head for Caw-Blade time and again and the Hawks tend to wind up on top at the end. That said… just because a target's moving doesn't mean you can't hit it.
Valakut – 8.29% of Richmond 9.20% of Boston
The major story of Richmond was the successful return of Valakut — an emergence that continued on into Boston where the archetype posted two more strong finishes. If you examine its matchup percentages you'll see that they're actually very close between the two events against Tier 1 excepting an outlier result from the miniscule Mono Red presence in Richmond.
What made Valakut successful in the new metagame? I'm glad you asked.
When I talked to Pat about the deck in Richmond he actually noted that when he and Orrin Beasley began testing for Richmond he fully expected Valakut to not be good enough. Considering he wound up playing the archetype to a first-place finish it's a good thing he put in the work to figure out how wrong he was!
Many players have avoided Valakut on the assumption that the Caw-Blade matchup was still weak but this isn't your daddy's Caw-Blade. Lacking Stoneforge Mystic to more efficiently maneuver with Sword of Feast and Famine while being forced to field answers to a diverse metagame Valakut has earned some of its margins back. Mental Misstep's brief popularity over Spell Pierce is an example of one such tweak that gives Caw-Blade additional dimensions in some matchups — but makes it much weaker against Valakut where Spell Pierce was an effective way to gain early tempo.
Note the major shifts in preference within Pat's list as these were also instrumental to his success. Oracle of Mul Daya over Solemn Simulacrum grants Pat a less consistent but more powerful mana advantage as well as a crucial source of card advantage. Solemn effectively worked as a four-drop Rampant Growth that attacked a few times but that's not something Valakut needs — it only ever attacks for the kill. Oracle can fulfill that ramp role with significantly more dangerous efficacy. Even more importantly Pat recognized the metagame's shift away from aggressive decks in the wake of Timely Reinforcements giving him an opportunity to cut Overgrown Battlement and leave many players with Dismembers stranded in their hands. You can read more about his choices and his tournament in his report.
It's not all roses of course. Valakut is always a worse deck when expected and players will be gunning for it. Not only has Mono Red remained a tough matchup on account of threatening to Act of Aggression at any moment but Standard's newest golden boy happens to boast an incredibly favorable matchup against Valakut as you'll see below.
U/R Twin – 5.85% of Richmond 5.20% of Boston
Best Finish: Anders Simpson-Wolf – 1st place Boston Standard Open
The Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin combination received a ton of attention upon release but simmered down afterward until a victory from Mike Flores prior to the release of Magic 2012. Many expected that finish to put the archetype on the map and yet it remained a sideshow at best an outside competitor on Tier 1 and often relegated to fringe player.
The biggest hurdle U/R Twin pilots faced this year has been figuring out their own deck. With access to so many similar effects that accomplish their goals with varying levels of effect it's tough to figure out the difference between "good" and "optimal" configurations.
The counterspell base for example has merited significant debate. Many players think Mana Leak is essential while other consider it a wasted slot. In truth neither side is correct. Because Twin is such a customizable archetype you can build it to play the game you want to play—a game that may or may not involve Mana Leak depending on preference. The one thing the last couple weeks have shown us is that the game should certainly involve Dispel and probably Mutagenic Growth.
Think about how Deceiver wins and the edges of the archetype become obvious. As long as a Twin player can pass turn with three mana open any opponent will have to evaluate the likelihood of tapping out and dying on the spot whether you have the kill or not. Often players will err incorrectly towards caution — slowing down their own clock while giving crucial free turns to assemble a kill. Ponder Preordain and the like all become incrementally more powerful as the game continues and Shrine of Piercing Vision is an even more obvious source of long-term gain. Combine that with the ability to outrace the format's other premier combination deck Valakut and it's no surprise to see Twin racking up a victory. Mutagenic Growth has been an impressive role-player fighting off Combust and Dismember on the cheap and invalidating several players' plans for keeping Deceiver off the field.
Most players in Boston anticipated Twin's presence after the Valakut win in Richmond. So how did Twin overcome the hate? One simple addition made a world of difference in its tightest matchup: Caw-Blade traditionally bested Twin by deploying an early Squadron Hawk and riding this meager beatdown home while providing just enough disruption and interaction to keep the Twin player on the ropes. By adding Grim Lavamancer the Twin player can answer any Caw-Blade pilot's attempt to present this clock while simultaneously weakening their Jace Belerens.
Can Caw-Blade beat Twin? Of course; Gerry Thompson was in fact just one wrong decision from doing that in Boston and possibly earning his third title in as many weekends. Twin's matchups against the rest of the field will still make it a strong contender. I'd expect Twin to show up at Grand Prix Pittsburgh in greater numbers but I don't expect it to win. Following a weekend like the one U/R Twin had in Boston the target on its back will be all the brighter.
Mono Red – 3.66% of Richmond 6.20% of Boston
Best finish: Anthony Patronick – 4th place Boston Standard Open
Sliding onto Tier 1 by a hairline of a percent is Mono Red. To be honest the statistical analysis of a category as broad as the Mono Red archetype is pretty invalid in this series. You can't pay too much attention to the Boston results given the very tiny sample size but the Richmond results have a large enough sample to be worthwhile — if not for one major problem.
Categorizing the "Mono Red" archetype is meaningless.
For the purposes of this column I've drawn a distinction between Goblins and Mono Red decks with former possessing a tribal linear and the latter using a more varied assortment of creatures and burn but that's just the thing. Mono Red decks in these events have utilized a widely varied base of creatures spells and even strategies. Anthony Patronick's list above is an amusing example of the dilemma as his list is a tweaked version of Darwin Kastle's misreported decklist. As far as Mono Red goes the only universal inclusions seem to be Goblin Guide Lightning Bolt Burst Lightning and Mountain!
One Mono Red deck could easily take U/B Control's lunch money at 70/30 while another loses to it 20/80 and there's not really a valid way to separate these archetypes and their results. I won't pretend that the numbers on the above chart mean much; they're probably reasonably accurate determinations of generally favorable and unfavorable matchups but not much more. For example the surge in Mono Red's popularity combined with a reported positive result against Valakut indicates that most Mono Red decks have a favorable matchup against Primeval Titan. How favorable? That I can't tell you — the data fails us.
I will say that Mono Red is in a tight position and perhaps a very poor one. Timely Reinforcements is a hell of a card and every Caw-Blade player is going to be packing some quantity of them between their main and sideboard. You certainly can beat Timely Reinforcements but being required to put in that effort is rough and requires a strong plan. U/R Twin requires special attention — maintaining a strong clock while presenting too much disruption for them to combo is incredibly important.
Your takeaway from this shouldn't be that Mono Red is unplayable at Grand Prix: Pittsburgh. You simply need to realize that if you're sleeving up Mono Red then you better be very sure about what you are doing in the above four matchups.
With Grand Prix Pittsburgh looming what does all this information tell us? Here are the major points:
- Caw-Blade lists will likely shift once again. The return of Into the Roil and Azure Mage are on my list of expected effects but there are a lot of different directions to go in. Torpor Orbs sound sweet and I've heard Dave Shiels Gerry Thompson and Nick Spagnolo all advocating them.
- Expect to see U/R Twin out in force and be prepared to beat it by doing more than just playing Combusts or Dismembers. See Torpor Orb.
- Valakut is still a bogeyman of the format — don't expect U/R Twin to suddenly banish it from the metagame for you.
- If I were Valakut I might consider cutting Obstinate Baloths (you're not really beating Red anyway) to focus on the more troublesome (and more popular) matchups.
- Mono Red isn't doing very well; don't ignore it but you can probably rely on sideboard strategies that maximize splash damage rather than directed hate like Kor Firewalker.
- I don't think this is the weekend to trot out Vengevine. Not only is Valakut still a big deal but Surgical Extraction will probably take some sideboard slots as an additional weapon against Deceiver Exarch strategies.
- Keep an eye out for William Dunn's U/G deck as featured in the Top 8 of Nationals in Great Britain. It's too early to tell for sure but the deck could be a metagame contender.
- William Royde's victory in Great Britain with Eldrazi Green is also a noteworthy finish for an underrepresented archetype.
I'll be at Grand Prix: Pittsburgh and Pro Tour: Philadelphia playing my own cards instead of writing about others playing theirs. I'm looking forward to the events — once they're over I'm back on the road for the StarCityGames.com Open Weekend in Atlanta with Brian Kibler and Gavin Verhey!
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