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In Development – Master of All Trades

So what’s a “good” deck, anyway?

It’s a serious question. What does it mean to have a good deck for a given tournament or metagame? Decks, like hammers or guns, are just tools. These tools don’t do the job on their own, so it’s not really correctto say that a good deck “wins games” anymore than it’s right to say that a good hammer “builds houses” or a good gun “wins fights.”

All the same, there are qualifiers we can use for describing what makes a tool good or not. I’d say my little Makita cordless driver drill is a “good” drill, at least for my purposes. It’s relatively compact, so it’s easy to apply to household uses such as drilling and re-pinning part of a piece of furniture. It’s easy to flick it between forward and reverse one-handed, which is handy when I need to back the drill out to shuck off some sawdust. It’s also pretty convenient that it uses the same 18 volt Lithium-Ion batteries as my other Makita tools, so I only need one set of batteries and one charger.

Or, in fewer words, it has the power to get the job done and it’s super convenient.

This week I’m going to take a look at the Standard metagame from summer onward, with an eye toward understanding how the categories of decks—aggro, control, and so forth—have been performing. In other words, which types of decks have been “good” choices in major Standard events since June?

…and what does that mean for you?

Good Decks, Revisited

The basic idea from the introduction was that it’s not meaningful to describe a tool as “good” all on its own. The Makita is good for me because I need a relatively compact device that can cover various household needs. It’s clearly a poor choice for someone who needs to drill cement (who has to go far bigger) and for someone who needs to drill a 28mm Space Marine (who needs to go smaller, to something like a Dremel).

Today’s article is not about what makes decks good. Instead, I’m going to look at which categories of decks did better or worse in a portion of the Standard metagame of the past half year or so. So why introduce this material by talking about what makes decks good?

Let’s Not Fool Ourselves

My first States came soon after I returned to Magic, around when Ravnica and Time Spiral block comprised Standard. I don’t remember exactly what deck I played, although I do recall that I had no real idea what the field was like, so I didn’t do well.

During a later round down in the high-numbered tables, the guy sitting next to me began to complain. He was on [card]Dragonstorm[/card]—a big-time “win now” combo deck, if you didn’t get a chance to experience it. At the time, one of the players at the top table was also on Dragonstorm. This struck my neighbor as unfair.

“I’m playing Dragonstorm, too. Why am I losing?”

—which is a lot like walking around with no training and an AR-15 strapped to your back and then wondering why the professional soldiers keep killing you (although I guess that only really happens the one time).

Decks, no matter how good, don’t win games, matches, or tournaments.

What a Good Deck Does

What decks can do is give you the opportunity to win.

To return to the weapons analogy, the PBS television series based on John Keegan’s The Face of Battle talks about how firearms were thought of as the “great equalizer” between troops in battle, since they negated so many other aspects of personal training and equipment. In that context, having a firearm became the basic requirement for even having a chance in combat. If you tried to stick to swords and bows, you’d look awfully dumb while the other side punched fifty caliber holes through you with their black powder rifles.

So at the most basic level, a good deck must at least let you win. Most of us don’t have to think too hard about this very basic requirement once we get into the game, because we aren’t going to show up to a Standard tournament with 120 of our favorite cards all shuffled together with not enough land.

However, The Face of Battle somewhat snarkily extends the thought about firearms to say that people soon realized that having better guns could make your soldiers “more equal” than the other guys.

With that in mind, we might say that a “good” deck is a deck that gives you the opportunity to win more frequently than other decks in the field give you the opportunity to win. This may be because it plays more powerful cards, or because it has more options than other decks. Like classic Jund, it may simply be that it has more 2-for-1s than other decks in the field.

And, as always, there are likely to be decks that are good decks for just some people and not others. Combo decks spring to mind here—there are tremendously powerful combo decks that can totally run a tournament. However, try to pick one up on minimal practice or without the ability to run the right algorithms in your head and you may end up with a complete disaster.

An Open Survey of Standard

For the past couple articles I’ve focused on play at the Pro Tour. There are obvious advantages to doing so, starting with the fact that we have a tremendous amount of available data, down to individual round-by-round results.

On the other hand, how often do we all play in Pro Tours?

The PT is a pretty “unnatural” environment compared to the tournaments most of us play in, from FNMs through GPs. There are a lot of tremendously good players, many of them working in large teams, and these days the Constructed format at each PT hasn’t been around that long before the event.

To ask questions about how categories of decks have been doing in more typical Standard environments, we’d prefer to look at tournaments where we see more typical player demographics, but still have a lot of information anyway.

So, thanks to the SCG Open Series and Michael Hetrick (for writing most of the TMI columns over the past several months), we have some material we can work with.

Categories of Decks

Today I’m just going to talk about categories of decks, rather than specific archetypes. They are:

Aggro – Decks that win by attacking, attacking, attacking. Aggro decks typically try to win quickly. Zombie decks have been stalwarts of the aggro category since the release of Return to Ravnica.

Aggro-Control – Decks that have control elements but can rapidly switch into a full-on attack. Delver decks of the prior Standard season are the big representative in this category.

Control – Decks that try to disrupt, counter, or stop the opponent’s plays and then win in the long game.

Midrange – Decks that win by card quality and incremental value. They don’t outrun the aggro decks or take complete control like the control decks do.

Ramp – For today’s analysis, I decided to split ramp out as a separate archetype. Ramp decks try to not get killed in the early game as they accelerate their mana and then start casting giant spells, going over the top of the rest of the format.

Combo – This is a catch-all category for decks that try to do something unfair that’s not in line with the rest of the metagame. This most often means Reanimator decks in the events we’re looking at, but it also includes the odd Mill deck and stranger combos.

The Open Metagame from June Through the Present

For today’s article, I’m using information on the decks played at 13 SCG Standard Opens between Worcester (June 9) and Indianapolis (October 20). That obviously isn’t all the Standard Opens in that timeframe, but it’s all of them for which a TMI article was printed.

Here’s the course of the Standard metagame over those 13 events:

In case this isn’t a familiar chart format for you, it’s just a way of looking at the overall composition of the metagame over time.

The most obvious shift in the Open Series metagame quite naturally came with the transition between Scars–M12–Innistrad–M13 Standard and the current Innistrad–M13–Return to Ravnica Standard. At this transition point, aggro-control and ramp decks essentially disappear from the metagame. That’s not particularly surprising, since the cantrips that powered [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card] went away and [card]Primeval Titan[/card] left the format.

There are two other observations we can walk away with here.

First, when aggro-control left the environment, control took over its market share. One aspect of this takeover is that some of the control decks in the current Standard are sort of like Delver decks that have been slowed down and had their manabases expanded.

Second, within each Standard environment, the portion of the metagame given to each deck category is reasonably stable.

So that’s cool and all, but maybe we can go a little deeper.

A Very Standard Set of Top 16s

Here’s the same type of chart for decks appearing in the Top 16 from those Open events:

I personally find this chart a lot harder to read than the metagame chart. It also doesn’t really tell us what we’d like to know about deck categories in the specified period of time.

After all, what we’d really like to ask is, “Given the metagame at any point in time, which categories of decks actually did well?”

Which Decks Did Well?

To ask that question, we’ll turn to the same tool we applied just recently to ask about popular and less common deck choices at the Pro Tour: enrichment. Basically, all other things being equal, if a deck category such as aggro were 25% of the field on average, we’d expect it to be 25% of the Top 16 decks (again, on average). If a category consistently over or under-performed during the period we’re looking it, we can say that it was not, on average, that successful.

Here’s what that looked like for the survey period:

The numbers are the percentage of the Top 16 in that deck category, divided by the percentage of the event field that was in that category. A value over 1 means that more than the expected number of that deck category made it into the Top 16 decks, and a value less than 1 means fewer than expected did.

For example, “midrange” decks have a value of 1.81 for the October 20th Standard Open because even though only about 20.8% of all the decks at the event were midrange, 37.5% of the Top 16 decks were midrange.

Obviously, chance and the occasional very good player can skew these results for any given event, so we really want to see if there are any trends over time. To help with that, and because the table above can be hard to read, here’s the same table with some color added to it:

In this table, if a deck category performed better than expected, it’s colored green. If it did much better than expected, it’s colored in deep green. Similarly, decks that did worse than expected are colored in red, and decks that did much worse than expected are colored in deep red.

Now, some trends become clear.

Aggro-control was having a bit of a lull in success toward the end of , but then saw a big rush of success pretty soon after M13 hit. Given that almost all of the aggro-control decks were Delver decks, this isn’t too surprising—adding in a new core set with whatever new cheap spells it offers simply adds to the potential for decks such as Delver. It may also be that having the field fragment a little as people tried out new archetypes helped Delver take over again.

Ramp decks went from being pretty solid toward the end of Scars–M12–AVR Standard to a generally spotty choice. This may simply be the effect of aggro-control decks seeing an upswing, since ramp decks can be poorly positioned against a truly effective aggro-control build.

Surpringly, control decks went from being a “meh” choice to being somewhere between a poor and terrible choice over the survey period.

The other big surprise was that midrange decks haven’t simply been a big part of the field, but a highly successful part as well, racking up the most green and “deep green” results over the survey period.

The combo category should be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s been a consistently small portion of the overall metagame, and thus has a lot of room for statistical skew.

The Take-Away from this Kind of Analysis

The take-away here is probably not “play midrange.” If midrange isn’t in your comfort zone, and since decks don’t win games all on their own, we don’t just want to automatically switch to the deck that other players are, on average, doing well with.

However, the less may be to give serious consideration to the viability of your deck choice if you’re playing control or aggro, and then to ask:

“What problems are generally undercutting the success of these deck categories right now?”

and:

“Can they be adapted to deal with them?”

For example, a control player faces an environment with uncounterable creatures, uncounterable spells, undying creatures, and a lot of flashback and reanimation. It’s not surprising that it’s a bit harsh for control decks generally.

Similarly, aggro can have issues in any environment where one of the most common creatures is a 5/3 that gains 5 life and comes with another 3/3 as a consolation prize. These days, it’s especially unhelpful that when those control decks aren’t losing pitifully to midrange builds, they still run a spell that says “Gain X life.”

Since a “good” deck is one that lets you win, we can use this kind of analysis to ask if we’re in a category of decks that tends to be “good” or one that, like control in this survey, seems like it may have some structural flaws that get in the way of success.

As Always, Your Mileage Must Vary

Of course, this is all aggregated data across many players. Hopefully, you’re tracking your own successes with different archetypes and deck categories. The best way you can apply the ideas from the kind of analysis we’ve gone through today to your own game is by tracking your own performance and then being honest about whether a deck or type of deck is actually letting you win the game. If you find that your deck choice has you in the red more often than you’d expect, it may be time to consider whether it has some fundamental flaws that are getting between you and victory.

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magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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