The Grand Finals afew weeks ago marked the culmination of the 2020 partial season. After weeks of nonstop theorycrafting and practice, I finished 24th out of 32 players. While this was good for $1000 more than the minimum prize payout, it wasn’t the outcome I was hoping for.
On the other hand, the rest of my prep team – Austin Bursavich, Aaron Gertler, and Allen Wu – finished 1st, 2nd, and 9th, respectively. We probably did something right. Since bans have hit the decks we played in both Historic and Standard, I’m going to focus on high-level takeaways from our preparation, and specifically how my approach to one-deck metagames has changed.
Only One Deck
Between our own testing and professional consensus, it became clear early in testing that both Standard and Historic were going to be one-deck formats. In Historic, none of the best archetypes from the Mythic Invitational (Sultai Midrange, Jund Sacrifice, Goblins, etc.) broke even against Omnath Ramp throughout our practice matches. In Standard, Omnath Adventures was the most popular deck leading up to the Finals, and nobody had found a convincing answer to it.
In general, I hate submitting the Only Deck In The Format. I believe that the best place to get an edge in a tournament is in deck selection. Mirrors often revolve around play/draw or certain key cards much more than pilot skill, and I didn’t expect to have an edge based on my technical play in the Grand Finals. I started looking for alternatives.
In Historic, after throwing everything at Omnath Ramp, we discovered a few decks that performed well against it. UW Auras was the frontrunner, and the matches weren’t close. Auras could consistently win on turn 4, and Omnath couldn’t race and couldn’t bring in enough answers to slow UW down without completely wrecking its sideboard for other matchups. Ginky also introduced us to Neostorm. That deck was less favored against Omnath (since Yasharn and Cage are such effective hate cards), but it was still solidly favored, and it didn’t share Auras’ weakness to Claim the Firstborn and Jund in general.
I seriously considered bringing one of those decks, but the rest of the team wasn’t even interested. Despite Omnath’s dominance in our testing, and despite the fact that other Grand Finals competitors were streaming Historic Omnath lists, Allen and Austin expected at most 10-15 people to be playing the archetype. They expected a lot of Sultai and Jund. And since Auras and Neostorm had mediocre to poor matchups against Sultai and Jund, they were happy to lock in Omnath and focus on Standard testing. I eventually agreed to do the same.
The team’s metagame prediction was perfect. The 32-person Grand Finals field had 11 players on Omnath, followed in popularity by 7 on Jund and 6 on 4C Yasharn (the evolution of Sultai), and Omnath had the second highest winrate in the tournament behind Azorius Control (which only two players brought). Neostorm and Auras would have been terrible choices. Attacking the best deck only works if the whole field knows it’s the best deck; if not, you should just play it.
Unlike in Historic, the best Standard deck was common knowledge. Everyone was streaming and discussing Omnath Adventures, and everyone was looking for an answer to it, without much success.
In our testing, Adventures was holding up well against the field, with the exception of one homebrew. My friend Rage built a Dimir Rogues list that looked a lot like the one Seth eventually registered – no Nighthawk Scavengers, no Zareth San, and a lot more card draw and countermagic. This was a significant improvement over the best public lists before the Grand Finals, and it was able to beat all but the fastest Adventure starts. Austin and I loved the deck and came very close to registering it.
The problem was that in this kind of scenario, the homebrew deck faces a much higher burden of proof than the meta deck. The brew’s sideboard tuning, the degree to which it’s favored in popular matchups, and pilot familiarity with the deck are all points of uncertainty that are difficult to resolve with a smaller sample size. And statistically, the closer the matchup is to 50-50, the harder it is to be confident that you’re favored at all.
We didn’t reject Rogues for one specific reason. We rejected it because of many small factors. Sideboard Chainweb Aracnirs and Shredded Sails, maindeck Lotus Cobras, better play on the Adventures side of the matchup, difficulty finding sideboard improvements for Rogues, the presence of some Rakdos in the metagame… the Rogues winrate just kept inching towards 50%, and we weren’t willing to register the deck if it wasn’t a heavy favorite against the field.
In retrospect, I’m confident registering the best deck was correct in Standard as well. While Gruul Adventures and Dimir Rogues both turned heads in the Grand Finals top 8, neither archetype had a winrate above 50% against Adventures. That’s not to say that Seth Manfield and the Autumn Burchett/Emma Handy testing team don’t deserve praise for innovating and registering those decks. But statisticically, players who brought Adventures did just as well.
My Grand Finals
The short version is that I hit almost every bad matchup in the field. I had roughly a 0.6% chance to hit four or more of the six UW/Bant/Neostorm players in Historic, I hit four of them, and I went 1-3 in those matches. It was frustrating, but I’ve been playing card games long enough to know that these things happen.
Aside from my disappointing finish, the Grand Finals helped me level up in so many different aspects of tournament Magic. Austin, Allen, and Aaron’s discussions on how to tune Omnath lists were a master class in deckbuilding; you can read Austin’s perspective on preparation here. My VOD reviews of my matches against all the instant-speed control and combo decks were invaluable, and shored up some holes in my game – aside from UW Control’s brief dominance in early 2020 Standard, I haven’t had to play against those archetypes often.
My biggest takeaway from the event, though, is a shift in how I approach best-deck metagames. I love registering rogue decks, but they need a perfect storm to win an event. If the field hasn’t realized what the best deck is, or the sideboard isn’t tuned, or the most important matchup isn’t quite as good as you think it is, rogue decks can easily flop. Our team spent most of our time focusing on testing and tuning Omnath lists, and with Austin as champion and Aaron as runner-up, that work paid off in spades.