In Development – That Third Set Shift

It’s third set time!

This week marks the start of Avacyn Restored previews. With these previews we can expect the standard wave of hyperbole about the death of your favorite format as well as a burst of creativity that tries to build new archetypes.

I can certainly get behind the creativity and tend to dismiss the hyperbole – especially since we’re often wrong about which things do or don’t break formats.

So with that in mind, what actually has happened when we’ve picked up a third set in the past few cycles? Do we tend to lose archetypes, gain new ones, or just experience more of the same?

Let’s take a look.

The last two third sets

Going into a third set, we don’t have the kinds of concerns we do around set rotation. You don’t have to decide, for example, if you’re going to dump an archetype because many of its core cards are rotating out of the format. But we do want to ask a few questions as we watch the preview cards roll in.

New Phyrexia

New Phyrexia hit the scene in May of 2011, bringing with it Phyrexian Mana and the final entry in Mirrodin’s sword cycle.

In the last few major tournaments before New Phyrexia hit the scene, these were the big archetypes:

Cawblade (sometimes featuring black mana)
R/U/G Jace
U/B Control

The defining feature of this archetype pool is [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], who was kind of crushing Standard at the time. Given the powerful influence of Jace and the similarly dramatic impact of [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], it seemed like a pretty big ask for any of the tools that were arriving in New Phyrexia to change things.

Right now, we have a “dominant” deck in the form of Delver. It’s not nearly as crushing as Cawblade was, but the feeling is similar. You can’t go into a tournament and decide to just “Hope I miss Delver” any more than you’d want to have gone into a tournament back in the day and hope to dodge Cawblade.

Our strong suspicion going into the third set in Scars block was that Cawblade would retain its dominance. Some of us probably have a similar suspicion right now about Delver.

Soon after New Phyrexia joined the Standard card pool, we saw these archetypes as major players:

U/B Control

So what happened?

Well, nothing dented Cawblade. Instead, we had the case where the best got better, as Cawblade received a lovely pair of gifts:


The addition of a tutorable, uncounterable, two-mana “Serra Angel” and removal that took away the need for black mana both powered up this already overpowered archetype. The addition of Dismember also helped aggro decks – those that didn’t care about their life totals – compete with Cawblade.

R/U/G Jace Control and Valakut both kind of dropped off the radar. It’s understandable – R/U/G Jace was the Jace deck that tried to accelerate itself out ahead of Cawblade…but with Cawblade being able to drop that third-turn [card]Batterskull[/card], that was a doomed effort. Valakut had similar issues – it’s hard to rush your opponent for a combo kill when they’re gaining 4 life per turn with countermagic backup.

Notably, the powering up of the tempo/control deck (Cawblade) seems to have forced the rest of the field to pick one or the other extreme end of the spectrum. It was either all-in on aggro (powered up to an extent by [card]Dismember[/card]) or all in on “slow” control.

Notice that even though the addition of New Phyrexia made Splinter Twin decks at least technically possible, they didn’t really take off until we hit the M11 / M12 overlap period, where we had both [card]Ponder[/card] and [card]Preordain[/card] to help find both halves off the combo.

The addition of New Phyrexia was clearly a case of “the rich get richer.”

Rise of the Eldrazi

Of course, New Phyrexia was a typical “small” third set. Avacyn Restored will be a large set.

Like, say, Rise of the Eldrazi.

Rise entered Standard on April 23, 2010. In the month or so preceding Rise’s entry, Standard’s major players were:

U/W Control (featuring [card baneslayer angel]Baneslayer[/card] and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card])
Finest Hour Bant

So what happened when Rise appeared?

Here’s the archetype list in the couple of months after Rise became Standard legal:

U/W Control
U/R/W Control
Mythic Conscription

Notice how that pesky “best deck” keeps sitting there at the top of the list? The Jund decks after Rise incorporated a few cards from the set, most notably [card]Sarkhan the Mad[/card] (who added card advantage that the deck previously didn’t have access to, as well as interacting nicely with [card]Sprouting Thrinax[/card]) and [card]Vengevine[/card]s (for resilience against other Jund decks, and to deal with mass removal from U/W Control).

U/W Control also benefited from Rise, receiving [card]Gideon Jura[/card] to back up the deck’s Elspeths and Jaces. This also allowed the expansion into U/R/W, which in most cases just meant splashing [card]Ajani Vengeant[/card] into an otherwise typical U/W build.

We also see the misleading addition of Mythic Conscription to the archetype list. “Misleading” because although Mythic Conscription did make big use of a card from the new set – [card]Eldrazi Conscription[/card] – it was mainly a more efficient replacement for the [card]Finest Hour[/card] core of the prior Finest Hour Bant deck.

RDW likely dropped off the popular archetype rolls due the addition of Gideon, since he offered the possibility of fogging a creature-oriented red deck almost indefinitely.

So even with a big third set, we didn’t see any major new archetypes. Two cards offered some gains for the default best deck, and then another two cards – Gideon and Eldrazi Conscription – each helped boost a major pre-existing archetype, and in so doing, punted another one back to the minor leagues.

Once again, the rich got richer.

What causes major change

So the last two third sets didn’t cause dramatic shifts in their pre-existing Standard metagames. Good decks adopted the best cards and got better, and one or two major archetypes were actually filtered out of the competitive pool.

That’s the typical case, but not the only case.

Why it’s going to be the typical case

There’s a reason we see “rich get richer” results from third set addition in both New Phyrexia and Rise of the Eldrazi. By the time a third set is coming into Standard, the card pool is already approaching maximum size, with five other expansion sets and a core set to work from. As a consequence, even the addition of a fairly powerful individual card has trouble shifting the core structures that have made the good archetypes good.

So as we look at the expanding pool of cards revealed from Avacyn Restored, we can keep an eye out for those cards that play well with the decks we already know to be good in Standard. For example, we’ve already seen a lot of discussion about Temporal Mastery which seems tailor-made to be good in a Delver deck with its [card]Ponder[/card]s and general orientation toward tempo-based wins.

Of course, “rich get richer” isn’t always the rule.

When things change

Let’s scroll the way-back machine to the heady days of early 2009, when we had Lorwyn-Alara Standard, and Alara Reborn had not yet arrived. Pro Tour Kyoto falls nicely in this period, and gives us these archetypes:

Boat Brew (W/R midrange, more or less)
Cruel Control
B/G Elf Midrange
W/B Tokens

After the release of Alara Reborn, however, our list looks like this:

W/B Tokens
B/G Elf Midrange
Cruel Control
Seismic Swans
5 Color Blood

What happened to Doran? Where did Boat Brew go? And what the heck is 5 Color Blood?

To answer all three questions, consider this lovely lady, now a scourge of Modern PTQs:

The cascade mechanic, most notably as it played out in everyone’s favorite 3/2 haste beater, delivered a solid gut punch to Doran and Boat Brew while enabling at least two new archetypes. Seismic Swans was a combo deck explicitly powered by the cascade mechanic (much in the manner of the current Living End combo builds in Modern). 5 Color Blood was a sort of proto-Jund, if you can imagine a Jund deck so greedy as to “splash” for [card]Cryptic Command[/card] (thanks to the power of Vivid lands).

Much like Apple’s mobile device business, the cascade mechanic was a “disruptive” factor for the Standard metagame it entered. You can refer back to a whole host of articles from the period for an in-depth exploration of why cascade was powerful. The basic idea of a free spell tacked onto an otherwise playable card such as Bloodbraid or Bituminous Blast is pretty clearly powerful, however.

In fact, the best and most powerful cards in Alara Reborn were those sporting the cascade mechanic.

With the most powerful cards also being the disruptors, it’s probably no surprise that in the case of Alara Reborn, the rich did not get richer.

Rules to live by

Whenever I write about the metagame over in The Field Report, I have to emphasize that we really never have the kinds of sample sizes you’d want to have to make solid, predictive conclusions.

This anecdotal examination of the impact of third sets is obviously even less solid in terms of sample size. Even so, the general “rich gets richer unless something big happens” trend does continue pretty well as you track back through the addition of other third sets such as Future Sight, or even a “fourth set” in the form of Eventide.

It’s certainly enough of a trend that I’m happy to use it as a guideline in how I evaluate cards from Avacyn Restored, at least for Standard.

The questions we want answered

Earlier in today’s piece, I laid out three questions we’re likely to find ourselves asking as we review new cards from Avacyn Restored:

Those are pretty academic-sounding questions, as if we were conducting some kind of research study about the ecology of Magic metagames. What we’re really trying to ask is more like this:

….and I can even simplify those questions into:

With that in mind, let’s revisit those two big outcomes one more time.

Finding the answers

So what we really want to know is whether we need to swap out our cards and if we can get a little bit of an edge, at least before GPs, the Open Series, and MTGO work out the next wave of “best” decks. And as we’ve seen, it’s likely that we’ll see a “rich get richer” effect from the third set, with an outside chance of a “disruptive” effect instead.

To answer the “Do I need to get new cards?” question, we want to start with an honest assessment of each archetype’s place in the world. Is it the “best deck?” Right now, that honor clearly goes to the general category of Delver builds. If we’re not looking at a “best deck,” is the archetype at least the best at what it does? Finally, does the archetype get markedly worse if the best deck gets a little bit better?

I’ve been fond of various Naya Pod / Zenith decks lately. They seem to be quite solid against much of the current metagame, especially since [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] can give Delver decks utter fits, assuming you can get to that point in the game. I think these Pod / Zenith builds pretty clearly own the midrange in today’s metagame. They operate on the back of powerful, incremental card advantage capped with powerful finishers.

Do Pod / Zenith decks get markedly worse if Delver decks get a little bit better? I think the answer there is no, as long as we maintain the trait of incremental card advantage.

With those things in mind, I’m going to be looking for cards that do one of the following:

Maintain my incremental card advantage while giving me a leg up on Delver

Increase my incremental card advantage

Give me even more powerful top-end finishers

That last one is a big ask, since the option has to be better than [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card], [card]Inferno Titan[/card], or [card]Primeval Titan[/card] into [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card].

Going mostly blind into the Avacyn Restored preview weeks, I’d bet that the first and third are highly unlikely. On the other hand, the second one – adding more incremental card advantage – is exactly the kind of thing that happens with the addition of another 250 or so cards to our card pool.

After all, that’s the steady progression we’ve been seeing with Pod decks already – notice the valuable addition of [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card] with Dark Ascension.

That other question, the “Can I get an edge?” question, is less amenable to being worked out ahead of time. We know what we’re looking out for there – some card that plays exceptionally well with what the deck we’re considering already wanted to do, and which successfully addresses at least part of the metagame.

But that’s all about the “rich get richer” scenarios. How do we figure out that we’re looking at a disruptive scenario instead?

There naturally aren’t hard rules there either, but we generally want to look for two things:

I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Avacyn Restored. I also think we probably won’t, given the previewed mechanics.

Take that last guess for what it’s worth, naturally.

Shifting to a higher gear

If I were to boil all these notes on third set transitions down into a single concept, it would be that third sets tend to refine the field.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re playing a mediocre deck, it might be time to jump ship. On the other hand, if your deck of choice is the best in its class, be on the lookout for a card or two to make it just that much better…because they’re probably in Avacyn Restored.

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