A Frozen Standard Metagame?

What happened at Madrid and Denver last weekend was one of the more interesting moments in tournament history. Lots of people have identified the shift, and the role it will play moving forward. I’m most interested in the fact that this shift happened at all. Even in those metagames where it’s blatantly obvious what the “correct” options are, rarely do we see those options chosen in percentages large enough to profoundly change the landscape of the format.

This time may be different.

The Big Shift

Aetherworks Marvel decks were not supposed to be a real thing after the Pro Tour. They did poorly overall, and many of the pilots complained that the deck was miserable to play and inconsistent, usually a death knell for an archetype among the wider player base. It was clear, though, that it would beat midrange decks easily by going completely over the top of them.

Still, U/W Flash ended up being the most popular post-PT deck and that beat up on Marvel. So, case closed—the format was going to devolve into U/W Flash vs. G/B Delirium with Mardu/R/W Vehicles being the 3rd wheel. Something interesting happened along the way, though. There was a growing rumbling about G/R and G/B Aetherworks decks that had a consistent plan B, and weren’t the pushovers against U/W Flash that people believed.

A couple of results on Magic Online and some articles later, and suddenly there was a push-back against the metagame. At this same time, this opened the door for Vehicles as well, which only lacked a particularly juicy matchup to prey on—it was never outright bad or pushed out of the meta.

Some people, like EFro, started to notice something else…

U/W Flash was Overrated and Overplayed

I referenced Information Cascades in my last article, because I honestly felt that once the storyline of U/W Flash being the best deck was established, people simply stopped trying. This is what happened to the control decks following the Pro Tour—were these decks really unplayable? No. They simply didn’t have the metagame saturation or number of skilled pilots necessary to make a noticeable impact.

U/W Flash is supposedly a deck with a lot of good cards and trickery. In reality, it has a lot of decent cards that take advantage of the right matchups. What are the actual game-winning cards in U/W? Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Avacyn Archangel. The latter of which isn’t even well positioned against most of the format.

Marvel decks aren’t even bad against U/W! U/W can’t pressure the Marvel player well enough to them to make a move, and they have a small amount of actual disruption. Meanwhile, the addition of Ishkanah means their secondary plan is at its best against the U/W Flash players!

We’ve seen this happen before, and people still stuck with the “medium” option that put up results time and time again. What stands out with these two tournaments is that a large enough swath of players switched from Delirium and U/W to significantly change the shape of the events. Usually a movement like this requires a clear enemy, like Caw Blade or Affinity, that is so dominant players have no choice but to play a solution deck. This is special because we had a trifecta metagame and people broke away from it.

Standard Fatigue and Ladder Disease

What may be causing some of this dissension in the ranks is that people are tired of playing the same old Standard decks week in and week out. Most of them aren’t deep enough to keep people interested unless you’re truly into the details of the game. Others are simply not having fun playing decks with 8-12 legitimately good cards and a bunch of filler. These are the usual reasons the more casual players switch to something off-kilter or fringe.

For others it could simply be that the metagame felt exploitable. When formats stagnate, it can become very obvious when a deck is well positioned to take a run again. The more Delirium won, the more it was obvious that one of the best options was to roll the dice with a deck that crushed at least one of the two top decks. I don’t think it would have had as big an impact if Marvel weren’t so hyped during the Pro Tour. If it had been an online-only deck, I think the metagame penetration would have been minimal. Instead, it completely blew the doors off both Grand Prix events.

This happens in games with ladders. People pick the new consistent 50%+ win percentage option, and jam it until they simply can’t anymore, due to new cards, bans, or nerfs. Burnout sets in, and there’s not much incentive to change what you’re doing even if it isn’t necessarily optimal. “Good enough” becomes the accepted norm. This Marvel backlash was entirely predictable if you could get enough people to reject “good enough.” We saw that happen in a big way—look at the Denver Top 64. There is an absurd number of G/R/x Aetherworks decks that simply did not exist a few weeks ago.

Some of these Standard doldrums can be blamed on design choices or pushed cards, but some of it can be blamed on an unwillingness to try and do better. There have been a number of metagames in which something new came out in the last few weeks, and it turned out the supposed endgame of the format wasn’t actually the end. In this case, it happened in time to significantly impact the last 1/3rd of the format’s life span.

The takeaway from this weekend shouldn’t be about playing Marvel, that U/W Flash was overrated, U/X Control was underrated, or anything along those lines. It should be that you’re doing yourself a disservice when you settle for “good enough” in these types of formats unless you’re already in the top 5% of pilots for these decks. And even then, look how many big names eschewed the known quantities, even though many of them would almost assuredly be favored in their mirror matches. If more people were willing to take these edges and go with them, we’d have a far more dynamic metagame post-PT.

My hope is that instead of seeing more discussion of solved formats, we see more of what happened last weekend.

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