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Carrie On – Analyzing Standard

I haven’t played much Magic recently. There was just one of those gaps in my tournament calender where nothing was coming up soon, and with nothing to prepare for I let things slide. In fact, I don’t think I’ve played any Standard since Dragon’s Maze‘s release. I have a bunch of Standard tournaments coming up in 2 weeks, however, so it’s time to take a close look at what’s been going on.

Rather than look at what happened to Standard last week, I wanted to take the opportunity to look at how the format developed since the release of Dragon’s Maze.

6 weeks have passed since the release date. In order to look for trends, I wanted to take tournament results from every weekend. There are a lot of deck lists out there, so to limit the amount of information I was dealing with I decided to use the SCG circuit for my analysis. The Top 16 is published for each event and there has been seven in total. As an added bonus, the SCG circuit has a number of regulars who will be constantly tuning their decks for the meta each week. If something startling was going to happen in Standard I’d expect to at least see it there, even if it started somewhere else.

So, what has happened?

I started by just tallying up all the decks that made the Top 16. This isn’t helped by the truly appalling deck naming done for the lists. You have to carefully check each list as the descriptions are often a lie. The particular problem at the moment seems to be UWR Geist vs. UWR Flash vs. UWR Control, but my favorite in the past was a “Naya Aggro” deck running [card]Angel of Serenity[/card].

Anyway, that data is very fractured. No one wants to know about the one time that Bant Aggro made an appearance. Well, maybe you do but that’s not what I’m looking for.

Instead I lumped them into three categories: Control, aggro and midrange.

There were a few decks I struggled to locate: namely Bant Hexproof and Aristocrats. I made the mistake of consulting Twitter. Cue a very interesting (and long) set of Tweets on the topic. At the end of the day, I think I’ve been convinced that they are both aggro, and both make use of synergistic effects to further their game plans. Both need to win sooner, rather than later, make much use of the combat step, and have low average CMCs. They also don’t have a very large suite of spells, unlike midrange which tends to pack more answers.

I would rather not have needed to combine all the decks together, but with only 16 decks a week, numbers were too small to consider each deck separately, although I will draw your attention to some interesting points later.

Midrange and aggro appear to be locked in a battle for domination of the Top 16. I was hoping I would get to talk about predator-prey relationships to broaden your education. You know, the whole thing about how the fox and hare populations affect each other because if there are lots of hares there is lots of food for foxes so they breed more but then the hare numbers fall so the fox population can’t sustain itself so their numbers drop in turn allowing the hare to increase in number again—

—But, alas, what we have is a one- or two-deck difference each week, except right at the end where control starts to appear.

It gets worse when you look at the top deck archetypes within the general categories. There are three top decks that don’t really change and are all green-based:

1. Reanimator
2. Jund
3. RG-based aggro

All right, the last one has several sub-flavors, but the shell is so, so similar between the different decks that you can’t truly separate the Naya from the RG or Jund with any real conviction. It just depends what you prefer to splash.

These three decks make up on average 60% of the Top 16 every week. The final week is a little low because midrange Naya suddenly surged in popularity. This is an interesting development.

To be honest, these graphs are kind of depressing. Mana is so good in Standard right now that there is so little choice you can make. Your deck is almost certainly green-based.

For aggro decks, RG has some of the best creatures available right now—you’d be a fool to not consider running [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card]. You can put white or black in as well or leave it pure for more consistency. There is the odd Zombie deck, but the numbers are so small in comparison.

For midrange, green gives you [card]Farseek[/card] and mana creatures to ramp you to your bigger, better threats—also something green is known for. With all the fixing you can just run whatever you need or want. Essentially, this results in you running the best possible cards with no concern.

It was really sad looking at the week-to-week deck lists. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d loaded the same list twice, there’s so little variation. This graph raises one overwhelming point about Standard right now: it’s really boring! There may be 3 decks instead of just 70% Caw Blade, but it’s not a lot better. Nothing is really exciting me at the moment.

However, those blips at the end give me some hope. Last week saw midrange take a stand back against the meta. However, it wasn’t Jund or Reanimator upping the numbers, but the new kid on the block: Naya.

[deck]Main Deck
1 Arbor Elf
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Loxodon Smiter
3 Restoration Angel
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
4 Voice of Resurgence
2 Selesnya Charm
4 Domri Rade
3 Mizzium Mortars
1 Forest
1 Cavern of Souls
3 Clifftop Retreat
3 Rootbound Crag
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Stomping Ground
3 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
Sideboard:
3 Ground Seal
3 Unflinching Courage
3 Boros Charm
2 Ray of Revelation
1 Selesnya Charm
2 Garruk, Primal Hunter
1 Mizzium Mortars[/deck]

There were two earlier appearances by decks I would label Naya midrange, yet suddenly this week there were three in the Top 16. Why? One reason might be that the control decks cropping up in the last two weeks are more tuned to beat midrange in the form of Jund and Reanimator. As you can see, midrange is most affected by the revival of these decks. However, by switching over to Naya, this may have put a spanner in those works, allowing midrange to reclaim its dominant slot in the Top 16. It’s not like white gives you worse options than black, just different ones. Who doesn’t love [card]Angel of Serenity[/card]?

It is fairly normal for control to develop later in a season. Control cannot exist until it knows what it needs to counter. Given how stable the meta looks right now, it has taken a surprisingly long time. Equally, is it surprising when green decks are generating so much value, and [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] handed them another powerful anti-control piece? It might be that there is just no viable control deck right now with such strong cards against them. Even the week that had 4 control-style decks in the Top 16 had no common denominator.

The 4 decks were all very different—the only color they had in common was blue. It will be interesting to note if this increase in control decks continues or if we are seeing an outlier. The week after only saw one fewer control deck in the Top 16, so things are currently looking good.

The other notable change in the top decks is Reanimator. Reanimator is a midrange deck with extra power and value generated by [card]Unburial Rites[/card]. This gives it the edge against other midrange decks at the cost of its control and aggro matchups. The rise of aggro mid-cycle hit a lot of Reanimator players who had been building for the other midrange matchups, particularly when leaning hard on [card]Acidic Slime[/card]. This has been followed by control decks performing well, all of whom will be targeting Reanimator. If midrange stays at a lower percentage, then the current Reanimator deck will be significantly weakened and have to adapt.

This diversity of midrange and uptick in control might cause the change in Standard I am waiting for. Anything to buck the previous trend. I note that Naya is still RG-based, but one thing at a time. Equally, a larger diversity of midrange decks might just squash the control decks and cause a resurgence of Reanimator decks which can cast [card]Angel of Serenity[/card] more times… yippee!

After looking at the numbers of the most popular decks, there are a few developments with less popular decks still worth mentioning.

Right at the start of Dragon’s Maze, Bant Hexproof tried to become a player in Standard. I think it was actually developing just before release and [card]Unflinching Courage[/card] threatened to push it over the edge into a playable deck. This deck was designed along the lines of the Bogles deck in Modern. Basically, you run a bunch of hexproof guys and some powerful, cheap auras to suit them up with. There is a smaller selection in Standard of both enchantments and suitable bodies to put them on, particularly cheap ones, which makes the deck a little more clunky. Personally, I hate this deck. It is the most uninteractive deck imaginable, and yet doesn’t even have the majestic grace of a combo deck to impress you. I like playing Magic with and against other people, this deck doesn’t do that.

[deck]Main Deck
4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
4 Fencing Ace
4 Invisible Stalker
4 Voice of Resurgence
4 Ethereal Armor
4 Rancor
4 Spectral Flight
4 Unflinching Courage
2 Simic Charm
4 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Forest
4 Breeding Pool
1 Cavern of Souls
3 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Hinterland Harbor
2 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden
Sideboard:
2 Nearheath Pilgrim
2 Ground Seal
2 Nevermore
1 Feeling of Dread
2 Fog
2 Negate
2 Render Silent
2 Selesnya Charm[/deck]

Thankfully Hexproof seems to be on the decline. The first two tournaments saw two copies in the Top 16, then there were 1 in each in the next 3 tournaments and finally none in the last 2 weeks. Is it being less successful or are people simply as bored/unimpressed with the strategy as I am? It’s entertaining to play once,but rapidly gets old, and now that it’s a known quantity people are building their decks to beat it. Fighting through not only wraths, but [card]Far // Away[/card], [card]Ray of Revelation[/card], and even [card]Gaze of Granite[/card] is no fun, even for Hexproof pilots.

A few other ‘one-hit wonder’ decks are worth a mention. A black/green midrange deck featuring [card]Desecration Demon[/card] made an appearance at two consecutive tournaments. A 6/6 flyer for 4 is a good rate, and in this case the ‘downside’ ability causes it to grow while removing your opponent’s creatures. If you consider it The Abyss that starts attacking for 9 when they run out of creatures, it starts looking quite good. That’s without even considering all the value which you get when comboing [card]Disciple of Bolas[/card]. Sadly, this didn’t manage to gain a permanent foothold in the winning decks and hasn’t been seen again.

I was pretty excited about Junk Aristocrats, which Brad Nelson piloted to victory two weeks ago. The red-based versions of this deck have been a small but constant presence since before the release of Dragon’s Maze. Until now, however, they didn’t pick up many new cards from the set. Moving over to green gave the deck some new toys. [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] and [card]Young Wolf[/card] are [card]Doomed Traveler[/card]s 5-12 and [card]Varolz, the Scar-Striped[/card] lets you used all your cards for a second or sometimes third time. Sadly, it made no appearance in the Top 16 this week, so perhaps it was just another one-hit wonder.

That’s all for this week. Hopefully it gave you some food for thought. My own conclusions from this analysis? Any color of deck as long as it’s green! See you next week.

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