Frank Analysis – Standard Talk

Welcome to my first column for ChannelFireball! Today, I will mainly talk about Standard: I will crunch numbers from GP Warsaw, discuss an interesting match between Jund and UWR Flash, explore GP Kitakyushu, and give a preliminary look at the post-Theros format.

This column will be one of hopefully many to come, as I intend to play and write about the game more seriously this upcoming year. That will mark a change for me because I haven’t really focused on Magic since my Pro Tour Hall of Fame induction in 2009. Back then, I wasn’t driven anymore and had just started a PhD project (in game theory) that swallowed up my time. As a result, I skipped several Pro Tours, I didn’t spend much time preparing, and, heck, I showed up with Highlander decks! Basically, I still loved the game and competed for fun from time to time, but I had had lost the competitive fire.

But that fire didn’t stay unlit forever.

Magic is an excellent game with great competition, great people, and great rewards. And I started to miss that. Recently, I felt a rekindled passion to return to the competitive scene—the feeling that I want to win again. Conveniently enough, I am essentially done with my PhD project, which means that I have no more teaching commitments and can freely take the time to actively compete in Pro Tours this year. Yay!

A couple of weeks ago, in search of a team, I asked Luis Scott-Vargas whether Team ChannelFireball would have a spot for me, and after a vote, I was happy to hear that I had been accepted. I am looking forward to preparing with them for Pro Tour Theros in Dublin—I hope to bring a fresh deckbuilding perspective, a more mathematical approach, and an organized playtest machine to the team. As an offshoot, I will be writing for ChannelFireball, too.

Enough about me. On to the Standard content!

Grand Prix Warsaw Number Crunching

Two weeks ago, I did event coverage for the Standard Grand Prix in Warsaw. On Sunday, I went through every single Day 2 deck list and noted each archetype everyone was playing. This yielded the following metagame breakdown. Jund was the most popular deck with 37 pilots in total.

Besides the metagame breakdown, the player-archetype information that I collected can yield other interesting stats as well. And there are few things I love more than diving into data with analytical tools. By combining the information that I collected with the Day 2 standings and results in a handy spreadsheet, I could calculate the average number of points that each archetype scored on Sunday, as well as matchup percentages between the popular archetypes. In a world where one person tells you that a certain deck is amazing because of a certain favorable matchup while another person tells you the exact opposite, I prefer to take a look at the cold, hard numbers.

Although this analysis is admittedly a bit late, the metagame and card choices haven’t changed significantly in the last two weeks, so the numbers from Warsaw should still be reasonably accurate for the current Standard format.

Let’s start with the average number of points that each archetype (with 4 or more pilots) scored on the six Swiss rounds on Sunday.

Quick note: If a player had dropped in any round, I awarded 1.5 points for that round in order to obtain meaningful numbers.

There are several interesting insights to be gleaned from these numbers:

None of the four most popular decks performed impressively: Jund Midrange, Kibler Gruul, UWR Flash, and Bant Hexproof all lingered around the dividing line of 9 points, which is the equivalent of a 3-3 record. Bant Hexproof and Jund Midrange performed slightly above average, while Kibler Gruul and UWR Flash performed slightly below average.

None of the four best performing decks had a large following: Selesnya Aggro, Naya Midrange, Golgari Midrange, and UW Flash all were in the bottom half of the metagame breakdown. Naya Midrange, for example, only had seven pilots in Day 2. Despite that lack of popularity, the deck performed well, as none of the Naya Midrange pilots did worse than 3-3.

Selesnya Aggro put up the highest match win percentage: Despite that, none of its pilots made it to the Top 16 due to solid, yet unimpressive 4-2 records. The performance of Selesnya Aggro was surprising to me because Gabor Kocsis, who played the deck at the World Magic Cup as a member of the second-place Hungarian team, told me in Amsterdam that the deck is really bad and that he had won almost no games with it.

So what was going on? Maybe the 15 match wins and 9 losses in Warsaw were just a fluke: a spin of variance due to the small sample size. Maybe the people who played the deck—none of which were name players—are all exceptional talents in the making. Or maybe the deck was cleverly positioned, with [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] and [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] to prey upon the countermagic of UWR Flash and [card]Unflinching Courage[/card] and [card]Fiendslayer Paladin[/card] to gain life against Kibler Gruul.

I am not sure what the answer is; I’m leaning toward fluke, but either way the deck deserves a second look. If you’re interested, then check out the list of Gabor Kocsis here.

Next, I have the matchup percentages between the four most popular archetypes. (I don’t include less popular archetypes because I don’t want to clutter the table with a bunch of insignificant 3-1 matchups.)

As an example of how to read this table: Jund Midrange faced off against UWR Flash a total number of 19 times on Sunday in Warsaw, and out of those 19 matches, Jund Midrange only won 6.

Most of these outcomes are in line with my expectations. For instance, Kibler Gruul is filled with haste creatures, [card]Domri Rade[/card], and [card]Burning Earth[/card], which are all very good against UWR Flash. Accordingly, the 68% matchup makes a lot of sense, and it’s always good to see numbers backing up our intuition. You can use these numbers as a handy reference to guide deck choices in the upcoming weeks.

Two outcomes, however, were contrary to my intuition:

I hadn’t expected the matchup between Jund and UWR Flash to be this lopsided: I can understand the value of chaining [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]s to drown Jund in card advantage and the power of countermagic to efficiently stop Jund’s big threats. This may yield a favorable matchup for UWR Flash, but Jund should be able to put up a reasonable fight with its discard spells, and I would have expected Jund to win more than only one in three matches.

I hadn’t expected Jund to be favored against Bant Hexproof: Although Jund has [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] to get around hexproof and [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] to destroy auras, it has a very difficult time against an [card]Invisible Stalker[/card] wearing an [card]Unflinching Courage[/card] or a [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] with [card]Spectral Flight[/card]. Accordingly, I would have expected the matchup to be the other way round.

If you have experience with these two matchups, then please share them in the comments so we can all learn. I find all these numbers interesting, but they are based on relatively small sample sizes, so there’s always a chance that they lead us astray.

A Staggering Game of Magic between Jund and UWR Flash

I saw many exciting games of Magic in Warsaw, but one stood out: a game between fellow ChannelFireball contributor Florian Koch (playing Jund) and Invitational winner Tiago Chan (playing UWR Flash with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], the card whose artwork features Tiago’s likeliness). The game starts very slowly. Florian is casting creatures and developing his mana, while Tiago is playing removal spells and [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]. The game progresses at a glacially slow pace, with Tiago slowly pulling ahead after a [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] on [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card].

But Florian wasn’t beaten yet. He had [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] in hand since the start of the game, and had been holding on to it because he didn’t want to walk into countermagic. He waits. And waits. He’s so patient, he could have waited until Tuesday next week for the right time to cast his [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card].

And then we get to the interesting part of the match, which starts here. It all starts when Tiago feels like it’s time to close out the game. He casts [card]Aetherling[/card] with four mana up.

Koch then springs into action. He starts with [card]Putrefy[/card] in Tiago’s main phase, forcing Tiago to spend a blue mana to blink his [card]Aetherling[/card]. By casting the removal spell in Tiago’s main phase rather than at the end of Tiago’s turn, Florian ensures that [card]Aetherling[/card] is still around for [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] (which, along with a topdecked [card]Tragic Slip[/card] or [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], could threaten to kill [card]Aetherling[/card]).

So now on Florian’s turn the situation is as follows. Florian has ten lands in play and [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card], [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card], and [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card] in hand. Tiago has [card]Aetherling[/card] in play, along with three untapped lands and [card]Dissipate[/card], [card]Dissipate[/card], [card]Essence Scatter[/card], [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], and [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] in hand. Koch then casts [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] for 5. (He does not cast it for 6 to play around a [card]Syncopate[/card] for 1 and to represent [card]Putrefy[/card].)

At this point, Tiago probably realizes that he may have played [card]Aetherling[/card] one turn too soon, as he is forced into an impossible decision. He has two lines of play. The first is to tap out for [card]Dissipate[/card] on [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card]. However, if he goes that route, then he almost certainly loses his [card]Aetherling[/card]. Because Tiago had very few win conditions in his deck—he was not playing [card]Restoration Angel[/card]—the loss of [card]Aetherling[/card] would make it very difficult for Tiago to actually win the game. The other line of play is to let [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] resolve, banking on [card]Aetherling[/card] to single-handedly win the game.

In the end, Tiago decides that his [card]Aetherling[/card] is worth more than his entire hand. A chain of topdecks on both sides later, the game ended with an exciting, tense finale. I won’t spoil the ending here—just watch the game.

This game illustrates two important Magic concepts. First, there is a real deckbuilding danger in running very few win-conditions. Protecting those win-conditions can force you into bad spots during a game, as evidenced by Tiago Chan’s predicament. Second, when playing against countermagic, don’t simply fire off your cards one-by-one, as you’ll only run into countermagic. Instead, like Florian Koch, hold on to them for a big turn in which you can start with an instant-speed spell on the opponent’s turn to eventually bottleneck him on countermagic mana for your biggest threat.

GP Kitakyushu and the Evolution of Standard

Grand Prix Kitakyushu, held last weekend, was the final Standard Grand Prix before Innistrad block and M13 rotate out. As with almost every Japanese Grand Prix, the Top 8 contained some interesting concoctions: Yuuta Takahashi’s UW Delver deck and Takashi Naitou’s GWB Token deck stood out. But in the end, the tournament was won by Raymond Tan with Bant Hexproof.

The results of this Grand Prix reveal the following trends, which closely match the developments on Magic Online:

• Jund, Kibler Gruul, and Bant Hexproof remain popular.
• UWR Flash is disappearing, likely due to its weak matchup against Kibler Gruul.
• Golgari midrange and red aggro are stepping up.

Golgari midrange in particular has gained traction. Theoretically, it should have a good matchup against Bant Hexproof and Kibler Gruul. Against Kibler Gruul, it brings good removal and big blockers to the table, while being resilient to [card]Burning Earth[/card]. Against Bant Hexproof, it has [card]Mutilate[/card] for the casual 4-for-1 blowout on turn 4. The deck contains fun combos as well: if you have never cashed in a [card]Desecration Demon[/card] with [card]Disciple of Bolas[/card], you have been missing out. [card]Mutavault[/card] plus [card]Demonic Rising[/card] is also a nice one.

Yet, in the wake of Grand Prix Kitakyushu, I think that the best-positioned deck in Standard may actually be UW Flash, for four reasons.

First, Kentaro Yamamoto, who finished in the Top 8 of that GP with Golgari midrange, called UW Flash his worst matchup, and it is always a good idea to prey upon rising archetypes. Second, UW Flash is capable of playing [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], one of the best cards in Standard, while not scooping to [card]Burning Earth[/card]. Third, it did very well in Warsaw: its pilots scored an average of 10.08 points in the Day 2 competition, which means it is a strong deck. Fourth, if the opposition picks up on the disappearance of UWR Flash, then opponents may be less prepared to beat [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card].

For these reasons, UW Flash will be my deck of choice for the upcoming month. I quite like the updated version that Jacob Wilson described here after his Top 8 finish at Grand Prix Calgary.

Theros on the Horizon

In just over a month, Theros will hit the shelves. In the rotation, we will lose [card]Invisible Stalker[/card], [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card], [card]Restoration Angel[/card], [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], [card]Doomed Traveler[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], and many, many other key cards. As a result, all the current top Standard decks will be no more, and the format will be completely different.

It is always difficult to speculate, especially since Theros hasn’t been spoiled yet, but I’m going to try nevertheless.

Let me start with two general observations on important classes of cards that are leaving and what that means:

Targeted 1-for-1 removal spells will improve: [card]Invisible Stalker[/card], [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card], [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], [card]Doomed Traveler[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], and other difficult-to-remove creatures are leaving Standard. Although [card]Doom Blade[/card], [card]Putrefy[/card], and the like are currently not very well-positioned, they will likely become more viable post-rotation. This, in turn, may worsen expensive creatures without enters-the-battlefield triggers, such as [card]Kalonian Hydra[/card]. More generally, we may start seeing less value generation and more 1-for-1 trades.

Haste creatures and instants will disappear: We will lose many haste creatures ([card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], and so on) in the rotation, which makes sorcery-speed removal more reasonable. At the same time, we will lose [card]Restoration Angel[/card] and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]. That loss will make Flash strategies less attractive. Consequently, we may see more tapout control decks that operate at sorcery speed. Think [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], [card]Detention Sphere[/card], [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card], and less countermagic.

To test for Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, I intend to create a gauntlet with key archetypes, and I might as well start thinking about which cards I should collect for that. Inspired by Return to Ravnica Block Constructed, I believe that the following general archetypes will be important post-rotation:

Azorius-based control: We still have [card]Azorius Charm[/card], [card]Detention Sphere[/card], [card]Syncopate[/card], and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] for early defense and [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card], and [card]Aetherling[/card] as solid win conditions. This deck may stay 2-color in fear of [card]Burning Earth[/card], splash red (for [card]Boros Reckoner[/card], [card]Izzet Charm[/card], [card]Warleader’s Helix[/card], [card]Assemble the Legion[/card], and [card]Ral Zarek[/card]), or splash black (for [card]Far // Away[/card], [card]Doom Blade[/card], [card]Sin Collector[/card], [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card], and/or [card]Obzedat, Ghost Council[/card]), or splash green (for insane plays with [card]Plasm Capture[/card]). One way or another, Azorius will almost certainly remain the best control base in Standard with Theros.

Red aggro: [card]Burning-Tree Emissary[/card] is still a card. It can power out hyper-aggressive starts along with [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] and an assortment of other 1- and 2-drops. [card]Firefist Striker[/card] in particular may be valuable to get past annoying blockers such as [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card] and [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]. This deck could also put the synergy between [card]Young Pyromancer[/card], [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card], and [card]Shock[/card] to good use. Finally, it has access to [card]Burning Earth[/card] to punish the greedy 3-color decks.

Selesnya-based midrange: [card]Experiment One[/card], [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card], and [card]Advent of the Wurm[/card] are all effective at dodging [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. [card]Dryad Militant[/card] and [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] have excellent stats for their cost, and [card]Selesnya Charm[/card] is a flexible utility card. There’s also [card]Unflinching Courage[/card], [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card], and [card]Centaur Healer[/card] to race the red aggro decks. Speaking of life-gain, [card]Archangel of Thune[/card] plus [card]Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice[/card] is an interesting combo as well. Basically, there is a lot of good stuff in the Selesnya colors.

I could see this deck going Naya, with [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] to ramp into a second-turn [card]Domri Rade[/card] and a third-turn [card]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/card]. I could also see the deck go into a more white-heavy version, sporting [card]Imposing Sovereign[/card], [card]Frontline Medic[/card], [card]Boros Reckoner[/card], and [card]Brave the Elements[/card]. Either way, there will be an excellent midrange deck available in the Selesnya colors.

Rakdos-based control: [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card], [card]Dreadbore[/card], [card]Mizzium Mortars[/card], [card]Underworld Connections[/card], [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card], and [card]Desecration Demon[/card] are still around; they might form the base for a Rakdos control deck, likely with a third color. The viability of such a 3-color deck will largely depend on whether the dual land cycle in Theros, if there even is one, will be good enough.

Something completely new: I’m on the lookout for completely new archetypes spawned by new Theros mechanics and synergies. For example, will the enchantment theme in Theros prove good enough? Perhaps [card]Ajani’s Chosen[/card], along with stuff like [card]Mana Bloom[/card], [card]Sensory Deprivation[/card], and a bunch of new enchantments from Theros?

Standard has been fun, and we still have many weeks to play with Innistrad block and M13. Yet, I can’t wait to see what Theros has in store for us.

Until next time, thanks for reading!
-Frank Karsten

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