When I first started testing for best-of-one for the Mythic Invitational, the first order of business was to figure out what was different from regular Standard. Very early on, it became clear that the answer was “quite a lot.” The absence of sideboards changed everything, because not only were no cards coming in, but there were also no cards going out. Decks like Esper Control and Dovin’s Acuity ruled the world and set the pace of the format, since you really couldn’t afford to play multiple dead cards against them without the opportunity to replace them for better cards in games 2 and 3.
What was control’s strength was also midrange’s downfall, as decks like Sultai and Golgari usually rely a lot on sideboarding to make sure their deck matches the opposition perfectly. This created an extremely polarized format, in which the best decks were either very dedicated control (all Esper lists) or very dedicated aggro (Mono-Red, White Weenie, Gruul), and nothing in the middle really had any chance to succeed.
The next order of business was to figure out how the Duo Standard format impacted things. In my mind, it was unlikely that the best configuration was simply the best two decks you found—the format just seemed exploitable, because the existence of a game 3 means that your bad matchups weren’t as important as your good matchups.
Imagine you have a deck that is 100/0 vs. Red and 0/100 vs. Esper. If you play versus two Red decks in a normal format, you’re going to win 100% of the time. If you play versus two Esper decks in a normal format, you’re going to win 0% of the time. Now, if you play versus two Red decks in a duo format, you’re still going to win 100% of the time, but if you play versus two Esper decks in a duo format, assuming your other deck is 50/50 against them, you’re going to win 25% of the games. Having an unlosable matchup isn’t as bad in duo format because you can guarantee you aren’t going to play it game 3.
We didn’t expect many people to bring two copies of Esper or Red, but we did expect most people to have a configuration of Esper + Red or White Weenie, which did happen (to be fair, that wasn’t exactly rocket science—I think everyone assumed this. We actually expected more Red than White, which turned out to be incorrect). Therefore, if we could find a deck that could be good versus specifically Esper + Red + White, we would be very happy to play it even if it literally couldn’t beat anything else.
To expand on our example: imagine you have a deck that is 100% vs. Red, 100% vs. Esper, and 100 % vs. WW, but 0% versus everything else. In our hypothetical scenario, Red+Esper+WW is 50% of the field, which means this deck’s expected win-rate is 50%—not a good win rate for a tournament.
Now, take Duo Standard into consideration. Say you’re bringing this deck—let’s call it deck X—and a deck that is 50/50 against everything. Again, in theory, you’re 50% versus the field in a normal tournament.
Imagine your opponent’s configuration contains two of Esper+Red+WW. In this spot, you’re 100% to win the match, since deck X is going to win twice. If they have one copy of Esper/WW/Red and one copy of something else, then you’re going to win 50% of the time. If they have 0 copies of Esper/WW/Red, you win 25% of the time. This is a huge improvement over the 0% it “should” be.
Because of this, I tried really, really hard to find a deck that was good versus Esper, Red, and White Weenie, even if it was horrible versus everything else. In the end, I simply couldn’t (and, from the looks of it, neither could anyone else). Red/WW/Esper just operate on too opposite sides of the spectrum, and there’s no card or strategy that is dominant versus all of them. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a card that will increase your Esper win rate and not decrease your WW win rate by almost the same amount.
So, we settled for the best we had: Esper and Mono-Red. Here are the lists we played:
4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Godless Shrine 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Watery Grave 1 Swamp 4 Isolated Chapel 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 2 Mastermind's Acquisition 2 Cry of the Carnarium 4 Kaya's Wrath 4 Thought Erasure 4 Absorb 3 Chemister's Insight 2 Moment of Craving 2 Mortify 2 Negate 2 Cast Down 1 Vraska's Contempt 2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 1 Ixalan's Binding Sideboard 1 Sorcerous Spyglass 1 Nezahal, Primal Tide 1 Lyra Dawnbringer 1 Healing Grace 1 Sanguine Sacrament 1 The Mirari Conjecture 1 Clear the Mind 1 Ethereal Absolution 1 Demystify 1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper 1 Sky Tether 1 Invoke the Divine 1 Unmoored Ego 1 Cleansing Nova 1 Settle the Wreckage
19 Mountain 4 Fanatical Firebrand 4 Ghitu Lavarunner 4 Viashino Pyromancer 4 Goblin Chainwhirler 4 Runaway Steam-Kin 4 Light Up the Stage 2 Skewer the Critics 4 Shock 4 Lightning Strike 3 Wizard's Lightning 4 Experimental Frenzy
I believe the inclusion of Esper is self-explanatory—it was the most played deck in the tournament and is, in my opinion, the best deck in best-of-one. Your good matchups are great, your bad matchups (like Mono-Blue) aren’t that bad, and anyone who tweaks their deck to beat you specifically will lose to everyone else. We thought Esper was better enough than other decks that we considered bringing two of them, but that had a couple downsides:
1) Everyone knows what you’re playing for game 1. In Duo format, the game 1 deck selection is randomized and blind, which means that your opponent doesn’t know what you’re playing unless you are bringing two of the same deck. When you have two copies of Esper, they can keep a hand with multiple copies of Negate/Teferi/Chemister’s Insight, for example, which they might not be able to do if one of your decks is potentially Red or White.
2) Everyone knows what you’re bringing for game 3. Game 3 deck selection isn’t random, but it’s still blind, unless you have two copies of the same deck, in which case the opponent will always know the best deck to bring. Imagine they have the following decks:
- Deck A, which is 55% vs. Esper and 35% vs. Red
- Deck B, which is 55% vs. Red and 35% vs. Esper
In this scenario, if you have Esper and Red in your lineup, then you’re a favorite to win game 3. If you have twice Esper (or twice Red), then you’re not, because they will always bring the right deck against you. If someone found a deck that was truly great versus Esper, then they’d beat our lineup by virtue of having that, regardless of what their second deck was.
3) You might not have time to win. Normally we don’t care much about this, but 45 minutes in a world of Teferi mirrors and people who literally get naturally decked isn’t that much, and the tiebreaker for this event was life total. If you have Esper x2, then you’re almost never going to win a match if you have 5 minutes left on the clock, whereas Red or White might. We saw this in the Gerry Thompson vs. Wyatt Darby match, where I believe Wyatt’s Esper deck had a better matchup against both of Gerry’s decks than his Red deck (and therefore was a strictly superior choice), but he chose Mono-Red instead because there wasn’t much time in the clock. Wyatt ended up winning the game on life totals when time was called, and he certainly wouldn’t have won with Esper in that situation, even if it was theoretically the better deck.
Our Esper list was somewhat standard for the event, except we had two Mastermind’s Acquisitions whereas most other people had one. We felt that having Mastermind’s was very important in any control matchup, and completely reversed matchups like Dovin’s Acuity and Big Red (which ended up not being played at all). Having two copies let you play the first to deal with a problem (for example, getting a Spyglass) and still have the second to win the game, and it was also good against discard and counterspells. On top of that, it let you win on time with Nezahal or Lyra. I think playing two Masterminds is better than playing one, which is much better than playing 0. I consider the 0 Masterminds list to be almost unplayable in that tournament, since if you have 10 or 15 minutes you just can’t select Esper as your game 3 deck.
As far as what sideboard cards you have, here’s what I think you need:
Healing Grace + Sanguine Sacrament versus Red. If you have time, you get Sacrament, but if you’re under pressure, then Healing Grace is a 1-mana Absorb. Sacrament is also important to win the game on life if time runs out.
Unmoored Ego beats the mirror, and in fact can even win versus a Teferi emblem, as Matt Nass demonstrated versus Seth Manfield in the Top 16.
Clear the Mind + Mirari Conjecture: They win any super long game.
Lyra: Swings games vs. both Red and White.
Nezahal: The best card to get if you need to kill them quickly to move to the next game, and the best card to get if you managed to resolve a Mastermind’s but know you’re not going to resolve anything else because they have counterspells in hand.
Sorcerous Spyglass: The cheapest answer to Azcanta, Teferi, and Adanto. Of course, it hurts you too, so if you can get something else, do so, but there are two Masterminds so you can win even if you Spyglass Teferi. In situations where one player has Teferi and the other Azcanta, it’s very good.
Other than that, an assortment of cheap and situational answers should work. We liked having one Settle the Wreckage because it was a good Teferi followup sometimes (turn-5 Teferi, turn-6 Mastermind’s + Settle) and because deck lists were public, so every time we searched for something from our sideboard they would have to consider the fact that it could be a Settle.
Another change that we had (and not everyone in our group did this) was only 25 lands instead of 26. I think most people grandfathered in the 26 lands number from best-of-three and didn’t even think about it, though I can’t claim to have done enough testing to find out if the numbers worked better with 25 (you’d need a truly enormous amount of games to find out in practice, so you mostly have to go with theory). What tipped the scales for me was the fact that the Island was just a bad land—if we could play another dual then maybe I’d play 26, but Island is kind of like half a land anyway, given that it doesn’t cast the most important turn-4 card. Ironically, having Island in your deck lowers the chance of casting turn-4 Kaya’s Wrath, since the opening-hand algorithm counts numbers but doesn’t count color, so it can in theory give you a hand with an Island that it would not have given you if it was a spell instead.
We could also have gone with Esper Dovin’s Acuity, as opposed to traditional Esper, but I think that deck is worse. Teferi is too strong of a Magic card and it’s responsible for a lot of your wins against a wide variety of decks. The little life gain you get from Dovin’s Acuity isn’t enough to justify not running such a powerful card.
For our second deck, we went with Mono-Red with four Experimental Frenzy. We felt like Red was a better choice than White because it beat White (not overwhelmingly, but I think you’re favored) and because it was better versus random Golgari decks. Most pros seemed to think WW was stronger than Red, and some even said WW was the strongest deck in the format, but my experience was that it wasn’t that great. It’s certainly a powerful deck, but I think you’re a dog to a well-constructed Esper list (at least two Cry, six total Wraths) and to Red, which makes it a puzzling choice to me in this field. It is much better than Red against the mono-green decks, but we thought these would be bad choices so we didn’t worry much about them. As far as our particular list, we really liked four Frenzy because it gave us a good shot to beat even the decks that were supposed to crush Red. For example, Gaby just raced Lyra with it in one match.
The tournament itself was incredible. Spirits were very high, everyone was excited, the production value was through the roof, the commentators were great, the arena was great, and PAX was great. I was drawn into group C, which was by far the hardest group (don’t @ me) and which meant I wouldn’t play until the second day of the competition, so I even had some time to get used to the surroundings.
Unfortunately, my performance in it was quite poor. Round 1 I played against Muffinpastrypie, with Esper and WW. My Red deck lost game 1 to her Esper deck and my Esper deck beat her WW deck. For game 3, I thought she would bring WW, since our Esper list seemed better in the mirror (she had 0 Mastermind’s), so I selected Red, but she one-upped me and brought Esper anyway. Somewhere along the way I managed to stick a Frenzy, though, and that was enough to win when she couldn’t produce a quick answer.
Round 2 I got paired against fellow MPL player John Rolf, with Gruul and Esper. The first match was Gruul versus Red, and it was somewhat close but Gruul won (which is what should happen—it’s pretty favored in that matchup unless there’s a Frenzy win by Red). The second match was the Esper mirror and I was slaughtered by an early Azcanta + Mastermind’s for Unmoored Ego + Teferi.
Losing to John Rolf sent me to the losers bracket, where I was paired versus Merchant, who had just dispatched LSV with the same exact deck lists as me. The first game was super close, but in the end his Grixis discard deck won the game at 1 life against Mono-Red. In the second game, he was stuck on lands and my Esper deck beat his WW. I knew he was going to play WW in the third game, since he had done so in both rounds 1 and 2 versus the same configuration, so I chose to play Red. It’s possible I should have played Esper versus him, given that his WW list was tweaked more for Red (he had two Baffling End and zero Unbreakable Formation), but I felt Red was still more likely to win, which was perhaps wrong. I had a medium draw and the game progressed to a point where if he had Conclave Tribunal for my Frenzy he’d very likely win, and if he didn’t he’d very likely lose. He did, and that was the end of my tournament.
It was disappointing to end my chance of competing for $250,000, but honestly, I wasn’t even mad about it. The whole tournament was such a great opportunity for me, and I knew it was a tall order to begin with, since many of the participants were excellent. No one came unprepared, and only four people from each group advanced. I entered this tournament with a “just happy to be here” mentality, which meant I could still enjoy PAX and hang out with my friends even after losing horribly. The post-PAX karaoke was especially great, since I got to meet and hang out with a lot of people I didn’t know previously, such as the streamers who were invited (who are all incredible people by the way—I hope to see you again in the future!).
The only thing I didn’t love about the tournament was the duo format. The way the format worked meant there was very little innovation to be seen, as there was only a small number of viable decks. I honestly think that a deck that wins without playing creatures (like both versions of Esper) has no place in best-of-one since it then becomes too punishing to play creature removal, which warps everything. There were some very epic Esper mirror games, but for the most part those games are insanely boring, and we saw the same matchups played over and over.
There’s also the fact that Duo Standard is a bit of a pairings lottery. For example, on Day 1 Matt Nass played Jessica Estephan. Matt had Esper + Red, Jessica had Naya Angels with four Lyra and Temur Reclamation. Matt queued Esper into Naya Angels, and then Red into Temur Reclamation, which meant he won easily. Had the pairings been reversed, I believe she would have won easily. As soon as each of them played their first land drop, it became clear who was going to win the entire match, because a mismatch on one side is always going to come with the same mismatch in game two, so whomever has the advantage in one game will most likely have it in both, which felt like too much to hinge on what was essentially a coin flip. This of course doesn’t take anything away from the Top 4, all of whom had an incredibly hard path to get there and are very deserving winners, but in the future if we have this sort of thing again (and I hope we do!), I’d like to see at least a small change to address those issues. One potential option is to just go harder on the separate ban list, and, for example, make sure that the Teferi decks simply cannot exist, which would then let people play enough removal to combat WW and Red.
If you’re an Arena best-of-one player, then I really recommend Esper Control. I think it’s far and away the best deck. On ladder, you don’t have to worry much about time constraints, so you don’t need two Mastermind’s, though you can still play one if you want to win more quickly and have an edge versus Acuity and slow Temur decks. I’d probably play the same list we did, but swap a Mastermind’s for a Chemister’s Insight.