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Standard at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica in Numbers

511 players entered Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica this past weekend. Four of them got byes during the Standard rounds, eight Standard matches ended in an unintentional draw, and four likely began with an intentional draw. Including all ten rounds as well as the playoffs, this leaves almost two thousand full matches of Standard: 1,972 to be precise.

The bad news—I only have matchup data on a fraction of them. I tried to get the list of what deck archetypes everyone in the field brought to the field, but I failed. Wizards doesn’t put this much information out there for good reason. In a way, it is their job to create a puzzle that is so intricate that even a few million players won’t be able to solve it in the blink of an eye. This particular number may be off. Who knows how many people are invested in Standard, really? But it is quite obvious that the two teams, the “puzzle makers” on one side and the “puzzle solvers” on the other, are mismatched in size by several orders of magnitude. In light of this, Wizards is pretty successful. Of course, then they need to do it again three months later.

So I can understand the reasoning for less information. I just don’t agree with it. That Standard remains fresh and entertaining for longer when exploration isn’t aided by relentless data mining is one way to look at it, but there’s another way.

It’s Not a Puzzle

Someone, either Frank Karsten or Simon Görtzen—some doctor of mathematics—recently asked me: “What do you even mean when you say that a format is ‘solved’?”

The easy cop-out is to say that a format is solved when people agree that it’s no longer worth their time to explore further options. While clearly subjective, there have been moments in Magic history when overwhelming numbers shared a perception of such kind, and you can’t argue with that. But the very idea invokes a literal puzzle, something you do once until it’s done, and that holds zero replay value afterward. Does that apply here?

One of Magic’s biggest selling points is that it isn’t a game, but lots of different games, or a game engine. In particular, there’s the game you play at the table and there’s the game you play before—the metagame, if you will. Lots of people spend huge amounts of time thinking about what may be the best deck to take to a future tournament, look up information, engage in discussions, etc. This is not a chore but entertainment in its own right, providing countless hours of fun for everyone so inclined. Right now, I play this meta-game while writing these lines and you do while reading them.

My point is that more knowledge doesn’t necessarily curtail this activity—it may as well aid in it. A bad format will get boring before long because you can’t challenge its dominant strategies, not because you discovered them too early. A great format, on the other hand, may never grow stale. If the mix of threats, answers, resources, disruption, and support spells works out, then there will always be new ways to attack the metagame. Or there’ll be old concepts to revisit and to recombine in new ways, or minor updates with major implications, or even just the cycle of “A beats B beats C beats A” with added technology at each iteration.

To this very day, Old School enthusiasts continue to enjoy Magic as it existed in 1994. That hasn’t become boring in 24 years, so why would anyone think that Guilds of Ravnica Standard could be “solved” in a few months?

The Winners’ Metagame

I also argued, unsuccessfully, that an analysis of the full field would paint a more nuanced picture. Just looking at top performers comes with an inherent flaw in that it places too big of a focus on those decks that spiked at an event. Alas, that’s what we’ve got.

Coverage published the Standard lists of the 155 players who went 6-4 or better. Think of it as the winners’ metagame. It breaks down as follows, with Day 1 percentages added for comparison:

It is notable that none of the numbers differ notably between the first two columns. Then again, 6-4 isn’t that high of a bar to clear. So it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that this subgroup resembles the starting field so closely. That’s why I also looked at the 72 decks that went 7-3 or better. This suggests that Golgari underperformed a little, while white-based weenie decks overperformed a little. Mono-Red Aggro did even better and Izzet Drakes better still.

23 players earned 24 or more points in Standard. For the sake of completeness: the top five archetypes all shared 17.4% each of this subgroup, while 8.7% went to Selesnya, and 4.3% corresponded to the one Mono-Blue Tempo deck. None of the Boros Angels and Esper Control players managed to win eight Standard matches.

You may wonder why the Day 1 column shows 17–21% for Boros/White Weenie. The coverage team decided to make a distinction based on how much red a deck contained. This is why Jérémy Dezani’s deck, whose average creature costs about 1.5 mana, is labeled Boros Aggro, and why Thiago Saporito’s deck bears the same title, although his creatures include only four 1-drops, but four Kinjalli’s Sunwing and three each of Tajic, Legion’s Edge, Rekindling Phoenix, and Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice. I believe one belongs with the white-based weenie decks—it only runs four nonwhite spells too—and the other doesn’t, which leaves the Day 1 percentage somewhat unclear.

I also didn’t list percentages for decks that had only one or two of their pilots go 6-4 or better. Specifically, I omitted Big Red because we don’t know how many of them entered the tournament. Two went 6-4, but the Day 1 metagame breakdown claims that there was only one to begin with.

Matchup Results

The 155 top performers completed 363 matches against one another. Among them, most decks didn’t face any other deck more than three times and/or the encounters didn’t show a clear winner. Below I’ve included the five most popular decks and Boros Angels. The former generated the most results, and the latter added a curious data point with its success against Izzet Drakes:

A 5-1 shouldn’t be overestimated. But the result is both interesting and believable. One can imagine how the larger flyers might prove a huge obstacle for the */4 Drakes and Arclight Phoenix. Other than that, Boros Angels and also Jeskai Control did neither particularly well nor badly in any matchup. If anything, Jeskai Control had an exceedingly even run against everything.

Mono-Red Aggro was by far the most successful strategy against white-based weenie decks and the least successful against Izzet Drakes. The latter is mildly surprising because Mono-Red Aggro still had a positive record versus Izzet on the second day of Grand Prix Lille. I think it’s safe to attribute this change to how the Izzet decks changed from one event to the next. Published Izzet main decks at the Pro Tour included an average of six 4+-toughness  creatures, split between Crackling Drake, Enigma Drake, and Murmuring Mystic. Some in Lille contained zero. Back then we called the archetype “Izzet Phoenix” for a reason.

Similarly, in GP Lille’s Sunday rounds, Golgari Midrange won 17 of 28 matches versus white-based weenie decks. In the comments to my respective article, people variously informed me that this was not how the matchup was supposed to play out, and that there was a 35% chance to see this result even in an even matchup. I guess now I’ll accept an “I told you so.”

While going through the published Pro Tour decks, I noticed that Golgari versions with four Llanowar Elves, four Druid of the Cowl, and three to four Carnage Tyrant earned more points on average than other Golgari versions. I checked whether this was due to different results in any particular matchup, but no. Nothing stood out. Ironically, the available data shows that the Tyrant-heavy build went 1-2 against Jeskai Control, worse than the regular.

I also tracked how the different versions of White Weenie or Boros Weenie fared in all matchups, as well as against each other. I couldn’t discern any trends whatsoever with regards to other decks. But I was able to find something with the pseudo-mirror matches…

The Case of Weenie vs. Weenie

As you can imagine, there isn’t enough data here to make a definite statement regarding chances in future encounters. Past encounters, on the other hand, went a certain way.

First, though, let’s meet the candidates. There were five different white-based weenie decks that managed to earn at least 18 points in Standard. A single player, Kellen Pastore, went 7-3 with a completely mono-white deck.

Three players ran White Weenie with a life gain theme and a red sideboard to a combined record of 20-9-1 in the Swiss rounds. Finalist Luis Scott-Vargas was the most successful of them.

White Weenie (Life Gain)

Luis Scott-Vargas

Another four players went 28-11-1 throughout the Swiss rounds with a similar version, albeit without the life gain theme. Playing such a build, Michael Bernat lost the quarterfinals against Scott-Vargas, but Andrew Elenbogen won the finals against him.

The largest group, 22 players, used a minor red splash in the main deck, most often just for Heroic Reinforcements, to earn a combined 147-72-1 Swiss record. Although Kasper Nielsen made it to the quarterfinals and Tay Jun Hao to the semifinals, it was actually Magnus Lantto who had the highest match win percentage with it, going 9-1.

Boros Weenie (Reinforcements)

Magnus Lantto

Finally, three players went 19-10-1 throughout the Swiss with additional red cards, notably Goblin Instigator. Jérémy Dezani reached the Top 4 with it.

Boros Weenie (Instigator)

Jérémy Dezani

These five matched up as follows:

I wanted to give the full details in case someone was interested, but what I consider interesting is how main decks without red fared against main decks with red. The main decks without red won ten out of eleven matches against the Boros builds. This is quite something!

In fact, it’s probably a case of results exaggerating the true likelihood of winning. Or not. Heroic Reinforcements isn’t very good in the matchup, and the additional lands this requires can’t be helpful either.

I can’t make a recommendation with regards to which brand of White Weenie is best. But any one of them may be a better choice than its Boros brethren, especially if one needs to beat lots of weenie decks going forward.

Conclusions

Various pro teams correctly identified Boros or White Weenie as an excellent choice for the Pro Tour, and the Top 8 was indeed overrun with it. But as far as the available matchup data goes, we can’t expect the strategy to become an oppressive force. We don’t need a strong spyglass to make out a deeply red star on the horizon, growing fast. Time to dust off those Goblin Chainwhirlers!

Meanwhile, Izzet Drakes continued to put up solid numbers, and it could act as a countermeasure to the rise of Chainwhirlers. Boros Angels may in turn be a good foil to that, although it’s hard to tell and harder still to say whether or not one may ever be needed.

Golgari Midrange and Jeskai Control round out the “big five” of Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Both have shown themselves to be all-rounders with no horrible matchups but barely any auto-wins either. (Admittedly, Jeskai Control continued the trend it started in Lille of winning all of its matches against Big Red—another three this time.) Looking at these latest results, I see no compelling reason why Golgari Midrange should remain the most popular deck. Then again, the deck is very adaptable.

Overall, it’s easy to speculate on where the format will go next. Expect more Chainwhirlers. Where the format may end up later, though, is completely impossible to know at this point. The next major Top 8 shouldn’t look anything like the last. Unless it does, I stand by my word: This format is exciting and I’m excited to see the evolution continue.

Until then, I hope you’ll have as much fun playing the meta-game as I do.

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