Last weekend, I was in Vienna to do text coverage of the Grand Prix, where Marcin Staciwa and his Mono-Blue Devotion deck claimed the trophy. With the Standard qualifier season for Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx beginning next week, and the upcoming Grand Prix in Dallas/Fort Worth also in the Standard format, I figured it would be a good time to analyze some of the data from that tournament and share my thoughts on the Standard format.
But before I get to that, let me share some good news: last Thursday, the day before I flew to Valencia, I successfully defended my PhD thesis and received my doctoral degree! So, you can now rightfully call me “deck doctor.” My PhD thesis, entitled “Resource Pooling Games,” combines the mathematical fields of cooperative game theory and queueing theory. It doesn't include direct applications to Magic, though it includes a funky example about Wizards sharing a Black Lotus to illustrate new models and theorems. If you're interested to learn more, you can read it here for free.
Grand Prix Vienna Number Crunching
Back to Magic. On Sunday, I went through all available Day 2 deck lists and noted the deck archetypes for each player. The metagame breakdown revealed that Blue Devotion and Black Devotion were the most popular decks on Sunday in Vienna.
Fortunately, I can do more with that data than just make a metagame breakdown. By combining the player-archetype data with the Day 2 standings and results, I was able to calculate the average number of points that each archetype scored on Sunday, as well as matchup percentages between the popular archetypes.
Let's start with the average number of points that each archetype (with 7 or more pilots) scored on the six Swiss rounds on Sunday. 9 points would be the average if no one would draw or drop, but since those things do happen, 9 points is slightly above average.
The big surprise here is that Mono-Black Devotion did not perform well. Indeed, there were 0 Gray Merchant of Asphodel in the entire Top 16 of the event. After Owen Turtenwald took down Grand Prix Albuquerque with Mono-Black Devotion, the players in Vienna came prepared. Some built decks around difficult-to-answer threats like Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Assemble the Legion. Others made only minor tweaks to their decks, such as adding Last Breath to answer Nightveil Specter, or adding an extra copy of Bident of Thassa to turn every Judge's Familiar into a powerful threat. One way or another, this was not the weekend for Mono-Black Devotion.
The decks with the best Day 2 scores were Mono-Blue Devotion, Azorius Control, and Red Devotion, even though none of them posted truly impressive numbers. In fact, almost every deck posted between 8 or 10 points as their average Sunday score, and the differences between the decks were small. This indicates that most of the top Standard archetypes are relatively close in power level and that all of them are tuned against each other. This, in turn, suggests that play skill (and not deck selection) will be the most important factor in who wins a tournament.
Accordingly, for the upcoming PTQ season, I would recommend everyone to pick a deck early and focus on gaining experience with that deck. Learn how to play it well, familiarize yourself with all the interactions, and gain a thorough understanding of all the matchups and sideboarding strategies. Of course, you should keep track of the changing metagame and make a few tweaks to your deck every now and then, but do not “ride the metagame wave” by picking a new, slightly better positioned deck every week. Experience and comfort with a deck is more important. Sure, by sticking to a given deck, you may encounter weekends in which your deck may be poorly positioned in the metagame, but you're still gaining valuable experience. Just bide your time and wait until the metagame becomes filled with favorable matchups again, which is bound to happen eventually. Once the time is right, your experience and knowledge of all the matchups should carry you to victory.
Next, let's take a look at the matchup percentages between the four most popular archetypes on Sunday in Vienna.
I clustered together Mono-Black Devotion and BG Devotion in one category, and I did the same for Esper and Azorius. After all, these decks are relatively similar, and this way we get a larger sample size.
Most of these outcomes are in line with my expectations, although the matchup between Mono-Blue and Rw Devotion is not that lopsided in my experience. Interestingly, the data above suggests that Mono-Blue—especially if it contains multiple copies of Bident of Thassa—has the upper hand against Mono-Black. However, most of the matchups appear very close, which further supports my advice to focus on gaining experience with one particular deck, rather than switching to the best-positioned deck every weekend.
An Update for Red Devotion
The deck that I plan to be playing with until the end of January (i.e., until the release of Born of the Gods) is not coincidentally the deck that I have most experience with: Red Devotion with a splash of green. In other words, the deck that Team ChannelFireball ran at Pro Tour Theros. It had fallen out of favor since the Pro Tour, but I think it is [ccProd Hammer of Purphoros]Hammer[/ccProd] time again. In Vienna, Red Devotion as a whole posted an impressive average of 9.3 match points on Sunday, and it carried two players to the Top 8. Both lost in the quarterfinals, but it was still a breakout performance. The deck remains inherently powerful, as the tag team of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Burning-Tree Emissary allow for explosive and broken draws, irrespective of what other people are playing.
Moreover, the recent surge of Sphinx's Revelation decks means that Red Devotion might actually be fairly well-positioned right now, as these decks tend to have trouble with a fast aggro curve, haste creatures, and tough-to-answer Gods, weapons, and planeswalkers. I would even expect a popularity increase for Esper and Azorius Control in coming weeks, which makes the metagame even more hospitable for Red Devotion. Indeed, Esper and Azorius Control performed well in Vienna, and they are likely a good choice for people who want to beat Mono-Blue Devotion. As waves of Mono-Blue Devotion flooded the top tables in Vienna, I'd expect many people to turn to a deck that has a good matchup against it.
Moreover, the Azorius Control deck from Stanislav Cifka (with Last Breath maindeck and Archangel of Thune in the sideboard) and the Esper Control deck from Robin Dolar (with Dimir Charm maindeck and Pack Rat in the sideboard) were arguably the decks in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Vienna with the most innovative card choices. Last Breath is an excellent answer to Nightveil Specter, Master of Waves, Frostburn Weird, and Pack Rat. Pack Rat itself is a good addition to the sideboard of Esper. It doesn't care about Gainsay and presents an impossible dilemma for Mono-Blue Devotion players: either commit a lot to the board and lose to Supreme Verdict, or hold back creatures and lose when Pack Rat comes down to make an army. In the coming weekend, I would expect many people to try out these new toys and to sleeve up Azorius or Esper Control.
So let's beat them with this list:
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Stomping Ground
4 Temple of Abandon
1 Rakdos Cackler
4 Ash Zealot
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Stormbreath Dragon
2 Purphoros, God of the Forge
2 Hammer of Purphoros
3 Domri Rade
3 Mizzium Mortars
3 Firedrinker Satyr
3 Mistcutter Hydra
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Mizzium Mortars
1 Ember Swallower[/deck]
The main deck is almost exactly the same as the deck I played at the Pro Tour, with a few changes. Before I discuss them, let me give a quick shout-out to Ben Stark, who independently made roughly the same changes as I did.
Compared to the Pro Tour version, Mizzium Mortars replaced Xenagos, the Reveler and one copy of Purphoros, God of the Forge. Although the 4-drops are good against slow control decks, the removal spell is exactly what the deck needed to shore up the matchups against creature decks. Mortars is one of the best possible answers to a board consisting of, say, Cloudfin Raptor, Tidebinder Mage, Thassa, God of the Sea, Master of Waves, and five Elemental tokens. With Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, overloading Mizzium Mortars is easily possible on turn 4 or 5.
By cutting Xenagos, the Reveler, I could also cut the horrendous Gruul Guildgates. Having cut down the number of green sources, I also reduced the number of Domri Rade from 4 to 3. Besides, you never want to draw multiples anyway.
The final addition to the deck is a singleton Rakdos Cackler. The underlying theory is diminishing returns. It can help to begin the game with a Rakdos Cackler on turn one, but the deck is very tight and you don't want to draw them late. The first copy of Rakdos Cackler in the deck increases your chances of drawing at least one Cackler in your seven-card opening hand from 0% to 12%, whereas the second Cackler only increases those chances from 12% to 22%. With those numbers in mind, I didn't want to cut anything else for the second copy. By the way, I chose Rakdos Cackler over Firedrinker Satyr because it is better against the field as a whole, even if the latter is better versus slow control decks. The 2/1 is in the sideboard against those decks.
The sideboard differs greatly from the one I had at the Pro Tour, and that's because Mono-Blue and Mono-Black have taken over the format since. Mistcutter Hydra plus Anger of the Gods is the plan versus Mono-Blue. Firedrinker Satyr plus Skullcrack is the plan versus Mono-Black.
Why Green Over White?
While most Red Devotion players (including Manuel Cecila and Johan Prinzell in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Vienna) are splashing white rather than green, I chose to stick to the original green version. The main reason is the mana base: most white versions only have access to 9-10 white sources, and that's not a lot. You will sit with an uncastable Chained to the Rocks in hand at least once a day. You could play more copies of Boros Guildgate, but additional lands that enter the battlefield tapped can screw up your curve and slow you down. Green, on the other hand, is much easier on the mana for one simple reason: Burning-Tree Emissary. Turn 3 Emissary into Domri Rade is an excellent sequence, and the white version cannot do that. Now don't get me wrong, I like Chained to the Rocks, but until Boros-Tree Emissary gets printed, I think the green version is superior.
And when it comes down to it, Domri Rade may actually be a better fit for this deck than Chained to the Rocks. Domri increases your devotion to red, thereby turning on Purphoros, God of the Forge and Fanatic of Mogis. Domri allows for some insane fighting tricks in combination with Boros Reckoner, providing both tempo and card advantage. Domri digs you deeper toward a game-ending Fanatic of Mogis or Stormbreath Dragon, which is essential in games that go long. And finally, Domri Rade is a huge threat against Esper and Azorius, whereas Chained to the Rocks is typically a dead card.
There are other reasons to play white, of course. Assemble the Legion, which is incredible against Mono-Black Devotion, is one of those reasons. Mono-Black Devotion has no way aside from Thoughtseize to deal with it, and it wins the game in short order—the tokens can even tap down Desecration Demon. However, after the miserable performance of Mono-Black Devotion in Vienna, I would expect some panicked deck switches, so I would focus more on blue decks. Mistcutter Hydra is a great sideboard card versus Mono-Blue Devotion, and it pushes me toward green. Mono-Blue Devotion is not completely without answers to it (they can chump-block with Mutavault or a [ccProd rapid hybridization]Frog Lizard[/ccProd] token, they can bounce it with an overloaded Cyclonic Rift, or they can just win the damage race), but it is certainly very powerful against them.
The green version doesn't have access to Boros Charm. This counter to Supreme Verdict allows you to dump your hand against Esper without having to worry about sweepers. However, I dislike that it forces you to keep two mana open at all times. On turn 4-5, I'd rather jam a planeswalker, Purphoros, Hammer, or other big threat. In a deck filled with threats that cannot be swept by Supreme Verdict anyway, I'm not convinced that Boros Charm is what you want to be doing. I'll stick with green.
Matchups and Sideboarding
Mono-Blue Devotion is not a great matchup, especially if they have Master of Waves, but it's far from unwinnable. You can still go over the top with Stormbreath Dragon (which notably cannot be chumped by Judge's Familiar) and you can still clear the board with Mizzium Mortars. In this matchup, Rakdos Cackler, Hammer of Purphoros, and Purphoros, God of the Forge are not great, so I would board these out for Mistcutter Hydra, Anger of the Gods, and Mizzium Mortars. Because you don't want too many green cards in your deck, you can also cut a copy of Domri Rade when bringing in Mistcutter Hydra. For game three, if you see them foolishly blocking red creatures with Master of Waves after sideboarding, you could bring in Skullcrack to punish them in those situations.
Mono-Black Devotion is a fine matchup. Desecration Demon is one of their best cards, but Domri Rade along with Boros Reckoner or Purphoros, God of the Forge can take it out. They'll take over the long-game with Underworld Connections and Gray Merchant of Asphodel, so be aggressive. The sideboard allows for an even more aggressive approach: come out of the gates quickly with Firedrinker Satyr, and use Skullcrack to prevent them from getting back in the game with Gray Merchant of Asphodel. To make room, I would take out a few copies of Purphoros, God of the Forge (it is difficult to achieve devotion against their discard and creature removal spells), Stormbreath Dragon (they have too many efficient two-mana removal spells), and Frostburn Weird (not exactly aggressive).
Esper or Azorius is a good matchup. Just be careful not to overextend into Supreme Verdict, and hold on to Fanatic of Mogis to pick off Jace, Architect of Thought. Board out all Mizzium Mortars and a few Boros Reckoners, and put in Firedrinker Satyr and Chandra, Pyromaster. I don't like Mistcutter Hydra against Esper, but it is pretty good against Azorius, as they lack Doom Blade and typically have more countermagic.
In the mirror match, it all comes down to board presence. Never let your opponent build up to a big Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx if you can help it, and be careful to play around an overloaded Mizzium Mortars. You don't board much—just put in the last Mizzium Mortars and the Ember Swallower, and take out the singleton Rakdos Cackler and a Hammer of Purphoros.
Against Mono Red Aggro or White Weenie, you take the control role after sideboard. Board out the Rakdos Cackler along with a selection of slow Gods, Hammers, and planeswalkers. Put in every last removal spell plus the humongous Ember Swallower. Preserve your life total whenever you can, sweep their board, and take over the late game. Chandra, Pyromaster comes in against white weenie, but not against mono-red aggro unless they have Foundry Street Denizen or Young Pyromancer.
When everyone has different opinions on decks and matchups, I like to look at the numbers. Those numbers suggest that, at the moment, Red Devotion is performing better than Black Devotion, even if many matchups in Standard appear to be quite close.
May you all look at these nine cards by turn three:
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Fanatic of Mogis
Fanatic of Mogis[/draft]
Thanks for playing.
Join me next time, when I'll give my picks for the worst decks that have ever won a Pro Tour. Unsurprisingly, many of them are are from 1996. When compared to the powerful, synergistic decks in Standard nowadays, deckbuilding has indeed advanced quite a bit over the years.