The Mythic Invitational is happening this weekend and I wanted to write about my preparation, introduce the metagame, and talk about the format and the decks we chose to play.
The Duo Standard format is unusual. You bring two BO1 Standard decks and they can be as similar or different as you want. For game 1, each player gets assigned one of the decks at random and flips a coin to see who plays first. In game 2, the person who lost the first coin flip gets to play first and both players use the second deck. If it gets to game 3, there is another coin flip for play/draw choice, and then you also get to choose which deck you want to play.
The one key takeaway from this is that you actually never control the matchups. The first two are always random, and unless exactly one person registered the same deck twice, then you don’t know what the matchup will be for game 3 either. This means that you can’t really bring an anti-something deck, because you are never actually guaranteed to play against that deck.
I started by writing down a list of cards I thought would attack the format from a different angle. For example, when the metagame consists mostly of Esper, Mono-Red, Mono-White, other aggro decks, and basically no midrange, the one noticeable difference from normal Standard is that there is no Vivien Reid. So outside of counterspells and Conclave Tribunal, no one can really interact with artifacts.
I started with the deck Eli Kassis used to win GP New Jersey and added Absorbs, Hallowed Fountains, and Amulets. Granted, that deck comes from a completely different format, but it was a good place to start because it’s a unique construction.
As much as I wanted this deck to work, it had some flaws. Esper can’t counter Banefire, but they can still take it out of your hand with Thought Erasure. Exiling five different casting costs for Gateway also isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you are being pressured by the aggressive decks. And lastly, Deafening Clarion is just not reliable in this BO1 format where some of the key cards are Venerated Loxodon, Rekindling Phoenix, and Steel Leaf Champion.
I was happy with Banefire though and wanted to put it in an aggressive deck. My next idea was an R/B deck that would play value and hard-to-remove creatures, splash black, and finish my opponent with Banefire.
Rix Maadi Reveler allows you to play some very narrow cards that aren’t great in every situation, like Sorcerous Spyglass. It’s an extremely strong play against Esper on turn 2, but pretty much a dead card against any of the aggressive mono-colored decks. In this format you can’t really afford to have dead cards in your deck, but Reveler allows you to do that to some degree. It also refills your hand later in the game for its spectacle cost. Carnival // Carnage is the other part of the splash by being a cheap removal spell against aggro, while also being a decent card against Esper when you can make them discard two and take 3 damage, which plays well into your Banefire plan. Dire Fleet Daredevil is amazing at flashbacking cards like Thought Erasure and removal spells from your opponent’s graveyard. It also allows you to cast Mastermind’s Acquisition, so make sure you build a sideboard. The options are truly endless there, especially if you play a bunch of Treasure Maps and can get any color mana from the Treasures. Overall, I quite liked this deck.
Lets take a look at the most popular decks now.
The deck is fast, efficient, and gets away with only playing 18 lands by abusing the algorithm. Experimental Frenzy can go over the top of other decks. Risk Factor is good when people are choosing to play cards like Cast Down over Moment of Craving. This can happen when the format is full of big creature decks like R/G, but in general, I prefer the Frenzy version. The best part about the deck is that your plan is always the same against every deck and your removal can be pointed at your opponent, so you never have any dead cards in any matchup. Chainwhirler gives you a good chance at beating the White Weenie and Llanowar Elves decks. Overall, I can definitely see why this deck is so popular.
The second most played deck in the metagame.
Esper preys on any kind of midrange deck and hopes to beat aggro by having a lot of sweepers (Cry of the Carnarium, Kaya’s Wrath) and incidental life gain (Moment of Craving, Vraska’s Contempt, Absorb). If you survive the early game and get Teferi going, it’s usually game over.
Against other non-blue control decks, you have a huge advantage in Teferi, Azcanta, and counterspells. The mirror is a little bit random, because both players have so many dead cards in all the removal spells. Whoever gets an Azcanta or Teferi going usually runs away with the game pretty easily. Beating a flipped Azcanta is almost impossible.
Early on, I liked Kaya, but eventually realized that it doesn’t actually do all that much. It’s very situational. In some cases it’s perfect for a situation where you want to get out of range of burn spells, but in other situations you are being attacked by a board full of creatures and it’s only going to gain 2 life and die. Even in the mirror, it makes it harder for your opponent to flip Azcanta, but it’s not a real threat. I think one copy is fine, but I wouldn’t play more.
Don’t forget that Kaya can kill any permanent. It sometimes comes up that you want to kill Curious Obsession with it instead of the creature, so that you can’t get blown out by Dive Down. About a week ago, all the Esper decks started playing Mastermind’s Acquisition to be a little bit more flexible. It’s important especially for long games where your opponent tries to get rid of your Teferis and leave you without win conditions. This is what an average sideboard looks like.
There are many situations these 15 cards can help you solve. Ethereal Absolution is your go-to card against White Weenie, especially if they have a flipped Adanto. Sanguine Sacrament means you can never get decked, even if you get hit by Unmoored Ego for Teferi. Likewise, Clear the Mind can shuffle your graveyard back into your library. The Mirari Conjecture means you can go off by casting Mastermind’s Acquisition multiple times. Settle the Wreckage is perfect on turn 6 with a Teferi in play against an aggressive deck because the untap-two-lands trigger allows you to cast 8 mana worth of spells. There are plenty of other options, like Mass Manipulation, In Bolas’s Clutches, Field of Ruin, Devious Cover-Up, and Cleansing Nova. Don’t forget that you can also just get a card from your deck. Sometimes you will want to grab a Teferi.
The other version of Esper is one without Teferi, but instead focuses on Dovin’s Acuity and Mastermind’s Acquisition. I think this deck basically started as a meme deck from BBD and actually turned into a very good deck that essentially plays no win conditions outside of accessing its sideboard with Mastermind’s Acquisition. You usually get something like Unmoored Ego for their Teferi or Mirari’s Conjecture to start going off, and then reshuffle your graveyard into your deck with Clear the Mind to eventually make your opponent run out of cards. I didn’t play with this deck all that much because every game takes an hour and I just don’t have the patience for it.
You can build the deck to be good against aggro with Moment of Craving, Cry of the Carnarium, and all the other life gain, or you can make it good against Esper by playing some number of Negates and Absorbs instead. I don’t think you can beat both decks, though. It’s a very complicated deck to play and play against, so I can definitely see some number of good players bringing it this weekend, but I knew very early that I wouldn’t be one of them. It’s a good deck, but I prefer playing a card like Teferi that can snowball and win the game by itself. I expect this deck to be fairly popular though, especially because all of the rounds at the Invitational are timed at 45 minutes and then it becomes sudden death, which sometimes turns turn-2 Revitalize into a game-winning play.
The third most popular deck.
Mono-White is also able to get away with only playing 18 lands and hopes to curve out 1-drops in to Venerated Loxodon and Unbreakable Formation. The only problem is that it’s pretty weak to Goblin Chainwhirler and Runaway Steam-Kin + Experimental Frenzy, and also to Cry of the Carnarium and Kaya’s Wrath out of Esper. Even if you flip an Adanto early, you can still very easily lose to a sweeper followed by Teferi into more removal. Flipped Azcanta also beats flipped Adanto most of the time. Most of the stats we had and that I’ve seen from ladder showed that Mono-White had the best win rate of all the decks, which surprised me, given that it’s weak to the two most played decks in the format. It’s not that you can’t win, but beating a turn-3 Chainwhirler or Cry of the Carnarium isn’t easy. The upside is that you beat basically everything else.
In my opinion, Golgari is better than Sultai in BO1 because of the mana base. In Sultai, you have to Shock yourself a lot, and starting the game at 16 life in a field full of aggro doesn’t sound all that great. Golgari loses Hydroid Krasis, but its replacement, Carnage Tyrant, is actually better in this format because it’s excellent against Esper. Wildgrowth Walkers make your aggro matchups good, but Esper is tough. You have a ton of dead cards against control, like Cast Down and Ravenous Chupacabra. Playing a bunch of Assassin’s Trophies instead is horrible against aggro, because you never want to have to kill their Steam-Kin on turn 2 and give them an extra land.
This deck is basically trying to be a little bigger than Mon-Red by playing better and bigger creatures, but you are paying a big price for it by having an unstable mana base. You can either play the mostly red version with Chainwhirler, mostly green with Steel Leaf Champion, or neither, and play Llanowar Elves and Rekindling Phoenix. All of those versions struggle with mana issues, and Unclaimed Territory usually only makes it worse because your creatures all have 10+ different creature types. The upside is that Gruul Spellbreaker is excellent both against Esper and against Mono-Red, and so are cards like Rekindling Phoenix or Nullhide Ferox. My guess is that this might be the 4th or 5th most popular deck at the Invitational.
As you can see, playing Goblin Chainwhirler and three Forests is not ideal. The other option is to play Gruul Guildgate, which is okay on turn 1, but imagine drawing it when you need your 3rd or 4th land to play your cards on curve. Another issue is that if you choose to play Llanowar Elves, you also open yourself to get even more destroyed by Wrath effects and Goblin Chainwhirler.
Cards like Wildgrowth Walker and Nullhide Ferox are excellent against aggro, but again, bad against Kaya’s Wrath. If you could play 24 Taigas, this deck would be amazing and would probably be the best deck in the format. As is, I think the mana issues are just too great, and I am not going to play this deck.
Kazuren Temur Red
This is a deck created by Magic Arena player “Kazuren_” who I remember running into on the ladder almost a month ago. I wondered what deck played Temur lands, Treasure Map, and Goblin Chainwhirler. Eventually, we started talking and he shared his list with me. I was planning on playing it on my stream the next day, but was excited enough to try a new deck that I jumped on Magic Arena immediately to jam some games. After playing for a few hours, it was clear to me that this deck had game both against Esper and against aggro. It was basically doing everything I wanted my R/B deck to do, but better. Hydroid is amazing at making sure you don’t flood out and you still get to play Banefire. I made some changes that seemed obvious to me, like cutting Lava Coil (mulligan against Esper) for Lightning Strike, and Skarrgan Hellkite for Siege-Gang Commander (harder to deal with).
I played a set of games against Mono-Red and was mostly winning unless they stuck an early Frenzy. I was even beating Esper by burning all of their win conditions with Banefire and other burn spells. Mono-White was a good matchup too because of Chainwhirler, Phoenix, and cheap removal, even if your deck had some clunkers against them like Treasure Map. I liked the deck so much that I thought it would be better to not reveal this deck publicly and work on it with the rest of the team instead. This plan didn’t work out very well, as Kazuren obviously talked to all of the other streamers as well, looking for feedback on the deck. Over the next few days, every MPL player was streaming with it. We decided to play some more against it, and figured out that if we added Mastermind’s Acquisition to our Esper deck and reshuffled our deck with Clear the Mind, their plan of running us out of win conditions didn’t work. I still think it’s a pretty good deck that might be fairly popular at the Invitational, and props to Kazuren for coming up with something brand new that can actually win against all the popular decks in the metagame.
The idea is that it should beat up on Esper, but in reality, it’s a 50-50 matchup, mostly decided by who plays first. You have to take into consideration that BO1 and BO3 are very different. You can’t just bring Autumn’s PT-winning deck into this format. Essence Capture will too often be a complete blank, for example, because Esper has no targets for it and it’s about 25% of the metagame. I tried to change the deck a little bit by running more hard counters instead (Negate, Sinister Sabotage, Lookout Dispersal), and including Faerie Duelist to have a better chance against aggro, but I was still not beating Mono-White or turn 3 Chainwhirler. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Mono-Blue for BO1.
This deck has very lopsided matchups. You are pretty good against control because you get a ton of mana advantage with Wilderness Reclamation, but it’s not all that great against aggro. If you are looking to beat Esper, this deck probably has the best chance of doing that, but you better hope you don’t get paired against White Weenie. This was another deck I didn’t spend too much time on and when Matt Nass said he didn’t want to play it, I moved on.
In the end, the two decks I picked were the Esper Control and Mono-Red Frenzy. At first I wanted to play double Esper, but Paulo convinced me with the argument that you don’t want your opponent to know what deck you are playing game 3, since that makes their deck choices and mulligan decisions much easier. I like both decks just fine. They aren’t broken or anything, but you aren’t going to find such a deck in this format anyway.
Overall, I think BO1 is a great addition to Magic and a lot of people appreciate this way of playing a fast game of Magic without having to worry about sideboards or the game taking too long. For casual play and Arena, it seems perfect. But for competitive tournaments, I would prefer sticking to BO3. Mulliganing, sideboarding, and deckbuilding decisions all make Magic the best game ever created and keep it fun and interesting. BO1 is a fun way to play, but takes a lot of this away from the game play. The already big advantage of being on the play also gets amplified even more by every deck starting with a stacked hand and curving out perfectly. I’m hoping that the Invitational will be an amazing show and that BO1 Magic will keep getting supported in some way, but I am also excited to go back to “regular” Magic and play with sideboards again.
Thanks for reading and make sure you tune in this weekend!