It’s been more than a month since War of the Spark joined—and shook up—Standard. Following the development of the format over these past weeks was liable to give you whiplash. Every few seconds someone else tweeted that they had just reached Mythic on MTG Arena with some brand-new deck. Trying to keep abreast of the latest craze at all times was like chasing squirrels.
A lot of this is due to the nature of Arena itself. It’s easier to build a new deck than with physical cards and easier to find opponents to get in a meaningful number of matches in shorter time. This is a positive, but it also is a negative because it leads to less clarity regarding the balance of power between the forces of the metagame. Tabletop tournaments, in contrast, have players lock in one deck and stick with it for a whole weekend, which generates more objective and more public data.
You could say the program is much better than cardboard when it comes to options—but cardboard still has the upper hand when it comes to decisions.
I’d like to make public some of this objective data I just mentioned. Thanks to mandatory digital deck list submission, I can now share the full breakdown of what archetypes people played at Grand Prix Kansas City as well as how these decks performed.
The New Standard Metagame
To my knowledge, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa was the first person who pointed out one painfully simple reason why aggressive decks are artificially over-represented on MTG Arena. It is because their games (and thus their matches too) tend to take less time. An aggro player can enter the queue several times in the span that it takes a control player to finish one match. The consequence is “to acknowledge that this illusory representation exists and that the ladder metagame is not a reflection of the tournament metagame.”
This makes information on real-life metagames all the more valuable, especially with regard to the premier aggro deck of our times. Now guess what was the most played archetype at Grand Prix Kansas City …
- 153 Red Aggro (18.0%)
It wouldn’t be technically correct to call the category Mono-Red, although you might as well think of it that way. Very few of these 153 decks included a tiny splash for sideboard cards, mostly Cindervines but also a case of Duress, as well as the rare main-deck Collision // Colossus.
18% isn’t an uncharacteristically large share by the standards of previous Standard formats. At their respective peaks, Golgari Midrange and White Weenie, or later Sultai Midrange, had all claimed larger pieces of the pie. A year ago, the black-red Chainwhirler deck was hovering around an oppressive 30%.
18% is an uncharacteristically large share by the standards of this Standard format, though. Red Aggro was by far the most popular strategy. The next two decks in line didn’t come close to these numbers.
- 86 Command the Dreadhorde decks (10.1%)
- 81 Gruul Beatdown (9.6%)
There was a lot of variation within these archetypes. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus for Gruul yet and Command the Dreadhorde was used in decks with three, four, and five colors. Nevertheless, the similarities outweighed the differences. The Dreadhorde decks all featured the usual explore package, included a team of planeswalkers led by Tamiyo, Collector of Tales, and mainly disagreed on the choice of Teferi or no Teferi.
That leaves us with six different archetypes that garnered more than 5% of the popular vote.
- 35 Grixis Midrange (4.1%)
- 35 Esper Superfriends (4.1%)
- 33 Bant Midrange (3.9%)
- 30 Esper Control (3.5%)
Recent online discourse has told us that traditional Esper Control with counterspells and few planeswalkers was all but dead, after Teferi, Time Raveler entered the fray. Still 30 players were hanging on to the old ways. Their win rate compared to the win rate of the more popular Superfriends upshot should be particularly interesting.
- 25 White Aggro (2.9%)
- 23 Golgari (2.7%)
- 19 Simic/Bant Mass Ramp (2.2%)
- 18 Nexus (2.1%)
White Aggro and Nexus may be the decks that suffered the biggest troop losses in the war. It seems people nowadays rather take all the relevant permanents than try to take all the turns, and they may well be right with that decision. There just are so many spicy permanents to steal around. One resolved Mass Manipulation can translate to victory, whereas a single resolved Nexus of Fate often accomplishes very little.
The relatively high position of Golgari decks gives hope to everyone who is put off by the ever more adventurous mana bases in Standard. Field of Ruin, Assassin’s Trophy, and sometimes Casualties of War aren’t quite Wasteland and Blood Moon levels of punishment, but it’s nice to see that there’s still a cost associated with nonbasic lands.
- 16 Rakdos Aggro (1.9%)
- 14 Mardu Aristocrats (1.7%)
- 11 Dimir Control (1.3%)
- 10 Feather, the Redeemed (1.2%)
- 9 Mono-Blue Tempo (1.1%)
Okay, so maybe Mono-Blue Tempo took the biggest hit with War of the Spark. Judith, the Scourge Diva on the other hand, got a raise out of it. Here’s an example of the surprisingly popular Rakdos Aggro:
5-3 at GP Kansas City
4 Blood Crypt 4 Dragonskull Summit 1 Memorial to Folly 7 Mountain (343) 6 Swamp (339) 4 Dreadhorde Butcher 4 Fireblade Artist 4 Footlight Fiend 3 Grim Initiate 3 Gutterbones 4 Judith, the Scourge Diva 4 Midnight Reaper 4 Priest of Forgotten Gods 3 Rix Maadi Reveler 1 Chandra, Fire Artisan 4 Heartfire Sideboard 2 Bedevil 2 Chandra, Fire Artisan 3 Duress 3 Moment of Craving 2 The Elderspell 3 Tibalt, Rakish Instigator
I picked this mildly successful version to show off because it’s very typical of the archetype. I also couldn’t find any version that did better.
We’ve crossed into the land of fringe archetypes now, a list headed by former format top dog Sultai Midrange. Technically, this is the deck that saw the steepest decline since the antebellum era. Though that isn’t an accurate description of what happened. Sultai simply evolved to incorporate Command the Dreadhorde and Tamiyo, a memo that seven players just didn’t get.
- 7 Sultai Midrange (0.8%)
- 5 Orzhov Knights (0.6%)
- 5 Jeskai Control (0.6%)
- 4 Selesnya Tokens (0.5%)
- 4 Naya Beatdown (0.5%)
- 4 Mono-Green Ramp (0.5%)
- 4 Izzards (Izzet Wizards) (0.5%)
- 4 Izzet Drakes (0.5%)
The same likely applies to the people holding on to Izzet Drakes or classic Jeskai Control, decks largely replaced by their new-and-improved Phoenix and Superfriends siblings.
Mono-Green Ramp is an interesting case to me. If you got most of your news about Standard from the highly selective self-reporting of Arena results across the web—as I admit I did—you might think that the deck was a bigger metagame factor than it is. Arena really helps exploring options.
The Win Rates
Across Day 1, Day 2 and the Top 8, Grand Prix Kansas City’s players completed a total of 2,900 actual matches, meaning: two players entered, one walked away victorious. Which is to say, the following excludes both byes and draws.
- Simic/Bant Mass Ramp won 125 of 194 matches (64.4%)
- Gruul Beatdown won 395 of 689 matches (57.3%)
- Orzhov Knights won 23 of 41 matches (56.1%)
- Command the Dreadhorde decks won 353 of 648 matches (54.5%)
64% is impressive and by far the highest of any one archetype in the field. Winning at this rate in 194 matches also makes for a highly significant sample (p<0.0001). There’s no “but” here.
Gruul also had a very strong tournament. The Knights tell a different story. Their ratio of wins to losses is all but meaningless in the face of absolute totals this low. Four of five Knight players dropped out of the tournament on Day 1, leaving Sir Reynner Barbosa de Assis Silveira to go 9-6.
Reynner Barbosa de Assis Silveira
4 Godless Shrine 4 Isolated Chapel 1 Memorial to Folly 7 Plains (331) 4 Swamp (339) 3 Unclaimed Territory 2 Benalish Marshal 4 Dauntless Bodyguard 4 Knight of Grace 4 Knight of Malice 2 Midnight Reaper 3 Paladin of Atonement 4 Valiant Knight 3 Gideon Blackblade 2 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 2 Cast Down 4 History of Benalia 1 Mortify 1 Prison Realm 1 Unbreakable Formation Sideboard 1 Arguel's Blood Fast/Temple of Aclazotz 1 Command the Dreadhorde 1 Despark 2 Duress 2 Gideon's Sacrifice 1 Kaya's Wrath 2 Oath of Kaya 1 Settle the Wreckage 2 Teyo, the Shieldmage 1 The Elderspell 1 Unbreakable Formation
Sultai/Four-/Five-Color Dreadhorde’s record is significant as well, and then there’s this huge chunk of middling results that aren’t:
- White Aggro won 92 of 175 matches (52.6%)
- Arclight Phoenix won 171 of 333 matches (51.4%)
- Jeskai Superfriends won 191 of 376 matches (50.8%)
- Nexus won 67 of 132 matches (50.8%)
- Feather, the Redeemed won 34 of 67 matches (50.7%)
- Dimir Control won 37 of 73 matches (50.7%)
- Golgari won 82 of 163 matches (50.3%)
- Esper Hero won 205 of 408 matches (50.2%)
- Mono-Blue Tempo won 31 of 62 matches (50.0%)
- Naya Ramp won 13 of 26 matches (50.0%)
- Jeskai Control won 17 of 35 matches (48.6%)
- Bant Midrange won 99 of 204 matches (48.5%)
- Red Aggro won 488 of 1012 matches (48.2%)
- Esper Superfriends won 104 of 219 matches (47.5%)
- Rakdos Aggro won 42 of 90 matches (46.7%)
- Grixis Midrange won 103 of 228 matches (45.2%)
- Sultai Midrange won 22 of 49 matches (44.9%)
The most common deck often has lackluster results, and when a successful deck becomes more widely adopted, its win rate typically drops. One explanation is that others gear up to beat it. An alternative or supplementary theory holds that a broader player base generally encompasses a higher percentage of weaker players who distort the aggregate. The disconnect between the popularity and the performance of aggressive red decks, for example Modern Burn, serves as a perennial exhibit in this debate.
Does it apply to Red Aggro in Standard? I looked at the deck’s performance over the course of Round 9 through 15 for an answer, assuming players who made the 6-2 cut must be reasonably competent. It didn’t help them though. With a win rate of 49.6%, Red Aggro only did marginally better then than it did overall. So no, the stereotypical “noob on mono-red” didn’t drive an otherwise promising record into the ground. Red Aggro simply lost a little more than its fair share of matches, fair and square.
Finally, Esper Control, Mardu Aristocrats, Mono-Green Ramp, and Izzet Drakes again achieved significant results—significantly bad, that is.
- Esper Control won 70 of 169 matches (41.4%)
- Izzards won 6 of 17 matches (35.3%)
- Mardu Aristocrats won 23 of 67 matches (34.3%)
- Mono-Green Ramp won 5 of 18 matches (27.8%)
- Izzet Drakes won 2 of 18 matches (11.1%)
Click to expand