Of Avatars and Overlap

Posted in Feature on August 15, 2007

By Frank Karsten

I was highly surprised by the amount of responses I got after mentioning the old Shandalar game in last week's installment. Apparently, there are still many players out there who loved that game and who started playing again last week. Despite the mediocre AI, it was so much fun to make crazy decks and to constantly scrounge for new cards. It was easy to get addicted and waste a whole week on that game. Strangely enough, to me it often seems like the games that were made a decade ago are still more fun to play than games that are made for the present day (this comes from someone who was also happily playing Final Fantasy VII last week).

Time Spiral Block Constructed Online Metagame

Last week and this week there are no Constructed Premier Events, because they have been replaced by the Tenth Edition release events. So I have no Premier Events from last week to report on, but I can still bring you the online Time Spiral Block Constructed metagame from two weeks ago. I skipped over those last week because I spent my entire article featuring Masters Edition. So this metagame update may be a week too late, but I don't think that really matters as there are no Constructed Premier Events this week anyway, and I can still show you in which direction the online Premier Event metagame was heading prior to the release event break. Thanks go out to Josh Clark for collecting the event results.

Deck namePopularity percentageChange since last time
1. Mono-Blue Pickles34%19%
2. Blue-Black-X Teachings Control16%-11%
3. White-Green Tarmogoyf Aggro9%-1%
4. White-Green-Red Tarmogoyf6%4%
5. Black-Red-Blue Void Control6%1%
6. Red Deck Wins5%4%
7. White-Green-Blue Blink Goyf4%-2%
8. Blue-White Pickles4%0%
9. Blue-Green Tarmogoyf Aggro4%0%
10. White Weenie3%1%
11. Poison Slivers3%3%
12. Red-Green Tarmogoyf Aggro2%2%
13. Blue-Black-Red Reanimator1%-2%
14. Turbo Relic Control1%0%
15. Black-Green-White Discard Goyf0%-6%

The results of last month make one thing clear: Mono-Blue Pickles and Blue-Black-X Teachings are the two defining decks of the format, and the further we advance in the Block Constructed season, the more control heavy the metagame has become. Mono-Blue Pickles and Blue-Black-X Teachings have been trading first and second places all month long, but right now it seems that Mono-Blue Pickles is the more popular deck. In every Premier Event Top 8, roughly one third of the decks were Mono-Blue Pickles.

Vesuvan Shapeshifter
I certainly can't fault you for choosing Mono-Blue Pickles, but I cannot support Mike Flores's recent assessments. In his latest article, Flores claims that "Mono-Blue Pickles is the hands-down best deck of this format" and that Mono-Blue Pickles is a nearly impossible matchup for Blue-Black-X Teachings. I have to respectfully disagree. Based on my experiences, the matchup between two players of equal skill piloting Mono-Blue Pickles and Blue-Black-X Teachings is a close 50-50 (but it is highly dependent on playing skill). At the very least, Mono-Blue Pickles is not the clear favorite in my opinion. I still consider Blue-Black-X Teachings to be the most powerful deck in the format, since it runs the strongest cards available, including Damnation. However, no matter which deck you decide to play, ensure you have enough good cards against Mono-Blue Pickles in your deck, such as Vesuvan Shapeshifter to leech their unmorphing abilities, Riftsweeper against their Ancestral Visions, etcetera.

Standard Nationals Season Metagame

The last month has given us a lot of information. Four National Championships were featured in the Tournament Center coverage: the U.S. Nationals, the British Nationals, the Italian Nationals (linked page is in Italian), and the Australian Nationals. On top of that, we had the Kentucky Open and the MSS Championships. There is a lot of information to be gained on the Standard format with Tenth Edition, by looking at the Top 8 decklists, overall metagame breakdowns, and Last Chance Qualifier-winning decklists. The U.S. Nationals coverage even showed all decklists that scored at least 12 points over the seven rounds of Standard!

But information itself is rather empty; we need knowledge. My own National Championships is in a few weeks, so I wanted to figure out the Standard format for myself. I want to know what kind of metagame I can expect, and what the best performing decks were. I thought for a while on how to tackle that problem, and every simple solution I considered has its problems. The overall metagame of all Nationals will not be an accurate estimate of how the Standard metagame will look in a few weeks, because of the tendency of players to copy and focus on Top 8 decks. At the same time, just looking at the Top 8 decks of all Nationals doesn't work optimally either, because then you may miss some vital decks that finished outside of the Top 8, but that posted a great Standard record nonetheless. Furthermore, merely finishing in the Top 8 is not a statement of a deck's strength, because Nationals are multi-format tournaments. You could easily 7-0 the draft portion, go 3-4 in Standard, and lose in the Quarterfinals. Your deck would still be in the Top 8 spotlights, but that overall 3-5 Standard record is not satisfactory.

Thirst_for_KnowledgeHow to get a reasonable estimate of how the Standard metagame is going to shape up like? I adopted the following solution to envelop all the information that the Nationals season has thrown at us. I give points to every deck based on total Standard records. This way, decks that score high in my tally are the decks that were either highly popular or that posted remarkably good records, both of which indicate that you can expect this deck a lot in future tournaments. Every deck gets an amount of points equal to its total amount of match wins in the Standard portion minus its total amount of match losses in the Standard portion, with draws being worth zero points (so, for example, if you go 5-1-1 in Standard and lose in the quarterfinals, then you get 3 points). These Standard records can be easily calculated, using the round-by-round standings per player. I give 2 to 4 points to a deck that wins a Grinders/LCQ, depending on its expected size. Furthermore, I allot half a point per deck per player that runs it in a Nationals tournament if I had not already counted him in the Top 8 or otherwise, in order to add some overall metagame information. And eventually I divide every deck's points by the grand total to arrive at an understandable percentage number. Because the tournament coverage of some Nationals held more information than others (in particular, the U.S. Nationals coverage contained way more decklists than any other), the popularity percentages I construed are relatively influenced by the tournaments I checked as follows: Kentucky Open 8%; Australian Nationals 15%; Italian Nationals 7%; British Nationals 18%; U.S. Nationals including MSS Champs 51%. (Note that these don't add up to 100% due to rounding.)

Deck namePopularity Percentage
1. Rakdos Aggro■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■ (11%)
2. Blue-White-Red Blink■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%)
3. Angelfire Control■■■■■ ■■ (7%)
4. Gruul Aggro■■■■■ ■■ (7%)
5. Red Deck Wins splash Goyf■■■■■ ■■ (7%)
6. Solar Flare Control■■■■■ (5%)
7. Blue-White-Black Touch-Blink■■■■■ (5%)
8. Project X■■■■■ (5%)
9. Blue-White-Green Blink■■■■ (4%)
10. Blue-White-Red Touch-Blink■■■■ (4%)
11. NarcoBridge■■■■ (4%)
12. OmniChord■■■ (3%)
13. Loam Assault■■■ (3%)
14. Green-Black Goyf Rack■■■ (3%)
15. Selesnya Glare Aggro■■■ (3%)
16. Black-Blue-X Korlash Control■■■ (3%)
17. Blue-Black Teferi Control■■ (2%)
18. Blue-Red Aussie Perilous Storm■■ (2%)
19. Mono-Green Aggro■ (1%)
20. Rakdos10■ (1%)

So that's how I fabricated my own Standard metagame table. Rakdos Aggro and Blue-White-Red Blink appear to be the defining decks to watch out for so far. Also note that the deck names in the above table work as a link that takes you to a representative decklist of that particular archetype. I put all these in a new quick-reference deck-o-pedia thread that is the all-in-one-place popular Standard metagame for the 2007 Nationals season, because the old deck-o-pedia thread got a bit clogged up. I chose decklists for each archetype based on a combination of best record and most average version, so the decks that are shown are good representations of what to expect in an average version.

A Further Dissection of the Standard Metagame

Let's divide these decks into the main categories aggro, control, and combo. The numbers in brackets are equal to the corresponding popularity percentage from the above table (note that all percentages together don't add up to 100% due to rounding errors and because I left off low tier decks with 1% or less).

AGGRO (33%)CONTROL (43%)COMBO (14%)
Rakdos Aggro (11%)Blue-White-Red Blink (10%)Project X (5%)
Gruul Aggro (7%)Angelfire Control (7%)NarcoBridge (4%)
RDW splash Goyf (7%)Solar Flare Control (5%)Loam Assault (3%)
Green-Black Goyf Rack (3%)Blue-White-Black Touch-Blink (5%)Blue-Red Perilous Storm (2%)
Selesnya Glare Aggro (3%)Blue-White-Green Blink (4%)
Mono-Green Aggro (1%)Blue-White-Red Touch-Blink (4%)
Rakdos10 (1%)OmniChord (3%)
Blue-Black-X Korlash Control (3%)
Blue-Black Teferi Control (2%)

Some decks, like Mono-Green Aggro and NarcoBridge, are relatively stand-alone, i.e. you can't mistake them for any other deck. However, the distinction between various other decks is very thin. There is a large amount of overlap between many decks, and it took me a while before I had figured it all out. I'll try to explain how to tell all these decks apart (I made some diagrams that show overlap, but this is merely to illustrate, not an exact measure of how much they overlap).

In the aggro department, the difference between Rakdos, Gruul, and Red Deck Wins splash Goyf (I didn't include Rakdos10 here yet) is rather small. They all start out with the same core: 4 Incinerate, 4 Char, 4 Rift Bolt, 4 Seal of Fire, 4 Mogg Fanatic, and 20-23 land. The main difference lies in the creature suite and the remaining slots. Rakdos typically runs Giant Solifuge, Dark Confidant and Rakdos Guildmage along with extra burn in Demonfire and Hit. Gruul typically runs Llanowar Elves, Scab-Clan Mauler, Tarmogoyf, and Troll Ascetic, as well as some Treetop Village in the lands department. Red Deck Wins splash Tarmogoyf shies away from all those green creatures (save Tarmogoyf) and instead has a Greater Gargadon theme interwoven, with Mogg War Marshall and Keldon Marauders for obvious synergies, and it cuts some lands to fit in some additional red one drops for quicker pressure.

Where does Craig Jones's deck that won U.K. Nationals fit in here, you might ask? Sigh. Well, to complicate matters even further, that deck is exactly in between Red Deck Wins splash Goyf and Gruul; it is a hybrid that has the characteristics of both. But Prof's deck was a one-of-a-kind, so I didn't bother making a new category just for him—two categories for the various Red-Green Aggro variants is enough already—and I just divided his points equally between the two existing Red-Green Aggro deck archetypes.

And lastly, we have Rakdos10, whose name refers to taking 10 points of damage when you flip Greater Gargadon with Dark Confidant. This deck is a mix of regular Rakdos (as it uses Dark Confidant) and Red Deck Wins splash Tarmogoyf (as it uses Greater Gargadon, Keldon Marauders, and Mogg War Marshal). However, Rakdos10 only packs 2 Chars for the burn department, instead of the typical 16 burn spells that the other red decks like to pack. In the place of the burn slots, it has cards that exploit the Gargadon synergies further, with Threaten and Epochrasite to provide more food for the 9/7 guy. It also includes Scorched Rusalka, which can substitute for Greater Gargadon.

The overlap is even crazier in the control decks category. I'll try to make sense of it all; let me start with the three distinct blue-white-red archetypes. Pretty much all of them run Court Hussar, Lightning Angel, Remand or Lightning Helix, Azorius Signet, and a similar mana base, but that is where the similarities stop. Angelfire takes a traditional control route, using Wrath of God, Compulsive Research, and finishers like Aeon Chronicler and Demonfire. Blue-White-Red Blink, on the other hand, tries to exploit Momentary Blink with creatures like Riftwing Cloudskate and Venser, Shaper Savant and packs Grand Arbiter to give the deck a mana denial angle. Blue-White-Red Touch-Blink takes this philosophy even further and removes Lightning Helix, Remand, or finishers such as Numot, the Devastator from the Blue-White-Red Blink deck to add Aethermage's Touch and Bogardan Hellkite (a nice combo; they need to be together).

There are two different blue-white-black decks. One is very similar to the Blue-Red-White Touch-Blink deck; it just has Skeletal Vampire and Angel of Despair instead of Lightning Angel and Bogardan Hellkite. The other (Solar Flare) is very similar to the Angelfire deck; it once again has Skeletal Vampire and Angel of Despair instead of Lightning Angel and Demonfire, as well as Castigate instead of Lightning Helix.

Wall of Roots
That wraps up the hardest part as far as deck distinctions and similarities go. The remainder of the control decks portion is all played less than the previously mentioned decks. We have two blue-white-green decks: one uses the Momentary Blink synergies in similar fashion as the blue-red-white Blink deck (in comparison, the green version has Loxodon Hierarch and Mystic Snake instead of Grand Arbiter and Lightning Helix for even more Blinking fun, Tarmogoyf as a cheap threat instead of Lightning Angel, and Wall of Roots and Edge of Autumn instead of Signets) and the other is the deck that Luis Scott-Vargas used to win U.S. Nationals. Omnichord may also be a blue-white-green deck, but apart from Wall of Roots and Loxodon Hierarch it has little in common with the Blue-White-Green Blink deck. It actually looks more similar to Blue-Black Teferi, as it also has a respectable counter suite and likes to play Teferi at end of turn. Lastly, Blue-Black Teferi is kind of similar to Blue-Black-X Korlash, as they both like their black kill spells and blue card draw.

Onwards to the Vanguard Avatars

Tenth Edition is already on sale in the Magic Online store and the release events and draft queues are underway (check here for more information). Tenth Edition also brings two new Vanguard avatars, which I will introduce shortly. But first I will do an overview of the Standard with Vanguard metagame as seen in the online Premier Events in the last month (this Constructed format grants abilities to the Magic Online avatars; check here for more information including a list of all available avatars).

Prior to Tenth Edition, there are three tier one avatars: Mirri the Cursed, Oni of Wild Places, and Heartwood Storyteller.

The Oni of Wild Places decks come in various forms. There are aggro builds that are very similar to the deck I talked about many months ago. There are combo builds that aim for a big storm count with the Empty the Warrens / Haze of Rage combo, which works quite well if all your creatures have haste. And there are NarcoBridge builds—similar to the Standard version—that like to active their Magus of the Bazaar a turn faster and that don't even need Flame-Kin Zealot to attack with hasted zombie tokens. An Oni of Wild Places deck can offer very fast turn-two kill draws and has a good matchup against any control deck or cute deck that isn't specifically tuned to beat it. It also has a fairly strong game against most Heartwood Storyteller decks, but it has a tough time against most Mirri the Cursed decks.

The Heartwood Storyteller decks are based on the new breakout Future Sight avatar, and they are mostly direct ports from Standard Blue-Black-White Touch-Blink decks and Standard Blue-Red-White Touch-Blink decks. The game plan of these decks already resolves around quickly getting creatures like Riftwing Cloudskate in play that can bounce the opponent's lands, and when you start the game with a pseudo Grand Arbiter Augustin IV in play that is an obvious improvement. Once you start going, your opponent will never have more than three lands in play and his cards will be more expensive to cast at the same time. That makes it more or less impossible for him to win. This deck is a solid all-round good choice. It doesn't perform particularly well against Oni of Wild Places decks or Mirri the Cursed decks, but it has a lot of synergy, it is paired with the perfect avatar, and it is easy to make just by copying a Standard decklist. I recently spoke with Jesse Hawkins, who won a Vanguard event with a blue-black-white build, but he said that the blue-white-red builds are looking more appealing since cards like Skeletal Vampire don't have much of an effect.

The Mirri the Cursed decks are a special breed. According to online player "a small child"—who has 3 finals appearances in his last 5 Vanguard tournaments, which should give his claims credibility—it is undoubtedly the best deck right now. This is the deck he used to win the latest Standard with Vanguard tournament:

a small child's Mirri the Cursed

Download Arena Decklist

The goal of this deck is to get out a lot of creatures fast and then start controlling the opponent's board by pinging with the avatar's ability. The best card in the deck, for that reason, is Wall of Roots; it gives you mana and simultaneously taps for Mirri's ability. Ornithopters are important as well; they give you another creature to start pinging right away, which is crucial against Oni decks or other Mirri decks with lots of mana elves. The weakest cards in the deck right now are the card draw creatures (Ohran Vipers, Shadowmage Infiltrators, and Aeon Chroniclers). They ensure a steady flow of creatures throughout the game against control decks, but there aren't many control decks around. As far as the sideboard goes, the black creature kill cards are good against the Oni decks and the mirror.

I like this deck. It has a solid game plan, and it works well in a metagame filled with cheap creatures. As for possible updates, first off Persecute is leaving due to the Tenth Edition rotation, but the Dragonstorm deck it was meant against also left. Mana Leak can be replaced by Rune Snag (not Remand, since a lot of the decks play free spells and the control decks have avatars with extra life, so you need hard counters). I would like to add a couple cheap mana guys in the maindeck to get a critical mass of creatures out on the table even faster. The creator of the above deck suggested Utopia Mycon, which seems okay. Imagine you play the mirror and you make this 0/2 while your opponent plays Llanowar Elves; guess who survives. The mana base could also be improved; less black mana and more blue mana is needed. Even though the deck is very powerful, the thing about Mirri that turns a lot of people off are the mirror matches, because so much depends on the coinflip. The turn-one Birds of Paradise of the player who plays first will shoot down the turn-one Birds of Paradise of the player who draws first. Decks that don't run small cheap creatures or that do run mass removal effects should be able to stand up to Mirri. Consider for example control decks with Bogardan Hellkite and the Braids avatar.

Tenth Edition—or rather, the exit of Ninth Edition and Seething Song in particular—means that the Dragonstorm decks with the Prodigal Sorcerer avatar (also a fairly popular choice in the previous months) are pretty much dead. The Mirri the Cursed decks were pretty bad versus Dragonstorm, while the Heartwood Storyteller decks were very good versus Dragonstorm.

A lot of the tier two archetypes are quite good as well, according to "a small child" (lots of thanks to him for sharing his thoughts). There are Jhoira of the Ghitu decks that win by hitting ridiculous sorceries and by abusing Life from the Loam. They gain Squee, Goblin Nabob from Tenth Edition, but are greatly hurt by losing the Urzatron. There are Loxodon Hierarch decks that use Hatching Plans and win by sticking a Magus of the Disk. The unique advantage of these decks is starting with 32 life. There are Chronatog decks invented by Th00mor that use free spells to take control, as well as Pacts and Angel's Grace or Conflagrate as a kill condition. Indeed, lots of high-potential cards can find their niche in this format. And if you are not in a creative mood, you can always directly copy a good Standard deck like NarcoBridge and add the Prodigal Sorcerer avatar (a basic avatar that gives extra hand size and starting life, and adds the Think Tank effect) to arrive at something that should be at least viable. Overall, there are a lot of viable decks out there and probably plenty of undiscovered ones too. Vanguard is a format that is not fully explored yet, where decks win by doing broken degenerate things (although they are still disruptable), yet the matches do tend to be skill-intensive and interactive. If you are a deck designer who likes to do something bizarre or broken, not a traditional aggro or control deck, then Standard with Vanguard may be the format for you. I'm curious what the format of Day 3 of the World Championships will be in 2008 or 2009. We will have Legacy this year; perhaps a day of Extended Singleton Tribal Vanguard (banning Momir and Jhoira) might be a nice and interesting challenge for deck builders.

The New Tenth Edition Avatars

As I said before I ventured into the Standard with Vanguard metagame, Tenth Edition offers two new Vanguard avatars. Let's take a look at their abilities, and while I'm at it, I'll offer two untuned casual Standard Vanguard decks that abuse these avatars.

Participation avatar – Arcanis the Omnipotent
Starting hand size = 8
Starting life total = 17
, Return a creature you control with converted mana cost X to its owner's hand: Draw a number of cards chosen at random between 0 and X. X can't be 0.

My first idea was to make a deck that runs cheap creatures with come-in-play abilities, such as Coiling Oracle, as Arcanis can reuse them. However, in this deck the Arcanis avatar felt clearly inferior to the Oni of Wild Places avatar, and what I made just looked like a bad Oni deck. That is why I don't expect that the Arcanis avatar will become viable for competitive play. But I wanted to look for something else that specifically catered to the ability Arcanis offers, and I found an unlikely but cool infinite combo.

Arcanis the Omnipotent

Download Arena Decklist

The goal of this deck is to get the following pieces in play. One Magus of the Coffers, one Akroma's Memorial, and 13 Swamps (Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth can help out in this department). The infinite mana loop works as follows. You activate Magus of the Coffers for 13 mana. You then activate Arcanis to return Magus of the Coffers to your hand (8 mana left) and draw some cards. Then you play Magus of the Coffers again (3 mana left) and you can activate it right away because it has haste thanks to Akroma's Memorial (1 mana left) to start the loop all over again. Every time you net one mana, and after a while you have drawn your deck and have plenty of mana in your pool. The deck eventually kills with a big Korlash, which has haste and flying thanks to Akroma's Memorial. Yes, this deck is never going to win a serious tournament, since any combo deck that relies on getting 13 Swamps in play will never win fast enough. But it is such an unlikely combo that it feels particularly satisfying when you meet the challenge of pulling it off. The rest of the deck is dedicated to assembling 13 lands as quickly as possible. Civic Wayfinder and Yavimaya Dryad work particularly for this purpose, because you can reuse them with Arcanis. The cheap mana creatures also work well with Arcanis, as they allow you to cycle through your deck and find the combo pieces while accelerating your game at the same time. The deck doesn't need tutors or card draw; the avatar alone should ensure you draw a large chunk of your deck quickly.

Prize avatar – Squee Goblin Nabob
Starting hand size = 10
Starting life total = 16
: Prevent the next 1 damage that would be dealt to target creature you control this turn.

The ability is close to completely useless. Damage prevention has never been a relevant ability for Constructed play. However, the +3 hand size is amazing. Starting with ten cards instead of seven is a big difference, and it works particularly well for a powerful but inconsistent combo deck.

Squee, Goblin Nabob

Download Arena Decklist

This deck is based on Kuan Tian's adaptation of Perilous Storm from the Australian Nationals, which may very well be the best storm deck available in Standard right now. Dragonstorm costs too much without Seething Song, Empty the Warrens can be answered with Wrath of God, and Ignite Memories sometimes hits all lands. However, Pyromancer's Swath plus Grapeshot plus a storm count of seven reliably ends the game every time. A downside of this deck is its relative inconsistency; it sometimes fails to find the combo pieces or it can get weak draws without any Rite of Flames or Lotus Blooms. However, starting with ten cards diminishes that downside, while keeping the power of a deadly fast combo intact. I think that in decks like these the Squee avatar excels. I tuned Tian's list a bit to work with the Squee avatar. I could afford to sacrifice a little consistency for even more power: I cut a couple lands and card draw for Wild Cantors that can up the storm count.

That's all I have for today. Join me next week when I will go over the forgotten Standard cards and decks that have fallen out of grace for no reason.

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