MTGO Sets the Standard

Posted in Feature on August 17, 2004

By Chad Ellis

It's easy to be skeptical. MTGO doesn't have as strong a player base as offline Magic, and it's only one tournament after all. Add to that the fact that the finalists have exactly zero lifetime Pro points between them and it might be tempting to write off the recent finals from the World Championships Qualifier as the equivalent of Friday Night Magic rather than something that could and should define the Type II metagame. That would be a mistake.

First of all, this wasn't just a qualifier – it was a qualifier with a series of qualifiers. Everyone playing in the World Championship Qualifier had already won a previous tournament in order to gain entry, making the field of 458 players more serious than a regular PTQ as well as larger. Add to that the fact that this tournament drew players from all over the world and you have a clear indication of both quality and quantity from which to draw conclusions about Standard.

Second, if you watch the matches you will see a very solid level of play. There were certainly some errors, of which the most painful has to be “Booster her” tapping a City of Brass unnecessarily (presumably because he forgot that his Warchief meant he didn't have to tap out) and dropping to ten life against Fffreak who had been practically shut out of game two by artifact removal. Fffreak naturally used his two lands and his last two remaining artifacts to play Shrapnel Blast during Booster's EOT and then on his own turn, winning what must have seemed the unwinnable game. But those errors don't just show up at PTQs, they show up at the Pro Tour itself. (Ask me about my Barcelona Harrow sometime if you don't believe me.) But overall the play level looked quite good (it's hard to tell for sure when you can't see player's hands), and the decks had some very interesting tools for us to look at.

Doing the Numbers

Before we look at the Top 8 (which I listed in my article last week, if you missed it), let's take a quick look at the field overall. The stats here come from the tireless MTGO BBS World Q Coverage Team of zahori, unforgiven, X645547, greala, worldofwarcraft, Armadilo_King, nateetan, starkiller, balxahon, bubba0077, and rozia, with LeeSharpe2K providing feature match coverage at The team puts the field at:

Affinity 147 32.30%
Slide/Eternal Slide 59 13.00%
UR March 33 7.30%
Ponza 31 6.80%
UW Control 27 5.90%
Tooth and Nail 27 5.90%
Goblin Bidding 25 5.50%
Other Control 10 2.20%
Big Red 9 2.00%
Monogreen 9 2.00%
Monoblack 8  
Monored Goblins 8  
RG Beasts 7  
UW March 5  
KCI 5  
RG Goblins 5  
Other March 4  
UB March 3  
Elves! 3  
BG Rock 2  
Mind's Desire 1  
'Rogue' 16 3.5% (not catagorized)
No Deck Recorded 14 3.00%

The End of Affinity?

What leaps out from this table is the relative failure of Affinity to live up to the hopes of its players. Nearly one in three decks in the tournament were Affinity and yet only one made it to the Top 8. Usually when the most popular deck does so poorly it's time to abandon it, both because the results suggest it has problems against the field and the popularity means people will still be gunning for it. Does this mean that Affinity has finally passed its sell-by date and is now the sort of deck you should prepare to beat (because it's still popular) but should no longer play?

Not necessarily. First of all, Affinity held up just fine overall, comprising 34% of the top 32 decks. It may be that the field is unfriendly to Affinity when crunch time comes – i.e. Affinity's raw power lets it do well enough against the mass of decks but it falls short in later rounds against more tuned or skilled opposition – but it would be risky to assume that from a single Top 8.

Moreover, Fffreak – the lone Affinity player to make the Top 8 – nearly won the slot at Worlds. While his semi-final match should almost certainly have gone to game three, it is equally true that his luck in the finals was just awful. In one game he mulliganed to six and played only three spells (Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault and Shrapnel Blast in that order) before he was Mindslavered and forced to concede. (He didn't help himself by failing to sacrifice the Ravager to itself in order to counter Tel-Jilad Justice, but one card on the bottom of tori3's library probably didn't decide the outcome of the game.) In game two, tori3 had a reasonable start with Sylvan Scrying on turn two and an Eternal Witness on turn three. He died without getting to untap. Then in game three, Fffreak mulligained to four.

Robert Dougherty has said that Affinity is the Necropotence of the Mirrodin Block, and Shrapnel Blast is its Hymn to Tourach. He isn't speaking literally, of course, but the point is that no matter how good your deck was against Necro they would sometimes double-Hymn you and win anyway. Affinity will sometimes hit you with double-Shrapnel Blast and finish you from silly situations, as Fffreak did to Booster her when the Goblin player had taken ten damage from his own Cities of Brass (nine of which were necessary).

Lately a lot of good players have been cutting back on Shrapnel Blast. Frank Karsten, fresh from his T8 finish at GP Zurich, openly challenged the idea that Shrapnel Blast was a good card in his Brainburst article:

I don't understand why people love this card so much. An argument I've often heard is "if you have it in your opening hand your opponent starts at 15 life, that's just great!" But I'm afraid that I would never take a mulligan to make my opponent start at 15 life with this deck! Think about it for a second. The Ravager deck is all about explosive openings: sometimes you will have dropped your hand on the table by turn 3 and it won't matter whether your opponent started at 15 life or not. He will take 30 damage on turn 4 no matter what. You want to maximize the chances of getting those good starting hands and having Shrapnel Blast in your deck reduces those odds.

Another way to look at it: if the card you have in your hand is a random artifact instead of Shrapnel Blast, it might allow you to play your Myr Enforcer one turn earlier. That means that the Enforcer can attack a turn earlier, which results in 4 extra damage to your opponent. That random artifact card then does basically the same things as Shrapnel Blast. And sometimes you don't have red mana to even cast the Blast!

I agree with Karsten that one generally doesn't want to mulligan to six in order to do five damage to the opponent, but the Shrapnel Blast strategy is certainly viable in Affinity and Fffrank's very aggressive deck is a good template to start from.

The Rise of Tooth and Nail


Tooth and Nail
If it's risky to see Affinity in too negative a light, it's probably safe to be optimistic about Tooth and Nail – and in particular to see it become increasingly popular in Standard. Making up just 6% of the overall field, T&N made up 9% of the top 32, 25% of the top 8 and, of course, 100% of the top 1. One might quibble that tori3 got very lucky on the way to victory, since in addition to Fffreak's triple-mulligan tori3 was able to survive being Mindslavered three times in game three versus ManABirD4, winning because he had chosen not to sideboard in a second Duplicant so ManABirD4 wasn't able to find an answer in tori3's deck for tori3's Colossus. But luck is always part of winning a major tournament, and since the second example was a mirror match it can hardly count against the strength of the archetype!

Urza's lands, virtually unplayable when first printed, have (with the help of cards like Weatherseed Wayfarer, Sylvan Scrying and Reap and Sow) become a credible source of huge amounts of mid-game mana, and spells like Decree of Justice and Tooth and Nail have made it worth the investment in land-search spells. Small wonder that with Tooth and Nail proving itself viable in Block it is also a powerhouse in Standard, where it has better lands and access to some interesting utility creatures.

Last week we didn't have ManABirD4's decklist, but here it is so we can compare the two lists:

“ManABirD4” - Lee Sang Yul, South Korea

Download Arena Decklist


Tranquil Thicket
Before looking at the spells, the most obvious difference is in the 23rd land each player chose to run in addition to ten Forests and twelve Urza's lands. ManABirD4's choice of Stalking Stones is an obvious one, but tori4's Tranquil Thicket is interesting as well. Tooth and Nail can easily mana-flood, and tori4 can turn a Scrying or Reap into a cantrip. Toir4 probably reasoned that an extra 3/3 wasn't going to decide many games.

I suspect it is worth trying a combination of the two ideas, running a mana base of nine Forests, twelve Urza lands and one each of Thicket and Stalking Stones. Other than after sideboarding in Oxidize the deck has absolutely no turn-one plays, so replacing a single Forest with a Tranquil Thicket seems very low risk, and there will certainly be games where Eternal Witness and Solemn Simulacrums are attacking against a control player and need a hand, or when you simply need a blocker.

There are certainly other differences to be discussed. Despite not having any off-color spells, ManABirD4 chose to run four Talismans but only two Solemn Simulacrums and three Vine Trellis, while teri3 ran four each of the mana-ramping creatures and no Talismans. It's hard for me to see why the latter isn't simply correct, especially since the speed advantage of Talisman over Trellis is only relevant if you have something to do with one mana…again unlikely with ManABirD4 having only Oxidize in the sideboard costing one.

The most interesting choices are in tori3's sideboard: Creeping Mold and Xantid Swarm. Three Creeping Molds give tori3 the option of boarding up to seven total land destruction spells (plus four Witnesses to recur them), presumably for the mirror. (This would also explain why he didn't bring in a second Duplicant.) Since the Urza lands need the whole combo in place in order to work, this might be a very viable strategy.

Xantid Swarm is a rarely-used card, but it seems perfect here. Green beatdown decks might like a one-drop that prevents their opponents from countering spells, but they can't really use it. It doesn't do any damage on its own, so it's just another invested card to get Wrathed away. Tooth and Nail, meanwhile, doesn't have to commit more creatures to the board in order to play its game, and a Swarm can put a U/W control player in an untenable position, as tori3 did to realize in game two of their 2-0 match. The Swarm's power is especially potent considering that Tooth and Nail targets like Sundering Titan and Darksteel Colossus make Wrath effects dubious, so the U/W player will want to sideboard at least some of them out even if he knows that the Swarms are coming in!


Dwarven Blastminer, art by Gary Ruddell

7% of the field was playing red land destruction. This dropped slightly to 6% of the top 32, but managed to field one deck in the top 8. DweamHeBe.leiz packed 14 spot landkill spells along with four Dwarven Blastminers in a deck that topped out with four Arc-Sloggers and one Rorix. In game one of the quarter-finals, he cleared Fffreak's board (two Arcbound Workers and two Ornithopters) with a Pyroclasm and used landkill and two Shatters to leave his opponent without permanents, facing down a Slogger. He managed to win that game.

In game two he played a Dwarven Blastminer on turn two, against a deck with all non-basic lands. He didn't manage to win that one.

I encourage everyone to replay that particular game. It provides a wonderful lesson on tempo and why the Dwarven Blastminer (although certainly not bad) isn't as good as he looks against a deck like Affinity. On his own turn two, Fffreak had played a Frogmite. On turn three, he swung for two and added an Arcbound Worker and a Welding Jar, as well as casting Thoughtcast. On Dweam's turn three, he blew up a Seat of the Synod (which Fffreak correctly chose not to save). Card efficient – a one for zero – but in tempo terms quite painful, as Dweam has now invested his second and third turns in destroying a single land. Contrast this with Fffreak gaining equivalent card advantage with just one blue mana from Thoughtcast.

Fffreak continued with Night's Whisper and a second Frogmite, while Dweam played a fourth land and passed the turn. Now on Fffreak's attack his Dwarf blocks the Worker and blows up Glimmervoid. In the end, the Blastminer destroyed two lands and traded with an Arcbound Worker. Since the Worker's token migrated to a Frogmite, let's call it two and a half cards for one. That's good…but it's not good enough to balance out the tempo loss of having done nothing else during turns two, three or four.

Put another way, what would be different if Dweam had played a vanilla 1/1 on turn two, Stone Rain on turn three and Lay Waste on turn four? Nothing much, considering Dweam had four cards in hand when he died.

The Culling Scales, although probably necessary, are also a bit slow. The main problem is the mana curve. If you play the Scales on turn three, you're not blowing up a land, which means your opponent can keep adding threats to what's already in play. It may be possible to get away with that against Goblins if you're able to keep Clickslither and Commander off the table, but you could still find yourself on the wrong end of a swarm. Meanwhile, if you play the Scales later, after crippling their mana base, you're giving them a full turn to hit you with what they have before the Scales go to work. I love the card advantage the Scales offer against cheap Goblins and Welding Jars, as well as the ability to get rid of Sulphuric Vortex, and it's great if you draw it AND a Pyroclasm, but I suspect this is a card Ponza will be happy to replace if Champions of Kamigawa offers something better.

Having said that, Dweam's deck had one sideboard card that fits his deck's strategy and tempo needs perfectly: Relic Barrier. I greatly overestimated the impact Relic Barrier would have in Block, and it's great to see it in Dweam's deck. Against Affinity it is essentially turn-two land destruction and unlike Rishadan Port it doesn't tie up future mana that he wants for Molten Rains and other spells. It also combines extremely well with Pyroclasm, which often leaves an Affinity player with a single big threat (e.g. Arcbound Ravager or perhaps Myr Enforcer). In game three, Relic Barrier's tempo power almost gave Dweam enough time for a Dwarven Blastminer to wrap up Fffreak's entire board…almost.

It's also worth noting that Ponza is an interesting metagame choice, particularly if Tooth and Nail becomes more popular. A turn-two Blastminer may be slow against Affinity, but it might spell game over against a Tooth and Nail deck. Neither teri3 nor ManABirD4 have any way to remove a Blastminer that costs less than five mana, and with the regular landkill there to handle Forests, it's unlikely they'll ever get there.

U/W Control

At 6% of the overall field, 13% of the top 32 and 25% of the top 8, U/W control also performed very well – and despite the presence of four Flashfires in Dweam's sideboard, this is not an archetype a land destruction deck wants to face. With 25 land, 2-3 Wayfarer's Baubles, Eternal Dragon and Thirst for Knowledge to dig for land, and Mana Leak and Condescend to handle early landkill if needed, it's very unlikely that Ponza can keep the U/W deck from playing its game, and with only expensive creatures as threats, it's even more unlikely that the Ponza deck can win a fair fight.

There isn't much to be said about this archetype that hasn't been said before. It relies on the standard control tools of card advantage, selective permission, board sweepers and durable finishers. Decree of Justice and Eternal Dragon are wonderful finishers in the deck, each of them providing card advantage and dangerous threats, and both players left Exalted Angel in the sideboard.

One avenue I suspect the U/W players should consider is the possibility of sideboarding Last Word rather than Rewind. In theory, Rewind is the superior spell, but this is only true when your opponent is able to play two must-counter threats in a row, or for doing cute-but-rarely-necessary tricks to get a bit of extra mana for your Decree of Justice. When a lot of decks are playing Condescend or Mana Leak to help force through important spells, Rewind can be absolutely awful, whereas Last Word has, well, the last word.

This may simply be a question of playtesting. When I first saw Last Word I thought it was an awful card, part of the de-powering of Blue. Four mana to counter something? But in Block constructed you have to work with what you've got and I've found to my surprise that Last Word isn't a bad card at all…particularly when more and more decks are using big spells to win rather than swarms of weenies.

Goblin Bidding and Obliterate

Rounding out this diverse Top 8 are Goblin Bidding and Obliterate. Goblin Bidding, once considered by some to be the best deck in the format, has certainly mourned the loss of Skullclamp, but it remains capable of explosive starts as well as being able to play a control game with its many Tims. Nearly 6% of the field began the day with Bidding, but only Booster her made it into the top 32, let alone the top 8. There he fell to double Shrapnel Blast after doing half the job with his own cities; had he been able to “undo” his City after realizing his mistake and managed to win game three, he would have gone on to the finals. I don't know what the outcome of that match would have been, but I'm sure that Booster her would have rather faced ManABirD4's Talismans than teri3's Walls and Simulacrums.

One metagame tweak that might be appropriate for Booster her's main deck would be replacing Electrostatic Bolt with Magma Jet. Bolt is obviously more mana efficient, but with Fffreak running no maindeck Enforcers and just two in the board, the Scry and “dome” potential of Magma Jet might be worth it.

I've never played the Obliterate/March deck; nor have I played against it. Thus, it's difficult for me to comment on individual card choices. A deck with so many two-ofs and three-ofs may look untuned, but some of those cards (e.g. Future Sight) are expensive or offer diminishing returns, or both. If you want to try out this archetype, you should play around with Mana Leak vs. Condescend, Serum Visions vs. Thirst for Knowledge and Pyroclams vs. Slice and Dice to see what works best for you. The ultimate game plan remains the same: use permission and removal, along with March of the Machines and indestructable artifacts, to slow down the game until you can Obliterate away your opponent's board and chances.

Bonus decks

But that's not all. As if the Top 8 weren't diverse enough, we have the ninth place finisher ScrubbyZ, whose 8-1-1 record only missed Top 8 on tiebreaks. A few weeks ago, Antonino De Rosa and I wrote separate articles on U/W Salvage Control, an archetype I refer to as Flea Market since you're all about shopping for trinkets. Fortunately for us, while my StarCityGames article was on a Block version, De Rosa's was on Standard, leading to us building very different decks. (In Block you try hard to keep your Salvagers alive and use Trinket Mage and/or Artificier's Intuition; in Standard you have Wrath of God, Akroma's Vengance and Decree of Justice, leading to a more conventional control deck but at the cost of the “utility belt” since you can no longer fit in Trinket Mages.)

ScrubbyZ tweaked De Rosa's creation and showed that Standard has a new viable archetype.


Download Arena Decklist

A bit lower down in the standings but still high in terms of creativity is Ben Seck's creation, TheSuperBlastingStation!

Ben Seck

Download Arena Decklist
Instant (6)
3 Magma Jet 3 Oxidize
Artifact (3)
3 Blasting Station
Enchantment (4)
4 Fecundity
Land (21)
20 Forest 1 Mountain
60 Cards

Until I get a chance to play it, I won't pretend to know whether this deck's power matches up to its coolness and fun, but I'm going to find out!

A Fond Farewell

I hope you've enjoyed this look at the metagame implications of MTGO's World Championship Qualifier. With mixed feelings I must tell you that this will be my last OnlineAndEnjoyingIt column.

Scott Johns and I have an editor/writer relationship spanning three Magic websites and a few years, so when this column came open a few months ago we agreed that I should take a shot at it. The obvious problem, which we discussed up front, is that I'm behind the curve on many MTGO issues since, for example, I'd yet to play in any leagues or casual formats and wasn't a regular on the MTGO bulletin boards. We hoped that I would be able to catch up with interviews and by expanding my normal play horizons.

Ultimately this proved too optimistic. The combination of launching a new game company, commuting between Boston and Montreal (thankfully over now that my wife has her visa after only eight months) and spending time with my baby girl were too much for me to give this column the full time it deserves as well. The end result is that I'm not able to do my best work here. Scott has been incredibly supportive, both in his belief that things were heading in the right direction and in helping me with the column itself, but in the end we've agreed that you'll be better served by another author.

I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on my articles here, whether favorably or not. This won't be the last time you hear from me; Scott has asked me to do feature articles when appropriate, and I'm never far from the Magic community. In the meantime, feel free to email me or to stop by the Your Move Games booth at GenCon!

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