Walking Through the Metagame

Posted in Top Decks on August 21, 2015

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

It's Hangarback Walker's Standard, and we're just living in it. At Grand Prix London last weekend, five decks in Top 8 played Hangarback Walker, including the winner, and there were an additional four in the Top 16. That is a lot of Thopters, and the infestation doesn't appear to be ending soon.

Here are the Top 16 decks, broken down by archetype:

The most popular list, Abzan Hangarback, looks like this:

Fabrizio Anteri's Hangarback Abzan—1st Place Grand Prix London 2015

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It's basically an Abzan Aggro deck that swapped the Hangarback in place of Rakshasa Deathdealer, which does move the deck more to a midrange play pattern. It's resilient and powerful, especially for an aggro deck, but it does pay the price of putting the opponent on less of a clock.

Another very similar deck is the Green-White Megamorph deck, which also saw a lot of play in London (as well as in San Diego).

Erik Skinstad's Green-White Megamorph—Top 8 Grand Prix London 2015

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Both of these decks get to take advantage of Dromoka's Command, Fleecemane Lion, and Hangarback Walker, and both of these decks put a lot of pressure on decks like Mono-Red and Blue-Red Thopters. I would not want to be on Mountains facing down these decks, and the Day Two win percentage of Mono-Red in London was quite poor (which coverage's own Frank Karsten breaks down here).

What does that mean going forward?

There are a few ways to approach a metagame like this, but I want to specifically look at the rise of Hangarback Walker and how it will impact deck choices. What Hangarback provides is a cheap threat that's very resilient to certain types of removal, and it does especially well if there's a lot of creature combat. Given enough time, it will dominate the game—though it doesn't pressure the opponent very quickly, which is its biggest weakness. A turn-two Hangarback will often deal 0 to 2 damage over the next couple turns, which is very good news for some decks.

Going Over the Top

Given that Hangarback Walker is a very strong incremental-value card, but one that isn't particularly fast, one of the first ways I'd look to defeat it (and decks that use it, which tend to be fairly midrange) is to go over the top. This can come in a few ways, the first of which is Red-Green Devotion.

Bartłomie Lewandowski's Red-Green Devotion—11th Place Grand Prix London 2015

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Dragonlord Atarka, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, and Genesis Hydra don't care about 4/4 Hangarback Walkers or a bunch of Thopters, so harnessing their strengths is a natural way to take advantage of Hangarback Walker's newfound popularity. This is the same deck that has been good for months, and recent changes to the metagame (namely the advent of Abzan Hangarback and Green-White Megamorph) have made Red-Green Devotion an even better choice.

Some build-specific notes: I like Unravel the Æther in the sideboard, and think it edges out Back to Nature because of Hangarback. It's necessary to have ways to interact with enchantments these days, but we aren't quite in Back to Nature territory yet. I'd lean towards having access to all four Whisperwood Elementals, mainly because of Tragic Arrogance. Tragic Arrogance is an amazing card, and one I expect to see more of, so keeping it in mind is critical. Devotion is one of the decks hit hardest by it, so Whisperwood helps mitigate your exposure.

Going to Red-Green Devotion is a bit of a Level 1 choice, so even though it seems like it's well-positioned now, there are benefits to going deeper.

An Aside on Level 1, 2, and 3 Choice

When I say Red-Green Devotion is a "Level 1 choice," I mean that it's a natural reaction to seeing a field full of Hangarbacks. Level 1 is the first place people go when presented with information, which isn't necessarily calling it bad. There's a reason Level 1 reasoning is appealing, and it does take advantage of everyone who sees the results from last weekend and concludes that Abzan Hangarback or Green-White Megamorph are where you want to be. Level 2 is to play a deck that's good against Level 1—playing a deck aimed at the reaction to last week's results. For example, playing Blue-Black Control (which I'll discuss in a second), is a way to beat people who have switched to Devotion. Level 3 would be two steps ahead. In this example, it would be playing a deck like Blue-Red Thopters, which is good against Blue-Black Control and bad against the heavily-played decks from last weekend. That, of course, is the danger, because you are picking a deck that's bad against the decks that just did well. The upside is that you get to be ahead of everyone trying to beat those decks, assuming they approach things as you predicted.

This is basically the rock-paper-scissors description, though it's further complicated by how many different decks are viable right now. Still, it's useful to think about, and Level 1, 2, and 3 thinking is something you want to be aware of.

Speaking of Level 2, how about Blue-Black Control? It's not the deck you want to be playing against Mono-Red or Blue-Red Thopters, but those decks have done quite poorly recently. The rise of green-white and Abzan, both decks that play lots of Dromoka's Commands, has not made it easy to be red—which is great news for blue-black. Additionally, if people do end up playing more Devotion decks to prey on the midrange decks, blue-black is good in that matchup too!

LSV's Blue-Black Control

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This list leans more heavily on Perilous Vault (and Ugin) than some previous lists. I really like Perilous Vault right now, mainly because of how effective it is against cards that would otherwise be annoying. Deathmist Raptor, Hangarback Walker, and anything Devotion can throw at you are at the top of the list, since none of those threats tend to pressure you so fast that you can't play and use Vault. It is worth noting that some Devotion lists have main deck Reclamation Sages, so don't get too cocky—but if you can avoid that, you are probably in good shape.

I also like more Bile Blights than before, which help clear out stray Thopters in addition to being generally good against cards like Fleecemane Lion.

As for the sideboard, Pharika's Cure does more work against Mono-Red than anything else I've tried, up to and including Drown in Sorrow. I'd rather jam a bunch of Cures and Tasigur, and hope to live long enough to Languish and get my card advantage online.

Of course, you can ignore these levels and play the deck you like best, because there are tons of viable Standard decks right now. But looking at things in terms of metagame shifts can be very useful. Abzan Hangarback is clearly on top right now, and figuring out what that means for next week is the fun part.


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