The New Standard Metagame
This past weekend was the Magic Online Championship, the culmination of a year's worth of qualifying tournaments that pitted the best online players against top pros. The result was a weekend of gripping coverage. While Magic Online is not without its shortcomings, certain strengths of streaming a digital tournament became apparent as the event unfolded. One glaring advantage over current paper coverage is that it allowed the commentators to clearly see all of the action, specifically exact contents of hands that are often obscured during traditional coverage and leave commentators spending valuable time guessing at the contents of a player's hand and not what's going on in their head. The online format led to a more in-depth discussion that went beyond the play-by-play into specific strategic and tactical decisions that the players were making. It was a treat for experienced players looking to seriously analyze game while simultaneously serving more novice players by explaining advanced concepts as they unfolded on screen.
The coverage was further elevated by the group of high-caliber players that were brought together to cover the tournament – not in person, but electronically, which highlights another strength of the digital platform. During each portion of the event, world class players from all over the world joined the stream to seamlessly create a coverage team that provided an experience as rich as any other, but with obvious benefits. A very visible result is that it allowed for many different players and personalities to join the conversation throughout the weekend, without the toil and expense of physical travel. This lent itself to an expanded coverage team, to the boon of viewers that were treated to a constantly changing cast of commentators over the course of the tournament. This broadcast stayed fresh, and the commentators themselves were at their best because they weren't forced to work long hours over the course of three days.
The total experience was a refreshing re-imagining of Magic coverage, and I hope that it's a sign of things to come, especially with the release of Magic Digital Next on the horizon. Magic moving into the age of digital card games will require that its coverage move forward, and last weekend's performance was an auspicious sign of things to come.
Much of the event, including the top four, was Standard, so the coverage provided an intense look at the format, specifically the Mardu Vehicles and Four-Color Copy Cat decks, which were the most popular decks and filled the ranks of the top four. At a glance, the format might look like a battle between these two titans – and right now these two decks are certainly the driving force behind the metagame – but they don't paint the entire picture. There are other contenders in the metagame, and players are already working to get ahead of it with alternative options.
While the tournament didn't end until Sunday, the Standard decklists were published on Friday. There were other significant online tournaments held over the weekend, namely the online Regional Pro Tour Qualifier and the Standard Championships, and because the players in those events had full knowledge of the Magic Online Championship decklists, these events featured more advanced metagames that provided a peek at the future.
The first thing that stands out from these events is the continued success of Mardu and Four-Color Copy Cat, which are adapting to defeat one another and their respective mirror matches. Tommy “stainerson” Ashton is a Pro Tour regular, in part because of his storied history of success in Magic Online PTQs, and last weekend he qualified yet again with his adaptation on Four-Color Copy Cat tuned to beat the new metagame.
Moving a pair of Tireless Tracker to the main deck gives a clear edge in the mirror match, which comes down to a grindy affair if not quickly ended by a combo. This opened room in the sideboard, which includes three Skysovereign, Consul Skyship as a haymaker against Mardu. The single copy in Ryosuke Urase's sideboard did great work for him during the championship, including stealing what looked like an unwinnable game in the top four, and Ashton went deeper on the card to great effect in the RPTQ.
A growing trend in Mardu Vehicles is to play a more controlling main deck by going even further than Walking Ballista with extra planeswalkers like Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Nahiri, the Harbinger. Chandra, Torch of Defiance shines against Four-Color Copy Cat, where it can destroy Felidar Guardian with its -2 ability or damage Saheeli Rai with its +1. Nahiri, the Harbinger excels in the mirror match, where it can remove Aethersphere Harvester or Scrapheap Scrounger, or generate an advantage over time by providing superior card quality.
Thalia, Heretic Cathar is critical as a hoser against the Saheeli Rai combo decks, but it has value as a way to temporarily contain Archangel Avacyn, which is gaining popularity for its strength in the mirror match and against Four-Color Copy Cat. Archangel Avacyn is especially scary for its ability to flip and clear the board, and it combines well with Walking Ballista to trigger on-demand.
One of the most important cards in the format against Mardu Vehicles is Release the Gremlins, which can produce a significant card advantage and tempo advantage. It's critical in the mirror match and from the sideboard of Four-Color Copy Cat, so it's a card that Mardu Vehicles can expect to play against very often. Shifting away from extra vehicles and artifacts may be a good direction to help it weather this storm of sideboard hate. Sebastian Pozzo took this concept to an extreme by playing no vehicles beyond Heart of Kiran, and a sideboard plan that allows him to shift into a midrange deck that tops out at Sorin, Grim Nemesis to go over the top of creatures and planeswalkers while sidestepping artifact removal.
Eldrazi Displacer is great in the mirror match for destroying enemy Walking Ballistas, and it can grind through tokens from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. It also has some internal synergy with its ability to blink Thraben Inspector for extra Clue tokens.
Other decks are also proving they have what it takes to succeed in this metagame. A prime example is Temur Aetherworks Marvel, which qualified someone for the Pro Tour at the RPTQ and put two people into the top 16 of the Standard Champs.
This deck has includes Torrential Gearhulk as a strong Aetherworks Marvel hit that it can alternatively cast to play a fair game with the addition of Glimmer of Genius. The deck also incorporates Dynavolt Tower as a way to spend extra energy, which gives the strategy an alternative win condition and the ability to play a control game. It's a perfect way to disrupt the Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo, which can't get through an active Dynavolt Tower, and it helps to buy time against Mardu. There's something to be said for this deck slicing through eight rounds of competition with a 7-1 record in a field filled with Mardu and Four-Color Copy Cat, so it could be a real contender going forward.
Dedicated Temur Dynavolt Tower Control decks have been a minor part of the metagame for weeks, but they came to a head after legend Shota “yaya3” Yasooka went 5-0 in a league with an innovative build that included Rogue Refiner and Shielded Aether Thief, and imitators found success at Grand Prix Utrecht. An evolution of that deck, which has since removed Rogue Refiner, qualified during the online RPTQ.
Another legend, Seth “egdirb” Manfield, went 5-0 in a league as recently as Monday with his own version, which leaves all of the extra creatures in the sideboard as a transformational approach in favor of a more streamlined main deck:
Manfield crafted his control deck with options clearly chosen to combat the emerging metagame, including Natural Obsolescence as a clean answer to the troublesome Scrapheap Scrounger against Mardu, and Shock as an efficient way to disrupt the Saheeli Rai-Felidar Guardian combo. Horribly Awry does double duty, cleanly answering either Scrapheap Scrounger or Felidar Guardian. Whirler Virtuoso from the sideboard serves as a great source of blockers against Mardu, but it also provides valuable pressure on planeswalkers like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar that these decks lean on against control. This deck could be a very reasonable option for someone looking to slice through the metagame with a control strategy.
Surprisingly, a Metalwork Colossus deck broke into the top 8 of the Standard Champs.
This deck contains some great card choices that allow it to compete in this metagame, like Warping Wail as an easy way to destroy Felidar Guardian, and a pair of main deck Skysovereign, Consul Flagship to have access to an easy button against Mardu. Metalwork Colossus has been known for its strength against Black-Green Constrictor, not against Mardu, but as Mardu slows down into a more midrange deck it becomes vulnerable to decks like this one going over the top.
An alternative to Mardu Vehicles is Black-Red Aggro, which has seen a rise in popularity online over the past few days.
The biggest draw over Mardu is the superior mana, which isn't stretched over three colors. It easily supports a set of Fatal Push to give this deck a strong removal base, which also includes Incendiary Flow to remove Scrapheap Scrounger and burn planeswalkers. Mindwrack Demon hasn't seen much love lately, but it's back in the equation now that the majority of Mardu decks are eschewing Veteran Motorist and Depala, Pilot of Exemplar in favor of Walking Ballista and Thalia, Heretic Cathar, allowing it to effectively block 4/4 Heart of Kirans that are no longer receiving +1/+1 bonuses. Mardu offers a higher power level, but there's something to be said for consistency, particularly if two colors can do the job of three. White is quite strong, however, with cards like Thraben Inspector and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, so one takeaway from Black-Red Aggro could be the potential for other two color combinations, white-black and red-white, to excel as alternatives to Mardu.
Black-Green Constrictor was nearly absent from the MOCS and was a big loser in the other events online over the weekend, but the deck won't be left in the cold. The metagame will begin to concede ground back to the snakes as it shifts to beat Mardu and Four-Color Copy Cat, and that eaves an opening for black-green to reinvent itself and attack. Pro player Pascal Maynard is known to fervently test different iterations of Standard decks when preparing for an event, and earlier this week he could be seen finishing 5-0 in a league with his latest build, an update on Black-Green Energy Aggro.
Pascal identified that it's necessary for black-green decks to be as aggressive as possible in order to put adequate pressure on Copy Cat decks, which will inevitably assemble their combo if given enough time. The aggressive creatures Greenbelt Rampager and Longtusk Cub are also great at brawling with Mardu's creatures, so they are the perfect pivot for this metagame where going bigger than other black-green decks isn't a concern. Maynard has moved past Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, which shines against the mirror match but doesn't look well-positioned in the new metagame. Assuming the black-green can be built to beat Four-Color Copy Cat often enough, then it looks like a reasonable contender.
What was your experience viewing the Magic Online Championship? What's your take on the metagame, and where is it headed? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.