The Case for Mastery
The lack of any Standard bans earlier this week means we are still in a world ruled by Felidar Guardian and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, where Four-Color Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles have pushed nearly everything else out of the way. After both Grand Prix last weekend were won by Four-Color Copy Cat and with Mardu filling out both Top 8s, we are in for at least another month of this metagame until Amonkhet changes things. There has been an unprecedented amount discussion in the community regarding the health of Standard, and now that the announcement of no changes has been made, many have voiced their dissatisfaction with the decision by Wizards of the Coast to uphold what players view as a broken format.
I'm relieved by the decision. Setting aside any arguments about brand confidence or tournament attendance or any other rhetoric for or against the bannings, I argue that the issue with Standard is not the format itself, but in many players' misconceptions about the experience the format is designed to provide.
The evolution of Standard formats always goes through a similar pattern. It begins with an exploratory period where players try all of the strategies and start to figure out what's best. The cream soon starts to rise in the crucible of tournament play, the metagame adjusts week to week and eventually a stable top tier emerges and the metagame polarizes. This process has been accelerated by Magic Online andadditional tournament circuits. More Magic than ever is being played, and the proliferation of Magic content, resources and social media rapidly disseminates that information faster than ever before. This has created a world where evolution happens faster and formats are solved sooner. In word of fast information and a Magic Online global metagame, the best strategies soon become apparent, and the best cards stick out like a sore thumb. Standard is also by far the most-played format, so the metagame accelerates faster than other formats, and its purported issues are magnified.
Standard, by design, has the smallest card pool of any sanctioned constructed format, so by nature it will have less diversity than Eternal formats with much larger pools. The small pool means Standard is relatively simpler to solve – after all, there are a finite number of possible combinations of cards, and it's only a matter of time before the ideal strategies are distilled. Standard being a small pond also means that the big fish, meaning the best cards and combinations, stand out as being relatively more powerful in a world with fewer alternatives to compare.
There was a time when Standard devolved into a truly one-deck format – CawBlade – and it saw multiple cards banned in an attempt to create some semblance of a diverse metagame, but the deck still remained the best by a wide margin! More recently, data showed that there was no reason to play anything other than Abzan in Khans of Tarkir Standard, and after Oath of the Gatewatch brought Reflector Mage, Four-Color Rally the Ancestors dominated the metagame in a way unseen since CawBlade itself. The current meta and its two very competitive decks reminds me of the days of Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion battling for Standard supremacy.
The Case for Mastery
Standard always has always had decks better than the rest. The best way to get an edge over the competition and win in a solved Standard format is not to constantly react to the opponent by changing decks and digging for new archetypes, but by mastering the top decks in the format and how they interact with one another. Rather than spend time searching for the next best thing, we are better off focusing on gaining mastery over the best cards and strategies by improving our own play.
So what exactly is mastery? It's defined as “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment,” and the example quote "she played with some mastery" even applies to Magic, highlighting the fact that gaining mastery is a process of continuous improvement, not something binary that you either have or you don't.
The secondary definition of “control or superiority over someone or something” describes the experience of learning a Standard deck, how it matches up against the metagame and exactly how to pilot it. We should see solved Standard formats as opportunities to focus on mastery and beating everyone who is spending time complaining.
The majority of players loathe mirror matches, and for no good reason. I'm of the belief that the mirror match should not be feared, but welcomed and warmly embraced. If you're playing a top deck, you will inevitably play against the mirror match very often, if not most often, so it's only practical to accept this fact and master it. Signing up to play a Standard tournament is very much saddling up to run a gauntlet of opponents wielding the same deck as you, and there's nothing inherently bad about that.
Mirror matches are fascinating because they test knowledge of oneself, and there's nothing better than the mirror match because in the long run it's the perfect test of skill. In theory, two people using an identical deck of cards sets up the perfect conditions for testing skill, and that's essentially what the mirror match does. Tournament Magic ups the ante by adding the element of tuning decks and looking for strategies and technology to outclass the mirror match, which becomes a sub-metagame in itself in addition to planning to beat the other top decks.
There's no better playtesting than sitting down with a skilled buddy to jam games of the Mardu and Four-Color Copy Cat matchup or test one of the mirror matches. It's an opportunity to constantly ask questions of yourself and one another. Ask what matters, what doesn't, and ask how games are won and lost. It's also a perfect time to pin down what hands to keep and which ones to throw back, and to experiment with sideboard cards, or to build concrete sideboarding plans before an event. This process is how cards like Release the Gremlins went from forgotten draft rares to key sideboard cards in Standard.
Whenever I reach a certain level of comfort with a deck I'll find myself coming up with ideas to tune it. I never force the change, but certain things become clear with gameplay experience and ruminating on the deck. Mastery is reaching the level where the tuning process and adapting the deck to the metagame week-to-week becomes second nature.
The most common mistake players make is not playing one of the busted decks and hobbling themselves out of the gate. Others are frustrated because they haven't reached competency with their top-tier deck, let alone mastery, so they are often uncertain or just wrong about what to do, which leads to many losses. Furthermore, when they run into skilled opposition they frequently find themselves outclassed, primarily because they are outworked by these players who have put more time and thought into achieving mastery over the matchup.
There is no question that current Standard is a skill game; we see consistent success by the top players. When skilled and experienced players wield a high-powered deck, they give themselves the best possible chance to win, and everyone else has handicapped themselves by their inferior deck choice, build, plans, and application.
Mastery is what allowed Ben Stark to reach the Top 8 of Grand Prix New Jersey with a Jund Energy build that broke the two-deck paradigm.
Stark has been working with black-green strategies in Standard ever since Pro Tour Aether Revolt, and it earned him a win at the SCG Team Open in Baltimore playing Standard for his team. Mastery allowed him to realize that his old deck wouldn't cut it in the new two-deck metagame, and that he needed to make a drastic shift away from Delirium into a more aggressive Energy focus. His experience and mastery allowed him to know to break away from the crowd and splash red for Unlicensed Disintegration, which is a perfect answer to the two-deck metagame where it can destroy Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai at the same time, or nearly kill Gideon, Ally of Zendikar while clearing the way for an attack. Mastery is why he knew to put Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in his sideboard, ensuring it was only in the deck when it wasn't a liability against Walking Ballista or the aggressive Mardu decks. Mastery is why he used Lathnu Hellion in the sideboard to surprise opponents all weekend with its hasty pressure. Stark's experience with black-green allowed him to realize that his deck wasn't good anymore in the new metagame, and with his accumulated knowledge he found a new path forward to evolve the strategy to defeat the realities of the new metagame. He didn't start from scratch, but he started on the path the first time he started playing with black-green decks this season.
Mastery allowed Ben Friedman to modify his Four-Color Copy Cat deck to gain an edge over the metagame.
His deep understanding of the deck's matchups brought him to the conclusion that main deck Shock and Walking Ballista were innovations to improve the mirror match and the Mardu matchup, and his finals appearance in New Jersey speaks for itself. He went further with Traverse the Ulvenwald, which not only further fixes mana beyond Oath of Nissa and Attune with Aether, but also provides access to Ishkanah, Grafwidow to beat Mardu and provide a high-powered payoff card to copy or blink with the combo pieces. This delirium package once sat at the pinnacle of Standard in Black-Green Delirium, and Friedman adopted it into the new best deck to make it even better, and almost no one could beat him. If he hadn't mastered Four-Color Copy Cat and how it fits into the metagame, he would never have been able to make such effective changes.
Mastery of Mardu propelled Marcio Carvalho to the Top 4 of the Magic Online Championship followed by a semifinals finish at Grand Prix Barcelona the following weekend.
The Magic community always admires players that exhibit mastery. A prime example is Craig Wescoe and his mastery over aggressive white decks, which transcends any given metagame cycle or season, and allows him to craft effective decks year after year. Shota Yasooka is highly regarded for his mastery over control decks, and he's repeated the benefits with finishes like his win at Pro Tour Kaladesh. Joe Lossett has mastered the best deck in Legacy, Miracles, and crafted his own version that's designed to win mirror matches, which he's used to consistently crush essentially every event he plays.
The mastery demonstrated by these players is something to aspire to, and it's gained by grinding out a deck until there is no rock left unturned and no question left unanswered. Formats like the current Standard are perfect places to aspire towards mastery over a deck, a format and your Magic game in general, because playing a deck to its full potential requires optimizing your technical play from the ground up. Games between the best players wielding the best decks can come down to luck in the short term, but it's the fine details and subtle mistakes that often ultimately determine who wins. Use the next month to gain mastery over the Standard format, and you'll learn the skill set necessary to succeed in many seasons to come.