Saturday, November 10, 2007

Magical Hack – Standard in Motion by Sean McKeown

Seeing how we are now two weeks away from the State Championships, we have the opportunity to examine the Standard metagame in motion. We are on our way to the World Championships in a month’s time, give or take a little, and in addition to looking at the States metagame as it played out, we can advance it one week into the future by examining the results of this past weekend’s Grand Prix in Krakow. My traditional habits for metagame analysis involves a lot of running with numbers, but thankfully I do my math behind the scenes... I’m sure it’d be downright boring, were I to do otherwise.

States showed rather a varied metagame... and one that had a few surprises in it, as we have results that belie the Oct-1 assumption of an aggressive metagame by seeing the control decks come out more or less on top. We won’t be analyzing any one particular state, instead lumping all the U.S. states that reported results and all of the Canadian provinces that reported results into one huge atom-smashing machine to see what decks succeeded on the continent as a whole. We’d use more information if we had it and branch out beyond the continent of North America if only we could, so there will be some “regional” skewing of the metagame to favor that which did well on the continent of North America... hopefully a continent is a big enough region, though I’m sure if we could add Japanese results to what we already have that’d be a mighty big spanner in the works, as they often seem to do things quite differently.

If this has already appeared on Swimming with Sharks yesterday, I do apologize for the overlap – but hopefully there will be enough interesting nuggets in both to distinguish this week’s column from the area covered by Mike yesterday on the Mothership. These are the risks we take in writing things in advance, and with my article due late Wednesday I never get to see if I’ve stepped on any toes first. We’ll be looking at the first shock of Standard information through a few information filters, looking first at raw data then weighting the data by match result in the Top 8 to see which decks had the best penetration through the Top 8... the only means we really have of seeing the “Week One” States metagame in motion before moving on to Krakow, because we of course have had to go without the rather large volume of information categorizing all of the decks played in the Swiss and thus cannot compare an archetype’s penetration depth through the Swiss to make the final cut to elimination rounds. After examining “Week One”, we’ll do the same for “Week Two”, a.k.a. Grand Prix: Krakow, where we have the Day 2 information plus the Top 8 Decklists to work with.

Let’s jump right in and get our hands dirty:
Deck /Wins(First number)/ /Top 8's(Second Number)/
Pickles 10 36
With Momentary Blink 3 7
BG 6 48
With The Rack 2 20
Elves variants 6 36
R/G Aggro 5 35
Sadin R/g 1 16
non-Pickles Blink decks 4 38
Snow White 3 13
Teachings 2 28
BGW Doran 2 20
Merfolk 2 9
Snow Red 2 8
Mannequin 2 7
GW Aggro 2 3
Faeries Aggro 1 16
Mono-Black Control 1 11
UG Aggro 1 10
RG Big Mana 1 8
W/g Kithkin 1 7
GW Control 1 2
Turbo-Fog 1 3
B/R (Usually Goblins) 24
UW Control 11
Red Deck Wins 9
Predator 8
Mono-White Kithkin 6
Poorlash 5
UB Control 5
Mono-Green Aggro 3
RWU Control 3
Mono-Black Aggro 2
UB Madness 2
Poison Slivers 1
Wild Pair 1
Walk the Aeons 1
Big Mana Red 1
RW Control 1
UGb Kowal 1
Mono-Blue Control 1
UGB Aggro 1
UBW Control 1
Reanimator 1
BRG Control 1

We see quite a few different flavors of deck, and can branch them into “Aggro” or “Control” to give us a rough idea of how accurate the “States is an Aggro Format” belief was this year. We’ll include “Midrange” to explain all of the B/G Rock-like decks and Blink variants that have a tempo theme instead of a dedicated control stance, which is why we note the difference between the Blink decks and the Blink decks with a Pickles end-game. Just on sheer Top 8 results alone, we see 133 controllish decks, 122 “Midrange” decks (like B/G Tarmo-Rack, B/G/W Doran the Siege Tower decks, Blink decks of many colors, or Poorlash), and 172 aggressive-centric decks. The two biggest aggressive decks were R/G Aggro (which was about 50-50 ‘Red splash Tarmogoyf’ as per Steven Sadin’s build, or heavier Green for cards like Garruk, Call of the Herd, or Troll Ascetic) and Elves! (usually, but not always, B/G... we also saw some mono-Green, and Green-White). The two biggest controlling decks were Pickles decks of various color combinations and Mystical Teachings decks of even more varied designs, both of which were less well-represented at the cut to elimination than the assorted Black-Green non-Elves! decks or the non-Pickles-bearing Momentary Blink decks.

Of course, it’s very easy to quibble about what fits where, so we can’t really say that this was a field that had the largest portion occupied by aggressive decks... after all, plenty of people would say ‘if it isn’t aggressive, it’s controlling’ then try and cut a divide down the middle of the Black/Green decks (probably based on whether or not they played Damnation, which more than a few of them did) and taking the control-light Blink decks into the control deck section despite being tempo decks instead of true control decks. Instead, let’s look at the biggest winners overall.

Pickles won 10 states, which is pretty astounding for a deck that started out on nobody’s radar. These wins included a very interesting U/G build in Wisconsin, mono-Blue Pickles, Pickles with Damnation sideboard, and Pickles with White splash... some going so far as to play Wrath of God, some being content to stop at Momentary Blink, and some just for sideboard cards like Teferi’s Moat. It picked up a hefty 36 berths in the Top 8, filling the Top 8 of four and a half states or provinces all by its lonesome. The next highest number of wins could be either the assortment of Blink decks or the variety of Black-Green decks, depending on whether you drew a line distinguishing the Blink-Pickles decks as Pickles decks (as I did) or as Blink decks. Counting the Pickles-Blink decks as Blink decks, it goes up to 7 wins and 45 total appearances; not counting it, Black-Green appears next with 6 wins and 48 appearances... more than half of which included The Rack, but there was plenty of precedent for “Rackless” Black-Green decks, often including Garruk Wildspeaker instead. (Though only a few of these decks truly resembled my “Tarmo-Rock” from the Friday before States... I drew the line at including Riftsweeper and Troll Ascetic, before I patted myself on the back.)

Elves! and Red/Green were neck and neck as the “best” aggressive deck; Elves! won one more state and made one more Top 8, but they were quite close... and both quite present in the metagame, at or around the same level as Pickles in the Top 8. Things begin to fall off after that, with the interesting numbers being two wins for Teachings decks but a total of 28 appearances (... and that wasn’t counting the U/W splash flashback on Teachings deck as ‘Teachings,’ labeling it as U/W Control instead); two wins and 20 appearances for Black-Green-White mid-range Doran decks, one win and sixteen appearances for beatdown Faeries, and no wins but a whopping 24 Top 8 berths to aggressive Red-Black decks, often heavy on the Goblins and more than a few pairing Goblin token-makers and Threaten with not just Greater Gargadon but also Nantuko Husk.

It’s an interesting metagame, pretty evenly split between aggressive and controlling... but let’s rank the decks a bit differently, to bias in favor of the decks that won more. For this exercise, we’ll give a deck 4 points for winning its Top 8, 3 points for losing in the finals, 2 points for making the semifinals and just one point for losing in the quarterfinals... this will give us a skewed look at these decks in order to judge how well each deck did once it made the Top 8, which will give us some means of figuring out what did well in the metagame and what might only have been plentiful.
Deck /Weighted Points/
Pickles 83
B/G 92
Elves variants 67
R/G Aggro 62
non-Pickles Blink decks 60
Snow White 30
Teachings 49
BGW Doran 35
Merfolk 18
Snow Red 21
Mannequin 20
GW Aggro 9
Faeries Aggro 26
Mono-Black Control 19
UG Aggro 19
RG Big Mana 14
W/g Kithkin 14
GW Control 6
Turbo-Fog 8
B/R (Usually Goblins) 45
UW Control 14
Red Deck Wins 15
Predator 11
Mono-White Kithkin 7
Poorlash 7
UB Control 9
Mono-Green Aggro 3
RWU Control 4
Mono-Black Aggro 3
UB Madness 2
Poison Slivers 1
Wild Pair 1
Walk the Aeons 1
Big Mana Red 1
RW Control 1
UGb Kowal 3
Mono-Blue Control 2
UGB Aggro 2
UBW Control 1
Reanimator 1
BRG Control 2

The biggest winner, points-wise, is Black-Green... with Pickles hot on its heels. For a truly interesting comparison, and the only numerical manipulation we really have available to us from just the one week’s results, we’ll divide the number of points earned by the number of decks earning those points; the higher the number the more points earned on average for each Top 8 appearance with each deck. Keep in mind that we are using illusory numbers rather than anything “hard and fast”, so at least some of the distinction into different “classes” we will see here will be phantom numbers as well... small numbers of appearances will have very poor variances for this sort of calculation, either towards success or failure, so we’ll be cutting the calculation off right away at “any deck without at least five appearances in the Top 8s”.

Some people will tell you this is because I hate Turbo-Fog, and don’t want to own up to the fact that in three appearances they’d have earned 4, 3, and 1 point, for (8 / 3 = 2.67) on the comparison scale... a high value. In actuality, I hate arguing with Turbo-Fog players about the validity of their deck in this metagame, because I have learned ever since first attempting to explain to them that they were going to face a different metagame than anticipated in their thread discussing the deck on’s Standard forums that sometimes you just can’t beat sense into peoples’ heads. So I won’t try... nor will I try to beat sense into the heads of those advocating any other deck appearing less than five times in all the Top 8’s across the continent, saving me from having to argue with the proponents of GW Control, Mono-Green Aggro, Green-White Non-Kithkin Aggro, Reanimator, and Rites of Flourishing / Walk the Aeons combo.

What can I say, I’m all out of aspirin so I’m taking the easy route out. I’d say it works best for all of us. This did lead to dismissing decks that won 4 out of the 52 state championships, but when it comes to math we need our standards for validity, even if they are just arbitrarily chosen as “probably good enough.” Let’s look at that comparison:
Deck /Weighted Average of Points Per Top 8 Appearance/
Mannequin 2.857
Snow Red 2.625
Snow White 2.308
Pickles 2.306
W/g Kithkin 2.000
Merfolk 2.000
BG 1.917
UG Aggro 1.900
B/R (Usually Goblins) 1.875
Elves variants 1.861
UB Control 1.800
R/G Aggro 1.771
RG Big Mana 1.750
BGW Doran 1.750
Teachings 1.750
Mono-Black Control 1.727
Red Deck Wins 1.667
Faeries Aggro 1.625
non-Pickles Blink decks 1.579
Poorlash 1.400
Predator 1.375
UW Control 1.273
Mono-White Kithkin 1.167

With results like these, there’s little surprise that people are touting the “Mannequin” B/U deck as the next hot thing... it put in seven appearances and won twice out of those seven tries, including meeting itself in the finals in at least one state. Snow Red has likewise put in solid results, despite not having a “unified” decklist as of the Week One results... and, like Mannequin, it met itself in the finals in at least one state. Snow White is actually a bit of a misnomer, as something around half of the decks had a light Blue splash for card-drawing; the distinction between Snow White and UW Control was the presence of countermagic, in which case it became UW Control... a bottom finisher, amongst this group.

For those who want the reminder, Turbo-Fog finishes just between the first and second place contender on this list. And if you believe that this is an accurate description of the efficacy of that deck in this metagame, I’d simply aim to remind you that I am reasonably certain that its penetration from the Swiss into the Top 8 as a whole was generally poor; those who came expecting the heavy aggressive metagame in which Turbo-Fog would flourish often floundered against the approximately half of the field that was well prepared to clean their clocks by not playing the type of game Turbo-Fog was intended to capitalize upon. Rickard Hedlund, the Manitoba Provincial Champ who hoisted his plaque with the mighty Turbo-Fog deck, was later quoted as saying: “Being that I was the only player that won with Turbo Fog I'd say I wouldn't let my friends play with it either, unless the field had no Pickles decks”. A small sample size does not necessarily provide representative numbers of a deck’s effectiveness in the metagame as a whole... and tends to lend a bit of suspicion as to exactly why that deck was present in the Top 8 in such small numbers. It is my firm belief that Turbo-Fog is an under-performer, and the metagame as a whole seems to have thankfully moved on past the point of caring.

With this list as our rough striation for “quality of deck” for the Week One metagame, let’s move on from juggling numbers to have a look at the Grand Prix results in Krakow. Here’s the Day 2 deck breakdown, by archetype:

17 Mono-U Pickles
16 G/B "Rock" or “Tarmo-Rack”
13 Mannequin
7 Teachings
7 Red Deck Wins
7 R/G Aggro
7 U/W/x Blink
6 Elves!
5 R/G Big Mana
5 Snow Red
4 W/g Kithkin Aggro
4 U/W Control
3 Merfolk
3 U/R Sligh
3 “Sexy Planeswalker”
3 B/R Aggressive
2 U/B Madness
2 Predator
2 Mono-Blue Control
2 Mono-Black Control
1 Mono-Red aggro-control
1 Suicide Black
1 Scryb & Force
1 U/G Faeries
1 R/G Fatties
1 Reanimator
1 B/G/W Doran
1 Snow White (splash Red)
1 Mono-Green Aggro
1 U/G/b Kowal

These broke down to the following Top 8 results, after an additional six rounds of Day Two play:

Paul Cheon – 1st place, U/W Pickles
Amiel Tenenbaum – 2nd place, Mono-Blue Control
Armin Birner – 3rd place, R/G Big Mana
Olivier Ruel – 4th place, Mannequin
Robert Jacko – 5th place, U/G Faeries
David Besso – 6th place, Mono-Blue Pickles
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, 7th place, Mono-Blue Control
Matej Zatlkaj – 8th place, Mannequin

Both the Wafo-Tapa Mono-Blue Control decks that made Day 2 made the Top 8, as did the sole U/G Faeries deck. With a 100% success ratio converting a Day 2 appearance into a Top 8 berth, it’s hard to argue with these decks at least as far as “on the numbers” goes. 20% of the R/G “Big Mana” decks pushed through Day 2 to the elimination rounds. That number is 15.4%, for Mannequin... and at a minimum 9.5% for Pickles decks of various color combinations, since we’re unsure of just how many of those “U/W Control” decks were mis-labeled U/W Pickles decks like the one that won the tournament. (The maximum is only 11.1%, if Cheon’s UW Pickles was the only one mis-labeled at the start of the day as “UW Control”. Since it’s all a matter of opinion anyway.)

All other decks succeeded 0% of the time, which is rather a few decks all together I’d say. Sadly we don’t have a deck breakdown by player and so cannot perform any of the really fun statistical magic, figuring what beats what and how often or even “just” ranking each of the decks by their individual Day 2 performances. It would have certainly made for a meatier Grand Prix analysis... and I’m sure some of the competitors at the Grand Prix have exactly that, allowing them the benefit of using the standings and pairings through Day 2 to inform their deck choices for Worlds. With two Pickles decks and two Mannequin decks in the Top 8, though, it’d be foolish to avoid either in your preparation... both to play with them and to play against them, as the Grand Prix results are showing both to be very successful flavors of control strategies.

As it is, all I’ve really got to offer to suggest is a reasonably interesting pile of statistics for the State Championships as to what constitutes the “decks to watch”, and to state that the illusion of the “Beatdown Metagame” was thoroughly dispelled at Grand Prix Krakow. Controlling decks seem to have won the day, both in the Top 8 at Krakow and as seen at States... with Snow White and Snow Red having had quite an impressive footprint at States despite having generally small numbers in the Top 8 overall. “Mannequin” as it is being called has especially earned notice, enough to mark it as one of the most-played decks on Day 2 at GP: Krakow... alongside Pickles decks in rather large numbers as well. In addition to being heavily played on Day 2 both were also was able to convert this into two slots in the Top 8, so if you haven’t stood up and paid attention yet... now might be the time to do so.

And if I happen to get my hands on a list correlating the players in the Grand Prix with the deck they played on Day 2, more interesting statistical information will undoubtedly appear. I hope perhaps to be able to acquire that and be able to revisit this informational goldmine about the Standard format prior to the World Championships for the home viewing audience, but also before the “Win A Car!” tournament series a week from this upcoming Sunday at Grand Prix: Daytona... and across the American Northeast. We shall see what information becomes available when I start asking around for it...