Magic the Gathering Standard Analysis: Season in Review

The Holidays are a quiet time for the competitive Magic the Gathering Standard scene. There was no StarCityGames Open or Standard Grand Prix to analyze this week, so I considered skipping my column, but the world needs graphs, so I pondered what to do. Then it came to me: with 2012 coming to a close and 2013 rapidly approaching, I decided to take a look back at the Standard season to date. In today’s article I’ll analyze the metagame that started with the release of Return to Ravnica in early October. I’ve analyzed the decks that have finished in the top 16 of a major tournament and will discuss the most played archetypes, creatures, and removal cards.


Metagame Evolution

This standard season has seen several competitive decks. The following graph shows the deck archetypes with the most top 16 finishes.


The most successful decks so far have been Reanimator, which has been a contender in tournaments since rotation, and BR Dragon Zombies, which started dominating more recently. Jund Midrange was an early powerhouse, and Bant Control has been the most successful control deck.

This graph helps us understand overall success, but it doesn’t do much to chart archetype results over time. Let’s take a look at the top finishes by month of this standard season: October, November, and December.



Now we can more clearly see trends like how Jund Midrange dominated in October, dropped off in November, and all but disappeared in December. UW Flash sprung up in November as one of the top strategies but diminished in December when BR Dragon Zombies rose to prominence. Decks like Reanimator and Bant Control have consistently been top decks month after month.

Let’s take an even closer look at the ups and downs of the top six archetypes of Standard.



Many an angel, beast, and behemoth found new life this season and were unburied from their planeswalker’s graveyard. The Reanimator archetype is tied for the most top 16 finishes with 23. It’s been a very consistent deck with at least one pilot in the top 16 of every tournament save SCG Baltimore.



The necromancers of the past standard season faced stiff opposition after rotation and took a beating early. Left with little choice, they made a deal with a devil and a dragon to create a monstrosity of a deck. BR Dragon Zombies, featuring [card]Hellrider[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], crawled, cackled, and shrieked to the top, winning GP Charleston. The deck flew high above the metagame from there, with eight top 16 finishes at SCG Baltimore and seven at GP Nagoya.



In the beginning, Jund Midrange ruled the world of Standard. Huntsmen and beasts dominated the battlefield as socialite vampires circled overhead. The deck started out strong with two copies in the top 16 of the inaugural tournament of the season, SCG Cincinnati. Jund powered through the next three weeks with big shares of the top 16 at Providence, Indianapolis, and New Orleans before giving way to other decks in November.



Bant Control is the old faithful of this Standard season, appearing in every top 16 thus far. No revelation here: the ability to play some of the most powerful creatures, removal, and other cards in the format is a recipe for success.



UWR Tempo put a blue-based tempo strategy back on the Standard map in late October at SCG Indianapolis, stealing a pair of spots in the top 16 from creature-heavy midrange decks with the help of counterspells, burn, and Unsummon effects. UWR Tempo was also the arrival party of [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] in competitive Standard. The deck hit a high point at SCG New Orleans, claiming four of the top 16 before passing the tempo baton to UW Flash. It might be back, however, with a couple top 16 finishes in each of the last several tournaments.



UW Flash was born when Adam Prosak dropped the red from UWR Tempo and went instant speed at SCG Seattle. The deck stayed consistent with at least two top 16 finishes in each of the next five major tournaments. It slumped for a couple weeks but has remained in the mix in December.


The Cards

Let’s move now to the most played cards of Magic’s Standard metagame. I did an analysis of the cards played in the top 16 decks of every StarCityGames Open Series so far. To give some perspective on volume, here are some quick stats:

  • There were 160 decks more than 10 tournaments
  • Those decks contained 282 unique cards, about 25% of the Standard format card pool
  • There were 12,010 total cards in these decks


The Creatures

Creatures have ruled Standard so far this season, and an average of 23 creature cards were played top 16 decks. Let’s check out some graphs (everybody likes graphs) to breakdown the creatures played by type, mana cost, power, and toughness.



It’s been a midrange kind of a year: 58% of creatures had a converted mana cost (CMC) of three, four, or five and a power of two or three. Fifty-nine percent had a toughness of 2 or 3. If we were to sketch out the profile of the average creature in today’s Standard metagame it would like something like this:




This is a KYT. As you can see, he has the following very mundane stats:

  • Creature Type: Human
  • Converted Mana Cost: 3.1
  • Power: 2.6
  • Toughness: 2.5

KYT may seem unplayable, but in reality he represents a tough road for aggressive decks, in part because KYT does not actually have average abilities. Nineteen of the 20 most-played creatures, in terms of number of cards, have very relevant abilities, and 13 have more than one. Ten of them have enters the battlefield abilities. So maybe KYT is a little stronger, a little tougher, and enters the battlefield carrying a Healing Salve for whomever casts him. Perhaps he is a little less powerful, a little tougher and has flying, deathtouch, and lifelink.

Time to move away from hypothetical cards and take a look at the most played creatures of this Standard season. The following graphs show the most played creatures in top 16 decks this season. The one on the left ranks them by total number of cards, and the one on the right is ranked by the percent of the total decks (160) the card appeared in.


The top of the charts should come as no surprise to anybody who follows Standard, especially if you read my column every Monday. [card]Thragtusk[/card] has appeared in nearly half (46%) of the top 16 decks and has been a staple in many of the most popular decks of the format including Jund Midrange, Naya Midrange, Reanimator, and Bant Control.

[card]Restoration Angel[/card] is right behind the beast appearing in 41% of decks. She has been a mainstay in decks like UWR Tempo, UW Flash, Reanimator, Naya Midrange, and some versions of Bant Control.


The Removal

Now we’ll talk about the tools every good player needs to deal with opposing creatures: removal spells. The following graphs summarize the removal cards played this season by mana cost, type, color, and whether they are targeted, a board sweeper, or have options for both due to overload.



Removal in Standard has been cheap (62% cost one or two mana), overwhelmingly targeted, and mostly at sorcery speed. Three cards: [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], [card]Azorius Charm[/card], and [card]Searing Spear[/card], accounted for 27% of the total removal cards played and had a big impact on these numbers. Return to Ravnica has a number of multi-colored cards, known as gold cards because of the frame color on the card, and many of them are popular removal spells like the Charms, [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], and [card]Detention Sphere[/card].

Let’s take a look at the most played removal spells. Again, the graph on the left ranks them by number of cards played and the graph on the right by the percent of total decks they appear in.



[card]Pillar of Flame[/card] is far and away the most played removal spell in Standard and is the second most played card overall, behind [card]Thragtusk[/card], in both total number of cards and percent of decks.


Closing Out the Column (and the Year)

That’s all the Standard Analysis I have for you this year. I hope you enjoyed this review and I invite your feedback. As usual, I’ll provide some bonus details on the Standard season in the comments and on Twitter (including links to some bonus graphs), so check back and follow up! I will be back on January 7 with analysis for SCG Open Columbus, but until then have a Merry Holidays and Happy New Year!


Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)


Magic Online Redemption: In Wizards We Trust

Magic: the Gathering cards have value and often carry a lofty price tag; [card]Thragtusk[/card] is currently selling for around $20 and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $95. Other cards, like the infamous Power Nine, are worth hundreds of dollars a piece. You can collect Magic cards, trade them, and sell them anywhere to anyone willing to buy.

The value of digital cards, on the other hand, is somewhat less clear. They have value because there is demand; people want them and are willing to pay. You can still play, trade, sell, and collect them, but only within the Magic: the Gathering Online application and only for as long as the servers keep running. Now, Magic Online is not shutting down anytime soon, and you could make a persuasive argument that the future of Magic is a digital one. Today, however, players are used to paper cards and trade binders, and to many, digital cards are ultimately just code in a computer program.

Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic: the Gathering, addressed this problem through a service called redemption. I was aware of redemption when I started playing Magic Online, but only in an abstract “the sky is blue because light wavelengths are doing different things” kind of a way. I knew that I could, with some effort, swap my online cards for paper ones, but not much beyond that. What exactly is redemption and how does it work? Does it make people more likely to start playing Magic Online? What is the impact of cards moving from bits and bytes to cardboard on the Magic: the Gathering economy? These are the questions I set out to answer with this article.

The Paper Standard

To address the question of digital card value, Wizard’s created the Magic Online redemption program. The game of Magic grows and updates through a number of card releases each year. These releases are called “core sets” and “expansion sets.” To make things simple, we’ll just call them expansions. If you collect one of every card in an expansion online you can exchange them all for paper copies of the same cards. I like to call it the paper standard for digital cards. Much like the gold standard once guaranteed the value of paper money in many countries around the world, including the United States, Wizards guarantees the value of digital cards through the ability to trade them for paper ones.

Survey Says

I was curious about what the Magic: the Gathering community knows about redemption. Do most Magic players know more about it than I did? Did they take advantage and redeem sets? Was its existence a factor in their playing Magic Online? I created this survey and asked people to respond to it via Twitter and by posting it on when KYT was not looking. More than four hundred people responded.

Let’s get one thing out of the way about this survey: it is not scientific, not even close. It is skewed heavily toward people who are active on the Internet, specifically those who use Twitter (and in particular those who follow me, follow people who follow me, or follow people who follow… well, you get the idea) and visit This couldn’t be helped. KYT, the owner and operator of this fine parcel of Internet real estate, rejected my perfectly reasonable request for a sizeable grant to hire a team of pollsters and statisticians to build and administer a poll that would properly account for demographic differences and ensure a low margin of error. Sad day, I know, but I shall do my best without them.

Most of the respondents, 82%, play Magic Online and over 90% had heard of redemption. Like me, 14% had heard of it but were a bit fuzzy on the details. To be on the safe side, let’s get grounded in the facts before we continue.

Just the Facts

To redeem your digital cards for paper ones you must collect one of each card, including the basic lands, in a Magic Online expansion set. The cards must either be all foils (a Premium Foil set) or all normal (a Standard set). You can redeem multiple sets at once, and when you are ready, you have to purchase a $5 “Redemption Request” at the Magic Online store for each set. Shipping will set you back $2.99 per order in the United States and $29.99 outside of the U.S., and you can redeem multiple sets in an order. You will have to pay any applicable taxes and fees for your state and country of residence on a value of $50 per set.

Once you’ve submitted your redemption requests, your cards will be removed from your Magic Online collection during the next application downtime and cannot be recovered, so make sure you really want redemption. It will take up to 10 days for your requests to be processed and 1-3 weeks to ship.

Redemption generally starts one month after the digital release date for an expansion; this is the date the expansion becomes available in Magic Online. Redemption will be available for until the “Redemption Guarantee Date” for the expansion. Wizards will continue to redeem an expansion, while supplies last, until its “Redemption Cutoff Date.” Check here for the dates for current expansions and here for the official Wizards redemption support page.

In Wizards We Trust?DigitalRedemption1

Now that we all understand what is meant by redemption and how it works, let’s tackle the next question: who uses it? I’ve theorized that the purpose of redemption is to offer peace of mind to players shelling out their hard-earned cash for cards that exist only as code. Does it work? Do people pull their cards out of Magic Online for the comfort of paper they can hold?

Survey says… not many. Most respondents have never redeemed a set, and only 8% have redeemed more than five sets.

DigitalRedemption2I also asked, “Was digital card redemption a reason you started playing Magic Online? If you do not yet play on Magic Online, does it make you more likely to start?” Redemption is or would be a factor in the decision to play for 23% of those responding. That’s a sizable chunk. It seems likely that many people do not choose to redeem sets but like knowing the option is available to them.

The Invisible Hand

Redemption isn’t just a paper standard, guaranteeing the value of digital cards; it is also a major force in the Magic Online economy. The first taste Magic Online players get of a new expansion is during online prerelease events. These initial tournaments are accompanied by the hype and excitement that surrounds the arrival of most expansions. Players want to acquire and play with all of the hot new cards, so demand is very high, but comparatively few booster packs are opened during these events, so the supply is low. This is a recipe for high prices for cards.

When the expansion is officially released the card supply increases, but lots of players are building and testing decks and still in need of cards to do it. Prices don’t change much until Limited events start. Limited is a type of Magic game where players build decks from an allotment of booster packs containing cards from one or more expansions. Limited players open lots of booster packs, and many sell the cards in those packs to Magic Online retailers in exchange for event tickets (“tix,” the currency of Magic Online), which they use to subsidize future drafts and other events. Limited players flood the online market with cards, dramatically increasing supply and, in turn, reducing card prices.

The majority of redemption is done by businesses that buy the less expensive digital cards, redeem them, and sell the pricier paper cards for a profit. These professional redeemers keep an eye on falling card prices for an expansion and start snapping the cards up once it is profitable to do so. The increased demand for cards, along with the reduced supply as redeemed cards are removed from Magic Online, offsets the continuing increase in card supply from limited players and keeps prices relatively stable.

Digital Deflation

So what would happen if Wizard’s turned off set redemption? Demand would still start out high for a new expansion, riding the wave of hype into the Magic Online release. Eventually that would subside, and without a path to paper to keep it in check, the supply of digital cards would quickly outpace demand as limited players do their thing and continue to open more and more packs.

With so much supply and so little demand, prices would fall and cards would become much, much cheaper. We see this happen today when redemption for an expansion ends. Prices drop significantly and quickly. This would happen much earlier without redemption, leaving a much larger supply of cards for the expansion in the game.

Constructed Magic, games where players build a deck using cards of your choice rather than being limited to what you get in booster packs, is expensive. Popular Magic Online decks for the Standard format can cost players $400 to $500-worth of event tickets. One popular Modern deck will set you back close to $800. Cheaper card prices sound great, right? Before you grab your pitchforks and storm Wizards’ headquarters shouting, “Down with redemption!” let’s consider the real economic impact.

First, there would be fewer retailers buying and selling cards on Magic Online. Lower prices mean less profit. Less profit means less incentive to operate a business, which means fewer retailers and automated card selling programs (“bots”) populating those outdated classifieds that serve as Magic Online’s marketplace. The Magic Online economy would shrink, reducing your options to buy and sell cards.

Second, limited events would become more expensive. If prices are significantly lower, limited players will get significantly fewer event tickets for the cards they sell. To make matters worse, without redeemers there would be far fewer people to sell cards to. Lower prices and lower demand mean a much smaller draft subsidy and a higher cost to play.

Third, the price of paper cards would increase. It’s hard to know exactly how many sets of digital cards are redeemed for paper ones. A few hundred each week is a conservative estimate. That’s a few hundred new paper copies of each card of an expansion every week. This becomes significant when you start talking about the already expensive mythic rare cards. Redemption is providing a few hundred more copies Bonfire of the Damned; Tamiyo, the Moon Sage: and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] each week. If redemption ended, that supply of cards would end as well. The price of cards, especially the rarest and most sought after, would increase considerably.

The Closing Bell

Redemption is an important part of Magic Online. It provides a paper standard, a guarantee that if you’re willing to spend money on digital cards, the value of those cards will be backed by paper cards. This gives peace of mind to some players, about a quarter of those I surveyed. More importantly, redemption keeps card supplies and prices in check so that the digital marketplace can function and players can buy and sell cards.

I’d like to thank the following people for answering my questions and providing input for this article: Heath Newton from and Cape Fear Games,, Matt Beverly, and Mike Grote. I’d also like to thank those of you who responded to my survey. I got some interesting responses to the last question, “Any comments on set redemption you’d like to share?” and I will be sharing some in the comments of this article.

Thanks for reading.

Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)

Magic the Gathering Standard Analysis: Invitation Only

The StarCityGames Invitational took place in Los Angeles last weekend, and many of the best players in Magic: the Gathering battled in both Standard and Legacy. I’ll stick to the Standard side and analyze the decks and cards played by the top 16, as well as take a look at the Standard metagame.

The Top 16 Decks

The following graphic provides some high-level details on the top 16 decks of the Invitational, including deck types and colors played. I loaded the decklists into the Decked Builder app to get the average mana cost for the main deck, as well as prices in dollars and MTGO tickets for each list. The graphs provide a look at the overall strategies, archetypes, and colors used by the top 16 players.


Reid Duke won the Invitational with his Bant Control deck. The link might say “4-Color Control” but don’t be fooled, this is the Andrew Cuneo Bant Control list that splashes black to activate [card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card] as part of the “games go really long nowadays, maybe I’ll just deck you” plan.

Second place went to Ben Wienburg and his Naya Humans list. Wienburg added red to WG Humans for [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] and [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card]. He played thirty-four creatures, all humans with the exception of four copies of [card]Restoration Angel[/card].

It was a good weekend to be playing a tempo deck. Flash decks accounted for five of the top 16 decks. Adam Prozak finished eighth and stuck with good old blue and white, piloting a list very similar to the one he pioneered several weeks ago at SCG St. Louis. Gerry Thompson added red to the mix in order to include effective Zombie repellent  four [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] in his main deck and four [card]Izzet Staticaster[/card] in his sideboard.

UWR Tempo, a deck that saw a lot of play and success earlier this Standard season, has returned with two pilots in the top 16 of the Invitational. It’s less “flashy”, due to having to tap out on one’s own turn to play [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] or [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], but shares many of the same cards as the Flash decks.

BR Dragon Zombies, an unholy alliance between efficiently aggressive zombies and constructed playable dragons, was shut out of the top 16 after dominating Standard the last three weeks. The sole Zombies representative was a BG Zombies deck in seventh place piloted by Leon Kornacki. His deck featured fifteen one mana creatures and a curve that tops out at three. This super aggressive brew included four [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] for reach and four Rancor for raw pummeling power.

Cards of Choice

The following graphs will show you the most played creatures and removal spells in the top 16 decks. The number of copies in the main deck (blue) and sideboard (red) are displayed. The table below each graph adds additional detail: the number of top 16 decks the card appears in, as well as the average number of copies in the main and sideboard.


Welcome to the graph Izzet Staticaster! This wizard is a one woman wall in Zombie matchups. [card]Izzet Staticaster[/card] can hit the table early enough to help against an aggressive start and three toughness blocks [card]Gravecrawler[/card] and [card]Diregraf Ghoul[/card] without dying. She can tap and ping any number of [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s back to the graveyard and neither [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] nor [card]Ultimate Price[/card] can kill her.


This top 16 is all charm with [card]Azorius Charm[/card], [card]Selesnya Charm[/card], and [card]Izzet Charm[/card] making today’s graph. The Charm cycle was touted as some of the best cards in Return to Ravnica during spoiler season and the Invitational results back up the early hype. [card]Azorius Charm[/card] remains one of the most popular spells in Standard and is a fixture in blue and white tempo decks. [card]Selesnya Charm[/card] is a staple in Naya lists and is the only non-creature spell in Ben Wienburg’s Naya Humans deck. [card]Izzet Charm[/card] has found a home with 1-2 copies in the main of UWR decks.

Standard Metagame Overview

The following graphs track the deck archetypes with the most top 16 finishes at major Standard tournaments. The top graph shows results in the last month, and the bottom shows results since Return to Ravnica rotated into the format in October 2012.


Dragon riding Zombies still top the charts over the last month, despite no top 16 finishes in the Invitational. UWR decks seem to be coming on strong and the combination of [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] and [card]Izzet Staticaster[/card] is effective against the Zombie early game. Is it enough to challenge Zombie strategies in the long run? We will see when the StarCityGames Open Series resumes next year.

Closing Out the Column (and the Year)

That does it for the Standard Analysis of the SCG Invitational in Los Angeles. I’ll provide additional details on the tournament and metagame in the comments, so check back here and follow me on Twitter for more.

Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)

Magic the Gathering Standard Analysis: Sin City

StarCityGames Open: Las Vegas took place last week, December 8, and 342 players faced off in a Magic: the Gathering Standard tournament. What happened in Vegas will not stay in Vegas this time, as I am here to bring you analysis from Sin City, including the top 16 decks, the cards they played, and an updated look at the Standard metagame.


The Top 16

The following graphic provides some high-level details on the top 16 decks of the tournament, including deck types and colors played. I loaded the decklists into the Decked Builder app to get the average mana cost for the main deck, as well as prices in dollars and MTGO tickets for each list. The graphs provide a look at the overall strategies, archetypes, and colors used by the top 16 players.


BR Zombie decks were coming off a big showing at SCGBALT where they claimed ten of the top 16 spots. They retained a healthy chunk of this top 16 with four decks grabbing a spot in Vegas, three in the top 8. Three of these were what I like to call “BR Dragon Zombies” (I’m open to more clever names) which include [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] to close out games after an early zombie rush. The fourth Zombie deck, piloted by Emmet Clarkson, was a more traditional strategy that used [card]Blood Artist[/card] for reach and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] at the top of his curve.  Clarkson was the most successful Zombie deck in Vegas, taking third place.

Naya midrange decks grabbed four of the top 16 spots, and two of them splashed a fourth color for additional options. Glenn Jones (eight place) worked in black for access to [card]Ultimate Price[/card] and the ability to flashback [card]Lingering Souls[/card] in his main deck. Jones had [card]Tragic Slip[/card], [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card], and [card]Slaughter Games[/card] in his sideboard. Jun Yu finished second and went with a blue splash in order to play a pair of [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] in his main deck and [card]Detention Sphere[/card]; [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card]; and [card]Curse of Echoes[/card] in his sideboard.

Jeff Levine piloted a four-color midrange deck to sixth place.  The deck featured the [card]Izzet Staticaster[/card] and [card]Nightshade Peddler[/card] combo (a very useful creature control duo discussed in detail in Jay Lansdaal’s latest article) alongside some of the top creatures in the Standard metagame.

Chad Peter brought a hasty brew to the tournament, placing 15th with a Jund Aggro deck that played 17 creatures with haste and four [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card]. He was looking to outrace the walking dead and supported his speedy team with 12 removal spells and two [card]Giant Growth[/card] in his main deck.  Peter also packed a pair of [card]Bower Passage[/card] in his sideboard, which kept [card]Lingering Souls[/card] from chump blocking his team, made [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] almost unblockable, and limited the value of a [card]Restoration Angel[/card] flashed in during combat.


Cards of Choice

The following graphs will show you the most played creatures and removal spells in the top 16 decks. The number of copies in the main deck (blue) and sideboard (red) are displayed. The table below each graph adds additional detail: the number of top 16 decks the card appears in, as well as the average number of copies in the main and sideboard.

SCGVEGAS saw [card]Restoration Angel[/card] and [card]Thragtusk[/card] reclaim the top spots, but the Zombies and their hasty friends are right behind them.

The top three removal spells are all red, a metagame adjustment to manage the recent resurgence of Zombies’ power.  [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] was the most played card in the top 16 with 42 copies.


Standard Metagame

The following graphs track the deck archetypes with the most top 16 finishes at major Standard tournaments. The top graph shows results in the last month, and the bottom shows results since Return to Ravnica rotated into the format in October 2012.

BR Dragon Zombies is already the top Standard archetype of the last month and is on its way to quickly becoming the most successful tournament deck of this Standard season.


Closing Out the Column

That does it for the Standard Analysis of SCGVEGAS. I made some changes to the type of information presented and how I presented it this week, and I hope you liked them. Please leave comments below and let me know what you think. I’ll provide additional details on the tournament and metagame in the comments, so check back in here and also on Twitter. I’ll be back next week to bring you data and analysis from the SCG Invitational in Los Angeles.

I’d also like to give a special thanks to Matt Beverly, @MattyStudios, for the awesome new feature graphic for this weekly column. Matty is a passionate and very involved member of the Magic community and, as you can see, an impressive graphic artist. If you have need of visual design services check him out!


Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)

Survey Time: Magic the Gathering Online Redemption

I’m going to tackle Magic: the Gathering Online set redemption for a future ManaDeprived article. I plan to explore the process of converting digital cards into paper ones. As part of my research, I want to take the pulse of the community on the subject: what do you know about it, is it an incentive to play MTGO, and have you ever redeemed a set? I’ve created a short survey to ask some questions and plan on using the results in the article. If you have 30 seconds to let your voice be heard I would appreciate it. Remember, it’s for science! Or something…


Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)

Magic the Gathering Standard Analysis: Zombie Apocalypse!

The StarCityGames Open Series took a week off for Thanksgiving but was back December 1 in Baltimore (SCGBALT). It was an interesting one to be sure, so let’s check in on the Magic: the Gathering Standard metagame with some analysis and observations of the decks and cards in the top 16.

The Top 16 Overview

We’ll start with a high-level look at the top 16: the decks played and a summary of the archetypes, strategies, and colors used.

Zombie apocalypse! It sure looks like players went from dining on turkey to feasting on brains in Baltimore. Fresh off of Grand Prix victories in Charleston and San Antonio, Rakdos Zombies overran the tournament with ten of the top 16 finishes. No other archetype had more than one in the top16, and the biggest split for me to show you was between the BR Zombies decks that used [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] and those that were on Team [card]Blood Artist[/card].

Red and black were both played in thirteen of the top 16 decks. Blue and white joined forces in all four control decks, and green was played in only four decks, down from nine at SCGSEA.

Aggressive decks are on a roll, and SCGBALT continued the trend. Let’s take a look at the historical trends since rotation and SCGCIN:

Aggro decks have continued to rocket upward, reaching a new post-rotation high with Baltimore’s wave of BR Zombies. Control decks, armed with board sweepers, are at their average for this Standard season with three decks (2.9 average per tournament). Midrange lost some ground once again despite finishing first and second at SCGBALT.

Deck Check

Written off for dead a few weeks ago, the Zombies archetype has found renewed quasi-life with the help of new hasty friends: a devil named [card]Hellrider[/card] and a dragon known as the [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. The game plan is simple and familiar: play a bunch of two-power one-drops into a [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] on turn three and attempt to overwhelm your opponent. Once your ground game gets outclassed by midrange creatures, [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] is still a great finisher for the deck. She is now often joined by [card]Hellrider[/card] at four mana, who gives those 2/2s a new reason for undeath and to attack. [card]Hellrider[/card] provides some much-needed reach to finish off a stabilized opponent. Need even more power? [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] is a hasty finisher that should get in there and clear the way for your Aristocrat too. Paul Longo’s eighth place deck is a good example of this aggressive game plan. Longo backs his creatures up with plenty of burn to finish the game or clear the way for his team.

Some Zombie players also turned to an old favorite: [card]Blood Artist[/card]. Danny Goldstein, who finished fourth, played four copies of the misunderstood vampire painter. His plan leaned heavily on triggering direct damage and lifegain by sacrificing creatures to [card]Bloodthrone Vampire[/card], [card]Bloodflow Connoisseur[/card], and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] with an Artist on the battlefield. The creatures were often his own [card]Butcher Ghoul[/card], [card]Gravecrawler[/card], and [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], and sometimes his opponent’s with the help of three [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] in the deck. The goal is to steal an opponent’s creature, attack with it, and then sacrifice it for their pain and your (life) gain. This is particularly helpful when a [card]Thragtusk[/card] is staring you down; remove a threat and keep the token when you’re through with the beast. With so much sacrificing going on, the deck takes full advantage of morbid with four copies of [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] and three [card]Tragic Slip[/card]s.

Though dominant, BR Zombies was not decisive in its victory: first, second, and third place all went to different archetypes. First place was won by a Naya Midrange deck piloted by Patrick Shifflett. His deck made full use of some of the format’s most powerful creatures and enters-the-battlefield-abilities, in standard with four copies of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Restoration Angel[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. He played four [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card]s to ramp into a turn-two [card]Loxodon Smiter[/card] in order get out an early blocker. Two copies of [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] and a full four [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card] in the maindeck provided reach.

Clark Williamson placed second with a Jund Midrange deck, which fought fire with fire, or dragon with dragon, with his own pair of [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]s. Williamson played the Jundtastic trio of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Thragtusk[/card], and [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card] and included two [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] in the main and another two in the sideboard. His removal suite was as extensive and diverse as a Swiss army knife: 2 [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], 3 [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], 2 [card]Ultimate Price[/card], 3 [card]Dreadbore[/card], 1 [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card], and 1 [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card], and that’s just the main deck. This left him ten turn-two removal spells with which to battle Zombies, and I’m sure the two [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] in the sideboard saw plenty of action as well, including in the top eight, where Williamson had to fight through two Zombies matches to make the final.

Third place was Ali Aintrazi with a 5-Color Control deck. His deck’s plan was to stall and control until he could land a big finisher like [card]Nicol Bolas[/card], Planeswalker; Griselbrand; Gisela, Blade of Goldnight; or one of his haymaker sorceries: three [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] to gain life and fill his hand, or two [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card] to destroy his opponent’s hand and reduce their life total. To get to this powerful endgame, Aintrazi played a mix of single-target removal, like [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card], and sweepers, like [card]Terminus[/card] and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card]. He also played three copies of [card]Lingering Souls[/card] and full sets of [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] and [card]Thragtusk[/card], which can not only stall out an aggressive opponent but also win the game outright. [card]Door to Nothingness[/card] and [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card], had spots in the sideboard for an alternate win condition in control mirrors, and a pair of [card]Rhox Faithmender[/card] certainly helped against Zombies. 

With the top 16 decks, strategies, and colors in mind, let’s get to the cards played. Unless otherwise noted, the number of copies of a card played in the top 16 of the tournament will be listed in parentheses after the card name.

Creature Feature

The following graph shows the most played creatures, displayed by maindeck in blue and sideboard in red. The table below it indicates the  number of decks in the top 16 that played the card and the average number of copies main and side.

This list is dominated by Zombies and their friends. [card]Gravecrawler[/card], [card]Diregraf Ghoul[/card], [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], and [card]Hellrider[/card] were played in all ten BR Zombie lists. [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] appeared in ten decks: eight Zombies lists along with Naya Midrange and Jund Midrange.

[card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card] wins the award for most-played sideboard card of the top 16, appearing in eleven decks: all ten Zombies lists as well as Jund Midrange. He is an aggressive attacker that provides some tempo advantage with lifegain and is a first-team all-metagame pick on defense, able to block and trade with anything short of [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] the first turn it is played.

[card]Thragtusk[/card] saw the least amount of top-16 play at SCGBALT than any other SCG Open Series since rotation. Each of the four decks playing green ran four copies, but we saw far fewer green decks in the top 16 this week as the other colors gave way to Rakdos mayhem. [card]Restoration Angel[/card] (10) also dropped quite a bit from the prior tournament (25 copies at SCGSEA) for the same reason. She also appeared in four decks.

The Answers

Let’s turn now to answers: how did the top 16 manage opposing threats? Here are the most-played removal spells of the tournament along with the number of decks they appeared in and average number of copies played in the maindeck and sideboard:

[card]Pillar of Flame[/card] (45) is back with a vengeance, up 35 copies from SCGSEA. It was played by all thirteen decks playing red and undoubtedly exiled many a zombie. [card]Searing Spear[/card], [card]Tragic Slip[/card], and [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card] were each played by nine of the Zombie decks.

[card]Ultimate Price[/card] found a home in six Zombie decks, as well as in Jund Midrange, 5-Color Control, and Esper Control. The control decks brought their copies of [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], [card]Terminus[/card], and [card]Detention Sphere[/card] (7) to help wade through the zombie infestation and get to the top 16.

Counters & Caverns

Now it’s time for a Cavern check. [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] (55) was played by fifteen of the top 16 decks. The only card that saw more play was [card]Swamp[/card] (77), and only Matt Toepfner’s Esper Control list, which plays no creature cards, did not play it. Those fifteen decks averaged 3.6 copies in the maindeck and 1 copy in the sideboard.

So how many counters were played by blue-based decks that snuck through the zombie invasion to the top 16? Ali Aintrazi’s 5-Color Control deck skipped counter magic altogether, but the remaining three blue decks each played four copies of [card]Dissipate[/card] (12) along with some [card]Dispel[/card] (7) and [card]Negate[/card] (6) but hardly any copies of [card]Essence Scatter[/card] (2), and no [card]Syncopate[/card] (0).

Zombie Hate

This past weekend was a wakeup call for Standard. If you didn’t get the message after GP Charleston and GP San Antonio, you should hear it loud and clear by now: Zombies is back. Placing ten decks in the top 16 at SCGBALT is going to bring the hate back in full force, and there is a lot of Zombie hate available. Let’s go beyond the known quantities of [card]Pillar of Flame[/card], [card]Terminus[/card], [card]Rest in Peace[/card], [card]Knight of Glory[/card], and [card]Elite Inquisitor[/card] and take a look at a couple other options:

[card]Rhox Faithmender[/card] (2) costs 3W and can hit the battlefield right in time to help stabilize. As a 1/5 it is a great blocker and kills [card]Gravecrawler[/card] over and over again. He gains you two life each time he blocks and synergizes well with other lifegain effects like [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] (12). He can’t be removed by [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] or [card]Searing Spear[/card], and it would take a morbid triggered [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] to burn him into the grave. This Rhino Monk will likely find a sideboard home in Naya Midrange decks as well as white-based control decks. Equip him with a Rancor in Selesnya decks and he could really do some work.

[card]Silklash Spider[/card] costs more and is harder to splash at 3GG, but it can beat [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] to the table on the play and block both the dragon and [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] indefinitely. In fact, this spider can block almost everything and is even more resistant to burn than the rhino. Silklash Spider’s ability to fire off a [card]Hurricane[/card] as an activated ability keeps constant pressure on [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], clears out [card]Lingering Souls[/card] (6) tokens, and can eventually kill [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card], and other fliers.

Green has several more options available to handle both [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] at instant speed. Plummet is the cheapest at 1G, and will destroy either flier, though perhaps not the Aristocrat if your opponent has something to sacrifice. [card]Aerial Predation[/card] gets you the same effect plus 2 life, which could be relevant against Zombies, for one more colorless mana. [card]Crushing Vines[/card] is more versatile with the option to destroy an artifact instead.


Tribal Warfare

It had been going so well for humanity. Human tribal decks have had at least one representative in the top 16 of a SCG Open tournament since SCG New Orleans on October 27. The return of the Zombies displaced the Humans as the top tribe in standard… for now. I think Humans have a good shot at dealing with this newfound zombie menace and have a lot of tools at their disposal.

WU Humans is a deck archetype that has been in the mix for the last several weeks. It has not been a major force in the metagame and is less popular than its Selesnya based cousin, but it has had recent success at GP Bochum (12th and 15th place) and SCG Open Seattle (second place). I think it is well positioned to take on the current metagame including BR Zombies. Let’s look at why.

1)       It Can Race:

The Azorius themed Humans can come out swinging with a turn-one [card]Champion of the Parish[/card] and keep the pressure on; there’s a lot of humans in the deck to grow your Champion. A turn-two Thalia slows down decks hoping to play a [card]Farseek[/card] and makes [card]Searing Spear[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card] unplayable on turn two for opponents on the draw. Turn-three [card]Lyev Skyknight[/card] detains the opponent’s best blocker and gets your Champion out of [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] range. A [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] on turn four should have some nice options to bond with and presents a big problem for your opponent, especially with all the fliers in this deck. Speaking of…

2)       It’s Evasive:

Evasion is good in a metagame heavily populated by creatures, and this deck plays a lot of fliers. It can rule the sky as early as turn one with [card]War Falcon[/card], far sooner than its undead competition. Plenty of soldiers and knights call this deck home and a turn-two [card]Knight of Glory[/card] will allow your Falcon to swing for three damage in the air. When [card]Sublime Archangel[/card] flies in on turn four, you might find yourself with a whole host of creatures and a couple options: swing with the team, or let a flier go solo with the support of a stack of exalted bonuses. [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] rarely runs out of fuel in this deck and can provide plenty of flying, and exalted, support at instant speed to block [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. Some WU Humans decks play [card]Restoration Angel[/card] for some flash and further air superiority, and if you want to go even bigger, [card]Angelic Overseer[/card] provides an evasive and very resilient finisher that can beat down a Hellkite, so long as you can keep a human on the battlefield.

3)       It’s Got Geist:

WU Humans is the best [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] deck on the market today. First, it does not have to rely on the legendary spirit cleric to win; it has plenty of other options, so resources don’t have to be devoted to keeping him alive. You can play Geist and force your opponent to choose: deal with him or lose to him. Geist also works very well with exalted bonuses. The Angel he brings to his cause enters the battlefield attacking but does not attack, so let’s say you play a [card]Sublime Archangel[/card] on turn four with [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and two other creatures on the battlefield and then attack with only Geist. He is a 5/5 because of the three exalted bonuses attacking alongside a 4/4 flying Angel. He’s got a good chance of surviving that combat step.

4)       It Brings the Hate:

WU Humans matches up well with Zombies. It plays 3-4 copies of [card]Knight of Glory[/card], which has protection against black and, therefore, all of BR Zombies creatures save [card]Hellrider[/card] and [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card]. It also avoids removal like [card]Tragic Slip[/card] and [card]Ultimate Price[/card]. You can offer [card]Elite Inquisitor[/card] a spot on the team as well, gaining further protection from Zombies, not to mention [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card], [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card], and [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card]. Playing eight two-drops your opponent can’t block or get past very easily is a good start. First strike is also good against the Zombies early game, and in addition to the Inquisitor, WU Humans plays [card]Precinct Captain[/card] and [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card]. The deck can also run [card]Rest in Peace[/card] if more Zombie bane is needed, though it makes [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] just a colorless producing land.

Thalia has the added benefit of fouling up Control decks, UW Flash, [card]Unburial Rites[/card] strategies, and removal and ramp options. WU Humans runs between 30 and 38 creatures, making it a perfect home for her. You can sideboard [card]War Priest of Thune[/card] to handle [card]Detention Sphere[/card] and [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] and Militant Dryad (an honorary human for the purposes of this example) against [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], [card]Lingering Souls[/card], and other graveyard robbing strategies. [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] is an all-purpose temporary answer to bothersome creatures and just might buy you enough time to finish off your opponent.

5)       It’s Got Answers:

Playing WU Humans gives you a lot of flexibility in your 75 cards to play the answers you need in your metagame. [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] is a problem that can be solved by Rider’s of Gavony, which could also be a blowout against Zombies and a Humans mirror match. [card]Bonds of Faith[/card] does some work in this deck and acts as either a Pacifism for a potential blocker or can make your [card]Lyev Skyknight[/card] a 5/3 flier or [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] a 4/4. Cards like [card]Feeling of Dread[/card] are good tempo plays against other aggressive decks as well as against midrange strategies, and [card]Purify the Grave[/card] offers an additional efficient answer to graveyard focused strategies.

You can run four copies of [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] without much of a drawback, naming human, spirit, or angel. The deck is almost all white and uses blue for creatures and [card]Detention Sphere[/card] if you are worried about [card]Lingering Souls[/card] getting in the way. [card]Faith’s Shield[/card] protects against removal and can force through a decisive attacker to win the game, and the deck can also play its own counter magic, mainly [card]Negate[/card] against mass removal (other than Supreme Verdict) and cards like [card]Flames of the Firebrand[/card] that could be card advantage for your opponent.

Next Up

Thanks for reading this analysis of StarCityGames Open: Baltimore. I will tweet more information and observations about the tournament and metagame this week, so follow me on Twitter if you are interested in that. I’ll be back next week to discuss SCG Open: Las Vegas. Can the Zombies overwhelm Sin City or will the rest of the field beat them back? I’m excited to see what happens and where the metagame goes from here!

Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)