This month, Wizards of the Coast announced a change to competitive Magic to include Arena, Magic’s digital counterpart. Dylan takes a glimpse into the future of deck-building in this new environment.
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” — Albert Einstein
Innovation beats at the core of Competitive Magic. Beyond simply granting an edge to those at the forefront, innovation is an engine of iteration that shapes entire metagames. From Standard with its “deck of the week” format, to Modern with specialists trying out the hottest new cards, innovation is a frequent part of the Magic experience.
With the introduction of Best of One (Bo1) Ranked Play as the premiere competitive experience on Arena, innovation is changing in a way not easily understood. In this unique digital landscape, there are no second chances, no forgiving postboard games where you can grind your opponent out and outmaneuver them with diversified threats. You play one game. One. Let that small, engrossing word sink in for a minute. In this new form of competitive Magic, you play one game of Limited or Standard against an opponent — no more drafting tech sideboard cards over that maybe playable bear. No more jamming 4 Duress and 2 Golden Demise into your sideboard to beat Mono Red. While this style of play draws many similarities to Hearthstone (and in many circles, ridicule), we should consider the constant innovation this style of play requires. Standard and Limited, in particular, are formats that reward you for innovation far more than other formats. This is partly due to the small gap between a deck’s bad matchups and its good matchups, and partly due to the rapidly changing landscape of these formats. When most decks are close to 50/50 (say, 45-55 or 43-57), it becomes advantageous to innovate in a way that your opponent does not expect, as even tiny edges can amount to significant gains.
In particular, Bo1 play encourages you to main deck some sideboard cards — a strategy we see a lot in Hearthstone. As someone who plays a lot of Hearthstone, metagaming is a crucial skill. If an aggressive Pirate deck in Hearthstone is the most popular deck right now, then let’s play some Golakka Crawler in our deck and get an edge there. In Hearthstone, as in Arena, this type of thinking is very successful and is a short-term innovation that is likely to give some success. At the higher ranks of Arena, White Aggro, specifically the white one drop variant, is the most played and most successful deck. If you compare this to Bo3 metagames, it performs less well than other decks in the format. Having to play only one game favors a deck like this — it is aggressive, punishes poor deck building and decks that stumble, and it ends the game in just under 5 minutes, on average. This means that you can play roughly 10-12 games an hour, which allows you to climb the ladder quickly. With a current win rate of about 61% (according to MTG Arena Pro), White Aggro is the most efficient way to climb the ladder while boasting a strong win rate. A straightforward response to White Aggro is for Golgari Midrange to play main deck Golden Demise, or for Izzet Drakes to main deck some copies of Enigma Drake. These types of changes to otherwise stock decklists are deviating away from Magic Online and the paper metagame.
It makes a lot of sense to take successful Standard lists and tune them for more aggressive metagames. The argument rests with the idea that playing only one game against White Aggro is not a significantly different scenario than playing against White Aggro in game 3. It then makes sense to just put our deck more towards a postboard configuration, and doing so is often a recipe for success. Presideboarding is not without pitfalls, as there is a tension between putting Ritual of Soot into your deck and also putting in more 2-drops. Let’s analyze a card like Duress. Duress has traditionally been one of the most potent and common sideboard cards in Standard. Typically sideboard games are slower, as both players lean on more streamlined removal and diversified threats. In Bo1, a card like Duress is almost entirely unplayable. Players don’t have the opportunity to board out some of their creatures for grindier threats, so a proactive game plan is usually better than a reactive one. Why then, is something like Golden Demise playable in Bo1, while Duress is not? Because of the fail case of Golden Demise. If Golden Demise isn’t relevant, then you just don’t cast it. You don’t spend the mana, and you don’t fall behind on tempo. You still get to progress towards the rest of the cards in your hand. In this circumstance, you effectively took a mulligan, but that’s okay. The win rate boost of having it in your deck fair outweighs the chance you have it in your opening hand.
That is not the case for Duress. Duress doesn’t destroy Jeskai Control in the same way that Golden Demise stops Mono Red or White Aggro. Moreover, you don’t know how relevant Duress is until you’ve cast it. So, in the situations where Duress is poor, it usually costs you a turn and tempo. Not only are you down a card, but you’re down at least part of a turn in tempo, and you’ve spent mana you can never get back. In much the same way, we see lists of Golgari Midrange and Izzet Drakes change compared to their Bo3 counterparts.
If we look at this list from Magic Online, we can see that the Golgari Midrange lists have been eschewing the explore package for more diversified planeswalker packages. This makes sense in a Best of 3 format because you can compensate for this vulnerability against aggressive decks by putting sweepers like Golden Demise into your sideboard. As a result, Midrange and Control decks do not have to decide to gain a better matchup versus grindier decks or linear decks. Because of the sideboard, they get to do both. This crucial difference between Bo3 and Bo1 has contributed to a paper metagame flush with Jeskai Control and Golgari Midrange. Recently, I made the grind from Bronze to Gold 1 in Arena in close to the minimum amount of games possible. I only lost two games along the way and encountered numerous Mono Red, as well as Boros. The strategy that I used entailed a fundamental change in the way I was building the deck. If the most popular deck was going to be aggressive, then it makes sense to be both more proactive and more resilient. As such, I would have to sacrifice some planeswalkers and removal spells.
While this list is different from what I would continue to run, the full playset of Wildgrowth Walker changes the way that most matchups play out. In the mirror matchup, I’m the aggressor, so I lose percentage points. This natural trade-off is an important context to understand in Bo1. With no sideboard, each player has to make substantial decisions between win conditions versus early interaction. These two extra copies of Wildgrowth Walker improve the Mono Red matchup substantially. The caveat to playing more Wildgrowth Walker is that Golden Demise becomes less necessary. While Demise is still more powerful versus the aggressive decks than Wildgrowth Walker, Walker is more powerful in the midrange and control matchups, as it is an additional threat. This prioritization is an important one to keep in mind. This deckbuilding choice allows for playing a hard to remove threat like Izoni, the Thousand-Eyed that supplements the explore package better than the conventional Golgari Midrange creature suite. When playing more threats that require an answer Izoni gets better as more creatures are trading with the opponent. Every lightning strike pointed at a Wildgrowth Walker is effectively three life gained and a creature in the graveyard for Izoni. This trade heavy aspect of Bo1 is a subtle context of innovation that is visible in Hearthstone. With no sideboard, every card choice increases your win percentage versus some decks, while decreasing it versus others. Understanding the role that each card plays in your deck is essential for deckbuilding, especially in Bo1.
From Dimir Midrange main decking a playset of Moment of Craving to Izzet Drakes playing Enigma Drake, Bo1 is a style of gameplay rife with innovation. Bo1 has a self-regulating metagame alongside the ability to accurately see win rates and metagame shares of decks in real time. While Magic Online gave players the ability to see the metagame changing from week to week, Arena offers the ability to see day to day, and even hour to hour changes. When most decks have a shell of 30 or so cards, the small deviations account for small win rate boosts versus the field. But when a specific deck takes up large sections of the metagame, those small win rate boosts versus the field threaten to become large win rate boosts. As you venture into the crazy wild west of Arena, keep in mind the success achieved in critically analyzing metagame context.
Magic is changing. Wizards of the Coast wants to establish Magic as a premier eSports experience, a goal that requires an acceptance of broadcast constraints. Shorter, faster-paced games are better for fans and viewers alike, and it is up to us as players to adapt to this change. Next time I’ll be looking at some of the innovations in Modern that have gone mainstream just before GP Oakland, and the state of Modern.
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