MTGO Standard Report: Of Caverns and Counters
The StarCityGames Open Series took a week off for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, so what better time to talk about the Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO) Standard metagame? The data and analysis in this article are based on the 512 decks that finished 3-1 or 4-0 in a Standard Daily event held from November 10 and November 23, 2012. Only the results published by Wizards of the Coast, one event per day, are included. Despite a reduction in decks published by Wizards, this is more than enough of a sample to make some observations about the state of the MTGO metagame.
Let’s kick it off with a look at the deck archetypes most frequently recording 3-1 and 4-0 finishes. The following graph displays the percentage of each archetype in our total results:
Quite a bit has changed since the last time I wrote about the MTGO metagame at the beginning of November. UW Flash has charged onto the scene, all but replacing UWR Tempo. GW Aggro has almost doubled in representation from 8% to 15%. Together these two decks account for about one-third of our sample.
Mono-Red is the MTGO Standard Daily Event “budget special” and the only deck on this list that averages under $100 tickets (the next lowest is BR Zombies at $240). It has increased from eight to thirteen percent. Jund Midrange has tanked since the beginning of the month when it had a 22% metagame share.
Moving on to deck strategy, the following graph shows the breakdown between aggro, midrange, control, and tempo decks:
Aggressive strategies are the dominant breed on MTGO, accounting for nearly half of the decks sampled. Midrange comes in a distant second with 28%. This is a big change from the beginning of November when the numbers were nearly reversed: 60% midrange and 30% aggro. Since then, counter spells in the hands of blue-based tempo and control decks have eaten into the midrange advantage and opened the door for aggro decks to flourish.
Aggro is half the metagame, midrange is still prominent, and creatures rule the battlefield; let’s take a closer look at them. The following graph shows the creatures that appear in the highest percentage of these 512 decks. The table below it shows the average number of copies in the main and sideboard for each.
[card]Restoration Angel[/card] tops this list, appearing in more than half of the decks. She is a staple in three of the top four archetypes: UW Flash (100%), Reanimator (85%), and GW Aggro (72%). [card]Thragtusk[/card] is a close second in just under half of the decks, including Reanimator (100%), Bant Control (100%), Junk Tokens (100%), Jund Midrange (97%), and GW Aggro (73%).
[card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] remains one of the more popular creatures in Standard, just missing this list at 16% of the total decks, despite UWR Tempo’s drop in popularity. The card is a turn-five answer to the life gain of a [card]Thragtusk[/card], flying over the beast and his ground-based friends for a quick strike. This dragon is also a great answer to [card]Lingering Souls[/card] (16% of total decks), spirits created by [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] (17%), and UW Aggro fliers [card]Lyev Skyknight[/card] (2%) and [card]War Falcon[/card] (2%). [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] is seeing play in not only the remaining UWR Tempo decks, but also as a curve-topping beatstick in BR Zombies and Mono-Red Aggro and to shore up flying defense and win games in the air for Jund Midrange.
Next we’ll review the most played removal spells in the MTGO metagame. The following graph shows the removal that appears in the highest percentage of decks. The table below it provides the average number of copies in the main and sideboard for each.
[card]Pillar of Flame[/card] has dropped significantly from the beginning of the month when it appeared in 48% of decks, but it is still the number one removal spell on MTGO in one-third of the decks sampled. Pillar is played most frequently in Mono-Red Aggro (100%), BR Zombies (93%), and Jund Midrange (41%) and remains efficient removal against Zombies, [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card] (11%), and mana accelerants like [card]Avacyn’s Pilgrim[/card] and [card]Arbor Elf[/card]. Oh, and it’s also still worth two damage to your opponent’s face, which can finish a game in the hands of Zombies and Mono-Red.
The MTGO metagame is fairly balanced between sorcery speed (52%) and instant speed (48%) removal. Instant speed answers have become much more important because of the prevalence of flash creatures like Restoration Angel; creatures that have a major impact on the board before they can attack, like [card]Sublime Archangel[/card] (10% of decks) and [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] (17% of decks); and the return of [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card], which can make any creature a game ender. For this reason, we’ve seen [card]Ultimate Price[/card] and [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] increase in metagame share and answers like [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card] go from 45% in early November to 21% now and [card]Dreadbore[/card] increase from 28% to 11%.
Questioning the Metagame
In this next segment I’ll tackle some of the questions swirling around the MTG metagame.
How much play is [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] seeing?
Cavern is most definitely back; I wrote about Cavern’s spike in paper play last week, and the same is true for MTGO. [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] is the most played card in the decks sampled, appearing in 58% with an average of 2.59 copies in the main. This is up from 14% at the beginning of November.
The frequency of play and the average number varies by deck archetype. Here is the breakdown:
Tribal aggro decks play more copies of [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] and play it more frequently than other archetypes because there is little risk in doing so. These are two-color decks that run a lot of the same creature type, so the main risk is to their ability to cast non-creature spells.
Jund Midrange and Reanimator decks have a much harder time, but frequently really need to resolve a [card]Thragtusk[/card] to stabilize, so it is worth running 2-3 copies in the main.
Does that mean counters are bad now?
No, they aren’t. First of all, even if your opponent has a Cavern you can still counter important non-creature spells like [card]Detention Sphere[/card], [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card], [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card], [card]Unburial Rites[/card], [card]Lingering Souls[/card], and Planeswalkers. The ability to exile some of these with [card]Dissipate[/card] and [card]Syncopate[/card] is significant.
Second, your opponent has to draw and play a Cavern to keep you from countering their creatures. Obvious, yes, but how likely is it? As we saw above the average number of copies of Cavern played in the main is 2.6. Let’s round up to three. This gives your opponent a 39% chance of drawing one by turn three and 46% chance by turn five in order to name “beast” and play that [card]Thragtusk[/card] (assuming they are on the play). The odds are in your favor, albeit slightly, that this won’t happen. It isn’t until turn seven that the odds flip to a 53% chance of your opponent having drawn a Cavern.
With two copies this drops even lower: 34% by turn 5 and well after turn 12 before there’s a better than 50/50 chance.
Will your opponents draw and play a Cavern allowing them to land a pivotal creature? Yes, of course they will. [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] in the metagame means that you cannot assume your counter magic will be effective all of the time. You will need alternate tools to mitigate the impact of creatures. More often than not, however, your opponent will not have a Cavern and will have to play around your counter magic.
So how many counters are being played in this format of plentiful Caverns? Let’s take a look:
Roughly 30% of our MTGO decks are playing blue, so these numbers point to a strong counterspell presence in the metagame. [card]Dissipate[/card] was included in 27% of total decks and is a staple in UW Flash (100%) and Bant Control (85%). [card]Essence Scatter[/card] at 17%, the counter most impacted by Cavern, was played in 70% of UW Flash decks.
Should I play [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] to destroy Cavern of Souls?
No, going down a land to your opponent just to make your counter magic more effective is a poor trade. Adding a utility land to your deck also hurts your mana base and should only be done when it furthers your game plan.
However, [card]Moorland Haunt[/card], another utility land currently played in 74% of UW Flash decks, increases the deck’s threat density by providing evasive creatures to equip with a [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card]. It can be done repeatedly and is far more impactful than [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] for the deck.
[card]Ghost Quarter[/card] is not necessarily a poor choice in the current metagame, but there are better targets than [card]Cavern of Souls[/card]. A [card]Ghost Quarter[/card] would be much better used against a land like [card]Moorland Haunt[/card], [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card], or [card]Vault of the Archangel[/card] that can either win your opponent the game or prevent you from doing so. A number of utility lands other than [card]Cavern of Souls[/card] are currently seeing play and might be worthy targets, including:
- Gavony Township: 26% of decks
- Moorland Haunt: 17% of decks
- Vault of the Archangel: 12% of decks
- Hellion Crucible: 11% of decks
- Kessig Wolf Run: 9% of decks
- Nephalia Drownyard: 4% of decks
How many [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] should I play?
[card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] provides GW Aggro decks with a way to power through opposing [card]Thragtusk[/card]s and finish games quickly with double strike. The Paladin has pseudo-haste, impacting the battlefield and combat the turn he is played by granting something else double strike.
A problem with [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] in GW Aggro is that you really want to pair him with creatures that cost more than he does. The one drops in the deck are 1/1 mana accelerants, and two drops like [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card], and [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card] are great aggressive creatures but have far less value as double strikers without a Rancor attached.
This creates some potentially awkward lines of play where you want to hold your three drop until you’ve played a flier like [card]Restoration Angel[/card] or [card]Sublime Archangel[/card], or a powerful five drop like [card]Thragtusk[/card] or the ideal [card]Wolfir Silverheart[/card]. With so many [card]Pillar of Flame[/card]s still in the metagame, it’s risky to play [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] before the threat you want to give double strike and hope he survives to be paired up later. This issue has led to a recent metagame debate: should [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] be in the GW Aggro maindeck, and if so how many copies?
Standard is a very aggressive and creature focused metagame, and MTGO is even more so. GW Aggro needs to be able to match up well against other aggressive decks like Mono-Red and BR Zombies, as well as midrange decks playing [card]Thragtusk[/card]. A paired [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] is tough to beat in combat for any of these decks. Other aggro decks have trouble attacking into you, and you have the ability to cut your way through [card]Thragtusk[/card] and then his little beast buddy. Add a Rancor or trample from [card]Selesnya Charm[/card] and you can close the game out fast. At worst, [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card] is another must-remove threat in a deck full of them. I would still play three and probably four in the main deck. I could see playing fewer if you are playing the much more aggressive WG Humans build with [card]Champion of the Parish[/card] and [card]War Falcon[/card], but otherwise would not.
I’d like to once again thank Decked Studios for providing easy access to MTGO data for this article. They maintain an awesome site called MTGO-Stats.com where you can find even more information on the metagame, review successful decks, and check card and deck prices. Decked Studios is also the creator of the Decked Builder app, which is great for maintaining your collection, building and testing decks, checking card prices, and buying cards online. You can look up and edit these 3-1 and 4-0 decks right in the app.
Thanks for reading and please leave any feedback in the comments or let me know on Twitter.
Nick Vigabool (@MrVigabool)