Unlocking the Vault #10: Classic Metagame Report

When I started this series back in June of this year, it was on the heels of a significant lull in the format. My goal was to help expand the reach of the format in order to assist in the growth and interest of Classic among the Magic community. With the help of others in the community, we’ve been able to increase tournament participation, culminating in wildly successful Player Run Events (PREs): the Classic League run by MMogg and the CQ Open run by DangerLinto. These tournaments have generated an abundance of data about the matagame, but the question is, “How do we interpret all this information?”

1st-Quarter Metagame — The Rise of Workshops

The first quarter of 2011 consisted of the final remnants of the pre-Master’s Edition 4 (MED4) Classic era for the first couple weeks, followed by what could only be described as “the Rise of Workshop.” The power level of Mishra’s Workshop put a stranglehold on the format as nearly 1/3 of the decks placing in the money were Shop decks. To take a step further, the next three highest-placing decks combined to barely beat out the number of Shop decks that were running around the format.

What is striking to me is the fact that MED4 brought an awful lot of other goodies to the format that were not named Mishra’s Workshop, yet that one single card warped the metagame. Most notably, Time Vault did very little to slow down the Shop menace. Other cards released in MED4 that did not come close to the impact of Workshop include unrestricted Library of Alexandria, Fastbond, Wheel of Fortune, and Mana Vault. Truth be told, both Fastbond and Mana Vault were welcome additions to the format, though Mana Vault added more to the power level of Shops than it did to other strategies.

That being said, there was some variation within the Workshop decks. Some pilots chose to go the traditional “Stax” route to lock down the opponent with spheres and Smokestack, while others went with a “Staxless” approach, eschewing the lock piece Smokestack for a more aggressive creature base. As the quarter moved on, though, the “Staxless” approach became more popular, likely as people realized Smokestack was not nearly as useful without its partner in crime, Tangle Wire.

The second most successful deck of the 1st quarter was Oath. This is not unexpected, as Oath is a strong choice in an unpowered format, as well as one defined by Shop decks. For the most part, Oath decks need to simply resolve an Oath of Druids to take control of the game, as Shop decks have a hard time dealing with an unimpeded and active Oath. Oath decks were defined by a couple different strategies, but most decks revolved around getting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Sun Titan, Iona, Shield of Emeria, or Terastodon onto the battlefield through the help of Oath and perhaps one to two Tinker-bots (usually Sphinx of the Steel Wind or Inkwell Leviathan). Oath was by far the highest performing deck to utilize Time Vault.

As the quarter came to a close, Oath decks were quick to adopt the new toy that was released in Mirrodin Besieged, Blightsteel Colossus. With the addition of Blightsteel to the card pool, it gave rise to the “Good Game”, or “GG”, Oath variant (utilizing Dragon Breath to give their Oath monster haste) which made an impact in the 2nd quarter and up through today.

The third most successful deck of the 1st quarter was an old standby, Dredge. The Dredge builds during this quarter were for the most part unchanged from their pre-MED4 counterparts. Without any natural “predators” like that of Oath to Shops, Dredge was able to sustain mild success throughout the quarter, while operating on the periphery of the changes in the metagame.

Other decks to make in impact in the 1st quarter included Fish and Jacerator. Jacerator in particular was both popular and mildly successful at the beginning of the quarter, but as Shop decks placed a stranglehold on the metagame, Jace was squeezed out by all the sphere effects. Around that same time, Timmins unleashed his 4-color Fish deck onto the unassuming metagame. With Oath and Shop dominating the format, Timmins tuned his Fish deck to beat up on both strategies while having enough game to compete with the rest of the field.

1st Quarter Analysis

The Classic format was quite successful, registering 27 events in the 1st quarter. Shops were the most played and successful deck of the quarter, bar none. While its power level was quite high, my personal feeling is that it was ever-present because it was the shiny new toy to Classic. Prior to MED4, the archetype hardly existed, so perhaps people chose to enter the events with Shops as a way to try something new.

Aside from the release of Mishra’s Workshop at the beginning of the quarter, the release of Blightsteel Colossus at the end of the quarter was perhaps equally important. Oath decks were now equipped to defeat Shop decks under their spheres without having to pass the turn and risk their Oathed-up creature get exiled by a Duplicant or their Tinker-bot matched with an opposing Sculpting Steel.

2nd-Quarter Metagame — Stagnation

As a growing disdain for the Workshop-dominated metagame spread from the end of the 1st quarter into the 2nd, the Classic format suffered through a period of stagnation. During the 2nd quarter, a mere seven events fired in a three-month span, nearly one quarter the number of the preceding three months.

The dominant deck of the quarter was Oath, by a narrow margin. Shop and Fish decks (mostly those inspired by Timmins) tied for 2nd place among decks in the quarter. It is quite obvious that the momentum that Oath picked up at the end of the 1st quarter with the release of Blightsteel carried well into the 2nd quarter. The only notable change from the first quarter was that GG Oath was the dominant choice, effectively eliminating all other Oath builds by the time the quarter ended.

Shop decks continued to have success, albeit slightly less than what was witnessed in the 1st quarter. The biggest change in Shop decks came after the release of Urza’s Destiny. Metalworker was quickly adopted as the dominant Shop strategy, and both Stax and Staxless Shop decks effectively vanished from the metagame. With the release of Mirrodin Besieged, Shop decks also started utilizing Phyrexian Revoker to great effect.

Fish decks saw a significant rise in the 2nd quarter as Timmins fine-tuned his 4-color Fish deck, while others picked up on his success and started piloting the deck themselves. Seeing a rise in success from roughly 8% to that of more than 21%, Fish decks made their mark on the metagame, one that continues to this day, but more on that a little later.

With the decrease in Shop decks, Storm was able to carve out a few victories that were probably not possible in the previous environment. Helping the cause for the rise in Storm decks was the addition of Yawgmoth’s Bargain to the cardpool in Urza’s Destiny. With the ability to effectively play five Necropotences, many deckbuilders brought new Storm brews to the Daily Events to test them out to mild success.

The last notable deck to have a lasting effect during the quarter was xkorpio’s Hermit Druid deck. Xkorpio piloted the deck at the beginning of the year, prior to Workshop taking off, but then stopped shortly after the release of MED4. In the 2nd quarter, though, xkorpio piloted the deck to several top spots in DEs, catching the attention of other players who also picked up the deck. As a creature-based combo deck, Hermit Druid took advantage of the decline in Shops in the metagame in the same way that Storm was able to do so. What was initially viewed as a rogue deck without staying power, xkorpio proved was a force to be reckoned with.

2nd Quarter Analysis

Urza’s Destiny was released in April 2011 a short while after the quarter had started. Almost immediately upon its release, Classic Daily Events stopped firing. For the most part, the pre-release and release events for Urza’s Destiny diverted many Classic players to draft the new triple Urza’s Block both in terms of time and money. Additionally, the perception that Metalworker would make Shops even stronger than before may have deterred people from jumping into events.

In the end, Oath was able to claim the largest portion of the metagame, pushing Shops to a tie for second with Fish. Curiously, Dredge was nearly non-existent in the 2nd quarter. Accounting for a single 4-0 in the Daily Event on May 1st, Dredge was abnormally under-represented in the metagame. This is likely a statistical anomaly due to the limited number of events and players. It’s also possible that xkorpio noticed the lack of Dredge in the metagame and capitalized on perhaps some level of diminished graveyard hate in people’s sideboards.

3rd-Quarter Metagame — Enter the Fish!

*Results of the Classic League are not accounted for in the above pie chart but are listed below.*

Classic League Season 1 July 6th – July 28th

1st Workshop
2nd Workshop
3rd Workshop
4th Gush Control
5th Dredge
6th Oath
7th LED Storm
8th 4c Fish

Classic League Season 2 August 28th – September 20th

1st ShOath
2nd Dredge
3rd Oath
4th GW Hate
5th Goblins
6th BGW Hate
7th BW Hate
8th Shop

CQ Open August 14th

1st Fish – Illusions
2nd Storm
3rd Fish – GW Hate
4th Fish – CawBlade
5th Fish – GW Hate
6th Jacerator
7th Staxless Stax
8th Oath

After the way the second quarter ended, it was clear that Classic needed a jumpstart. Through the efforts of the community, interest in the format gained steam and there was an influx of new players joining the events. Perhaps the single largest factor was MMogg’s Classic League, which was a free-to-enter tournament with a prize pool that could attract even the most seasoned Classic veterans. With this large influx of players, Fish decks (most notably GW Hate) took over the metagame.

When you factor in the cost to build GW Hate, it’s no secret why it became such a popular deck choice. But what was it that made the deck good enough to compete with the powerful decks in Classic? Mirrodin Besieged brought Leonin Relic-Warder as a way to deal with the two most powerful decks in the format, Oath and Shops. Scars of Mirrodin also brought Leonin Arbiter as a way to slow down blue-based control decks. While these two cards were available since the beginning of the 2nd quarter, the conditions were not as favorable for GW to succeed at that time, specifically the abundance of Oath and Shop.

xkorpio unleashed another rogue deck onto the format at the CQ Open in August; Mono-Blue Illusions. Built around Aether Vial, a large suite of countermagic (many of which are “free” to cast), and a creature package available upon the release of M12, including the new illusion lord, Lord of the Unreal, and several other illusions. The deck caught many people offguard. It didn’t take long to realize the deck was the real deal, as others picked up on its success and piloted the deck to victory.

Oath continued its run as the second most successful deck in the 3rd quarter. Its numbers were down from that of its 2nd-quarter peak, but it continued to be a major player in the metagame. GG Oath builds remained unchanged, and it was the Oath version of choice in the quarter. A new evolution of Oath decks appeared on the scene during the 3rd Quarter. These “ShOath” decks were built around the Oath core but added Show and Tell and Channel to power out fast Emrakuls. Additionally, a full playset of Mystical Tutors (unrestricted in Classic) were included to help find Channel in order to actually hardcast Emrakul! The ShOath deck was piloted by abstrakt66 to win Season 2 of the Classic League.

Shop decks were a distant third in the quarter. Most of Shop’s success in the quarter came at the beginning with the results of Season 1 of the Classic league being the height of its reign, having placed in all three top positions of the event. As the quarter wore on and Fish took over, Shop decks nearly disappeared from the ranks of the top finishers. The biggest change in shop decks was the shift to a more aggressive version of the deck, highlighted by the speed of Slash Panther and Phyrexian Metamorph (usually copying the Panther or another sphere). These hyper-aggressive Shop decks were inspired by the Vintage Cat Stax decks that were popping up around the same time.

Dredge mounted a significant comeback, taking 12.5% of the metagame for the quarter. Much like the new Shop Aggro builds, the latest Dredge decks were adapted from Vintage tech that was gaining popularity: Fatestitcher Dredge (sometimes referred to as Titan Dredge). When Mark Hornung piloted the deck to the Vintage Championship in August, Classic players were quick to build their own versions of the deck and saw a good amount of success.

3rd Quarter Analysis

The Classic format underwent a renaissance of sorts in the 3rd quarter. Increased participation in events led to a dynamic metagame that never existed in the 1st half of 2011. Ten Daily Events, as well as three large-scale tournaments, defined the 3rd quarter. The influx of new players has created a buzz within the format that was not evident earlier in the year.

Those new players brought powerful Fish decks to the forefront of the metagame, as evidenced by the Top 8 of the CQ Open in which four of the top five-placing decks were some variation of Fish. The sheer number of Fish decks in the format brought about some significant changes to the meta. Shop and Oath decks were initially unprepared to deal with the hate cards from Fish decks. Oath players at least had countermagic to stop a Turn 1 Aether Vial or other problematic creatures such as Qasali Pridemage or Leonin Relic-Warder. Shops were at the mercy of winning the draw and getting down more sphere effects than the Fish player could handle. Thus, players started to reconfigure their decks to start using sweepers like Firespout to deal with the GW decks and Lightning Bolts as pinpoint removal for the Illusions deck and other low toughness creatures in the format. Another card that people started adding to their sideboards was none other than Old Man of the Sea. Old. Man. Of. The. Sea. Yes, the scrawny 2/3 djinn with the jagged stick became a playable card with all the 2/2s running around the format.

Dredge leapt back onto the scene while Shop/Oath Decks battled it out with Fish decks. The Dredge deck of choice in the quarter was the Fatestitcher version, which could combo out on Turn 2 or 3 with remarkable consistency pre-board. Occasionally, the deck could even combo out on Turn 1! The win at Vintage Championships also gave the deck a legitimacy that it did not have before. No longer was it uncool to pilot Dredge, but actually en vogue!

The new cards from New Phyrexia such as Mental Misstep and Phyrexian Metamorph added a new layer of possibilities to the format. Misstep in particular was a little slow to catch on at first, but proved quite useful in a format full of 1-casting cost spells along the power level of tutors, other countermagic, and the whole host of other great 1-drops that the format thrives on.

Looking Ahead to the 4th Quarter

As the format moves into the 4th quarter, Classic ushers in the new cards from Innistrad which are bound to shake up the metagame yet again. Snapcaster Mage in particular is poised to make its mark on the format, as are a few other cards from the set. But whatever changes Innistrad brings will be short-lived, as Masques Block will finally make its way onto the client on December 5th. Misdirection, Tangle Wire, and Rishadan Port, among others, will certainly find their way into some already-established Classic decks to make them even more powerful. It’s shaping up to be a great time to be a Classic player! Now, if we could only get some clarity on when to a certain nine cards everyone is waiting to play with….

Anyone have any predictions for how the 4th quarter will play out? Will Shops make a strong comeback and take over once Tangle Wire arrives? Will Fish decks adopt Rishadan Port to help lock down opposing mana bases with Wastelands five through eight? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!!

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  1. I approve of this message. =)

    This is a really nice meta round-up and I like how clear it is to see the shifting meta. You’d think that formats like Classic would be stagnant, but they do have their struggles for staying ahead of the others. It is clear, though, that the cycle is continuing. We have had Shops dominating a lot in the early fourth quarter with a lot of Classic DE money finishes (12 in October) and the finals of the Steel Cage were Shops vs Welder Shops. o.O I don’t know how it will shape up in the long term, but certainly Snapcaster is arriving at a time when people need to start packing more artifact hate.

    In Classic League Season 3, which just started, I believe there are about 30 copies of Snapcaster. I guess we will see how he pans out.

  2. A long time ago Blue was ment to be the color with “bad” creatures. Now you have amazing utility, super aggressive one drops and basically everything you would wish for creature wise in this color.

  3. One card that I see that can be excellent with Snapcaster Mage at hating out artifacts is Shattering Spree. Since Ancient Grudge already has flashback built in, Shattering Spree can provide better value with Snapcaster. Sorcery speed does hurt it, but I can’t think of any other artifact hate that gets better with Snapcaster.

  4. natures claim gets a lot better with snapcaster. heres the problem with shattering spree, and why i dont like it. it costs 1r and r to replicate right? were up against a shop deck here, and they either have spheres, or you only have 1 red mana available. Claim only needs 1 green to replay. I would think rack and ruin was a much better card then shattering spree. 2 targets the first time. 2 targets if you snap it. and you only need 1 colored source of mana. Plus the snapcaster decks are running 3-4 mana drain to help pay for R and R.

  5. I’ve been playing with City of Brass in my 4-color builds, so double red isn’t too bad. But that’s just me… Rack and Ruin is another good option.

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