Magic Origins is (finally) upon us. We all had our ideas about how Origins would affect Standard. Some ideas were right, some were wrong, and it is now time for us to figure out which was which. Luckily, the modern era of Magic is all about data. We have competitive, large scale Standard tournaments that happen nearly every weekend furnishing us with a wealth of decklists and metagame information. Soon the Magic Online engine will start churning, inexorably marching onwards towards more tuned decks and providing us with even more decklists.
Truth be told, the data we get these days is an embarrassment of riches. Winning archetypes, Top 8 decklists, Day 2 metashares, Daily 4-0 lists -- how do we even begin to work through the noise in this signal and perform meaningful analysis? My approach is to always know what I'm looking for. Having a question in mind when I start to comb through mountains of data helps me not become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in front of me and reach meaningful conclusions. Today I am going to share the shortlist of important questions I have formed about the impact of Magic Origins.
By the time you read this, you will have access to something I don't have while writing this: the first weekend's worth of data on Origins. Feel free to answer these questions as you read them based on the results you've seen and the data you remember. But keep in mind that these answers are preliminary still. Only very rarely do the very first results tell the whole picture. These questions are ones that I intend to revisit time and time again as the Magic Origins data continues to roll in.
How good is Languish?
First and foremost, let's talk about Languish. The wrath effects that are played in a format have a large influence on the overall pacing of the format. Their converted mana cost determines how fast an aggressive deck has to be in order to be effective and plays a big role in what the curves of the midrange decks look like. As a potential wrath that costs a full mana less than the wraths we currently have, I believe Languish is the single card from Magic Origins with the most potential to Reshape Standard.
But will it? Languish is, after all, no Damnation. It is a situational wrath, not an absolute one, and as such it is pretty hard to accurately predict how much play it will see. Is it better than Crux of Fate in dragon-centric control? Does it make non-dragon control the de facto best control deck of the format? And what about Abzan? Does the synergy with the x/5's that Abzan naturally wants make Languish an auto include that the Abzan lists end up warping around?
Well, we don't have to predict anymore. Looking at how the data we have answers those Languish questions can help guide our deck construction and selection from here on out. The first thing to look at is what archetypes are consistently including Languish at three or four copies in the 75. If UB based control is the only deck doing this, we probably do not need to think about Languish very much in deck construction. Control having a wrath is something we expect in Magic. The fact that their wrath now costs a mana less than it used to is something we should absolutely know and use to guide the lines we take in-game, but likely won't influence our maindeck composition much unless UB's metashare becomes very high.
If Languish is looking to be more ubiquitous than that, it will be time to start valuing X/5's and other resilient threats higher. Decks that are soft to Languish might just get entirely pushed out of the meta if it sees a high level of play in two or more of the top decks. The decks that hate Languish the most are the more aggressive oriented midrange decks. Abzan Aggro in particular likely will have a fairly hard time in a Languish world without sweeping changes. The super aggressive decks, like Red, will simply ensure that they are low enough to the ground that Languish doesn't bother them much. If anything, they will just be happy that the card being cast is Languish and not Drown in Sorrow.
A good benchmark for just how important Languish is in the format is the amount of play that Courser of Kruphix is receiving. Courser has proved itself to be a green all-star time and time again since its release. If successful decks that were previously auto including four Coursers all of a sudden start to shave copies, that likely means that Languish is the real deal. My instinct is that Abzan is the deck most likely to undergo this change and thus will be the deck that I first look for it in. It is important to note that Languish could be super important without Courser seeing any less play, that effect is not guaranteed. However, less Courser is nearly 100% to have been caused by Languish. If Courser sees a dip in play, I will Think Twice before playing a deck that does not want to see a Languish cast against it.
What about the flip 'walkers?
The primary tool we have for Magic card evaluation is comparison to similar cards that have come before. That's what makes novel cards so difficult to properly evaluate. Historically, we as a community have missed big on a lot of cards that were like nothing we had ever seen. The new flip planeswalkers certainly fall into this category of difficult to evaluate cards. As such they, as a group, are something that I will be keeping my eyes on.
Obviously, when looking at the data to determine how good these cards are, we are looking for successful decks including some number of flip planeswalkers. Keep in mind that if any of them are good we are likely to first see them in low numbers, as people play a copy or two to try it out to hedge when they find themselves unsure. They are legendary, of course, so it's possible a copy or two ends up being right, but it is also possible that the number of copies per deck will rise as time goes on.
It is important to consistently monitor the data for play of these flip planeswalkers because they are so hard to evaluate that it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming overly attached to your initial impression of them. Many of us have spent a lot of time thinking about these flip planeswalkers in order to evaluate them, and it is really easy to become invested in the outcome of that much thought. There is no shame in being wrong on these cards, however, and it is really important to keep in touch with the actual data to ensure your perception of their strength is Grounded in reality. Otherwise you are likely just leaving percentage points on the table.
Is nongreen Devotion back?
There's been a lot of buzz about devotion strategies in the weeks leading up to Origins. This set seems to have gotten over the Khans of Tarkir block reluctance to print efficient devotion enablers. Harbinger of the Tides, Archangel of Tithes and Erebos's Titan are the main culprits here, with a few supporting cast members by their sides (I'm looking at you, Knight of the White Orchid). Whether or not new support is enough to push a fringe strategy into the limelight is a relatively hard thing to predict.
But, as it turns out, a pretty easy thing to figure out with data. Devotion is inherently a pretty linear strategy, so it is reasonable to assume that people will find decent lists and be playing them. However, since these are strategies that are essentially brand new to this Standard, they are way behind the other decks in terms of tuning. As such, the criteria I will be using to decide if they are good now is decent amounts showing up in Day 2s (Top 16 for one-day events) within the first couple of weeks, backed up by some Top 8s in the following month as the lists catch up on volume of tuning.
This is an important question to keep an eye on because powerful linear strategies are scary. When they are good they do something powerful that is unlike what any other deck does, so if you are blindsided by them you will find yourself completely without recourse. However, on the flip side, if you are prepared you will likely find yourself in decent position as linear decks tend to be easily disrupted (in the case of Devotion, you are looking mainly for ways to keep their mana symbols off the board). As such, watching to see if these decks are on the rise is an easy place to pick up some overall win rate increase.
Can I play Jeskai again?
This question is one that is near and dear to my heart, not one that is necessarily super important to Standard. I played nothing but Jeskai from the release of Khans of Tarkir to the release of Dragons of Tarkir. I should have switched way earlier. My early success with the archetype was due, I think, to the relative weakness of the opposition in the early stages of this Standard format. After the natural turbulence of constructed Magic refined and polished the various archetypes, it turned out that the Jeskai deck was just weaker than most of the other decks and was not a good choice for most of the format. Due to my early victories with Jeskai, my eyes were closed to this for far too long.
So what's changed? Well, maybe nothing - this might just be a case of wishful thinking. But maybe Exquisite Firecraft. The original Jeskai Tempo deck was a tempo / burn hodgepodge that fell off the map when the other decks in the format became tuned enough that Jeskai started to find it too difficult to push through sufficient damage with its creatures. This is the kind of problem that could, in theory, be solved by the addition of a single card to the card pool. Exquisite Firecraft lets the deck greatly increase its burn density and thus decrease the amount of damage it needs to push through with creatures.
So, what am I looking for to tell me if the time is right to give Jeskai another try? First, the clearest signal would be if Jeskai put up some decent results in early tournaments, but the Jeskai deck isn't linear enough to assume that this will happen if the deck is good. No, what I'm looking for is a decrease of early aggression in the format. If my idea for how to make Jeskai viable again is to make it more burn-centric, it makes sense that a reduction of early pressure in the format would help me out. I'm not super worried about very aggressive decks like Red, as in my experience the Jeskai deck is very good at taking the control role against decks much lower to the ground than itself. Instead, I'm worried about incidental early aggression from midrange decks that I can't just play a control game against and expect to win.
The benchmark I will be looking at in the data to answer this for me is the amount of play of the incidental aggression poster child, Fleecemane Lion. The Lion is a great benchmark for this because it doubles as both one of the main Instigators of early aggression and the best defense against early aggression in the Abzan colors. If play of Fleecemane Lion is down, that means the successful Abzan decks are much less capable of early aggression and did not find themselves needing to defend against much early aggression to achieve their success. This is the exact meta I want to try Jeskai again in, so if there are less Lions running around I will be working on Jeskai (although admittedly I don't need much of an excuse).
I hope the takeaway from this article is that purposelessly staring at a mountain of data and hoping to acquire meaningful information from it is a losing proposition. Today's Magic data is an incredible boon to the competitive scene and a great resource, but a resource that takes a measure of work and thought to utilize profitably. Maybe the questions I have are good ones and maybe they're not - either way, soon enough they won't particularly matter. The methodology of having a question and knowing what you are looking for to answer it before delving into the data will benefit you for much longer.
Thanks for reading,