Worlds 2008 – In the lee of the metagame

I watched almost all of the individual top eight and the team event today, starting at a brisk 6:45am, PST. Worlds has an especially long final day, and I finally had to cut out before the final match could start to do some work out in the real world. I enjoyed the presentation this year, with the individual and team events interleaved throughout the day. I really enjoyed most of it — and it was interesting to see four of the five Faeries decks drop out of the individual event in the quarterfinals (although, sadly, this meant that there was no on-air game time featuring Frank Karsten, and very little time with Akira Asahara). The team semifinals and finals were both exciting, and honestly, I was rooting for everyone, although the American team just a bit more than everyone else.
Wizards has dutifully posted the top performing Standard and Extended decks. I don’t care too much about Standard right now (not until the end of January, when Superstars may well have another Standard $1K). However, I’m quite interested in Extended. You can see all the decks whose pilots did 4-2 or better in the Extended portion by clicking here. There may be some risk in drawing conclusions from deck performance across six rounds at the tail end of a long event, but it’s still worthwhile to see what did well and how people tweaked their designs. Let’s start by seeing what people played. I’ve broken it down, going from most to least common archetype. Click through to the extended entry to see the breakdown, and some commentary.

  • Zoo – 17
  • Blue Faeries – 16
  • Blue-Black Faeries – 8
  • Death Cloud – 7
  • Burn – 6
  • Elves – 6
  • Plasma Swans – 6
  • Tron – 4
  • All-in Red – 3
  • Tezzerator – 3
  • Affinity – 2
  • Dredge – 2
  • Astral Slide – 1
  • Desire Storm – 1
  • Goblins – 1
  • Red Deck Wins – 1

Some clarifying notes:
“Blue Faeries” decks are mono-blue, draw-go-style decks whose creatures by and large are Faeries, although a couple have Azami to capitalize on the wizardy nature of Sprites and Cliques. “Blue-Black Faeries” decks are very similar, but tend to maindeck Bitterblossom, Dark Confidant, or both. By “Burn” I mean those decks that feature Keldon Marauders, Spark Elementals, and giant piles of burn spells. The single “Tron” category splits into two blue-black decks, one blue-white deck, and one blue-green deck. Finally, I split out one “Red Deck Wins” deck that is neither All-in Red nor Burn, featuring big, funky red creatures and some burn spells.
What should we conclude from this? Well, if you make it into the top tables in your PTQ, expect to play against overpowered little creatures and draw-go counterspell decks. If you look at the blue and blue-black Faeries lists, it seems reasonably fair to aggregate them — especially since some of the blue lists can sideboard into Bitterblossoms. Being able to deal, one way or another, with countermagic is going to be important (barring some new, game-breaking innovation). Second, a wide variety of decks are still viable in Extended, which is a happy thing.
If we look through the decks in a little more detail, we turn up some fun stuff.
Seb Thaler’s successful Zoo deck ran not only the full four Mogg Fanatics (which most Zoo decks have returned to, post-Berlin), it also ran triple Shadow Guildmage in the main deck. A number of Zoo decks also ran four Kitchen Finks in the sideboard.
Akira Asahara’s Elves build has some (perhaps typically, for him) quirky Chord targets in the sideboard, include Magus of the Moon and Realm Razor.
Several of the Death Cloud builds favor Crime // Punishment as a new Pernicious Deed, and a number of them also have Cranial Extraction (one of my favorite cards) in the sideboard.
Jonathan Bergstrom’s blue-white Tron build ran triple Trinket Mage, four maindeck Chalice, two maindeck Engineered Explosives, and a single Crovax — which one imagines is rather hellish for an Elves deck to deal with. Can’t disenchant him, can’t Shaman him, can’t Pontiff him.
Alvise Gorghetto’s burn deck had three maindeck Darksteel Colossus. With no special trick to cheat it into play, and given how unlikely the deck is to cast it, this seems like a maindeck way around the Elves/Storm Brain Freeze kill, which is pretty hilarious.
Three of the four Tron decks ran Spell Burst, allowing the Spell Burst soft lock.
Those are just a handful of the things that jumped out at me from these deck lists. As one final point to consider, we can look at Bill Stark’s breakdown of archetypes that were brought to the Extended rounds here. Most of the numbers are too small to do anything with, but let’s consider the “conversion rate” of the biggest archetypes, where “conversion” here means going 4-2 or better. We have:

  • Faeries – 24/77 (31.1%)
  • Zoo – 17/59 (28.8%)
  • Elves – 6/30 – (20%)

So, Elves clearly can be hated out of a metagame, Sam Black’s Sunday performance notwithstanding (and do note that Sam reportedly did not do well overall with Elves — he just managed to pull out the wins when they were critical, which is a good job on his part). Zoo and Faeries had comparable success rates, making them the default aggro and control decks of the format, respectively. All other points aside, Elves went from roughly half of them making it to day two in Berlin down to only one in five even managing a 4-2 in six rounds of Extended at Worlds. The adjustments to manage this were not extreme — Mogg Fanatics back into the maindeck in Zoo, Night of Souls Betrayal around in some of the control decks, and so forth.
According to Brian David-Marshall, Zvi Mowshowitz thinks Elves is clearly the best deck, and people who don’t play it are doing themselves a disservice. I think I’d agree with the assertion that Elves is the deck with the greatest raw power, much as Dredge was last year. However, the key difference here comes from the fact that last year’s Dredge deck represented an orthogonal threat, whereas most tools that hate out Elves also work just fine against anyone else who happens to be using creatures — that is, the default aggro decks. Where you needed to pack your sideboard with quite a few painfully specific cards to lock out Ichorid-Breakthrough Dredge, with Elves, you can maindeck many of the solutions because they will keep you healthy against random Zoo and RDW matchups as well.
So Elves may have the most raw power, but the compromises required to hate out Elves are so minor that it can be done via tweaking, rather than by crippling your deck’s flexibility and game against the rest of the field.
That said, you should hate out Elves in the coming PTQ season, because it has exactly four somewhat expensive cards and thus is an attractive budget entrez to the world of PTQs, much as Burn was last year. And, even moreso than Burn, Elves represents an opportunity for an inexperienced pilot to get blown out by hate, so you might as well be ready to grab the free wins when you can.