Reflections on Duo Standard

Previously: Speculations on Duo StandardReflections on the Mythic Invitational

Companion Piece: Reflections on the Mythic Invitational

Frank Karsten (Channel-Fireball): The Mythic Invitational Wasn’t Perfect And It Was Still a Smashing Success

There are two big questions to ask about Duo Standard.

The first question is, is Duo Standard a good format? Should we continue to play it? Or should we abandon it?

Wizards has already answered that this is definitely not the final form. That still leaves the question of why, and how to improve.

The second question is, What is the right thing to do in Duo Standard, right now or in general? What game theory questions, metagame shifts and strategic issues are most important? How does this differ not only from best-of-three, but from best-of-one?

My answer to the first question is: No. Duo Standard is not a good format. We should not continue to play it. The Mythic Invitational was played and the verdict is in. 

The best way to give a more complete answer to the first question is to answer the second question, then double back. So that’s how this is structured.

Duo Standard: Level Zero

The biggest errors in my Speculations on Duo Standard were errors about level zero: Understanding best-of-one Standard.

I stopped playing games of best-of-one Standard the moment I realized there was a best-of-three ladder on Magic Arena. Why would I want to play an impoverished game of Magic, unless I had severe time constraints or a deck that wasn’t ready to field a sideboard yet?

Thus, I missed some key elements and dynamics. So did the players and commentary team, although different ones, and less of them.

Duo Standard is radically different from simple best-of-one. But if you start from an incorrect base, you’ll reach wrong conclusions.

The developments I missed were: Mastermind’s Acquisition in Esper, Esper Acuity, the dismissal of Sultai and the dismissal of blue. I also underestimated people’s love of mono-red and mono-white on this level, in addition to my underestimation of it on levels one and two.

The level-zero development most players definitely missed were: Blue is still great.

The ambiguous issue is that Gruul was both (from where I sit) underplayed and badly built, and did poorly.

I also suspect Golgari/Sultai was wrongly dismissed, but I dislike and don’t play the deck, so it’s hard for me to say.

Lets talk quickly about all six.

1. Mastermind’s Acquisition in Esper

I forgot this card existed. Once one remembers the card exists, adding it to the deck is obvious. It provides a way to win and close out games and a lot of flexibility, and your sideboard wasn’t doing anything otherwise. If you’re in a mirror, this creates a counter or a must-counter threat. If you’re not in the mirror, this provides runaway advantage or an answer to your problems.

The mana cost is high, so it’s not clear how many copies one can afford. The first copy is clearly a win given how much flexibility it earns, especially by starting with The Mirari Conjecture. After that it’s hard to say and opinions varied, as the four slot is already quite dense. My guess is that you want one in normal best-of-one, but two in Duo Standard due to the popularity of Esper.

2. Esper Acuity

It in no way occurred to me that Esper Acuity was a card. It turns out there is a whole deck involved, once you can play Mastermind’s Acquisition and not worry about sideboarding. You have a lot of ways to gain life and keep things running smoothly to buy time for Mastermind’s Acquisition, and against Teferi, Hero of Dominaria decks you can go get a Sorcerer’s Spyglass they can’t remove. Not bad.

Is the deck actually good, though? I still have no idea. Given who played it, it’s at least reasonable. The existence of this option, as a way to have a lot of life gain for tiebreakers and against red, while having a plan in the Esper mirror, changes things a lot.

3. The Dismissal of Sultai

People who play Jund historically talk about how great their sideboards are. The same is said of Sultai in current standard.

As someone who never got into Jund, I never understood that.

Yes, you get to make sure that all your cards are good, and shore up on numbers where you are weak. But that’s everyone’s plan. Maybe not quite everyone, but close.

The cards you do bring in seem generic. After sideboarding, you’re still fundamentally doing the same thing you were doing before sideboarding.

You don’t get more than a few of the thing that you want most. Decks that fear removal will face more, but not feel swamped. Decks that fear discard will face some discard, but not that much. Somehow your cards in are both spread too thin, and don’t feel special.

The cards that come out are a big win if you can take out useless creature removal. But Esper and Nexus both often bring creatures in, that you need to worry about. You’re still winning to this because the alternative is that they always ‘guess right’ and have no men, but you’re not winning that much to it either.

Sultai is also considered a solid way to handle aggressive creature decks. If it can’t even win game ones against red and white, honestly what is the deck even doing? Where is it good? Why did so many Pros play it in Cleveland, despite it seeming bad everywhere?

I don’t know. I’ll likely never know. Perhaps it was a ‘I want to use my superior playing skill’ thing, or a ‘I want my fate in my own hands’ thing. That always plays too big in many players’ minds. But if so, I expected that to continue!

Thus, when everyone figured out that Sultai was bad, which I agree with, it took me by surprise. Golgari gets smoother mana and most definitely should be able to handle the aggressive decks, a la what Reid Duke brought, but I don’t see how it stands up to Esper, which is central.

This resulted in me exploring and expecting a bunch of potential pairings involving Sultai that turned out to be off the table.

4. The Dismissal of Blue

This is distinct from blue being good or bad. If everyone thinks blue is unplayable, then that’s identical to it being unplayable for all practical purposes.

That seems to have been what most people think. When interviewed early on, the one blue player was almost apologetic about his choice. He said (this is a heavy paraphrase) that yes, it seems like it’s a terrible choice for the metagame, but it’s a deck and he likes it so he’s playing it anyway.

The argument was that blue was bad against red and bad against white in a best-of-one world, and couldn’t afford to play Essence Capture or Entrancing Melody because they would be dead against Esper.

Without blue to worry about, two things happen.

First, players can’t play blue, which shuts down a lot of the pairings and options I was considering.

Second, players don’t need to worry about beating blue. All the hate floating around Standard can safely disappear, and there is no reason to play anti-blue Rakdos/Jund or a hateful Gruul build. So no one played such decks and cards. There were a small number of anti-weenie Gruul builds, but no anti-blue ones.

This is why the format shrunk so dramatically, even more than the lack of sideboards or the banning of Nexus of Fate.

5. Blue Is Actually Great

We could cite anecdotal evidence of the one blue player finishing second overall. That definitely counts. It sounded like it mostly convinced the coverage team, despite them constantly saying blue couldn’t be chosen in game three even at the end.

The core problem of blue is the same core problem everyone else faces: You have to worry about creatureless Esper, and also lots of heavy creature decks. The cards that beat the creature decks (in this case, Essence Capture and Entrancing Melody) are blanks against Esper. Blanks kill you.

Blue has the opposite problem in best of three. I liked Quench in the main when I tried it. After sideboarding, it’s never terrible. But you always have 60 cards you want more, so it always makes your elephant worse.

Quench in turn weakens Chart a Course even further. I’ve already cut it entirely from my best-of-three build, because after board I always have a better 60 cards to play, and I’d rather improve that 60 when the card was always marginal in the main deck. In many matchups you have zero time to tap mana on your turn for no board impact, especially red and white.

I do think that if you run zero Chart a Course that implies a 20th Island, but the mana smoothing rule in best of one, combined with not running Entrancing Melody, knocks us back to 19 again.

The other move Piotr made was to run two copies of Surge Mare. The theory is that Surge Mare plays against Esper while being a strong card against red and white. It defends you against the many copies of Goblin Chainwhirler and Cry of the Carnarium that are out there in best of one, and makes the deck more ‘solid.’ In exchange you give up mana efficiency, which is the main thing the deck is doing, so that’s a big cost. I’ve never been a Surge Mare fan.

Playing the deck this way leaves you very strong against Esper. You have zero dead cards, and enough counters to give the opponent fits.

The question is the aggressive matchups. When playing with three copies of Essence Capture, and more recently also a copy of Entrancing Melody, I actively like my game one against red. This configuration seems much worse. Quench is scary against red because of Runaway Steamkin. You’re running five cards that go dead if they have surplus mana, and that gets in the way of the trading strategy and runs into whammies. The +1/+1 counters will be missed quite a bit, as this opens you up to Goblin Chanwhirler more and gives them much longer to draw burn. Surge Mare helps a bit, and it is nice to have more counters for Experimental Frenzy. My guess is that things are now about even here.

I always expected the white matchup to be bad, but then I started trading off creatures on turn two. After that I kept winning games and was forced to update to it being a good matchup, as scary as it feels. They have less removal than you think, and less sources of power than you think. If you use your counters well, their deck is often doing very little for quite a while. Trading often puts you in a dominant position.

The problem is that this was leaning heavily on Essence Capture and Entrancing Melody, both of which are amazing cards here. The extra +1/+1 counter from Essence Capture often creates a blocker that shuts off many of their creatures, or allows you to handle History of Benalia, and it means your counters mostly still work late in the game. Entrancing Melody is back breaking when it takes Benalish Marshall and a cheap two-for-one otherwise, although that two might be countering History of Benalia. But that’s fine, because they don’t have that many powerful threats.

Surge Mare blocks, but it takes a lot of mana to stop the opponent from attacking. I’m not convinced it’s better than Mist-Cloaked Herald here. Mist-Cloaked Herald trading off for one mana is a bigger game than one might think, and I’m happy here we still have two copies.

My guess is that this matchup is now slightly bad for you, perhaps moderately bad, but it is definitely not disastrous. If I’m facing half Esper and half white, I’d rather put up blue against that than either white or Esper. If it’s Esper and red, I’m quite happy.

Can we give back some of the Esper matchup and accept a dead card or two? Not at this density of Esper. It’s too big a game to be great there. If the metagame reaches a more stable equilibrium, which will have less Esper in it, that might change.

Why do players think blue is bad? Traditionally the answer has often been ‘they are bad at playing blue’ but this field is too good for that.

6. Gruul Failed

Looking at the lists, I do see a decent amount of Gruul played. None of it went deep into the tournament, so the question is why.

Some of it was weird or built badly. I don’t think that playing Ghalta, Primal Hunger is a good idea. Nor do I think a dinosaur theme is something one does if looking to maximize win percentage.

There are two basic approaches to Gruul. One can build the deck around Warriors, or around base green. There’s also a base-red version with a tiny splash, but to me that’s just a red deck and doesn’t count.

The Warriors lists are clearly strong against red and white if they run a bunch of removal spells. Your creatures fight so much better, and you don’t fall far behind given where your curve lies. The worry is how well it plays against Esper. You have a lot of haste, and your creatures hit hard, but your removal spells are not that useful so a balance needs to be struck. Despite all worries, I was told during my scramble to prepare that this ‘traditional’ Gruul deck is considered advantaged against Esper. I’m not sure that’s true, but it seems not highly disadvantaged and that should be good enough.

The green-based lists splash red and are based around Steel-Leaf Champion to varying degrees. These decks tried going up to Ghalta, Primal Hunger off the back of Nullhide Ferox. I don’t think one needs to go that big, as I’ve had no problems overpowering people without resorting to 12/12s. By going large, you force over-commitment to the board and open yourself up to sweepers, while Esper still has Mortify and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria as direct responses.

My guess is that this was a large part of why the green decks did poorly. They also seem to have been chosen by players who expected a different metagame to emerge, and who have less history with and are less comfortable with Magic Arena. These players knew some things others didn’t, but also didn’t know things others did, and made detail choices that didn’t fit the situation.

My choice remains my build of Gruul, as played by Brian-David Marshall. See the guide here [TODO]. The only question is Lava Coil. Lava Coil is purely dead against Esper, but is important to stopping Rekindling Phoenix out of warrior Gruul. I was worried that if we got rid of Lava Coil, we’d be afraid of the semi-mirror, although it isn’t obvious we’d need to be given that otherwise things line up quite well. Without those two copies of Lava Coil, the Esper decks that actually showed up are decks you’re not unhappy to play against at all.

One must always remember that they don’t always have Kaya’s Wrath and it takes a while to find two. Many people played as few as two copies of that card. In that case, you’re feasting. Half-measures like Cry will usually not cut it.

Level One

I cheated a bit discussing level zero, as I assumed the level one result that there is a ton of Esper. Now it is time to explore why there was a lot of Esper.

Esper is arguably the best deck, but it’s more than that.

Esper is the central level one move.

Every deck, including Esper itself, faces the same central trade-off. Do I play defenses against creatures, or avoid dead/bad cards against Esper?

Red has this the easiest. Its burn goes meaningfully to the face. Red already wants to avoid cards like Lava Coil, and the Esper consideration seals the deal.

White can use Conclave Tribunal on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, so its removal does not go entirely dead if it avoids Baffling End. This still keeps decks off of the full four copies of Conclave Tribunal, which feels from the other side like a big win in many matchups.

Blue decks have to abandon Essence Capture and Entrancing Melody.

Green decks need to worry about Collision/Colossus, and their general rate of durdling and defending versus attacking.

Black decks have pure creature removal like Moment of Craving and Cast Down.

Esper itself has to worry about Mortify, Cry of the Carnarium, Kaya’s Wrath, Cast Down and Moment of Craving. Mortify hits Search for Azcanta, but the others constitute about ten dead cards. Four of them can hopefully get discarded to Chemister’s Insight, but that still leaves six more.

Players can choose to ‘sell out’ one of their decks against one side of the dilemma, by pre-sideboarding into an anti-creature or anti-spell configuration. A blue, Temur Reclamation or Esper deck that wants to defeat Esper will have a dominant matchup. A blue, Esper Acuity, Sultai/Golgari or Gruul deck that wants to defeat creature decks can dominate those matchups. The exact distribution of the dominance is flexible.

In exchange, if you run into the wrong half of the field, things get quite ugly.

To defend against someone who sells out, one must maintain a creature deck and a non-creature deck.

‘Non-creature’ means a deck not vulnerable to an anti-creature sideboard configuration. In theory a creature deck could be good against the ‘normal’ anti-creature setups, but right now that does not seem to be the case. So the three viable creatureless builds are Esper Acuity, Esper Control and Temur Reclamation. Temur Reclamation (in my understanding) folds the creature matchups to win the creatureless matchups. Esper Acuity is an attempt to win both via different parts of the build, but focused more on anti-creature. Esper Control can be tuned either way.

In theory there’s also Dimir/Grixis, but it’s a bad deck, and the number of Nullhide Ferox running around does not make it better.

Thus, the natural level one thing to do is to always play at least one of those three decks. Two of them are odd ducks players aren’t as used to, and that aren’t as naturally strong as strategies (in my opinion), so Esper got the nod a very large percentage of the time, even though everyone knew that would happen.

On the creature-deck side, to guard against things like an Esper deck without much creature removal, things are far more wide open. You can choose white, red, blue, Drakes, Sultai/Golgari, Gruul and more. There’s something for (almost) everyone.

Most players seem to have stopped on this level, perhaps because advancing past it proved hard. There are two ways one can diverge from it. One can refuse to go to level one because something else matters more, or one can go beyond into various forms of level 2.

Refusing Level One: The Desperadoes

Some players, as I predicted, embraced that they were at a severe skill disadvantage. Thus, they sought to minimize the impact of that advantage, and either maximize variance or focus on getting good with a single deck. Alternatively, some players may have decided one deck was just better than the others.

Either way, the result was a number of players submitting two identical decklists.

I mentioned the possibility of using two copies of the same strategy, but pre-sideboarded against different halves of the field. That was not tried. What was tried was saying that this was my deck and I dare you to come and beat it twice.

This did not go well. All players who did this finished poorly.

These players were self-selected to already be at a disadvantage, so failure should not be too surprising. It is still strong confirmation that this approach gives up quite a lot. You need to at least be at level one.

Level Two: Finding the Trump

Paulo writes that he expected everyone to find the level one strategy of Esper paired with red or white, and spent a lot of time looking for a deck that was very strong against all three, even if it was horrible elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Standard doesn’t work that way. Every deck does powerful things and is capable of winning games against everything else. Unless a deck intentionally forfeits a matchup.

Even if you do forfeit some areas to win others, the whole point of the Esper/Aggro split is to prevent one deck from crushing both. If you play answers to Aggro cards, those cards are bad against Esper. Either play such cards, or do not.

You do get to ignore the third leg of the triangle trade-off: Sultai. It is fine to not be the ‘midrange trump’ given what others are up to.

If Paulo had been less ambitious, there were solutions.

Gruul with zero dead cards, and creatures selected with Esper in mind, is thought to be advantaged against Esper even with several burn spells. This matches my experience. Your draws usually force them to have exactly Kaya’s Wrath plus good support. Most versions don’t run the full four Kaya’s Wrath and don’t have much quick card draw. You can run either a Steel-Leaf Champion version or a Warrior build. Both work. What you can’t do is run Ghalta, Primal Hunger. That is exactly what Esper wants you to do.

Blue also beats Esper soundly if you pack zero dead cards by using Quench instead of Essence Capture. If you know how to play blue properly, it wins the matchup even with three or four dead cards; it just doesn’t crush the matchup then. Against white and red, you’re advantaged game one with a balanced configuration. So you can definitely get an edge on the pairing without having any clear weaknesses, and you can choose how to balance your needs. It’s not quite what was ordered, but it’s a good idea.

Golgari/Sultai also potentially offers promise if you are willing to give up the mirror and other midrange matchups, allowing polarization of spells and doing things like running Assassin’s Trophy as the cheap removal because it hits Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. I strongly suspect Reid Duke was on the ball here, but I can’t confirm from my own experience.

Level Two: Accept Polarization

Another approach is to force their choice in game three.

The commentators (wrongly) kept implying that many players ‘couldn’t’ choose whatever decks were not Esper or White/Red because they viewed one of the potential matchups as too bad. Part of this was a poor view of the matchups.

Part of that was poor game theory.

Part of it was putting the blame on the non-standard or polarizing deck.

Nassif brought Temur Reclamation. This deck (as he configured it, at least) is very good against Esper, very bad against aggression. Thus, he ‘can’t’ play Temur because his opponent ‘could’ play aggro. So he plays his other deck, Esper Acuity, which has matchups that are more balanced. Then his opponent, Mengucci, knows that Nassif ‘can’t’ play Temur, despite that this is why Temur was a good idea at all in the first place, and can and does safely choose Esper.

Which is exactly what I was expecting. Time and time again, players who brought unique decks ‘lost their nerve’ when choosing for game three, chose the non-polarizing deck over the polarizing one, and walked into a bad matchup.

Players who had the generic decks also chose the non-polarizing deck, or the one with the most ‘play skill’ generically attached to it, over the riskier deck, whether or not that had expectancy. In some sense they also lost their nerves, but were right to do so in non-standard matchups, because their opposition followed suit and rewarded them.

Thus the general conclusion that players will vastly overvalue ‘controlling my own destiny’ in both the matchup and play decision sense, and sacrifice expectancy to get it, even when against a player of equal or greater skill level, so long as they consider themselves good enough to be there.

To capitalize on this dynamic, one can invest in making one matchup very bad for the opponent. Make sure that they ‘can’t’ play Esper because you have a mirror-breaker list, or they ‘can’t’ play their creature deck because you can sweep the board too much, or what have you. This can be worthwhile even if you give up percentage in the first two games by doing it.

If your opponent has two similar decks, you get the benefit of choice. If your opponent has two different decks, you know they will almost always dodge you. Thus, you can play the other half of your ‘good pairing’ and get an edge in game three that way. Even if the flip would be very bad for you, don’t worry. It won’t happen.

Doing this for several days every time might clue people in. It also might not.

There was then another group of players who didn’t consider themselves good enough. They knew they had a skill disadvantage, so they did things like submit two creature decks or even two identical decks, which as we discussed earlier was a disaster.

The key is to do the right thing. Maximize your chance of winning, then when that involves rolling the dice, roll the dice.

Conclusion and Level Three: The Beyond

What is clear from this discussion, and logical extension to future levels of play, is just how weird this format really is. The important considerations revolve around the game three choices players get, and the guessing games that result, and anticipating opposing choices based on their anticipation of those choices.

You know what this has nothing at all in common with?

Kitchen table Magic!

Sideboards make sense. Even if the kitchen table doesn’t use them formally, everyone understands that hate cards can help against the deck someone else is beating you with, or is expected to bring. Anticipating an opponents’ response to these logical forks and building levels upon levels? That doesn’t have any parallel at all. It’s alien. No one – not even those playing – understands it or what makes it interesting.

It also means a lot of big gambles and big risks tied to Boolean guessing games. Things are inherently random. We were fortunate that most Standard matchups are by default close, so things weren’t too bad. At some times in the past, this format would have been much, much more random than this.

Sideboards allow adjustment. They let formats self-balance. They also are where the most interesting decisions, and most skill-based actions, lie. They are the biggest reward for knowing how your deck ticks. Building your deck between games is where it is at, and I especially love ‘tuning’ sideboards where what to do in each match is far from obvious.

Sideboards allow decks to differentiate themselves far more. Without sideboards, a format contains far fewer effectively different strategies, no matter how distinct you draw the boundaries. Post-sideboard games of the same matchup often play very differently with different builds and players. Without those sideboards, things are much more generic.

Sideboards are easy to follow once Arena gives you the screen showing what is going on (as does Magic Online), and once you have that, watching these decisions is fascinating. It’s also great for lower-level players. They learn how to do it, and they see what players think is good and bad in different places. It’s great.

More to the point, the expressed goal of ‘being like kitchen table Magic’ is deeply misguided. I’ll quote from Reflections on the Mythic Invitational:

To be blunt, it’s a stupid goal. Professional and advanced play of games often involves additional twists that don’t make sense at home. People understand.

Does your little league game use a bullpen? Should MLB stop using one because you don’t? Does your touch football game not use distinct offensive and defensive players? Should the NFL fix this?

Of course not. That would be insane.

Let us end on a positive note.

What was good about the format? What can we carry forward to our next experiment?

I think we can take two good things away.

The first is that different is great. 

Doing almost anything new and different will create new and different dynamics to explore. People will try cool new things, find innovative solutions. Even in failure, the first day with a given new format is still going to be good. Almost every time.

This implies that the more we do crazy different things, the better off we are.

This too goes against the goal of ‘Kitchen Table Magic’ but that’s the point. We want to set up a unique challenge and see how players react.

The second is that teams are great.

That doesn’t sound like it follows. Duo Standard didn’t have teams! But it did, of course. Each player brought a team of two decks. Effectively they were a team of two with one player taking both roles. The most interesting consequences were then when the teammates interacted with each other, and how they complement each others’ strengths, and cover and exploit weaknesses.

Let that be two different players on each side, and everything improves.

Of course, add a third player, restore the sideboards, and you get Team Standard, which is pretty great.

Many E-sports have figured this out. A team of three or five can put on a better show than a team of one, create better moments and better stories.

Next in Magic land, we’re on to War of the Spark, Pro Tour London and the London Mulligan. I’m sure I will have thoughts. And I know I’ll have fun watching it play out, whether it is triumph or disaster.



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