Summer Musings (or: Why Mystic Sanctuary is busted)

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by Paul W.

From 07/30 – 08/02 we held an eight-player gathering which resulted in four glorious days of barbecue, sunbathing and – of course – exchanging ideas about and playing our beloved format highlander. As I expect my readers to bemost interested in the format-related outcomes of the bootcamp, I will skip the parts about how enjoyable and valuable of a social experience this was (seriously) and dive straight into the action. Let me just say that I am very proud that people from different communities got along so well and that there were a lot of takeaways for everyone involved. I am writing this article in the believe that (leaving aside concerns over the quantity and quality of the data presented here and the minor size of the playtest group) our anecdotal evidence contributes to a better assessment of the format or at least offers a viewpoint for the readers to reflect their own approach from. Just a quick disclaimer: I won’t devote much effort into contextualizing the data, as I think everyone has their own method of evaluation and is aware of the flaws of the statistics and datasets presented throughout the article.

Our shared motivation – besides of course reconnecting with friends and simply hang out – was to have some time and thinking space to put our ideas to the test, refine our decks and test against capable players. Apart from me, I am pleased to have had Max H., Justus H., and Jan D. (all from Erfurt), Florian B. and Nils R. (Berlin, more or less), as well as Thomas H. and Jacob K. (Leipzig/Halle) on board. They are all familiar names in the German highlander tournament scene, and, due to their recent results, I think they have a lot of momentum on their side. Apart from that, these are people that I know share a deep fascination for the format and whose opinion I value very highly because they criticize you constructively where necessary.

Basically, we locked ourselves away in a cabinet in the woods and indulged in our vice, stopping to play only in order to eat and sleep. In between rounds, we played some cube and chaos drafts. We did not, in our testing of highlander, try out a different mulligan system or other shenanigans. To give you some indication of the meta, these were the decks played: All in all, the largest proportion of games recorded involved blue tempo decks (UW, URG, URW, URB, Mono U); combo was present in the form of 4c Hermit and Oracle Breach, with a hybrid in Mono G Elves; we had ramp in the form of RG Ramp and Bant Hoof (although more midrange in character); had a midrange deck in URWB; a genuine aggro deck in Cracademy (Bant and also Mono Brown, think Affinity); as well as control in the form of Esper, UWg, and UB. Eventually, we were able to keep track of 170 matches played (which equates roughly to a 7-round tournament with 50 players) between those decks and have recorded mulligans. Please keep in mind that not every deck was played equally often, so some winrates might appear quite low/high and the sample size is “more significant” for some decks that for others.

What follows are some of the key metrics that we are comfortable (i.e. that possess any informative value as they are published) in sharing with you:

 

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A few remarks on Mono U Tempo: the deck actually had more matches played as well as far more wins among those unrecorded matches. For instance, I played about ten games of RDW against it at the last evening and maybe only won once; I also remember a set of games I played with URG Tempo against him where wins/losses alternated between us depending on who was on the play. Given the long relationship between Thomas H. and the deck and also his repeated success with it (most recently 4th place at MindGameMages in Berlin), I wouldn’t give the numbers displayed here a lot of credit when it comes to this deck specifically.

In hindsight, I am surprised at how well UB control has done in this meta. It won a considerable amount of games against blue-based tempo. Some roleplayer cards, including Night of Souls Betrayal, Dead of Winter and Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer, have really impressed in this archetype. However, we all expected a tad more noticeable impact from Cling to Dust. We will definitely keep an eye on this deck in our local playtest-group. The results of both Hermit and Oracle Breach in this meta confirms their credibility and potency. Both decks’ topdecks are insanely strong, they need seemingly less setup than established combo decks and have many tutors and redundant pieces to their avail. It is always a good lesson testing against these archetypes as you get a feel for which axes are the most important to cover and when to shift gears. I am excited to see where these archetypes will settle once in-person play will resume in bigger form. Bant Hoof also gave tempo a good run for its money. Once these decks can bridge to 4/5/6 lands, their topdecks easily take over the game. Primeval Titan + Field of the Dead being only one of those tools, not to mention new cards such as Uro, WAR Ugin, IKO Vivien or all-stars like Jailer and Titania. The RG speedramp deck as well as the Cracademy variants (using Tolarian Academy and Gaea’s Cradle in a manner reminiscent of Modern Affinity) also look really promising to me, although it felt like the former was lacking a bit of consistency (however, the nutdraws are extremely good and the common Ponza-draws are also potent) and the latter unfortunately suffered from a lot of split burn in the meta. But since I know both Thomas and Jacob are very disciplined and creative deckbuilders, I am sure that they will surprise us with a competitive version in the foreseeable future.

I already touched on a few new roleplayer cards in established archetypes, but I wanted to highlight maybe one more aspect of gameplay that arguably influenced the experience of our format more fundamentally than Oko and company ever could. I am talking, of course, about the improved mana-situation over the last 12 months (i.e. since the release of Modern Horizons). Really the biggest takeaway or impression gained from this testing weekend was how more consistent the mana-base of almost every archetype has become – although the printings favored some archetypes more than others (Temur in particular, but I am biased here). First off, the horizon lands are just perfect for the format as they enter the battlefield untapped and mitigate flooding out, both big plusses in the current environment. Then there is Prismatic Vista, an incredible card that goes very well along with another kind of sleeper card from the same set, Arcum’s Astrolabe. These additions, together with the Ikoria Triomes – whose centrality in combination with fetchlands I hope is now thoroughly understood – enabled manabases to better concentrate on their core function which is to produce mana reliably and consistently. By having the triomes as additional fetching options, some archetypes were able to trim down on checklands and a few unnecessary manlands which were previously causes of crucial tempo losses or noticeable inconsistencies. In combination with Vista and the Triomes, the lure of Mystic Sanctuary actually became a realistic prospect, and I feel I need to underscore how good this card is. Although our group picked it up relatively late in the testing process, it shone ever since and adds an entirely new dimension to the game. Apart from the obvious (Deprive and Gush), there is so much more basic stuff this card does which is simply astonishing, i.e. putting a cantrip back on top (likely to be the best topdeck you can have on average), re-accessing the necessary amount of reach you need to finish off your opponent etc. Sometimes, this goes even unnoticed from your opponent as they might not track the number of islands you have in play and then catching them by surprise with a blue fetchland. Apart from the unisono plea for the remaining triomes (Bant and Grixis in particular) and the finalization of the Horizon-cycle, I think what is more realistic to expect in the upcoming sets is the completion of the BFZ-land-cycle, which will definitely leave its mark on our format (both the UR as well as the UG land will help controldecks a lot to facilitate Mystic Sanctuary or make UW variants better equipped to splash green). Simply put, with better mana, the format is just so much more enjoyable.

What I feel most capable of evaluating is the performance of tempo. It performed very well, not least because, admittedly, it was quite well positioned in the meta of the testing weekend. In addition to the dataset presented here, I am drawing from lengthy experience in our local playgroup and the matches we have recorded internally. A large share of the games of this weekend was played by either Grixis, Jeskai or Temur. Judging from the “data” presented above, those decks have a positive win-rate across the entire field. They also average fewer mulligans than other archetypes. To me, there are several reasons as to why they do a tad better than the remainder of the archetypes. The most important is probably that they are constructed in a way that circumvents the particular challenges of the highlander format: they are blue (much card-selection, clear base colour), they do not have many moving pieces but rather many functionally equivalent cards (cheap threats & interaction, selection again), they have a low curve (less mana-/colour-screw). This results in many functioning opening-hands, the capacity of coping with opposing plays even if you are behind on mana early and the ability to quickly shift gears once the situation allows for it. Another important reason is that the mana situation in 3 colour tempo decks is comparatively superior to 2- and 4-colour decks or 3 colour midrange with a higher curve for reasons I won’t outline in detail. Suffice to say that you are not dependent on lands that arepotentially entering the battlefield tapped and you can play and utilize fetchlands most effectively which leads to higher colour-consistency. This comparatively low fail-rate (“loosing to you own deck”) is what draws me to the archetype and what I believe accounts for a significant proportion of the win-percentage. Of course, there are decks that naturally prey on tempo, but the consistency of tempo decks and the demand that this poses on the average draw of those other decks is always a beacon of hope for me.

What I am personally taking away from the weekend is, first and foremost, that nothing is more valuable than being able to test with good players. It is a grounding and humbling experience for your own game and sometimes gives you the necessary reality-check when you think you have a monopoly on the highlander-wisdom. Therefore, I am very grateful to have had such a strong and friendly playgroup. Secondly, the intensive playtesting made me recall that certain unfortunate situations are inherent to the game itself and you cannot reliably shield yourself from them. One striking example is mana-flood. You won’t beat entirely it by steadily decreasing your land count after every playtest session, you don’t mitigate it by adding mana-sink after mana-sink. Flood is, to a certain degree, a natural part of the game and there is a definite chance that it will occur from time to time. There are certain things in Magic that you try to overprotect yourself from or which you constantly let occupy your mind and emotions. Same goes for complaining about the top-decks of your opponent. If you feel confident in your deck and think that you have played a good game so far, you shouldn’t let a great topdeck from your opponent compromise these achievements. In highlander, the powerlevel of cards is so unevenly distributed in every deck – and coupled with the inherent randomness of the game itself, the best you can do is having a well-refined decklist, experience in the matchup and confidence in your plays. Pure luck is part of why Magic is so captivating. Lastly, albeit a bit dangerous to think that for too long, I think that for now I have landed on a decklist that fits both my playstyle as well as my interpretation of my preferred archetype and that I am convinced I cannot improve meaningfully by drawing from Magic’s current card pool. Judging from my personal result-tracking, the months of disciplined testing are paying off, and this is a rewarding experience.

That’s it for the moment, thank you all for reading the piece. Feel free to follow up with me in a facebook-conversation. We are also thinking of recording a podcast that captures more voices of those who were present at the weekend. Until then, take care!