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7PH Quarterly Metagame Report – Q1 2021

Welcome back to our recurring article on the 7 Point Highlander metagame. Here I will overview data from the most recent Quarter, which contains information on decks and points that have been submitted by players via the Point Results Form. If you haven’t already seen it, you can report your Points here. These quarterly metagame reports release around one week prior to the regular Points Announcements (which occur with each Standard-legal set release).

The Point Results Form was created as our first port of call for collecting the most readily accessible data;

  • deck strategies such as AggroCombo, and Control;
  • predominant colours played, and perhaps most importantly;
  • where people chose to spend their 7 Points.

You can read the previous Metagame Report here, in which I mention the the importance of getting broad participation in submitting your points after an event, because a report is only as good as the quality of its data. If you aren’t already having your say on Points that you play then I strongly recommend engaging with the points reporting form after every event you participate in. It takes any one individual only 30 seconds to click the points that they played after an event, and that small commitment across all players and events makes for absolutely invaluable data!

This quarter we had a good level of participation (N=249), albeit down about 30% from last quarter, which may have been due to the reduced frequency of events in comparison to the festive end-of-year break period. Now it is about time we jump in to some data crunching:

Strategies played in 7 Point Highlander

So what types of overall strategies did people prefer to play in Q1 2021? Below we have a graphic representation of the decks reported over the last three month period (N=249).

Percentage chance of playing against any particular strategy in Q1 2021

For Tempo and Ramp decks it was ‘business as usual’ this quarter. These two strategies are typically the least represented, and often for good reason, as a metagame where one is dominant tends to lead to incredibly polarising games. Midrange on the other hand encourages a high level of interactivity, so its continued ‘third of the meta’ pie is generally a positive for format interactivity (and a sign that the majority of Highlander players elect to sleeve up a strategy that focusses on the back-and-forth exchange in ‘fair magic’).

The really interesting component is the increased share of Aggro and Combo decks, up a combined 7% from the last quarter. The Committee have actively sought to boost the representation of Aggro strategies for the last couple of years (and boosting underrepresented Combo strategies in times when Control was historically strong), but Aggro is a strange beast to manage. Aside from Moxen at 2 Points (which has proved format warping and would lead to significant accessibility issues due to price now) there is little means to ‘provide’ Aggro with Points; rather, The Committee has sought to point powerful cards that impact on the playability of Aggro decks. Slowly but surely, player confidence in Aggro is returning and it is good to see this pillar of the format gain more representation.

In comparison, Control is at the lowest we have seen for a very long time. The Control strategy fluctuates quite a bit in level of play mainly due to being a reactive deck, so selecting the ‘right’ answers for a metagame is no easy task; sometimes the ‘right’ answers don’t actually exist! However, Control is a perennial strategy in Highlander, so it is surprising to see such a low representation this quarter. The most likely scenario is the increase in prevalence of Hybrid Combo decks (covered below), which are proactive, allowing them to pivot into a Tempo, Combo, or Control role. These flexible decks can present different ‘questions’ within the same game, which is a nightmare for any control opponent to answer effectively.

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple strategies in Q1 2021

The first figure we presented displayed the likelihood that you might face any one particular strategy. For example, one in four of your opponents in an event was probably likely to be playing Combo, or at least have a Combo element to their deck. However, magic decks can have multiple game plans, sometimes alternate strategies entirely (referred to as Hybrid decks). If you want to know more about Hybrid decks and the typical representatives, flick back to the Seminal Metagame Report, but in short Hybrid archetypes have actually seen dramatically increased play since last quarter (34% total in Q4, compared with 41% this quarter).

Looking at the data, whilst these Hybrid decks can take the role of Midrange-Combo, or Aggro-Combo, the most popular share of the Hybrid meta are Combo-Control and Tempo-Combo strategies. The best representatives of these are decks that revolve around either Thassa’s Oracle, or Underworld Breach. The former has been a mainstay of the Highlander format ever since the printing of its namesake card in Theros: Beyond Death. All variants of the deck (Grixis, Sultai, and Esper) have gone from strength to strength, earning numerous Points over the course of nearly 18 months. The strength of each ‘Thoracle’ variant is its Hybrid nature, being able to win with the namesake combo, or by simply repurposing the interaction that you would otherwise earmark for protecting the combo to ‘protect the queen‘ instead, allowing you to ride a Tempo threat like Tasigur, the Golden Fang all the way to victory.

The second Hybrid deck has only recently emerged on the scene, and made a huge impact in the form of the colloquial ‘slush puppy’ combo of Gifts Ungiven for: Underworld Breach; Lion’s Eye Diamond; Sevinne’s Reclamation; and Brain Freeze. This presents a one-card win condition for an otherwise predominantly Control or even Midrange deck, costing as few as 5 card slots in the deck and a paltry 1 Point for the whole package. A slew of variants of this archetype have consistently Top 8-ed throughout this quarter, and are a major player in this season’s data. It is interesting to note that the connecting factor between the two dominant Combo archetypes is Gifts Ungiven, which in both instances provides a one-card-win that can be set up when the opponent’s guard is down (i.e. any turn that they tap out, from Turn 4 onward).

If you’re interested in more information on the slush puppy archetype (and to discover the origins of the deck name) read Brandon Rashad’s influential tournament report, and no doubt an inevitable Deck Primer will be on the way for this new Hybrid deck!

Colours played in 7 Point Highlander

Next we will explore the colours typically represented in Q1 2021 Highlander decks.

Frequency of colours reported in decks played in Q1 2021

For the first time in a while we see that the perennial colour distribution pattern has been disrupted. Historically, White has been the least-played colour, with the remaining 4 typically tied (with the UG ‘Simic’ colour pair slightly ahead last quarter). This quarter there is a little more differentiation, with Red taking the lead due both in part to a resurgence in Mono-Red Aggro decks, as well as the Izzet (UR) and Temur (RUG) based decks taking a notable portion of the meta. The interesting development is the quite noticeable drop in the popularity of the colour Black. Midrange decks have foregone powerful planeswalkers like Liliana the Last Hope and hand disruption like Thoughtseize, electing instead to go down the path of Bant, Temur, and four colours (WURG). Opting out of the once-mainstay colour Black opens up hyper-aggressive cards like Mantis Rider, value propositions from Omnath Locus of Creation, as well as Arcum’s Astrolabe and mana-dork-powered punisher decks with Blood Moon. Likewise, although Combo decks have typically been black (especially building around Thassa’s Oracle), the emergence of the Underworld Breach decks have likewise encouraged more players into the Jeskai colours.

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple colours in Q1 2021

Whilst slightly down from last quarter (83%), decks with 3 or more colours still comprised a similar portion of the metagame (80%). When you’re planning for a tournament, this means that around 4 of every 5 opponents you face will likely be running a deck with anywhere between 3 and 5 colours. Fundamentally, the pay-offs for being in more than just two colours are much higher than the cost of occasionally stumbling on mana, or being the victim of Blood Moon, or a timely Wasteland. To read more about the relatively ‘free’ nature of adding a 3rd colour and the concept of ‘greed creep’, visit the Seminal Metagame Report.

1 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play (N=249) for 1 Point cards in Q1 2021

In such a long list of 1 Point cards there is a lot of stability, so we won’t call attention to the typical trends that are consistent from quarter to quarter (you’ll see the usual suspects at the top and bottom of this graphic). The interesting areas to point out are the differences, perhaps the easiest of which is when a Point Change is involved. Tolarian Academy saw nominal (3% prevalence) play at 2 Points last quarter, and this has nearly doubled for Q1 2021. Whilst the numbers are still of course small, it is great to see that player confidence with the otherwise powerful card has increased, without exploding to a level where The Committee need be concerned. On the other hand, Underworld Breach was seen in only 2% of decks in Q4, and has now quadrupled in level of play! Another related card is Enlightened Tutor which likewise saw only 2% prevalence last quarter but has seen an increase (5%) in Q1 2021. Enlightened Tutor has seen play in a wide variety of Combo decks, consistently seeking to do something unfair with Combo cards like Time Vault and Underworld Breach.

On the ‘fair’ magic end of the spectrum we see mainstay cards like Umezawa’s Jitte getting more love this quarter (up from 11% in Q4). Whilst Jitte is a Midrange staple, the numbers are more so explained by the rise of Aggro, which has few good budget options to spend a remaining Point on. Whilst Jitte doesn’t appear to fit the Aggro game plan, it serves the role of winning in spots where the deck otherwise couldn’t, such as being behind on board versus a Midrange deck or Aggro mirror. Conversely, we see a noticeable drop in Mana Drain (11% in Q4), with half as many players interested in sleeving up the Control staple (or as seen earlier, sleeving up Control in general).

2 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play (N=249) for 2 Point cards in Q1 2021

It is important to start with the newcomer to the 2 Point list: Oko, Thief of Crowns. At 1 Point, Oko was seen in nearly a third of all decks last quarter (29%) which was simply unprecedented for a multi-coloured card. At 15% this quarter, Oko’s prevalence has been cut in half, but he is still the second-most-played 2 Point card. There is also an interesting dynamic between True-Name Nemesis and Oko, as decks will often have to choose which of the two ‘similar’ role-players to spend their limited number of Points on. This likely explains True-Name’s slight drop (14% in Q4) in play, and we will likely be observing a bit of back and forth between the two in coming metagame reports. A more subtle impact is that of 2 Point Oko on other generally ‘fair’ Pointed cards like Dig through Time and Strip Mine, both of which are down from last quarter (from 16% and 27% respectively). Control decks now have to choose critically between reactive card-selection and one of Magic’s best and most flexible proactive cards, whilst Midrange decks and those with a ‘lands’ recursion theme may trim on Strip Mine in order to fit in Oko too (Aggro decks were unaffected as they will always keep Strip Mine, and continue to prop up the lion’s share of Strip Mine numbers).

In terms of Combo strategies, Tinker saw a big rise in play (2% in Q4), as did Mana Crypt (10% in Q4), both of which are likely related to the Tolarian Academy de-pointing. On the other hand, Flash continues its nose-dive (down yet again from a low of 2% in Q4) with next to no representation this quarter, nor for its historical partner Protean Hulk. Conversely, Channel is up from 0% last quarter, and it is often the case that players who enjoy a Combo strategy switch between different variants. Nevertheless, the majority of these dedicated ‘all-in’ Combo decks are supressed in the face of highly flexible Hybrid decks running either the Thassa’s Oracle or Underworld Breach combo finishes.

3, 4 & 5 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

The following figure combines 3, 4, and 5 point cards into a single graphic, since a deck that includes a 3 point card often builds around it in a similar manner as a 4 or 5 point card. Essentially, these are the ‘heavy hitters’ of the Points List. Whilst these are listed by frequency of play, one should still expect to see slightly lower prevalence of a 5 Point card like Time Walk, compared with 3 Point cards like Moxen. Let’s explore the frequency of play for the heavyweights of the Points List:

Percentage rate of play (N=249) for 3/4/5 Point cards in Q1 2021

Let’s look at the heavyweights: Ancestral Recall and Time Walk both went to 5 Points, and their frequency of play has almost exactly halved (down from 15.2% and 5.3% respectively). This is a good sign for format diversity as well as accessibility concerns. There was a (thankfully unfounded) fear that making either one the ‘first ever’ 5 Point card would lead to zero play, however the listed frequency of play (6.9% and 2.4% respectively) is a very healthy level. Most other 3 and 4 Point cards have remained stable between this and last quarter, however the uptick in Sol Ring (from 5% in Q4) is noted. This is again likely related to the change in Tolarian Academy, however it is important to point out that Sol Ring sees a good level of play in Midrange and non-artifact-based Ramp decks too, not to mention the occasional Aggro deck that wants to curve into a Chandra Torch of defiance on turn 4 as a budget alternative to a Mox.

0 point watch list cards

The 7 cards that are zero Points and on the Q1 2021 Watch List for potential pointing were: Birgi, God of Storytelling; Yawmoth’s Bargain; Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath; Deathrite Shaman; as well as the 3-mana punisher permanents: Teferi, Time Raveller; Narset, Parter of Veils; and Opposition Agent.

The first two cards were included on our Watch List for the purposes of gathering precautionary data in an unknown metagame. Neither Birgi (0%) or Bargain (0%) created degenerate strategies or even saw enough (read: any) play to warrant attention! On the other hand, Uro (20%) remains relatively stable if slightly higher than last quarter (17.5%). Uro has been on the watch list for some time, and the initial expectation was that moving Oko to 2 Points (and Ancestral Recall to 5 for the recursive Temur decks that throw Uro as a freebie into Gifts Ungiven piles) would be significant enough to discourage the grindy Uro engine in fair decks. Whilst the significantly reduced Simic (UG) meta share is generally a good sign that Uro will not be dominating metagames, The Committee will still have to keep an eye on the prevalence of this powerful card at 0 Points. In comparison, Deathrite Shaman (35%) saw play in more than one third of highlander decks this quarter! Whilst Pointing the innocuous-looking ‘mana-dork’ may look like a drastic move, the pervasive influence of the one-mana planeswalker has been observed across multiple other formats. In fact, Deathrite Shaman joins a crew of cards deemed so format warping that they are only legal in Vintage (e.g. Oko, Balance, etc.).

Opposition Agent has been watch-listed for two quarters now (weighted 19% in Q4; this quarter 32%), and just like Deathrite Shaman this powerful ‘hoser’ appears in a third of all Highlander decks, leaving its colleague Hullbreacher in the dust. The original fears revolved around how Opposition Agent in specific would disproportionately punish Combo decks, however this may not be as important as the generally un-fun game state and tension created by simply not being allowed to activate fetch lands against one in three opponents. With the addition of Teferi, Time Raveller (16%) and Narset, Parter of Veils (21%), The Committee is watching the one-sided ‘punisher’ mechanics very closely. Whilst prevalence is certainly a significant justification for Pointing (e.g. Wrenn and Six was seen in over a third [34.5%] of decks prior to earning 1 Point status), there are of course many other factors including deterministic wins, un-fun play patterns, and so on, all of which could lead to a card earning a Point regardless of its prevalence rate.

Summary of 7 Point Highlander metagame data for Q1 2021

This ‘broad strokes’ report covered highlander participation as a whole. We have a better understanding of the strategies that people elect to play, their colours, and some of the main Pointed cards that they consistently sleeve up. We can also tentatively explore the evolution of the metagame, as we compare the latest information with baseline data from previous quarterly metagame reports.

The uptake of the Point Results Form has also been good, but as per previous quarters this metagame report is based largely on Top 8 performances, due to the inherent reporting bias in those who choose to lodge their Points. These data tend to be reported by players who felt satisfied with their performance, with comparatively fewer data from those who didn’t feel that their points served them well enough to report their final result.

Looking forward, if there’s community buy-in at all levels (below just the ‘best standings’), then we would love to bring you even more data on conversion rates, so that we can all explore how Pointed and Watch List cards actually perform in events. That kind of information would certainly help better inform major decisions in the Committee Points announcements, so we thank you all in advance for continuing (or starting) to use the Points reporter after every event you enter (no matter how poorly you think you went!).

That quality data will help us maintain the integrity of this best practice, so thank you everyone!

Dr Sarven McLinton

Sarven has been playing Magic the Gathering since Stronghold (1998) and is on The Highlander Points Committee. He is well-versed in a wide variety of deck archetypes but remains an avid student of the game. Sarven is a passionate writer and seeks to apply his extensive experience in research and statistics to gaming. By day, 'Dr McLinton' works as a Research Associate at the Centre for Workplace Excellence (CWeX) managing various projects investigating psychosocial factors at work, as well as lecturing Psychology Honours and supervising PhD candidates. By night, 'McLinton Sensei' teaches traditional Japanese Karate in South Australia's premiere sporting centre, the ARC Campbelltown. He holds a 4th-degree black belt and is a gold medalist, competing both nationally and internationally in Karate and Open-style contact tournaments.