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7PH Quarterly Metagame Report – Q3 2020

Welcome to the first quarterly 7 Point Highlander metagame report! Here I will overview the data on decks and points that we have collected via the Point Results Form that players have been submitting for the last 3 months. 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 Aggro, Combo, and Control;
  • predominant colours played, and perhaps most importantly;
  • where people chose to spend their 7 Points.

The last three months have been the first opportunity to test our system, and for the most part it has worked well. Despite the limited physical events there has been an excellent compliance rate from people who finish in the top 8 of a tournament. Overall, people who feel that their deck performed well in an event were highly motivated to follow through and report their 7 Points in the Point Results Form.

There is however very low compliance from people who ‘bomb out’ of an event (as we expected). This of course limits the interpretation of statistics. Given the inherent reporting bias we have taken an exploratory approach to this first quarter’s data, and the findings were interesting nonetheless.

Going forward, the number one improvement that will help support more detailed analyses (e.g. conversion rates which can inform us on the ‘performance/success’ of each pointed card) is: increasing compliance for below Top 8 finishes.

If you’re reading this article, it’s likely you’re already interested in data and a regular user of the Point Results Form for your own decks. Word of mouth is an effective strategy, so if you’re playing in an event and chatting with players who didn’t quite do as well as your own Top 8 finish, then in the course of general banter you could suggest that other players also jump on the Results page and submit their points. Likewise, if you are (or know) the Tournament Organiser, then perhaps announce the Results form (or put the link on the Standings screen) prior to starting the final round in order to catch the attention of all players. Getting the whole range of players into the habit of opening the link on their phone and taking 30 seconds to lodge their points right after every tournament (regardless of their final position) will no doubt have a dramatic effect on the quality of data. This will improve the level of detail we can report back to the community, and confidence in evidence-based Points Announcement decision making. At the end of the day, we don’t just want to see which cards did well, we want to see which cards people sleeve up but then do not finish as highly as they had expected in a tournament.

With this grassroots ‘call to action’ aside, what we can say is that this ‘broad strokes’ metagame report is still fascinating!

Below we will talk about the type of decks and cards that people consistently played, and for the most part performed well this quarter. This will establish a baseline for the Q4 data, and we look forward to presenting comparisons in the next quarterly metagame report, to track how the meta is evolving (and subsequent reports will continually provide more and more context).

Strategies played in 7 Point Highlander

So what types of overall strategies did people prefer to play in Q3 2020? Below we have a graphic representation of the decks reported over the last three month period (N=133).

Percentage chance of playing against any particular strategy in Q3 2020

Overall it is clear that Midrange is the most popular strategy in Q3 2020. This is no surprise. Historically, major Highlander event data has consistently shown Midrange to not only be the most popular but also the best performing strategy for Top 8 conversions. There are also a number of systemic indicators that support Midrange, from the quality of ‘value’ generating cards in the game itself, through to the higher necessity for the Committee to place points on degenerate strategies (whereas pointing ‘good value’ cards is an untenable proposition).

Conversely, there are a few results that might surprise long-time Highlander players, namely; 1) a high representation of Combo; 2) a comparatively low representation of Control and Tempo strategies. Regarding the latter, Control has historically been just as popular as Midrange, but was somewhat suppressed by the rise of powerful Tempo decks over the last couple of years. However, this new data suggests that the reticence to sleeve up Control decks may be based on the false assumption that Tempo is still highly prevalent. Instead, it appears that Tempo has returned to its pre-2018 numbers as one of the least likely strategies (7%) that you can expect to face in a tournament (in Q3 2020).

In relation to the first item above, for the most part previous major event results indicate that Combo either performs relatively poorly, or that fewer people elect to sleeve up these powerful but linear strategies. Contrary to popular opinion, Q3 data is telling us that Combo is the second most popular strategy. This may well be linked to the power and accessibility of Thassa’s Oracle (see Points analysis further down). Alternately, some amount of the high representation of Combo may actually be tied to the data we’ll be presenting next.

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple strategies in Q3 2020

The first figure we presented displayed the likelihood that you might face any one particular strategy. For example, one in three of your opponents in an event was probably likely to be playing Midrange, or at least have a Midrange element to their deck. However these figures alone don’t tell the whole story. In reality, magic decks can have multiple game plans, sometimes alternate strategies entirely. These are referred to as Hybrid decks.

Our data indicates that whilst the majority of decks report a single strategy, you can expect to be playing against a Hybrid strategy about a third of the time. For Q3, these decks were typically:

  • Combo-Tempo hybrid strategies such as Esper “Thoracle” decks;
  • Combo-Control Grixis “Thoracle” decks;
  • Combo-Ramp “Elves” and artifact “MUD” decks;
  • Combo-Midrange “Lands” decks, and;
  • Tempo-Control Temur “RUG Lord” decks.

As you can see, the majority of these hybrid decks cite Combo as one of their key strategies, which may explain the comparatively high representation of Combo strategies in the first figure.

Colours played in 7 Point Highlander

Next we will explore the colours typically represented in Q3 2020 Highlander decks.

Frequency of colours reported in decks played in Q3 2020

For the most part, Red, Black, Blue and Green were the most represented colours (in that order). This is not particularly surprising based on the plethora of powerful cards printed in the last year or so, most of which have boosted Red and Green in particular (Blue and Black have typically always been popular). It is also interesting to note the decent representation of decks that are purely (or a substantive portion of their cards are) Colourless.

The primary casualty has been the colour White. White offers a number of powerful new 0 Point cards like Teferi, Time Raveller and Sevinne’s Reclamation, as well as the relatively recent de-pointing of Stoneforge Mystic and the historically robust equipment package. However on the whole, players are either less interested in, or do not believe that White has the raw power to contend with the other colours.

However discussion of colours in isolation doesn’t tell the whole story.

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple colours in Q3 2020

When consulting 7 Point Highlander resources, you will find that the discussion of colour almost always revolves around the largely ‘free’ nature of adding a 3rd colour. With the stable Fetch-Dual-Shock manabase, it is often a distinct advantage to play a third colour, both in terms of raw power level of spells, and the selection of lands to ‘fetch’ with Polluted Delta and co. The Q3 2020 data further underlines this, with less than a quarter of decks playing fewer than the ‘conventional’ three colours.

From a personal perspective, I coined the term ‘greed creep’ in one of the earliest episodes of the 7 Point Highlander podcast, as a parallel power creep. In short, greed creep refers to the desire (or necessity) to add another ‘spash’ card, one after the other, until you realise that you’re legitimately playing 4 or 5 colours. In my own decks through 2020 I have noticed that the printing of Arcum’s Astrolabe and the new Triome lands have made greed creep almost irresistible in the current climate, not to mention the ability to be resilient to (or even sideboard) Blood Moon effects.

As you can see in the figure above, an additional quarter of decks were identified as 4 or 5 colours. This results in 3+ multi-colour decks constituting an incredible 76% of the Q3 2020 metagame. Data like this suggests that cards such as Back to Basics will remain 0 Points, as a means by which to maintain checks and balances against greed creep.

This leads us neatly into a discussion of Pointed cards and their rates of play.

1 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play for 1 Point cards in Q3 2020
Frequency of play (N=133) for 1 Point cards in Q3 2020

First, let’s look at the heavy-hitters: Snapcaster Mage and Force of Will can be found in roughly one in three Highlander decks this quarter. Whilst Snapcaster Mage’s power level and flexibility is undeniable, there is often public debate over the value of Force of Will at 1 Point (i.e. it ‘two-for-ones’ the controller). For some decks, Force of Will does not feel like a ‘one point step’ above Force of Negation, however its catch-all nature and minimal restrictions (i.e. have a blue card and one life point) make it the second most played Pointed card, period.

Whilst the figure speaks for itself on most cards, we’ll just be pointing out a few important observations:

  • Oko, even at 1 Point, still sees more play than anticipated
  • Q3 data is after the Companion rules change, so Lutri the Spellchaser sees solid play at 1 Point even with the new ‘3 mana tax’ on Companions
  • Library of Alexandria saw play in only one deck which needed to specifically build around abusing it
  • Despite the anecdotal decline in the dedicated Equipment archetype, Skullclamp and Umezawa’s Jitte themselves see a high level of play as colourless options in any creature-based deck
  • Dedicated and ‘flex-slot’ Storm archetype cards like Dark Petition, Yawgmoth’s Will, Underworld Breach, Doomsday, Wishclaw Talisman, and Yawgmoth’s Bargain may see a low level of play but this is not an indication that they’ll be free from ‘checks and balances’ Points required to balance the archetype

A more dedicated discussion is required for data in relation to three cards that are often raised in community considerations for de-pointing; Green Sun’s Zenith; Birthing Pod; Karakas, and; Jace, the Mind Sculptor. These cards all fulfil different roles, but sit in the interesting position of ‘played everywhere at 0’ and ‘strong pulls into a colour to play them for free’. At 0, they tend to homogenise decks into specific colours, like the distinct disadvantage placed on Midrange decks that are non-Green, because they miss out on leveraging a free Green Sun’s Zenith and Birthing Pod. These metagame reports are not designed to be detailed rationale on Point Updates; the main take-home message of the data above is that all these cards see healthy if not widespread levels of play, and are clearly popular with a decent portion of the community.

A handful of cards saw next to (or literal) zero play, and it is no surprise that they fall into the Combo strategy. Niche cards like Time Spiral, Time Twister, Personal Tutor, Hermit Druid, Merchant Scroll, Intuition, and Oath of Druids all tend to only fit in a particular type of Combo strategy. At the moment, much of Combo diversity is unfortunately suppressed, due to Thassa’s Oracle which is discussed in the next section.

2 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play for 2 Point cards in Q3 2020
Frequency of play (N=133) for 2 Point cards in Q3 2020

Strip Mine, True-Name Nemesis, and Dig Through Time are the clear heavy-hitters, going in a variety of relatively ‘fair’ Midrange, Tempo, Control, and Aggro strategies. The main discussion point however is the 4th most played card, Thassa’s Oracle. Appearing in about one-in-ten Highlander decks for Q3 2020 may seem innocuous, but when compared with the strategy breakdown, this means that almost half of all Combo strategies (21%) are using Thassa’s Oracle (10%) to win the game. When the Points list consists of a swath of powerful Combo cards, this is generally a bad sign as it suggests that there is one primary combo win condition that is ‘solved’ at with the current Points List. This explains why historically popular Combo strategies involving Flash, Tinker, Channel, and Protean Hulk have seen next to no representation in Q3 2020.

The predominance of one highly played combo card mentioned above cannot be compared directly to ‘fair’ strategies. For a card like Snapcaster Mage, a Control, Midrange, or Tempo deck can use it and a suite of identical cards to engineer very different board states and games with high levels of replayability, leading to a positive and diverse game experience. So the same logic is not true when comparing heavy play between pointed cards in ‘fair’ decks, and those attempting to repeatedly create the same ‘unfair’ instant-win game state.

Now in general, a single ‘best’ combo deck is usually quite easy to hate out of the metagame, and homogeneity in Sideboards is a self-righting system. In the case of Thassa’s Oracle, the combo is actually incredibly hard to interact with short of very specific answers limited to certain decks and colours (such as Stifle). If the deck is a hybrid Combo deck it becomes even harder for a metagame to fix itself, as the pilots of the hybrid combo deck can ignore very specific answers and enact its alternate strategy instead.

3 and 4 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

The following figure combines 3 and 4 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 point card. Essentially, these are the ‘heavy hitters’ of the Points List. The 4 Point cards are listed first, and should be expected to have a slightly lower prevalence than 3 Point cards (hence why raw Frequency N is relevant, permitting ‘point-to-play’ ratios when needed).

Percentage rate of play for 3 and 4 Point cards in Q3 2020
Frequency of play (N=133) for 3 and 4 Point cards in Q3 2020

With all the discussion about Ancestral Recall, surprisingly Time Walk has seen more play in Q3 2020, despite both being 4 Points. It is very important however to consider the availability of Power, as these numbers can easily under-represent the actual level of play, were Blue Power to cost the same ‘real-world bucks’ as Snapcaster Mage or Strip Mine. Likewise, players who own some Power Nine and play their specific copy repeatedly should also be accounted for. When comparing Blue Power, half of the instances of Time Walk are represented by only one player, whereas Ancestral Recall appearances are spread across seven unique players in Q3. This speaks to the broad appeal and flexibility of Ancestral Recall, despite seeing a lower overall frequency of play compared with Time Walk. It is also interesting to note that Time Vault still sees some amount of play, despite the Thassa’s Oracle ‘package’ costing fewer Points. The robustness of a 2-card combo simply cannot be understated.

Sol ring’s heavy play is impressive, and a nod to both the rise of Colourless decks as well as players building Midrange strategies on a budget. This is not to say that Mox options are always better than Sol Ring, as players can build decks with a plethora of 4+ mana cost threats or lock pieces that leverage the budget accelerator very well. Demonic Tutor is often seen in Midrange strategies like Jund for similar budget considerations. Nevertheless the Moxen are still played in Red, Green, and Black, which represent the colour pie for some of the key Aggro strategies in Highlander.

0 point watch list cards and particular points of interest

The two cards on the Q3 2020 Watch List for potential pointing were Mystic Sanctuary, and Wrenn and Six.

Mystic Sanctuary saw play in 23.3% of all decks submitted this quarter, and was represented across strategies from Control and Midrange, through to Combo and Tempo decks. This saturation can be explained by multiple factors, including popularity (recent printing), accessibility (it is a common that can be built around other affordable cards), and of course raw power level. Whether having one quarter of all decks run the same card is a sign of format ill-health or not is another question, but it is more so about the nature of that highly prevalent card rather than prevalence in an of itself. One of the draws to the Highlander format as a whole is its ‘replayability’ due to the unique nature of each game. When one plays their deck the strategy might feel the same overall, but use different cards each time. With 4 blue ‘fetch’ lands in a deck, Mystic Sanctuary can be seen almost every game, sometimes even multiple times with access to Gush and Daze.

Wrenn and Six is among the strongest Planeswalkers ever printed, and there is no surprise that they have been on the Watch List since printing. The card reported a play rate of 34.5%, essentially indicating that a full third of all Highlander decks are playing Wrenn and Six. A multi-colour (especially non-blue) card seeing this level of play is almost unprecedented in Highlander, and one of the best comparisons is Oko, Thief of Crowns (23% play and 1 Point to boot). The majority of the decks playing Wrenn and Six were Midrange, but the format-warping planeswalker also appeared in Control and Tempo decks alike, and is clearly a strong pull into the Green and Red colour pair at 0 Points.

Summary of 7 Point Highlander metagame data for Q3 2020

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.

In the future, we look to compare sequential quarterly reports in order to better understand how the metagame evolves, both as a result of Committee Points announcements and likewise to inform those major decisions. In order to maintain the integrity of this best practice, we of course need quality data. This Q3 2020 metagame report is based mainly on Top 8 performances, due to the inherent reporting bias in those who choose to lodge their Points. However, 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. We also envisage exploring state comparisons, and potentially collecting more detail on proxy vs. non-proxy results, among other analyses.

Nevertheless, seeing a high level of uptake (in Top 8’s) from the community, and over 130 reports is a brilliant start to this Highlander data collection mission, especially seeing the innovative event activity during the challenges of COVID-19. Keep up the great work and stay safe 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.