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7PH Quarterly Metagame Report – Q4 2020

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 Aggro, Combo, and Control;
  • predominant colours played, and perhaps most importantly;
  • where people chose to spend their 7 Points.

We had over a hundred entries (N=133) in Q3 2020, and you can read the previous Metagame Report here. In that article I made a call to action from a grassroots level regarding the need for more engagement with the points reporting form (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!). Clearly there was interest because the number of entries nearly tripled in the Q4 2020/21 period (N=342)! Whilst it would be wonderful to assume this is all due to community engagement, there are of course a number of factors that have contributed to this, including but not limited to; 1) an increase in frequency of events as pandemic protocols change; 2) a longer period of reporting (the ‘end of year set’ means a longer duration until the Jan release and simultaneous points update), and ideally; 3) genuinely higher participation rates in Points reporting. Regardless, this boost in data is a win for data crunching, which we’ll now about to jump in to!

Below we will explore the type of decks and cards that people consistently played (and for the most part performed well this quarter). As mentioned in Q3 2020, the previous report established a baseline for this Q4 comparison, allowing us 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 Q4 2020-21? Below we have a graphic representation of the decks reported over the last three month period (N=342).

Percentage chance of playing against any particular strategy in Q4 2020-21

It is no surprise to see Midrange also emerge as the most popular strategy represented in Q4 2020-21. For those who are veterans to highlander, you have likely seen the continual presence of Midrange decks somewhat of a mainstay of the Highlander format. Whether it is mana-generating creatures letting you play a 3-drop on turn 2 (and then later picking up an Equipment), or 4-colour value-piles generating sequential two-for-ones, Midrange is not only a strategy beloved by a majority of players but also is easily enabled by the Highlander card pool and rules (it is an untenable proposition for the Committee to continually point ‘good value’ cards due to wide pool of interchangeable options).

Conversely, Combo has the ability to prey on the high prevalence of Midrange by simply circumnavigating the value-generation subgame entirely (ignoring powerful creatures and 2-for-1’s by simply “combo-ing off”, winning on the spot). There is often a standing public opinion that “Combo is Dead”, perhaps due to the long list of Combo-specific cards on the Points list in comparison to the ‘how to Point Midrange’ scenario mentioned earlier. However, data quite clearly suggests that this notion is not reflective of the decks people choose to sleeve up, noting of course that ‘electing to play’ does not equal ‘Top 8-ing’ an event (so conversion rates are another discussion). Fundamentally, our data shows that dedicated Combo or decks with a combo element to them are incredibly popular, and comprise the second most played strategy in Highlander.

Compared with the Q3 2020 data, the strategy distribution has been incredibly stable with all of the above playstyles changing by only 1-2% either way (excluding Ramp, which will be discussed below). Most of these ever so slight changes are within reasonable tolerances, and an interesting point to raise also happens to relate to Combo. In the Points Announcement: Zendikar Rising (which occurred immediately after and in light of the Q3 2020 report), Thassa’s Oracle went up an additional Point. Counterintuitively, the overall Combo strategy increased its metagame share (going from 21% in Q3 to 23% in this quarter). These reasonable tolerances are no cause for alarm, and instead draw attention to the fact that points on otherwise strong Combo deck archetypes don’t always dissuade players from sleeving up exciting combo decks. We will talk more in the Points sections below to explore the impact of an additional Point on Oracle and the resulting diversity in types of Combo decks.

Last, Ramp took a noticeable dive, losing between a third to a half of its metagame share (8% in Q3, now 5% in Q4). This supplants Tempo, making Ramp the least likely strategy that you can expect to face in a tournament now. Ramp has always been a strange beast, with a very favourable matchup against Midrange (the dominant strategy!) by vaulting over the top of smaller decks… but its worst matchup often is ‘itself’. Operating as a deck that needs to assemble its two ‘halves’ in the right order (mana producers vs. big spell/creature payoffs) without missing a beat, the higher variance can provide a dramatically different game experience for its players, giving the strategy a ‘love it or hate it’ vibe. I expect that with its overall low numbers, and differing play experience, we will continue to see Ramp oscillate in prevalence. Whilst we only have two data points from these Metagame Reports to draw any clear conclusions just yet, there may well be a scenario where Ramp decks can receive a Point reduction as ‘enticement’ to play and experiment with it, especially in an environment that can disrupt Ramp and cause it to falter so consistently (i.e. Collector Ouphe and similar cards in widespread play).

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple strategies in Q4 2020-21

The first figure we presented displayed the likelihood that you might face any one particular strategy. For example, nearly 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 Q3 Metagame Report, but in short Hybrid archetypes have actually seen reduced play since last quarter (34% total in Q4, compared with 37% in Q3). Whilst this difference is only very marginal, it is potentially due to the change in Thassa’s Oracle going to 3 Points. Oracle decks were the overwhelming majority of hybrid strategies in Q3, since the blue creature fits so neatly into Combo-Tempo, Combo-Control, and even Combo-Midrange shells. The maintenance of Combo as a popular strategy but the simultaneous downtick in hybrid decks appears to be explained by some players moving off Thassa’s Oracle itself and into other less-Hybrid compatible Combo decks.

Colours played in 7 Point Highlander

Next we will explore the colours typically represented in Q4 2020-21 Highlander decks.

Frequency of colours reported in decks played in Q4 2020-21
Frequency of colours reported in decks played in Q4 2020-21

The trend of White as the least represented colour continues in this quarter, however the effect is more pronounced. This time around White was reported to be present in decks almost half as often as any other colour, compared with Q3 when White was seen as around 2/3rds as popular as other colours. Likewise Colourless decks saw a drop in popularity, mirroring the reduction in Ramp strategies too (as they tend to go hand-in-hand). Although the other four colours are roughly equally represented in both reports, in Q3 both Black and Red were the two most popular colours, whereas this has switched to Blue and Green in Q4. This has been recognised in online content and other discussions wherein general consensus is that ‘Simic’ is the best colour pair to be in right now, and there are very few rationales to not have base Green-Blue somewhere amongst your colour combination. Whilst the reasons are diverse, one of the most obvious is the poster child for Green-Blue: Oko, Thief of Crowns, and we will delve into that powerful 1-Point card shortly.

Beyond just the Simic colour pair, the overall number of colours in decks has in fact grown:

Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple colours in Q4 2020-21
Prevalence of decks with one versus multiple colours in Q4 2020-21

In Q3, decks with 3 or more colours comprised three-quarters of the metagame (76% to be specific). This continues to trend upward, with the likelihood of facing a deck with anywhere between 3 and 5 colours representing five-sixths (i.e. a whopping 83%) of decks! 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 Q3 2020 Metagame Report.

1 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play for 1 Point cards in Q4 2020-21
Percentage rate of play (N=342) for 1 Point cards in Q4 2020-21

First, it is important to mention the ‘stable cards’ across the last half-year of data (side note: for those coming from the Q3 report, we have reversed the order of presentation from lowest to highest solely for aesthetics, but the content is the same; this will be the format going forward). Snapcaster Mage and Force of Will not only retain their evergreen status as the 1st and 2nd most played 1 Point cards, but they are also seen in essentially identical numbers across both quarters (within 1%). So when playing Highlander, in the blind you can pretty much expect a third of your opponents (give or take) to have access to Snapcaster Mage and/or Force of Will (i.e. most Blue decks you’ll face!), which factors in to your decisions to, say, ‘Combo off’ against a tapped-out opponent without protection, or use Cling to Dust on an Instant in the opponent’s graveyard when they have mana up.

Next, let’s look at the recent additions to the 1 Point list: Wrenn and Six, and Mystic Sanctuary. The powerful planeswalker saw play as a Watchlist card in 34.5% of decks in Q3, and since pointing has thankfully seen a healthy drop in play. At approximately one-fifth (21%) of Q4 decks, Wrenn and Six is up there with other historically popular and flexible 1 Point options like Wasteland and Skullclamp, which is a good sign that they are very well positioned. Likewise, whilst there were claims that Mystic Sanctuary would not see much play at 1 Point, at 12% (down from 23% as a Watchlist 0-Point card), this powerful pseudo-tutor/engine is half as prevalent but still seeing a respectable level of play in the right archetypes (rather than everywhere). For example, similar 1 Point cards that operate as an engine in specific decks include Life from the Loam (7%), Crop Rotation (10%), and Birthing Pod (13%).

The suite of cards that are commonly seen at 0-1% are often very niche role-players in dedicated combo decks, or suffer from the unfortunate necessity of a ‘tax’ (i.e. to prevent certain archetypes from becoming degenerate with access to too many ‘free’ options). That being said, some cards like Hermit Druid or Yawgmoth’s Bargain fit into only one specific deck, which sees such a small portion of metagame play that it is conceivable they may be safe to de-point (both streamlining the Points list and encouraging players to experiment with underplayed archetypes). Time will tell as further quarterly data rolls in.

On the other hand, some powerful mainstay 1 Point cards also saw reduced play, and it is important to remember that Pointed cards are ‘sharing the same pie’ in the simulated zero-sum-game of selecting 7 possible points for a deck. It could be easy to indicate that any one 1 Point card has seen a few percent less play, but these can be symptoms of a larger issue, for example the card rocketing to the 3rd most played 1 Point card… Oko, Thief of Crowns. Oko has gone from strength to strength since printing, including successive bans in multiple other formats, through to ours where he gained 1 Point after dominating the meta (and continuing to do so). In our last data point, Oko appeared in just under one quarter of decks (23% in Q3) and is now pushing for one third of decks (29% in Q4). When a two-colour card supplants one of the best colourless draw-engines and a ubiquitous destruction effect that fits in any land-base, there is probably something amiss. If Oko were a mono Blue card it is not inconceivable that he would surpass Snapcaster Mage. Even as it is, Oko is close to trumping Force of Will and taking the second-most-played 1 Point card slot.

2 point cards played in 7 Point Highlander

Percentage rate of play for 2 Point cards in Q4 2020-21
Percentage rate of play (N=342) for 2 Point cards in Q4 2020-21

Unlike the 1 Point list, aside from the obvious change in Thassa’s Oracle (now on the 3 Point list and discussed later), there is surprisingly little change in the break-down of 2 Point card appearances. They essentially rank in the same order too, suggesting that there will likely be a lot of stability in the bottom half of this graphic going forward. Of course, the advantage in stability is that there are opportunities to see cards which under perform (or perhaps more accurately, cards that players have less faith in sleeving up).

At the top of the figure, we can see that traditional Flash combo (Flash and Protean Hulk) see next to no play, very likely still suppressed by the more flexible Combo options available at the moment (whilst Thassa’s Oracle was in vogue last season, many other combo decks have now come out of the woodwork). There is however the issue of homogeneity within said decks, wherein the ‘best’ Combo-kill for a Flash deck often happens to involve Thassa’s Oracle itself. Players rarely want to play against the same combo decks over and over again (as opposed to a diverse field), which makes these types of linked points decisions a little tricky. However possible avenues are easier to see when evaluating more insular combo decks, such as Channel-Mirror or Tolarian Academy Combo. Both of these see next to no play, likely due to the fear of Opposition Agent as the former deck heavily relies on ‘Tutoring’ to win, or Hullbreacher as the latter relies on draw 7 card effects. Likewise, insular point clusters that appear in Artifact Ramp can also be easier to evaluate, i.e. decks that involve cards like Tinker and Tolarian Academy have seen lower levels of play due to the prevalence of Collector Ouphe and other powerful sideboard hate.

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. As you’ll see, that isn’t the case in Q4.

Percentage rate of play (N=342) for 3/4 Point cards in Q4 2020-21

Thassa’s Oracle is an important point of discussion, following on from the previous section. In Q3 2020 the powerful combo piece was seen in 10% of all decks, largely dominating the Combo segment of the metagame and homogenising the win con for a variety of different degenerate decks. After its rise to 3 Points, Thassa’s Oracle appears in half as many decks and has permitted a variety of Combo strategies to start seeing competitive play again, including decks like Infect and ‘Sneak and Show’, through to decks abusing Underworld Breach or looping Draw 7 effects. Likewise when it comes to the other 3 Point cards, many are played to a similar degree which is a great sign. However Sol Ring has dropped from its lofty high of 12% in Q4, which is likely paired with the reduction in Ramp and colourless decks in general. Last but not least, Imperial Seal continues to see zero play over the last half year, a sad casualty of the ever present ‘tax’ required on combo decks (however will no doubt remain on the Committee radar of potential de-points, if hyper fast Combo decks do need a boost).

Last quarter, Time Walk was the most popular 4 Point card, with an 8% prevalence rate compared with Ancestral Recall at 6%. This time around the two have reversed roles, with the powerful draw spell now pulling ahead. Whilst the two blue power pieces are not interchangeable when considering the role played in a deck, they are comparable in terms of being a key card to build a ‘fair’ deck around. Once built-around, the common line is to include means for searching and recurring the blue Power spell in order to get the most out of that 4 Point investment. The other two 4 Point cards saw less play than their blue brethren, both last quarter and this. However just because Black Lotus sees the least play doesn’t mean it’s a safe target for de-pointing!

On the other hand, the challenge with raising Ancestral Recall alone to 5 Points is that the majority of the tools used to find and recur it (e.g. Spellseeker, Mystic Sanctuary, Regrowth, Snapcaster Mage, and so on) are the same tools used to find and recur Time Walk. Even though Ancestral Recall sees more play than Time Walk, once one goes to 5 Points it is likely to push a lot of that play straight on to its 4 Point partner (albeit, played for different reasons, i.e. card advantage vs. board advantage/closing the game). Nevertheless, the prevalence of exorbitantly expensive Power like Ancestral Recall in Top 8 deck results has a negative impact on the perceived accessibility of 7 Point Highlander for new players looking to start. An interesting comparison is the Online MTGO Tournament run by Isaac Egan, Angus McKay and Patrick Hawkins, which has a 59 person metagame filled with a high number of Ancestral Recalls and Time Walks, both of which are about 1/1,000th of their paper prices when purchased online.

0 point watch list cards

The three cards on the Q4 2020-21 Watch List for potential pointing were Opposition Agent, Hullbreacher, Uro Titan of Nature’s Wrath, and Gifts Ungiven.

To begin, it is important to note that none of these four cards approached the level of play seen in the two Watchlist cards that received 1 Point after last quarter (Wrenn and Six at 34.5%; Mytic Sanctuary at 23.3%). It is of course important to note that whilst statistical prevalence is a factor in points decisions, it is not the only important consideration.

The highest play seen on a watchlist card was Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, which appeared in 17.5% of all decks. This factors in to the Oko discussion above, whereby the Simic colour pair offers an incredibly strong suite of tools to any deck builder. The major difference between the two is the multitude of stages at which one can interact with an Uro, as well as its requirement to slow the game down or set up the value engine. These limitations are not present in the turn 1 Birds of Paradise, Turn 2 Oko Thief of Crowns play, which is incredibly hard to come back from no matter what deck you’re playing. Oko in comparison saw nearly twice the amount of play as Uro, despite being a 1 Point deck building consideration (versus zero!).

Gifts Ungiven is often a partner to Uro (setting up Escape, and recurring Ancestral Recall), but is most known for its role in enabling end of turn preparation for a deterministic Thassa’s Oracle kill (via 4-card piles like Thassa’s Oracle, Unearth, Snapcaster Mage, and Demonic Consultation). This configuration permits you to win on the spot as long as you can untap with 5 mana, making Gifts Ungiven a ‘one card combo’ so to speak. However this isn’t a particularly fast combo (often Turn 5 is the standard), and further, involves fetching 4 Points worth of cards as it is, not to mention when one of the pieces is unavailable due to already having been used in the game. Whilst Gifts Ungiven operates as a slow but powerful enabler for multiple archetypes, this Watchlist card actually only saw a 7.9% prevalence rate, making it an unlikely target for intervention, but no doubt a powerful tool that the Committee will keep its eyes on whether or not on the official Watchlist.

The last two zero-Point cards that we collected data on are very new additions, and were in fact only present for part of the Q4 data collection period. Commander Legends was released on November 20th 2020, and saw the addition of Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent to the Highlander card pool. These two cards were added to the Point Results Form shortly after, and were of course a ‘slow burn’ as players tried to get their hands on copies for sanctioned events. Regardless, by the end of Q4 they both reported nominal play in 8.8% (Hullbreacher) and 9.9% (Opposition Agent) of decks. This statistic needs to be treated with caution however, and has to receive a statistical weighting according to the number of events in their actual ‘season’, as well as the challenge of obtaining hardcopies in the early stages of legality. Once weighted, the actual percentage prevalence figures are closer to 18% and 19% respectively, pushing them both slightly above Uro in terms of metagame penetration! Nevertheless, from an in-game perspective, both cards have ‘cooled’ slightly in terms of community reaction to printing, so are less likely to receive immediate pointing (as was feared during spoiler season). Of the two however, Opposition Agent has the most widespread impact on the format (in particular suppressing certain Combo decks disproportionately more than others), and leads to incredibly un-fun game states for otherwise ‘fair’ interactive decks. These factors coupled with rising frequency of play may well be enough to push it over the edge as the front-runner ‘3-mana punisher’ card (e.g. Hullbreacher; Teferi, Time Raveller; Narset Parter of Veils, etc.) to receive the first Point.

Summary of 7 Point Highlander metagame data for Q4 2020-21

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. The current report also marks the first time that we can tentatively explore the evolution of the metagame, as we compare the latest information with baseline data from Q3 2020.

The uptake of the Point Results Form has also been fantastic, with the amount of data flowing in nearly tripling compared to the first quarter that we used it. Nevertheless this Q4 2020-21 metagame report is also based mainly on Top 8 performances, due to the inherent reporting bias in those who choose to lodge their Points. In Q3 we mentioned that Points data tends to be reported by those who obviously felt satisfied with their performance, and we do still see that trend in Q4 (albeit to a lesser extent), 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.