Two Deck Formats: Is Wizards Neglecting Constructed?
30/10/2023 · 11 min read
An Uncomfortable Spot
Competitive Magic, the Gathering is in an uncomfortable spot to say the least. The previous banlist update, or rather non-update, left many disappointed. Modern is crushed under the boots of Rakdos Evoke and Up the Beanstalk variants, which makes the RCQ season that much less appealing, and Pioneer is not in a much better state either with Rakdos Midrange and Phoenix putting some huge numbers through. Standard seems to avoid this fate for now but has gone through this phase several times in the past, and we’re not talking about most of the other Arena formats. The writing is on the wall, but Wizards of the Coast decided not to make a move. Let’s take a look at how we got here, and what to do.
How did we get here?
Two-decks-format are not that uncommon throughout Magic history. After GP Utrecht in 2017, Standard became 4C Copycat vs Mardu Vehicles. Back in 2015, Modern was essentially Jund vs Twin. Even just for the past year, Pioneer was essentially Rakdos Midrange vs MonoG Devotion . What are the ingredients for a “2DF”?
The Deck to Beat
It all starts with one good deck. Having one deck towering over a format is not rare at all. Standard is the prime suspect here, courtesy of a small card pool, but most formats have a “best deck” for long periods. Creativity dominated Modern for the first half of 2023, Legacy just got out of phase where Reanimator was the boogeyman, etc… It can also be known as the “Deck to Beat” or DtB. Now let’s get this straight, “best deck” does not mean invincible, it does not even mean ban-worthy, and it does not mean it’s the only deck in the format. The only true prerequisite is that this deck beats all the less-competitive brews in the format. Most often, a best deck is kept in check by the format, and puts up some 15% of the metagame give or take, and it usually gets some 44-47% winrate.
It may feel weird for some to understand that the best deck in the format could possibly have under 50% winrate. How can you be the best if you lose more than you win? The key is actually to take a step back from the winrate alone, and consider that any deck with a 45% winrate that is not the best deck will never remain at 15% in any format (except perhaps Standard due to limited cardpool). Whenever that happens, the format adapts to keep the best deck in check, and an equilibrium is more or less reached where the best deck has to fight every game it plays, but the format can’t quite make it go away.
The “Counter-weight” Deck
And this is where the second deck comes into play. If a deck doesn’t have any bad match-up, you have a Hogaak or an Eldrazi situation, which actually does require a ban. So let’s imagine that every deck does have a bad match-up. This means it has a “worst” match-up in the format. Maybe it has a lot of bad match-ups, and the “worst” match-up is a mere 40/60 (which is already pretty bad) but there are a lot of decks in that spot and they can all team-up to create a hostile environment for the best deck that remains sane and varied. The “counter-weight” decks check the best deck, but they also check each other and there is no best option that lasts for more than a couple of weeks or so.
But then there’s the other scenario, where there aren’t a lot of bad match-ups, and the worst match-up is a 30/70 or worst for the best deck. That’s a lot harder to achieve, because this means that a single deck has to do what several decks were doing in the previous scenario. That includes checking the best deck, but also being good enough to check the rest of the format and survive at a considerable share of the metagame, usually around the 8-10% bar, sometimes more. This means that this one deck has to beat the best deck really hard, which is structurally difficult, and not have too many glaring flaws, but not be the best deck itself. A high bar to clear.
This is a tricky spot, because technically, there is a counter-weight to the best deck in the format. Meaning there is no Eldrazi situation, and the best deck can still be checked in at 15ish% of the metagame. But that means that the counter-weight only has the best deck to counter, and not the other counterweights. This situation is a little more tricky to reach though, because with 15% of the best deck and say 10% of the counterweight one, there’s still 75% of the format to account for.
Now there never was a spot when people were not generally playing Magic to enjoy themselves, regardless of what the best deck was. The best deck usually keeps a solid chunk of the format back, not easy to estimate but it’s not 75%. But if the counterweight covers what the best deck can’t, then you got a two deck format. This means that the best deck beats the decks that could beat the counterweight deck. Vice-versa can be true, but does not need to be, since the best deck, by definition, can stand on its own.
So, in summary, to get a two-decks-format, you need:
- A “best deck”, one that is clearly identifiable even if its winrate isn’t sky-high.
- A single “counterweight deck” that beats the best deck.
- The best deck beats the decks that beat the counterweight deck.
It really isn’t much, when you think about it, and that’s why it happens a lot more often than we’d like. If we take a look at Modern, it actually adds up: Evoke sits pretty at 20+% of the format and 52% winrate, and Up the Beanstalk variants are the counterweight, rocking a solid 60-65% winrate against Evoke.
How do you beat Up the Beanstalk? With linear aggressive strategies. But those have been pushed out of the format by Evoke: how do you get aggressive through a tricked Fury, and how do you assemble a combo through double Grief and a lot of pressure? Can’t really play those decks where one match in five is Rakdos Evoke, leaving Beanstalk to run rampant since nothing can compete with its late-game.
What to do in a two-decks-format?
2DF are not fundamentally enjoyable, since players feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. If one of the two decks is your playstyle, great, you’ll have a good time. But Magic being so vast, many people like so many different things, which means if you have to choose, most people are not going to be happy. And that’s not even considering your opponents decks and the repetitive game experience, whichever deck you play, because you’ll always play against the two same decks.
To some extent, that’s OK. When it comes to competition, personal taste should not really impact deck selection, stricto sensu. Obviously there is more to it than that, Magic is a game we play to have a good time even in competition, there are playstyles discussions to be had, etc… but it remains true that most people serious about competition are willing to bend their own will to play the good decks and try to beat anything that comes their way, at least somewhat.
From one edition to the next, the “best deck” can become irrelevant in a matter of weeks
But it does make the gaming experience less appealing, and a no-change announcement can be tough to swallow in those spots. Now we, as players, can’t really do much about that, since the choice isn’t ours to make and we have to live with it, but it doesn’t mean we should despair. Banning a card has its costs, for the customer base and for the R&D process: players lose trust in the game and don’t want to buy cards if the ban rate is too high, and R&D might have prepared sets way in advance without testing them in an environment with those bans. Unbans are another discussion entirely, but it sort of ends the same way: a fundamentally rash move with either unnoticeable or unpredictable consequences. As mentioned, a 2DF is not unseen, but historically have also disappeared on their own. The release rate of Magic products has increased a lot in the past years, and the power creep is palpable as well, meaning that from one edition to the next, the “best deck” can become irrelevant in a matter of weeks. Tell that to Creativity. So why should they go through the process of banning (or unbanning) cards when they could just wait for the next set to readjust the formats in an environment they can control way better?
So what deck should you play in a 2DF? Reason tells us it should be one of the two decks suffocating the format:
Option #1: Play the “counterweight” deck
Do this if you’re expecting to come across a lot of the “best” deck, but understand that you are taking a gamble, and coming across the tier 4 deck in round 1 might send you into the wrong half of the room, the one where there are no “best decks” because they won their first round. Statistically, with “only” 15-20% of the best deck in the room, you also need to ensure you can beat the rest of the room handily. On the other hand, if you make it to the top of the room by the end of the day, you can expect to meet at least a few “best decks” there, giving a good shot at winning the whole thing if your gamble pays off.
Option #2: Play the “best” deck
Kind of the opposite reasoning, since you’re hoping to dodge the “counterweight” decks all day long. At 10% counterweight decks in the room, you might feel like this is the sensible choice, and to some extent it is, if you want to get to the Top X of the tournament. If you need to win it, like an RCQ, then you’d better pray not a single counterweight deck makes it to the Top 8 or it’s going to be lights out.
Option #3: Play another deck
it is not unlikely that at any given point there exists a third option. It usually is a little sneaky and will probably not remain viable for more than a few weeks before the two best decks adapt to it, but it can happen. Truth be told, most formats nowadays contain a great variety of possibilities, and sideboards usually cannot contain the answers to all of them, and if you can sneak a Living End or Doomsday in there just for a week, well, maybe it’s worth a shot. The idea is still the same though, you are still gambling that you will come across people that are unprepared for your strategy. It may sound good in theory, but in practice all it takes is some bloke that’s a week late or early on updating his sideboard and you’re out. This option also has the inconvenience that deck-hoping requires a lot more time to practice your decks and you will eventually have less experience with those decks than any “best deck” or “counterweight” players who play those decks for weeks on end.
Rinse and repeat until the next edition comes around, and hope that it fixes the deadlock.
Modern is in a tight spot. Rakdos Evoke numbers are unusually high: at 22% metagame share, one would expect a 40-42% winrate, but it still sits pretty at 52%, meaning that the format is evidently not able to contain that deck. Beanstalk decks are a secondary issue at this point, but they do make the ban policy even harder, since they would likely become the next “best” deck if Evoke were to disappear, with no guarantee that the next iteration of that format would not also be a 2DF. But at the same time, Evoke is not Eldrazi or Hogaak, it can be beaten by other decks, and the numbers are not even as high as Jund in 2016 (over 30% presence). It skitters around the ban line but Wizards have chosen not to shake the tree yet, likely hoping that Ixalan will change the way things are.
As we said, not much is needed, so let’s keep hoping.