Speculations on Duo Standard

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Epistemic Sta­tus: Wild Mass Guessing

To­mor­row’s in­vi­ta­tional tour­na­ment at PAX East will fea­ture the new Duo Stan­dard for­mat. Each player will have two decks, play one in each of the first two games in a ran­dom or­der, then choose which deck they want for game three. There will be no side­boards.

Read­ing Wy­att Darby’s re­cent oth­er­wise ex­cel­lent ar­ti­cle about prepar­ing for the tour­na­ment, I no­ticed a lack of strate­gic think­ing about the for­mat. Wy­att was think­ing well about best of one as op­posed to best of three, in terms of lack of side­boards and the ban on Nexus of Fate. What he wasn’t think­ing about at all, or was wisely keep­ing to him­self, was the ques­tion of how choos­ing one of two decks for game three changes things.

We saw this once with the Player of the Year tiebreaker. The for­mat there re­quired the win­ner to win one game with each of their decks in a best of one for­mat. Both play­ers re­sponded by se­lect­ing good best of one decks, but with­out think­ing much about the broader struc­ture. It was easy to un­der­stand this, as both play­ers also had a Pro Tour to pre­pare for, so spend­ing lots of time on play­off was hard to jus­tify.

While we were watch­ing the play­off, Kai Budde sug­gested a great idea. Play­ers should sub­mit four ded­i­cated anti-crea­ture decks, con­figured to crush decks like mono-white, mono-red and mono-blue. There are enough dis­tinct con­figu­ra­tions for this to be vi­able. Then, if your op­po­nent has even one of these crea­ture decks, that deck has to keep play­ing un­til it wins a game. Deck di­ver­sity is a dis­ad­van­tage in this for­mat! If you are di­verse, the decks that are good against your op­po­nents’ slate will win, leav­ing you with decks that are bad play­ing more games. You want your op­po­nent do­ing that, not you.

Twin Stan­dard in­stead lets you play two out of three games with the deck you pre­fer. You see what your op­po­nents’ two decks are, then you both choose. You want your two decks to pre­sent differ­ent challenges.

What are the ways to re­spond to this?

Op­tion 1: Two Good Differ­ent Decks

A rea­son­able first-level op­tion is to se­lect two decks with differ­ent match-ups. One could for ex­am­ple choose two of Esper/​Jeskai Con­trol, Sul­tai Mi­drange and Mono-White/​Red/​Blue Ag­gro. If you know what your op­po­nents’ deck choice for game three is, you’ll always have at least a solid re­sponse. Note that if one of your decks is Sul­tai Mi­drange, this be­comes far less true, as it tends to have game against ev­ery­thing but only dom­i­nate a hand­ful of match-ups. This lets the op­po­nent mostly choose the deck of theirs that is good against your other deck, if they want, forc­ing you to se­lect Sul­tai.

If you have a ded­i­cated con­trol deck like Esper, and a ded­i­cated crea­ture deck like Mono-White, now you’re pre­sent­ing two very differ­ent challenges. The re­sult will likely be a guess­ing game.

Op­tion 2: Two Pre-Side­boarded Decks

Po­lariz­ing your match-ups is an ad­van­tage if your op­po­nent pre­sents two decks with a similar type. At worst, you get a guess­ing game.

If you make your con­trol deck es­pe­cially strong against other con­trol decks, you on av­er­age hurt it in its first game, but it gives you a trump card against an en­emy con­trol deck that didn’t do that. Then you can choose a sec­ond deck and con­figure that against crea­tures. Say, you can play a mono-blue deck with lots of copies of Essence Cap­ture and En­tranc­ing Melody, know­ing you can’t face Nexus of Fate.

If you get to game three, your op­po­nent is in a very bad spot if both of their decks are vuln­er­a­ble to the same one of yours, or if they guess wrong. Ad­ding var­i­ance has worked to your ad­van­tage.

Op­tion 3: Two Differ­ently Pre-Side­boarded Ver­sions of the Same Deck

This is a twisty op­tion. There are a lot of decks that have two post-side­board con­figu­ra­tions, one against crea­tures and one against con­trol, and mostly you choose which one you want.

Sup­pose your two decks were both mono-blue, but one packed a bunch of ex­tra Ne­gates and no cards that are bad against a crea­ture­less Esper, while the other had the full com­ple­ment of Essence Cap­ture and En­tranc­ing Melody, per­haps with a Surge Mare or two. Nei­ther of these con­figu­ra­tions is a dis­aster when matched up wrong, so you’re not sac­ri­fic­ing that much in the first game, and you get the best deck in both slots.

Then for game three, your op­po­nent will likely have an ob­vi­ously bet­ter deck against blue, and you get to face them with your post-side­board deck against their game one deck. Depend­ing on the ex­act rules, you likely even get to hide which build you’re on un­til you play a card that’s only in one of the decks – if you have 1 copy ver­sus 4 copies in some places, you can be es­pe­cially nasty with this.

The ques­tion is, does the abil­ity to side­board in this way make up for the likely poor matchup?

If your op­po­nent is play­ing the Gruul deck that I’m cur­rently play­ing on Magic Arena, su­per hate­ful to blue decks, then play­ing two blue decks is a very bad idea, as the good con­figu­ra­tion is still bad and I still have the op­tion to go with deck two.

But if I was in­stead play­ing two Esper decks, one of which wins the mir­ror and one of which loses the mir­ror, the Gruul deck is in a bad spot if it isn’t paired with Esper.

Those seem to be the two decks this works best with, as they are most ca­pa­ble of pre­sent­ing a very bad situ­a­tion to the op­po­nent be­cause of their con­figu­ra­tion, and are not in that deep a hole if caught wrong-footed out­side of the Esper mir­ror. If I chose a third deck for this, I’d choose Sul­tai. There are no awful matchups, es­pe­cially with Nexus banned, and you have a lot of se­lec­tion in case you get caught wrong-footed.

Op­tion 4: The Next Level

Now that we’ve gone over ba­sic op­tions, we ask what the play­ers will do.

A lot of those in­vited were in­cluded as stream­ers rather than top play­ers. Those play­ers are likely both seek­ing var­i­ance and ex­cit­ing look­ing things, and lack­ing the time and ex­per­tise to go too deep. So they’re largely go­ing to be choos­ing two good decks due to lack of time.

But if they do have the time and in­sight, they’ll want a high var­i­ance strat­egy. The more they can po­larize the match-ups, the bet­ter. Every­one has to, in some sense, have some an­swer to crea­tures and some an­swer to spells, and have one deck that is good against an­swers to crea­tures and one deck that is good against an­swers to spells. By choos­ing decks that are highly vuln­er­a­ble to the ‘wrong’ pairing but strong with the right one, weaker play­ers give them­selves a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to win.

Thus, I’d ex­pect a mix of both ex­tremes. Some weaker play­ers go for var­i­ance, some pick solid offer­ings. What do the pros do?

The pros will try to min­i­mize var­i­ance, and avoid coin flips that re­sult in poor match-ups. This is very hard to do in Duo Stan­dard. The en­tire point is to have a deck that an­swers what­ever the op­po­nent might do! It’s hard to then avoid risk­ing them hav­ing an an­swer to what you choose to do.

Thus, the next level is to find decks that don’t have no bad pairings in­stead of look­ing for very good pairings. Then, count on out­play­ing your op­po­nents.

This points to dual wield­ing Sul­tai decks as a pos­si­bil­ity. It is already the low var­i­ance deck that al­lows bet­ter play­ers to grind out wins and be slightly dis­ad­van­taged in ev­ery matchup. With Nexus out of the way you don’t have any truly ter­rible pairings. This al­lows you to choose two con­figu­ra­tions, one with more re­moval and one with more dis­card. When in doubt, the dis­card ver­sion can be cho­sen with­out any­thing too bad hap­pen­ing.

The worst case be­comes an op­po­nent on true ex­tremes, with one deck lov­ing you hav­ing Duress and the other hav­ing no crea­tures. That would still force you to guess, so you’ll need to be hedg­ing ag­gres­sively at least with one list, which you’d want to do any­way for the first two games. There does seem to be a re­ward to who­ever em­braces po­lariza­tion and var­i­ance, so if you want to avoid that, you’ll need to ac­cept the price. Since half the field is still su­per strong, it’s prob­a­bly not worth it to over­pay.

If I had enough time to pre­pare and was fully qual­ified, I’d be look­ing to pull out my Gruul deck. I’ve had ex­cel­lent re­sults on Magic Arena, al­though I got to the list a few days too late to con­sider a run at qual­ifi­ca­tion. Nexus is its biggest weak­ness, so tak­ing that away is a big game. Then the ques­tion is what to pair it with. Gruul’s strengths lie against crea­ture decks you can over­power. Your biggest prob­lem left is Sul­tai, then Esper, so you’ll want some­thing that is good against those decks, es­pe­cially peo­ple dual wield­ing them. I like blue against both, but get­ting a strong con­figu­ra­tion against both at the same time is difficult – you want the anti-crea­ture cards against Sul­tai and don’t want them against Esper. Try­ing to con­figure Esper or Sul­tai them­selves has the same prob­lem.

This in turn points to Sul­tai and Esper as a strong and nat­u­ral pairing, one that ap­peals greatly to the Pros, which would dis­cour­age me from pul­ling out Gruul. There’s no way to ‘cheat’ and get two great pairings with a strange con­figu­ra­tion. Both decks are rel­a­tively low var­i­ance and al­low for player skill; while blue in my opinion is the hard­est deck to play cor­rectly, it also is su­per high var­i­ance.

Con­clu­sion: What of the For­mat?

Any spec­u­la­tions here will doubtless be ob­so­lete within two days. The play­ers will tell us the story. Will we see brand new decks and con­figu­ra­tions or the same old same old? Are guess­ing games and which deck plays which in the first two games as cen­tral to out­comes as we might fear? I’m ex­cited to find out.

What is not a spec­u­la­tion is that I re­ally, re­ally, re­ally do not want Magic to have a fu­ture largely with­out side­boards. I hate that we’re de­sign­ing cards with best of one ‘in mind’ and fear we will lose vi­tal parts of the game.

Ex­plain­ing this in full is be­yond scope here. I’ll give a small sketch.

When I play with a side­board, I pay close at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing in the first two games, both in limited and con­structed. What cards has the op­po­nent played? What style are they play­ing? How skil­led are they? Is the matchup good or bad? Should I be play­ing it safe or go­ing for var­i­ance, both with play and mul­li­gans and with my side­board? Could they trans­form, and if they can, will they? What cards have I shown to them? Can I play so as to avoid show­ing them any­thing more, or show them things which will be mis­lead­ing or taken out? Can I coax them into show­ing me more cards? How much should that trade off against a slightly bet­ter chance of win­ning?

I love it when play­ers make a weird move just to see what the op­po­nent does in that type of situ­a­tion, in case it comes up in an­other game.

Hav­ing a side­board gives the play­ers small things to think about. In a way it’s like hav­ing a score or achieve­ments, and hav­ing an outer loop to the game. I get to care about more than win or lose. Thus, ev­ery turn, ev­ery ac­tion mat­ters and is worth think­ing about. Worth re­mem­ber­ing. You get an ex­pe­rience. You also feel like you played against a real hu­man. And when the cards go against you, or you mess up, you know you get a chance to re­deem your­self, and to use what you have learned.

When I play best of one, the games blur to­gether. This set of moves again, and again. Rote re­sponses, be­cause you lack the in­for­ma­tion to im­prove your choices. A bi­nary out­come ex­cept for time spent, with a huge de­sire to ‘get on with it’ once the out­come looks clear. Time starts to be some­thing you’re send­ing rather than some­thing you’re en­joy­ing. What was fun be­comes a grind.

When I switched on Arena from best-of-one back to best-of-three, it was a sea change in my ex­pe­rience. I was hav­ing so much more fun.

Thus, even if strate­gi­cally ev­ery­thing would be fine, and the decks stayed the same, I would strongly op­pose los­ing or min­i­miz­ing side­boards for ex­pe­ri­en­tial rea­sons.

The decks don’t stay the same.

What we get in best of one are lots of decks that are sim­ple and lin­ear. Decks that do one thing hard, and do them well, re­peat­ing pat­terns over and over. The decks where you used to say ‘I’ll have a side­board ready for them’ are now most of your op­po­nents. A burn­ing sea of red, or an end­less ocean of blue or plain of white. The more we turn games into grinds, the more we see this, even with best of three. When the last few days of Mythic play came in Fe­bru­ary we saw a dra­matic rise in mono-red, and mono-white did much bet­ter than it does in nor­mal play. With best-of-one this gets dou­bly re­in­forced and thus turbo charged.

Balance be­comes far more difficult. I’ve talked a bunch about this re­cently (link is to my game anal­y­sis in­dex). Side­boards, and cards that are very strong in some places but weak in oth­ers, are how card games nat­u­rally bal­ance. If you have strong an­swers to ev­ery­thing, you are safe even when the strate­gies are not nat­u­rally equally strong. That’s what keeps Modern play­ing well most of the time. Stan­dard by con­trast has suffered a lot of pe­ri­ods in the last few years with one deck prov­ing im­pos­si­ble to get an ad­van­tage against even in best of three. With the best cards de­signed to be flex­ible, we get decks that play great ‘good stuff’ mid-range style Magic and have the tools to han­dle ev­ery­thing. Any rea­son­able con­figu­ra­tion of other col­ors turns out to be worse, be­cause when ev­ery­thing is good at ev­ery­thing, who­ever is best at it wins.

Tak­ing away side­boards en­tirely makes that prob­lem that much worse.

Stan­dard right now is in a rel­a­tively great place. But it still has a hand­ful of pop­u­lar decks that get tire­some to play against. Take away all at­ten­tion to de­tail, and op­por­tu­ni­ties for those de­tails to com­pound and mat­ter, and fo­cus even more on the strongest lin­ear strate­gies and the decks that re­spond to them, and the games turn into a grind.

Thus, I am root­ing against the for­mat this week­end. Let’s put on a great show. But not too great a show.