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Return of Paper: Analyzing MTG Las Vegas

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Let us all take a moment to appreciate the fact that for practical purposes, Grand Prix are back. I realize that this may be premature, but I think it's important to reward good behavior. Regardless of any other problems, notable omissions, or unrealized expectations, I want to thank Channel Fireball for hosting MTG Las Vegas. Everybody should do so in the hopes that they keep doing until Wizards figures out what it wants to do. At minimum, it will show Wizards that the demand for GPs still exists. Hopefully, that encourages them to make the sane decision rather than attempt another... whatever the MPL was.

More importantly, with Vegas in the books, there's a unique opportunity to look into the paper metagame. We all had to endure 2020 without sanctioned paper Magic, and even once it became possible again early this year, paper has remained extremely local. Nobody's been willing to host big events, and as I mention every month the online metagame is its own world. Deck rental services and the pressure of streaming means that MTGO moves in ways ranging from impossible to nonsensical for paper play. We can only get a "real" look at the metagame when paper is considered. However, the reality of paper being entirely localized means that even if I was tracking paper results, I'd get a very skewed picture. MTG Vegas being open means it's a more random and therefore valid sample.

I Have Grievances

However, I need to get some gripes out of my system first. Both for catharsis and because they inform how I'm approaching the data from Vegas. I'm told that the event went incredibly smoothly, and everyone who's tweeted or written about the event has been pleased with the experience and grateful it existed at all. Which is a very hopeful sign. However, for those of us who didn't/couldn't attend, Channel Fireball's MTG Las Vegas was an enormous disappointment. There are two levels to this disappointment, one which I think every player shares. The other really only impacts me and those like me and/or profit from the kind of data work I do. And I want to make sure that said problems are documented and discussed in hope they are corrected for future events.

The Coverage Problem

I realize that everyone has complained about this already, but it's critical to keep up the pressure. There was no official coverage of MTG Las Vegas. At all. The closest thing was twitter updates from Corbin Hosler and theMMcast. Which went okay for Day 1, but really fell off Day 2. I have no idea what was going on for them or why there were so few updates, but it was very disappointing. Maybe that's on me setting my expectations too high, but ChannelFireball said Corbin and company would be the coverage for the event, essentially implying things that I feel weren't delivered. That said, everyone should praise the community members who did step up and provide coverage themselves, namely eyelashTV who streamed from the floor. Big props out to them for the initiative and the quality delivered. Bravo!

Now, I don't entirely blame ChannelFireball for the lack of coverage. Commentators everywhere were complaining that lack of streaming or video coverage is unacceptable in 2021. And I understand where that's coming from given how omnipresent cameras and YouTube are today. However, I know from friends in filmmaking that professional setups are ruinously expensive. The equipment to pull off the coverage Wizards used for Grand Prix and Pro Tours cost thousands to purchase, the bandwidth isn't free, and there's also paying the broadcasters. But the silent killer is that all of that also needs to be insured. No matter how thoroughly everything is secured after every shoot, how organized the crew is, how vigilant the producers are, or aggressively threatened the interns are, equipment disappears every time a film crew films. And what doesn't disappear eventually breaks. Filming just isn't profitable.

The Galling Part

However, that doesn't excuse the lack of text coverage. That's cheap! All it takes is a laptop and a pair of hands, which are already there in abundance. There was a feature match area set up which meant that you needed judges standing there anyway. Give them a chair, a keyboard, and have them write down the games they already have to observe! It's not hard and is the way it was done before internet video became commonplace (and reliable/good). This should be obvious!

I'm being serious here. I can excuse lack of video coverage because of cost (especially when there's no guarantee CFB will ever do this again), but no text coverage? After preparing a fully staffed feature match area? That's just baffling. They already had theMMcast and Corbin there to do text coverage; why not just have them park at the feature match area and tweet out the matches? Did they not think of that, was there some other concern which couldn't be fixed, did Corbin simply not want to do sit there all day? Seriously, I want an explanation. Heck, why not have otherwise unoccupied staff do it? They're already there, why not keep them working?

Or hire me and I'll do it all next time. I come cheap. And coverage-wise, there is nowhere to go but up.

The Data Problem

Which leads into my next issue, which is a far bigger issue for me than normal players: the lack of data. I don't know why, but the only "official" data from the weekend was theMMcast posting the Top 8 decklists. And nothing else. Which is extremely frustrating for me. Wizards likes to keep tight control over Magic data. I remember that they made Frank Karsten curtail his data releasing when he did coverage for them. However, this wasn't a Wizards-run event. There was nothing in the way of CFB giving us a Top 32 and Day 2 data dump. Nothing except for laziness.

And I'm not just annoyed about this in an "I want to know, feed my endless curiosity" way (though it certainly is a factor). From a data analytics perspective, a Top 8 means nothing in a vacuum. In Magic, any deck has the potential to win a given tournament. The odds depend heavily on the metagame and the deck's inherent strength, but luck and variance also play huge roles. Without additional data about the tournament, there's no way of knowing whether a player won because theirs was the best deck period, the best positioned, or the Random Number God simply chose them. This is annoying generally, but especially so in this case, as it was the first chance to see how paper Magic differs from MTGO in 18 months. But with only a Top 8, the whole event is a waste for research and analysis.

Which is why I extend a big Thank You to u/jsilv on reddit for finding (on their own initiative as far as I know) the decklists for the Top 45 from MTG Las Vegas. It's still a bit lacking as I don't have anything to compare it to, but much better than before. Again, bravo!

The Top 45

It's a bit unorthodox to do a Top 45 rather than the Top 32. Especially when prizes only extended to the Top 32. Apparently, CFB went with a very top-heavy prize structure to avoid being burned by low turnout. Joke's on them; 1434 players came out for the Modern event. That's better than any Grand Prix in years. Players really are that desperate to play in person. That the Gathering aspect really is just that important (take note, Wizards). So, did the high turnout result in a very diverse field that reflects the differences between paper and digital play?

Deck NameTotal #
Hammer Time7
Amulet Titan4
Yorion Cascade3
4-Color Control3
4-Color Blink3
Grixis DRC3
Cascade Crashers3
Jund Saga2
Yawgmoth2
GDS2
Jund Sacrifice2
UR Thresh2
Hardened Scales1
Infect1
Rakdos Rock1
4-Color Creativity1
UW Control1
Death and Taxes1
Blue Living End1
Naya Zoo1
Esper Reanimator1
Belcher1

Disappointingly, this metagame spread wouldn't look out of place in the Challenge results. Hammer Time dominating the placements with an assortment of Cascade and 4-Color piles chasing it is what I've come to expect for the metagame updates, mostly. The exceptions are a lack of UW Control and a considerable Amulet Titan presence. The former is curious given its metagame positioning. I am guessing that the longer games took a toll on the pilots and play errors caught up and caused UW Control to drop off, but that is only a guess without Day 2 data. It's equally possible that players shied away from UW for fear of the aforementioned exhaustion. The 4-Color Control deck is more forgiving and easier to pilot, which might explain its better performance.

Amulet Titan is a very clear deviation from the online trend. It's fallen off massively since June and struggles to make the Tiers anymore. I have no idea why this happened. I'm told that online players abandoned the deck, having decided it wasn't good enough. Which makes no sense to me, particularly because there doesn't seem to be any reason. I've interrogated my sources and they just shrug and say "that's the conclusion." No further explanation, no reasons given. However, Amulet's performance here is as strong a statement as can be that no, the deck absolutely remains competitive in Modern.

The Top 8

The Top 8 is quite notable not just for what's there but what isn't there. Hammer Time didn't place a single deck, despite being most popular. Looking through the deck lists, it makes sense. There's plenty of answers for Hammer Time between sideboards and maindeck. Players expected Hammer and were ready. Well done there. However, that left plenty of room for unexpected decks to slip through.

Deck NameTotal #Top 45 Conversion Rate
Amulet Titan250%
Hardened Scales1100%
Infect1100%
Jund Saga150%
Rakdos Rock1100%
4-Color Creativity1100%
4-Color Control133%

Edwin Colleran won on Rakdos Rock, so props to him. Half the Top 8 are Top 45 singletons. It's the old rogue deck dream of leaving opponents high and dry with the unexpected. Of course, unexpected is relative; all these were known decks. However, Rakdos Rock spent a lot of the past year sidelined while Hardened Scales and Infect aren't metagame decks. Creativity was doing pretty well for a while, but really fell off recently. As mentioned, Amulet Titan is technically off-meta, though it put the most decks into Top 8. Only Jund Saga and 4-Color Control are expected meta decks. It is interesting that Scales was able to Top 8 despite all the splash damage from Hammer Time sideboarding.

Of course, just because decks are technically off-meta doesn't make them innovative. In fact, I'd appraise all these lists as stock lists. I'm not saying that each list is copied from online or that there isn't variation. Rather, every list is exactly within what I'm used to seeing as I comb lists for the metagame update. There's not much technology on display. The most interesting choice was Jeff Jao running 4 maindeck Phyrexian Crusaders. It's a brilliant choice but not one that Infect typically makes. However, this is the time, as red and white are the primary removal colors in Modern now. Fury, Lightning Bolt, Unholy Heat, Solitude, and Prismatic Ending are the most played removal spells these days, and Crusader blanks them all. Only 5 decks in the Top 45 ran Fatal Push, and of those only 2 deck did mainboard. A brilliant metagame call.

Paper vs. Digital

I can't say with certainty why the paper metagame at MTG Las Vegas looked like typical online metagame. I would guess that players, having not played much in a long time, just played whatever they played online. However, that simultaneously feels like a cop out answer since Amulet Titan did so well in paper but doesn't show up online. It is quite possible that the Amulet players were all Amulet specialists before the pandemic and just updated their lists. That would be consistent with how things used to be. However, I'd need more events to gauge what's actually happening. So here's hoping that there will be more in the near future.

David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

View More By David Ernenwein

Posted in Metagame, Modern, TournamentsTagged , , , , , , , ,

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