Speculations on Duo Standard


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.