There has always been a lot of discussion about the state of the Highlander metagame but the publification of not only one but two articles in the span of 24 hours that both tackle the subject, shows, that the topic is thought of and theorized about even more than usual.
This is not going to be another article about the direction the format is heading towards but rather a snapshot of what it already looks like right now. A lot of the trends that both Paul and Jan described in their respective articles, in particular the increasing share of the meta by blue decks, can already be seen in drastical fashion by taking a look at some of the most recent tournaments.
I have devoted some time to gathering data from the 12 CamLander tournaments (thanks Dominik for not only organising these tournaments but also putting the available data out there) as well as the 3 Highlander Masters Series tournaments that took place in Vienna this year.
(For some reason I couldn't attach any images so I uploaded them to my imgur account and put in the links instead)
My first step was to put in all the results from the 15 tournaments in an Excel sheet
In total, 195 Decks were submitted and in 61 rounds about 390 matches were played.
I know that there are a lot of different decks represented here but I still think this is a respectable sample size, especially if you group them into bigger categories.
https://imgur.com/a/p6Wu5iC (Picture of all listed decks, includes points and standings)
For quite some time now I have been arguing that the HL metagame can actually be broken down into 7 (really 6) major categories when it comes to decks. Therefore my second step was to lable the listed decks accordingly.
In my opinion the major categories are:
.) Decks that play the delve spells Dig Through Time and/or Treasure Cruise These are mostly tempo decks like Temur or Jeskai as well as Izzet Control. They mainly use counterspells as weapon of choice when it comes to interaction because they are the cleanest available answer no matter the question. They establish board presence via 1-2 threats and protect them with the aforementioned counterspells. Cheap Cantrips help them find their impactful and sometimes matchup specific spells. They are very good at trading up in mana while mostly trading 1 for 1 card wise in the early stages of the game. A resolved Dig Through Time or Treasure cruise is usually game over against any non blue deck as they'll have a hard time competing with this level of cheap card advantage.
.) Decks that play a proactive discard package of at least Thoughtseize/Duress/Inquisition 4C Blood, Jund or Mardu Aggro are the prime examples of this categorie, while slower, more grindy decks using Life from the Loam occasionally see the light of day as well. These decks rely on their discard to deal with problematic spells by stripping the out of their opponents hand before they can do them any harm. They are usually running a number of highly effective permanent interaction such as Abrupt Decay, Assassin's Trophy or Kolaghan's Command. They mostly seek to close out the game with either a Planeswalker or a powerful midrange creature.
.) Decks that play both packages There are some decks that fit into both category 1 as well as category 2 (so you could argue if this category is even necessary) and are doing a pretty good job of making use of both packages. The most notable example is Sultai Midrange which is capable of playing the aggressor as well as the defender equally well.
.) "Pure" Combo decks Although they often times also overlap with the first 2 categories, their goal to win the game and match is entirely different. Although they can win via several different card interactions, creature combat usually is not one of them. Decks like Storm, Academy and the latest addition Oracle Breach fall into this category.
.) RDW Most of the time mono coloured, in very few cases with a light splash. Oftentimes seen as the "fun police" of the format. As in: If you durdle around too much you will be taken out by this strategy. The most redundant strategy and therefore one of the most consistant.
.) Taxing Decks Some taxing decks actually also fall under the discard category so mostly this includes DnT as well as WW. The gameplan involves denying the opponent proper usage of their resources and finishing them off with a slew of creatures before they can leverage any kind of advantage.
.) Cradle Decks They deserve a seperate category when it comes to "combo" decks because of their reliance on creatures which means they can be interacted with but also win via a different angle. These are the classic Mana Elf into big baddy decks.
.) Others Any deck not falling into one of the above categories. Entries from the tournaments into this category inclued for example Naya Midrange and Bant Bogles
https://imgur.com/a/N9JzcWo (Picture of all decks labled according to their category)
An astonishing 50+% of the decks were running Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, in most cases alongside Counterspells! Matter of fact, if you check the decklists from the last tournament in Vienna the average deck there [Not the average blue, the average deck!] was running 8 counterspells!
Combo and Discard decks add up for about 30% of the metagame.
This means that 4 in 5 decks (80%) fall into one of the first 4 (or really rather 3) catergories!
https://imgur.com/a/sgzUpZY (Metagame share per category)
Even without any further analysis this already screemed like an unhealty metagame to me, but I wanted to take a deeper look.
So I compared the expected amount of those decks to show up in the Top4 (or Top8 if the tournament had at least 16 participants) to the actual numbers.
https://imgur.com/a/AxJ8HfU (Decks in the winners metagame)
While decks of the first 3 catergories fare slightly worse than expected, decks from the bottom 4 catergories fare even worse.
The big winner is Combo with an overrepresentation among the top decks!
Thanks to the strong showing of combo, decks from the first 4 (really 3) catergories make up a whooping 87% of the winners metagame, compared to the 80% of the overall metagame!
https://imgur.com/a/AUcdACR (winners metagame percentages)
The bottom of the standings were a better representation of the overall metagame with numbers being very similar to the expected values.
https://imgur.com/a/bgq8Zxx (decks in the losers metagame)
Dig/Cruise decks as well as Combo decks were doing just a tad bit better than expected but those are in no way significant outliers when you take the samplesize into consideration.
https://imgur.com/a/kCl8Avt (losers metagame percentages)
Very short Intermezzo:
At this point in my analysis one outlier among the players caught my attention.
Since I don't wanna call anyone out, I am just going to call the player in question X.
X was participating in 6 tournaments where he managed to gathered only a total of 12 points. (an abysmal 16% of the possible points)
I usually don't like to remove specific entries from statistics like this but in my opinion in this case the evidence strongly suggests that the performance of the player and not the decks in question resulted in these stats. I therefore decided to continue my analysis without the inclusion of Xs numbers.
Once I removed X from the equation, the combo decks categories number shot up again! Not only was combo doing much better when it comes to overperforming and putting people into the Top4 (or Top8) but the low numbers in the losers metagame already indicate, that the archetype was doing very well overall!
https://imgur.com/a/5HbYpw0 (losers metagame percentages after removing X)
I concluded my analysis by adding up the points individual decks made over the course of the 15 tournaments and compared them to the points they could have made, which is basically another way to get a win %.
Finally I sorted them by win % and took a look at all decks with at least 3 entries.
https://imgur.com/a/sxaeTvi (Win % of decks with 3 or more entries MP1 is taking into account that multiple entries of the same deck can't all possibly win one tournament, while MP2 is removing points for rounds not played after a drop. % numbers are calculated with MP2)
Although the metagame appears to be about as hostile as it can get (with ~77% of the other decks running counterspells, discard or both), Combo still managed to put 2 decks into the Top4! From the 6 match losses Breach took in those tournaments all 6 happened against decks with counterspells.
Academy proofed once again that it is still a contender when it comes to winning tournaments.
With Sultai Midrange and Izzet Control 2 decks that pack delve spells to win the attrition game put up insane numbers as well.
Other decks over 50% winrate with 3 or more entries: https://imgur.com/a/mvhgvKK
The metagame is wrapped around combo decks (that somehow still manage to win) and decks running delve card draw.
Especially Sultai is the perfect embodiment of what a competitive deck has to look like right now:
Discard - cheap threats - counterspells - Delve Card Draw to pull ahead once you have traded 1 for 1 long enough
Izzet on the other hand has Blood Moon and Back to Basics at it's disposal as well as the recent addition of Mystic Sanctuary (which was already discussed quite a bit by Paul in his article)
Non blue decks can no longer compete with the combo decks unless they overload on hate pieces which, for them, usually happen to be fragile, undersized creatures that fare poorly against the rest of the meta.
In my opinion it is time for changes that go beyond just banning one single card.
Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise are putting blue decks ahead of every other colour that is trying to win a fair fight while Academy and Breach have shown that despite the dominant number of counters and discard spells as well as the increasing number of hate cards out of blue decks, combo is still looming over the format.
Jan here, I was mentioned before. Thanks for all the effort, this is an interesting summary of the recent play during these odd times. While I must say that I actually agree with many of the observations you made and I think the summary of decktypes is pretty adequate and great to have, I still have some questions and some things I'd like to point out.
One question that I hope can be answered easily: How many different players took part in the aforementioned tournaments?
This seems important to me. If we are going to try to compare this data to say the last Continental Cup (which is likely the highest level of competition our format has) with approximately 90 players and 7 rounds (so something like 315 matches, not counting IDs) it would be good to know how often players switched decks during the Corona age tournaments. Because switching decks does make a difference regarding play level ad well, since many players take months to really master decks.
Also I feel forced to state that with the little amount of play and possibility for players from all communities to join larger competitions in the recent months there might have never been a worse time in the history of the Highlander format to talk about or seriously consider bans. I understand the urge. And I also feel like Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are very good cards that many people believe to be problems. Yet: Neither the Council nor the community (or God beware both together) have to this day any idea or outline as to why we should ban certain cards and what we want to achieve. We have also recently had a drastic mulligan change which in my opinion factors way more into the state of the format than banning ... say 4 cards. I personally believe it has made Highlander much more random and reduced the influence of skill on the outcome of games. But maybe that's what we want. Yet: The promised outline doesn't exist. We do not know why we do anything. Maybe most of the community enjoys more randomness. Maybe the best players have less fun with the new mulligan. Who knows? Maybe an eternal format needs to get over the fact that Blue is the best color ... because if we seriously try to weaken it, boy that might take a lot of bans. Either way: I hope we can find ways to broaden and tighten the competition even with this new Corona world we live in. I believe that to be much more urgent than bans and I will focus on it. For the meantime: If you haven't read it I can only point to my years-old attempt of an outline for the format again. It didn't consider a new mulligan that causes more randomness. It didn't factor in if this should be a casual and random or a skilled and competitive format. It should have. But until we know these things ... and have bigger sample sizes again, I am afraid any ban conversation is completely useless. I did enjoy the read and will read again though. Maybe we can just keep observing a little more for a while instead of pushing change buttons out of sheer helplessness. That would be my wish. Keep up the great work though. And I do hope to face that Oracle Breach (kinda fitting name to the state of the format actually) deck in full extent soon.