Hogaak Or Not? Analyzing Best Decks
I’m the best there is. Plain and simple.
A regular topic of discussion around any established competitive format is what deck is currently perceived to be the best and how to get an edge when playing against it in your next event. There are stages that newly introduced or shaken up formats go through and whatever deck is perceived to be the best or is statistically the best performing one week may not be the following week. As a result, a big challenge that tournament grinders commonly face, even more so in cEDH where testing is more difficult to orchestrate, is making the assessment whether to simply play the perceived best deck despite any flaws, weaknesses, and/or targets on its back, or to play something else.
Categorizing Best Decks
To begin to dissect how to make this decision with any amount of accuracy, it is important to look at what kind of different “best decks” exist when making your assessment. While most concrete examples exist on a spectrum of how correct to incorrect it is to play them in your next event, there are three overarching categories we are going to use to classify these decks for the sake of this article:
The Early Frontrunner: Often, unexplored or under-explored formats are still in the state of discovery. Determining what the most powerful, consistent, and efficient ways to win the game are in the context of the new parameters is a time consuming task. Early frontrunners are the decks that players begin to pull to when there is suddenly competitive pressure on a format where there wasn’t before. Most commonly this happens with bans or new cards causing a shakeup in the metagame, but in extreme cases when new formats are introduced entirely you will see this happen for an extended period, as it can take some time for a metagame to become established. The most iconic example of formats like this are Standard formats immediately after a rotation, where all of the previous heuristics and parameters need to be reevaluated.
The Recent Top Performer: After enough competitive pressure has been placed on the format that things become more stable and a recognizable metagame starts to take shape, the conversation around what the best deck in the format is begins to shift away from the latest brew or flavor of the week, and more towards what has been the most performant in recent events. Whether a certain deck iteration catches its hard matchups off guard and achieves some unsustainable success, or there is just a simple metagame churn as decks continue to adapt different plans to get an edge week in and week out, recent top performers are what you see in established, tested formats that are slow to change. Modern is the most iconic example of a format like this, often seeing different decks succeeding each week despite previous top performers still being a part of the winning metagame share.
The Unquestioned Best: This is where your objectively best decks lie. This is the top of the spectrum. This is where the Hogaaks, the Cawblades, the Skullclamp Affinitys, the Oko decks and all of the other broken favorites reside and, frankly, is among the least common categories you will find. Established Standard formats and formats featuring new additions that are lopsided in power when compared to the rest of the format are where you see this most often. While many people try to claim decks fall in this category prematurely, it has been fairly rare that I have seen decks that deterministically fall in this category, especially in the times before the FIRE design initiative started.
While each deck that gets heralded as the best in a given format usually falls into one of these categories, they are not static. Even small adaptations can cause large shifts in a previous archetype’s position and in high pressure formats you will see movements in players’ opinions on decks changing weekly, sometimes daily! Most often people categorize this shift as a tier list as a way to visualize and talk about decks that players feel are similar in power level in a given format.
A Quick Clarification Of Vocabulary
I often reference how much “pressure” is on a format when having conversations about metagame breakdowns and perception of deck potency. In my opinion it is one of the vital variables to evaluating how “solved” a format is, yet is often left out of conversations around current metagame composition. For the sake of this article, “pressure” on a format is defined as the combination of the stakes to win in a format with the number of players competing for those stakes. Often, high stakes events with large attendance generate the most pressure on a format. This is a big reason why the Pro Tour is so special: a relatively high number of players competing for high stakes creates a lot of pressure on a format and you see decks break out that you would have never seen before! This is also a big reason why there are usually either new releases, new bannings, or a new format entirely given for Pro Tours to generate that pressure and make for an exciting tournament to prepare for, play in, and spectate. By contrast to Pro Tour formats, cEDH is under very little pressure.
A more commonly used term for formats is whether a format is “solved”. For the sake of this article a “solved” format is one where no new development can be done. There is an unquestioned best deck and/or ever deck’s relationship to each other is known and immutable. These formats are extreme and basically never happen but the term is often applied to any format where it is close enough to being solved to be functionally identical for the sake of playing in tournaments.
Applying These Tools
Now that we have walked through the different flavors of best decks, how they manifest, and defined some common terms for discussing best decks, we can demonstrate applying these tools to your format evaluation and tournament preparation processes. For starters, competitive Magic is a collaborative endeavor and has been since the internet was widely adopted, so supplementing your own tournament practice and conclusions with the experiences and opinions of others is not just advisable, it's mandatory to consistently succeed at a high level. Not leveraging the work done by others is leaving too much equity on the table, and understanding who you can trust to have more accurate information is a tough skill in its own right. But when it comes to people touting decks as the best, it is important to decipher what kind of “best” deck they are actually talking about. Right before the most recent regional championships there was conversation on Twitter of a new “Hogaak” deck in Pioneer that broke out the week before the tournaments happened. No doubt this is a result of the massive amounts of pressure on Pioneer combined with the recent release, but it spawned a mad dash by the RC competitors to figure out if this new Boros Convoke deck was actually a “Hogaak”, aka unquestionably best deck, or if it was just a recent top performer. The deck was both members of a finals on a MTGO challenge and had certainly performed well and caught players off guard, but was it sustainable? After a few days of frantic testing and sold out Venerated Loxodons on card buying websites it was determined that the deck was powerful, and indeed went on to win the European Regional Championship, but it was far from the unquestionably best deck in the format due to some consistency issues and weakness to prepared opponents.
In that particular case, it was determined very quickly that Boros Convoke was not the unquestionably best deck in Pioneer and the high pressure metagame adapted for the deck extremely quickly. What about formats under a little less pressure where it's a little less clear?
The year is 2019 and competitive Magic is the most prolific I have ever seen with events of high stakes nearly every weekend. There is a Modern SCG Open happening in October, one of the last few events in the year with a lot of leaderboard points on the line outside of the $20k cash pool. Needless to say, Modern was under quite a bit of pressure. With actual Hogaak having just been banned in Modern 2 months prior the ripple effects of Modern Horizon’s impact were still being investigated and the next seemingly broken card from the set, Urza, Lord High Artificer is getting his time in the spotlight. Alongside Emry, Mox Opal, Mishra’s Bauble, and Paradoxical Outcome, the Urza Outcome deck is the latest deck to break out and, by some of my competitors, touted as the “new Hogaak”. During my testing process I determined that this Urza Outcome deck had some serious flaws, notably it’s interaction was slow and clunky and I determined the actual best deck of the weekend was going to be Amulet Titan. But I had no reps on Amulet Titan and the deck is known for its difficulty to pilot! So I sought out a deck that was both strong against Amulet and strong against this new Urza Outcome deck that many people were going to register believing it to be the new best deck. I landed on Gifts Storm, a deck I had a great deal of reps on that fit the bill nicely. I won the tournament beating the Urza Outcome deck, and 2 Amulet Titan decks piloted by some of the best to pilot the deck at the time in the elimination rounds. Oko, Thief of Crowns was legal in this format. It did not take long for the Urza Outcome deck to morph into the Urza Oko deck that terrorized the format as the unquestioned best deck until Oko’s eventual banning a four months later.
This was an extremely unique scenario in that the deck being touted as the best deck was not actually strong enough to wear the title of unquestioned best, but would eventually wear that crown after further development. So while it seemed that it was already in its final iteration to many players of that tournament, if you are able to see through the hyperbole, leverage your own experiences against other players’ perception it paves the way for you to make the correct call on whether to play the deck being touted as the best. You do this through understanding how best decks arise and appropriately categorizing where the current best deck falls in the classifications via your experiences and the experiences of your peers which takes time and practice.
The Best Deck in cEDH
Once you understand that pressure on a format is necessary for a best deck to arise, it becomes easy to understand that cEDH does not have a best deck at all. There are certainly some decks that are looking to become early frontrunners as cEDH tournaments begin to take off but as new cards are injected into the card pool at such a high rate and the decks that are succeeding every single weekend are almost all different in big ways from was was winning in the previous week, cEDH does not have a clear defined metagame, a best deck, and is nowhere near being solved. Again this may seem obvious, but I have had many conversations where players will equate the existence of powerful strategies for winning the game, namely Thassa’s Oracle and Underworld Breach, as a sign the format is solved when that is extremely far from the truth. Given time and higher stakes events that will inevitably come, cEDH will have a clearer metagame picture and a consensus on a best deck will begin to arise, but for the time being my recommendation is to play what you personally are winning the most with, because nothing is known for certain right now and that is part of what makes cEDH unique from other formats you can play for stakes!
When There Is A Hogaak, Play It
We have discussed at length when not to play the best deck but before it ends I want to be clear: if a deck does turn out to be an unquestioned best “Hogaak” deck, not playing it is a mistake. Even if a deck is not the unquestioned best and is just a recent top performer that is still under iteration, playing a deck that is not well set up to beat it is a great way to earn a quick exit in your next tournament. People will show up with the deck perceived to be the best, even if it can be beaten, and will make deep tournament runs off the back of the power of the deck so you still need to prepare for it. The place where opportunity lies is knowing that people are going to show up with a recent top performer, and playing something that convincingly beats it and other commonly played decks. That is where you have an opportunity to play rogue decks or strategies that have not been seen in a while and be positioned to win an entire event largely off of your deck choice alone. The opportunities are rare, but being able to find them and execute on them is one of the quickest and easiest ways to add a trophy to your shelf. If you find yourself playing a lot of cEDH like I currently do, keep your eyes peeled as the format develops. There is going to be a lot of hype around early frontrunners that can be exploited as the format matures and pressure builds. Thank you for reading!