Feature: Metagaming Madness

Posted in Event Coverage on August 30, 2012

By Blake Rasmussen

Blake is the content manager for DailyMTG.com, making him the one you should email if you have thoughts on the website, good or less good (or not good). He's a longtime coverage reporter and hasn't turned down a game of Magic in any format ever.

The Magic Players Championship is the absolute highest pinnacle of the modern Pro Tour, letting in only the best of the best for a select tournament that is probably the most difficult event to qualify for in the history of the game.

It's also kind of like Friday Night Magic.

Stick with me for a second on this.

At a typical Pro Tour or Grand Prix, the field is seeded with hundreds of players of varying skill levels. You could go through an entire tournament without once playing against your friends and playtest partners. And guessing the metagame is as much an art as it is a science.

metagame noun: "me-tə-gām"

1) Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.

2) That thing you blame when you go 0-2 drop, i.e. "My deck was awesome, but the metagame shifted."

But the Players Championship isn't hundreds of players, it's sixteen. And players can go through the tournament without being paired against their friends, but it's unlikely. Especially since, as high level players, they all pretty much all know each other anyway. They know each other's strengths, preferences, interests, and playing proclivities and can plan accordingly.

In other words, planning for the Modern metagame is a lot like planning for your next FNM. In the same way you know for sure Billy is probably going to be playing a ramp deck, Mike always plays Delver, and Mary is almost certainly playing her favorite Goblin deck, the sixteen players in attendance this week know each other well enough to base their decisions on each other's preferences.

That much became apparent while talking with Martin Juza, whose decision to play Jund, along with Yuuya Watanabe and Shuhei Nakamura, came at least in part because he generally knew what everyone else would play, or at least they had a ballpark guess.

"Look at Soul Sisters," Juza said. "That deck is a bad matchup for Jund, but look at the people we have here. I can't imagine Luis (Scott-Vargas) playing it. Same with Affinity. Paulo (Vitor Damo da Rosa) would never play Affinity because it has no way to control its draws."

Juza said they looked at the Blue Zoo decks that the larger ChannelFireball contingent chose (Damo Da Rosa, Scott-Vargas, Josh Utter-Leyton, and David Ochoa) and correctly surmised they would play them, and specifically that they would play Geist of Saint Traft. That led them to playing the full set of four Liliana of the Veil, which were also good against the Delver decks they also expected.

Liliana of the Veil++Geist of Saint TraftLiliana of the Veil++Geist of Saint Traft
Having an idea of what these players would be packing led to some smart metagaming.

On the other side of the coin, they had heard Tzu-Ching Kuo lament after the World Magic Cup how bad he felt the White-Blue deck he played at that tournament was. So despite the fact that the W/U deck has a favorable matchup against Jund, Juza and company figured Kuo wouldn't play it (he didn't). They were a bit surprised when Jon Finkel and Brian Kibler showed up with a version of the deck, but figured they couldn't plan for all eventualities.

But just like your FNM, sometimes knowing someone too well can lead to you outguessing yourself. Maybe Billy lent out his Primeval Titans or just got some new Restoration Angels he wanted to try out, or maybe Mary left her Goblin deck at home and had to borrow a Trading Post deck.

Or, just as tough to guess, maybe they decided to play the same metagame guessing game you did and were trying to one-up you just as you were trying to one-up them.

So it goes here as well. While no one is going to change decks because they left something at home, these players do represent some of the best metagame minds in the world, leading to a game of one-upsmanship that can give you a headache. After all, if you expect the expected, it's entirely possible your opponents will make the same read and expect to beat the expected expectations.

Follow that? Me neither. But let me give you an example.

Two squads came to the same conclusion that Zoo would be a good choice this weekend, including the main four from ChannelFireball and the Owen Turtenwald/Reid Duke pairing. But their lists differed wildly on several key points. (Check out their decklists here.)

On one side, the ChannelFireball team was playing Geist of Saint Traft and a sideboard that more closely reflected the metagame that materialized at the Players Championship.

On the other side, the Turtenwald/Duke list is better tuned to handle a field of combo decks, complete with a sideboard featuring a full playset of Mindbreak Trap.

It was Damo da Rosa that gave us a clue as to how that happened.

"Normally this would have been a good tournament for Storm," Damo da Rosa said, pointing out that he expected mostly the kind of decks Storm preyed upon. "But we couldn't really find a list that we liked."

So Turtenwald and Duke tried to go one level higher. If this was a good tournament for Storm, it would be an even better tournament to try and beat Storm. And their main deck Grim Lavamancers even gave them better game against creature-based combo decks with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, should those show up.

But it turned out they went one level too far. If the field had been more combo-heavy, or if it had any combo whatsoever, they would have been better positioned. Instead, the combo decks never materialized and their sideboard was stuck with six virtually blank sideboard cards (four Mindbreak Traps and a pair of Grafdigger's Cages).

Turtenwald even very publicly moaned over his deck for Modern over Twitter.

In other words, Magic pros are just like us! They do laundry and misread the metagame, even when it's their friends and colleagues playing in a tournament. It happens to the best of us.

So if you're like Mary and you always play Goblins, maybe at your next FNM, try to think about what everyone will be playing. And if you're like Mike and always show up with the latest teched out deck, try not to out-guess yourself and miss the metagame entirely.

But even if you do, just know that you're not alone.

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