I Never Metagame I Didn't Like: The History of the Magic Metagame

Posted in Feature on June 1, 2009

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Considered the first real archetype in competitive Magic, the "Weissman Deck" was a take-on-all-comers control deck that used all the early power cards. Weissman understood that the strength of broken cards like Mind Twist lay in their ability to dominate an opponent's resources. One Twist destroyed numerous cards. One Moat neutralized an entire ground offensive. This principle, now called card advantage, has influenced tournament-caliber strategies ever since.

Standard Enters a Vise Age

Black Vise

As major events moved from the broad Type I (Classic) format to the more "even" Type II (Standard) playing field, broken cards continued to dictate top tables in every arena. The 1995 U.S. Nationals and World Championships divided Standard into two kinds of predominantly black decks: one with four Hymn to Tourachs and the other with four Black Vises. These two strategies held widely different surface goals (one encouraging high hands, the other low), but had one common ability: both were incredibly quick.

Players of the stock-discard deck (usually mono-black) could cast Dark Ritual and Hypnotic Specter on the first turn, follow that up with Hymn to Tourach or some fast creature on the second turn, and then be shuffling for the next game—victorious—in the blink of an eye.

Black Vise, which Chris Pikula once called "Three Free Bolts," is the most efficient turn-one damage source in Magic history. Henry Stern's "Vise Age" deck abused an early Vise by backing it up with multiple Howling Mines. The Mines counteracted the power of discard, kept opponents in Vise damage range, and gave the "Vise Age" player a constant supply of fire to use on attacking creatures and unfortunate opponents.

Knowing these decks defined the environment, Mark Justice played the metagame to win the 1995 National title. Justice pummeled mono-black decks with his hard-to-kill (and increasingly dangerous) Whirling Dervishes. He used the Howling Mines from "Vise Age" to power his own Black Vises and keep his own hand full of direct damage. By playing neither of the standard strategies, Justice ended up besting both.

Necropotence Summer

Necropotence

The Standard environment changed radically with the restriction of Black Vise. Players were no longer hampered by small hand sizes, so Land Tax and Necropotence were able to turn card advantage, rather than speed, into a defining force. While top-decking the broken Balance could still dominate a game, more consistent strategies, like playing an Erhnam Djinn and protecting it with Armageddon, or establishing the Necropotence / Drain Life engine to outdraw an opponent, were becoming common.

This change allowed Mike Loconto to win the first-ever Pro Tour event with a slow blue/white deck. Ironically, the subsequent tournament environment was defined by the deck that didn't win.

With an offense of Knights and Hypnotic Specters, Leon Lindbäch's deck was reminiscent of the old discard decks. However, he added four Necropotences, ushering in a new age of the Magic metagame. By June of 1996, Standard was plunged into the "Black Summer." Every player who wanted to win either used multiple Necropotences, or played a deck that could defeat the power of Necropotence.

The drawing power of Necropotence and Drain Life combined with the sheer card domination of four Hymn to Tourachs and four Strip Mines to dominate most tournaments. Most players found it impossible to deal with the pure speed of the Dark Ritual / Specter / Knight offense that Necropotencedecks inherited from their discard ancestry. Tom Chanpheng had to play twelve main-deck, protection-from-black creatures to wrest the 1996 World title away from hordes of Necropotencedecks—another perfect example of addressing the metagame.

A Slightly Different Strategy

Ball Lightning

By spring of 1997, the Standard Restricted List included Hymn to Tourach and Strip Mine. The colors were now more-or-less balanced (between black and white anyway), and two strong decks emerged during the Qualifiers for Pro Tour-Paris: Necropotence variants and control variants. While hampered with an overall weaker card base, the new Necropotencedecks still commanded the most powerful card-drawing engine in the game. However, the blue/white decks enjoyed a renaissance of viability, using the Mirage Tutors to fetch restricted cards and broken combinations, such as Land Tax / Zuran Orb or Zuran Orb / Balance.

And yet, it was during these Paris Qualifiers that a little-known player from Ithaca, New York, used the scoffed-at "Sligh" deck to best both strategies and put a third major archetype on the Magic map. With an unending supply of direct damage, David Price burned the life-chained Necropotence players into the ground while his weenie horde crushed the control decks. With Ball Lightning, Price's deck dealt a lot of damage ... and it still does.

At the 1997 Nationals, David Price became a Magic legend with his modified "Sligh" deck, called "Deadguy Red." Assuming most players would run blue/white decks (with four slow Thawing Glaciers) or self-destructive Necropotencedecks (now lacking Ivory Tower and Zuran Orb), Price created an all-out assault deck with burn, Ball Lightnings, and Lava Hounds. Price ran over players who tapped out with their Thawing Glaciers and sent the death-drawers to an even earlier grave. Although he had no chance at making Day 3 due to a dismal draft record, Price went a perfect 6-0 in Standard and earned the names "Dream Crusher" and "King of Beatdown."

The Present and Future Kings

Cursed Scroll

A year after Price put red back on the map, Standard is still divided into three camps: "Deadguy Red" ("Sligh"), "Cuneo Blue" (control), and black/green "Nightmare Survival" (black card advantage).

"Deadguy Red" retains its ties to Price's beatdown deck from the 1997 Nationals, relying on Ball Lightning and Fireblast to deal tons of damage. However, it's now even more consistent with its powerful one-mana creatures and Cursed Scroll.

"Nightmare Survival" seems the perfect foil for "Deadguy Red"; with Walls and annoying Spikes, it slows down an offensive deck long enough to win via a huge creature or forces a concession through the ultimate card advantage scheme: recursion.

To complete the triangle, "Cuneo Blue" controls black/green. Its permission base deters expensive graveyard recursion and gains control with Nevinyrral's Disk and Whispers of the Muse. Unfortunately, a first-turn Jackal Pup is often the harbinger of a fiery doom.

The removal of the Mirage block—particularly the Visions power set—is sure to shake up the metagame. Old archetypes will undoubtedly be weakened while upcoming sets give birth to new ones. The result? A new balance of power in the environment, a new chapter for the ever-evolving tournament metagame.

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