Metagame

Posted in Level One on July 14, 2014

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."

Imagine, if you will, a great big game of rock-paper-scissors.

Rock smashes scissors.

Scissors cuts paper.

Paper covers rock.

There are only three options: rock, paper, or scissors.

Ensoul Artifact | Art by Jasper Sandner

Each of the three beats one of the three, and is beaten by the third.

These three options are in theory in equilibrium. No one of them is more powerful or prevalent than the other two.

You stare across the table in a proposed death battle of rock-paper-scissors.

Which do you pick?

If you are playing against a truly random opponent, there is no way to gain an advantage.

That is, against a truly random opponent.

But what if you had some sort of reliable intelligence that told you your opponent was likely to play rock (after all, "Good old rock, nothing beats rock.")?

Wouldn't you be inclined to choose paper?

Mightn't you be even more inclined not to choose scissors?

Magic: The Gathering can be like that, too.

Imagine you sit down at Friday Night Magic (FNM) with three different decks in your long box. Your store doesn't demand written deck sheets and, truth be told, you like all three of your decks equally and were planning to grab one of them randomly and play that.

But Round 1 pairings are announced and you sit down across from Sam.

The week before, Sam played that blue devotion deck. You know, the one with four main-deck copies of Tidebinder Mage (you know, the one that taps down—then locks down—red creatures) and four more main-deck copies of Master of Waves (you know, the one with protection from red). Sam played it last week, and the week before that, and the week before that.

And he won at least two of those FNMs.

You look down as your fingertips brush over your flying red deck; the one with just Chandra's Phoenix and Stormbreath Dragon.

All of a sudden, that deck choice decision doesn't seem quite so random, does it?

The decision to let those fingers keep brushing past your red deck is a game, in itself. A meta game. This is a different game than the one you play when you actually draw your seven, tap your lands, and announce your attackers. But learning about and playing this game is an important skill in succeeding in competitive Magic: The Gathering.

Now imagine you sit down across the table from Matt, instead.

Matt just came back from one of those big tournaments where you get your name posted on DailyMTG. He played a black deck. A black deck with four main-deck copies of Lifebane Zombie and a whole mess of Doom Blades, Hero's Downfalls, and Ultimate Prices. You don't know much about Matt other than he is the most famous guy at your local game store (LGS).

If you sit down across the table from Matt instead of Sam, how do you play that little metagame with yourself?

Sitting across from Matt probably influences your deck decision differently—and less—than sitting across from Sam. Maybe if your fingers brushed up, first, against that red deck, you would just go ahead and play it. After all, Lifebane Zombie doesn't steal any creatures in your red deck, and as dangerous as that 3/1 can be, its 1 toughness isn't very good against Shock.

But what if you randomly fingered your green-white fatty deck instead?

Sitting across from Matt might not tell you whether you should play your red deck or not, or whether to play your third option, but you might be less inclined to play a deck full of ponderous 2/4 and 3/4 creatures. Matt's Lifebane Zombie is liable to take your best fatty, Doom Blade anything he cares about, and intimidate gets past the rest.

So in that scenario, maybe green-white doesn't seem like the best choice.

The decisions we make in what decks we play and what cards we put into those decks in acknowledgement of our predictions about what potential opponents might choose themselves is what we call playing the metagame.

You see, there are two big rudders that can direct our choices in what to play.

One of those—the more obvious one, maybe—is what our deck does: what cards we play to put forward a strategy, what synergies we can exploit, and maybe just what we like about it.

The other rudder points us in a direction based on what we think everyone else is going to choose: what cards they play to advance their strategies; what synergies we think they will try to exploit; and what seems exciting, fun, or powerful about those.

The first bucket might have directed us to make a red flying deck or a green-white fatty deck before we showed up at FNM; the second helps us choose which of them comes out of our long box prior to the first round.

Last week, we talked about three-card combinations.

The first one we talked about involved the card Stasis.

While we talked about Stasis in the context of Kismet and Time Elemental, the Stasis deck's big weekend was fueled by Howling Mine. It was less a three-card combination and more a metagame call.

Turbo-Stasis

Sorcery (2)
2 Recall
Enchantment (7)
2 Kismet 1 Land Tax 4 Stasis
60 Cards

This deck had an interesting and novel forward strategy.

It played the card Stasis and kept drawing lands by drawing extra cards, via Howling Mine.

Drawing extra cards (and keeping up that land flow) enabled it to tap for every turn, keeping Stasis on the battlefield indefinitely.

It could bounce Stasis with Boomerang on the opponent's turn (giving it the untap, while the opponent stayed tapped); or it could use Despotic Scepter to kill Stasis to get the untap, presumably playing a fresh Stasis with a ton of lands at the ready.

Feldon's Cane and Recall could keep a flow of Stasis copies even when they were sacrificed.

The deck had a novel set of incentives and was a "cool deck" to see in action, especially the first time you saw it lock down an opponent.

But even more important than the forward motion of the Turbo-Stasis strategy was its position in the metagame.

At the time, a midrange Necropotence deck with Nevinyrral's Disk was the dominant deck in Standard. Howling Mine usually allows both players to draw extra cards, but Necropotence forces its controller to skip his or her draw step. The extra cards went only to the Stasis mage! The only way the Necropotence deck could undo the machinery on the battlefield—Howling Mine, Stasis, and so on—was Nevinyrral's Disk.

Unlike Magic 2015's Perilous Vault, Nevinyrral's Disk entered the battlefield tapped, so it could never do its mischief while Stasis was operating.

Turbo-Stasis was quite a triumph of playing the metagame, and placed multiple players in the Top 8 of that year's US Nationals.

BUT!

How about this one?

Prison

If you've never seen the (sort-of) three-card combination in a Prison deck, it's this:

One Icy Manipulator could tap down the one land the opponent untapped on his or her turn; while the other tapped the Winter Orb (at the time, a tapped Winter Orb would allow you a full untap).

There were other synergies, like just playing Fellwar Stone. Artifact mana would allow you to operate without tapping actual lands. You could stockpile untapped lands while tapping down the opponent's with a single Icy Manipulator...

...or Armageddon. The opponent (who was getting lands tapped down every turn) would be forced to commit more and more lands to the battlefield and would therefore commit more and more resources, eventually getting demolished by an Armageddon.

As with Stasis, the Prison deck's Winter Orbs could punish a mana-hungry Necropotence player.

But think about how this deck interacts with Stasis itself.

So what if the opponent Boomerangs or Despotic Scepters his or her own Stasis? The opponeng still can't untap all lands due to Winter Orb! Your Winter Orb + the opponent's Stasis is a wonderful combination of cards on the battlefield.

But in addition to the baseline Winter Orb strategy, Baxter's metagaming genius came out of the sideboard:

This blast from the past doesn't tap to attack.

Vigilance!

What more could you ask for from a creature in a match against a Stasis deck?

Evaluating the cards you own, the cards you see elsewhere and know of, and feeding that infectious bug that drives us to put together different synergies and combinations...

...that is just one aspect of how to play Magic.

And if you are really, really good at this aspect of Magic, you and your wild ideas can make a real impact on the game. You might provide our community with the next big deck!

But the other aspect is playing the metagame: anticipating what your opponents will play, and making adjustments based on that anticipation.

Love,
Mike

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