Metagame Workshop

Posted in Magic Academy on June 23, 2007

By Jeff Cunningham

Hello and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we will again be looking at the metagame. This time, we'll look at the practical conclusions that stem from an assessment of the metagame.

So far we've approached the decktypes—control, aggro, and combo—cleanly, and with equal amounts of attention. This is of course not how decks appear in tournaments. Hybrids exist (aggro-control, control-combo), and decktypes appear disproportionately. As well, specific decks demand specific attention. You will want to tailor your deck to be good against the exact field, rather than just against the three basic decktypes.

So, it is important to have a sense of the field, to be able to both choose a suitable deck, and to tweak it accordingly. Let's look at how this is done.

How to Get a Sense of the Metagame?

Sphere_of_ReasonEspecially in bigger tournaments, it is possible to make reasoned predictions about the field.

One way players get a sense of the field is by studying the results (and decklists) of previous tournaments in the format, and by staying current with online articles and forum posts. These can provide a gauntlet of test decks, and can give an idea of proportion.

Sometimes there are no previous tournaments in the format. It's possible to make logical predictions about the metagame based on the card pool available. Certain decks make natural sense (for example, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Mystical Teachings, and Damnation–based control decks in Block Constructed...). You can angle yourself against these.

Another thing to consider is the particular skew of any given event. If you're playing at a local store where you usually see a lot of aggro players, adjust for that. If you're playing at the Pro Tour, don't expect players to shy away from control. It's also important to sense trends. Is there a reason that a deck might be significantly more popular this time than last time?

Managing this Information

Once you know the general decks that are around, and have a general sense of how popular they are, you must apply this information.

I sometimes I use a chart as a starting point to guide my thoughts. I list each deck I foresee in the metagame and its estimated win percentage against every other deck. Doing this may require a bit of research or playtesting.

Here's a simplified example:

Goblins (red)Blue-GreenRock (green-black)
Goblins (red)(50%)70%35%
Rock (green-black)65%25%(50%)

I then multiply each deck's winning percentage in a given matchup against the estimated proportion in which a deck will show up. This can be done in percentages, or rougher denotations. In the case above, I might assign Goblins an expected popularity value of 3, Blue-Green an expected popularity value of 2, and Rock an expected popularity value of 1.

Goblins: (50x3) + (70x2) + (35x1) = 325
Blue-Green: (30x3) + (50x2) + (75x1) = 265
Rock: (65x3) + (25x2) + (50x1) = 295

These results might influence my ensuing progress one way or another (encouraging Goblins and discouraging Blue-Green).

Arcbound Ravager
Even at its height, Ravager Affinity seldom exceeded a 40% share of the metagame.
A few points to remember:
  • Don’t overcompensate: Despite how good or dominant one deck might seem (for example, Ravager Affinity during its heyday), virtually no deck ever exceeds the 40% mark at a given tournament. Many players are uncomfortable facing inevitable counter-tactics, and prefer instead to design against the dominant deck. Or, some simply prefer to use a decktype or archetype that they are familiar with, regardless of whether it is the best deck in the abstract.

    Example: You shouldn’t play a deck that only beats the dominant deck. You must also consider, at least, that deck’s foil, and the format’s popular stand-bys.

  • Beat the best decks: This said, it is true that if your goal is to win a tournament, your deck must not only be good against the general field, but the other decks that are also winning. With this in mind, you might bias yourself a bit more heavily against the decks you expect to be doing well… or even whichever decks you expect the most skilled players to be playing!

    Example: Even though you predict blue-white control will only occupy 20% of the field, you expect many of the best players in the tournament will be playing it. Because of this, you tweak your deck to be stronger against this matchup than the 20% would suggest.

  • Matchups can be adjusted: Matchups can vary widely depending on experience with a deck, general play skill, and how advanced (teched-out) a version of a deck is. A few of the right cards added to a familiar deck might suddenly turn a bad matchup into a good one! A metagame chart is not exhaustive. There’s a lot of room to wiggle.

    Example: You find that by including 4 copies of Umezawa’s Jitte in your blue-green deck, the matchup against Goblins can actually be made very positive!

  • Experience counts for a lot: There is a lot of value in playing a deck you are familiar with. You are able to recognize more subtle plays, understand matchup strategies better, and have other advantages. Conversely, there is also a lot of risk in picking up a deck you are unfamiliar with. If you don’t have time to learn a new deck from scratch then, even if you think it is the right call for a given metagame, you may be better off simply adjusting a deck you know well.

    Example: On paper, Dragonstorm seems like a great call for the selection of decks you expect. However, without much experience with it, you won’t be able to maximize its potential, and are likely better off playing the Blue-Black Control deck you know inside out.

  • No deck beats another deck every single time: A dominating matchup caps at about 80-85%. Usually it’s lower. Everyone gets mana-screwed once in a while. Remember to factor this in.

  • Avoid write-offs: Since many players will choose a deck type based on preference, even if it is not well suited to a format, every deck type usually sees representation. (Although archetypes do sometimes eclipse each other—like Zoo, a red-white-green deck, over Boros, a red-white deck.) For this reason you should avoid decks that are dominated by a certain decktype, except in the most extreme scenarios.

Approaches to the Metagame

Exploit it: One question is always if, in the words of Randy Buehler, a rock-paper-scissors metagame can be answered by a grenade—that is, if there is a deck available that happens to dominate an entire metagame.

Ebony-Owl Netsuke
Sometimes choosing this deck may represent a risky move, and will defy the logic of avoiding bad matchups against decktypes. Many players, like Nicolas Labarre with Merfolk in Rome, and Tiago Chan with Owl in Honolulu, have taken decks with dominating matchups against control and terrible matchups against aggro to terrific finishes in control-swamped environments.

Other times, it may just be an easy opportunity, waiting to be capitalized upon. Do the most popular decks in a format have many similar weaknesses? Or are they able to be answered by cards that work well together? Or is there just a powerful deck that no one has paid much attention to? These are suggestions that a metagame might be able to be "broken"...

The rewards of exploiting a metagame are great... but it is easier said than done.

Tweak your deck against it: Whether you adopt a deck you thing is good metagame choice in itself, or playing a deck you are familiar with and think is good in the abstract, you will have to balance it against the field. That is, let its natural strengths cover as much ground as they can, and then plug as many holes as possible.

We looked at some of the general approaches to combating aggro, combo, and contro over the last three weeks. But how exactly to do this depends on the decks in the format and the cards available for you to use.

Next week we'll look at the game play article I mentioned last week. :-)


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