Designing a Diverse Standard Metagame

Posted in Play Design on December 8, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Hello and welcome to Play Design. After a two-week hiatus, I'm back to bring you more insight into our team's processes. This week I'm going to talk about some ways we design the Standard metagame to include a diverse range of archetypes.

Last weekend was the World Magic Cup, featuring the Team Unified Constructed format. In this format, teams of three players must bring three decks to the event, and none of the decks can share cards other than basic lands. For example, if Deck #1 has 2 Negates in the 75, none of the other decks may have any copies of Negate. This offers a unique deck-building challenge for competitors, as there are five colors in Magic and they must be shared among three decks.

Before the World Magic Cup, the last time Team Unified Constructed was played at high levels was in 2006 during the Pro Tour Charleston qualifying season. Team play was scrapped after that Pro Tour for various reasons, but the format was brought back when Wizards implemented the World Magic Cup in 2012. Since the WMC is about unifying three players under one banner, the Team Unified Constructed format seemed perfect for that event as a way for teams to work together to come up with three different decks collaboratively.

The Play Design team doesn't playtest the Unified Constructed formats at all, but if we succeed in building a Standard metagame with diverse archetypes, the Unified Standard decks at the WMC will come together nicely. A Standard player who follows the latest metagame trends may assume that players would bring an energy deck, a Ramunap Red deck, and another deck to this event, but it's not as easy as that. For example, which deck will get to play Glorybringer or Chandra, Torch of Defiance? If you give them to Ramunap Red, the energy deck will suffer, and vice versa. If we are successful in creating fun and unique cards for Standard, players will have enough options to create the three decks they think are the strongest and meet the deck-building criteria.

Additionally, each deck should have game against the decks that players expect to face. You can't set yourself up for success if you're willing to concede the Ramunap Red matchup, for example. Again, it's the Play Design team's goal to make the format diverse and give players options; when we playtest, we look for what holes certain strategies have and then design to fill those holes. Ideally, each color or strategy has options available to be competitive against the other strategies that exist in the metagame.

Filling the Buckets

One of the ways the Play Design team creates a diverse metagame is to have decks that represent each macro archetype. (In R&D we refer to them as "buckets.") There are three main buckets:

  • Aggro
  • Control and Combo
  • Midrange and Ramp

We group decks in these buckets due to the way they perform against one another in Standard. An aggro deck will typically have a positive matchup against a control or combo deck, a control or combo deck will have a positive matchup against midrange or ramp, and a midrange or ramp deck will have a positive matchup against aggro decks. Note that this must be taken with a grain of salt, as it's not true 100% of the time. Many things must be taken into consideration when determining matchup percentage, such as skill of the player, card choices, and shifts in the metagame.

One of the ways that we make sure all the buckets are filled is by holding Future Future League tournaments. Twice during the Play Design team's FFL period, we hold a tournament (a process that I will go into more detail about in a future article). To prepare for the tournament, we list the decks that we want to play and group them into buckets. Then, we play the decks against decks from the other buckets. At the completion of the tournament, we look for any imbalances and make changes based on those. For example, if the aggro decks dominated against the other strategies, we may make some aggro cards weaker. If a strategy didn't have the right tools against control, we'll create cards to fill those holes. By the end of the FFL process, ideally we'll have all of the buckets filled with a variety of decks, and each strategy will have tools and options against decks outside of their bucket.

This year's World Magic Cup was an interesting event in that we got to see more of what Standard has to offer than we did in individual high-level tournaments happening around the same time. One of the reasons for this is that Standard has had a rough go the past year or so, and we are still experiencing the aftermath of that. I hope to go more into detail about this in a future article, but until then, here are some decklists from the WMC that represent the three buckets.

Bucket #1: Aggro

Oliver Polak-Rottmann, Austria—Ramunap Red

Download Arena Decklist

Bucket #2: Control and Combo

Mattia Rizze, Italy—Blue-Black Control

Download Arena Decklist

Kenta Harane, Japan—Blue-White Gift

Download Arena Decklist

Bucket #3: Midrange and Ramp

Ivan Floch, Slovakia—Temur Energy

Download Arena Decklist

The Fourth Bucket: Disruptive Aggro

There is another macro archetype, but it doesn't always appear in competitive Standard. In R&D we refer to that archetype as disruptive aggro, but players often refer to it as aggro-control or tempo. These types of decks prey on control and usually struggle against aggro. The reason why these decks aren't often pushed is because they can be unhealthy for Standard if they are too strong.

Two disruptive aggro decks from different time periods that were unhealthy for Standard were Faeries and Delver. Both decks had similar play patterns. Land an early threat (Bitterblossom or Delver of Secrets, respectively), and then protect that threat with efficient disruption while stopping the opponent from getting anything going with counterspells and removal. Faeries had counterspells in the form of threats. Spellstutter Sprite was a two-for-one and Scion of Oona was a counterspell for your opponent's removal that not only stuck around but also pumped your other creatures. These two-for-ones made the opponent fall further behind turn after turn, with no hope of catching up. Delver had access to Gitaxian Probe, a card that gave you perfect information for practically no cost, allowing you to know what you needed your counterspells for. Both decks pushed out many midrange and control strategies, making the format overall less diverse and less fun. We are careful when designing cards that enable disruptive aggro decks to avoid a repeat of those oppressive Standard seasons.

It's great for players to have options like this to move toward when they want to combat a specific metagame, but we don't want them to be a dominant force in the same way Faeries and Delver were. Here's an example of a disruptive aggro deck from the World Magic Cup.

Elias Klocker, Austria—Four-Color Control

Download Arena Decklist

The above list has been called control, but I think it can also be looked at another way. This deck will sometimes play out like a disruptive aggro deck, and other times play out like a midrange deck. Its early game plan is to land a threat that will gain you advantage, either immediately (Rogue Refiner) or over time (Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Whirler Virtuoso), followed up by disruptive removal spells and counters. A lot of this deck operates at instant speed, whether it's the actual instant spells, Torrential Gearhulk, or end-of-turn Thopter tokens. A typical pattern for this deck is to play a creature early and then stop everything the opponent does with instant-speed answers. However, that's not the only way the deck can operate. It can take on different roles and adapt to what the opponent is doing, in the same way a midrange deck can.

That's all I have for this week. We know that Standard isn't in an ideal spot yet, but I have confidence that the format will improve once sets are released that the Play Design team had a major influence over. We've only been around for six months, and work over a year in advance, so it will be a while before the world sees what we've been working on. We are passionate about the health of competitive Standard and are looking forward to the release of the first set in which Play Design was involved from the very beginning. The first set to have Play Design input is Dominaria, the first set to have a full Play Design focus is code named Milk, and the first set to have Play Design input in vision design is codenamed Archery.

Thanks for reading and until next time,

Melissa DeTora

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