Playing the metagame is a complicated thing to discuss because, as the name suggests, it is an entire game unto itself.
It is easy to use the metagame to select your deck for a given tournament; for example, don’t play Tooth and Nail if everyone else is playing land destruction.
It is much harder to use your knowledge of the metagame to maximize your deck’s chances of success at a given tournament.
This subject really needs a good practical application to follow in order to be easily explained, so I’ll start (with apologies to Ted for submitting anything even remotely connected to a Regionals tournament report) by relating what I did on June 25th.
The deck I took to Southern California Regionals was a modified version of Staff-Go, playing Darksteel Colossus main instead of Goblin Charbelcher. I’ll discuss this decision later on; for now, let’s just call it a “metagame call.” For reference, there were 10 rounds of swiss, with a record of 8-1-1 guaranteeing Top 8.
Round 1 – G/B Death Cloud.
Game 1 I counter a bunch of stuff and Staff out a Colossus with countermagic mana open. He plays Troll Ascetic and Kokusho on the next turn, with Miren in play. I just let them resolve, though; they are certainly not racing Colossus at this point, so all they will do is delay the inevitable. He doesn’t play any significant threats after that, and Colossus mops up easily. I am in the process of winning game 2 when I tap out to Hinder a Troll Ascetic, the last card in his hand. He surprises me by swapping his Divining Top for the top card of his library, which turns out to be a Choke, so I lose. Game 3 I see Dosan and Boseiju (from the same guy that also boarded in Choke!), but I power out a Colossus before he can find a Death Cloud to go with his Boseiju. (1-0)
Round 2 – Rats.
Ink-Eyes comes in via Ninjitsu fairly early in game 1 for a bunch of extra damage that I hadn’t factored into my Nexus blocking. I have to tap out to Staff in a Colossus to block, and my opponent uses the opportunity to play out exactly enough guys to attack back for the win. In the second game I immediately tap out to play Shackles on turn 3 and Staff on turn 4, since I fear no real retribution from mono-Black Rats for tapping out. My opponent uses my lack of mana to resolve Cranial Extraction for Darksteel Colossus. This is irrelevant, because I already have a Proteus Staff in play. I steal one of his Rats, Staff it, and stack my now-creatureless library with perfect draws of Thirst into artifact-Shackles-counter, Thirst into artifact-Shackles-Nexus, and so forth. Then I steal all his dudes and kill him with them. In the final game he keeps a one-lander because it has Aether Vial in it, but I get a fast Tinker-out-a-Colossus draw and he doesn’t even come close to racing it. (2-0)
Round 3 – MUC.
In game 1, some strange series of events allows him to resolve Bribery, which kills me good and dead when I don’t find any bounce. (I’m pretty sure I just got careless and tried to resolve a Shackles before I needed to or something; Bribery should never resolve in this matchup if the Staff-Go player is paying attention.) In games 2 and 3, I have sideboarded Boseiju and Inspirations and he doesn’t, plus my win conditions all cost 2 mana less, so I win fairly easily. (3-0)
Round 4 – Tooth and Nail.
Game 1 he rips his maindeck Boseiju on turn 3, which goes well with the entire Urzatron that he also drew without using Divining Top or any land-searchers. These in turn go well with the Tooth and Nail he also drew, so it’s on to game 2. I board in most of my sideboard, then watch him do literally the same thing he did game 1 – draw Boseiju, draw the whole Tron, and draw Tooth and Nail. I Wasteland his Boseiju with one of my own, but then I start doing silly things like topdecking two out of three Proteus Staffs and the one Colossus in my deck, while his draw of “Urzatron without search plus solid threats” overwhelms the few counters I do draw. Picking up my first loss in round four is a bummer, but I can at least feel secure in knowing that even if I had brought “the best deck” (Tooth and Nail) to this tournament, I would have gotten my ass kicked by those draws just the same. (3-1)
Round 5 – R/G Beats.
Game 1 I draw only Mana Leaks and Condescends, and he draws a lot of lands plus some late Troll Ascetics that I cannot possibly answer with these “soft” counters. They finish me off before I draw anything relevant. The next two games are unremarkable; I counter things, steal his guys with Shackles, and then turn one of them into a Colossus for the win. (4-1)
Round 6 – U/G Beats.
In this match I saw a lot of cards I was not expecting to see together in one deck: Thieving Magpie, Sword of Fire and Ice, Umezawa’s Jitte, Mana Leak, Condescend… really, I had no idea what I was up against. Luckily, decks which win using small creatures tend to lose to Shackles, so I basically executed the same gameplan I did against the previous Green/X deck and won. (5-1)
Round 7 – Mono-Red Aggro.
I win the die roll and play out a Nexus and three Islands. I am ecstatic to see no first-turn or second-turn Firewalkers or Genju, meaning that either he is playing Ponza and has officially failed to resolve one early – meaning I win – or he is playing “Kuroda-style Red” (happy, Mike?) – which means I win big time. On turn 3 he signals Ponza by playing a Seething Song, which I let resolve. He uses the Song to play a Slith Firewalker, which I also let resolve because I have a Nexus in play and am holding Rewind. He uses the last of his Song mana to play a Zo-Zu, which I finally use the Rewind on. Forgetting that Rewind says more than just “counter target spell,” my opponent then attacks with his Firewalker. After I animate my Nexus he tries to take it back, but it is too late at that point, and Nexus blocks and pumps itself to eat the Firewalker. The three-for-one that turn affords me is too much for him to recover from. Game 2 he plays Adamaro on turn 2 (on the play) via Chrome Mox, which punches me for 6 before I Boomerang it and counter it on the way back down. I then counter a few Molten Rains and Staff out Colossus for the win. (6-1)
Round 8 – Mono-Blue Urzatron.
Game 1 I had a counter for every relevant threat he played, and made a Colossus before he found his third Urzatron piece. When I resolved a Hinder on his Aether Spellbomb the next turn, he scooped. Game 2 was a massacre. I Inspirationed into Boseiju pretty quickly, letting me draw even more cards using Thirst and Inspiration without fear of counter. Any time he played a threat I just countered it using Boseiju to circumvent any kind of counter-war that might have resulted. “Mindslaver? I’ll Rewind that using Boseiju, then I’ll untap my Boseiju using Rewind. End step, Inspiration me using Boseiju again.” Yeah, won that one. (7-1)
Round 9 – MBC.
This was by far my favorite round of the tournament. My opponent was a really cool guy named Nam, and he was playing the most awesome MBC list I’ve ever seen. It was MBC as I would have built it, with non-standard tech cards all over the place. Even though none of the games we played involved very much actual Magic, I enjoyed every minute of them. In Game 1, Nam ran out a turn 3 Damping Matrix on the play, and as I did not happen to have a Mana Leak or Condescend in hand, it resolved. (Maindeck Damping Matrix is a brilliant choice for MBC, which is one of the things that made me very happy when I saw it.) [It combos really really well with Night of Souls’ Betrayal. – Knut, who helped develop a version of this deck ahead of time (and not Sean McKeown poopy version either)] He then animated a Stalking Stones and started beating down with it. Two Thirst for Knowledges and three Scrying effects later, I had emptied out Nam’s hand of every threat he tried to resolve, but I still had not found any of my three Boomerangs for the Matrix, so the Stalking Stones just killed me from 20.
In game 2, I debated for awhile and decided to keep the borderline hand of two lands, Mana Leak, two Hinders, Rewind, and Boomerang. All it would take was a third land by turn 3 (in a deck playing 25 mana sources) to enable the Hinders for his next two relevant threats, and likely a Rewind for the one after that. Since I had no idea what to expect from this clearly nonstandard deck, I decided keeping was less risky than mulliganing into a hand that might not have Mana Leak for a threat like second-turn Distress or another Damping Matrix off a Mox. This didn’t work out when he played a Talisman to accelerate into two must-counters in a row, the second of which happened to be a Persecute I couldn’t counter because I had burned my Mana Leak on the first must-counter and was still lacking the third land for Hinder. Persecute resolved, and I dumped my hand of seven (!) Blue cards into the graveyard with a huge grin on my face. You’ve got to admit – Persecute for seven is just awesome, even if it does happen to be you that’s getting wrecked by it. (8-2)
So once again I have gone X-1, needed one more win to draw into the Top 8 of Regionals, and lost in the last round. Go me! I stay in for the tenth round so I can at least take home some prizes.
Round 10 – MGA.
Nothing terribly exciting happens this match. I do my usual Shackles-Staff thing in game 1 and win. Game 2 he is on the play and plays turn 1 Birds, turn 2 Troll Ascetic, which I am very close to countering with the Colossus combo until he hits me with an out-of-left-field Boil and I lose. Game three I am on the play, so it is impossible for him to force through turn 2 Troll, and I win. (8-2)
Two 8-2s make Top 8, but I am not one of them. I end up 13th and take home six draft sets. Now for the list I took:
So what’s up with this list? First off, as I mentioned in the original article about this deck, Stalking Stones do not pull their weight in Staff-Go like they do in regular MUC. Cloudpost, on the other hand, generates silly amounts of mana that this deck is eager to get its hands on – and with as much Scrying and draw magic as this deck has access to, drawing multiples happens more than you would expect. Other than the Cloudpost swap, all my changes from the original list were metagame calls.
The first step of playing the metagame is figuring out what kind of players are going to be playing which decks, and why they are going to be playing them. This involves asking questions such as:
1) What are the Tier One decks, and what kind of players are going to play them?
2) What are the Tier Two decks, and who will play them instead of the Tier One decks?
3) What other decks will be there, and how should I plan on dealing with them?
I answered these questions for the 2005 United States Regional Championships as follows:
1) What are the Tier One decks, and what kind of players are going to play them?
I defined the Tier One decks as MGA (in which I’ll include JoshieGreen; it is, after all, a mono-Green aggro deck), Tooth and Nail, and Mono-Red (including Ponza, Kuroda-style Red, and their variants).
I based this on the observation that these decks are the only ones I have read about consistently doing well in tournaments, on MODO and in real life.
The most well-prepared players would likely identify one of these decks as a strong choice, and would play it as long as they did not have any reservations about mirror matches or simply the abstract notion of “bringing what everyone else will be bringing.”
(The Tier One decks were what I tested most against, and what I primarily focused my build on beating.)
2) What are the Tier Two decks, and who will play these instead of the Tier One decks?
I considered the popular Tier Two decks to be MUC, MBC, BlueTron, Rats, White Weenie, and Green/X decks. These were the decks that I appraised as inherently less powerful than the Tier One decks, but which were still powerful enough to give some of the Tier One decks trouble.
I reasoned that the majority of players not playing a Tier One deck would likely be playing a Tier Two deck instead because: A) they simply did not wish to play what everyone else would be playing, B) they had a very advanced build of a Tier Two deck that improved the archetype’s win ratios enough to make it a surprise contender, or C) they did not test enough to know that what they were bringing was underpowered compared to the Tier One decks.
I put less emphasis on beating these decks for two reasons. First, there was the simple fact that these decks would be represented less at the tournament than the Tier One decks. Second, many of the players bringing these decks would be doing so specifically because they wanted to bring something different, or specifically because they had not tested enough to know that they were playing a Tier Two deck. In either case, they would be most likely be playing an underpowered deck – as opposed to an advanced build like Nam’s MBC deck – and they probably would not play it as well, on average, as would the type of player who would opt to play a Tier One deck.
Since none of the Tier Two decks I was aware of were particularly awful matchups for me for any reason, I decided that I would use the built-in advantage of their deck’s lower power level (and possibly the lower playskill and/or familiarity with the deck’s strategies that follows a player who does not test sufficiently) to give me an acceptably high win percentage against these decks, rather than devoting sideboard space to the matchup.
3) What other decks will be there, and how should I plan on dealing with them?
This question is generally answered the same way for every tournament. Everyone else will bring casual decks, homebrew tournament decks, off-the-radar decks of varying quality (including the heavily modified Tier Two decks I mentioned earlier), or less popular Tier Two and Tier Three established decks.
The way I will beat these decks is by making sure my deck is inherently powerful. Countermagic is effective against almost every deck, Vedalken Shackles is ruthless against any deck using creatures of small or medium size to win, and even if they get past all that they must still have a way to deal with Darksteel Colossus in order to win.
There will be some decks that will randomly happen to be a foil to my deck (“Maindeck Aether Vial–Troll Ascetic-Dosan-Molder Slug.dec” comes to mind), but these would not be worth altering my deck to accommodate, since the odds of my facing such a deck – not to mention my odds of beating it thanks to altering my deck – would be so small that making the change would not improve my overall chances of success at the tournament enough to justify it.
All that said, here’s why I ended up making the changes I did.
First, you’ll notice I ran only 3 Vedalken Shackles maindeck, and 1 in the board.
Why do this? Aren’t Shackles an automatic four-of in a mono-Blue control deck?
Not anymore they aren’t. The first MUC deck came about when Affinity was legal, and they were most certainly a four-of in that environment…but Affinity is long gone, as are aggro decks centered around lots and lots of small creatures.
Against Tooth I want zero, because they do not steal anything of import. Three is closer to zero than four is, making it a better count for this matchup.
As for the other two decks, recall that the driving strategy behind this deck is “don’t tap too low to counter things unless doing so will win you the game.” Against MGA and mono-red, I cannot tap out turn three to play Shackles and expect to win. If I don’t want them that early, I don’t want four.
If I tap out turn 3 against MGA or a Red deck, horrible things will happen to me. Red will drop a Zo-Zu that will dome me for eight even if I take control of him. If they don’t do that, they’ll blow up one of my lands and put me on my heels for the rest of the game. Or they’ll use Seething Song or Chrome Mox to ramp up to five mana for an Arc-Slogger I won’t yet have the Islands to swipe, or to play and activate a Hearth Kami on my Shackles. None of these situations are particularly desirable. As for MGA, that deck’s one threat of resolving a turn 3 Troll Ascetic is dangerous enough to dissuade me from tapping out on turn three by itself.
The earliest time I can safely play Shackles against these decks is turn 5, and then only if I have made all my land drops and am holding a Mana Leak that can successfully counter one of the threats I just mentioned. That’s turn 5 at the earliest, mind you – a lot of the time I won’t have a Mana Leak, or already used the one I had on something else, or simply have not yet made enough land drops to be able to play the Shackles and counter something in the same turn. If that’s the case I’m looking at between turn six and eight as the first opportunity to play them.
If your goal for a card is to play it between turns 5 and 8, four copies is not the number you are looking for. With as much Scrying, cycling, and card draw as this deck plays, you will have a Shackles by turn five if you want it, even if you are only playing three. If you are playing four you are more likely to have one in your opening hand, or to draw a second one early – both of which take up space in your hand as dead draws, leaving you with less countermagic to fight the crucial early-game threats whose resolution so often decides games and matches.
Since three copies is the appropriate count against the Tier One decks, which is what I am mainly focused on beating, I replaced the fourth Shackles with another Spellbomb. Spellbomb is very good against Red decks playing Firewalker and/or Genju, and can be pitched to TFK or cycled away against everything else.
My second metagame choice was to maindeck Colossus over Belcher. If Regionals were a Pro Tour, I would not have done this because Belcher is considerably better against Tooth and Nail in game one. This is Regionals, though, and even though T&N was the known Best Deck, I could not expect to face it more than once or twice on the day. I gave Colossus the nod because it is markedly better in every single game of every other Tier One and Tier Two matchup, including Tooth and Nail post-board.
In case you are considering picking up the deck, or perhaps are just curious, check out the Bonus Section at the end of the article for an explanation of why Colossus is better than Belcher in most situations.
While generally superior, Colossus is worse than Belcher against Tooth and Nail in game one for one important reason: while going off with Colossus still makes me leave mana open to counter while going off, just as I would with Belcher, Colossus is a full turn slower to kill than Belcher once I have completed the combo. That’s a very big deal because Tooth’s strategy tends to be to hold out on their biggest threats (the Tooth and Nails themselves) until they can resolve a Sylvan Scrying or Reap and Sow for Boseiju, while turning off Mana Leaks and Condescends along the way by Topping into extra Urzatron pieces.
Thus, when you actually play the Proteus Staff, and it is clear that you will win soon, you can expect to have to counter one Tooth and Nail (or Mindslaver) immediately, and another on the next turn after you activate the Staff. If you successfully counter those two consecutive must-counters, Belcher will kill immediately and you’ll win. With Colossus, though, you’ll still be one attack short of lethal at the point where Belcher would have killed, and you’ll have to come up with a third hard counter for Duplicant or another Tooth or somesuch, or else throw the game away on the last turn. Case in point: in the match I lost to Tooth and Nail at Regionals, I actually would have won the first game (and thus, quite possibly, the match) had I been playing Belcher instead of Colossus – even though he mised the entire Urzatron and Boseiju and Tooth and Nail with no search.
But like I said, against every other deck Colossus is better in game one and in game two, so for this tournament I left him in the main. In a smaller tournament with a more well-defined metagame, I would probably main the Belcher and sideboard the Colossus instead of one of the Time Stops.
Finally we come to my sideboard. The only changes I made from my original plan were to cut Spectral Shift and Culling Scales for two Time Stops and extra bounce in the form of a fourth Spellbomb and Boomerang.
Culling Scales was in there primarily to take out Pithing Needle, and Spectral Shift was in primarily to counter (and also to win me the game against) Boil. I took them out because of who I expected to be playing Needles and Boils against me: players running Tier Two decks.
The only Tier One deck that I expected to see Pithing Needle from was MGA, but with maindeck Darksteel Colossus (which that deck is completely unequipped to handle), I was not worried. The worst-case scenario was turn 1 Pithing Needle, and even that was not too bad. If they named Proteus Staff, I still got to Shackle all their guys until I found a Boomerang (which I had four of post-board) for it. If they named Vedalken Shackles, that was also fine; since they had played the Needle on turn one instead of Birds, their draw was almost certainly slow enough that I could get by just countering things and Staffing out a Colossus for the win. No need for Culling Scales at all.
Spectral Shift was good against Boil and Genju from the Red decks… which all the prepared players had taken out of their decks. MUC stoppped being a top deck awhile ago, and since these two cards were most often used in order to combat it, many of the articles I read in the week or two before Regionals showcased lists that played neither Genjus nor Boil at all. Less-prepared players might still be playing one or both of these, but at the end of the day Boomerang is still an answer to Genju and Mana Leak is still an answer to Boil, and if I can’t count on random wins from the card because Boil is being commonly played, it’s no longer worth the sideboard slot.
So what? I beat those decks anyway.
Decks playing Choke are doing so because they have a bad matchup against mono-blue, and I’m playing the best mono-Blue deck I am aware of. I can just counter Choke and beat these decks. Remember my Round 1 opponent who boarded in Choke, Dosan, and Boseiju against me? I still won that match, because I had such an inherently strong matchup against him that his hosers were not enough to turn things around. There was another Green/X deck (my R/G opponent in round 5, if memory serves) that also had both Dosan and Choke post-board, and I once again took the match in spite of them.
I also beat MUC because my maindeck configuration has between four and ten fewer dead cards (Magpie, Meloku, and Bribery are all cards that I will let resolve only if doing so will ultimately screw my opponent in some way), and post-board I have access to the anti-Tooth and Nail Boseiju plus Inspiration package, both of which happen to be absolute wrecking balls against MUC. I don’t need Spectral Shift to beat those decks, so if it’s no longer good against the Tier One decks, I don’t want it.
This is a perfect application of the Dan Paskins principle of The Fear: don’t Fear your opponent’s sideboard cards if the reason they are bringing them in is that you smash the hell out of them otherwise. You’ll probably still smash the hell out of them, you just might have to be a bit more careful about it.
I am not alone in considering Staff-Go the best Blue deck in the format. I already wrote a good deal on how the deck works; the only major change between that article and Regionals were the additions of Cloudpost and Darksteel Colossus. The advantages of Colossus against most decks are numerous:
1) Since comboing out with Colossus does not carry with it the requirement of “untapping with 7 mana out so I can play and activate Belcher after stacking my deck” (meaning I actually need 8 mana to go off with a manland), I can just crank out a Colossus any time I have a Staff and something to use it on. You’d be surprised how many decks cannot handle a Darksteel Colossus by itself, much less a Colossus backed up by countermagic, bounce, and Vedalken Shackles. Against every deck but Tooth, I can just “go for it” like this and win, which ups my win percentage against the entire field.
2) Colossus has the awesome perk that any time I draw him, I can pitch him to TFK with no downside since he shuffles back in. This is in sharp contrast to Belcher, which I must avoid pitching to TFK at all costs, unless I have no other choice. The shuffle ability also comes in handy because I draw the Colossus and cannot go off because he is no longer in my library, I can shuffle him back in if I end my turn with eight cards in hand or simply by pitching him to TFK. (And if I don’t have a TFK handy, Staff will let me stack my deck so that I immediately topdeck one, since if the Colossus is in my hand, my deck no longer has creatures in it.)
3) In very long matchups, I don’t have to worry about my deck shrinking too much for Belcher to be lethal in one shot. This comes up most frequently in post-board games, which is why I would be fine with maindecking a Belcher and boarding in the Colossus in a Tooth-heavy environment. With only 20% of the expected field being Tooth, though, it did not seem worth it.