Deep Analysis – Tiered Metagames

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This week’s Deep Analysis sees Richard bring a fresh perspective on metagaming to the table. If you look at your average Constructed PTQ or GP Top 8, you’ll see a number of different decklists doing well at the hands of highly proficient mages. How on earth do these folk come to radically different conclusions concerning the “best deck” to play at any given time? Richard reveals all!

Why did Luis Scott-Vargas play Teachings at GP: San Francisco?
Why did Jon Stocks play U/G Beats?
Why did David Irvine play R/G/W Kavu Justice?
Why did Zack Smith play U/G Beats?
Why did Paulo Vitor play Teachings?
Why did Brett Blackman play U/G Beats?
Why did Paul Cheon play Teachings?
Why did Andrew Walden play U/G Beats?

These are eight simple questions with eight unfathomably complicated answers.

“Because he’d make Top 8 with it” is a bogus answer; none of these guys knew they’d end up in the Top 8 when they registered their decks on Saturday morning.

Luis Scott-Vargas would have probably seen little money in choosing U/G over Teachings for that tournament, and yet his finals opponent, Jon Stocks, probably would have seen little money in choosing Teachings over U/G. Top 8s of this sort are second nature to us by now, but has it occurred to anyone else how weird it is that two people can come to completely different conclusions about what the Deck To Play is for a format… and then end up in the finals together?

In any event, correctly answering the question of “why’d they do that?” on Monday morning is not nearly as useful as correctly answering the question of “what are they going to do?” the day before the tournament.

Why is this important? The extreme example is Josh Ravitz PTQ win with Kavu Justice. He played that deck precisely because he knew – somehow – that the tournament would be almost entirely U/G and Pickles. He was right; he did not face a single Teachings deck in the entire tournament, and cruised to victory on the back of his cushy matchups. Ravitz’s victims failed massively to get a read on the metagame, and brought U/G and Pickles (decks both ostensibly crafted to beat Teachings) to a tournament with essentially no Teachings in it.

Even if you aren’t reading the metagame to your advantage, your lack of reading (or misreading, as the case may be) can cost you in a big way.

For PT: Honolulu, I brought an Enduring Ideal deck that beat the pants off any kind of speed-based aggro deck, powered a combo finish through countermagic decks with three maindeck copies of Boseiju, Who Shelters All, and held its own against most of the fringe decks I knew about going in. I knew it couldn’t beat B/W aggro, but literally no one I talked to had any interest in B/W aggro.

Turned out B/W aggro was the most popular deck of the tournament. After countless hours of testing and tuning, I beat two speed aggro decks, got trounced by four Godless Shrine decks, and dropped at 2-4.

To sum up, Ravitz brought a deck to his tournament that was focused on beating two decks, and it brought him home the plane ticket. I brought a deck to my tournament that was designed to beat a broad spectrum of archetypes, and I got crushed because I underestimated the popularity of one deck.

No matter how many good matchups you think you have, getting an incorrect read on the field can send you home without prize. Conversely, getting a correct read on the field can take you all the way, no matter how many bad matchups you have in the format as a whole.

So how do we get a good read on the field?

The short answer is, “get the information.” You know, just talk to people until you have the answer. Helpful, right?

Since that’s hardly realistic in every situation, I’m going to discuss a method that helps you avoid stumbling into the same pitfall I did in Honolulu. I call the concept Tiered Metagames, but before I get into it, I need to establish some ground rules and terminology.

The Field

Simply put, the Field can be summed up as “who is playing what.” This takes into account not only how many warm bodies will bring each deck, but also who the individual pilots of those decks are.

Let’s say you’re LSV at San Francisco. If you happen to know that only novice Teachings players will be present – say, because all the experts have switched to U/G – then you don’t need to pack as much Teachings hate as you would normally. Not only will any Teachings player you get paired against be easier to defeat in the skill-intensive mirror, you can also expect only a small contingent of the Teachings players to reach Day 2. Maybe with this information at hand you cut your singleton maindeck Detritivore for an extra Slaughter Pact against U/G.

On the other hand, say you somehow learn that every single other person at the tournament is playing Teachings. If you stick with Teachings, you might maindeck extra Haunting Hymns or Detritivores instead of spot removal spells. Alternatively, you might abandon Teachings in light of this information, and audible to some crazy anti-Teachings concoction – say, U/R Pickles with Detritivore and Avalanche Riders.

Caliber of Players

I gave up on preaching that Teachings was the best deck in the format awhile ago, because of that annoying little clause, “… if Teachings is being piloted by an expert.” All the expert Teachings players I know considered Pickles a draw-dependent 50-50 matchup if you played it correctly, but all the expert Pickles players I know said they crushed Teachings every time. Either one of them was lying to me, or the Pickles players were getting most of their wins off Teachings players who were “sub-expert,” if you will.

Gerry Thompson, who I have been referencing as a Teachings guru all season, put his money where his mouth was by bringing the deck to GP: San Francisco. He didn’t make Top 8… because he was too busy scooping both Paul Cheon and Brett Blackman into the T8 instead. “Blackman wasn’t Q’d [the round 13 concession made Brett a lock for Top 16 with one more win or draw], is an amateur, and works really hard,” GT explained. “I’m already Q’d [Gerry won the first PTQ he played in, also with Teachings], and Cheon wants to L5/L6. It just means more to those guys than me.” At 11-2 in matches he played out on the weekend, it’s safe to say that GT confirmed his mastery of the deck.

I also caught Stephen Menendian playing GroAtog in the Vintage World Championships at GenCon. Steve had a Quirion Dryad out and was playing at warp speed. My recollection was that the following happened: Steve cast Mystical Tutor and grew his Dryad to 2/2. His opponent went to Force of Will it, but Steve had a Red Elemental Blast up his sleeve that grew the Dryad to 3/3. After Mystical put Time Walk on top of Steve’s library, he cast Brainstorm to make the Dryad 4/4 and put the Time Walk in his hand. He then cast the Walk to put an extra turn in the bank and make his Dryad 5/5. Attack you.

When I reference a high-caliber player, I’m talking about someone like Gerry or Steve. The type of guy you will expect to see in Day 2 of the Grand Prix, or in the Top 8 of the PTQ, or the late stages of whatever other tournament you might be preparing for. You know something has to go wrong for him to drop out early, so if you are planning to advance to the late stages of the tournament yourself, you must also be planning for what will happen when you get paired against one of these high-caliber players.

On the other side of the coin, there are also certain low-caliber players that will be at your tournament. I’m not talking about the guy who brings his Mono-Green Control deck to the Extended tournament – no, I’m talking about the guy who probably has a playable deck, but doesn’t know how to play it well. These guys appear at all stages of a tournament, from Round 1 to the Top 8, because poor playskill only matters when you are put into a situation where you can throw the game away. If all his opponents make even worse punts, or if his deck “forgives” him and his topdecks compensate for his punts, the worst player in the room can make the elimination rounds. You can expect not to get paired against awful players with awful decks once you’re 3-0 or so, but low-caliber players with “real” decks can show up anywhere in the tournament.


It is essentially impossible to accurately predict that everyone else will be playing Teachings, or that 30% of them will be X, 25% will by Y, and so on. Instead, you have to make an educated guess.

We call this educated guess “metagaming.” You guess what the field will look like, and design your deck accordingly. If you make a foolish guess, like “everyone’s going to play everything, and the Top 8 will be no different! Whee!” then you will probably end up with a poorly-metagamed deck. You will not catch me claiming something as inane as “Disenchant in the sideboard indicate a poorly-metagamed list”, but a classic example of bad metagaming is the player who adds artifact and enchantment removal to his sideboard because “what if they have artifacts or enchantments?”

Regardless of your who-plays-what predictions, if you are competing at a Constructed Magic event, you should know ahead of time precisely which artifacts and enchantments the opponent might play. You should also know which ones you are afraid of, and whether or not they are scary enough that you should devote sideboard space to removing them.

If no expected deck will play Ensnaring Bridges, but Ensnaring Bridge wrecks you, you still might be wrong to board removal for it because you only get value out of those sideboard slots if someone is actually playing Ensnaring Bridge, if you get paired against him, if he draws them, if your sideboarded answers successfully deal with them, and if dealing with them specifically wins you the game when you would have definitely lost if you had not dealt with them. All those ifs add up to a low chance of your sideboarded answers converting a lost match into a win for you, meaning you are probably guilty of poor metagaming if you pack them in a field where you don’t expect Ensnaring Bridge.

Tiered Metagames: The Top Tiers

Now for the interesting part.

In order to figure out your expected field, you have to take into consideration every single group of players, from the newbies to the masters, from the beneficiaries of bleeding-edge, teched-out masterpieces to the holders of outdated junk.

See, everyone’s got their own little metagame. To the experts, Teachings beats U/G and G/W. In a playgroup that does not include an expert Teachings player, however, things very different — in their metagame, you play U/G (and, back in the day, G/W) in order to beat Teachings. By considering both the skill level of certain groups of players, and the metagame as they see it, you can better reason through what decks and card choices they will make for the tournament.

The Top Tier metagame is that of the experts. These guys might not have a perfect read on the field of the tournament, but they have tested all the decks and know which ones are Tier 1 and which ones are unplayable. The experts’ incidence of misplays is far lower than that of the average PTQ denizen, they know what the latest technology is, and they are holding a tuned deck. For all these reasons, the expert metagame is not often in line with where everyone else perceives the format to be.

Fortunately, unless some Secret Tech has been kept under wraps and released right under your nose, it is often relatively easy to determine what the experts are playing.

It’s still not easy, mind you, but think about it — what have the Frank Karstens of the world been saying about Time Spiral? Prior to Kavu Justice Week, the consensus was that Teachings was the best deck, and Pickles was an acceptable second. Some of the pros believed it to be the other way around, and chose Pickles over Teachings.

Assuming we’re still operating before Kavu Justice Week, what does this information mean for you, the guy who is preparing for the tournament?

It means that there will be strong players at this tournament who are playing Teachings and Pickles. You will expect to see them in the later rounds of the Swiss, and perhaps the Top 8. You will be surprised if neither of these happens.

Thus, if you have a poor matchup against well-piloted Teachings and well-piloted Pickles, there are roughly three ways you can proceed. One, you can just hope you dodge the pairing and never face any good players running Pickles or Teachings. That’s out of your hands, but you are always free to roll the dice with your entry fee if you like. Two, you can shrug and hope you either pull out an underdog victory or lose only that match — and none others to manascrew or the like — in the Swiss. Besides being another roll of the dice, this strategy assumes that you do not find yourself paired in the Top 8, when the rounds are untimed and a loss ends your tournament. The third option is, of course, to practice and tune until you are not longer an underdog to well-piloted Teachings and well-piloted Pickles.

You would be surprised how many people opt for one of the first two options — intentionally or unconsciously — and reach the Top 8 by good fortune of exactly the sort I just described.

Tiered Metagames: The Bottom Tiers

Now I’m going to switch gears and focus on the absolute bottom tier of tournament competitors — the hapless victim below even the low-caliber player (who is armed with a “real” deck, at least), who has brought a casual deck to his first PTQ. For this poor soul, the metagame is… well, kind of blurry. He probably doesn’t have much of an idea what he will face at the tournament, which is why he brought such an underpowered deck.

Did you write him off already?

Don’t. There’s plenty to learn here.

Let’s say the format is Standard, and you beat this guy’s G/R control deck (of sorts) in game 1 with Moldervine Cloak on Silhana Ledgewalker. You board in Might of Old Krosa for his Dead / Gones and Incinerates, and Bottled Cloister to recover from his Savage Twisters.

Did you board correctly?

Dear Lord, no. It doesn’t matter what everyone else in the room is doing, this guy is bringing in Naturalizes, and he’s going to blow up your Bottled Cloisters with them. He saw an enchantment in game 1 — who cares if it was Moldervine Cloak? He sure couldn’t Incinerate that Ledgewalker in response – he put Naturalize in his board “in case they have artifacts or enchantments,” and by God, he’s going to board them in and blow up the first Moldervine Cloak you play in game 2. Disaster will then strike in the following form: “Man, still no Moldervine Cloaks for me to target with this Naturalize in my hand. Wait, he’s casting a spell. Bottled Cloister, you say?”

The knowledge that this guy has a hazy view of the metagame is critical. In all fairness, you might not need an extra edge to beat a tournament novice, but when the only way you can lose is by kicking an extra-long punt, you need to know your adversary enough to leave the Bottled Cloisters in the board.

Likewise, if he’s White/X anything – beatdown, control, midrange, doesn’t matter – against your Red deck, and you have him pegged as a greenhorn, he has Circle of Protection: Red in his sideboard. [Or, of course, Story Circle nowadays. — Craig.] It doesn’t matter that “nobody” in the environment is playing them, because this guy doesn’t know the environment from Adam. Expect the Circle, and play to beat it.

A step above the complete rookie is the tier where you will find Ancient Decklist Guy.

This guy, whatever his level of playskill, has brought a decklist that first saw play in approximately 4,500 B.C. He has none of the new tech, as far as you can tell, but has still brought something that was strong at one point in the format. I stopped advocating Iron Man when all the Venser/Riftwing Cloudskate decks got popular, but what if you run into a guy playing Teachings with Korlash? True enough, there were plenty of Korlash variants around before Relics became the norm, but if the Heir to Blackblade is in his deck, you can’t assume this guy won’t Logic Knot you just because nobody else in the room will anymore.

In terms of metagames, this guy’s is somewhat more coherent than the greenhorn’s was, but he is still probably not up on the recent happenings in the format. For example, a two-land, two-Lens hand is a risky keep in game 2 of the Teachings mirror, because it is highly vulnerable to Ancient Grudge. If you know that your opponent’s outdated deck is unlikely to have Ancient Grudge, however, you can keep the hand easily.

While it’s tough to factor the complete rookies into your deck selection process because their weapons of choice are so unpredictable, you can play better against them just by realizing where they are coming from once you identify them. Ancient Decklist guy, though, is someone you can always expect in the earlier rounds of a tournament. Someone will always tag along with his buddies to the PTQ because, “What the hell? I’ve still got X built from last month.” This is why Teachings decks have had to continue to have some sort of plan against maindeck Take Possession, even though “in the know” players have all removed their Takes due to the preponderance of Vensers and Cloudskates in the format.

Tiered Metagames: The Concept As A Whole

Between my description of what to do with the Top Tier and what to do with the Bottom Tier, you have a pretty good idea of what I mean by Tiered Metagames by now, even if you don’t realize it yet. In a nutshell, it’s this:

Everyone’s got their own playtest group, everyone comes to their own conclusions, and everyone plays the game with a varying degree of skill. Some people test a lot, bring a fantastically tuned list, and play it well. Others will pick up your Umezawa’s Jitte and read it. They’ll all be at the tournament, so in order to figure out what the field will look like, you have to take them all into consideration.

By the way, don’t make the mistake of assigning percentages to these player groups; they will mislead you. Don’t predict, for example, that three percent of the room will be Tier 1 players. That number only tells you what your chances of getting paired against them in round 1 are; with each successive round, those numbers get more and more warped by how well you are doing in the tournament and how everyone else is doing. This is why I suggest thinking of Tier 1 players as people you will expect to face “in the later rounds of the tournament” — though small in number, your chances of dodging them get smaller and smaller the better you continue to do in the tournament. As these are the players you most expect to make it to the elimination rounds, you cannot expect to make it there yourself without encountering one of them. In other words, don’t discount the experts simply because they only account for “three percent of the players” there, numerically.

A Practical Example

The best example I can think of for how to demonstrate the idea of Tiered Metagames was how Zac and I prepared for GP: Columbus. For those who don’t remember, the format was Legacy, and Flash had recently lost the errata that prevented it from being stupid with Protean Hulk.

The consensus best deck was Hulk Flash, and its obvious foil was Fish.

The Tier 1 Players

We knew that a lot of the Top Tier would test Hulk Flash, determine that it was heads and shoulders above everything else in the format in terms of power level, and play it. We also knew that this was such common knowledge, some smaller amount of the Top Tier would go for Fish instead, planning to capitalize on the preponderance of Flash decks rather than suffer a near-coin flip in the Flash mirror over and over on the weekend.

Still, we were pretty sure the majority of the experts would be sold on the high degree of brokenness present in Flash, and would not settle for a Fish deck that could pick up random losses to Goblins and underpowered, off-the-radar decks.

If we were right, and the Top Tier of players in the room would be bringing Hulk Flash and Fish, Zac and I knew we had to be prepared to face Flash and Fish in at least the late rounds of the tournament, and possibly earlier.

The Tier 2 Players

A step below the Top Tier players were the competent-to-strong players who knew that Flash was busted and that Fish was good against it. We would expect to play against these players at all stages of the tournament, from the first round of Swiss clear on to the Top 8. This group was comprised of both established Legacy players who had come to the realization that the format had been turned on its ear, and reasonably skilled newcomers who had been paying attention to the latest Legacy gossip on the Internet.

We predicted a lot of these players’ test games would indicate that either Flash was overpowered and must be played, or that Fish felled the beast often enough that it would be preferable to bringing Flash into a roomful of mirror matches. Flash was not a difficult combo to execute, and Fish was a straightforward aggro-control deck, so there was no real playskill-related incentive to choose one over the other. As such, we pegged the majority of the players in this group for bringing either Flash or Fish, and probably in about equal proportions.

We figured the rest of this group would pick Threshold as a foil to Fish (if a lesser foil to Flash), or go the whole hog and just play Goblins in order to crush anti-Flash decks all day. We did not think the All-In On Goblins plan had a good chance of succeeding, and predicted a practically nonexistent Goblins presence on Day 2, but expected some Threshold decks to make it on the strength of their chances against Flash and Fish.

The big thing that analyzing the second tier taught us was that we could expect to face Fish and Flash not only in the later rounds, against the high-caliber players, but also from solid players throughout the entire tournament. We also decided that Threshold would be the third-most popular deck among the Tier 1 and Tier 2 players, and that Goblins would be practically nonexistent after the first half of Day 1.

The Tier 3 Players

We also figured that a number of established Legacy players wouldn’t test the post-Flash environment enough, and would still be playing pre-Flash era Legacy staples. In their view of the metagame, we reasoned, Legacy was mostly as it always was — Goblins was big, Threshold was big, and so on — but some combo players would switch to Flash, the newest trick on the market. Assuming we read this group’s view of the metagame correctly, we decided that they might play High Tide (a.k.a. Solidarity), Tendrils (a.k.a. IGGy Pop), Goblins, or outdated Threshold lists. Those were all reasonable choices pre-Flash, but the only reason to play any of them once Flash hit the scene was that Tendrils incidentally maindecked a Flash hoser in Leyline of the Void, that Threshold theoretically had an advantage over Fish — despite being a weaker foil to Flash — and that Goblins could take on all the anti-Flash decks.

The key element of this Third Tier was that we didn’t waste time speculating on what tuned lists of Tendrils, High Tide, Goblins, or Threshold looked like. A High Tide player who has tested, we reasoned, will tune his deck into Flash, because he will realize that High Tide is equipped to grapple with neither Flash nor Fish

Thus, we tested only against the stock High Tide, Tendrils, and Threshold lists, and did not spend much time on them. Of the three, we spent the most time on Threshold, as it seemed to be the most logical choice for someone who hadn’t tested, but was aware of (as pretty much everyone was) the Flash deck. After all, Thresh was the aggro-control deck that had bigger men than the other big aggro-control deck, so why not bring it and stomp Fish and Flash? We anticipated a few token adjustments to the Thresh deck, like sideboarded Tormod’s Crypts for Flash instead of Jotun Grunts for the mirror, but nothing drastic.

The Bottom Tier Players

As usual, there will be some number of players who will bring homebrew decks that don’t stand much of a chance. Thanks to the miracle of Byes, and the fact that homebrew decks at a busted Legacy format are highly unlikely to make it into the 1-0 bracket, we didn’t even consider this group.

Conclusions: The Field

So far we’ve concluded that the Top Tier players’ view of the metagame is that Flash is the dominant deck, and the only alternative is bringing Fish in order to beat Flash. The Second Tier’s metagame consists almost entirely of Flash and Fish, with some number of players bringing Goblins in order to crush Fish. The Third Tier will bring a good deal of Threshold, and some old Legacy standbys.

Between those these groups, we expect to face lots of Fish and Flash, at all stages of the tournament. Established Legacy players who did not test the new format will bring largely un-tuned versions of High Tide and Tendrils, or slightly-updated Threshold lists, but we expect to encounter fewer and fewer of these decks as the tournament progresses and they are weeded out by the Flash decks. Goblins will be something to worry about on the first half of Day 1, but should become a non-issue as the tournament progresses.

This view of the field is what led Zac and I to bring a Glass Cannon to Columbus, aimed at Fish, Flash, and Threshold. We predicted that the two most important decks to beat would be Flash and Fish, in that order, followed by Thresh, and that staying at the top of the standings would see us paired against these decks over and over. Looking back, my pairings at that tournament went like this:

0-0 Bracket: Bye
1-0 Bracket: Fish
2-0 Bracket: B/W Stax (totally off our radar)
3-0 Bracket: Affinity
3-0-1 Bracket: Flash
4-0-1 Bracket: Mono-White Control (also way off the radar)
5-0-1 Bracket: Goblins
6-0-1 Bracket: Flash
7-0-1 Bracket: Threshold
8-0-1 Bracket: Fish
8-1-1 Bracket: Fish
9-1-1 Bracket: Threshold
10-1-1 Bracket: Flash
10-2-1 Bracket: Fish
10-3-1 Bracket: U/B Landstill

All in all, I’d say our predictions were fairly accurate. There was some expected randomness in the first half of Day 1, but staying at the top of the standings did indeed pair me against Flash and Fish all the way until my 0-3 run from 10-1-1 dropped me out of the top of the standings. (In all fairness, the guy’s Landstill deck was actually brilliant.)


The reason I call this method Tiered Metagames and not Tiered Players (or something similar) is to stress that it’s not just their level of play, but also the metagame that these players are expecting that gives you insight into what they will play.

Why did Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor, and Paul Cheon play Teachings at GP: San Francisco? For my money, because they saw a field of U/G, Kavu Justice, Pickles, and other Teachings decks, and decided that a tuned Teachings list piloted by an expert could beat them all.

Why did Jon Stocks, Zack Smith, Brett Blackman, and Andrew Walden play U/G Beats? For my money, because they also saw a field of U/G Kavu Justice, and Pickles, but in their version of the metagame, they had U/G beating Pickles and Teachings. Same decks, different players, different metagame conclusions. (I would hope these guys wouldn’t be insulted if I insinuated that Cheon, LSV, and PV are better players than they are.)

Why did David Irvine play R/G/W Kavu Justice?

To beat up on the Pickles and U/G players, of course! I’d bet he would have made it further in the Top 8 without that quarterfinals Teachings pairing.

Honestly, I’ve held off on writing this article for a long time because I could not figure out a way to get my point across without sounding like… well, a judgmental ass. (“These guys are only Tier 2 players, nyeah nyeah.”) If I did come off that way, it’s probably not much consolation that I don’t put myself anywhere near the Top Tier of players.

However, I didn’t see much alternative if I wanted to actually get the point across. You see, Magic players do possess different levels of skill, and those differences do impact their deck choices. Case in point:

“Imagine you’re U/B Teachings and your girlfriend is Mono U with Tarmogoyf. Now imagine you’re having an argument about anything… You won’t win this argument, and Teachings can’t win this match-up.”
Eric Reasoner, GP: San Francisco Semifinals

After defeating Paulo Vitor and his U/B Teachings deck in the semis, Jonathan Stocks and his U/G deck went on to face Luis Scott-Vargas in the finals. As LSV had also brought U/B Teachings, he obviously could not win that matchup, which is why you see Stocks hoisting a trophy on magicthegathering.com.

(By the way, congrats, LSV!)

See you next week,

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]