Feature Article – Attacking a Metagame

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Monday, June 1st – With Stephen Menendian taking a well-earned week off, Brian Kibler returns with a Feature Article examining the process behind attacking a metagame. Looking at the pre- and post-Regionals metagame awash with Tokens, he breaks down the popular successful decks and highlights exactly how they brought the good fight to their Token oppressors. Knowledge such as this is invaluable to any of us hoping to crack the metagame puzzles going forward.

The results from Regionals informed the evolving Standard metagame for Grand Prix: Barcelona, which in turn informed the metagame for Grand Prix: Seattle. While sifting through all the top decks is no easy task, it only takes a cursory examination of the Regionals results to get the big picture going forward. That picture presented us with hundreds of Tokens, marching lockstep to absolute dominance of the biggest Magic day of the year. Whether backed up by Glorious Anthem and Zealous Persecution, or Wilt-Leaf Liege and Overrun, tokens were the big winner at this year’s Regionals. Windbrisk Heights and Spectral Procession truly became the defining cards of the format.

Going into Regionals, the metagame was fairly predictable, and it involved Tokens. Today’s article takes a look at that metagame, and at some of the more successful attempts made to attack the format. While the actual information here may seem redundant in the face of two Grand Prix tournaments that have both shifted and informed our choices, the process behind attacking a metagame is what’s important. Knowing what to attack, and how to exploit the weaknesses, in any given metagame will stand you in good stead for the formats and metagames to come.

So, cast your mind back to Regionals. Cue the wibbly flashback sequence…

If you can’t beat them, join them , as the saying goes. While the bulk of the Regionals results show that many players followed that mantra, and picked up the Token decks with a passion, both Barcelona and Seattle proved that all is not lost. Indeed, quite a few Regionals Top 8 spots went to decks that insist on attacking with actual non-token creatures. What did they do right, and what could they do better? What is the best way to beat Windbrisk Heights?

First, let’s look at public enemies numbers one and two, pre-Barcelona: B/W Tokens and G/W Overrun.

I chose for these two lists what I felt were the most representative of the best versions of these two archetypes. Let’s take a look at what cards these two decks have in common.

Windbrisk Heights
Spectral Procession
Cloudgoat Ranger
Kitchen Finks
Ajani Goldmane
Path to Exile

At that point, the decks diverge, with the B/W deck packing additional removal in the form of Murderous Redcap and Zealous Persuasion alongside the once omnipresent Bitterblossom, and the G/W deck sporting more aggressive tools like Wilt-Leaf Liege and Overrun, along with the acceleration of Noble Hierarch.

The basic strengths these two decks share is the raw power of Windbrisk Heights coupled with the resilience of cards that generate multiple threats and ways to augment them. Windbrisk Heights allows for tremendously explosive starts that make it difficult for an opponent to get back in the game, while Spectral Procession or Cloudgoat Ranger backed by Ajani Goldmane or other pump effects put opponents on a fast clock that doesn’t have many easy answers.

What makes these decks even more potent is that they have multiple angles of attack. While both decks can obviously win with a Windbrisk Heights rush, they can also easily win through attrition. The B/W deck in particular has an endless creature game plan with Murderous Redcap and Kitchen Finks along with Ajani. Every time one of its persist creatures dies, Ajani can cancel out the -1/-1 counter and keep it around forever. Ajani is incredibly potent at generating incremental advantages, in particular with a mass of tokens in play who can both defend him and benefit from his ability. G/W can just play like a little kid deck, smashing your face in with giant Kitchen Finks courtesy of Wilt-Leaf Liege, and can also just come out of nowhere and instantly kill you with Overrun. Both of these plans can easily make a strategy that relies on sweepers like Volcanic Fallout or Jund Charm look pretty foolish.

How do we beat both Windbrisk Heights and the rest of the deck that supports them? Here are some examples of successful non-Heights decks from Regionals:

This is a lot to take in, but what are the common themes? Why did these decks perform in a field of tokens?

In the wake of GP: Barcelona, Cascade Swans was the obvious big new deck, and TurboFog, while not living up to the hype it had coming into Regionals, worked in a similar vein. These two decks simply work on a different axis than most of the rest of Standard. Wizards has done a remarkable job in making creatures relevant in modern Magic, and while the token decks are well positioned to dominate the attack phase, they are quite vulnerable to decks that can simply ignore it.

Look at the list of common cards from the token decks above. Spectral Procession. Ajani Goldmane. Cloudgoat Ranger. These are all extremely powerful cards against decks that are trying to fight via attrition or traditional beatdown, but against decks that kill you without ever attacking or Fog every turn and eventually deck you, all of these look pretty foolish. In a metagame full of decks built to dominate the board, it is no surprise that decks that simply ignore that board can shine. It remains to be seen whether Swans can continue its performance now that it has a target painted on its forehead — expect to see many Aura of Silence and Pithing Needles at upcoming events. But it was certainly a good choice to take down tokens both at Regionals and in Barcelona. If there is another red zone-blanking deck out there that can dodge the hate aimed at these two decks, I’d expect it to have its time to shine.

For the decks that don’t just ignore the red zone, there are common themes. Look at how many Volcanic Fallouts are in these decks between deck and sideboard. I know I said before that the Token decks had the tools via persist to fight back from sweepers, but it’s clear from looking at these lists that none of them rely on sweepers alone to get the job done. Let’s take a look at them individually.

Jund Mana Ramp was the only control deck to have wide ranging success at Regionals, with Five-Color Control seemingly falling by the wayside. The deck seems pretty much tailored to fight against token decks, with Volcanic Fallout, Cloudthresher, Maelstrom Pulse, and even Lavalanche maindeck. But important to the point I mentioned above, it doesn’t simply rely on attrition via sweepers, with Chameleon Colossus, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Broodmate Dragon able to provide a solid clock. Loxodon Warhammer gives those creatures the punch to force through cluttered boards — we can see both the Warhammer and the new Behemoth Sledge in decks that can support them as powerful ways for creature decks to mitigate the chump blocking of tokens. The life gain is also important to creep out of range of Anathemancer, which any control deck needs to be painfully aware of or risk dying a horrible death.

The more aggressive decks in the format have to be constructed with not only tokens in mind, but also beating the hate aimed at the token decks. The “Countryside Dreamcrusher” deck has a suite of x/3 (or more) creatures that can live through a Fallout (or Murderous Redcap, for that matter) and keep the pressure on, with Fallouts of its own to clear the board and keep the Crushers marching in. Look at that G/B Elf deck — Putrid Leech and Wren’s Run Vanquisher, both incredible creatures against opposing sweepers, and both Maelstrom Pulse and Cloudthresher for maindeck sweepers of its own. Both Profane Command and Garruk serve as powerful stalemate breakers, as well, in the event that the sweepers aren’t enough and the board gets clogged — and look at those Hurricanes in the sideboard! That’s a bit of technology that clearly has the token decks in mind, both as a quick and dirty way to wipe the sky clean as well as a potential finisher or planeswalker removal.

Last, but certainly not least, is the R/B beatdown deck. R/B beatdown was the third most successful deck at Regionals overall, though Red decks always tend to perform better out of the gate than later in a season since people always begin by underestimating them and including too little hate. It may seem strange to see a deck with so many small creatures and 4 Volcanic Fallout main, but let’s take a closer look at those creatures. With the exception of Anathamancer and Mogg Fanatic, all of the creatures in the deck are more or less Fallout proof (or can become so, in the case of Figure of Destiny), and neither of those are creatures you’re really relying on to stay in play and brawl. It’s been a while since we saw Demigod of Revenge making a splash, but the Regionals Token Metagame seemed to be the right time for a comeback, when backed with sweepers and speed. Path to Exile has an interesting impact on the Demigod game. It may be able to remove Demigod, but since most people had not played with Demigods for quite a while, people blew their Paths on early Figures and ramped you to your flying army. This sort of R/B build was far more likely to be successful in the Regionals format than a Tattermunge/Jund Hackblade sort of deck, since that build seems much weaker against the token decks as well as suffering more from the hate aimed at them.

With both Barcelona and Seattle in the books, what should you play? I’m not sure. Swans took the first by storm, and Faeries came back with a vengeance in the second. I had a much better idea of what the format looked like a few weeks ago when token dominance was so clear, but the success of Cascade Swans warped the environment significantly, allowing Faeries to advance again. I do think it’s still very important to pay attention to the token menace, since I expect many people will simply load their B/W token decks with things like Aura of Silence and Pithing Needle and call it a day. But it’s also clearly important to pay respect to the new combo deck on the block and not forget Anathamancer’s out there. And Faeries? Well, we all know how to beat them… don’t we?

Identifying what the core elements of the major decks are and how to exploit them is the most important skill you can develop as a Magic player looking to succeed in established formats. So play a deck that can handle a swarm of tokens, Kitchen Finks teaming up with Ajani, Cascading into Swans, tapping you down with Mistbind Cliques, and one that doesn’t play too many nonbasic lands. Easy enough, right? We’ll see after Seattle just how hard that will be.

Until then…


PS —I’ll be providing live updates of my progress (and entertaining stories) at the upcoming PT: Honolulu, so follow me at bmkibler on Twitter!