From The Lab – Positioning on the Metagame Curve

Read Craig Jones every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!
With a Block Constructed PTQ season in full swing, and with Nationals competition fast approaching, today’s From The Lab seed Craig “The Professor” Jones in a theoretical metagame-shaping mood. By boiling the metagame conundrum down to the macro level of a small tourney, he makes some interesting positional claims and posits some intriguing theories. All this, and bonus Tenth Edition Sealed!

Last week, I ran a Red/Green/White Gargadon/Bust deck through a gauntlet, and ended with some suggestions to try out for next week.

Well, that didn’t happen. Sorry.

This week has been stupidly busy. As well as last week’s article overrunning, I also had to update my extremely flaky CV and try and put together a plan for a complex experiment that might just rescue my PhD.

On reflection, I probably should have given Magic Game Day, or rather Tenth Edition release weekend, a miss, especially as Lady Fate decided to continue her recent run of beat up Prof for a laugh.

But I’ll get to that later. It’s sort of funny… well, I had to see the funny side otherwise I might have got angry and stamped on some puppies. After the pictures of rhinos and other silliness, I suspect if I led with anything on Tenth Edition Sealed I’d be left with no readers at all, and they’d have to get someone far duller to write this column instead.

So let’s start with Time Spiral block instead, as that’s the current buzz topic (unless your Nationals are looming, in which case Standard with Tenth might be starting to fire a few brain cells). As I said, the original plan was to tinker with the Tarmogeddon list and then take it to my local tourney, but as real life impinged then I had to go with one of my gauntlet decks instead.

I chose Celso Zampere’s Montreal-winning list, as I had all the cards for it and I quite like the ole smash ‘em in the face decks.

In case you’ve forgotten. It’s this deck, the one nobody should play because of the allegedly bad Teachings matchup:

I’m not sure if these decks are still around online… and I don’t really care (before anyway starts bleating). The focus of the article isn’t Green/White Tarmogoyf; PV has already done a much better job of it here, but rather my little local tourney… as it turned out to be an interesting little microcosm of the Block format.

The current block format is either fascinating or deadly dull, wide open or hopelessly dominated by a single deck. I think I don’t really like it, but I’m not sure it’s really fair of me not to like it. I’m all a bit confused.

To be honest, I think I’m still sulking that the Mono-Red decks I thought might be really good got pounded right out of the metagame.

A metagame… that’s a good word to arrive at during my feeble stream of consciousness neural diarrhoea.

What defines a good deck?

The metagame is one of the things that makes Constructed Magic so interesting. Sometimes there is an obvious best deck and a bunch of deluded victims. Other times there’s a whole series of Predator-Prey cycles taking place, and the “best” deck just happens to be the deck on the day with the most prey to chow down on.

So now we have my local Wednesday night tournament at the Gaming Crypt in Altrincham.

Yes, I know it would be better if I talked about a PTQ, but I can’t play PTQs at the moment (until Lorwyn comes round, anyway) so this will have to do as a compromise. It’s not a bad compromise, as it happens. The standard of play isn’t bad, and it’s pretty much the same people who play most of the Northern PTQs in the UK. The one downside is that the rounds are usually quite short – around 45 minutes – which means playing a control deck can be a hazard as it’s virtually impossible to come back from 1-0 down (although if you’re particularly scaly, you can aim for the patented Arsenal 1-0 every round. Thankfully we’ve got a good community, so I haven’t really noticed this happening).

We have my little local tourney, and there’s actually quite a selection of decks, ranging from the standard net decks to crazy infinite turn Walk the Aeons decks.

In the first round I’m down in the basement, and I’m against Judge Jules, and it’s a good matchup for me as he’s running Mono-Red. Despite this, I don’t really get going in the first game, as he makes a Blood Knight and pretty much burns every creature I make. I think if Jules hadn’t been so tired and not spotted his Blood Knight could come straight through my Serra Avenger, he would have took the first game. As it was, Tarmogoyf eventually turned up, and this is the card that’s just so unfair against Red.

Game 2 was interesting, as it taught me a lesson on failing to update play decisions for new environments. Most good players will sneer at Browbeat. Personally, I hate it on the good reason that it never actually gives you what you really need. This is the best Block for it though, and it is actually borderline playable (if not actually good) for the Mono-Red deck. I had two played against me and went into default decision of taking the damage as my life total was high. This seems like a reasonable decision, as the three cards will usually do you more damage so you take the five unless it leaves you close to death.

Except in this matchup it’s incorrect. Generally I think you always give them the cards, even if you’re on twenty life. They can’t ever hope to control the board, so their only hope is to burn you out before you crash through with enormous undercosted men. Giving them a quarter of your life total is giving them the opportunity to beat you, and this is exactly what happened. Jules stalled combat for two successive turns with Word of Seizing, and picked me off with Disintegrate.

Game 3 we both had a slow start, but my creatures were too much to handle again. Getting to sit on the other side of table in this matchup is interesting, as I certainly didn’t feel as invulnerable as the Green/White decks always seem when I play against them with Red deck.

However, I did play against two more Red decks (although one was more of a casual deck) and dispatched them with little effort. Red deck is still probably off the table until Green/White goes away, unless you want to try Billy Moreno’s crazy splash Korlash version.

I used to be suspicious of very long winning streaks, as variance will bring down even the best. Somehow I’d managed to rack up something like a 22-match perfect streak at Altrincham across multiple different formats. But variance is just as inevitable as death, and the shield finally got cracked as I timed out with Spraggle for a draw.

Spraggle was running the updated version of Kenji’s Mono-Blue Pickles deck. I’d already seen this matchup first hand after covering the actual semi-final in Montreal. I think it’s in Green/White’s favor, although the Blue deck is a fairly tough customer. Game 1 I managed to win despite Spraggle getting the Pickles lock, thanks to Serra Avenger.

Turns out the Brazilians know what they’re talking about when it comes to aggro decks.

Unfortunately I’m not as good as PV and crew, so I foolishly forgot to board Cloudchaser Kestrels and lost to my own grafted Serra Avenger after Spraggle Took Possession of it. We didn’t have time for game 3.

The draw was quite good, as it meant we got to avoid running into Nathan Bell and his poison sliver deck. This is the new boy on the block (or at least was when I wrote this… it might be something else now). The last round it was doing exactly what it was supposed to, and chewing through Russ Davies’s Korlash deck, although I think he said he misplayed in extra turns.

Unfortunately, Nathan then took a harsh lesson on being too far ahead on the metagame curve, as Rich Hagon set all his slivers on fire in round 4.

And this is kind of where the article is lurching to, in some kind of shambling Frankenstein’s monster fashion.

Picture an arc. It starts with Mono-Red (or even White Weenie, although that complicates things), goes out to Green/White and then onto Poison Slivers. All the people with Mono-Red are the noobs that haven’t quite got the message Red is dead yet. Further along we have all the people who are vaguely up to date with things and grab the Green/White deck (or Teachings), as it did well at the last major tournament. Then at the far end we have all the real clever-clogs who come up with the Poison Sliver deck to thrash all the netdeckers.

Unfortunately for the clever-clogs, there are always going to be the noobs who don’t get with the program… and as easy as that a tournament comes off the rails.

And, of course, you also get the uber-clever-clogs, who go and join the noob squad because they’re ahead of the people who are ahead of everyone else.

The wheels on the bus go round and round.


This is, of course, assuming Red beats Poison Slivers. I haven’t had a chance to play this matchup yet so I could be wrong, although the sliver army does seem eminently flammable.

I can vouch for Poison Slivers beating Green/White, though. I was the unlucky one who got paired down to Nathan. I got Telekinetic Sliver locked fairly swiftly both games, as four Sunlance and two Serrated Arrows can’t really kill enough of the pesky little aliens.

As an interesting aside, have the Green/White decks started running Hail Storm yet? I don’t think it’s particularly good tech, as any decent player will make sure they lock your land down as well before coming in with the final swing, but it might steal a few games if people don’t see it coming.

It feels like the Poison Sliver matchup for Green/White might actually be worse than the Green/White matchup is for the Red deck.

Spraggle got paired up against Rich Hagon, and managed to hold out for a 1-0 win in extra turns.

The final turns were interesting, so I’ll go through them here.

Spraggle was on five life and had two face up Willbenders. He had seven land open, and four or five cards in hand, which I’m not going to reveal because it’s more interesting this way.

We’re just ending the third turn and about to go into the fourth, which is the Hagonater’s last turn. The fifth turn is irrelevant, as Spraggle can’t win.

Rich has six lands (four of which are untapped) two active Magus of the Scroll, a freshly summoned Mogg War Marshal, a suspended Gargadon with two counters, and unfortunately three cards in hand. I say unfortunate, as only two of them are the same (Word of Seizing) and the third is a Sulfur Elemental.

Rich chose to shoot Spraggle at end of turn (hit — puts him to three life). He then stacked echo and sac’ed the War Marshal to the Gargadon.

Unfortunately in response to the “when you remove the last counter…” effect Teferi leaped out from Spraggle’s hand to strand Big Gargs from the game forever.

Of course, if they’d decided to make Teferi just good rather than stupid and made the effect mirror City of Solitude then Rich could have stolen Teferi in response with Word of Seizing, or actually not cared anyway as he’d still be playing Gargadon in his turn. But no, Teferi is indeed stoopid and highly irritating.

Anyway, the pesky wizard has lost a bit of stock of late, so I should stop trying to smash his jaw off.

No, wait. Just stand right there, Tef, while I break this… uh… rock with my Sledgehammer.

Kronk, euw… messy.

And while I’ve built up a head of steam, can anyone tell me a good reason why morphs can respond to split second? I get the whole “they can unmorph” thing, but why should the effects of Willbender and pals happen?

Surely the creature should unmorph, send its effect to the stack, but oh look, a split second spell’s just been played so no more effects can go on the stack.


No more triggered effect as it fizzles. And no naughty switching for you, Mr Willbender mage.

Of course, there’s probably a very good reason why this doesn’t happen.

Oh yeah, it’s because they’re Blue… and written on the wall in foot-high letters in the very same room Gleemax lurks is the decree: “Blue shall be the best color in all of Magic and played by irritating gits for the rest of eternity.”

(Not you personally, Spraggle… just generalising.)

Bzzt. Don’t know what came over me there. Must be a Tuesday thing.

Anyway, back to the game. Teferi had just arrived, which means no Gargadon for Rich. Basically, Spraggle has just denied Rich an extra attacker while giving himself an extra blocker. Rich drew a card, a land and then went for it with the two Magi.

However, probabilities dropped right on the money, as Rich hit with one and missed with the other.

It was an interesting game because it’s one of those where it looks like the Red player probably should have won had he done things differently.

I thought Rich made a mistake activating Magus at the end of turn (as well as the more obvious not sacrificing the Mogg so the token wouldn’t have summoning sickness in his turn). At this point he’s effectively trying to be lucky with the Magus. The odds on hitting on all three times are 2/3 * 2/3 * 2/3 = 8/27. About 29%. i.e. not good.

I thought Rich should have made the Sulfur Elemental end of turn. This gives him guaranteed two hits with his Magi in his upkeep and two more attackers than Spraggle has defenders.

However, while looking like a better play, this gives him a guaranteed 0% chance of winning against Teferi.

I thought it was an interesting example of when what appears to be a better play turns out to be wrong given the circumstances.

This is Spraggle’s winning list by the way, the same one as Ravitz made the final of a PTQ with a few weeks back:

Now let’s go back to our Time Spiral Block Constructed metagame. Assuming the Red deck sets Slivers on fire (once Nationals and Standard testing is out of the way I might come back, assuming it’s still relevant, and test this to make sure), then we have a nice paper-scissors-stone predator-prey triangle. Poison Slivers beats Green/White, which beats the Red deck, which (should) beat Poison Slivers. The place you want to be on this little triangle is the position that gives you the most prey. Ideally you want to be staying a little ahead of where you think the pack might be, although you have to careful not to overestimate or underestimate in this regard.

Unfortunately, it gets a little trickier if the pack isn’t sure where it needs to be. If the numbers are more spread out then it starts to come down to personal preferences, and also on the individual percentages. If they all beat each other 90% of the time apart from Poison Slivers, which only loses 80% of the time against Mono-Red (caution: pulling figures straight from air — does not represent how I think the matchup goes), then Poison Slivers will give you best expected value unless there are more Red decks around. Again you might want to refer to Karsten’s excellent game theory article for a slightly more lucid example of how probabilities affect expected outcome.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked about the Mono-Blue Pickles deck or the Teachings decks (or the U/G decks either, but I haven’t played them or played against them, so it’s hard for me to try and slot it into the metagame).

These have their own arcs. I think Green/White is a slight favorite against Mono-Blue Pickles, while the Red deck is a slight underdog. I don’t know how the Poison Slivers matchup goes, but I’m guessing the Poison Slivers might be a little too fast.

Spraggle feels quite confident with Mono-Blue Pickles against Blue/Black Teachings, but the biggest problem with the Teachings decks is that there are so many different versions of them. I feel quite confident with the Red deck against some versions, but not others. From other things I’ve read, it seems like Teachings (in general) is favorite versus Green/White, but not against Poison Slivers.

I may be wrong, but it seems like you have more options with Mono-Blue Pickles and Teachings, both in terms of play and customising the deck list. The other lists, like Mono-Red and Green/White Tarmogoyf, leave you more vulnerable to where the whole tournament is positioned on the metagame curve. Unfortunately, even if you position yourself perfectly, there is always the danger the Pairings God may not shine on you.

I’ll hopefully try and get this to make sense by comparing Spraggle’s and my overall performance in the tournament.

I picked Green/White and it turned out I was positioned fairly well. Only Nathan Bell had come with the new Poison Sliver deck, and there were still a fair few people running Mountains. So I had a couple of fairly easy matches for the first couple of rounds. Unfortunately, the Pairings God deserted me in the final round, and instead of being paired up against Rich Hagon (Red deck) for the tournament, I was paired down and obligingly gave Nathan’s sliver deck a bye.

On the other hand, Spraggle took Pickles. While his matchup against me is fairly tough, he was able to capitalise on a sideboarding error on my part and steal a draw. He was then able to hold out against Red 1-0 to finish unbeaten on 4-0-1. He didn’t really have so many easy matches, but by playing well was able to get something from all of them.

All I need to do now is kidnap his girlfriend and throw her down a deep quarry, and Spraggle might actually use all the work he’s put in and win a PTQ.

Now for the bonus Tenth Edition Sealed section.

I’m just a sucker for the release events.

Unfortunately it was an unmitigated disaster as I opened completely rubbish pools on both days. This included a full ten – ten! – boosters without a single Black removal spell (I refuse to count Festering Goblin).

What the hell happened to the policy of making sure players would have a choice when building a Sealed pool? Where did all the playables go? Most of the sealed pools I saw could barely scrape 18 cards together. I had to play an 11/11 Denizen of the Crap in one deck, and Grizzly Bears in another (2/2 bears are complete rubbish in Core Set Limited, in case you aren’t aware) because they were marginally better than a land and there literally wasn’t a card in any of the other colors worth splashing. (Even I’m not crazy enough to splash Overrun, although I was real close on the Air Elemental. I had one Rampant Growth after all…)

I found some interesting ways to die anyway.

Playing Heart of Light on an opponent’s creature becomes very bad when they lay Pariah on it. Ouch!

Cone of Fire. “At least it isn’t Flame Wave” isn’t much consolation when you’ve just been three-for-one’d.

Me: I’ve played him! I’ve actually played him! (After casting Denizen of the Deep).

Opponent: Draw second Island. Persuasion.


Shivan Dragon, still a beating, especially after they topdeck Creeping Mold to remove the Pacifism on it the turn before you’re about to kill them.

More frowns.

The last round was a real doozy. After lulling me into a false security with Plague Beetle and Contaminated Bond, my opponent then proceeded to follow Siege-Gang Commander with Sunken Hope.


Of course, it took him ages to kill me, but there’s no sense getting worked up about these things. It’s a release event… let people have their moment in the sun.

Day 2 I dropped after three rounds to play Twilight Imperium despite being on two wins and a draw. A Blaze excepted, my deck was fairly bad. It was basically a bunch of dumb Green guys with no card advantage. There’s only so many times you can run “suicide piggy” and get away with it, and I thought I’d get out before I ran into the real decks.

Suicide piggy, in case you’re wondering, is when you run the Bogardan Fire Fiend on suicide missions at your opponent when the board is hopelessly clogged up. On two occasions my opponents got suspicious I was up to something and let “piggy” through rather than blocking and killing him.

It turned out I was up to something.

Blaze you for exactly 13….

Nice piggy.

Tenth is much worse than Ninth, I think. In terms of Constructed, the Core Set has lost a lot of staple cards. In Limited, it seems even more random than Ninth, with many more bombs deciding games.

But then I don’t think Tenth Edition is aimed at me, or (I’m guessing) most of the people reading this article.

If you’re purely interested in Magic as a game of skill, then Tenth Edition Sealed is going to be very frustrating.

Rich Hagon had a very good Black/Red deck on the Sunday, but lost to Rhox twice in the first round and then Overrun and a surprise Tangle Spider with Might of Oaks in the second round. At that point he had to leave, as the Geiger counter was going off. I imagine there will be a lot of other players with similar experiences from the weekend.

But it’s not aimed at us.

If you want to play cool legends and have games where you batter people with powerful bombs, then Tenth Edition is perfect for you, and I think that was the aim. The games I lost were very amusing if nothing else.

My biggest moan is the loss of Trained Armodon and Elvish Warrior. While people used to say you could only ever draft Blue spells and card advantage, I had a fairly successful run on MTGO drafting Trained Armodons, Elvish Warriors, and Anaba Shamans and beating the snot out of people.

Unfortunately, Tenth has ripped chunks out of the mana curve for that deck, and I suspect Tenth Edition Draft may be a very tedious case of people fighting purely for the Blue and Black card advantage spells. Hopefully someone will prove me wrong.

Thanks for reading,