Magical Hack – Static Versus Dynamic

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Friday, December 5th – As we come into the StarCityGames.com $5000 Weekend in Philadelphia, and the World Championships the following week, we are looking at two Constructed formats of relevance and the powerful question of whether these formats are static or dynamic.

As we come into the StarCityGames.com $5000 Weekend in Philadelphia, and the World Championships the following week, we are looking at two Constructed formats of relevance and the powerful question of whether these formats are static or dynamic. A static format is one that is not going to change no matter how much work or innovation is put into the format; the best decks and the best strategies are known, and overpower possible rivals. A dynamic format is one that is subject to frequent change, often largely due to the fact that while there are powerful strategies there are no clear “best” strategies, as these strategies do not overpower possible rivals. In one, you have to understand the key components of the metagame and accept that they are going to be omnipresent if you wish to have success; in the other, you can expect a large amount of fluidity from opponent to opponent and have to rely much more on having a “good” deck than on having picked the “right” deck.

We think of the metagame as an evolving thing, some nebulous beast that we can take aim at and somehow defeat if only we are clever enough. The metagame in motion is a difficult thing to take aim at, however, and much like the stock market with its “bear” markets and “bull” markets we have only the vaguest of descriptive terms to explain how to act at different times in order to see a return of our investment of time and energy in our efforts to ‘defeat’ the metagame puzzle or ‘solve’ it. The motion of the metagame is a complex thing, driven largely by small and unknowable factors that accumulate to create what we call “The Metagame”… and like any chaotic system, our ability to predict changes over time are highly limited. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and births a hurricane in the Caribbean, or so claims chaos theory… but in Magic, when it comes to the motion of the metagame, it can likewise be something unseen and unpredictable that has the overall net effect of creating a massive shift. A so-called “pro” scouring the Net for ideas and technology sees something he didn’t expect on DeckCheck.net and begins the avalanche of events that creates a metagame shift… an Internet duel over Cruel Ultimatum between Gerry Thompson and Patrick Chapin breeds complacency among a group of players who pat themselves on the back and say they know “The Answer” because the Innovator told them so… a single person comes into a card store in their local neighborhood looking to buy some peculiar cards, and all of a sudden a hard-working team’s well-protected technology is suddenly spread far and wide. All of these things can create a shift that is unseen and unknowable, but nonetheless is critical in assembling an accurate picture of The Metagame.

Mere mortal minds can attempt to understand these massive amounts of information and unpredictable changes, but ultimately there is too much for anyone to know going into an event, especially when the event is taking place on a massive scale and involves players from all across the world battling in still-uncharted formats. How well one succeeds at a format has everything to do with how well one’s model of the metagame shapes up against the actual metagame, and whether you can correctly identify the trends in motion and respond appropriately. A wise and very wealthy man has said that in the stock market he always wants to be moving in the opposite direction everyone else seems to be going; when everyone else is timid, he is bold, and when everyone else is bold, he is timid. But in the metagame, do you want to be going the same direction or do you want to be going against the grain… to be one of the hundreds playing a copy of the same stock decks, or to find something new and unexpected that exploits the known metagame?

Metagaming is a concept that is simple to understand, but difficult to master. And with the upcoming World Championships, I feel certain that we are about to get an object lesson in it, from MTGO results and Wizards’ hesitance to ban-hammer any parts of the Elves deck that placed so highly at Pro Tour: Berlin. I’ve introduced here two buzz-words to describe the metagame, static and dynamic, based heavily off of the scientific concepts that describe the motions of a system, because I feel somehow as if people do not correctly understand the concept of metagaming; they believe in “good” metagames and “bad” metagames, or “stagnant” metagames and “healthy” metagames, but understanding these emotional terms does very little for understanding how one should behave in each metagame. Worse yet, these terms tell us very little about why they are “bad” or “healthy”, because the “healthy” metagame of Ravnica-Time Spiral Block Standard and the “bad” metagame of Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block Constructed may have a lot more in common with each other than these simple statements tell us. A naming convention based on your emotions or opinions won’t help you to learn how to play the format; these ways of thinking about a format just might.

A static metagame is one in which new innovation is difficult if not impossible. A clear best strategy or several clear best strategies exist; these best strategies are significantly better than anything else that might come their way. In a static metagame, the best decks are the best decks for a reason. A dynamic metagame is one in which new innovation is consistently rewarded. There is no clear best strategy, or even multiple best strategies; decks are on a reasonably similar power level, and what you should be playing depends on following last week’s trends and trying to be ahead of the curve when you pick a deck to try and win the tournament with. The kind of work you should be putting into ‘solving’ the riddle of what to play to succeed is very different for a static metagame as opposed to a dynamic metagame… in a dynamic metagame, you need to make sure you have a good deck that is powerful and consistent, but also can change with the changing metagame, such as modern Standard’s Five-Color Control decks… and in a static metagame, you can throw the ‘good deck’ concept out the window, instead looking to exploit the weaknesses of the small pool of good decks in order to punish the metagame for sitting still and letting you take aim at it, as the PT: Honolulu Owling Mine deck did to use a recent example.

To help hammer what I mean by these terms home, think of it terms of how two realistic decks in the format would interact. In a static format, there are the few best decks, the junk people play but never do well with, and then the anti-decks that try to beat the best decks by careful design… and to succeed, the decks have to be designed with each other in mind, so the format is very much so Deck Versus Anti-Deck. In a dynamic format, sure there are best decks, but the other things people play aren’t so far below the Best Decks that they are ‘junk,’ and they can realistically expect to win at least some of the time, as we saw with the past State Championships… but the decks are in and of themselves good decks rather than each others’ predators, so the format is very much so Deck Versus Other Deck.

The first step in metagaming, then, is to learn the environment. A wealth of options is actually stifling, rather than helpful, because ultimately there will be best cards and letting them assemble themselves regardless of color or other such requirements proves to be a stagnating influence that helps to create a static metagame. Restriction breeds creativity, in Mark Rosewater Making Magic as well as in deckbuilding, and when you can only put so many options together you will see more choices being made and greater diversity from archetype to archetype. Large environments such as Extended tend to see significant power creep as all decks try to use the best cards, because all decks can, and suddenly the decks that use the most best cards or use them the most effectively are the static best decks in the metagame. Smaller environments such as Standard tend to see a high level of dynamic change, because the overall power level of decks is lower and it is difficult to assemble an All The Best Things sort of deck; when you have to pay an opportunity cost or make sacrifices to fit something into your deck, there is more room for more decks as each of these decision trees are met and explored. In Vintage, there are well over ten thousand cards legal to be played, and conceptually a successful strategy can go as far as the mind can wander in its imaginings… but in actuality, well over 90% of the cards in print are literally blank cardboard, and 90% of the remaining cards we’ll even deign to pretend exist as possibilities are still unlikely to see a lot of play. There are clearly best cards and they assemble into a variety of best strategies, thus forming the ultimate in static metagames. No one is suddenly going to stop playing Moxes and Force of Will in their deck just on a whim… the best cards are the best by definition and have been proven so over time.

Continuing in that example of Vintage, however, we can learn a lot from the continuing works of Stephen Menendian and before him Oscar Tan, looking carefully at the format to identify its potential weaknesses and exploit them over time by seeing a shift in strategies. After all, no format is truly static or truly dynamic; the most static format would have to be a one-deck metagame, while the most dynamic would have every person playing their own unique designs, and neither of these things ever happens… at a certain point, even when it looks like they should, new factors come into play to reward you for that trend. A static format is vulnerable to attack, because the vulnerabilities of the best deck can be known and exploited if they never evolve, and a dynamic format would require there to be no such thing as one strategy that is better than another. If a deck was so good that everyone should play it, and 99 out of 100 players did, the one player who dissented and designed the pure anti-deck would win every tournament… so even the most static of formats can allow for innovation and reward creativity. Change is possible, even if you won’t go away from the core things that matter about the format, so a variety of best decks may come and go over time as new cards are introduced to the system so long as a healthy attitude is taken towards the Banned and Restricted List to make sure the components of the metagame do not stifle decks #2 and down by making an unassailable #1 deck.

Going into Worlds, we have two formats of interest, Extended and Standard. Despite the victory of the Elves deck and its impressive tale over the weekend of Pro Tour Berlin, a lot is being said by some very credible people to say that now that it is a known quantity it will be adjusted for and take a healthy place in the metagame rather than domineer the format. And despite the proponents of the Kithkin-5c Control-Faeries metagame, there is solid room for growth and innovation around that format’s so-called best decks. Extended, then, is a static format, while Standard is a dynamic format. Both of these notions seem to be counter to how people are thinking about them right now, but thinking things through will tell us how to be rewarded for our time and efforts exploring the formats and designing decks to play.

Looking at Extended, we see a Clear Best Deck, the Elves deck. If anything, Elves is being underrated still in Extended, as early results playing Extended again with Elves in the mix as a known quantity have turned up results that show other decks beating the Elves, so at present the cycle of learning and understanding is suggesting that the 900 Pound Gorilla In The Room is not being given sufficient respect. There is one clear best deck or strategy, that being the Elves following Pro Tour Berlin, and a believed best counter-strategy, a properly-designed Zoo deck that can contain the Elf menace with sufficient early-game burn to take out key pieces and force interactivity. A few other Best Decks are out there, such as the Tezzerator Control deck and Faeries… but we have a small number of key decks underpinning the metagame simply due to the fact that they are clearly head-and-shoulders better than the other decks that might try and approach the game from a similar strategic standpoint, and this crowds most options out of the metagame.

But a static metagame can be attacked, and finding something that is good against Zoo, Elves, Faeries and Tezzeret will find you a deck that might just run you to 6-0 in Extended. In the past, we’ve seen even the most static metagames vulnerable to attack, because a key component of the static metagame was not yet discovered (think Miracle Gro in the Trix metagame) or because some common underpinnings left room for an anti-deck to thrive (think Owling Mine or worse yet Turbo-Stasis if your memory for tournament magic reaches back that far). For example, Umezawa’s Jitte online is very good against Elves, Faeries, and Zoo… and not bad against Tezzeret either as seems to be proved by Luis Scott-Vargas‘ sudden inclusion of all four after sideboarding his Elves deck against it when down 0-2 in the matchup. While a key card in the metagame, Jitte is not in and of itself a ‘dominant strategy’ so much as something that shows up in reasonable quantity in a variety of decks; a deck able to contain the Elves with early-game spot removal and ride a Jitte to victory might be a deck worth considering.

The mistake I am seeing on the road to Worlds is the assumption that Extended is a dynamic format, rather than a static one, so people are saying “Dredge is a known quantity, it’ll be corrected for” and “Elves is a known quantity, it’ll be corrected for,” and then not correcting for it. A fair number of theorists and deckbuilders kicking around out there are saying that it will be accounted for… that the mistake that led to Elves not being correctly valued at Pro Tour Berlin can’t be repeated because it’s won the Pro Tour and we know how good it is! But the new mistake is not playing the deck when they should be or assuming that the problem will just go away of its own volition. This adds a new axis to how the metagame can play out, to be sure; in the Extended PTQ season from the start of this year, a similar line of thought was being taken to acknowledging the Dredge deck in the metagame and the risks inherent to respecting it (then not playing against it) or ignoring it (and then losing to it). In actuality, Elves lives up to a significant portion of the PT Hype, especially since it is quite possible that the best anti-deck against Elves is, itself, Elves. The best strategy for interrupting the combo may just be a Wirewood Hivemaster: make some Insect tokens, play Chord of Calling, and suddenly your opponent’s hard work is thwarted as you get yourself Orzhov Pontiff in the middle of their combo.

A static format can be attacked, but nothing is worse than assuming you are in a dynamic format when you are in a static one. The belief that you can just play anything and it’ll be good enough is naive and suicidal in the world of tournament Magic, but so commonly we’ll see the belief that we know what last week’s metagame looked like and this week’s metagame will be something different entirely. Examining Extended, I would state simply that it is a static format, not a dynamic one; there are a set number of good decks to be considered, and it’s distinctly possible that going into Pro Tour Berlin we didn’t even know what all of them were. For that matter, we still might not… who says Elves was the only Secret Deck in the format? It’s all well and good to aim at your target and line up your shot in the metagame, but if you got the picture wrong it can’t be helped if you happen to shoot yourself in the foot instead. Following PT Berlin, Dredge is not on as many radars as it probably should be, and the common belief that the Extended metagame for Worlds looks anything at all like the Berlin metagame is most likely a fallacy… except for the fact that Elves are really good, and Zoo will be a popular choice to try and beat them while still playing a ‘good’ deck.

Standard, by comparison, is a dynamic format that is being mistaken for a static one. Rarely do we have a Standard format so powerful that it falls into the unassailable static metagame we more often see in Extended, and when we do see Standard trending towards a static format it is because of a larger cardpool than we presently have in Standard. One of the earmarks of a potential static format is present in Standard is the plentiful and affordable multicolored mana that allows any deck to play any spell. But thanks to the clever interaction of Lorwyn’s tribal themes with the color-happy themes of Shadowmoor and Shards of Alara, it is literally impossible to play all of the best cards in-context to their maximum efficiency; you can’t play a deck with Wren’s Run Vanquisher as your two-drop and Mistbind Clique as your four-drop, even if you can cast GGGG for Cloudthresher and UUBBBRR for Cruel Ultimatum off your Vivid-heavy mana base. Sure, 5c Control with its Vivid lands and Reflecting Pools is strategically sound, and can adjust with the metagame to play whichever spells are best right now and whatever other trappings it takes to make the deck actually function (like, you know, kill conditions). But it can’t play The Best Of Whatever It Feels Like when “what is good” relies on more than “what color mana can you put in your mana pool?”. While we have what some say is a stagnant Standard format, we nonetheless have some healthy dynamic components as the decks compete with each other, and controls to make sure we can’t just play a Best Of Whatever We Feel Like deck.

Standard, however, seems as if it is being treated like a static format going into Worlds, with the three best decks carried over from Lorwyn Block and no reason to play anything that isn’t Five-Color Control, Kithkin, or Faeries, in a Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame of Five-Color Control pummeling Kithkin and losing to Faeries. Recently a lot of playing around with the format has followed from the State Championships, which is why we are seeing the dropoff of Mono-Red Aggro-style decks thanks to the fact that while plentiful they had terrible conversion rates in the Top 8, thus they shouldn’t be played nearly as much as they are… but also we are seeing new innovations, like combo-style Elves and Jund Ramp-style decks, new things of interest coming to our attention such as Gerry Thompson recent abandonment of the Five-Color Control archetype before Worlds and the potential growth of B/G Elves as a new deck of interest in the metagame among who knows what other new things developing. This time last year, Zvi Mowshowitz was putting himself together a Faeries deck… knowing what is Sparta and what is Madness is much easier with hindsight than with foresight, but the simple fact is the format can bear more exploration and has plenty of decks that are viable in it.

Standard has its best decks, it’s true. But it also has the mana to let you put whatever you want together in interesting and creative fashion, perhaps even moreso than we saw in Ravnica-era Standard with its polychromatic control decks, so if you want to think about any color combination or trio of colors together you can realistically make it work if you can find a strategy that fits and is sufficiently powerful to stand up for itself in the metagame. We live in an era of Good Decks rather than Great Decks, and so we get to play with Faeries instead of Skullclamp Affinity… a dynamic format instead of a static one. Careful design and an eye for the key factors like card strength, consistency, tempo and card advantage will carry the day, even if you don’t take aim at the Best Decks and seek to shoot them dead right between the eyes.

To dip less into theory and more into practicality, let’s put this theoretical talk into action. If I were qualified for Worlds and had to test and play the formats of interest, here is how I would be treating them differently according to the theories I have presented here so far.

For Extended, a static format, I would be looking heavily at the best decks in the format and making sure I was well-versed in playing with them and playing against them, and seeking to figure out a model of the metagame that will be appearing very similarly to how Frank Karsten is famous for: “30% Zoo, 15% Elves, 10% Dredge” and so on. I would aim to synthesize these numbers based on an understanding of what is good in the format, based on a reasonable understanding of what seem to be the favored strategies at the Pro Tour (Zoo is always present in significant percentages, even when it isn’t good), and how the results of Berlin should be warping the format. Then I would most likely play an Elves deck tuned to have the best shot at the mirror, most likely hybridizing between the winning list of Luis Scott-Vargas with the Chord of Calling off of Wirewood Hivemaster for Orzhov Pontiff trick, and testing to figure out how effective a concerted attack against the core components of the deck was and what sideboard cards might help me to beat counter-strategies (such as heavy reliance upon Umezawa’s Jitte, for example).

For Standard, a dynamic format, I would be looking at how the format has been developing, and trying to stay ahead of growing trends such as the combo-style Elves deck that has been slowly gaining interest online after PT Berlin and the US State Championships. I would be testing the best three decks, yes, but not as hard as I would want to test the best decks for Extended, and I would be exploring deckbuilding options to see what dynamic changes I would want to make in my decks to adjust for where the metagame seems to be going. In Extended you want to conform with the main archetypes or attack them, and can make small tweaks within the archetype to change how some matchups play out, but in Standard you want to explore the main archetypes and then synthesize something that can gain an advantage… not ‘attack’, but ‘learn from’.

Because of this, I would likely make a bit of an odd choice, one that I had helped friend and sometimes deck-designing compatriot Miles Rodriguez assemble for him to play at States, where he ended (if I recall correctly) one win out of the Top Eight. I’d want to explore the different decks and find new ones that were good, and see how to make them better decks in and of themselves, not merely better against the Big Three, though I doubt I’d be willing to go into a tournament playing a deck that had little to no chance against any of Kithkin, Faeries, or Five-Color Control… but new interesting decks like B/W or R/W Reveillark, Combo Elves, B/G Elves, Jund Ramp, and so on and so forth would all be explored and accounted for in my efforts to keep ahead of the metagame. While I’m not qualified for Worlds, I have been playtesting for the Star City Games $5k Standard Tournament this weekend, though largely to help others as inevitably I cannot attend a Magic event on the first weekend of any month due to the fact that I run a live-action role-playing game on the first Saturday night of each month and a tournament in Philadelphia just doesn’t jive with that plan.

4 Reflecting Pool
4 Mystic Gate
4 Flooded Grove
4 Vivid Creek
4 Vivid Meadow
3 Vivid Grove
3 Island

4 Mulldrifter
4 Rhox War Monk
4 Kitchen Finks
2 Cloudthresher

4 Wrath of God
4 Cryptic Command
4 Esper Charm
3 Broken Ambitions
2 Jund Charm
2 Makeshift Mannequin
1 Oona’s Grace

4 Relic of Progenitus
4 Negate
3 Resounding Scream
2 Cloudthresher
2 Runed Halo

Testing has suggested that this is one of the avenues to potentially take Five-Color Control after you abandon the notion of playing with Cruel Ultimatum, as it has significantly more Instant-speed effects that help to make things difficult for Faeries (Jund Charm, Cloudthresher) as well as a better chance of putting Faeries under significant pressure, since usually the best thing you want to do against Faeries is play a dude on turn three and start attacking rather than give them infinite time, and similarly Just Having More Dudes is better against the Planeswalker deck even though the Planeswalker deck is designed to deal with creatures, because at least sometimes you can let the attack phase sort the Planeswalkers out. Already you more-or-less cream the aggressive strategies, but some fine-tuning after sideboarding can’t hurt, and while Broken Ambitions is by far the least popular main-deck countermagic choice, it’s the only one I know of that can counter both Wizened Cenn and Bitterblossom on turn two. I’m comfortable with the idea of facing off against a Reveillark-style deck with Jund Charm main and Relic of Progenitus in the sideboard, which is why the Jund Charms replaced the Pyroclasm/Firespout slot: the combination of “more options” and “Instant speed” made me a happy mage in a variety of places, and the fact that the card might just be good enough for Extended should tell you something about why it’s nice to have in Standard. It is a pretty natural evolution of the Bant Shardly Wait archetype I’d started off liking into a Five-Color Control shell… the opportunity cost for playing Seaside Citadel but not Vivid lands just proved not to be worth it when I could have Esper Charm in my deck, and so the deck works better as a re-envisioned Five-Color Control deck than it ever did as a Bant-shard control deck.

It’s a shame to me that I can’t attend Worlds this year. The overall economic slowdown means I have to play nicer with my expenses and vacation time, having started a new job at a much smaller company in the past few months that earns me significantly less than my last job did and with less day-to-day flexibility for attendance as my new duties include daily safety testing… which sucks. After all, having a vote in the Hall of Fame induction means I would love to be able to attend, and I’ve promised Patrick Chapin (after ultimately lambasting him in this year’s Hall of Fame vote) to try and get to know him better as a person instead of as Some Guy On The Ballot, when my reasoning for not voting for him included non-Magic-related ethics questions that ultimately can’t be considered fair without knowing the truth of the matter and thus getting to know somebody.

I’d love to be able to maintain the tradition of seeing the induction of every Hall of Fame member in a year in which I voted, but that’s not something I can do at the price of hundreds of dollars and a considerable amount of vacation time I am not allowed to take quite yet. And thus my work into Standard has been merely for your edification and because it’s a puzzle to be worked at, rather than work I can expect to put to good use in succeeding at the $5000 or the Worlds Public Events. Thankfully at least I can hope to catch Patrick another time with the change to the Grand Prix Day 2 cut, as I expect I am much more likely to travel to a Grand Prix where X-2 is guaranteed to make the cut than I was when the Bye system was so grossly staggered in favor of three Byes making Day 2. I was ultimately willing to travel a few hours for a Grand Prix in the old system… but with the new, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was considerably more willing to fly around the States, and thus may yet be able to give Mr. Chapin a fair shake when the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot comes around…

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com