Meta Late Than Never

After last week’s article, we decided that we really should put our money where our mouth was and take another Fish deck to Bath’s monthly tournament. I took the Ponza deck that came top-8 in the US, and Andy took Fish deck. I took Ponza mainly because my Counter-Burn deck isn’t ready yet, and Andy…

After last week’s article, we decided that we really should put our money where our mouth was and take another Fish deck to Bath’s monthly tournament. I took the Ponza deck that came top-8 in the US, and Andy took Seth Burn Fish deck. I took Ponza mainly because my Counter-Burn deck isn’t ready yet, and Andy likes playing Fish. We could have both taken Fish, but I hate playing mirror matches against our playtest group. Paul took Flores’ Black Control deck, and Tarik decided to come and draft as he hadn’t managed to get much practice in.

As there was a PTQ over in Cambridge (a long way from Bath in UK terms) the day after our monthly tourney, we were expecting some of our better regulars to give this month a miss – and were surprised to find them all turn up! Nearly 40 players on the eve of PTQ – I guess our prizes and invitational really are drawing in the”crowds”. Team Spike were all present, along with at least one member of the European Alliance and a couple of other Pro Tour attendees. Not an easy field to play in at all.

One very welcome player had traveled a long way indeed: Mike LaBeau came all the way from the US, not just to see us of course. He’s currently on a tour of Europe and is fitting in games of Magic when he can. Mike’s a nice guy and you’re very welcome to come over and see us again Mike, anytime.

So Team PhatBeats all took good decks for a change and won… right? Wrong. I was 3-0 and ran into a slew of decks where I needed good draws and got mediocre ones. Maybe I should have mulliganed, maybe I just don’t know the deck well enough yet: probably. I finished up 4-3. Paul lost a couple of matches, one against the tourney winner and one against a heavy control blue deck (in three games he saw no tutors at all!) Even Tarik was bumped out of the draft in the first round. Not a good day.

At lunchtime in the New Inn, we discussed our predicament over doorstep sandwiches and chips. None of us seemed to be making mistakes, just having bad luck. Bad luck is something that everyone runs into sooner or later, and it’s not to be whined over – but it’s also often evidence of other things. This got me thinking about two things: Mulliganing and the meta-game. Mulliganing is a tricky one. If I have a hand with two land and some spells in it, I’m very reluctant to Mulligan. I know that sometimes I should, and it probably costs me games. When to Mulligan is becoming more and more important, as matches are often won or lost these days on the draw of a single card. It’s a skill that only the better players seem to have – but the meta-game is even more complex.

“The meta-game” is a term we see splashed around the net on an almost daily basis. Comments like”My sideboard was heavily dependent on the meta-game” or”I wasn’t sure if I was right about the meta-game” seem to spring up in almost every tournament report… but just what is it?

Meta can be defined as:

a. Beyond; transcending; more comprehensive: metalinguistics.
b. At a higher state of development: metazoan.

So, the meta-game is a look at the game of magic from a higher state; a look at the game of Magic itself, rather than a game of Magic.

It’s all very well knowing that – but what does it actually mean? Simple: the meta-game tells you how many people will be playing Speed Green. It tells you how many people will be playing Massacre in their sideboards. It tells you how many players will play Accelerated Blue instead of Port Blue. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to tell you. Like any form of prophecy, it’s easy to show what the meta-game is after an event. The big money is getting it right beforehand.

As the editor of Bath Magic’s web site, I get to see all the deck lists of the players in a given month. Hell, I type in the top eight and put them up on the site. Last month I even went as far as producing a breakdown of deck archetypes that were represented. This gives me an ideal position to research the local meta-game.

The word”local” is very important there. Wherever you are, you have your own meta-game. It varies from tourney to tourney, state to state and more obviously from country to country. Check out the top-8 decks in Sweden and the US: Sweden has four Trinity Green decks in the top-8, the US has none. Okay, it has two Angry Hermit decks, but that’s a step beyond Trinity Green; an evolution if you will.

Why? The Swedish Nationals happened shortly after the UK’s. Swedish players believed that no one would have time to practice against Trinity Green in the short time they had – and they were right. The US had a couple more weeks to prepare, and everyone figured out how to beat it. They guessed that with all the recent good results Trinity had been clocking up, people would be ready for it. The players that did best guessed right. They guessed the meta-game.

So the meta-game is local; how do we work out what it’s going to be? I’m not saying I know for certain, but here are a few things you might like to think about:

Firstly, look at the player base you have. Bath has a regular turn-out of between 30 and 40. Split these up into three groups: Excellent, Good and Average.

An Excellent player is one who’s won a PTQ, been on the Pro Tour, or represented their country.

A Good player is one who has won a local tourney or two, or regularly comes top-8.

Average players are all of the rest.

At Bath last month, there were two or three Excellent players, about fifteen Good players, and twenty-three Average players. I’ll concentrate first on local tourneys with a similar breakdown to Bath, as that’s what I know best.

Excellent players will have a good playtest group and good contacts. They’ll be one of the first people to hear about new deck types and are people who’ll be ahead of the meta-game.
Good players will have playtest groups, read the net and know all the published tech.
Average players will know some of the decks off the net, but will have favourites they like to play, or will pick a deck the night before and play it badly, missing key plays.

These aren’t hard and fast categorisations, and players can move from one level to another (and back again), but they’ll do for a start.

When looking at the meta-game you should start with the Average players. They’ll be influenced most by the people they play against, especially what they lose to the week or month before. If lots of Good players bring Speed Green one month, they’ll beat lots of Average players with it. It’s reasonable to expect the Average players to be playing it the next month, although they may not be tuned or played well. Some of this group will always stick to their own decks, changing them a little from week to week. There are generally more Average players than Good, so they’re an important piece of the field to consider. That gives us our first rule:

Meta-game Rule I: You must escape The Jungle.

It’s no use taking a deck to a tourney that will beat the highly tuned decks of the Good players if you can’t cope with the surprises that the Average players have in store for you. You’ll never get to play the Good ones.

Next, look at the Good players. Good players will be influenced by the top-8 from the previous month, and influenced by the decks which win prestige tournaments that are published on the net. If Trinity Green wins your Nationals, lots of the Good players will turn up with some version of it – or a deck they think will beat it. If two Suicide Black decks come top-8 in the monthly tourney, it’s best not to play it the next month, because half the field will be tooled up to kill you. This gives us two more rules:

Meta-game Rule II: Expect the net decks.

If a deck does well in a number of prestige tourneys, it will be present in your local tourney and played by someone who knows what they’re doing. You must be prepared to face it.

Meta-game Rule III. Expect the anti-net decks.

Some players will second-guess Rule II, and bring decks designed solely to beat the prestige deck. These decks are often designed to beat the prestige deck at all costs, and will generally be weaker against other decks. Try to work out what they will be, and be prepared for them.

Rules II and III can lead you into a loop that goes on forever. Try to stick to this level of second-guessing or you’ll disappear in a puff of logic. A simple example is as follows:

Two combo decks do very well in several well-publicised tourneys. Combo decks generally don’t like playing against blue, and so you can expect to see both the combo decks and the control blue decks at your tourney. Now you could think that people will know this and bring a deck that beats all three types. Someone probably will – and if it’s you, you’re on the home straight – but whatever you do, don’t forget Rule I.

Finally, the Excellent players. Strangely, in local tourneys these have the most effect but are the least worth worrying about. As they’ll be ahead of the game (and people will know it), good players will be copying down their decks, and might play them the next week. However, they’ll usually be so few that you’ll rarely play them, and probably only towards the end of a tourney if you’ve done well. This gives me my final rule.

Meta-game Rule IV: Consider the Majority.

It’s easy to sit there and look at the top-8 results and think,”Well, I must be prepared for those then”. If you do, you’ll be ruling out all the other decks. Try to remember that some decks are hard to build because of the number of Rares in them. Average players won’t be able to play them, and Good players will often let you know what they’re playing by trying to trade cards off you. Some people find certain decks hard to play; as an example, beginners often find control difficult to play.

If a deck is hard to play, less people will play it well, so you have to worry about it less. Don’t become obsessed with one deck type that beats your deck if you don’t think many people will play it. One local player turned up with 10 cards in his sideboard against Bargain, when only two players in the tourney played it. That left him little room to sideboard against other decks.

All in all the four rules are general ones that I’ve noticed from my time typing decks in and playing at Bath. In different types of tourneys, the player split will be different. At a PTQ you should expect less Average and more Excellent players. At the Nationals, you might expect this trend to continue. Try to remember the traits of the player types that might be present, and think accordingly.

So where does that leave Andy – can we see why the deck didn’t perform? Seth’s deck played well, but Andy found he was losing too many games before sideboarding. There are a lot of counterspells, sure, but if someone puts a permanent down that can win the game, they win. If you don’t have a counterspell on turn four and they risk playing a Masticore, they’re in a very strong position. They kill the Lords, shoot the remaining fish, and come in five times for the win.

Seth’s deck was designed for a different environment. The sideboard is very anti rush-deck, and the main deck seems to be designed to beat Replenish, Port Blue and Bargain with Masticore: the main-deck answer to other decks playing creatures. In Bath, you saw practically none of these three decks. There were many more rush-decks, and one or two new types of deck that weren’t around when Seth designed his deck. That meant that even after sideboarding, Andy was losing proportionally too many game Ones to be able to win matches. There were too many bad matchups because the deck is designed for a different environment altogether. A different meta-game. Strangely, Team PhatBeat’s Parallax Fish did better, but then we know our meta-game and designed it accordingly.

Another month, another tourney. Lessons learned are legion, whilst our roster of successes is once again static. The team seems to be half-working at the moment, and requires a little kick-start to get it into motion properly. Given the effort we put in, I find myself thinking that the best part of the day was the evening out with Team Spike. A few drinks, a few more cocktails and a late curry with even more drinks provided ample entertainment for even the most Magic-weary player.

I guess I’m finding that more and more these days, I’m enjoying the social side of Magic much more than playing. I enjoy the writing more than playing, I enjoy reading and researching Magic more than playing. I’m hoping that in three months that’ll all change. Goodbye Bargain, goodbye Replenish, goodbye Mother of Runes, and Plow Under and a not so fond farewell to Masticore and Morphling. Hello Invasion, hello”The Unknown”.

Anyhow, enough. I hope some of this will help you all do better next tournament. I’m certainly hoping that it works, as I’d like a few free Magic boosters.

Cheers, Jim
Team PhatBeats.
Email: [email protected]