Preparing for a Limited format is easy. The reason it is so easy is that, by and large, players find drafting more fun than Constructed. The more players you have enjoying the times, the more enjoyable the times will be. Testing Constructed always felt like work to me. While draft felt like a honing of skills, Constructed testing felt more like mapping.
I look at drafting as an art form. The environment constantly changes with power levels of color and archetypes switching with each new set. The ability to understand these changes in a large field, as well as adjust to minor changes at your specific table is truly something that can’t easily be quantified in a strategy article. In a single tournament you could 3-0 a draft pod as the only White drafter, then move to your next table and realize that White is horribly overdrafted.
I look at Constructed as more of a science. Generally new formats start out with a lot of innovation. People look at spoilers, look at the cards, and invent decks that revolve around whatever the hot new mechanic is or use older design templates with new cards. Once the invention process has completed, the discovery process begins. This is the part I liken to mapping. You aren’t creating anything here. This part exists, you just have to crunch the numbers. This is the part that drives most Limited lovers up the wall. Playing the same decks against the same decks over and over and over again. The exciting parts are few and far between.
So what are the Constructed players mapping? Matchups. But there is more to Constructed than matchups. Think of decks as areas of a continent. Matchups are the paths between them. What I want to talk about today is the entire landscape.
This analogy is far from perfect. What I mean by the landscape is the type of metagame. There are three major metagame categories. Each metagame should be prepared for in a different way.
Rock, Paper, Scissors
This is the best-known type of metagame. This is when there are a few top decks, generally three, that are all tier 1. Within this tier deck one beats deck two, deck two beats deck three, and deck three beats deck one. The best example of this I can think of off hand comes from the summer of ’01. The format was type 2. The number one deck was Fires. Fires was dominating, so Blue/White Control came out of retirement to show it what was what. When Blue/White got popular, Red/Black Aggro Control came out to play to keep the Blue/White decks in line. Now the field was open for Fires to make a comeback ,as it could destroy the Red/Black deck.
While this feels like the most common type of metagame, it is certainly one of the least healthy. This is the format where you are most likely to run headlong into bad matchups. The interesting thing about this format is that if you are reasonably sure that Scissors is the most dominant deck, you can just bring Rock and have your way with most of the field. The key to breaking this format is gaining an edge in your bad matchups, even a small one.
Sideboards can be narrow in these metagames. When you only have a couple of tier one decks you want to be sure that your sideboard address those decks and addresses them well. Try to discover cards that allow Rock to beat Paper. These types of narrow, matchup-swinging cards are the ones you want in the sideboard.
These are the easiest metagames to calculate as there won’t be any surprises, but they are also the ones that can bite you the worst if you aren’t prepared. These metagames aren’t around much anymore, as it seems Wizards has been making an effort to include cards that help against any decks that might be dominant. They still exist, but the numbers are rarely lopsided as they were in the past.
These metagames are a rare breed these days. Ever since the Internet has become the source for deck tech, top decks in a given format are usually limited to a small subset of decks by the end. The format that most often breaks this trend is Extended. Extended routinely has several decks that can compete. Look at Pro Tour Houston in ’02. The top 8 included the Rock, Aluren, Reanimator, Oath, and Angry Hermit. Other decks to show up there were Psychatog, Tinker, Goblins, Stompy, Suicide Black, and White Weenie. The last time there was a metagame like this in Block Constructed was back in Invasion block. U/G/r Tempo, B/W Aggro Control, U/B/R control, Domain, Dark Domain, Hippo, U/W Aggro Control, R/B Aggro and arguably the most successful deck, R/G Aggro.
This metagame doesn’t come up much outside of Extended anymore. This is a bit better than Rock, Paper, Scissors in that a well tuned deck will succeed more often. It is also better because the 50% decks in the hands of good players will win. If you can go into an open field with a 50% deck and play it nearly perfectly, then you should do well. The Rock is one such deck. The Rock has been the most consistently successful decks over the course of Extended. Pro players tend to malign this deck because it offers you little real edge in most matchups, but the fact is this deck is consistent.
Sideboarding in this metagame is a bit trickier. You want versatile sideboard cards unless there is one matchup that dominates you, and that matchup is a popular deck, you want cards in your board that can give you edges in 2-4 different matchups. You only have fifteen slots in your sideboard and you may play as many as twelve different matchups in a given Extended tournament.
These metagames are the most fun. They will be the metagames rogue decks can really succeed in. Also this is the format where testing matters the least. No matter how much you prepare, you will always face decks you didn’t test against. Not that testing doesn’t matter – quite the contrary. You want to be as comfortable as possible with your deck so making on-the-spot decisions is easier. But in general, preparation against individual decks won’t help you as much as in other metagames.
One Best Deck
We are all very familiar with this metagame. This is the metagame that is Mirrodin Block Constructed. Ravager Affinity is insane in this format. The deck is favored against every other deck available, provided near perfect play. Sometimes the best deck is so good that you don’t even need perfect play. That is generally when bannings occur… those decks don’t last very long at all. Another great example of this was Trix. Trix dominated and nothing could really stop it, so they banned Mana Vault and Dark Ritual. Then after that, Trix dominated so they banned Necropotence and Demonic Consultation. Then for a change of pace, Trix dominated, so they took Ice Age Block out of Extended.
This metagame has the capacity to be the best or the worst. When the deck requires a great amount of skill, it is a good format. The best players will generally win, and playtesting is greatly rewarded. When the deck doesn’t require skill you wind up with a degenerate, broken format.
Sideboarding in this format can be very interesting. At GP: Phoenix the then-dominant team ABU brought Trix decks that had main deck Phyrexian Negators and Skittering Horrors. This was a metagame choice against the mirror match. They began with their deck pre-sideboarded. Trix was so powerful, it could support this. Don’t be fooled by the top 8 at that GP. Trix was by far the best deck. There may not have been any in the top 8, but there were five in the top 16. One of them was yours truly (shameless self promotion alert). If you elect not to pre-sideboard, then you must be ready to dedicate at least seven slots in your sideboard to the matchup with the best deck.
These metagames can be frustrating on several levels. If the deck is good regardless of the player, it’s fairly obvious why this metagame is frustrating. When the deck is player dependent, it can be even more frustrating. When you take the best deck and create a deck to defeat it, your testing group likely doesn’t contain a Huey or a Kai or an Osyp. You may tune your hate deck to perfection, take it to a GP, and get rolled over by a high caliber player playing the very deck you were supposed to beat. Playtesting is paramount in these metagames, but if you are confident in your play, you should focus your prep on becoming an expert with the best deck.
Best Deck Defeated
Sometimes when there is one best deck for a while, but that deck can be taken down. When the field is so swarming with hate, effective hate that you can’t overcome, the best deck dies, or at least goes into hibernation. This is similar to the early stages of Rock, Paper, Scissors. In the late fall of 2001, Trix dominated. This time the incarnation was mostly seen in a Mono-Blue form (incidentally this version was around and invented by the Japanese before the Michelle Bush had the epiphany to add Necropotence) occasionally splashing Red for Fire / Ice and Ruination in the sideboard. At Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Magic Online Guru Alan Comer finished a disappointing ninth with a deck he titled Miracle Gro. Mike Long flew a modified version of this deck to Sendai, Japan and took it to a top 4. That was when the deck really appeared on the radar. The next GP was in Houston, Texas. Miracle Gro went from a hate deck to the number one deck in the field, making even the thought of playing Trix ludicrous.
You don’t see this metagame much at all. It took a good bit of thinking with my outside consultant to come up with this example, and even this one is shaky as you could easily argue that Gro was just the best deck all along, but no one knew about it. The example still fits the description though. After this happened, decks could enter the field that were previously unplayable due to Trix like PT Junk and the U/B/g deck eventual winner Josh Smith piloted.
Sideboards in these formats are tricky. You need to make sure you still address the best deck on the off chance it resurfaces. This is particularly important late in the season, when those decks typically make a comeback. You also need to devote slots to beating the hate decks. On top of all that, you need some general answers for rogue decks looking to pounce on a metagame full of hate for another deck. This is the metagame in which splash damage (cards meant to beat another deck beat your deck) will be the most relevant. You must be mindful of this when building your new deck.
This field can be the most interesting of all. If you can predict the tides of this metagame you will have a huge edge. Rogue decks can succeed, but you must playtest them thoroughly. One of the biggest sins in this metagame is working too much in theory and not enough in practice.
This is a format in which there are two decks of approximately equal strength against both the field and each other. It is a nice format to play in, since you have more than one deck that you can bring to a tournament and you know you can compete with most matchups.
I think I saw this once. It was back during Masques Block Constructed. Rebels and Rising Waters were the only two competitive decks in the field. They were about equal with one another, and Rebels had a bad matchup in the form of Roshambo (G/B control). Waters was close with Rebels and defeated all the Rebel hate decks. Playing any other deck in the early stages of this format (Masques and Nemesis) was foolish. After seeing the success of G/r Tooth, I wonder if Mirrodin Block will become a similar format. I suppose we will find out after Worlds.
Sideboarding in this metagame should be pretty simple. With only two major decks, you want to make sure you are prepared for the mirror and the other deck. Occasionally you will need to prepare for hate decks if this metagame begins to look like the Best Deck metagame. Generally though, you know your enemies.
Having only seen this type of metagame once, it is hard to describe. The one time it did exist is was incredibly boring. At least when there is only one best deck your other matchups are interesting. In this format, the one time I saw it, everyone pretty much played one deck or the other.
Card Access Wars
This metagame is one that you don’t find in big events except maybe Vintage. This metagame shifts due to the competitors not having access to the cards they need to build certain decks. Don’t expect this type of metagame in any tournament at the GP Trial level or higher.
Card Access Wars result in three types of decks. Bad versions of tier one decks, the least expensive tier one decks, and rogue decks with underpowered cards. Expect to see these metagames at Friday Night Magic. [Or sometimes on Magic Online. – Knut]
Sideboarding in Card Access Wars is very similar to Wide Open Field, though you still want to be read for the tier one decks. I’d consider devoting about eight slots to the standard metagame and seven slots to versatile cards that can be helpful against a lot of decks.
I mention this type of metagame to be thorough. If you are the type of player that focuses on big events only, this won’t be of interest to you, but for the more casual tournament player this is a concept that is important to understand.
This should be a fairly timeless guide, but rest assured if a new type of metagame arises, I’ll write an amendment to this. Once you identify the type of metagame you are dealing with, figuring out answers can be somewhat formulaic. Good luck and keep testing!