The term Metagame, like the terms postmodern and existentialism, gets thrown around a lot by pseudo-intellectuals who don’t actually know its meaning. The word metagame means, most simply, the types of decks that are being played in a geographic area. The metagame includes both deck archetypes and individually tuned decks. For example, the metagame for an area might consist of control decks. There might be one prevalent control deck, or a couple of different types, but control decks are being played the most overall. The metagame is what will determine whether your deck succeeds or fails.
Why do people play a deck? First, people play a deck if it has been talked up in public. If a certain deck is being touted online by multiple sources, it will be the foremost deck on people’s minds. Hype can be double-edged, as many people will shy away from a heavily hyped deck. This is because they expect that other players will gun for it, and they fear that particular deck might potentially be hated out of that environment. Another factor is that affects the metagame is budget. If there are several decks which can contend in any given environment, there are a lot of players who will lean towards the decks which are cheaper to build. Consequently, the decks that are cheaper to put together (U/G Madness, Affinity) are played in greater numbers.
How Do I Determine The Metagame?
Most competitors will play one of the best decks possible for its environment. One way to find what other people are playing is to simply listen to them talk. Find out what decks are being tuned, tweaked and tested. Which cards are people buying? What has been winning tournaments recently? Listening applies to both the online and the physical – discussions on web sites and bulletin boards are equally important for answering the above questions as spending time in your local shop. When we look at all of this information, we should have a good idea of the best decks out there. This is the main indicator of what might show up at any given tournament.
Another factor you should use in tandem with the above is the history of a region. Although trends may change gradually over time, the overall leaning of an area remains a very useful indicator of its future metagame. The Northeast Vintage community is known for fielding an overabundance of control decks. The Ohio Valley is traditionally infested with Red Deck Wins during Extended season. Knowing these historical trends and exploring the archives of winning decks in a region can give you an excellent picture of the most likely metagame for that region. People are creatures of habit and many of them will play the same pet deck, especially in a more slowly changing format such as Extended, over the course of years.
The Gap And Glut Situation
There are two states in a metagame – the gap and the glut. The gap metagame occurs when there is a noticeable lack of one or two of the top contending decks in a region. The glut metagame happens when there are disproportionate numbers of one or two particular decks showing up in an environment. Determining which decks are in the gap of your region and which are in the glut is essential to success at tournaments. Strong metagame decisions can be made on the basis of gap or glut. You ideally want to play the strongest deck in the gap. This is because other decks will be prepared to face the glut deck, whereas your deck will dodge those bullets. Moreover, you want your deck to be able to beat the glut decks. Let me give you a perfect example.
Meandeck Oath: A Study in Glut Metagaming
In the preparation for the StarCityGames.com II Power Nine tournament in Richmond, Team Meandeck determined that Workshop Aggro decks would be present in high numbers at that tournament. They determined this based on regional history, local player preference and recent successes with the deck in the area. Workshop Aggro had a strong game versus both control and traditional, Dark Ritual/Tendrils based combo. Because of the deck’s overall strength, it would knock out much of the other competition. Consequently, Team Meandeck felt Workshop Aggro would be dominating the top tables.
Team Meandeck had been testing Oath of Druids decks prior to the printing of Forbidden Orchard and found that the deck had incredible game versus Workshop Aggro. Their deck needed only to cast Oath of Druids to dominate the match. Because of the deck’s high basic land count, it was mostly immune to the deadly combo of Trinisphere and Crucible of Worlds which was running rampant in Workshop decks at the time. Using Oath to bring out Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Spirit of the Night would swing the momentum of a game quickly and decisively in favor of the Oath player against Workshop. Though Oath had some less-the-favorable match ups, it was assumed by Team Meandeck that Workshop Aggro would plow through the decks which beat Oath and eliminate them before Oath could face these very same decks. This is because Workshop Aggro was the glut deck in the environment. If Oath could survive early-round randomness, it would prevail when it hit the upper tables, which would be full of Workshop Aggro decks.
Prevail it did! The Meandeck Oath build took first place at the tournament. In fact, Team Meandeck put four members in the top eight solely on the strength of this deck in the metagame. Their move proved that by anticipating a metagame, one could choose a deck designed to be good versus the glut deck in an environment, pilot it, and have a tournament end in triumph.
Canali Affinity: A Study In Gap Metagaming
Pierre Canali recently won the Extended Pro Tour: Columbus with Affinity. Affinity had been maligned and many thought it would be hated out of the environment due to strong sideboard cards such as Meltdown, Energy Flux, Pulverize, and Pernicious Deed. Most pros took Affinity out of their testing gauntlets and removed their anti-Affinity sideboard cards in anticipation of Affinity being a no-show. Because many players declined to devote enough sideboard slots to anti-Affinity cards, Canali was able to retool his Affinity deck to take advantage of this environment. He played that packed unexpected answers to hate for Affinity, including Meddling Mage (as most players would only have one major “answer” card to Affinity) and Somber Hoverguard (to dodge artifact hate entirely). Affinity became a Gap deck in that environment. Canali was able to cruise through the tournament against what should have been bad match ups – except that players did not have enough Affinity hate! Canali successfully recognized a gap in the metagame. He walked out with a comically oversized thirty-thousand dollar check for his metagame observations and planning.
Why Hate Decks Are Not The Answer
It may seem logical that one should play a deck that is packed with answers to the popular metagame decks. This rarely works in practice. If the decks you heavily prepare against constitute 60% of a metagame, you’ll be woefully unprepared for the other 40%. An example of this is the lack of variety in anti-affinity decks in Standard that are doing well consistently. There are few dedicated anti-Affinity decks that can do all right, but it is because they have game against Tooth and Nail or Mono-Black Control. The ones that are built expressly to beat affinity often lose to these other decks.
The Blue/Red Fish deck in Vintage is a perfect example of a well metagamed deck. Fish uses powerful tempo cards to hate entire control strategies while it retains a good game against random decks in the field. The deck did incredibly well for the time when its tempo swings had the most impact, such as when Psychatog decks were dominating. The deck took advantage of a glut of slow control decks in the metagame. It won by running fast creatures and cheap spells that served the dual purpose of both advancing its own game plan and hindering the opponents’. It was also the budget deck in an environment in a sea of expensive decks. Fish started to lose favor when the metagame shifted, and combo/Workshop decks became more prevalent – decks that could effectively win the game on the first turn, before Fish could set up a favorable board position.
What is the Best Deck?
The best deck is the one that wins the tournament. This best deck is not necessarily the same as the objectively best deck. If you are playing the objectively best deck, you might play three straight rounds against decks which have stacked up 10-15 anti-you cards in their sideboard. You might win the first game, but you have little chance of winning games two and three. Even though you played the deck which looked the best on paper, the end result will be that you drop out, ashamed of your performance. The player that wins is the one who does their research and plays the deck which is best in a given metagame. Survival favors the prepared, after all. Decks with good general match ups and a strong game against the glut decks in a field are decks that win. The deck that exploits both the gap and the glut in a metagame simultaneously is incredibly strong.
Where Metagaming Breaks Down
Metagaming is utilized best when a field can be accurately predicted. When an environment is ambiguous, metagaming is useless. Likewise, if everyone guesses the metagame and the field is filled with hate decks, you’d best be prepared to be part of the gap and not part of the glut. In a theoretical situation where there is no metagame information at hand, patterns will eventually emerge over time as people play the objectively best deck in the environment. When this happens, the metagame is quickly established and the things quickly settle down.
Many ridicule the idea of a “metagame deck”, and look at that term as foolish or as an insult. I feel it should be embraced as a facet of tournament magic and holds the key to success. The player who has mastered the art of metagaming has that much extra power to win, much like the player who has mastered the concepts of tempo or card advantage. . In future articles, I will discuss other parts of metagaming and their effects.
Doug “The Standard Argument” Linn
Hi-Val on TMD