Metagaming Modifications Part Two

In part two of Brad’s continuing series, he looks at a specific metagame on just one week and in just one place – last weekend at Grand Prix Chicago – to examine the complex interactions a metagame has over the course of a long event.

Last week, we delved into metagaming and how it tends to shift throughout an event. If you haven’t had a chance to read that yet, I encourage you to do so now since we will be building upon most of those ideas today.

This past weekend was Grand Prix Chicago. The coverage team had their eye on me since I Top 8ed my last four Standard Grand Prixs. It also didn’t hurt that the deck I took to battle was a bit out of the ordinary.

Long story short, I did not meet my expectations in this event. By round 8 I had already picked up my third loss and my first slice of pizza. This wasn’t the result I was expecting since I put just as much testing into this event as any other, but there were many factors that were out of my control. For example, I mulliganed a lot! Relentlessly sending back hand after hand during this event. Now I’m not complaining because that is just a part of Magic, but it was very much a deciding factor for my event.

Now, I’m not here today to tell you about how variance can cause you to have poor tournaments. You obviously know this. I’m here to tell you why I ended up playing this deck and why I would do it again if I had the chance.

I had one concern going into Grand Prix Chicago; Mono-Blue Devotion. This deck was slowly picking up new recruits as well as gaining a high percentage of good matchups in the field. This was “the” deck for the event. The only issue with this was that there were probably quite a few people in-the-know.

It wasn’t difficult to see that Mono-Blue Devotion was well-positioned for the event. It was in fact so easy to see this that I started to massage the idea that most players in the room would come to the same conclusion as I did.

One of the most fatal flaws in metagaming is projecting what you know onto other people. Just because you came to a conclusion does not in fact mean other people will figure it out as well. Understanding this simple rule will keep you from going too deep in your attempts to metagame.

I would normally trust in this rule for this event like any other, but there was one major outlier in my thought process. The issue I had was in the fact that we have done this before with this exact same deck.

Standard has not changed much in the past eight months. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but the fact of the matter is we have been down this street before. We have seen the metagame force Mono-Blue Devotion out of existence only for it to then quickly rear its ugly head again once everyone forgot about it. Since history has repeated itself, I thought that it would be much easier for a larger percentage of the masses to come to the same conclusion.

So, theoretically, what happens if a large percentage of the field plays Mono-Blue Devotion while another large percentage hedges against it? Odds are that you would see Mono-Blue Devotion have a very good tournament for about a dozen rounds. The sea of blue mages would do surprisingly well at the beginning of the event by preying on all of their good matchups, but slowly start taking fatal losses in the middle of Day Two to all of the decks geared towards beating the deck. These would be the rounds that catapulted the anti-blue decks into the Top 8 while leaving all the Mono Blue Devotion decks in the Top 32.

So what are these mystical anti-blue decks? Pretty much the exact same decks we have seen for the last eight months. Mono-Black Devotion decks that gear their removal towards the blue menace, and Sphinx’s Revelation decks equipped with a black splash.

Since this was the case, I had to decide whether I wanted to beat them or join them. I could simply equip myself with Esper Control once again and go to battle, or I could try to beat them and have a great shot at winning it all if I ever found myself in a position to Top 8. Like always, I went with the much more greedy line.

I decided to sleeve up the Purph!

This deck is surprisingly great against everything in the metagame that doesn’t play Thassa, God of the Sea. All of the Mono-Black Devotion decks have a tough time beating any hand this deck can draw simply because of how both decks are configured. They just can’t keep up with this deck.

For starters, the deck runs a plethora of Planeswalkers that have historically been great against Mono-Black Devotion. On top of the eight Planeswalkers, the deck runs Scion of Vitu-Ghazi over other options like Stormbreath Dragon. This subtle shift in five-drop can be problematic in some matchups like Esper Control, but is great against Mono-Black Devotion. This creature comes with two additional bodies, and oftentimes you are populating either an Elemental token or even a Satyr that is getting into the Red Zone that turn. Mono-Black Devotion just doesn’t have enough removal to keep up with this deck’s steady stream of creatures.

This is the first deck I have ever run that had defensive Voice of Resurgences and I have to say it is amazing! Being able to use this guy as a defensive measure to help get to the late game is exceptionally powerful when dealing with the decks that exist right now. Not only that, but the elemental token can easily take over a game if they don’t deal with it early enough. This makes it a perfect card against Mono-Black Devotion and it is the backbone to shutting down an opponent before the game every got going.

This matchup is so good that you don’t even sideboard. Not. At. All.

The Esper Control matchup might not be as perfect as the Mono-Black one, but it is close. Esper Control is currently built to beat very specific strategies. These don’t include Purphoros, God of the Forge and a bunch of Planeswalkers.

Naya Tokens has this amazing ability to making every type of removal spell situational. Counterspells look awkward against an early Voice of Resurgence, and those are probably the most reliable form of removal the Esper players have against this deck. This is because the deck is not scared of Supreme Verdict or spot removal. The deck has so many defenses against mass removal built into the strategy that it almost always recovers immediately or wins the game on the very next turn via Purphoros triggers.

So what about the aggressive strategies? Well, this deck has Elvish Mystic, Voice of Resurgence, Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Nyx-Fleece Ram, Anger of the Gods, and Archangel of Thune to combat those decks. There was a chance that Boss Sligh showed up to Chicago in big numbers, but we already had a great plan against them.

The only matchup that I considered a 50/50 was Jund Monsters. There really was no way to improve the matchup since Jund Monsters’ greatest strength is its ability to rarely have a bad matchup. The deck is as straightforward as you can get with the ability to put every deck in the format to the test. Ghor-Clan Rampager is a hell of a card that can win games out of nowhere. I wasn’t scared of this matchup, but I knew I had a chance to lose to it.

So why didn’t I play Jund Monsters if I didn’t think it had any bad matchups? Well the answer is because it didn’t have any good ones either. Jund Monsters is a deck that is great at going 66%. This isn’t the decks fault, per se, but it is a fact. By now everyone playing in a Standard tournament knows how Jund Monsters works and has a plan for how to defeat it. This is no different from other decks in the metagame, but Jund Monsters works differently than those decks.

Jund Monsters is considered a Ramp strategy. Of course it isn’t as all-in like decks of the past, but it does try to gain a tempo advantage by playing mana accelerators in the early turns. These ramp slots take up a decent portion of the deck, hindering Jund Monsters’ ability to adapt to a shifting metagame.

Other decks like Mono-Black Devotion don’t have to worry so much about players knowing it exists because of cards like Thoughtseize. This Standard staple not only allows the deck to just take the cards that opponents have dedicated for the matchup, it also allows the deck to get free wins much like Elvish Mystic into Domri Rade gives Jund Monsters free wins.

If you take a look at Naya Tokens, you will see that this deck also plays Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid. Yes, this deck is in fact just another “ramp strategy.” The only difference is that it is built around a different engine that players are not prepared for. Much like how Primeval Titan decks used to change the support color to a shifting metagame, Naya Tokens was forced to evolve in a world filled with targeted removal and Thoughtseize.

The only downside to this change is in fact the Mono-Blue Devotion matchup. Instead of having the plethora of black removal spells that Jund Monsters is equipped with, this deck pretty much can’t fight off Thassa, God of the Sea and her blue minions. There really isn’t any way around the blue menace expect a dedicated sideboard and a little bit of luck.

Taking a deck to Chicago with a bad Mono-Blue Devotion matchup can be extremely risky if you consider it to be one of the more popular choices. It could also be a very rewarding decision if you believe the tournament will break the way I discussed earlier.

This is exactly what I ended up doing. I took a deck into battle with a subpar Mono-Blue Devotion matchup, expecting to have great matchups if I was able to dodge the deck. Given that I would be allowed exactly two losses to still have a chance at making Top 8, I would be able to run into Mono-Blue Devotion and lose a couple of times before my dreams of Top 8 were shattered.

The tournament ended up breaking exactly how I thought it was going to. Mono-Blue Devotion had exactly one copy in the Top 8 while the other seven decks had readily prepared for the matchup. Nightveil Specter and Bile Blight were both played in high numbers, and it would have been perfect conditions for me to sneak in and take down the trophy. You know… if I didn’t absolutely get smashed on Day One.

It’s difficult to say whether or not going down this path was in fact a better choice than just playing Esper Control. Naya Tokens is an extremely powerful deck that is also a breath of fresh air, and I thought going into the event with something unfamiliar would give me an edge against this stale format.

Questions and Answers

Last week I asked you guys to submit questions about metagaming so I would have a better understanding of what you guys were most interested in learning about.

Paulo Vito Damo da Rosa: I’m not sure I understand this, “One of the largest factors when preparing for an event is figuring out how many losses you can take before you are no longer able to Top 8.” I think you should always play the deck with the highest expected win %, regardless of how many losses you can take.

While I won’t disagree that this way of thinking has proven to be quite successful, I do believe that there are times you should steer clear of it. Just because a deck has the highest win percentage against a field does not mean it is the best choice for an event. Let’s break it down with some numbers that are completely arbitrary!

This format is a perfect example. Mono-Black Devotion clearly has the best win percentage over the field and has proven itself time and time again to be the best deck in the format. Even though Mono-Black Devotion would be the best choice given its superior win percentage, it does not mean a different deck would not have a higher win percentage in a specific stage of a tournament.

You should never play a deck that you believe has a bad matchup against “the best deck.” Every time I take a new archetype to an event, it is because my matchups against the top decks in the format are good. I would never play a deck that I didn’t think could win the event if the best decks continued to be best. This is the exact reason why I tend to play decks with “weaker” overall win percentages.

Once a tournament goes long enough, the metagame begins to shift away from the more fringe strategies and the top tables are filled with just Tier One strategies. This is the exact time that the “best” deck’s overall win percentage will be lower than specific strategies targeting these late-tournament metagames. The only issue is that Mono-Black Devotion has a much easier time getting to this position than other rogue strategies. The only advantage that other decks can possess is the fact that they are much better equipped to dispatch the black menace in this exact moment. Sure, Mono-Black Devotion players will be able to metagame against the new archetype next week, but we are not in next week. In this exact moment, the Mono-Black Devotion decks are not equipped to properly defeat metagamed strategies and because of this will have a lower win percentage against the evolving metagame.

The risk in this style of preparation is that you might never make it to Day Two. The benefit, however, is that you will likely make more Top 8’s given you can play as well as you can prepare. I have always loved having more options and a stronger deck against the pros that I face on Day Two. These are the matches that make or break an event, and I come out on top much more frequently than most because my decks are set up to defeat theirs. They may have played better than I did on that Sunday, but my weapons were much sharper.

Mike Keifer: “In the local PTQ’s I play in, the metagame seems to shift every tournament. People will play one thing and then completely change it up by the next event. There is only a small sample of the ‘proven’ decks to contend against, but then there is a ton of randomness. Some of which is decent, but significantly worse than the Tier One strategies. How would you plan against that?”

Pro Tour Qualifiers are tough to metagame for, given the fact that you can only afford to lose a single match in the entire tournament. They are also fairly miserable to play because of this exact reason.

I’m going to answer this question the same way I answer it to my friends. No sugar-coating. The first rule when preparing for a Pro Tour Qualifier is to figure out how good you are. You have to look yourself in the mirror and precisely answer the question, “How do I win a PTQ?” The answer to this question will be a tough one to face, but it will benefit you in your journey to playing on the Pro Tour.

You see, there really isn’t any reason to playing in a PTQ unless you want to qualify for the Pro Tour. They are miserable events! Only one person leaves happy. Oh, sure, you got to see your friends and play games while waiting for your friend to lose in the quarters, but for the most part, people are not happy at Pro Tour Qualifiers. There is a reason that people say second place is worse than 0-2 dropping.

So your goal should be to win a PTQ no matter what. Once you have ingrained this into your psyche, you will have a humbling experience. You won’t care how you qualify, but only that you do in fact qualify. This will help in deck selection. Figuring out your strengths and weaknesses in Magic is important since sometimes it is correct to just pick up decks like Jund, or Affinity, or Scapeshift. It is important to be able to not have any emotional investment into the way you win an event, but only care about it actually happening.

So how does this have anything to do with metagaming against a ton of randomness? Well, it is in fact because your metagame does not have a ton of randomness… at least not any more randomness than the regular Modern metagame already has. Sure, there might be a few more fringe decks due to card availability, but not enough to deem your area un-metagamable (Oh yeah, I’m making that a word).

You just have a foul taste left over in your mouth from losing to what you deem are “random” decks. It doesn’t feel good to test for days only to end up losing to someone’s homebrew. These moments stick with you for a longer period of time than when you lose to the Tier One strategies. I’m guessing you have defeated more of these “random” decks than you have lost to, but it’s way easier to remember those losses than it is to remember the victories.

Now if I am wrong, I would suggest just playing one of the most straightforward decks that have a ton of interactivity in the early game with an explosive end game. My personal suggestion would be Tarmo-Twin. This deck is very powerful against random strategies since it can interact on a turn-by-turn basis, but it also has the ability to win at any moment.

Alex Fessenden: “In your opinion, how easy will it be for Mono-Blue Devotion to get hated back out of the format?”

Just take a look at the Top 8 decklists of Grand Prix Chicago and let me know if you need me to go any further?

That’s all I have for today! Hopefully by next week we will be able to dive into the bulk of M15, but for now I will continue drafting Vintage Master in my preparation for Grand Prix DC. I always feel comfortable telling you guys what’s up in Standard, but never, ever listen to me about Limited. This weekend is going to be bad!