Sourkraut Soup

Okay, Randy Buehler said in his article commenting on the most recent bannings that he viewed Oath making the list as a lifetime achievement award. In my experience, achievement is not rewarded with forced retirement. Granted, the card is one hundred percent abuseable and there have been many ways to build a decent deck around it, but I don’t see a need to bench it. Randy also indicated that it never dominated, but that its very existence heavily influenced the environment.

So does the existence of Counterspell. Whoopdee frickin’ doo. Actually, a solid argument could be made that the existence of Psychatog has more influence over the Extended environment than Oath of Druids ever did, and that rat bastard is still legal.

“Look alive, dude.”

“Jack! Is it too much to ask for you to call ahead if you plan on sneaking into my house?”

“Sorry, dude. Hey, what’s with the mess in the kitchen?”

“I’m cooking.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, Jack. I’m making sauerkraut soup.”

“Really? What the heck’s in that?”

“Sausage, chicken, sauerkraut, celery, carrots, potato, broth, pepper, and dillweed. Basically it’s a lot of stuff thrown into a pot to see what it might become.”

“Sounds hearty. It smells good.”

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner. The soup will be ready in four hours. In the meantime, try not to sneak up on me.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry, man. Watcha doin’?”

“I’m reading some stupid snippet I never finished. I start a lot of articles and never finish them.”

“Oh. What is it about?”

“It was meant to be an issues article on the December 2003 bannings in Extended. It’s crap, so I never finished it.”

“Let me read it, dude. It can’t be that bad.”

“Knock yourself out.”

Oath of Druids? Oath of freakin’ Druids? Banned?

Okay, Randy Buehler said in his article commenting on the most recent bannings that he viewed Oath making the list as a lifetime achievement award. In my experience, achievement is not rewarded with forced retirement. Granted, the card is one hundred percent abuseable and there have been many ways to build a decent deck around it, but I don’t see a need to bench it. Randy also indicated that it never dominated, but that its very existence heavily influenced the environment.

So does the existence of Counterspell. Whoopdee frickin’ doo. Actually, a solid argument could be made that the existence of Psychatog has more influence over the Extended environment than Oath of Druids ever did, and that rat bastard is still legal.

What Randy meant is that creature based strategies are too hindered because any Oath deck can just pop out a fatty on its controller’s upkeep and win the game before the critter player has a chance to set up. I actually found myself nodding when I read that bit of logic in the article until I remembered that RDW2K is a creature-based deck in many ways. The Rock is certainly a deck whose strategy relies heavily on some creatures. Both of those decks saw plenty of play in Extended last season, even after Justin Gary took home the trophy from Houston with CognivoreOath.

Perhaps Wizards just really, really wants to see more weenie decks in Extended. Maybe that’s it. I suppose I must concede that no sane player will ever say”Plains, Savannah Lions, go” if Oath is around. Whatever the case, Oath of Druids has gotten the shaft without even the courtesy of some lube, and I think that stinks. I feel that way, and I hate Oath. I really do. But fair is fair, and this ain’t.

No justice, no peace.

“I’ve read worse than that. You could dress that up and push it.”

“Could but won’t, Jack.”

“Why not?”

“Because I really don’t care that much. Sure, I think banning Oath wasn’t necessary, but the biggest effect it’s going to have on me is that my Cognivore will probably never move out of my trade binder. Big deal. Overall, the DCI is doing a good job with the banned list. It’s fun to complain, but I’d rather have something more concrete if I’m going to try and rouse the virtual rabble.”

“In other words, something needs to piss you off.”

“Sort of. I’ve had other things that made me start to put words in a row, but then I quickly abandoned them. I’ve been wanting to do a sort of”Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Metagame” thing for a while, but it never really happens.”

“Why not?”

“Because the beginning stuff is so common sense it just looks stupid when you put it into words.”

“Dude, it can’t be that bad.”

“Take a look. Here’s my latest effort with an example of a simple metagame mistake.”

There is a lot to reading the metagame that is not rocket science. Too many players seem to think the metagame is always shrouded in mystery, perhaps kept deep within The Temple in the Holiest of Holies, only to be seen by a small group of dedicated attendants. This isn’t true. At least, not the broad strokes. The most basic information is usually freely available. It requires very little logic to begin taking advantage of that info.

Here’s a real world example. A JSS tournament was held at my locale last Saturday (December 6, 2003, if dates do it for you). The format was Type II. The Friday Night Magic format the evening prior was Type II (normally it’s booster draft) so that the young’uns could do some last minute scouting and testing. G/W control was a very popular deck that night. The FNM is four rounds, and I played against four G/W decks.

I hadn’t played Type II since States, so I was using the same deck I played then, a R/B control deck with a healthy amount of land destruction spells. I went 3-1 in matches, losing only one match to horrible draws and the ever-exciting mulligan, yet even that match nearly went my way. The thing is, I should have been crushed. Why wasn’t I?

Okay, here are the basic facts. The card pool for this FNM and the JSS is the same card pool that existed at States. That alone means that any kid has better information than one would have had before States. In other words, instead of wondering if the Affinity decks are for real and having to test the various builds to reach a conclusion, one could look at the top 8 results from around the country (or world) and see that yes, indeed Affinity was a top dog. Put another way, the wheat was already separated from the chaff in this format.

The top dogs were Goblins, Affinity, U/W control, with a strong showing by some other decks. R/G Land Destruction, for example. Also, post-States Type II talk was continuing to shape the environment, including improving some of the more successful archetypes (I am going to have to use R/G LD as an example again) and throwing some others into the mix that seemed to have promise against the top tier (the G/W deck springs to mind). Boil that down and it translates into this sentence: If I am playing in a Type II tournament I can expect to see Goblins, Affinity, U/W control, R/G Land Destruction, and G/W.

That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? I may be missing a deck, and of course there would be rogue decks (there always are, bless them), but the root of the idea remains. It is not an unknown environment, and if one wants to be competitive, one needs to have answers to those decks listed above.

This brings me back to the FNM. As I stated, my R/B deck uses land destruction spells as a means of controlling the early game. In that regard, it is not so different the R/G deck. So why were the G/W players so ill prepared to handle it? Let me explain: Not one of my opponents had Sacred Ground or Second Sunrise in his sideboard. Huh? Let me repeat that: Huh? These are not little kids I’m talking about. These are guys ready to drive cars next week who have been playing Magic for a couple of years or more.

Now, I am a very bad Magic player, but if I was running a deck with more than a splash of White, and I knew there was a competitive deck that relied on LD for disruption/control, you had better believe I would have some means of shutting that strategy down waiting in my sideboard. White has the tools to do that. R/G is capable of blowing up land on the second turn, and the R/G deck has access to Flashfires if it wants it. No being prepared to handle that is giving up too much weight. Why lose the match up when it is so easy to prepare for it?

The end result of my opponents neglecting to take advantage of the most basic information available about the environment was twofold: I won three matches I probably should have lost, and the store was sold out of Sacred Ground by the end of the night.

“These kids made a simple mistake in reading the metagame. For whatever reason, they all decided not to prepare to face LD. If I hadn’t played in that FNM I probably could have sold my deck to some high school student and watched him top 8 with my tier-two-on-a-good-day States deck.”

“That’s pretty funny considering how much you suck at this sort of thing.”

“Thanks, Jack.”

“How much of this unfinished crap do you have on your hard drive anyway?”

“A lot. Here’s another gem, this one on Extended.”

The first round of bannings took place after Worlds ’03. Legions and Scourge were added to the Extended card pool, and that changed everything. Well, Legions didn’t. It still sucked in Constructed, but Scourge turned the whole format on its ear. Mind’s Desire did more to shape Extended than Pro Tour: Houston. Siege-Gang Commander proved so good that the DCI was forced to ban a 1/1 goblin to make things fair.

Only three cards were banned. Frantic Search was too easy to abuse with Mind’s Desire. Unfortunately, the collateral damage from that decision critically wounded Enchantress. Goblin Lackey could put Siege-Gang Commander in play on turn 2, and that just didn’t seem right to anybody. Entomb had to go for fear that Reanimator would be too fast in the remaining”decelerated” environment. So all was right with the world, and Extended was to become a fun, challenging format once more.

Mirrodin, meet Extended. Extended, Mirrodin. [Hey, how are ya. Damn that Tinker’s a sexy number, isn’t she? – Knut]

On one hand, I must applaud the DCI for having the guts to leave Tinker in the pool knowing that Mirrodin had so many powerful artifacts. On the other, I am insulted to discover the DCI believes Magic players are too stupid to figure out trading Seat of the Synod for Mindslaver is broken.

Everyone was worried about Tinker last season. It was the over-hyped deck before PT: Houston. It didn’t quite have everything it needed at that time. The fast mana was there, the tutoring was there, but all the other players had something just as fast or just as powerful. Tinker couldn’t get an edge. But while all the other big time decks were getting tools taken away from them (except Psychatog, which hung around smiling, as always), Tinker was getting wonderful, wonderful toys paraded in front of it like a boy king.

Before too long, it was time for Pro Tour: New Orleans 2003. It was time to play.

“Wow. That’s a lot of words, dude.”

“Too many words. Here, I’ll rephrase that whole thing.”

In September 2003 three cards were added to the banned list for the Extended format. Those cards were Goblin Lackey, Frantic Search, and Entomb. This successfully slowed the format for a month.

“Heh. Much better, dude.”

“Yeah. It’s easier to gloss over the details and go straight to the point. Here’s my scribblings on the December banned list.”

The second round of bannings has fired shots directly at Tinker. In fact, Tinker is banned along with five other cards. Ancient Tomb provides too much fast mana, as does Grim Monolith. Hermit Druid – which has never been at the top tier – is just too fast to leave in the environment while so many other decks are being reigned in. Still too fast for anyone’s comfort, Goblins is forced to sit another 1/1 guy down. Alas, Goblin Recruiter, you will be missed.

“Pretty wretched, wouldn’t you say, Jack?”

“I would, dude, but I’d say that anyway. You know I think writing is a waste of time.”

“Good point.”

“Let me see another.”

Extended has a strange effect on the types of people present at a PTQ in my area. There are The Strangers. These are players I never see, not even at pre-releases. Judging by their reactions to anything cast printed past Nemesis, many of them seem to have stopped acquiring new cards. For the most part, The Strangers seem happy to be playing with the older cards in a competition, as opposed to playing around the kitchen table with the same four other guys they’ve been playing with since Revised. I like playing against folks I haven’t seen before and most of The Strangers are closer to my age than the average player in my locale. That’s a plus.

The Notable Absences confused me for a while. The Notable Absences are some of the better players in my area, and I never remember seeing more than two of these guys missing from a PTQ other than during Extended season. Most of these guys are younger players. One thing I have noticed about them is that they always play the generally accepted”best deck” in any constructed tournament. I think what turns them off of Extended is the wider range of decks available. My theory is that the top tier is too unstable for these players to feel comfortable, so they stay home or show up late to draft.

Most of the players are the Usual Crowd. Some of them are very good players, some of them are not. Reading the Usual Crowd is the study of reading the individual. The Guy-Who-Always-Plays-Red is still The-Guy-Who-Always-Plays-Red, he just has access to better cards. He won’t be playing Psychatog, you know? The Rogue is still The Rogue, and he won’t be playing anything you’ve tested against, which may or may not be a good thing for you. Usually, it is.

Of course, part of the Usual Crowd is guys who could be Notable Absences, except that they showed the heck up. My theory is that these players are generally more mature in their view towards the game, and although they care to play with the strongest deck available, they are either more comfortable playing in a broader and perhaps less transparent environment, or have a deep appreciation for decks that do interesting things. These are the guys who played Slide or R/W control in OnBC because they just couldn’t bring themselves to swing with little Red men all day long. Too boring, especially if there was another way to win.

For the regular tournament attendee, The Usual Crowd shouldn’t bring a lot of surprises. I have been an active PTQ’er for nearly two years. I will normally compete in two out of every three qualifiers held in my area. Keeping that regular a schedule has allowed me to notice patterns in the local talent pool.

No one is completely predictable of course, but if I record the names of everyone I recognize and a guess as to what deck they are playing, the hit to miss ratio is likely to be in my favor. This allows me to make educated guesses as to the metagame. For example, there is a small contingent of fairly good players (approximately seven) who I think of as”the Kai set”. They will play whatever deck Kai Budde played in the given format. Alternatively, they will play whatever deck Kai recommended for the format if he himself has not played it (i.e. Type II except around Nationals and Worlds). They are a pretty straightforward group of guys.

For another example, there is a fellow in my area who will always bring something a little bit different. His results vary, but one can always see the method in his madness. Basically, he doesn’t like to feel like everyone else in the room is playing the same deck as he is. I almost never know what he is playing. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts if there is a”Kai set” or a mad scientist type or some other pattern in your local players, you’ve identified it. You may not be cognitive of it, but you have it. You may not know you know, but you know. You know?

“What’s your point about that, dude.”

“My point is any regular player probably knows nearly a third of what he will be facing before any given tournament. If he just applies his observations he’ll know what to test against and what not to waste as much time on.”

“That’s a good thing, huh.”

“Yes. It’s how metagame decisions are made.”

“Wait, didn’t you use that word before?”

“Which word, Jack?”


“Oh, metagame. Yeah, that second fragment I showed you was about a simple mistake in reading the metagame, namely ignoring known information. That last fragment is touching on the other hidden element to the local metagame, the players.”

“Okay. So why the focus on Extended?”

“The bannings, Jack. The bannings.”

“Oh, right. Why is that important?”

“Well, it shifts the environment. Some decks can’t be played anymore and some don’t make sense to play anymore. It kind of resets things. People aren’t sure what Extended is going to look like in January. At least, that’s what they claim.”

“That’s what they claim?”

“Yeah. Look, most players are going to have a decent idea of what to expect on January 1st if they either think back to last year or do a little research and apply some common sense. The really, really broken stuff that is dominating right now is all going bye-bye. Because of that, we are essentially going back to last year’s Extended season, or the last few weeks of it anyway. The two biggest decks are Red Deck Wins and Psychatog, but there is room for other archetypes to perform.”

“So nothing will be new?”

“Well, that’s not entirely true. The Belcher deck will survive in some form, but I doubt it will be very viable as a pure combo deck. Mind’s Desire is still going to have a deck wrapped around it, and it will probably be the darling of the pro strategy writers looking to earn their last few pennies of the Extended tech period. That means some folks will play whatever hits virtual print. I don’t see it dethroning Tog, but if it does than the final qualifiers for Kobe will be pretty interesting. And of course, the second tier and the also-rans will show up in force.”

“The second tier? What’s that, dude?”

“Decks that just don’t win consistently but can compete. Aluren, for example. The Rock will be on the second tier in January, which is actually a step up for it at the moment. Fiends will be back, and actually might be better off then it was at the end of last season. Fiends probably had more to gain from the Oath of Druids banning than any other deck.”

“So Extended is like five decks?”

“No, Jack. There are a ton of decks that will be played, but only a few will be good enough to win consistently. Plenty of people will play Suicide Black because lots of people like the deck, but it rolls over and dies to the Red decks. Always has, always will, and there are good red decks in the field.

“Red Deck Wins is a serious force, and Goblins is not going to go away just because the Recruiter is retired. U/G Madness is going to be in the field, but it won’t have the same kind of success it is used to. People will play it, though. Actually, it’s a good choice for a lot of players, because they are used to it. Same thing with Psychatog. Odyssey Block Standard lives on in Extended.”

“So, how do you predict what you are going to see, dude?”

“Well, that’s what I was talking about in that last fragment. Even now, I can picture guys I’m used to seeing at these events and come up with one or two decks they are likely to run if they aren’t the roguish type. Some of the rogues I can begin to pin down, too. It’s just very, very basic stuff. I have an idea of the decks that will show up come January. I know who plays what kind of deck or whose advice they follow. That will help me tweak my deck to have a better chance of beating everyone else in the room.”

“So that’s reading the metagame?”

“At it’s most primitive, yes.”

“Seems kind of simple.”

“The basic stuff is simple. People pretend it’s hard. I’m not sure why. Look let me write it out and see if it makes sense to you.”

Psychatog is the control deck of choice in January. The bannings have eviscerated the lightning fast combos, and Oath of Druids has been banned. Furthermore, Psychatog made a huge mark in Extended qualifiers the latter half of last season. No tools have been removed from Tog in the two rounds of bannings. Some tools have been added with Mirrodin (Isochron Scepter, Chrome Mox).

“Let’s call that given, conclusion number one.”

“Gotcha. I don’t see anything to argue about with that.”

“Okay, here’s the next piece of given info.”

Tom and Dick are control players. Tom played Tog in Odyssey-Invasion Standard. Dick played Wake most of last year. Harry sometimes plays control, sometimes does not, but always plays a deck generally accepted to be one of the best decks available.

“I don’t even know if Tom, Dick, or Harry are going to play at the PTQ in January, but if they do I’m sure Tom and Dick will be playing Tog. Harry might, but he might play RDW instead. Let me add that Tom, Dick, and Harry are often x-1 or better going into the last Swiss round before the top 8 cut. There isn’t much reason to care if they are not.”

“Wow. So you think Tom and Dick might be playing Psychatog, huh?”

“I do, and that would help me to know immediately before a match, but what I really want to know is how many Toms and Dicks there are part of my Usual Crowd. The more of them I know about, the more accurate my read on the metagame will be. That means my playtesting can be more efficient, my sideboard choices will be better, etcetera.”

“Interesting, dude. Very interesting.”

“Not really, Jack. If it was interesting, I could get an article out of it. As it stands, I have something like four unfinished articles and nothing to show for it.”

“Well, you always have the soup.”

“Indeed, Jack. I still have my sauerkraut soup to keep me warm.”

Pale Mage