Last week’s article made me realize something important. Some players don’t understand that there is a casual metagame. If you sit down to play some random casual players, there are some things you can expect to see on a regular basis.
Obviously, the casual metagame is not nearly as defined as the competitive metagame. There aren’t tournament reports with obvious winners and losers with easily seen deck genres. However, there are trends, and if you want to understand why certain decktypes win consistently in a casual metagame, understanding these trends is vital.
This is not a new subject for me. Every few months I’d write a two-page casual metagame article for Scrye, but I haven’t written one in ages. This arena gives me the opportunity to flesh out some of my ideas, give examples, and explain the trends in more detail.
I call these trends the five Archetypes of Casual Magic. Is it possible to build a deck so crazy, so extraordinary that it falls outside of the archetypes? Absolutely, there’s no denying that. However, virtually every deck that intends to win, and many of those that don’t, fall into these Archetypes.
What I do is categorize decks. One of the best gifts casual Magic, and specifically multiplayer, ever received was the ability to evaluate cards based on a scale that was developed here for StarCityGames by then-author Anthony Alongi. He created a variety of different elements and then evaluated where a given card was in each of the elements. This was great at comparing cards.
The one problem with this evaluation is that it was outside of a deck. Sure, you could say that Pernicious Deed is the most powerful multiplayer card ever, and probably be right. However, that doesn’t mean that every Green/Black deck should include it.
What I am doing today is evaluating decks as a whole, based on what they want to do. I’m not concerned with the individual card choices. Anthony Alongi long ago gave us a great way of looking at individual cards.
Understanding the interaction between your own deck and these five archetypes is the key to figuring out how to win against them. Inside each archetype are various subtypes. These subtypes are just different ways to win using the archetype. Let’s go over the five archetypes.
Archetype #1: No-Holds-Barred Aggro
NHBAggro is the simplest of the archetypes to play and win with. NHBAggro tries to do one thing – win through creatures. This deck plays creatures as quickly as possible and then swings with them to win. I believe more decks fall into thee NHBAggro archetype than any other. The key element of this deck is that is uses creatures to overcome opposing defenses. Although all of these decks may include a smattering of removal, the important point is that they intend to overcome defenses.
The easiest deck to see as NHBAggro is the Swarm deck with tons of small and cheap creatures that are played as quickly as possible. The player tries to get an overwhelming creature advantage and swarm the opponent. This swarm technique is indicative of winning tournament decks for the ages, like White Weenie, Suicide Black and Sligh.
Another version of NHBAggro is the Big Creature deck. This deck focuses on playing bigger creatures than the opponent. The first deck, the swarm deck, tries to outnumber the opponent. This strategy tries to outsmash the opponent. Bigger and bigger creatures are played, with the intention of playing one large enough to blast through the opposing defense. The Gruul guild from Ravnica Black was good example of this strategy, with larger and larger creatures, all efficient, until it won the creature battle. Sometimes this deck tries to power out the biggest creature the most quickly. Playing a Dark Ritual for an Avatar of Woe really hurts any concept of card advantage, but you hope that by playing such a large creature so quickly that you’ll win the battle.
A third type of NHBAggro is the Sneak deck. The sneak deck plays a few creatures that are unblockable – like flyers, landwalkers, feared, and outright unblockable creatures. It may play a few defensive creatures to mug up the ground, but its creatures are the route to victory. Where the swarm deck tries to outnumber and the big creature deck tries to outsmash, this deck tries to outflank. A Green/Blue deck with Walls of Blossom for the ground, and some flyers, and a handful of true unblockable creatures is a classic example of the sneak deck.
A fourth type of NHBAggro deck is the Growth deck. This type seems to be getting more popular every year. This type plays creatures and then tries to grow them. This may happen by playing a tribal deck and dropping enhancers or a Coat of Arms. It could also occur by playing some creatures, casting Overrun, and swinging for the game. The Simic Guild with its graft ability could be seen as a version of the growth deck. This deck tries to outgrow the opponent.
A fifth version of the NHBAggro deck is the Alpha Strike deck. This deck is designed to hit a stalemate of creatures and then play an effect that allows for one giant Alpha Strike to win the game. A classic example of this deck is the old deck that played plenty of efficient but ground-based creatures and then dropped Goblin War Drums and won the game in one attack. Decks built around Falter effects (like the Chaos half of Order/Chaos) and tapping effects (like Winter Blast) are usually Alpha Strike decks. This deck tries to outmaneuver the opposing defense.
The last version of the NHBAggro deck is the Ability deck (which is fairly rare). This deck tries to play creatures with a lot of combat abilities, or it might add to those abilities with various effects. The net result is to attack with creatures that, although are not the largest, have a sizable advantage over similarly sized creatures with abilities like flanking, first strike, regeneration, and so forth. It often looks like this deck wants to outverbiage the opposing creatures, by having more abilities. Cards that work well here include Knighthood, Jabari’s Banner, Primal Rage, Gustcloak Harrier, and creatures like White Knight or Cadaverous Knight.
Any deck that tries to win by playing creatures and then swinging with them fits into this archetype, even if it can’t be classified in the above six decks. I think you’ll find, however, that most NHBAggro decks fit into these six subtypes. In summation:
Archetype #1 – No-Holds-Barred Aggro – Win by playing creatures and swinging with them, overcoming opposing defenses
Swarm Deck – Outnumber the opposing defense.
Big Creature Deck – Outsmash the opposing defense.
Sneak Deck – Outflank the opposing defense.
Growth Deck – Outgrow the opposing defense.
Alpha Strike Deck – Outmaneuver the opposing defense.
Ability Deck – Outverbiage the opposing defense.
Archetype #2: Controlling the Board
This archetype tries to control the board through various methods. It tries to answer threats the opponent plays, and then plays a winning condition of its own once it has established control. Just because many CTB decks win by playing some creatures and riding them to victory does not make this an NHBAggro deck. This deck wins by establishing control. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is for victory. The key element here is that threats are neutered, whereas in NHBAggro, they are just overcome with threats of your own.
One of the easiest forms of CTB is the Counter deck. This deck tries to use various Counterspell variants to keep most permanents from hitting the board. The deck tries to have more counters than the opponent has threats, and once most threats have been countered, the deck drops a winning mechanism and wins. This deck may rely on a small amount of bounce or removal or defense to stop the few creatures that make it through the counter net.
Another subtype is the Neuter deck. This deck tries to anticipate routes of attack and neuters them with one or two cards. Since the opponent has committed more cards to the attack than the CTB person has committed to the defense, the neuter deck will win out. An example of a deck like this is one built around cards like Story Circle, Moat, Ivory Mask, The Abyss, and other cards that shutdown large numbers of potential threats.
A third version of CTB is the Quick Defense type. This type tries to play a quick defense that will stand up to much more powerful creatures. After playing this strong defense, the deck can then take its time neutralizing threats or even alpha striking in one blow, sharing some outward similarity with the Alpha Strike NHBAggro deck (the difference being that quick defense plays largely defensive creatures whereas Alpha Strike plays threats. A wall deck that plays Rolling Stones to win is a quick defense deck, for example).
Yet another deck in this archetype is the Sweep and Stop type. This deck tries to sweep numerous threats from the board, and once parity is established, drops one of its threats in order to win the game. An example of this is the old Mono-White Control decks from a few blocks ago that ran Akroma’s Vengeance and Wrath of God and Wing Shards. They used only a pair of Akromas and a set of Exalted Angels as their winning conditions, but tried to gain equilibrium by playing removal spells that hit numerous opposing creatures. The deck may have run Dawn Elementals as a temporary stopping force, but the deck’s bread and butter winning strategy was to sweep the board, then play the winning card.
A further version of the CTB strategy is to Negate the opposing offense. This is usually done by constant tapping or bouncing the offense. A deck that uses Tradewind Riders and Heidar, Rimewind Master to bounce creatures before they attack each turn is one example. Once you have stopped the defense, you can then use those same resources to tap or bounce defenders and swing for damage. This deck seeks to negate any offense an opponent can muster over and over again, before mounting its own offense.
Remember, any CTB deck seeks first to control; then it just needs to find any winning condition at all, whether it be Millstone, Akroma, or Underworld Dreams. The deck wins by controlling the board, not through the often arbitrary kill method. In summation:
Archetype #2 – Controlling the Board – Seeks to win by establishing control, then uses a method to win
Counter Deck – Have more counters than opposing threats.
Neuter Deck – Have protection from opposing threats.
Quick Defense Deck – Have more defense than opposing threats.
Sweep and Stop Deck – Have more removal than opposing threats.
Negate Deck – Have more use from your creatures than opposing threats.
Archetype #3: Resource Denial
Whereas the Controlling the Board strategy tries to win by controlling the board and destroying what the opponent plays, Resource Denial tries to keep the opponent from playing anything. This strategy is designed to win by keeping the opponent tied up.
One of the most basic subtypes of the RD Archetype is the classic Land Destruction deck. This deck destroys lands, which prevent the opponent from playing anything of substance. Once a large mana differential is achieved, the deck can then win at its leisure with a variety of different methods.
Another very common resource denial strategy is the Discard strategy. By having an opponent with no card sin hand, the player can prevent the opponent from either having answers to any threats, or from having threats of their own. Some creatures will cause discards and some spells will cause discards, and most decks use both. The key element of this deck is that is concentrates on denying the opponent a hand, in order to prevent the opponent from playing spells or creatures.
A third subtype is the Taxing strategy. This strategy tries to increase the cost of effects to the point where the opponent cannot do them anymore. One example of the Taxing strategy is to keep creatures in play, using something like Pendrell Mists or Fade Away. Another example is taxing game choices, like attacking or blocking, via methods like Propaganda or Heat Wave. A third option is to tax the playing of any spells by opponents altogether, like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV.
Another subtype is to deny the library, I call this Strip and Ship. One way this can be done is to strip out threats via cards like Jester’s Cap and Denying Wind until no threats are left, and then you easily win. Another library denial strategy would use a card like Sealed Fate or Elemental Augury to force your opponent to always draw a useless card. A third version of this deck revolves around milling the deck via cards like Traumatize. Recent cards have made milling a quicker strategy than before.
A fifth subtype is the Temporal deck. The resource this deck tries to deny is time. It will often play a creature or two, then play spells and effects to prevent the opponent from playing answers or defense or threats of their own. An example of this deck is a Rising Waters deck or a Tangle Wire deck that drops Veteran Brawlers on the second turn, then Tangle Wire on the third.
A sixth version is the Prison deck. This deck tries to keep a lot of valuable resources locked down. Playing something like Winter Orb and then tapping whatever land is untapped by the opponent with an Icy Manipulator is an example of a prison strategy. Often, these decks will seek to lock down more than one resource, and a classic example of just such a deck is a Stasis deck.
Resource Denial strategies focus on stripping away a valuable resource a deck has, and then winning. This resource can be mana, hand, library or even time. By taking away a resource, the deck keeps the possibly for the opponent to play either answers or threats of their own to a minimum. In summation:
Archetype #3 – Resource Denial – Tries to deny a valuable resource, keeping opponents unable to answer or play threats.
Land Destruction Deck — Destroys lands as a way to cut off mana.
Discard — Destroys hand as a way to cut off options.
Taxing Deck — Destroys opportunities to use mana as a way to cut off flexibility.
Strip and Ship Deck — Destroys library as a way to cut off quality.
Temporal Deck — Destroys time as a way to cut off ability.
Prison Deck — Destroys usefulness of permanents as a way to cut off virtually every choice.
Archetype #4: Crazy Combo Man
This archetype is more confusing than others. Crazy Combo Man often seeks to delay your opponent until you are ready to go off. CCM decks can pack some defense or removal. The difference here is that a CTB deck wins by controlling the board – it is the deck’s lifeblood. A CTB deck then can drop any winning condition it likes. On the other hand, CCM seeks merely to delay until its combo is online.
The first subtype is the Synergy deck. This is probably the most common CCM deck. The synergy deck is built around cards that work well together and allows the deck to do things it wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. A great example of the synergy deck is Burning Bridge, a deck with nothing but burn, Ensnaring Bridge, and Grafted Skullcap. The Skullcaps and Bridges work together to keep players from attacking, and draw you twice the normal number of cards so you can go to your opponent’s dome with your burn at double the normal rate.
The next version of CCM is the Permanent Interaction deck. This deck uses the interaction between two or more permanents in order to win the game. An example of this deck is PandeBurst, which plays Pandemonium and Saproling Burst in order to deal 21 damage. This interaction can and will take place between lands, enchantments, artifacts, and creatures.
Up next is the Mana Glutton. Here, the deck seeks to make as much mana as possible, then tries to win through some very powerful effect. One of the earliest Mana Glutton decks was probably ProsBloom, where the deck made tons of mana through Cadaverous Bloom, Squandered Resources, and Natural Balance, then played a huge Drain Life. Other versions of this type might use Mana Flare or Heartbeat of Spring, Cabal Coffers, Gaea’s Cradle or Early Harvest. The deck subtype can fuel everything from Fireball or Kaervek’s Torch to Maga, Traitor to Mortals.
A fourth style of combo deck is the Silver Bullet deck. This deck packs a lot of tutors and one of each card that can single-handedly wreck a certain strategy, then simply searches up the devastating card and wins the game. These can include Chill, Perish, Hibernation, Marauding Knight, and so forth.
Another style of CCM deck is the Impossible Combo deck. This is everybody’s favorite Johnny deck where some obscure seven-card combo goes off spectacularly for the win. Then the person usually puts the deck away. This deck is more designed to have fun and go off once than it is to reliably win, like the permanent interaction subtype.
As you can see, CCM decks have a variety of methods available in order to win. This is an archetype that is designed to win by combining cards in such a fashion that winning is more likely or almost certain. Remember, a key here is that the deck often seeks to delay the opponent, not stop them outright.
Archetype #4 – Crazy Combo Man – Seeks to delay opponent until combo can win the game.
Synergy Deck — Creates a synergy that supports the deck’s route to victory.
Permanent Interaction Deck — Creates a combination that immediately wins.
Mana Glutton Deck — Creates a horde or mana in order win immediately.
Silver Bullet Deck — Creates an antithesis to common decks that allows it to win.
Impossible Combo Deck — Creates a large combo that allows it to have fun, and maybe win too.
Archetype #5: Hybrid
The last archetype isn’t so much a type of its own, but decks that are combinations of two (or possibly more) other archetypes. These decks merge two elements and try to use that combination to win. Due to the uncertain nature of this last archetype, the number of subtypes is much, much larger, and the chance that decks will fall outside of these subtypes is significantly greater. The simple fact is that there are likely a lot more subtypes of Hybrid decks than those named here, but this is a good start.
The first type is the Aggro-Control type. This type combines CTB with NHBAggro. The player plays a few creatures, then tries to ride them to victory by CTB. A normal CTB deck controls first, then later wins by default. This deck is the exact opposite, more like an aggro deck. A classic example of this deck is the Counter Sliver deck that played a couple of Slivers and then rode them to victory by playing countermagic, Swords to Plowshares, and other controlling cards.
Another subtype is the One Hit Wonder deck, a combination of NHBAggro and CCM. This deck seeks to delay the opponent long enough to hit with a creature, but the route of victory is absolutely the creature, not some combo. This deck creates a condition in the board so that it can get one creature through for one hit. That hit kills off the opponent. Phage decks falls into this category, by giving Phage fear, flying, shadow and/or haste and attacking with her in order to win the game.
Yet another Hybrid subtype is the Bleeder deck. This deck combines CTB with CCM to use a strategy to kill off an opponent slowly. The Orzhov Guild from Guildpact often plays this way. The deck’s goal is to win by playing cards like Pillory of the Sleepless, which not only help to control the board, but also deal damage so that you can win.
A fourth subtype is the Creatures as Removal deck. This is a combination of NHBAggro and Control. This deck controls the board, like CTB, but uses creatures extensively for the task, therefore building a quick army designed to overwhelm what forces remain on defense, like NHBAggro. My 187 creature deck, with virtually nothing but 187 creatures like Nekrataal, Uktabi Orangutan, and Thornscape Battlemage, is a good example of this deck.
The next Hybrid showcase is the Slow Blow deck. This deck is a combination of NHBAggro and Resource Denial. This deck plays a few creatures and then slowly whittles away the opponent’s life while land destruction or tempo spells slow the opponent down and keep them from responding. Dropping Jackal Pup and Ironclaw Orcs, followed the next two turns by two Stone Rains and a Wasteland… that will keep big creatures from interfering with your Pup and Orcs as they hit for four every turn. You can also burn away the few blockers with Lightning Bolts and Shocks. This is an example of a slow blow deck. Another example of this Subtype is my own Equinaut deck.
A sixth subtype is the Permanent Refusal deck. This is a combination of CCM and Resource Denial. This deck uses Resource Denial to slow down the opponent and combos that Resource Denial with a few other effects to win the game. A discard deck that uses just Megrims to win, even forcing discard during your opponent’s draw step after they draw, would be one example of a Permanent Refusal deck.
A seventh version of the Hybrid subtype is not clearly a combination of any of the above types. This version of deck is built around a theme so strongly that it is not obvious how the deck even wins. I call this the Extreme Theme deck. One example of such a theme is my old Castle deck, where I had Castles, Parapets etc, and then a few soldiers and artillery to man the defenses. This deck was not designed to win, but rather to help me have fun.
Another subtype is the Card Advantage deck. This is a combination of CTB and Resource Denial. This deck can play some discard cards to keep the opposing hand down, and then plays tons of cards designed to draw more cards, and ultimately wins through sheer card advantage. A Vintage level deck with lots of card drawing plus Mind Twist and Duress is an example of this.
A ninth subtype is the Sweep but Keep deck. This is a combination of CTB and NHBAggro. This deck uses creatures and then plays sweeping removal that kills everybody besides your own creatures, and you swing into the tatters of your opponent’s defense and win shortly after. Imagine a Black/White deck that packs Retribution of the Meek, Dakmor Plague, and creatures that have four or more defense and three or less power, like Staunch Defenders. This deck would play sweeping removal that wouldn’t touch your creatures, and then you could swing in for the kill.
The Hybrid Subtypes are varied, and I’m sure there are lots more that I am just unable to think of at the moment. A true Hybrid deck combines elements of two (or more) Archetypes into a distinct deck that does not fit into either. In summation:
Archetype #5 – Hybrid – Combines two or more Archetypes to create one decktype.
Aggro-Control Deck – Uses quick creatures and then removes threats until they win.
One Hit Wonder Deck – Uses a creature that can win in one hit and then tries to get its hit in.
Bleeder Deck – Uses control methods as both a way to slow down opponents and also to win.
Creatures as Removal Deck – Uses creatures to both remove threats and to be threats of their own.
Slow Blow Deck – Uses creatures to attack and win while also slowing down the opponent’s ability to respond.
Permanent Refusal Deck – Uses permanents as an adjunct to a Resource Denial Strategy to win.
Extreme Theme Deck – This deck is designed to be merely an uber-fun deck with little chance of winning.
Card Advantage Deck – Uses card advantage to the max in order to bury opponent in cards.
Sweep but Keep Deck – Uses creatures and sweeping kill cards that do not kill your creatures.
When I created this framework, I called a few fellow players and asked them about decks. Where would they place their own decks, what other ideas did they have for subtypes, and so forth. Over the course of the next few weeks, I intend to explore this framework more closely. In the meantime, this is a request to all of you to help me out. I am sure that I missed the occasional subtype, and if you can think of one or more, please help me out and post in the forums.
Remember that in order to qualify, a subtype needs to have multiple decks to fit in it. Otherwise, the deck is just a maverick, fitting outside the framework. I once created a deck that didn’t seek to win, but instead sought to permanently gain control of cards in the ante via Tempest Efreet and Dance of Many. Ante Stealing Decks are hardly a genre, however. So, please keep in mind that if you are clever enough to have invented an outside the framework deck, don’t expect that I’ll automatically toss in a subtype for it, although I still want to hear about it!
I expect this framework to be organic, changing over time as I learn more and you inform me. This week is important, before I begin next week’s deck. Please, help me with new Subtypes and ideas. Thanks for your help!