The Kitchen Table #156: The Casual Metagame #8

Read Abe Sargent... every Thursday at
StarCityGames.com!This series of articles was written in response to a series of comments by various casual players who decried the existence of a casual metagame. Of course, as the creator of the Framework, I obviously disagree with that claim. These articles set out to demonstrate to casual players that there is an underlying taxonomy to Magic decks that can be studied and understood.

Hello and welcome back to the series that chronicles most of the decks ever invented in a Magic Deck Framework. The Magic Deck Framework divides decks up into five Archetypes, which are then further subdivided into various Subtypes. For the past seven entries, I’ve been examining the various Archetypes and Subtypes in detail, including sample deck lists in order to give as accurate a picture as I can.

This series of articles was written in response to a series of comments by various casual players who decried the existence of a casual metagame. Of course, as the creator of the Framework, I obviously disagree with that claim. This series of articles sets out to demonstrate to casual players that there is an underlying taxonomy to Magic decks that can be studied and understood.

Hopefully, with an understanding of the Framework, the casual player will be able to anticipate the sorts of decks that one may go up against. Of course, the Framework happens to include competitive decks by default. As such, competitive players can derive some use from it as well, although my motivation for creating it was oriented towards casual players.

I designed the Magic Deck Framework to be flexible, so as Magic decks change over time, the Framework can adopt to those changes as well. Therefore, I see the Framework as an organic construct that morphs as people’s realizations and understanding of the game alter.

Okay, with that preface completed, let’s move on to the good stuff. Previously we went over the various Archetypes and Subtypes and how different decks belong to various types. Today, we will go over how to identify a deck and target its weaknesses by learning where it falls in the Framework.

As a quick reminder, the five Archetypes are No-Holds-Barred Aggro, Controlling the Board, Crazy Combo Man, Resource Denial, and Hybrid. If you need to, take a few moments to head over to previous installments of the Casual Metagame to familiarize yourself with the terms and concepts of the Framework.

Below us, in Appendix A, is the first complete Framework all in one place. You can review it there. It’s the updated Framework, so it’s more up-to-date than the one in the first article. Check it out for a quick refresher if needed before heading into the meat of today’s article.

The Why

Why is this identification necessary? The reason that we go through all of this is because the quicker you can identify and properly assign a deck to a certain Archetype and hopefully even a Subtype, the sooner you can devise a strategy for winning.

Suppose you have a Naturalize in your hand and your opponent has a Coldsteel Heart in play. Do you use the Naturalize now or wait? How valuable is that Coldsteel Heart to your opponent? With a Counterspell in hand, what do you counter? With a Vindicate, what do you target?

Knowing the answers to these questions relies on your ability to assess what your opponent is playing and then responding in kind. However, it is important to remember where you are. You are playing casual Magic. I’ve seen many tournament players make many casual mistakes because they failed to realize that the casual metagame is much wider than the tournament metagame. I’ve seen tournament-level players make assumptions about a casual deck that were flawed because they assumed that their casual opponent would be playing a deck of a type they would be familiar with.

That’s why I went through the process of enumerating the casual metagame in the Framework. Now tournament level players and casual players alike can see the span of possibility in any pick-up game.

Tactic #1: ID the Lead

In the first few turns of a game, a player will almost always show you what they are doing with their deck. Now, obviously, sometimes a player has manascrew or sometimes they don’t draw anything they can play. Still, you can usually get a good handle on what an opponent is trying to do in the first few turns.

You will find that many leads are obvious. If I play a Jackal Pup on the first turn, my deck is going to at least be a No-Holds-Barred Aggro, or Hybrid with NHBAggro and something else. Jackal Pup is an obvious lead for aggro, as are cards like Savannah Lions, Carnophage, Isamaru, and later cards like Wild Mongrel, Watchwolf, and so forth.

Some are less obvious. What does a Llanowar Elves tell you about the player? Lots of decks could lead with Llanowar Elves. A fun NHBAggro deck or a Hybrid with NHBAggro tendencies is possible. Crazy Combo Man might want the early mana. Resource Denial might want the mana bump to play Stone Rain or something earlier. So, leading with Llanowar Elves may not imbue as much information.

A few cards give even less information, like Birds of Paradise. That won’t give you any information at all, as literally any Archetype and many Subtypes could use Birds of Paradise in their deck.

However, there are cards that tell you more than you might think. Take, for example, Lay of the Land. Why would someone play Lay of the Land instead of a mana creature? A NHBAggro deck would want the mana elves or wait for them on turn 2 in the case of getting other colors. Now you begin to look at deck types that don’t have the same need or desire for creatures.

On the second turn, there’s a big difference if they play Sakura-Tribe Elder for mana or Fire Diamond for mana. Why would they play the artifact mana instead of a better creature that sacs for mana? There are tons of legitimate uses for artifact mana that would make a Diamond better than a Sakura Tribe-Elder.

If your opponent drops a second turn wall, like a Wall of Blossoms or a Fog Bank, then they probably aren’t NHBAggro. Only one NHBAggro Subtype, the Sneak Deck, would legitimately have a use for a cheap and efficient blocker. With a blocker like that, you have to start looking at CTB or CCM as possible deck types.

The problem is that no matter how many possible leads I could list here, and what they likely mean, there is no way to cover them all. Therefore, you have to use your own knowledge of the player (if you have any), the framework, and your own experience along with logical thought to extrapolate what your opponent is playing and what strategy they need in order to win.

Some are obvious, sure. Playing a second turn Veteran Brawlers means tempo and Resource Denial. Dropping that second turn Watchwolf means NHBAggro.

Tactic #2: Analyze the Land

A commonly misunderstood tactic is to look at the land they are playing. Some players make assumptions based on the color of the opponent’s land. Do not do this. Do not assume that someone playing a Shivan Reef is playing counter-burn or Crazy Combo Man, while someone playing Shivan Oasis must be playing NHBAggro.

It’s possible that the Red/Green deck is an NHBAggro deck. However, once you start setting up roadblocks and making it difficult to attack you, you’ll be surprised and killed by being Elfballed to death (Elfball is a Red/Green deck that uses elves and other fast Green mana to fuel a powerful and giant Fireball). Because you didn’t prepare for combo, you died.

Sure, you might think the Red/Blue deck is counterburn or combo, but then you are land destroyed by Stone Rains and various Blue Fork effects. Because you didn’t prepare for Resource Denial, you died.

Therefore, do not make the mistake of assigning Archetypes and Subtypes to a deck simply because of a color combination.

Instead, look at other lands for clues. Seeing a Kor Haven or a Maze of Ith or even a Desert or Quicksand tells you that a person is concerned with attackers. That means they are probably playing few creatures. Being willing to dedicate land to stopping attackers diminishes the probability that the deck is a Crazy Combo Man deck, although it is still possible. This deck is likely a Controlling the Board deck with a possibility for a CCM, so keep that in mind just in case.

Seeing fast mana lands like Ancient Tomb tells you that they need fast mana so quickly that they are willing to pay the price. This likely means the deck is a CCM deck, so watch for the combos. If you have Disenchant effects, save them for any thing that looks like a combo piece. Keep the countermagic available for something nasty and possibly game-winning. Don’t allow yourself to tap out to counter something, unless it is vital that you counter it. Other lands that speak dangerously here include Gaea’s Cradle, Tolarian Academy, Serra’s Sanctum, the Urzatron, or City of Traitors.

When you see creature enablers like Pendelhaven or Yavimaya Hollow, you can start looking for the NHBAggro deck. There are a few other creature-enabling lands, but not many, so watch out if you see them. There’s usually no reason to run both.

When you see Wastelands, Strip Mines, or Rishadan Ports, you can start analyzing the deck as if it were a Resource Denial deck, because it probably is.

When you see man–lands, you are likely looking at CTB or RD. Remember that some Resource Denial decks work by cutting off a resource, like creatures, and then swinging with man-lands and Jade Statue creatures.

This philosophy continues. Lands like City of Shadows, Academy Ruins, Volrath’s Stronghold, Phyrexian Tower, Kjeldoran Outpost, Vitu-Ghazi, Temple of the False God, and such each mean something. You can get a lot of information from an opponent playing one of these lands against you, so watch for clues that you can pick up from non-basics.

Tactic #3: Keep an Open Mind

Once you have an idea of what your opponent is playing, the next step is to decide if future information fits when your previous assessment claimed. Sometimes, this shift will be obvious. A player who plays a Watchwolf followed by a Noble Panther is probably playing NHBAggro for sure. But if they then drop Glare of Subdual, then your assessment is about to change. If they follow by playing Supply for four Saproling tokens, then your new assessment has been proved.

Something like an Opposition or Glare of Subdual will likely change your assumption about the deck easily. Just make sure that you don’t get tunnel vision and begin to miss more subtle clues that your first choice isn’t the best.

For example, I played an old Extended deck at a Grand Prix Trial based on Ponza (there’s an article about it here if you want to read ancient history). That deck would often lead with a Jackal Pup, which would normally indicate a NHBAggro deck. At some point in time, something would begin to indicate the Ponza nature of the deck. Maybe a Rishadan Port, or maybe a Wasteland, Veteran Brawlers or a Stone Rain. Now, a simple Wasteland or Stone Rain does not, on its own, make my deck a Resource Denial deck, but you’d be amazed how far into the game we would go before my opponent realizes that I was playing a Resource Denial strategy if I led with a Jackal Pup. It would often be the fourth or fifth turn before realization hit.

Make sure that you are constantly re-evaluating your assessment in light of new information. Some players may stick unconventional cards in their decks just because they like them. Really forward-thinking players may build decks designed to confuse the opponent until it is too late to stop them (clever multiplayer combos often have to do this so that other players at the table do not gang up on them). You need to see past the cards and see what the deck actually does.

Tactic #3.5: Know the Limitations of These Tactics

This next part is very important. It is vital to note that these tips and tactics for a quick and smooth identification of an opposing deck rely on that deck playing cards that make sense. That is not always the case. A normal NHBAggro deck, except for the Sneak Deck, should not bother with playing walls, but that does not mean that every player will understand or care. A player might fear flyers, and therefore play some flying walls. A player might just like having defense while their team swings. While that isn’t necessary, and probably isn’t wise deckbuilding strategy, it happens. If you are going to read the cards, then you need to understand that in casual world, not everything makes obvious sense. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Tactic #4: Learn the Weakness

No deck is flawless. Every deck has a weakness that can be exploited. In fact, any deck will have numerous weaknesses. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is attack as fast as you possibly can. Sometimes you need to be clever.

Remember that each deck tries to do something prior to winning. NHBAggro tries to attack to win. CTB tries to establish control to win. CCM tries to use cards in combination to win. RD tries to deny you a resource to win. Hybrid will combine two (almost always just two, but it’s possible that three could be combined) of these.

Fight the fight that you can win. Sometimes you will lose the fight on one front, only to win the game on another. Against a land destruction deck, if you can get out enough cheap creatures quickly, it won’t matter how many lands he destroys, your creatures will still win. On the other hand, if your creatures cannot race a combo’s clock, you have to find a way to disrupt the combo or you will die.

In other words, sometimes you can just switch the front. And yet sometimes you have to fight the fight ton the front of your opponent’s choosing. If you are playing an NHBAggro deck and your opponent is playing a CTB deck, then you may be fighting most of the game over whether or not you are going to have creatures in play. You will need to fight on that front because your opponent’s desire to remove your creature from play directly confronts your desire to attack with creatures in play.

This is different than the example above where a land destruction deck and an NHBAggro deck went up against each other. In that example, you opponent wants to destroy lands, whereas you want to attack with creatures in play. They are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, as you can see, sometimes your opponent’s goals are directly opposed to your own, and sometimes they aren’t.

What you need to do is figure out which front you need to fight on. That’s why we spent three sections of this article on the identification of your opponent’s deck. Once you know what the deck does, you can do what you need to counter it, ignore it, outrace it, or fight it.

Your own strategy may change as you see what your opponent is playing. A CTB deck that really attacks creatures may shift and use that creature removal meant to protect from damage against utility creatures like Birds of Paradise once it realizes that the opponent is playing a CCM deck that needs the mana to go off. The ability to shift gears like this is vital to winning, especially in the casual game where the decks you are going up against are much more varied.

On that note, it is time for me to bid adieu. I hope that you enjoyed today’s installment in the Casual Metagame. The next article in this series will look at tips to build your deck in such a way that you can handle a maximum amount of space in the Framework.

Until later,

Abe Sargent

Appendix A – The Magic Deck Framework

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 – Outverbage the opposing defense

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
Roadblock 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 — 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
Prison Deck – Destroys usefulness of permanents as a way to cut off virtually every choice

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
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 — Combines two or more Archetypes to create one decktype.

Aggro-Control Deck – Uses quick creatures and then removes threats until they win
Temporal Deck – Uses time to cut off options
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
Permanent Refusal Deck – Uses permanents as an adjunct to a Resource Denial Strategy 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
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.
Matrix Deck – Uses a variety of synergies to create a matrix of interweaving abilities