Hello everybody, and welcome to the Magic Show. I’m your host, Evan Erwin. Today we’re going to talk about metagames. Just what the hell is a metagame, why should you care, and how is it “formed?”
Now to those who just stuck their noses high in air, feel free to fast forward. But for the rest, let’s take a look at this crazy little thing called a meta.
Meta comes from a Greek word that looks like this: μετα and means “beyond” or “after.”
A metagame, however, is literally the “game outside the game,” a game “beyond” the one you are playing. This is the sort of high-level thinking in which you decide what others are going to do and act accordingly.
Let’s take a look at a clip from The Princess Bride.
Now, the metagame is not the switching of the cups, but rather Vizzini’s reasoning: He believes he has “figured his opponent out” and therefore tries the switcharoo. The cop-out, however, is that Westley had poisoned both glasses, therefore cheating. But it was a good movie anyway.
The point is, this reasoning is ripe in my articles and almost any article that has to deal with a format. A format is defined by its winning decks, right? So why, then, aren’t people playing with just one deck or another?
This is the part where I get to highlight some very subtle yet important moves that Wizards of the Coast has done to improve the current Standard environment.
We must begin with Ravnica. The end of 2005 and beginning of 2006 was Ravnica’s time to shine. Multicolor was back! We had dual lands! And not “pain” lands, though those were thoughtfully returned in Ninth; not the awful Ice Age-esque “tap” lands from Kamigawa; nope, the real deal. Even the Karoos were fantastic in both Draft and Constructed! The set was welcomed with warm, loving arms as draft proved inescapably fun and constructed was just getting started.
But oh, Umezawa’s Jitte… sigh, Umezawa’s Jitte. Were it not for this card, Gifts Ungiven would probably be the most important and impacting card in Kamigawa Block. A rich, Super Spikey rare that warmed the rotten, blackened hearts of Block Qualifier winners everywhere. No doubt Stephen Menendian can thank Gifts Ungiven for a barrage of articles declaring its subtle brilliance. But Umezawa’s Jitte? There are hundreds if not thousands of articles, forum posts, emails, and letters declaring its stupidity. How it takes the fun out of the game.
Worst of all? This card was a mistake. And that’s how 2005 began. Brilliance and blunder. You take an enthusiastic player-base embracing an incredible set and block in Ravnica and those still reeling from the fact that Umezawa’s Jitte was destroying players left and right. I stick a Jitte, you don’t, you lose. I saw this happen far, far too much during early 2005.
If there was anything I wish Wizards had done, it would have been to remove such a mistake from the metagame. The meta was this: You played Jitte, or you played against it, or both. I knew players would be playing with a full set of Jittes, therefore I had to play answers. But it was so good, you could just play four of your own, automatically have four “answers” to their Jittes. And so on, and so forth, until you just sideboarded in your Pithing Needles and watched as Paladin En-Vec – one of the toughest cards to kill, period – picked up the Jitte to victory time and time again.
The metagame in January was shaped, much as it is now at the end of December, by the Worlds results. Glare won Worlds, so everyone played Glare or had answers to it. The metagame consisted of decks that played Glare, decks that played against Glare, or decks that could beat Glare.
Then Guildpact hit. And everybody went nuts. While Orzhov would eventually overpower Gruul in terms of long-term impact, it was Izzetron and Gruul who fought it out at Pro Tour: Honolulu, with Osyp going 8-0 on Day 1 and Herberholz taking us all to Heezy Street. And could anyone actually forget the $15,000 Lightning Helix? The maindeck Electrolyzes, the idea that Wildfire is actually really good? Simpler times, simpler times.
It was around this time that I began to write seriously for StarCityGames.com. My Complete Owling Mine Player’s Guide went over like gangbusters in addition to winning me a big tournament, and my Food For Thought series kicked off my Featured Writer status.
In April we got our taste of Dissension. The final dual lands were released, including the coveted control player’s dream of Hallowed Fountain. Infernal Tutor was the hot stuff on prerelease day, with everyone drooling on finding dual Chars and Dragons and all that good stuff that no one ever actually ended up doing.
Commanding a $20 bill at the prerelease, it would take a whole Spring for people to see the real star of the set, Demonfire. Hellbent really sucks…except when it’s on an X spell. Even if Infernal Tutor did end up in some winning Dragonstorm builds, uncounterability kinda destroys that Tier 1 ideal.
May brought us Pro Tour: Prague, where we learned once again that we know nothing about draft as two Simic Initiates were spotted in the winning deck. Wasn’t that supposed to be unplayable? Graft was officially the best Limited mechanic since ever, and somewhere along there we began to look towards the future. What would the Summer bring?
The first ever Team Pro Tour, that’s what! This was an unbelievably fun format, with Standard qualifiers and Block competition. Only a 1700 rating or above was necessary for qualification if you couldn’t win airfare, and after a series of qualifiers the race was on in Charleston. The kicker of this format was you could actually help your teammates. Being in the “B” seat I got to play a little bit of their matches while playing my own or after mine had finished. I can’t wait for more of this one, as it makes for great friends and great beatdown stories.
Then, as Summer dragged on to its conclusion, we learned more and more about Coldsnap. The “lost” expansion from Ice Age. The designs that Richard Garfield had packed away and forgotten about… or, not. Mark Rosewater publicly apologized for having Randy Buehler, the rock of solid information, give us the song and dance of how Coldsnap came to be. Soon silliness was involved and all was forgotten.
Until, of course, we had to actually play with Coldsnap. Around this time I was also dipping into the idea of video production, specifically Magic-based videos. My Coldsnap Limited Review was my first foray into actually “producing” content on this scale. I also wrote an article about it, called Coldsnapped — Coldsnap Limited Dissected. I think Nick Eisel said it best: “This article is basically the opposite of everything that is true about CCC draft.” While I don’t think I was completely wrong, I certainly was nowhere near being right. I still believed what I wrote, and knew I was going out on a limb, so it is what it is.
Coldsnap, as a whole, is a miserable, horrible failure for Wizards. I’m just calling it like I’m seeing it, folks. The Snow theme was kinda cute for a minute, but the real damage was this: The set had to be drafted on its own. This gave R&D the clever idea of having Ripple spells. The problem of providing too much randomness and too much swinginess gave the players an unfun environment. Drafting the set de-evolved itself into Collect-A-Card or Take The Snow Thing, the finals of Grand Prix: St. Louis consisting of Black/Blue Snow and White/Green Kjeldon War Cry and no less than six Surging Sentinels from our own Zac Hill. Would the madness never end?
The lack of true metagame-defining rares was another point of contention. Let’s see… Scrying Sheets still sees a little play, Ohran Viper is another favorite, and Adarkar Valkyrie got played for about five minutes. Did I miss something? Skred was supposedly the best card in Standard, while the incredible Martyr of Sands merely waited patiently for us to find her power months and months later.
As August dragged on, people began to look forward to Time Spiral. The time was near. Umezawa’s Jitte, Sakura Tribe-Elder and Sensei’s Divining Top were on their way out. Goodbye Gifts, goodbye Miren, goodbye Cranial Extraction, and goodbye Dragons! What a relief, those ridiculously powerful guys were out.
But what ridiculously powerful things were on the horizon? Time Spiral loomed and Coldsnap doomed, but all was not lost: There was a set size problem that arose: One release said 301, one said 415. What was going on here?
For the rest of the year in highlights, along with the first half of my five favorite articles of the year, I’ll see you here next week.
Evan “misterorange” Erwin
dubya dubya dubya dot misterorange dot com
eerwin +at+ gmail +dot+ com
Written while listening to The Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife”