This is a prototype article that I may write more of in the coming weeks. It will deviate from my usual articles, in that it will be:
- Short (well, short for me anyway)
- Fairly easy reading
- Not about drafting
Actually, I make no guarantees about any of these, even the third one. While this particular article isn’t about drafting, some future Top 10 lists that I have planned are. Basically this is a minor holiday from drafting to talk about something topical. Or at least something that would have been topical, if States were this coming weekend instead of two weeks ago. Oh well.
Top 10 Metagaming Mistakes
It is a sad fact that many Constructed tournaments are lost before the first round pairings are even up. If you turn up to a Block, Standard, or Extended tournament with a bad deck, all the tight play in the world will probably not help you to the Top 8. A deck might be bad for a number of reasons:
- It is fundamentally a bad deck (you know, like White Weenie any time since 2000)
- It is a good deck in theory, but bad in the current metagame
- It is a generally good deck, but with poor card choices in the maindeck and/or sideboard.
Whatever the problem with the deck, it is not difficult to doom yourself to be in the X-2 drop bracket before you even start. In order to be playing the right deck and the right build, you need to avoid making the ten mistakes below. Obviously a lot of the mistakes below can be ironed out if you test your deck properly, but testing is another topic that I may cover in another article. Note that this is a bit of a fudged Top 10, in that number 1 isn’t the “biggest” mistake. Basically the more fundamental errors are first, and the more subtle ones are later, so hopefully I won’t lose anyone on the way.
1. Not knowing the current metagame
Obviously this is the first step you must overcome if you want to build a successful deck. If you don’t know what decks are big in the current metagame, then everything else will go wrong from there. In fact there will be no point considering points 2-9, because they will assume a knowledge that you don’t have.
Of course, even if you do know what decks make up the current metagame (and lets face it, any tournament player worth his salt will), you still need to put in the work to keep this knowledge up to date and accurate. Obviously the metagame is constantly changing, as players race to beat the current best decks. You need to know not what people were playing at the last GP, but what they will be playing at the tournament you will be attending. This can be harder than you think, especially when there can be a paper/scissors/stone relationship with many of the best decks.
If you have a bad knowledge of the current metagame then the consequences are all too apparent. Your deck may have a glaring weakness against one or more widely used decks, your sideboard may be stacked against things that aren’t being played, your tech may be ineffective, your hate will be misdirected, and generally you will have exponentially reduced your chance of posting a good result. Good information is the first step on the path to success.
2. An unwillingness to play the best deck
Sometimes you get a metagame where one deck is clearly better than any others. Some examples are Affinity in this year’s Block Constructed season, Tinker in last year’s Extended season (before it was banned), and Rebels in Masques Block Constructed. Lots of people spend lots of time trying to find a deck that beats the best deck, when in reality they should have been spending that time playing, tweaking and practicing with the best deck.
Let’s take Mirrodin Block Constructed. We were given Tooth and Nail, various R/G builds, Big Red, Little Red, Medium Sized Red, U/G Shard and a million other things. A lot of these were very good decks, and a lot of them are now seeing play in Standard, but not a single one of them could beat Affinity reliably, not even after sideboarding. So players would sit there trying to find the perfect build of R/G (and God were there lots), or the perfect size of Red while Affinity just won tournament after tournament.
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and play the best deck. Sure, testing other decks is fun and playing the “best deck” can be boring but, come the PT or the GP, or even just the PTQ you would really like to win, you should be playing the deck that you think has the best shot of winning. Be honest with yourself about how good your deck actually is, and if it can really beat the best deck.
3. Over-Metagaming in an unknown field
It is possible to play too much heed to the metagame when building your deck. While you are looking to play a deck that has the best matchups against the best decks, sometimes you need to also look at how strong your deck is against randomness. It’s no good going into a tournament with a 55%+ record against every established deck in the format, if you then lose to a ten-year-old playing a tribal snakes deck in round 1.
Of course, it’s impossible to build a deck that can consistently beat every other deck, so what can you do to minimize your vulnerability to rogue decks? Well first of all, avoid teching out decks too much in metagames that are either completely unknown, or are specifically known for having a lot of rogue decks. Any tournament that occurs at the start of a season is a prime example, especially States which is not only an unknown format but tends to bring the more casual players out to play. I’m sure loads of players at States were playing a deck with 12 maindeck artifact removal spells, and then got beat by White Weenie in round 1 and a random Mono-Blue Control deck in round two.
Secondly, try to make your deck more proactive than reactive in such tournaments. People say that aggro does better than control at States, because control decks take longer to refine. This is true, but it is not the only reason. The problem with control decks in undefined metagames goes back to the old adage “there is no such thing as a wrong threat, only a wrong answer.” Most efficient control cards are only good against a certain type of threat. You don’t want to be holding Dark Banishing against a Black creature swarm, Lose Hope against a deck with no small creatures, or Mana Leak against a mana-heavy control deck. Unless you have a very tight control deck capable of answering a very broad range of threats, put your Islands back in the box, and turn some creatures sideways.
4. Having no answers for a widely used card/deck
This is the flip side of the above mistake. While it is good to play a robust deck that has a good game against a variety of different decks, you have to have some kind of plan against all widely used cards. Roughly two years ago, I read a really stupid statement in an article. It was a rogue extended deck and the author claimed:
“This deck can beat everything except (Pernicious) Deed.”
At the time, The Rock (packing 3-4 copies of Deed of course) was the dominant deck in the format, making up quite a large chunk of the field. When one deck is dominant in the format, then the goal is to make a deck that beats that deck, not beats everything except that deck. That’s as ridiculous as touting a deck in the current Standard that is reasonable against the field but auto-loses to Affinity.
Note that I’m not saying that you should expect to have a good match-up against every deck, as clearly this is not going to happen. What I am saying is that, if you are going to have bad matches against a deck that will see a lot of play, make sure that
a) You have some kind of game against that deck. If the matchup is only 35%, then so be it. If you have some kind of game then you can win with tight play, or a bit of luck. If your win rate is only 10% though, this is clearly going to be a problem.
b) The offending deck does not make up such a large portion of the metagame, that this one bad matchup will make it almost impossible for you to navigate the field.
Consider that in reference to the current Standard:
35% versus B/G Control - Okay
10% versus B/G Control - Not great
10% versus Affinity – Bad
Get the idea?
5. Weakening a strong deck with too much tech
Generally speaking, once a metagame becomes well defined, you can tinker your maindeck and sideboard to make certain matchups a lot better. Some strategies may be so dominant that you want to bring in eight or more cards from your sideboard, or even pack maindeck hate that is dead (or very suboptimal) in other matchups. Shatter and Oxidize, for example, are regular features in Standard and Mirrodin Block Constructed maindecks, while Silver Knight was generally included in any Onslaught Block Constructed deck that could support it to combat Goblins.
However, sometimes you can know the metagame so well, and have so much tech, that your deck actually ends up weaker as a result. For example, a standard sideboard for Affinity is to include 4 Oxidize and 4 Viridian Shaman in the board for the mirror match (along with additional sources of Green mana if necessary). It was generally considered that Affinity had a good matchup against everything except the mirror, and so this is the matchup that needed help after boarding. However, some players noticed something interesting. While the Oxidize/Shaman plan worked in the mirror to an extent, if you packed in too much artifact hate, your deck actually ended up losing to pre-boarded Affinity. A very strange result, but not really when you think about it. The strength of Affinity is its speed. The more artifact hate you cram into it, the more cards you have to take out which enable its explosive starts. Eventually, you are barely playing Affinity at all, but are instead playing a sort of G/R deck with some Ravagers in it, and we all know that G/R decks have trouble beating Affinity.
So what can we learn from this? The lesson is that, while playing hate against known deck types can be a good thing, you have to make sure that you are not weakening your deck too much as a result. Slowing your opponent down by a turn is not profitable if you slow yourself down a turn as a result. You should never take a deck that works and remove the very components that make it work so well. If you want to bring in cards from the sideboard (and let’s be fair, you will), then only take out cards that do not affect the operation of the deck too much. Sometimes it pays to look at what you want to sideboard out and see what you want to replace it with rather than the other way around. Obviously this is more true in aggro decks, where your whole deck is engineered to win as quickly as possible, than in a control decks, when you can nearly always optimise your answers after boarding.
6. Playing a deck that is vulnerable to splash damage
“Splash Damage” is a phrase that is very in vogue at the moment. It is currently used in relation to artifact-heavy decks that, while pretty good, are unplayable at the moment due to the amount of artifact hate in decks at the moment to combat Affinity. Splash damage from Affinity is rendering things like KCI far weaker than they would normally expect to be.
However, splash damage is everywhere and is a concept that can be used to describe why many decks are unplayable and, to an extent, explains why there can only ever be a certain number of viable decks in any given metagame. A deck is a victim of splash damage if effective countermeasures for it are already being played. For example, let’s consider White Weenie. Every time a new block comes out, people claim that card X or card Y will make White Weenie viable again. The problem with White Weenie as a deck, is that it wins using a concept that is not exactly original, i.e. it attacks with small creatures. All decks have a way of dealing with small creatures, because all environments invariably have a deck that uses them. White Weenie is the eternal victim of splash damage as they are forever trying to employ a strategy that everyone is gunning for. The only way White Weenie can ever be viable is if it fulfils both of these criteria.
It is the best small creature deck available. There is no point in playing a deck when there is another deck that does the same thing only better.
It is good enough to overcome all the hate inadvertently directed at it
So how do you avoid splash damage? Well a good rule of thumb is that, when you build a deck, it must either win in a way that existing decks will find difficult to stop, or you must do something an existing deck does only better. Most competent players can tell a good deck from a bad one, but some are very bad at seeing when a good deck is just bad in the environment.
7. Overkilling your good matchups
Remember at all times that your sideboard (and any spare slots in your maindeck too) should be used to shore up your bad matchups and win the close ones. What it shouldn’t be used for, except in very rare circumstances, is to make an already good matchup even better. This is often overlooked by players who for some reason seem inspired to stock their sideboard with answers to decks that they already have a very favorable matchup with. For example, if you are playing Ponza, don’t bother playing sideboard cards against Tooth and Nail or Mono-Black Control, because you own those matchups regardless. Instead concentrate on Affinity and Blue-based control, which are your difficult matchups.
It is fairly intuitive that your sideboard should be used to give you a chance in your bad matchups. This is very difficult to prove mathematically without introducing unrealistic assumptions, but there are two reasons for this:
- If you are the overwhelming favorite in a game (let’s say 80%), then a large proportion of your loses will probably be down to mana problems. Introducing more cards from your sideboard will not help to prevent mana screw/flood, and so are unlikely to help you win more games.
- If you want to T8 a tournament, you can normally only afford one loss. You want to give yourself a fighting chance in every game so your play skill can pull you through. You don’t want to be eliminated by two bad matchups.
It is worth noting that this second reason makes this mistake less relevant for poor players. They will want to have some really good matchups and some really bad ones to allow the lottery of matchups to dictate their fortune.
So the important thing when building your deck is knowing your bad matchups and trying to shore them up. Test your deck against the gauntlet before you build your sideboard, and make sure that you have a fighting chance to win every important match-up.
8. Playing “answers” that aren’t
It is very easy to put certain “answers” to particular decks in your deck or sideboard, without giving too much though to whether they are really answers or not. For example, the following cards aren’t “answers” to Affinity:
Molder Slug is a decent card against Affinity for sure. However, it doesn’t start to cause Affinity real problems until turn 6 or 7 at the earliest, by which point, unchecked, they will almost certainly have won the game anyway. Therefore, Molder Slug isn’t an answer although, combined with other hate, it can help you win the game.
It is this distinction that seems to give some players some problems. Four Slugs in the deck/board alone won’t help you much against Affinity; in the same way four Briberies won’t beat Tooth and Nail on their own. There are cards that can win the game on their own. Chill against Goblins in Extended is brutal when played on turn 2 (or 1). Sacred Ground can single handedly ruin Ponza’s day as without their land destruction, they are just a deck with Mountains and a few arbitrary fatties. Most decks that become tier 1 though, do so because there is no single card that can shut them down. If you want to shut down Affinity you had better be playing a whole lot of artifact destruction and/or mass removal. If you want to shut down Tooth and Nail, you will need to hit their mana base hard, out-speed them, or have enough permission to stop them resolving Tooth and Nail. If you think you have a one-card answer to a tier 1 deck, you either have a revolutionary piece of tech or you are wrong, chances are it’s the latter.
The second mistake is the one we derive from Worship and Platinum Angel. These are not answers to Affinity, because they can easily get around them. Worship can be circumnavigated with one Disciple trigger, while Platinum Angel will probably come out too late to stop Affinity and can be removed with Shrapnel Blast (yes, I know that Tooth and Nail for Angel + Leonin Abunas is a good foil for Affinity, but that’s a different story). In fact, if you waste card slots on cards that may not slow them down at all, then you may actually have made the match-up worse by weakening your own deck without significantly hindering theirs. Obviously you need to identify these cards early and this is best done through playtesting.
9. Packing sideboard cards that you will never bring in
Sometimes you will have a card in your sideboard that seems really good. While being too situational for the maindeck, it can work against a variety of different strategies, and has good synergy with the rest of your deck, meaning it can potentially come in for any one on a number of underperformers. The only problem is that you never bring it in, ever. You have to spot these cards and weed them out, because they are using up your valuable sideboard space.
For any card in your sideboard, try to ensure that there is at least one deck in the metagame (preferably more) that you will want to bring this card in against. Generally it is best to build your sideboard by adding cards for particular matchups rather than adding the sort of “general purpose” cards that seem to be good, but ultimately never get used. An example is including cards such as Pyroclasm in your sideboard in a metagame with no or very few small creatures.
10. Relying on your sideboard to win important matchups
This is very much related to many of the other points listed in this article, but is worth mentioning on its own. If you are relying on your sideboard to win against a particular deck, and that deck is strong in the metagame, then you are in trouble. It is only acceptable to throw away game one against decks that you don’t expect to face, or expect to face very little. This goes back to the point we argued earlier. Having a 35% win rate against a deck pre-board is not too terrible, but having a 10% win rate is.
Some people will say something along the lines of:
“But after sideboarding, I have killer tech that makes the matchup heavily in my favor.”
This is a persuasive argument, but let’s do a bit of math. If you lose game one, then even if your win rate is 70% in your favour post-board, the odds of you winning the match are less than 50%. Although players will forever go on about the fact that 60% of games are played post-board, game 1 is important and if you lose it, you have an uphill struggle. Often what will happen is that you will lose game 1, win game 2 and then in game 3 you will get mana screwed, or your opponent will get the perfect hand, or will make a really lucky top-deck and you will be grumbling about how lucky your opponent is as you drop from the tournament and go home. However, you lost the match, in part at least, because you threw away game 1 before you even started the tournament.
The flip side to this is that you don’t want to dilute your deck you give yourself game against every deck out there. Sometimes someone will play something rogue and hit you for six. This happens, you can’t prepare yourself for everything. What you have to do is prepare yourself for the most likely decks that you will be facing.
Hope this gives you food for thought, even if it is too late for States.