Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Standard Deviations - In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King

"A champion should ask himself: 'if I were to compete against myself, what would I practice to beat me?' -Leo Vieira, Brazilian Jujitsu Fighter/Instructor 

I'm here to tell you that it's going to be okay. I know it doesn't seem like it right now; I know you're frustrated and more than a little embarrassed. The truth is that we've all been there at some point in our Magic experience. I haven't heard your specific story but stop me when this starts to sound familiar okay? You copied the best deck on the internet last Tuesday when the latest round of deck-lists and Magic articles came out. You spent a couple days putting the deck together, practicing online and reading every scrap of information available about your weapon of choice. By Thursday you knew the correct lines of play and how to mulligan against every 1st tier deck in Standard; you even practiced how to break the mirror and threw in a couple of hot side-board cards just to accomplish this goal. Walking into your FNM, weekly tournament or GPT was a rush all by itself; you felt confident that you were the most prepared player in this room. Let's be honest, you were just hoping for even draws all night because deep down inside you genuinely believed you were going to take this event down.

Then, Round 1 happened. Your opponent was playing some kinda horrible Jund deck with a bunch of sideboard cards in the first game. You battled hard but when he dropped a 5 point Rakdos' Return on your hand and redirected the damage to your Jace that was pretty much game. You boarded in more counters for game 2 but he boarded into Duress and Lilianna of the Veil; it was almost like he knew exactly what you were going to do before the game even started. As you signed the match slip 0-2 you couldn't help but snap at your opponent "so how exactly do you expect to beat Zombies again?" He just shrugged and said "I prolly won't play it bro; good games, I gotta go smoke." As he walked away you worked hard to keep your rage in check; after all there were still 3 more rounds to play and you could still prize out if you ran the table.

Rounds 2 and 3 weren't much easier to be honest; you lost game 1 both times to W/x "Humans" decks running 30+ creatures and main deck Thalia, Guardian of Thrabens. Naturally, you'd come prepared for aggro but you hadn't counted on paying 5 for Jace, 6 for Tamiyo and 7 for Terminus. Your creatures were better than his and you gained some life but there was no way you could keep up with just your G/W cards. Thankfully neither of your opponents were actually that good at Magic; they both made mistakes in games 2-3 that allowed you to advance through Thalia on the back of 6 board sweeper cards. When you finally won that second game 3 to move to 2-1 on the night you broke down and asked your opponent why he was running Thalia in the maindeck. Without blinking he said "well everyone thinks Bant control is the best deck right? Thalia destroys that build and I can't afford to change decks every week." When you objected and asked about other match-ups he flatly told you "I've played nothing but Bant and Azorius all night man; she's the best card in my deck today."

The worst part of your night however was probably round 4. With prize money on the line, you sat down across from a sneering jackanape who opened your match by saying: "so you're playing that old version of Bant Control? This should be interesting." Game 1 did not go well; he stuck an early Geist of Saint Traft and then countered yours when you tried to cast it a couple of turns later. You eventually stabilized behind a Beast token and a Restoration Angel but a top-decked Bonfire of the Damned at precisely the wrong time ended the game immediately. Game 2 was much better. You were on the play, hit a farseek and your opponent played a bunch of tapped lands. Given some room to work with, you forced out some threats and countered every answer he tried to play. You particularly enjoyed applying the finishing touches with your Traft after boarding up to 4 copies. The 3rd game however, was a heart-breaker. You and your opponent spent 3/4 of the contest exchanging counterspells and 2 for 1's before you finally managed to stick an Angel of Serenity. You couldn't do anything about your opponent's Traft but you ate up his Restoration Angel and "reloaded" a couple of Thragtusks from your graveyard. Your opponent was literally screwed; the Angel would hold of Traft unless your opponent wanted to Detention Sphere her and give you back 4 men and 10 life in the process. You shipped the turn with confidence only to see the little bastard bust out a shit-eating grin and ask "so you're all tapped out?" before he even drew a card. He proceeded to "flash" in a Restoration Angel, untap and cast Dungeon Geists of all fucking cards; targeting your Angel. As he crashed in for 9 you desperately hoped for a good top-deck and for once in your miserable life the universe delivered; you slammed a second Angel of Serentiy, exiled the Resto/Dungeon Geist and shipped the turn. You were just starting to feel good about the match when he said "okay, I'll cast Thundermaw Hellkite and kill you then?"

Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name is Nina Illingworth and when I'm not practicing amateur Magic psychiatry I write a blog called The Cardboard Witch. Since you're here reading this I can only assume you already knew that, but what you might be asking yourself is why I just made you read through a completely hypothetical bad beat story about a netdecker who went 2-2 at his FNM. The reason of course is because we've all been the player in that story; playing the best deck from last week, one step behind the local metagame and wandering through tournaments with a giant target on our backs. To say that this is no fun would be a mild understatement; I've seen nights like these put players off of playing Standard for entire rotations. There's a general sense of helplessness and frustration; a lingering sensation that if everyone had just chosen the right decks or cards you clearly would have performed better. It just doesn't feel fair that your opponents specifically tailored their decks to beat yours while you diligently prepared for a variety of opponents; yet they advance while you flounder in the .500 bracket. It doesn't have to be this way however; the metagame doesn't have to be your enemy. In fact, a competent player can learn to use his understanding of the metagame as an ally while building decks or even during actual game play. To illustrate this concept, let's talk a little bit about what a metagame actually is and how it directly affects you as a player regardless of what level you compete at. Once we understand these ideas we can take a look at a couple of kick-ass Standard decks and how they actively taking advantage of the current metagame to win more matches.

What is "the metagame?": From a purely Magic-centric perspective the metagame can be defined as a loose collection of all the decks and cards that are currently popular in tournament play for a given format. Additionally when discussing the metagame most players will qualify a given card's place within it based on how often it appears in relevant tournaments. Thus in our current Standard, Thragtusk can be described as being a "very big part of the metagame" while Epic Experiment combo decks would represent an extremely small part of same. What's more, individual card choices can be further qualified as "good" or "bad" in the expected metagame depending on how effective they are against the most commonly played cards or decks. For example; Feeling of Dread can be a great way to answer creatures you can't (Vampire Aristocrat) or don't want (Thragtusk) to kill. If these creatures are a big part of the current Standard metagame it stands to reason that Feeling of Dread would perform admirably as a main-deck choice against them. In other words; the metagame is simply the cards and decks you know you will play against in a given Magic tournament and the act of metagaming is nothing more than filling your decks with cards that will be good against these known quantities.

Time keeps on ticking: Naturally, there are complications. For starters the metagame is constantly changing and I don't just mean "whenever a new set comes out". Let's assume for a moment that the most popular and successful deck in the format is Rakdos Zombies. This shouldn't be too hard for those of you actually playing Standard because it actually was the cat's ass at the start of the format. The deck is fast, extremely aggressive, very resistant to traditional creature removal effects and general wins games on turn 5 without disruption. None of this however is to say that Rakdos Zombies is invulnerable; it struggles against life gain effects, cards that exile creatures and aggro's new bugbear; Terminus. This naturally causes players to include more and more cards that are good against Zombies until they finally break through and "solve" the deck in testing. Once the weekend rolls around decks like American Control and Bant Midrange explode onto the scene and scour the Rakdos Zombies menace from the format. The lack of success for Zombies begins to pull players away from that deck type while the success of these new "zombie killers" draws players towards them. In a matter of days being ready to beat Zombies is no longer relevant and the new metagame now revolves around beating Restoration Angels, counterspells, Terminus and Jace, Architect of Thoughts. This in turn pushes the next wave of players towards cards like Lilianna of the Veil, Appetite for Brains and Cavern of Souls and thus the cycle continues.

Where it's at: The other essential problem with understanding the metagame is that it changes on a regional or even store to store level as well. While conceptually we talk about cards being "good in" or "a big part of" the metagame the simple truth is that your personal metagame will be defined entirely by the decks and cards you face over the course of a given tournament. If your local shop is packed with wall to wall U/W aggro players it makes little sense to play a slow control deck that struggles against flyers. Following the same line of reasoning it's probably a bad idea to try and win Magic tournaments in Toronto without any counter-control metagame cards; people in my town will play the crap out of this deck type even when it isn't good in my experience. Sometimes even blind luck is a factor; if the computer decides to pair you against 3 straight Mono-Red players at your next tournament your personal metagame is going to revolve around Hellrider and Brimstone Volley awful quickly for example. In short; the metagame and the quality of your metagaming decisions can vary wildly from tournament to tournament. This is why it's generally a bad idea to copy a top 8 SCG Open decklist the night before a tournament and assume you're good to go at your local FNM this week.

Assess, adapt and survive: The important thing to remember here is that despite outward appearances the constant shifting of the metagame is not random. You can clearly define and accurately predict these metagame shifts in advance simply by looking at which decks are currently winning large tournaments and MtGO daily events. Personally I prefer to use TCG Player for all my decklist needs but I assume there are any number of websites out there that provide this information. While every environment is different the simple truth is that most Magic players aren't about to re-invent the wheel; the vast majority of the decks you'll face locally will at least be based on something that did well online or at a big tournament somewhere. Once you identified the popular decks and cards it's important to mentally run this information through your local knowledge filter for maximum effect. If the best player in your environment has been playing W/x aggro for the past 4 years it's a pretty good bet he's not going to switch just because Jund control won a PTQ in Winsconsin after all. Do not hesitate to use anything you know about your future opponents' card preferences against them when building your deck. This is small time gambling folks and there is nothing dishonorable about punishing a fool for repeatedly playing the same tired old deck every Friday when money is on the line.

Now that we've talked about what the metagame is and how it affects us on both a local and international level, let's take a look at those deck lists I promised early. While neither of these decks are equipped to "take on all comers" they both represent excellent examples of how a smart player can attack the current Standard metagame:

(Slightly) Modified American Mid-Range 
by Ryan Forsberg, 1st place SCG St. Louis (I changed like 3 cards):

Creatures - 15:

4x Snapcaster Mage
4x Geist of Saint Traft
4x Restoration Angel
3x Thundermaw Hellkite

Spells - 21:

4x Searing Spear
3x Azorius Charm
2x Essence Scatter
2x Feeling of Dread
2x Dissipate
2x Detention Sphere
3x Syncopate
3x Bonfire of the Damned

Lands - 24:

4x Hallowed Fountain
4x Steam Vents
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Sulfur Falls
4x Clifftop Retreat
1x Island
1x Mountain
1x Plains
1x Slayer's Stronghold

Sideboard - 15:

3x Purify the Grave
2x Pillar of Flame
1x Dissipate
3x Dungeon Geists
2x Jace, Architect of Thought
2x Supreme Verdict
1x Tamiyo the Moon Sage
1x Syncopate

Analysis: As you can see from the title, I didn't build this deck so much as I stole it off the internet and changed 3 cards. For those of you interested in the original version you can find a complete decklist here. The simple truth is that I wasn't playing against many Zombie/Humans decks in testing anymore and I got tired of staring at Centaur Healers and Thragtusks with a Pillar in my hand. I also found Unsummon to be pretty underwhelming while Feeling of Dread was winning entire games for me whenever I drew it. Aside from these minor quibbles however I have to say that this deck is absolutely perfect for an environment dominated by mid-range builds on the Thragtusk/Restoration Angel plan or slow control decks with multiple boards-sweepers.

Against these decks U/W/R mid-range seeks to capitalize on it's cheaper threats to quickly establish board control while still leaving up counter-magic and disruption. This often depends on casting a Geist of Saint Traft but in my experience you do win a suprising number of games behind a lone Restoration Angel and a rando Snapcaster Mage. Frankly, if you draw Slayer's Stronghold and enough mana virtually any single creature in the deck becomes a legitimate threat to kill your opponent. Against control you'll be actively attacking removal spells, Planeswalkers and Boardsweepers while simultaneously milking the Flash and Haste traits for as much advantage as possible in this match-up. Against midrange the deck is primarily trying to counter effective blockers and pesky sources of enemy card advantage; say Garruk or Sphinx's Revelation. Eventually however your opponent will stick a threat of some sort; typically because you've tapped out, run out of counterspells or he's put a Cavern of Souls into play. Once this happens the U/W/R deck shifts effortless into evasive beatdown mode, using cards like Detention Sphere, Thundermaw Hellkite and Feelings of Dread to slide through tremendous amounts of flying damage. Finally if your opponent somehow survives all that you can always just "dome" him with Searing Spears/Snapcaster Mages and the occasional Bonfire of the Damned.

On the downside the deck isn't very good against aggro strategies in my experience. That isn't to say the deck auto-loses to weenie rush decks; no build that runs Bonfire of the Damned is ever completely out of a fight against swarms of enemy monsters after all. The deck does however struggle with concepts like "blocking" and I've spent entire games digging for a Detention Sphere while my opponent slowly ground me out with Loxodon Smiters. Even with 2 maindeck Pillars the deck is a clear underdog against Rakdos Zombies in game 1 and I've lost more than a couple games against G/W Soulbound Humans while waiting for a Bonfire that never came. Additionally due to the lack of Farseek the deck's mana base is still ever so slightly "wonky." It's actually much better than previous versions of this deck that I've seen and Ryan's specific selection of spells is a huge part of how it overcomes these problems. This means you really can't tinker with the deck too much, sideboarding is a bit of an issue and even if you don't touch it all there will still be games where you play your first 5 lands into play tapped. Naturally since this isn't my own creation I can't offer many insights on card selection or the process that went into building this deck. What I can say is that it's a wonderful example of a smart player successfully exploiting the metagame to tune his deck for the purposes of winning a tournament. Ryan Forsberg correctly identified a hole in the environment, built his deck to attack that hole and ended up walking away with first prize in St Louis on a weekend when most experts assumed the eventual winner would be rocking 4 copies of Thragtusk.

"Boss Hog" - Jund Control:

Creatures - 16:

4x Vampire Nighthawk
4x Huntmaster/Ravager of the Fells
2x Olivia Voldaren
4x Thragtusk
2x Thundermaw Hellkite

Spells - 19:

4x Farseek
3x Dreadbore
2x Rakdos Keyrune
1x Underworld Connections
2x Sever the Bloodline
2x Garruk, Primal Hunter
3x Bonfire of the Damned
2x Rakdos's Return

Lands - 25:

4x Blood Crypt
4x Overgrown Tomb
4x Rootbound Crag
3x Dragonskull Summit
3x Woodland Cemetery
3x Forest
2x Kessig Wolf Run
1x Mountain
1x Swamp

Sideboard - 15:

3x Duress
3x Pillar of Flame
2x Deathrite Shaman
2x Rakdos Charm
2x Abrupt Decay
2x Lilianna of the Veil
1x Sever the Bloodline

Analysis: This deck on the other hand I did build myself; albeit after looking at 5 or 6 older Jund lists online. Once again the idea here is to attack a format dominated by midrange and control decks while simultaneously offering as much resistance as possible against aggro in game 1. Unlike the deck above however, Boss Hog Jund does this not by sliding a threat under a slower/unwieldy format but by forcing a protracted, "grindy" game of card advantage and 2 for 1 effects.  Virtually every card in this deck was chosen for it's ability to be a long term thorn in the side of multiple popular strategies here in Standard and in that respect they do their jobs very well. With 31 mana sources, a small army of creatures that threaten to win the game individually and a stunning selection of removal spells, board sweepers and card advantage effects this deck is clearly built to both force and dominate long games of Magic. The real cherry on top however has to be the selection of "X" spells and mana sinks; ripping your opponent's hand, wiping his board and then dumping all of your mana into Kessig Wolf Run is an extremely satisfying path to victory folks.

Of course it's not all gumdrops and lollipops; in order to ensure such a ridiculous game against other midrange decks it became necessary to "sacrifice" a few potential match-ups. For starters I don't think this deck can beat Rakdos Zombies in game 1 and I'm not sure bringing in 3 Pillar of Flames, 2 Abrupt Decays and another Sever the Bloodline really makes you a favorite in games 2 and 3 either. This probably isn't a big deal considering the decline of Zombies in the overall metagame but it's never a good thing to have an auto-loss against any random aggro deck. Additionally the deck relies a little too heavily on Vampire Nighthawk, Bonfire of the Damned and Dreadbore in other aggro matches. While these cards certainly hold their own against decks that turn dudes sideways we're still talking about 10 cards total in a 60 card deck; if you don't draw them you might be screwed. Finally while I feel Boss Hog Jund is the pre-sideboard favorite over virtually every other control deck I've seen in Standard, it can be somewhat difficult to win games 2 and 3 against a deck who boards into a simply "ridiculous" number of counterspells. This forces us to use 5 sideboard slots on Duress/Lilianna and while this isn't a "problem" per se, it certainly makes effective sideboarding against other strategies in Standard more difficult.

Unfortunately due to the extreme length this article is already reaching I can't detail the reasoning behind every card selection in the deck for you here today. Frankly it wouldn't be all that relevant to our discussion anyways. The point here is that both of these decks survive and even thrive by specifically adapting to and attacking the current Standard metagame. They both surrender ground against less popular/successful decks in the format in order to maximize their ability to crush matches against the best/most popular decks in Standard. Finally they both utilize a number of highly specific "griefer" or sideboard cards in the maindeck specifically to disrupt the so called "established" metagame. Oh, and I guess it's fair to say that based on a couple hundred games worth of testing they both smash a whole lotta face.

Well folks the lactic acid building up in my fingers and wrists tells me we've reached the end of our discussion. The simple truth is that reading and exploiting the metagame in Magic is a complex subject that requires both intensive study and a certain amount of intuitive thinking to master properly. There's simply no way anyone can "learn how to metagame" from an article on a blog; even the best writer on earth could at best only hope to describe the metagame in it's entirety for but a single moment in time. In light of this it's my hope that this article can serve as a sort of guidepost; a shining light to illuminate your own path towards predicting and reacting to future metagames. Short of that however let me leave you with some simple advice on the subject once imparted to me by someone far smarter than myself. I don't know if he stole these ideas from somewhere but in a moment of drunken lucidity a friend once shared the following thoughts on winning Magic tournaments with me over a bottle of wine:
  • You can't win an environment. You will never be declared the ultimate winner of Magic because Magic keeps on changing and there's a new winner every second. The only thing you can do is win the tournaments you enter.
  • To win a tournament you must be able to beat the decks, players and cards you will play, not those that you should play. It doesn't matter what you think or some website thinks is the best deck; what matters is what the guy across from you is playing and whether or not you can beat him to advance.
  • Ask yourself "what decks will the better players in the room be playing?" This is important because if you intend to win the tournament you'll be spending a lot of time playing against these players on the low numbered tables. If you have to make assumptions why not assume that you're going to be winning and therefore playing against the best players in the tournament all day?
  • If you must go into a tournament absolutely blind don't play the deck that beats "the best" deck. Instead play something that performs well against the established build that preys on "the best" deck in the format. This not only ensures easier matches as the tournament goes on but it also allows you to use your less savy opponents to suppress the most popular deck in the room; sorta like a good NFL cornerback cheats by using the sideline in man coverage.

In the years since I've been unable to decide if these ideas represent the single greatest 3 minute guide to winning card tournaments known to man or the drunken ramblings of an overconfident lunatic. Considering the source; they could be both (I miss you Jared). Until next time folks; always remember that all is fair in love, war and when splitting prize payouts at meaningless FNM events. Keep it weird.


1 comment:

  1. The metagame is a hard subject to predict, but something that is IMHO even harder is to know what decks to play against a deck which is supposed to be dominant (i.e. what's good against what). Last week it was IIRC Rakdos Aggro, what will it be this week (i.e. what are your predictions). As for me, I'm the kind of player that loves rogue archetypes and underused cards, and I'm really wondering why nobody runs Junk Lifegain (with Faithmenders, Thragtusks, Centaur Healers and killing wave mainboard and RIP in sideboard against graveyard-based strategies).