The Wescoe Connection - Adjusting to Metagame Shifts
Last week Patrick Chapin wrote a very informative article on metagaming and deckbuilding that can be found here. I am hoping Gerry Thompson writes a similar article as he is among the very best in the world at adjusting to metagame shifts and staying ‘one step ahead’ of everyone else. I won’t be able to say much about Gerry’s method but I have my own method for adjusting to metagame shifts and have had a reasonable amount of success with it throughout my Magic career. In this article I will attempt to elucidate that method for you so that you can do what many of the best deck builders in the world do – show up with a fresh 75 that is perfect for a particular tournament.
Case Study 1: Masques Block Constructed Metagame Shifts
My first experience with metagame shifts came during the Mercadian Masques Block Constructed PTQ season feeding Pro Tour: Chicago 2000. Following Pro Tour: New York 2000 everyone knew Rebels would be a big deck at the start of the PTQ season even though Lin Sivvi Defiant Hero and Rishadan Port were banned and Prophecy was introduced into the format. So my play test group and I set out to design a deck that beats Rebels.
Originally we built a Food Chain – Avatar of Woe deck that sideboarded into an aggressive creature package. Then one day during testing Chris Reiley suggested that we play the aggressive creature package main deck since we were beating everything with our sideboard plan. This would shore up sideboard space for things like Massacre. So we did and Black-Green ‘Snuff-o-Derm’ (Snuff Out / Blastoderm) as it came to be called was born. A few members of the team qualified early with it and as a result more and more PTQ players started playing Snuff-o-Derm.
Now that the big deck was Snuff-o-Derm instead of Rebels the team went back into the tank and Noah Weil put together a Mono Blue Skies deck that took advantage of all the aggressive fliers and undercosted counter-magic in the format. The deck was able to generate pressure by tapping out for fliers while still able to stop the opposing Green creature threats via bounce spells (Waterfront Bouncer) and free counters (Daze Thwart Foil).
We again took the PTQ scene by storm and managed to qualify more members of the team this time with our Blue Skies deck that was designed to prey on the Black-Green menace that we had created earlier in the season.
By the end of the season the PTQ metagame had once again shifted and Blue Skies became the dominant deck though many were still playing Snuff-o-Derm. So again the team went into the tank and tried to figure out a way to beat Blue Skies without losing to Snuff-o-Derm. This time we came up with splashing Red in the Blue Skies deck for Kris Mage and Arc Mage. This piece of technology allowed us to ping off all the low-toughness Blue creatures in the Blue Skies deck without compromising the shell that was well-equipped to defeat Snuff-o-Derm.
This last adjustment to the metagame was enough to qualify yet more players from the team and overall something like 6 of our 8 team members ended up qualifying through the Mercadian Masques Block PTQ season.
During this time there was no MTGO and using the Internet to learn Magic strategy and find deck lists was a concept still in its infant stages. Sideboard.com (now Daily MTG) was doing a relatively good job of covering Pro Tours but word of mouth (or mIRC chat) and first-hand experience at tournaments were about the only way to know what was going on at the PTQ level. Brainburst (formerly New Wave) had begun a pioneering marketing approach that involved paying players to write for their website and StarCityGames.com was a place no one had ever heard of. As a result of this lack on widespread information the metagame would shift very lethargically yet there would usually be a couple of shifts throughout the 10-week season.
Now times have changed and abrupt metagame shifts can occur week-to-week with knowledge of hot new decks disseminating rapidly throughout the Magic community. Chapin addressed this phenomenon in his article. The primary difference I’ve noticed when comparing older PTQ seasons like Masques Block Constructed to more recent ones is that you have to stay much more up-to-date on what decks are popular last week and this week and to be prepared to adapt more quickly.
Case Study 2: Current Standard Metagame Shifts
Let’s take the current Standard Pro Tour: Amsterdam Qualifier season as our second example. The beginning of the season was largely shaped by the results of Pro Tour: San Diego where Jund dominated and Boss Naya U/W Control and Rafiq-style Mythic were unveiled. Those were the big decks at the beginning of the season and a few innovative minds were able to win a plane ticket early by playing a powerful rogue deck that matched up well against these decks: Matt Sperling with Mythic Conscription and Kenji Tsumura with Polymorph.
Word of these decks and their early success quickly spread via the Inter Webs and the very next weekend tournaments were flooded with Eldrazi Conscriptions and Polymorphs. Anticipating this phenomenon certain wise individuals audibled to Mono Red with plenty of instant speed burn to stop a Polymorph or kill off the mana production of the Mythic decks while still having game against Jund and unprepared U/W mages.
Just as Boss Naya began waning in popularity one particular innovator reconfigured Naya by playing the Cunning Sparkmages main deck and making it such that Bloodbraid Elf would almost always trigger Vengevine. The revamped Naya deck was able to take advantage of its position in the metagame and qualified a number of players for Amsterdam and for Nationals.
It surprised me that Naya was so successful that one weekend and was so hyped the ensuing week and yet not many people switched to it for the following weeks or for Grand Prix: Washington DC. Instead Mythic Conscription exploded in popularity and a vast majority of the metagame consisted of Mythic Conscription Jund and Blue-White Control decks.
It was at this time that Patrick Chapin convinced Sam Black Brian Kibler and others to play his latest creation: Next Level Bant. The deck had reasonable success at its coming out party but it was not until the following two weekends where Brian Kibler and Yuuya Watanabe destroyed the Asian Grand Prix circuit with NLB that the deck really took off. The deck positioned itself well against Jund by generating a large amount of expendable threats that would generate card advantage against Jund’s powerful yet one-for-one removal packages while having a versatile sideboard plan against a number of other decks.
Just as Next Level Bant started to establish itself in the pecking order Luis-Scott Vargas and Cedric Philips tore through the StarCityGames.com Open and Midwest Master’s Series with Adam Prosak’s Turbo Land deck. Turbo Land preyed on Jund’s difficulty beating a ramped-into Mind Spring Sphinx of Jwar Isle or Avenger of Zendikar along with Blue-White’s inability play threats with counter backup in the face of Turbo Land’s quick mana acceleration and card advantage engines (Jace the Mind Sculptor and Oracle of Mul-Daya).
Deep into the PTQ season a wrench was thrown into the format to shake things up: M11 was released. Its impact has already been felt in Japan as various Titan decks have burst onto the scene. My guess is that the final two weeks of the PTQ season will be filled with Titan ramp decks some of which will be the Turbo Land variant and others the Valakut the Molten Pinnacle variant.
An average mage will show up to the party with last week’s deck attempting to take advantage of the lack of experience people will likely have against the new toy of the format. This is fine but suboptimal. A savvier mage however will predict next week’s metagame shift and adjust accordingly playing a deck that will beat the Titan decks while still holding its own against the enduring powerhouse decks of the format (i.e. Jund followed by Mythic Blue-White and RDW).
I would recommend something like RDW with Manic Vandals in the sideboard versus Dragon’s Claws or a Blue-White Control variant with access to some combination of Mana Leak Flashfreeze and Negate in its 75. A more adventurous mage might go the route of Mass Polymorph with Awakening Zone Khalni Garden Garruk Wildspeaker and Bestial Menace. I don’t have a sweet deck list for that yet but if you know Ken Rawson he does.
Or if you just want to play the strongest brute force deck Jund is a fine choice but you may have to concede some power in order to fight off some of the hate. Maybe trading some Bituminous Blasts and/or Terminates for main deck Goblin Ruinblasters will be enough.
Analysis of Method: Adjusting to Metagame Shifts in General
As a general rule of thumb when predicting and adapting to metagame shifts there are a handful of questions you should ask yourself.
1. What were the most successful decks in the past couple weeks?
This is probably the easiest information to obtain given the amount of data that is collected and disseminated these days. StarCityGames.com has a sidebar on their website that tracks PTQ results week-to-week. Also tournament organizers such as PES and Pastimes regularly post Top 8 deck lists on their website following an event. The trickiest part about gaining this kind of information is that often it does not get posted until midway through the week or in some cases not until later in the week. This makes adequately preparing for next week’s tournament a bit of a challenge but these are all places to start. You can also go by word of mouth or network with people in various parts of the country/world and trade information. This is how things used to be done via mIRC and it can be done via Facebook just as easily today.
Being familiar with the cards that each archetype plays will give you a big advantage when paired against an unknown opponent particularly early on in a tournament before there has been time to scout. Also it is the first step in deciding what deck to bring to the tournament.
2. What were the most popular decks in the past couple weeks?
This question is pretty straightforward but it can often be difficult information to obtain. It doesn’t take much to find the Top 8 deck lists from a given PTQ but most of the time the Top 8 is not representative of the tournament as a whole. So this is where word of mouth or first-hand observation is very useful. Ask people that were at the event things like “What decks did you see the most of?” or “What did you play against in the Swiss?” Or if you are in attendance walk up and down the aisles to get a feel for what decks are being played. Just knowing what decks are successful won’t give you a full picture of the metagame. You need to know what you will be playing against the whole day not just in the later rounds.
3. Why are the successful decks succeeding?
Once you’ve figured out what decks are being played and which of them are having more success than others the next step is to figure out for yourself why the winning decks are winning. By playing the top decks against each other you’ll get a feel for the archetypes and the ins-and-outs of each matchup. As a deck builder this will also give you a feel for what sort of tricks and powerful interactions the format is capable of.
Many players skip this step and rely on knowledge gained from other players. Reading articles primers and sideboarding guides are all helpful but without sitting down and playing out some matches with the decks there will be important interactions you are missing. These other sources should supplement your testing not replace it.
4. What weaknesses do the top decks seem to exhibit?
In your testing along with an awareness of the strengths of the successful decks you should also be looking out for the weaknesses of each deck. For instance take note of the times when the mana ramp deck is stuck on 6 lands and holding a hand full of clunk; or the times when Jund has difficulty finding all three of its colors; or when Blue-White runs out of gas; or when Mythic has to fight through instant speed removal; or when the Red deck faces a Kor Firewalker. An awareness of both the strengths and weaknesses of each archetype will provide you the tools from which to ‘solve’ the current metagame.
5. How can the weaknesses of the top decks be exploited without compromising power?
This is the step that most players have a lot of difficulty making. They play the top decks against each other figure out why each deck is winning and losing but then have trouble figuring out what to do with this information. Chapin referred to these players as ‘netdeck’ players which is somewhat fitting I guess (although I personally hate that term).
A natural deck builder or someone who has become quite familiar with this method (or some approximate method) looks forward to this step and sees the prior four steps as simply a means toward an end. This step is where formats are broken technology emerges and new archetypes are born. I guess it takes a bit of unique talent but I’m more of the opinion that anyone who puts forth the effort especially as part of a group of earnest players all sharing the same goal (success) can break formats as effectively as Zvi Mowshowitz or Brian Kowal. Zvi and Brian have just done it so many times that it comes more naturally to them.
Since this is the penultimate step in metagame adjustment let’s spend some time considering what sorts of products are typically generated at this stage.
The more common product at least from my experience is a well-tuned version of one of the top decks that is uniquely prepared to handle an expected metagame. So you might be playing a Jund deck with an unorthodox sideboard of bullets for certain matchups or you might be playing Blue-White with main deck Flashfreeze or Naya with main deck Celestial Purge. If this is where your play testing has led you don’t get discouraged; the goal is not to go rogue – the goal is to win the tournament. I’d much rather win a tournament with a Jund deck that only has 6 original cards than to get second place with an exciting rogue deck that no one has ever seen before. This should be your attitude as well.
The less common product unless your name is Conley Woods is a rogue deck that can hold its own against the field while doing something just as powerful as the top decks. It is almost never the case that your testing generates a rogue deck that smashes everything in your gauntlet. But it doesn’t need to. What you should be looking for is a deck that has a solid plan against all the top decks and attacks them in a way that none of the other decks in the format do. This will give you an edge in the tournament because your opponents will not know what you are up to and will comparatively play suboptimally as a result (even if they are pros).
Don’t get inbred with your testing and think your deck is ‘only as good as Jund’ simply because you are not putting up testing numbers that are better than Jund’s testing numbers. Everyone already knows exactly how to play against Jund whereas very few people will know how to optimally play against something like Polymorph (early in the season) or in last week’s case Titan Ramp. This edge should definitely be considered when selecting a deck for a tournament.
My White Weenie deck for Pro Tour: San Diego is a decent example of this. People were playing around Brave the Elements all tournament long and were instead getting blown out by Elspeth Knight-Errant and Day of Judgment. The deck did not perform better than Jund in my testing but it was close and I estimated that I would gain an extra advantage by playing a deck people were much less familiar with than to just show up with the deck everyone was gunning for. That deck was at the less rogue end of rogue but was sufficiently different from anything anyone else was playing to take my opponents by surprise.
Words of Caution when Metagaming
6. Is my deck well-positioned for this tournament or is it too far ahead of its time?
This mistake usually does not happen among PTQ players but I see this happening from time to time when strong groups are vigorously play testing for a given Pro Tour. They will figure out early on what most of the strongest decks in the format are. Then they will determine what decks are best positioned against those decks. And then they make a fatal mistake and assume the tournament will be filled with well-positioned decks rather than most powerful decks and so they will play a deck that beats the well-positioned decks instead of the powerful decks when they would have been much better off just playing the well-positioned deck. Essentially they got too far ahead of themselves and as a result wasted a valuable opportunity.
Even at the Pro Tour level most players (I’d guess 75-80%) are slow to adapt and make only minor progress in their testing relatively speaking. Part of this has to do with lack of adequate testing partners time able to invest in testing or simply a lack of knowledge and ability to appropriately predict the metagame and to adjust accordingly. This is where word of mouth and a certain level of inter-group networking and cooperation can go a long way. Manu Bucher lamented not doing more of this leading up to Pro Tour: San Juan this year and I believe this approach will catch on more and more among top players in the coming years mainly as a response to MTGO ‘hivemind-ing’ or ‘netdecking’ in order to re-establish the gap between top IRL players and online-only players.
I’m not suggesting groups should openly share deck lists but simply conversing honestly about an open format can keep your group and the conversing group in check and to make sure neither of you are overly inbred and metagaming two weeks ahead of where everyone else is. I’m fairly confident this will be the future standard for Pro Level Magic though it has not yet fully caught on. Most groups value secrecy a bit too highly closely guarding their ‘hidden gems’ even when their ‘gems’ aren’t really worth anything yet.
This is fine if you feel your team has broken the format and is poised to take the event by storm but until that point it is extremely likely that you will benefit from openly talking about the metagame with people from other groups. This is an advantage of being ‘in the know’; once you’ve established enough credibility people value your input enough to basically trade information for evaluation thus putting you both in a better position.
Even at the PTQ level however now is a perfect time for communication. A new set (M11) has been introduced into the format and new decks (Titan Ramp) have emerged as possible metagame contenders. Asking things like “Have you tested the new B/R Liliana’s Caress deck that Top 8’d a European Nationals tournament? Is it any good?” can go a long way and save you time. “Yeah it gets destroyed by Jund. It’s unplayable.” Just be sure to do your part as well and contribute as much to the person you are seeking advice from as they are contributing to you. Otherwise you will be seen as an obnoxious barnacle and your networking relationship will not prosper.