Broadly speaking there are two metagames for tournament play: Closed Metagames and Open Metagames. If you’re a player that is playing to win deck choice in these two metagames is radically different.
In both cases there may be a plethora of decks out there. The question becomes “what deck do I choose” and the fundamentals of this decision are really quite different.
The Closed Metagame is a fairly simple one to understand: of the options that are available a few stand out so clearly in terms of performance that playing other decks is a foolish choice.
There are some moments in Magic history that were not merely Closed Metagames but so incredibly closed as to be absurd. The first of these was probably the variants of the Necropotence during Necro Summer (1996). If you weren’t playing Necropotence you were almost certainly playing the wrong deck. A short while later during Combo Winter the same event occurred: essentially if you weren’t playing High Tide you were playing the wrong deck. More recently during Lorwyn Block if you weren’t playing Faeries you were playing the wrong deck. More commonly though there are often a small collection of decks usually around three or four or so all of which are definitely very viable but might emerge in one week or the next as the deck to really be playing.
Of course there are exceptions to the hard and fast nature of a rule like this. Necro Summer was rife with Necro variants where different players put together different builds of Necropotence looking for some kind of fundamental edge for the inevitable mirror much like the scrambling that happened with Faeries or more recently with Jund (particularly before Jund fell from favor as of late). In this time Turbo-Stasis emerged as a deck that could squash Necro capitalizing on Necro’s mana-hungry nature. The emergence of Turbo-Stasis though was a fringe development late in the metagame of that moment and by the time it was discovered the format had shifted. In a similar way with High Tide future R&D member Brian Schneider’s Suicide King emerged to fight against the evils of combo.
The weaknesses of decks like this is that they prey on a particular deck and are essentially more geared as “top-feeders” and they can sometimes fall victim to much weaker decks that are simply natural predators to them by mere chance. Often these decks also are not as strictly powerful as the primary deck in the format though the best of these “foil” decks are still powerful in their own right. As a result they do best in formats that are unhealthily dominated by some deck or other.
Now for many people they likely advocated playing something other than High Tide for example back in Combo Winter. They were basically wrong. High Tide was simply stronger and better than everything else and again and again would beat supposed “hate” decks. In all of my testing only Suicide King could consistently challenge High Tide. That being said there are times that you don’t want to play the singular dominant deck in a very Closed Metagame and also not play its foil. These are usually reasons based on contingencies of some sort.
For me the best example I can think of is Merfolk during Lorwyn Block. I was swamped under by school and I simply didn’t have what it took to play the Faeries mirror against the most competent players. If I wanted to win the tournament I’d have to play something else. Ultimately the best call would have been to pick up Faeries and just play it to death. And then pick up the corpse of it and play it some more. But I couldn’t do that; I simply didn’t have the time. After watching Mehran Lahtif play Merfolk at a PTQ in Chicago I realized that there was another deck that could be competitive enough to do some work on and not be owned by opposing Faeries players who were simply more experienced with the deck. I ended up making two Top 8s and a narrow loss in the finals against Justin Meyers. I’m pleased with my results in the contingent moment but I still know that the path I took was not the best path to take if I wanted to win. Alas I didn’t have the time.
I’m told that Vintage is a relatively Closed Metagame (though I don’t know personally) in that the few decks that exist all do essentially the same thing and if you’re not doing that you aren’t going to win (essentially making it a metagame of one deck with slightly greater than minor variations). For a little while there the Standard Metagame was probably fairly Closed with the locus of energy being contained primarily in Jund Blue/White and Bant variants. Sligh decks could exist as a viable fourth option when Blue/White was at particularly low tide but essentially the metagame was pretty well contained within these decks. Playing other things would largely be considered unwise.
One of the best measures for figuring out if a deck is not viable is pretty simple. If at the beginning of the tournament we were to offer you the following proposition – switch decks to a random player in the tournament’s deck – if this proposition would result in a better expected value (EV) for you in the tournament you’re probably playing the wrong deck for the tournament. Unfortunately the only way you can usually measure such things is after the event; most of us who want to win don’t actively chose decks that have a poor expected value. Further even measuring these things is somewhat sketchy; take Sligh for example. A ton of people play Red decks incredibly poorly often diluting their results over the broad field. Or with any deck perhaps they don’t have a cleverly built or understood sideboard.
In a Closed Format if you explore this proposition further it can easily become clear that based on EV you have to choose one of just a few decks. Even playing a foil to these decks is often risky because if there is more than one deck to attack a foil that does so successfully often can’t attack several decks at once. The more that other people begin to notice this behavior in the metagame and join in on the relatively few big decks the more the bar gets further raised and it can alienate the prospects of many less discovered decks.
In Closed Formats your energy is usually best spent in three ways:
a) Experience: Learn the few top tier decks and how they interact so well that you know them completely. With three decks essentially this is learning nine matchups.
b) Tech: Try to find novel sideboard cards (or occasional maindeck slots) that improve enough of your matchups that you have an edge. Be wary of watering down the explicit strength of the deck by doing so however.
c) Go Rogue: Work on an alternate deck or a foil deck but paying strict attention to the top tier only. Note this is almost always simultaneously the most work and the least fruitful option if winning is your goal.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Open Format: no decks in the format so dominate it that other (good) decks are shoved out of consideration.
Having just played in Columbus I’m inclined to say that Legacy is a fairly open format; between Day 1 and Day 2 I didn’t play against the same archetype more than once and I know quite a few people who had similar experiences. This is somewhat unsurprising once you see what comprised the top 10% or so of the field that made Day 2. Here are the top few:
Bant variants: ~11%
Merfolk: ~ 7%
All Else (26+ archetypes): ~53%
That’s pretty incredible diversity particularly when you keep in mind just how often Sideboard coverage smooshes very different deck archetypes into the same name. To put this into perspective the deck archetypes that played in the finals of GP: Columbus and the Legacy Championships each composed on average only about one-fourteenth of the field.
Why did this happen?
It might be that the format isn’t well discovered enough as of yet to force out the archetypes that can’t cut it. For example maybe ANT and Landstill are dead archetypes but we just don’t know it yet. I don’t know that this is at all true but it might be. Essentially though you have a vibrant thriving ecosystem because so many different plans are possible and are strong. Unfortunately from Columbus we don’t have metagame data for the bulk of the field prior to Day 2 so there’s no way of knowing which decks performed very well. For example if 20% of the field is Zoo but only 14% of the competitors playing Zoo made it this is pretty good evidence against Zoo being good. On the other hand if Enchantress was only 2% of Day 2 but 80% of the people playing it made Day 2 that’s pretty compelling evidence that Enchantress is worth playing. Of course in the absence of actual data those numbers are made up for the purposes of giving an example but I can tell you these things happen. Five-Color Control is supposed to be the best deck and then you look at the data and learn “oh actually it performed worse than nearly anything.” Data has its flaws because the samples we’re taking from are full of flawed players and plays but it still has a lot of utility.
Other than in formats not fully discovered the moments where deckbuilding opportunities are thick with possibility also tend to be Open Metagames. Right now for example we have two base sets as well as two full blocks. That means that we have a lot of cards to choose from for Standard right now (1477 cards). This is few more than were available when Zendikar was printed (less than 1000 at 973).
How many credible decks are available in Standard right now? Jund Blue/White Naya Mythic Conscription Green Eldrazi Valakut-Ramp Polymorph Runeflare Trap Sligh Pyromancer’s Ascension and probably several others. It simply isn’t viable to try to test against everything unless you’re working with an organized group of players or you have infinite time.
You might think it is possible but not if you’re hoping to do good testing. Take a particular build of Jund and test it against say Sligh. You might play a ton of game 1s and learn that Jund is pretty heavily dominated there. Sideboarding makes this better. But then you realize that the particular build of Red that you’re playing against is only one of three major strains and that sideboards vary wildly. And then when you start thinking about the metagame after you’ve put in a ton of work you come to realize that in the current metagame Red variants are liable to be between three to six percent of the field…
So you decide to focus on say Blue/White and not only is the problem more pronounced the sideboard cards since the deck is more popular are far more varied. One player dominates you with Baneslayers and Sun Titans and another barely plays any creatures at all. Spreading Seas appears or doesn’t in an almost haphazard fashion. The boards run the gamut.
In Open Metagames our energy is usually best spent in three ways (eerily similar to before but different):
a) Experience: Select a good deck and then learn it. At this point use a playtesting method that Zvi long ago advocated: play against everything willy nilly. The goal here is to just see as many different situations as possible and not be surprised by an unknown deck or plan from an opponent. You likely can’t do substantial deep testing against everything so just try to generally raise your skill level.
b) Tech: Paying attention to the broad elements of a format look for general answers to classes of problems. Where in a Closed Metagame you might look for specific answers to a deck now you’re looking for very flexible answers. Manabarbs for a Red deck is a clear example of this as a card that punishes mana-hungry decks across the board.
c) Go Rogue: Work on an alternate deck but don’t waste your time trying to find a foil deck – the top tier is too varied for this to be helpful. Spend your time honing and verifying that the deck is good enough on its own and be wary of getting lured into Pet Deck Syndrome. This is again the most time consuming type of work of the three but it is also much more well-positioned in an Open Metagame.
Unlike in Closed Metagames Rogue decks in Open Metagames have the luxury of scattered opponents. When opponents are using general answers to deck styles you can often sneak through the cracks. A deck like Green Eldrazi which ramps into Emrakul and friends can look around and find that its opponents are simply not prepared for it at all. One of the tactics that a lot of people use in Open Metagames are sideboards that are full of smaller numbers of specific answers to decks and for a Rogue deck it is rare that these specific answers will hit their deck and when they do there are often fewer of those cards.
- 4 Obstinate Baloth
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- 2 Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
- 2 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
A deck like this is easy enough to take down if you’re trying to fight it. But who can afford to take the effort to dedicate the space in their sideboard to fight it? In that same Top 8 there were six other archetypes only one of which was ostensibly similar to this one.
The Rogue player always has the advantage of surprise on an opponent who may have only vaguely heard of a deck like it but probably hasn’t seen it operate and is even less likely to have the experience necessary to perform against the deck properly even when they are a good player. The value of the Open Metagame for a Rogue deck partly lies in the extra design space being likely to give far more decks the tools to be as powerful as they need to be combined with the distractions of the broadness of the metagame being so broad that the opponent is all the more ill-prepared for yet another thing outside of their reckoning.
By all estimates the Nationals events since M11 hit have been wildly varied. This is clearly an Open Metagame. If you have a deck you’ve been working on for a while this might very well be the moment to break it out and make a little Magic history.
I know that’s what I’ll be doing. Unless I just sleeve up a Goblin Guide and bash… Wish me luck at the Grinders and at Nats.
Until next week…