I rank metagaming as the highest priority when preparing for Magic tournaments. Now this shouldn't always be the deciding factor when selecting a deck for an event, but it has been my first step to success for as long as I can remember. Many pros like Reid Duke and Sam Black have proven that sticking to a specific archetype and perfecting the art also has the potential for great success. It just comes down to finding your strengths and executing a strategy.
Last weekend, I flew all the way to Minneapolis to compete in the Open Series weekend that was being held there. Not only was I trying to get that much closer to snagging a slot in the Players' Championship, but I would get an opportunity to hang out with some of my old friends from the area. I just needed to figure out what I wanted to play!
I spent the week theorizing and brewing to little or no avail. I was stumped and looked to Todd for advice. He was dead set on playing his Abzan Midrange list that he has been working on all week after I wasn't able to find anything I liked. Abzan Midrange is a deck that I normally wouldn't play, but not for the obvious reason that I am a Magic Hipster, as we all know how much I like bringing something you've never heard of to a tournament. The reason for not liking Abzan Midrange is much more logical than needing to acquire cool points with my audience.
I hate mana accelerants. This hasn't always been the case, but the cards you get to surround your mana accelerants with have changed. No longer do we have Unburial Rites, Gavony Township, Lingering Souls, or any of the other mana sinks we used to have. Now we just use these creatures to play cards faster than they normally could be played. How exciting is that!
The logic behind playing mana accelerants is that they get you extremely far ahead on the play, while helping to catch up when on the draw. It makes sense in theory as well as sometimes in practice, but these little critters have some serious flaws that come with them as well. First of all, you can draw them at almost any point in the game and have them be terrible. The decks that have them just have too much air in them when the games go long. These decks also want to have access to Thoughtseize which only exacerbates the issue of having too many "do nothings" in the late stages of a game.
I tested Todd's Abzan deck Friday morning and just couldn't see myself playing a deck with so many cards that don't let me leverage my play skill. The deck was obviously powerful and tuned, but I didn't get to make any real decisions except for what hands to keep and how to sideboard. These decisions happen to be the most difficult to make when you are inexperienced with a deck. I started having my doubts in whether or not I could pilot this deck correctly, and if this was even a good deck for me to play.
I grabbed my sliding pole and "swooshed" into my brew cave.
I started to think about what decks were going to be popular. I didn't think much was going to change before the Open, because things really didn't have a reason to. The Pro Tour and Grand Prix Los Angeles just happened, allowing players to come into their own with a specific strategy. Sure, some players might pick up my Mardu Midrange deck, but most players competing this weekend would probably be on a deck popularized by the Pro Tour. This was my rough guess on what the metagame was going to be.
20% Jeskai Aggro
20% Abzan Midrange
15% G/R Monsters
10% Variations on my W/R Deck and Mardu Midrange (Hordeling Outburst strategies)
10% Abzan Aggro
5% U/B Control + U/W Control
So how do you attack that metagame? Well the short answer is that you can't. That is because two of the most popular cards in the format are difficult to attack at the same time.
One of these two cards is almost played in every tier one deck in the metagame. No one single strategy has a great chance of beating both of them. That is the reason so many people opted to play transformational sideboards. I didn't have faith in the ole transformational sideboard working for a third week in a row so I wanted to find something else. I decided to go extremely deep.
What is this card trying to say? This card is in fact screaming something very loudly, but you have to know how to listen.
"…and all permanents attached to creatures."
Now why does this card have that line of text? It is not a powerful enough effect to make this card cost five mana. My best guess to why End Hostilities costs five mana is because Dig Through Time was too powerful as a follow up for a four mana wrath effect. We really didn't need our control decks curving out on us, did we?
So why did this wrath effect have such an innocuous ability attached to it? My prediction was that bestow was way more powerful in Standard than they expected. They needed decks to have the ability to wipe the boards more efficiently so that control decks would be possible. If bestow creatures would simply stick around post-wrath, then Wingmate Roc really wouldn't have a trump, making it potentially too powerful.
There is just one issue with this theory. The card isn't really seeing play.
This was the starting point for my pre-tournament brew. I want to play something with a powerful bestow creature. Herald of Torment has been the most impressive and combos well with two of my other current favorite cards in the format.
These three cards looked amazing together. Not only do they curve, but they all create a very difficult board to disrupt. It was rather easy to build the shell around these spells. You wanted the good white creatures that can help out against non-green decks, and the removal needed to beat them. Deck building isn't really that sophisticated.
The deck went through some changes throughout the day, but this is the list I settled on.
Even though this decklist was off by many cards, the theory behind it was sound. I finished 8-2, losing one round I should have, and another to some very misfortunate draws. Variance wasn't the culprit though. The deck was prone to having some poor draws and not being able to get out of it due to not having access to deck manipulation, card advantage, or any over the top effects when falling behind. I built the deck incorrectly, but the archetype carried me anyway.
This was a deck that carried me! Sure I played well enough, but the deck did most of the heavy lifting. This is the exact opposite of my Grand Prix Los Angeles Mardu Midrange deck. That deck was also extremely misbuilt, but I played very well to finish as highly as I did.
This archetype has some potential. It could very well become tier one until control decks become more prevalent. Until then, here are the fundamentals of the deck if you find yourself interested in playing with it this weekend.
VS Jeskai Aggro
The easiest way to win this matchup is to get ahead on the board and follow that up with Sorin, Solemn Visitor. This is the one and only matchup where Herald of Torment doesn't shine, but its attempt to win the game for your opponent is easily thwarted by a single activation from everyone's favorite lonely vampire. Don't be afraid to cast Thoughtseize. Just because they end up winning by casting burn does not mean that casting Thoughtseize was a part of that prophecy.
VS Abzan Midrange
Do not try to play a grindy game with them! I repeat, do not try to play a grindy game with them! They will win in this position very easily. Instead, try to get underneath them with Herald of Torment, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and Wingmate Roc. They will have a tough time dealing with multiple threats, but you have to present them first.
Out (on the draw):
In (on the draw):
Out (on the play):
In (on the play):
VS Mono-Red Aggro
By now you know the drill. Keep them contained for as long as possible and hope they attrition themselves out before you run out of ways to gain significant board advantage. Never attack until you are dealing huge chunks or if you have lifelink.
VS Abzan Aggro
This was one of the matchups I was most afraid to face prior to the event. For some reason I just assumed they would be a better deck in the matchup. They seemed to have a similar curve as I do with the added bonus of being three colors with bigger creatures. This was the reason I played Soldier of the Pantheon in the sideboard.
Surprisingly, the matchup felt favorable for B/W. They just didn't seem to get on the board fast enough. Silence the Believers is also a serious problem for that deck.
Moving onto Legacy, the deck of choice this past weekend was Sneak and Show. This was a deck that I have played in the past and swore I wouldn't ever pick up again. The main reason for not liking the deck is that no matter what matchup you are playing against, you will always be forced to be the first person on the board. This means that your opponent gets to have the luxury of finding "it" and you always being the one asking if "they have it." I guess things change when the format does, because I was happy to be trying to show them something.
Treasure Cruise has changed the game by giving a card to the Delver decks that they now have to worry about in the mirror. Much like what True-Name Nemesis did in the "fair" mirrors, Treasure Cruise forces the Delver decks to look exactly the same. Some could play more countermagic in their maindecks, but that isn't going to help them in the mirror-matches when their opponent is drawing three extra cards a turn. Velocity is now a thing in Delver mirror matches, which makes it very difficult for them to play cards that are well-positioned against the combo decks.
The biggest reason for playing Sneak and Show this past weekend was it was also well-positioned against the decks that were trying to prey on the Delve(r) decks. This was a great place to be!
My main thought process with playing this version of the deck was that I wanted to be as aggressive in Game 1 as possible. Instead of playing Dig Through Time like many others, I opted to just play Daze and Misdirection to ensure my spells would resolve. Less countermagic in maindecks would help facilitate this.
Once we moved to sideboarding, the deck would slightly shift and become a little bit slower. A combo piece or two along with some of the soft counters would be replaced with Dig Through Time and whatever cards in the sideboard that would be good in the matchup. This would allow the deck to play the long game an opponent was trying to force without feeling the sting of drawing too many combo pieces.
The deck felt great. I lost a match that felt like I should have to Death and Taxes and another to Jeskai Delver where I felt I got a little too unlucky. Other than that, the deck sliced through the event, and I was happy to be playing it.
I attacked the obvious and was rewarded with two Top 32 finishes.
The story could end there. I could tie a nice little bow around both of my decks and say that I am happy with my finishes. I acquired eight points to go along with the countless others in my attempt to get into the Players' Championship. All-in-all it was a good weekend. That was until I looked at the final results.
Jeskai Aggro won the Standard Open and Grand Prix, while Jeskai Delver won the Legacy Open. The "stock" decks that I came to vanquish still won the tournaments. I wouldn't say that the two decks I played where bad, but they were untuned, and I would have made many changes to them before the next event.
The other thing worth noting is that Matej Zatlkaj's decklist was anything but stock. There were a ton of things going on in his decklist that I was curious why the deck didn't do. Instead of trying them out myself, I simply just kept chugging along with my new brews until I found one that wasn't bad. Instead of wasting countless hours on dozens of decklists, I could have simply mastered a known good deck and executed new strategies in them. I also love the color combination of Jeskai and should have played some with the deck instead of what I have been doing.
What's obvious to me now is that I need to put more emphasis on playing the best deck no matter what it is. Sometimes it will be a stock deck and other times it will be something I can come up with. Instead of always doing one or the other, I should learn to have a balance. The obvious thing I need to attack if I want to make the Players' Championship at the end of the year is that I don't need to be cute while doing it. Even though the theories I have are sound and oftentimes correct, my execution is never perfect and it costs me chances of winning the events.
The Open Series in Minneapolis was very much an eye opener in that I had a much better chance of winning if I just worked all week on making the best Jeskai list. The deck is obviously powerful and many people are focused on trying to deal with green strategies. The same goes for Legacy. Why wasn't I just the one casting the one mana Ancestral Recall and cruising my way to the finals?
I just should have taken a step back and attacked the obvious. I am just too hipster for my own good.