I've been wanting to write an article about the metagame clock for a while, and now seems like a good time to do so. With all of the new variety in upcoming Aether Revolt Standard, it looks like there is actually a deck for every position on the metagame clock! While this is much more common in Modern, it is unusual to see such a wide representation in Standard.
The metagame clock is a way of describing the play style of a deck and indicating which other decks will be good or bad matchups for it. The three core archetypes represented on the clock are aggro, control, and combo. These three deck styles play much like rock, paper, scissors where each one trumps the next. Aggro beats control, control beats combo, and combo beats aggro. It's a classic (and general) paradigm to help internalize “what beats what.”
Aggro decks are packed full of threats and aim to end the game as quickly as possible. Control decks run all the answers, from counterspells to removal and everything in between, and thrive by stretching the game out into the later turns when the opponent is out of resources. Combo decks assemble a small number of cards that lead to a win on the spot.
Most players know that there are good and bad matchups for their deck, but not everyone can enumerate why that is. The basic three archetype clock can help, but we can also go deeper and look at the other common archetypes, midrange and aggro-control. Just like the others, these fit on the metagame clock and will beat the ones after them and lose to the ones before them.
Midrange decks are full of two-for-one value cards, often seeking to win the game through attrition, gaining card advantage along the way. Aggro-control decks, also known as tempo decks, take a more disruptive approach to aggression, either proactively stopping the opponent before deploying their own threats or playing a reactive “protect the queen” approach by deploying threats and stopping attempts to answer them.
Not every deck can contain all the threats and all the answers. By choosing how many threats or answers you want to play, you have solidified your position on the metagame clock. You now have some matchups that are weaker and others that are stronger.
This is a powerful and confusing part of Magic that leads to the high competitiveness of the game. You can try to predict what your opponents will be playing and one-up them by playing a better-positioned deck. Having a deep knowledge of the game, format, and decks will help you to improve, and a large part of that is the metagame clock.
As a general rule, you can assume that your deck will follow the metagame clock and have good and bad matchups accordingly. Wizards of the Coast R&D sometimes affects this by powering certain strategies up or down. In fact, when a strategy's strength that positions it along the metagame clock disappears, such as when combo is no longer faster than aggro, it often disappears as a viable tournament option altogether.
Choosing a deck in order to beat a popular archetype is a good idea, but even in a favored matchup you are not always going to win. Variance will mess with the odds of certain matchups and sometimes you will just lose to your best matchup. Understanding the metagame clock can help you feel less bad about the bad beats and help you know how to change your play style when you are against a bad matchup.
There are decks that fall outside of the metagame clock or that will move around the clock as the game progresses. Ramp decks start the game more like combo to build up mana and then become a more aggro strategy in the mid-game. Other decks will try to stretch to cover as much of the metagame clock as possible to be flexible in any situation. Modern Jund is a great example, as it shifts from a proactive aggro-control deck (Thoughtseize you, cast Tarmogoyf, Terminate and Lightning Bolt your creatures, and beat down) to a midrange deck (using Dark Confidant and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to out-resource you).
In most decks there are “core cards” and “flex slots.” These flex slots are often filled in with cards to let you play further around the metagame clock instead of being stuck at just one point. For example, as a midrange deck, Modern Jund inherently struggles with combo, so it runs a suite of discard spells to grab important pieces before the combo decks can go off. Similarly, this is why control decks run midrange cards like planeswalkers and Snapcaster Mage.
Each archetype has strengths and weakness, as well as different playstyles. Every Magic player has preferences in which types of decks they prefer playing, but it is important to understand where other decks are coming from as well. I've included suggested decks from other StarCityGames.com® writers for the Standard decks.
Aggro decks are defined by their fast gameplay involving lots of creatures. An aggro deck is packed full of threats. The goal is to kill your opponent before they have a chance to get their deck going. By bombarding your opponent with threat after threat you keep your opponent on their toes. You are asking all the questions, telling your opponent to answer this creature or to die trying.
The plan for these creature dense decks is to kill while still in the early- or mid-game. They are typically faster than aggro-control because they are more focused on the aggressive strategy and can outrace their opponents. With so many low-cost creatures, it is also very common for aggro decks to get their threats in before the opponent has countermagic.
Combo decks, when they're viable, are faster than aggro decks. It may look like aggro is winning for most of the match, but the combo player will win all at once before you can get the last points of damage in. Midrange is also a hard matchup for aggro because the creatures played by midrange are so much larger than the aggro-focused creatures. Midrange also plays a large amount of creature removal, so any threats that are not blocked by a large creature will likely be removed in another way.
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Experiment One
- 2 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Reckless Bushwhacker
- 4 Vexing Devil
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 1 Dryad Arbor
- 4 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 2 Bristling Hydra
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 3 Greenbelt Rampager
- 4 Longtusk Cub
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Winding Constrictor
As the name might suggest, aggro-control is an odd mix between aggro decks and control decks. Aside: many people have started to call these "tempo decks," but I prefer aggro-control because it is more descriptive and cannot get confused with the idea of Tempo. Tempo (with a big T) is the idea of spending less mana than your opponent when trading cards with them. I could (and probably will) spend an entire article talking about this, but the short version is that spending one mana (Lightning Bolt) to deal with a three-mana threat (Vampire Nighthawk) is positive Tempo for the caster of Lightning Bolt.
Aggro-control blends aggressive threats with efficient countermagic and other disruption. In reactive aggro-control, the early creatures do most of the work. This mixture of spells lets the deck be very flexible on its role depending on its opponent. Reactive aggro-control decks deploy threats in the first few turns and attack while protecting their threats from removal. They will also run efficient removal spells for the pesky blockers that may get in the way or slow the game down. Proactive aggro-control decks spend the first few turns setting up disruption via discard, removal, or lock pieces and then deploy their threats once the way is clear.
These types of decks test your knowledge of the format you are playing. You have limited countermagic, so you must use it on the most important spells. Having access to these counterspells make combo a good matchup because you can stop their key pieces while still providing a fast clock for them to race. It is still faster than control, with the added benefit of disruption against battlefield wipes and countermagic to stick the most important threats and protect your clock.
Unfortunately, this means that it is slower than the focused aggro decks that are all-in on their beatdown plan. The threats that you are playing are often small, so you have the same problem as aggro against midrange decks. Their creatures are bigger than yours, and they have removal for the creatures that survive.
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Archangel Avacyn
- 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Control feels like the opposite of aggro. It wants to go into the late-game, and instead of providing threats that your opponent must answer, instead you are running mostly answers. You keep your opponent off their footing by not letting any spell resolve or any creature to survive. If your opponent can't land any threats, then you can win later with that Giant Octopus you put in your deck.
Control decks run primarily noncreature spells, which makes all the removal in midrange decks look very silly. This is an inherent form of card advantage: if your opponent kept a hand with two threats, three lands, and two removal spells, you feel like you're on top of the world! To deal with that, you only need two answers and your opponent has effectively mulliganed to five.
Once you play your “finisher” threats, you can protect them with countermagic, just like an aggro-control deck would, or you can run finishers like Aetherling that simply don't die to removal. Control also has a very good game against combo because it can counter any meaningful spell the combo deck tries to play.
Slowing down your opponent is great unless they can play the threats they need to win the game before you can cast your countermagic. Aggro and aggro-control decks are much faster than control decks and can often kill you before you have the chance to answer enough of their threats.
Combo is very different from the other archetypes. For the most part, it sticks to itself and tries not to interact with your opponent. It is often a race to the finish for a combo deck while they attempt to assemble the combination of cards that will let them automatically win the game. Combos can be very powerful so they are not often seen in Standard. However, Aether Revolt looks like it's going to bring combo back, so buckle up!
When you are not worried about what your opponent is playing, you can play much the same way each game. You can tune your deck to assemble the combo as quickly as possible and normally win before aggressive decks can kill you. Aggro and midrange decks normally do not run countermagic, so they have very little power to stop you if you are able to find all of your pieces in time.
Combo decks may not be interested in interacting with their opponents, but when an opponent can interrupt their plan, it is often game over. Control and aggro-control have the tools they need to stop the important spells in your deck. Sometimes you can catch a newer player by making your spells seem unassuming, but once your opponents know how your combo works, they will be able to counter the right pieces and win on their own time. However, the best way to deal with your weaker control matchups is to use your flex slots on anti-countermagic countermagic.
Midrange decks rely on gaining incremental card advantage and traction over a number of turns. This inherently pushes them later in the game than aggro decks, though they often want to win earlier than control decks. The quintessential examples of midrange cards are planeswalkers. They provide instant value as soon as they hit the battlefield, distract your opponent while they play a subgame, and they generate even more advantage every turn they stick around.
Most midrange threats are larger than those from an aggro deck and can stand in their way to slow down the game. This, paired with removal, can keep aggro and aggro-control decks off-balance. You may be running fewer creatures than the faster decks, but if you can outclass and destroy their creatures, it doesn't matter how quickly they die.
Midrange decks are on the slower side and often focus on creature removal. This can leave you very susceptible to combo decks. Many combo decks do not run creatures, which makes half of your deck useless before you even begin to play. Control is also a hard matchup because they can stop all of your big threats, and once you get to the late-game, they can play a bigger game than you and protect themselves from your removal.
With all of these archetypes, there are many choices. You can try to choose a deck based on what you expect to be popular so you can beat them, or you can pick the archetype that sounds the most fun to play and take the matchups as they come. Normally a metagame is well-balanced around the metagame clock, so any deck you choose should have good and bad matchups.
We are about to enter a brave new Standard environment, and everybody is looking for the next best deck for #SCGCOL. Thinking about the metagame clock as you brew can help make your deck stronger and shore up its weak matchups. Building a combo deck? Be sure to add some cards to help in your control matchup! Building aggro? Make sure you're quick or resilient enough that you can beat the midrange decks that will emerge.
Which archetypes do you like to play the most? I prefer aggro-control and midrange. I think I prefer them because they can be the most flexible decks, and I would rather ask the questions than search for the answers. Let me know your preferences; I'd like to see if each archetype is represented evenly or if we are all in love with one archetype.
Have a wonderful week, and as always, happy gaming!