If you live in the Midwest - come into Columbus March 13th and compete in a Type One tournament with unlimited Proxies for a Mox of your Choice (sans Jet) or $200 cash. Details at the end of the article.
Just for contrast, context, and to provide a springboard for discussion, here is a diagram of the metagame as it existed in 2001.
The Old Rock-Paper-Scissors Circa 2001
Obviously, any metagame fully developed would not be that simple, and the diagram itself is something of a useful simplification. As a disclaimer, my diagrams don't purport to be perfect representations; they provide visual content to some conceptual abstractions.
I think we have come, finally, to a clear understanding of the post-Long metagame. The centerpiece of this understanding is realizing the role of Tog, particularly understanding how it functions in a"Who's the Beatdown?" framework.
The basic elements of the metagame, at the moment, are first, blazingly fast Aggro in the form of Madness and Workshop-based decks such as TnT and Oshawa Stompy, as well as regular Madness; second, Workshop Prison decks; third, Aggro-Control decks that are usually Fish or Dryad based; fourth, Control decks like Tog, Keeper, URphid, and Landstill; and fifth, Combo decks like TPS, Twister.dec, Dragon, and Rector.
This metagame, in other words, has five major points - and multiple axes. Most decks and players in the American Type One metagame - particularly the Northeast, try to position themselves along the Control/Aggro/Aggro-Control axes and generally ignore the combo and Workshop prison elements (I suspect that this is partly explained by the distorting effects of five proxies - which means that people are less able to play Combo or Workshop, and also by the general preference for control and aggro by those players). Along this Axis, Tog is the strongest. Realizing this is the first step to understanding the metagame. The arrows along this diagram represent theoretically most favorable matchups and are merely a generalization at that. Take them with a grain of salt and the recognition that a complex metagame can't be so easily diagramed - what I have attempted here is nothing more than a useful visual to frame the discussion.
Control V. Aggro V. Aggro-Control Axis
For some time I realized that Tog was revolutionary, but sometimes you have to realize something twice - with a significant lapse of time in between - for its full effect to be understood. When Tog first showed up, it was most potent in GroAtog, but overshadowed by the faster if-not-more-deadly Quirion Dryad. The restriction of Gush and the subsequent decline of Misdirection in the metagame has meant that free spells which are most likely to make a Dryad most powerful, are simply not there. Dryads were able to Grow larger and faster (as were Togs for the most part) than almost anything Aggro could put up against it. If Sligh plays a 2/1 on turn 1 and attempts to burn your Tog or Dryad, which simply cannot die because of your Misdirection, which not only makes the Dryad larger but clears the way for your Dryad to swing - then aggro is going to have trouble.
But the big problem is that Togs and Dryads could often grow as large as Juggernaut off a turn 1 Workshop, Mox - and Togs can get as large as Phyrexian Dreadnoughts. Dryads remain powerful against aggro and against control in aggro-control decks, but they are not as powerful as they once were. The problem with them now, is that they are simply not bigger than Togs. Sometimes they can race Togs, but they need to be supplemented by him. That is the fundamental problem. Aggro-Control can no longer solidly beat Tog Control because the Control player's win condition is a bigger threat than what the Aggro Control player proposes. Dryads may grow, but it takes a lot of time. As a result, the Control player's Tog is also bigger and better against Aggro-Control, but also against Aggro.
Against Aggro specifically, the Tog player casts Berserk over the weenie army for the win (some Tog players lose sight of this and mis-assignment of role = game loss). What this does, for the first time, is give pure control a threat that it does not have to protect from damage or establish board control and run removal in order to win. In fact, Tog doesn't need to touch a single card on the board. Not all control decks have this advantage. For the most part, only Tog does.
Mono-Blue and Keeper simply do not have large enough or efficient enough creatures to deal with increasingly deadly aggro decks which are developed in an attempt to deal with Tog. Morphling is puny and slow compared to what most aggro decks can pump out. Decree Tokens aren't particularly large, even if they are fast - and cards like Ophidian are simply far to slow to stop any decent aggro assault. Worse, in order to be effective, it requires that the Blue mage keep all other potential blockers off the table. Tog, on the other hand, is a monster. I have even seen Togs take down Phyrexian Dreadnoughts and proceed to seal up the game. Non Gro-based aggro-control decks, which cannot deal with the enormous size of the aggro decks often take a different tack - using sideboard hosers or evasion life gain like Exalted Angel as a compensating mechanism for its inability to deal with a strong aggro offensive.
Instead, the Tog player sucks up as much damage as they can against Aggro, using the life total as a resource to buy time until a Beserked Tog has killed the stunned aggro player. In other words, the correct role for Tog to play is Aggro-Combo against TnT and Oshawa Stompy. Trying to play genuine control will lead to a game loss because"mis-assignment of role = game loss."
On the Control side of the axis, the natural advantage of Tog against Aggro and Aggro-control weakens the advantages of Keeper, making Keeper a less attractive alternative. Additionally, in the Control mirror, Tog tends to have more powerful draw, is able to run efficient bombs like Duress and have access to many solid control answers - as the Tog decks are often built for the mirror and are prepared for control matches. In the meantime, Keeper must clutter space to deal with other matchups. The result of this is that along the Aggro/Aggro-Control/Control Axis, Tog is dominant, simply because of the nature of the win condition.
It is interesting to note that Sligh has almost completely disappeared since the printing of Tog. Perhaps the most important point to emphasize to non-Tog control players is that even though they may be able to metagame their deck to beat Tog, Tog can shuffle around a few cards and more easily metagame to beat them, simply because the core of the deck is so incredibly flexible - permitting any number of great anti-control cards, which without some absolute hoser, became extremely difficult to compete with.
Prison V. Aggro-Control V. Aggro
Along the Workshop Prison/Aggro-Control/Aggro axis, Prison is well positioned to do well once again. The problem is that many aggro decks and aggro-control decks are ready and waiting with sufficient hate to answer this threat. The other problem is that Aggro-Control often has just as many control elements as the other control decks that Prison sometimes has to struggle with. Since Aggro-Control is designed to create a board advantage and then protect it, and the prison concept is based upon dominating the board so as to prevent the opponent from playing spells, the prison deck and the Aggro-Control idea are fundamentally opposed and Prison must fight hard to win.
The fundamental mana base and consistency flaws of the Prison deck are exacerbated by one key fact that I have only, sadly, recently come to realize: the Prison player's objective is control over the board, and any opening hand will not do - the inability to achieve and maintain control of the board immediately is usually fatal. This means that in addition to the proper mana ratios, a solid combination of lock spells must be drawn as well, or else the Prison deck will be unable to win. This means that winning the die roll is absolutely critical, but so is a bit of luck. Prison has a natural advantage along this axis nonetheless, because each lock part is so devastating against aggro-control decks, which play many cheap spells, and aggro decks which do not have countermagic.
The Workshop Prison deck is at the height of its strength against aggro, but is equally, if not more effective, along the Prison-Combo axis. The number and quality of lock spells has increased such that it has effective hosers for almost each and every combo deck that exists. Trinisphere, Chalice of the Void, and Sphere of Resistance are significant problems for TPS, Long, and almost any restricted list based combo deck. The weak combo matches (Rector and Dragon) are significantly shored up with Trinisphere and Damping Matrix.
Prison vs. Control
The problem comes in the Prison-Control axis. Two of the most devastating cards for Prison are Mana Drain and Force of Will. Force of Will is particularly harmful, first because it takes away the natural advantage of going first, second because the prison player may have needed to aggressively mulligan to get a decent hand and the effect of that is that Force of Will may have stopped a key threat, and third because if playing second, Mana Drain will be available by the time the second threat is cast. Mana Drain is even worse because it not only counters a key lock part, but it is antithetical to what the prison player is trying to achieve by providing mana - a resource that allows the control player to play more spells and evade losing control of the board by playing more permanents. The Prison players fights this through heavy tuning and playing well - and this can often work against a deck like Keeper, which is not built to maximize in a severe and stunting way the Mana Drain mana - at least not until after sideboarding. Duress often functions in a similar way as Force of Will. Keeper and control decks can often effectively fight Stax and Mud through a solid sideboard, much like other decks do.
However, again, the real problem for the Prison decks is the nature of Tog. Tog is a very efficiently costed creature, and once resolved, must be immediately neutralized through ramping Smokestacks in conjunction with Tangle Wires. Otherwise the prison elements will merely reinforce a desire to hold cards which then pump Tog to increasingly lethal damage that much sooner. Moreover, the lock components often have no way to deal with a resolved Tog - Trinisphere, Chalice, and Sphere of Resistance are not much help in any way except preventing Berserk from working.
Furthermore, Tog generally runs Shaman or Pernicious Deed, which are easily resolved and even more deadly than an early Tog. But perhaps the biggest threat of all (besides the monster that is a resolved Tog and countermagic) is Cunning Wish. Cunning Wish enables fast and easy answers to be obtained without cluttering the maindeck. Moreover, the quality of answers obtained can be deadly with such cards as Artifact Mutation and even Rack and Ruin.
Keeper also is able to run the instant speed Cunning Wish - a spell which is easily played on the upkeep before the lock parts grind the control player down. But it also has gotten stronger answers to Stax in Decree of Justice and Stifle. However, the Cunning Wishes are not just there to grab answers to Prison - they are also part of the combo which makes Tog so strong against Aggro by fetching Berserk and are thus excellent no matter what the matchup. Nonetheless, the Prison player's problems still center around the card Psychatog and the way in which it can become lethal so quickly and work so well, with the tempo answers of Drain and FoW, as well as the hoser-tutor Cunning Wish.
Who's The Beatdown?
To summarize so far, in the control match, Tog easily slips into the control role with superior draw and countermagic - it is thus the control player - an important understanding, since once again, mis-assignment of role equals game loss. However, Zvi has pointed out that if a deck can play both roles or can move from Control to Beatdown or vice versa, it will almost always win. Fitting that mold, the Tog player, unlike the Keeper player, has the potential to play beatdown and seize a small window of opportunity in a losing war from which to play Berserk on a subsequently lethal Tog. The advantage here is that being able to play both Control or Aggro, although mostly the former is a principle that operates to Tog's advantage.
In the Aggro and Aggro Control matches, being able to be the Beatdown is essentially the correct role, and the role which leads to the most game wins. But once again, Tog has the potential to play control by drawing Pernicious Deed to sweep the board against Stompy or TnT. The potential to play both the beatdown and control is undeniably attractive, and definitely makes Tog a superior deck choice.
Combo v. Aggro
The final axis is one that does not fit neatly. This is partly explained by the fact that combo tends to be underplayed and underdeveloped in Type One relative to Aggro, Control, Aggro-Control, and even Prison. The other reason it doesn't fit is because of the diversity of combo decks. The one overriding flaw in the combo decks is that they are all vulnerable to easily obtained and easily used hosers. The Tendrils decks have a difficult time winning against Chalices, Null Rod, Pyrostatic Pillar, and even Root Maze. The result is that combo is often competing on a very low level to fight basic hosers, instead of competing on a more strategic level that Tog might be dealing with threats. Tendrils is not alone in having to deal with easily obtained and used hate. Dragon must often run a gauntlet that involves the omnipresent Tormod's Crypt and the heavily used Coffin Purge. Both cards see a tremendous amount of play and each significant problems.
Additionally, there are other problems. Root Maze necessitates alternative win conditions, as the Laquatus win through the WGD combo simply fails to function under a resolved Root Maze. Damping Matrix has a similar effect. Rector decks are hit in the collateral damage of Tormod's Crypt and Coffin Purge (yes, you can purge the Rector before it can find Bargain), but it also has to deal with Stifles as well as the problem of Null Rod, Pyrostatic Pillar, and Chalice of the Void. It may well lose too much life before being able to win under Root Maze. It must be stated that combo decks have one serious and natural advantage against all the aforementioned hate.
First of all, in order to be viable, combo decks must be very good. There is no such thing as decent combo deck in Type One - they are either horrible or viable - there is no middle ground. The hate described often comes from all different sources - control, prison, aggro-control, and aggro. The advantage of the combo deck is that the natural speed of these decks often means that they can win before one of the hate cards comes down, something not to be discounted, and that in order to deal with control, they run cards which can pro-actively stop the hate in the form of Duress, or reactively with Force of Will - or even maindeck answers such as Chain of Vapor or Hurkyl's Recall.
The final point worth mentioning is that few decks run multiples of these threatening cards, so that combo generally only has to deal with one in order to proceed to the winner's bracket. For these reasons, Combo must generally focus its attention on beating control and sideboard to deal with most the hate that it might face.
Combo v. Control
Beating control is never easy, but it can be done. In the first place, Xantid Swarm has proven a stable threat in a Force of Will heavy world. The disadvantage of Swarm is that it is generally useless against non-control decks, but must often be run in the maindeck regardless, and that a large number of control decks run cards such as Fire / Ice. Nonetheless, it certainly helps. Tog often runs Duress on top of Drains and FoW as an additional way to deal with Combo, and it works extremely well.
On the whole, a combo player's match against control often can degenerate into a stalemate after the first few threats have been answered, and both players have expended their hands. For this reason, mana denial with Gorilla Shaman can be particularly effective at preventing the combo player from making use of any bomb they might topdeck. Tog can run all the non-hosers that combo does not want to face, and yet Combo can compete - even if it leads to close and strenuous games that require excellent play on both player's parts.
The true problem for combo isn't control, it's Prison and simple hosers which are easily run and easily cast. So while Control may not be the best answer to combo that it traditionally has been regarded as, the rest of the field presents a sufficient hurdle to playing combo that it isn't generally or widely run. In other words, Tog can beat everything else, splits with Combo, and lets the rest of the field push combo out (and Tog has the best chance against Combo of the control decks because it has room for, and can best use cards like Duress.)
The Tog Mirror
The last element for now is the Tog mirror. By now, it should be apparent as a preliminary matter that breaking this mirror is a significant step to breaking the current Type One environment. Until now, I have been wondering how to best approach this match. I thought perhaps that playing aggro against control would be the best approach, considering that is precisely what Aggro-Control attempts to do, and it has traditionally been effective - and with the best creature in the game, why wouldn't it work now?
Here is a sample decklist that emphasizes the extremely Aggro elements:
The problem is that aggressive build is too similar to the more control oriented builds - the decks remain too symmetrical, and as such, both decks have time. Even if one deck is tearing another apart with Duress and aggressively using card drawing, it still takes a few turns to make Tog lethal which means there is time for the opponent to topdeck and play answers. In other words, the differences are just too marginal to not want to adjust it even the smallest bit for the mirror match. Putting all your eggs in an aggro basket does not fit nicely into the principle established earlier that being able to play both beatdown and control generally means that you will win.
But it is equally important is to not misassign your role. What this means to me is that you maximize your draw. If you get a very aggressive draw which you think can lead to a very early win, go for it. On the other hand, if your deck is telling you to play control, then don't force it the other way. The sideboard cards will often push towards playing control and this is unavoidable (There is debate about whether to use Xantid Swarm -- Xantid Swarm screams to be used as an aggressive card. Using Xantid Swarm to resolve Mind Twist or Berserk a Tog can be absolutely devastating, but it may be best to simply sideboard out the Cunning Wishes and also the path to Berserk.)
Keeping both options open, being aggressive can mean keeping a tempo lead, but you still need to win the counterwars. That leads to two possible lines of reasoning.
One is what some Northeasterners and Germans have come to:
4 Accumulated Knowledge
3 Cunning Wish
2 Deep Analysis
2 Back to Basics
4 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Time Walk
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Yawgmoth's Will
1 Mind Twist
1 Pernicious Deed
The Germans completely cut Duress and Red in order to accommodate Back to Basics. Adding Back to Basics, a total bomb, certainly is a logical thought. However, an unresolved question is whether you sacrifice more than you gain. As a matter of course, Red Elemental Blast may be equal to the power of Back to Basics in the mirror - especially when used in conjunction with four Duress, which the German build lacks. Red Elemental Blast can deal with Back to Basics at a strategic point in the game and completely negate it. If the Back to Basics strategy is going to be most effective against a four color Tog build, it may need Wastelands to try and cut off Red. Perhaps something like this:
4 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
4 Accumulated Knowledge
3 Cunning Wish
2 Deep Analysis
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Time Walk
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Mind Twist
1 Yawgmoth's Will
1 Pernicious Deed
This sort of build may indeed have the tools to fight the builds with Red and succeed. One unresolved issue is whether to use Wastelands - not because they are good tempo or because you can actually deny a color in most matchups, but because they are randomly amazing, and most importantly, a sizable mana advantage in the mirror. At the end of the article, I'll propose a final Tog build that I think has the tools to deal with most of these problems - but a build that would require tuning if the mirror shifted. The most important thing about winning the mirror isn't trying to find the correct build - that is impossible because its all context specific - the important point is to understand the issues involved.
Moving to tactical issues, one unresolved question is whether to sideboard out Accumulated Knowledge. JP thinks that there is no question that you should side out a high proportion of them, but not all, in the hopes that the opponent will think you don't have them and aggressively use theirs. This will make yours more potent when finally cast. Another element to winning the mirror is Deep Analysis - a card which makes Intuition deadly and also creates one-sided card advantage. Red Elemental Blast may also come in, and you might also be using mana denial. It seems to me that mana denial is often a losing proposition in the Tog deck because you aren't using it as tempo to reset the game to a previous turn, but you are using it to prevent them from playing spells.
In a Tog mirror, it isn't a tempo disadvantage if neither player has Tog out, or if neither player has a potentially large Tog out, which means that returning the game to a previous turn may very well be a strong play and help deny a color. If playing Control is indeed desirable, then one question is whether an attempt to use Back to Basics is a good idea. This may work, but you cannot make your deck more control-ish on the whole because you need to be the beatdown in some matches, and retaining the possibility for ending a game quickly seems a nice advantage. Figuring out the Tog mirror in greater detail seems to be a priority - although potentially fruitless in that changing it too much for the mirror could bastardize the deck for other matches.
Fortunately, Tog does not utterly dominate the Type One metagame - what it does is have a solid advantage over it. Many matches are sufficiently close that Tog could easily lose any given two of three games - against Prison or TnT for example. What Tog has done, is fundamentally alter the natural balance of Type One in such a way that things are inverted. Tog is not the sole cause of this inversion, but a significant part of it. The result of this is a metagame that is slowly growing around the new rules, but has not found a way to solidly answer Tog that isn't Longesque - an abomination that needs to be restricted.
The true weaknesses of Tog are essentially Combo - a proficient Dragon player who has survived the hate is a real threat, although three Coffin Purges in a Tog sideboard has been found to do the trick. However, if the Tog player dropped them in favor of other cards, they could be caught with their pants down. Two other decks seem to pop up as potential answers to Tog and the metagame at large. First is Masknought. The problem with Masknought is that it is unlikely to do better than split with Tog, and even then, it has a significantly weaker matchup against the rest of the field (particularly prison and combo), so that playing it seems pointless.
Much like Masknought, Food Chain Goblins is potentially a weak match for Tog. A resolved turn 1 Goblin Recruiter can be game, but why would anyone play Food Chain Goblins over Tog? Second, Slavery - the Mindslaver deck - seems to have a lot of potential in that it runs Goblin Welders, Thirst for Knowledge, Slaver (which if it resolves with a tog in play is basically game), and has such large quantities of mana that resolving a Chalice for three is not difficult. Additionally, it has Cunning Wish to find Red Elemental Blasts and Force of Wills in the maindeck. It also may bring in Blood Moon as a way to end games immediately and not be hurt because of Gilded Lotuses.
Chalice for three is game unless Tog is running Shaman or Stifle, because neither Deed, Wish, nor Tog can then resolve. This deck seems to be perhaps the most powerful deck to run against combo, because most combo decks have the means to kill themselves through Mindslaver, but also running both Chalice and Force of Will means that Combo's answers to Chalice are unlikely to be effective. The flaws in this deck so far seem to be cards like Null Rod, Damping Matrix, and perhaps most of all, its inconsistency and mana base issues. Nonetheless it has placed very well in recent tournaments and could emerge as a serious competitor.
If anything, Slavery could be the best deck to play that isn't Tog. I believe that the threat of Slavery is very severe for Tog. It is extremely ironic that the very power that makes Psychatog such a monster, is what makes it so vulnerable to a resolved Mindslaver (remove hand and graveyard from game), but, that is only expected, as Mindslaver is more broken the more powerful the opposing cards are. Yawgmoth's Bargain under Mindslaver illustrates that point. In order not to scoop to Chalice for three, I am absolutely convinced that Tog needs a Gorilla Shaman. Adrian Sullivan's excellent article on Singletons in Tog illustrates the principle that the deck has such insane card drawing (mostly Fetch + Brainstorm and AK) that you will have seen almost every card in your deck by turn 5.
As such, here is my most up-to-date build of Tog:
For the time being, rather than having to deal with the hell that is Tog mirrors, I've decided to take a different tack, and play Slavery. The allure of the deck stems from the fact that it seeks to take advantage of the single fact which makes Tog so powerful: Psychatog, the creature, and the fact that the Tog player often drops the Tog so quickly in the game. Once Mindslaver is activated, Tog will shrivel the control player's hand and graveyard into nothing.
With a deck like this, you avoid the Tog mirrors, but you also strike upon one of the strangest developments in Vintage in quite some time - a hybrid that has never been seen before: Combo-Control-Prison. Traditionally, Prison has been defined as the deck which attempts to gain and maintain control over the board through various lock parts. The purpose of this endeavor was to prevent your opponent from playing spells. Mindslaver doesn't strictly fall within the rubric of controlling the board, but it certainly does so. You can Wasteland or Swords to Plowshares your opponent's own permanent. And it also prevents them from playing anything.
Although Mindslaver would not fit into the traditional conception of prison, that is simply because a mechanic like that was never available to it before. Because Mindslaver does affect the board, maintain control over it, and not only prevent your opponent from playing spells, but destroy their hand and board while you're at it, I'd say Slaver qualifies as part Prison. The potential to just combo out (on the power of Slaver) and the capacity to control the game (through superior draw with Thirsts) also make it hybrid Control and Combo. This deck is brutally powerful, but might be confusing to players used to Tog or other decks with an obvious, streamlined, and well understood game plan. Slavery is far more non-linear and reactive - its game plan often depends upon a particular draw, and as such rewards skilled players.
One thing is clear, however, Psychatog has fundamentally reshaped the Vintage landscape - for better or for worse - and fully appreciating this transformation is the proper basis for analyzing the metagame and evaluating deck choices. Metagaming to beat Tog is equally perilous, because the Tog deck remains inherently more flexible than most decks can imagine, and the nature of its answers are such that any answer must survive the gauntlet of Force of Will, Duress, and Cunning Wish (for any instant in the sideboard), as well as the mighty Tog itself. Thus, any metagamed deck must then contend with a modified Tog build designed to counter those advances.
What happens next remains to be seen, but it seems clear that alternative answers to Tog are not to be found in old Aggro forms, aggro control, Prison, or in control, as long as no new cards are printed to prop up these archetypes. What is needed are new hybrids like Slavery which defy a nice categorization, and more innovation to keep things moving along, or new combo decks which are far more resilient to simple hate. If Tog continues to reign, things should stay healthy in Type One, even if it means a lack of continued innovation. However, if, armed with this knowledge, Gencon's Top 8 turns out to be all Tog, then either the metagame function isn't working properly, or something needs to be done about the deck. I have a feeling it won't come down to that, but you never can tell.
The Soldiery Inc - Northwest
4256 North High Street, Columbus, OH 43214
Proxies will be allowed and Registration will start at noon. It will be swiss (5-6 rounds) with a cut to top 8. Entry fee is $15. Winner gets a Mox of their choice (sans Jet) or $200 cash!