Hello all, I'm Joshua Silvestri; and I'll be your host for this evening as we sit back and take a look at the various facets of Constructed Magic. Since this is going to be my own weekly column for some time, I figured I may as well introduce myself.
‘Twas a plucky young lad full of will and vigor, with a fresh look of life before him, coming from the lands which rolled over with mist and honeydew, strewn across the epic land full of flush wilderness, friendly wildlife and beautiful scenery that is truly a sight to behold.
In other words, I live in a non-L.A. section of California, in the Bay Area to be exact. Additionally I'm a poor college student who works retail… go me! I've been playing Magic on and off since only a few years after it was created, before I had any idea what the game really was. My friends simply introduced to the game to me as “War with fantasy stuff.” I started playing seriously around Tempest, quit for a bit, then came back right after the bannings during Urza's Standard. Ever since then I've been keeping track of the game on and off, while playing when the opportunity has presented itself.
The main Magic-related thing to know about me is I do pretty well at figuring out metagames and optimizing decks for them. Especially manabases. Man, is it satisfying making decks work far more efficiently with a few simple card tweaks! As a result, I'm pretty rough at all things Limited because I never put in the practice time, nor fully understood the concepts of having such a “random” type of deck. This is too bad for me really, because I actually like drafting due to the specific skills involved.
Anyway, enough about me, I'm sure most you of already clicked the back button or scrolled down as soon as you saw “'Twas.”
Today I want to talk about the trails and tribulations of breaking a splintered metagame. First you may ask yourself what the heck I'm talking about and mutter something about all metagames being equal. Here's the thing… usually semi-coherent metagames are shaped pretty early in a format's life-cycle. You know X and Y are going to be the “best” decks and somewhat popular, while Z is good and even a bit more popular for some reason (Easier to play, easier to make, etc.). Then you have the rest of the letters filling out the rest of the metagame. Arrogant and / or confident players may be labeling all of these as byes.
For the first few weeks, that's how the tier structure will stand out to a lot of people. Unless there's just one completely dominant deck that wipes everything else out (a la Trix), people will still mainly be sticking with one of the top three, and any Tier 2 models that look like they can be optimized into Tier 1 status. Eventually people get wise, and usually there's some shifts going one way or the other, or a new deck gets introduced into the metagame to shake things up.
By around the halfway mark, there's enough data to safely see what is and isn't working, and if any of the newbies on the block that did well are flukes or not. At this point typically you'll see the biggest shift towards decks that hate out the most popular decks with very specific plans in mind, while ignoring the rest of the populous. This can be because these decks are simply using the same plans, but with weaker cards / less synergy, or they just hope not to be paired against them.
Finally towards the end of the season, one or two decks are simply heads-and-tails above the rest. If it was a deck like Affinity or Trix, it was always the best and it was simply coming up with the best version for your metagame. If the meta had stagnated and a new deck came in with a high power level that thrashed everything else, it could be that the metagame simply couldn't react in time or underplayed the threat to itself. This can be seen when Ichorid wiped the floor with everybody, even though it was a relatively “known” deck as the main base was floating around on the web before a number of PTQs and the Grand Prix.
If you want to be awesome, obviously your goal is not just to win your local PTQ, but to wipe out everyone else and have them go, “Why didn't I think of that?” as you laugh manically. Or something like that. Point is, you need to correctly analyze the perceived metagame, the data of what is doing well (the exception being if you plan on Q'ing in the first two weeks) and why the strategies that are winning, are well… winning.
This Extended season thus far has been difficult because although there was supposedly a clear upper crust of decks in Boros, Desire, Trinket Angel, and (to a lesser extent) Scepter-Chant and Tron… and then everything else. The big problem was the metagame may have been perceived as coherent, but strategy-wise the metagame is all over the place.
For example, it's odd to see an aggro deck with a turn 5 win - with its only real disruption being burn and a few LD spells - going toe-to-toe with turn 4 combo and aggro-control decks. Usually such a deck would simply be pushed out of the metagame to strategic inferiority, since it has issues slowing down the fastest deck and it's no guarantee that it races some of the slower ones. The same goes with a “slow” control deck that can't consistently stop the combo or aggro deck, yet it continues to plod along and be quite successful.
Ultimately these distinctions keep the metagame fractured, because on deck archetype and plan of attack it can't consistently crush the other three or four people bring to the table, it falls into an odd equilibrium. Some plans in the objective sense may be better than others, but when put into practice they could easily look terrible based on what matches it gets from pairings. When the “optimal” plan of attack is only giving you a slight advantage, it's far easier to pick a supposedly sub-par choice.
The problem is there's no one weak point in the metagame to attack. For every two decks relying on creatures to win, there's one using Mindslaver or Tendrils of Agony. There is no general turn-set decks aim to win on, they all goldfish at different speeds and have arguable fundamental turns that are almost incidental to when they win in some cases.
The G/W hate homebrew that Flores and company had made is a good example of when you try to outthink the whole of something that's already been broken into fragments with independent game plans. Sure, BDW and TEPS are GG, but what happens when you run into the slower decks that plod along and can live until trumps come online? It's far more difficult to move into a card advantage mode that matters when they're attacking on a completely foreign level from you.
That being said, there's always a large amount of difficulty trying to out-think the metagame. My choice for Week 1 would've just been Boros with specifications to beat the mirror, and a sideboard that included hate against Desire, like Orim's Chant and possibly Cabal Therapy, and at least some outs to Scepter-Chant (I'm looking at you, Ancient Grudge). Instead of trying to outthink the battle plans of every other deck and trump them all at the same time, you simply pick a proven plan and attempt to make it a bit sharper with modifications to the outlying pieces* of the deck. As a result, the core of the deck is intact and you've left most of the synergies and consistency in place.
*Referring to the sideboard, the couple of “metagame slots” many decks have, and color tweaks to mana to allow for more options in general.
Last year this strategy worked out perfectly for me and my friend Max McCall. We simply tweaked a proven strategy in Scepter-Chant and made it destroy 80% of the decks running creatures while still having a chance against the remaining 20%. And since the entire metagame was creatures except for Tog, Scepter-Chant, and U/G Heartbeat, this plan worked flawlessly. Since Chant didn't necessarily have a bad control match, this meant we only had one true weakness to combo resistant to counters, and that was a non-factor in the PTQ metagame.
This year though, attacking all the angles simply isn't a valid strategy. Instead you need to exert some brute force to get the job done against many decks, to have a high win-rate against the field. There simply aren't enough bullets, or enough space to hold them all, to make an impact. What you need is a plan that destroys two or more subsections of the field, and then focuses the remainder of the deck on dealing with the rest.
Osyp's Slide deck is one such example of a deck. The deck's main plan invalidates nearly every aggressive deck that uses creatures; this means you've wiped out the premiere aggro and aggro-control deck in one stroke, as well as dealing with a bulk of Tier 2 decks which rely on men. After that, the deck is shaped to take aim, within the confines of it's main plan, at other decks it may have issues with. Orim's Chant, a simple addition in itself, suddenly helps fix its TEPS match. This just leaves other control decks as major factors, at which point the sideboard is aimed at killing them, which it does quite nicely.
In fact, if it weren't for Aggro Loam, along with BDW and G/W ability to adapt to the deck via Ray of Revelation, I'd say this deck comes the closest to solving the fragmented metagame as much as one could hope too. Slide isn't perfect, but the fundamentals are sound, which means you have a good place to start from. Personally my first change was Sakura-Tribe Elder to Wall of Roots and consideration of Sterling Grove* somewhere to trump RoR.
*Okay, so they kill Grove, at that point you fetch Slide if they're going to kill the one in play, or you find another Grove to protect Slide whenever you get it, and good times are had by all. Plus it finds Slide in the first place if you need it.
However another deck has shown some serious potential; in fact, Trinket Post may fill the role of “Control deck that smashes everything that few play,” like Chant did last season. A list for those not familiar:
As I said above, this deck follows the general Tron / Post game-plan of wanting to swamp normal creature decks with huge overcosted threats and overwhelming card advantage. Meanwhile, control decks have to contend with a base Blue deck that has almost a 2:1 mana advantage once it gets going; not an easy task by any means. Blah Blah, Post + Vesuva = more colored mana to go around, blah blah Mindslaver > whatever you play, etc.
The key optimization that allows it to start trumping aggressive decks pre-board is Trinket Mage and its merry band of hoser cards. Normally Tron can't turn the mana and card advantage into a favorable board position until the situation has turned grim; and in some cases is lost before we even enter that phase. Typically this means the sideboard has to come in and try to save the day. Instead maindeck Trinket Mage along with Chalice of the Void and Engineered Explosives are perfect for turning that excess into immediate impact.
Chalice shuts off half the cards in BDW or FDW, while being able to shut down the best card at destroying it (Ancient Grudge). It also doubles as a useful anti-combo measure and can be used against opposing control in a pinch. Engineered Explosives is a tutor-able Wrath of God against the aggro this deck is concerned with. In fact, the only card I'm halfway surprised not to see if a singleton Aether Spellbomb, but that's understandable. If you aren't expecting much Aggro Loam, it isn't the hottest thing in the world.
In addition, this means his post-board options are even more impressive. Suddenly you can run EE, COTV, Sun Droplet (he didn't, but c'mon, I know you will), Pithing Needle, etc. and can just destroy your formerly “just okay” match-up while running a minimal number of maindeck dead cards in other matches.
Simply put, Trinket Post is like a shark with a laser strapped to its head. In many matches it simply rushes the opponent, clamps onto them, and begins taking chunks of meat and body parts off. For everything that has some built-in defense to not getting eaten, then it just blasts them with a laser until it can go back to default of ripping them to shreds.
As much as I'd love to share tech with all of you, I haven't yet had a chance to run Trinket Post through a full gauntlet. Early results are promising, but I don't want to give you advice on “brilliant new card choices” that have maybe ten to fifteen games of testing behind them. My only real suggestion is finding room for Sun Droplet or Pulse of the Fields, because having a life gain option that doesn't cost four is amazing for the aggro matches. Otherwise the maindeck is really solid, other than maybe wanting one or two Gifts Ungiven to combo wonderfully with Academy Ruins.
So what did I learn from making a lot of unsuccessful metagame decks, other than Trinket Post and Slide may be the most viable ones to date?
- A single silver bullet doesn't do a damn thing; however, firing a whole clip of them can have actual results.
- Trying to spread a low power base plan out to cover all your bases is a foolish endeavor, because it leaves you open to getting overwhelmed before your plan comes online.
- Trinket Mage is the only good tutor we have for actually finding hosers.
- The only singular thing a majority of top tier decks in the format share are shaky mana / overly dual reliant manabases. Strike at them hard enough and they'll topple, but if you focus too much around this aspect of play, number two kicks in.
That's all from me for now. See you next week.
Beautiful transition to an ending I know.
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom