One Action, Different Messages: Building A Deck To Handle Your Metagame
One weekend evening, we were sitting around a table at a friend's house playing multiplayer. And it hit me: Our metagame was predictable. We have the prototypical metagame - a white lifer here who plays Congregate and Soul Wardens, a big beefy green player there with elves and beasts. One player regularly pulls out an Obliterate-Jokulhaups deck that often features Phage the Untouchable with haste. Another player loves either white or black with Bad Moons, Crusades, and big black fliers. And a few players typically use large highlander Five Color decks.
Like a lot of multiplayer groups, the skill level of the players is vastly different. From players who have placed in a PTQ to players who have never even played in a Prerelease, multiplayer for us is more about friends and less about competition.
I almost said that last line without laughing out loud.
We're friends, sure, but a bunch of us are competitive. Since we're flopping cards anyway, we might as well try to win. And there are a lot of strategy articles out there on multiplayer. How to scope your opponents, how to play the table, and so forth.
I think it all depends on the play level of your group, however. Just this week my small Devout Witness was killed by a Terror. Now, a Devout Witness is certainly a useful utilitarian sort of creature - just the kind of thing I like to have in my decks. But the person who Terrored it only had a Sol Ring out with plenty of mana - so I'm not going to use the Witness on her. And there were several larger threats, including one Silvos, Rogue Elemental.
When you have players with a variety of skills, one actions can end up sending different messages to different players. If I play a Glacial Wall when a Silvos was just played, it may send a player of lesser skill elsewhere because I have a blocker with a large defense, hence Silvos does less damage. A smarter player may realize that the Glacial Wall is the only defense I have, and attack it, knowing that should Silvos die, that Wall will stop a lot of other things. One action, different messages.
With some players casting spells almost randomly, and with the added inability to predict what message is sent, the environment that is created is harder to shape and control. Therefore, it seems to me that the only way to control a multiplayer table with players of different skills is to use a metagamed deck, designed to attack the weaknesses of a variety of commonly played decks.
So, let's take another look at the decks often played at our table. Since I think that many of these archetypes are fairly generic, I think that many tables will see the same sorts of decks pop up.
The Lifer Deck. This deck features a lot of white defensive cards. The showcase pieces of the deck are Soul Warden and Congregate, which can combine for a lot of life. Splash in a few larger creatures that can play either a defensive or offensive role and you have your deck. Common cards include Serra Angel, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Jareth, and Dawn Elemental. Some decks will have a bit of creature removal in the form either Swords to Plowshares or something else. Really, nothing else is as good. They may also include a small number of Disenchant effects as well. However, the deck's main course is not disruption, but simply gaining more life.
You can defeat a lifer deck in one of two ways: Quickly or slowly. Quickly find some other way to kill the person or slowly deal amounts of damage over time. An alternate path to winning might be decking a player. Or one of the"you win" enchantments from Odyssey block. Otherwise, use countermeasure. One countermeasure to a lifer deck is to play with cards like Sulfuric Vortex and Forsaken Wastes; however, those cards are likely to garner you the ire of the entire table. Blessed Wind is probably a better solution. False Cure will regularly kill a player who Congregates - and if the most feared spell at your table is the common Urza's Saga white instant, then find some False Cures.
The Elfer Deck. The elf player has morphed with the release of Onslaught. Before, the elf decks ran elves to fuel large creatures and splashy effects. Now, they have three added tools. A Wellwisher turns them into a modern green Lifer Deck. Timberwatch Elves turn anything into a beatstick. And elves alone provide beef and splashy effects with larger elves making their way into Scourge. Add in a few morph tricks like Tribal Forcemage, and the occasional Overrun or Might of Oaks and you have your deck. Creature pump is very common with the elf decks. Some may play a little removal like Naturalize. Most choose to focus on the basic - elves, elves, elves, and land.
The Elfer deck is among the easiest to take down due to its heavy reliance on creatures. Any creature sweeping effect is useful. Also useful are fast red spells like Pyroclasm, Steam Blast, or a cycled Slice and Dice. One of the worst cards an elf deck can face is Engineered Plague.
The Obliterate Deck. This is a particularly inventive deck that a lot of players at the table hate to face because it rarely works as planned, so the user has to blow up land to save himself. The concept is to win by Phage. Using Mana Flares, you drop enough lands to Obliterate and play Phage in the same turn. Then you have an Anger in your graveyard or a Fervor in play and attack and kill any player on the board. With no one having any land in play and facing a Phage, the game ends quickly.
The problem is going off. Players do not like having their lands blown up, so the Obliterate deck can sometimes be the first target for the group. The problem comes when players are going after the red player. The only defensive measure he has are the Obliterates and Jokulhaups... So in order to save himself, he ends up making the entire table attack him.
This deck can be attacked in several ways. When he plays the Obliterate, with the mana in his pool, play Orim's Chant. That'll stop him. Bring back lands with Planar Birth, Lodestone Bauble, and Sacred Ground. I prefer the Baubles because you can use them for a card when the deck isn't being played, thus making them the most useful answer. You can also add some mana into your pool and play Counterspell, Swords to Plowshares, and whatever.
Pump Decks. The correct behind these decks are enchantments that pump your creatures and then a lot of creatures to follow up. There are basically two versions of this strategy running around our table. The White version uses Glorious Anthems, Crusade, and Divine Sacraments to make Longbow Archers, White Knights, and Serra Angels really big. These creatures are then meant to dominate the air and ground both defensively and offensively, due to their sheer size.
The black version used Death Pit Offerings and Bad Moons to pump their creatures. This deck runs a smaller number of creatures, but their size makes up for it. Nightmares, Hypnotic Specters, Avatar of Woe, Visarae, Sengir Vampires, and Royal Assassins are the hallmarks of this deck. The pump here is meant to push the creatures over the top. This deck has more disruption, like Terror and Decree of Pain. Cabal Coffers can ramp up Nantuko Shades or help cast a huge Drain Life.
Although each of these decks has a similar theme, they must be treated differently. The white deck is just a bad white weenie deck. Any board clearing effect handles it well. And its creatures are usually vulnerable to white creature removal, except for Jareth. This deck can be handled like a bad Lifer Deck in many ways.
The black deck has significantly more control and can easily stand to hold back creatures, only committing one or two to the field at a time. This will protect it from Wrath of God and other similar effects. Protection from Black is especially valuable against this deck, where small creatures can hold off larger creatures, send Avatars and Visaras elsewhere, and otherwise create issues. Since none of these creatures have trample, regenerators will also keep Nightmares, large Nantuko Shades, and the like at bay.
The basic idea has been around since the Stronghold Preconstructed deck. Use Megrim and Discard to win. Simple and straightforward. And with Megrim in the basic set and discard fairly easy to find, the deck pops up occasionally and is currently the toy of one of the newest members of our group.
This deck has several ways to stop things. Stop the discard and you stop the deck. It is also very reliant on enchantments. Take out a key enchantment and you survive as well. Some versions sport Teferi's Puzzle Box, so enchantment kill needs to be coupled with artifact kill.
Five-Color Highlander Decks. These are the hardest decks to predict, because they have a tendency to be in excess of 400 cards (Yet we still curiously refer to them as"250" decks, not Five-Color decks).
There are, however, a couple of themes. First of all, each deck played has a variety of solutions to problems - a little countermagic, a helping of removal, decent creatures, and what not. Secondly, each deck has developed in a similar environment and that creates similarities in the design of the deck. The main similarity is that each deck uses its graveyard significantly. Lastly, each deck has enough tutor effects to get a solution or Counterspell in a pinch. Additionally, each deck has a heavy reliance on mana of each color and multiple colors of each mana. This is a significant weakness and can contribute to a deck falling quickly.
The weakness here is to either go after the fragile mana base or the graveyard. Cards like Tormod's Crypt and Planar Void will negate any graveyard tricks while quick land destruction and tempo cards like Winter Orb or Tangle Wire will wreak havoc with their mana. You will also need a backup plan - like countermagic of your own.
The Death Of My Metagame
So then I set about creating a deck that can handle each of these decks. Now, there is an important rule to building decks at our table: If you're a good player, they must be large. This gives the lesser players a chance, but it also allows me to play with cards I haven't used in a long time. Remember our list of things we need our deck to do:
- False Cure, Blessed Wind, or Alternate Path to Victory
- Sweeping Creature Removal, Quick Mass Removal, or Engineered Plague
- Orim's Chant or LD Recovering Spells
- Creatures with Flying and Either Protection from Black or Regeneration
- Planar Void, Tormod's Crypt, or Attack Mana Bases
- Enchantment Removal or Stop Discard
What colors should my deck be? Well, I hope that you see that my deck absolutely has to be white. Swords to Plowshares, Protection from Black, Mass Removal, Orim's Chant, Blessed Wind - all suggest that we'll need white. White will be, in fact, my main color.
There is also a lot of black in there. False Cure, Engineered Plague, Regeneration, Planar Void - all black. Black is a key component as well. And for the third color, I chose red. You'll see why in a bit. To begin, here are the key combos:
Not only do I want to use False Cure to kill someone who casts Congregate, I also want to be proactive in my pursuit of death. Death by Congregate is a rather ignoble death. Also, the Congregates fuel a combo ion my deck that is mentioned a little later. The Blessed Wind will reset someone's life and let me kill them from there. I have only copy to tutor for.
The Mogg Maniac is a particularly good wall. No one wants to swing into a Maniac. However, you can send the damage anywhere, so you can team up with somebody to kill another player having them attack you and blocking with the Maniac; it deals two when a Pyroclasm strikes, hits someone for double when an Earthquake goes off, and so forth. Plus, the first time you Simulacrum damage onto a Maniac, everybody thinks it's cool. Then people steer clear of the Maniac as much as possible. The Maniac will also work with a few other cards in the deck and the Simulacrums will also send damage conveniently to regenerators.
This is a nice little engine fueled by Congregates. I wanted card drawing in order to combat opponent's cards; the table is often cluttered with Future Sights and other nasty enchantments. (But mainly Future Sights.) I wanted a similar enchantment engine, and the Bargain is my power. I used to run Radiant's Dragoons and Teroh's Faithful, but they have since come out. I find a Congregate often enough, it seems. Note that the Rector will also get a tool out of the deck with ease.
I'd like to get a Will-o-the-Wisp, but until I do, I like these guys. Both are cheap and come with regeneration. The Sedge Troll is 3/3 for three, which is a nice deal and keeps away unsightly creatures. The Lynx as the very special and rare Protection from Green. That's a highly useful ability in many casual environments. Plus, the creature only costs two, has two power, and regenerates. He fits right into the deck. These are usually the first creatures I play.
I wanted countermagic - but more than that, I wanted subtle countermagic. A lot of blue mages will not counter a Mage's Contest, thinking to win the life game instead. Some won't counter it because it's funny. Either way, it's a good card. I played them for a while in the sideboard of my Extended Sligh deck when it was worth losing a lot of life to counter critical spells. As such, I am used to the bluffing that goes on with the card. Almost every time, whether I win or lose, I come away a winner because I made somebody pay ten life for their Future Sight (or other card). It also allows a lifer to voluntarily lower their life total so that they cease to be a target....
I wanted enough randomness in my deck that it wouldn't quickly bore me, so I added one each of these cards. All seek to control the board in one way or another. The Burning Palm Efreet shoots down and makes them blockable by my regenerators. It can also kill Hypnotic Specters and other assorting annoying creatures. It's a really good political card. Another good political card is Starke. Killing something to give someone Starke is pretty nifty; it would be amazing in multiplayer if only it read that"Target"Opponent got control" of it, instead of the destroyed thing's controller.
The Preacher and Witch Hunter are throwbacks from my old days of playing Magic - but still, a Witch Hunter can dominate a table. Send a creature back to a hand in response to casting a Rancor. Bounce something with an Armadillo Cloak. Bounce an attacker. Bounce a 187 creature of an opponent's to kill something you don't like. Bounce your Flametongues. Whatever. Or you can just ping.
The Preacher steals good stuff or bad, but it steals all the same. Steal something to block, steal something so someone stops getting beat on. And Glory is just an all-around good card, although it does not have synergy with the single Planar Void. Ah well; it's a multiplayer 140-card deck, so who cares?
These are creatures that honestly shouldn't be in the deck, considering the removal you see later; however, each has a special place. The Taskmaster takes out small black creatures, and it is the only black creature in the deck, so it doesn't hurt me. The only thing stopping Overseers from running in fours is the significant amount of red mana they require. Otherwise, they are a very good creature. There's always a Priest of Titania, Soul Warden, or a Wellwisher-type creature running around. And, of course, the Flametongues are Flametongues.
Note that all non-regenerating, non-Maniacs in my deck are creature control oriented. That is one of the basic principles of multiplayer in action - play cards that net you card advantage. You have to be a slave to card advantage, where your opponents outdraw you.
This is my small removal pack. The Swords are obvious inclusions, and the Vindicates are also easy to explain. And I like having an Exile to tutor for in a pinch when a big mean stompy is parading around. Big mean stompies are rarely white.
The Tariffs are one part of a two-pronged attack against my opponents. They are being punished for playing big creatures, but subtly. No Meekstones or Marble Titans here. The Tariffs require all players to pay again for their most expensive creature. Please note that"Mana Cost" of a creature includes its colors as well, so something like Cromat is especially hard to pay for. Often, everybody at the table sacs a creatures except for you, who planned for it, and the guy with the Seedborn Muse. Plus, it's cheap enough that you can play it early when you have none.
The Firestorms and Thunder are obviously good. The other cards are a bit trickier.
The Retribution of the Meek wipes the board clear of all large threats. The deck doesn't have any large threats, so it's usually safe. However, the six creatures with a power of four will die to this spell. Each should have killed other creatures before, though, so it shouldn't matter too much. My metagame includes a lot of big creatures, and this wipes them all clear for just three mana.
The Urza's Rages are an attempt to have a winning condition against the player who hoards counterspells. Once in a while counter deck is pulled out of a box, and I like having an emergency kill mechanism. Assuming no lifegain on the part of the blue mage, or enough damage to knock them under twenty, then two Rages will kill. So I have two Rages. The Aura of Silence is a Rectorable Disenchant effect, and I like it for that reason.
These five cards are emergency one-ofs to be tutored for in drastic situations. The Ivory Mask stops burn and discard from hitting me. The Planar Void hampers the 250 decks. The Lodestone Bauble can help me recover quickly from an Obliterate, the Radiate can be tossed out there as universal removal in a dire situation with many of my cards, and the Helm of Possession can handle Jareth and Iridescent Angels.
These five cards help protect from bizarre circumstances that may occur. The Honorable Passage keeps me alive from any one damage-based attack. A Death Grasp, a Fireball, a kickered Illuminate, a big creature that's Berserked... Throwing it back if the source is red is a beautiful bonus. Plus, you can keep creatures alive.
The Captain's Maneuver is a clever way of manipulating the board. I once Maneuvered half of Phage's attack onto the controller. So the controller of Phage and the guy he attacked both died. The board went from four players to two in one attack and it was beautiful. You can also kill creatures and send a not-so-subtle message to people to leave you alone. Mirror Strike is better at this than the Maneuver, but the Maneuver is more versatile, especially in a multiplayer game.
This is the Tutor pack. Should be enough said, right?
This is a fun cards section. The Mind Twist and Balance are highly useful. The Rack and Tome are good when I don't have blue in the deck. And the Portal and Mirari are really good in multiplayer games.
I have other cards tied up in other decks, so this was all I had available. It helps my mana.
A Bunch o' Lands.
Includes extra dual lands, extra painlands, Karakas, cycling lands, and basics. Karakas doesn't slow your mana development one cent, and he helps bounce Legends. The only legend I have is Starke, but note that if you tap Starke, then return him to your hand, you'll still destroy your target, and you can replay Starke.
The deck we end up with looks odd. It has some life gain, some damage prevention, a wacky assortment of creatures, some obscure cards like Tariff and Retribution of the Meek, and some powerful and restricted effects. It doesn't look like a deck someone would build. But it is highly tuned to a particular multiplayer metagame.
I've played the deck around ten times. I have yet to lose. It's certainly beatable, but it contains all of the tools to handle our metagame. Small creatures, big creatures, countermagic, land destruction, graveyard recursion, burn, Megrim/Discard and more can be handled by this deck.
Building a deck that is tuned for your metagame is a simple matter of finding what decks or strategies your opponent's prefer, brainstorming countermeasures, and finding mutual colors with those countermeasures. The deck you end up with can be a lot of fun, and a bit random. And it can often win.