Metagaming has been referred to as an art, but I don’t like that term. People have this concept of art as something borderline magical, with innate talents and personal emotion helping geniuses create things the rest of us will never be able to understand completely.
A craft, on the other hand, is something that any old Joe can learn so long as he puts in the time and effort. A craft has a set of straightforward rules that anyone can follow to get better. In my experience, most of the arts are more crafty than we give them credit for.
Aside: While both terms might seem a bit object-oriented to affix to an intangible idea like metagaming, in Magic the skill has a very physical by-product in the form of the decklist. An expert metagamer will be more likely to craft the perfect 75.
Perhaps you can see why, as someone trying to teach the game, I find the term “art” frustrating. A person who sees Magic as drawing on innate skills might give up before he begins. For example, a viewer might say something like: “Look at Finkel play! What a master. I’ll never be able to play like that.”
Compare that to: “Man, that Finkel guy has really put in his time. I wonder how far I could go if I had that kind of motivation.”
Magic skills have some measure of teachability, or there wouldn’t be sites upon sites dedicated to Magic strategy. The craft of metagaming is no different, and those that practice it will go deeper in the game than those that don’t.
Step One: Find a Position of Strength
This first step is particularly vague, and there are a lot of ways to go about it. Some people can scour a spoiler and use new cards to instantly develop a fresh attack on the metagame. Others need time, test partners, forums, and articles to decipher the best deck for the next tournament. Others prefer to take whatever deck has been consistently doing well, and learn to play it at as high a level as possible.
Some players (like myself) emphasize testing. This is another broad term, and includes figuring out matchups, fine-tuning lists, and trying out crazy concoctions. Here, I’m specifically referring to figuring out where you want to be in a specific metagame. For me, I can’t really look at a decklist and say, “These are this deck’s strengths and weaknesses against the field.” I can make probable guesses at them, much as a chemist might make guesses at how two chemicals might react based on some imperfect knowledge, but I can’t know for certain until I’ve actually played with the cards.
After testing, however, I can make claims with some element of certainty. I don’t just know what beats what, but the specific reasons why. Maybe one deck has inevitability over the other, or maybe one list main decks some relevant hate cards for the other archetype. Going back to my chemist analogy, once a chemist knows why a chemical reaction occurs, he can begin altering formulas to achieve different results. He might get there through blindly mixing chemicals, but it’s about as unlikely as your crazy five-card combo FNM deck taking down a Pro Tour.
The way I see it, with the giant time commitment that tournaments require, I might as well spend as much time as possible to explore and verify my hunches—much as a scientist might start with an initial hypothesis before trying to prove or disprove it. Unlike a scientist, I’m not in a position to get completely definitive. Fortunately, I don’t have to. The whole point is to learn, and data mining is only useful so long as you internalize it and draw relevant conclusions. Figuring out how much time it takes you to reach said conclusions is important. If you end up with an improper read on a metagame, perhaps you didn’t put in enough time. On the other hand, overtesting a matchup drains valuable time.
Other players operate differently. Some have been successful long enough that they’ve gotten so good at developing decks and attacking formats, so practiced at their craft, that they can get away with bringing a completely original deck to a tournament, untested, and have it perform well. I think of this tactic as the grinder style of metagaming. Basically, someone who claims they never test, but still does well, is actually getting their testing and information from all the tournaments they play in. Just like the layman might know that Burn has a good matchup against Suicide Black, a long time grinder will know the matchups between more subtle archetypes due to his or her experience with them in older formats.
I talked to Adam Prosak a little this past weekend, and the impression I got is that he rarely tests. We both brought our own lists, but he’d played one match with his deck while I’d put in hours. We shared an Invitational Top 8 once as well, again with our own metagamed decks, further proving that we’re both good enough at it to succeed. Our approaches, however, couldn’t be further apart.
I ran into Sam Black at Pro Tour Barcelona. He told me he’d built his Increasing Savagery deck because, in a field of midrange archetypes, he wanted to be the combo deck. Metagaming by basic role assessment isn’t always so easy, since many archetypes blend together (see the still ongoing debate as to whether Caw Blade was control, aggro control, etc.), but when it works you save a lot of time and effort. Anyone who knows the frustration of trying to make a favorite archetype work when it’s just not viable understands what I’m talking about.
I have a few grinder buddies who, rather than switch decks based on the metagame, stick with one powerful archetype for long periods of time. Matt Hoey will almost always be seen playing a Delver variant in Standard and a UW Stoneblade list in Legacy, and he’ll almost always be doing well. Any metagaming this approach allows is on a small scale, as the core of the deck will stay unchanged, and a player using the strategy will mostly rely on his technical play to get there. Personally, I prefer to bring a gun to a sword fight, but many make the more intuitive choice to bring swords and seem to do well.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what technique you use to find a position of strength in the metagame, so long as you find one you’re comfortable with and practice it.
Step Two: Always Win the Mirror
Odds are, if you think a deck is well positioned, others will too. If you’re all correct, you should do an above average amount of winning, and as the tournament continues you’ll have a high chance of playing a mirror match. The exception, of course, is if you’re bringing an obscure or rogue strategy, in which case the slots aren’t worth it.
But it’s not logical to worry about the irrelevant. For now, let’s focus on tuning to win the (tier deck) mirror match. There are a number of ways to do this.
The simplest, yet effective, way is called “Going Big.” I remember when Kibler won Pro Tour Austin with Rubin Zoo, a deck designed to go over the top of the other Zoo decks in the room. In the end, there he was at the top of the standings, having used cards like Baneslayer Angel and Elspeth, Knight-Errant to crush the room full of Wild Nacatl mirrors.
I was watching Adrian Sullivan commentate the other day, and he summarized the “Go Big” tactic very well. “Going bigger is sometimes a better path because, when you’re doing similar things, you kind of even out. And then you don’t want to be the person casting a 2/1, you want to be the person casting a 6/6.”
In Naya, I knew the other decks also had ways of breaking parity (Gavony Township, Bonfire of the Damned) so I had to take it one step further and go over the top. [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] might not have been correct for the last metagame, but it’s certainly correct for this one. Round after round I tutored this guy up, or just cast him, and he always won the game after entering play. Many of my opponents maxed out on the inconsistent Bonfire of the Damned, which was overall less powerful and more volatile than my Elesh Norn plan.
Another way to win the mirror is the same way you win any matchup: Run trump cards. Throughout Magic history, people have used narrow cards like Old Man of the Sea, Llawan, Cephalid Empress, and Goblin Pyromancer to win mirrors. Not that trump cards have to be narrow, these are just examples of how deep the mirror tech can go. In general, broad answers like Leyline of the Void for graveyard mirrors, Umezawa’s Jitte for creature mirrors, and splashed Red Elemental Blast for blue mirrors work just fine.
In Elves, I dedicated an additional sideboard slot to the creature mirrors in Umezawa’s Jitte. On the play, you can often drop and equip it by turn three, which gives you more winning lines and keepable hands in those matchups. Attacking the opponent from a new angle can also throw off their sideboard plan, and Jitte has helped me power through Ethersworn Canonists and the like.
Sometimes, a trump card is versatile enough to run in the maindeck. I’ve always been an advocate of running maindeck Nihil Spellbombs in control decks, because it trumps your opponent’s Unburial Rites or Snapcaster Mages while leaving your own intact. In Legacy, Pithing Needle can be fit into maindeck Trinket Mage packages. The Enlightened Tutor CounterTop deck is exemplary of this strategy. That deck is able to main deck a slew of different hosers, the most relevant for the mirror being the Counterbalance package itself.
Step Three: Identify Your Weak Matchups and Formulate a Plan
It’s important to know when your deck can’t carry you. Depending on how good your other matchups are, how much you expect to face your bad matchups, and how much room you have to tinker with your list, your plan can range from developing a complex transitional sideboard plan to prayer.
Even if you find out the matchup is hopeless, knowing what cards and strategies are important will still give you an edge. In the St. Louis Open, I knew I was going to be playing against Adam Prosak in the semifinals. After testing a slew of game ones, I decided the matchup was bad for me because Adam was running more answers to a turn one mana guy than the other Delver decks in the format. Adam, however, didn’t have the benefit of these test games, and lost two in a row after not answering my mana dork. Had he more aggressively mulliganed for Gut Shot or Mental Misstep, we might’ve had a Delver deck taking down the event, and even as it was, I had to draw well.
In game one, I kept a triple [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card] hand on the draw. Even though Thalia is legendary, I knew the card was important enough against Adam’s 18-land deck to warrant a few dead cards. Once again, testing helped. Throughout all of my games against the deck, I found myself wishing I ran Combust in the board. If Mono-Blue Wizards starts seeing more play, as it should, my metagame switch of -2 Celestial Purge, +2 Combust is already figured out.
Before GP Atlanta, I tested a few games of Elves vs Reanimator against Todd Anderson to try and nail down my sideboard strategy for what I knew to be a bad matchup. In those test games, I brought in the hate but it wasn’t enough. In the actual tournament, I was unfortunately paired against Todd. I knew from my testing that I needed a new plan, and boarded in Thorn of Amethyst effects as well as graveyard hate, which ended up being relevant. If your main plan isn’t good enough, the worst thing you can do is stick to it.
Step Four: Quality Control
Developing a sweet sideboard strategy is all well and good, but don’t forget to be thorough. There are a ton of common mistakes I see even experienced metagamers make.
Here are a few of my favorites:
• Having more sideboard slots than cards to take out. I haven’t been guilty of this one for a while, so I don’t have a sweet example for you, but I still see people doing it all the time. Knowing precisely what your weak cards are, as well as what strong cards you’d want instead (without damaging your curve), will prevent this problem from ever happening. Think about every slot.
• Bringing in an alternative plan that’s just as mediocre as the plan A. In Nic Fit, I spent a few tournaments trying out a transitional sideboard from a Rock deck into Leyline of the Void and Helm of Obedience combo. The idea was that, against fast combo decks, I could disrupt them with discard and kill them with my own combo. The problem was, my new combo had the same problem as my main deck—it was far too slow to get there against the fast combo archetypes. No matter how obvious it may seem, be sure to test whether your new plan is as effective as you’d hoped.
• Developing plans for obscure decks. I see this in Legacy more often than any other format, partially because it’s so diverse. While you can make changes based on bizarre and unusual situations, your deck is often better off if you stick to keeping it as consistent and powerful as possible. In an open format, having general answers is better than being too specialized. If I’m having problems with High Tide, I’m much more likely to turn to Red Elemental Blast than Ichneumon Druid.
This is a topic with a lot of depth, and I feel this is more of an introduction to the subject than anything else. Perhaps I’ll write a follow-up. Until next time!