This is the second half of the two parter I started a few weeks ago. This article builds off of that base, so if you haven’t read it you can find it here.
Overmetagaming is when you take some or all of your metagaming skills and overvalue them. Maybe you focus too hard on beating the top deck, and end up with a list that can’t handle the randomness of the first few rounds of a tournament. Maybe you devote too many slots to the mirror match, and end up with dead cards throughout the day.
One way I determine whether a deck is inbred is to actually play it in a tournament. Sometimes this is on Modo, a local cash tournament, or a mock event with friends. Regardless of the structure, playing in a smaller event can show if a list is generally profitable. If I can’t 4-0 a Daily Event, I probably can’t crush a larger tournament either.
I’m convinced that the Naya Pod lists running quad Bonfire of the Damned are overmetagaming, though it’s trickier to spot than most because it’s such a powerful card. As I wrote in my article last week, running Bonfire as a four-of makes your opening draw less consistent, and increases your mulligan rate.
After all, Birthing Pod cares about a critical mass of creatures, and adding four of any spell dilutes your threat count. So, despite the card being an excellent sweeper against the top-tier decks, running the full playset will actually decrease your odds of winning a major tournament. This is especially true in the Top 8, where you get more opponents that build and play effectively, and Bonfire will nab fewer wins.
To appropriately main deck hate cards, you have to make sure they fit with the flow of what your deck is trying to do. [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card] is fine in aggressive white decks (which care about high threat count), Divine Offering has seen maindeck play in Delver (which cares about a critical mass of spells), and Ramp has a flexible enough manabase to adjust its sweeper count to match the creature decks in the format. I’m a big fan of jamming Nihil Spellbomb in control decks, because those archetypes want to cantrip to hit land drops anyway. When I tried the same thing in Zombies, I was less successful.
An easy way to prevent overmetagaming is to start with a deck that has some inherent strengths against what you’re worried about, and tune it to beat the rest of the field. Once tweaked, don’t forget to go back and test that initial matchup, and make sure the deck still does what you want it to do.
More often than not, maindecking powerful hate cards isn’t a viable option. Sometimes, the problem is that you’re killing a turn too slow, or that your threats are too vulnerable, or too small. Maybe you have the right tools, but you aren’t finding or casting them in time. In that case, solving a matchup is going to take more than hate cards. It’s going to require an eye for details.
Figuring out why a deck is favored is tricky. You can jam a few games of a match and conclude that it “feels close,” but in actuality your deck is a 90-10 dog, even though your opponent consistently ends the game at a low life total. Adding some reach (like burn) might switch the matchup around entirely.
Altering how a deck functions changes how it performs across the board, so then everything else needs to be retested. Adding Hero of Bladehold to fight Slagstorm makes you weaker to Vapor Snag, but you won’t know if your Delver matchup can take the hit unless you test it.
Consequently, I’m more likely to board specific threats than the next guy, like Geist of Saint Traft in Delver or Wolfir Silverheart in Pod. This happens a lot in eternal formats with Vendilion Clique, which is ideal against spell-laden decks, and Trygon Predator in Vintage. My favorite example is the Show and Tell into [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] combo in the sideboard of Painter, which creates a transformation into a deck that’s resilient to spot removal.
Sometimes, adding a trump card addresses the symptom rather than the problem, yet for some reason that’s often fine in this game. Because Merfolk relies on a critical mass of creatures, it’s weak to a pile of spot removal. Kira, Great Glass Spinner relieves some of that pressure. Similarly, Splinter Twin runs Spellskite, and combo runs Defense Grid.
Reading the Metagame
Remember this simple rule: The deck that wins this week’s tournament is rarely the deck for next week’s tournament.
If Naya Pod wins one weekend, people are bound to copy the list and bring it to the next tournament. When that happens, I no longer want to be piloting Naya Pod, I want to be playing the Zombie deck, or some control deck with Torpor Orbs in the sideboard.
Every metagame has a cycle. At its simplest—a given deck does well, then people figure out how to beat it, then other decks do well. Properly evaluating the present is key to predicting the future. In Legacy, the number of decks that are viable means that cycles can last entire years. Sometimes, it takes a new card (like Delver of Secrets) to revitalize an old archetype (like Canadian Thresh) to awaken an old loop.
In general, the Legacy metagame is too vast and complex to map completely, but you can get a good grasp of the format by becoming knowledgeable of enough decks and the factors that influence their playability. For example, a Merfolk loop might look something like this:
1 – Zoo/Burn/Gobblins are popular, and Merfolk is bad.
2 – Umezawa’s Jitte is popular, and Merfolk is bad.
3 – Islands (Daze mirrors) are popular, and Merfolk is good.
4 – Merfolk is popular, and Zoo/Burn/Gobblins/Umezawa’s Jitte are good.
Part of the complexity of reading a metagame is that it’s constantly adapting. As you can see above, Merfolk is good when cards like Red Elemental Blast and Umezawa’s Jitte are at a low point. This leads to Merfolk doing well, which in turn makes running those hate cards profitable again. A deck’s popularity influences its own metagame cycle, hindering long term predictions.
To get the hang of it, let’s try another simplified metagame loop, this time with Reanimator:
1 – Turn-three combo decks are popular, and Reanimator is good.
2 – Reanimator is popular, and fair decks with hate are good.
3 – Fair decks are popular, so clunky fair decks are better.
4 – Turn-three combo decks return to feast on the clunky fair decks, diversifying people’s hate, and making Reanimator a good choice again.
As you can see, rather than have the Rock, Paper, Scissors metagame that writers like to mention, each Legacy deck is constantly influencing the playability of each other deck. The wide range of viable decks creates loops that layer on top of each other. Some decks might only have a few variables to wrap your head around, and it’s easy to see if they’re good or not.
Others become quite convoluted, which is why we simplify metagame theory. Imagine a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Paper Clip, and Stapler, in which Paper Clip has good matchups but loses to itself half the time, and Stapler beats Rock and Paper but loses to Paper Clip and Scissors, but only if the Scissors handle is a primary color. Half of the Scissors decks will care about Paper Clip, and the other half wont. Even though the interaction of Stapler > Rock is quite simple, the viability of Rock will depend on the Scissors variation that’s popular at the time, as that in turn impacts the playability of Stapler.
Whew. This intricacy is why many pundits claim the key to Legacy is to jam something consistent and powerful. The problem is that it brings to mind giant, swingy turns like Show and Telling in an Emrakul, the Aeon’s Torn—but that’s not necessarily what you want to be doing. Often the subtle plays like casting a Thalia or respecting Dredge in the board are what win the tournament. Weapons technology has moved beyond who can find the biggest rock.
Standard, on the other hand, is much more consistent and predictable.
A new set is released: For the first few weeks to a month, people try out new cards and explore new archetypes. They play old decks that, due to some new interaction, aren’t good anymore. People’s ability to adapt is put to the test, and most are found wanting. For me, I’ve always found this time period to be the easiest for softer events, like FNMs or cash tournaments, and the hardest for Pro-level tournaments.
After that, people begin to focus on decks that are performing, often copying whatever does well at last week’s event. This process repeats until it’s clear that a few of the top-tier decks are better than the rest, and they begin to make up the bulk of the metagame. For some builders, this is a frustrating time to be playing Magic, as the decks you’re up against are equally good at shutting down brews with potential and without, making tournament test runs more and more futile. On the other hand, if you do manage to crack the code, the list will stay profitable for longer than average.
The Cost of Failure
Metagaming can be the hardest part of Magic, and no one does it perfectly. A few years ago, Alexander Shearer wrote an article that highlighted great moments in Magic history. I love how this article shows that blunders are such a constant part of the game. Quality of play isn’t determined by goofs alone, but also how one adapts and deals with it.
If the world’s best players occasionally screw up order of operations, or miscount their mana, how often are they making subtle metagame mistakes? All the time. I remember a countdown LSV did of the eight worst decks he has ever played, and I was impressed by the range of reasons for his mistakes. Comparatively, he’s only forgotten to play a land on turn two once (that we know of).
Deck selection is probably my greatest strength as a player—highlighted in Legacy, where the multitude of options can lead people astray. Even still, if you look at my GP performances in the format, I’ve only made Day Two at 2 out of 4 events. In my first, GP Hulk Flash, I brought Suicide Black. I knew the deck had a good Hulk Flash matchup, but I failed to account and tune for all the fish decks in the room, and died early in Day One. Two Sui decks Top 8′d that tournament, and both ran a suite of protection from white creatures that I hadn’t even considered.
As we all learned in high school Geometry, no matter how close you get, if you screw up the last line of a proof, it’s wrong.
At GP Providence, I was fresh off an Open Top 8 with BW disruption. I thought that, so long as decks that were weak to Jitte were a part of the metagame (like Merfolk), I would be in good shape. Unfortunately, I ended up mulliganing to oblivion a few too many times, and watched on as the Top 8 filled with consistent Brainstorm and Green Sun’s Zenith decks.
In these two events I undermetagamed and overmetagamed, and didn’t have a chance. In the other two, I hit the sweet spot just right, and felt advantaged against everyone in the room. By having the right read, you have a big edge against much stronger players. The wrong read, and you can lose to weaker ones. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
There are a list of attributes I balance to evaluate a deck’s role in the metagame. I keep a mental checklist for every deck, storing the following basic information:
Average Kill (Compared to the average for the format)
Good vs (strength)
Bad vs (weakness)
The best ___ deck in the format
Let’s do this for Merfolk in Legacy:
How is this useful? By having a strong understanding of a deck’s role, I can quickly filter through the myriad options and settle on a good choice for that week. Also, it gives me something concrete to compare new decks to. After all, we evaluate new cards by comparing them with the stats of old ones, and there’s some value in doing the same with decks.
Bonus: A Sweet List
I realize that it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted any sweet Legacy brews. Since this is the Legacy Weapon, it’s time for a nice dose of the sauce:
The deck is less explosive than Affinity, but hopefully more resilient. One of the problems with Affinity is that the deck gets worse with each mulligan, and the inconsistency eventually catches up to you. Here, the pile of value creatures, such as Shardless Agent, Stoneforge Mystic, and Baleful Strix can make up for a mulligan. Umezawa’s Jitte and the Thopter combo are capable of taking over games by themselves.
As a new archetype, this deck has different strengths and weaknesses than any other deck in the format, and I’m still figuring them out. By running more lands and fewer weak creatures, cards like Vindicate suddenly become options. While the above list is competitive enough for a smaller event, tuning this beast for the major leagues is going to take some work, and I’d appreciate any help my readers have to offer.