Advanced Magic: The Gathering Metagaming for Beginners


Regardless of how long you’ve played or how deep you’ve gotten into theory, chances are you’ve heard the term “metagame” thrown around a fair amount. Today’s article is an explanation of what that term means and how you can use the concept to enhance your game.

Meta is a Greek prefix for “after” or “beyond.” The prefix meta famously appears in Aristotle’s concept of metaphysics. Aristotelian metaphysics seeks to understand the relationship between mind and matter, perception and reality. To metagame is to apply the same kinds of principles to gaming. In this case, MTG.

What Does “Metagame” Signify

I like to think about the MTG metagame in the following way:

Sometimes, I’m playing a game of Magic: The Gathering. Every other second I’m thinking about or doing anything Magic related I’m participating in the metagame.

So, what exactly is the metagame? It’s the sum of all the Magic that is played everywhere all the time. It’s also the sum of all the ideas and discussions about Magic that take place applied to our future games.

Most people tend to think about the metagame as the constitution of expected decks, cards, and strategies likely to appear in a given field or tournament. There are several websites dedicated to tracking which decks are being played and their frequency within each format.

I use a couple of different websites to help me understand this particular facet of the metagame. The standard “go-to” site is mtggoldfish.com. Here, you can select a format and see the decks that are currently be playing and what percentage of the field they makeup.

Knowing what people are likely to play is an important aspect of Magic strategy. While you can’t predict what your exact pairings will be, you can use these format maps to hedge against what you are likely to face.

Let’s look at a practical example of this abstract concept: I just logged onto MTGGoldfish and looked at the most played Standard decks according to their data:

  • Mono-Blue Aggro: 15%
  • Sultai Control: 12%
  • White Weenie: 10%
  • Esper Control: 9%
  • Gruul: 5%
  • Temur: 5%
  • Red Deck Wins: 4%
  • Izzet Phoenix: 4%

These eight decks make up roughly 64% of the Standard metagame, which means if we played a tournament tomorrow, we might expect to play against one of these decks in 2/3rds of our matches.

We can also make assumptions based on this information. For instance, we are almost four times as likely to play against Mono-Blue than Mono-Red in a given round. The reason this information is useful is straightforward—it makes sense to invest resources such as testing time or actual cards in a deck to address the strategies we are likely to face.

Given a distribution of decks, we can focus our attention on beating decks that make up the largest portion of the field. On a practical level, if I had room for one more sideboard card I might look at what percentage each deck makes up and say:

“Mono-Blue, Sultai, White Weenie, and Esper are the most likely decks I will face. Of these four strategies, which one could I use another high impact card against?”

Metagaming is making decisions that will impact your future tournament before the tournament even begins. But here’s where it gets tricky: Imagine that hundreds of thousands of other players are also looking at the same data and doing the same thing at the same time.

The field you encounter on Saturday morning isn’t going to be a carbon copy of what you researched on Friday. Rather, it’s an extension of it. The metagame is a constant evolution of what people think and believe to be true about the format they are playing, and the choices they make as a result of the information they have.

The most important idea I’d like to express in this article is that the meta is more than just a bunch of decks with percentages marked next to them. Yes, that is a big part of understanding a metagame, but the actual meta extends far beyond mere collected data. In fact, the best metagame information is likely wildly inaccurate, which is something you should always keep in mind. What is collected and reported is but a sliver of the total Magic played. It’s still extremely useful, (because otherwise what do you even have to go on?). Just be aware that there is always a significant margin of error.

Examining Tournament Results

The more recent the result the larger its ability to impact the meta. Also, the larger the scope of the tournament—for example, a Mythic Championship or Grand Prix—the larger the impact.

What does this mean?

It means big, flashy tournaments impact how and what people play in a dramatic way. It’s something most people realize without ever conceptualizing how or why.

The metagame is all about information. Big tournament results are touchstone pieces of information seen by the most eyes.

I want to show you something I hope will inform how you think about metagames. Most people who read articles like this one likely saw the Top 8 deck lists from the Mythic Championship in Cleveland and so I’ve chosen to use those for today’s article.

  • 3 Mono-Blue Aggro
  • 1 Simic Nexus
  • 1 Gruul Aggro
  • 1 Esper Control
  • 1 White Weenie
  • 1 Izzet Drakes

The Constructed Top 8 of a Championship is by far the most visible piece of information that gets floated into the meta. It’s something most people will see and use to inform their ideas, opinions, and deck lists thereafter.

Three copies of Mono-Blue in the Top 8 tells us that Mono-Blue was a strong performer at the highest level of Standard.

But it’s only one piece of information in a narrative with many pieces of information. For instance, a Mythic Championship isn’t just 16 rounds of Standard, but also includes 6 rounds of Limited.

If you wanted to see a more accurate but less visible representation of the Standard portion of the event, look at which decks went 8-2 or better in the event (which eliminates the Draft bias).

Decks that went 9-1 or better:

  • 1 Esper Control
  • 1 Simic Nexus
  • 1 Sultai Midrange
  • 1 Mono-Blue Tempo

Decks that went 8-2 or better:

  • 4 Sultai
  • 4 Mono-Blue
  • 3 Esper Control
  • 2 Simic Nexus
  • 2 White Weenie
  • 2 Izzet Phoenix
  • 2 Gruul Aggro
  • 1 Mardu
  • 1 Merfolk
  • 1 Temur Reclamation

The X-2 or better Mythic Championship metagame breakdown looks like this:

  • Mono-Blue: 19%
  • Sultai: 19%
  • Esper Control: 15%
  • Simic Nexus: 12%
  • White Weenie: 8%
  • Izzet Phoenix: 8%
  • Gruul Aggro: 8%

If you look at just the Top 8 and see 38% Mono-Blue, you might draw the conclusion that the deck was dominant. But looking a little deeper tells a different story where Mono-Blue, Sultai Control, Esper Control, and Simic Nexus all made up large chunks of decks that won 80% of their matches.

If the majority of people perceive that Mono-Blue dominated the event, more people are likely to play Mono-Blue or prepare to beat Mono-Blue. The information suggests Mono-Blue is important and so Mono-Blue becomes important.

We can take this information further to paint an even clearer portrait of how various decks performed in the event. Here is information taken from Adam Styborski’s Day 2 Metagame Breakdown from the WotC website, which I’ve added the X-2 or better deck stat to:

Archetype Day One Count Day One % Day Two Count Day Two % Day Two Conversion Rate % of Archetype that went 8-2 or Better
Sultai 107 21.5% 68 21.6% 63.3% 4.6%
Simic Nexus 71 14% 51 16% 71% 5.6%
White Weenie 62 12.4% 42 13% 67% 3.2%
Mono-Blue 60 12% 36 11.4% 60% 8.3%
Esper 45 9% 29 9 64% 8.8%
Gruul Midrange 10 2% 8 2.5% 80% 20%
Izzet Phoenix 7 1.4% 7 2.2% 100% 28%

I would argue the last two columns most accurately reflect how specific decks actually performed. It’s not just about what makes Top 8, or went 8-2 or better. It also matters how many players piloted each deck.

Roughly 1 in 5 players chose Sultai. Roughly 1 in 5 of the decks that went 8-2 or better were Sultai. That isn’t much better than I’d expect from flipping coins. Mono-Blue performed slightly better, but I wouldn’t describe either performance as “dominant.”

The real story of the tournament, in my opinion, was that Gruul Midrange and Izzet Phoenix were by far the best performing decks, which is a story line that was overlooked. Respectively, they had a 80% and 100% conversion rate to Day 2. 20% of Gruul players achieved an 80% win percentage or better. An absurd 28% of Izzet Phoenix players won 80% of their matches or better.

Still, when we hearken back to MTGGoldfish’s metagame projections I shared earlier in the article:

  • Mono-Blue Aggro: 15%
  • Sultai Control: 12%
  • White Weenie: 10%
  • Esper Control: 9%
  • Gruul: 5%
  • Temur: 5%
  • Red Deck Wins: 4%
  • Izzet Phoenix: 4%

Perception is reality. Mono-Blue and Sultai appeared to dominate the Mythic Championship based on the data observed. Not much has actually changed based upon the result. The distribution of decks now is not dissimilar to the Day 1 Mythic Championship metagame.

Based on all of this number crunching and data from the highest level of competition I would suggest that Izzet Phoenix and Gruul Aggro are likely better compared to the number of people who select and play them.

I’m a fan of a website called mtgtop8.com. The website reports Top 8s. Obviously. It’s interesting to see how the Top 8 metagame varies from the general metagame. One of the primary ways I quickly distill information is to combine these two resources to better understand the information about what the best performing strategies are.

Standard

Deck Name Metagame % Top 8 %
Mono-Blue 15% 12%
Sultai 13% 14%
Phoenix 4% 8%
Gruul Aggro 4% 2%

More information continues to inform my opinion about the format. I tend to look for decks with a higher Top 8 percentage than metagame percentage.

In this case, weeks after the Championship, it looks like the distribution of Blue and Sultai is flush with the results from Cleveland. Gruul, which was an optimal deck for Cleveland appears to have fared poorly. On the other hand, Izzet Phoenix continues to have the highest conversion rate from metagame percentage to winner’s metagame percentage by a wide margin. It’s likely the most underrated and underappreciated deck in Standard.

The most important takeaway from this section is that knowledge and information equate to real power when you are participating in the metagame experience. We’ve now examined multiple pieces of information and it’s clear each one tells a slightly different story of Standard.

The Magic metagame is unfathomably large. Even megasites like MTGTop8 and MTGGoldfish only present a fragment of the story. Think about all of the Magic that gets played every day between LGS, MTGO, and Arena. The posted results pale in comparison to the totality of play.

It’s also clear that the more information sampled and crunched the more focused our picture of the metagame becomes. For example, we examined several pieces of information and each one seemed to suggest something slightly different. More information suggests a more consistent inference.

To truly master the art of metagaming is to seek out, sift through, and form generalizations about the most information possible.

The Higher the Percentage the Bigger the Bullseye

Here’s another common mistake people routinely make when thinking about how a metagame works: The higher the percentage of the metagame, the better the deck choice is.

The correlation between popularity and power is not direct, at least not when it comes to playing in an event. In fact, drawing such a conclusion is likely to work against you, since multitudes of others will likely reach the same flawed conclusion given a small data sample.

When a player looks at a metagame breakdown and sees a particular deck is the most played, they will likely reach one of two possible conclusions (given just that information):

  1. A player will choose one of the “best decks.”
  2. A player will prepare to beat the “best decks.”

I imagine it’s rare somebody looks at a visual representation of a Constructed format and says, “Hmm, Izzet Phoenix is the most played deck in Modern. So, I shouldn’t play it and I should also make sure to pick a deck that’s bad against it.”

It makes more sense people would want to spend the majority of their time preparing to play or beat the “best deck.”

The more popular a deck is, the more likely players will be ready to face it. While certain strategies like Blue-Aggro or Sultai may appear most powerful in the abstract, other strategies can adapt and focus on defeating them. If I know I’m three times more likely to face blue than Gruul, I’ll allot my resources accordingly to help sure up the matchup.

Kraul HarpoonerAtzocan Archer

These cards are fantastic against Mono-Blue, but not ideal anti-aggro tools against Gruul. So while Mono-Blue may be objectively more focused and powerful, it is also true that it will always be met with greater resistance by players who have done their metagame homework.

The larger the expected portion of the field, the bigger the bullseye, and the lower the expected value of the strategy.

Content Influences the Metagame

The last thing I want to touch on is the way content has a profound impact on the way players experience the metagame.

Magic content is a fantastic way to learn about how other people think about various aspects of the game. High-level Magic is a game about information, and what better way to learn than from the brightest minds in the game!

With that being said, the content of the week can go a long way toward actively influencing the metagame. Here’s an example: every single time Dredge performs well in a large Modern tournament it tends to be a huge narrative the following week. People write about Dredge. People write about how to beat Dredge. In a sense, Dredge becomes the focus of how Modern players think about and approach the format.

You know how movie trailers say things like: If you only see one film this holiday season, see this one! Magic content often sends a similar message: If you only beat one deck this Saturday, beat Dredge!

Magic content is one of the most interesting aspects of the metagame because it’s a giant conversation taking place between everybody. Even if you don’t write or produce content, you are still part of the conversation by virtue of the insight you glean, the deck you play, and the result you put up!

Content performs a similar function to a Mythic Championship Top 8 because it is a metagame touchstone seen and experienced by many and therefore helps shape the Saturday reality.

Last week, Reid Duke put up a nice video about Standard Temur Reclamation. The following two nights, I think I played ten matches on MTG Arena, and seven were vs. Temur Reclamation.

  1. People trust that Reid knows what he’s talking about, because he does.
  2. People trust that his list is great and ready to play, because it is.
  3. People got to see him play actual matches and got a feel for how the deck works.
  4. People feel comfortable and confident about using what they’ve learned and try to apply it in actual games.
  5. People believe if they play like Reid, they are likely to win more.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a great thing. By extension, the conversations people have at the LGS and message boards tend to be informed by and in concert with the major themes and narratives writers and streamers discuss on a daily basis. Articles are like talking points that we all use to help prepare for events.

Never underestimate the impact of that content on the metagame. Kyle Boggemes is an absolute master of decoding content into useful information, a skill I’ve also worked on honing over the past year.

Essentially, a huge part of predicting shifts in the metagame comes from simply reading what high-profile players have to say and anticipating what others will do with the information.

For example, if three high-profile players all wrote about Izzet Phoenix, I would absolutely want to study those articles and deck lists while preparing for an event. The majority of players are not going to start from scratch. It would be an unbelievable misallocation of time and resources. 99.9% of players who end up on Phoenix will have read those articles and used that information to inform their build.

If you know the three published lists from the week you can account for most of the cards an opponent will play against you (and in what quantities) simply by paying attention to the content.

There’s an endless supply of information and content at the ready: mega data sites like MTGTop8 and MTGGoldfish who compile data, weekly tournament results, weekly content, as well as the always underrated just jam some games and learn some stuff.

There’s no secret formula. There’s no magical solution to the equation. There’s just information and the inferences we draw from it. The more and better the information the more likely we are to draw accurate conclusions from it.

It also goes without saying that the metagame is always changing and adapting from week to week, day to day, and second to second. It’s always evolving based on what people know, what they think they know, and what they do with that information.

“The metagame” is obviously a broad and complicated topic and I’m well over my word limit already without barely having scratched the surface. These are some of the concepts and practical applications I routinely use to learn about and improve at playing Magic: The Gathering on a daily basis. If you have helpful insight, especially one I haven’t touched upon, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’m sure other readers would as well!

Share this

Discussion

Scroll to Top