Building the Right Story – Preparing for Next Week’s Metagame

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By Byron King
@DoneTheMath
 
Switching from deck to deck to combat a metagame historically has not been one of my strengths.  My greatest successes have come when I know a deck inside and out, and I can tweak it against what I expect.  Switching decks entirely is harder, and it has taken me longer than it should have to articulate the reason.It isn’t simply identifying the strongest cards that aren’t seeing play.  That leaves you with just a good deck, not necessarily the right deck.  There will always be strong cards that aren’t seeing play for one reason or another.The real trick is making sure you can identify what decks did well on a given weekend and determine why that deck was successful.  This involves two steps, which I’m going to creatively refer to as Step 1 and Step 2.  I’ll also take the inspired leap and call the last part where we use that information Step 3.

 

Step 1 – What did well last week?

Figuring out what decks did well over a given week is simply research.  SCG and GP results are the best starting points, though team events aren’t quite as good.  After that, it’s time to check MTGO results.

Currently, WotC dumps a bunch of decklists that went 5-0 in MTGO leagues, but only one of each archetype.  If more than one deck is 5-0 and the decklists are almost identical, we will only see one.  This data is clearly skewed to make a format look more diverse than it actually is.

MTGO events provide the top 32 decklists in order.  These give much better data, as you can see if the same deck appears multiple times.  This is still a single snapshot of the format, but at least you get the full picture of what did well.

Your research needs to go back further than just a couple days or a week.  Only getting a snapshot of the format doesn’t explain how you got to that point.  You want to identify if the top decks are constantly shifting or remaining stagnant.  For simplicity, I will refer to a shifting format as healthy and a stagnate format as stale.

Some of that research is easy.  If you tune into SCG streams or regularly glance at MTGO results, you’ve a basic level of understanding to start with.  You’ll want to dig deeper in the most recent stuff, but you mostly need a general idea of what has happened up to that point.

Once you’ve done your research, you need to figure out what kind of format you’re looking at.  I’ve already mentioned them, but you can have a stale format or a healthy format.

 

A Stale Format

There was a long string of stale Standard formats a few years ago.  The Scarab God, Aetherworks Marvel, Collected Company, and Rally the Ancestors left a big mark on competitive magic, and having them back to back to back made for a rough set of years.  I’ve referred to these formats as stale, but “solved” is also an apt description of those format.  The less deck diversity there is, the closer the format has gotten to being solved.

When the same deck is doing well week after week, there are a couple options.  Your first option is to build a deck to fight the top dog.  You need to be careful not to give up too much here, both in time and vulnerability to other decks.  The biggest issue here is avoiding making yourself weak to everything else.  A truly dominant deck won’t be half of the field.  You can’t just accept miserable percentages against random decks to only get a slight advantage against the best deck.  You also don’t want to dedicate

I don’t want to discourage brewing up new decks, provided you do it right.  Successful brewers know that well over 90% of their decks won’t lead anywhere, and they actually put in the time to find the diamond in the rough.  Most players that build their own deck are playing with cards they just wanted to try or they think are cool.  That is fine, since everybody enjoys the game in their own way, but it’s about as likely to succeed as buying a lottery ticket.  You might win something small at your local store, but your odds are pretty terrible once you enter a larger event.

That’s not to say that it never works.  Kethis, the Hidden Hand broke out in Standard last season in a way we haven’t seen since Eldrazi Winter.  Several Czech players built the deck and came out of nowhere to dominate that event.  That’s pretty much the dream.  They found a new strategy that wasn’t weak to any of the currently popular decks, and they capitalized on it.

 

Your other option in a stale format is to take the best deck and make it better in the mirror.  Identify what last week’s technology was.  Test that card and look for any new weaknesses that it presents.  Staying a step or a step and a half ahead here will serve you well.

That last paragraph sounds nice, but it doesn’t really explain the process.  Let’s take an example from Temur Energy from a few seasons ago.  River’s Rebuke was a sideboard card for the mirror, resetting the board and often won the game on the spot.  If the format just started to widely adopted that card, what are some ways to beat that plan?

  • Play counterspells
  • Minimize creatures and look to other ways to gain advantage (Planeswalkers)
  • Consider creatures with flash (Torrential Gearhulk)
  • Make your deck more aggressive to outrace it (Greenbelt Rampager)

This is the theorizing step, we are simply coming up with some starting points.  At this point, you pick an idea (or two) and start testing.  This will identify which ideas work, and how you need to alter the rest of your deck and your strategy to accommodate them.  Sometimes the adaptation is simple, only requiring a card or two to trump the long game.  Other ideas require massive retooling of a deck, including the main deck, manabase, and sideboard.

If you are in a stale format, that is pretty much the end of the road.  Regardless of the path you take, make sure to get your reps in with the best deck.  You’ll want to understand how it plays both to determine weakness and to be competent piloting it if you decide that is the right plan.

 

A Healthy Format

In a healthy format, you have more exploring to do.  The best deck is dynamic, changing constantly, and you have to stay on top of that.  Tweaking the best deck can work, but it is likely that you will still be soft to whatever deck arises to beat the current top dog.

Instead of tuning the best deck to beat the mirror better, you want to focus on selecting a deck that will be well positioned.  That means taking your information from Step 1 and making a narrative out of it.

Decks don’t just succeed because someone discovers a source of untapped raw power in a card.  There are some exceptions to this, but the vast majority of decks rise to power based off of the surrounding metagame.

 

Step 2 – Why did those decks do well?

Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to start theorizing.  What happened to make the decks last week successful?  Most of the time, the reason will come from some inherent strength against the deck that did well the week before.

Using the current format is always better than trying to remember the past, since it’s difficult to objectively remember and examine the format without considering what happened to shift it the following weeks.  Our current Standard format is very fresh, with only a few streamer events to pull data from.  We don’t have a Standard Challenge from MTGO to look at yet.

Fandom Legends (September 26th) – First day of Throne of Eldraine on MTG Arena

Brian Gottlieb won the event with Esper Stax.  This is a deck that uses Kaya’s Wrath and Doom Foretold to control the board, eventually winning with Dance of the Manse.

Why did this deck do well – This was a control deck in a field of midrange decks.  Between Kaya’s Wrath and Doom Foretold, Brian had the tools to beat all of the decks that showed up to the event.  The rest of the decks felt like random piles of midrange threats, which the Esper Stax deck can prey upon.

Fandom Caster Cup (September 29th)

Brian Gottlieb also won this event, this time with Golos.  This was an important event, since I feel like it was the only event we currently have that was won by what I believe is the current best deck.  Golos didn’t make an appearance in the first Fandom Legends event of the season, likely due to it being the literal first day of the format.

Why did this deck do well – Early testing hasn’t shown any of the Throne of Eldraine engine cards to be better at winning a long game than Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and Field of the Dead.

Fandom Legends (October 3rd)

This event was won by Caleb Durward on Bant Ramp.  This isn’t a Golos deck, but a pure Bant Ramp deck built around Nissa, Hydroid Krasis, and Mass Manipulation.  It only has white for Teferi, Time Wipe, and some sideboard cards.

Why did this deck do well – Nissa is the true workhorse of this deck, applying pressure while simultaneously ramping out insane mana for Hydroid Krasis and Mass Manipulation.  That said, I don’t think this deck is well suited to beating the Golos deck.  Caleb’s record against Golos was 50% by the end of the tournament.  I do think the Bant Ramp deck was well suited to beating the Fires deck (with Mass Manipulation) and the Adventures decks (with Time Wipe), and those made up a huge chunk of the field.

 

Highlights of these events

Currently, nobody has found a better late game engine than Field of the Dead.  It won the Caster’s Cup, and all three copies in the second Legends event made the top 8.  The winning deck only managed to break even against it, and I definitely watched Caleb get a turn 3 Nissa on the play in game one of the finals.

There doesn’t appear to be a defacto aggressive deck yet.  There were multiple copies of Selensya Adventure in the second Legends event, but they all did poorly.  There have been some red, black, Rakdos, and Golgari aggro decks cropping up, but nobody has had a breakout performance with any of them yet.

It’s important to consider that all three of these events were small.  The winners never had to win more than eight matches in any event, as opposed to 15 rounds of swiss and a top 8 in typical large events.

 

Coming back to the theory side of this, you need to take the research you did in Step 1 and start theorizing on why things happened they way they did.  More research equals more data to work with, but it will take practice to get good at identifying what matters and what to extrapolate from that information.  For example, you can simply look at the results of the events that I mentioned and work from that.  Or you can go back and watch the events to see how the decks and matches played out.  Finding out that the winning deck only had a 50% win rate against another deck is important to know when you are looking for a line of attack.

 

Step 3 – Figuring out what comes next

Now that you’ve developed a narrative for the past, it’s time to try to capitalize on that for the future.  You need to find the best place to beat whatever won recently without sacrificing too much to whatever was popular the week before.

It’s hard to go too deep on explaining this in general terms, because it all revolves around your data from Step 1 and your theories from Step 2.  For the current Standard format, I can theorize on this to an extent.  However, every new data point will change my evaluation of what comes next.

I believe that there are too many decks playing Oko, Thief of Crowns for me to play an aggressive deck.  Between the extra life from food tokens and the stream of 3/3 creatures, it feels difficult to get under these decks.  That means that I’m confidant that Golos is the place to be for the next week.  I’m fairly confidant that will be the case for a few weeks, until the arms race between ramp decks makes players sacrifice too many cards against the aggro decks, where one of those will spike the event.

This means that, if I was playing in a large Standard event this weekend, I’d be playing Golos.  I’d have three or four copies of Agent of Treachery between the main deck and sideboard, along with a couple copies of Veil of Summer for the mirror.  Beyond that, I’d look into planeswalkers to fight the Esper Stax deck and some midsize threats or removal to make sure I’m prepared for the aggressive decks.

However, this is all going off my theories developed in Step 2.  If you looked at the same results as I did and decided that aggro should be able to sweep in and stomp the next event, you’d want to focus on an aggressive deck instead.

You won’t necessarily share the same opinions as everyone else, or possibly anyone else.  That’s not important.  The important point is that you have a logical train of thought that lead you to your current deck selection.  However, if you can explain it to the extent that you can convince others, it’s a great benchmark for how well you are theorizing.

 

 

This is a skill you can take down to the micro level too.  You probably know the regulars at your local FNM, and you certainly know the people you play with casually.  If your Standard group is infested with a bunch of aggressive decks, I wouldn’t play Golos.  You want to pick a deck that is specifically designed to target aggressive decks.  If your modern events are filled with Elves players, there are several ways to fight that.  You can load up on Plague Engineers if you think changing your sideboard is sufficient.  If you want to fight against them even more, maybe you can try switching decks to Azorius Control or Ad Nauseam.  What you want to avoid doing is pulling the most recent decklist from your favorite content creator if they are focused on beating midrange decks while your most important goal is beating aggressive decks.

 

 

Now that you’ve done all this work, you have to accept one fairly uncomfortable fact.  None of it may matter.  We are looking at the metagame as a whole, but you play individual people at a tournament.  You might have developed the perfect deck for the field, but running into a few oddball decks can still ruin your tournament.  Variance and luck still have a big part to play, and you just have to roll with the punches.  Just remember that those things all even out over the long term, and eventually they will be on your side.  Don’t get discouraged and give up after your first attempt.

Beyond that, you might just be wrong.  I’m making a claim that Golos will win the next big event, but maybe someone has a better plan of attack than I do.  Even if I avoid variance, I could still be getting outplayed before I even sit down for my first match.  That just comes down to practice.  Learn from your mistakes so you can do better next time.  This isn’t a skill where you hit a threshold and have to stop, you will continue to get better the more you practice.

Best of Luck!  I really hope Golos does well in the next week.

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