Perilous Research #4: Predicting Standard Metagame Shifts


Competitive Magic has found itself in an odd place this year. There are large events that take place almost every weekend. With the modern technology available, a large portion of these events are now being covered live. Typically even the ones that aren’t being covered by webcasts can be followed via twitter as the players in the event constantly post how they and others are doing and what they played. This brings a change to the way we play the game in constructed formats like Standard.

Gone are the days of only changing your deck when a new Set arrived. Instead of making changes every three months, players are now changing their lists on a week-to-week basis. The formats are being played heavily every single weekend in events much more competitive than the local FNM. Players are there to win, and will usually only bring decks that they are sure they can win with. But unlike a few years ago, when you would pick a deck and play it for a whole season, you now choose your weapon of choice based upon changes in the metagame.

What was played last weekend? What won last weekend? How was it winning? How can I stop it from winning and in turn beat it myself? This is the (very) basic version of the line of thinking the good players go through while choosing and building their deck for the next weekends event. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this thought process and it should be the least that you consider when deciding what to play. You definitely don’t want to be that guy that shows up to an event with a deck meant to combat the metagame of three weeks ago. We all know you love your deck, that you think it’s tuned, and that you believe you’re going to hand out the beats like its your job, but unfortunately you’re just going to find yourself at the bottom tables and dropping x-2.  You have to make changes based upon the current metagame.

However, the top end players in the game take this process a step further. Instead of only thinking about how to beat the decks that won last weekend, they also think about what other kinds of decks are good against what won last weekend. Then with that information in mind, they make their changes so that they are actually ahead of the metagame for the upcoming weekend because they’ve predicted how it will pan out.

Predicting metagames is not for the newer player. Making accurate predictions takes experience, a solid knowledge of the format, and just a little luck. But, if your start practicing now, eventually you will find that you’re predictions are at least close and have acquired a new skill, one that is needed for success at high levels of competitive magic. I didn’t play in any large events this weekend, but I did make predictions for the metagame. I even convinced a friend on Twitter to audible for his PTQ, but more on that at the end. I’ll take you through the process I used to determine what I thought would be played, and how I decided what could be played to beat my predicted metagame.

The first step I took was to look at all the results from the previous weekend. In the SCG results from Cincinnati we have Caw-Blade, various Twin builds, Tempered Steel and U/W Puresteel as the real standouts. The other large event was Japanese Nationals which saw Valakut, Tempered Steel, and two U/B Control builds on top. This gives us a solid list of decks that we need to be able to beat:

CawBlade

Twin

Tempered Steel

Valakut

U/W Puresteel

U/B Control

Looking at this list of decks my snap judgement is to drop U/B Control. Compared to the other 5 decks it had a reasonable chance against two Puresteel and Valakut, while having bad matchups against Tempered Steel, CawBlade, and Twin. Until some real brewing is done, the U/B Control shell just doesn’t have what it takes to break out in the metagame. The other deck I’m initially unsure of is U/W Puresteel. The deck is an update to what is probably the strongest Scars Block deck. The fact that it did so well at Cincinnati is a testament to the power it can deliver to the table. But, the deck is still new and I’m sure had a certain surprise factor attached to it.

Going over the other four decks I can also tell that CawBlade is going to gain popularity again. Good players like playing skill-based matches to give themselves an edge and CawBlade certainly allows you to do this. The version coming out on top of Cincinnati is a little more aggressive than I like, but that certainly gave it game against Valakut, the most played deck in Cincinnati. Twin also likes to prey on slower decks like Valakut and even had good game against the second most played deck RDW. Burn just isn’t large enough to kill Deceiver. They need to have Dismember and Dispel stops that. Valakut and RDW were definitely hated on in Cincinnati, but the Japanese Nats results gives the Valakut deck a little hope.

At this point most players would resign themselves to playing CawBlade, Twin, or Valakut. They did well and all three can still play well against the more aggressive metagame. Valakut just needs to run sweepers, spot removal, and Natures Claim to combat the decks that were putting it down. This is fine, and these decks would do well against most of the decks that would see play in Seattle or PTQs. However, if you continue your line of thinking you’ll find the metagame may be a little different than you expect.

During Cincinatti everyone played more aggressive-style decks to combat to the slower decks that others were playing. With this is mind people are going to start playing cards to combat the aggressive decks; sweepers like Pyroclasm, lifegain like Obstinate Baloth, and removal like Dismember. After looking at that, the CawBlade list from last week looks a little weak doesn’t it. Twin suffers from the removal increase also. So, if the meta is actually morphing to be more controlling than the previous week, what can we play to combat that?

The answer is a resilient aggressive deck. You want to put as much pressure on your slower opponent as you can. You need to force them to act and not give them a lot of time to draw their outs. Doing this gives you your best chance for success. But, not only does your deck need to be resilient to the more controlling decks, it also needs to be resilient against the other aggressive decks. There are still those people who will be playing the in the metagame from a few weeks ago with decks like Goblins. There are two decks that fit this, Tempered Steel and Vampires.

Vampires will let you attrition your opponent in the aggro matchups, while presenting a resilient clock to your control adversaries. Tempered Steel gives you the ability to play with the most explosive deck in the format, one that can just win on turn 4 with the correct hand. That is one hell of a clock for control. Combine the explosiveness with the innate resilience provided by playing Glint Hawk Idol and Spellskite and control suddenly has minimal ways of interacting with you. Against other aggressive decks you’re just more explosive so you can race faster, and you’re playing spells to make your guys bigger. Tempered Steel pushing your creatures into 3/3’s definitely has the advantage over decks with 2/2’s.

Now that you’ve narrowed it down to two decks, you can decide which to play by figuring out which deck wins in a heads-up game. Unfortunately for vampires, it gets hosed by Tempered Steel. 3/3’s vs 2/2’s win in Steels favor, Dispatch stops the ability to attrition with Bloodghasts, and evasion allows for Steel to win the race. Steel is at a slight disadvantage initially to Vampires burn spells, but once you hit a Tempered Steel the sailing is pretty smooth. From the board Steel has Celestial Purge to use as Dispatch 5+, while Vampires has Manic Vandal. Manic Vandal is good, but it doesn’t stop the card that puts Tempered Steel ahead, the namesake enchantment itself.

There are several different types of Tempered Steel. U/W, Mono-White, and G/W. For the upcoming weekend I found U/W to be the choice I liked the best because preordains smoothing out your draws seemed key to help the deck finish off after an explosive start. The sideboard counter-magic also gave you outs to the inevitable sweepers. That’s why when my friend on twitter, Peter Knudson aka MTG_Pete, asked me if goblins were viable I immediately told him to audible to Tempered Steel, suggesting U/W. How’d he fare?

Well, he went on to make top8 and take down not only Tim Landale, but also RedSiteWins very own Ashley Morway on his way to winning the whole thing. If you can accurately predict what people will play, you’ll have a better chance at success. I encourage you to practice this mental exercise. Before the next large event write down what you think will be prevalent and what you think can win and see how your predictions turn out. Go back to your notes and mark what did or didn’t pan out. Then do it again for the next week, and the week after. You’ll end up with a running record of where your predictions were correct and incorrect and by looking back you will see trends that you may have missed. Slowly you’ll get better as you develop the skill and eventually you’ll reach a point where the skill becomes second nature and you will be ahead of the metagame.

I leave on Tuesday to make the trek to Indianapolis, IN for GenCon and US Nats. I’ll be attempting to grind in on Thursday, but I will have an article go up sometime during the event. It isn’t directly about Standard or Limited, but is definitely something you will want to read so keep an eye out. Until next time, keep your mind focused and your plays tight!

Jason Clark

@RealEvilGenius on Twitter

P.S. You’re welcome Pete.

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About therealevilgenius

It's the summer of '95 and a nine year old child goes with a friend to visit his friend's uncle. The nine year old is taken in by the Star War and X-Men posters covering the basement walls in which he and his friend watched cartoons. The uncle sat at a table off to the side. Soon he pulled out a box and asked the kids if they wanted to play a game. WOAH. No. This isn't that kind of story. The uncle promptly pulls out a couple stacks of cards and arranges them on a table. The backs of the cards read Magic: The Gathering. Our nine year old is instantly enthralled and learns how to play his first game of Magic. Fast forward 16 years and here I am. That nine year old kid, now 25, but still playing Magic. I have since moved a few times and never kept up with my friend or his uncle, but it is to them I owe the honor of my introduction to the game. In the past 16 years I've played on and off (definitely more on than off). With my latest return to the game I now have the time and resources to devote to the game to increase my skill and knowledge. I bring a lot of different experiences with me ranging from casual to constructed to limited. My article series Perilous Research, will be dedicated to Limited and Standard. I plan to start the Open/PTQ grind and hope to do well and learn more along the way. Stick with me to go along for the journey and read my insights and bad humor. You can always find me on Twitter as @RealEvilGenius if you want to yell at me. Thanks for reading.

Posted on July 28, 2011, in Articles, Perilous Research. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Def wouldn’t have audibled by myself, and wasn’t even considering steel really. It was an awesome call for the weekend. But as you say yourself, it might not be for next. I’ve got scg boston on the horizon… I’ll be hitting you up the week before!

  2. Great job, Pete! I definitely think Tempered Steel is a pretty strong deck too. I’m not sure if the logic of this article fully works though. You made a prediction, you suggested a deck for your friend, and your friend won the PTQ, does that not prove your point? Unfortunately, I don’t think it does. The metagame as predicted is only level 0 and I think most players were at that level. Tempered Steel was also on my short list of decks to play also (Valakut was the deck I went with) but it was as predictable as any of the other decks. Even a week before, the Japanese players were packing Creeping Corrosions for example.

    I think that next level thinking would be to predict Valakut, Tempered Steel, and Twin as gaining the most and play something that guns for them the hardest. Unfortunately, they seem to be the formats pillars: rock, paper, scissors and it is very hard to have a deck that beats two of them consistently let alone all three. Of these, I think Twin is the weakest link but its existence does place extreme limitations on other decks. I think due to the level of difficulty of finding a deck that can beat these decks consistently, most players will not reach the level beyond that so playing a deck to beat the deck that beats the best decks seems absurd even if you could figure out what that is.

    The best way to analyze the performance of a deck is to compare it to the number of people playing that deck. The only way that Tempered Steel would be one of the correct decks to play (statistically speaking), is if less than 1/8th of the field played it (as there was only 1 deck represented in the T8). There were 148 players according to magicthegathering.com so do we really think less than 18-19 of them were on the Tempered Steel plan? There were 2 Valakut decks in T8 so we can have double that number playing Valakut for it to have an “average” performance. Compare that to Puresteel Paladin. Probably only a few people in the entire room were playing it and one ended up T8, that’s a pretty good conversion. 2 Caw Blade decks made T8 but they seemed literally everywhere so I’m not sure if they rate a higher than probable conversion. I didn’t see many Vampires decks so one making T8 is actually pretty decent and Twin looked like it was performing slightly above the statistical expectation as well. Just from a results standpoint, it looks like Puresteel Paladin, Vampires or Valakut had the best conversion but without decklists from all 148 competitors, this is hard to know with a certainty. But you can’t use one person’s finish to prove your point, no matter how good that finish was!

    Still a good article though, just remember that predicting a metagame is always tricky business as other players are thinking beings too. My usual plan is to try to play a well-positioned deck and to rely on my sideboard to cover expected match-ups (but that’s the kind of thing every player is doing!) There are also other other ways to metagame than your deck selection, for example, do you really think Edgar Flores is NOT going to play some version of Caw-Blade at the next SCG: Open? I think he will keep playing it. It’s not the deck that is changing but some of the cards in the deck. Many factors are at play also: player skill, familiarity with the deck etc.

    Anyway, these are just random thoughts, please don’t take it as criticism but just the perspective of another player!

  3. Pete’s finish was merely an example of how accurately predicting a metagame can help leading to you doing well. There will always be other factors; play-skill, variance, etcetera that also influence the outcome. I’m just presenting it as another skill to be developed to help players get ahead, not saying it’s the end all-be all.

    With that said, knowing when to audible off or onto certain decks can be helpful. If your deck is solid then there is no reason to audible, only to make some adjustments to your 75 for the predicted meta. But if you’re a red deck in a sea of Firewalkers, Baloths, Reinforcements, and Spellskite you may way to reconsider your deck choice as a whole. Sometimes hate can just be too much.

    As for your pillars of the format, the format is still very early in it’s being and I don’t think we’ve seen any optimal lists for any of the decks, yet. But if I had to choose 3 decks Valakut wouldn’t be one of them. There is just too much Technology against it right now. I would have to go with CawBlade in it’s stead.

  4. Also, the way you evaluate deck performance assumes all players to have exactly equal play experience and completely disregards the concept of variance. To really evaluate decks based on tournament performance you should also look at the top decks compared to the metagame breakdowns (if available) and try to understand why they perfoed well in the field. That will give you a better judgment on the decks than “this deck must only be ok because x of y players made top16”.

  5. By “pillars” I don’t mean the only good or viable decks, I mean the level 0 extremes of the format. Tempered Steel can kill you on turn 3 by being aggressive, Twin can combo you on turn 4, and Valakut is more of a mid-range combo deck. This isn’t a good environment for control (or at least, nobody has really developed a good control list) and Caw-Blade isn’t it. Caw-Blade is more aggro-control at best. And if you played Valakut against the new version of Caw-Blade that Nick Spagnolo and Edgar Flores played (and will now most likely be the most popular version), you would not count Valakut out. That deck dies a horrible screaming death to Valakut. Their list does have a lot of advantages against Twin though which was very popular in Seattle and would also answer the question of why there weren’t more Valakuts in T16.

    The technology against Valakut is the same as it’s always been, there’s nothing new there: Memoricide Primevals, Spreading Seas + Tectonic Edge your land. Did you know that Pat Chapin is advocating NOT playing Spreading Seas anymore? And a lot of players are listening. The reason? This is a tempo format and one cannot afford to lose time on Spreading Seas – not by playing it main anyway and it’s not a great card as a SB card (there are better options). This being a tempo format also shows why control decks are doing so poorly: the other decks are attacking from too many different angles, are very resilient, and the control decks can’t keep up on board. Their main “counterspells” are mana leaks which are easy to play around and also happen to be quite bad on the draw against aggressive strategies.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying Valakut is the best deck but it is very powerful and I expect to see multiple copies in most T16s. Most pros have called it the “starting point of the format” and the best time to play it is exactly when you see people gunning for other decks, which right now they are: Caw-Blade, Tempered Steel, and Twin. But look at that Caw-Blade list again and tell me it doesn’t just lose to Oracle of Mul Daya (which most people have not maxed out on the way I have) or a resolved Titan even. I have played the match-up and I know what I’m talking about here.

    Yes, it is very bad against Twin and I think that is what may hold it back but though Twin is a “limiting factor” or “pillar” of the format, I actually don’t think it’s very good, I just think that it’s mere existence excludes other decks from competing. With Valakut at least you have a combo that is more consistent and almost as fast and you can board cards that can interact with Twin even though you will most likely remain somewhat disadvantaged (hence the rock, paper, scissors analogy)

    The main take-aways from my above post were simply these 2 points: 1) To correctly judge what the best deck to play on the day was, we can’t just look at the winning deck as that player may be more skilled, more familiar with the deck, or just luckier than the rest of the players of that deck. We must look at the sample size (the T8) of the field at large and see how it compares to the baseline probability. If half the field plays Caw-Blade and the T8 is 4 Caw-Blade decks, it may seem like it performed really well but it actually only performed at its baseline expectation.

    2) It is useful to consider the environment in which one plays but there are definite limits on how far you can take that since other players are considering this too. Imagine a format of rock, paper, scissor. What if rock won last week and everyone comes armed with paper? Then wouldn’t you be better off playing scissors? If everyone thinks this way than wouldn’t they just play rock? Etc. This is not some crazy idea here. Computer simulations have shown that in these type of models: prisoner’s dilemma etc that often we are not any better off than a simple random choice. I think metagaming is important but I think that it’s given FAR too much emphasis. Mihara just played the level 0 deck: Valakut. So did Nassif. Did they just not practice? Or did they think players would come unprepared? Or did they enter the rock, paper, scissors “roundabout” and just decide that they could play any 1 of those 3 decks and have a good chance so they just picked the one they liked the most?

  6. Actually x of y players doing well with a deck is exactly how pro players rate a deck’s performance and that DOES take into account variance. In fact, it takes into account variance the best possible way: with a large enough sample size that the points of variance, the outliers are a wash. I do consider skill in my assessment but how does that have to do with playing the best deck, which is the point of your article? Did Pete win because he was skilled or his deck beat the expected decks? And if he was skilled and his deck beat the expected decks, why didn’t other players who played the same deck beat their expected decks? Were they just not skilled? And if everyone who played the deck who lost was not skilled and he won because he was skilled, then why do you think his deck choice had anything to do with it at all?

  7. auranalchemist

    The hard part to get people to understand about this is that it isn’t just choosing a deck at that point. Card selection is part of metagaming against a field. If you can properly predict the meta then you can better use the sideboard. Were there any particular choices you gave pete for his tempered steel list? That might be helpful.

  8. The point of the article was to play the best deck for the metagame that weekend. I’m not hating on Valakut, and now that I understand exactly what you mean by Pillar, I have to agree on Valakut being one of them. But if those three are rock-paper-scissors then Vampires and CawBlade are Lizzard and Spock.

    As for CawBlade, we know the deck is fluid and changes based upon the perceived metagame. CawBlade is probably the best example of a “metagamed” deck. If the Flores version becomes the most popular this weekend then it helps prove a point I make in my article: Some people aren’t thinking ahead. If they were they wouldn’t play the Flores version. If these people make up the majority (which the usually do) then being one step ahead will give you an advantage. That is what my article was about. Staying ahead of the pack.

    Luis, I suggested U/W to Pete. I did so because Tempered steel would be a know quantity going in. Playing blue gives you access to sideboard countermagic for the Matchups where your opponent will be bringing in the biggest form of hate against you, sweepers. It also gives you access to Preordain which can either help you dig for answers like counters or Dispatch, find that tempered steel you need to win, or just to ensure you don’t draw lands and only action.

    If I was to suggest a deck for this weekend I’d suggest Valakut with maindecked claims/pyroclasm/slagstorm. The meta will also be more aggressive then this past week so if you were to play Tempered Steel I’d suggest the GW version with Beastmaster Ascension to help enable you to win on attrition in the mirror. Another deck I’d suggest would be a much more tempo-oriented version of Caw, and possibly a temp-based Bant deck.

  9. There are 3 ways to win a tournament:

    1) You play a deck that has a higher mathematical probability of winning matches than other decks i.e. more good match-ups.

    2) You play better than the other competitors.

    3) You get luckier.

    Really, everything that has ever been written about Magic deals with the first two things as we have no control over luck. Obviously, at a big event like a PTQ, you can’t necessarily count on being the best player in the room so #1 IS going to be important. If that’s your point, you’ll get no argument from me. However, it is very hard to tell the difference between a player that doesn’t think at all and just plays Valakut for example and a player that is a couple of steps ahead: “if I play Valakut, I’ll lose to Twin, so I should play Tempered Steel but if everyone thinks this way, then I should play Valakut.” That’s why I call it a roundabout. Can a person who guesses correctly really be credited with knowing something the other players don’t? or did they just make a lucky guess that time? and are they better off than a random choice would get them?

    I know my ideas are kind of against the grain of our usual thinking (which is also one of the things that can elevate one from a good Magic player to a great Magic player) but if you want to know where I got these ideas, go to http://groups.ehshouston.org/magic/MTG-STRATEGY-L%20Strategy%20Guide.htm#metagame

    You’ll find one of the best articles ever written on the metagame (at least it’s a personal favorite of mine anyway).

    Basically, I liked your article and I agree that the metagame is important (though not as important as most players think it is) but I disagree with your assessment that Tempered Steel was the correct deck to play simply because it won the tournament. I guess Peter could give us some insight on that but I know playing from the Valakut side of things, I felt like I had mostly easy match-ups all day long, which I’d call the definition of the “correct deck to play”. But I don’t necessarily think it will be great for every upcoming tournament.

    Still, there’s something to be said for playing the same deck at every event: increased understanding of it etc. Besides, you can out-guess yourself mathematically speaking: the example from my above link “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper” demonstrates what I mean. In a Rock, Paper, Scissors metagame where one deck is going to be correct 1/3 of the time, you’re better off playing it all 3 times and winning once than guessing differently each time!

    Anyway, I know my posts are long, I like to debate a lot, etc but I hope I haven’t offended you. I’m just bored today!

  10. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I’ll ask Pete how he felt about playing TSteel in the PTQ. Don’t worry, no offense has been taken. I rather enjoy discourse on magic theory, actually and am really just glad that my article managed to stir up some fo of conversation. Thanks for reading and Congrats on your top4. 🙂

  11. I almost left out the point that there are multiple ways to get an edge with the deck you choose, of which metagaming is only one, which would make it only a subcategory of #1. In my tournament report, I mention that one of the reasons I chose the deck I did was because I didn’t want to grind out long matches to time (especially as it was around 100 degrees in there!) Maybe another deck would’ve been a better choice for someone else in that example but I chose what I believed would give me personally the best chance.

    Being as I’ve lost other PTQs due to being exhausted by the time I made T8, I thought I could counteract this by playing a different style of deck. This time, not only did I make it past the quarters, but I also didn’t make any bad misplays so, though I fell short, I still exceeded my previous performance in modern PTQs.

  12. I enjoy everything about Magic, including talking and writing about it! Sometimes people mistake my passion for being argumentative though! I look forward to reading more of your articles (and writing more of my own too!). I have an idea for a doozy of an article, something that I don’t think’s been written before! I’ll try to have it ready for next week so stay tuned!

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