The Field Report – A Strange Beauty Contest


It’s been a little while since the last The Field Report. A while, and a bit of a geographical shift. I’m happy to be able to say hello to everyone again from the resurrected edition of The Field Report in its new home, running in parallel with In Development here at ChannelFireball.com.

The new TFR will be a biweekly feature (in the “every two weeks” sense), running a day behind In Development. The point of The Field Report, as always, is metagame analysis. My take on metagame analysis is that it’s all about what you have to beat. We’re not trying to find magical win percentages that pick the deck for us. Instead, we’re trying to be informed about the potential metagame, with the understanding that every metagame – MTGO, ChannelFireball 5K, Open Series, GP, PT, and FNM – is its own beast.

Today, I’m going to focus on a very specific slice of the metagame – that magical, special two weeks from the first through the fifteenth of July in which there will be no Jace or Stoneforge Mystic, but no M12 either.

…and I’m going to explain that title, I promise.

Market Analysis FTW

Like a lot of the folks around the Magic community who like to write about finance, I’m into the markets. It doesn’t spill into my writing nearly as much as the science does, largely because In Development is oriented toward topics that are amenable to that kind of thinking. Metagame analysis, on the other hand, has an awful lot in common with market analysis.

So consider, for a moment, the three legs of basic equity analysis – fundamental, technical, and sentimental.

Fundamentally sound

In evaluating an equity – that is, a stock, for example – we start with analyzing the fundamentals. In terms of a stock, that means figuring out if the company is a money maker.

Apple (ticket symbol AAPL) is an awesome company when it comes to fundamentals. They pulled down $87.45 billion in raw revenue, $19.55 billion in net income, and have upwards of $29 billion in cash. Horace Dediu estimates that Apple could pretty much buy the rest of the mobile phone industry.

Pretty sweet, right?

Pulling this back into Magic terms, fundamental analysis asks “Is this a good deck?” In the soon-to-be-defunct “Jace plus Stoneforge” Standard environment, CawBlade variations were clearly good decks. By the various kinds of metrics – card advantage, tempo, card quality – that we apply to evaluating decks, they were good.

Notice that I’m not saying “best” here, as that’s a matter for a combination of fundamental and other analyses. But the basic cutoff of “good” is definitely the territory for fundamental analysis, and CawBlade certainly made that cut.

So our fundamental analysis in Magic is, “Is this a quality deck?”

Technically appropriate

The second leg of that analysis triad is technical analysis. If fundamental analysis asks “Does this company perform?” then technical analysis asks, “How has this company done?”

Technical analysis – shortened to “technicals” by many folks in the market – looks at trends across short-term and long-term history in the market. It asks, for example, how a stock is trending. Returning to Apple, here’s the last six months of performance for Apple stocks, including techncials:

I won’t – really won’t – spam your brain with what all those various lines mean. Very briefly, they are about comparing where the stock is now to various averages over time (that purple line arcing upward in the upper figure is the 200-day moving average, for example).

In Magic terms, technical analysis is captured in the kind of metagame analysis I’ve done before, which looks at which archetypes have been played, and how they’ve placed in events. There is some value in technical analysis of this kind for Magic events because it often influences what the “market” (the metagame) does next.

After all, if Dredge takes down half of the next big Legacy top eight, you should expect some graveyard hate across sideboards at the event after that.

Sentimentally yours

Finally, we end our analysis walkthrough with sentimental analysis. This is about that most mysterious of things, investor sentiment. Essentially, sentimental analysis asks “What are all those other people going to do?”

The application to the metagame is clear…but to bring this a little closer to home, let’s look at the work of one of the most influential of modern economists, John Maynard Keynes.

That strange beauty contest

The title of today’s edition of The Field Report refers to what is commonly called the “Keynesian beauty contest.” Keynes introduced this idea initially in his 1936 work titled General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, and it goes like so:

“It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.”

Keynes is talking here about a theoretical beauty contest where judges are not asked to pick the prettiest contestant. Instead, they’re supposed to pick the contestant that they think every other judge will think is prettiest.

This is what a stock trader has to do all the time. After all, if other investors don’t think Apple stock is awesome, then your Apple stock won’t rise in value and you won’t make money. It’s not about what you think, but what they think.

The Magic metagame is awfully similar. When we try to imagine what the metagame will look like, we can run afoul of the mismatch between what we think is the best deck and what everyone chooses to play. One of the great examples of this dynamic at work comes from Pro Tour Berlin and the Elves combo deck. Compare:

Elves (as played by Luis-Scott Vargas)

[deck]4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
2 Overgrown Tomb
1 Pendelhaven
9 Snow-Covered Forest
4 Birchlore Rangers
4 Elves of Deep Shadow
4 Elvish Visionary
1 Eternal Witness
4 Heritage Druid
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Nettle Sentinel
1 Regal Force
2 Viridian Shaman
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Glimpse of Nature
1 Grapeshot
4 Summoner’s Pact
3 Weird Harvest
1 Mycoloth
1 Nullmage Shepherd
1 Pendelhaven
2 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Thoughtseize
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
2 Viridian Shaman[/deck]

Elves (as played by Martin Juza)

[deck]8 Forest
4 Horizon Canopy
1 Pendelhaven
4 Temple Garden
4 Birchlore Rangers
1 Elvish Champion
2 Elvish Visionary
4 Essence Warden
4 Heritage Druid
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Nettle Sentinel
1 Predator Dragon
1 Viridian Shaman
4 Wirewood Hivemaster
4 Wirewood Symbiote
4 Chord of Calling
4 Glimpse of Nature
2 Summoner’s Pact
1 Burrenton Forge-Tender
1 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Gaddock Teeg
2 Naturalize
1 Orzhov Pontiff
1 Tar Fiend
3 Thorn of Amethyst
3 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Viridian Shaman
1 Voidstone Gargoyle[/deck]

There’s one fascinating difference between these two decks:

…and, as nicely put by Rich Hagon, it comes down to two different takes on sentimental analysis. Essentially, Juza and others in his group figured “If we have this deck, everyone has this deck.” They guessed that sentiment would place the Elves deck high up on the “best deck” radar, and as a consequence they sideboarded for the matchup with [card]Orzhov Pontiff[/card].

So, they made a (good!) guess at metagame sentiment, and used that to guide a (good!) sideboarding decision.

A fundamental, sentimental two weeks

That’s the theory. Now what about the application? How can we apply the concept of sentimental analysis to the brief two-week metagame we’re now launching into ahead of the M12 release?

Well, I did it with a survey. I asked all of you two big questions.

First, what are the four best decks in this environment?

Second, what do you think will be the four most played decks in this environment?

The first question asks you, the Magic players, to share your fundamental analysis of the metagame with me. In harvesting that analysis, I’m picking up one level of sentiment. The second question asks you to share your sentimental analysis with me.

Let’s take those one at a time, then put them together to build an understanding of the next two weeks.

What’s the best deck?

The first question is the one we tend to ask each other most frequently in discussion. What is the best deck?

Answers from the community broke down like so:

With about 10% “other” as the capping category.

As a reminder, this is your collective evaluation of what constitutes the “best deck.” It’s a community understanding of the best deck.

So, at first blush, you would imagine that based on this you might want to be most prepared for the two premier combo decks in Standard. After all, they constituted nearly half or our total pool of “best deck” responses.

As I said, at first blush. But let’s consider the next level of metagame analysis. What do all of you think everyone will be playing?

What’s the most common deck?

The second question asked for your collective understanding of what your fellow Magic players were going to play. We understand, in answering this question, that other players do not necessarily agree with us concerning what the “best deck” is. After all, CawBlade was the “best deck” as far as many of you were concerned, yet you could still go to everything from an FNM through a 5K and still run into people not playing CawBlade.

Answers from the community on this question broke down like so:


From this review of your opinions, the most frequently played deck in the next two weeks will be Mono Red, followed by the two “best decks,” Splinter Twin and Valakut…and then Vampires. Most notably, while Mono Red gains about 30% in the move from “best deck” to “most common deck,” the bloodsuckers double up, grabbing a gigantic chunk of market share.

So clearly, you all think that despite the best decks being the best decks, your fellow players will refuse to play them, instead opting disproportionately for vampires and burn spells.

A metagame in synthesis

So, here we have the community’s opinions about the best decks, and the decks that your sadly misguided fellow players are going to actually play instead of playing those best decks. These are two measures of metagame sentiment – Keynes might call them “first order” (best deck) and “second order” (most common deck) metrics. How do you plug those into deriving an actual metagame, the type that you might use to make these two major decisions:

I’m going to make a suggestion here about what we can take home from this kind of analysis, and it involves using the two parts of our sentimental metagame analysis to guide different parts of our decision making process.

It goes like so:

The community’s fundamental analysis tells you which decks to prepare to play against.

The community’s sentimental analysis tells you which sideboard cards to prepare to play against.

Let’s put this into practice using the information the survey yielded. The top half of our “best deck” roundup was Splinter Twin and Valakut. So if we’re going to take down a big tournament, we need a deck and a selection of sideboard cards that can tackle these two combo decks.

Imagine, for the sake of thinking through this process, that we believe U/B Control is particularly well suited to taking down Splinter Twin and Valakut. I’m not saying it is – but imagine that it is.

So, given that the community believes about half of the field will be playing Splinter Twin and Valakut, that theoretically awesome U/B Control deck might be a great choice…especially if you think it can also take down the rest of the major “best deck” players in the field.

This brings us to the second question…what kind of sideboarding can we expect against us?

The community survey results suggest that there isn’t a strong expectation for U/B Control, with your prediction being that a sparse 8% of the metagame will field U/B Control. However, it’s entirely reasonable to expect a lot of crossover damage from sideboarding against U/W Control decks, so we might want to batch them together to see a 12% expectation of “our” deck.

With an expectation from the community of a 12% presence of “your” deck, you shouldn’t expect to see a lot of sideboarding against you. This is nice, since it frees up room in your sideboard for other matchups.

In contrast, if we choose to play Mono Red, we can see that our fellow players expect a solid one-fifth of the field to be in our archetype. Put briefly, there will be hate.

The unified metagame test

Let’s put this all in one handy table:

For the next two weeks of Standard, you may want to run your deck choices past these two tables, asking two questions:

First, can my deck – archetype and specific build – tackle a sufficient chunk of those decks on the left? That is, can I beat the “best” decks?

Second, is my deck properly prepared for an amount of sideboarding attention proportional to the decks that show up on the right?

In answering that second question, remember that there is splash sideboarding hate. If you’re running Boros, you’re probably going to run afoul of hate directed at Mono Red decks, for example.

Your mileage will always vary

In closing this inaugural ChannelFireball.com edition of The Field Report, I’ll remind you that all metagames are local metagames. Your FNM is your FNM, a 5K in San Jose is different from an Open Series event in Orlando. Our analysis, whether it’s fundamental, technical, or, like today’s piece, sentimental, is all about figuring out rough guidelines to aid in deck selection and design. At the end of the day, it’s a best guess about what we have to beat.

…and for the next two weeks, my best guess boils down to “be prepared for combo” and “be ready burn and combo hate out of opposing sideboards.”

So what do you think? Is Splinter Twin the best deck? Will everyone be playing Mono Red? What are you planning to fight next weekend?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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