In my preparations for an upcoming Modern RPTQ in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, I was eager to find the best deck for me and for the tournament. If you’re looking for a good overview of the pillars of the format, Brian DeMars recently broke down the 5 decks with the highest metagame presence. But today, I am going to discuss whether you can use this knowledge to our advantage.
I won my PPTQ with Infect, but I was not confident in the Death’s Shadow or the Eldrazi Tron matchup. In Modern PPTQs this summer, I went a combined 17-5-2, with my losses coming from Grixis Shadow (piloted by 13th place Pro Tour Ixalan finisher Jelco Bodwes), Eldrazi Tron, Mono-White Proclamation of Rebirth (in the finals of a PPTQ I did not win), Burn, and Dredge. In my eventual winning run, I skillfully dodged the Shadow matchup altogether and my one Eldrazi opponent was kind enough to allow me to resolve multiple spells into his Chalice of the Void from an otherwise unwinnable board position so that I could go on to finish the tournament undefeated.
For the RPTQ, I am in agreement with Brian DeMars’ article and will be expecting a field full of Death’s Shadows, Chalice of the Voids, and Gifts Ungivens. But can I choose a deck that’s well positioned against what I see as the three pillars, but also doesn’t fold against newcomers to the metagame such as 5-Color Humans, classic Abzan, and U/R Breach?
Since this is my first RPTQ and I’ve never had to seriously predict a metagame before, I searched online for resources with tips on how to select a deck in any given metagame. Unable to find anything that suited my purposes, I decided to create my own guide, and so I reached out to several professional and other successful players to get a sense of what I should do and to also create this resource for future players with the same questions.
What I have concluded after a lot of time thinking about and discussing this topic is that metagaming is a specific tool that has limited usefulness, but it can be powerful if done correctly and in the appropriate circumstance. So what is the appropriate environment? Before I get into that, I believe that when to metagame is not as important as when you should not metagame. If you have good reasons to metagame (some of which are listed further down in the article), you should still not do it if some of the qualifications on “when you should not metagame” are still unresolved.
When You Should Not Metagame
Deck Experience Gap: If there’s a significant skill gap between your potential deck choices, then even if one is better positioned, you may lose games due to the minutia that you miss from not having enough experience. If you are a long-time Legacy Counter-Top player and don’t have time to practice much for an upcoming tournament, you’re probably still better off playing U/W Control in Legacy now even after the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top since you are already familiar with many of the lines of play, your role in common matchups, and the recent tournament results suggest that the deck is not unplayable. The small percentage points you gain by a last-minute audible to Grixis Delver can be lost in the sub-optimal sequencing of your spells or the misunderstanding of your role in a specific matchup.
Wide Open Format: “You cannot metagame in Modern” was the consensus from conversations from several players better than I, including SCG Open Las Vegas winner (and frequent ChannelFireball Game Center End Boss) Kevin Rand and multiple Pro Tour Top 8 finisher Andrea Mengucci. Supposing that you find a hypothetical deck that is 80% to win against Shadow and Eldrazi, you’re likely giving up a large percentage to other matchups such as U/R Storm, Affinity, or Burn, which currently makes up about 17%. When some of the most played decks in the format are Eldrazi Tron (8%) and Grixis Death’s Shadow (6%), there’s still only about a 60% chance that you’ll play against either in one or more matches in a 6-round tournament (assuming random sampling and a deck distribution in your local event that matches the overall metagame). In my example, that’s still 86% of the field that is not playing the deck I built my deck to defeat. If you’re giving up too much against the 86% to beat the 14%, then you are not increasing your EV against the field. Modern—and I would also argue Legacy—are too wide open now to make hard reads on the metagame.
The Best Deck is Too Good: Pro Tour Ixalan represents a good example of this point. Going into the tournament, energy-based strategies were the clear decks to beat and made up about 40% of the metagame. The foil to the Energy deck (in theory) is U/B control, but the options available to Energy give it so much flexibility in the main deck and sideboard to play counter magic, draw spells, Torrential Gearhulk, or anything the matchup calls for. Despite months to prepare, the Pro Tour was still overrun with Energy at nearly 50% of the field. The best deck was just so good that it was even the choice of renowned control players (such as Shota Yasooka) and combo players (like Matt Nass). When the deck you are metagaming against has such a diverse game plan and flexible sideboard strategy, you are going to be fighting from behind a lot and have the misfortune of not knowing exactly what your opponent might be playing in their deck.
When You Should Metagame
Equal Experience in Decks: Not much to add here that wasn’t already said above. If you have multiple options without giving up some equity based on experience, then this is an option. Recently in the GAM podcast, Gerry Thompson mentioned to Bryan Gottlieb that in testing for Worlds 2017, Martin Juza decided to play Ramunap Red despite everyone else on their testing team playing U/B Control. Gerry says this is because Martin did not want to play control mirrors against Shota Yasooka and Yuuya Watanabe because his skill and instincts with the deck were likely disadvantageous against those control gurus. The takeaway is that if you are more comfortable with one deck, play that deck. If you think that you cannot leverage your skill well enough, then choose something else (or practice until you can).
Small Tournaments/Known Meta: The 2017 World Championships is the best example of this in the professional realm, but it also exists in your local store. Gerry Thompson mentioned in the same episode of his podcast that for his Worlds metagame predictions, he predicted that Shota would be on control, Brad Nelson and the Peach Garden Oath would be on Temur, and Marcio Carvalho would be on Red or Vehicles, and so he was able to have a strong read on a significant portion of the field. He says that you should metagame if you are preparing for specific players/teams in a small tournament (Worlds is only 24 people), but he still decided to make a soft read on the meta and play a generally good deck in U/B Control. At your local store, if you play Modern with the same small group of people every week and one person keeps bringing Living End, maybe you should consider playing Relic of Progenitus or Leyline of the Void instead of Grafdigger’s Cage. If your tournament is fewer than 10 people and you are confident in your ability to predict nearly 50% of it like Gerry did at Worlds, you can configure your deck in that direction.
“Jund”-style decks exist: A “Jund”-style deck refers to a deck that has between a 45% and a 55% matchup against just about everything. They generally play lots of interaction, threats, and don’t have major exploitable weaknesses. These types of deck choices are referred to as “soft reads” on the meta because even if you play against something that you were not expecting, your tools are flexible enough to combat it and you can customize your deck selections to hedge.
In the same episode of Gerry T and Bryan Gottlieb’s podcast, Gerry says that this is why he chose to play U/B Control at Worlds. It had a favored Temur matchup and was close to 50/50 on Ramunap Red. He added some Essence Extractions to hedge against Red, and plenty of Essence Scatters for Temur. If a deck exists that allows you to make a soft read on the meta while not giving up too much, it is a good time to make that call and shade your sideboard/main deck choices to combat this. In my conversation with Andrea Mengucci, this is the metagaming decision he prefers, but this was obvious to anyone that is aware of his love for the 4-color Leovold decks or his decision to play Jund at the New Jersey SCG Invitational one year ago.
Homogeneous Metagame of Inflexible Decks: Many might not recall, but during Eldrazi Winter before Eye of Ugin was banned in Modern, the other most played decks were Affinity and U/W Control. Affinity had a fast clock, flyers, and most of its power is at 2 mana, making it resilient to Chalice of the Void. U/W Control, on the other hand, had unconditional removal in Path to Exile and Detention Sphere, sweepers in the form of Supreme Verdict, and card advantage from Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. U/W Control was not a heavily played deck prior to Eldrazi Winter (or since), but the extremely homogeneous metagame around Eldrazi often made it a good choice since the colorless decks did not have the sideboard flexibility to fight back.
How to Metagame
Now that we know when it is and is not appropriate to metagame, I can focus on how.
Practice and Diversify Your Choices: In order to be able to make a metagame call, you have to be equally skilled in multiple archetypes. You can play Titan-Shift when everyone is playing Eldrazi and Jeskai Control when everyone is playing Grixis Shadow. Flexibility is key to metagaming.
Play Control: If you’re able to predict what threats everyone is bringing to the table, play the answers to those threats. If you’re expecting 5-color Humans, Affinity, and Merfolk, play main-deck Anger of the Gods or Supreme Verdict. If you’re expecting a lot of Eldrazi Tron then you can play Ghost Quarters in the main deck of Jeskai Control. Having a deck that provides card advantage and broad answers is a simple way to answer many matchups.
Make Small Changes in Card Choice: Tweak your sideboard to prepare yourself for the tournament expected meta, but not so much that you’re cold to rogue strategies. In Infect, Chalice of the Void is a huge problem and I’m not expecting to face down a lot of enchantments (unless I get the Mono-White Proclamation of Rebirth rematch at the RPTQ), so I’m switching 2 of my sideboard Nature’s Claims to a split of Dissenter’s Deliverance/Seal of Primordium. I am expecting a lot of Grixis Death Shadow with Kolaghan’s Command and non-burn based removal in general, so I’m shelving the sideboard Spellskites in favor of Shaper’s Sanctuary. If people choose to play B/G/x decks, I’m expecting them to bring Abzan over Jund, so I’m moving a Distortion Strike from the sideboard to two total in the main in place of the Dismember to combat Lingering Souls and flying blocks from Affinity and 5c-Humans. This means that I am reducing the number of Dismembers in the 75 by one, but I’m not expecting the Infect mirror or Abzan Company, which are the matchups where I would want removal. These changes are slight tweaks and do not distract from the fast combo game plan of the deck (like the Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy does in my opinion).
Change Play Style: In a recent PPTQ, I kept a hand on the draw against an opponent that I had played against two weeks before who was on Dredge. The hand had at least one redundant infect creature and a Become Immense, and against an unknown opponent I probably would have played a turn-1 Glistener Elf instead of waiting until 2 when I could protect it because I could just play the next creature and protect that one and I would rather have more cards in my graveyard than redundant cards in my hand to fuel delve. Instead, since my opponent was on Dredge in the previous tournament and played Bloodstained Mire pass, I decided to hold up Spell Pierce for the potential turn-2 Cathartic Reunion instead. If they did not have it, I could fetch a tapped Breeding Pool and play Elf next turn while holding up the protection. This change in my default play-style easily won me that game when my opponent was then too slow to get their engine going. In another tournament, I had walked around the room and saw an over-representation of Abzan and Grixis Death’s Shadow. Later in the tournament I played against an unknown opponent and unfortunately needed to take a mulligan down to 5 cards, which had 2 lands, a Blighted Agent, a Blossoming Defense, and a Might of Old Krosa. When I scryed, I saw an Inkmoth Nexus, and decided to leave it on top because of the high amount of discard spells that I had seen in the room that day, even though I did not need more lands. It turns out that my opponent was on Grixis Shadow and did take my Blighted Agent with a turn-1 Thoughtseize. My non-standard decision to keep the Inkmoth on top allowed me to swing for lethal several turns later.
Metagaming in Limited: This is where the article goes a bit off the rails a bit, because I believe that several pros have attempted to metagame in Limited and I believe that it has gained them an edge in the Pro Tour. Of course, I believe that this first started with the infamous shirts worn by Zvi Mowsowitz and Scott James at Pro Tour Nice in 2002, which telegraphed their preference for drafting white, the color then considered to be the worst in Odyssey. They thought that making their intentions clear would drive others out of white. Back when I used to play at the ChannelFireball Game Center, I found a lot of success after LSV’s Set Review would come out by preferring cards in the colors that he would rate as the worst when the picks were close because I knew everybody in my pod had read his article and would be fighting for the “best archetype.”
So now that you know how to metagame, what would you play in an RPTQ next weekend if you were me? What are your strategies when it comes to metagaming? I’m looking forward to engaging with you in the comments and hearing your ideas on what “How to” guides you would like to see!