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The Winners' Metagame


"What is it we value?" Wit whispered. "Innovation. Originality. Novelty. But most importantly... Timeliness."

-Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

When people look at newly crowned double-champion (and quadruple-Worlds qualified) Nathan Steuer's Rakdos Midrange deck from this past weekend's Pro Tour and say that there was nothing interesting or innovative about it... I kind of laugh.

I mean, sure; that's kind of true. I don't think that it's necessarily truly true, but it's true-ish. We've seen a stack of decks that do mostly the same thing and play largely the same cards. To listen to the average denizen of Twitch chat, all you need to do is own a copy of Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and you, too, could be battling for $50,000 under the hot Sunday lights. If you buy that, then no; this was not the most interesting deck.

In the midst of another one of Jim Davis's undefeated Day Ones with Rakdos Breach and a Top 8 featuring five-color Domain control, was the Handshake Rakdos the least innovative? Original? Novel?


But eff if it wasn't timely.

Steuer and company hid some secret value in this deck in plain sight. I spit you not! It's right there! It's possible they didn't do it consciously! From some vantage I certainly wouldn't have; it requires the killing of too many darlings.

They played, believe it or not, for a different metagame than you.

What's different and interesting about this Rakdos Midrange deck?

Glaringly, Steuer and company played a pair of these, main deck:


One thing that should tip you off about how ahead of the curve this deck is - and how it is intentionally positioned - is that Duress was present in six of the eight decks in the Top 8; as a four-of. The other three Rakdos Midrange decks (with, for whatever reason, such similar DNA) played two in the main... But both Cain Rianhard and Autumn Burchett played four copies in the sideboard. They were also prepared for a Winners' Metagame... Just less prepared.

On balance Steuer, Dominguez, Sarap, and Nielsen were kinda sorta pre-sideboarded for the kinds of decks where Duress would be good in the main deck... Or at least not too punishing.

Duress gets a bad rap as a main deck card. Back when it was a new card, it was typical to see Duress as a four-of in every sixty that could tap for b, from Block Constructed to Extended. The card has fallen out of favor - again as a main deck card - I think because so much of Standard is played on Magic: The Gathering Arena today, with so much of that as Best-of-One.

The Arena Bo1 metagame skews much more toward aggressive Red Decks and Soldiers than in real life paper Magic, or certainly paper Magic played at the highest levels. So, between that fact and the Bo1 shuffler helping to smooth out openers, the delta between what the best deck at the Pro Tour might look like versus our conception of "a Standard Rakdos Midrange" might look like might surprise you, even if the differences are subtle.

The other key difference, of course, being its land count.

While there were some differences between the various Top 8 Rakdos Midrange decks, all of them played exactly twenty-six lands; and all four played two copies of Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance. Neither of these were mistakes.

We have to step over the corpses of many a darling to get here. Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton? A mere two-of in the winning deck list. Cut Down? Itself cut down to 3 + 1. If you're used to Best-of-One influenced deck lists, four copies of Cut Down main deck are almost uniform.

What's driving these decisions?

Steuer and company went a step further than playing for a Pro Tour metagame rather than a typical Arena one. They actually played the meta-game, as it was originally conceived. They built their deck not just for stiffer competition, but stiffer competition that had a winning record after the first Limited portion.

That's insane.

However subtle, that's a level of applied originality that hasn't been seen in competitive Magic since, I don't know, 2001?

What do I mean by this?

To begin with, you have to assume that the Pro Tour is going to be at least somewhat of a different "format" than Arena Standard. By definition, every single player on the Pro Tour is as good or better than the top 1% of Arena Standard players. So, comparing them is kind of like comparing a chicken and a tyrannosaur. They're both birds. They're both dinosaurs. They have the same basic body shape, taloned toes, and useless arms. They both have feathers (yes, t-rex had feathers)... But for as many ways as they're alike, the scale delta is all anyone is looking at.

So, assume there will be fewer - far, far fewer - aggressive Red decks than "you might typically see in Arena Bo1". That's not how far they went. They built their deck to beat decks that had a winning record after the Limited portion.

This is not something that the average player, the average Pro even, can gamble for... But the Handshake members who made Top 8 include two World Champions. Let's look at their records after the Limited portion.

Player - Points

  • Steuer - 6
  • Sarap - 6
  • Nielsen - 9
  • Dominguez - 9

The mode score after three rounds was, not surprisingly, 4 (one win, one loss, and one draw). A player with the median score would need to increase their point totals by 50% to reach Steuer or Sarap, and more than double them to reach Nielsen or Dominguez. While you're not "dead" at zero (and certainly not at 4) you're essentially playing a different tournament for a long spell.

It's not that their card choices were so original, to borrow a word from Sanderson. The innovation was in the timeliness. They stole time by playing Duress main, and played for longer effective games by upping their land count. I stared very long at the second Sokenzan, which had bitten me in one of the first matches I played myself with Nathan's winner... But that doesn't come up so often (and I won that game anyway). Playing a little more land than one might expect helps in an important way, but turning one of those lands into a bonus Sokenzan helps to mitigate the count the longer the game goes.

How does a slightly higher land count help?

Most people want to keep hands that have four spells and three lands; and will typically keep the reverse with a smile.

What if I said you get two lands and five spells? You might ask me what the spells are; and if I know what the matchup is. That's reasonable these days!

Playing more lands, in general, helps you keep more hands; especially if you're playing Fable of the Mirror-Breaker (and to a lesser extent, Bloodtithe Harvester), which can smooth out clunky openers.

Playing more lands means you're less likely to mulligan a hand due to lack of resources early. And a deck like Rakdos Midrange, which wants to go long (and possibly cast multiple spells per turn above and beyond an expensive Invoke Despair) is rewarded by having more physical lands. This is itself a kind of pre-sideboarding. The Rakdos crew is simply assuming neither decision is going to bite them under pressure because they're less likely to be up against the kinds of decks that pose early game damage pressure.

A beatdown deck playing twenty-six lands might have some problems as the game progresses. Its curve will be lower so it'll empty its hand faster. If the beatdown deck - flush with lands and spells early - were able to finish the game quickly, great! But if not, a slow death by flood may prove inevitable. This is less likely for a deck like Rakdos Midrange. Blood and Fables can fix things. Sokenzan is basically a spell later. If nothing else the deck is really and truly hungry for lands with cards like Invoke Despair and the even more expensive Chandra, Hope's Beacon. At some point, Chandra may want more lands even more!

I was introduced to the Winners' Metagame by Osyp Lebedowicz almost 20 years ago. He said that there were some decks - say Red Deck Wins and Mono-Blue Storm - that would make Top 8 at about the same rate. The problem was that once in the Top 8, Red Deck Wins would tend to lose more, whereas Storm would win more. Choosing the deck to win the tournament was not only about choosing a deck to win the first round of the tournament.

What does a contemporary so-called Winners' Metagame look like? Presumably other Rakdos decks. Or decks where a main deck Duress - say around turn five or six - will still have text. Decks with Breach the Multiverse or The Eternal Wanderer... A Herd Migration still in hand.

What does it not look like? If you were worried about early game pressure you probably wouldn't have cut Graveyard Trespasser, which is a brick wall that gains life; or Cut Down. You certainly wouldn't start all four copies of Invoke Despair, which cause you to lose the game with greater speed than win it, when misplaced.

What does this counter actually look like?

After three rounds I looked at the last-place player. What did that player register?

Not trying to villify anyone - again every single Pro Tour player has climbed a mountain just to be invited - but it was this:

This deck is spicy.

Open on Bilious Skulldweller? Main deck Skrelv's Hive? I don't know that I've ever seen Serra Paragon locking arms with Sheoldred, the Apocalypse at the four. For all I know this deck ran the tables from a 0-Limited start.

But entering the Standard portion at 0 points, it is probably fair to say that it was safe for Steuer and company to not-metagame-against-Orzhov Toxic.

Interestingly there are two copies of Duress in this deck, which would have been great in some metagames! But here I think they are as ill-placed as they were ingenious in Nathan's.

The concept of a Winners' Metagame, and playing for it, is a tool not a rule. If you mostly play disconnected matches or even Leagues you may never have to draw on it. However, if you want to win large paper tournaments - even just a Regional Championship Qualifier, which is winner-take-all - you'd be well served to have this tool in your kit.

There are just some tournaments where, if you plan to win, you have Have HAVE to take out a particular end-boss to be successful. If you know what that player is going to be on, you're going to be ahead of the game if you prepare. I'll not tell you what your local end-boss looks like. My guess is if you play competitively IRL you already know who I'm talking about for your store or scene.

I played a Premodern meetup last weekend, where I knew if I was going to win... I would probably have to best my friend and primary play-test partner, Lanny Huang. Lanny has been training with Sam Black because he really, really wants to win the North American Premodern Championship in a month. So, we take these meetups kind of seriously. Bragging rights are more important than anything else, but preparation for the bigger show as well.

I put out a silly Twitter poll before the meetup to see what "the people" wanted me to play, and Lanny's own coach shined my North Star:

I did, in fact, play 75/75 Sam's Bant Land Tax deck; and did end up winning the meetup. More importantly, I beat Lanny in Top 4, so the Finals match was just gravy.

But my next big paper tournament I care about is LobsterCon, the North American Premodern Championships.

If you ask almost anyone what the best strategy in Premodern is, they're going to agree that it's some version of Mono-Blue 12/12.

I wrote about it a bit back, when I went undefeated in games on the way to a meetup win.

Mono-Blue | Premodern | Mike Flores

I think you'd be crazy to play this deck at LobsterCon.

It's weird to say that because the deck has an average edge on the field; probably the best of all decks. The problem is that I don't think you can actually win the tournament with it.

In my mind the Winners' Metagame is going to be too hostile to 12/12s to survive 9 + 3 (aka "twelve") rounds against players who have come from everywhere between Minnesota and Sweden to lock Cursed Scrolls with Wirewood Savages.

Sure, you might roflstomp the first few Swiss rounds, but what about after Round Five? What is the average number of Seal of Cleansing, Swords to Plowshares, Enlightened Tutor, and Meddling Mage you'll face every round? I don't' think there is any level of skill advantage any player can bring to withstand 13+ cards in that collective category for two games every single round for more than half of the tournament.

FWIW, the LandStill deck I wrote about last month played 3 Seal of Cleansing, 4 Swords to Plowshares, 2 Enlightened Tutor, 4 Meddling Mage, and 4 Annul after sideboarding. Any one of those cards resolving cuts your likelihood of winning a game by 25%; with a Meddling Mage being more like 95%. The chances that every single player in the Top 8 hasn't got some kind of plan for 12/12 is a pipe dream. In many cases that plan will be 16+ must-counter spells against a deck with 8 hard counters.

This is a Winners' Metagame that, like the double-Duress one that served Steuer so well, can be exploited. But I don't think it's going to be with Phyrexian Dreadnaughts.



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