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Perception and Denial

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“Banning Jace was stupid. Now Valakut and Splinter Twin will rule the metagame. Way to go, whiners, you gave us a worse format than we had before.”

I actually heard this kind of hyperbole in the wake of the bannings before a single post-banning game was played in new Standard. While it’s definitely one stance you can take, I was surprised at how many people took the position in the absence of any real data to confirm the assertion. This got me to thinking about the critical component of perception and how it influences metagames and tournament decisions before a single real card is ever played.

Perception is king of the metagame, and more important, all of the prep work for your deck and sideboard toward that metagame. Read a varied selection of tournament reports from people who attend the Pro Tour and you’ll always come across people who prepared for a nonexistent metagame. Or, even better, you’ll see the phrase, “I should have just played X, because we knew it was the best deck.” People love to talk themselves out of and into playing something else based entirely on how they perceive an imaginary metagame. If you have the best deck, suddenly it becomes a question of if everyone else knows it’s the best deck and if they’ve next-leveled and have a counter to it.

As I said, you could bring this up at nearly any Pro Tour over the past couple of years and this will happen. Most recently at Nagoya, where Tempered Steel ended up being the best deck by a fair margin and even smashed through counter choices, yet only ended up being 20% of the field. It was common knowledge going into the Pro Tour and a significant amount of people talked themselves right out of playing the deck. Some of the more common reasoning was that the mirror was too random or that surely there was a good control deck their test group was missing or even just classic self-denial at the results they got with the deck in testing. Elves at Berlin was a similar scenario where a smaller group of pros had it and their decks ended up biased toward the belief that many people knew about the deck or a select few had access to it.

What then happened was a guessing game among those who had the Elves deck in the various groups. The question was if anyone else had the Elves deck and, if so, how many people had it or were preparing against it? This is why we see such much variation in the number of slots dedicated to the Elves mirror in the top eight of Berlin. People were forced to come up with their best guess and even amongst the best players in the world they came up with different answers to the question. Some had nothing, others had Orzhov Pontiff and other variants popped up—all trying to speculate about who had what tech and how many people had access to it.

Speaking from a design perspective for a moment, people flat out tell others why they don’t like Jund or Caw Blade and you just tell them they’re wrong—as if user perception can be invalid. That’s silly and should only be used in private, because in a public forum it just makes you come off as a tosser and an auteur. Someone whose vision trumps all others and often can’t handle actual criticism or the idea that someone disagrees with where that vision is headed. When you see mind-bogglingly silly or inefficient design methods in video games or terrible pacing or plotting in a movie, sometimes you can just chalk it up the director not willing to listen to people that may know better.

The banning of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor give us ample opportunity to see this at work. Some people defended Caw and especially the idea of keeping Jace in the format pointing to the age-old concept of skill and what I like to call “appeal of the hardcore.” In other words if the balance or play is fine at the highest level, obviously it’s fine for everyone else or you’re just scrubby and should deal with it. As a high level player this is an obvious response and one that takes one’s own perception and lords it over everyone else as the correct one.

User perception can be factually incorrect but never invalid—people can only feel the way they feel. People thought Caw was too stifling, too expensive or too powerful and calling them bad or pointing out factual inaccuracies isn’t going to ward off that perception. You could attempt to see where they’re coming from and still argue your side, but it should generate some introspective looks at your own view of the issue. You can try to learn something from the POV and reasoning they give or you could just uniformly dismiss them. As a player this is something we tend to do and unfortunately sometimes it costs us the first look at a good idea or an alternative view of a problem. If you’re a designer and you do this, whether it be decks or the entity of MTG itself, then I think something is amiss.

Even a view you perceive as invalid still has some value if only to make you think about what would appeal to that demographic of player in the future. It doesn’t have to be a complete concession, but oftentimes compromises can be made that don’t ruin the game and appease some players in the process. A good look at this from an actual design perspective is the case of land destruction and it’s fall from grave over the years, being no more than a mere footnote in many sets.

For the concise version of land destruction reverse power creep and fun, let’s focus on three cards: Strip Mine, Wasteland, and Tectonic Edge.

Now all three of them are the same at the core level and all were created to a similar goal. Obviously as we go through the progression we can see the power level deteriorate as people learned what was too strong and what was too weak over years of Magic play. Strip Mine is the core concept laid bare for everyone to see, you play the land, it can make mana and you can use it to destroy opposing lands. Wasteland was similar in nature but the drawback of nonbasics only changed its purpose from mana-screwing everyone to purely attacking utility lands and multicolored strategies that relied on non-basics to properly function. Finally we have Tectonic Edge where a number of restrictions were added that clearly push the card in the direction of being anti-utility land and just incidentally good against multi-color and could no longer mana screw land light opponents.

Part of this change was made to reduce the power level of land destruction and the other part was to increase the number of times players would get to cast spells in a given game. Over time land destruction was effectively excommunicated from the game and all future land destruction spells were pushed in the opposite direction of the power creep on creatures. Creatures are fun and spells that don’t let others cast spells is not, that was the message. Of course this also applied to countermagic and yet it still enjoys a healthy metagame presence and in essence is a needed “evil” to keep big strategies and combos in check from crushing the ‘fun’ part of the metagame. By neutering land destruction which could often be applied against these types of decks, they cemented keeping one form of strategy that’s perceived as unfun and overpowered because without either one the game would be worse for it.

Now the most powerful land destruction spells could definitely cause enough of a backlash where I could see why R&D loathes to print more of them. While I may have lost more games to other strategies I can vividly remember losing to cards like Winter Orb and Armageddon and being irrationally annoyed at not being able to cast spells. For some reason it just hits the psyche differently for many people than if the spell was merely countered or the creature killed. Still you can print land destruction that’s still effective in a support role and doesn’t completely wreck an opponent in terms of mana development. Cards like Molten Rain, Plow Under, Rishadan Port, and Tectonic Edge are all examples of mana disruption done right and have seen plenty of tournament level play over the years. So why do they print them so sparingly? All rolls around to player perception.

Bringing use full circle back with what I described as hyperbole overcoming any rational look at the new metagame, let’s take a look at the first few days of Magic Online results in a post-ban world to see if the panic was justified.

Current results:

1. RDW (51 places)

2. U/B control (42 places)

3. Splinter Twin (36 places)

4. Valakut (34 places)

5. Vampires (22 places)

6. U/W control (17 places)

7. MB control (6 places)

8. Pyromancer Ascension (4 places)

9. Grand Architect (4 places)

10. Tempered Steel (4 places)

11. UW Quest (3 places)

Obviously, this is Day 1, so to read far into these would be not only silly, but results oriented and defeating the whole point of not jumping the gun. However I can say that I immediately notice a jump in DE attendance and a nice variety of decks that people are trying out. Whether or not this stays true remains to be seen and I believe will largely fall on how the SCG Open series plays out. Similarly if one archetype played by the top set of MODO players breaks out above the rest of the pack, then I suspect many will fall in line.

With all the disclaimers out of the way, we look to the results and astound at the balance seen within. Seriously? Twin and Valakut definitely did well and are third and fourth in results and one could explain some of RDW top rating away with “it’s a budget deck,” but that falls a bit flat considering it was already a Tier 1 deck post-Shrine. More surprising is the outstanding leap in UB control from practically non-existent with Caw legal (outside of Shouta Yasooka at GP Singapore) to brimming at 2010 Worlds numbers. UW also didn’t completely die out with the bannings and I imagine that number will only grow as people feel out the better builds for the color combo.

So based on these preliminary numbers, what do we shift out attention to for the next couple of weeks in terms of metagaming? The first six decks all seem reasonable, but if you boiled it down further from there then it’s very hard to argue with prepping against the top four on the list: UB, Valakut, Twin, and RDW.

Before I sign off, here are the two decks I’ve been gaming with in the queues:

Next article will be focusing purely on the next generation of Standard decks and what possible upgrades M12 has brought to the table. Right now I only see six or so non-reprints that could see Standard play, but that could still change with forty cards left to go at the time I’m writing this. Until then.

Josh Silvestri

josh dot silvestri at gmail dot com

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