Magic is a multifaceted game, and so too are the best players and their approaches to winning. A brand-new format calls for ingenuity, collaboration, and an eye for detail. But how do those same tools stack up when a format settles, most decks are already discovered, and those decks fall into their respective tiers?
Different states of the Standard metagame call for different skills. While creative insight is never out of place in a Magic event, it also may not serve a competitor as well as knowing each potential match-up inside and out once the metagame is established.
Members of the MPL and Rivals Leagues wrapped up their first two weekends of league play with a well-established Standard format. League Weekends feature round-robin play within leagues, each match win scoring an important point toward year-end totals. Combined with the upcoming Zendikar Rising Championship, they provide a lens through which we can study players' priorities and approaches when it comes to tackling an established Standard metagame.
"Every match counts," said MPL member Reid Duke, who ended the first two League Weekends with 14 points, placing him in the top five of the MPL standings.
"In a normal tournament, where a 7-5 result might be the same as a 0-12 result, players sometimes [choose] a homebrew deck, or something that could hit the metagame just right or just wrong. For the League Weekends, I expect everyone to make 'safe choices,' which means I really only have to prepare to face the top three or five most tried-and-true decks in the format. Along those lines, I prioritized having a rock-solid plan against the most popular decks."
Duke's prediction was largely true, with well-established decks making up the bulk of both weekends' metagames.
"I didn't expect any of the MPL players to play some of the weaker archetypes and expected a narrower metagame," fellow MPL and Hall of Fame member Gabriel Nassif agreed. "For instance, in the second weekend of play, I predicted that no one in the MPL would show up with Rakdos because of its bad matchup against the perceived best deck at the time which was Gruul."
"I made sure I picked a solid deck even if it meant I wasn't going to take anyone by surprise," Nassif added, proving his own prediction true.
Both Nassif and Duke played Dimir Rogues the first weekend and Gruul Adventures the second, highlighting a preference among MPL players for the best decks in the format. They also both shared the feeling that they and their testing teams had missed, or misjudged, the Gruul Adventures deck going into the first weekend.
"I played Rogues in week one because we expected a decent bit of Yorion decks which was a good matchup and totally missed how good Gruul was," Nassif said. "In the second League Weekend, we couldn't really come up with anything great so just went with Gruul slightly tuned for the mirror. Once again, our deck choice was solid but [Ken] Yukuhiro and [Chris] Kvartek were a step ahead this time as they showed up with Mono-Green Food and crushed it."
Yukuhiro went 8-3 in that second League Weekend, while Kvartek went 7-4—a dominating performance that rallied both to the middle—from the back—of MPL standings.
Since the two weekends of league play were two weeks apart and each had their own set of decklists, they afforded players a unique opportunity akin to switching decks mid-tournament to adapt to this small metagame evolution.
On the other hand, Ondřej Stráský, with 13 points sitting just behind Duke and Nassif, was one of the few players on Gruul going into the first League Weekend. While the deck turned out to be a surprise hit of the format then, Stráský chose it for more practical reasons.
"For the first week, I picked Gruul over Rogues purely because I didn't have enough experience with the deck, and I was worried I wouldn't be able to perform well against the high-level caliber of players in the MPL," Stráský said. "I think I'd be more comfortable playing a tricky deck like Rogues in a wider field, but knowing I'd be playing a world-class player every round made me shy away from it. I ended up getting a bit lucky because Gruul was the best-performing deck that weekend, but I wasn't sure of its qualities going in because there wasn't that much time to prepare."
In a mirror of events, Stráský made the opposite journey from many of his fellow MPL players, moving from Gruul Adventures to Dimir Rogues for the second League Weekend.
"For the second week, Gruul was a known entity and I assumed everyone would be either playing it or gunning for it. I didn't feel like playing mirrors or prepared opponents all weekend, so I went with Rogues, who I felt would be good against the anti-Gruul decks, while being a powerful deck itself." With a 7-5 start in October, followed by a 6-5 performance in November, there's no doubt Stráský is consistent against the best players in the world: he ended the Zendikar Rising Split 6th in standings and within striking distance of the Top 4.
Another player who defied trends was Andrea Mengucci who stuck with the same deck both weekends: his beloved "Esperone" deck, widely known as Esper Doom Foretold.
"I tested with Tian Fa Mun, a friend of mine from Italy," Mengucci said. "We both loved Esper Doom Foretold (Esperone) and tuned it piece by piece just like you normally would for a traditional tournament. Esper Doom deck was both a deck that I liked a lot and a strong choice. Solid against the metagame, with a slight positive matchup versus Gruul and a slightly negative matchup versus Rogues, which is a good place to be in the metagame."
Now the Zendikar Rising Championship lies ahead of these players. The field is wider. With that wider field comes the potential for more surprise deck choices or attempted metagame calls. For some players, the stable Standard metagame means it's time to hone their skills elsewhere.
"I'm focusing on Historic for the Zendikar Rising Championship, since I'm pretty much locked in the same 95 cards of Esper Doom Foretold," Mengucci said. "I don't think the Standard format can change very much and I want to maximize my energy on a brand-new format, and that's Historic."
"For the Zendikar Rising Championship—particularly for Historic—I expect things to be a lot more open and diverse," Duke echoed.
There is still an array of competitive decks for players to choose from which, for some players, leads to the consideration of their preferred archetype. It's a divisive topic, and across the history of the game there have been successful players who embrace and become known for their preferred style of play, and those who try to eschew definition.
Mengucci is one of the former. "I enjoy playing Midrange and Control decks the most and think they make me play better overall," he said. "That's why I always try to stick to those strategies."
Nassif falls on the opposite end of the spectrum.
"It used to factor a decent bit and I think it's probably one of the biggest recurring mistakes I've made in my career," he said. "I was so often unwilling to play the 'best' deck not necessarily because it wasn't my style but because I was always trying to figure out something to beat the best deck instead, which is almost always wrong especially in big fields."
"As a pro player, I really try not to be shackled to particular categories of decks," said Duke, a player synonymous with playing Jund early in his career. "While I love playing Midrange decks, I know that I can learn to play anything if I'm willing to put in the work. So the key is to identify the deck that will give me the best chance of success, avoid getting lazy, and avoid making excuses. This is particularly true for...League play, where having the same, elite opponents for an entire year could mean that people start to target me if I become predictable."
Stráský falls in the middle of these philosophies given his deck choices for the two League Weekends.
"I usually just try to play best decks, but if a deck I'm not super comfortable with is like 1% better than a deck I'm more comfortable with, I'd probably play the latter," he said.
So with the metagame mostly settled, how do the top players try to gain an advantage when showing up with a formidable format surprise isn't an option?
"In the early stages of the format, you can get an advantage by picking a deck that your fellow competitors don't expect, like Gruul in week one of the league play," Stráský said. "But the more established the metagame is, the more important fine tuning, knowing how to sideboard, and how to navigate all the matchups is."
"I think correct deck choice and right sideboard comes first and you can always learn how to play your deck after the deadline for deck submission, especially for a format like Standard with not too many tier-one decks," Nassif agreed. "For the first two League Weekends, I had actually barely played with the decks I submitted. I was testing other archetypes and didn't think they were any good but knew I could rely on my teammates to tune the other archetypes. I knew I would have time to get some matches in after decklist submission even if I hadn't played with the deck much and I think I was able to do just that."
When it comes down to it, though, talk of metagames and top tier decks and tuned sideboards all boil down to whether or not players collect those coveted wins.
"Good preparation for an established metagame can come down to deck choice, deck construction, sideboarding, or even gameplay," Duke said. "The important thing is just that you have a realistic plan for scoring wins in the important matchups."
We'll have the chance to see the multitude of ways players attack the Zendikar Rising Championship, with its mix of established and fresh formats, and which skills, at the end of the day, line the path to the trophy.
Watch the Standard and Historic format battles live December 4-6, beginning at 9 a.m. PST on twitch.tv/magic!