unches and counterpunches. Juke to the left or juke to the right. End up standing in the correct place and you'll deliver a fatal blow—and end up standing in the wrong place and you'll get thwacked.
That is the core essence of metagaming.
For those not familiar with the term, the concept of metagaming is the idea of playing the game outside of the game when it comes to card and deck selection. For example, imagine you know that 90% of your opponents are going to be playing Red Burn decks. Suddenly, you may want to consider playing some lifegain—or something even as far as Circle of Protection: Red—to help fight them off. You might even want to play an entirely different deck, such as a lifegain deck, to have a massive upper hand against them.
Of course, no metagame is really ever that cut and dry. Even in Magic's most dominant fields, no deck tends to hit a crazy threshold like 90%. In extremely dire situations, it might hit around 20%. (Although, percentages aside, if you're playing to win the tournament and you know most of all of the best players will be playing one deck, you need to be prepared for them.)
I see a lot of decklists week in and week out, and I see a lot of metagaming done correctly—and also a lot done incorrectly. Today, let's go over some of the intricacies.
The way I usually think about metagaming is going through several "levels" of metagame. You try the first one, and if that doesn't work, the second one, and so on, until finally you've found the right balance.
I've laid out this article similarly: start at the lowest level, try those strategies, and, if they prove unsuccessful, level up!
Ready? Here we go!
Level 0: The Warning Label
Metagaming can be extremely useful if done correctly. But, equally so, you can hamstring yourself by doing it poorly. I'd say the most common error I see made with metagaming is simply metagaming in the first place!
There's no need to metagame (especially main deck) when a deck isn't nearly popular enough to warrant it. Now, at your local store you have to arbitrate this a bit yourself—maybe Mono-White Devotion has taken over your store even if it isn't popular elsewhere—but unless you truly expect to play against a particular deck multiple times and that deck is a hard matchup for your deck, I would not play main deck cards to fight against it. It's not worth drawing Deathmark in 1/4 of your matches and having it be awesome when you draw it in 3/4 of your matchups and have it do nothing.
Note that I also provided the caveat about making the modifications only if that matchup is actually bad for you. If you've played a bunch of games against the deck in question and found that you already have a significant upper hand, you don't need to main deck more cards against it even if you expect to play against that deck half of the time. You could consider sideboarding some cards for it, but even then you probably don't need too many.
On the other end of the spectrum, if a matchup is absolutely horrendous for you, it may not even be worth trying to fight it. There's a natural human urge to patch up every hole—but if you spend all of your effort patching the hole in your trousers then you may accidentally find six holes open up elsewhere in your clothes.
If, say, Mono-Blue Devotion is a really bad matchup, you could sideboard ten cards and modify your main deck to fight it... but then your matchups everywhere else get worse. At that point, it's worth asking yourself how popular the problematic deck in question really is. If the answer is "very popular," then you may just be bringing a balloon to a can opener party. To make this is the right thing to do, Mono-Blue Devotion needs to be your only bad matchup. Is there another deck you could play?
If the answer is that the deck is not, or only moderately, popular, then it may just be best to scrap that matchup entirely and focus on your others. Maybe you run into it once and lose, but if all of your other matchups are significantly better because of it that's okay.
Metagaming can be a very useful tool—but metagame with caution. Assuming you feel it's right to go forward, then the levels I would consider running through for metagaming follow. For each one, I'd try making modifications at that level, see if they work, and then move to the next level if they prove unsuccessful.
Level 1: Sideboard Nods
All right, so you feel like you want to metagame. Great! What next?
The first level of metagaming to go through is making tiny tweaks to your sideboard to give you some ammo in a particular matchup. This is different from running full-on sideboard cards for a matchup—these are just slightly changing the existing cards in your sideboard to be something you could also use against a problematic deck.
For example, let's say you have Loxodon Smiter in your sideboard as a stopgap creature to bring in and cast against decks that are trying to attack you quickly. It does its job pretty well overall.
However, after a recent tournament, Mono-Red Burn emerges as strong deck—and a random 4/4 isn't particularly strong there. Instead, you could trade these out for Centaur Healers. It will still accomplish a similar stopgap goal as your Smiters (provided the 4th power isn't the reason why you were playing them) while also being a good option against the burn deck.
Level 2: Some Sideboard Cards
Now this is where you start to bring in the big guns. These are sideboard cards specifically for this matchup. In an ideal world, if you can, these cards would have multiple matchups they're good in (like, say, Deathmark) but, for example, perhaps you really need a trump card against Affinity, so this is where your Creeping Corrosions sit even if they're weak everywhere else.
It's worth noting that this is where I would start adding a few sideboard cards to help out. However, this isn't where I would start going whole-hog and play ten cards for your sideboard for a deck. (More on that later.)
Level 3: Main-Deck Nods
Similar to sideboard nods, except these happen in the main deck.
For example, let's say you have Magma Jet in your Red-White-Blue Control deck. It's meant to be there to kill off creatures and also dig you a little deeper into your deck—both nice options.
But suddenly, a Planeswalker control deck rises in popularity and you want a card to fight it. Making a main-deck nod here would be to change those Magma Jets for Izzet Charms. A little worse against the aggressive decks, but it lets you counter all of the noncreatures that the Planeswalker control deck is tapping out for. It's a small change to your main deck that will be comparable in several matchups, but makes the matchup you want to help just a tad better.
Level 4: Many Sideboard Cards
Level 4 is when you start to hit red flashing blinking warning lights. The past three levels were all pretty reasonable changes to make that don't impact the deck too much. Level 4 is where you start to alter your matchups against other decks beyond the point of no return.
At this point, you have to ask yourself: is this deck worth it? If your deck only has okay matchups across the field, then sideboarding ten cards for a popular, bad matchup isn't going to help solve all its weaknesses.
But there are times where this will be right. I remember way back in Lorwyn Standard, when Faerie decks ruled the roost, I had built a Reveillark deck that had awesome matchups across the board... except against those pesky Faeries. I decided that, since all of my other matchups were so good, I would sideboard thirteen cards for the Faeries deck.
My plan mostlyworked, as I beat Faeries most of the time in my Magic Online playtesting and even ended up in the finals of a PTQ with the deck. But if I had a couple other questionable matchups, I would have just been better off changing decks.
Level 5: Main-Deck Cards
Now we're pretty far off into the metagame deep end. Either the format is in pretty rough shape to get to this point, on the level of Faeries or Caw-Blade, or you have a deck you really want to make work.
Just like at level 4, main decking specific cards for matchups ideally means that is your only bad matchup. Your deck should be so strong that, even if you draw a couple dead cards—essentially providing mulligans to you—you can beat your average opponent.
For example, maybe Affinity is the most popular deck. You've found that you can beat other decks that people are playing with ease—but want to ensure you don't lose to the robots of terror. As such, you main deck Creeping Corrosion because you absolutely need the edge in Game 1 against Affinity, and then can sideboard it out afterwards.
Testing Your Meta-le
A really unique thing about metagames is how fast they move. Like breath on a mirror, something could be huge one week and chased out the next. Keep in mind: everyone else is metagaming too. Often, the archer you should be targeting with your arrows isn't the one everybody else is. Which cards are good against the deck that beats the popular deck? It's a deep rabbit hole to go down...
But, hopefully, this gives you a nice entry point into the world of metagaming. Like any deck-building guide, these are only suggestions—and there will be exceptions. Start with this, and then season your deck to taste.
When would be a good time to put this knowledge into action? Well, you have a few good weeks of a settled Theros Standard environment to give it a trial run at your next event—but Born of the Gods Standard is just around the corner! Next week kicks off previews for Magic's newest set on the block, and one which will definitely shake up the metagame a bit and add a few new cards to established archetypes.
Get ready. Born of the Gods is nearly here.
I'll see you back next week as I get to show off my first Born of the Gods preview card. Talk to you then!
When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he wanted a job making Magic cards. Ten years later, his dream was realized as his combined success as a professional player, deck builder, and writer brought him into Wizards R&D during 2011. He's been writing Magic articles since 2005 and has no plans to stop.