The Rock-Paper-Scissors Metagame

Feature Article from Seth Manfield
Seth Manfield
11/22/2017 11:01:00 AM
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I didn't have a great finish at Grand Prix Portland last weekend (Top 64), but I was able to watch my friend and testing partner Christoffer Larsen run the tables without losing a round, right up until his match in the Top 8. While watching coverage I heard people mention his deck in relation to a “Rock-Paper-Scissors” metagame by Matt Sperling, and the analogy stuck.

In this case, selecting Rock might mean choosing to play Temur Energy. Of course, it is not random what deck your opponent will be playing at a big event. Clearly Ramunap Red and Temur Energy are the two most popular decks in Standard – just look at the results of Grand Prix Portland. Chris decided he wanted to have a better matchup against Temur Energy (Rock), so he chose to play Four-Color Energy (Paper), but in the end, he was paired against Ramunap Red (Scissors) in his quarterfinal match, and lost as a result.

Sometimes metagames break down in such a way where there are only two or three decks that you expect to play against consistently in a large tournament like a Grand Prix. There are ways to get some kind of an edge against those decks, but in order to do so a sacrifice must be made. In this case, Chistoffer's decision paid off – he played against Energy decks for most of the tournament and went undefeated against them, because of his better late-game cards. In the end, though, you always run the risk of playing against your bad matchup, and that was how Christoffer got knocked out of the event.

This build of Four-Color Energy is different from the Energy decks that are just splashing for Vraska, Relic Seeker or The Scarab God. The deck was originally seen when Magic Online guru Jaberwocki won a league with it before Pro Tour Ixalan. We tried testing the deck and I can verify firsthand that it doesn't match up well against Ramunap Red, but is good against Temur Energy. By playing four colors you make some sacrifices to your mana base, which slows the deck down a bit.

The upside is you can play all the energy cards you want to. Longtusk Cub traditionally isn't that great in the mirror, while it does a lot of work against Ramunap Red. So instead of Longtusk Cub, we have a card advantage creature in Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. Having Siphoner in your deck forces your Energy opponent to not sideboard out removal spells, because if you play a turn two Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and it lives it will take over the game.

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This deck has the two best cheap removal spells in the format – a full playset of both Fatal Push and Harnessed Lightning. These are key, as you are relying on them to slow down what the opponent is doing early on. The other black card here is Gonti, Lord of Luxury, which is a huge mana sink and one of the best card advantage creatures in the format. Once this deck reaches four mana, all the cards it plays are going to be very high-impact. Gonti is at its best against other midrange strategies, and is one of the major reasons Chris didn't lose to other Energy decks.

Rounding out this deck, we see that you can literally play whatever you want to in this Four-Color Energy deck and simply hope the mana holds up. There are more double black cards like Vraska's Contempt, which is one of the best answers to opposing permanents in the format. There are also hits like Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh and Hour of Devastation in the sideboard. The seven-mana planeswalker is a way of going way over the top of your opponent, while Hour of Devastation can catch your opponent off guard, as they almost certainly will not be playing around it.

Chris's results indicate that he was in fact able to make his deck better against the most popular deck in the format (Temur Energy), but it did come at a cost, since Temur Energy has a better matchup against Ramunap Red compared to Four-Color Energy. This is easy to see in the current Standard metagame because there aren't that many popular archetypes. In fact, it is pretty easy to create the grouping of “Energy decks,” “Ramunap Red,” and “everything else.” That isn't many groupings, but the good thing is there are multiple ways you can build your Red or Energy deck to be quite different and still find success.

We saw Ben Stark make a similar sacrifice to the one Chris made, when he played a bigger version of Ramunap Red. Ben was able to improve his Temur Energy matchup, but it was at the cost of almost all his other matchups. Sometimes it is correct to make this sort of sacrifice if you believe you will face one deck for almost all the rounds of an event. In the case of a diverse metagame, this would be a very bad idea. These results indicate that it is possible to target the stock three-color version of Temur Energy to have a good matchup against it, if you're willing to make the tradeoff.

As is often the case, most people go out of their way to target the best deck, so it isn't necessarily correct to play the best deck. This past weekend, for instance, I chose to play Ramunap Red, not because I believe it is the best deck, but because I like how it is positioned in the metagame. If players are cutting Hazoret from their Red decks – like the version Ben Stark played – it makes the smaller version better, as Hazoret the Fervent is the ultimate trump in the mirror. I ended up going 11-4 in Portland with this list:

This is pretty close to what most Ramunap Red lists look like these days, but there are a couple key differences. The first is the two copies of Chandra, Torch of Defiance in the main. Having access to Chandra, Torch of Defiance gives you another angle of attack in a variety of matchups. The card is quite important, and you are sideboarding it in a lot, so by moving it into the main deck it frees up more sideboard slots. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is especially strong against Sultai Energy, where you need a lot of ways to kill opposing creatures.

Another major difference here is the inclusion of Magma Spray. I occasionally see a copy or two in player's sideboards, but it really should be played more, and I think three is the minimum a Ramunap Red deck wants in their 75. Magma Spray being effectively useless against control does make it a much better sideboard card than main deck, but I am playing one main because control isn't all that popular. Most of the time Magma Spray and Shock will do the same thing. However, when you happen to be playing against a deck that has cards like Scrapheap Scrounger, Sacred Cat, Champion of Wits, or Dread Wanderer, you will really be wishing that Shock was a Magma Spray instead.

This is one of those small upgrades based on the matchup that can make a big difference. If I have a bunch of Magma Sprays in my 75 I feel like that can swing the matchup against God-Pharaoh's Gift in my favor. In Portland I didn't lose to a single Energy deck, so despite the perception the Ramaunap Red is disadvantaged against Energy, the games are often very close.

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We can also look outside of Standard and apply the principal of the Rock, Paper, Scissors metagame to other formats. There were a number of players getting ready for the RPTQ's last weekend, which were Modern. Modern is a very different format, with a lot more decks than Standard. Since there are a lot more strategies in the format, being able to predict which decks will show up at a particular tournament location is important. For instance, a number of Maryland players traveled to North Carolina to play in the RPTQ's there, rather than play in an RPTQ that was closer by.

You can certainly gain an edge by attending a specific tournament where you feel like you are going to be more prepared for the field. In this case, the North Carolina RPTQ was a bit softer in terms of the strength of the players overall, compared to the RPTQ in Philly for instance, but it was also easier to predict the metagame. The local players were known for Jeskai Control and the Five-Color Humans deck, so one of the Maryland players (Alex Majlaton) was able to qualify for the Pro Tour by showing up with Dredge.

Dredge is one of the best deck choices if you expect a lot of Jeskai Control, and not a lot of hate in the form of cards like Rest in Peace. Alex played against Jeskai Control three times, which would be pretty unusual at a tournament like a Grand Prix. At a Grand Prix the field is much larger, and the decks are going to be more diversified. At smaller events, even in a format as big as Modern, it can be possible to pinpoint the metagame, and if you are able to do so choosing a deck becomes easy.

Alex is known for being an expert Affinity player, but in this case Affinity wouldn't have been a good choice because he would have gotten rolled by Jeskai Control. If you are willing to go outside your comfort zone and simply choose what you believe is the best-positioned deck it can be very rewarding. In this case Alex chose Paper, most everyone else chose Rock, and while Scissors was still an option, very few players actually chose Scissors, so Paper was the clear correct choice.

Good metagames may have a best deck, but there need to be good ways to attack that deck. Right now, I feel like both Modern and Standard are in a healthy place, even though there aren't that many viable decks in Standard.

Thanks for reading,

Seth Manfield






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