The Metagame Loop

The concept of the Metagame in this article specifically relates to the cycle of player decisions and actions leading up to, and during, any given competitive constructed tournament. I refer to this in the article as a single metagame cycle. This cycle is format agnostic. The steps within this cycle may or may not be executed consciously by the players, but all players in a given tournament execute this fundamental gameplay loop.

Pregame Decisions

Research & Analysis

During the Research and Analysis phase, a player can pursue multiple lines of effort in order to prepare for the following phases. These lines of effort generally fall into two types of player action that I will refer to as “Soft Research” and “Hard Research.” Soft Research refers to the more passive and academic forms of research, such as reading articles, reading blogs, listening to podcast’s, scanning tournament results, and participating in forum discussions. Hard Research is playing actual games of Magic: the Gathering, either casually grinding out matches with decks on MTGO or MTG Arena, playing pick-up games with friends or at an LGS, or formal tournament testing.

While both avenues of research have value, Hard Research builds muscle memory and deck familiarity. Formal testing also presents a player with the opportunity to see how different decks work from the inside, which will aid in gameplay decisions during the gameplay phase later. Critical to this phase is conducting critical analysis on the information received. Recognizing that the information is being collected to inform future decisions will also assist in identifying gaps in your current knowledge that you can use to focus your research. For example, you play 15 pick-up games with your local playgroup and feel your deck has a decent match-up. You recognize that all the games you are playing are against Control or Combo strategies, but you haven’t gotten to test out the mirror match. Looking at this critically you should pursue the opportunity to play the mirror match and grind out some match-ups versus any popular midrange decks.

This phase is also the point where you should ask yourself “do I feel comfortable with this deck?” and, importantly, “do I enjoy the gameplay experience I have piloting this deck?” Comfort and familiarity will reduce your cognitive burden during a tournament, which should allow you more brain power to analyze your opponent’s game actions. Also, signing away hours (or days) of your life to play a deck that you don’t enjoy for a tournament is a choice you should consciously make. You don’t want to decide you aren’t having fun during match-one, game-one of a 7 round swiss.

Deck Choice

The next pregame decision is relatively simple. Choose the deck you are going to play. All the research and analysis conducted prior to finalizing your deck choice is primarily an intellectual exercise. However the finalizing of your deck choice involves a certain degree of intuition. In sixty card constructed, sideboard decisions involve some educated guesswork about what the tournament will look like, and in Gladiator and other 100 card singleton formats this feeds your main deck decisions. All your research can give you is the probability of seeing specific match-ups, but because all other players are participating in the metagame with you, they will be free to make their own decisions regardless of what the pre-tournament data shows. Hopefully you are able to choose a deck that you feel comfortable piloting that stands a reasonable chance of performing well.

Deck Acquisition

Assembling the deck itself requires resources. On MTG Arena this equates to financial resources, either in the form of wild cards or gems to acquire packs to get those wild cards. Even with the Free to Play model you have to expend time and energy to acquire resources, which most people would argue is synonymous with “work.” In the Arena economy, you may not have the time or money to acquire the needed wild cards to assemble the deck you have chosen, in which case you may need to circle back and re-evaluate your research or deck choice. In paper play this is mitigated by the ability to use proxies for play testing, trading cards in order to secure the resources needed to construct a deck, or borrowing/renting cards in order to utilize the deck you’ve chosen for the space of an individual tournament, which in the context refers to a single cycle of the metagame loop. This step is the primary barrier to “fair competition” within a metagame cycle because it is divorced from player skill and game rules and instead is heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of the individual participant.  

Match Pairings

Match pairings are initially done at random, and that randomness is attenuated over the course of a swiss by player skill and overall tournament deck registrations (i.e if 50% of the tournament decks are the same, the likelihood of that list making it to round 2 goes up). Because match pairings, and by extension archetype match-ups are completely outside of your control, this step can only be mitigated by the Deck Choice you made, which in turn was informed by your Research and Analysis.

Mulligan Decisions

Once you have been paired, your last pregame decision (or your first game decision depending on your point of view) is the opening hand you choose to keep. If you have no information about your opponent’s strategy this is primarily based on having the resources in hand to execute your gameplan. If you are playing with open deck lists you have additional information to make decisions. Mulligan decisions have been covered at length by many content creators and so I will omit a lengthy discussion here.

Game Decisions

Card Sequencing

Card Sequencing is the decision about the order in which you play your cards. Proper sequencing should allow you to maximize use of your available resources while maintaining your ability to react to the game state. Sequencing is heavily dependent on your deck archetype and game plan, and is heavily impacted by chance, which constrains the available decisions you can make based on your available actions (cards and abilities) and resources (mana, life total).

Threat Analysis

Threat Analysis is the analysis of your opponent’s game plan. Recognizing the play patterns of certain archetypes allows you to determine what the greatest threat to your strategy is and allows you to make informed decisions with regards to your own sequencing. The goal of threat analysis is to make decisions with the maximum amount of information about your opponent’s path to victory so that you can either block that path, or execute your own more quickly. This is why turn 1 hand attack spells can be incredibly effective as they can remove key cards from your opponent and give you information about the resources and actions your opponents have available for their own card sequencing.

Board State Awareness

Board state awareness is the awareness of how many resources and actions are available to you and your opponent. Understanding the board state is key to understanding what stage your opponent is in when executing their gameplan. Do they have activated abilities on board that disrupt your game plan? Are they presenting lethal damage on board, or will their onboard damage leave you dead if they have access to a damage spell or combat trick? Once you have identified the threat your opponent’s deck is presenting, maintaining your awareness of where they are in the execution of their game plan is crucial to inform your own decision making.

Threat Presentation

Threat Presentation is the act of presenting your game plan to your opponent. Ideally you want to limit your opponent’s ability to maintain board state awareness, either by leading them to make wrong assumptions about your available actions, or to commit their resources to answer a threat you are representing in a manner that plays into your ability to execute your strategy. While bluffing plays into threat presentation, it is more important to sequence your plays in a way that gives your opponent the least ability to accurately analyze the threat and maintain accurate awareness of the board state.

Resource Management

Resource Management is a core gameplay concept that has been covered in depth by many people. Central to this conversation is that you manage your resources, including your cards and available mana, in order to maximize your ability to execute your decks strategy.

Post Game

Results and Feedback

After each match, regardless of whether you won or lost, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the match and the patterns of play you observed. If you are still in a tournament (for example, after your first match) you are still in the same single cycle of a metagame loop, and the metagame in which you are playing cannot change. All decks within the tournament are set and no additional factors will shift the metagame. Use the information received during a game, or a match, to inform your decision making moving forward in the tournament. If you uncover a new piece of tech in a given archetype that you didn’t observe during your research and analysis, you should respect the possibility of seeing it again as you move through the swiss.

Following a tournament, your overall results form the foundation of your research and analysis for the next metagame cycle. If cards over or underperformed for you or your opponent’s make note of this insight and begin the process again leading into your next tournament.