Today’s guest article is written by shawntown, a long-time gamer, Magic player, and writer. Not necessarily in that order.
It is a vast and varied world, Magic: the Gathering. Throughout its 20 year history, it has presented a plethora of play modes. In constructed and limited formats we’ve seen Standard, Extended, Block Constructed, Booster Draft, Sealed Deck, and others. Within this multiverse, Duels of the Planeswalkers (DOTP) is a unique format of sorts, and thus worthy of play by rookies and vets alike.
But DOTP has been derided by most of the online community, by reviewers, bloggers, and forum-posters. It’s been described as a cheap, watered-down version of a great and complex game. Its been called a “shameless whale hunt,” an attempt by WOTC to hook and funnel more suckers into the cash cows of Magic Online and paper MTG. And its been called, simply, trash–an utterly failed attempt to bring this popular game to consoles and iPads.
Whatever its shortcomings, though, and whatever WOTC had intended it to accomplish as a promotional tool, DOTP has real merit as a format in its own right. It’s a great marriage of limited and constructed, and it’s extremely accessible. Yet despite this and its growing (if slowly) popularity, there is a real lack of solid DOTP-specific analysis on the Web.
Where’s the wisdom?
When it comes to DOTP, there are a lot more questions than answers out there. I Google DOTP and most of what I find is of little help. Aside from T3 and a few others, there is a glut of bad advice on the Web. Game guides written by novices with no understanding of Magic’s core principles. Forums in which pessimists rant about all the cards and features they wish were in the game but aren’t. Arbitrary deck lists with no concrete advice on how to play the deck, or explanation as to why certain cards are included in the build over others. There is some good info available, don’t get me wrong. But not much. The reasons for this seem pretty plain.
For the most part, talented Magic writers aren’t writing on the subject of DOTP (although general Magic strategy and theory can naturally be applied to DOTP, most players in the forums are looking for DOTP-specific advice)
The majority of console and Ipad players are newbies or casual players. The top players don’t play DOTP because, whatever its merits, it is still a watered-down version of constructed-deck Magic. Don’t get me wrong, there are some damn good players online. Many of them are like me: former Pro Tour and Grand Prix players who got out years ago. We’ve only picked the game back up because DOTP made it economical and convenient to do so. There’s a whole generation of us, as well as some intermediate, rising young players. But the majority are casual or newbs, and when I say newbs, I refer not only to new players, but also any players whose introduction to Magic came through DOTP.
Fortunately, the key principles of successful Magic have not changed since I retired from competitive play. For any of you trying to find useful info on Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, understand that the rules of Magic are the same whether you’re playing in a Pro Tour event, on your kitchen table, or on your Xbox. So instead of searching for articles about DOTP strategy, try reading general MTG strategy articles. In particular, read anything you can find about the three most important concepts in Magic: tempo, card advantage, and synergy. And while you’re at it, give a google to the metagame concept in Magic because, in DOTP, you are playing a pure metagame.
And that is my favorite aspect of this game, the nature of its Metagame.
Into the Meta
Before I continue, I don’t want to assume knowledge on the part of the reader. So for the uninitiated, lets explain the Meta concept. Essentially, the “metagame” is the game outside the game; its the process by which we choose which deck or cards we’re going to use based on what we expect our opponent(s) to be using. Some have called it a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors. And it is that, in essence, though it gets a lot more complex the deeper you go. To play it well requires intuition, experience, and thoughtful planning.
So now we know what it is. Why do I call DOTP a “pure” metagame? Well, in-real-life (IRL) Magic consists of over 10,000 cards. A deck can be made up of millions of possible combinations of these cards. Even in a limited constructed environment like Standard or Block Constructed (where only a few hundred cards are available), the number of possible combinations boggles the mind. Now, there may be only a handful of major deck archetypes in a given environment, but even within those primary decks there is room for wide variations from build to build.
An example: it may be a bit dated, but in my tournament days arguably the biggest and most influential card was Necropotence. Around this one card were designed so many different decks I can’t even begin to recall them all. Even Necro decks that were very similar in style and focus to one another often contained very different cards. Long story short, there were and are a ridiculous amount of possible variations.
Contrast that with the 21 decks in DOTP. There are only about 75 spells in each deck’s card pool to work with, and no card is so overpowered as to unbalance the game. Further, cards can’t be mixed and matched from different pools like in IRL Magic. So once I realize which deck my opponent is running, I’ve got a very good idea of which cards he’s using. This is why DOTP is such a pure metagame: there are just 21 possibilities, and even less when you consider that several of the decks are weak or even terrible (meaning I don’t need to metagame for these decks since they’re so weak I will beat them most of the time anyway).
So basically, if I go up against a certain deck, I don’t worry about significant variation within that deck the way I would in IRL Magic. On turn 1, when he drops a Phantasmal Bear, I know pretty much everything he’s got. I know that, he only has two Counterspell and, when tapped out, 1 Force of Will. Or if he plays an early Khalni Heart Expedition, I know how to alter my play in order to beat Mul Daya. Maybe I don’t know his card-for-card build, but I know what I need to know. This knowledge is huge, and the more I know how to exploit knowledge, the more games I win.
So in DOTP knowing what deck I’m facing is easy once the game has started. In order to take full advantage of that knowledge, let’s back up to the pregame, to understanding the environment and then building the deck accordingly.
Knowing the environment
Metagaming is all about planning to beat the most likely opposition. We get a clearer picture of the most likely opposition by knowing the tiers and rankings.
Below is my list. These are arbitrary, but based on my research and play of DOTP 2014, it’s fairly solid. (Decks are listed roughly in order of their rank versus decks in their own tier. For example, my build of AG outranks both MM and DW because it beats those decks about 65% of the time)
- Tier 1: Avacyn’s Glory (AG), Mind Maze (MM), Deadwalkers (DW)
- Tier 2: Dodge and Burn (DB), Lords of Darkness (LoD), Bounce and Boon (BB)
- Tier 3: Hall of Champions (HoC), Warsmith (WS), Chant of Mul Daya (CoM)
- Tier 4: Guardians of Light (GL), Sword of the Samurai (SoS), Sliver Hive (SH), Firewave, (FW), Hunter’s Strength (HS)
- Tier 5: Sylvan Might (SM), Hunting Season (HS), Enchanter’s Arsenal (EA), Up To Mischief (UTM)
- Tier 6: Unfinished Business (UB), Masks of the Dimir (MoD), Enter the Dracomancer (ED)
Again, these rankings are rough, and not totally set in stone. I’ve got more experience with some decks and matchups than with others.
The top tier consists of three decks. That’s just 14% of the available decks in DOTP. But in any competitive Magic environment, the top tier are going to make up half the field, maybe more. Because of this disproportion, if I want to win more than I lose then I’ve got to beat the top tier. This is the essence of the metagame.
- How can I build my deck so that it beats the top tier at least 65% of the time (or more if possible)
- If I’m playing a top tier deck myself, what can I do to jack up my win % in the mirror match.
- Can I make all these changes without weakening my deck’s performance versus Tiers 2 and 3, or any decks that my original build was consistently beating.
Now, I cannot design a deck that will crush everything hands down. In IRL Magic, invincible decks have arisen in the past. Usually they dominated because of a broken card or combination, and the central card(s) would quickly get banned or restricted. We don’t have to worry about this in DOTP. Despite what you’re reading all over the Web, there is no dominant single deck. Tier 1 is not unbeatable, unfair or broken. Everyone who complained about goblins being broken in 2013 was wrong. And the ones complaining about Avacyn’s Glory or Mind Maze this year are wrong too.
I can’t build the perfect deck, no, but I can try to fulfill a, b, and c the best I can. Doing so will lead to a deck that wins far more often than it loses.
Busting the Beatdown
Broken or not, I was still annoyed by Goblins and Peacekeepers in DOTP 2013. Their card pools were just too strong. Great removal, great synergy and amazing tempo made for a boring meta for the first few months. What’s worse, the expansion and first 2 deck packs just added more inferior aggro decks. But then out came Mana Mastery (side note: terrible deck name. They should have just called it “Control Deck,” because that was the relevant feature, not the fact that it was 5 colors) MM was the death knell for Goblins and Peacekeepers dominance. This is the beautiful metagame in action; all it takes is one good deck and everything changes. Since good builds run by good players (it took real skill to build and play well) of Mana Mastery won a majority vs. Tier 1, I started seeing DOTP’s other decks get played much more because a few of them were very good against MM. This set off a chain reaction. Ultimately, it produced a healthier and more enjoyable environment with more variety. Personally, I despised Goblins so much that I keyed on it. My MM build crushed Goblins about 85% of the time, but suffered a bit to Peacekeepers, against which I went 50%.
Fast forward to 2014, and it was the same story with AG and MM. While in principle I liked many of the other decks, if I wanted to win a majority of games, the top tier was it.
Then the expansion came out. I looked at LoD and thought it had a shot. But 3 builds in and I was only hitting about 55% against AG–not good enough. Then I went to DB. My first two builds were built around the Charmbreaker Devils and Wee Dragonauts, because of their great synergy and knockout potential. It turned out to be the best deck I’d yet played in 2014. Its win rate vs. AG and MM was 60%, and vs. DW, LoD, and BB, 70%.
Old trick, new twist.
Then something occurred to me which I had long forgotten (a dozen years of no Magic will do that. Before DOTP 12, I hadn’t played Magic since 1999!) When your deck has no creatures, your opponent’s non-burn removal spells become useless, dead cards–a monster advantage in game 1 of a match. Back in the day, we used to run creatureless decks all the time. But with all these aggro weenies and fatties in DOTP, the idea had apparently slipped my mind till now.
So I tried a creatureless build of DB (There are 2 Mnemonic Wall, but they’re hardly creatures). The results were pretty astounding. In addition to solid 70-80% performance vs. tiers 2 and 3, Versus AG it was a joke–85 to 90% win rate.
But it was a bit weaker against MM, only about 60%. This is where part C, above, comes in. Can I make the tweaks to beat a top tier deck without overly weakening my performance vs. decks I was already beating? The card that did the trick, as much as I hate it, was Pongify. I don’t like anything that inherently causes me card disadvantage, but with MM, it doesn’t; the Illusion creatures die when targeted. Adding Pongify and a few other minor card tweaks, and MM is now losing to me 70% of the time. Good enough.
My DB build also crushes Tiers 4 through 6. Then again, any deck worth it’s salt should beat most of these pretty handily.
Without creatures to block with, though, DW becomes somewhat of a problem. I only manage a 50% win rate against the zombies. The recurring creatures are tough, as is Black Cat and Corrupt. Since my deck tends to win with a big lategame Banefire after I’ve locked down and outdrawn my opponent, a big Corrupt getting through swings the tide and has cost me more than a couple games.
My DB build also struggles against CoM and, to a lesser extent, BB and LoD. So I haven’t fully optimized the deck list and the way I play it vs. certain decks yet. It still needs minor tweaks to address these struggles. Of course, minor tweaks still have a big impact on a deck. Adding two copies of Pongify, that’s only 3% of the deck. But over the course of many games, there is a clear shift in results.
So I will continue the metagame process and, hopefully, creatureless DB will turn out to be the best “meta” deck in DOTP 14. The challenge of accomplishing this is, for me, the most fun of all.
I’ll close with a piece of advice that I feel, based on what I’ve read in forums around the Web, is lost on many, maybe even most players of Magic DOTP.
Magic is a tricky game. You can think you’ve got it figured out, and feel pretty confident because you mop the floor with the CPU and some of your competition online. But then you run into someone with a better understanding of the game’s subtleties and it’s like you got blindsided by a behemoth. The weak player, at this point, blames the luck of the draw. Or he blames the game’s developers because his opponent’s Tier 1 deck is broken/unfair. Whenever you lose (or win, for that matter), always look at yourself. How could your deck be better? How could you apply knowledge of this year’s metagame to outsmart your opponent? And how could you have made different in-game decisions to affect a different outcome? Blaming Avacyn’s Glory or Mind Maze does you no good. Next time, play the metagame and plan to beat it.
Creatureless DB (third build), 60 cards
- 12 Mountain
- 11 Island
- 4 Terramorphic Expanse
- 2 Pongify
- 2 Peak
- 2 Banefire
- 4 Remand
- 2 Starstorm
- 3 Searing Spear
- 2 Electrolyze
- 2 Cancel
- 3 Char
- 2 Volcanic Fallout
- 1 Invoke the Firemind
- 3 Compulsive Research
- 3 Sulfurous Blast
- 2 Mnemonic Wall