The competitive Magic metagame has often grabbed my attention in the way it morphs dramatically from the release of each new set, and then continues to develop as it stabilizes to a few top decks. Eventually every format will become stale if you don’t throw new kinks into the system from time to time. From my understanding of it, it behaves much like the way culture develops in communities, and as far as I’m concerned it is a key extension of our culture as Magic players. Given these assumptions, I would like to make a comparison between metagame evolution and the rules that explain how cultures and genetics change over time. This means we’re going to be talking about some evolutionary theory and culture theory. Also, I would like to reference population genetics. Stick with me on this one, because I know it’s a stretch between magic and genetics. But, the value comes from understanding HOW metagame evolves over time, and I’m explaining the fundamentals of evolution here.
Population genetics explains how genetic traits become more or less prevalent in a group of organisms. It explains how certain traits become more successful and how they become shared. I know what you’re thinking. What does any of this have to do with Magic? I’m not trying to teach you about genetics, I’m more interested in teaching you about the process. The process that selects the best genetic and cultural traits is without a doubt the most efficient way to do so. Think about it, we have had 6 billion years of evolution to perfect this system of sharing the best genetic traits. It has carried over into the way we behave and that means the way we play Magic is governed by the same system. Over the rest of this article, I’m going to explain the four main evolutionary processes and how they relate to the Magic metagame. This includes natural selection, flow, drift, and mutation.
First, I want to define the term “metagame” because it isn’t actually a real word and I’m going to mention it a lot. Metagame: the current state of popularity and success of decks being played. From my observations, I’m guessing that metagame behaves a lot like a group of people, mainly because it is a group of people. Metagame behaves much like culture functions to populations. It is a mechanism that adapts to best fit its environment, and it is also influenced by the people that participate in it. Culture and metagame are two terms that are difficult to define; they are abstract ideas and not concrete objects. You can’t take a picture of magic metagame, but you can imagine all the things that make up the current metagame. Strategy beliefs, card value (not dollar value), player behaviors… these are all components.
Many of you should already be familiar with this term. It is often used in conversation as “Survival of the Fittest”. Natural selection is essentially a non-random process that determines which traits become more or less prevalent. In nature, this boils down to who can efficiently continue the distribution of their genetic code. The more you reproduce successfully, the more common your traits become. In competitive Magic, the process is based on winning. The more you win, the more people are going to pick up on the strong cards and synergies of your deck. This leads the community toward discovering the better cards that they should be playing. In this case, reproducing is like winning. (Winning = sex, this is why magic players are single, right? Can’t have both. I’ll keep telling myself that…it makes me feel better.)
This makes enough sense. The stronger cards are going to lead to more wins. People want to win. People are going to play the cards that they see winning. Right now, Delver of Secrets is one of those cards. If you flip a Delver early in the game, you are more likely to win that game. Sometimes you can build your deck to protect that Insectile Aberration and ride it to victory. The power level of that card is higher than most for the same cost in the same color. Winning is the name of the game here folks. Cards and decks that are more likely to win you the game will be played more frequently.
There is a catch. For natural selection to function there has to be a selective pressure, something pushing there to be a change. If no one cared about winning, people would just play a bunch of random cards and never really get anywhere (see EDH). I guess now that EDH comes to mind, fun factor is a selective pressure in addition to winning. I have heard from several standard U/W Delver players that the deck isn’t terribly fun to play in its current incarnation. On the other hand, many of the players that I have talked to about Naya-Aggro-Pod say it’s one of the most entertaining decks to play right now. It may not win as much, but it’s fun to play.
In population genetics, genetic drift is what we call the change in frequency of an allele due to random sampling. Think of it like this, if a group of people were stranded on an island and decided to carry on with their lives, all subsequent populations on that island would only be able to have genetic traits that existed with the original survivors. The same thing happens in magic. If you were to isolate 20 players and give them only the cards they currently owned, all subsequent decks they build could only be built from cards that were included in that original package.
Now, let’s try a little metagame thought experiment. What if, among those 20 isolated players, there existed 8 copies of Delver of Secrets and 40 copies of Daybreak Ranger? It doesn’t seem likely that a Delver deck would survive in that metagame when a card that counters it well is so prevalent. The same thing happens at local game stores and kitchen tables when players don’t go out and play in different venues. The more isolated a venue becomes, the more it will take on a life of its own. While Zendikar block was still in standard, my local game store had developed a lot of aggressive decks. On the other hand, I was playing Valakut. If you’re familiar with the interaction of these two types of decks, you’ll know that I probably won a lot of FNMs with that deck. In my store’s local metagame, not everyone could afford Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I was able to ride Valakut to victory quite frequently over all of the aggressive decks because of my favorable matchup against them, while Caw-Blade style decks were dominating the tournament scene. My local game store metagame was isolated from the big picture and began to drift in its own direction. It’s not just card choices that are affected either, culture begins to develop on its own with isolation. Have you noticed how some game stores just feel more casual? Your incredible human mind is able to gather data from all of your past experiences and all of your senses and calculate the culture at a rate no computer could match, but you can just tell how each game store is unique within a first few minutes of walking in.
Here’s a fun thing to do: find a group of kids that have only played kitchen table magic, and let them flip through your binder. Listen to their evaluation of cards, it’s incredibly entertaining! I once saw 4 people buy their own play sets of Fireball because one of their friends crushed them with it on a regular basis. In their own little metagame, there was nothing that could compete with fireball. When they play at FNM they’ll learn their lesson. Then, when they play that first FNM, watch how they behave. They’re going to tap all of their lands “wrong” and make strange play decisions. In reference to my last article, you can see how much they are affected when they interact out of their isolated kitchen table culture.
On a larger scale, we can see results of drift on the tournament level. Does everyone remember the decks that won Pro Tour Dark Ascension? R/G ramp and Esper Spirits were probably the top 2 decks at that tournament. Where are those decks now? U/W Delver decks are on top again and R/G Aggro decks are right behind. In an isolated section of the metagame (PT: Dark Ascension), we saw only a sample of all the decks that people would play. In their own environment, they ended up on top, but fell short in the long run. To be fair, it was the very beginning of a new set and we learned a LOT about the new technologies available. Thanks pro players!
The Flow of Ideas
I want to point out the Importance of learning new things from pro players and SCG grinders. These successful players have quite a large influence on the rest of the world when it comes to magic. Their decks and tweaks influence the card choices of players competing at FNM just by doing well at one large tournament. This is where flow trait flow comes in. Trait flow describes the transfer of traits from one population to another. In our case, that means the sharing of popular and successful deck strategies. We are lucky to have the internet as a medium to create and share ideas. The transfer of genetic material is pretty difficult over the internet (Get to work, Science…), but culture is something that is easily shared just through communication.
This flow of ideas happens each time a tournament or FNM takes place. We are able to see what everyone else comes up with in terms of deck strategy. Then, we get to see which ideas were successful compared to other strategies. Afterward, players will try to replicate that success. If it is a strong deck, then others will see that and replicate it.
Two of my favorite examples of this are Worlds and the Pro Tour. This is where pros from all over the world come together to compete in the same tournament. This is where things get really spicy from an anthropologist’s point of view! Japan usually has the most consistent decks without getting too flashy, Europeans tend to have roguish decks, and American decks tend to be predictable. Ok, I’m obviously showing my bias as an American and I’m probably wrong about foreign decks. But, I’m used to seeing the same decks around the SCG opens. Japanese and European decks tend to be exciting because they see the world differently and it shows in their decks.
I believe it was Yuya Watanabe who did away with some planeswalkers and played Sphere of the Suns in his Wolf Run Ramp deck at worlds. Most Americans still had similar lists but the biggest differences were the planeswalkers and the spheres. The breeding and development of ideas happens all the time in our large community of magic players. Think of how delver decks started… Illusions! Without SCG Opens, magic online, and, to some extent, Todd Anderson, we wouldn’t have the delver lists we have today. Through testing, promoting, and sharing, the idea was able to breed and spread to the rest of the community.
There are two things that have really promoted the timely spread of ideas throughout the magic community: SCG Opens, and Magic Online. There is a large Star City tournament nearly each weekend, and players are constantly grinding on Magic Online. These events have significantly accelerated the rate at which we share decks. Standard can quickly become stale because of the speed at which we can tune the best decks.
Mutation is an interesting concept, because it is the way we account for randomization in population genetics. Mutation happens on quite a regular basis, and it is responsible for diversity in organisms. In general, mutation results in a new trait or allele being introduced to the current set of options. There isn’t really an analogy in anthropology to mutation as it relates to culture, but I think there is a similar structure in place in Magic. The closest way I can describe mutations in Magic comes from Wizards of the Coast. Each time a new card is introduced, a new set comes out, or a card is banned it has an impact on Magic’s metagame. I know, I know… WOTC plans these new sets, and bannings, so it isn’t really random, but it does result in diversity being introduced to the game.
The fact is, mutation is one of the more dramatic ways to affect change in a populations and culture. Like mutations, the introduction of new cards has a dramatic effect on the metagame. I’m excited to see what effect Avacyn Restored has on all of the formats. I expect a good bit to change, Cavern of Souls is getting some big hype, red decks are getting some nice tools for standard, and reanimator decks are getting some fatty love in standard AND legacy.
The Importance of it All
From my observations, the process that drives evolution in the metagame of Magic has some strong parallels to evolutionary theory. Hopefully you can take away some knowledge about how populations trade, share, and replicate ideas and relate it to your local metagame. So when you’re preparing for a big tournament, think about the four pillars of evolutionary change: Mutation. Has a new set come out recently? Flow. Has there been a big tournament nearby where people shared the latest tech? Drift. Have you been too isolated from the larger community lately? Natural Selection. What cards are popular, and what cards beat those cards? Use some of these ideas when trying to figure out your local metagame before you sign up for the next tournament.
Thanks for reading! I hope I don’t confuse too many people, I confuse myself sometimes…
Discussion: Think about how you’ve noticed the metagame evolve. What decks did people play at the start of Innistrad block, and what do you think will be popular in the future?
BONUS! SCG: Birmingham Report
I got to hang around and watch Andrew Schneider win Legacy and that’s good enough for me.
Players change their decks based on the trends of their current metagame, and the current popular strategies attempt to resist the changes others are making. I try to keep up with the meta and feel I have a good understanding of what decks will be popular at the events, so last weekend I tried to put it to the test.
I put a bit of thought into my standard deck choice, but not too much. I just wanted to be able to beat Delver variants, and R/G aggro and survive the occasional wolf run. In the end, I just wanted to keep playing a fun deck that could put up a fight. Here’s what I ended up running:
3 Birthing Pod 2 Garruk Relentless 2 Oblivion Ring 4 Copperline Gorge 3 Rootbound Crag 4 Razorverge Thicket 2 Sunpetal Grove 3 Gavony Township 6 Forest 1 Mountain 1 Plains Sideboard 2 Ancient Grudge 2 Ray of Revelation 2 Celestial Purge 2 Incinerate 3 Hero of Bladehold 1 Thalia 1 Thrun 1 Gideon 1 Daybreak Ranger
There isn’t much new here. It’s a modification of Brian Kibler’s Naya list. The deck is tons of fun to play and it plays very well against Delver decks. This list does great at FNM, but I don’t think it has the consistency to make top 8 at a larger venue. I ended up losing to Frites, U/B heartless summoning, and infect. Yup, pretty bad. I was prepared for the top decks, but I wasn’t ready for the random decks. This is probably why Delver is so popular. It has the ability to engineer wins against a broad field. My metagame analysis of the grinder portion was off. This deck has a problem with the big monsters of Frites and U/B Heartless, and phyrexian crusader went all the way against my red and white creatures/removal when he held his removal for my green creatures. I did beat the mirror match, R/G, and delver before I dropped. No big deal. I was really only excited to play legacy.
I’m fairly new to legacy and I picked up Maverick just before all the prices shot up because of its popularity. I would love to play the deck against a broader field to get more experience. Here’s my list:
4 Noble Hierarch 4 Mother of Runes 3 Qasali Pridemage 3 Scavenging Ooze 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben 1 Scryb Ranger 1 Gaddock Teeg 4 Knight of the Reliquary 4 Green Sun’s Zenith 4 Swords to Plowshares 1 Life from the Loam
2 Umezewa’s Jitte2 Sylvan Library 1 Elspeth Knight-Errant 1 Garruk Relentless 2 forest 1 plains 1 dryad arbor 1karakas 1 maze of ith 2 horizon canopy 2 misty rainforest 4 windswept heath 4 savannah 4 wasteland Sideboard 2 Ethersworn Canonist 3 Gut Shot 1 Linvala, Keeper of silence 1 Gideon Jura 1 Choke 1 Stony silence 1 Grafdiggers Cage 1 Tormod’s Crypt 1 Bojuka Bog 1 Circle of Protection: Red 2 Enlightened Tutor
I have some changes to make before the next legacy tournament I participate in. Life from the Loam is no good main deck. There was never really a time that it was worth casting over my other spells. The idea was to get value out of Maze of Ith and Wasteland. It’s going to end up changing to something more aggressive. This was also the first time I played in a larger tournament without Stoneforge and a sword package. A lot of times, I missed that option, but it’s still up for debate. Honestly my sideboard is terrible with the exception of +3 Gut shot, +Linvala, +Gideon, +Bojuka Bog being an excellent sideboard against other Maverick decks. As for the other decks, I need some help. Garruk Relentless was excellent every time I drew him. If you play Maverick, give this card a shot. Each of his 5 abilities was relevant and he was never a dead card.
I didn’t take notes on the matches so I won’t be able to give too much detail about my matches but my only 2 losses were to BUG and RUG. The BUG player mentioned that he only had one Darkblast in his deck, yet he had it for my turn 1 Mother of Runes each game. That card basically destroyed me and the deck is well designed to beat Maverick. I got the RUG player G1 with Mom and Wasteland, lost G2 to Sulfur Elemental and submerge, then mana flooded G3 with a loose keep, oops.
I had 2 draws, Stoneblade and Maverick-with black. Crushed the Stoneblade player game 1 with Thalia, Teeg, and Pridemages. G2 couldn’t find a Pridemage or GSZ to deal with his sworded Batterskull. G3 he stalled with 2 Snapcasters and 2 Swords to Plowshares. I was at an obscene amount of life with my Scryb Ranger and last Knight of the Reliquary in play, and he had no cards and an Elspeth in play. He made soldier tokens until we went to turns. This was terribly boring. If you play a brainstorm deck, know what cards you need and don’t waste my time. The GWB player got me after a long game 1. We agreed that that game could have gone in either players favor. I drew my 2nd Sylvan Library on the first draw of the game, and it haunted me for the rest of the match. Game 2, I crushed him with sideboard cards in 5-6 turns. Turns at the start of G3 ended with the draw.