Pressures of a Metagame

Written by coboney on January 20, 2012

Pressures of a Metagame

The metagame – that all inclusive term we use to say ‘the decks most played in this format and how they interact’. Yet what truly creates the metagame and how can we better understand its limitations and weaknesses?

All metagames can be simply viewed as a set of decks producing questions (threats) and answers (… answers). Sometimes a threat can be both a threat and an answer if the situation is right and vice-versa. Each metagame is shaped by the pressures put on it by each of those areas that can be broken down into separate categories – or pressure points. Both answers and threats provide pressure points on the format which condenses the format from all decks are equal into the relatively limited band of decks that form the metagame.

Using the current Standard environment we can see the makeup of a metagame at a relatively dead period of innovation with a Modern PTQ season coming up and no new set for another while.


Threats can be broken down as there are various ways to produce them. These are cards that require answers generally speaking and we’re not just speaking of damage but of other means that can produce victory.

The first pressure point is the cheap creature. This is your defining 1 or 2 drop (or 3 in a slower format) that produces quick pressure requiring the opposing deck to answer or fall behind significantly tempo-wise. Currently in Standard there aren’t a ton of these – but Delver of Illusions and Stormfront Berserker are fine examples. Older examples would include things like Goblin Guide, Wild Nacatl, Kird Ape or Hypnotic Specter which in the proper format produced quick threats.

The second pressure point is the big creature. These generally cost 4-6 mana and serve as finishers for aggro or control. Harder to cast but more explosive, they require an answer immediately or else the game is over – unlike the cheap creature who is based around providing a tempo advantage (typically speaking). While I use creature here, Planeswalkers could also count or other spells that produce big threats. Some examples from current Standard would be Thrun, the Last Troll (sadly, this is not referring to internet trolls and hence decimation of the internet populace was averted), Sun Titan and White Sun’s Zenith. Older examples include some of the more iconic creatures in magic – such as Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Morphling or Serra’s Angel.

Another pressure point is manabase disruption. This is not where you run a few Ghost Quarters to answer problem lands but where you make a dedicated point of applying pressure on your opponent’s manabase. Wizards has printed less and less of these in modern times and in the standard metagame there is no deck that really pressures your manabase. Most recently was Conley Woods Magical Christmasland which attacked vulnerable manabases for the small period of time that everyone thought it was an actual deck. Stone Rain, Molten rain and similar cards in older formats produce this pressure point.

A final example of a threat pressure point that will seem a bit odd is card advantage. Why is this a pressure point? Because in any given format the control decks are defined by answers and the ability to out grind opponents - with card advantage being the cleanest way to do so. Hence, the amount of card advantage in any given match (especially control matches) is a pressure on the format for how quickly they have to kill you before you just simply win by having far too many options.

There are of course many other threat pressure points but the key to these pressure points is that they require your opponent to answer them in a timely manner or they will be unable to emerge victorious. With that defined we can then look at the pressure points Answers put on the format.


The first one that many will think of is counterspells. These are one of the staple format pressure points that defines what threats will and will not be played. The effectiveness of counterspells is always worth watching as the less pressure they apply, the more likely the format is to enter into a midrange quagmire. This is typically defined by the best and then second best counterspell and how you can negate or play around them. Currently the counter pressure point is occupied by Mana Leak in Standard – requiring players to play threats that can go through it, have enough threat density or wait till they can pay. Dissipate is the second counter and shows that counter heavy decks in the format have an issue – they don’t have multiple cheap counters and with nothing behind that the pressure point here can be seen to be powerful but not deep for a modern-era Standard format.

An additional pressure point of answers is removal. Another format staple – what different decks have as removal options (some like burn spells moonlight as threats) puts pressure on how efficient a creature has to be and how important various protection abilities are. If the format features Lightning Bolt and Doom Blade as removal spells red control decks would get a boost into the band while black would take a bit of a hit. Creatures with toughness of 4 or more would also become more played due to passing the Bolt threshold and so forth.

Discard is a proactive answer that puts a pressure point on expensive threats in particular. The amount and efficiency of discard in any given format can significantly warp a format around it as it provides an answer before the threat is known and can be done before your opponent has attempted to threaten you - which often tosses them off of their game plan by disrupting the tempo they had been planning to threaten you with. In the current Standard format, there is no one great discard card so the pressure is like it is in many format – affected by the types of cards it can hit. Smallpox and Liliana are of the opponent’s choice, and Despise only hits creatures or planeswalkers.

So what can we learn from all of this? The construction of the metagame and why certain cards don’t work like we’d like them too. It is another tool that perhaps you already use subconsciously when coming to understand a metagame but rather then examining it deck by deck – examine it pressure point by pressure point.

Thanks for reading and until next time,

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by Mitchmachine on 2012-01-20 21:00 CET

well done

by darkwizard42 on 2012-01-21 09:43 CET

mini article is mini, and quite informative, I hope this is the beginning of a series of insights by the most infamous Canadian!!

by Conkisstador on 2012-01-21 10:11 CET

Does this say anything? I mean everything here makes sense, but it doesn't really offer advice except a broad piece-this-together-yourself concluding sentence.
Perhaps it also needs a paragraph for cards that play around threats and answers (and why Moorland Haunt is one of the most dominant Standard cards EVER; it is a threat that plays around all answers you described and needs its own answer.)

by coboney on 2012-01-21 14:26 CET

Conkisstador - the article came to me as I was chatting with some people and then decided to write. The idea with it is not to look at metagame decks as a whole but understand what lies beneath it and why the metagame is as it is. Once you can understand that theoretically - you know why the decks work and what should defeat or apply pressure to them.

This was basically a pretty basic theory piece meant to change perspectives of analyzing decks or open a new way of looking at it.

As for Moorland haunt - non-basic lands that present create tokens are always a threat that leads to inevitability. There are ways to answer it depending no the format. In current T2 - you have Ghost Quarters, graveyard hate (such as Nihil Spellbomb and friends). So the idea here is to identify whats applying the finishing pressure - and its graveyard moves by Moorland Haunt for some matches - so what can you do to counter act that as you've Identified the problem.

by magicrichi on 2012-01-25 15:57 CET

conkisstador bieng an idiot like always
gj cob :D

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