Little known fact: Oath of the Gatewatch Standard will be the least played Standard format in recent memory (perhaps ever). If we define a major tournament to be one with a $10,000+ prize pool and well-documented coverage, then so far we have only had two major Oath of The Gatewatch Standard tournaments. The fact that we have only had two such tournaments three weeks into the format is not that surprising -- the weird thing is that there will only be three more such tournaments before Shadows Over Innistrad enters the fray. As far as major Oath of the Gatewatch Standard tournaments go, there is exactly one Open and two Grands Prix left to go.
Five tournaments, no more. For that to be all a set's Standard format gets is unheard of these days. Sure, there will be other tournaments besides these five big ones. Oath of the Gatewatch's Friday Night Magic run isn't significantly shorter than that of other small sets and there are PPTQs using this Standard format aplenty. There's even a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier that will be played in this format. But the motivation for my definition of major tournament is that only tournaments of such scope (the big cash purses) drive significant innovation and discovery. Nobody is holing up with a team of the best Magic players they know to break the format for FNM — but that's exactly what happens for Pro Tours. We didn't get an Oath of the Gatewatch Standard Pro Tour.
In a typical Standard format, the average competitive Magic player is constantly checking out new tournament developments, reading all the latest articles and discovering all the new technology they can to gain an edge at their next event. When the big events don't happen, not only is there less content produced about the format but the average grinder also has less incentive to learn what they can. Further, they have less opportunity to sear into memory the tiny details of intricate play patterns, and as such, are less sophisticated within each game and not just with their deck choice. You don't need highly evolved rules of social conduct in the wild, and you don't need tiny edges to succeed in an undeveloped metagame. This means that the average player lacks incentives to become sophisticated in this Standard format, and as such even the things that do get figured out about the format will lack the widespread adoption they would normally obtain.
Imagine a world where we had infinite time (and patience) with which to play a single Magic format. You can easily imagine that eventually we would figure out all the different viable combinations of cards and all the different single card technologies that could dramatically shift match-ups. We would reach a stable metagame where every viable deck is played in an appropriate proportion with a tuned sideboard (game theory enthusiasts might recognize this idea as an extension of Nash Equilibria). In the real world, we never hit this point. However, we do always make progress towards it as we play a format and we get closer to reaching it in some formats than in others. It's one of those diminishing return kinda things, where we make most of our progress in the beginning and level off as we get closer to the equilibrium.
When a format is played so little that each major tournament causes another huge growth of knowledge with no sign of slowing down as time goes on, I refer to that format as underplayed. Sometimes you get a format that seems to go on forever, where we get very close to the equilibrium metagame and it feels like nothing changes from week to week (Monoblack Devotion, anyone?) Those formats I call overplayed. Oath of the Gatewatch Standard is currently underplayed, with a metagame that is exceptionally difficult to anticipate, and with only three more major tournaments on the horizon, I highly doubt this format will end its time in Standard as anything other than underplayed. Today, I want to talk about how our knowledge of whether a format is over or underplayed should affect our tournament preparation process in order to maximize the edge we gain for the time we spend.
Let's start with the edge that, for most people, is the quickest to come to mind when they hear the phrase 'deck selection': metagaming/matchup positioning. That is, the edge generated by playing a deck that is advantaged against the field of decks that show up at the tournament. The potential edge to be gained here is bigger the smaller the list of viable decks in the format is. If I told you everyone at tournament X would be playing a specific deck, you would be a fool to enter that tournament with anything other than a deck engineered to beat that deck. The real world is not that clean-cut, of course, and this edge is notoriously hard to gain.
The edge that opposes metagaming is raw power. When choosing a deck on raw power, the goal is to find the best deck in a vacuum, the deck with the best win rate against the potential field as a whole but not necessarily the deck with the best win rate against the field that shows up. We often call the deck that maximizes this edge in a format the 'best deck', and the reason we are able to talk about beating the 'best deck' in an intelligent fashion is because being the best deck doesn't mean you can't be beat. Indeed, sometimes the best deck will be at an extreme disadvantage in a particular match-up -- but there aren't very many match-ups like that for the best deck. In short, the risk in maximizing your raw power edge is that you may get metagamed against, play against the guy gunning for you and have your sky-high tournament hopes get shot down very quickly.
The next most often talked about edge is unfamiliarity. This edge is based on the idea that by playing a deck your opponents are likely to be unfamiliar with you increase the equity you gain from their suboptimal play. That is, by playing a rogue deck you increase the chances that your opponents mess up. In analyzing when it is appropriate to aim for this edge, it is vital to understand exactly where this edge is gained. Contrary to popular belief, it is not from your deck being completely unknown to your opponent. If your deck is at all constructed with normal Magic deck-building theory (and to be a good choice, it has to be) your opponent will be able to figure out what your broad strategy is very quickly, even if they haven't come across your deck before. You are not going to win a Grand Prix by playing a control deck with the trappings of an aggro deck that manages to bait opponents into its wrath effects. No, the bulk of unfamiliarity edges are gained through single card interactions your opponents aren't intimately familiar with.
The inverse edge to the last one is familiarity. Here, we are concerned with knowing as much as we can about both our deck and the decks our opponents will be playing. The immediate benefit from this is being able to understand the long-term strategic posture we need to adopt in each matchup and have the tools to plan for that from turn one. As we maximize our edge in this category, we get a lot of our common sequencing and interactions down perfectly and stop needing to use as much brain power to correctly implement our tactics. This frees our thought processes up for other, more high-level concerns, like reading the opponent or concealing information about our own hand. We also significantly reduce our error rate. No one likes to lose a game or match of Magic to grabbing the wrong card or making an attack that we immediately realize wasn't the one we wanted, but more games than anyone would like are decided by things like this. The grind advantage that is familiarity turns us into Magic playing machines who make silly errors like this far less often.
There are, of course, many other different types of edges to be gained in a match of Magic. These four, however, are what I consider to be the most important ones, and the ones most affected by how much play a particular format gets. In an ideal world, we would have infinite time to prepare and would maximize each edge as much as we could until we found the optimal balance. Note that it would be a balance, as these are two spectrums of edges — you can't metagame for a format and play the deck with the most raw power, nor can you easily effectively present your opponent with completely unfamiliar territory while on absolutely stable ground yourself. I believe that the optimal balance of edges is influenced by how much play a format has received, and often use my impressions of that volume to guide me in my deck and edge selection.
In an underplayed format, the metagame is far from stable. It changes from week to week with brand new, novel decks appearing one week and disappearing the next. Effectively metagaming such a field ranges from extremely difficult to downright impossible and I do not recommend it. By all means, tune your sideboard to have decent game against the decks that did well last week, but don't risk it all on a rogue deck that crushes last week's winner. Instead, play the best deck. An unstable and hugely varied metagame necessarily means a metagame where way too many players are playing decks that simply aren't good enough. We punish them by choosing raw power and playing the best deck.
The astute reader will note the conundrum: how do you know what the best deck is in a format that hasn't yet received ample play to reach that conclusion? Ideally, the method of choice is exhaustive playtesting like that done for Pro Tours. In the real world this is fairly difficult. The good news is that often, even in underplayed formats, the community 'knows' what the best deck is long before that knowledge is reflected in metagame shares. There are always whispers of a top dog, whispers that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Right now, those whispers say the best deck is Rally. Right or wrong I cannot say, but I would start there in my testing.
Unfamiliarity is close to equalized in an underplayed format. We could play the most out-there brew in the format and our average opponent won't play much worse against it than against the deck that won last week. Looking to maximize unfamiliarity is not the way in an underplayed format. Instead, seek to increase your familiarity with the format. This is absolutely a lot of work in an underplayed format — there's so many different decks, so many interactions to learn. However, it's also the single most fertile ground of edges to be gained, the place where an hour of time spent gives you the highest win rate in exchange. Four games against every deck is better than thirty games against one; spread out your testing. Diminishing returns are a very real thing in Magic, in an underplayed format playing more than ten or so games in a single match-up is an inefficient use of time. Reach basic competence and move on; you have a lot of ground to cover.
The beautiful thing is that the culmination of all this logic means our optimal behavior is the exact opposite of the masses. When the field is wide open and absolutely anything could win the next tournament, we play the most stock lists we can find. When common wisdom dictates that only two or three decks are playable, we bring a brew. When everyone knows the ins and outs of every match-up and has finely tuned sideboards, we present them with the unknown. And when everyone is learning as they go, exploring the format the best they can, we are robots with unheard of levels of technical precision. When the format zigs, we zag.
You know you're on the right track when a train of focused logic leads you to the same conclusion pronounced centuries ago by the great Sun Tzu:
Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.
Thanks for reading,