One of the ways I've been most successful in Magic over the past few years has been in deck selection. I've done a generally good job of picking decks to play for bigger tournaments. In formats like Modern and Legacy, this generally just involves picking what I consider to be the most powerful or broken strategy without much regard for what decks others might play. In Standard, metagaming comes into play.
One major part of metagaming is to determine what Level players are going to be on, and then selecting the right Level to fight them. In well-balanced formats, each Level is like a choice in rock, paper, scissors. Whichever deck you select will have advantages over some decks and disadvantages against others. It's only in unbalanced formats where one deck might just have an edge over all or nearly all the other decks, and in that case, you should just play that deck.
One thing that is important to note is that what Level a deck falls into isn't something that just remains static throughout a format's lifespan. As a format evolves, some decks rise to more prominence while others can completely change their role in the format or even drop out of the format altogether. Keeping up with those changes and being open to realizing that your favorite deck now occupies a different role in the format is important for knowing when you need to update your build or even find a new deck altogether.
Generally speaking there are only really three Levels to any given format. Level 1 is the typically accepted best deck or decks of the format. Level 2 is comprised of decks that have a good matchup against the Level 1 decks, and Level 3 is made up of decks that beat Level 2 decks. It's rare that there are any Levels beyond that, because Level 4 would be decks that are good against the Level 3 decks, and that usually just applies to Level 1. If the format shifts enough to where a lot of players are playing Level 3 strategies to beat up on Level 2 decks, then you'll just want to end up playing the Level 1 decks again. Let's start at the top.
This Level is made up of the baseline strategy of the format. This is the deck or decks that people are most tuned to beat. Players' main decks are going to be slanted toward beating this strategy with sideboards more designed to prey on other decks.
In our current standard format, this is occupied by Ramunap Red.
Ramunap Red was absolutely dominant at the Pro Tour and immediately became the go-to deck to beat in this Standard format. Ramunap Red is a very beatable deck, as we've seen, but it's still a good deck, even with people aiming to beat it.
That's something to keep in mind about Level 1 decks. It's rarely a horrible choice to just play the Level 1 strategy, because the reason a deck becomes the baseline strategy is because it's a great deck, and great decks are generally resilient to a lot of the hate people throw at them. Still, it's usually only a poor choice to play a Level 1 strategy if you expect a very high density of Level 2 decks in the field. In that case, you're going to face a lot of decks that are skewed to hate on your deck or that have a natural edge against your deck.
It's best to play a Level 1 strategy in a few situations. The first is when a format is wide open or undefined. In those scenarios, while a few people might come prepared to beat you, there are also going to be a lot of players playing random decks that don't have a good matchup against your streamlined strategy. The last Pro Tour was a good example of this. Many teams and players knew how good Ramunap Red was, but there were also a lot of players who didn't realize how good the deck was or how much they needed to skew their deck to be able to beat it. There were enough people playing random decks or decks that weren't tuned properly to beat Ramunap Red to where the red deck was the right choice.
The other time it's great to play a Level 1 strategy is when the metagame has shifted enough to start preying on Level 2 strategies. Generally, the way this works is that right after a dominant performance by a Level 1 deck, such as six copies of Ramunap Red in the Top 8 of the last Pro Tour, the next event is going to consist largely of Level 2 strategies. People are going to come to the next tournament expecting to play against a lot of Ramunap Red and they are going to come with very hateful anti-decks. The Level 1 deck is going to have a poor performance and Level 2 decks are going to be dominant. We saw this in Grand Prix Minneapolis, with Black-Green Constrictor and Zombies, both Level 2 strategies, in the finals of the event.
What generally happens next is that less and less players play the Level 1 strategy because of how prevalent the Level 2 strategies have become. This causes savvy players to shift to playing Level 3 strategies, which beat up on the suddenly popular Level 2 decks. If you can correctly predict a shift to Level 3, that's when it becomes a great idea to "just throw rock again" or in other words, go back to playing the Level 1 deck. Usually these Level 3 strategies are weak to Level 1, but they take a risk that Level 1 isn't going to show up in high numbers, and stick to preying on the currently popular Level 2 decks.
This Level is comprised of decks that have a good matchup against Level 1. In our current format, this Level consists primarily of Constrictor and Zombies.
Mono-White Crested Sunmare strategies also fall into Level 2, although that deck is more of a fringe player than a major part of the metagame. Both Zombies and Constrictor have a pretty reasonable matchup against Ramunap Red. It's not a slam dunk matchup for either deck, by any stretch, but it's certainly one that can be considered favorable, and that is a large reason why you would choose to play Zombies or Constrictor in an event.
Usually Level 2 strategies are built with Level 1 in mind. That means their main deck is pretty slanted toward beating whatever the Level 1 deck is, with a sideboard full of high-impact cards that are supposed to help shore up some of the bad matchups from Level 3.
One important consideration when choosing to play a Level 2 deck is to pick the Level 2 deck that beats the other Level 2 decks. Crested Sunmare strategies, for example, are quite good against Ramunap Red, but I know that Zombies is favored against them, which is certainly a knock against playing the deck. Likewise, I believe Zombies to be ever-so-slightly favored against Constrictor strategies, making it effectively the king of Level 2 choices. It beats up on Level 1, and it has a slight edge against other Level 2 decks. Where this starts to get a little tricky is when you want to factor Level 3 into the mix. Constrictor, while being slightly worse against other Level 2 strategies, certainly is way better against Level 3 strategies than the inflexible Zombies deck.
Generally speaking, if beating Level 3 is a giant concern, it may be time to hang up your favorite Level 2 strategy. At the SCG Standard Classic in Richmond last weekend, I did exactly that. I had been playing Zombies for a long time, including playing the undead hordes in two different Magic Online Championship Series events, but I decided to give up the goose and play Temur Energy instead. I was starting to become far less successful with Zombies than I had previously been, and this was largely due to a huge rise in Level 3 strategies which Zombies struggled against. If the format shifts again, back towards a resurgence in Ramunap Red, then I might dig back out my 20 swamps.
Level 3 decks are strategies that accept a bad matchup against the best decks in order to prey on the decks that beat those decks. Choosing to play a Level 3 deck is a purely metagame call. A Level 3 deck isn't the best deck in the format and actually has a weak matchup against those best decks. A Level 3 deck is the deck you want to play when you predict that the format is going to be heavily saturated with Level 2. Playing a Level 3 deck is always a huge risk, however. If you're wrong about your metagame call and people show up with a lot of Level 1, then you're going to get your scissors broken by the unyielding power of rock.
Level 3 strategies in this format include decks like Blue-Red Control, White-Blue Approach of the Second Sun Control, Red-Green Ramp and Temur Energy.
Frequently, Level 3 strategies tend to be very linear or non-traditional strategies. Oftentimes Level 3 decks are designed to exploit a flaw that nearly all Level 2 decks have. For example, in our current format, Level 2 decks are forced to be built with a lot of removal spells to beat Ramunap Red, and so a lot of the Level 3 decks are decks like ramp or control that ignore or invalidate all of those removal spells from Level 2 decks.
Temur Energy goes against the mold of the other Level 3 decks. Temur Energy is one of the weaker Level 3 decks against other Level 3 strategies, but yet has a great matchup against all the Level 2 decks. Temur Energy makes up for being weaker against other Level 3 decks by having a better matchup against Level 1 than the other Level 3 decks do. Temur Energy is actually reasonable against Ramunap Red, whereas a lot of these control decks just kind of roll over and die to the red deck.
I've very rarely played Level 3 decks historically. Level 3 decks carry such a high Level of inherent risk and they are generally weaker strategies on pure power Level alone than Level 1 or Level 2 decks. They just are in the right place at the right time. The danger of trying to play the right Level 3 deck is that you have to be confident that you're correct about your metagame prediction. If you mess it up, it's game over, man. The timing has to be perfect.
However, I think our current Standard format is one where you can get away with playing a Level 3 deck if you aren't too wildly off in your metagame prediction. The reason for this is that the power level of the various decks in this format are all fairly uniform. Level 3 decks aren't significantly weaker than the Level 1 Ramunap Red strategy, whereas in some previous formats, decks like Mardu Vehicles or Aetherworks Marvel were so much more powerful than Level 3 decks that if you guessed wrong you would just horribly die.
If you guess wrong and bring a Level 3 deck when you're not supposed to, at least you can fall back on your deck not being significantly lower in power level than the best decks and can maybe steal wins in bad matchups that way.
In Level 2, it was important to consider playing the Level 2 deck that was the best against other Level 2 decks in addition to beating the Level 1 deck. That philosophy doesn't hold as well for Level 3. If you're going to choose to play a Level 3 deck, you're doing it because you're expecting a very high saturation of Level 2 decks. In that scenario, there aren't going to be too many other people playing Level 3 strategies. They are instead going to be hopefully playing Level 2 decks that you beat. Level 3 strategies also tend to be more unpredictable decks that it is tough to sideboard or metagame against. I wouldn't worry a whole lot about how your Level 3 deck does against other Level 3 decks but rather focus on picking the Level 3 deck that is the absolute strongest against the Level 2 decks and is capable of handling some backlash in case the Level 2 players decide to dedicate their sideboard to beating your Level 3 strategy.
It's also preferable to pick a Level 3 deck that can actually hope to beat a Level 1 deck should you get that unfortunate pairing. Sometimes Level 3 decks are so heavily skewed against Level 2 that they are pretty close to 0% to beat the Level 1 deck. Those are rarely decks I will play in an event, preferring instead to choose a Level 3 deck that can actually beat Level 1 a more reasonable amount of the time.
Level 4 is the Cow Level. This Level is comprised of cow tribal decks and nothing else. Cow Tribal decks are designed to prey on Level 3, Level 2, Level 1, and everything else that could ever hope to compare in power Level to the unbeatable strength of the united cow.
In actuality, Level 4 is basically just Level 1 again. Since Level 3 decks typically aren't great against Level 1 strategies, Level 4 is to just play Level 1 decks again if too many people have swung the pendulum enough to choose to play a Level 3 deck.
In other words, metagaming is a very cyclical process, and a healthy format might swing around the Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 circle a few times before reaching its conclusion. It's also perfectly plausible and quite likely that the decks that comprise Levels 1, 2, and 3 will alter throughout a format's lifespan. Ramunap Red is the de-facto Level 1 deck right now, but it is a streamlined aggressive deck that doesn't have a lot of room to evolve. Other strategies, like various control or midrange decks, have a lot of room in how they can be built, and it's certainly possible that over the course of this Standard format, one of those decks will find the right formula and dethrone Ramunap Red as the Level 1 deck. When that happens, a deck like Ramunap Red could find itself as a Level 3 deck, beating up on the decks that can fight the current Level 1 deck, but struggling to beat that deck itself.
Choosing the right deck to play for a tournament involves an understanding of what Level various decks fall into as well as a prediction of what Level other competitors are going to be on for that event. It changes over time, so it's important to keep pace with the format's changes and evolutions. The best way to do this is to look at decklists from tournaments in paper and on Magic Online to see what is currently trending, and try to have a good understanding of which decks beat which other decks to understand why certain decks will pick up or wane in popularity.
And when in doubt, it's rarely wrong to just pick up and play a great Level 1 deck. Going too deep into metagaming and trying to figure out what Level to be on when it's unclear what others will play often means that the only Level you end up on is Leveling yourself.
- Brian Braun-Duin