Driving an hour to lose round one never feels good, but it was a close match and you're still live to win the tournament. Besides, now that you've lost a round you won't see another tough opponent until the Top 8. Or so you tell yourself, at least. Your next round opponent bears this out, managing to drop a Prism Ring on the table as he shuffles his deck. You smirk to yourself, knowing that this round will be a breeze. Prism Ring? That card's not even playable in Limited, right? You lose the die roll and your seven is really slow, but you figure you can't possible lose to a Prism Ring deck, so you keep it anyway. Sixty minutes later you're on the road again, driving home and wondering where you went wrong.
Playing against fringe decks can be one of the more frustrating experiences in Magic. There's a specific kind of helplessness you feel as you realize you are losing to cards you hadn't even known were legal, let alone good. We spend our time preparing for the popular decks, for the cards we expect to play against. This is the preparation strategy with the highest expected value, but sometimes you get burned. Of course, in a perfect world you would have enough time to scour internet forums for every fringe deck idea and playtest against all of them, but in reality, no one has that kind of time. Your lack of knowledge is one of the edges pilots of fringe decks get to exploit, but there are tricks you can employ to minimize the value they get from it.
So, where did our hero go wrong earlier? You could say that their mistake was in preparation, that they should have known that Mono-Blue Prison was a deck, but I think that's unreasonable. Soon that deck might very well be a tournament staple, but despite its recent success it is not yet at that point. It is not mandatory reading for the PPTQ grinder. No, our hero's mistake was in letting their guard down when they thought their opponent was playing a pile of draft commons. Affording your opponent a minimum measure of respect no matter how bad you think their cards are costs you nothing and prevents you from making mistakes of Hubris like keeping bad hands. Doing otherwise is one of the many ego traps in Magic, where we combat variance's toll on our psyche by telling ourselves that we are better than our opponent, that we deserve the win. Embrace the chaos and make your peace with variance in other ways, as here there be monsters (and losses).
You need to respect the fact that your opponent is a thinking human being who brought a deck capable of winning the match to the table, but you can easily swing too far in this direction. If you start believing that your opponent is a Magic savant who brought a stone cold metagame destroyer to the tournament you will be putting yourself at a severe disadvantage. Thinking like this leads you to start overvaluing interaction. You get into this mindset that you need to stop whatever it is your opponent is doing, even if you don't understand what that is. Indeed, the unknown aspect to their plan is part of what makes it so scary and tricks you into stopping it at all costs.
The truth is, fringe decks are fringe for a reason. Not always, and sometimes a fringe deck will break out and become a respected part of the metagame in the near future, but that's the exception, not the rule. The odds are good that your game plan, whatever it is, is a stronger plan than your fringe opponents'. Typically you will see more success if you attempt to implement your deck's plan as quickly as possible rather than stop your opponents'; you can interfere with their machinations by reducing their life total to zero. Every resource you devote to interacting with your opponent is a resource you're not devoting to ending the game as quickly as possible. And you can't even be 100% certain that you're interacting with the right pieces at the right time, because you are not nearly as practiced in this particular matchup as your opponent is. Executing your plan is a sure bet, and one that will garner you many wins.
You could read this article and get all fired up about the idea of never losing to fringe decks. If you spent the next week researching all the fringe decks and the week after that testing against them, you could probably ensure that you were never caught off guard again. Well, at least until the release of Eldritch Moon. Magic is always changing, and the exact fringe decks floating around the edges of the metagame will always be in Flux. However, like there is in most of Magic, there are exploitable patterns in the style of most fringe decks. The bulk of all fringe decks (~80%) falls into one of two camps: fringe aggro and fringe combo. The other 20% is comprised of fringe midrange and fringe control. Midrange and control decks are harder styles to build fringe versions of simply because these archetypes depend so heavily on raw card quality. The best cards in any format find homes in Tier 1 decks, and these are the cards that power midrange and control decks. Fringe decks in these styles typically just combine the known good cards of the format in new ways. As such, when you play against these fringe decks you are not at much of a disadvantage, as you already know all the cards.
Fringe aggro is a whole other animal. Here card quality is not nearly as important, as synergy can carry aggressive strategies past the finish line. These decks generally rely on a strange or unorthodox creature lineup backed up by a lot of the same spells you are used to seeing. Alternatively, these decks incorporate blue and play a strange tempo game that we don't often see at the top of Standard. Regardless, your strategy should be the same: keep your life total high and trade as much as possible. By virtue of playing a typical meta deck you have the advantage of a higher average card quality. If you trade cards one-for-one with your opponent, your better cards will dominate a depopulated board. If you let them populate the board, often they will have access to a swingy breakthrough card that will let them end the game. These decks tend to fold when their creatures are dealt with, left with a handful of disruption and support that they can't use profitably without a creature. Often the optimal gameplan against these decks ends up being a one-swing finish, where you stay defensive until you gain such a significant board advantage until you can end the game in one swing.
Saito's U/R Flash deck that he piloted to a Top 32 finish at Grand Prix Minneapolis is a great example of the fringe aggro archetype. The spells are all cards we've seen in other places, with a creature base that is way off most players' radars. If this deck can count on its two drop flier to deal six damage over the course of the game, it's easy to imagine Goldnight Castigator, Fevered Visions, and Exquisite Firecraft finishing the job. If the initial onslaught is stymied, it's harder to visualize the win. This deck has no card draw and relies heavily on its opening hand. Indeed, the main thing this deck trades away for its fringe status and gameplan is resiliency. If you prioritize managing its creatures and are able to do so through the deck's disruption, you will find yourself comfortably ahead.
The mono-blue prison deck, on the other hand, is a fantastic example of fringe combo. Fringe combo consists of decks that are seeking to exploit an atypical interaction to win games of Magic, typically in the late game. The fact that they win in the late game is a consequence of the fact that if their combo was good enough to close the game out earlier, the deck wouldn't be fringe. As such, these decks nearly always have a strong survival component. In the case of this Standard's mono-blue prison deck, the survival component is the combination of Prism Ring and Engulf the Shore. The next component they will incorporate is how they win the game, the combo they are based around. Despite being the base of their deck, this aspect is less important for you to worry about, as your plan will be to win before it comes online. Lastly, these decks will always have some kind of card filtering to find the cards they need, and they might have some kind of mana engine to deploy their expensive cards quicker.
Beating these decks involves presenting the fastest clock you can at all times while always being able to rebuild quickly after they deploy their survival card. If your deck is capable of interacting with their victory condition you can try to go that route but pilots of these decks will always be prepared for that and you shouldn't expect your answer to be good every time you draw it. Killing them first will always be the most dependable answer. Interacting with their mana, on the other hand, is a fantastic idea. Interfering with their mana early can easily buy you three turns for a very cheap cost. Leaving Dromoka's Command in against the mono-blue Prison deck may seem suspect, but when you consider that it can answer Jace's Sanctum it seems more reasonable. Similarly, fighting their card filtering can buy you time, but you have to be sure doing so doesn't slow down your progress towards ending the game by more than you are prolonging it. Putting solid pressure on them at all points has to be your first priority.
Thanks for reading,