Commander is a highly localized format, meaning you generally know who your opponents are, and what decks they’re playing. This is largely because there is little tournament support for commander, and much of the play is done in a playgroup setting. As long as you’re playing among friends, or even if you’re playing in the same weekly tournament you play in every week, you can abuse your foreknowledge of what decks you will play against to get an edge.
There are three types of metagaming. The first kind, archetypical metagaming, is when you decide what archetype will perform well in your meta. If you’re set on what kind of deck you want to play, or what gameplan you want to have, then you’ve already moved past selecting your archetype.
There are a few rules to archetypical metagaming. The first is that you want to be relatively unique. If you’re the fourth storm deck in a small playgroup, your opponents are already playing a fair amount of disruption for storm with things like Trinisphere, and putting another storm deck into the meta will only increase the amount of storm disruption. On the other hand, if you’re the first player trying to win with Doomsday, you should be fine.
Another important rule of thumb is to play something that can interact meaningfully with your meta. If your meta has a few Hermit Druid, Prossh, and High Tide decks running around, something with stack control is much better. Conversely, if there’s a bunch of blue control, you could try playing a midrange deck with a strong value engine, filled with cards like Phyrexian Arena. Don’t forget about the archetype clock. Aggro beats control beats combo beats aggro. In EDH, this can be replaced with “Midrange beats Stax beats Spellslinger beats Midrange,” where “midrange” means a deck focused on redundancy, resilience, and board state, “stax” means a deck focused on resource denial and mana efficiency, and “spellslinger” means a deck that combos off in one turn with the help of enablers like Doomsday, High Tide, or Ad Nauseam.
There’s not much meat to archetype metagaming, so let’s move on to the second kind of metagaming, deck select. Imagine you are trying to build GBx reanimator, and you’re having trouble choosing a Commander, or even your colors. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we’re choosing between Jarad and Karador. These are decks of approximately equal strength, with very similar playstyles. Here are sample decklists:
Now, to decide which one we play, we have to look at the differences between them. In my mind, there are two significant differences between Jarad and Karador. Let us begin by examining our win-conditions. In Jarad, the primary win-condition is Necrotic Ooze combo, with Triskelion and Phyrexian Devourer in your graveyard. In Karador, the primary win-condition is some sort of Reveillark loop, typically assembled using Boonweaver Giant (finding Pattern of Rebirth every time) and a sacrifice outlet. Let’s examine the differences.
Firstly, NOoze combo is much harder to interrupt. Something like Path to Exile just won’t cut it, since I can kill you in response to the spell. If my Ooze is on an Animate Dead, you can’t even Krosan Grip it, since I can kill you in response to the “Sacrifice Enchanted Creature” trigger. The combo works through Torpor Orb too. This makes Jarad’s combo a bit better against decks that play spot removal.
On the other hand, Boonweaver is just a little bit easier to assemble. All you need to do is put a Pattern of Rebirth into play (maybe via Academy Rector) and find a sacrifice outlet. To assemble NOoze combo, you need Buried Alive + Some version of Reanimate or Survival of the Fittest. Since Boonweaver is a bit easier to pull off, Karador is a bit better at racing other decks.
The second significant difference between the decks is the disruption suite. More specifically, Karador’s increased focus on creatures and addition of white allows for a hatebear suite.
Thalia, Teeg, and Linvala are all invaluable ways to stop your opponents, especially in the early game. Jarad, however, gets to run lots of removal. Things like Beast Within and Snuff Out are some of the best disruption for permanent-based decks. Additionally, since Jarad doesn’t have to play so many creatures, he can play sweepers. Toxic Deluge and Living Death are insane against value-based creature decks, including opposing Karador.
These differences make Karador significantly better against some of the speediest decks in the format, like Ad Nauseam and Druid. On the other hand, Jarad has an edge against slow decks like stax, midrange, and control that Karador just doesn’t get. So, if you want to build GBx graveyard, you need to look at your opponents to decide if Karador or Jarad is the pick for your meta.
The final kind of metagaming is fine tuning. Here, you’re going to decide what answers you’re going to play to your opponents. This is of course very deck dependent. A deck like Sharuum isn’t going to run Grafdigger’s Cage. But it’s even more meta dependent. Even something that doesn’t get hurt by Grafdigger’s Cage isn’t going to run it in a meta with no reanimator.
One thing you’ll definitely want to do is run cards that are broad answers. Pithing Needle, for example, is really good against some decks like Yisan or Teferi, but even outside of those matchups it has use. You can often Pithing Needle to stop someone’s combo, or even just use it on a utility land like Academy Ruins. Similarly, Nihil Spellbomb is often the goto grave hate piece in black decks, since even if you’re up against three decks with no graveyard recursion, it still at least cantrips.
What to Metagame Against
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t actually be metagaming against the most common decks in your meta. You shouldn’t even be metagaming against the best ones. In formats with sideboards, you dedicate more sideboard slots to your worse matchups. You should be metagaming against the decks that beat you most consistently, the ones that give you the most trouble.
For example, imagine you are playing an Arcum Dagsson deck in a meta with 50% midrange decks, 30% stax decks, and 20% storm decks. Now, the midrange decks you can beat easily since you have high redundancy and resilience, and the stax decks don’t have a ton of ways to meaningfully affect you since you don’t have to resolve any spells after you resolve your commander. The storm decks, on the other hand, are giving you serious trouble, because you have to commit your early-game pressure to tapping out and establishing board presence. The solution here is to run more answers for the storm decks, since if you can get past the first critical turns of the game, you can leave up mana for countermagic. Add something like 3-Sphere or Sphere of Resistance and bam, you have an easily tutorable answer that beats your worst matchups.
Make your specific answers hard to get around. Many times people jam more counterspells in their decks hoping this will stop Storm. Unfortunately, Storm plays a number of counterspells themselves, and they’re probably cheaper than yours because they’re specifically in the deck to deal with opposing disruption (like Dispel, Swan Song, and Flusterstorm). On the other hand, Storm has a pretty hard time getting around something like a resolved Eidolon of Rhetoric. Similarly, graveyard decks have a much harder time interacting with Faerie Macabre than Scavenging Ooze, and artifact decks have a much harder time interacting with Bane of Progress than Kataki.
One Final Note
You want your answers to work with the internal synergy of your deck. This means that if you’re playing a green deck with a creature theme, Scavenging Ooze is much better than Tormod’s Crypt. You’ll be able to tutor it much more easily, and it will have better internal synergy with your deck. Even in situations where none of your opponents are graveyard decks, at the least it will still give you Derevi triggers or pitch to Survival of the Fittest.
Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about the three kinds of metagaming. Archetypical, deck-select, and fine-tuning. Keep in mind that these all apply at different levels. Archetypical applies before you know what you’re going to play, deck-select while you’re considering different builds of the same style of deck, and fine-tuning when you’re updating an already existent list.
The main rules to keep in mind is 1) Be different than existing threats, and 2) Metagame to the threats that you need to care about, not the meta overall.
Until next time!