Non-Meta Decks? In this Meta?

Michael "Pioneer Brewer" Schwander goes into the ups and downs of playing unconventional decks in events.

Where to Start?

So you are headed to the next big SCGCon or Regional Qualifier and looking for a deck to play. You look at the current meta and the options are so wide open that you get overwhelmed. One way to combat this decision paralysis is to just play a deck that plays to your strengths, even if it’s considered “off-meta”. But what happens when someone online says that the Strixhaven Stadium combo deck that you’ve been playing for months doesn’t stack up against the current meta? I’m here today to talk about why playing the deck that suits you might be better than playing a common, tiered list, and more importantly to embrace the jank.

How do I beat Meta Decks with Jank?

There are many options in front of you as you look to build within the Pioneer card pool.  Some call them jank or rogue strategies, but fun can still be had with the right brew. If you start off with a build or even a specific card people are not expecting, your opponent may not be able to deal with it or your deck as a whole. A prominent aspect of playing competitively is anticipating your opponent’s plays and maneuvering around them. An opponent may be able to deal with your creature, but if they choose the wrong creature at the wrong time they can be overwhelmed by the axis that they weren’t prepared for when they made that play. This concept stretches your opponent’s interaction suite and contorts their mind by making them think critically every turn instead of allowing them to engage auto-pilot. This is generally known in the business as the “Rogue Deck Advantage”.

As an Example, the top-tier control decks in the format typically focus on removing your creatures from the battlefield. How can you deal with that? Well, you can deal with the targeted removal with something like Gladecover Scout. This little hexproof one-drop can be a nuisance for many fatal pushes and portable holes alike. Your opponent won’t be able to target it and if you can throw some auras or equipment on it, it can become a serious threat. Now, this strategy is not without its own weaknesses, as it is vulnerable to things like board wipes or sacrifice effects. You can mitigate some of these weaknesses, but going into a game knowing what can stop you  and being prepared for it beforehand can be an excellent path around it. To skirt board wipes and sacrifice spells, you could run cards that would cause your creature to phase out, for instance Phasing made a comeback in the past few years and has a few choice cards that might be helpful in protecting your creatures. This strategy on the whole is an excellent way to combat a metagame dominated by grindy midrange strategies who look to use their removal spells to allow their threat suite to give them advantage.

If hexproof isn’t your idea of a fun time, there are a myriad of other strategies in the format that are yet to be fully explored. Say that you like a more control-oriented strategy, you could build around Waste Not and make your opponent discard their hand while gaining value for each card they discard. Combining that with Tergrid, God of Fright, you can steal all of the permanents they discard. Running this type of deck also gives you easier access to something like Invoke Despair. While not being a game-ending card, it can be devastating in the right situation. By analyzing the metagame that you’re expecting, you can find the weaknesses in its top decks and build to suit and exploit those weaknesses. 

Another strategy that suits more of a midrange or combo-oriented player can be made with Grinning Ignus, Birgi, God of Storytelling / Hazoret’s Monument, and  Altar of the Brood. These three cards form the basis of a mono-red mill deck that your opponent will certainly not be expecting. Jank as it may seem, it is yet another example of a combination of cards that opponent’s aren’t prepared for and may not be packing answers to as the deck is not at all common. This deck, as with all decks, has a general weakness to one of the macro archetypes in the format in the control variants. Their seemingly endless supply of counter and removal spells makes fighting them with this relatively fragile three-card combo a daunting task. To improve your odds against this sort of matchup, redundancy is an excellent tool to take advantage of. Cards like Devilish Valet and Witty Roastmaster from New Capenna interact favorably with the Birgo / Ignus combo in lieu of the extremely fragile Altar of the Brood, on top of being just solid cards in their own right. Just as you build your deck to attack the weaknesses of the macro archetypes in your metagame, you need to also compensate for your own weaknesses.

How to compete with the best of the best?

When brewing a new deck, it’s important to keep in mind the decks that you will likely be regularly facing. At the time of writing, the top decks in a general metagame are currently Mono-Green Karn and Naya Winota. Karn, The Great Creator  shuts down any artifact with activated abilities and Winota floods the battlefield with powerful humans quickly. You will likely see one or two of these decks in a tournament on average with the possibility of playing against them throughout the event, so being prepared is a must. This can be accomplished with some sideboard cards that hate on specific match-ups (for example, Graveyard hate), cards that slow down or even stop your opponent from casting multiple spells in a single turn (Damping Sphere style taxing effects), or that certain counterspell that stops a combo in its tracks like Dovin’s Veto.

No deck has a favorable matchup against every other deck in the format, but selecting the decks that you’re willing to lose against because you’re underprepared is an important aspect of deck building. Aggro decks are generally good against control, while control has favorable matchups against midrange build, and midrange more often than not bests aggro while combo sits somewhere in the middle of the three. Looking at the metagame at large, and comparing the strengths of the decks you expect to see against the weaknesses of the deck that you’re building is a massive step toward leveling up as a player and deck builder. 

Why play Rogue/Jank over meta?

There are a number of reasons to play an “off-meta” deck. You could want to build a deck to beat a specific deck that is plaguing your local scene, maybe you’re curious if you can make a combo from a different format work even though you don’t have all of the same pieces, or maybe you just found your old standard nonsense pile and you want to take it back out for a spin in this new ever-evolving Pioneer landscape. There’s also the chance that you’re only able to work within a limited budget. Many cards and decks become expensive due to simple supply and demand, so it isn’t always the easiest ask to jump straight in and build a tiered deck from the get-go. This game has become undeniably expensive over the past few years and pioneer has become notably more edollar-demanding since the announcement of Organized Play returning with a focus on Pioneer. We all have lives and other responsibilities that take precedence over Magic The Gathering, but that does not mean you cannot still enjoy the game or compete. Whatever your specific reasons, playing with a rogue strategy is not only viable, but sometimes just the correct choice for a given environment or situation.

Final thoughts

The pioneer meta is the best place for brewing up new and fun decks. The top of the meta is of course full of strong and balanced decks. Even so, there is room for a new deck to come in and tear face at any moment. Brewing can be very fun and extremely rewarding, and many players dedicate their entire Magic careers to the subject. Building a deck out of a pet card or finding a fun combo that others don’t see can help you learn and grow as a Magic player. The deck you build may also add to the pioneer meta game in some way too, whether it be thanks to a sideboard card that disrupts one of the top-tier decks in an unexpected way or that the build as a whole is something that people aren’t prepared for. In any case, new decks don’t come out without brewers, so make sure to keep brewing and keep the innovation alive.

  • Author

    Michael "Pioneer Brewer" Schwander Playing jank decks since 1999. From the first pack of Prophecy he opened from a Wizard Magazine, he has been digging into off-the-wall strategies some would call "cute" - that is, until those people get hit with 20 damage on turn two from an Ornitopter equipped two Colossus Hammers.

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