Overcoming the Triangle Meta

In recent weeks I’ve heard this format be compared to a game of Rock Paper Scissors in that there are three main decks, none of which of a favorable matchup against the other decks in the meta. It’d be theoretically impossible to consistently perform well in this type of meta; however, the Rock Paper Scissors analogy only accounts for a single level of the meta. This week I want to teach you how to take what you know about a particular triangle format and examine it on multiple layers to overcome the triangle format. This is the approach I used to win the YCS in Anaheim.


The Basic Triangle

On the most basic level we can make this generalization:

Qliphort > Shaddoll

Shaddoll > Burning Abyss

Burning Abyss > Qliphort

Of course > just implies a favorable matchup, not that one deck beats the other every single time.

qliphort diskHow Favorable is Matchup?

If we go another level down, we can ask ourselves how favorable is each matchup? The basic triangle implies that Qliphorts will beat Shaddolls roughly the same amount that Shaddolls will beat Burning Abyss. In any triangle format, it’s unlikely that this is true. Deck A may beat deck B 80%, while deck B may only beat deck C 75%. Here is what my interpretation of the matchup favorability breakdown works out to be.

Qliphort > Shaddoll a significant amount of the time. Qliphort highly favored.

Shaddoll > Burning Abyss a slight amount of the time. Shaddoll slightly favored.

Burning Abyss > Qliphort a significant amount of the time. Burning Abyss highly favored.

If this were the last layer, it’d automatically be correct to play Burning Abyss as it beats its bad matchup more often than either of the other decks beat their worst matchup. This is not the last layer.

How Played is Each Deck?

ARG released the deck breakdown not only for top cut of the Circuit in Raleigh and Seattle, but also the breakdown for which decks entered the tournament. Both tournaments had the exact same spectrum for most played to least played.

In Top Cut:

Qliphort was the most represented.

Burning Abyss was the second most represented.

Shaddoll was the least represented.

At the Beginning of Swiss:

Shaddoll was the most represented.

Burning Abyss was the second most represented.

Qliphort was the least represented.

This is incredibly interesting data as Shaddoll was the most played deck in both tournaments, but got the least amount of spots in top cut. This implies several different things. Firstly, it would suggest that we are more likely to play Shaddoll early on in the tournament as somewhere between the first round and the last round Shaddoll goes from the most played to least played. More Shaddolls are losing out the longer the tournament goes on.

This gives an explanation for why Qliphort was the most represented deck in top cut, despite being the least represented at the beginning of the tournament. It had a good matchup against the most played deck.

el shaddoll windaGiven this data, we can infer that we’re more likely to play Shaddolls early on, but as the tournament progresses, we are more likely to play Qliphorts in the later swiss rounds. This is extremely important to keep in mind for many of the arguments I make.

Tournament Structure

How the tournament is structured actually plays a huge role in what is the correct deck for that particular event. If you’re playing at an ARG Circuit Series, you’re playing the entire event with your deck, but if you are playing at a YCS, you’re only playing until Top 16 with your deck and then finishing the rest of the tournament with draft. At an ARG Circuit Series, you’ll need to go x-1-1 in swiss to secure yourself a spot in top cut, but at a YCS you can go x-2 and still make top cut.

Playing to make top 16 and playing to win the tournament are actually two different strategies. Is it a coincidence that Burning Abyss won both the Circuits? If you think about the natural progression of the tournament, it’s actually not surprising. Shaddoll was the most played deck in swiss, which meant that Qliphort was likely to have favorable matchups throughout swiss. This results in a lot of Qliphorts making it into top cut. Now, even though Qliphort is the most represented deck in top, the Burning Abyss decks that did make top cut are now more likely to have a favorable matchup. As we saw in both Raleigh and Seattle, this did happen and Burning Abyss took both events.

If you were playing to make it to draft and only needed to make it to top 16, Qliphort might be the better choice as it would have favorable matchups throughout swiss.

The tournament structure of a YCS is also more favorable to Shaddolls than it is at a Circuit. Needing to finish x-1-1 or better is difficult for Shaddolls. If they lost even once early in the tournament, but still make it to the later rounds of the tournament, they are now more likely to face their worst matchup, where if they lose they are out of the tournament. At a YCS, if a Shaddoll deck makes it to the later rounds of the tournament with one loss, they can still get paired up with Qliphorts, lose, and still top. For this reason, I’d expect a larger percentage of Shaddoll decks in top cut at a YCS than I would at a Circuit. Looking at the results of Anaheim, this was in fact the case.

Mirror Matches

The next layer is how skillful are the interactions in the mirror match? What percentage of the time will the better player win a mirror? Some mirrors can have great mirrors, while others can be subpar.

I’d argue that the Shaddoll mirror is by far the best mirror match. It has many skillful interactions and intricate tradeoffs that result in the better player coming out on top a large percentage of the time. This is a strong case for Shaddolls as they are the most played deck so you’d want your most common matchup to be a favorable one.

The Burning Abyss mirror is largely a coin toss. It’s usually whoever can set up multiple Dantes first, which often times ends up being the player that went first. This is where innovation is key. You’ll need some excellent tech choices to be able to overcome mirrors like this.

I never tested the Qliphort mirror match, so I can’t accurately speak on whether or not it is full of skillful interactions.


The meta is dynamic in nature. It is always changing event to event. While it is quick to react to some changes (Burning Abyss playing Alich and Calcab over Mathematican for example), it is slow to react to others (Burning Abyss winning back-to-back does not necessarily mean that it will be more played than Shaddolls at the next event) and its important to consider these shifts and how they will affect what the right deck choice is.

I’d say that Qliphorts seeing the most spots in top cut and Burning Abyss winning both events means that we’ll see those two decks trending upward and Shaddolls seeing a little less play at the beginning of swiss.

Player Experience

If you recall, I said I couldn’t comment on whether or not the Qliphort matchup was very good because I didn’t test it very much. In actuality, I tested Qliphorts significantly less than I tested either of the other two decks for Anaheim. We’re not robots and are certainly capable of error. If you didn’t use a deck, you’re much less likely to do well with it, even if it might have been the right choice had you properly tested.

Going into Anaheim I was fairly comfortable with Shaddolls as I spent the entire previous format using them, but had switched my focus to Burning Abyss this format and definitely the most comfortable with using them.

The Progression of a Tournament

While Shaddoll may be the most played of the top three decks, there are certainly a lot of other decks being played. In almost every tournament there are actually more “other” decks being played than there are meta decks. As the tournament progresses, you’re less likely to play against a non-meta deck as they are usually less good than meta decks and would have become a part of the meta if they were on the same level.

By the same token, it’s not uncommon to play a non-meta deck in the early rounds of a tournament. I’d generalize and say that any one of the top three decks has a favorable matchup against any deck not in the top three (obviously exceptions exist, but they are exactly that, exceptions).

This indicates that Burning Abyss have an advantage over the other decks just by the grace of natural tournament progression. This is because you are more likely to face their bad matchup, Shaddolls, in the early rounds of the tournament, but Shaddolls representation is diluted by non-meta decks so you’re less likely to play Shaddolls early on than you would be if only these three meta decks existed.

This does not hold true for decks that are likely to be played later in the tournament as most of the non-meta decks that could potentially have diluted meta decks representation will have likely lost out by this point.

One additional layer to consider is the potential to avoid the triangle altogether by being the first to realize a non-meta deck should be a part of the format or significantly improving upon a meta deck, essentially creating a fourth leg to the triangle. This, however, is only possible if the fourth leg gives you a dominant advantage over all other legs.

Having considered all of the above factors, I decided Burning Abyss would give me the greatest chance of making it to the draft part of the YCS. You can use this multi-dimensional approach on any triangle format as long as you have a good idea of how represented each deck is in the format. I hope to see you all in Chicago this weekend for the ARG Circuit Series, where I’ll be trying to become the first back-to-back-to-back champion. Let’s see if you can be the one to stop me! Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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