In 1999 Mike Flores asked Who’s the beatdown? This historical piece has echoed through the TCG genre and is regarded as one of, if not the most quintessential article ever written about Magic. Everybody who has played a trading card game is familiar with the two archetypes, aggro and control, and here Mr. Flores teaches us how even in a “similar deck vs. similar deck matchup” one deck is always the beatdown and the other is always control. To further clarify, this means that even when playing and aggro deck against another aggro deck, one of the players will have to assume the role of a control deck. This can seem counter intuitive to a lot of people, but it’s fundamentally true. As Mike explains, no two decks are built exactly the same (outside of true mirror matches), so one is always going to have something the other does not, whether it’s more damage or more interaction. He gives us a simple set of guidelines to use when determining who’s the beatdown:

In similar deck v. similar deck matchups there are a couple of things that you want to look at to figure out what role to play:

  1. Who has more damage? Usually he has to be the beatdown deck.
  2. Who has more removal? Usually he has to be the control deck.
  3. Who has more permission and card drawing? Almost always he has to be the control deck.

If you are the beatdown deck, you have to kill your opponent faster than he can kill you. If you are the control deck, you have to weather the early beatdown and get into a position where you can gain card advantage.

A key characteristic of this model is its inherent simplicity. One deck is on the beatdown plan, the other on the control plan. Notice the explicit use of  “beatdown” and not “aggro”. In fact, I would argue that “control plan” or “controlling deck” is more accurate than simply “control”, but that’s just me. The reason for this is that more than two archetypes exist. The already established aggro and control are two opposite (or are they?) ends of a wide spectrum of overarching deck types, or archetypes, that decks can belong to. Heck, sometimes a deck can belong to multiple archetypes at once. But what are they and what does that mean?

We are already familiar with Aggro and Control. Going to capitalise them in this section to make a point. Even if we weren’t, we can extrapolate what they mean. Aggro is short for a deck that’s aggressive – playing minions early, playing lots of them, and finishing the game out with burn spells. Control, on the other hand, is fairly self explanatory. It’s plan is to have control over what gets played in the match – removing the opposing minions and denying their spells. At first glance, as we established, Aggro and Control are complete opposites of one another. Where one is trying to go as fast as possible, the latter is trying to slow the game down as much as they can. But… it would be weird to talk about a spectrum and only it’s ends, no? It almost feels like there should be something in between. As a matter of fact, there is! Where would it make the most sense to look at if not at the two ends of a spectrum? In the middle, of course. One has to wonder, if an aggressive deck wants to be really fast but dies when it can’t, could it then potentially bit a little bit slower but persevere a bit better through disruption? Flipping the point of view, if a slow deck is easily killed by a fast one, can it potentially go a bit faster, thus being less prone to death by aggro? The answer is yes, they can. We call this archetype Midrange. This type of deck can be built differently, depending on which of the aforementioned things you want to do. That said, the majority of Midrange decks start out aggressive and follow up with on-curve plays, featuring elements of both Aggro and Control. They don’t fall out quite so easily and usually can go well into the late game, but start to lose on card advantage and eventually get outclassed by Control.

In fact, a careful reader will have noticed by now that what we are essentially talking about when explaining deck archetypes is the speed of the deck. Before we get too deep into things, we have to make an important distinction when we talk about deck speed – it loops in a circle. What I mean by this is that if we implement an arbitrary scale, let’s say from 1 to 10 (with one being hyperaggro and 10 being hypercontrol), then immediately after 10, if we go higher, we would go back to one. This is a very important property of how deck archetypes stack up against each other. In many ways it’s reminiscent of rock-paper-scissors…-lizard-spock. Because there are other archetypes than those three. Sometimes you can try to be fast without being aggressive. That’s called a Combo deck, which is actually fairly passive until it simply wins by putting certain combinations of cards together for a kill (most often in a single turn). Other times it’s going to be a control deck that aims specifically to be the beatdown in control mirrors. We would call this hybrid deck aggro-control, though other combinations can also exist. There are more nuances to the main archetypes of Aggro, Midrange, Combo and Control, but those are the “big” ones. In reality, we use these terms to denote the speed of the deck we are talking about.

Should we take a look at how archetypes stack up against one another, we can see that the slower decks beat the faster decks, to a certain extent. If we assign each archetype a relative speed, we would get something like Aggro (2), Midrange (4), Combo (6), Control (9). However, keeping in mind our important rule about deck speed, we know that if we keep going after 9, we will get to 2. That happens because at some point a deck is so much faster than another one that it always beats it. Funnily enough, for practical purposes, we can even consider that deck slower than the slow one, like a speedometer with highest value 99 that goes full circle while still accelerating and now 1 means 100. An even better comparison would be the way a clock works.

On the matter of clocks

I seriously recommend that you go and read this article by Douglas Buel. The concept of thinking about deck archetypes as if they reside on the face of a clock is nothing novel today, but it’s criminally underused. If we change our arbitrary scale to range from 1 to 12, we can easily fit deck archetypes on different positions of the clock, much like this:

Here wan can see this concept clearly illustrated. It’s a simple and easy to parse graphic that gives us the following information – each archetype has its own “speed” within a specified range, each beats the one faster than it and loses to the one slower than it and it even showcases how deck speed “loops”. In fact, if we stick only to those three definitions of a deck, this is all we need! A simple, comprehensible diagram that gives us all of the information we could want.

Taking things a step further, we can look at how other archetypes we covered stack up on the clock:

This shows us more intricacies of how different archetypes interact but keeps the overall idea the same – we still only care about the relative speed of an archetype and how it stacks up against the others. While this is great, we can take it one step further – within each archetype exist multiple types of decks that share an overarching theme. Those can be different decks or just as easily they can be different “builds” of the same basic deck, that focus on going slightly faster or slower to suit the deck’s current metagame needs.

If we want to take a look at those, we will find this version of the clock somewhat lacking. See, in the diagram that we’ve been using so far, we had assigned an arbitrary speed to each archetype because the only thing we needed to know was whether or not it was faster or slower than the others. Let’s take a look at the clock above. We have Combo at 4 and Control at 7. This tells us that Control beats Combo and not much more. If we were to leave it like this, it wouldn’t matter whether or not Combo was at 6 or at 3, the outcome would be the same. If we had Control at 9 and Combo at 3 however, we would run into a problem, because now clockwise the distance from Control to Combo would be shorter than the distance from Combo to Control. Remember that deck speed “loops”? It would appear that Combo is now the slower deck and actually beats Control, which we know to be untrue. Something wrong happened along the way and we need to identify it:

The first thing that went wrong here is that while it serves the general purpose of establishing how archetypes beat each other, assigning each one a set speed is not entirely correct. We have to recall here the way we defined an archetype – “a wide spectrum of overarching deck types”. As such, different deck types within the same archetype can be faster or slower based on their needs and the way that they are built. This leads to the conclusion that archetypes can’t be hardcoded to a certain position on the clock. They need to encompass a range of “speeds” that can accommodate all or almost all decks and types within that archetype.

Let’s take a look at a clock like this one for an example:

Aside from being a “clock” with 16 positions, it functions exactly like the others. We can see that each archetype is spread over multiple “hours” on this speed clock. In fact they are given entire quadrants, in which the corresponding decks (of different type but same archetype) are assigned to a separate hour. This approach gives us a much better understanding of how specific decks stack up against each other while still showing us everything that the other clocks did. You can notice, however, that Combo is now after Control instead of before it. This ties into…

The second problem that occurred with our Control vs Combo paradox. You see, there is an inherent problem with the Combo archetype as a whole and it is that it can’t really be defined. We tried to do that earlier by saying it’s “fairly passive until it simply wins by putting certain combinations of cards together for a kill (most often in a single turn)”. While that is definitely not false information, it’s too broad of a description. Each combo deck is different. Unique, even. Some of them are hybrids – aggro (less often), midrange or control decks that have a “win the game” incidental combo built into them. Those will play out like normal rock-paper-scissors decks until they pull it off. Other combo decks have the “kill you” cards and the rest of the deck consists of draw, trying to assemble it as fast as possible with little to no interaction with the opponent. Others still, such as Miracle Rogue, use dance around being a combo deck – they play generally synergistic cards that do mini-combos with each other to get incremental but ever-increasing card advantage until the opponent can’t keep up. For this reason, I believe that Combo decks shouldn’t be forced into fitting on the dial of a clock at certain hours – each deck is unique, with its own speed and will stack up against the rest of the field accordingly. For these reasons, I propose the following:

The reason this is good is that it expands on what we were already using. Adding new elements without taking anything away. Going back to a 12-digit clock, we have all of the previous functionality – we can see the speed of decks and we can freely assign ranges to archetypes based on our needs, however now we can more properly represent Combo. As we established above, Combo doesn’t really, truly belong on one specific “hour” (or range of hours) on our clock because different combo decks will end up in variously different places. While this initial mock up is far from perfect, the concept is what’s important here. We have the Combo circle hovering in the middle, ready to move closer to or further away from a specific hour when we assign a specific deck to them.

Another minor variation here is that I have emphasised some of the hours on this clock by making them slightly bigger. This will be more important later, when we get to actually use the clock, but the gist is that I’ve taken the opportunity to provide the user of the clock with additional information without too much clutter. You see, in every archetype, there is usually a quintessential deck type or deck that’s defining that corner of the metagame. It is usually the strongest deck in it’s archetype, but that doesn’t necessarily always have to be the case. By identifying these “metagame cornerstones” we can once again concise the information we are presenting to the user. What this essentially allows us to do is have our original Aggro-Combo-Control clock, except now not only are we showing precisely where on the clock they land, we are also showcasing them using a specific deck in that specific metagame:

This is obviously just a mock up that’s meant to illustrate the concept, but we can start to see the clock developed. The reason we need cornerstone decks is that while we know which archetypes beat which, we can’t always apply this directly and use it for practical purposes. Remember, archetypes are entire ranges on the clock face, so while it’s not false to say that Aggro beats Control, this does not mean very much. If we want to use this to track the actual metagame we need to talk with decks, not archetypes. What’s very important to keep in mind here is that this diagram is not “the way to go”, merely illustrating the principle. The cornerstone aggro deck could be on 1 as easily as it could be on 4 based on the current metagame. Furthermore, we can just as easily have ranges that vary in size – sometimes aggro will occupy 5 positions on the clock when Control only 3, etc., based on how many top-tier decks are currently representing the archetype.


When it comes to analysing and tracking the meta, the clock can be a powerful tool in the right hands, if done properly. It takes some initial learning to be able to extrapolate the vast information that a simple diagram like this can convey, but once that’s done, I believe a clock is the best way to track the metagame. That’s no small claim to make, but hopefully as we start to wrap up this article we can take a look at how that works out.
To illustrate this better, lets take a look at a completed metagame clock that I made. Just keep in mind that this is still in development and while I feel it’s accurate for the most part, I do not make a claim it’s 100% reliable:
There’s quite a bit going on here, so let’s run a quick analysis of the clock and the we can take a look at how to improve it further.
  • We have already established that archetypes cover entire ranges of “hours”. Here we can see this clearly represented, with Aggro taking all the spots from 1 to 4, Midrange nesting from 5 to 8 and Control ranging from 9 to 12. I purposefully used the exact same graphic we looked at earlier, to keep things consistent, even though it’s not the most accurate to represent the current metagame. 
  • An additional way we have our Rock-Paper-Scissors represented is through the cornerstone decks – the most dominant decks from each archetype. The slight tweak that I made in this version is that those are the decks with bolded names instead of the ones in the larger, more prominent circles. The reasons for this are two – first, Aggro Paladin didn’t align and second, I wanted to showcase that there can be more than one way to provide a visual cue.
  • Breaking things down further, we can see all of the prominent decks from each archetype being featured. The combination of all decks on the clock represents a complete metagame, as far as the best decks are concerned. Other, probably even twice as many, do coexist with these, but their impact on the game is considerably lower, to the point where they hardly inform metagame decisions if at all.
  • By using the most basic principle of metagame clocks, we can determine “Who’s the beatdown” for every pair of decks featured on the clock. This eliminates the need to look at win percentages, which may or may not be fully accurate. The thing that matters is their speed, we just have to keep in mind the rule that “too fast” is slower than “very slow”.
  • Looking at where Combo is hovering near can give us a good understanding of the specific combo deck’s speed while allowing us to represent Combo decks that belong to wildly different ranges. (IMPORTANT: Quest Rogue does not belong where it currently is on this graphic, but Freeze Mage and Miracle were accurate so inorder to use the same diagram for consistency, I put Quest Rogue in the only other free Combo slot) 
If we compare this clock to some of the most popular products that keep track of the metagame, such as TempoStorm’s Meta Snapshot or Vicious Syndicate’s Data Reaper Report, we can see the advantages and disadvantages or using a clock compared to using a tier list system. I would argue that using a clock is better, but we’ll take a look at what both systems can offer. First, why is a clock better? The reason for that is simple – the clock has a built-in tier list system while adding functionality on top of that. What a clock like this one really represents is essentially a list of 15 decks (at least my version has that many slots, others may vary). What a tier list doesn’t do on it’s own is show the user how those decks stack up against each other or help you determine “Who’s the Beatdown?” in similar matchups. Instead, tier lists rank decks from 1 to X based (predominantly) on their overall win percentages. An argument in favour of tier lists would be that they actually “tier” the decks – some are better than others, especially in their respective archetypes. But wait, my version of the clock does this too! If you take the enlarged circles, the archetype cornerstones, you have your Tier 1 decks and the rest make your Tier 2 decks. Keep in mind that unlike in our mock up of a clock, we’re not really restricted on how we spread archetypes over the various speeds of the clock or how many metagame cornerstones we can have per archetype. My example has two, but that can easily change. Much akin to tier lists, the metagame clock has to be periodically updated to reflect the shifts in the game.
One major thing that tier lists have going for them is that they can keep track of a lot more than 15 decks at a time. But while that’s cool and all, I don’t feel that’s necessary for the competitive player and this product, the metagame clock, is aimed at more competitively orientated people that your average Hearthstone Joe. In order to keep up with the lack of functionality that’s inherent to tier lists, the Meta Snapshot and the Data Reaper Report compensate with additional information – win percentages, written guides and explanations, matchup analysis and decklists. All of that is great and should definitely be taken advantage of. After all, the metagame clock is a supplementary visual product, meant to be used in conjuction with all other resources available.

Moving forward with the concept

There is a long road ahead of the metagame clock. Currently myself and my team are working on upgrading the visual aesthetics of the product and looking for ways to add even more functionality, but above all else – making sure its 100% accurate. The next step is host the image on an easily accessible and popular platform so that a larger part of the community can use it. After that we are going to look into providing decklists and interactivity with the clock.

But, that’s for the future. We will continue developing this idea and post progress updates. This is all for now, take care and play some Hearthstone.

Continued in part 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *