"It's like the Wild West out here..."
The Modern format exists in a very different universe than Standard—let's just be clear about that.
Even when Modern is the PTQ format (as it is now), it generally doesn't get nearly the focus Standard does. There are just so many 500+ player Standard tournaments (often averaging more than one a week). Combine this with how much smaller and more knowable Standard is as a format and it is no surprise that the Modern metagame looks like the Wild West by comparison.
Modern has never really been a "stable" format, as it has never really landed in a spot that wasn't broken or at the least very medium unhealthy.Most recently, Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song were added to the banned list. One was miles more popular than anything else in the format, causing diversity to suffer. The other was at the core of the scariest fast combo deck that won a lot but never really received widespread adoption.
Now, we've had nearly seven weeks of post-ban Modern play, albeit primarily Magic Online tournaments and PTQs. This week, the first post-ban Grand Prix will give us a chance to see what direction the high-level Modern metagame goes. To help prepare for the event, I took a look at the past eight days of Magic Online data. Unfortunately, we don't have nearly the same visibility we used to at what is winning online (only the biggest event of the day); however this is still enough data to get a solid picture of what the metagame has looked like over the past week and a half.
Remember to take this data with a grain of salt, as the Magic Online metagame evolves more rapidly than paper Magic. Our certainty interval on this metagame analysis is lower than it generally is when we are reviewing Standard metagames. As always, this data is based on the winner's circle metagame, not just raw participation. Every deck that 4-0'd a Daily Event received four points, every deck that 3-1'd received three points, and the Modern Premier event was weighted at twice a normal tournament due to its larger prestige and number of rounds.
Modern Metagame March 13, 2013
**Misc Aggro includes Jund Aggro, Merfolk, Affinity, and Goblins
***Misc Aggro Control includes BUG, RUG, Grixis Delver
Well, I guess we certainly haven't hit a spot where any one deck is killing diversity. No deck over 10.5% of the format, and thirteen decks showing up at more than 2.5%? Not bad. Still, is this format healthy? It was well known that banning Bloodbraid Elf was going to cause a chain reaction that would likely eventually require more bans.
Before passing any judgments, let's look closer at what's winning. The first observation is that the most popular deck is basically a cousin to the third most popular deck. U/W/R Tempo and U/W/R Control are basically the same deck, just different ends of the spectrum. Forming almost 20% of the metagame, this general strategy appears to be the initial top dog of the format.
First, U/W/R Tempo:
The similarities to U/W/R Flash in Standard are obvious. All that has really changed is upgrading the quality of all the spells. The core of Snapcaster Mage / Restoration Angel / efficient dudes remains the same. This is a good stuff deck to the core. It is worth noting that the red isn't just a splash (usually), but it is considered optional by some.
Here, we have basically the same spell suite, but every degree between tempo and control has experienced success. When does U/W/R Tempo become U/W/R Control? For me, that line is three-drops. I am not sure how many Vendilion Cliques it would take to push one over the line, but Kitchen Finks and Geist of Saint Traft put you on the tempo side, while cutting down to just Snapcasters and maybe Restoration Angel makes you a control deck.
Notice the extreme quantity of red and white removal. This is in direct response to the overabundance of swarm decks, led by their poster boy Burning Tree Emissary. You know what I'd love against a Burning Tree Emissary deck? Wall of Omens!
Continuing on the U/W/R spectrum, we can further cut down on creatures:
How do we win in time?
Celestial Colonnade is a helluva Magic card!
What about Esper? Frankly, it comes down to Lightning Bolt. Lightning Bolt is the best removal spell in the format at the moment. Without it, it is too easy to fall behind. Wretched Banquet isn't bad, but there are just so many combo decks where Wretched Banquet would be dead, while Lightning Bolt contributes to a solid "Plan B."
As a note, this list is a great example of the variable utility of Desperate Ravings versus Think Twice. Which is better here? It's close, but my guess is Think Twice. Desperate Ravings is stronger in the abstract, but there are three factors that change the equation here.
1. Does your deck rely on lots of counterspells to put away the game? While we rarely have access to many good counterspells in Standard, Modern is a very different world. Counterspells have a tendency to pile up in one's hand, making Ravings riskier than it normally would be.
2. Does your deck have a couple key cards that are significantly more important to the deck than the bulk of the cards? Do you have a lot of cards that are so important that you can't afford to even case Ravings? Sphinx's Revelation is a perfect example of such a card, though Cryptic Command is as well. It is important to note that while this element is the loudest to most players, it is actually the least important. Snapcaster Mage only decreases the relevance of this potential problem.
3. Does your deck have early game consistency? This is secretly the most important reason that Desperate Ravings' utility is lower in Modern. When you are playing a lot of expensive and situational cards as well as more flashback and more land, Ravings' value goes through the roof. Modern has so many more good cheap spells, more good library manipulation, lower land counts (not to mention far more land that we don't want to discard), and we play less situational cards and expensive bombs.
A final reason that is not applicable here, of course, is if your deck contains miracles, a specific tactical negative synergy.
Of course, all this said, I am not convinced that Think Twice is where we want to be, either. Careful Consideration is a helluva Magic card. We want to avoid playing too many expensive cards, to be sure, but a Careful Consideration or two could go a long way towards bridging the gap between the early game and Sphinx's Revelation.
This is actually very close to what I would play if the Grand Prix were tomorrow. Here is what I am currently playing in Modern:
While I do enjoy that control is actually good in Modern at the moment, I suspect it is about to take a hit this weekend. Sphinx's Revelation is pretty powerful, but it is not Ancestral Visions or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Once the format adjusts to the sorts of tools that control decks are playing, life is going to be much harder for the control deck. For instance, Blightning, Blood Moon, creatures with a protection from red or four toughness like Loxodon Smiter, Geist of Saint Traft, Detritivore, Rain of Gore, Ghost-Lit Stalker, Slaughter Games, Calciderm, Mark of Asylum, Liliana of the Veil, and Elspeth, Knight-Errant, just to name a few.
To better understand Modern, let's take a look at the strategic breakdown of the format.
Metagame Breakdown by Strategy
While some believed that Bloodbraid Elf was pushing out all other midrange decks, it appears that Bloodbraid Elf was actually the only card that made midrange worth it. All that remains is a small contingent of Jund loyalists, as well as a few G/W/B and Big Naya decks.
Instead, the format has been largely taken over by a diverse mix of combo decks of all shapes and sizes. This is something we have seen come up in Modern over and over. With a card pool this large, the number of abusive interactions is quite high, but without cards like Counterspell and Force of Will, it is very hard for people to be good against "all combo decks." So often, the game seems to be playing a deck that dodges other people's sideboards, as Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa so aptly pointed out last year. When you have combo decks as diverse as Infect and Eggs or Gifts / Reanimator and Pod, you are talking about more types of games than you can possibly prepare for.
It's very interesting that there is basically only one true control deck, and it is really just one extreme end of one of the aggro-control decks. The other decks with control like properties are really just combo decks that play a control game for a little while before switching into their unfair endgame, such as the numerous Gifts decks.
The main punch line is that you Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites and Elesh Norn or Iona, Shield of Emeria. When you Gifts for just two cards, they both go to the graveyard, setting up a turn 4 or 5 fatty that threatens to win the game outright.
In addition to this interaction, we have all the usual Gifts Ungiven shenanigans, such as Life from the Loam + Raven's Crime, Academy Ruins + Engineered Explosives / Batterskull, and Snapcaster Mage + whatever you really want.
Not every Gifts deck is going to be so colorful, though, with some more focused on playing a control or ramp game before ending with the Gifts + Elesh Norn / Iona combo that everyone uses.
Of course, this is not the only deck built on powering out unfair fatties fast. I am not a huge fan, but Tron is certainly a proactive and powerful strategy:
There are two basic versions of Tron. The G/R version uses green for library manipulation, takes advantage of Ancient Stirrings and Sylvan Scrying, and red for sweepers to help buy some time. These decks often have a shortage of interaction but generally have inevitability against almost everyone since most people can't beat a hard cast Emrakul.
The other family of Tron decks is Mono-Blue:
The main gain in this strain is the same end game of fame but an aim to reclaim the waiting game with a counterspell frame to tame the lame combo decks that we blame for Modern's shame.
Even the aggro decks in Modern are looking more and more abusive. For example, here is the most popular "aggro" deck, though Burning-Tree Emissary definitely starts to push you down a combo-esque path reminiscent of Affinity.
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Experiment One
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 2 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Stormblood Berserker
We still have Lightning Bolt and Dismember, so we aren't full-on Stompy yet. Still, that is a lot of giant monsters for very little mana. This deck is sums up why Modern is Lightning Bolt's format. You have to be very fast to keep up.
While Burning-Tree Emissary is really a better Frogmite in disguise, some are not content to stop there. What if we played a turn 1 Faithless Looting, discarding Vengevine? Suddenly, Burning Emissary is looking particularly devastating.
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 4 Priest of Urabrask
- 4 Simian Spirit Guide
- 2 Storm Entity
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Vengevine
No question, this version is going to be wildly inconsistent, but it is also going to be extremely explosive. Once you come to a spot in your life where you are casting Priest of Urabrask, you know you are up to mischief...
Modern is this bizarre format where one of the most "fair" decks has a ton of Tutors, a degenerate card draw engine, and multiple infinite combos:
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Deceiver Exarch
- 1 Glen Elendra Archmage
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Murderous Redcap
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 1 Wall of Omens
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
- 2 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
Testing against Pod is tricky because like Gifts Ungiven, there is a ton of room for personalization and changing even a single card can completely flip matchups. Still, getting some experience against a popular build goes a long way. Getting a feel for the pacing is crucial, as this is an easy deck to not always know when you are winning or losing, when you are the beatdown or the control deck.
Pod, in particular, is a deck where it is important to make sure that the pilot wants to be playing it and is really trying. Pod is a notoriously easy deck to make lose if your heart isn't in. I can't tell you how many times I have seen people want to give up that actually have the win in one turn (or even on board).
If I only had time to test against five decks for Modern, I would start with something on the U/W/R spectrum, Gifts, Tron, R/G Blitz, and Pod. While both breeds of U/W/R are at the top of the format, they are similar enough that there is increased utility in diversifying the decks we get experience against. I would probably pick a U/W/R Tempo deck rather than full-on control, as it is more difficult to play against and there are more interactions to learn.
While I would recommend playing a stock deck over an untested brew, I would much rather try finding a new angle to hit the format from than coming from the same angle as so many others. People only have fifteen sideboard cards, and there are more than 20 popular decks. If you really want to gain some edge, you are generally going to use more than just a single slot against the matchup you are focusing on.
My advice? Play something with a proactive game plan that consistently beats goldfish but is complemented with a diverse mix of good cards that make it more difficult to play against you. Don't leak information about which cards you are or are not playing. Practice with your deck, as this is a format where proficiency with a deck is especially important—more important than having the best-positioned deck in the metagame.
As for your positioning, play something you are comfortable with and that you'll enjoy playing during a long event. The most important thing is to have a plan against a huge swath of combo decks, though I anticipate an increase in aggro-control and fast aggro, which could spark a mild return of midrange (though it is unlikely to evolve that far by this weekend). Play a diverse mix of cards in your sideboard, with cards that net you free wins against the decks you most expect to face (trust your intuition). If you come to a fork in the road and have to decide between two options that both look good...
Dodge people's sideboards.