If you know me, you know that I am a huge fan of data. While I'm also someone who approaches Magic from a very theoretical standpoint, being grounded in reality matters a lot. Bridging that gap is important.
Several years ago, I wrote an article Good and Bad Magic that talked about striking that balance between theory and empirical evidence. We don't have to be going to "grand theory" or to incredibly rich and detailed evidence, though, to draw some important conclusions.
In the simplest case, we can talk about metagames.
Now, it is important to note that there are absolutely regional metagames. Speaking for the greater Midwest, Chicago-land has always had more people casting Lightning Bolt than your typical area, Indianapolis has generally had way more swarming decks, Minneapolis more controlling decks. You might have a sense of the ways in which your area has its specific preferences, and even if a deck like, say Bogles, is fairly unpopular, in the context of your area, if people like it, they like it, and you have to respect it. This is just the way it is, and while we can see larger trends based on online events and large tournaments, they aren't going to be blindly adhered to universally.
In talking about, say, the Modern metagame, people have said to me all of the following as important evidence for or against a deck selection:
"Yeah, it's a great deck, and it can't lose to Burn."
"I think that deck is a really bad call, because what are you going to do about Ascension?"
"Zoo is a horrible matchup."
"Don't you just lose to Twin?"
While all of the statements may have been true, once you see the popularity of the various archetypes, perhaps the only one that probably matters is that last one, "Don't you just lose to Twin?" When it really boils down to it, against all but the most popular decks, our match results are really just trivia.
I went and looked at 15 recent Modern events, including Magic Online Premiere and Daily events, and the Grand Prix in Minneapolis and recorded archetypes and final results, only accounting for the top portion of the field. All told, here are the 320 decks from the top of the field of those fifteen tournaments:
Cryptic Control 26
RU Delver 17
Blue Tron 15
Soul Sisters/Proc 6
G Aggro/GW Aggro 3
Ad Nauseum 2
RG Devotion 1
Dictate Combo 1
I've condensed a number of the archetypes together if they shared a sufficient number of qualities. While Melira-Pod and Kiki-Pod, for example, have some specific elements to their behavior which differs, both decks are collapsed in this list to "Pod" because of the similar ways in which they can be opposed. Compare that to "Tron" and "Blue Tron", which behave in much more fundamentally different ways, and so are separated. (The archetype "Cryptic Control" is primarily UWR Control and UW Control, but also includes the very few Grixis Control and Blue Moon style decks.)
Even after condensing them down, this is over 30 archetypes. That is a lot of archetypes. However, it is important to note that the most popular archetype (Twin) only composed 15% of the full metagame. Sometimes seeing things visually can be helpful, so if we graph the most popular of these, we get the following:
This is, of course, only a count of the players in the event, and even then, only those players at the very top of the event. It is really important to note, for example, that over twenty archetypes are making up basically a quarter of the field, and that these combined miscellaneous "other" decks are more popular in the top of the field than any two archetypes other than Twin.
This leads us to our first important conclusion:
1: Even if you are winning, the most likely opponent you'll face is not one of the top ten archetypes.
The hate that we can leverage in Modern tends to be much more narrow than what we can muster in Legacy. There are very few cards that can manage to hit as much of the field, as, say this card:
There are a few in Modern that can, but there aren't nearly as many cards that are just generally good at shooting down a number of decks. There are two that come to mind pretty quickly:
Now, we haven't seen much in the way of Blood Moon, but we've certainly seen a ton of Thoughtseizes out there, especially when you consider Thoughtseize's inclusion in sideboards of decks like Affinity. One of the things that has likely been a key part of the success of The Rock and Jund is just that they have access to Thoughtseize plus supporting discard. At the same time, these midrange G/B(/x) decks don't really aggressively enact a plan of their own, which might help explain why these decks are often bridesmaids, but not the bride.
At the Planes Talkers panel I hosted recently in Grand Prix Minneapolis, Brian Kibler, Shaun McLaren, Craig Wescoe, and I were talking about Modern, and how many of the best performing decks were all, largely, enacting a plan aggressively. If we look at Shaun McLaren's recent success with U/W/R Control, getting 4th at Grand Prix Minneapolis, it shifts the purely reactive nature of his Pro Tour winning decklist into something that can shift from being in control to simply winning the game. One way he did that was by adding in the combo of Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker with Restoration Angel. Together, they can win the game on the spot. Similarly, Jun Young Park's winning deck, Scapeshift, can play the control game until the moment they are ready to win.
Here are their two decks:
Both of these decks are essentially playing the role of classic control decks. In addition to ending a game with a classic "Serra Angel" (whether it is a Celestial Colonnade or a sideboarded Obstinate Baloth) fashion, the addition of the "I win now" element is a key part of how these decks are able to steal wins. In a format where many opponents can just wrestle the game away from what seems out of nowhere, having your own means of doing that can be important. Simply taking control can not be enough.
On the other end of the spectrum from the controlling decks, are those decks that are aggressively going after the opponent's life total. The most common ones are Burn, Affinity, and U/R Delver. Together, these decks account for 14% of the metagame. At the same time, if we count all of the decks from the "Other" category that are enacting similar plans, we actually get 23% of the winning metagame. While Zoo, Affinity, U/R Delver, Bogles, and Merfolk all approach reducing your life total quickly in quite different ways, the fact remains that you cannot ignore your life total. Remember, these are a count of the winning archetypes, so if you somehow make Top 8 without respecting aggressive strategies, even if you are 80% against all other matchups, you have a less than 25% chance to win the whole thing.
2: A plan that doesn't include strategies against aggressive decks (even if you are also an aggressive deck) is a plan for failure.
Everyone seems to already be aware that Modern is a world of combos. People are already ready for it. And while there wasn't a single aggressive deck in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Minneapolis, they still are everywhere among successful decks. Take this list from the Top 16 of Minneapolis which smashed me into little pieces on Day 1:
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Etched Champion
- 2 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Signal Pest
- 3 Steel Overseer
- 4 Vault Skirge
Affinity's plan for other aggressive decks generally involves some combination of Vault Skirge, boosting it up, Etched Champion for defense (able to quickly switch to offense), and Galvanic Blast as a means to either end the game a turn sooner or as a means to knock a problem creature out. In addition, they might just have something more particularly hateful to your deck, whether you are an aggressive deck or something else.
We talked about Thoughtseize and Blood Moon as powerful pieces of hate before; Cucanato, like many Affinity players, has access to both. One of the most frightening things about this strategy is that the cost is so low to the Affinity player. The biggest challenge for Affinity, really, is not sideboarding so much that you cease to be able to enact your own strategy.
This is the case for most of the aggressive decks. Put in too many answers, and suddenly you are a "new deck" that just happens to suck. Of the aggressive decks, even the slowest among them, like Naya, still needs to be able to finish games quickly. One of the most interesting things Brian Kibler said during the Planes Talkers panel, was that for these slower aggressive decks, while they were built such that they could fight a long game, they absolutely needed to be able to end the game.
A card like Wild Nacatl, for example, might not seem like it has a place in a slower deck, but when it is imperative that you end it now, it begins to make more sense. In Standard, I've been advocating for this kind of so-called "schizophrenic" strategy in many beatdown decks for a very different reason: in Standard, controlling decks can blunt the pure aggression and force you into having a plan for Turn 7. In Modern, the pressure pushes you to the lower end of the curve, and even a more mid-range aggressive deck needs to be able to force an opponent to respond sooner rather than later.
Between midrange, control, combo, and beatdown, perhaps you're just looking for an answer to the age old question: "What on earth should I play?"
Before I answer, I need to say that I've been trying a ton of decks trying to find that answer. In the last two months, here are the decks I've taken a serious look at for events (in no particular order):
U/W/R Control (many varieties)
Red Deck Wins
"Sullivan Special" (an update on the Bloodchief Ascension deck I played to success in Extended)
These are all decks that I've actively played in events, in person, or on Magic Online. And, to tell you the truth, I'm not in love with any of them. I do have some "deep like" for some of them, but none of them have managed to force me into playing them. I expect my "safety" deck will be The Rock, but I'm still trying to find something that excites me.
You might notice that the two most popular winning decks are absent from the list of decks. I've played them, but I really haven't enjoyed either of these decks. Given how much of my time I play Magic, one of the things I determined a long time ago is to make sure that whatever deck I'm playing is a deck I enjoy. While your mileage may vary, that element is important to me just keeping my sanity in this game. Perhaps that's why I've never taken a real break from the game, though I did put it on the back burner when I went to grad school.
All of this means that I don't really have a deck that I am advocating for. On the other hand, once again, we can let data help us out. If we give extra weight based on the size of the events and the actual finish, rather than simply counting players, we can get a rough sense of just how good each of the top decks are, compared to each other. This isn't perfect, by any means, but it can help people decide if they don't already have a horse in the race.
Here are the weighted results for those decks that are the crme de la crme:
While the numbers themselves are semi-arbitrary (what weight do you give to 3rd place, as opposed to 8th?), this chart does give you an interesting sense of what has been succeeding against the very top of the field. Still, roughly half of the successes at this top portion of the field are made up of such a motley crew of archetypes - Blue Moon, Soul Sisters, Pyromancer's Ascension, Bogles, and even Stompy have had their share of success. Altogether, though, there isn't enough of a groundswell of any one of those archetypes to make it stand out.
The overwhelming top portion is clear:
3: If you want to play it safe, play Pod, Scapeshift, Rock, Twin, or U/W Control.
These decks have been notably more successful at the very top of the metagame than the other decks. This isn't to say that other decks aren't winning, they just aren't winning as much. Of course, this doesn't mean that some other deck isn't better, just that there isn't evidence of it being better. At least not yet.
The two big surprises here are Affinity and Maverick (what some are calling W/G Death and Taxes). Affinity is a surprise because despite having a good representation (5%), it doesn't really have many strong closing finishes. Maverick is a surprise because despite having very few people playing it (~2%), it actually seems to be outperforming its representation.
Here is a list of Maverick, which took 2nd at the Bazaar of Moxen (over 300 competitors!), shortly before Grand Prix Minneapolis:
- 3 Aven Mindcensor
- 4 Blade Splicer
- 4 Flickerwisp
- 4 Leonin Arbiter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Personally, for me, this is the kind of deck that I get nervous about. A Death and Taxes deck always feels like it is involved in a jiu jitsu match with its opponent, trying to cut off avenues of escape, getting its opponent caught in a grapple or choke, and then tying off the loose ends. Between Rishadan Port, Wasteland, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and whatever support hate after that, the options just shrink until you die.
In Modern, the combo of Leonin Arbiter and Ghost Quarter can accomplish a similar effect, but it is not the same tight knit lock out. This is a deck that leans heavily on Leonin Arbiter to hope to have that effect. Maverick-style decks might have an element of the suppression that Death and Taxes decks have, but, ultimately, they tend to be quite a bit less hateful in exchange for running a few more cards that are just powerful outside of any synergies. (As an aside, archetypically speaking, I'm not sure it is even possible to run a true Death and Taxes list in Modern anymore than it is possible to run Charbelcher.)
Now, Maverick might be the most successful deck with very few players when weighted results are kept in mind, but there are many others that also did well, just not as noticeably well. Whether it is Blue Moon, Amulet Combo, Maverick, or something else, there is very little that can replace the well-honed skills of a player that really knows their deck.
4: Choose the best deck for you, not just the default deck.
One of the reasons that I might just "surrender" and play The Rock is that it is the deck I've had the most success with in Modern. I'm still trying out other archetypes, particularly other archetypes that I've played when those decks were in other formats (I'm looking at you, Merfolk), but with all of these archetypes, since I don't think there is a Magic bullet for Modern, I'm looking for a powerful, rational deck that will be one I can pilot to success.
I'm not picking up Melira-Pod right now because I don't think that I've played enough games with it to pilot it as well as I would need to succeed against another player playing the same deck, or against a player who has a good plan against my deck. Even a deck like Burn, for example, is a deck that I feel I could pilot more successfully, despite the fact that I think it is a less good deck for Modern, at least in a vacuum.
Deck / Skill / Outcome
70% * X = ???
65% * Y = ???
If you are far better at the second deck than the first deck, in general, you are likely to do quite a bit better. That first percentage is just an abstraction, and we'd all be playing a guessing game at giving numbers to each archetype, but in Modern, among the very best decks, probably the best ten or fifteen of them are in close proximity to each other in terms of results in the above abstraction. If Kiki-Pod is better than Melira-Pod (or vice versa), they are still so close in terms of their deck power that you are better off selecting the deck that you feel you pilot better.
If you can have that "Use the Force, Luke. Let go." moment with your deck, you may just have found the deck for you.
I'm still not just trying to decide between those last few decks, but also those last few venues. This weekend, if you're in Cleveland, Fort Wayne, or Chicago, you may just see me. And I plan on being a Jedi.