I spent the last week getting reacquainted with Standard after an extended absence from the format, that way I have a base of knowledge from which to analyze the results of the Pro Tour, which no doubt will guide the metagame for #SCGCON the following week.
After a near-miss in Louisville I was feeling confident in Modern with Blue Moon, a deck I expect to remain well-positioned in two weeks' time, so my main task for that format, besides cheering on my Team BCW teammates who were playing in Minneapolis, was to follow the metagame and see if it matched my predictions.
Going into the weekend, I had three expectations:
1. Jeskai Control would remain the most played deck in Day 2 and continue its run of success.
2. Humans would decline in popularity, perhaps precipitously, due to an ever more hostile metagame.
3. Big mana decks would resurge to combat control.
Let's see how I did.
1. Half Right. Jeskai continued a great run in the tournament, putting two in the Top 8 and nearly taking home the trophy in the hands of Jonathan Rosum, but it wasn't the most-played deck in Day 2. That honor went back to Humans, with Jeskai narrowly slipping into third place behind Jund. U/W Control also showed up in significant numbers, showing that control is still a very good choice right now, and perhaps splitting the numbers between two variants.
While not as impressive as last week, it's clear that Jeskai is still among the decks to beat for SCG Regionals this weekend and beyond.
2. Wrong. Despite the continued presence of tough control matchups, Humans regained its place at the top of the Day 2 metagame, with nine copies. It also took down the trophy in the hands of first-time Humans pilot Sam Cocchiarella. For those of us who were watching the coverage, Humans took down Jeskai Control multiple times on camera, showing an impressive display of resilience that reminds us all why it's been the top deck for over a month in a format known for unparalleled diversity.
Beyond the deck's power and resilience, there's one other factor that could help explain its persistence in the face of these control decks. The first metagame reaction to Humans was a rise in linear aggro decks like Affinity, Elves, and Counters Company, decks that could effectively race Humans while being mostly impervious to its disruptive elements save Reflector Mage.
These decks also suffer from relatively poor control matchups, with the possible exception of G/W Hexproof, a deck whose less than stellar reputation always serves to limit its numbers even when it's well-positioned. If the net change in the metagame was to eliminate some percentage of bad matchups and merely replace them with other bad matchups, the overall standing of Humans remains unchanged, and it's easier to prepare for control than it is a wide spread of linear aggro decks.
As a result, I was hasty in predicting a sharp decline in Humans. The metagame needs to arrive at a point where several predators of the deck can coexist in stability before it will be effectively hated out. Mardu Pyromancer is a deck that can contend with Jeskai Control and prey on Humans, but despite an undefeated run in Louisville, that deck didn't see a significant increase in play last weekend. Only three copies made the second day, though Cameron Rolen did pilot the deck to a ninth-place finish, missing the Top 8 on tiebreakers. A little luckier on the breakers and we could've been looking at back-to-back trophies for Bedlam Reveler and Lingering Souls.
3. Very Wrong. There are Modern tournaments where Tron is among the most played decks. Late last year there was a Modern Grand Prix in Lyon with three copies of it in the Top 8 alongside two copies of TitanShift. These decks are very powerful and they tend to do well in formats with lots of control and not a lot of fast combo, which is exactly what we had in Minneapolis. Despite this, we saw only three copies of Tron on Day 2 (one each of Mono-Green, G/R, and Eldrazi); one copy of R/G Breach (a Primeval Titan / Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deck); and zero copies of Amulet Titan.
So the question remains, what went wrong for big mana strategies?
Extrapolating from individual tournament results in Magic is always a risky business, especially when we don't know much about the metagame on Day 1. Modern tends to evolve more slowly than smaller formats, and after seeing control come out in numbers for two weeks in a row, we could see a breakout from big mana decks at Regionals. Last weekend could've simply been an aberration with a few more big mana players than expected coming up short of Day 2 due to negative variance, thereby suppressing its numbers after a tough X-2 cut in a larger field than we saw in Louisville.
Looking at the results of the Modern Classic, we see two big mana decks in the Top 8 with two more in the Top 16, a much better result for these archetypes. That lends some credence to the notion that a lot of players came up short on Day 1 before the Modern field narrows and their good metagame positioning could come into play.
That tournament had results closer to what I expected for the Open, with lots of big mana and relatively little Humans. In addition to the big mana decks, we see Jund and Mardu Pyromancer as ways to combat control, limiting Snapcaster Mage to only one representative in the Top 16. With Humans successfully suppressed, Storm was the big winner, putting three copies into the Top 16 and winning the event. Where the Open ended behind my expectations in terms of metagame evolution, the Classic seemed at least a week ahead.
Of course, the Open results will carry more weight. There are more eyes on the tournament and the quality of competition is stronger, so I remain hung up on the question of big mana decks. Are they simply not as strong against a diverse field as they used to be, or have their proponents not appropriately adapted their lists?
Let's examine all three major big mana archetypes (Tron, Valakut, and Amulet) and see where improvements could be made.
Last year, Tron was among the most played decks in Modern, and the most popular variant was G/B, splashing for Fatal Push and Collective Brutality. Earlier this year, Mono-Green lists supplanted G/B, eschewing the removal spells for extra basics to help play through Field of Ruin, which was quite popular at the time.
Since then, Field of Ruin has declined in popularity, with only U/W Control among popular decks playing the card in significant numbers. If Humans is to stay in the format, I think Tron decks need to go back to playing some maindeck removal. If Spatial Contortion is good enough, that would be ideal, but I doubt that's the case.
One of the successful Tron lists from last weekend, piloted by Casey Swanson, recognized this need and went back to the original splash in Tron, red. Back then it was for Pyroclasm in a format where Affinity and Jeskai Delver with Geist of Saint Traft were very popular, but Casey opted for the more powerful Kozilek's Return with a couple of copies of Abrade in the sideboard:
With linear aggro decks being popular recently, I can see the appeal for a sweeper. However, I would go for the cheaper Pyroclasm because Tron is quite good at trumping larger creatures with its expensive threats. The trouble in aggressive matchups is getting to those cards, especially if you stumble while assembling the Urzatron.
This problem is exacerbated against Humans, where Wurmcoil Engine becomes a liability against Reflector Mage. Against all these aggro decks, Karn Liberated isn't that effective, mostly functioning as an expensive Lightning Helix unless you cast it on Turn 3 on the play, so you're relying on your more expensive threats like Oblivion Stone and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
Buying time with cheap removal and not worrying about getting to Urzatron until Turn 4 is the best course of action in most games, and with the back half of Kozilek's Return being generally unnecessary, I'd pick the cheapest option. If you can keep Humans off its initial creatures, you'll live until Turn 5, plenty of time to set up some devastatingly powerful plays and take over the game.
However, as I noted above, the rise of Jeskai Control has suppressed the linear aggro decks against which a sweeper is so effective. Thus, I think G/R Tron is likely already outdated. If you're just interested in answering one early threat, Fatal Push is the card to look to. Pyroclasm is still quite useful against Affinity, so it's unclear to me which option is best, but you need some removal to bridge the gap between the setup turns and the payoff.
I'm using the generic term "Valakut" here to include G/R Breach and Bring to Light Scapeshift, but I favor TitanShift over those two by a wide margin. TitanShift is good against most linear aggro decks because of consistent wins by Turn 5, good early removal to bridge the gap, and a win condition in Primeval Titan that can easily spend a turn stabilizing the battlefield with a couple of Valakut triggers before ending the game.
Typically, such ramp decks are weak to control, but because the primary win condition is a land, and thus difficult to interact with, you typically have inevitability. Unfortunately, the printing of Field of Ruin and the presence of Runed Halo in most control sideboards has flipped the script back, often leaving the ramp deck with a pile of useless lands rather than Lightning Bolts. Runed Halo may not be found in multitudes, but the slow Valakut plan is just that, leaving control players with plenty of time to find it and then focus their answers on your actual creatures.
The easy fix is to start bringing in some of your sideboard enchantment removal, but that's an inelegant solution because it's a reactive card in a deck that takes a proactive role in the matchup, and you don't have the card selection to consistently find it. It's still a good idea to have an answer or two, especially against decks with other targets like Detention Sphere, but it's not enough. A better approach to combating players who aggressively target your Valakuts is to diversify your threat base.
To see some examples, look no further than the two successful TitanShift lists from last weekend's Classic:
Tyler Sroka's semifinals list has Bloodbraid Elf, which we've seen for a while now, as well as Tireless Tracker, a card that I absolutely love in Modern because of the presence of fetchlands and one that only gets better in a deck that is prone to flooding.
Bruce McCallister's Top 16 list goes even further, supplementing Tireless Trackers with a white splash for Nahiri, the Harbinger, which can threaten to end the game with its ultimate finding Primeval Titan as well as answer Runed Halo without the need for a dedicated Disenchant effect. The sideboard packs some silver bullets for Summoner's Pact aimed at control decks in Carnage Tyrant and Thrun, the Last Troll. Even Hornet Queen can come in, as it's another threat that demands a sweeper while providing a significant clock.
Control decks in Modern have historically struggled due to the diversity of threats in the format. There's no need to help them along by slavishly sticking to your linear gameplan when every deck has access to good tools in the matchup. Force them to react to a wide array of threats and your normal Scapeshift plan gets stronger, even if it's diluted.
Like TitanShift, Amulet Titan is another deck almost singularly reliant on one card to win the game, only this time it's Primeval Titan itself, which leaves you vulnerable to Meddling Mage, Runed Halo, and a flurry of Path to Exiles. Maindeck copies of Pact of Negation and a Reclamation Sage certainly help matters here, but most lists only supplement these tools with singleton copies of Hornet Queen and Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, and that won't be enough.
Also, most lists use Sakura-Tribe Scout and Azusa, Lost but Seeking as their primary ramp cards, leaving the deck somewhat vulnerable to the early removal spells that Tron and TitanShift blank. Jeskai is built with lots of removal to crush aggro decks, so one of the easiest ways to exploit them is to blank those removal spells, and Amulet Titan is the worst of this bunch at doing so. As a result, it's my least favorite among them.
However, once again, I find potential in a list from the Modern Classic, this time in the hands of Ethan Dasher, who would have snuck into eighth place after winning a pair-up in the last round if not for a risky draw by the table ahead of him:
Hive Mind is a nice alternate win condition, since the Tolaria Wests tutor for whichever Pact your opponent can't pay for, and it costs the same as Primeval Titan. It also lets you utilize Lotus Bloom as a ramp spell, cutting the Sakura-Tribe Scouts from typical lists. This list isn't going to be as explosive as the stock versions, but with Jeskai suppressing linear aggro decks and Humans suppressing fast combo, slowing down by half a turn or so is a fine tradeoff for added resilience.
Relative to the first two decks, Amulet Titan has the most work to do to compete in this metagame, but I think all three decks can be viable options when built well.
There were two ways to combat Jeskai Control. Attrition-heavy midrange decks like Jund and Mardu Pyromancer can grind it into dust, or big mana decks can go over the top with haymakers. So far it seems like the first path is winning out, but with big mana traditionally favored over both midrange and control strategies, it's only a matter of time before Karn Liberated and Primeval Titan rear their giant, ugly heads.