I was recently under the false impression that the August 11th Modern Magic Online Championship Series Playoff was the final event before the cutoff for the Magic Online Championship, which lead me to over-prepare to try to avoid finishing on the leaderboard bubble. As a result, I ended up developing a good sense of the format from relative scratch, ranging all the way from general dynamics to specific card choices. As such, I'm going to share my take on the format, along with some of the principles I think are important for understanding formats in general.
The first step to choosing the right deck for a format is producing a concept of the format to work against.
There's been discussion recently over whether Modern should or shouldn't be understood as a diverse format (see especially Ross Merriam's article and Emma Handy's article ). In other words, we're thinking over whether the mass of known decks in Modern should be considered competitively viable because any one or another might be capable of winning a tournament any given weekend, or whether because there's a limited selection of decks that seem to be of a higher calibre than the rest, they should be considered the primary metagame.
Modern is known, of course, for a kind of diversity. Compared to Standard, there's a much longer list of decks one might run into during any given Magic Online League. As the competitive level of the tournament increases, however, one tends to see this diversity drop, as in the recent Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, where the top six decks of the format occupied over 60% of the metagame. Because of the tendency for more serious players to choose from a narrower range of decks, I'm inclined to see Modern's diversity as mostly noise rather than genuine variety.
The key to conceptualizing Modern, then, in my view, is to break it up into Winner's and Loser's circles, and to consider the Loser's Circle as a single matchup that a deck can do more or less well against. This provides a definite metagame one can work at solving, rather than a mess of decks, each with good and bad matchups. This image of the format doesn't define the decks that are indeed viable - it's just a means of hypothesizing borderline decks that may be well-positioned to graduate into the winner's metagame, or winner's decks that may be falling out of it.
So, what does Modern look like right now? The most recent major events have been Pro Tour 25th Anniversary, three weekends ago, and the MOCS Playoff, two weekends ago. These events established that the Tier 1 definitely consists of at least U/W Control and Humans. Humans went into the PT as the expected most popular deck and still had an excellent conversion rate to top finishes and won the MOCS. U/W Control extended its good showing from GP Barcelona; looked great on camera all weekend; continues to have a number of credible proponents; like Luis Salvatto, Joel Larsson, and Mark Herberholz; and placed second at the MOCS. These decks are at the height of their Tier 1 status, popular, and definitely good.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 3 Militia Bugler
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
In addition, there are several relatively popular decks whose status is less certain: Hollow One, Ironworks, Mono-Green Tron, R/B Vengevine, Bant Spirits, and - given its three spots in the Top 8 of the MOCS Playoff - Hardened Scales Affinity. R/B Vengevine has been a major X factor, with its actual strength given an optimal build being unknown.
Before trying to make headway on this concept of the format, it's important to have an understanding of some specifics.
Specific Impressions of Decks, Cards, and Matchups
When considering a deck, there are two principles to keep in mind. The first is to aim to exploit the format as a whole. Paul Rietzl recently expressed this premise as follows:
The big secret to magic is to make the commonly played interaction not work well against your deck. That's true in basically every format.— Paul Rietzl (@paulrietzl) April 16, 2018
Imagine that every format can be reduced to a common denominator of what the best decks are trying to do. For example, the Standard metagame at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary was mainly composed of red and green creature decks which, although different in the details, were both exploitable by the Bant Nexus strategy. The way to attack a metagame is to speculate and iterate on points of vulnerability. This is easier said than done, given that one must not only beat the best decks at their intended gameplan, but must also avoid their accidental protections (e.g. sideboard "splash damage"). Breaking the metagame altogether is usually a proposition that either pays huge dividends or must be scrapped, but even just trying to position oneself well can sometimes be difficult.
The second principle, less well-known and providing more incremental value, is to aim to exploit misunderstood particulars, such as matchups or card choices. When a matchup or card is evaluated wrongly within the metagame, this presents an opportunity: as long as this misevaluation is widespread, the metagame cannot correct itself to adjust for it, and the person who knows about it can continue to capitalize.
This means that any knowledge you can pick up ("people think X card, or matchup is good/bad, when in fact its the opposite") can provide the key you need to finding a deck that gives you the highest winrate against the field.
After trying many decks for the MOCS, I was surprised to settle on Humans, the "obvious best deck." I landed here both because I felt several matchups were misevaluated, and that the build had some small room for improvement.
As for misevaluated matchups, I felt the deck had better matchups against R/B Vengevine and Hollow One than people appreciated. I spent a lot of time trying to make R/B Vengevine work, and despite many of its advocates claiming that the Humans matchup was good, I kept losing to quick flyers, or even just a wall of four or five big or annoying creatures. And after sideboard, Auriok Champion was doing a lot of work. I was beating Hollow One every time, and Auriok Champion was similarly nightmarish for them after sideboard, especially when multiple copies showed up. Engineered Explosives is definitely the sideboard card you don't want to see, but it's only ever a one or two-of and hardly determines the game. As well, the threat of the rise of R/B Vengevine was keeping the metagame from shifting to be more hostile to Humans, including by disincentivizing generally undesirable matchups, like Tron and Jund-variants.
As for the list and adjustments, this is what I arrived at:
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 2 Militia Bugler
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 2 Thraben Inspector
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
The two most notable features here are the two maindeck copies of Thraben Inspectors and the two sideboard copies of Riders of Gavony.
The Thraben Inspectors are included because I think standard builds of the deck are short on one-drops - this is because maximizing Aether Vial requires you to have another one-drop (besides itself) to play on Turn 2, and so it effectively doesn't count as a one-drop. Thraben Inspector is preferable to something like Experiment One because of Humans' tendency to get flooded and because even a 1/2 is a decent threat once pumped. The slight reduction in overall cmc helps justify playing only eighteen land and a less flood-prone 26 total mana sources.
The Riders of Gavony are typically dismissed because in the mirror they are at risk of being cloned and because against the field they're narrow, but I found both reasons to be overstated. In the mirror, you get to choose when and if to play the Riders, and because you get the first attack, the play pattern is often to attack with as many creatures as you can to not die on the way back, then attack for the win on the following turn. As well, given the design of Humans to pivot between a disruptive anti-combo deck and a midrange anti-creature deck, especially after sideboard, Riders is frequently an asset, effectively negating an opposing creature type for as long as it sticks around and being much better than Meddling Mage or Kitesail Freebooter in the relevant matchups. I end up bringing it in a lot - e.g. in against Hollow One, Bant Spirits, Hardened Scales Affinity, Elves, and Merfolk.
It's true that Militia Bugler isn't going to be grinding anyone out. I like to think of it as a bit more gas in the tank of a deck that runs light. Two is a good number for providing a decent chance you'll be able to copy them in games where you need to extend the stream of threats a little longer.
- Auriok Champion is a beast of a sideboard card - one you can lean on against Burn, Hollow One, and R/B Vengevine, among others, as well as bring in to decent effect in the mirror - and anyone who tells you to cut them should be regarded with suspicion.
- Damping Sphere isn't great, but unfortunately none of your other anti-combo/control cards do anything in the matchup. It forces them to have Oblivion Stone, which you can shut out if you have a Meddling Mage. Gaddock Teeg seems way too narrow to me.
- No Reclamation Sage: This leaves you vulnerable mainly to Worship out of Bant Spirits and certain G/W decks, and Ensnaring Bridge out of fringe decks. It's also an okay card against Affinity. The big problem with this card is that the value it provides in its optimal use is diminished by how frequently it's a blank. The most frequent appearance of Ensnaring Bridge, as well, is out of Burn decks, where it's beatable even without Sage (more on this below).
I spent a lot of time going back to Tron. The deck is so solid and easy to play at a basic competitive standard that it has a good winrate right out of the box, which seems like it should be able to be improved with practice and tuning. Unfortunately, the gains seem marginal.
Tron turned out to have the following issues:
- Weak to the R/B Vengeveine threat, although the matchup is winnable.
- More importantly: it didn't actually beat U/W Control - in fact, this might be a very bad matchup!
In terms of our second principle above, then, Tron has the burden of facing a metagame calibrated as if the deck could beat U/W Control - sideboard hate, bad matchups, etc. - but doesn't actually get the value out of its supposedly good matchup.
I started losing to U/W Control following the recent standardization of the build with four Field of Ruin.
Somewhere along the line, I went from beating U/W Control every time and having sideboard Emrakul, The Promised End be an inevitable trump, to having close pre-sideboard games often lost to a runaway planeswalker and difficult post-sideboard games where an early Stony Silence was ending the game immediately for a sizeable range of hands. If a couple Surgical Extractions becomes standard in U/W Control, I see the matchup becoming even worse.
Along the way, I made the following adjustments to the list, some of which might be useful going forward:
- I added two Gemstone Caverns to the sideboard. Gemstone Caverns seems generally underplayed to me, given that in a deck that can support one or two, it can come in versus almost every deck when on the draw. It seems particularly underplayed in Tron, given that the deck benefits greatly from acceleration but has almost no way to get it given its early turns are occupied with filtering. Someone ended up playing them at the PT, which the members of /r/TronMTG found to be especially noteworthy .
- In general, I didn't like either Thought-Knot Seer or Thragtusk in the Sideboard. An honest Thought-Knot Seer, as well as the midrange plan in general, is only mediocre against the matchups you bring it in against. Thragtusk is better, being a nice supplement against Hollow One in particular, but again felt too fair to me. I shifted between the full amount of these and none of them.
- I like the idea of Tarmogoyf instead of Thragtusk, especially with the emergence of R/B Vengevine since it gives you a real blocker while you're struggling to get your mana together.
- The problem with Dismember is that because of the steep life cost, the only deck it's really good against is Humans, where it's useful to remove specific disruption creatures. This leaves you split between covering that base and having a relevant card against the broader range of creature decks. The sideboard spot removal spells have similar issues, with Warping Wail being particularly weak.
- One option I tried following the rise of R/B Vengevine was four maindeck copies of Walking Ballista. These double as payoff spells and early game speedbumps or Bridge from Below removal. In general, cards that pivot in this way - cheap card selection spells like Adventuous Impulse for example - still sometimes go undervalued in Constructed.
- One option I tried to fight back against U/W Control and Field of Ruins after sideboard was two copies of Crucible of Worlds along with a Tectonic Edge, which had been a brutally effective strategy (with Life from the Loam) in Dredge. It seemed good, but not especially decisive, given that one could still be outrun by an active planewalker.
The final list I was considering playing was:
Even with the adjustments, however, I wasn't happy with the matchups against R/B Vengevine or U/W Control.
I spent a lot of time working on R/B Vengevine in the week before the Pro Tour, when it was first breaking out.
The deck's good draws were so explosive, and it beat its good matchups, like U/W Control, Mono-Green Tron, and Mardu Pyromancer, so badly that it was very promising. With this many good matchups in or near the Tier 1, the rest of its matchups only needed to be okay for it to be an excellent choice, and the deck still had a lot of room for development.
At first, I misunderstood the deck and thought that its keepable hands could be nearly reduced to those with one of eight payoff cards, one of about ten enabler cards (discard outlets), and one of seventeen lands, but that these hands were generally very strong. Accordingly, my first attempt at improvement was to bolster these numbers. I tried Stinkweed Imps as additional payoff cards, and Serum Powders as additional mulligan draws (exiling your mulligan hands usually works out to a slight benefit), both of which played okay.
On further consideration, though, a Stitcher's Apprentice paired with various other cards (another Apprentice, a discard outlet, or a sacrifice outlet) is also a decent keep, which brought me in line with orthodox builds. The deck plays as a "Game 1 graveyard deck" that also has the unusually strong Plan B of shifting into something like "8-Whack" Zoo, which is especially valuable after sideboard when other graveyard decks, like Dredge, struggle badly against a single Leyline of the Void.
Ultimately, I found that although the deck's basic "fail rate" of doing something relatively broken in the first two turns was tolerable, when this was combined with the number of times it would lose to a just okay battlefield, its altogether "flake rate" wasn't good enough to make it a Tier 1 choice. The deck would often struggle against big green creatures (Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, Knight of the Reliquary), Humans, or flyers, despite many R/B Vengevine players believing those to be okay or even good matchups. This fundamental issue seems unaffected by the ongoing small shifts to the optimal build.
I don't see the deck breaking into the Tier 1 for the time being.
- The deck may or may not want further discard outlets beyond the four copies of Insolent Neonate and Faithless Looting. Unfortunately, the remaining options aren't nearly as strong in the deck. Cathartic Reunion gets rid of two cards but doesn't suit the deck's aggressive posture. Some players at the PT played Bloodrage Brawler, but I'm not convinced that's better than Heir of Falkenrath. Desperate Ravings is almost good enough. Hedron Crab is an interesting possibility.
- I saw one guy playing Death's Shadow in the deck, as an expensive 'egg' that gets big in the late game. It's a cute idea, but the deck seems to be missing a second source of self-damage besides lands.
- Back when there were lots of mirror matchups, I liked a couple Goblin Chainwhirlers in the sideboard, which play especially well during games in which both players have Leyline of the Void. I also liked them against Storm, which usually shifts to an Empty the Warrens plan against you.
In my experience, Burn always sounds better in theory than it plays in practice. The deck has a focused gameplan, great mana, and good sideboard options. As well, it seemed relatively well-positioned, with a good matchup against R/B Vengevine and with Collective Brutality/Tarmogoyf decks largely scared out of the metagame.
The major issue with Burn is that the deck needs at least two lands to function, floods at four, and has no card selection to smooth out draws. And even its good matchups are not overwhelming so. As well, I've found the deck to be terrible against U/W Control with very meagre sideboard offerings, which is borne out in rough data analysis of the last three Modern Grand Prix. For Burn to compete for Tier 1 status, it will need a major new addition along the lines of Sulfuric Vortex.
- I tried a few cute ideas to help alleviate the flooding problem. I actually played Dryad Arbor in a Naya build at a GP a few years ago with four copies of Wooded Foothills and Windswept Heath, and found it to be great as a way of converting an excess land into about a Shock's worth of value. The downside is magnified in a Boros build, however. The other idea was Mishra's Bauble which pumps Monastery Swiftspear and often is, in effect, "0: Scry 1, Draw a card." The marginal gain, however, is counteracted or nearly counteracted by its effect on mulligan decisions.
- Ensnaring Bridge is an interesting sideboard option. As a R/B Vengevine and Humans player, I was initially terrified of the card, since I couldn't justify bringing in potentially dead dedicated artifact removal spells in a matchup that was all about hustling to win as soon as possible. As it turns out, Bridge isn't the game-ender I thought it was. It's not a stretch for a Humans player to have multiple copies of Auriok Champion on the battlefield, which allows them to get ahead of the burn and then win with a couple Reflector Mages on stray creatures. And the games that R/B Vengevine wins are so quick that the deck will often be able to go under the Ensnaring Bridge, or to nearly do so and then finish with scrys into Walking Ballista. I haven't been impressed with Ensnaring Bridge as a sideboard card, especially when without playing it you get the equity of opponents potentially boarding for it.
Conclusions and Predictions
Humans and U/W Control are central to Modern's top tier. Several other decks had uncertain value: R/B Vengevine, Mono-Green Tron, Hollow One, Ironworks, U/W or Bant Spirits, and Hardened Scales Affinity.
- Given R/B Vengevine's weakness to Humans and general flakiness, I see its metagame share diminishing, which will make U/W Control stronger and Humans weaker.
- Given Hollow One's mediocre positioning versus U/W Control and Humans, I see its metagame share diminishing.
- Given Ironworks' general weakness to a wide range of sideboard cards that don't seem to be going anywhere, I see its metagame share diminishing. It did okay at the PT, but we know that the best finisher with the deck wasn't winning a lot on Day 2 and 3, and it didn't really show up at the MOCS.
- Given Mono-Green Tron's poor matchup versus U/W Control, I see it staying at the fringes of Tier 1. It's helped by R/B Vengevine's decline and how easy Tron is to do well with.
- U/W and Bant Spirits seems competitive against both Humans and U/W Control. I've lost to it my fair share, and Worship is an outstanding sideboard card. My intuition is that the deck's power level is low enough relative to Humans against the field that it will remain a fringe player.
- Hardened Scales Affinity is my pick for the most potential in the developing metagame. I hate running into it as a Humans player. I've heard that the U/W Control matchup is not good, but if it can be made competitive, the deck will be a very solid choice.
- Jeskai is indeed a terrible matchup for Humans. If someone can build the deck so that it's competitive against U/W Control, maybe there's potential for it to re-emerge as a central player.
- If PGO-Genesis's Storm deck really does have a good matchup against Humans and U/W Control, it certainly has promise. So far it hasn't made much of a splash at either the PT or the MOCS Playoff.
- Grindy Thoughtseize decks get a boost from the decline of R/B Vengevine, but only seem mediocre against the core Tier 1, and so are likely to remain in the background.
The metagame taking shape then looks as though it will have Humans and U/W Control at its core, with Tron an ever-present but ultimately soft choice, Bant Spirits and Hardened Scales Affinity as emerging contenders, and Storm lurking nearby. Ironworks, Hollow One, and R/B Vengevine have good reason to be on the decline. U/W Control is limited by being among the hardest of the bunch to pick up and play - which only benefits those who do play it, since it will be underrepresented in the metagame - and won't be going anywhere anytime soon due to being so generally resilient. It just survived a hostile metagame turn, and there are no obvious sideboard trumps. Humans is more vulnerable to an adjusting metagame and will likely lose a few points in the coming weeks.
I think there's truth to the idea that the Standard metagame at the Pro Tour is so homogeneous partly due to an echo chamber effect and because pros lean toward safe choices for major events. In other words, the Standard Winner's Circle, at least at the Pro Tour, has been overly closed to viable challengers. I don't believe this to be the case in Modern, which is populated by a larger percentage of casual-competitive players committed to lower tier decks. You can't go too wrong by playing a Tier 1 deck in Modern, which should have a positive winrate against the field from the start, but your winrate will be maximized by thinking through the continuing developments at the upper tier of the metagame.