The year is 2014. Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod are still legal. You show up to your local Monday Night Modern tournament and play against a slew of crazy cards and decks, things like Soul Sisters and Living End. Scapeshift still plays blue cards.
Life was good (sort of).
Modern's popularity over the last handful of years has exploded. A combination of a constantly expanding card pool (frequently adding very powerful cards to shake up the format every set or two) and decks generally staying viable for an indefinite amount of time has drawn in massive amounts of players to the format. Players discovered a deck they liked, then spent weeks, months, maybe even years honing and tuning their beloved strategies to the ever changing Modern metagame.
Fast forward to right now, and to say the rules of Modern have changed is an understatement.
The format took a shift from being a more "casual friendly" and "play what you want" style to a much leaner, more efficient one, backed in part by the constant spikes in power various decks receive every time a new set is printed. The latest example of this would be Dredge and the printing of Creeping Chill in Guilds of Ravnica.
Beyond this reason, there's a very big factor that has come into play (entered the battlefield?) as far as Modern's metamorphosis from its earlier more casual days into the #1 competitive format in Magic: the Gathering: the spike in Modern Grand Prix and SCG Tour® Opens from 2015-2018 and the data that came with it helped drive the format to a more defined metagame.
Data, data, data.
For any student of the game, examining metagame shifts, from deck selection to specific card choices, is fueled by a weekly report on the top decks that rise above the rest. For Grand Prix, we see the top 32 decks that performed well on a given weekend. The same is true for SCG Tour® Opens. Every day, WotC posts a series of unique decklists on their website that a given user was able to claim a trophy with in a Magic Online Competitive Constructed League. These decklists are usually aggregated, sorted, and shared on a variety of different websites for players to examine to get general ideas on how each Constructed format's metagame is shaping up from week to week.
For Modern, the enormous spike in frequency of Premier level tournaments over the last few years helped drive the format further and further away from a "play what you know" format to an arms race to find the most efficient killing machine to compete with the other decks in the format. The influx of data points helped more studious players examine and discover trends in the Modern metagame and allow them to leverage this knowledge above other players to gain an advantage on a higher level. This, in turn, took away from the skill gap that masters of specific strategies in Modern could use to defeat less knowledgeable opponents.
When I'm not writing articles or playing in Opens on the weekend, I'm working my day job as a Data Engineer. Data these days is a very important driver for business, as it helps you make much more informed decisions on how to better serve your customers and put yourself a step ahead of your competition. This same philosophy carries over to Magic pretty seamlessly; the more empirical evidence you have to back up claims or decisions you make while testing or preparing for Magic tournaments, the more likely you are to hit your mark on aspects like deck choice, sideboarding choices, and flex slot options.
The Modern format is a format that needed these data points to gain any semblance of cohesive metagame structure. Modern has always been lauded as a format with dozens and dozens of strategies that, when played well, can win any given Modern tournament. This was true, in part, because back in the 2011-2014 era of Modern, there simply wasn't enough data to suggest that anything short of Splinter Twin and Birthing Pod decks were consistently capable of reaching the elimination rounds or otherwise winning Modern tournaments.
At this point, I've laid out a pretty good base on how and why Modern has changed so much in the last few years. Next, I'd like to cover the consequences of these changes and how they should impact your decision-making regarding the format heading into 2019.
#1: Modern has a metagame that moves much quicker than it used to. Learn to adapt accordingly.
SCG Dallas in late October this season was the breakout tournament and triumphant return of Modern Dredge. Since the deck lost Golgari Grave-Troll to the Modern banned list for the second (and likely last) time, its ability to win greatly diminished and the deck all but disappeared from the format. Guilds of Ravnica turned Modern on its head in several ways, but the biggest change was the printing of Creeping Chill, which gave the deck a potential twelve points of damage and lifegain in the deck, completely free of charge. It put two players into the top 4 of the event and a smattering of other pilots into the top 32.
What happened the following weekend at SCG Charlotte still resonates with me two months later because it was the fastest I had ever seen the Modern format adjust on a week to week basis. Ross Merriam ended up being the highest finishing pilot with Dredge, coming in 16th place, and that was likely in no small part because of Merriam's affinity for the deck and ability to play it very well.
However, the finals of SCG Charlotte was decided in an Amulet Titan mirror match of all things! The format turning on Dredge in just one week made me realize just how much faster Modern moves in 2018 compared to previous years and how quickly players are willing to adjust not just the sideboards, but entire deck choices to next level the metagame. SCG Charlotte and the few Opens to follow saw a renaissance for Primeval Titan decks like Amulet Titan and TitanShift due to their outstanding Dredge matchup, and have since adjusted to coexist in the format, as Dredge has proven itself to be able to withstand some of the hate cards players will play.
It's the hateful decks that give it trouble.
This leads to my next point:
#2: It's time to learn to pivot in Modern not on the sideboarding/flex slot level, but on the deck level.
It's no insignificant fact that one of the largest allures to Modern is that it's easy to pick up one deck and play it for a long time. And as I previously discussed, it used to be a completely acceptable strategy to just adjust your sideboard for whatever deck you liked to adjust for metagame shifts and have it be sufficient.
Thanks to all the data we have on Modern right now, it makes much more sense to shift between decks depending on the metagame instead. These days, we have a much easier time identifying what's winning slightly more than the rest.
A lot of the top decks in the format right now all fight you in a different way. For reference, I consider these five decks to be your five best decks in Modern right now:
- 4 Drogskol Captain
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Rattlechains
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 1 Remorseful Cleric
- 2 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Supreme Phantom
- 1 Geist of Saint Traft
- 1 Walking Ballista
- 1 Hornet Queen
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Sakura-Tribe Scout
- 2 Trinket Mage
- 4 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
Let's break it down:
- Izzet Phoenix: Tries to win the game with Thing in the Ice, Monastery Swiftspear, Arclight Phoenix, and burn spells. Top end consists of Crackling Drake and lategame recursive Arclight Phoenix chains. Strong against control and midrange decks, weaker against aggressive decks, fast combo decks, and occasionally, graveyard hate.
- Ironworks : Tries to win the game by resolving Krark-Clan Ironworks, then generating a ton of mana and card advantage, all while attempting to infinitely recur Pyrite Spellbomb or Spine of Ish Sah to create an unlosable gamestate. Strong against spot removal, non-interactive aggressive decks, and can struggle against artifact and graveyard hate, as well as disruptive aggro decks like Spirits.
- Dredge: Tries to win the game by constantly recurring threats like Prized Amalgam and Bloodghast, as well as racing the opponent and controlling their battlefield via Conflagrate and Creeping Chill. Strong against control/midrange decks and other aggressive creature-based decks. Weak to graveyard hate and linear combo decks.
- Bant Spirits: Tries to win the game the good old-fashioned way: attacking with creatures. All these creatures disrupt the opponent in some way, either by making their spot removal/sweepers weaker, countering opposing instant and sorcery spells, and nabbing four or less mana spells with Spell Queller. Strong against combo decks, other creature decks (like Humans), but weaker to decks that can get under Spirits or matchups where the strategy can ignore Spell Queller.
- Amulet Titan: Tries to win the game by utilizing Amulet of Vigor and Primeval Titan to kill the opponent as fast as turn 3. One of the few decks in the format with a fabled turn 2 kill, given the proper resources. Very strong against just about everything short of Blood Moon. It doesn't have a lot in the way of interaction for other spell based combo short of a well-timed Pact of Negation and the ability to pay for it, so it can occasionally struggle with other faster combo decks.
Following the brief synopsis of each deck above, you may notice something about how they all differ: they all attack your opponents on a different axis.
- Izzet Phoenix is the most aggressive of the bunch and looks to get your opponent dead quickly, but in a mildly less degenerate way than Dredge, Amulet Titan, or Ironworks.
- Ironworks aims to also make your opponent's spot removal useless, but also doesn't even need the combat step to win the game.
- Dredge can out-grind any number of non-exile based removal and utilizes the graveyard almost as if it was a second hand, something no other deck in Modern can do.
- Bant Spirits fights the fair fight by both attacking the opponent and disrupting them along the way, all while utilizing the best sideboard cards Modern has to offer.
- Amulet Titan, thanks to a seemingly endless supply of tutors and mana, can overpower just about anything not properly equipped with the tools to disrupt them or otherwise kill them before it matters.
The fact of the matter is, Modern players will simply continue to do what they've been doing and rather than switch strategies, will simply overcompensate their sideboards for whatever did the most winning the previous weekend instead. Ironworks just take down a Grand Prix? Expect an uptick in Stony Silences and Ancient Grudges, with a splash of graveyard hate for good measure. Dredge make up half of the top 8 of an Open? Time to bust out a boatload of Rest in Peace and Relic of Progenitus. The five decks I listed are all very strong choices that let you pivot week-to-week to ensure that you're still playing something a cut above the rest, all while dodging the target placed on whatever dared crush the last premier event.
The best advice I can give anyone trying to stay a step ahead of the Modern metagame is to pick at least two, but preferably three, of the above decks, learn them inside and out, and cycle between them as the format shifts.
Modern still rewards players for playing what they know well...to an extent. The biggest difference now is the extra layer of preparation required outside of regular testing to study what the metagame will be targeting and staying one step ahead of the competition.
Don't get caught up in the everflowing shifts in the Modern metagame. In 2018, data dictates the decisions we make in our lives every day and forces us to make these decisions at a faster rate than we used to. Magic is no different.