After SCG CON Summer and a long season of traveling, I took last week off from testing, merely following the trends going on as Modern Horizons was released. This week I find a Modern format that is much different from the one I navigated with Izzet Phoenix to an 8-0 finish at the Season One Invitational, and that is, in a word, scary.
I've been playing Izzet Phoenix since November, the longest consecutive stretch I've stayed with a single Modern deck that didn't get a card banned. It was comforting to have that deck in my back pocket, and despite some ups and downs in the metagame, there was never much doubt in my mind about whether the deck would continue to be a solid choice.
But with Modern Horizons having such an immediate, sizable impact on the format, it's important to take a step back, look at everything that's going on, and evaluate the new metagame dispassionately. To that end, I've devised five key questions that will be guiding my testing leading into the Team Modern Open in Pittsburgh at the end of this month. We don't have a lot of data to go on, so I don't have definitive answers to these questions right now, but once I do, I feel confident that I'll have a solid base from which to choose and tune a well-positioned deck for the tournament.
Is Bridgevine Broken?
Bridgevine is at the front of everyone's minds right now, and for good reason. After breaking out two weekends ago, dominating a Modern Challenge on Magic Online, the deck took gold, silver, and bronze in last weekend's Modern Challenge. There's still a wide array of cards we find in the two flex spots, from Darkblast to Stinkweed Imp to Necrotic Wound to Cathartic Reunion, but the core of the deck is so powerful that it doesn't seem to matter which cards you pick to round it out.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Carrion Feeder
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Insolent Neonate
- 4 Stitcher's Supplier
- 4 Vengevine
- 4 Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis
I've been around Modern since the beginning. I played Pro Tour Goldfish in Philadelphia. I've seen the rise and fall of incredibly powerful decks like Eggs, Twin, Melira Pod, and Eldrazi. I've also seen the overreaction to decks like Humans, Grixis Death's Shadow, and Izzet Phoenix, where the metagame was able to adjust after a period of dominance.
If you pressed me, I'd say that Bridgevine looks closer to the Eldrazi or Dredge with Golgari Grave-Troll end of the spectrum than Grixis Death's Shadow or Izzet Phoenix. For a linear deck that is capable of winning by Turn 4 in most of its games, it also sloughs off graveyard hate quite well, recovering from the half-measure hate cards with Altar of Dementia and developing its battlefield in the face of the harder hate before finding an answer and taking control of the game.
I'm not here to say that the deck is definitively broken and will lead to a ban, but I will say that if you think the deck is broken, just play it. My career is littered with what-ifs of me convincing myself not to play the obvious great deck, and the times when I have played those decks have been among my most successful. I don't know of anyone who regretted playing Caw-Blade or Faeries. I have seen people regret their list because they spent too long trying to beat the best deck and not enough time just tuning it.
If the format's broke, don't try to fix it.
Is Devoted Devastation Real?
Even if Bridgevine doesn't completely dominate the coming weeks of Modern, its presence as the default best deck is going to fundamentally reshape the metagame. With how resilient the deck is to graveyard hate, the more natural axis on which to attack it is to simply race. There are plenty of decks in Modern that are capable of winning on Turn 3, but they haven't been significant players in the metagame because they are too easy to interact with or not consistent enough.
Counters Company was one of those decks, bursting into the format after Vizier of Remedies was printed, only to fall off quickly as everyone figured out its trick. Various efforts have been made to add a backup aggro plan as with the Birthing Pod decks of old, but with so many slots devoted to cards like Vizier of Remedies and Duskwatch Recruiter to make the combo consistent, there wasn't enough space left to allow the deck to effectively pivot.
I've long advocated for cutting Collected Company in the deck and becoming a dedicated combo deck, but Devoted Druid dying to Lightning Bolt has always been a huge hurdle to overcome. With the printing of Giver of Runes, the deck has a card that can preemptively protect its combo from removal, thereby not losing any speed.
That's a huge gain against the field, but the biggest draw to a deck like this now is that if everyone is going to look to race Bridgevine, the amount of cheap removal in the metagame is going to plummet. So there are plenty of games where the Devoted Devastation player can run out their combo on Turn 3 and win without much fear of interaction, especially against the bogeyman itself.
One upped myself by losing a total of 3 win and ins for top 8 of the F2F Ultimate Showdown, but I made some changes and am hopping back in the trenches to figure out this deck https://t.co/MIT05rWl1R pic.twitter.com/BS0puBdJgc— Edgar Magalhes (@EdgarMTG) June 17, 2019
That makes Devoted Devastation a metagame deck. It needs a metagame full of Bridgevine and other non-interactive decks to succeed, but such a metagame will only be allowed for a short time before a ban. So this is really a corollary to the first question, with Devoted Druid being as real as Bridgevine is broken. That means I'm unlikely to play it myself, since I'd rather play the fundamentally broken strategy, but it will affect how I tune my Bridgevine list, perhaps leaning towards Lightning Axe in the maindeck flex spots.
Has Mono-Red Phoenix Supplanted Izzet?
Despite Jeffery Carr's best efforts, Mono-Red Phoenix has always been the inferior Thunder Chicken deck, an undeniable reality that led to Ryan Overturf cutting the 3/2 flyer from his list and building solely around the prowess mechanic.
But in last weekend's Modern Challenge, Mono-Red Phoenix was the only non-Hogaak archetype to take multiple slots in the Top 8. At the same time, Thing in the Ice looked comfortable staying in its frozen home, failing to crack even the Top 32.
It's only one tournament, so these results aren't definitive by themselves, but there's good reason to look toward the monochromatic deck here – speed. Mono-Red Phoenix wins on Turn 3 and Turn 4 more often than its Izzet counterpart, which uses the cantrips to add consistency and relies heavily on Thing in the Ice to end games quickly. The tertiary win conditions in Izzet, Crackling Drake and Pyromancer Ascension, aren't winning games quickly unless you go all-in on the latter, which only opens you up to the increased levels of graveyard hate in the metagame.
With decreased interaction in the format and not much in the way of blockers put out by Bridgevine, cards like Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage look a lot better, and the addition of Lava Dart from Modern Horizons only improves the prowess plan.
So we have yet another deck that is similar to Devoted Devastation, though Mono-Red Phoenix is a bit more resilient to removal with its ability to finish the game with burn spells, while it doesn't like to see decks that are able to get in the way of its prowess creatures early and then turn the corner to race the burn plan. Still, the key question is just how much the metagame will degenerate in reaction to Bridgevine.
That said, the purported death of Izzet Phoenix may be premature, as Gerry Thompson has been having success with a list of his own devising, incorporating Aria of Flame as the third win condition, a card that kills a lot faster than you might think. I'm eagerly awaiting his article on the deck coming later this week because I'm old and change scares me.
Why Is Azorius Control Still Around?
If the format is degenerating into a bunch of ships passing in the night, why has Azorius Control, the fairest of fair decks, put a player in the Top 8 of both MTGO Challenges with Modern Horizons, including taking a trophy away from Hogaak and friends two weekends ago?
There are two obvious explanations that I'm inclined to reject. The first is that they are winning on the back of a pile of graveyard hate, namely four sideboard copies of Rest in Peace along with maindeck Surgical Extractions. By last weekend, most everyone was playing a pile of graveyard hate, so there's nothing separating Azorius Control from the pack unless you want to claim that it is uniquely well-positioned to beat the pile of 2/1s that Bridgevine looks to win with in the face of hate cards.
Second, you can say that Azorius Control's presence in these Top 8s is mainly due to metagame inertia, players who for whatever reason aren't changing decks after Modern Horizons. Azorius Control has been one of the more popular decks around since War of the Spark, and in the early weeks of a new season that popularity can spill over. But we haven't seen the same results from Izzet Phoenix or Humans, for example.
If the difference between those decks and Azorius Control is small sample variance, then Azorius Control will fall away soon enough, but unlike those other decks, I think Azorius benefits from the format degenerating, since it narrows the axes of interaction you need to be prepared for. Even with a matchup against Bridgevine that largely depends on landing and protecting a piece of hate in the first three turns, if the Azorius deck can handle the small range of decks that rise to combat Bridgevine, it starts to look like a good scissors to Bridgevine's rock and Devoted Devastation/Mono-Red Phoenix's paper.
You see, as much as I and other writers may implore players to play the broken deck when they can, certain portions of the metagame refuse to do so. Some love their own pet deck too much. Some refuse to play the broken deck, and some just delude themselves into thinking that they've next-leveled the metagame. So there's always going to be space for a deck that can play enough hate to at least put up a fight against the broken deck while handling everything else. It appears that that deck is Azorius Control, so until I see it decline, I'm going to continue to respect it.
Is Mono-Green Tron Even Playable?
The archetype that loses the most ground when the metagame degenerates and speed matters above everything else is Mono-Green Tron, or more generally, Big Mana.
Karn, the Great Creator and the coming London Mulligan rule were supposed to make Tron the best deck. Amulet Titan has long been a dark-horse pick among good players, though its numbers haven't done much to back it up, and TitanShift has had a major resurgence this year, Top 8ing nearly every major event.
But all of these decks are designed to prey on reactive decks. They are low on interaction themselves, and don't kill very quickly, outside of the best Amulet Titan draws. Decks like Devoted Devastation and Mono-Red Phoenix salivate at matchups where they are getting two or three turns completely unopposed to enact their gameplan.
Unsurprisingly, none of these decks have performed well in the MTGO Challenges, with nary a Primeval Titan in sight and only a couple of Tron decks making the Top 32. Eldrazi Tron has had a better run of it, with Chalice of the Void to slow down these degenerate decks and more early plays in the absence of a fast Urzatron, so if you're dead set on never making colored mana, then I'd look there.
A lot of people like to complain about Modern being super-fast and degenerate, but that really hasn't been the case since Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll were banned over two years ago. Instead we've seen Grixis Death's Shadow, various control strategies, Humans, and Izzet Phoenix emerge as top decks, all of which are decidedly fair, albeit with powerful draws.
But we're heading into a degenerate phase of Modern right now. There's still a lot in flux, but here's what I'm looking at:
- Step 1: If Bridgevine is broken, play it.
- Step 2: If it's not broken but the hive mind thinks it is, play a fast creature deck like Mono-Red Phoenix or Devoted Devastation.
- Step 3: If it's not broken and the hive mind knows, reassess based on what exactly is beating it. Hope really hard that this means I can still play Izzet Phoenix.
It's been a while since Modern was truly broken, and I'd honestly be excited if it is again. Getting an edge in degenerate metagames is a different kind of puzzle from normal metagaming, like when Eldrazi decks kept looking at different color combinations to trump the mirror. You also get a chance to be a part of Magic's history, which I have a growing appreciation of as a grizzled veteran.
In a couple of months, we'll all be chastising ourselves for overreacting again, or we'll be relieved when the ban comes. Either way, Modern will go on.