When Chessmaster drew another Second Sunrise half the crowd stood up and walked out since they knew it was over. Nine minutes later that turn he played a lethal Grapeshot. Yuuya smiled and activated Deathrite Shaman to gain two life the crowd erupting in laughter. Chessmaster smiled and began to combo off again. When this turn eventually ended Stanislav Cifka was crowned Champion of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica topping off an extremely impressive 18-1 performance on the weekend.
After the Player's Championship the last "big" Modern event a number of people pointed to the decks played as evidence that Modern had reached a point that was somewhat diverse involving a bunch of real decks. As it turns out pick a sample size of sixteen and you can see a very different picture. Take sixteen people that are used to testing in groups remove the team element and now you are talking about a lot less quality of deck selection.
What I find particularly interesting is that one of the appeals of "fair decks" is supposed to be the idea that you have a chance to play a real game with anyone. Often players that are among the best in a given tournament don't want to play narrow combo decks that can be hated out if they face the wrong sideboard cards.
The Player's Championship however should have been the easiest place for a number of people to deduce that they would actually be better off with increased variance. I certainly have confidence in my abilities but if I had been in the Player's Championship I would have wanted to increase the variance and try to take the game into some territory that was more familiar to me than my opponent.
Fast forward to Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Valakut had been unbanned and a few new cards made their way into the format such as Deathrite Shaman and Nivmagus Elemental. Going into the event everyone and their mother correctly picked Jund as the most popular deck though I haven't spoken with anyone that correctly identified just how popular it would be.
Nearly everyone I talked to overestimated the amount of Valakut that would be played which should have been clearer from its extremely sparse showing on Magic Online. Meanwhile every test group from here to the Nile jammed oodles of games against Valakut.
Gotta beat Jund and Valakut!
Let's take a look at the Modern metagame as of Return to Ravnica. This is a breakdown of every archetype that ended up with at least one player reaching a record of at least 6-4 with it. The Day 1 Metagame shows its popularity on Day 1 of course but if the Day 1 Metagame percentage was higher than its Winning Record Meta that means the deck actually produced a below average number of winning records. We use the Winning Record Meta instead of Day 2 Meta so as to reduce the noise from people that did well in draft.
The Success Rate shows what percentage of players playing that archetype ended up not only making Day 2 but with a winning record in Constructed. Since 26.6% of players reached a record of 6-4 or better in Constructed after making Day 2 that makes it the bar. Anything below was a below average performance from a deck. Additionally Match Win Percentage gives us a look into the actual wins and losses of each of these decks but some of the fringe archetypes have fairly random win percentages as a result of small sample sizes.
Pro Tour Return to Ravnica Modern Metagame:
This was a tournament with a lot of people playing the mainstream decks and performing mediocre. Jund Affinity U/W Valakut Delver/Zoo Pod and Storm were the seven decks that each represented at least 4% of the field. Together they combine to make up 72.7% of the Day 1 metagame.
They also combine to account for a nearly identical 72.6% of the winning records; however this is due exclusively to Affinity and U/W having such good records as the other five major archetypes all ended with a disproportionately low number of winning records in Constructed. Affinity and U/W have a combined success rate of 36.8%. The other five major archetypes combine for a success rate of just 22.9%.
A corollary to this is the success of the under-the-radar archetypes. While Jund Valakut Delver/Zoo Pod and Storm each finished under 50% in match win percentage the fringe decks performed much better. Of the thirteen archetypes that managed at least one pilot with a winning record twelve had 50/50 or better records overall (with Twin being the only exception).
This was definitely a tournament that rewarded those that wanted to strike the format from an angle that others were not prepared for. Additionally among the most popular decks Affinity and U/W may have been the strongest but they also might have just benefited from people spending far too much time testing against Jund Valakut and Delver/Zoo. I say Delver/Zoo because that is sort of a spectrum now with a lot of decks blending those two together.
Let's take a look at some of the major players in the format starting with the two best performing major archetypes. First Affinity:
- 3 Arcbound Ravager
- 3 Master of Etherium
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Ornithopter
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 4 Vault Skirge
Where combo meets aggro Affinity is fast enough to actually be able to race any random unfair deck some amount of the time. It can be hated out if you try but so can fifteen other unfair decks. People can only have so many hate cards in their sideboards for everything. Just as everyone always imagines they will have four graveyard hate cards in their sideboard when it is time to test graveyard combo decks so too do people imagine they will have a bunch of Grudges or Stony Silences. When it's time to cut the sideboard down to fifteen concessions end up being made.
Affinity players were certainly not in agreement about their three-drop of choice with Master of Etherium and Etched Champion each having their own followings. Some say Master of Etherium is the better game 1 card while Etched Champion is better after boarding (dodging most artifact hate). Master of Etherium is definitely much better against combo decks adding a huge clock whereas Etched Champion is better against people with removal like Jund. Either way Pedro has access to Champions after sideboarding.
There are basically two types of Affinity decks these days. Those with Galvanic Blast and Shrapnel Blast and those like Pedro that pass on the burn and opt instead for Welding Jars and Steel Overseers.
I like the two Islands to better fight Path to Exile; however I think Glimmervoid might be a waste here. If you had Galvanic Blasts and the like sure but how many colors do you ever tap it for here? Beyond the single sideboarded Steelshaper's Gift what does it cast that Darkslick Shores doesn't? It's generally pretty easy to use but it will cost you a non-zero number of games.
Up next we have U/W Control. While this deck has a lot of good cards in it it really is a Restoration Angel deck:
Restoration Angel is obviously fantastic as anyone that has played Standard in the past six months can tell you but it is particularly good in Modern right now where it counters more removal spells and happens to be the exact perfect numbers. After all when your opponent plays a Bloodbraid Elf Restoration Angel is generally the perfect counter. It is big enough to win plenty of fights against Jund. It is not Abrupt Decayable or easily Bolted. It takes out Liliana quite effectively. It can do a lot of damage quickly which really punishes Jund's shocklands Thoughtseizes and Dark Confidants.
Personally I think this is probably too many three-drops. I appreciate that we want to be aggressive but I actually think Wall of Omens is really good right now. Changing Geist of Saint Traft into Wall of Omens is a bit of an odd swap but that is the direction I would explore (or perhaps cutting Finks instead as Vendilion is definitely the best of the bunch).
U/W doesn't have the best game 1 in the format to be sure but as long as you avoid the mistake of only testing game 1s it becomes clear that Rest in Peace Relic Stony Silence Aven Mind Censor Supreme Verdict Threads of Disloyalty Negate and more give U/W the best or one of the best sideboards in the format. It's not the sort of deck that gets hated out by a single card but it has access to so many cards that can actually just win matches on their own.
While Second Sunrise Combo (aka Eggs Second Breakfast Paint Drying) was not a super popular archetype (just eight pilots) it did win the entire thing.
Second Sunrise Combo benefits from the recent printing of Faith's Reward which gives it access to eight Second Sunrises to combo off with. The idea is that you just keep drawing cards and making mana sometimes Reshaping out Lotus Blooms. Then Second Sunrise or Faith's Reward lets you do it all again. You just kind of keep doing this for your entire deck and eventually reach a loop where you can just keep using Conjurer's Bauble to ensure that you never run out of cards and can Pyrite Spellbomb your opponent over and over again.
While this deck was a good call for this past weekend it is likely to take a bit of hit when people decide it is one of the four or five decks they will actually test against. Ethersworn Canonist artifact hate graveyard hate counterspells: Second Sunrise Combo is vulnerable to it all. It is particularly weak against blue decks which were not super popular in Seattle.
Do I think the deck is "broken?" Well I certainly think you can beat it and it's not clear it will even be good next week. My issue with it is that it's completely miserable to play with to play against and to watch. It is not just about what's fair; it is also about what's fun.
One of the tricky things about Modern compared to Legacy is that you don't have Force of Will. Without Force of Will existing and influencing deck selection you end up in this world where there are fifteen different unfair decks that so much of the game ends up being about guessing what cards people are going to sideboard next week.
There can be a lot of play in Modern and the format can lead to a lot of really sweet games but it is pretty harsh that so much of the format is about hate cards that nearly win the game on their own. When you don't have them you often can't meaningfully interact. The format just has so many angles of attack such varied vectors of interaction. Now maybe this is a feature not a bug. If so we still have to get past the hurdle of how not fun a bunch of people goldfishing is. Maybe it will swing back the other way but Modern is never going to catch on if this is the sort of deck that is consistently good.
Let's go to the other extreme Jund. Jund is "The Great Fair Deck." Of course now it is clear that U/W Control was actually the great fair deck since everyone was aiming for Jund but it still has a reputation for being decent versus everything. After all Jund has no bad matchups right?!
Jund's Win Percentages Against Major Archetypes:
Out of all of the major archetypes Jund had just one matchup that wasn't bad. And these aren't exactly the smallest sample sizes. For instance Affinity defeated Jund 60 times losing just 29. It's worth noting that Affinity had no losing matchups against decks that it faced at least ten times aside from Pod. Affinity appears to have had the best performance of any major archetype which has me more interested in Tron. While Tron was not a major player in Seattle it absolutely murdered Affinity.
Jund may have been a relatively poor choice for Seattle but it has a lot of good cards and might go up in strength as it goes down in popularity. Despite the hype you really can "hate" Jund simply playing cards that match up well against it. Still it is a good "honest" midrange deck (aside from Dark Confidant which isn't exactly honest) and will continue to be popular.
Yuuya and Web's Jund lists are actually quite similar using Deathrite Shaman as the Birds of Paradise Jund always wished it had. The classic problem with Birds of Paradise in Jund has always been how bad of a cascade it is. Deathrite Shaman can actually deal two a turn or gain life when you need to defend. It's graveyard hate that you can maindeck giving you much needed versatility.
I played the exact same list as Web and it was definitely the addition of Deathrite Shaman that had us settle on Jund. Unfortunately it turned out that most people already had Deathrite Shaman but the card was definitely real good. I would expect the format to involve even more of it as people figure out better what to do with it. At the very least it should be at the core of Junk (B/G/W) decks.
The primary difference between Yuuya and Web's lists are the Kitchen Finks versus Geralf's Messengers. This was a topic that was hotly debated in our testing group even the night before the PT. I was on the side of Geralf's Messenger as it is a stronger card in the abstract and is better against unfair decks.
During the tournament though I could not help but notice that Kitchen Finks would have been better for me. It was not just that I faced the one Lava Spike deck as well as a Geist of Saint Traft deck (literally losing both matches with a Geralf's Messenger in hand where I would have won if it was a Finks). Against the many Jund matches I really wanted the blocker. Also I did face a couple of combo decks Infect Storm and two Pod decks. I boarded Messenger out against all of these people. Boarding out Finks would have been fine.
It pains me to say it and it feels strange as it is a bit counterintuitive to me but if I had to do it again I think Finks would actually have been better.
Willy's list is really just an old-fashioned Jund deck that I would probably not spend too much time on. Deathrite Shaman and Liliana are just too good not to play so I think it is just a worse version. What is most interesting about Willy's finish is that this puts him at four PT Top 8s in just 22 Pro Tours! That is truly remarkable! Very few players in the history of the game have reached four Top 8s so quickly.
I have to imagine that this catapults him into serious discussion for the Hall of Fame next year. LSV and Huey are mortal locks but the rest of the ballot is a really tough race between Willy Edel Paul Rietzl Justin Gary Mark Herberholz Chris Pikula Shouta Yasooka Ben Stark Osyp Lebedowicz Marijn Lybaert Martin Juza Tomoharu Saito and more. It's really just going to depend on how these guys do this year.
Willy was the target of some pretty aggressive hate years ago but as far as I know this mostly stemmed from one interaction involving Gadiel. I know that I have played Willy a number of times over the years as well as watched many of his matches. I have never seen even the slightest bit of shady play or anything even remotely questionable. Once you factor in that he has never received any match loss penalties let alone been disqualified or suspended I think it is pretty clear that he has received at least a non-zero amount of bias because of being Brazilian rather than American. The man hardly has any warnings in his entire career!
Anyway that's a discussion I am sure will come up in a big way nine months from now. In the meantime let's go back to the Modern metagame and take a quick look at some more of the popular decks.
Without question Valakut did not live up to the hype. If anything though I would say Valakut actually had a pretty bad influence on the metagame. Valakut is very reliable turn 4.5-5 kill deck which then heavily incentivizes everyone to play fast combo decks (since that is the best way to interact with Valakut).
This is another example of a deck that while not too good promotes unhealthy things. Valakut makes for very non-interactive games which is frankly kind of boring. It can be "interesting" but it isn't really fun. Try to imagine watching Valakut in the Top 8 of an SCG Open (if they were Modern). Do you think anyone would want to watch that?
The most intriguing element of this list is the lack of Prismatic Omens. Lee correctly identified Abrupt Decay as a major new player and wanted to sidestep the card entirely. Of course this leaves him particularly vulnerable to Slaughter Games but it does leave him with more room for interaction maindeck than most.
Infect and Affinity are right next to each other in the metagame with Affinity being just one step into aggro and Infect being just one step into combo. Without Blazing Shoal it takes a lot more business to finish the job. That said we are still talking about some pretty fast wins.
Infect performed poorly against Jund (see Jund does have a good matchup!) making it a dubious choice going forward. However if Jund dips in popularity Infect is particularly good at preying on slower combo decks.
Grand Prix Chicago is less than three weeks away so we have not seen the last of this format. With a PTQ season on the horizon and the unveiling of Modern Masters (a non-Standard legal set that includes a Tarmogoyf reprint) it's clear that WotC is doubling down on their support for the format.
What are your thoughts on the format? Which decks are fun and fun to watch? Which decks make you lose interest in the format? What would you think of a rotating banned list with five to ten cards being added every six months and a similar number removed at the same time? Right now cards being banned in formats is a fairly permanent thing (though not completely). What if cards banned in Modern were likely to be playable again next year? Would this help promote a dynamic and changing format while still letting every card be playable some of the time?
See you in Philly and see you next week!