Today, I figured we’d take a break from brewing and get back to analyzing some pure tournament results. I’m still winning with Spell Queller, but high-level Modern events don’t come around often enough to ignore them completely. This past weekend, Modern got a lot of love in the form of the split-format Star City Games Invitational in Somerset, and a dedicated Modern Open running alongside the main event. With Eldritch Moon not as much “new” and now closer to “settled” into the Modern metagame, results from these events should give us a clue regarding the future of Modern moving forward. Let’s dive in!
The SCG Invitational in Somerset was a dual Standard/Modern format, but as far as “pure” Modern results go, the Somerset Open is more interesting in my mind. This might come off as controversial, especially considering the Top 8 of the Invitational was Modern which normally plays second chair to Standard. I’ll start by explaining why I think the data from the two events should be treated differently, and follow up with by dissecting the data that should, in my opinion, hold more weight.
Which Results Matter?
“The Invitational contains the cream of the crop, the bee’s knees, the best Magic players to walk the Earth! Everyone who played in the Open were just bums who couldn’t get in to the Invitational!”
Sure, maybe. The quality of the average player at the Open is probably below those playing in the Invitational, but I would argue against my literary device above that 16 rounds of Modern Magic is a much better stress test than what a split-format event can provide. Of the Invitational Top 8 players, only three managed a 7-1 or better record in Modern (Elves, Affinity, and Burn) so a brief look at the Top 8 results can be pretty misleading. Just look at the Top 8 results from the two events side by side, in order of finish:
- Death’s Shadow Zoo
- Jeskai Control
- Bant Eldrazi
- Mardu Control
- Bant Eldrazi
- Blue Moon
- Bant Eldrazi
Clearly, these two events tell completely different stories. Looking only at the results from the Invitational, we can infer that it’s business as usual when it comes to Modern: all established archetypes, no clear surprises (besides Elves’ performance), and a fairly average market share spread among the major players in the format. In contrast, the Modern Open results look like data from an alternate dimension. Like Planet of the Apes, or a world where peanut butter was never invented, or a timeline where Nicki Minaj never unleashed her mixtape on an unsuspecting populace. Instead of format mainstays like Jund and Jeskai Control, we have Mardu Control and a disproportionate amount of Bant Eldrazi. Even Bogles managed a Top 8 performance!
How can we explain this discrepancy? The truth is, we can’t—not with 100% certainty, and anyone who claims they can is mistaken. What we can do, however, is infer a few things based on what we do know. This will hopefully present an explanation for the results we’re seeing. We’ll start with the Invitational.
To preface, a word of caution. Every tournament eventually declares a “winner”—but don’t fall into the trap of assuming that deck is the best deck, or even the best positioned one for that tournament. Liam Lonergan certainly had an amazing performance with Elves in Somerset, and posting an 11-0 Modern record is a major feat. Still, we have to take split-format results with a grain of salt; there are just too many unpredictable variables in the data to conclusively pass verdicts for or against a specific performance. I’m not hating on Elves here; I’d love to see a format where another tribal deck besides Merfolk put up consistently strong results. It’s just my opinion that Elves’ showing this weekend was something of a fluke.
So what are the caveats that accompany split-format results? The way I see it, we have two pieces of information to weigh against each other to determine the framework through which we view these tournaments.
Were the Top 8 Standard, it would be easy to imagine how testing played out. For the competitors, Modern couldn’t be ignored, of course, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine players spent most of their time preparing for Standard. This isn’t a radical concept—most of us have played in an Invitational ourselves, or tested with someone who has, and can provide anecdotal evidence of skewed preparation. We see this on display at Pro Tours too. Most of the time spent testing is focused towards the main format (typically Standard) with significantly less spent on Draft. This isn’t to say that Draft is the “lesser format” or not as important—on the contrary, many pros will point to Limited as the place where they’re looking to gain an edge. It’s specifically because this bias towards the main format exists that they feel they can gain an edge in the second format in the first place! The fact remains, though, that given time constraints, you test for the format you have most experience with.
Secondly, most players playing in the Invitational can be classified as SCG Open grinders, where the majority of the events played are Standard. This is a generalization, and not the case for every competitor. But it’s safe to say that across the room, most players in the event are more comfortable with Standard than Modern. While it’s hard for me to imagine a world where someone would rather play Standard than Modern, the fact remains that for most individuals, this is the case. It isn’t their fault, and I don’t blame them; they know not what they do.
Still, with this point in mind we can infer that many players chose their Modern deck drawing from limited prior format knowledge. In this situation, many players will pick established decks that fit their play style, or are easy to learn. Kiki Chord could possibly be the best deck in Modern, but few players aside from Jeff Hoogland have dedicated the time into learning the lines of the deck to pilot it at peak capacity. For players pushed for time testing a split-format event, an archetype that boasts a shorter learning curve (like Jund) or does more or less the same thing versus every opponent (Death’s Shadow Zoo/Affinity/Dredge) is a much more enticing option.
Except, the Top 8 was Modern. This complicates things, as now testing bias can be argued as having swung the other way. Players comfortable with their positions in Standard instead chose to spend most of their time focusing on Modern, as they smartly wanted to prepare for the format of the Top 8. Under this scenario, we would likely see some progression in the builds of the Modern decklists as a sign of the rigorous testing that had been done. The presence of rogue archetypes, or fresh looks at established lists updated with new tech to fight the metagame, would be indicators of this phenomenon.
So which scenario happened? We can’t tell for sure, but we can look to the lists to infer. The 6th place Jeskai Nahiri list? Stock, all the way down to the sideboard. Second-place Jund list? Stock. Tom Ross snuck some spicy ones into his Dredge list, but he’s Tom Ross. The Burn and Affinity lists are tight and probably wouldn’t be off by more than a card even assuming they tested for months. Michael Majors’ Abzan list is playing Grim Flayer in the maindeck, but he wasn’t able to crack the 7-1 threshold.
Maybe I’m missing things, and the lack of tech in the Top 8 might point not to a preparation bias, but rather to Eldritch Moon as a weak set for Modern. For me, it’s more likely that most of the Modern innovation can be found in the Open.
Again, I could be wrong with all of this. This part of the article isn’t a presentation of concrete facts, but rather some conjecture about how testing could have gone down. Hopefully this explains why I want to focus on the Open Top 8, but keep in mind this is largely opinion. If you think I’m interpreting the data wrong, I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. For now let’s dive into the Open results.
Making Sense of the Open
And so, we come to the Modern Open. The Modern Open with three Bant Eldrazi decks in the Top 8, including one taking home the trophy. No, this isn’t February. Eldrazi really was nerfed, it wasn’t just a dream. Still, if we’re taking these results at face value, we have to believe that Eldrazi is diminished but on the rise. Without further ado, the victor:
Bant Eldrazi, by Thomas Smiley (1st, SCG Open Somerset)
Thomas Smiley’s Bant Eldrazi list has been around in various forms online for quite a while now, and is a lean, trimmed machine of efficiency. Turn three Thought-Knot Seer, turn four Reality Smasher is still extremely powerful, and Ancient Stirrings as a Ponder-on-steroids would be banworthy if not for the hoops required to make it work. (It’s in green, so apparently that’s okay.) Bant Eldrazi occupies a niche in the format where it’s fast enough to race the combo decks given some small amount of disruption, beats up on other creature decks handily, and can power through control decks with its seemingly endless stream of threats. Every card in the deck is individually powerful, and the archetype has few weak links.
Matter Reshaper is almost always a 3/2 on turn two that draws a card when killed. Eldrazi Displacer makes opposing removal difficult, generates card advantage, and blanks attackers all at the same time. It is an all-star in all matchups besides the fastest decks and the combo archetypes—and even there it can continually blink Thought-Knot Seer to ensure they never draw anything relevant.
At the top end, Elder Deep-Fiend is a spicy new option that has yet to be universally adopted, but is absolutely terrifying to play against. Elder Deep-Fiend can Falter an entire board by flashing in end-of-turn, sometimes for as low a cost as tapping three lands (Eldrazi Temple and two blue sources). With Cavern of Souls, you can pseudo-Mistbind Clique a control deck in their upkeep, preventing them from casting Supreme Verdict on a pivotal turn. You can even tap down an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn after they sacrifice their Nahiri to fetch it up. And they can’t counter it. That’s fair.
Bant Eldrazi combines excellent mana acceleration, one of the best card selection spells currently in Modern, a diverse mix of powerful creatures, Path to Exile, and a powerful sideboard to create a finely-tuned machine with few glaring weaknesses. My best method to fight this deck has been Wall of Omens, fliers, and Worship, but even then the matchup is close. If you’re not playing combo, make sure you have a plan for this deck, as they will not make it easy for you.
Mardu Control, by Evan Whitehouse (2nd, SCG Open Somerset)
4 Dark Confidant
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Lightning Helix
4 Path to Exile
4 Liliana of the Veil
4 Nahiri, the Harbinger
4 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Lingering Souls
2 Arid Mesa
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Ghost Quarter
2 Godless Shrine
2 Marsh Flats
1 Needle Spires
1 Sacred Foundry
4 Shambling Vent
1 Anger of the Gods
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Hallowed Moonlight
1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
1 Lightning Helix
1 Painful Truths
3 Rest in Peace
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Wear // Tear
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When a deck like this takes second in an Open, I immediately look to the metagame as a whole in an attempt to explain what I’m seeing. Pre-Somerset, Magic Online was swamped with Death’s Shadow, Jund, and Dredge, with Jeskai Nahiri, Affinity, Eldrazi and the rest of the field close behind. Against most of those archetypes, Lingering Souls is just nuts. At one point Jund considered Thundermaw Hellkite specifically for its ability to kill Lingering Souls tokens, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen Olivia Voldaren in any lists. The format has become soft to Lingering Souls in recent days, and Evan Whitehouse saw that and capitalized.
Really, the deck is nothing special. Just the best cards in each of its colors held together with a bunch of discard and removal. Liliana of the Veil, Nahiri, the Harbinger and Lingering Souls can all just win games by themselves, and each work with each other to buy time to find the next threat, should they not be good enough alone. Normally, Mardu has struggled without access to green for Tarmogoyf and Abrupt Decay, or blue for Serum Visions and counterspells. Except now, the format has shifted to the point where none of those are really that great anymore. Tarmogoyf isn’t doing much against an X/X trampling double-striker out of Death’s Shadow Zoo, where X = gigantic. Abrupt Decay has fewer Blood Moons, Ensnaring Bridges, Deceiver Exarchs, and Pyromancer Ascensions to hit, and counterspells are solid against half the field but abysmal against the rest. I have to hand it to Evan, he decided to cut through all the Junk (no pun intended, but then I did go back and capitalize it so you wouldn’t miss it) and just play cards together that are good against the field.
The only thing I wonder about is the Dark Confidant in the maindeck. Confidant is really only in lists in Modern to mise it surviving, at which point you usually just win. In Jund it’s fine, as they’re playing 13ish creatures plus creature lands and their whole goal is to just topdeck better. In Mardu there are no other creatures to deflect removal away from Bob, save the Lingering Souls which are supposed to blank removal anyway.
A two-drop that draws us into Liliana of the Veil and more discard against the combo matchups does sound nice. That might be necessary given all our dead removal in those matchups, which would explain their presence in the maindeck. I have to imagine they were boarded out often, which isn’t anything new for those experienced with Bob, but I also imagine they were bad in most Game 1’s. Still, I can understand why they are in the list even with no experience playing it myself, so for me that’s a good sign that they probably belong.
Blue Moon, by Benjamin Nikolich (6th, SCG Open Somerset)
2 Docent of Perfection
1 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Blood Moon
2 Cryptic Command
1 Harvest Pyre
1 Izzet Charm
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Mana Leak
2 Spell Snare
1 Think Twice
2 Chandra, Flamecaller
1 Anger of the Gods
1 Flame Slash
4 Serum Visions
1 Desolate Lighthouse
4 Flooded Strand
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Steam Vents
2 Sulfur Falls
1 Anger of the Gods
1 Crumble to Dust
1 Izzet Staticaster
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Keranos, God of Storms
1 Kozilek’s Return
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Spreading Seas
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Let’s call this what it is. Blue Moon is a mash-up of situational answers and value-generating spells, held together by the fact that sometimes we just cast Blood Moon and our opponent dies to it. This lets us play a deck full of bad cards alongside it and still win games. Izzet Charm? Harvest Pyre? Blue Moon is the evolution of the durdliest UR Splinter Twin list, in an alternate reality where it doesn’t have to play against anything except other Splinter Twin decks.
Docent of Perfection and Chandra, Flamecaller are bombs in the sense of Keranos, God of Storms, but they can come down and generate value immediately, which Keranos could never do. I often considered Keranos clunky and overkill out of the archetypes that played him, so I’m glad to see this color combination trying something else. Still, they refuse to pay less than five mana for their win condition. I think this archetype would be better served by just playing four Young Pyromancer, but that deck wants Delver and would probably end up cutting the Blood Moons soon after.
If I sound biased, it’s because I am. Blue Moon is RW Control in spirit. When you cast Blood Moon and it’s great, great! When you don’t cast it, or it doesn’t matter, you better hope Boom // Bust is good enough. RW survived for months on the back of Nahiri, the Harbinger, but it’s too early to tell if this deck will even live past this weekend.
In the Invitational, Jund put up solid numbers, and Bant Eldrazi was nowhere to be found. In the Open, three Bant Eldrazi decks broke the Top 8, and the highest finishing Jund deck placed 25th. Moving forward, the question becomes: what next? Is Liam Lonergan’s finish a precursor of the Age of the Elves? Will the format shift to hate on Elves as a preemptive strike? Or will Bant Eldrazi slowly grow to once more strangle an innocent world?
If it were up to me, I would pay more attention to the results of the Open, but who knows how things will turn? If a large contingent chooses to now play Elves, that will make a lasting effect upon the metagame, which will in turn influence further changes. We’ll just have to wait and see, and try and get ahead if we can. As for me, I’m going to be packing some Worship.
Thanks for reading,
The_Architect on MTGO