A Complicated Metagame: Invitational Weekend Update

Once again, it’s time to update my paper metagame table! Magic‘s had a busy weekend—between the SCG Invitational and the World Magic Cup, it was easy to miss the Roanoke Open. Which feels very odd to say, considering how popular and pervasive Opens are, but it’s the truth. Not that it matters; the data it generated is still invaluable as we near Grand Prix Oklahoma City.

This article only reviews the open tournament results. Invitationals are not random samples, they’re invite-only, and are therefore statistically suspicious. To take an accurate sample of a population, there needs to be an equal chance for every member of that population to be surveyed. Therefore, open tournaments provide more valid results than invitationals when it comes to deducing the metagame at large.

Of course, the new data isn’t 100% comprehensive, but it’s what we have.

The Open Results

Frustratingly, though understandably, there was no coverage of the Modern Open. Fair enough; if you’re going to have an Invitational, you want that to take center-stage. It just means that the data I’m about to present is somewhat contextless. Previously, I was able to compare the results to the Day 2 metagame breakdown and provide a more accurate view of a deck’s metagame strength. That isn’t possible today, so I don’t know if the results are accurate to metagame population. In other words, don’t read too deeply into these results. As always, I’m just using the Top 16 decks because they’re the most successful and that’s all that is normally reported about Classics.

DeckTotal #
Grixis Death's Shadow3
Affinity 3
Mono-Green Tron1
Eldrazi Tron1
Dredge1
Mono-Red Prison1
GW Company1
Titan Shift1
Jeskai Control1
Jund1
4-Color Control1
UW Control1

That is an interesting spread. Mono-green Tron actually won the Open, but Affinity and Grixis Shadow are the real stories here. They’re the only decks to place multiple copies into the sample; specifically, three apiece. That is quite the result. Again, without Day 2 data this could be the result of high initial population. The decks were known to be strong already, so I doubt surprise or simple power are the answer.

More interesting is the Mono-Red Prison list. It’s effectively a port of Legacy Moon Stompy, and while I imagine it’s the worst to play against, I’m not surprised it did well. As I’ve mused in the last few table updates, Blood Moon seems very well-positioned at the moment.

Travis Perlee’s deck is listed as 4-Color Control because it contains one each of Kolaghan’s Command and Mystical Teachings and three Lingering Souls, apparently for extra grinding value. Otherwise it’s a typical Jeskai hard-Control deck. I really don’t feel that one card’s mana cost and flashback on four others constitutes an actually different deck, but they do change the deck’s gameplan enough to fall within my own rules of differentiation (the same rules that make GR, GB, and Mono-Green Tron different decks). So I’ll play along, although I hate when my own rules turn on me.

The Classic Results

With the… side-main event out of the way, it’s time to examine the side-side event. The Invitational Weekend is really confusing. Anyway, Modern Classics are fascinating. There tend to be lots of interesting rogue and Tier 3 lists, which really help gauge format health. When the big decks do well it also speaks to their overall power and versatility.

DeckTotal #
8-Rack3
Jeskai Control1
BW Eldrazi Taxes1
Enduring Ideal1
Lantern Control1
Elves1
Death and Taxes1
WG Taxes1
Burn1
Mono-Blue Merfolk1
Affinity1
Eldrazi Tron1
Humans1

Wow. That is…a lot of 8-Rack. And weird 8-Rack decks, too. Aaron Slate and Michael Dudkow must be teammates, as they’re playing the same 75. And with a lot of unusual choices, including Nezumi Shortfang as another Rack effect. I guess it makes sense given the singleton Ensnaring Bridge, but I’ve never seen that before. Why would anyone think the Kamigawa flip cards were Modern playable? It’s a testament to how unexplored the cardpool really is, I suppose. Jessee Leese is on a more familiar list, but with mainboard Pack Rats. While somewhat off-theme, Rat gums up the ground against aggro decks, which can pose problems for 8-Rack, and serves as an alternate win condition.

That said, 8-Rack wasn’t enough to stop Mark Stanton from taking the trophy with a pretty stock Jeskai Control list. This probably surprised the 8-Rack crew, as that’s supposed to be a great matchup. The stockness of the list is its most interesting aspect. This maindeck is the most common, and even deviations don’t stray that far. The sideboard is also fairly typical, though Abrade and Kozilek’s Return are interesting. Abrade shines against Humans, where it picks off threats in lieu of a Vial. And Pyroclasm or Anger of the Gods seem better than Return to me, although the devoid spell does kill Etched Champion and blow out aggro-combo decks like Counters Company.

The Aggregate Metagame

The next step is to put it all together and see where things stand. For comparison, here’s what the metagame looked like right after Regionals.

DeckTotal
Jeskai Control18
Affinity17
Gifts Storm14
Grixis Death's Shadow11
Eldrazi Tron9
Counters Company9
Infect7
Humans7
UW Control6
Abzan5
Burn5
UG Merfolk4
Bant Company4
GB Tron3
Jund3
Elves3
Ad Nauseam3
Titan Shift3
Mardu2
UR Breach2
BW Eldrazi2
GW Company2
GR Ponza2
Death and Taxes2
Mono-G Tron2
Titan Breach1
Saheeli Evolution1
8-Rack1
Temur Aggro1
Knightfall1
BW Eldrazi and Taxes1
5-Color Death's Shadow1
GR Devotion1
RW Prison1
Bant Eldrazi1
Abzan Company1
Grixis Control1
Living End1
Skred Red1
Bogles1
4-Color Company1
RG Vengevine1
GR Tron1
Naya Company1
4-Color Knightfall1
GW Hatebears1
Grixis Delver1
4-Color Death's Shadow1

Get that fixed in your mind, or just glance between the tables really quick. We’re looking for how the metagame is developing and where things are headed. Now, on to the new results.

DeckTotal
Affinity22
Jeskai Control20
Gifts Storm14
Grixis Death's Shadow14
Eldrazi Tron11
Counters Company9
Humans8
Infect7
UW Control7
Burn6
Abzan5
UG Merfolk4
Bant Company4
Jund4
Elves4
Titan Shift4
8-Rack4
GB Tron3
Ad Nauseam3
GW Company3
Death and Taxes3
Mono-G Tron3
Mardu2
UR Breach2
BW Eldrazi2
GR Ponza2
BW Eldrazi and Taxes2
Titan Breach1
Saheeli Evolution1
Temur Aggro1
Knightfall1
5-Color Death's Shadow1
GR Devotion1
RW Prison1
Bant Eldrazi1
Abzan Company1
Grixis Control1
Living End1
Skred Red1
Bogles1
4-Color Company1
RG Vengevine1
GR Tron1
Naya Company1
4-Color Knightfall1
GW Hatebears1
Grixis Delver1
4-Color Death's Shadow1
Dredge1
Mono-Red Prison1
4-Color Control1
Enduring Ideal1
Lantern Control1
WG Taxes1
Mono-Blue Merfolk1

Welp. That’s not substantially different. The composition of Tier 1 and upper Tier 2 have not changed, though a few have changed places. Even looking more broadly doesn’t reveal much movement. That isn’t entirely surprising; there wasn’t much movement between that Regionals update and the previous one after the Washington DC Classic.

DeckTotal
Gifts Storm9
Affinity9
Jeskai Control9
Infect5
Eldrazi Tron5
Grixis Death's Shadow4
Counters Company4
Humans3
Abzan2
UG Merfolk2
Mardu2
UW Control2
Ad Nauseam2
GB Tron2
UR Breach2
Titan Breach1
Jund1
Saheeli Evolution1
BW Eldrazi1
8-Rack1
Temur Aggro1
Titan Shift1
Knightfall1
GW Company1
GR Ponza1
BW Eldrazi and Taxes1
Death and Taxes1
5-Color Death's Shadow1
Bant Company1
Burn1
GR Devotion1
Mono-G Tron1
RW Prison1

Why should there be more movement now? Nothing has surged up from Tier 2 or dropped down from Tier 1 over the past month and a half. While these tables hint at a settled metagame, do not be fooled. There is still significant dynamism, as the Roanoke results will attest. For example, Storm has been putting up results in bursts. It did very well in Cincinnati and Charlotte, maintained though DC, dropped off during Regionals, and failed to produce any results this week. This does not mean that the deck is suddenly bad. More likely, it just means that players are more prepared than they were before. Storm’s return was unexpected, and it’s not an easy deck to learn to play against. I’d wager players have finally put in the time to learn how to win. The probability that it returns in force in Oklahoma City is high. A deck that powerful does not simply disappear.

In comparison, Affinity and Jeskai Control consistently put up results. They started out in the top and stayed there. I feel very confident saying they’re the strongest decks right now. Exactly why is hard to say. In Affinity’s case, I suspect familiarity is key. It’s been a deck forever now, almost always in Tier 1, and rarely changes. The pilots are so experienced the exact metagame doesn’t matter. They’ll play robots and win, simple as that. Jeskai is harder to evaluate. The most substantial change over the older Jeskai Tempo lists is Spell Queller, which isn’t much of an explanation because similar lists made headlines last year. Metagame positioning may be the key. I’ve been saying for months that removal-heavy decks should be favored in the Death’s Shadow-flavored metagame. Jeskai isn’t the removal heavy deck I expected, but it fills the role nonetheless, feasting happily on Collected Company and Affinity in the meantime.

What Does it Mean?

There are a few ways to look at these data. When looking at the table itself, we see a very stratified upper tier. Affinity is on top, followed closely by Jeskai. There’s a six-point drop-off to Storm and GDS, a three-point drop to Eldrazi Tron, and then a two-point drop to Counters Company, after which things close up. This suggests that there is a very clear power jump from Tier 1 to 2, while Tier 2 is roughly equal. Within Tier 1, there is an obvious hierarchy and two clear best decks: Affinity and Jeskai. The two are too close to really separate. This seems reasonably valid, especially when you consider how long those two decks have stood atop the metagame and the fact that they’ve continued separating themselves since Regionals. This view suggests a stabilized metagame.

Another option is to take the long view and see how things have changed since Charlotte. Affinity has consistently sat atop the metagame. Storm was there too initially, but has gradually dropped-off. Jeskai was tied for first, dropped slightly in Cincinnati, and since then has been competing with Affinity for the top spot. Grixis Shadow had struggled to stay as competitive before, but as Storm fell, Grixis rose, and the deck now ties with Storm.

Meanwhile, E-Tron has been inconsistent. It was initially a non-presence, and even a failure in Charlotte. It still puts up results, but they’re sparse. Counters Company was considered a contender for best deck over the summer but has now fallen into Tier 2. Humans wasn’t a deck until Cincinnati and has also established itself in Tier 2.

According to this second view, Affinity remains constant, but the other decks rise and fall based on those around them. Additionally, a wide range of decks have been actually winning events, and we have huge variety in the lower tiers. This view suggests a dynamic, evolving metagame.

I don’t have an opinion on which is correct. I’m more inclined to take the long view and see the continued adaptation and diversity as signs that the metagame is anything but solved. However, I wouldn’t fault you for disagreeing with this perspective, as Affinity’s continued dominace doesn’t fit with that narrative. The Grand Prix will prove the real test and should provide a definitive answer. If Affinity and Jeskai do particularly well, then the stable perspective is favored. If they’re just average, then the dynamic view is advantaged.

How to Respond

Regardless of how you see this metagame, I think the response is clear. First and foremost, be ready for anything in Oklahoma City. You should do that anyway, as it’s a Modern GP, but the data show many different decks winning. That said, Affinity and Jeskai are winning more than other decks, so if you need to focus on any decks, pick those two. If you intend to play a top-tier deck, know that everyone else will be aware of your gameplan and prepare accordingly. Readjustment and preemptive sideboard plans will be your best friend.

The Lesson of 8-Rack

What you shouldn’t do is take a metagame deck to the tournament and expect it to pay off. I know that 8-Rack did well this week, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to do so. It isn’t a typical part of the metagame; prior to this week, there was only one result for 8-Rack in the table. If you do want to metagame, look somewhere else. Players aren’t going to be surprised anymore, and surprise is critical for decks like 8-Rack.

Use Data Wisely

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: don’t overreact to the data. Try to keep your intellectual skepticism, because what these data unequivocally show is a wide-open field where anything is possible. If you fixate too much on any one aspect, the others will bite you. Best of luck to any of you going to Oklahoma City, may your performance be worthy of including in the data next week!

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

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