Metagame Tide’s Changing: GP Calgary

Nothing lasts forever; the mighty will eventually fall; time erases all wounds; change is the only constant. All such platitudes mean for Modern is that one deck can only remain on top of the format for so long. Eventually, the format either adapts to the deck, there’s a structural change to the metagame, or the banhammer drops. There was movement in the latest GP data which suggests that such a change is happening, although it is still too early to be certain.

This is not too surprising. When Grixis Death’s Shadow’s reign ended, it did so with a whimper rather than a roar; despite months of dominating Modern, the emergence of anti-decks, and calls for a bannings, it just faded away in fall 2017. It’s been just another deck since then. Humans was the deck of 2018 until Spirits rose to dethrone it in late summer. And now, Izzet Phoenix has been crushing tournaments for months. GP Calgary marks the first big Modern tournament where Izzet Phoenix wasn’t a significant portion of the Top 8. What this means isn’t clear yet, but I’m hoping it means that the firebird’s reign is coming to an end.

Day 2 Metagame

The defining feature of Izzet Phoenix Modern has been its huge Day 2 numbers. The GP weekend saw Phoenix average 21% of the Day 2 population, and previous tournaments showed similar numbers.  This result is significant for any Modern deck, but the real kicker has been the gap between Phoenix and the next deck.

Deck NameTotal %
Other26.14
Izzet Phoenix 17.65
Burn9.15
Mono-Green Tron8.50
Dredge6.54
Grixis Shadow6.54
UW Control5.88
The Rock5.23
Humans5.23
Amulet Titan3.27
Hardened Scales3.27
Spirits2.61

Calgary’s metagame is quite a change from last time. Izzet Phoenix is not only not the top category, but it’s well below the previous percentage. Instead, “other” is the most populous category. Plainly: players were more likely to hit a rogue deck on Day 2 than a given established one.

More interesting for me is Burn and Tron beating out Dredge. For the past several months, Dredge has been following in Phoenix’s wake as not necessarily the number two deck, but typically close behind and second in Top 8s. Being this far behind Phoenix is a notable change. I’m also gratified to see Burn doing well. In a world full of cantrips, Eidolon of the Great Revel is a huge beating.

The other thing to highlight is the lack of Whir Prison. Despite being billed as a Phoenix killer, it failed to warrant its own category on this metagame table. It’s possible that Canada just has a prisonless metagame, but I suspect the deck’s weaknesses are to blame. I’ve roasted the deck for being mostly air and weak to hate, but like all prison decks, Whir is also weak to Tron. There are simply too many cards that can break its locks, and given the high Tron turnout, I’m not surprised it didn’t succeed.

A final thing to note is that the three most interactive decks in Modern are right after Dredge in the standings. The top deck may be uninteractive, but as I’ve constantly harped on, that just makes interaction and answer decks better. All it takes is adapting and running the right answers.

The Top 8

A natural result of Phoenix’s Day 2 dominance has been huge numbers of Top 8’s. It’s statistically unlikely for every member of the highest population group to lose, and with population figures so high compared to the other decks, it was inevitable that many Phoenix players made Top 8 over the past few months. Calgary’s Day 2 may not have been quite as skewed as previous GPs, but the warp was still present, so the logical assumption would be for another Phoenix-heavy Top 8. However, that’s not the case.

Deck NameTotal #
Jund Breach Titan1
Grixis Death's Shadow1
Izzet Phoenix1
Humans1
Dredge1
The Rock1
UW Control1
Blue Moon1

A Top 8 of eight different decks: it doesn’t get much more Modern than that! Despite months of the prevailing rhetoric pegging Izzet Phoenix the best deck, Modern’s diversity is holding strong. The bracket was also filled with some interesting decks. I’ve never seen Jund Breach Titan before, and I’m a little dubious. It obviously worked well for Attila Fur, but given the metagame I don’t see why Fatal Push and Assassin’s Trophy are better for this deck than either running extra Anger of the Gods or Abrade. The sideboard Slaughter Games and graveyard hate I can understand, but stretching the mana for a couple removal spells is very strange to me.

And then there’s Blue Moon. I can’t remember the last time this deck made waves, especially one full of as many singletons as Brian Willms’s deck, although we’ve seen it win a bit online. I actually suspect the deck started life as a control-oriented Izzet Phoenix deck and simply dropped the Phoenixes at some point. As some have said about Izzet Phoenix, Brian’s deck is really a Thing in the Ice deck, and the Blood Moons look like incidental inclusions. Maindeck Spell Snare, Flame Slash, and Ral, Izzet Viceroy certainly seem like cards meant to win Thing mirrors.

The Complication

The Top 8 only having a single Izzet Phoenix deck certainly suggests that the metagame has moved on from Phoenix, and the drop off has begun. That suggestion is premature. Tempting though it may be to declare Calgary proof that the format has adapted and the reign of the firebird has ended, some confounding factors with GP Calgary may not make it the best indication in light of available, contradictory data.

Is Izzet Fading?

Failing to hit 18% of Day 2 is a significant drop from the previous several weeks of data. However, recall that those huge numbers are a recent phenomenon. Phoenix has been around for months, but its Day 2 domination was unique to March. Before then, Phoenix was only putting up solid Top 8 numbers and winning events. In this light, Calgary is more return to form than true deviation.

Also, in this case, a ~3% drop off is hardly earthshaking. If Phoenix had started off at 5% and dropped to 2%, we’d have a more significant decline percentage-wise. However, it’s a move of ~21% down to ~18%. I’d still call that a dominating metagame share. It’s also still 8.5% higher than the next individual result. It would be disingenuous at best to say that Phoenix’s decline this weekend indicates a relinquishing of position.

There is the point that Phoenix was behind the “other” category by 8.49%. That’s roughly the same as its lead over Burn. By itself, this doesn’t mean much, but recall that it’s not the first time that the highest results were Izzet Phoenix and “other.” What exactly this means is hard to say, since Modern has always been a diverse format. Butt this rise in “other” might indicate that Phoenix isn’t dominating the format like previous heavy hitters did. It could also be that players are drifting away from pure Izzet Phoenix now that the deck is known and their metagame niche is too crowded.

…Or Simply Fluctuating?

It’s equally possible that Phoenix’s numbers are just natural variance. Each event is different, and there was a relative lack of Izzet players in Calgary. Izzet Phoenix averaged 21% two weeks ago, but exhibited significant variance between the three events. Calgary’s 17.65% isn’t far off from Tampa’s 19.5%, and probably within the margin of error for the sample size. This slight dip relative to previous numbers might then prove non-indicative of the actual trend.

Our uncertainty is made worse by questions about the starting population. If Calgary’s initial attendance was reported, I couldn’t find it, but I would guess that it wasn’t anything special. From what I understand, Calgary is not exactly a tourist mecca; it’s also early spring, Calgary is quite far north, and when even those in lower latitudes had snow last weekend, I imagine that many otherwise interested players weren’t willing to risk the trip.

Matters are further muddled considering that PAX East, and with it the Mythic Invitational, happened on the same weekend. I enjoy playing GPs as much as anyone, but all things being equal, I’d never pick that over PAX. I can’t prove that watching the Invitational or attending-related issues actually kept players away from Calgary, but pondering these factors does raise enough questions that I wouldn’t consider Calgary a good data point.

A Counterpoint

There is also the fact that Calgary’s main event is only one data point. That’s never enough data to draw any meaningful conclusion. The result is also undercut by another data point: the Calgary MCQ’s Top 8 looks more like what we’ve come to expect in the Phoenix era.

Deck NameTotal #
Izzet Phoenix2
Dredge2
Humans1
UW Control1
Grixis Death's Shadow1
Mono-Green Tron1

Phoenix closed out the finals, and Dredge was the second-highest performer. That’s pretty consistent with previous events. An MCQ may not be as high-profile or high-attendance as the GP main event, but it does reinforce Phoenix’s potency. Taken alongside the previous results and compared to the GP results, it lends credence to the idea that Calgary was a fluke. The circumstances and pilots may have just been wrong this time, rather than the metagame actually adapting.

Adaptation via Playstyle

If the metagame is adapting, how is it happening? I only have the Top 8 decklists from the GP and MCQ to work with, but I’m not seeing much new tech or deck adaptation. Austin Anderson’s UW Control deck is the only Phoenix-ready deck on paper, with Terminus and Settle the Wreckage as sweepers, Detention Sphere as backup, and Celestial Purge in the sideboard. The UW deck in the MCQ was still running Supreme Verdict, although it arguably compensated with a full set of Relic of Progenitus maindeck. Otherwise, it’s mostly tech we’ve seen before or deck configurations that haven’t changed in months.

It has been suggested to me that the real adaptation isn’t happening in terms of cardboard tech, but tactical. Players have had plenty of time to refine their play against Phoenix and figure out how to win. If the Top 8 is indicative of the trends throughout the tournament, it would suggest that players are learning to modify their responses to Phoenix to better answer the actual problem rather than trying to exploit a perceived weakness; for example, the perhaps overblown reaction of running mainboard Surgical Extraction seems to have been nixed by all but Phoenix itself.

History Repeats

Adapting playstyles rather than deckbuilding, understanding how a deck actually works, focusing on that rather than on the threats is a repeat of Grixis Death’s Shadow’s trajectory in Modern. There, players learned to accept that they would be hit with discard early. This led them to stop keeping speculative hands and just play more robust decks. Once its attack became less potent, Grixis naturally fell off.

Maybe Modern is finally getting over its firebird blitz as the format registers the deck’s fragility. Izzet Phoenix burns through lots of cards, but there’s never any guarantee that Phoenix will hit the bin. It will see Phoenix eventually, and probably several copies, but to reanimate those early demands Faithless Looting or a lucky Thought Scour. Meanwhile, Thing in the Ice is actually controllable, and thus a far more reliable plan. Therefore, it’s the actual threat and power of the deck, as hinted at by Blue Moon’s surprise success.

Insufficient Data
In the end, there’s not enough data to determine whether Calgary is the start of a meaningful change or simply a normal fluctuation. I am hopeful that players are adapting and the metagame will return to the health that the Top 8 shows still exists, but we need to wait and see more data before confirmation. In any case, we’ll keep you posted on Izzet Phoenix’s developments as Modern continues to evolve.

4 thoughts on “Metagame Tide’s Changing: GP Calgary

  1. “Plainly: players were more likely to hit a rogue deck on Day 2 than an established one.”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. Players were more likely to hit a rogue deck than any *specific* established deck, but established decks still made up ~75% of the meta.

  2. This link lists 956 player standings from gp calgary.

    https://magic.wizards.com/en/events/coverage/gpcalgary2019/final-standings

    For a city of 1.5 million that is not close to other large urban areas, that seems like a plausible number, even a laudable number. I think that it justifies accepting the results as a reasonable snapshot of the regional metagame.

    I realize that comparing Calgary to Toronto is like comparing Denver to New York, but the shifts in percentage from Feb to Mar are
    CALG TOR Change
    Phoenix 17.65 8.14 +9.51
    Tron 8.50 4.20 +4.30
    Rock 5.23 3.73
    Humans 5.23 2.80 +2.43
    Shadow 6.54 4.33 +2.21
    Amulet 3.27 1.77
    Scales 3.27 1.77
    Dredge 6.54 5.09 +1.45
    UW Cntl 5.88 4.45 +1.43
    Spirits 2.6 4.20 -1.59
    Burn 9.15 11.45 -2.30

    Whether the double digit numbers for Phoenix are enduring or brief, it is certainly too soon to conclude that they are fading. The Calgary percentages are double what turned out in Toronto six weeks earlier.

    Burn falling 2.3% is quite likely regression towards the mean, but I suspect the fall-off of Spirits is linked to the rise of Phoenix.

    Tron, GBx, and Shadow have decent matchups with Phoenix, so their numbers improving is consistent with metagame shifts.

    I would have thought that Humans share would fall in response to Phoenix, so it’s increase seems anomalous, but perhaps Meddling Mage and Reflector Mage are better than I thought.

    I, myself, don’t even begin to think about possible bans until a deck dominates for 6 months straight. At the end of Dec in Portland, all Phoenix decks combined comprised only 7%. Izzet Phoenix was at 4.94%. The current diversity argues that many archetypes are perceived as viable and that the format is still robust. Surges in popularity are a normal part of Modern. Phoenix’s share is historically very high, but it takes time for player’s not only to invent the correct tech for their deck, but also to learn how to play effectively against a strong deck. Phoenix is definitely a strong deck, but it has weaknesses. Like Shadow, and Humans, and Spirits, it will become well-understood, there will be fewer and fewer free wins and opponent errors, and it will take its place as just another top tier deck.

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