I’ve always been more of a paper player than an online one, but that changed a few weeks ago when I bought myself an MTGO deck as an early birthday present. Can you guess my purchase? Hint: if you’ve seen “ktkenshinx” around the tournament practice tables, chances are you’ve been eating Lightning Storms with Pact backup. Or you’re one of the Eldrazi and Taxes or Merfolk players dropping Chalice of the Void at X=1 in Games 2 and 3 to ruin my evening. Jerks. Thalias and Tidehollows aside, I’ve loved playing more Modern than I usually get to enjoy, and it’s been a treat experiencing Modern’s unparalleled diversity firsthand. Whether you’re playing a pet strategy too, re-watching Grand Prix coverage from a few weekends back, or just consuming Modern content across the community, it’s been impossible to ignore just how fun Modern has become.
When we last checked in for our April metagame update, Modern was in a great place heading into May’s Grand Prix weekend. This diversity had even increased on the eve of the tournaments. Fast forward to the Monday after Los Angeles and Charlotte, and it became clear this wasn’t the Modern we’d come to expect from 2015 and earlier. Modern’s post-Grand Prix prognosis couldn’t have looked better. Merfolk won Los Angeles. Ad Nauseam (woo!) won Charlotte. Jund and Affinity defied naysayers and solidified format holds, and blue-based upstart Jeskai Control powered into Tier 1. Between these major finishes and all the Tier 2 and lower performances behind them, Modern has rarely been better. Today, we’ll break the May standings down to give a picture of the format heading into the summer.
Data Collection Methods
If you’re just joining us for the first time, check out our Top Decks page for an in-depth explanation of our collection sources and classification sources. Our main Modern Nexus claim to fame is the comprehensive monthly metagame update, bringing together tournament data from more sites and sources than any other content provider on the web. Between the leadup to Grand Prix weekend, events surrounding the early May Star City Games Opens, and the TCG Player States circuit, May was a bountiful harvest for Modern data collectors.
For today’s 5/1 through 5/31 breakdown, we’re tracking 119 paper events covering 967 individual decklists, typically from tournament Top 8s. Online Leagues and other events add another 32 tournaments to the analysis, making up 326 lists. Our weighted metagame shares account for the relative difference in our paper and MTGO n’s, with online events accounting for only about one-third as much as paper ones. In addition to these over 1,200 decks, we also add in the Day 2 standings from both SCG Opens and Grand Prix, as well as Top 16 standings from all four major paper venues.
Using these datapoints, we calculate weighted metagame shares and award decks points based on their shares in different categories. We bring those percentages and points together to construct our Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 listings.
Tier 1 Decks
Most players have some concept of what “Tier 1” means, but it often varies wildly from gaming group to gaming group. Such tiering definition inconsistencies were unusually present in May. The month saw some Modern community members describing Abzan Company and Jeskai Control as “Tier 0,” while others classified RG Tron and Jund as Tier 2 or lower. Both groups were ultimately proven wrong in different ways, but this underscores the need for consistent and transparent tier definitions, not just hyperbolic descriptors based on gut feeling and proving a point.
We define Tier 1 as those decks which you are likely to encounter in a major tournament. Your testing gauntlet should always include these strategies, and you should have specific sideboard plans for dealing with each of them. (Read: don’t forget those Stony Silences!) Tier 1 decks also have a track record of competitive success, so they make strong choices for any upcoming tournaments. You can learn more about the Tier 1 classification, and its underlying statistics, on our Top Decks page.
Here are the Modern Tier 1 standings for the 5/1 through 5/31 period.
Tier 1: 5/1/16 - 5/31/16
|Paper %||MTGO %||Major Event
May’s Tier 1 listings include seven total decks with six of those carrying over from April. Our one newcomer? Say hello to Jeskai Control, the blue-based, Snapcaster Mage deck we’ve been waiting for since Twin’s departure in January. We’ll break down each of these strategies shortly, but looking at Tier 1 collectively, we see about 45% of the format represented in this uppermost echelon of familiar faces. We also see no single deck touting a share higher than 10%, not just in the overall metagame standings but even in each individual column (Jund is the sole exception, a hair over at 10.3% for the Major Event Day 2 numbers). This suggests a powerful and format-defining Tier 1, but also a Tier 1 where no single strategy is dominant.
Although all of April’s Tier 1 strategies made the May cut, we still saw considerable internal movement within the tier itself. The table below tracks those metagame share changes from the April period into May, sorted from the gainers (RG Tron at 4%) to the losers (Affinity at -1.1%).
Tier 1 Changes: April to May
April to May
|Overall Meta %|
5/1 - 5/31
|Overall Meta %
4/8 - 5/1
It’s noteworthy that despite significant jumps and dips within Tier 1, the overall listing remained intact from April to May. This means we shouldn’t read too much into the individual numbers, other than as general indicators of relative popularity. For instance, Tron and Jeskai benefited from extensive publicity and hype, pushing their way up the charts. Affinity and Burn, although still very viable, did not get that same kind of profile. In both cases, the percentage changes aren’t necessarily indicative of viability, but rather of how players adopted or avoided certain strategies.
In keeping with our in-depth Tier 1 format from April, here’s a deck-by-deck breakdown of Modern’s most popular (and generally most successful) decks.
- Unstoppable Jund (8.8%)
Tron spikes from April into May and Jund is still on top? Whether in April or May, Jund has repeatedly defended its format throne. It was the most-played Day 2 deck all month, the most-played in paper and MTGO, and sent the most pilots to Grand Prix Top 8s: Mike Sigrist and Adonnys Medrano at Charlotte and Javier Dominguez at Los Angeles. As I wrote about last week, Jund has evolved to handle new threats like Nahiri, the Harbinger while maintaining top-dog status. BGx friends and foes: stop saying Jund is dead because all its Tier 1 matchups aren’t 51% or better. Tron, a decidedly unfavorable Jund matchup, is May’s second-most played deck and Jund is still king, losing only .6% to Tron’s +4%. If that’s not a sign of resilience, I don’t know what is.
- RG Tron (7.6%) silences doubters
Coming off Eye of Ugin‘s righteous banning, skeptics doubted Tron could hang in the big leagues without its inevitability. Some World Breakers, Sanctum of Ugins, and big tournament finishes later, the only thing to be skeptical about is the decision to remove Crumble to Dust from your sideboard. Despite only sending one pilot to the Grand Prix Top 8s, and despite a middling conversion rate from Day 2 into the Top 32, Tron nonetheless rocketed up the Tier 1 charts by 4% off widespread adoption at the local and regional level. This context suggests the deck is totally viable despite its Grand Prix shortcomings, and that players will need to keep their hate for at least another few months.
- More Tron, more Infect (6.3%)
Last month, I noted Infect would likely stay in Tier 1 until a Snapcaster/Lightning Bolt deck climbed the charts to overthrow Blighted Agent‘s top-tier foothold. Jeskai Control, a mere .3% under Infect, fits that bill perfectly, and yet Infect is up .6% into May. The reason? Just look up one bullet point. RG Tron’s +4% surge neither dethroned Jund nor prevented Jeskai decks from their own +2.2% jump, but it definitely created a favorable climate for Infect players. I expect this uptick would have been higher without Jeskai keeping the Elves and Agents at bay. Infect remains a strong deck, as evidenced by its solidly average Grand Prix conversion rates, but it also remains a metagame call. Got Tron? Bring out the Inkmoths. Got Jeskai and Jund? Either gamble on speed or stay away.
- Blue’s back with Jeskai Control (6%)
Tier 1 Snapcaster returns! We’ve seen both sides of the Jeskai hype train, with some suggesting Nahiri’s banning six months out and others claiming the deck is not viable. The numbers are in and Jeskai Control has more overall success than Burn, Abzan Company, and even Affinity. Get ’em Tiago! Paper events were particularly favorable to Jeskai, where it was the second most-played strategy after Jund, and where Jeskai’s Grand Prix performance matched or exceeded all but five decks in Modern. Nahiri, the Harbinger was integral to this success, with 3-4 appearing in 64% of Jeskai Control builds, followed by Kiki-Jiki at 15%, and no-frills Snap/Bolt/Colonnade at 21%. Nahiri was also Francis Cellona’s win condition of choice en route to missing the Los Angeles Top 8 by .018 on tiebreakers. Without Nahiri, Jeskai would likely be stuck in Tier 2 around 2%-2.5%. Believe in Nahiri, believe in Jeskai, and get ready for a blue Tier 1 deck.
- Can’t go wrong with Burn (5.9%)
There isn’t a more average Tier 1 deck than Burn and its May standings in all metagame categories reflect this positioning. Burn is the third least-played Tier 1 deck in the overall shares, in paper, and in Day 2, creeping up a slot in MTGO alone. It dropped 1% from April to May, had the second-worst Grand Prix performance of any Tier 1 deck, and yet, the deck still remains a consistent Tier 1 mainstay. Can’t beat counting to 20! As long as Abzan Company and Jeskai Control are Tier 1, and as long as Tier 2 Gruul Zoo keeps munching on Burn’s share, Goblin Guide‘s merry band won’t get much higher than the 5%-7% range, but they sure will stick around. Don’t bail from Burn based on this mediocre month, and don’t ditch your anti-Burn bullets—this is still a Tier 1 regular.
- Abzan Company (5.5%): just another Tier 1 deck
In a month of Modern misclassifications, the cries about Tier 0 Abzan Company were some of the worst. They were particularly offensive given our emergence from a real period of Tier 0 dominance, when Eldrazi was 35% of the overall format. Abzan Company might as well be a Standard deck compared to old Eldrazi, and the May metagame update shows this is just another strong Tier 1 contender. It was solid across all metagame categories and right up there with Jeskai Control, Burn, and Infect in Grand Prix performance metrics. RG Tron definitely kept Abzan Company at bay, although the deck stayed flat at 5.5% despite Tron’s +4% jump. If you’re battling Abzan Company, Grafdigger’s Cage is looking more exciting than usual between Company decks, an uptick in Tier 2 Kiki Chord, and Nahiri in Tier 1.
- Ups and downs with Affinity (4.7%)
In a departure from Affinity’s traditional placing, the robots fell to the bottom of Tier 1 for our May update. This represents a strange case where the overall numbers are likely under-estimating Affinity’s real potential. On the one hand, Affinity was pre-trending down as we got closer to Grand Prix weekend, falling from 5.8% to 4.6% just a week before Los Angeles and Charlotte. Then came the Grand Prix, which saw Affinity snag second at one and overall put up the best conversion rates and performance behind only Jund. This reflects a contrasting perception of Affinity’s weaknesses and reality of Affinity’s strengths. Although Affinity is undoubtedly down the charts, it’s far from out so do not cut your hate unless you’re confident a local metagame lacks artifacts. Affinity should be back up the standings by the next Grand Prix in August.
Because we’re heading into a quiet period for Modern events, with just a pair of SCG Opens to satisfy us until the August Grand Prix, the May Tier 1 listings should prove more influential than those in other months. When in doubt, players tend to take cues from the biggest and most current events. Look no further than Grand Prix Charlotte and Los Angeles, which were critical drivers in this update. Percentage-wise, about 33% of the “Overall Metagame Share” calculations come directly from Grand Prix numbers, with another 25% being directly influenced by the post-Grand Prix wake.
Overall, this ensures May’s update gives extra weight to the high-profile Grand Prix while also accounting for those smaller and regional events which make up the brunt of worldwide Modern gameplay. Expect these Tier 1 standings to stay relatively stable through August.
Tier 2 Decks
Taking a step down to Tier 2, we find competitive decks with tournament potential. Each of these strategies have the results and stats to suggest a record of success, and you could sleeve up any of them and have a solid shot at an event Top 8. Although you don’t need to outfit your sideboard for all of these strategies, you should at least understand how they work and how your deck plays out its varied Tier 2 matchups. You won’t see Tier 2 decks at every single event (not even the largest ones), but don’t be surprised to encounter them in either Round 1 or a tournament finals.
Tier 2: 5/1/16 - 5/31/16
|Paper %||MTGO %||Major Event
|Death and Taxes||2.5%||2.1%||4.3%||2.6%|
Between Tier 1’s collective 45% and Tier 2’s net 30%, we’re accounting for about 75% of the format in its uppermost standings. In Tier 2 alone, that 30% is spread across 11 distinct strategies running the range from control (blue-based Scapeshift) to midrange (Abzan and Grixis), with aggro (Merfolk and Gruul Zoo), combo (Ad Nauseam), ramp (Titan Shift), and various hybrids (Kiki Chord, Elves, Eldrazi) in between. This archetypal diversity is a Modern hallmark, and it’s always refreshing to see it expressed numerically in both Tier 1 and Tier 2.
May sees one of the most noticeable gaps between the bottom-most Tier 1 strategy (Affinity at 4.7%) and the highest in Tier 2 (Scapeshift at 3.7%). In many previous updates, April’s most recently and December’s before that with .2% and .4% respectively, we’ve seen much smaller differences between the Tier 1 bottom and the Tier 2 top. Those past disparities suggested a less settled metagame, where Tier 2 could easily bleed into Tier 1. By contrast, May’s full 1% difference could point to a more established and mature format, despite it being less than two months past the Eldrazi ban. Given how many Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks are Modern oldies, with Eldrazi and Kiki Chord being the only real exceptions, it seems likely the format is increasingly moving towards a stable core of decks with a few metagame “flex slots.” We’ll have to see if this trend holds in upcoming breakdowns.
Because this month’s Tier 2 shares so many decks with last month’s, many need no introduction. Except, of course, Ad Nauseam, which won Charlotte and remains the well-positioned “true combo deck” of Modern, as long as your metagame isn’t too packed with unwinnable Infect and uphill Eldrazi and Taxes matches. Outside of personal decks, here are a few observations on Tier 2 strategies:
- Merfolk vs. Gruul Zoo
When selecting between Tier 2’s premier aggro decks, Gruul Zoo keeps the excitement factor off its techy adoption of Reckless Bushwhacker and explosive Burning-Tree Emissary starts, whereas Merfolk can feel like a safe and dull holdover from 2011 Modern. Merfolk is still where you want to be, with the fish boasting a much more commanding record of success including a Grand Prix win, a strong conversion rate from Day 2 into the Top 32 (beating out four Tier 1 decks in those metrics!), and a more impressive paper share. Merfolk’s low MTGO numbers are likely due to a Kira, Great Glass-Spinner bug more than viability, further pushing Merfolk above Gruul Zoo. There’s nothing wrong with Guides and Emissaries in smaller venues (they clearly excel in five-round Leagues), but paper has been overall much more welcoming to Master of the Pearl Trident‘s school than to the Gruul horde.
- Eldrazi’s back!
Between Thought-Knot Seer and Wasteland Strangler in Death and Taxes, and Ancient Stirrings plus the entire Eldrazi crew in Bant and RG Eldrazi builds, our resident format nightmare is proving its relevance even after Eye of Ugin‘s incarceration. Pascal Mayndard’s Bant Eldrazi list earned 4th place at Los Angeles, renewing interest in Modern’s old menace but in a much fairer form. Eldrazi Temple keeps the deck viable, but without Eye, it looks like Eldrazi is relegated to a safe Tier 2 slot for now. Maynard’s Eldrazi run came at the end of the month, so don’t be surprised if more players pick up the deck in June and beyond now that they’ve seen it in action.
- A tale of two Valakuts
RG Titan Shift, powered by Primeval Titan with no blue nonsense to get in the way, got all the attention going into May. Traditional Temur and more innovative Bring to Light builds got pushed off the Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle hype train, but still managed to put up more results all month long. These numbers suggest Titan Shift remains a strong deck, but that blue-based Scapeshift has slight edges in this format. That’s vindicating for blue players who want their Snapcasters and Cryptic Commands, and for format optimists who want to see more interaction and non-linear strategies in Modern’s top-tiers. Given just how well blue-based Scapeshift did over the Grand Prix (the overall third-best performer after only Affinity and Jund), don’t expect this to change any time soon.
The important thing to remember in Tier 2 is that all these decks are about equally viable, with only blue-based Scapeshift and Merfolk decks picking up serious percentage points over the rest of Tier 2. This lets you select any Tier 2 build and be reasonably assured of success, and ensures the metagame stays open as we head into summer. Personally, I’d be happy if Eldrazi-powered Death and Taxes saw a dip in its MTGO share of 4.3% down to its paper numbers in the low 2% range, but that’s just the Ad Nauseam talking.
Tier 3 Decks
Our metagame tour ends in Tier 3, the niche strategies which have tournament potential but only in specific metagames. Tier 3 decks are generally worse than a competing Tier 1 or 2 option, but depending on your level of experience and identification of metagame trends, they could be appropriate for a certain event. When reading through the Tier 3 numbers, pay close attention to their performance in individual columns, not just in the overall standings. Some Tier 3 decks may have virtually zero paper and Day 2 presence despite exceeding 1% on MTGO. Such strategies might be poor choices for a local SCG Invitational Qualifier, but great in an upcoming MTGO League; plan accordingly.
As a final note on Tier 3 strategies, many of these options have Tier 2 potential but just aren’t quite there yet. Don’t discount them entirely just because May was not their month to shine, especially if the Tier 3 deck in question has been in Tier 2 or higher before.
Tier 3: 5/1/16 - 5/31/16
|Paper %||MTGO %||Major Event
|Mono U Tron||0.5%||0.5%||1.5%||0.0%|
|Tooth and Nail||0.3%||0.3%||1.2%||0.0%|
I always group Tier 3 decks into two categories. First, you have the former Tier 2 (or higher) dropouts who have fallen into the Tier 3 fringe based on unfavorable metagame positioning. This includes Bogles, Naya Company, Suicide Zoo, Living End, Griselbrand, Grixis Delver, and even Knightfall down at the very bottom. Because these strategies have hit Tier 2 before, I’m more optimistic about their chances of returning in the right metagame context.
When decks like Bogles and Suicide Zoo plunge to Tier 3 this suggests one of two factors. First, it’s possible there is some fundamental incompatibility between what these decks are are doing and the influence top-tier strategies are exerting on the metagame. A great example is powerful but unremarkable Naya Company, which lacks the combo finish of Abzan Company, plays second fiddle to toolbox strategy Kiki Chord, sees its creatures outgunned by bigshot Eldrazi, and gets raced by Zoo players rocking the Gruul style. This kind of deck (and others like Grixis Delver, Bogles, Knightfall, etc.) may yet return to Tier 2, but it’s not the best choice today and I’d avoid these kinds of strategies in summer tournaments.
The second factor influencing Tier 2 expatriates is popularity, or rather, lack of popularity for a deck that might otherwise be a decent choice. Suicide Zoo is the current posterchild of this effect, sending Sam Black to Charlotte’s Top 8 and rocking an impressive 4.3% on MTGO. The only thing keeping Suicide Zoo out of Tier 2 is its widespread absence from paper events, where players either haven’t realized its strengths or have ignored them in favor of similar strategies like Infect and Gruul Zoo. If you think a Tier 3 strategy fits in the Suicide Zoo pattern (Griselbrand with its decent Day 2 showings is another example), then feel free to sleeve it up. Although popularity is certainly one indicator of deck strength, you can’t innovate the next big thing from popularity benchmarks alone.
Of course, the second category of Tier 3 strategies are flash-in-the-pan, flavor-of-the-month transients which could be here in May and gone in June. See RW Lockdown, the Assault Strobe and Nivmagus Elemental “Shotgun” deck, UBx Mill, and others. These decks are in a similar category to the Tier 3 regulars which occasionally slide out of Tier 3 entirely but are often hanging out here waiting for their pet pilots to bring them to the tournament floor: see Storm, Dredgevine, Mono U Tron, and related builds.
All of these are the kinds of Tier 3 representatives I would avoid unless you’ve expertly identified the metagame, especially at a more predictable local level, or you’ve been playing the deck since Modern’s birth and can compensate for sub-optimal metagame positioning on experience and knowledge. Maybe these Tier 3 stragglers climb higher as the year progresses, but if history is any indicator, they are likely to be Modern’s perennial fringe for some time to come.
Metagame Predictions for 6/1 – 6/30
Forecast time! Before we get to predictions for June, let’s revisit those we made in April. We don’t always get metagame projections right, but with a track record of success in 2015 (68%, a.k.a. much better than a coin toss!), these articles show that metagames can be predicted by paying careful attention to pre-trends and existing standings. April was no exception.
- Jund and others stay Tier 1? Yes!
In an evolving metagame, there was no guarantee that Jund, Abzan Company, Infect, Affinity, and Burn would all stay Tier 1. That was especially true for Jund and Abzan Company, the former of which many believed was on its way out, and the latter of which fell victim to an RG Tron uptick. Small shifts aside, all of these decks remained in Tier 1, suggesting a stable top-tier core which is likely to hold through August.
- One Ancestral Vision deck hits Tier 1? Yes.
This one was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Jeskai Control did hit Tier 1, fulfilling the prediction of a top-tier blue deck. On the other hand, this was largely due to Nahiri and much less due to Vision. On the other hand again, about 50% of the Jeskai decks did use Vision in some form, with about 30% of the total Jeskai decks using 3-4 in the maindeck and the other 20% shipping 2-3 to the sideboard. That said, Nahiri was the all-star, not Vision, even if the end result is still a Tier 1 blue-based control deck. Given both Jeskai’s rise to Tier 1 and Vision’s contributions to that, I’m giving this prediction a qualified “Yes” where the intent was still fulfilled. Blue mages get their day in the sun!
June is an off-season month with only a single SCG Open to keep the Moderners satisfied, so there’s unlikely to be too much movement around the tiers. This makes it harder to make bold predictions, but I’ll make two smaller ones based on trends I’m noticing now and in response to some buzz I’ve heard around the community.
- Jeskai Control stays Tier 1
I’ve heard a lot of undue Jeskai Control criticism in the past weeks. “Nahiri is bad.” “Jeskai isn’t a real deck.” “Control still sucks.” Let’s call these naysayers for what they are: haters. Thankfully for Jeskai fans and proponents of a healthy Modern metagame, the numbers point to Jeskai Control’s legitimate strengths and this shouldn’t change in June. This deck has real staying power, both due to Nahiri (she’s the real deal) and its robust mix of removal and countermagic. These tools should be more than enough to keep Jeskai Control in Tier 1 for another month, hopefully silencing many of the haters and doubters who maintain blue-based control is untenable in Modern. May proved them wrong once and June should do it again.
- Eldrazi climbs the Tier 2 standings
Bant Eldrazi was a latecomer to the May party, and I expect we would have seen more widespread Eldrazi adoption if Maynard had made his Grand Prix run earlier in the month. As it stands, Eldrazi Temple is still an excellent Modern staple and I will be surprised if we don’t see more Eldrazi as tournaments unfold throughout June. Pre-trends support this prediction, with most of May’s Eldrazi falling in the RG category and not Bant. When it was time for the Grand Prix, it was Noble Hierarch and Drowner of Hope that carried the Eldrazi torch, which should shift focus to Bant colors building from Maynard’s impressive 4th place finish. Expect Eldrazi to exceed 3% when we return in early July.
Thanks for joining me today in this comprehensive and exciting metagame breakdown. Head down to the comments with any questions about numbers, decks, card choices, or any and all things related to the Modern metagame. I’ll be enjoying this diverse and open format on MTGO in the coming weeks and I encourage you to get out there and enjoy it as well. With so many enticing options in Tier 1 and Tier 2, there’s a Modern strategy for basically every type of player, so get yourself a nice birthday or summer kickoff present and play some Modern!
Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.