Last month we saw three major Modern Grand Prix around the world post a metagame breakdown that mirrored almost exactly the one established in July. Paradoxically, September had both far fewer high-profile events and much more significant shifts in share percentage. I believe these were the result of careful and systematic re-positioning by Modern players, with the intent of preying on the highly predictable environment that had developed. Apropos to some other ideas our writers have been discussing of late, September exhibited the slow-moving metagame cycle particular to Modern. There’s a clear pattern of decks shifting to respond to the best decks from last month. As we’ll see, some of the targeted decks proved more resilient than others. It was certainly a month of movement.
The most pronounced change in this vein was the rise of Bant Eldrazi to supplant Jund as top deck. For two months running now, Jund has been the undisputed king of the Modern landscape, beating up on the litany of linear decks surrounding it. In the last metagame report I asked how long Jund’s “best deck” status would last—it turns out a 10% metagame share does sort of put a target on your head, and Jund is beatable like anything else. If you wanted to help dethrone the despot without falling prey to the kinds of proactive decks that give RG Tron fits, it appears your best bet was to saddle up alongside the multiverse’s noodly nemesis.
Data Collection Methods
Major events for the month of September consisted of a Star City Games Open in Orlando, an SCG Classic in Richmond, and the World Championship. Of these, the only one with a Day 2 metagame breakdown was SCG Orlando, but the Top 16 from Richmond is included as well.
The World Championship is another story. As split events go this one had comparatively even fewer rounds of Modern than most. But it also sported some of the most prominent members of the pro community at the height of their game. To ignore which decks did well in this field, indeed which decks these elite players even decided to play, seems problematic at best. Rather than give weight to a Top 4 finish when so many rounds were Standard and Booster Draft, I simply included all the 3-1 or better finishes in the Modern portion. Four rounds might not seem like much, but…well, let’s just say none of those wins would have come easily in that field of players.
In addition to these major tournaments we add more results from around the globe to arrive at a total of 100 events and 789 decks. MTGO provided results from 29 daily leagues for a total of 296 decks. All of these decks were weighted according to our typical methods and coalesced into the tiers as usual. For more on the specifics of this process, I encourage anyone who hasn’t already to read the description on the Top Decks page.
Tier 1 decks are the ones you should expect to face at every Modern tournament. Make sure you show up to your local events and Grand Prix alike with a well thought-out plan to beat these decks—you’re going to face them often, and each one is resilient enough to fight through a lackluster counterplan. Of course another avenue is to pick one of these up yourself, which I generally suggest for anyone not well-versed in a lower-tier deck. Whether you know one of these archetypes inside-out and can tune a killer sideboard for the field, or you want to pick up something new and wing it, these decks certainly have the chops to get the job done.
Tier 1: 9/1/16 - 9/30/16
|Paper %||MTGO %|
Tier 1 is a little less populated than the last time we saw it in August, with Merfolk, Death’s Shadow Zoo, and Jeskai Control dropping off. Abzan is the newcomer, presumably benefiting from the same factors that favor Jund while beating up on the pseudo-mirror. Other than that it’s the same-old linearity-fest we’ve come to expect. Again, creature combat rules the roost, with combo represented in two hybrid aggro-combo archetypes, Infect and Dredge.
As I’ve said over much of the last two months, the best response to this amalgam of linear creature strategies is to interact early and often with a fair police-like deck. What has changed this month is merely the specific fair deck that’s most favored. The retreat of Death’s Shadow and Merfolk is significant too, which I’ll discuss further below.
Tier 1 Changes: August to September
August to September
|Overall Meta %|
9/1 - 9/30
|Overall Meta %
8/1 - 8/31
There’s a lot to unpack in the percentage changes to Tier 1. The most obvious thing that sticks out is how the rise in Bant Eldrazi roughly equals the drop in Jund. This makes sense if what we saw was Bant Eldrazi pilots capitalizing on Jund’s top dog positioning last month, as an uptick in Eldrazi decks should harm the Jund players’ chances. Not that the latter doesn’t still clock in at a healthy 6.5%—this is Modern, folks, and the ol’ one-two-three punch of Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf into Liliana of the Veil isn’t going away anytime soon.
Second of all, note that the aggro trilogy of Burn, Infect, and Affinity were on the rise in September. Perhaps they benefited somewhat from Jund’s retreat, if we can assume their matchup against Eldrazi is slightly better (which, frankly, I’m entirely ignorant of). Either way, the main decks that ceded ground to these decks, besides Jund, were Jeskai, Merfolk, and Death’s Shadow Zoo. Jeskai has been gradually sliding from its standout performances earlier this year, and September was really just one more moment in its decline. What’s more interesting is the precipitous drop-off in the latter two decks—by 2.3% and 2.1% respectively.
Along with Dredge, Merfolk and Death’s Shadow were the latest darlings of the Modern community, posting two straight months of solid Tier 1 performances. What has happened to make both suddenly fall by more than 2% each to Tier 2? And why hasn’t Dredge, the other “unproven” newcomer to the top tier, suffered the same fate?
A Cycling Metagame
There are two conclusions I’m inclined to draw from these data. First of all, I think they cement the narrative that Modern is in a predictable environment that can be effectively gamed (to the extent that’s possible). Moderners looked through the Tier 1 decks which were well established and asked themselves which ones were best against the top-tier field. Those who identified the trends correctly were rewarded with many favorable matchups, while those who stuck by their Death’s Shadows or fish armies struggled to fight through the increase in bad matchups. The numbers of “predictable” opponents were large enough to compensate for the “random deck pairing” phenomenon we know so well.
So why did those two decks fail while other linear standouts Burn, Infect, and Affinity succeeded? Well, it’s no coincidence that these are the decks we see in Tier 1 virtually every month throughout our data set. They’re simply the best, most resilient aggro decks out there, and metagaming against them proves tougher.
With Death’s Shadow Zoo you can add more spot removal, learn to stop tapping out, or attack their precarious life total. Whereas against Affinity you might die to their explosive nonsense after gleefully casting your do-nothing 1W enchantment a turn too late. That isn’t to say Death’s Shadow is bad—two months of Tier 1 standings beg to differ—but that it’s easier to target with hate. It appeared that players were able to beat back the onslaught of Death’s Shadow and Merfolk by coming prepared.
Dredging Up Misery
While it’s no surprise that our three perennial aggro decks weathered the storm, Dredge is the more interesting case. This is now the third month in a row it’s posting Tier 1 results, and it’s becoming harder and harder to claim people just aren’t prepared.
Personally, I’ve long felt the deck is bordering on broken, after having faced it just a few times in MTGO queues. I remember that feeling of abject despair upon seeing them flip over yet another Conflagrate against my board of mono x/1 infecters, when I was fresh out of Spell Pierce. I’ve since revised my Infect list to be faster and seen better results in that matchup, but that feeling of “Holy crap, what on Earth is happening,” has stuck with me. On the other hand, I never felt that way watching Death’s Shadow Zoo cast a lethal Temur Battle Rage. That deck always seemed to be one Path to Exile away from disaster, and while Rest in Peace is obviously going to be great against Dredge, that’s not a card people can just jam in maindecks.
I think what happened is that Shadows over Innistrad block finally gave Dredge the tools it needed to reach that critical threshold of synergy and resilience that characterize the best of the best in Modern. That’s just my intuitive conclusion, mind you, based on watching the deck play out. This is the kind of thing we’ll have to revisit in a half-year or so, after we’ve given the anti-Dredge players (let’s be honest, the heroes) more time to figure out how to defeat it.
Tier 2 decks are not as omnipresent as the Tier 1 crop, but they still show up in hearty numbers at the typical tournament. In many ways this tier is the lifeblood of Modern, whence its diversity and “play anything” reputation stems. If these decks aren’t dominating at the moment, they’re still capable of crushing a tournament on any given day—and most of them have been Tier 1 at some point in the past or will in the future. The better acquainted you are with any one of these archetypes, the better choice it represents, and if one of them is your specialty there’s a strong argument to stay the course and keep sleeving it up.
As for preparing to beat Tier 2 decks, you don’t need to dedicate specific sideboard space or do backflips to make your matchups favorable, but at minimum have a plan. You won’t face all of these decks in a tournament, but you’re all but certain to face at least some of them. Welcome to Modern!
Tier 2: 9/1/16 - 9/30/16
|Paper %||MTGO %|
|Death and Taxes/Hatebears||1.8%||1.7%||5.8%|
|Death's Shadow Zoo||1.7%||2.1%||4.7%|
I already mentioned above how Merfolk, Jeskai Control, and Death’s Shadow Zoo have slid down to Tier 2. Other than that there aren’t a ton of major developments. We see RG Tron gain almost half a percent, while Ad Nauseam, Abzan Company, and Death and Taxes dipped slightly. As is typical in these monthly updates, some decks fell down to Tier 3 (Elves, Kiki Chord) to be supplanted by other archetypes on the rise (Bushwhacker Zoo). None of this should come as much of a shock, nor should the barrier between Tier 2 and Tier 3 be seen as etched in stone. That said, while Elves and Bushwhacker Zoo (we’ve called it Gruul Zoo in past updates) have always skirted the line between Tier 2 and Tier 3, the dropping off of Kiki Chord is more notable.
Valakut Further Defined
One major change does stick out in the Tier 2 standings, which was the 1.2% gain in Titan Breach’s shares. Note that I’ve reported the red-green Valakut strategies as two separate archetypes again this month, with Titan Shift coming in on its own at 1.6% of the metagame. If you lump these two archetypes together (I believe they should be separate—we’ll get to that below) they easily form a Tier 1 deck. That is to say, if the exact build of RG Valakut is still up in the air, it clearly represents a potent way to attack the current Modern metagame. This is yet another reason we may be seeing Jund stumble a bit, as it’s generally unfavored versus the goldfishy Valakut strategies. I wouldn’t recommend showing up to any Modern tournaments without a plan for this type of deck.
And what, exactly, are the differences in the two shells? In past metagame updates I’ve alluded to my intention to roll both archetypes into one, which I’ve called RG Valakut. This was a response to a wide variety of differing builds that were often hard to classify into one or the other camp. That seems to have fallen be the wayside as Valakut players have elected to maximize one of two supplemental game plans: Through the Breach or Scapeshift. As the gradations between the two archetypes are less fluid, I think it makes sense to call them different archetypes. Much like with Jund vs. Abzan, or Kiki Chord vs. Abzan Company, however, players of opposing decks may see fit to tune their lists in a similar way to beat them.
In any case, I think it’s interesting to track them separately so we can see which of the two builds is outperforming the other. For now it appears that Titan Breach is getting the nod. These lists will occasionally sport a one-of Scapeshift, but for the most part that card is absent. The Emrakul, the Aeons Torn plan is sometimes buttressed by copies of Summoning Trap (a piece of tech I thought we’d seen the last of), but much more commonly with a white splash for Nahiri, the Harbinger.
Chord and Company Decks
Chord/Company strategies seem to be on a downturn overall, with Kiki Chord dropping to Tier 3 and Abzan Company continuing to slide. We’re in a period of experimentation with these archetypes surrounding the newly printed Eldritch Evolution. It has largely taken over in the Kiki Chord world, appearing as a four-of nearly universally in every list. The jury seems out when it comes to Abzan-colored shells, however—some pilots are making use of Eldritch Evolution alongside Collected Company, while others augment it with Chord of Calling. Other yet are sticking to the classic builds with Chord plus Company, although those builds seem to be getting rarer. As these decks seem to bleed into one another I’ve reported them together under the moniker, “Abzan Company/Evolution.”
We’re also seeing some disagreement with respect to the kill combo of choice. Initially the Evolution decks were leaning towards the Archangel of Thune/Spike Feeder kill while Company lists stuck with Melira. More recently the lines have begun to blur. I’m not sure why one tutor package would favor a certain kill over another, and sifting through the data I can’t tell where things will ultimately fall—perhaps some Abzan Company players can shed light on this phenomenon in the comments.
Tier 3 in Modern houses the decks with fringe potential, or those which are simply in a poor position in the current metagame. These decks range from relatively strong decks with scant adoption in the player base, to fragile decks that crumble to variance while mainstays like Burn or Jund draw consistently round after round. That said, Modern draws from an absurd well of card power, and each of these decks can give you a run for your money. You don’t need perfect knowledge of everything they’re doing, but the difference between familiarity and complete ignorance can definitely determine the outcome of a match.
Playing these decks isn’t advised, unless you know them inside-out or have some specific reason why you think they’re underrepresented. Of course, they are also worth a look as fun decks to battle if you’re less concerned about winning and want to delve into the deeper end of the Modern pool.
Tier 3: 9/1/16 - 9/30/16
|Paper %||MTGO %|
|Mono U Tron||1.0%||1.0%||1.7%|
You’ll note our Tier 3 in the month of September has ballooned, most likely a function of the lower number of major events. In any case we can still draw a rough line between the 1%-plus archetypes (beginning approximately with Mardu Control/Midrange), and the true dregs which may well represent outliers in the data. Take that bottom half of this tier with a grain of salt—if some decks like Knightfall, Grixis Control/Midrange, and Soul Sisters have been kicking it in Tier 3 for a few months, others like 8Rack and Temur Midrange are punching above their traditional weight class, and may be slated for a demotion next month.
There are a few notable stories here, though. First of all, we see Pyromancer Ascension double its share for the second month in a row. It’s now 1.2% of the metagame, occupying a solid spot I expect it to hold. Griselbrand did something similar last month and it’s still hanging around. I also think it’s interesting to see Jesaki Asecendancy suddenly pop up on the tierings, especially since it had no major finishes. MTGO players are picking up this deck of late—perhaps with the drop in Jund the combo is better positioned?
Finally, another deck to watch is Amulet Titan. After its crippling loss of Summer Bloom last year, this archetype came back on the radar in August with Matt Nass’s deck tech. Since then it appears other pilots have begun tweaking Amulet Titan anew, putting up results here and there on MTGO. The Bloomless versions are still pretty new, and I have no reason to presume the best build has been found yet. It will be interesting to see if the deck can reclaim any part of the metagame in its fairer post-ban version.
That’s it for me this update—I’ll keep the conclusion short and sweet. Anything you notice in the data I’ve passed over or missed? Does my narrative about metagame positioning in a relatively known field make sense? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading.