On Sunday afternoon, my darling Ad Nauseam won Grand Prix Charlotte. Hours later, David’s Merfolk won Grand Prix Los Angeles. Although neither of us could make it to those tournaments, it’s exciting to see our babies graduating to the Grand Prix spotlight they’ve long deserved, although at least David already got to enjoy it last year at Copenhagen. It’s even more exciting to see how healthy Modern has become. I was already optimistic about format diversity going into Grand Prix Weekend, and both Charlotte’s and Los Angeles’s Day 2 breakdowns should satisfy even Modern’s harshest skeptics. Their respective Top 32s continue that story, whether Charlotte’s mix of Jund and Jeskai, or Los Angeles’s Affinity resurgence and its 13-year-old ringleader. Thanks to the dual Grand Prix, Modern has never been in a better place going into a summer season. Especially if we get more coverage streams to do timeshifted matches.
We’re two weeks away from the pending May metagame update, and all that delicious Grand Prix data will heavily influence our format picture. You can expect to see the Day 2 and Top 16 numbers folded into our format-wide breakdown then (they are already accounted for in our Top Decks spreadsheet!), but for today, we’re going to unpack event-specific takeaways from the Grand Prix. Just yesterday, David promised he’d leave the quantitative analysis to me, and rather than make a liar out of our resident Lord of Atlantis, I’ll be sifting through the different Grand Prix stats today. Our job is to both describe the Grand Prix field and also to assess a few claims about different metagame trends and strategies arising from those tournaments. There will be ample Modern discussion in the coming weeks, and this article will help you stay grounded in the hard evidence and not just off to the hype races.
Reality: Modern is Wide Open
In the aftermath of Grand Prix Weekend, most authors and players agreed Modern was as diverse as it could be. As numerous commentators and writers observed, it truly is a “play what you know” format. Data from both Grand Prix confirms this assertion, showcasing numerous viable decks spread across Tier 1 and Tier 2 with no clear frontrunners.
Below, you can review all the Grand Prix decks with above-average Day 2 prevalence (4+ showings). Although there are interesting performers among decks with three or fewer appearances, their n is just too small to draw meaningful conclusions. For each of those 4+ showing strategies, I give its pooled Day 2 share along with its aggregated shares in the Top 32, Top 16, and Top 8. This gives a general description of how different decks made up different segments of the weekend metagame.
Instead of analyzing Charlotte and Los Angeles as distinct events, I’m merging all their Day 2 and Top X data to get combined shares. This lets us talk about broader Grand Prix themes without getting too bogged down in regional and event differences. It also helps us smooth over some tournament peculiarities like the Charlotte pairing disaster or different East vs. West Coast metagames. Finally, it reflects the general understanding of the Weekend, where players and pros are more likely to discuss the Grand Prix holistically and not just as standalone scenes.
GP Weekend 5/2016: Top Deck Shares
|Deck||Day2 %||T32 %||T16 %||T8 %|
This Grand Prix retrospective is almost identical to our pre-Grand Prix portrait from last week. Sure, the order is a little off, but the top eight Grand Prix decks are a perfect match to our current eight Tier 1 exemplars. The remaining seven are all in last week’s Tier 2 selection, again in a slightly different order. This should be deeply encouraging for Nexus readers who put faith in our metagame numbers: we’re doing something right if our pre-Grand Prix tierings align so neatly with the post-Grand Prix Day 2 breakdowns.
Let’s take this a level deeper. As many tiering critics object, popularity and performance probably don’t have a causal relationship (although there’s definitely a correlation). This makes it hard to translate Day 2 standings, or even Top 8 standings, into a performance metric: maybe a deck just shows up in the Top 8 because it had the most pilots. Conversion rates are an effective way to separate a deck’s actual strength from how many players are running it. By seeing what percentage of Day 2 decks actually made it to Top 32/16/8, we get a better sense of deck’s relative performance, not just how many of them bullied their way to the top through sheer numbers.
The table below calculates those Day 2-to-Top X conversion rates for each of the top Grand Prix decks. In addition, I also add an “adjusted conversion score” metric that accounts for all three conversion rates and the deck’s initial prevalence. A higher conversion score means a relatively better performance at the Grand Prix. Lower numbers mean a worse performance. If you want the math behind the score, check the spoiler box below. If your brain is already aching, just remember that bigger scores are better scores and enjoy the table.
GP Weekend 5/2016: Conversion Rates
|Deck||Day2 %||T32 Convers.||T16 Convers.||T8 Convers.||Adjusted
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all these numbers, so here are a few quick takeaways from the table above:
- Jund and Affinity were the highest performers all weekend. Even though neither deck took home gold, and despite some metagame positioning troubles for both strategies, these two decks had the best overall combination of prevalence and conversion rates.
- After Jund and Affinity, many of the other Tier 1 decks fell right in the same viability bracket with very close conversion scores. This includes Scapeshift (at the top with 1.7), Infect, Jeskai Control, and Abzan Company (at the bottom with 1.4). Although these decks didn’t perform quite as admirably as Jund and Affinity, they put up strong numbers all weekend and should still be considered major Tier 1 players. Note Abzan Company’s solid but relatively unremarkable performance, another area where measured heads prevailed over unfounded hype.
- Burn was a clear under-performer at the Grand Prix. Despite having an acceptable 7% Day 2 prevalence, Burn could only manage a middling 35.7% conversion to Top 32, and an abysmal 0% and 0% for Top 16 and Top 8 respectively. Its low conversion score reflects all of these shortcomings.
- RG Tron is a weird case. On the one hand, Joe Lossett made the Los Angeles Top 8 with his Lightning Bolt build of Tron. On the other hand, outside of Lossett’s isolated performance, the deck did relatively poorly, occupying only 6% of Day 2 to begin with before underperforming in both the Top 32 and Top 16. Given the high degree of anti-Tron technology we saw in sideboards, I’d read Tron’s low score as reflecting a prepared metagame and not a weak deck.
- Merfolk and Eldrazi were the best Tier 2 decks in the bunch (sorry, Ad Nauseam), with Merfolk winning out both quantitatively in its conversion score and qualitatively in taking down Los Angeles. I’m not really sure how Merfolk navigated the Affinity wave en route to its commanding Grand Prix performances, but both tribal strategies have major potential coming off the events. Analytic side note: Merfolk were totally absent from Charlotte, which is one nuance the pooled statistics miss.
Taken as a whole, all of these numbers and accounts confirm Modern’s unparalleled diversity. It’s true that this openness comes with costs, especially for players who worry about sideboard slots and the matchup lottery to begin with. That said, if it means Modern stays a “play what you know” format going into June, I’ll take those costs and try and pick up percentage points off knowledge and experience alone.
Myth: Jund is Poorly Positioned
There’s a widespread myth in my online and paper Modern circles that the BGx kingpin is poorly positioned in open metagames. Underlying this argument is a history of post-Deathrite Shaman Jund never winning a Grand Prix, its weaknesses to rising ramp stars like RG Tron and Eldrazi, and its reliance on perfect sideboard structure to target a metagame. Even selecting the wrong flex cards (e.g. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet vs. Huntmaster of the Fells) can be disastrous.
Thankfully for the Dark Confidant diehards, Los Angeles and Charlotte largely disprove these claims. Don’t view the midrange monster as a bad choice for “open” metagames. Instead, think in the words of Mike Sigrist, who wrote about his Jund experience in an SCG Premium article yesterday: “If you can appropriately call a metagame, I think Jund is a great choice.”
Grand Prix Weekend showcased a Jund cohort that either got very lucky or made some excellent metagame calls. I’m leaning heavily towards the latter, based on its consistently top-notch quantitative performances. Despite being only the fourth most played deck in the aggregated Day 2, Jund sent the most players to the combined Top 16 and Top 8 at five and three respectively. This represented the best overall Day 2-to-Top 16 conversion rate of any deck at 31%. Its Day 2-to-Top 8 conversion was behind only small-n Kiki Chord at 18.8%. Furthermore, Jund’s raw Day 2 share at 8% also suggests the deck’s overall success, even if we lack the Day 1 data to know if Jund had a decent conversion rate going into Sunday.
Looking at our earlier conversion score table, we also see Jund had by far the best overall ranking. At 3 points, Jund sits a few notches above silver-medalist Affinity (2.6) and almost doubles the score of the runner-ups (Scapeshift’s 1.7, Infect’s 1.6, and Merfolk’s and Jeskai Control’s 1.5). This suggests Jund was almost twice as viable as these other decks at the Grand Prix. Further cementing its status, Jund was already the most played Modern deck going into the Grand Prix at 8.7%, and it has only gained ground since then. As of today, Bob and Goyf have secured a 9.2% metagame share as compared to second-place RG Tron at 6.5%.
To be clear, none of this means Jund is the best deck in Modern. Our sample is far too limited to suggest a format-wide best strategy, and qualitative experience with Jund suggests major holes which certain metagames can exploit. For example, both Tron and Jeskai Nahiri take advantage of notorious Jund gaps to steal matches from the BGx goodstuff pile. That said, the Grand Prix sample and our Day 2/Top 32 analyses give us more than enough data to bury the ridiculous assertion that Jund is poorly positioned or somehow struggling. Junding ’em out has rarely been better.
Reality: Never Bet Against Affinity
I did it again! I bet against Affinity! Despite my January resolution to never again sell Affinity short, I did just that in last week’s Grand Prix breakdown article: “Unless you’re a Frank Karsten master of Affinity, stay away.” Sure enough, guess what happened. Affinity got 2nd at Los Angeles, and was the first and second most played Day 2 deck at Charlotte and L.A. respectively. It also sent the second most pilots to the Top 8 of any deck (Affinity at two copies vs. Jund at three), and had the second most players in the aggregated Top 16 (Affinity’s four to Jund’s five). Adding insult to injury, even my own metrics betrayed me, with Affinity finishing at #2 behind only Jund in the conversion scores. So much for Affinity being poorly positioned. Where the heck did I go wrong?
Other than betting against Affinity in the first place, my major error was in misevaluating pre-Grand Prix data. In the leadup to May 21, Affinity was objectively struggling, occupying a measly 4.6% of the format the Wednesday before Los Angeles and Charlotte. Making matters worse, this represented a -1.2% dip from its April level at 5.8%, a downward pre-trend suggesting a metagame hostile to Team Ravager. Add in Jeskai’s rise, the persistence of Jund’s Bolts, Commands, and Grudges, and a sustained uptick in Abzan Company and Kiki Chord, and Affinity was facing a dismal picture going into the Grand Prix.
Fortunately for Affinity, and unfortunately for my advice, this dismal picture didn’t apply at the Grand Prix level. Affinity is an archetypal “Game 1 deck,” a strategy favored before sideboarding and then facing an uphill battle in Games 2 and 3. The larger a tournament, the sharper this edge: Modern Grand Prix are legendarily diverse, which means heaps of Tier 2 and Tier 3 prey for Ravagers to gobble down on Day 1. Day 2 gets rougher, but the deck is typically strong enough to scrape at least 1-2 copies into Top 8. Its conversion score, second-best after only Jund, is a testament to this staying power even in a narrowed field.
Many look to Games 2 and 3 for Affinity’s Achilles Heel, but these hopes can be misplaced. As we saw all weekend, hyper-consistent Affinity can persevere through all but the most oppressive combination of targeted hate (Stony Silence) and general interaction (Bolts and Electrolyzes). Opponent missed their Silence or Grudge draw? Affinity surely didn’t miss its lighting fast start, and it has two games to capitalize on a failure to find sideboard bullets. It gets even worse when players shave anti-artifact answers to begin with, whether because they misread the metagame or they traded Terminates for Dreadbores to prepare for Nahiri.
All of this led to Affinity Strikes Back from Saturday through Sunday, and forced me to amend my resolution: never bet against Affinity at the Grand Prix level. There will certainly be smaller regional and local events where Affinity is a bust. This even applies to the larger SCG Opens, as we saw plainly at Milwaukee and Indianapolis. If you’re battling in those environments, feel free to bet against Affinity all you want, at least if the metagame context justifies it. But at a Grand Prix? No way. Affinity just picks up too many percentage points from too many angles.
Myth: Jeskai Underperformed
There were two Jeskai hype-trains heading into Grand Prix Weekend, and Nahiri, the Harbinger was conducting both. The first was the more critical and measured hype-train I sold both last week and in my April metagame breakdown, where I asserted a blue-based deck would hit Tier 1 and where I expected Nahiri would lead that charge. This train rumbled along the tracks all weekend long straight into Tier 1 station.
Unfortunately, we had another locomotive running on a parallel track. This was the hype-train of $50 Nahiri speculators, a Tier 0 Jeskai deck, and an unusual spat of ban mania where noteworthy authors predicted Nahiri’s banning before the end of 2016. That one careened straight off the rails, but just because the Hyperbole Express crashed and burned, that doesn’t mean Jeskai Control didn’t finish chugging into top-tier central.
If you were on the first train, the more realistic and nuanced one, Jeskai performed exactly as expected. It had the third highest Day 2 share across both Grand Prix, barely missed the Los Angeles Top 8 by a literal .0018 on tiebreakers, and boasted a respectable conversion score on par with other format bigshots like Scapeshift, Infect, Merfolk, and Abzan Company. It even surpassed Tier 1 regulars Burn and RG Tron in those metrics! Its Top 32 and Top 16 shares were no Affinity or Jund, but Jeskai Control managed to tie or beat almost every other deck over the weekend, taking up 10% of the Top 32 and 8% of the Top 16.
Zooming out from the Grand Prix, Jeskai is riding a promising pre-trend from 3.8% in the April update to 4.5% before the Grand Prix. It’s up to 4.8% today. Given how recently Nahiri burst onto the competitive scene (Pete Ingram’s May 14th win at SCG Indy), it’s surprising that anyone thinks Nahiri is under-performing. The sword-wielding Kor has only been summoning Emrakuls for two weeks and we’re already seeing the deck put up these numbers! That’s a heartening performance for blue mages everywhere, especially when you realize that some Jeskai decks in the Top 32 eschewed Nahiri altogether and still did well.
Of course, if you were on the 3:10 to Hype(rbole) like many Modern players and pundits, then Jeskai didn’t live up to your groundless expectations. That says nothing about Jeskai and everything about making realistic metagame predictions. It should come as no surprise that Jeskai didn’t break the format or immediately surpass Jund, Affinity, Tron, and all the other Modern big-dogs. Upward mobility takes time—even Eldrazi took a few weeks to ruin Modern! Jeskai Nahiri is no Eldrazi, but the deck has more than enough datapoints to suggest its longevity. Expect to see this strategy stay a solid Tier 1 contender for months to come.
Reality: Modern Rocks
I didn’t get to watch Andreas Ganz make Modern history with his Ad Nauseam triumph, but I did get to see craziness like Bubble Hulk vs. GW Hatebears and UB Mill (you’re my hero, Jinlin Li) vs. a no-Emrakul RG Tron. Mind Funeral for twenty never looked so good. Besides, it was probably for the best that we didn’t have to endure the Grand Prix Charlotte software mishaps and tiebreaker foibles. Even the heavily-moderated Twitch chat would have devolved into DOTA 2 territory in a hurry. Whether you got to take in Los Angeles from your comfy chair or had to suffer through Charlotte’s long lines, you still got to enjoy either dynamic and diverse Modern gameplay or high-quality coverage. Plus we all get to reap the rewards for the rest of the summer.
We won’t get more Modern Grand Prix until late August, but we have plenty of metagame information to digest until then. We also get to revel in Eternal Masters previews before playing the pack lottery for virtual $150 bills. Let’s also not forget upcoming Eldritch Moon spoilers shortly thereafter. I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more: learning about the invisible entity behind Innistrad’s madness or Modern getting Innocent Blood with new Lily-themed art. Or go old-school Odyssey and keep the zombie mob. Either way, please, Wizards?
Thanks for reading and digging through the Grand Prix aftermath with me! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about different decks, any of the stats presented today, deck positioning, or where Modern is heading next. Also, if you have any tales from Grand Prix weekend and want to write them up for Nexus, check out the Volunteer Contributor program to share your experience!
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.