Online Only: MTGO Metagame

*Sigh* Oh, Magic Online. It is only now, with paper Magic shut down, that I am forced to regularly use you. And remember that I love/hate you. The ability to pick up and play my preferred format anytime, and against anyone in the world, is a true joy. Having to navigate your stubbornly obtuse command schemes and a frequently salty playerbase is a nightmare. However, you are what I have to work with, so I will make due.

While paper Magic languishes under pandemic lockdown, the online world is thriving. Wizards even added another category of events called Super Qualifiers to keep up with surging demand. Which means that there’s more valid (read: non-curated) data coming out of MTGO than we’ve seen in years. It’s still not enough to build a robust and statistically useful data set, but the premier events are large enough that they are reasonable stand-ins for the paper events I have been working with.

There is one minor problem that nonetheless leaves a big asterisk over this data: repeat players. Given that MTGO is online and the entry fees are low, and considering that a lot of people are currently quarantined, there’s an incentive for individuals to just grind events. When I was going through events, I saw a decent number of result that were from the same gamer handles on the same deck, which inflates the numbers. Perspective dictates whether the results are then any less valid, but this scenario does happen more frequently online.

3/14 MTGO Challenge

As a result, I have data for the week running from March 14 to March 21. Or at least, I have all the data from the results that had been posted when I started this article. It’s always possible that I’ve missed something or another event has been posted since I started working; Wizards can be weird about posting decklists. I’ll be going through them in (roughly) chronological order, beginning with the Modern Challenge’s Top 32.

Deck NameTotal #
Bant Snow Control4
Mono Red Prowess4
Bant Snowblade2
Eldrazi and Taxes2
Mono Green Tron2
Izzet Control2
Dredge2
Jund1
Amulet Titan1
Simic Urza1
Eldrazi Tron1
Niv to Light1
Temur Urza1
Humans1
UW Control1
Mono Blue Tron1
Heliod Company1
UW Stoneblade1
4c Snow Control1
Infect1
The Rock1

As there haven’t been paper events since the banning, I’m regarding the metagame as a blank slate. Once Upon a Time saw widespread play, and though it wasn’t critical to anything, did change the format enough that I don’t think the previously defined metagame is valid anymore. I will be using that Titan/Prowess-pillared format as the baseline against which to compare the new data.

With that in mind, the format has definitely changed. There is only a single Amulet deck, which is very down even by the standards of non-SCG events. In its place, Tron appears to be rising. Tron had been down from its usual place during the past few months, though I’m not sure why. I suspect that Amulet was a tricky matchup, but I never heard anyone discuss it nor did I personally see how it played out. Prowess is still holding on to a top slot, though it’s not running away with them, unlike previous results.

Instead, Prowess is level with Bant Snow Control. However, I could have really lumped Snow Control in with Bant Snowblade. Both decks are built on the same core of Arcum’s Astrolabe, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Ice-Fang Coatl, and countermagic. The difference is the number of counters and the support cards. Bant Snow is finally coming into its own in this event, marking a trend to watch.

There are no Company combo decks in the Challenge, though that isn’t surprising. Collected Company decks are rarely well-represented online because there’s no way to shortcut the combo and truly go infinite. Besides, Company combos have a lot of moving pieces. This means lots of opportunities to mis-click or time-out, so their online presence is suppressed. Their actual metagame place therefore remains unclear.

3/15 MTGO PTQ

Next up is the MTGO PTQ. A PTQ is a PTQ, so I’m assuming that it is similar population-wise to the paper PTQs I’m familiar with. In other words, this is likely to be the most competitive event, and therefore most indicative of the metagame. It was also eight rounds, yielding a relatively large population for a very random sample. Once again, Wizards released the Top 32.

Deck NameTotal #
Bant Snow Control3
Eldarzi Tron2
Temur Urza1
Dredge1
Mono Green Tron1
Jund1
Humans1
Dredge1
Izzet Delver1
BR Unearth1
4c Snow Control1
UW Urza1
Jeskai Whirza1

Bant Snow Control is the top deck again, but not by much. Eldrazi Tron is a close second. I’ve always wondered about E-Tron’s online popularity, as it never does that well in paper; cost and deck loyalty are frequent explanations, but that doesn’t stop paper players from switching decks. Certainly, I don’t see anything indicating E-Tron is suddenly better-positioned to explain its numbers. Of course, this may simply be par for the course, since I don’t track online results typically.

The more interesting results are the non-results. Neither Amulet Titan nor Prowess appear in this data. Amulet’s absence isn’t very surprising to me, but Prowess actually had legs and results in the previous meta. The fact that it isn’t in this data is something of a mystery.

Snow may be the most-represented archetype, but not by enough for Uro’s lifegain to be holding Prowess at bay. Also, even if Uro is a problem for Prowess, Bant has so little removal that the matchup shouldn’t be unwinnable for red. The overall Top 32 is not particularly hostile either. I was led to believe that Prowess was popular online because it’s cheap, too, so this is another result to watch.

A Plethora of Prelims

The next category is the preliminaries. There were five reported in the surveyed period, here lumped together for convenience. There should be more, as the schedule said there’s one per day. However, I didn’t see them when I looked for the results. It should also be noted that these are the events with more repeat players and decks. However, this is the best survey I have of where competitive players’ heads were over the course of the week.

Deck NameTotal #
Eldrazi Tron10
Mono Green Tron10
Temur Urza9
Bant Snow Control8
Jund8
Amulet Titan6
Mono Red Prowess5
Humans4
Dredge3
Bant Scapeshift3
5c Niv to Light2
Titanshift2
Bant Snowblade2
Ad Nauseam2
Gifts Storm2
UW Whirza2
Amuletless Titan1
Ponza1
Dimir Whirza1
RG Zoo1
Bogles1
Blue Moon1
Restore Balance1
Jeskai Whirza1
Golos Tron1
As Foretold1
4c Kiki Chord1
4c Underworld Breach1
Simic Urza1
Infect1
Temur Snow Midrange1
Grixis Shadow1
Burn1
UG Titan1
RB Unearth1
Izzet Control1
Shadow Zoo1

In a twist from the previous results, Snow Control is not the top deck. It’s actually tied for fourth with Jund. Instead, the two Tron variants tie for first. Normal Tron has been good for so long that its position is not particularly surprising. In a shifting metagame, it makes sense that a powerful standby would do well. The same might be said for E-Tron, but I would dispute that in light of generally only ever being as good as Chalice of the Void is at a given time. I’m not seeing anything in the data to indicate that is true. I could be under-appreciating the simple power of big, under-costed creatures, but if that was enough, why hasn’t the deck sustained a presence since 2017? Yet another thing to watch!

Temur Urza is in third, and this is the sort of deck I was worried about when Mox Opal was banned. Prior to the banning, the essential core of Urza lists—Whir of Invention or no—had nothing to do with Opal. Rather, they utilized Urza and Emry as artifact value engines. The card advantage engines were the problem more than the speed of the deck, and banning Opal didn’t affect that at all. Now, Urza lists are just leaning on that value aspect, adding in Uro because frankly, why not? There are few decks that fill their graveyards like Urza decks do now.

Amulet Titan and Prowess had reasonable showings in these events, but nothing indicating that last month they were the presumptive best decks. I think it fair to say they’ve been knocked off their pedestals.

3/21 Super Qualifier

The final event is the newest one, and I don’t just mean chronologically. Super Qualifiers are something new that Wizards has added to make up for the cancelled paper qualifiers. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that there’s an additional qualification for second place. In any case, it’s another highly competitive event that released a Top 32.

Deck NameTotal #
Humans3
Amulet Titan3
Bant Snow Control3
Mono-Red Prowess3
Eldarzi Tron3
Dredge2
Burn2
Mono Green Tron2
Titanshift2
Temur Turns1
Temur Superfriends1
Jund1
Temur Urza1
Dimir Whirza1
Jeskai Snow Control1
Infect1
Ponza1
BR Unearth1

In a twist, no one deck stands out from the pack. There’s a very even metagame, which Humans won, with a five-way tie for first.

Humans has been present in all the data I’ve looked at over the past few months, but it’s never stood out. I was never sure why, as there have been a lot of decks vulnerable to Meddling Mage. Oko was hard, but not unbeatable, and Amulet had severely cut its removal. I suppose that the influx of Jund may be to blame, but Jund hasn’t been doing much better than Humans. I suppose it’s just fallen out of favor.

There are a surprising number of rogue decks in this event; more than in previous single events. That they’re not all exploiting the same cards and interactions is a signal of format health. When any deck can enter an event and do well, it indicates that the power of the format is relatively even and there’s room to metagame, explore, and thrive. Hopefully the data continues to reflect this openness.

Metagame in Aggregate

Taking all these events together, there are a few trends that stand out. The first is that there is not a clear front-runner. Bant Snow and variants thereof are doing very well overall. However, they’re not doing much better than any other deck. At the beginning of the week, Bant Snow was the most successful deck. However, as the week rolled on, that narrative faltered. Snow did well in the preliminaries and the Super Qualifier, but proved middle-of-the-pack in the former and just part of the crowd in the latter. There’s power in the new deck, but nothing yet indicating that it’s anything special.

However, there is a clear trend towards midrange decks. There’s only a few combo decks in the entirety of these results, and aggro is clearly slacking relative to slower decks. The lack of aggro may be a holdover from the previous meta, where Prowess pushed a lot of other decks out. However, the rise of Jund and Bant Snow is making life harder for aggro. I believe that this can be overcome with strategic adaptation and better sideboarding, but we will need to see how things develop. As for combo, there may be bias against certain ones on MTGO, as previously mentioned, but Breach Station was touted as the new menace and it’s not particularly hard to play online. I think evidence is mounting that it’s just not as good as advertised.

An Issue of Uro

The Bant core has gained ground, and the usual suspects are moaning already. I can appreciate some of the complaints, as Arcum’s Astrolabe has a far lower opportunity cost than I expected and as a result is a bit too good at its job. Whether it’s too good for Modern is another story. Again, the evidence for snow being good is there, but it’s not noticeably better than anything else. Now, I’ve mentioned that Uro is unexpectedly good. I’d even give Uro credit for making the UGx decks competitors. Coatl is a good card, but it’s not enough to win the game. Uro’s body is another story, especially when coupled with recursive value. This naturally is drawing ire.

In a general sense, I think that UGx deserves a chance to be a deck in Modern for a while. Midrange decks not only being good, but not being Jund, is pretty rare in Modern. Long-suffering Simic enthusiasts have earned their day. Uro has proven to be above the curve, but again, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I keep banging on this point, but Uro does nothing against graveyard hate. And when sampling decks, there’s a general lack of hate.

The decks that do have hate tend to have a reasonable amount, but not every deck is ready. Jund decks are running lots of hate in the sideboard, but they’ve cut on maindeck Scavenging Ooze. As a result, they’re struggling more in Game 1 than they should against all the graveyard decks. I think a lot of the resentment for Uro is misplaced. Players aren’t angry at Uro so much as frustrated that Modern still requires a lot of graveyard hate.

Still in Transition

That said, this is just the first look I’ve gotten at the overall metagame. One data point, even one built over the course of a week, is not defining. If the trends continue during my next look, that will be a clear argument about the metagame. However, we just have to wait and see.

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