And So It Begins: Metagame Starting Point

Everything has to begin somewhere. The Modern metagame is no exception, and last week I used the MTGO metagame as a bellwether for the emerging format. The five decks I examined have done well online. However, as I noted, the data isn’t necessarily accurate or indicative of what players will encounter at a Modern event. It’s time to start testing the data against observed reality.

The main tournament stage is currently reserved for Pioneer. Wizards and players have spent the past few months effectively beta-testing the format, and now it’s having actual events. Hopefully, this will finally answer the question of whether the format is good or fatally flawed. In any case, Modern-wise, we’ll have to wait until March for true, open-tournament results to analyze. However, there is some smaller-scale data being generated, and I’ll be using that to start building a picture of the current Modern metagame.

SCG Richmond

The Modern played at SCG Richmond last weekend is not the kind suited for our data set. SCG Richmond was a team event, obscuring the results: two of three players on a team need to win to secure the match, which means a deck’s final standings aren’t necessarily based on its own merits. I’ve been to a few team events where one player on a team could not win a game to save his life, but still finished high thanks to his teammates’ records. Therefore, the final standings convey how well the team did, not a given deck’s individual strength. While the data isn’t a reliable measure of the meta, it does indicate what players thought was good. This in turn is informative about the SCG Tour’s playerbase.

Deck NameTotal #
Amulet Titan13
Heliod Company4
Mono-Red Prowess4
Gifts Storm2
Burn1
Humans1
Golgari Yawgmoth1
Devoted Devastation1
Mono-Green Tron1
Charge Tron1
UW Control1
Dimir Whirza1
Titanshift1
Jund1
Jund Conscription1
Jund Death's Shadow1
4-C Death's Shadow1
Infect1

Frankly, that is an absurd amount of Amulet Titan. I suppose this should come as no surprise, as SCG events have been swamped with Amulet decks since Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis was banned. However, what’s inexplicable is how this keeps happening without corresponding payoff. While Oko was still legal, Amulet Titan always did well in the Day 2 metagame standings, but that success didn’t translate into Top 32 placings. This time Titan made up 35% of the Modern Day 2 population and put two copies into the Top 4, a decent outcome until the entirety of the standings are considered. If Amulet was as good as its ubiquity indicates, its population should be more clustered in the upper standings. But it’s not; Titan decks are peppered throughout.

Again, the standings are not necessarily indicative of actual deck power. Still, nothing I’ve seen so far proves that Titan is worthy of its popularity. That said, it’s clear that the SCG Tour believes that Amulet Titan is the best deck in Modern, and it’s behaving accordingly. Were I going to an SCG event, my primary concern would be preparing for Titan decks.

Classic Results

The individual SCG Classics that accompany the Opens do provide useful data, though it’s harder to draw conclusions from them than from the individual Opens; Classics generally have lower starting populations, and the only data released is the Top 16. It’s hard to judge deck performance in a vacuum, or without at least Day 2 population numbers. Typically, I’ve assumed that the starting populations for side events are cast-offs from the main event. This is unlikely to be perfectly true all the time, and especially here, since Richmond was a team event. Therefore, I’m going to deal with the results as they stand as a starting point for the developing metagame. Besides, the Richmond Classic presents another problem for Titan’s assumed strength.

Deck NameTotal #
Mono-Red Prowess4
Amulet Titan3
Dimir Whirza2
Golgari Yawgmoth1
UW Control1
Grixis Death's Shadow1
Heliod Company1
Burn1
Titanshift1
Ad Nauseam1

Mono-Red Prowess was the most successful deck in the Classic by population and result. It had four placings to Amulet’s three, and Prowess closed out the finals. The best-placing Amulet deck took 6th, and another sneaked in at 16th. This indicates that Titan isn’t any better than Prowess. Amulet may not be better than the 3rd-place Dimir Whirza, which placed ahead of Titan at 5th and 11th places. Whether Prowess and Whirza are better than Titan or simply very well-positioned is impossible to say at this point, but the bottom line is I continue to not find evidence supporting the proposition that Amulet Titan is the best deck in Modern.

Considering the rest of the field, Modern looks quite open. We find an even mix of old stalwarts and new hotness, including the Heliod, Sun-Crowned combo. Of course, in this version, Heliod is a one-of and backup plan for the typical Devoted Druid combo. More interesting is the decision to invest more heavily in a toolbox plan with Ranger-Captain of Eos. Ranger-Captain means Company decks can tutor for Walking Ballista or Viscera Seer and then protect against interaction to combo off. If necessary, Company decks could also triple-down on protection by searching up Giver of Runes.

Implications

It is painfully clear at this point that the SCG Tour believes Amulet Titan is the best deck in Modern. Its consistently played in large quantities, and it always shows up in force for Day 2. However, Titan hasn’t been rewarding its faithful with success. Both during the Oko era and now, the huge numbers in Day 2 are not reflected by Titan’s final results. Thus, I would prepare heavily against Amulet Titan were I going to play an SCG Event. Simultaneously, I wouldn’t recommend actually playing Titan. The deck has not demonstrated above-average power in months, and players will be targeting the deck.

Secondly, Prowess looks to be extending its lead over Burn. I noted last week that red decks do well in unstable, developing metagames, and it wasn’t clear which was better. It appears that Prowess gets the decisive nod in SCG’s Titan-heavy metagame thanks to how it can front-load damage. Burn’s damage is spread out because it’s literally throwing burn at an opponent’s head every turn; Prowess is about dumping its hand and turning all that velocity into damage in a turn or two. This concentrated assault makes it harder to stabilize against Prowess, but comes at the cost of Burn’s inevitability. Given how Titan plays, this seems a worthy sacrifice.

Finally, it’s clear that Urza’s back. Dimir Whirza (which is just Grixis Whirza minus Galvanic Blast and Goblin Engineer) won the Open and did well in the Classic. I predicted that banning Mox Opal wouldn’t keep Urza down because it would just fall back to Whirza. Apparently, Grixis isn’t reliable enough without the color-fixing Mox Opal, but the core strategy of prison pieces and Thopter Foundry combo kills has remained intact and is as powerful as ever. The only reason it ever went away was that Oko, Thief of Crowns was better. I’d keep my eye on Dimir Whirza, as I expect that this deck, not Amulet Titan, is the real next Big Thing.

PT Weekend PTQs

The next source of data is from the Players Tours that also took place last weekend. Yes, those events were Pioneer, but they had Grand Prix tournaments accompanying them. These were also Pioneer, but their PTQs were Modern. My understanding was that both Brussels and Nagoya would have two Modern PTQ’s, but I’ve only seen the two results from Brussels posted anywhere. The pair of events nonetheless form a metagame picture that is distinct from Richmond’s.

Deck NameTotal #
4C Death's Shadow2
Eldrazi Tron2
Mono-Red Prowess2
Dredge2
Burn1
Sultai Whirza1
Infect1
Devoted Devastation1
UB Mill1
Crabvine1
Heliod Company1

These PTQs are as Titan-devoid as SCG events are Amulet Titan heavy. Instead, there is a very even spread of decks. This further pegs Amulet’s prevalence as a function of SCG-circuit popularity, and not due to any real metagame strength. The observable field doesn’t look significantly different than what is seen in the SCG data, so I can’t point to a uniquely hostile metagame as the cause. Still, more evidence from non-SCG sources is necessary to confirm the hypothesis that Titan just isn’t that much better than other good Modern decks.

Prowess just piped Burn as the most played red-deck, but Burn took home the blue envelope. Again, if my theory about why Prowess was better in Richmond is correct, then Burn doing better in Brussels makes perfect sense. Looking around, I’m seeing decks that are in various stages of adjustment. While they’re called 4-Color Shadow decks, in reality they’re Sultai Shadow splashing red for Temur Battle Rage. I suspect this is a space issue, since they’re running both Traverse the Ulvenwald and Once Upon a Time. Similarly, the Whirza list from Brussels is only technically Sultai. Maindeck, it features just 2 Abrupt Decay; green is mainly there for sideboard cards, specifically Weather the Storm to beat red decks.

The More Things Change…

Graveyard decks are back in force. Dredge won a PTQ and is part of the four-way tie for most popular deck. Both decks look comparable to the post-ban Dredge lists, except for 2 Ox of Agonas. As I read things, Dredge is still a metagame force, while Ox is mainly an excuse to pick up the deck.

Crabvine also made Top 8. While it’s fallen a long way since the days of Hogaak, Crabvine can still produce a ridiculous amount of power very quickly. It’s just not as reliable or consistent as Dredge. Its biggest advantage is that in a pinch, it can switch to being a mill deck (and UB Mill also made Top 8). In a nutshell, the old boogeymen of Modern are still here, and players need to be ready for them.

…The More the Lesson Stays the Same

Graveyard hate is still essential in Modern. Dredge isn’t going away, and pilots now have an excuse to pick it back up. Furthermore, there are plenty of other decks using graveyard synergies. Faithless Looting‘s banning nerfed the graveyard decks and made them less prevalent, but it didn’t kill them. Be ready!

The other redundant lesson is that Modern remains wide open. Outside of SCG events, there’s no clear best deck, although red decks continue to be very prevalent. There’s still considerable room to innovate and experiment, and so players need to be ready for anything.

Where is Modern Going?

As more events occur and data arrives, the picture will become clearer. I’m hopeful that Modern remains wide-open this year. The past few have seen warps from extremely popular or¬†overpowered decks which are great for metagaming, but not for diversity. We’ll have to wait and see.

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