Trending Away: Modern’s Metagame Muddle

It’s the end of June. Normally that wouldn’t feel weird to say, but this is a rather unusual year. Where has it gone, and simultaneously why does it feel like it never goes at all? Without paper events as a guide and work disrupted, time is losing meaning to me. Fortunately, I keep being reminded of time as a side effect of tracking metagame changes and data. And therefore it’s time to take a look at the overall metagame and try to see where it’s heading.

I want to make it clear that I’m not doing a classic-style metagame update. The first reason is that those used a weighting system to reflect the differences between paper and online Magic, which is not applicable right now. Thus, I don’t have to do the calculations. The second, and more primary reason, is data points. I only have 295 total decks in my sample, and while that seems like a lot, a good sample for this scale of inquiry should have at least 500 entries, and ideally at least 1000. So when I actually tried to do the stats work, I got a tier list that made no sense. I’m contemplating how to work around this problem for the future, but in the meantime, we still have plenty of juicy data to dive into!

Week of 6/21

I’ll begin where I left off last week. I started tracking the weekly results to determine the impact that companions were having on Modern. It ended on a pretty grim note. I kept going to see if the nerf worked. It had, and since it’s clear that companions are now just Magic cards, I’m done sorting them out of results. Nothing worth seeing anymore. A consequence of all that inquiry was that I watched how the metagame changed week to week, and observed that since the nerf, Modern had gotten very volatile. The additional week of data confirms that observation.

Deck NameTotal #
Other13
Eldrazi Tron8
Burn6
Ponza5
Bant Snow4
Humans4
Sultai Snow4
Toolbox3
Amulet Titan3
Storm3
Mono-Green Tron3
Izzet Tempo2
Whirza2
Kinnan Combo2
Infect2
Winota2
Grixis Death's Shadow2
Temur Rec2
Dredge2
Prowess2

The first thing I have to address is the numbers. This week, only one Challenge was reported, and the five Preliminaries were pretty small, so I only have 74 results. I suspect that release events for Core 2021 are at fault.

The second thing is the volatility. Ponza fell to third, Burn rose to second, and all the snow decks lost percentage. Amulet Titan reappeared while Whirza collapsed. Other, made up of all the singleton decks, remains the most populous category by a good margin. What this suggests is that there’s no clear best deck in this metagame. Players are seeing success with wide ranges of decks each week. The question will be how sustainable this volatility is.

As a case in point, this week saw two decks built around Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy. I was tempted to lump them in with the Toolbox decks, but these decks weren’t built around their tutors. In fact, I think each only had Eldritch Evolution. The same is true for the two Winota, Joiner of Forces decks. This isn’t the first time Winota has been in the data, but previous decks had more tutors, and so were classified as Toolbox. These new versions are Zoo decks with a card that’s arguably busted, which means they’re a different archetype.

June’s Aggregate Metagame

If the week-by-week results are unclear, then what about the overall metagame? There’s a very clear answer, but it’s not what I expected. For this section I combined the results from all the weekly metagame updates. After I calculated the metagame percentages, I lumped all the 2-of decks into Other with the singletons because they were less than 1% of the metagame.

Deck NameTotal #Metagame %
Other5518.7
Bant Snow289.5
Eldrazi Tron289.5
Ponza279.2
Burn227.5
Humans165.4
Storm134.4
Toolbox134.4
Dredge124.1
Amulet Titan124.1
Sultai Snow113.7
Whirza103.4
Temur Urza82.7
Prowess72.4
Temur Snow51.7
Mono-Green Tron51.7
Infect41.4
Neobrand31
Sultai Reclamation31
Izzet Tempo31
Unearth 31
Ad Nauseam31
Niv 2 Light31

Other is the most popular category by far. To be clear, there were 20 decks with two results, so even if I hadn’t put them in Other, it would still be the largest category. This strongly indicates that there is great diversity in the metagame and that brewers are finding success with offbeat decks. That fact normally indicates overall metagame health.

As for the individual decks, there are some stark divisions in the data. Four decks posted 22+ results in June, and then there’s a sheer drop off to Humans with 16. If you were to twist my arm for a tier list, I would put Bant Snow, Eldrazi Tron, Ponza, and Burn in Tier 1. Humans would be Tier 1.5 in my book, with all the decks with 10-13 results constituting Tier 2. I’m saying this rather than giving a mathematical answer because my calculation put Tier 1 at only the top 3 decks and Tier 2 was Burn, Humans, Storm, and Toolbox. I haven’t had time to figure out if this is a function of the methodology being inappropriate or if I messed up somewhere.

In either case, the metagame has definitely slowed down without companions. June’s metagame was similar to, though not exactly the same as, the pre-companion metagame. Slower decks had the advantage while aggro and combo were looking for a way into the metagame. What that means for July is unclear.

Where’s it Going?

I know this heading title sounds like a rhetorical question, but I’m being genuine. As I was putting this all together, it became clear that Modern is now in wild flux. The power rankings don’t accurately reflect the reality of the metagame. This makes perfect sense, as they’re an aggregation meant to show the overall trend rather than reflect dynamic reality. Looking at the specifics of the data raises a lot of questions about those aggregate results. Take this graph showing the top five decks from the power rankings by weekly metagame percentage.

As shown, every deck’s been up and down. None more than Bant Snow, which simply collapsed after week 1. Were it not for that exceptional first week, it would not be tied for first place. In fact, that week 1 result is so out of line with what Bant Snow managed in subsequent weeks that I’m inclined to think of it as an outlier. That ~15% was likely not a function of Bant Snow’s positioning or metagame but rather population based. The fact that Snow as a whole declined in week 3 along with supposed predator Ponza supports this theory.

It’s equally possible that the small sample size of week 3 impacted the results. However, that wouldn’t change the overall picture of a very volatile metagame. As previously noted, players are seeing success with many different decks. The Other category is filled with decks that put up results once, then disappeared again. New decks have decent individual weeks, disappear, then reappear. And the top deck changes wildly between weeks. This tells me that there really isn’t a metagame yet. Players are still trying to figure out what’s good now, and that answer remains elusive.

What it Means

Right now is the time for brewing. If you’ve got the cards online, I’d recommend trying out that whacky idea you’ve been sitting on for awhile. It can’t be weirder than the decks that have actually made the data. They’ve run the gauntlet from Toolbox decks that I can’t find their combo kills to strange configurations of Mill to a straight port of Pioneer Inverter of Truth combo. Seriously, the only difference I remember is fetchlands. The best part is that everyone else is experimenting and looking for the new best decks, so even if your idea is half-baked, it’s no less wonky than everything else.

Looking Ahead

However, nothing lasts forever. This Wild West will have to come to an end eventually. I don’t know how it will end, but I am certain that Eldrazi Tron will hold a niche in that new world. Eldrazi have always been a significant part of the online metagame, even though they’re inconsistent at best in paper. Furthermore, it looks like Chalice of the Void is a decent card again. The Eldrazi have lost a lot of their bite over the years, but Eldrazi Tron is always the best Chalice deck. When Chalice is good, so is E-Tron. I don’t know if that’s actually the case given the overall volatility, but players clearly think it’s true. We’ll have to keep watch.

The second observation is that targeted discard is at an all-time low in Modern. Jund and Grixis Death’s Shadow are nowhere to be found. Sultai Snow doesn’t always run Inquisition of Kozilek or Thoughseize maindeck, and is a small part of the metagame anyway. I suspect Snow decks being mainly 2-for-1’s is a significant factor, as is Inquisition being bad against Eldrazi. Plus, Veil of Summer, anyone? Now is the time to break out decks that are weak to discard.

The third thing is that Big Mana is retreating. Eldrazi Tron doesn’t count as it can’t get big mana consistently. It’s a beatdown deck with acceleration. Amulet Titan has fallen from the top of the metagame, and is now where I think it has always actually been. However, I’ve never considered normal Tron to be overrated or badly positioned. And yet it’s just gone. Snow decks have upped their counters and run Field of Ruin, but they’re a very small part of the metagame, so I’m mystified by Tron’s fall.

Where I’m Heading

These trends are pushing me to actually put some money into MTGO and get a new deck. I already had Humans from years of playing MTGO drafts when the lockdown happened and paper Magic stopped. Not wanting to put money into digital cards, I’ve just been playing Humans. And it hasn’t gone well recently. I was very surprised to see Humans as the fifth-place deck in the standings because I’ve had terrible results recently.

Part of that has been on me. I play sloppier online than in paper. I’m not sure why, though the anonymity plays a part. In paper, if I mess up, I’ll hear about it for weeks. Online, nobody knows you, so it’s easy to just move on. I’m also doing nothing else when playing paper, and so focus more. I got a lot of other stuff distracting me on my computer. I’ve also had a run of terrible luck. Lots and lots of flood-outs and runs of terrible-but-fringe matchup after terrible-but-fringe matchup. Culminating in a League where I hit five Soul Sisters decks, flooded to death in each, and they hit multiple Path to Exile every game.

More importantly, but less cathartically, Humans has felt poorly positioned to me. A lot of the appeal of the deck is its fast clock and disruption. This makes it very strong against combo and control decks with limited sweepers. Which is exactly the metagame that we had until recently. Meddling Mage is very good against Amulet Titan. However, Humans is not and has never been very good against waves of spot removal, and that’s what’s seeing more play. Sultai Snow is very Jund-like, and the various Izzet decks that are creeping in have full sets of Lightning Bolt and Lava Dart. However, this meta is looking favorable for an old friend.

Updating Spirits

I quit playing Spirits when Big Mana and discard decks took off in the last third of last year. Spirits’ clock was too slow to contend with Amulet Titan, even with Damping Sphere, and discard is a nightmare for a deck that wants to hold cards in hand until the time is right. Humans dodges both problems and so was the better deck. Now that everything’s shifting, I’m looking back at my old standby.

UW Spirits, Test Deck

Creatures (28)
Mausoleum Wanderer
Spectral Sailor
Selfless Spirit
Rattlechains
Supreme Phantom
Brazen Borrower
Spell Queller
Drogskol Captain

Planeswalkers (3)
Teferi, Time Raveler

Instants (4)
Path to Exile

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Lands (21)
Flooded Strand
Hallowed Fountain
Cavern of Souls
Moorland Haunt
Mutavault
Seachrome Coast
Island
Plains
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I’m on Moorland Haunt and Mutavault over Field of Ruin thanks to the aforementioned fall off in Tron. Haunt is an exceptional tool in grindy matchups, and key to forcing my way through Ice-Fang Coatl. It’s even better since I’m not running Rest in Peace at the moment. Without Jund or Dredge, the need for long term persistent graveyard hate is down. Grafdigger’s Cage is far more useful in more matchups. I’m still testing, but Spirits loves a meta full of durdle, and Spell Queller targets.

Take Advantage

The June meta clearly shows that Modern is in flux. This cannot last, but since Wizards attention is focused solely on Arena (and I’m not sure it’s working out) Modern will have more breathing room than normal. Without the spotlight, there’s time to experiment. We’ll see how this affects July’s metagame in a month.

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