Editor’s Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, this article was delayed by a week, though it is still quite relevant to the current format.
Small numbers are quirky things.
If I flip a coin 50,000 times and it comes up heads 43,000 times, I might want to be suspicious. But if I flip it twice and its heads both times, I’m going to want to hold off on claiming that the coin is rigged to always hit heads.
So it goes with PTQs.
This far into the current PTQ season, we’ve had about four PTQ weekends, give or take. For today’s article, that means I’m working with information from nineteen PTQ top eights and an associated 151 deck lists (I’m looking at you for only reporting seven lists, Denver).
Nineteen winning lists is just way too few to make any real assessment about what “wins” in a Modern PTQ. More to the point, it’s risky – as I always, always emphasize – to conclude that a certain archetype “wins” because it has won in the past.
On the other hand, the progressively increasing pool of decks that make it into actual top eights does give us a pretty reasonable estimate of what we’re likely to have to plow through on our way through the top tables. Even then, however, we might want to watch out for those small numbers on our way to figuring out what the opposition looks like.
More signal, less noise
The first nineteen PTQs of the season have seen some twenty-five or so archetypes spread across them. If we just threw that all on a chart, it would feature some silly declarations like saying that Merfolk accounts for 0.66% of the top eight metagame.
Sure, that’s true. But what does it do for you? If you have twelve hours or so of testing time before the next PTQ, are you going to spend four minutes and forty-five seconds testing the Merfolk matchup?
So what’s more useful for us is to know which actual archetypes are in for some significant chunk of the metagame, and to have an understanding of how that metagame breaks down by general deck category.
Dropping the loners
PTQs frequently feature odd decks and weird outliers. Although the one-ofs may be great idea farms and could point us toward next steps in our own tournament play, they’re essentially chaff when it comes to figuring out how to prepare for the metagame.
So what if we just cut them out?
Of the 151 decks reported in PTQs so far, ten were the only representatives of their respective archetypes. For much of the following analysis, I cut these from consideration.
Here’s the list of our ten loner archetypes that have been sidelined for the moment:
If you’re a little curious about Zoo making that list, there will be more about that later.
The high level view
Before we drop out all of the loners, we also want to take a look at how high-level categories like “aggro” and “control” are doing. Perhaps more than any consideration of specific archetypes, knowing the general categories of decks we can expect to run into at the top tables is going to help us prepare.
For example, the default assumption may well be that “top tables feature control.” That’s certainly the easy assumption to make.
It’s not, as it happens, true.
Here’s how these high-level categories are splitting those PTQ top 8 appearances:
Notice that roughly half the lists feature some form of just straight-up bashing face, whether that’s with creatures and burn or by casting a billion spells and storming you to death. Those lists that try to control the game fill out the other half in descending order from most to least proactive.
Once we’ve merged the archetypes into their higher-level categories in this manner, it’s probably okay to take a look at how the categories are doing in terms of winning PTQs. Here what that breakdown looks like:
Now that’s kind of interesting. Aggro has nearly half the PTQ wins. On the other hand, midrange lists stagger pretty badly, with a win rate that’s one fourth of their appearance rate. There are some hypotheses to be found around that difference, but I’ll leave that for later discussion.
For now, the take home message from the highest-level view is that aggro and combo own half the world.
Picking apart the archetypes
So that’s the high-level view. But there’s a big difference between knowing that you’re going to run into “aggro” and knowing that most of those aggro decks will be Affinity (or Boros, or RDW…).
In the following sections, I’ve broken the categories out into their major archetypes. In doing so, I’m dropping out the decks that appear just once, as we covered above.
The aggro population in PTQ top eights is dominated by one archetype. It’s no coincidence that I’ve spent some time talking about beating it lately.
That overwhelming prevalence of Affinity among aggro decks means that you could almost get away with just preparing against Affinity as your aggro matchup.
Across the remaining aggro archetypes that made multiple appearances, we can safely batch the Boros and RDW decks together as “things that will throw burn at your face by way of finishing the game.” The only odd decks out are those tokens builds, which tend to be white or green/white and look a whole lot like tokens decks you’re used to from past Standard seasons.
So there’s your aggro distribution – about three quarters killer robots, and one quarter fast creatures and burn.
You’ll notice, yet again, that Zoo did not make the cut. However, if you look at how some of the decks have been classified at various reporting sites, you’ll see more than the one Zoo list that I dropped from the analysis.
As a reminder, I classify as “midrange” those decks that seek to win via incremental card advantage and attrition. They’re not trying to outrace the opposition like pure aggro, nor are they planning on sitting back and stalling the opponent like pure control.
The midrange category breaks out like so:
Jund is a clear standby deck, and has been all over the place both online and in PTQ top eights. In fact, Jund has the second highest number of top eight appearances with just a handful fewer than Affinity.
Bant is an interesting case, in that it “explains” why there is no real Zoo percentage in this analysis. Consider the following list:
Bant (as played by Luke Southworth to a PTQ top 8)
Now compare it to this list:
Red Bant (as played by Daniel Dusang to a PTQ top eight)
Although Daniel’s list and others like it have been classified as “Zoo” everywhere I’ve looked so far, they are very much not Zoo lists. If you compare the two lists, you can see that they show significant overlap. Essentially, the Red Bant lists swap out Bant’s countermagic for a burn kicker. Whether this is the best choice will depend on the metagame, of course, but the core idea remains that of the “Bant” approach to midrange – drop a highly efficient threat, then when your opponent takes care of it, drop another (by way of comparison, Jund tends to have more threats on the field at once, but they are comparatively weaker).
If we split up Bant into its two distinct sub-archetypes, the midrange breakdown looks like this:
The tempo category is the traditional domain of “Fish” decks, that attempt to stick a fast attacker and then just disrupt the opponent’s game plan so that they never really recover long enough to stop the flurry of jabs to the face. We’ve already covered that only one actual Merfolk deck has cracked the top eight so far, which leaves…
Yes, it’s the only pure category.
For the moment, the face of successful tempo (or “aggro-control”) in Modern PTQ top eights is the Delver deck. This groups the U/B and R/U/G Delver decks together, but they both follow fairly similar trajectories…ones that should be familiar to anyone who’s already played against Delver strategies in Standard or Legacy.
Note that although the other high-level categories may be larger, Delver as an archetype is doing quite well, coming in third place after Affinity and Jund.
The second place category after aggro, combo has been a definite presence in PTQs so far this season. Perhaps that makes sense given the conventional wisdom of “aggressive” decks doing better earlier on…even though that’s not always true. Unlike the aggro category, however, the combo decks are a little bit more divided.
Splinter Twin is still the obvious big winner, and a combo deck you pretty much must be prepared for if you’re heading toward a major Modern event.
Interestingly, the three major combo contenders all feature somewhat different lines of attack, which may help to explain why the conceptual category of “combo” is such a metagame presence. The countermeasures that are best against storm decks may not help against the Melira combo, and your anti-Melira hate might fall short against a wave of replicating Deceiver Exarchs.
This does suggest that we want to look very, very hard to those solutions that will give us maximum benefit against these various lines of attack. Exactly what that is will depend on your archetype of interest, of course, but it does help us understand why Affinity would continue to do well. “Win faster” trumps literally any opposing plan.
We round our today’s metagame analysis with the lagger in these PTQ top eights, control. Although there remains that conventional wisdom about control being poor early in seasons, I’ll continue to assert – based on prior PTQ seasons – that there isn’t any such general rule. However, there is the fact that the Modern format only recently changed from being utterly hostile toward control into a place where control decks can work. I think we’re still feeling around to figure out which control elements are good enough to make the cut here…and this process is really confusing since we don’t have access to many of what would have been the obvious choices.
Here how control’s eleven percent of the top eight shares breaks down:
Well, that was easy.
Control is the category of decks that featured the most significant content of one-offs, as you may recall from the list earlier in the article. Cryptic Control, Teachings, Tron, and Death Cloud have all made it to the top eight exactly once each, so far. This has left Cawblade and Faeries to nearly evenly split the remaining control appearances.
I admit I was a little surprised to see Faeries have this significant a share. Even without its characteristic flower of doom, the Faeries tribe apparently is good enough to make the cut on a reasonably regular basis. Here’s a sample Faeries list, in case you haven’t gotten a good look at one:
Faeries (as played to a PTQ win by stainerson)
Two PTQs have been won by Faeriers lists, both on Magic Online. I have no idea if that means anything significant.
Bringing it all back to a functional game plan
There are two useful things to keep in mind, in closing today.
First, this is a survey of decks in PTQ top eights. I’m okay with using them as a proxy for the higher tables and the later rounds, but we all need to keep in mind that your first round or two can feature pretty much anything that can be shoehorned into the Modern format.
Second, to borrow a frequent phrase from martial arts training, “train as you fight.”
This means that even if you think Domain Zoo is still the most awesome aggro deck ever, you don’t want to burn much time practicing against it because no one is playing it. Maybe that means you do want to play the deck, since no one should train against it, but that’s down to your comfort with the archetype and how well it’s testing.
With that in mind, here’s your cheat sheet for the next week or two of PTQs:
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter