From Port to Oak—The Moving Modern Metagame

The past six weekends featured two GPs in the format, and I’m here to milk that fact for all it is worth. But it’s not that I don’t have other interesting topics about which I could write. It’s that I genuinely enjoy following Modern’s developments—and its games.

Let me out myself. Yes, I like to watch Krark-Clan Ironworks do its thing. There are two very different kinds of combo decks in my estimation. There are two- or three-card combos like Devoted Vizier and then there are engine decks. The suspense when an engine player is forced to try to go off from a shaky position, or when they have to navigate around hate cards, makes it the pinnacle of entertainment for me. I have never seen Ironworks win on turn 2, which is unlikely but possible, and I will always tune in for more KCI matches until at least that day.

And let’s not forget that there are other story lines to follow. The past couple of months saw Dredge dredged up again, Elves picking up Beast Whisperer and thus plenty of extra cards, Spirits coming and clinging to the top, the rise of the Phoenix, and now experiments with Experimental Frenzy in Affinity. In fact, I’d caution you not to overestimate KCI’s 50% Top 8 share at Grand Prix Oakland. It’s clearly not a fluke, but it is, by the very nature of the tournament structure, a performance spike!

So December/January was a great time for a string of high-level Modern events because Modern happened to find itself at a turning point, with exciting new chapters written for several of the aforementioned stories. (A happy coincidence, as the reason for the events’ scheduling surely was that Standard and Limited communities are holding their breath for the upcoming rush into the world of Ravnica Allegiance.)

Having two GPs this close in time (and incidentally place) allows the option—basically begs us—not just to consider the most recent state of the format but to look at how the metagame changed one month to the next. There’s no guarantee that trends so identified will continue into the future. Nonetheless, it’s well worth it to be aware of their existence.

Might of Oakland

I was able to find out, from a combination of sources, what decks 693 of GP Oakland’s competitors ran. This is a smaller sample in total than what I had for Portland, but it’s larger relative to the size of the field: about 61% instead of Portland’s 55%.

So while I was already sure about the most popular decks in December, I’m even more certain about this ranking in January. Here are the metagame shares for the main archetypes in Oakland and how many absolute percentage points they gained or lost since Portland.

As expected, the new bird on the block enjoyed the largest increase in followers. Izzet Phoenix had been the most successful deck in Portland after all. Next in line awaits a rock. That midrange decks based in black and green don’t need a third color anymore, thanks to Assassin’s Trophy, is also more or less news, so it makes sense that more people flock to that. Consequently, Jund lost a bunch of players, and Abzan Midrange was nowhere to be found.

Why Burn became even more popular and why Hardened Scales fell so hard, I cannot fathom. Why Death’s Shadow became more popular, in contrast, is easy to explain. The deck placed first at Grand Prix Portland, although that was quite the singular result. Death’s Shadow players reached the second day in Portland at a rate that was way below par, and the deck posted a negative match record overall. Now I’m excited to learn how the Shadow fared based on a larger number of results.

Advancement

Theoretically, we have Oakland’s full Day 2 metagame breakdown available, made possible by the tournament’s lower turnout. I still want to focus on what percent of the decks from my sample made the second day because that allows for a more direct comparison. The following table shows this and, again, the difference to the Day 2 conversion based on Portland’s sample.

This change column paints a more volatile picture. It isn’t all that surprising, though, because what we are comparing here are percentages of percentages. As you can tell by my color coding, I believe it would be wrong to read too much into all the shifts of up to plus/minus ten percent. For instance, 17 of 38 Ironworks players qualified for Sunday’s rounds in Portland, whereas in Oakland 11 of 30 did. This equals 44.7% and 36.7%—a noticeable difference but not necessarily a notable difference.

The change column mostly shows an effect I alluded to in a previous article: a larger sample almost always exhibits more average results, while a smaller sample is more susceptible to outliers. In the case of Grand Prix Oakland, average means 23.6%. Of the total sample, across all decks, 23.6% qualified for the second day.

That’s why I felt confident to predict that Izzet Phoenix would become, at the same time, more popular as well as less successful. One usually leads to the other, and all exceptions deserve special attention.

Izzet Phoenix is no exception, but it almost counts. And it definitely counts as a surprise that even in the face of its increased following, Izzet Phoenix held up so well and regressed to the mean so little. All of the evidence confirms Izzet Phoenix as a very real deal. None of the archetypes with appreciably higher conversion rates had enough of a player base that we could trust their numbers. Their massive shifts in Day 2 rates cast further doubts. Izzet Phoenix’s and KCI’s numbers, on the other hand, have remained consistently way above average.

By the same token, it may look as if Black-Green Rock failed horribly in Oakland compared to its earlier 50% Day 2 rate in Portland. But in truth the 50% had been unrealistic all along. The deck simply fell from the heavens back down to earth. Then again, it is a bit disappointing that six of twelve B/G Rock players from Portland’s sample made the cut, whereas in Oakland it was six of twenty-six.

Hardened Scales and Humans also act as examples for the aforementioned effect, only in reverse. The two decks lost a lot of players and gained a lot in win rate, albeit of the unreliable variety. In particular there were too few Humans around to provide convincing evidence. Hardened Scales, meanwhile, both had a higher representation and did solidly above average in both GPs. The scales are hardly tipped in a way that should put anyone off the deck. Why it went from fourth most popular to number 12 is anyone’s guess.

Finally, one archetype saw a decrease in popularity as well as a big decrease in effectiveness, and one improved its metagame share as well as its Day 2 rate. The first is Green Tron, which lost the most players in absolute numbers from one Grand Prix to the next. At the same time, its conversion rate fell from 20 of 71 to 6 of 44—one better than average, the other worse. I feel like there should be an explanation for this change because the total number of Tron players seems big enough to constitute a somewhat reasonable sample. Maybe the Urza land aficionados ran afoul of  the now more common Assassin’s Trophy? Maybe they met more people who sideboarded Blood Moon? I will definitely look out for any such possibilities when I collate Oakland’s matchup results. Admittedly, I’m just as open to the infinitely simpler but infinitely less satisfying possibility that there is no explanation. Cutting my own throat with Occam’s razor. Maybe it’s just that Tron’s very nature makes it prone to extreme swings of luck.

Death’s Shadow’s metagame share climbed from 4.1% to 5.6%, and the rate at which Shadow warriors advanced to Sunday rose from 17.5% to 28.2%. A larger sample should yield more credible results, but here lies the problem. The share may have grown, if only barely, but the absolute figures did not. Our Portland data contained 40 Shadow decks and our Oakland data contained 39. So it’s unclear which event’s results reflect the deck’s actual strength more accurately. At least, 28.2% is closer to the average than 17.5%. The final verdict is… that the jury’s still out there, somewhere. Based on these data, it’s impossible to say whether Death’s Shadow is a fine or a subpar choice in current Modern. Maybe my upcoming analysis of Oakland’s match results will offer further insight.

TL;DR

Much about Modern remains unclear at this time or, possibly, in a state of flux. A few things are certain: Foremost, the format features as big of a variety as ever. It is precisely this fractured nature of the metagame that makes it so hard to find definite answers. This applies to theoretical analysis such as the article you’re reading here, as well as to the more practical question of tuning one’s deck and sideboard for an expected field. The general rule is to expect the unexpected.

As of right now, only one deck consistently manages to break the 10% threshold, and that deck is Spirits. But even that has only been true for four months at maximum, so the torch could be passed again.

The most likely candidate for a new number one appears to be Izzet Phoenix, whose metagame share has seen impressive increases lately. The deck posted the best records at both of the most recent GPs, only rivaled by KCI’s results. But KCI has been around and successful for so long that we must accept that there exists a natural barrier to how many people are willing to pick it up.

The final certainty is that these are exciting times for Modern. I’m looking forward to see the next stage of evolution!

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