How to Win at Modern – An Analysis of the Modern Format and Metagame

Hey all,

Before I start delving into the metagame figures today, I’d like to start off with some comments about the Modern format and the Pro Tour. I absolutely love Modern right now, and it has definitely replaced Legacy as my favorite format (at least until [ccProd]True-Name Nemesis[/ccProd] gets banned). The diversity of decks is simply unparalleled and there are simply so many options to choose from, whether you wish to play aggro, control or combo. Hell, you can even play all three together if you play RUG Twin.

Still, there are many people who dislike the format and I’d like to hypothesize why. In particular, Modern is a format that is not very friendly for pros. Much like Legacy, Modern is incredibly deep and has many arcane interactions that you can best learn through experience. Thus, seasoned Modern players have an advantage versus those who are less familiar with the format. It’s no coincidence that the Top 8 was full of people with substantial Modern experience instead of a bunch of Hall of Famers. Players like Jacob Wilson and Patrick Dickmann know the format inside and out, as well as their own decks inside and out, and it’s clear to me that those thousands of games of experience are superior to a week of intensive testing, even if it is testing by the best players in the world.

Another issue pros have with Modern is that it’s “unbreakable.” Pros do best in new Standard formats because they have an immense amount of talent, and great resources when they pool that talent into super teams. Coming up with a dominant deck like Mono-Blue Devotion simply isn’t likely in Modern. In addition, linear strategies that struggle against hate cards are extremely powerful in Modern. Tron, Storm, Living End, and Affinity all fall into this category. Pros generally hate playing decks that auto-lose to certain cards. Instead, they might end up choosing decks like Jund or Zoo as a hedge because those decks can’t be hosed by a single card. Unfortunately, those decks may end up losing to something very linear and not have much they can do about it.

I’m happy with the way things are, but I can understand the frustration of certain pros. Winning is a lot more important to them than it is to most of us, and it is unlucky for them that winning at Modern involves a lot more variance than winning at Standard. Still, I think there are concrete steps you can take to be highly successful at Modern and you’re making excuses if you say the format is pure variance. I would say the top two steps would be:

1)      Play the format. A LOT. Patrick Dickmann and Jacob Wilson each probably have at least 5,000 games under their belt. When most people at the PT were reading [ccProd]Amulet of Vigor[/ccProd] for the first time, Patrick already knew all the lines of play he had to take to win that matchup. In fact, I would recommend playing at least a few matches with every single major archetype just to get a feel for it. That’s what I did for Legacy, and I can say with certainty that it has definitely helped me get better results there.

2)      Understand the metagame. For the Pro Tour, it was clear that Zoo was the biggest benefactor of the recent B/R announcement, in terms of gaining an invaluable card. Many pros came to this conclusion after playtesting and thus chose to play Zoo. But, those players were next-leveled by players who realized that combo decks had a great matchup vs. Zoo, and that the banning of [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] made Jund worse and thus combo more viable. So, you can see why combo decks as a whole overperformed. Modern is a format where if you have a target on your back, your chances of succeeding are greatly diminished as there are a plethora of extremely powerful answers. So once you understand the metagame, you should choose to play something that exploits the holes in it, while being perfectly aware that it’s simply impossible to be ready for everything.

I can’t deny that you might pick up more “free losses” in Modern than in Standard, but you also can’t argue that a player like Patrick Dickmann is just “getting lucky.”

The Pro Tour

The Pro Tour coverage was simply fantastic. Showing every single game of the Top 8 was really awesome, and I think I became a much better player just from watching great players play. In particular, I was extremely impressed by Jacob Wilson, Patrick Dickmann, and Shaun McLaren. Each of them exhibited a level of patience and calculus with their cards that I’m not even close to, and watching them gives me something to work towards.

The Pro Tour metagame was quite interesting, and I was going to delve deeper into some of the figures, but the Wizards Coverage and Adrian Sullivan from SCG already did a great job on that end, so I will focus primarily on Magic Online results for my numerical analysis. I would like to talk qualitatively about the metagame though. Here are my biggest take-aways from the Pro Tour itself:

1.      Zoo was widely considered the best deck, but vastly underperformed because everybody was gunning for it. I think once some of the heat dies, off, Zoo will stay a strong contender, but until then, I would probably avoid it or play it with a lot of combo hate ([ccProd]Thalia[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Aven Mindcensor[/ccProd] come to mind). Unfortunately, that will weaken some other matchups, so I’m not sure it’s worth it.

2.      Combo decks are really, really good right now. Deathrite Shaman’s impact on the format was greater than almost anybody realized even despite the fact that it was known as the best creature. [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] strategies became a lot worse without Deathrite Shaman, and so plenty of decks like Storm and Ad Nauseam flourished.

3.      UW/x Control strategies did quite well. The combination of removal spells/sweepers for Zoo and Pod, as well as counterspells for combo meant that it had no glaring weaknesses versus the most popular decks.

4.      Tempo Twin is and has been the best deck for some time now. While you can look at Twin and say it had a below 50% win percentage and try to refute this, I would say it’s unclear that Tempo Twin really underperformed. Unfortunately for us, Wizards doesn’t want people “solving” the metagame so they have limited data to the public to what they want to show us. So, we have no idea whether or not Tempo Twin or All-in Twin or UWR Twin overperformed or underperformed. Yet, I would say with confidence that the Tempo Twin strategy is extremely powerful, hard to play around, and not easily hated out. It can win on turn 4 if unchecked, so you are forced to never tap out as soon as they have 3 untapped lands on the field. Playing with that restriction is quite difficult when they can play through your hate by simply beating you down. The next evolution of Tempo Twin, RUG Twin, is even better at this.

5.      [ccProd]Snapcaster Mage[/ccProd] is the best card in the format. With Deathrite Shaman gone, Snapcaster Mage (which already was a close second to Deathrite Shaman pre-banning) generates so much raw advantage that any list that already plays him that isn’t playing 4 copies has to have a very good reason for it.

Magic Online Metagame Analysis

Here are the tables for the archetypes. As usual, I oversimplified by classifying certain archetypes as “aggro” when they might be aggro-control or aggro-combo. After hearing some feedback from last time, I decided to include all of the 3-1 deck lists and deck lists that made Top 16 of a Premier event, just to have more data. So, there is also an increase in more fringe decks. This data goes from the date of the unbanning, February 12th to February 28th. Note that there is a period where [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] is legal while Born of the Gods was not. At first I was not going to include the period, but then Born of the Gods ended up having so little impact anyways that I decided to include the extra data. As for nomenclature, I split the Zoo decks up because I thought people might be interested in the different flavors. Little Zoo is Naya colors with [ccProd]Loam Lion[/ccProd], Guide Zoo has [ccProd]Goblin Guide[/ccProd], Domain Zoo has [ccProd]Tribal Flames[/ccProd], Big Zoo has [ccProd]Noble Hierarch[/ccProd] and a higher curve, and Blue Zoo has counterspells. As usual, this is a “winner’s metagame” and we don’t know exactly how much each deck is played.

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In comparing the Magic Online metagame with the Pro Tour metagame, we can see a few key differences. In particular, Affinity is far more prevalent online than it was at the Pro Tour. I expect to see that in Richmond as well, for budget reasons among others. For that reason, I don’t think Blue Moon is particularly viable as it has a hard time beating both Affinity and Twin (if it doesn’t resolve a [ccProd]Vedalken Shackles[/ccProd]). In addition, Blue Moon has lost a lot of its rogue factor. Let’s delve into the top archetypes and I will try to give my best guess as to whether or not they will continue to stay successful

Zoo Variants (10.9%)

A 3/3 for 1 mana is a good Magic card. It’s less good when everybody is playing [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Lightning Helix[/ccProd], or killing you on the third turn. Zoo is definitely one of the most consistent archetypes and a great deck to start exploring Modern with. Still, until the combo frenzy dies down, I would probably avoid playing Zoo unless you have tested thoroughly and made a plan for beating those unfair decks.

Pod Variants (10.3%)

I’m lumping Kiki-Pod and Melira Pod together because although they are very different decks, they have similar game plans. Essentially, Kiki-Pod is better at winning on the spot with Birthing Pod and has worse mana, while Melira Pod is better at winning without Pod and plays grindier cards. Both strategies are decently positioned, but seeing all the lines of play can be difficult at first so I would recommend getting a lot of practice in.

UW/x Variants (10.2%)

This is a little bit misleading as this category includes UW Geist, UWR Geist, UW Midrange, UWR Midrange, UW Control, and UWR Control. Still, all of these decks have a common shell of [ccProd]Celestial Colonnade[/ccProd], [ccProd]Path to Exile[/ccProd], and counterspells, all of which are very strong right now. I’m not a huge fan of the versions that run Geist as he is stonewalled by many of the creatures in Zoo and Pod, but those decks certainly run a ton of removal to get him through and he’s a fast clock versus combo. The midrange strategies generally revolve around [ccProd]Restoration Angel[/ccProd], which is a fantastic value card and great at grinding out and ending games. The control variants generally revolve around [ccProd]Snapcaster Mage[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Sphinx’s Revelation[/ccProd] to bury their opponents under card advantage. I personally like the control variant a bit more because it blanks a lot of your opponent’s removal, but the fact it can often take a while to close games is definitely a downside to consider. Many of McLaren’s games dragged on and on and my guess is he played at a blistering pace in the Swiss to avoid any draws.

Twin Variants (9.9%)

My pick for the best deck in the format right now is definitely RUG Twin. Although it is only 2.1% of winning decks, keep in mind most of these finishes were just this past week instead of for the whole period. RUG Twin and UR Tempo Twin are extremely effective at executing their plan B of turning dorks sideways, and they also hamstring the opponent by always threatening to combo. I don’t like UWR Twin as much because it seems like it’s very strong versus Zoo and other aggressive strategies where Twin is already fine, and weaker to more controlling decks. All-In Twin is also certainly viable as Thoughtseize decks are less popular than ever.

Affinity (9.6%)

Affinity is usually the most hated on deck, and there really is no other deck in the format where people pack one-sided board sweepers ([ccProd]Creeping Corrosion[/ccProd], [ccProd]Shatterstorm[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vandalblast[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Fracturing Gust[/ccProd]) as well as cards that just flat out win most of the time they are resolved ([ccProd]Stony Silence[/ccProd]). As soon as the hate starts dying down though, I would consider Affinity a strong choice going forward as it can often race combo while packing a decent amount of disruption.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Musings

I also wanted to share my Top 5 underplayed cards (one for each color) in Modern.

1)      [ccProd]Chained to the Rocks[/ccProd] – I like this card a lot right now as many people have been cutting their [ccProd]Tectonic Edge[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Molten Rain[/ccProd]s for [ccProd]Blood Moon[/ccProd]s. While this card is bad versus the Splinter Twin combo, it is one of the most efficient answers for cards like [ccProd]Tarmogoyf[/ccProd], [ccProd]Kitchen Finks[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Phyrexian Obliterator[/ccProd].

2)      [ccProd]Spell Snare[/ccProd] – I know this card sees a decent amount of play already, but it is simply nuts right now. It counters [ccProd]Snapcaster Mage[/ccProd], [ccProd]Tarmogoyf[/ccProd], [ccProd]Cranial Plating[/ccProd], [ccProd]Dark Confidant[/ccProd], [ccProd]Spellskite[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Pyromancer Ascension[/ccProd]. And that’s just scratching the surface. I know it is quite bad vs. Pod and Living End, but the upside is so huge that I would try to play three in most blue decks.

3)      [ccProd]Liliana of the Veil[/ccProd] – Taking a look at the top performing decks from the PT, Liliana was quite notably in short supply. She is fantastic versus Tempo Twin and many of the other combo decks of the format. Against Zoo though, she is a glorified [ccProd]Diabolic Edict[/ccProd], so perhaps with Zoo on the downswing, Liliana decks will become good again.

4)      [ccProd]Faithless Looting[/ccProd] – Loam Assault and Goryo’s Vengeance are both decks that haven’t made much of a dent in the metagame, but I think there are more decks than just Storm that can use the best Looting effect in Magic.

5)      [ccProd]Choke[/ccProd] – Do people even remember this card exists in the format? This card is great vs. the UW/x decks as well as strong vs. Twin.

And just for good measure, here’s a fun deck that I came across on MTGO:

[ccdeck]2 Howltooth Hollow
4 Inkmoth Nexus
15 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Phyrexian Crusader
4 Dark Confidant
1 Skithyrix, the Blight Dragon
2 Phyrexian Vatmother
4 Disfigure
4 Funeral Charm
4 Inquisiton of Kozilek
4 Liliana of the Veil
4 Raven’s Crime
2 Runechanter’s Pike
3 Wrench Mind
2 Slaughter Pact
—–Sideboard—–
1 Damnation
4 Deathmark
2 Infest
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Pithing Needle
1 Wrench Mind[/ccdeck]

Ikthus took this deck to a 4-0 finish, beating Ari Lax piloting Ad Nauseam in the final round. [ccProd]Phyrexian Crusader[/ccProd] is actually very well-positioned right now, and I think this deck is a great choice for fighting combo. My favorite part about this deck is that it doesn’t even run [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd] (my guess is that it’s for budget reasons). I’m really sad to say this, but I think Modern has definitely replaced Legacy as the format for diversity and brewing.

Conclusions

So, going forward these would be my picks for strong choices for GP Richmond:

1)      Tempo Twin

2)      Storm, if it prepares for increased graveyard hate through bounce spells

3)      UW/x Control decks

4)      BG/x decks. I know Jund had an abysmal win percentage at the Pro Tour, but I still think BG/x is decently positioned as it should beat combo and can be tuned to beat aggro as well. I would start with Reid Duke’s Obliterator Rock deck as that deck had an impressive showing at the Pro Tour.

5)      Any linear strategy that is ready to face the above decks. If you’re okay with losing to specific hate cards, I really like playing something linear. Linear strategies are inherently overpowered, and there’s only so much that someone can prepare for in a 15-card sideboard.

I didn’t include Faeries because I think aggressive strategies and [ccProd]Blood Moon[/ccProd] are very popular right now, but Faeries is very well-positioned vs. combo and control. Perhaps sometime in the future the deck will resurface. So far, Legacy and Vintage have been the only formats where a legal [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] hasn’t led to a dominant Faeries deck, and I think it’s a bit premature to dismiss the deck entirely.

I’m really excited for GP Richmond, possibly more excited than I was for GP DC. If you liked my article and see me there, stop by and say hi!

Good luck,

Bob

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