Modern has taken an interesting turn over the last 6 months. In my opinion, R&D and the new play-design team has done a great job creating sets in the last few years for Eternal formats. The Ravnica set in particular has been a home run for both Standard and Eternal formats, and the new cards have arguably shaped the texture of Modern in the last six months. I view the last half year in several distinct subsections, divided as follows:
Oct.-Nov. 2018: Though initially viewed with skepticism by some, Creeping Chill’s printing spurs an instant resurgence of Dredge. It takes the first few SCGs by storm as Creeping Chill turns out to be great against both the good matchups (fair creature decks) while allowing Dredge to credibly race its bad matchups (fast combo, big mana)
Dec. 2018-Jan. 2019: Dredge’s resurgence is drowned by the rising graveyard hate, and the power of KCI, the scourge of the format for the better part of the year, is re-emphasized by the addition of Sai, Master Thopterist which gave the deck an off-angle win condition and engine. By the end of this period KCI has posted astounding and consistent results and the murmurs of bans pick up. A subplot during this period was the hivemind iterating on Arclight Phoenix. The prototype of the current Mono-Red Phoenix (featuring Tormenting Voice/Desperate Ritual) sees some play, and people start to add blue for Thing in the Ice once realizing that decks like Dredge were unwinnable otherwise.
Jan.-Mar. 2019: KCI is banned and thus starts the dominant run of Izzet Phoenix. Izzet Phoenix lists start to converge (cutting Bedlam Revelers, adding Snapcasters/Pyromancer Ascensions, maindecking Surgical Extraction over Gutshots). Izzet Phoenix and Dredge take turn performing well in tournaments, punctuated by Izzet Phoenix placing four pilots in the GP Tampa top 8.
Mar. 2019-the Present: The format starts to adjust and show resistance towards Izzet Phoenix. Decks previously left for dead such as Grixis Shadows (fast clock, disruption, ample ways to manage Thing in the Ice), Gx Tron (big mana being structurally good vs. Phoenix with the ability to maindeck incidental hate) and Humans (less Gutshots, Deputy of Detention, move towards real sideboard cards like Surgical Extraction/Grafdigger’s Cage) and decks anchored by Kaya, Orzhov Usurper (Esper Control, Abzan) have risen to combat the Phoenix (and Dredge) menace.
Over the last few months, I have consistently seen on the Twittersphere/Reddit Hivemind that Izzet Phoenix/Dredge should be nerfed via a Faithless Looting ban, which didn’t pass the sniff test to me as neither Dredge nor Izzet Phoenix feel like broadly oppressive decks nor did they have unreasonably dominant results over the last quarter. Rather than speculating based on feel and anecdotes, I decided to do what any reasonable person would do and dumpster dove into MTGGoldfish to gather all the competitive Modern event results since the KCI ban and see if the trends supported the calls for bans.
For this purpose, I gathered the GP main event results, GP MCQ top 8s, SCG Opens and Classics, and MTGO Modern Challenges, MCQs and MOCs events.
Life in Modern, Post-KCI Ban
As you can see, both Izzet Phoenix and Dredge have had moments of extreme dominance, highlighted by Izzet Phoenix and Dredge taking almost ⅓ share of the top 32 in GP Tampa and Feb. MTGO MCQ, respectively. The numbers are also fairly consistent, but at the end of the day, these two decks has been averaging out to around 4 and 3 copies for every top 32, respectively, which is far from dominant.
The clear standout are the numerous instances of either of these decks occupying more than half of the top 8s. I will note that these happened in February and March, and the recent results have been more tempered. Looking at the bigger picture, both of these decks have averaged around one deck per every major top 8s since the KCI ban.
What I found more informative was the MTGO results, which have historically been a leading indicator for paper metagame movements. What especially triggered my interest in this was the MOCS playoffs, where some of the best Modern players online more or less ignored Izzet Phoenix (10%> of the field) for Gx Tron and Humans for a high stake event, and that seemed like a trend rather than an anomaly.
If you follow the red line for Izzet Phoenix, the MTGO results indicate a stark decline towards the rest of the tier 1 pack in the previous months. Dredge has experienced a similar decline towards normalcy. Anecdotally speaking, the MTGO metagame has grown sharply hostile towards graveyard decks as well as Tron hate over the last few months, and I’ve had to work much harder for every one of my Dredge wins online.
Some other interesting trends can be gleaned out of these charts if we accept that MTGO trends are precursors to paper trends, including:
Humans have steadily come back over the last month or so, as indicated by the yellow line.
UWx has also seen a recent uptick. I think this is especially relevant for London as I believe answer decks (AKA the decks with the “wrong half of the deck” problem) get much better with open decklists.
Tron has been the deck of choice for a lot of spikes, as displayed by the top 32 numbers in the recent high stake tournaments, however…
If you look at the top 8 chart, the green line is nowhere to be seen. It turns out, of the top 10 Modern decks, it has the worst top 32->top 8 conversion rate!
Granted, I think the MTGO metagame is especially hostile to Tron, but it’s not much better with paper events added (37% conversion rate).
In conclusion, I personally do not think that by stats alone, we are nowhere close to having to ban anything from Izzet Phoenix or Dredge. To me, it’s fine to have a single deck be anywhere from 10%-20% of the metagame as long as the gameplay is not oppressive or the win rate is not absurdly high. Moreover, Modern is an especially dynamic format where players adapt to the best decks and the format regulates itself. Recent examples of this include Grixis Shadows (rise of Vial/Reflector Mage decks) and Humans (resurgence of Lightning Bolt, UWx and Mox Opals decks). As long as the deck is not unreasonably powerful or there’s no logistical/gameplay issues, I’m generally in favor of a more hands-off approach.
Mythic Championship London
Which leads into my predictions for MC London, which has some experimental (and in my opinion, material) twists to it.
London Mulligan – I think the effects of this mulligan rule have been greatly overstated and the consensus that the rule is generally a net positive and the notions that formats will instantly be ruined by Narset Cannon, Grishoalbrand and Cheeri0s in Modern and RB Reanimator, Belcher and Oops All Spells have more or less been dispelled. Morgan McLaughlin wrote an excellent article on the varying effects of the rule to different decks. I think that it will improve decks like Tron and Dredge the most, but with the format having tools to fight those decks if they wanted (Damping Sphere, Assassin’s Trophy and Field of Ruin have helped tremendously over the last year), I don’t believe that those decks will ever been too oppressive. As an aside, I tested Cheeri0s for a bit and actually had pretty good results with it (~70% in competitive leagues). A Reddit user (I believe Zyrnak) ran a simulation which stated that it decreased the Cheeri0s deck’s fail rate (notorious for having to mulligan into oblivion) by 19%, which is very significant. I think the deck can be real with the mulligan rule, but it’s still very fragile and will never be a big part of the metagame. I think it could be a great, surprise metagame choice for any given event, though! Speaking of surprises…
Open Decklists – I think the competitive effects of this rule change has been understated by the masses. This is clearly driven by coverage reasons, and I’ll admit that Cardboard Live has been an excellent addition to any Twitch MTG viewing. However, I believe this rule change will have some negative effects as well:
It gives them less incentives for people to innovate. This is a big reason for a lot of people to brew and get creative. I would wager that team CFB’s UG Karn idea would have never come into fruition if this rule was still active. I think for some people part of the challenge and charm of playing MTG is playing with incomplete/asymmetric information. With open decklists, subgames like sideboarding surprise Chalice of the Voids in Storm/Grishoalbrand and forcing people to guess whether you have Leyline, Spellbomb, Relic, Cage, Surgical or Ravenous Trap won’t exist. I think it’s reasonable to argue that perfect information before matches “improves the quality of gameplay”, but to me that just means we are getting closer to chess where the best plays are solvable and gameplay becomes stale and formulaic.
The rule disproportionately helps the “answer” decks that have the “wrong half of the problem” decks. It makes midrange and control decks better and I believe that this allows people to more liberally include maindeck hate cards like Rest in Peace, Relic, Surgical Extraction and Timely Reinforcement, and mulligan accordingly even in game 1.
With these being said, I think we that we will see a metagame that’s noticeably different from what a normal Modern tournament would be like. Which leads to…
My Bold Predictions
Gx Tron will be the most played deck: Gx Tron has always been a good tier 1 choice, but I don’t believe it’s ever reigned as the most registered deck. I think this will change for this PT, as I believe the perception is that the current metagame is still dominated by Dredge and Izzet Phoenix, as well as Dredge and Tron being the decks most benefiting from the mulligan rule. This, combined with the MTGO trend and relative ease of picking this deck up cold for pros that do not have much experience with Modern, will likely lead to Gx Tron being the most played deck.
Izzet Phoenix will be popular but its performance will be muted: I think that the general player base has already adjusted for the play patterns of Izzet Phoenix, and that will go double for a field full of pros and spikes. The deck is no longer an unknown quantity, and I don’t think the deck’s power level is high enough to overcome the adjustments to put up a dominant performance. I believe it’ll only be around 10% played and will put one copy at most into the top 8.
Answer decks will be great and overrepresented: As I discussed above, I think that answer decks like Golgari and UW will improve much more by knowing to mulligan their Fatal Pushes and Path to Exiles vs. Ad Nauseam and Thoughtseizes and Surgical Extractions vs. Burn. In addition, I think it’ll greatly help sleeper decks like Thalia Stompy and Powder Eldrazi as well, as these decks not only get helped by knowing what to mulligan for, but also being generally helped by the mulligan rule.
The set up for the Mythic Championship will give opportunities for wild card decks to shine: Some decks that aren’t tier 1 but still think that can do well include Thalia Stompy (Thaliav1 seems very good in this metagame and it can know whether to mulligan into Chalice, Thalia, Arbiter, or neither in game 1s), Powder Eldrazi (same logic), Cheeri0s (discussed above), and Goryo’s Vengeance with less focus on the graveyard.
Amulet Titan is the best deck for this Mythic Championship and will win the tournament: I think that Amulet is very well positioned vs. the top tier and is greatly helped by the mulligan rule. I don’t think its matchups like Storm, Grishoalbrand, Infect and Cheeri0s will be around too much and I expect Blood Moons to be low in numbers. Hopefully, it’ll be Edgar or one of the members of the Amulet Cabal!
I’m very excited to for Modern in general, between the Mythic Championship with my favourite format, War of the Sparks cards (I’ll probably right about the pig god soon!) and Modern Horizon. Good luck to everyone playing in London and happy Moderning to all!
Bonus: What I’d play
I’d play the following list below. My testing shows that Dredge is greatly helped by the mulligan rule and, despite the expected rise in graveyard hate, the power level is high enough that Dredge can fight through it. The Ghost Quarter main is me cheating on lands a bit with the mulligan ru’tle and cutting the 19th land for a “spell”. Because I expect Tron and Amulet to be well represented, I want a “spell” that can single-handedly win these matchups. It’s especially good against Tron in game 1, where they don have Thragtusks that they can easily cast and turn the game around. I’m closer to 0 Leylines than 1 Leyline right now, but the one is to keep your opponents honest as the decklist rule states that opponents will see the cards, but not the number of cards, in the sideboard.
Dredge – Jonathan Zhang