Twins and Trends at GP Pittsburgh

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On Monday morning, one of my Magic friends asked me to share my favorite moment from Grand Prix Pittsburgh. That was like asking ten-year-old me what I wanted for my birthday. Was it Craig Wescoe finally doing justice to the obscure albeit awesome GW Hatebears? A Jeskai Twin deck (yep, Jeskai) not just making Top 8 but winning the entire event? Maybe it was the Day 2 metagame showing the healthiest Modern since Charlotte. Or the fact that Wizards gave us the full Top 32 decks instead of a skimpy Top 8!

I couldn't decide, so I just settled on Wescoe slamming that disgusting Choke against poor Corey Burkhart. What can I say: I'm a martial artist and a sucker for all things grappling.


Grand Prix Pittsburgh was easily one of my favorite Modern events of 2015, and potentially its best. Within the tournament's context, it showcased a diverse field with ample innovation (the continued rise of Grixis Midrange) and plenty of old favorites (Twin: the hero Modern deserves). Even outside of Pittsburgh, the Grand Prix showcased Modern's self-regulating nature as the linear nightmare of StarCityGames' Dallas and Grand Prix Porto Alegre crumbled under the Modern mainstays of Jund, Affinity, and Twin. Trevor Holmes already recapped the event in his Monday article, and Pat Chapin did a solid metagame breakdown (premium) over on SCG. For today, instead of reinventing their hard work, I'm going to look at a few higher-level narratives out of Pittsburgh these authors didn't touch on. I'll also revisit my predictions from last week's piece. This is a great setup for all the Modern action coming in December and January, and hopefully a valuable contextualization for the tournament.


Predictions Hits and Misses

If Pittsburgh was the highlight of my weekend, the dismal Bears vs. Broncos game was rock bottom. You thought Wescoe made some questionable game three plays in his semi-final match against Affinity? Be glad you didn't see some of the player and coaching decisions in our home-field loss to a quarterback on his second game ever in the NFL (and his first starting). I had linked the Bears' fortunes to GP Pittsburgh's in my article last week, and I've never been happier a prediction never came true.

On its own terms, Pittsburgh shook out almost exactly like I predicted in the article. That's great news for me because it suggests I wasn't making catastrophic metagame misreadings going into the event. It's also great news for you readers because it means you weren't listening to catostrophic metagame misreadings.

Prediction #1: Jund will keep the peace - Yes!

"Overall, I’m banking on Jund fulfilling its role as format policeman, and betting that players see it this way too. Jund might not win the event (might not even Top 8 it!), but it will be there to hold the line and keep the peace."

Dark Confidant MM2015With an 8% metagame share on Day 2 and three copies in the Top 32, Jund made a strong showing as a format regulator. To be very clear, I don't think this is the best deck in the format. Its relative representations on Day 2 and in the Top 32 suggest this too: 8.8% down to 5%. I also don't think that Jund alone is the policeman and peacekeeper Modern needs (more on its partner, Twin, later). All that said, I firmly believe Jund is an integral policing force in Modern and Pittsburgh reflected this importance. I do want to offer one critical observation for Jund players: don't rely on Kolaghan's Command for beating Affinity. Pack Ancient Grudge or pay the price. I don't think it's a coincidence that all the Top 32 Jund lists used 1-2 Grudge (two used a pair), and I suspect lower-placing lists weren't as cautious.

Prediction #2: Amulet Bloom will beat the hate - Yes!

"Expect to see a respectable Bloom showing in Day 2 and, if Twin doesn’t do its part, at least one copy in the Top 8/16."

Hive MindI'd bet my Thanksgiving turkey that someone in the comments is going to argue that Bloom had a poor showing at the Grand Prix and really isn't as top-tier as people make it out to be. Don't listen to them. Mike Sigrist barely missed the Top 8 on breakers (he got 9th, with his .6944 losing out to Nicolich's .7054), and he was joined in the Top 32 by two other Bloom players. Bloom also made up 5.5% of the Day 2 metagame, overperforming into the Top 32 (where it had a 6.3% share). Add to that its Regional Pro Tour Qualifer share of 7.3% and its Tier 1 status in October and you have a deck that is unquestionably a major player. In the Pittsburgh context alone, Bloom did all this despite a field saturated with Twin players (12.1% on Day 2) and Blood Moon. Five of the Top 8 decks ran Moons in the board, with eight more in the Top 32. Given all those hurdles, it's significant that Bloom sent players to the Top 32 and almost to the Top 8. As you go into December Modern events, prepare for this deck like you would prepare for any other top-tier player. Is the deck beatable? Absolutely, and don't let the ban maniacs or the Bloom-hypers tell you otherwise. Can you coast through this matchup without practice and the right cards? Don't even try it. Treat the deck as a top-tier contender or get ready for a rough couple of games.

Prediction #3: Scapeshift will Top 8 - Yes! ...sort of

"Scapeshift is that rare combo deck which can play a very solid anti-aggro game, perform a serviceable control imitation, and rock the proactive, out-of-nowhere combo win."

ScapeshiftOn the one hand, four copies of Scapeshift showed up in Pittsburgh's Top 8, as part of Thien Nguyen's RG ramp strategy. On the other hand, this was a much more proactive Scapeshift than the "serviceable control imitat[or]" I banked on in my prediction article. I'm still chalking this one up as a hit because Scapeshifting for Valakuts is still Scapeshifting for Valakuts, but you'll want to treat Nguyen's build differently than you would treat Hoogland's. This finish will also reinvigorate interest in the lagging Scapeshift decks, so expect to see more of these in the future. Scapeshift made up 2.9% of the Day 2 metagame in its many shapes and sizes, and I would bet these shares will only go up as more players take a hard look at the underappreciated Scapeshift synergies.

Twin and BGx: Modern's Buddy Cops

Don't be surprised if this section header gets turned into an article title one day. I can already envision the graphic (think Shanghai Knights but with more Exarchs and Goyfs)! No matter how you feel about the BGx grindfest or living in fear in the URx Twin contest, it's hard to deny the importance of these decks in Modern. We've seen this all year, notably at Charlotte in June, and Pittsburgh was an important next chapter in the buddy cop narrative.

Gaddock TeegIt's easy to look at Pittsburgh and get too excited about finishes that aren't necessarily meanngful. Don't get me wrong: it didn't get much more awesome than watching Wescoe drop a Gaddock Teeg like it was 2008. And I love me some Footsteps of the Goryo as much as the next combo player. As wonderful as these Pittsburgh moments were, they also aren't necessarily meaningful for the larger Modern narrative. There are a lot of Pittsburgh features that will try and make something out of every single finish, and it's up to you to separate the real mountains from the sea of molehills.

Twin and BGx? It doesn't get more mountainous than these two.

Goblin GuideDue to its massive card pool and relative lack of generic answers, Modern is always going to have a lot of random linear decks floating around. These lists take many forms. There are the "pure" combo builds like Ad Nauseam, Hulk Combo, and Storm. There are the old-school aggro decks such as Burn, Merfolk, and more Zoos than we can name. We see ramp (Tron, Amulet Bloom), we see aggro with combo-esque elements (Affinity, Bogles, Infect, Suicide Zoo, Elves), and we see decks that are just plain weird (Time Warp). All of these strategies share an almost single-minded devotion to goldfish games. If I wanted to operationalize a definition for a "linear deck", it would be by counting the number of maindeck cards that are at their best when used non-interactively. I'm not doing that now, but we can all see the common goldfishing thread between these kinds of decks. Also, just to be clear, these decks are not low-skill despite their linear nature. "Linear" isn't an insult. It's a gameplay description.

Given all these linear options, why are most Modern events like Pittsburgh or Charlotte and not like Porto Alegre or Dallas? Thank URx Twin and BGx Midrange. That's not "URx Twin or BGx Midrange". It's "and" because healthy metagames need both decks.

Inquisition of KozilekIt's almost impossible for the assorted linear decks to punch through a metagame with both Twin and BGx. If you're too deep on synergy, Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek will rip you apart. If you're too light on interaction, an early Remand is guaranteed to keep the Twin player alive until the turn 4-5 combo. And if you're too reliant on cheap creatures, there's nothing like a Lightning Bolt to set you back, and there's nothing like Twin and Jund when it comes to wielding Bolt efficiently. Linear decks can't deal with these different policing angles and typically crumble over long tournaments. Pittsburgh showcased this effect throughout the weekend, especially in the finals where Jeskai Twin made textbook work of Affinity.

Lightning BoltModern breaks down in two scenarios. The first is where tournaments are too small for the metagame to arc towards Twin and BGx justice. Linear decks can dodge these policemen in smaller events, and then hope to get lucky in the single game where they get jammed up. This doesn't work at a Grand Prix, which is exactly what Chapin talked about in his Monday article with respect to Bloom's finishes. If you just look at small-event data, you tend to see more of the goldfish decks bullying their way to the finals. That's not going to happen at a tournament where both Twin and Jund show up in force (or Abzan, depending on the BGx police flavor of the month). Of course, the second breakdown scenario is where one (or both) of the decks are absent. No Twin? Get ready for Affinity and Amulet to run over everything in sight. No BGx? Honesty, i can't think of a time when there was no BGx at all, but I know that an absence of Jund sees big increases in Infect and other small-critter-based aggro.

At Pittsburgh, we saw both decks which is why the event was so healthy and such a return to old-school Modern. This is a critical observation because it shows us situations where the metagame can be broken (relatively speaking) and then self-correct just a month later. That's important if you are playing (prepare for the correction or jump on board a policing deck), speculating (don't play the long-game on spending on linear decks that might be here today and gone tomorrow), investing (Twin and BGx only go up because they are always here), or just trying to understand the format (we'll always come back to these two decks no matter where the format is at any given moment). Pittsburgh should have been a faith-restoring event for all Moern players, and I am optimistic that we can keep seeing these forces in more events to come.

Post-GP Pittsburgh Modern?

We have some SCG Opens in January and a number of mid-sized Modern events in the interim. Expect to see Twin and BGx keeping order at all those events, because it will take another major shift to lower either deck prevalence form where they are now. For example, a big part of Twin's summer decline was likely a transition by Twin players to Grixis decks, particularly Grixis Control. With these decks floundering today, the Return of the Twin was an inevitability.

Any other takeaways you got from Pittsburgh? Decks or cards you found interesting? Or are you just excited for the grandeur that will be Bears vs. Packers on Thanksgiving night?? Let me know in the comments and I'll see you all after the holiday week!

19 thoughts on “Twins and Trends at GP Pittsburgh

    1. I’m loving the Faeries performance, but I’m also wary of jumping on hype trains in a format as open as Modern. Lots of decks can sneak into the top tables without themselves having what it takes to be top-tier. We’ll need to wait and see how the deck shapes out elsewhere.

      1. I don’t think it’s tier one by any means but this isn’t the first time it has snuk its way into a top 32 at a gp. I do think however that it’s very unexplored as a modern archetype.

  1. Nice breakdown.

    You mention that linear decks usually crumble to the combined hate that is Twin and Jund. However, that doesn’t really seem to have been the case for Affinity this time around. Sure, Affinity lost in the finals to a bad match up, but overall it had an excellent showing and performed far better than Jund did. It had strong Day 2 numbers and had 2 showings in the top 8 and another 3 in the top 32. Why do you think it was able to rise through the hate when the other linear decks struggled this time around?

    I’m trying to wrap my head around the argument that linear decks tend to do better at smaller events and do poorly at larger events like a GP. Ultimately, isn’t a deck’s overall match ups against the entire field the best predictor of how well a deck will do, i.e. if you breakdown all of a deck match ups and the prevalence of those match ups, won’t a deck with a 55% win percentage on average going to tend to do better than a deck with a 45% win percentage on average? The only fundamental difference between a big event and a small event that I’m aware of is that ANY individual deck (including a bad one) has a better overall chance of winning because there’s less competition overall. Sure, you’re more likely to dodge your bad match ups in a small event, but isn’t that true for everyone? Jund still wants to dodge the Bloom and Tron match ups, for example, and it needs to win more 50/50 match ups than a linear deck, which theoretically has a fair number of match ups where it’s more heavily favored.

    Is the argument that at the end of the day linear decks have worse match ups overall against the average field (i.e. their overall win percentages are less than 50%) and they are just spiking smaller events due to variance? Or is the argument that people are able to predict the metagame at a smaller event and target them more precisely (i.e. people realize it’s time to sleeve up Burn because everyone is running Tron)?

    It’s also worth noting that there are linear decks with decent match ups against both Twin and Jund. Merfolk comes to mind. It has a great Twin match up, and its Jund match up is pretty close (honestly not sure who is favored; probably comes down to SB cards). A Merfolk player isn’t particularly worried about hitting Jund or Twin; they are looking to dodge Affinity, Elves, and other bad match ups.

    1. Agreed with Rory. During the last GP season, Elves and Affinity won big, and I don’t think it’s because of variance. Granted, both those decks can be hated out (Elves more so than Affinity), but I think that they’ve proven to be potent enough to see you through to a top table (see Andrew Sullano at GP Oklahoma City). And as he mentioned, Merfolk is strong against both of those police decks.

      I did like most of the other content in the article, though. Bloom is shaping up to be a potent (but not broken) contender in the competitive scene, and seeing Scapeshift do well is fun and novel.

    2. I don’t think Affinity really falls in the same category as all the other linear decks. It’s a format pillar and THE premier aggro deck of Modern. That said, we also know from numerous sources that Affinity has a bad Twin matchup, particularly in game 1, and I suspect this will even out Affinity’s performance over the longterm. Variance plays a part here: we have no idea how many Twin vs. Affinity matchups happened en route to the Top 32. It’s possible Affinity got lucky and dodged Twin matches. Or maybe Affinity did well and the old rule about Twin vs. Affinity is no longer true. Until we get that evidence, I’m just going to assume Twin remains as good against Affinity as it has always been. Given that we watched Bianchi beat Affinity twice in the finals (ostensibly the best Affinity pilots in the event), I think this is a decent assumption.

      As for the linear decks, most of them are 20-80/80-20 decks. At a large tournament like a GP, it just takes 2-3 bad matchups or bad draws to torpedo their chances of a Top 8 run. At a smaller tournament, however, you’re much more likely to dodge the bad matchups. That’s particularly true at smaller events where players sometimes shy away from Twin and Jund, instead playing whatever linear deck of the month strikes their fancy .

      1. Totally agree that Affinity is a format pillar and that it probably still has a bad Twin match up (though exactly how bad is certainly a legitimate question). And yeah, I’m sure variance played a huge role, but that’s kind of my point; in a huge tournament with thousands of players, you’re going to see plenty of linear decks dodge their bad match ups. Or, if they don’t dodge the match up, they play it and win anyway (I think it’s fairly rare to encounter a true 20/80 match up in Modern, for example).

        With regards to the 20-80/80-20 argument with smaller tournaments, I don’t think this explains why linear decks would do better at smaller tournaments and worse at larger ones. Frank Carston wrote a great article explaining this in detail:

        In case you don’t want to read the article (it is fairly long), consider the following scenario:

        Say you are choosing between playing two decks, a super linear deck with only 20/80 and 80/20 match ups and the platonic mid-range deck with 50/50 match ups. Imagine that for the linear deck, there’s a 50/50 chance they will play a good match up or a bad match up (the field is completely split between them).

        Imagine playing a super blitz 1 round tournament with both decks. If you play the mid-range deck, your odds are 50/50 of winning the tournament. If you play the linear deck, 50% of the time your odds are 20% and the other 50% your odds are 80% to win Put mathematically, that’s 0.5*0.2 + 0.5*0.8 = 0.5. 50%. Overall, you have the same odds.

        Now imagine a tournament with 20 rounds where, for the sake of making things REALLY simple, you need to win literally every match to win. The mid-range deck has a 0.5^20 chance to win, where as the linear deck has a (0.5*0.2 + 0.5*0.8)^20 to win, or the exact same chance to win the tournament! In short, they’re both hugely unlikely to win, but that’s the case for any large tournament.

        Winning a string of 50/50 matches is just as unlikely as winning a string of matches where you’re hugely favored or a huge dog, assuming both decks have the same overall win percentage. So the explanation needs to rest somewhere else:

        -Maybe most linear decks just have worse win percentages overall and just randomly spike the occasional small event due to variance. If a linear deck has a bunch of 80/20 and 20/80 match ups, but there are twice as many 20/80 match ups, that’s really bad news, for example.

        -Maybe the field is different in small events and linear decks take advantage of that (i.e. people sleeve up their pets decks that are easy targets for a deck that just wants to goldfish), where as at large events the field is bad for them. Totally plausible, but that might mean we really want to play linear decks at small events to prey on people’s deck choices.

        -Maybe people just play more linear decks at small events (and fewer at large events) as you suggest and so they just rack up more wins because they are a bigger percentage of the field.

        -Maybe the best players tend to play non-linear decks like Jund and Twin. This is almost certainly the case to some degree; most Pros seem to prefer a deck like Jund or Twin to something like Affinity or Burn. If the best players are playing a certain deck, that’s certainly going to affect the field.

      2. As an Affinity pilot, allow me to shed led on the UR Twin matchup. It is, in fact, one of the worst match-ups for the deck. The only other deck that’s as bad or worse is Jeskai Control. You might be seeing me coming here, but that pretty much makes Jeskai Twin the ultimate nightmare for Affinity.

        Combine EIGHT 1-mana removal spells, Electrolyze, Spell Snare which hits every good card in the deck other than Champion, flying blockers and the Twin combo and it doesn’t get much worse than that. And that’s without the Stony Silence in the board, plus card draw/selection to find all these atrocities. The only way to hate Affinity harder with this deck would be to cut the Remands and throw in a sweeper for good measure, but honestly, it’s a testament to how strong Affinity (and those two pilots) are that they each won a game against Jeskai Twin.

  2. I think there is a paragraph to be made about Elves. Andrew Sullano was undefeated and nearly reached the top eight again though a Lead the Stampede version. Most linear Aggro decks are fragile by nature due to lack of card advantage. What makes affinity powerful is so many different lines of play and the speed to enact them. Slow it down and it’s hard to come back from. Lead Elves are different in that by focusing on card advantage, elves can come back with similar explosiveness to early turns. Resiliency in exchange for different plays

    1. Perhaps, but there are always a few random linear decks that eke it into the Top 8/16. I don’t know how much that says about the format other than “weird decks sneak into Top 8/16s in Modern”. I doubt this could happen at scale, even if an isolated occurrence looks awesome on paper.

  3. there’s something up with the percentage of magic players who are into martial arts

    i was so certain i’d be the only one(stereotypes about card games and nerdy/brainy types always come short) and it turned out about 1/6 of my local meta are into ma too!

    1. No, it makes perfect sense, you have overlooked the different reasons that people take an interest in fighting.

      For instance, when I was young, I had problems with other kids and didn’t want to be perceived as weak. I didn’t even end up in real fights until much later.

      There are plenty of ways to rationalize anything(e.g.: martial arts cultivates discipline, self-defense, etc etc) but in the end, we are taught to want certain things too, like respect even if it is for the wrong reasons. A sense of sevurity cannot be underrated either as a big potential motive.

      Either way, if you use your proverbial “social imagination” and thinking about your own experiences, you should be able to cone up with your own plausible accounts for why mtg and martial arts might overlap.


  4. Wanted to put in a second vote for a writeup on Elves. As an Elves player who scours message boards and decklists, I was surprised by Sullano’s mainboard Leads, as most (but not all) of us were running Chord main with Lead in the SB or not at all. Going Abzan instead of GB or GW is noteable as well. I think a lot of us are going to follow his lead (bad pun), which will affect the deck’s matchups, and his success may increase its metagame share. Worth talking about, I think.

    1. The lead tech has been a deck varient for at least a month (duoing with Sylvan messanger to replace the chord/bullet package).

      I used to play the chord version but like the resilience of the new version so much better

  5. I really like the angle that the one grixis deck with flipjaces takes. My intuition for brewing has led me to fiddle with it and using jaces to smooth out the k.command/snapcaster/cheap spell engine has been really promising. The good finish and eventual defeat by choke were sweet as I love seeing people get annihilated by hosers too.

  6. Maybe I read it wrong, but it’s kinda sad to think of it as for there’s nothing to change. What is Jund anyway? Just a bunch of value cards with no real synergy between. Twin? Tempo/control shell with combo in it. When you brew something, you eventually stumble across these “police buddies” and fun is gone. Not enough value. Not enough resilience. Your weenies will never be bigger than Tarmogoyf. Your combo will never get through all the counterspells. It’s both policing and at the same time fringing all other decks. You can’t innovate that easily when you must rely on format’s staples just to keep up with the power level of the deck.

    1. I’m generally pretty positive about these decks. Even though Jund and Twin do a lot of policing and stop some “fun”, they never make up more than 25% of the metagame collectively. That leaves a lot of room, both in principle and in practice, for other decks to succeed. Overall, these police buddies lead to a healthier format with some safety brakes and regulators as opposed to a linear combo/goldfish fest that Modern would likely become if the decks disappeared.

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