Insider: Early Modern Metagame Indicators Before the Pro Tour

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A week after you read this article, you'll be sitting down to read my followup on all the exciting format diversity in a post-Splinter Twin Modern. You'll have watched two days of Modern coverage showcasing Twinless URx strategies (Scapeshift, Jeskai Kiki) and old BGx regulars (Jund, Abzan). Combo (Ad Nauseam, Grishoalbrand) will appear right alongside aggro (Naya Company, Merfolk). And because this is Modern, we'll cheer as rising stars like Death and Taxes, Temur Delver, and Kiki Chord vie for a place at the top tables.

Or we'll have fumed in Twitch chat all weekend long at a tournament that was one part Affinity, Infect, and Burn, and another part Tron plus Eldrazi. Fingers crossed!

Modern Pro Tour Possibilities

By now, you've consumed more than enough panicmongering and speculation about a Modern metagame without Splinter Twin. Much of this theorycrafting is based on minimal (if any) testing, along with zero reference to actual events that have transpired since the Twin ban went into effect on January 22.

I'm going to try and reverse those trends today by linking some early metagame data to key financial takeaways you'll need to succeed once the Pro Tour dust settles.

Today's article builds off the data I released in my Modern Nexus article last week, "Early Metagame Snapshot in Twinless Modern." Drawing on about 400 decklists, up from last week's 130, I'm going to expand my analysis to make some early projections about where Modern is headed after the fateful announcement.

Naturally, because this evaluation only compiles less than two week's worth of data, we'll have to negotiate some sample size limitations. But as I said in my Nexus article, it's far better to craft predictions from over 30 events than to spin our theoretical wheels in an n = 0 vacuum.

Preliminary Tier 1 and Tier 2 Standings

Over at Modern Nexus, we use a tiering system based on averages, standard deviations, and confidence intervals to determine what decks are Tier 1, Tier 2, and so on. This is similar to other social science analysis methods used in non-Magic fields, and we've used it in metagame breakdowns throughout 2015. As an example of past successes, the system projected R/G Tron's eventual rise in the later part of 2015, as well as Amulet Bloom's top-tier status going into the ban update.

Although we don't have quite enough data to reliably apply it to our smaller, post-banning sample, we can still use these methods to list strategies which will probably fall in the Tier 1 and Tier 2 range after the Pro Tour. We'll process just over 30 events, all taking place after the ban, to estimate the Modern-wide metagame shares we might see during the Pro Tour.

Here are the decks preliminarily tracking a Tier 1 status in Modern. Percentage shares are weighted averages of MTGO and paper finishes.

Early Tier 1 Frontrunners

  • R/G Tron (9.1%)
  • Affinity (8.5%)
  • Burn (8.5%)
  • B/x Eldrazi (6.2%)
  • Jund (5.6%)
  • Merfolk (5.3%)
  • Infect (5.3%)

As in most metagame breakdowns I conduct, these preliminary Tier 1 players make up about 50% of the format.

Next we have the decks looking to carve out a Tier 2 niche when the metagame stabilizes. Tier 2 adds another 25% to Tier 1's 50%, for a total of 75% of Modern represented across the two listings:

Early Tier 2 Frontrunners

  • Abzan Company (3.5%)
  • Kiki Chord (2.6%)
  • Grishoalbrand (2.6%)
  • Ad Nauseam (2.4%)
  • Scapeshift (2.4%)
  • Elves (2.1%)
  • Naya Company (2.1%)
  • Living End (1.8%)
  • Gruul Zoo (1.8%)
  • Death and Taxes (1.8%)
  • Storm (1.5%)
  • Jeskai Control (1.5%)

These numbers map with those I presented in my "Metagame Snapshot" article last week, but with the benefit of more events in the updated sample. Again, we all fully acknowledge the limitations of extrapolating metagame-wide numbers from only 30 events or so, but this method is a far better predictor of later changes than just treading water in a sea of theory.

Our initial Modern metagame landscape mixes no-brainer trends (Affinity, Burn, and Tron? No way!) with surprising observations (Jund lives!). It also overlaps nicely with Pascal Maynard's recent analysis of Modern options after Twin's removal. Maynard used a more qualitative method to reach his metagame picture, and the above numbers reflect this in both shared decks and interesting differences.

Following from the analysis, I'm dividing the format into three categories to track what might succeed at the Pro Tour and where you should invest your dollars to profit from those developments.

Pre-Pro Tour Tier 1 Leaders

Almost everyone predicted an early uptick in linear decks, and the data confirms this observation going into the Pro Tour.

Looking only at Tier 1 decks, we see R/G Tron, Affinity and Burn at the top of the pack, with Merfolk and Infect picking up the rear. Maynard described those first three decks as "Level 0" of the new Modern, a characterization echoed in forum posts and other articles across the content-sphere.

Level 0 Linear Decks in Modern

Over the past weeks, Modern players and pundits have talked these decks to death, so I won't spend much time explaining why they are on the rise. In summary, although many dynamics factor into their rise, two stand apart as driving forces.

First, three of the five topmost linear decks had bad to terrible URx Twin matchups. It's a no-brainer that Twin's loss becomes their gain. Second, because the metagame is so open, and because there is no longer a clear interactive pillar to hold things down, most players are going to play it safe and audible to a linear deck. If you can't predict what to disrupt, just race!

B/x Eldrazi is a bit of an outlier here, towing the line between nonlinear midrange and highly-linear ramp (despite what many of the more sensationalist Modern commentators might say).

Are there versions that ditch interaction for speed? Certainly: Heartless Summoning's rise is a testament to this, as is the increase in Mono-Black Eldrazi on MTGO. Are the more successful versions decidedly midrange? Yes again, with Inquisition of Kozilek, Lingering Souls, and others forming the core of B/W Eldrazi, the top-performing variant to date.

Moving down the Tier, Merfolk is neither surprising nor expected. On the one hand, Merfolk loses a lot from the decline of Twin, which was one of its better matchups. On the other hand, Merfolk loves the uptick in clunky Urza- and Eldrazitron manabases---Spreading Seas puts in serious work in this metagame. Merfolk also balances a linear approach with an interactive element, making it one of the safer (but still viable) options in a speedy format.

The bigger surprise here is Jund, which many predicted would die out in the linear- and ramp-ridden metagame.

Neal Oliver made this projection in the 24 hours following the ban, and it was quickly echoed by many in the Modern community. Early data shows this is not the case, with Jund enjoying shares right under Eldrazi and even in excess of Merfolk and Infect. Lightning Bolt is undoubtedly a major player here, along with the versatility of the discard suite and anti-aggro bruisers like Kitchen Finks and Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells.

It's unclear if Abzan will continue its pre-ban trend and supplant Jund by the time Pro Tour Oath rolls around. Jund has the early metagame advantage, Bolt for aggro weenies, a less painful manabase, and Dark Confidant. Abzan has Siege Rhino to regain life, Path to Exile for ramped threats, and bullets like Stony Silence in the board. Jund gets Kolaghan's Command. Abzan prefers Lingering Souls.

All of this is to say I'm not 100% sold on Jund being the BGx deck in post-Twin Modern, but I am convinced BGx will stick around in some form. Time will tell where the BGx mages flock, but don't count those Tarmogoyfs and Abrupt Decays out just yet!

Spending Money in the Preliminary Tier 1

When it comes to Affinity, Burn, Tron and Eldrazi, the SS Speculation has pretty much sailed. Interested investors are looking at far higher buy-ins than you would have enjoyed if you scoped these out earlier. Even Blinkmoth Nexus, a card I've harassed readers about for weeks, is finally over the $35 mark and will probably rise again barring an Event Deck reprint.

The same goes for most of the staples in Burn (Goblin Guide, Eidolon of the Great Revel), Tron (Oblivion Stone, Karn Liberated), Affinity (Glimmervoid, Arcbound Ravager), and anything associated with Eldrazi (especially Eye of Ugin).

That said, don't be categorically scared away by these high price tags.

All of these cards have nowhere to go but up as Modern season builds momentum into 2016. The initial investment is going to be steep, but you can still profit. Look for cards with multi-deck appearances, like Eye of Ugin, Inkmoth, Goblin Guide, Glimmervoid. This is also true of commons like Relic of Progenitus!

You'll also want to browse across the so-called tiers to see where these cards might crop up outside of Tier 1. Ignoble Hierarch, for example, sees play in Infect and Abzan Company. She was over $70 before Modern Masters, and could fall anywhere between there and her current value with a big performance. Glimmervoid is another example, with a home in both Affinity and Lantern Control.

Many Decks and Much Profit

Merfolk, Infect and Jund are trickier cases. In addition to their pricier staples, these decks also have more niche targets available to canny purchasers, many of which are metagame calls that might now be relevant.

For example, Wild Defiance is one Tom Ross Top 8 away from a price explosion, which would push its $3.00 tag into the stratosphere. Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept have ceilings much higher than their $15 and $5 prices respectively---a major Merfolk presence at the Pro Tour would get them there in a hurry. As for Jund, the cross-BGx relevance of something like Fulminator Mage makes for attractive pickings.

In general, Tier 1 speculation is almost always going to pay off in the long-run, although you'll need deep pockets to start picking up steam. If you can snipe gems like Defiance and Adept, more power to you, but for the most part you need to put up money to make it down the road. The Pro Tour is likely to reinforce these trends, so if you want to profit from (or play) these decks, don't be squeamish now.

Pre-Pro Tour Tier 2 Contenders

Tier 1 options are always relatively safe bets in volatile metagames. Not so with Tier 2. Given both the limited dataset we're working with and the expected upheavals after the Pro Tour metagame shapes out, a lot can happen in Modern's lower tiers. As such, predicting and investing around Tier 2 decks becomes very risky in this environment.

The first thing I like to do in assessing new Tier 2 options is to look for pre-trends. Which decks were doing decently before the ban and have enjoyed temporary boosts after? Abzan Company doesn't stand out here; the strategy has been in the 3%-4% range for months. Kiki Chord and Grishoalbrand, however, are another story.

In Kiki Chord and Grishoalbrand, we see a pair of decks that existed throughout 2015 but quickly jumped from the sub-1% metagame range into the 2%-3% range following Twin's imprisonment. This suggests the decks have newfound staying power in a Twinless world.

Two other decks may offer similar cases, although I'd be less confident in their longevity: Death and Taxes and U/R Storm. Death and Taxes (not to be confused with the Flickerwisp-less Hatebears) picks up major percentage points in a format fearful of Ghost Quarter. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is similarly taxing on many strategies, and the deck is already experiencing a jolt in popularity as players look to Strip Mine (courtesy of Leonin Arbiter) in Modern.

On the less fair side of things, U/R Storm looks to capitalize on a non-interactive metagame that can't disrupt the regular turn 3-4 clock presented by Goblin Electromancer and Pyromancer Ascension. We saw similar trends two years back after Deathrite Shaman took the ban-axe, when Storm ran roughshod over an unprepared Grand Prix Richmond field.

Unfortunately for Finkel, Duke, and the other Storm aficionados, there is less reason to be confident this time around. B/x Eldrazi and R/G Tron are known for maindecking graveyard hate, and a Relic playset (or more, in the case of the processor-intensive Eldrazi) is hard for Storm mages to reliably handle at large events. Add Jund and Merfolk disruption to the mix and you might feel a bit silly buying into the recent Past in Flames spike.

Thinking more generally about Tier 2, stay flexible in your definitions and expectations. Although I'd comfortably bet on many of today's Tier 1 features, the Tier 2 statistics are much less commanding. Unless you can find truly undervalued cards (Spoils of the Vault in Ad Nauseam, as I discussed last week) or truly undervalued decks (potentially Kiki Chord and Grishoalbrand), it's hard to make too much money here in the short and mid-term.

Similarly, don't think this Tier 2 list is exhaustive and be prepared for newcomers. Pro Tour Fate Reforged saw Abzan Liege rocket onto the stage, and Wilt-Leaf Liege never recovered. Stay frosty for this scenario in addition to the Tier 2 offerings listed earlier.

Spending Money in the Preliminary Tier 2

Assuming these early projections hold through the Pro Tour and into the weeks that follow, the sky is the limit on staples in the underrated Tier 2 decks.

Think Nourishing Shoal is bad at $10? Goryo's Vengeance's $35 price-tag is a good sign of what might happen to the Shoal (which saw a similar print run) if Grishoalbrand excels. Kiki Chord will see similar movement with Restoration Angel, which is already on the upswing following early speculation.

Kiki and Griselbrand Want Your Money

All the cards depicted above, and many more like it, are viable targets going into next weekend. Bonus points for all the non-Shoal cards which might also see play in other decks. Angel is a shoo-in for Jeskai Control, as well as Kiki in just about any Twin imitator. Breach is a little more specific, but we've seen Chalice of the Void/Summoning Trap decks leverage the instant before.

As with the Tier 1 investments, any time you can make a cross-archetype buy, you're greatly increasing your chances at turning a profit.

When navigating Tier 2 (or lower) decks, especially with limited data, it's just as important to know what to avoid as what to hoard. Twinless Modern is still Modern, and many of the pre-ban truths will still hold. It's no coincidence that only one of today's Tier 1 decks is new. The rest are all Tier 1 regulars from 2015, or at least intermittent visitors in that bracket.

This means you need to stay conservative on investments that didn't pan out in the past. For instance, Elves won Grand Prix Charlotte in 2015 and Heritage Druid never got over its $15 tag. He's even dropped since then!

Due to price memory and a fast-moving market, you can almost always turn a short-term profit in Modern. But if you're looking for targets that will really hold value, stay away from Tier 2 loiterers like Elves, Living End, and Gruul Zoo. Unless the card also sees play elsewhere (think Fulminator Mage from Living End, BGx and Grixis), exercise restraint and caution.

Final word on the Pro Tour: watch the coverage stream and be prepared to move like lightning if you see a breakout deck. No one wants to miss the next Lantern of Insight (from a Grand Prix but same principle) or the next Amulet Bloom.

Getting Ready for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch

Some remain pessimistic about the state of Modern, and will probably double-down on their dim outlook after reading these metagame numbers. I'm not one of the naysayers.

Although early metagame data points to a linear Modern, there are plenty of promising signs that all isn't as bad as detractors would have us believe. Jund is still holding the line, Merfolk looks to help police unfair decks, and URx mages are hard at work to find the next best Snapcaster Mage deck.

(P.S. URx is not dead, so if you find cheap Snapcasters, pick those up now like you wished you bought in on B/x Eldrazi back in early December.)

These trends, and the overall numeric picture earlier in the article, keep me optimistic as we move into the weekend. Whether you share my high hopes or prefer the views of format critics, you should still have ample opportunity to make a profit in this new format, and I look forward to hearing how your investments pan out.

Join me next week as we review the Pro Tour and look for major takeaways from the data. Until then, let me know in the comments if there are any cards or decks you think I missed (or have metagame questions more generally), and I'll see you all after the Pro Tour!

2 thoughts on “Insider: Early Modern Metagame Indicators Before the Pro Tour

    1. I’d love to see more of the UWx decks down the road. Jeskai is a frontrunner, but even the more conservative UW options are appealing. Hopefully we see these at Regionals and the Pro Tour soon!

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