The shadow of the Eldrazi is beginning to lift from Modern, thanks somewhat ironically to the incoming Shadows Over Innistrad. Previews have begun and while we only have about a third of the set to ogle that hasn't stopped the speculation. I haven't seen very much to really tickle my Modern senses yet, though I'm cautiously optimistic that Madness could be a real deck again (assuming that better enablers have yet to be spoiled), but there is one that I'm interested in pursuing. Before that, however, I have some unfinished business.
As Eldrazi Winter gives way to Shadows Over Innistrad and our willingness to brew and test returns, it is important to stay grounded and remember that the heavy hitters of the previous metagame will not evaporate and will define the metagame for at least the first few events. Last week I teased both some metagame predictions and how I would position myself in light of these predictions, so today we'll be going in-depth on both and a look at how Shadows might affect Modern.
The April 8 Metagame
When starting any analysis, it's important to define your parameters and chose your variables. If this sounds familiar to you, that's because it should: I've said this before in my pre-Regionals article in January. I also said that following a ban things are even more uncertain. This is particularly true of this upcoming banning because while we know there will be one we don't actually know what it is yet and we don't know what the metagame should be. Oath of the Gatewatch took out a longstanding format pillar and warped the format with Eldrazi, so we don't actually know what the Twinless, Bloomless metagame looked like. As previously mentioned, StarCityGames' Regionals provided a glimpse of this world, but it was already being affected by the misshapen monstrosities. Therefore the place it makes most sense to begin is Assumption 4: Popular decks will stay popular.
Going on this assumption, we should look to the Top Decks page for guidance. Once again, we need to limit our variables and since we know Eldrazi will not exist in its current form after April 8, we should eliminate it from our analysis. Yes, Aaron Forsythe did say Wizards would like to see some form of Eldrazi remain playable, but since we don't know what will actually be banned it makes no sense to speculate on what that form will be. Tier 0 eliminated this leaves us the five decks in tier 1: Affinity, Abzan Company, Burn, Infect, and Living End.
Tier 1: 2/5/16 - 3/6/16
|MTGO %||Paper %||Major Event
Day 2 %
Affinity, Infect, and Burn are ubiquitous to every Modern metagame and at this point I think that every player should simply be prepared for these three decks irrespective of other metagame considerations, so I will lump them together as The Modern Aggro Decks. Most of the maindeckable answers and strategies for these three decks overlap so this is not as big a simplification as it appears. This simplification leaves us with The Modern Aggro Decks, Abzan Company and Living End.
Now we should look to Tier 2. Rather than try to deal with it in its entirety, we should focus on the most popular decks and see if we can lump any other decks together.
Tier 2: 2/5/16 - 3/6/16
|MTGO %||Paper %||Major Event
Day 2 %
What jumps out immediately is the relatively large drop in popularity from Jund to GR Tron, and then onto Elves. I expect this is due to the commitment many Jund players have to their deck, the relative unpopularity of Elves prior to Eldrazi, and similarities to GR Eldrazi taking away Tron numbers. Therefore, anticipating a resurgence of Tron and Jund while Elves' numbers remain relatively unchanged, I will make my cut at GR Tron. Looking at the rest of Tier 2 I think that we can safely merge Jund and Abzan into GBx and merge Kiki Chord with Abzan Company into Green Toolbox decks. These decks share many cards in common so this is far less controversial than my creation of The Modern Aggro Decks, and it is also true that the same answers and strategies may be used to fight them. Therefore, my proposed April 8 metagame looks like this:
|The Modern Aggro Decks|
Now, I could include the current stats for each deck and go into detail about how to prepare for and beat each of them, but that wouldn't actually be very helpful. This is a projection, not the actual metagame, so trying to be as specific as possible is going to be misleading at best. Instead, let's take a step back and look at the big picture. When dealing with theories and predicted data, it's more useful to try to analyze the story that it tells rather than the data itself. Looking at my table, I see two things:
1. Lots of Creature Decks
Toolbox may technically be its own archetype, but it still plays a lot of creatures at least some of which need to stay on the board for a turn or more to have an effect. Between The Modern Aggro Decks, Green Toolbox, Living End, Merfolk, and arguably GBx, decks built to beat large numbers of creatures should be good.
2. Decks that "go over the top"
Tron has always been the go-to choice if you wanted to simply overpower your opponent, but recent UW Control lists have taken a similar philosophy, using planeswalkers like Elspeth, Sun's Champion to finish games. Living End also qualifies thanks to its unique angle of attack as do the Toolbox combos.
Traditionally the way to deal with the first category was either lots of removal and sweepers or to have the biggest creatures. The second category usually falls apart when faced with hard counters for their payoff spells or by being raced. Admittedly, this is less true of Modern's Toolbox decks since Eternal Witness goes a long way towards rebuilding after sweepers or counters and Toolbox's walls and Kitchen Finks make the aggro plan less effective, but it is still possible to get there with any of these plans (this resilience is why I expect the Toolbox decks to do well post-ban).
Putting these two points together gives us a choice between a control deck or GW Hatebears, the aggro deck with the largest creatures. Control has sweepers and removal for the creature decks and counters for the haymakers out of the rest. Hatebears outsizes The Modern Aggro Decks and BGx and can outrace the over the toppers. Of the two options I would not favor Hatebears; it is naturally weak to Living End and in my experience it has to run very well to beat Supreme Verdict or Damnation. The Modern Aggro Decks are often too fast for the size advantage to matter. Those problems are fixable, especially postboard, but what I'm looking for is a deck that is naturally positioned to be advantaged in Game 1. This leaves a control list.
Exactly which list is the next consideration. Jeskai, Grixis, Blue Moon, or UW all have access to the sweepers and counters to fulfill my criteria. It's just a matter of choosing which route to go. UW has mana stability at the expense of burn. Grixis has access to discard (which was traditionally the edge in control mirrors) but is vulnerable to graveyard hate. Blue Moon has Blood Moon but lacks a true Wrath of God variant, while Jeskai has no real weakness or advantage compared to the other decks.
Fortunately, the Tron matchup will help to sort things out. Tron's ability to go over the top and then seize and hold inevitability thanks to Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (though Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is often better these days). You would think this factor automatically means Blue Moon is the pick but not so fast: Blood Moon is not that crippling for Tron. They can just keep making land drops to drop their colorless bombs like normal decks, or use Chromatic Stars to generate colored mana, so without a fast clock (which all these decks struggle with) Moon itself isn't a solution. Land destruction is, at best, useful to let the control deck catch up manawise at which point they need to take the tempo role, playing out their win conditions and keeping Tron off theirs.
In my mind, that suggests a counter heavy build of UW with Geist of Saint Traft is where you want to be. UW maindecks mana disruption in the form of Ghost Quarter and Spreading Seas to buy time for Geist and packs the Cryptic Commands and Mana Leaks to keep bombs from resolving. However, I cannot actually recommend UW or any control deck at the moment thanks to a different GR deck that is an atrocious matchup.
Shift for the Win
Traditionally, 3+ color Scapeshift was a pretty good matchup for control decks since it was another control deck with a combo kill. All a blue mage had to do was win the counter war over the namesake sorcery and they were golden. Not so with GR Shift, which has far more angles of attack. The Scapeshift mage can simply make land drops, power up Khalni Heart Expedition, and not expose their Valakut, the Molten Pinnacles until they go off in one massive, largely undisruptable turn. Shadow of Doubt can save you once, but unlike the old lists, GR can try again with another Khalni Heart or Scapeshift. Even if the GR player lets you Crumble to Dust Valakut, they can always win via Inferno Titan and Primeval Titan. GR Shift is too good at overtaxing control decks and with Eldrazi going away we can expect Shift to return to popularity.
From the Shadows, a Solution
Fortunately, Shadows may have provided a solution. [tippy title="Invasive Surgery" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] was one of the first cards spoiled and the one that I find most intriguing. Envelop sees some play in Legacy and Vintage against Show and Tell and see similar utility in Modern if it were legal. Surgery is Envelop with Cranial Extraction conditionally tacked on, which is good. VERY good.
Extraction has never seen much play due to its mana cost and utter lack of board impact. Yes, it does remove a problem from your opponent's deck permanently, but that isn't always relevant to actually winning the game. Most players these days know to diversify their win conditions, so Cranial isn't the blowout it used to be. Surgical Extraction solved the mana problem but is only useful if you set it up with discard or attrition, with the upside of hitting lands. Surgery may lack the flexibility of the Extractions, but it makes up for that by being an answer that is useful even when you aren't delirious.
Surgery is a huge boon for control decks against Scapeshift's primary avenue of attack. Early on, it can be used to hit the ramp spells, buying time to get your own win condition online. Later, it defends against instant death. This still leaves Titans and land drops to fear, but those are far more manageable when you don't need to fear a four-mana sorcery. Surgery certainly doesn't win the war, but it will give control players a fighting chance.
Prep the Operating Room
Of course, this is all assuming that you have four card types in your graveyard. Envelop is a fine card for Modern, sure, but come on; if we're going to play surgeon let us also deliriously cut! It's pretty easy to get lands, instants, and sorceries into our yard, but not so much the others, especially in a control deck. Adding some cantrip artifacts might appear to be a solution but if your deck didn't want Expedition Map or Chromatic Star before Shadows, it still won't want them afterwards. Mind Stone has seen some play but I suspect in matchups where Surgery is relevant you'll want the mana a lot more than the additional card type, though it may be a good enough option for UW or Jeskai. Tribal is a possibility but the only tribal cards that a control deck would play are All Is Dust, Nameless Inversion, and Warren Weirding and, again, if your deck didn't want these cards before it doesn't want them now.
Realistically the most reliable way control will turn on Surgery is either to mill creatures and/or planeswalkers or discard them to Liliana of the Veil. This strongly suggests Grixis Control as the logical home for [tippy title="Invasive Surgery" width="330" height="330"][/tippy], especially since that deck already plays Thought Scour. There is anti-synergy with the delve spells but Grixis already plays Snapcaster Mage so it obviously isn't that big of an issue. Trevor will doubtless be testing this out in the not-too-distant future, but I suspect that between Grixis' discard spells, powerful clock, hard counters, and now Surgery, it will become the default Modern control deck. I wish it wasn't so weak to Relic of Progenitus, but Chapin and Trevor's success with the deck suggest that it isn't as big an issue as I think.
The Doctor is In
We're less than a third of the way into Shadows spoilers but if Surgery is any indication this set will be good for Modern. Not Khans of Tarkir impact, but we already have new answers and the clue tokens are full of potential (as I'm sure Sheridan will talk about at some point). Keep your eyes open for more gems to come and I'll see you in the comments.