Spring Has Arrived

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Rejoice, fellow Nexites! The Powers-That-Be have at last stepped in to put an end to Eldrazi Winter. We may at last emerge from the ruins, gaze upon the metagame again with clear eyes and eager hearts, and go forth and enjoy this beautiful new world. Breathe in, good Nexites, and breathe out a great, joyful sigh of relief.

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So, did you get all that out of your system? Good: don't get too carried away with the festivities. This is Modern Nexus and we are factual analysts here, so lets back up a bit and try to look at this realistically. The banning part of the Banned and Restricted Announcement really shouldn't have surprised anyone. Aaron Forsythe was unequivocal about Eldrazi being a problem, and everyone knew Wizards was going to ban at least one of the Eldrazi lands. The unbans are a much greater surprise, though back in January it was mentioned part of the rationale for banning Splinter Twin was that it made cards like Ancestral Vision a plausible unban. My cynicism will not allow me to believe that Wizards timed these unbans as anything other than an apology for the past few months, but that's neither here nor there: they've happened, so it's time once again to evaluate how we will all be affected.

Rather than focusing on the logic of this latest banning (Sheridan covered that yesterday, and will elaborate tomorrow) I'm going to focus on looking ahead to how the metagame will shape up, just like I did in February prior to Regionals. To that end I will evaluate both the banned and unbanned cards and develop my ceteris paribus assumptions for the first week of this new Modern.


Eldrazi (Not Quite) Begone

As I alluded to above, everyone was expecting Eye of Ugin to get banned. I know there was an argument for banning Eldrazi Temple, and frankly it wasn't a bad one, but when it comes down to it Eye was always far, far more broken than Temple.Eye of Ugin Lands should tap to produce mana, and if you want to use them for mana more than once a turn, you should have to pay for the privilege. Eye broke both those rules so the ban decision makes sense. This means the explosive Eldrazi draws are gone and with them its ridiculous Enigma-level power. The ability for Eldrazi to simply play threats "off curve" is also severely diminished.  Eldrazi pilots are unlikely to mulligan as aggressively for their four-of Temple and this will slow down the deck enough that it should fall at least a tier. With only the four Temples, the forgiveness of free mana doesn't make up for the card disadvantage as often and the poor odds of "hitting" on a mulligan means Eldrazi will have to play the same game as the rest of us, which will probably turn a lot of pilots away.

The deck will not be gone, however. Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher are too powerful for that to happen. The question is what form the new deck will take and there isn't enough data yet to make a truly educated guess beyond it containing the aforementioned cards. Eldrazi Mimic may still be playable, and the devoid creatures are still good enough that I suspect for the first few weeks or so you'll just see slower versions of existing Eldrazi decks. After that, anything is possible. I know players will try to make processors work again (especially with all those suspended Ancestral Visions) but I never thought Processor Eldrazi was very good. While Thought-Knot does play well with that theme, why would you want to cast Blight Herder or Oblivion Sower when you could cast Reality Smasher?Reality Smasher On the other hand, it is unlikely the current builds are as good without Eye, so there will be considerable debate and rebuilding going on. It is unlikely the question will be answered before StarCityGames' States series, and it may take until the next Grand Prix before we know just how effective this ban actually was.

If I sound a little doubtful then I have good news! You have excellent reading comprehension. Eye may have removed the explosive draws but Eldrazi Temple is still an extremely powerful Sol land and I'm worried allowing any land like that in Modern is dangerous. I know Forsythe said Wizards wants there to be an Eldrazi deck in Modern but I think Thought-Knot and Smasher are reasons enough and players really don't need Temple to make them play Eldrazi. Again, this is pure speculation but I wouldn't be surprised if Temple eats a ban in a year or so for remaining too big a presence.

Collateral damage

The other deck affected by this banning is RG Tron. Eye was Tron's get-out-of-mana-flood free card, providing late game use for its land search and smoothing out the clunky, all-mana draws that traditionally plague ramp decks. This had been an argument against banning Eye, but I celebrate this aspect of the bannings. This isn't because... well, it isn't just because I despise RG Tron, but rather because this actually saves the deck. RG Tron has long been on the knife-edge of being oppressive and has certainly been a diversity killer, and if something wasn't done to nerf it soon it would almost certainly have necessitated a more aggressive ban down the line. Yes, that is a bold claim: let me explain.

Karn LiberatedWhen Tron was just ramping out Karn Liberated and Wurmcoil Engine with an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn endgame it was powerful but not dangerous. It had good matchups against slower decks, but the aggro decks laughed at Karn and could get around or manage Wurmcoil well enough that they kept Tron in check. Old Tron needed multiple Oblivion Stones to beat Merfolk or Zoo decks with Fulminator Mage, and Twin held it in check as well. Infect was unwinnable. This made it a metagame call for when BGx and other midrange decks were big rather than a permanent presence. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon changed all that. It is an on curve threat that beats any non-Affinity board and swings aggro matchups in Tron's favor (Burn is still a problem but that's because it's Sligh to Merfolk's Stompy and isn't reliant on creatures). That, coupled with Twin's banning, means that all Tron really needed to really take over was a little more consistency or a better six-drop than Wurmcoil. With Wizards pushing colorless permanents recently, it was only a matter of time. Now that its late game is much weaker, Tron suddenly becomes more vulnerable to attrition strategies which should prevent the deck from growing too oppressive.

The other consideration is diversity. Everyone knows about RG Tron keeping control decks, particularly counterspell-based control decks, down. What no one ever notices is the effect RG Tron had on other Tron decks. There has been only a single version of Tron since Cloudpost was banned. Yes, players have constantly tried to make blue, blue-white, and black Tron work, but they're just not as good as RG and largely fell by the wayside. Think about it: RG had the most consistent Tron of any version thanks to all its cantrips and land search. As a result, it was more likely to see more of its impact cards than any other version. If one deck is packing counterspells where the other has cheap cantrips, and they're both on the same general gameplan, the cantrip deck is more likely to actually do its powerful thing than the counterspell deck. It is also more likely to have more things to do afterwards.Mindslaver Blue Tron almost never ran Eye or Emrakul because it favored Platinum Angel and Mindslaver with Academy Ruins, which gave it less inevitability than RG Tron. Now there is an actual choice between versions. I believe that inevitability has shifted to the Mindslavers, but RG Tron remains more consistent which creates a nice tension in deck choice. Ironically, the freeing of Blue Tron will keep Cryptic Command decks down (Blue Tron always had an advantage against those decks in the past and I don't think that's changed), but the net diversity gain should be positive and work to correct any negative drift caused by the unbannings.

These arguments therefore lead me to the following assumptions about the meta based on the Eye ban:

  1. Eldrazi decks remain powerful though in a slower and less consistent form
    1. It is not clear what that form is
  2. RG Tron will get weaker
    1. This will allow more slow blue decks to exist
    2. Some of these slow blue decks will be Blue Tron

Hopeful Visions

I expected Ancestral Visions would be unbanned following the reveal by Wizards that with Twin gone it was now under consideration. What I didn't expect was that it would be this soon. Now, everyone and their speculators (it's Monday nightAncestral Vision and Visions is over $50 and nearly sold out everywhere!) have been going wild about this card as control's savior, and they're not too far off base. Drawing three cards for a single blue is very good and waiting four turns is not that big of a burden, especially in card-draw starved Modern. Back in January when the Twin announcement was made, I quietly looked into how good Visions would be and I was surprised. The burst of card advantage helped control decks power through though attrition fights and made it easier to survive to the late game. This leads me to believe that Visions is a very reasonable control card and will see quite a bit of play.

A Sadder Reality

And this will be far more than it really should. My testing showed it was good, but not $50+ and almost completely bought-out good, which is why I didn't pull the trigger back then (though my bank account is angry at me for this now). The good news for the BGx players out there is that Visions does not hurt you all that much and the core GBx cards are still devastating against slow blue control decks.

Dark Confidant MM2015 Inquisition of Kozilek Liliana of the Veil Tarmogoyf

Disruption and cheap threats that get under counters remain very good against control and Liliana of the Veil is close to game-over against these strategies, especially when she's paired with all the manlands that are now available. All BGx needs to do is slip a Tarmogoyf or Dark Confidant onto the board, CounterSliver style, or use Inquisition of Kozilek to force through Liliana. If that happens, the delayed draw from Visions will not matter: the blue deck will be too far behind. Is this a major change of playstyle? Maybe. Is it particularly burdensome? No.

Also, and I know this is a bit of a cliché, but you also need to survive the four turns for your Visions to arrive. Even if you do suspend it turn one, Modern aggro is powerful enough that you may be dead before that happens. This is also why it is such a terrible topdeck, especially on an empty hand. The only Eternal play Vision received prior to this was in Shardless BUG in Legacy where cascade made up for the card's weakness. As the announcement noted, with the best cascade card banned, this is not likely to be a viable option. I am not saying Visions is a bad card but I am saying that Modern is very different from Extended and Standard where once it shined. Card draw does not magically erase a deck's vulnerabilities which leads me to the following conclusions:

  1. Players will play Ancestral Vision in any deck that it will fit in
    1. Players will therefore overplay and over-rely on Vision
    2. Strategies that worked against control before will still be effective
  2. Blue-based control will become more popular

Incoming Thopters

swordThe most unexpected and possibly significant announcement was Sword of the Meek being unbanned. This deeply concerns me. I vividly remember Thopter Depths' domination of Extended in 2010. The combination of Sword, Thopter Foundry crushed aggressive decks so badly they were almost completely driven from the metagame despite the efforts of Domain Zoo players. Admittedly it was the combination of Thopter combo and the Dark Depths combo that made the deck dominant, but the fact remains that gaining as much life while making as many chump blockers as you have open mana is very, very good against aggressive decks. I have long argued this would be unhealthy for the meta and I still think this combo will severely harm aggro decks, which interestingly was the stated intention of the unbanning.

Thopter FoundryThe other thing I fear is the impact that Thopter combo will have on diversity. The whole combo only requires five cards (three Foundry and two Swords) and it isn't strictly necessary to play any other artifacts (Depths generally only ran Chrome Mox). Any deck that could run this combo has a pretty good incentive to do so even if they're not focused on the combo, which is the same argument I've made against Stoneforge Mystic incidentally. Wizards said they hoped Thopter combo would enable new combo-control decks to rise and that it would see a lot of play, but I suspect a lot of that play will be in existing decks like Grixis that are looking for an easy way to fight Burn. This makes me very worried that aggro will get hated out, leaving only Infect as a viable strategy to get around the lifegain.

How time flies

Fortunately, 2016 is not 2010 and it is probable that Thopter combo is healthier now than it was back then, even if I don't think it's healthy enough. Unless I am very mistaken, back then the best artifact hate was Ancient Grudge and the most effective graveyard hate was Yixlid Jailer or Extirpate. Grudge was not that effective against the combo, Jailer was vulnerable, and Extirpate could be played around. The following year, possibly as a reaction to Thopter Depths, Stony Silencewas printed and Rest in Peace followed the year after that. Coupled with Abrupt Decay and Scavenging Ooze, and Magic is equipped to effectively fight that combo for the first time.

Scavenging Ooze Stony Silence Abrupt Decay

This proliferation of hate cards, many of which see considerable maindeck play already, should serve to keep the combo from being too overwhelming, at least at first. Control players are pretty good at adapting and may find ways to overcome the hate. I suspect while there will be considerable value in just jamming Thopters into any deck that can support the five cards, it will take a dedicated combo strategy like the old Thopter Depths package to really take advantage. Even then, the splash damage from Affinity decks will limit the impact. While I disagree with this unbanning decision, I am willing to believe I'm wrong and Modern can now handle this beast. Thopters will also push players to play more counterspells which should keep the combo decks that already exist, and the new ones sure to spring up to outrace Ancestral Vision, in check. This leads me to conclude:

  1. Thopter Foundry/ Sword of the Meek combo will be very popular
    1. Splash damage from anti-Affinity cards will keep its effectiveness and numbers down
  2. The most effective hate cards are in white, green, and black

Putting it All Together

Having done the individual analyses, the next step is to put it all together to actually see what it says about the expected week one metagame. As a recap:

  1. Eldrazi decks remain powerful though in a slower and less consistent form
    1. It is not clear what that form is
  2. GR Tron will get weaker
    1. This will allow more slow blue decks to exist
    2. Some of these slow blue decks will be blue Tron
  3. Players will play Ancestral Vision in any deck it will fit in
    1. Players will therefore overplay and over-rely on Vision
    2. Strategies that worked against control before will still be effective
  4. Blue-based control will become more popular
  5. Thopter Foundry/ Sword of the Meek combo will be very popular
    1. Splash damage from anti-Affinity cards will keep its effectiveness and numbers down
  6. The most effective hate cards are in white, green, and black
This tells me three things. First, there will be a lot of slow blue decks and they will all have Ancestral Vision and probably Thopter combo. Secondly, BGx has the most tools against these expected blue decks, particularly Abzan. It also benefits from the weakening of RG Tron. Third, Eldrazi still remains a threat to be respected regardless of the new decks. Therefore, I expect for the first few week at least, the metagame will revolve around the new blue decks and BGx with all the other tiered decks trying to regain their feet around this new metagame. Infect will be popular in response to Thopter combo and Eldrazi will remain a force, though how much of one is unclear. I doubt the actual metagame will shake out according to my predictions, but this is definitely where I would start my preparations for the upcoming Modern season. If you have your own predictions or analysis I would love to hear them. See you in the comments!

David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

View More By David Ernenwein

Posted in Metagame, Modern, OpinionTagged , , , ,

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13 thoughts on “Spring Has Arrived

  1. As a budget player, I can’t help be a little sad when a card shows up (whether newly-printed or simply unbanned) that seems like if I’m playing that color then I’m automatically doing something wrong by not having that card. With narrower “role players”, I can at least brew a strategy where leaving such a card out makes sense, but the most expensive cards seem to be the ones where if you’re not playing them, you’re just gimping yourself. These cards widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, without leaving room for skill or creativity to help close the gap. (For a less extreme but more clear example, no amount of skill or creativity will make it okay to play Shock instead of Lightning Bolt; good thing Bolts are affordable.)

    For this reason, I really hope your assessment of Ancestral Visions is correct, and it won’t just be an auto-include in blue decks the way Snapcaster already is. There comes a point where there are enough cards you “should” be playing in a color/strategy that you’d rather just play something else instead of getting funny after explaining to a sympathetic opponent exactly why you went through the whole match without drawing any of your Goyfs, Lilis, Snapcasters, or Visions.

    1. I completely agree and empathize with you! I enjoy playing with, and against budget decks, even if they are a “cheaper” version of a more expensive Tier 1 or 2 deck. It’s a high mark to the pilot of a cheaper deck who can win often, chalking it up to skill and deck building abilities rather than playing money cards, but I digress.

      As a Grixis Control/Midrange player, I’ve spent too much money to get the key cards I need, I hate to be FORCED to play a $200 playset of Visions because “it’s either you play Visions now, of you’re doing it wrong!” Honestly, I’m not too keen on the card. I tend to lean toward always having early answers, and instant responses, that’s just my style. Visions doesn’t seem to work IMO, but it remains to be seen.

    2. Well the good news about Ancestral Visions is that it doesn’t work with Snapcaster Mage and is only valuable in slow decks/really grindy matchups which will limit its use and should bring the price back down once the initial excitement/insanity subsides. Even if it is more powerful than I think, I doubt it will be a universal four-of because of how bad it is as a topdeck, especially against aggro.

  2. I think Sword + Thopter will be fine. Between Destructive Revelry, Hurkyl’s Recall, Qasali Pridemage, Reclamation Sage, Relic of Progenitus, Rest in Peace, Scavenging Ooze, Stony Silence, and Viridian Corrupter, I’d say Modern’s aggressive decks are pretty well-prepared to deal with it. And the mana-intensiveness of its use in a format as fast as this one can’t be underestimated. It makes Lantern Control better, makes Tezzeret a thing, and it might (MIGHT) be slotted into traditional control decks, but all it does is make sure people have their artifact/graveyard hate boxes checked in their 75 (IMO). I’m really excited to see how it does in the new meta.

    I’m also with you on the status of BGx. Some players (including Reid Duke) are basically saying that Jund can’t outgrind a Thopter deck, but I would contend that isn’t true. That’s what Abrupt Decay and Kolaghan’s Command (and Ancient Grudge, and Engineered Explosives, and Maelstrom Pulse…) are for. Jund will be fine.

    1. I really hope everyone else is right about it being safe, but I’ll believe it when I see it #NotBitterabout2010atall. Despite what WoTC said, Thopter combo has no place in Lantern Control. Aether Grid is cheaper and easier to assemble and is frequently going to be a faster kill, and even if you wanted a different win condition I think Tezzeret Agent of Bolas is better and requires fewer slots in deck where space is at a premium.

      It’s pretty typical for players, especially pros, to declare Jund dead whenever it loses any metagame share, so you’re right that Jund and Abzan will be fine. They’ll adapt and overcome like they always do.

      1. I think you are wrong about the combo in Lantern. Be prepared to see it in action very soon. Aether Grid is not cheaper. It costs 3, while the Thopter combo costs either 2+2 or only 2 if you have Sword in the graveyard, which can be easy since it’s after all a mill deck.

        Besides, Grid is never going to be faster than Foundry when it matters. For it to be faster you would need around 12 artifacts, and if you have that many then you almost surely have the game completely locked and don’t need help anyway. With 4 mana available, play Foundry, next turn atack for 2, next 6, next 10. That’s dead in 4 turns. You’d need 10 artifacts in play to do that with Grid.

        Tezzeret has been extensively tested and it has 3 problems. 1, it does absolutely nothing for a lot of turns until you can play it. 2, it clutters your hand when you are possibly trying to get it empty under a Bridge. 3, it’s pure overkill. Meaning, if you have a bridge and enough artifacts to have a realistic expectation of it closing the game in the first activation, you were almost certainly going to win that game anyway.

        About space, space is indeed at a premium, but only when what you are planning to add doesn’t improve the main gameplan nor is a better answer than the cards already in the deck. Which is the reason why cards like Tezzeret see almost zero play and only a few people play Grid. The thopter combo is different, because it is both a defense and a win condition. What this means is you can look for room in the defense/answers area of the deck. It does what Grid and Pyrite do but better (alt wincon+general defense) since it also gets you life. That’s 2 spots right there. Now that Eldrazi will be less dangerous it is very easy to take out a Thoughtseize and leave the discard count at 6. 3 spots already.

        Finally, there’s around 4 flex spots that lists fill with some combination of Spellskite, Pyroclasm and Surgical Extraction. You can take a Pyroclasm out since Thopter combo already gives you some options vs aggro and move a Surgical Extraction to the SB.

        That’s 5 spots for 3 Foundries and 2 Swords, and you are losing 2 cards that are situation and overall worse, and 3 that won’t affect the gameplan in any meaningful way.

        All in all, the “Lantern community” is already working to test all this and there’s a chance we’ll all be surprised when we find out that Foundry+Sword make the deck quite better.

        (I’ve been playing Lantern quite intensively for 10 months)

        1. Now, of course, there’s also a great chance that in the end the combo isn’t worth it because it doesn’t win games often enough to offset the ones you will lose because of not having an adequate answer and having a useless or semi-useless half of a combo.

          I don’t know what will happen, but my point is that we can’t be so quick to say “it doesn’t have a place in Lantern”. I used to think that, when that famous tweet was published. But after giving it a more serious consideration, I’m not so sure any longer.

          1. Fair points, allow me to clarify my position: I don’t think it should see play because it isn’t worth it. I agree that we are going to see it soon, but I also predict that it will be abandoned.

            I have tested against Lantern and played against it extensively in tournaments and I have never seen it win without Ensnaring Bridge on the board, which leads me to believe that the slower and non-mana intensive Aether Grid a safer option since it can also kill creatures (sometimes relevant). If there were more racing situations for Lantern then yes, Thopter combo would be a fine addition but as is the only time it would appear to be relevant is as lifegain against Burn where I’m not convinced that it is fast or consistent enough to really swing that matchup. Best case scenario it would be active turn three but that requires so much to go right that I wouldn’t expect any deck to put the pieces together before turn 5 which should limit its impact against burn.

            My other thing with Thopters in Lantern is that it does not reduce your vulnerability to Stony Silence which Tezzeret and Aether Grid do. I’ve always been surprised by Tezz’s lack of play since Lantern struggles to win without Bridge and he finds Bridges, but if Lantern players say he’s no good then I’ll believe you. Silence will see increased play thanks to the combo and Lantern is already very weak to that card so I can’t image it being an effective win condition post-board. Tezz and Grid ignore the Silence and make it possible to win the game (assuming Bridge is in play). Since I don’t think it adds anything necessary or reduce a vulnerability I don’t think that Lantern wants or needs Thopter combo.

  3. Being a Utron player, I really appreciate it whenever I see an article give a nod to the deck! I really think people underestimate the deck.

    In any case, the upcoming metagame, as you stated, is pretty favorable for Utron. We pretty much crush any other control deck out there just because of our mana advantage, and we now have the best inevitability in the format. Honestly, we were pretty even with RG Tron (it was just a race to Mindslaver them and then kill all their lands with their GQs) until Ulamog got printed, which made it a lot harder. Overall, if the metagame shifts to control/midrange stuff, Utron should have good MUs across the board.

    But as you said, I think there’s way too much hype around Ancestral Vision. The card takes several turns to go off, we don’t have Shardless Agent or Bloodbraid Elf, and it’s an atrocious topdeck. For Utron, we’ll probably be sticking with Thirst for Knowledge and/or Anticipate.
    As for Sword of the Meek with Thopter Foundry, don’t forget about Ghirapur Aether Grid! It is pretty janky, but it can be pretty bonkers if its play in Legacy Tezzeret decks is any indication. The sheer amount of artifact hate and graveyard hate, as you noted, should keep the deck in check.

  4. Having Thopter/Sword in the format, the answers to it, and the reduced aggro presence on the format all point out to Abzan being actually favored on this new meta, specially with a threat with Trample on Siege Rhino. Though Jund does have K-Command maindeck.

    Speaking of Trample, while Burn is going to suffer since a lot rides on Destructive Revelry from the board, Zoo has Revelry and both Ghor-Clan Rampager and the bodies to take advantage of it, so maybe Zoo is the aggro deck that comes ahead, besides Infect.

    Though who knows. Maybe Sultai B/G/x will surge since it gets to play with Thopter/Swords, Visions and Goyfs.

  5. Hopefully most of these predictions will come through.

    More than seeing the eldrazi gone (which was just an aggro with a broken mana base), I wished for something to tone down the strength of aggro (particularly the linear ones) and force a bit of interaction.
    This extremely fast, turn 2-3 virtual kill, format is THE main obstacle for having a larger diversity in decks.
    Be fast like affinity and dump your hand in two turns. Or be degenerate, by making primeval titan turn 2 / Reality smasher turn 3.
    For far too long modern has been like that…

  6. Illness in the Ranks is also a powerful hate card against thopter combo, which is nice. Pretty cheap to go ahead and pick up a playset, too.

    Incidentally, I suspect that we will see a small uptick in Faerie players as well. AV + Faeries was a strong extended deck iirc. Coincidentally, Illness wrecks Bitterblossom all day.

    I’m considering testing it in my Infect list by splashing a black just for it. My meta is seeing an uptick in BW Token decks, plus the Thopter Combo itself. I went ahead and picked up a playset; I look forward to trying it out.

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