By the end of May, we'll be two months into the new, post-April 4 Modern and over 200 events into the new metagame standings. This will include a formative Grand Prix Weekend on May 20, where East and West Coasts alike will get a chance to shape the new format at GP Charlotte and GP Los Angeles respectively. I published the April metagame standings last week on Modern Nexus, but expect the format picture to get even clearer once we get our Grand Prix data.
Looking ahead to the Grand Prix, the Nexus breakdown shows a wide-open format with unprecedented diversity. Tier 1 and Tier 2 feature strategies to suit every play style and budget, ranging from old favorites like Jund and the Big Aggro Three (Infect, Burn, and Affinity) to upstarts like Gruul Zoo and R/G Primeval Titan Scapeshift.
That is, every play style unless you want to use Modern's hot new unban Sword of the Meek.
Despite an initial burst of internet-busting hype, Sword and its partner in crime Thopter Foundry have yet to take flight in Modern. In fact, if the metagame breakdown is any indication, Thopter-Sword is dead on the runway. All Thopter-Sword decks combined make up a measly 4% of Modern. Although that doesn't necessarily condemn the pairing to Tier 3 irrelevance for all time, it's not an auspicious start to what should have been an exciting new Modern strategy.
Given the metagame and monetary stakes (Sword still clings to a $25 price tag despite its failures), there's tremendous incentive for Modern players to figure out what's going on with this combo and where it's heading from here.
Today, we'll investigate some of the reasons for Thopter-Sword's shortcomings and its trajectory going forward. We'll pay special attention to how you can translate these strategic and metagame observations into financial takeaways.
Comparing Decks and Strategies
Thopter-Sword's 4% performance is spread across not two, not three, but a whopping seven-plus strategies. This includes U/W Thopter Gifts (à la Unburial Rites), U/W Tron, U/B Tezzerator, Krark-Clan Ironworks Eggs, and a number of other representatives. It also encompasses Jeskai and Grixis lists dabbling in a combo Plan B.
Given the combo's diffusion across different strategies, we're presented with two approaches for analyzing its performance. The first is to break down each individual strategy to see where they are going right or wrong. The second is to treat all the strategies as a collective and look for broader themes.
It takes just a cursory glance at Thopter-Sword's many faces to realize a deck-by-deck analysis isn't the best approach. This is more appropriate when we're analyzing differences between similar lists, but becomes significantly less helpful when the decks are as varied and diverse as we see with Thopter-Sword.
A great example of a smart deck comparison is the classic decision between Jund and Abzan. Here, we have two decks with a common foundation (Tarmogoyf, Abrupt Decay, discard, etc.) that make metagame calls between Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile, Kolaghan's Command versus Lingering Souls, etc.
These decks have established lists and cores. They also have established metagame factors which drive one deck over the other. Aggressive metagames favor Jund's Bolts and less painful manabase. Grindier ones favor Abzan's Souls and heavier removal. Both lists have a stock 50-55 cards which don't change much from metagame to metagame and list to list.
This is not at all the case with Thopter-Sword today.
The different Thopter-Sword decks vary widely in both color and strategy. Some favor the Tron artifact core (Talisman of Progress, Thirst for Knowledge, etc.), while others elect for Supreme Verdict or the Jeskai removal arsenal of Lightning Helix and Path to Exile. And those still share the exact same color pairing of blue-white! Add in the Grixis experiments, the more Esper-driven control shells, Eggs combo, etc., and you have a sign of serious deckbuilding uncertainty.
I'm all for trying to make sense of uncertainty, but sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. Here, I don't see a combo core bouncing around in different metagames like Jund vs. Abzan. Instead, I see a clear metagame indicator that players just have no idea how to build around this engine.
From Decks to Themes
If you can't compare distinct strategies, instead you can look for themes across the strategy's collective share. I'm seeing two major themes across all the different Thopter-Sword decks, and both of them explain where the deck is falling short right now.
First and most importantly: no one knows how to optimally build this deck.
The Thopter-Sword lists don't have established cores, gameplans, or metagame positioning, let alone the nuts and bolts of deck development such as card ratios and even card choices. This divides the attention of current and prospective brewers, making it less likely that any single variation will emerge as a frontrunner.
Moreover, these inconsistencies suggest an underlying challenge with building the shell. Some decks put themselves together. It took less than a month for Birthing Pod expatriates to take Collected Company and create the Abzan Company groundwork that remains to this day. Kolaghan's Command, another Dragons of Tarkir all-star, slotted effortlessly into Grixis Delver and Grixis Control---even if those decks didn't have a foundation like the Melira Pod-to-Abzan Company shift.
An optimal Thopter-Sword list is more elusive. The same brewers and Modern community which cracked the Company Elves, Abzan Company, and Grixis puzzles have been so far stumped by Sword of the Meek. Don't blame the lack of Grand Prix for that either---those decks roared onto the scene in April and May before the major Grand Prix season of June 2015.
All of this underscores the difficulties in building Thopter-Sword. Between the wide-open color options, the supporting cards, and the choices between Plan As, Bs, and Cs in each strategy, it's no wonder players have struggled to solidify a home for Thopter Foundry.
This brings us directly to the second theme behind Thopter-Sword's failings: just as no one can decide how to build the deck, no deck can decide which plan the combo should occupy. Is this a format-defining Splinter Twin inheritor? A Plan C-D in the Tezzeret toolbox? An incidental 4-5 slots in an already decent Tier 2 control deck?
Depending on which plan you assign to the combo, your deckbuilding parameters are going to change considerably. Similarly, mis-assigning the combo, or mis-identifying the deck that suits your combo's plan, is a recipe for disaster.
For example, assume you tried to build Twin as an all-in Simian Spirit Guide strategy. You would have incorrectly identified Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch as a Plan A combo deck, not a control Plan B. Or believing Bant Company was where Collected Company would have shined back in April 2015. Right idea for using the card, wrong execution in the deck itself.
Until players puzzle through all these challenges, Thopter-Sword is never going to shine in Modern. This plays out in both a theoretical assessment of the combo and a more data-driven look at Thopter-Sword's scattered metagame shares.
Now that we've identified the primary factors behind the deck's early bust, we can look to how this might change and how its success or failures will play out in dollars.
Bright Prospects Ahead
Earlier in the article, I talked about the May 20-21 Grand Prix Weekend and its importance for Modern's direction. This is just as true for Thopter-Sword as for the metagame at large.
If Thopter-Sword has a shot in Modern, we'll see it make a play at the big-leagues over the Grand Prix Weekend. Brewers and developers will have a clear metagame picture to work from (what decks to beat, what to ignore), not to mention significant incentive to get the shell right: a Grand Prix has bigger stakes than the average regional weekend event or even a Star City Games Open.
Between this metagame knowledge, the possible rewards, and the sheer benefit of additional time, Thopter-Sword sees its best chances over Grand Prix weekend. Of course, this has big implications if you're trying to invest in the shell or speculate on its success.
During the 20th and 21st, you'll need to pay careful attention to Twitter, Twitch coverage, and the buzz around social media. Move quickly on anything that is doing well. Without any significant results, Sword of the Meek and Gifts Ungiven are already huge winners going into May. Their prices are driven by hype and hype alone. A real Grand Prix Top 8 result will see them exploding.
For those who can't decide what Thopter-Sword deck to hedge bets on, I'd pick either U/W Tron or U/W Thopter Gifts. Tron has the highest metagame share currently, which might attract more quality deck developers and pilots. Just be careful for splash damage from the R/G Tron haters, who will be more prepared for the Urza's lands than they were at the SCG Open.
As for U/W Thopter Gifts, this is the unestablished but theoretically potent shell which is a brewer's paradise. It's a "true" Modern control deck by most definitions, and what blue mage can deny the temptation to work on such a Modern masterpiece? It's also the most obvious option if you want a more dedicated Thopter-Sword list, as opposed to the old-school U/W Tron, which has been around for years and may have lost its luster.
Gifts Ungiven is a major player in both decks, so that's the safest starting point if you aren't sure where to allocate resources. Same with the Rites backup plan, along with your heavy-hitting reanimation target of choice and a few other shared elements.
Of course, there's another possibility for Grand Prix Weekend, and that's yet another total bust by the Thopter-Sword decks. Alternately, a middling performance with just a Top 16 or a few Top 32s, which would be tantamount to a bust as far as prices go.
In both cases, this will be Thopter-Sword's second major failure, the first being in the month following the initial hype, and the second being a misstep on a huge Modern stage. It's unlikely the Sword of the Meek bubble, along with the bubble around its supporting cards, would last in such a climate, which might spur investors to offload stock immediately.
Personally, I think the former scenario is likelier than the latter. The combo itself is inherently quite good, and it's early enough in the year that I'm willing to explain away its initial failings on the basis of the reasons I gave earlier. If we get past Grand Prix weekend and the deck is still languishing in Tier 3 or lower, then we can start doubting the synergy itself.
Until then, I'm optimistic we'll see someone or multiple someones emerge on May 22 with a more definitive and commanding list.
Thanks for reading and for joining me as we dissected Thopter-Sword's performance so far and where it might be heading from here. Join me next week as we make some predictions about the impending Grand Prix Weekend and check-in on the results of the SCG Open on May 13-14. Find me in the comments with any questions and I'll see you all soon!