I've been doing a lot of theoretical work over the past few months. With Dominaria's release there was plenty of need—and opportunity—to explore and brew. During this process I was constantly underwhelmed by Modern's ostensible top deck, Humans. It was a fine deck, but it didn't really shine. As I explained last week, this left me perplexed about Humans's persistent stand on top of Tier 1. That trend is especially odd given that Jeskai and other control decks effectively prey on both it and Affinity, which is keeping pace with Humans.
Apparently I wasn't the only one, because Jeskai was out in force at Louisville. In both pure control and Tempo forms, too. Today I will be looking at the Louisville results and examining the return of Jeskai. I also have an update regarding my banlist testing series at the end.
Since the Pro Tour back in February, large-scale Modern events have been sparse. Instead, Team Constructed has dominated, which doesn't generate very reliable metagame data. Team events allow weak decks to squeak through the Swiss, and Unified Constructed events require creative deck choices, so the picture is muddied. Modern is finally moving back into the spotlight with a string of SCG events leading into GP Las Vegas, meaning there is going to be better data on how the metagame is moving, starting with Louisville.
Prior to the event, I and a number of other writers speculated that Jeskai Control was due for a resurgence, either because the metagame was favorable or because of new cards. Apparently the collective wisdom agreed, because Louisville's Day 2 metagame is dominated by Jeskai decks. Star City has 16 decks listed as Jeskai Control, with another two decks listed separately as flash and aggro. Humans and Affinity sit in the second and third places, with 13 and 11 decks respectively. Elves trails at 9 decks. Given that all those are favorable matchups for Jeskai, I must conclude the Jeskai players made the correct metagame call. The type of deck they wanted to hit was actually present in very large numbers, so they did quite well Day 1.
This trend continued on Day 2, as Jeskai is the most represented deck in the Top 32 with six members. In fact, fair interactive decks did extremely well in Louisville, making up 14 out of 32 decks. This is a strong pushback against what had been a linear aggro metagame, and it is a welcome one. The other striking thing is how known the Top 32 is. The only decks that qualify as rogue or outlier decks are RG Hollowvine, Amulet Titan, and arguably Infect. This doesn't mean anything yet, but if we continue to see expected decks it would indicate a settling in the metagame, which would provide opportunities to exploit the complacency.
The most played version of Jeskai was the pure control deck, representing five of six Jeskai decks in the Top 32. Frankly, it's a deck exactly as you'd expect.
The interesting inclusion is Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. It has become a theme in my writing, but Jace needs to be built around and supported because he is fragile. Jace will take over a game as few other walkers can if left unchallenged, but with Lightning Bolt's resurgence that is very unlikely. Teferi is not as powerful as Jace, but he is easier to wield. Jace's best mode adds no loyalty, unlike Teferi, but Teferi also allows you to tap out and then protect him during the opponent's turn. This is a huge plus in Teferi's favor, as ease of use frequently beats raw power. In mirrors I would prefer Jace because he's a mana cheaper and Brainstorm is so much more powerful than a random draw, but outside of that scenario I think Teferi will keep getting the nod.
The other Jeskai deck was Jeskai Tempo, which often acts like a control deck but isn't a traditional one. The control decks answer everything and win via overwhelming advantage, whereas Tempo answers just enough to win with Geist of Saint Traft, combined with burn and Spell Queller protection. If the control decks appear stock, this deck is even less interesting. I played this deck with some changes in the mana base and another Geist instead of the third Electrolyze last year.
It's fascinating how familiar this list is. If a deck that is almost unchanged over a year is still viable, why did it disappear? And is it better or worse than the alternative hard control deck?
While I classify these decks separately and their play patterns are noticeably different, looking at the decklists they're extremely similar. The core of both decks is the package of instants and Serum Visions. The numbers are different, with Tempo preferring more burn while Control has Supreme Verdict, but broadly speaking both decks are built to maximize Snapcaster Mage. The only question is win speed. It is possible for Control to win quickly with an unanswered Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but that's improbable.
Having played both versions, there is no particular reason to prefer either clock. Tempo can severely punish a stumbling opponent but it will get overwhelmed in the long game. Control will always win as the game goes on, but it also gives opponents plenty of time to recover. Which deck you prefer is dependent entirely on your own playstyle as a result. The sheer number of pure control decks vs. Tempo doesn't inherently mean anything since we don't know starting population.
Signs of Adaptation?
What strikes me most about these decks is how stock they are. Substitute Teferi for any other planeswalker and these decks could be from last year. To an extant his is to be expected. The core of Jeskai is the removal package and Cryptic Command, but that begs the question of why it fell off so severely in the first place. Jund is a possible explanation as Bloodbraid Elf is a huge boost in the matchup, particularly against Jeskai Tempo, but Jund has never been enough of the meta to truly fear. Even if that was the explanation, the decks show no sign of any special consideration being given to that matchup.
My theory is that perception drove the Jeskai downtick. Players thought that Jund would be much bigger than it currently is and subsequently thought that Tron would be a bigger presence to feed on Jund. This hasn't really happened thanks to Humans, and given enough time between events, players came to realize this and go back to their old lists. Conversations with a number of players tell a similar story, and it makes logical sense. I can't say it's definitively true, but I haven't come up with a more plausible theory.
The Modern Classic Top 8 is full of Tron. If you count Mono-Green and GR together, Tron is the most represented deck in the Top 16. In my experience the Classic is populated by players that washed out of the main event, which means that its results are indicative of the Day 1 metagame. While Tron was well represented in Day 2, it didn't hold a candle to Jeskai or the other Tier 1 decks. The degree to which this means anything is ambiguous; this is Modern after all. Players play the decks they like more than anything else, but metagaming does still happen. I am very interested to know if Tron started out Day 1 as a large percentage of the field and simply fell off. If it did, that would indicate that a lot of players actually anticipated Jeskai coming out in force last weekend. Those who did simply missed their target and leveled themselves—as despite Jeskai being the most popular single deck, aggro was still the most represented archetype. If anyone has insight, please comment.
Banlist Testing Update
It has been almost six months since my previous banlist test. I've been asked when the next one is coming out and the answer is I don't know, because real life is getting in the way. I have to scale back. I do intend to continue doing these tests, but each is going to take much longer to finish. Rather than three a year as I did the past several years I'll only be able to get one more in this year. If things change I will certainly adapt but I cannot promise anything. I could amass less data, but that's not really an option. The whole point is to remove speculation and get actual data about the impact of banned cards in Modern. Shrinking my sample size would delegitimize the results. Therefore, while I'm getting started on the next test soon, don't expect anything until winter comes.
This leads me onto the possible candidates. Stoneforge Mystic is the most plausible unban, but I've already tested it. While a redo isn't out of the question, I can't imagine the results would be different enough to be worthwhile. I'd rather stick to something new. The problem is that most of the cards that remain are either clearly broken (Rite of Flame, Hypergenesis) or had their chance and have proven problematic (e.g. Birthing Pod). As a result, I'm really only considering the following three(ish) cards for testing:
- Dig Through Time - Dig never really saw any play before it was banned because Treasure Cruise far overshadowed it. The fact that Dig proved itself too powerful for Legacy suggests that Wizards was correct that it would just replace Cruise, but there's no proof. I want to give Dig a chance to prove itself.
- Green Sun's Zenith - Green Sun's Zenith (GSZ) was banned because there was no reason for any green deck not to run it. The card just did everything. However, times have changed and current green decks with Collected Company need non-green creatures to survive. It may be that the format has moved on from GSZ.
- The Artifact Lands - The artifact lands have always been banned because Wizards was afraid that Affinity would be as broken in Modern as it had been in Standard. Some would argue Affinity is still that broken, but many have tried the Artifact lands in Affinity and been underwhelmed. I want to try it in Ironworks combo. There may be no reason to revisit the old combo-Affinity, but supercharging Ironworks may be too good.
I have no real pull to one card over another, so I'm leaving it up to you. Cast your vote for the next test card by leaving a comment down below. I'm only going to count comments left here on Modern Nexus. The poll will close next Monday, and the victor will be my next test.
Disclaimer time: SCG Louisville is the first pure Modern event since Dominaria released. Thus it is our only datapoint as to where the metagaming is heading. Don't read too much into these results yet. SCG Minneapolis is likely to look very similar to Louisville simply because it's a week afterward and there isn't enough time to adapt. It won't be until GP Las Vegas that there will be enough data to draw meaningful conclusions.