Tracking events and collecting and then presenting data is all well and good. It's how observations are turned into good science and how we analyze Magic's metagame ecosystem. However, saying that Bant Snow and Eldrazi Tron are tied for most played deck is only half the story. Why this is happening is a far harder, but more interesting question to answer. A question that I'm going to tackle this week.
The knee-jerk response will always be "They're the best decks." However, that still invites the question of why? And also glosses over the rest of Modern's incredible diversity. Why aren't former heavyweights like Grixis Death's Shadow or Amulet Titan dominating? I believe that the answer lies with an unexpected deck. My hypothesis is that Ponza is actually driving the metagame trends because it's wielding the card that is actually defining Modern right now. And with most players focusing on snow, it's going unchallenged.
Examining the Metagame
As a reminder, the June metagame looked like this:
|Niv 2 Light
The top five decks are Bant Snow variants, Eldrazi Tron, RG Ponza, Burn, and Humans. This means that Tier 1 is skewed towards the midrange, as 3/5 of the decks are on the slower side. Below them lies a range of combo decks, Amulet Titan, and artifact decks. This Tier 2 would tend to back up the conclusions about Tier 1, as combo tends to rise in response to grindy value. The artifact decks are on the midrange end, and given their higher exposure to hate, it makes sense that they're in a lower tier than Bant Snow.
As for why this happened, the simplistic answer is blaming Snow. After all, for months Bant Snow has apparently been everywhere, and was the deck to beat before companions ruined everything. Following then, Sultai Snow has seen a lot of play to the point that Gabriel Nassif at one point said "You are literally hemorrhaging equity if you're not playing this rn." He's in the Hall of Fame, so he knows what he's talking about. If the best decks are UGx Snow, and then the metagame is being defined by matchups against snow decks.
On the surface, the data would support this conclusion. Burn is faster than all the midrange decks and so consistent that opposing stumbles are mercilessly punished. Humans excels against decks with low removal variety, few threats, and many non-creature cards. Eldrazi Tron has Chalice of the Void to shut off Path to Exile and giant monsters to win. And Ponza preys on snow decks, so of course it's doing well with Snow doing well.
However, that's not the full picture. Remember, the data doesn't back up Bant Snow being the best deck. Bant's metagame share just plummeted through June, and but for that amazing first week, it wouldn't have been top tier. Sultai and Temur Snow were also nothing special in the overall data: Sultai had one good week then dropped off; Temur was mediocre at best throughout. You'd think that a busted, clear best deck would simply dominate in every expression, but that hasn't been the case.
And then there's Ponza. There's no question that Ponza is a rough matchup for snow decks. I've claimed, as the data suggests, that Ponza preys on Snow. Anti-decks will struggle against decks that are bad against the deck they're targeting, and therefore tend to be lower tier. Thus, the simple fact that Ponza is well positioned against the possibly overrated snow decks can't explain its metagame position.
Then there's that lingering question of why Ponza is well positioned in the first place. It's a beatdown deck with Blood Moon/Magus of the Moon. Nothing to see here against decks with tons of basics and Arcum's Astrolabe. After that, it's a pile of green and red creatures. Which should be simple for answer decks to overcome, but that isn't happening. And that's because I think that Blood Moon is the actual defining piece of the current metagame. Ponza just happens to be the best shell for Moon effects, and the metagame's vulnerability to those is driving Ponza's stock up.
What is Ponza?
Ponza is not a new deck. The name and the deck have existed since 1997, making it one of the oldest archetypes in Magic. And an idea that almost everyone has tried when learning the game. And yet the thing is named after some food Brian Kowal likes, I don't get it. In any case, as it has always been, the deck is just ramp beatdown with some land destruction for disruption.
Thing is, regardless of iteration, it's never really been good. More of a joke really.
In ages past, it was the red deck with bad and uncastable spells. During the Mirrodin Block Constructed season, I remember some author (I have looked EVERYWHERE for that article!) saying that the only time Ponza gets turn one Slith Firewalker and turns two and three Molten Rain are the games it will lose anyway. That was literally the perfect hand for that deck. I've hit various versions of this deck over the years and always won easily and/or watched it fail. Usually against supposedly favorable matchups with perfect curves.
And then, over the past few months, something changed. Ponza has been doing well, even making it high into the standings. Typically it was only happening when the decks it preyed on, Bant Snow mainly, were doing well, but during the companion era it still hung on. And now it's actively doing well. To the point that I dread the matchup playing Humans, which has never happened before. Something is different, and it can't just be that Ponza's cheap online. It's comparatively cheap, but not the cheapest of the top tier decks.
Theros to the Rescue
The first change was Klothys, God of Destiny. In my preview article, I posited that Klothys would find a niche as an anti-control card in Jund. That didn't happen, and even when I reexamined my predictions, I glossed over her new role in what would become the current Ponza decks. Frankly, that Ponza could actually be good is not a thought I entertain regularly. It would seem I was wrong.
Klothys has become critical to the deck in a way I didn't appreciate. Yes, it is an inexorable clock against control, particularly Bant Snow decks. Those decks fill up their graveyards compulsively, and Klothy's just drains them down. And nerfs, if not defeats, their main win condition in Uro. However, Klothys is also part of the acceleration plan against everything else. Ponza is just a pile of beef and a Moon effect. To beat "better" decks requires dumping all that beef fast. Ponza generates lots of mana thanks to Utopia Sprawl and Arbor Elf, but that's not always enough. And once their job's done, Elf and Sprawl are kinda bad. Klothys is not bad once acceleration is unnecessary, making the rest of the shell more cohesive.
The Moon Rises
However, Ponza would still be Ponza were it not for Blood Moon effects being supremely well positioned. I hypothesize, and am doing testing to support, that Blood Moon is what's actually defining Modern right now. As I mentioned above, Ponza is doing well right now because it is the best Blood Moon deck. Not being burdened by Moon is a big part of that, but not the real story.
Ponza is an accelerated Moon deck. I realize that accelerating out Moon isn't a new idea, probably dating back to the original printing, and forms the basis of a successful Legacy deck. However, before now, a lot of that was on the back of ritual effects or Ancient Tomb[/mtg_card. The former is unreliable and the latter isn't legal. A deck which could reliably, efficiently, and economically hit turn two Moon is new and powerful. And this is the key to Ponza being successful. Modern has always been vulnerable to [mtg_card]Blood Moon. However, it wasn't early enough to really lock out most decks. Now it can, and Modern as a whole is still operating like it isn't a thing.
Consider the Rivals
I've been on the receiving end of this change more than I care to admit. Humans is extremely weak to Blood Moon thanks to its five-color manabase. Aether Vial is only helpful when given time, and Ignoble Hierarch gets Bolted a lot. Previously, this wasn't much of a problem because Moon was unlikely to hit early enough to prevent Humans from getting a board started with its nonbasic lands. Now I'm finding myself actually getting locked out more and a matchup that is, on paper, favorable is in practice very hard. Humans is generally too fast for low-removal decks to stop and has Reflector Mage and Mantis Rider, letting it zoom past land disruption. Now, it's locking in too fast.
However, I think Eldrazi Tron's matchup against Ponza is the most instructive. Moon was never that effective against normal Tron because its spells are truly colorless. The Eldrazi, on the other hand, need colorless mana. Thus, it should be a pushover for a Moon deck. However, that's not exactly the case.
E-Tron looks very vulnerable to Ponza, especially with many lists cutting Mind Stone. And it is, though it's not as bad as it looks. Expedition Map for Adarkar Wastes breaks the lock. Walking Ballista deals with the Magus of the Moon. And Karn, the Great Creator's toolbox fixes everything. The key is that these all take time, and previous Ponza decks tended to have relatively anemic clocks.
No longer. Klothys into Glorybringer is a phenomenal curve and clock in this matchup. Seasoned Pyromancer goes wide and finds more beef. Bloodbraid Elf can swing games from nowhere. This was all possible before, but older versions had more land destruction, which often meant dead draws, and had higher curves. The new wave of Ponza has learned from the deck's unfortunate past, prioritizing faster clocks and more widespread disruption. This actually constricts the opponent's time to recover rather than leaving everyone spinning their wheels destroying and playing lands. Ponza has closed the gap in its attack and is finally a scary deck.
Blood on the Snow
Which at last brings us to Snow. On paper, snow decks of all stripes shouldn't be vulnerable to Moon. They're playing color fixing Arcum's Astrolabe and have a lot of basics. Moon's only real purpose is shutting off Mystic Sanctuary. Which isn't nothing, but could be done just as easily with Relic of Progenitus. However, that is over simplified. Consider this representative deck:
This deck has eight basic lands, the vast majority being Islands. It uses this manabase to cast double-white Supreme Verdict, triple-blue spells, and double-green Uro. The key is that snow decks have lots of fetchlands to make it happen, and Field of Ruin to make the opponent's mana worse while fixing their own. The snow manabase is strong, but brittle. It's surprisingly effective and flexible, but hit those search effects and the whole thing starts to fall apart.
This is where Ponza shines. That fast Moon will shut off the fetchlands before Bant can find the basics or Astrolabe. This isn't fatal, as Bant will likely draw basics, but not necessarily the right ones. And Ponza can exacerbate that with Breeches, Eager Pillager. All while having a lot of mana to advance its clock. And what a clock! As mentioned, Klothys is a house, and as long as devotion stays low the only way Bant can avoid being drained out is to bounce, then counter, the God. However, the other creatures net value too, which lets Ponza keep up with Bant's 2-for-1's, particularly Ice-Fang Coatl.
The real benefit, however, is how those threats line up against Bant. The main plan is Ice-Fang, which stacks up poorly against Lightning Bolt or Arborback Stomper. Force of Negation and Dovin's Veto are pretty poor. Sideboard Choke is even worse for snow than Moon, particularly when Force and Veto are getting cut. Ponza has found Snow's weak points, and by sheer luck, they're the exact points that Ponza targets anyway.
The New Sheriff
I've been down this road before. Three years ago, Jund mysteriously disappeared from the metagame standings. I posited that a metagame shift that wasn't reflected in the data was a fault. The data over that summer backed me up. We'll see how things go this time.