Seeking Stoneblade: Testing in the New Meta

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The pandemic persists, and consequently Wizards has yet to restart their premier paper events. Which might not be a bad thing. Considering how badly the MPL went and the lack of clarity over what comes next, it's better to give them time to figure it out. However, that does mean that many players with the competitive itch can't scratch it. Thankfully, the community provides. As I live in a state with high vaccination rates, individual stores are allowed to run larger events. Consequently, there have already been a few $1-2K tournaments and more are coming up. I've testing for these, and today will be a recounting of what I've learned during that testing.

It's been very weird for me playing paper Modern after a year of only online play. I knew it intellectually, but it was hard to actually live the reality that paper is much tougher than online because there's nothing to hold your hand. All the triggers, timing issues, general memory requirements, and other shortcuts that the MTGO client takes care of being on me again was quite a shock. For the first few weeks of restored in person play I played like garbage. All the muscle memory and experience I'd built up was just gone. I'm slowly getting it back but it has been a journey.

General Stumbles

In fact, that's been the single biggest lesson I've had to relearn now that paper play is back. MTGO is MTGO, and not Magic: the Gathering. Yes, it's the same card game, but it lives in its own world. The online metagame is nothing like the paper metagame. It never has been, but again that's something that's hard to internalize after being away for so long. I knew it would be the case, but actually experiencing that for the first time in over a year was quite jarring when FNM started up again. It also says a lot about the state of the game as a whole at the moment and how disconnected everything truly remains thanks to the pandemic.

In the Real World...

I've said it plenty of times but the MTGO metagame is just the MTGO metagame. It has been so since the beginning. The online meta moves in mysterious ways that are impossible for paper Modern. Primarily, the rental services severely reduce the cost of switching decks online and this means that not only can the meta move more quickly, but there is incentive for it to do so. Once a player buys into a deck in paper Modern, the expense is sufficient to keep them on that deck for some time. Additionally, they can't play that deck constantly so they'll want to hold on for a while to experience all that deck has to offer them. On MTGO, streamers need to keep switching decks to keep views coming in and so the metagame churn is far higher.

Consequently, I've played players that haven't updated their decks since 2019. And they're doing well with them. This would not happen online; there's too much incentive and pressure to constantly adapt. Therefore, I'll argue that while the online metagame is very clearly bending knee to A-Dragon's Rage Channeler and Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Modern is much broader than it appears and there is considerable space for older decks to survive and even thrive. It simply requires having the mastery of the deck to correctly pilot. And/or the stubbornness/poverty to refuse to change with the times.

Blending In with the Locals

This disassociation between online and paper leads to extreme confusion when brewing decks and building sideboards. Again, this is something I was used to pre-pandemic and was aware that I would need to adjust. I simply failed to remember how big of an adjustment it would be. The online meta is reasonably predictable month to month. There are a few known best decks and a lot of weird brews from streams, but they tend to fall along similar lines to what was already doing well and can therefore be prepared against. For example UR Thresh follows the same patterns as Izzet Prowess did and can be attacked in similar fashion. Thus, building sideboards is relatively straightforward.

Building against paper players is harder because it's more unpredictable. You don't see the same decks week to week because not every player can be there every week. One player may dominate for several weeks and twist the metagame towards beating them only to disappear and leave everything in turmoil. Online someone else playing a known deck will just take up the mantle, but in paper there may never be any consistency in what wins. Consequently, it's much harder to make educated guesses about what you actually need to prepare against.

Finding the Way

What all this is building up to is that I'm just as confused about what to do in paper as everyone else. I'm as aware of what's "good" on MTGO as anyone else and it doesn't help me at all when it comes to paper. I'm constantly rebuilding and reassessing every deck I build and every time I'm left feeling confused and frustrated. Even when I'm trying one of the top decks from the Updates. Maybe that's how it is for everyone, but as a format analyst, I'm quite frustrated. There are a lot of decks out there that do very well online and even sometimes in paper, but I'm left wondering why. It feels to me like everyone has just agreed that Modern is a certain way now when it doesn't have to be. And it doesn't have to be because everyone is trying to exploit the same strategy.

Where I'm At

Admittedly, I haven't helped myself very much. I spent 2020 taking advantage of low card prices to stockpile cards. This has greatly expanded the range of decks I'm willing to play and now that I'm able to, I have been. For the first few months back I switched decks every week just to finally get some mileage out of my new cards. And it was great. I had success and a lot of fun. However, as things have settled down and started getting serious, I've had to match that and it isn't working out. A lot of decks that had been working suddenly stopped performing despite the metagame not being particularly hostile. It might be a rut, but I'm also at a loss to explain the deck that's worked the best for me the past two months is UW Faeblade.

Faeblade made the rounds in August. I'd been tooling around with the idea before it broke out, and that convinced me to actually take it to FNM. I've been adjusting based on what I actually see in my local metagame and ended up here. I haven't maindecked Supreme Verdicts in a while because aggro is fairly low. The deck really needed another value engine and cascade decks have been popular, so T3feri got the call.

Sanctifier en-Vec is outstanding against UR Thresh and Dredge, but there aren't many of those in my local meta. Instead, there's lots of Burn, and Auriok Champion is much better in that matchup. With these changes and several weeks of play, I can say with confidence that this is a 3-1 kind of deck. Not really powerful enough to win the whole tournament, but it can take you deep.

Deck Frustrations

Thing is, I can't explain why it's doing relatively well for me. Spellstutter Spite is quite mediocre outside of the Cascade and Thresh matchups. However, when I replaced it with Snapcaster Mage to improve my rates against everything else (especially important when Cascade went on a downswing), my actual results cratered. I haven't been hitting a significantly different metagame, nor did the cascade decks come roaring back. It just has consistently worked better to have the more narrow card even in matchups where Sprite is bad. And I don't know why.

Worse, the deck feels like it's taunting me. It has consistency issues, which makes sense with no cantrips. However, when I've tried to fix that problem by adjusting my curve or adding cantrips the deck fell apart. Having only Archmage's Charm for card draw led to late-game struggles, but switching T3feri for Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria suddenly ruined the deck. And this despite T3feri being actively bad in the metagame I was facing. It's like the deck was as it wanted to be and was rejecting any changes. It's just baffling.

And then there's my frustration with the deck's main threat. Stoneforge Mystic is a good card and an extremely powerful threat coupled with Kaldra Compleat. However, is Kaldra actually better than Sword of Fire and Ice in Stoneblade? Or Maul of the Skyclaves in Death and Taxes? I genuinely don't think so, but I feel compelled top play it anyway. The problem with Kaldra is that if cheated into play, it's the best individual threat around. In every single other circumstance it's an uncastable brick and a big reason I wanted Jace. However, the high point of Kaldra is enough higher than the sword that I feel compelled to keep playing it. Even if I really don't want to. And that's frustrating.

Where's the Adjustment?

And leads into my big gripe with Modern at the moment: I'm flabbergasted that this is all working. The best decks' gameplans revolve around doing a powerful thing on turn 3 (sometimes 2 when it's Hammertime) and hoping that's enough. If it isn't, they have a limited number of attempts to retry, and after that they're on a (frequently mediocre) value plan for the rest of the game. And it's working. Hammertime, UR Thresh, Cascade Crashers, and Elementals have been defining Modern for months, and it's like players are letting them.

I realize how weird and arrogantly dismissive that sounds. But I can't shake the thought. It first came to me back in July when I saw 2018-era GR Breach Titan piloted... I'll say unevenly by a newer player utterly demolish one of the store's best players running the latest UR Thresh build extremely well. Said good player playing the best deck would be crushed a few weeks later by a truly mediocre Zoo deck because it had more creatures than he could kill while they had the removal for his Murktide Regents. It's gotten worse as decks like Green Eldrazi and Mono-Green Stompy have been putting up results despite being bad by most Modern standards. If decks like that can win, why aren't they doing so more often?

Living in a New World

The more I'm going through results for the Metagame Update while comparing my experiences and those of various streamers and Modern commenters, the more I'm left wondering if the online meta is only the way it is because players have agreed for it to be. It seems like there's tons of space left in the meta for a lot more decks, many of which are very well positioned against the ostensible best decks, but they're just not seeing play. It's like MH2 introduced cards that were sufficiently Legacy-like and everyone just agreed to play Legacy-lite for a while. Which is great fun, but it also means that players are just ignoring the realities of the Modern cardpool and letting this happen when it doesn't have to.

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