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Crash and Burn: Meta Limits and The Fringe Effect

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I put a lot of work into gathering data for the monthly Modern metagame update. Finding non-Wizards data can be tricky and frustrating, and organizing it for analysis and creating the tiers is quite time-consuming. In the end, the work is worthwhile to provide as complete a picture as possible for the benefit of the entire Modern community. Well done, me! But it also leaves me acutely aware of its limitations. And that makes it hurt that little bit more when I'm on the receiving end of said limitations. Such was the case this weekend. Here is my story.

Getting Back the Competitive Edge

I am, and have been for nearly two decades, a Spikey tournament grinder. Magic is a competitive game and being the best drives me. I am not without success, but the desire to advance and grow as a player is constantly gnawing at me... even more during a pandemic. I was used to going to multiple local tournaments a week with monthly cash tournaments available in multiple locations around the Denver area. It fed my drive and forced me keep my play-skill and format knowledge high. It was great!


And it all came to an end on March 7, 2020. On the 6th, I played Humans to middling results in a Modern cash tournament. On the 7th, my LGS announced they were cancelling all scheduled events due to orders from the county's health board. By the end of March, all in-person Magic events would be cancelled. Lockdown was on. And my Magic playing and ability began to plummet. Drafting on Arena was... okay, though Standard was poor. I enjoyed 2020 Legacy and played a lot, but it...just wasn't the same. And so I found myself drifting away from the game.


Tournament play was my main connection to the game. I need in-person tournament play to stay connected. Good news: on a local level at least, it is coming back. Bad news: I'm struggling to win in bigger tournaments. I've degraded sufficiently, and I'm just not competitive as I used to be. I needed a solution.

MTGO to the Rescue

Conveniently, now is the right time to have that realization. Right now on MTGO, Mythic Event Tokens are available until April 6. For those that don't know, for $25 you get access to (almost) every card on MTGO. Meaning you can play any deck conceivable. Including in formats such as Vintage, something the vast majority of us will never do otherwise. An incredible deal and anyone with a vague interest in MTGO should take advantage of. (Please? The Vintage room is always so empty....)


Anyway, back to Modern. In addition to getting a Vintage preview, I've been playing a lot of Modern. Partially because it's my specialty format and partially to try as many decks as possible. Both to get a better feel for the metagame and each deck's place within it and also to get more material for articles. The content well doesn't always refill itself, you know?

This has gone a long way to getting me back in practice and also got me feeling confidently competitive enough to enter the Premier events again. Which is the first time in over a year I've done that on MTGO. On far less sleep and far less tournament-specific preparation than I should have. However, when the mood and opportunity strike, you just have to go for it sometimes. I played in several events over the past weekend, and my experience in the Challenge is instructive of how it all went.

Deck Choice

I am familiar with a lot of Modern decks. It happens when you've been playing forever. The problem is that a lot of them weren't going to be optimal choices. Aether Vial decks are my preferred strategy, but I wouldn't consider them right now. Fury does nasty things to small creature decks. As I mentioned last week, I'm familiar with Storm, but not sufficiently committed to the deck to expect to do well. I'm also decent with UW Control, but not enough that I'm confidant about winning the mirror. That left me with one choice.

Burn, David Ernenwein (MTGO Modern Challenge)

Creatures

4 Goblin Guide

4 Monastery Swiftspear

4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

Sorceries

4 Lava Spike

4 Rift Bolt

2 Skewer the Critics

Instants

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Lightning Helix

4 Boros Charm

2 Skullcrack

Lands

4 Arid Mesa

2 Scalding Tarn

4 Inspiring Vantage

4 Sunbaked Canyon

3 Mountain

3 Sacred Foundry

Sideboard

3 Deflecting Palm

3 Sanctifier en-Vec

3 Roiling Vortec

3 Path to Exile

3 Smash to Smithereens

The advantage of having Burn in your back pocket is that it's a very strong Modern deck that's also easy enough to play while sleep deprived. I play a slightly less than stock maindeck because I've often been frustrated by Skewer the Critics getting stuck in my hand. Playing Lightning Helix is something of a gamble when Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is legal, as having Helix stolen is devastating. I consider it a worthwhile gamble since it gives me a pre-board advantage in the mirror.

The Tournament

As mentioned in the introduction, the Challenge didn't go well for me. I dropped at 2-3 after three straight losses. Which sucks, but accepting that it happens is key to being a tournament player. As is understanding why the losing happened.

It started auspiciously enough with a handy win over Storm. Burn is favored mostly because its clock is as fast as Storm's, but more consistent. Bolt and Searing Blaze being effective disruption is also good. Most importantly, Storm cannot go off if Eidolon of the Great Revel is in play. I played Eidolon on turn 2 of both games.


Second round, I hit Grixis Shadow. Which I thought was actually Rakdos Rock because game 1 my opponent is stuck on two lands with only red and black mana. Turned out to be Grixis, but my turn 2 Sanctifier ensured that all the Drown in the Lochs my opponent had were useless. I'm never in danger and get another 2-0. Things were looking up.

Fate Intervenes

Round 3 I'm devastated when my opponent plays and cracks Martyr of Sands for 18 life on turn 2. I'm never actually in that game because two Auriok Champion were in the revealed cards. I actually steal game 2 thanks to Deflecting Palm on a massive Ajani's Pridemate two attack steps in a row, but game 3 my opponent plays around that by flooding the board and has Skyclave Apparition for my Roiling Vortex. Which sucks but Soul Sisters is basically unwinnable for Burn anyway.


No matter, shake it off and play the next round. Which happens to be Ad Nauseam. Another nearly unwinnable matchup. Angel's Grace and Phyrexian Unlife are pretty devastating, as is the speed of the combo. I lose game 1 to the turn 3 combo and in game 2 runner-runner Graces into Unlife buy the time to combo off.


Things do not improve for the final round. Which is against Counters Company. Not Heliod Company; 2019 style Counters Company. With maindeck Kitchen Finks and Shalai, Voice of Plenty. Game 1 lose to Chord for Shalai. Game 2 I lose to double Finks off Company, then two Viscera Seer into Vizier of Remedies to gain 200 life through my Searing Blaze on Vizier. Including scrying into the rest of the combo to actually kill me. I'm too frustrated, disgusted, and tired to continue.

Learning from Defeat

Losing happens. Bad luck is a thing. The importance is learning from mistakes and improving. After a nap and a mental reset, I checked the playback from my matches. And there really wasn't much I could have done differently. Round 3 I had to successfully tempt my opponent into going all-in on the Pridemate not once, but twice. I had no other way to win, and managed that despite not being able to directly bluff my opponent. There was no room to win game 3 given my opponent's draw. Round 4 was similar.


I might have survived a few more turns round 5 with a different line game 2, but it wouldn't have changed the end result. I could have sequenced my spells differently and had Blaze and Bolt available on the combo turn to prevent the combo off. However, at that point I'd have had a Swiftspear, three lands, a Boros Charm in hand, and my opponent on 16 life. Said opponent had 2 persistent Finks on the board along with the Seers and several mana dorks, an Eternal Witness and three other cards in hand, plus whatever the scry's found. I'm severely behind and need my opponent to not only draw badly, I have to draw amazingly. It's extremely unlikely I'm going to win, and that assumes the foresight to change my sequencing to deal with that specific combo attempt.

Sometimes, There Is Nothing to Learn

Did I play perfectly? No. Did it matter? Not really. My three losses were against some of Burn's worst matches. One is about the worst matchup possible. I started each game at such massive disadvantage I needed everything to go my way. That's plausible to expect in one match. Three in a row? Forget it, implausibly unlikely. That's just what happens when the Pairings God determines that today is not your day.

The Fringe Effect

Which brings me to the point I made in the introduction. There was no way to predict that I would hit these decks. They do not appear in my metagame updates. I rarely see Ad Nauseam in the data. I haven't seen old-school company in (at least) months and I can't remember seeing Soul Sisters ever. Not saying I haven't actually, just that I can't remember. And this is not a fluke or simply bad luck. This is a fact of Modern that players need to be reminded about.


The Tier list does not account for every deck in Modern. In a given month it only represents ~60-80% of decks played by population. A substantial portion of what actually sees play in Modern is untiered. And many of those untiered decks appear as singletons. Modern is a format where much of the actual metagame is inherently unpredictable. In a larger open tournament, the likelihood of only seeing known, tiered decks is pretty small. It gets better the longer the tournament goes (fringe decks are fringe for a reason), but that's not a guarantee.

There Are Advantages...

Did I make a mistake in deck selection? Given what I faced, certainly. There was no way to know that going in. Burn has actively good to winnable matchups against most of the known decks in Modern, especially the top tiers. Given the spread of decks that I had an expectation of actually seeing, I made a good choice. In that sense, I just got unlucky.

However, it is also worth noting that my opponents had a big advantage over me and likely all their other opponents given that they too had 2 wins too. Being a fringe deck means that opponents won't have boarding plans against you, but you can still tailor your board against all the known decks. More importantly, they're less likely to know which cards matter, and consequently will misplay more often.

...and Opportunities

All of which has been known for a very long time. But something that rarely gets talked about is that fringe decks tend to have far more extreme matchups than mainstream, tiered decks. The tiered decks abide by certain rules of engagement. Look at current Modern's emphasis on red spells, card flow, and mana efficiency. The top decks stick to these rules and are tailored to thrive in this metagame. This means preparing against each other and having plans to reduce the impact of bad matchups and maintain good ones. This moderates every deck's advantages to a degree.


The fringe decks don't have to play by the rules. Nobody's thinking about them or preparing against them in the first place, plus they're doing something unique. This means that they can really lean into whatever strength they have and really leverage it without worrying about counterplay. This means that their good matchups can be made much better without worrying about making the bad matchups worse. A Tiered deck will have far more 55/45% matchups while the fringe will trend toward 75/25% on the good end and 25/75% on the bad. This is great when the right metagame is hit. It's hopeless otherwise.

Playing the Odds

Thus has always been the appeal and the risk of rogue decks since the dawn of competitive Magic. This weekend, I was on the receiving end. Next time I may be the benefactor. Modern is so wide open that this is just what will happen sometimes. Fringe decks are fringe for a reason. The odds of hitting one in a tournament are pretty good. The odds of hitting one that your deck specifically is just dead to is pretty low... but evidently not zero!

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