Adjusting Downward: March ’22 Metagame Analysis

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Welcome to a new series of articles for Insiders here on Quiet Speculation. This will be the companion article to my Modern Metagame Updates where I do the non-statistical analysis of the data that there's no room for in the data article. I'll be looking at what happened in March, why I think it happened, and then extrapolating on where the metagame is going. Hopefully this will help those looking to buy into Modern or simply provide context for where the card market is heading.

Eventually I intend to include graphs to help track the trends I'll be discussing. It won't be happening right away as this is monthly data, and a single data point is not a trend. We need at least three for that to be relevant and more to be valid. So for this month it'll just be March in a vacuum.

The Outlier's Story

The first subject is that outlier result. For UR Murktide to do well is not remotely surprising. It's never been below Tier 2 since arriving with Modern Horizons 2. However, this is the second time that it's been an outlier, which has never happened since I started keeping track of outliers. And frankly, if it had happened back-to-back, I'd be quite concerned. Given that the first time was in November and that in the intervening months Murktide's been Tier 2 a decent amount of the time, I'm confident saying that this is just a flux in the data.

Keep in mind that the previous two best decks (Hammer Time and Grixis Shadow) were both impacted by the Lurrus ban. Murktide was not, which would lead to an increased metagame share. With them down, their old rivals can rise. Couple that with both Hammer and Shadow being two harder matchups and seeing less play and Murktide should have done better this month. However, I'd only expect that to push it to the top of Tier 1, not over it. This plus Murktide's history suggest something else is to blame here.

Popularity Contest

Ultimately, the answer is that UR Murktide is a very popular deck. However, leaving it at that is incorrect. If Murktide was merely a popular deck boosted by the nerfing of its peers, it would not have been an outlier 5 months ago. The fact of the matter is that there are two largely unrelated factors that played into March's anomaly.

The first is that the Lurrus ban put many players off non-Murktide Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer decks. Murktide was the only deck which consistently played Ragavan and didn't play Lurrus. Yes, Ragavan does show up in any deck that plays red, but not consistently. Both Jund Saga and Grixis Shadow leaned on Lurrus for their late game, and without Lurrus, players have lost confidence in the decks. Which is absurd; Jund Saga has been falling off for months, while Shadow is doing perfectly fine in paper. The lists may not be optimized anymore, but the strategy itself is still strong.

However, players feel like they're weak enough to abandon. They're not just going to abandon Ragavan as a strategy. They've shelled out too much cash for that. Instead, they're shifting to the remaining Ragavan deck. Grixis Shadow's stock list did significantly overlap with Murktide's. The Jund players have it harder, so I'd expect fewer took this route. Consequently, Murktide ending up getting extra shares from disaffected Grixis players.

The other factor is that Murktide is a tempo deck of the thresh variety, and those are generally very popular. See also Standard mono-Blue Tempo and Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets in Legacy. However, these decks are deceptively hard to play. Players like winning with cheap threats, drawing cards, and countering spells. Few appreciate how hard it is to navigate a deck with a low threat count that never wants to play from behind. Consequently, many players will rush to said tempo decks without understanding how to play them.

Looking Ahead

Consequently, UR Murktide will fall off in April. It did last time and there's no indication that anything's changed. Indeed, there are already indications that it is overplayed and suffering. Last weekend, ManaTraders held a Modern tournament, and the most popular deck by far was UR Murktide. However, that didn't translate into a tournament win, and Murktide's conversion rate was quite poor. Meanwhile, at the NRG series 20K, Murktide barely showed up and those that did failed to perform. This will put players off the deck.

The lack of tournament results will likely be compounded by players returning to their old decks, particularly Grixis Shadow. There's nothing inherently wrong with the deck, it just took a hit and needs some rebuilding. That process is starting to bear fruit and I suspect many players will have their faith restored. There will also be those that just get frustrated and put the deck down for being too hard to play.

Opportunity Falters

However, I don't believe that downswing will translate into a noticeable price change. At least, that's how I'm reading the tea leaves. Murktide Regent has shown remarkable price stability since August, which I doubt will change. It's been hovering around $20 for most of its life with a recent spike into the mid-20's reflecting increased popularity. I'd anticipate a fall back toward old levels if everything plays out as expected. It's too useful in too many decks in Modern and Legacy for players to sell them off. The same goes for the other deck staples.

Ragavan, on the other hand, is a possibility, but it comes with caveats. Rags has shown a high degree of price instability since it was printed, and that's unlikely to stop. Depending on month and store, Rags can be anywhere between $70-$90. I don't know why this is happening, but I suspect that banning fears are playing a factor. Rags in banned in Legacy, it could happen in Modern. Thus, I've observed a lot of players buying Ragavan, playing for a while until Ragavan decks (the whole group) start doing well, and then selling them off in fear of an incoming ban.

I don't think that is likely to happen in the near future. However, Ragavan's power is close enough to Deathrite Shaman's that it's plausible. Players may panic-sell their Ragavans during April; they may not. What will happen is that the price will continue fluctuating regardless of the interpretation of the data. There's certainly on opportunity for arbitrage and profit playing the Ragavan market. But I'd be incredibly careful.

A Cascade of Value

The other headline for March was that both cascade decks (Cascade Crashers and Living End) were Tier 1 decks. This is significant as it's never happened before. However, it's also hardly surprising. Both were affected by the recent ban the same as Murktide, only more so. Grixis Shadow's combination of counterspells, discards, and a fast clock is the classic anti-combo recipe, giving it a decent matchup against both cascade decks. Shadow's displacement, even if it's temporary, was an opportunity for them to make a run.

Living End has the additional advantage of being well positioned at the moment. It's a true combo deck, where Crashers is mostly fair. Crashers's biggest advantage is its consistency, which lets it reliably out-tempo and/or overwhelm less consistent decks. Living End actively disrupts opposing creature decks with its combo. And looking at the current tier list, the field is ripe for just that. UR Murktide is the only true counterspell deck in Composite Tier 1. Crashers as well as 4-Color Blink tend to only have Force of Negation maindeck. Additionally, graveyard hate is limited to what can be found off Urza's Saga. It was the right time for both decks.

The Unseen Giant

There is sometime deceptive about the data in this update. Taking each deck on its own gives the impression that Murktide is standing on its own as the clear best deck. In fact, the top decks for the past few months seem to stand alone above the rest of the metagame. Which is only partially true. It's not that any individual deck is misrepresented, but rather that my naming practices have separated out a deck that perhaps shouldn't be.

The primary difference between 4-Color Blink and 4-Color Control is that the former runs Ephemerate and the latter doesn't. The lists tend to be otherwise indistinguishable. Playing Ephemerate does alter gameplay sufficiently to justify the distinction in my mind, but I get challenged on this decision constantly. And the challengers have a point, because if Blink and Control's shares were merged, then Blink would be the second-ranking deck online and would have made Tier 1 in paper.

If I were to then add in Tribal Elementals (a far more distinct deck that is nevertheless based on the same core of A-Omnath, Locus of Creation, City of Solitude, and Akroma, Angel of Fury), then the archetype of Omnath moneypile suddenly outstrips nearly every other deck. This month it would rival Murktide's overall share and substantially changes the outlier tests. Consequently, Omnath is both the card and the deck to watch in the upcoming months.

The Market Checks

Having the mana to play all the best cards means that these decks have few weaknesses. Normally, that would lead to a deck seeing increasing metagame share and moving decisively up the tier list. That isn't happening with Omnath pile for two reasons.

The first is cost. The moniker "money pile" is well-deserved. A cheap 4-Color Blink deck costs $1500 in paper and $1100 online. Most hover around $2000. Elementals is in the same boat. Getting a good 4C Control list for $2000 would be quite a bargain, most are around $2500. That is far beyond the average player's budget and also far beyond the rental limits online. A deck can't put up numbers without players and a prohibitive cost prevents a deck attaining its potential metagame share in an open field. Though cost tends to be a non-issue for the best players. Part of what allows them to be "the best" is that Magic is quite high on their priorities list, yielding not just more practice time but a bigger TCG budget.

Speaking of the Omnath players, they're the second problem. They cannot decide on which configuration they want for their deck. Some deviation is to be expected for any deck and that will be worse for a multi-colored pile that can play anything. Why not run every pet card?

However, in this case, they can't decide whether Control or Blink is better. Every month, one of them does better than the other. In January, Blink outpaced Control online. In February, Control beat Blink. It's reversed again in March. This seesawing is probably necessary as the metagame changes, but it definitely puts players off and inhibits deck mastery.

Opportunity Persists

That being said, Omnath pile is the deck that I believe has the most growth potential within the metagame and consequently the most investment potential in Modern. Other decks have certain cards with growth potential should the deck take off, but Blink and Control are just piles of staples. Even should Omnath get banned (unlikely, but not impossible) all the rest will hold their prices. Should the deck start to take off, demand will push the prices of the key card (the elementals, namely) significantly higher.

Change in Coming

That said, there is a new set release at the end of the month and there are early indications of Modern staples. The allied shard Tri-lands are already confirmed, and that will improve the 4-Color decks by a measurable amount. Whether there will be any more impact is currently unknown, but it needs to be kept in mind.

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