Welcome to the second installment of my Insider metagame analysis series. This is the companion article to this month's Modern Metagame Update where I do the non-statistical analysis of the data that there's no room for in the data article.
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Last time looked at where Modern was after the last banning. This month, I'll be looking at how it has evolved over the past month and try to guess where it's going. This will be much less certain than usual given that a new set just released and the actual impact on Magic, never mind Modern, has yet to be seen. It's still too early for any actual trends to emerge, so there will be no trend tracking or graphing this month. Assuming that nothing is banned in May (which is unlikely) it will be that update when I have enough data to finally start making graphs and tracking how Modern is actually evolving. However, based on April's data, it looks like Modern was stabilizing prior to Streets of New Capenna.
A Persistent Outlier
First things first: UR Murktide didn't stop being an outlier in April despite my predictions. The last time that a deck was an outlier for more than one month was... checks the archive... never, actually. Technically, 4-Color Uro-Omnath Pile should have been treated as an outlier prior to Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath being banned, but I didn't start doing that until after said ban. In every subsequent case, the outlier has disappeared after a month. And technically, it did in paper, so I was half-right.
Of course, that also means that I was half-wrong, and I don't really know why. UR Murktide performed exactly in line with what its prevalence would predict, so it's not that it wins a lot. Previously, I hypothesized that it was simply a case of the deck being very popular because that cantrip-heavy tempo style is always popular. This is still my go-to answer, but I'd like to modify it slightly.
Based on conversations I've had with pilots and posts online, I believe that a major factor is that Murktide players feel that they have high agency. The deck is filled with decisions and ways to make more decisions. It's not quite to the level of Legacy's cantrips, but as close as Modern gets. Players like feeling like they mattered in the game, win or lose. UR Murktide rarely gets completely run over thanks to all the answers letting it put up a fight. It rarely freerolls an opponent either. A deck where pilot skill is intrinsic is very attractive, win or lose.
Can't Touch This
On the other hand, I think it's quite straightforward to explain why Hammer Time was an outlier. It's for entirely the opposite reason that Murktide was: it gets a lot of free wins. Hammer Time has many different ways to win on turn 3 (and an improbable turn 2 kill) and ways to do so through removal. It can play a longer game and win via chip damage and card advantage but that really isn't what it wants to do. Just like Infect years ago, Hammer just wants to slip past the opponent and that's always going to be a solid strategy.
Both decks will remain Tier 1 online. They were in March and continued to be in April. Given the current shape and spread of the online metagame, I have no reason to doubt that they will continue to be in May. This is particularly because the cards SNC brings to Modern look mainly like combo pieces and both decks are solid against combo. Should there be a metagame shift, I expect that both will survive largely unscathed.
As for remaining outliers, that's unlikely but not impossible. Murktide's already defied my expectations once. The decks are very solid and consistently do well in events and that will keep players interested. However, neither does exceptionally well such that players feel compelled to play either. The online metagame remains highly volatile and players could simply abandon either deck. Those looking to speculate online should move with caution.
A Duo Apart
However, moving into Murktide-related cards should be a solid move in paper. The same applies to Cascade Crashers cards as well. For the second month running, those two decks are the only composite Tier 1 decks. This is a very strong argument that they're the best decks in Modern currently. Murktide I'd expect to continue being Tier 1 for previously stated reasons, but Crashers is a harder call.
On the one hand, Crashers is the most consistent deck in Modern. It wants to make two 4/4 rhinos on turn 3 and ride them to victory in short order, and executes the former a high percentage of the time. That doesn't sound like it would be good enough on its own, but the deck plays a ton of interaction to clear the road and/or protect the rhinos. And 16 damage is often plenty to secure a win.
On the other, there are a ton of ways to answer cascade. Chalice of the Void and A-Teferi, Time Raveler are most frequently played, but there's also Void Mirror, A-Buy Your Silence, Lavinia, Azorius Renegade, and normal counterspells to name a few. Crashers has answers to all of them, certainly, but they all are much more expensive and/or require card disadvantage to cast. This is fine so long as Crashers stays ahead, but if it falls behind it struggles to catch back up.
Price of Success
It feels like Crashers should start to fall back toward mid-Tier 1, flirting with Tier 2 as it did for most of last year. The sheer number of answers available and Teferi's prevalence in Modern seem deterministic on that front. This is supported by Living End being a top-performing deck and all the hate for Crashers working equally well against Living End. It would make sense to play more broad anti-cascade hate which would bring down both's metagame share.
Shutting off the cascade spells is worthwhile because, without that interaction, both decks are extremely mediocre. Sans-rhinos, Crashers has to win with Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp beatdown and Living End must win via expensive draft-fodder beats. It's possible to do, but if that was proposed as the A Plan for a Modern deck it'd be laughed out of the room. Thus, I'd expect the metagame to drive down both deck's metagame share such that following a strong month, they'll have a weak month.
However, that hasn't happened to Crashers yet. Given the time both have been hanging around Modern's upper tiers, I'm inclined to think that if it won't. The economic principle of "No Hundred Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk" implies that if an opportunity for gain exists it will quickly be seized. Thus, any apparently unrealized gain must either not be attainable or not actually be a gain. In this case, it suggests that either the opportunity cost of playing more cascade hate is too high relative to the format or it's too easily answered to be worthwhile.
I think that the former is the problem. Living End does demonstrate volatility, moving between Tiers 1 and 2, but that deck is affected by graveyard hate in addition to cascade hate. Graveyard hate is far more common and far more versatile than Void Mirror, which only really hits cascade spells. It is not and has never been actual Tron hate, and so the only reason to play the card is to hit cascade and both decks maindeck artifact removal. Given the breadth of the rest of the metagame, the additional hate simply isn't worthwhile.
This leads to a wider point about the metagame from March to April: it's remarkably stable. Yes, decks move up and down within the tiers quite a bit, but the overall composition of Tiers 1-2 didn't change very much across paper and online standings. Tier 3 is another matter, but given that it's the tier most affected by the cutoff stat changing, that is to be expected. It's also where decks propelled by trends, streaming, and enthusiasm tend to reside. Unless that translates into event wins, they always fade.
Thus it appears that Modern is finally settling into a relatively predictable metagame. Whether this is a good or bad thing in a vacuum is a matter of perspective. For those looking to try and exploit the metagame, it's definitely a positive. At this point, it's a guarantee that UR Murktide will be highly played regardless of event type or location. Crashers won't be far behind and the usual parade of Omnath decks will be nearby. Whether this will last for another month is unknowable.
This is all well and good for players, but what does it mean for the Modern marketplace? The knee-jerk response is that if you've invested in a high tier deck it looks to be a safe one. There's no indication that any deck will lose viability in the near future. I don't think that the additions from SNC will be format shaking much less format altering. Moreover, a lot of focus is off Modern right now because Pioneer will be the first qualifier season of the new Pro Tour. Prices should be in a temporary lull and will pick up slightly in the coming months. Not dramatically, but enough for some gain to be made.
One deck I'd advise against getting into is Amulet Titan. For players, it's because the deck is extremely hard, and unless you're willing to devote your life to learning all the lines it is punishing. For investors, it's because the unique cards in the deck don't show much growth potential or even price volatility. There may be a slight increase on the basis of its performance in May, but that's down entirely to its performance at Star City events. Amulet has been overrepresented at SCG events for years and continues to be. Don't be fooled.
April was a month of metagame stability, and unless I'm very wrong about SNC, May will also show stability. For those concerned, unless Wizards sees something very dangerous in their win-rates data (which we cannot see), then there's no chance of bannings in the immediate future. So enjoy Modern with confidence!