Izzet Too Good?: May ’22 Metagame Analysis

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Welcome to the third installment of my Insider Modern metagame analysis series. Which will likely be the last time I number these articles. The first few are needed to establish a pattern; after the third, expectations should be fully in place, so that the next article is anticipated. Barring a banning in the next month, the June article will feature the trend graphs I mentioned in the very first article. With only three data points, the graphs don't really look like anything. Hopefully with four there'll be something to see.

Modern is in a very strange place. On the one hand, the plain statistics make it look like Modern's in a very bad place. On the other, players find the gameplay fun and engaging. More importantly, there isn't a deck that is winning events more than any other. Thus, the metagame appears to be quite healthy. Which is really hard to get my head around.

It Won't Go Away

Why are you like this, UR Murktide? I keep saying that there's no reason for you to remain an outlier, and then you have to go and become more of an outlier. It's happened twice now, when will you start making sense?

In all seriousness, UR Murktide's continued position as The Deck in Modern really doesn't make much sense to me. I know that the data I present makes it look like Murktide's running away with Modern. It's not. By a long shot. What you can only see by going through all the decklists as I do is that Murktide is omnipresent, but not omnipotent. In fact, its actual performance is pretty mediocre overall.

I see a ton of Murktide in Challenge and large paper event results. However, Murktide winning an event is becoming increasingly rare, and even its putting a pilot into Top 4 is unusual. I typically see a few in the 5-8th place, then most of the entries will be in 8-16, with a few more scattered through 16-32. Which aren't bad results by any metric.

However, when Murktide regularly is the top deck in starting population at these same events, it's in line with expectations. Wizards has unexpectedly confirmed this appraisal, as their far more complete data shows Murktide has an overall win rate of 50%. Which, again, is good but not phenomenal.

Good Ol' Rock

Which doesn't help explain why Murktide continues to be a statistical outlier. It really just leaves me stuck with "it's really popular and successful because lots of players like it." That is technically true, but deeply unsatisfying.

But what if we take a second and abstract this situation? What if Murktide is rock? Not rock the midrange value strategy (though as a fellow aggro-control deck it does have some similarities), nor The Rock being that classic GB version of the rock archetype, but rock. As in rock, paper, scissors (RPS). If this is the case, then it all starts to make more sense.

Murktide is a default "good" deck with no real strengths or weaknesses. And it being extremely popular fits into the classic dichotomy for the Magic metagame. Rock is the most popular deck, and so players are throwing paper to beat rock. This accounts for the disparity between Murktide's win percentage and metagame presence.

It also has implications for future developments. Even in an RPS metagame, which deck is likely to win depends on the size of the tournament. When rock is the most played deck, paper is favored to win a short tournament; that's scissors in medium length tournaments, and rock in the long ones. Right now, most larger tournaments are of medium length. There aren't Grand Prix yet and SCG won't have a Modern Open until July; events that a rock deck like Murktide would be favored to win.

Stay the Course

What that means for the immediate future is that nothing is likely to change. Murktide's place in Modern is being determined by non-metagame considerations. It doesn't make players more likely to win by playing it, they play it in large numbers because they like it. Thus, Murktide will not lose metagame position on the basis of its winrate. It's all down to player preferences, which I can't hope to predict. We just have to live with Murktide's presence in Modern.

In the longer run, things are far less clear. Allowing Murktide to sit at 10%+ of the metagame for a long time is unlikely to sit well with Wizards. It was a major contributor to Splinter Twin getting banned, after all. Also, if I'm right about Murktide's place, once bigger events come back, it should dominate. June is looking like a safe month for Murktide players. After that, no guarantee.

The Other Outliers

As for all the other outlier decks, things are more normal. There isn't anything particularly special about 4-Color Blink this month. Statistically, it's fairly borderline about being an outlier in the first place, meaning it was close to the line but definitely over it.

And that largely came down to how I classify these decks. If I lumped Blink in with the Control variant, 4-Color Omnath pile would be an outlier every month. If I got more granular and separated the Risen Reef version from the rest, they'd be low Tier 1/high Tier 2. It's not that a particular deck is doing abnormally well, but that many versions are, and it's not so worthwhile to separate them all.

As for Cascade Crashers in paper, I'm not totally sure. Crashers fell back to the bottom of Tier 1 as I predicted it would on MTGO, literally just above the cutoff. In paper, it's a very different story. Unlike Murktide, Crashers is a deck that wins events and consistently places highly. I suspect that many players were simply biding their time to spring Crashers on an unprepared field. It would explain the spreads I was seeing over the month.

Will it continue? I'm skeptical. Everything I said about Crashers last month still holds and played into the fall on MTGO. Paper tends to move slower than online so I would expect Crashers to stay in upper Tier 1 in June but lose its outlier status. Over time, it should fall down into the general scrum.

The Other Contender

Meanwhile, Hammer Time lost its outlier status. Instead, it's now the best performing non-outlier deck. Which continues to make sense. It gets free wins quickly, what else needs to be said? Rhetorical question; that isn't strictly accurate anymore.

Over the past month, I've noticed Hammer Time rearranging itself. When it had Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Hammer Time was a stripped-down drag racer with Lurrus acting as the pit crew. There were efforts to adjust to a slower style with Nettlecyst, but those never panned out. These days, Hammer continues to maintain the swift-kill style that brought initial success. However, it's pushed itself to be more of a fish deck with defensive interaction.

This new direction is not as inherently powerful as the old version. However, it rewards smart play and experience far more. The old decks didn't have much to do other than place their cards on the table in the right order and hope that was good enough to win. Now, sequencing and predicting opposing plays actually matters. This means that there will be more grinding than desirable, but sideboarding into Kaldra Compleat can flip the tables.

The Wider View

Taking a look at Modern overall, what I see is a metagame which is settling. There are certain decks that have consistently performed well over the past few months, and nothing has managed to shake them from their seat. There continues to be considerable churn underneath all that, but the top tier decks have made themselves known and look to be pulling ahead. Thus, the opportunity to turn a speculative profit on them has likely passed. There's certainly money to be made in moving the top cards from top decks, it will just require harder work than before.

An Old Friend Returns

So instead look for decks outside the normal Tier 1 crowd to speculate on. And I have a solid recommendation on that front. Grixis Shadow is back, and that's an opportunity for arbitrage. I was never clear why it disappeared so completely after Lurrus was banned, but that's exactly what happened. I think MTGO players just weren't willing to put the time in because it continued to do fine in paper. Not exceptional, but fine. That turned around this month as Shadow made it into Tier 1 in paper. And squeaked into the online population ranking.

Some might point to Ledger Shredder as the key to the resurgence. Which kannister, who won a Challenge with Shredder-powered Shadow, might agree with. However, that's not the case. It will certainly lead to more players picking up the deck online, but the paper lists aren't Shredder lists. Shredder frequently isn't played at all and when it is, it's there in low numbers. I think that players simply gave up on the deck, assumed it was bad, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The illusion is broken, and now they're streaming back. Be prepared to move some black cards.

Going Out on a Limb

The other area I'm seeing opportunity is on the fringe. There were a lot of offbeat decks making their way onto my online and paper tiers. I don't think that the Calibrated Blast, Boon of the Wish-Giver Scapeshift, Glimpse of Tomorrow, or Academy Manufactor decks are actually good. However, they're fun and quirky enough to attract a following. While being off-the-wall and unexpected enough to nab some wins against unprepared and inexperienced opponents.

Which is why if you're looking for speculative opportunities, I'd looks towards the aforementioned and similar cards. Players get burned out playing their old faithfuls. They like branching out into the weird. Even if they don't tend to stay very long, vacations are lucrative. Given that the metagame is stabilizing and players will be hitting a lot of decks they've already seen over and over, there will almost certainly be a push to find something new. And that's where investors can make money. Plan accordingly.

The Winds of Change... Stalled?

It looks like Modern has finally started to fully process all the power that was dumped in with Modern Horizons 2. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on perspective. I have doubts that there will be major shakeups in the coming months. Double Masters 2022 will make some cards more accessible, but won't have metagame impacts. There's potential in Dominaria United as with any Standard set, but no way to tell. This may simply be how things are in Modern now.

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