State of Modern: 2022 Edition

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The end of the year is always a time for reflection, review, and rededication. It's why New Year's Resolutions are a thing. The world of Magic content creations is no different. So this year, as will now be a recurring tradition, I'll be reflecting on the state of Modern in 2022. Which has been... something.

The State of Modern Address

Assembled players of Modern, welcome. The State of Our Modern is... erm, complicated. There will always be those who dislike where the metagame is going. Magic players need something to complain about more than they need their next breath. Players being unhappy isn't a reason to condemn any metagame trend.

That said, the data shows that there are problems in the metagame, and they're not getting solved. This indicates an unhealthy Modern. However, there is other evidence that Modern in a good place and is quite healthy. Thus, I'm in a difficult position.

Definitions to the Rescue

As with most researchers trapped in contradictory data, I'm utilizing definitions to extricate myself. Specifically, the definition I created for this exact purpose over a year ago. To paraphrase myself, since everyone agrees that unhealthy metagames are stagnant, noncompetitive, and lack diversity, healthy ones are dynamic, competitive, and diverse. To get more specific on the criteria:

  • Dynamic: The metagame evolves and changes over time. The same decks in the same configuration don't win all the time with new counterstrategies arising to defeat the existing decks and in turn be answered. In other words, Modern should play like Magic, and not chess.
  • Competitive: Many decks should be able to win. There will always be decks that are definitively better than others, but they shouldn't be so dominant that others cannot win. Tier 2-3 decks should Top 8 and win events at reasonable rates.
  • Diverse: There should be many different decks, cards, and strategies represented in the metagame. There's no hard number for how many decks should be in the metagame. However, a metagame with 20 distinct decks representing the whole archetype spectrum is very healthy while a metagame of 20 different Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets decks is unhealthy.

One criterion that always gets thrown around is Fun. We're playing a game and it should be fun. The problem with that is that fun is relative. Some players actually enjoy Lantern Control, after all. This is certainly a good talking point, but it's not a valid way to evaluate metagame health.

Evaluating Modern's Health

I've already tipped my hand, but Modern's in a complicated place. There are aspects of this format which are the pinnacle of health. There are other aspects which are decidedly unhealthy. It's not a matter of it being healthy according to one criterion versus another; there's bits of each that point in different directions. Hence, the answer to Modern's health is complex.

Modern's Dynamism

In terms of metagame dynamism, Modern is doing very well on the micro-scale but not as well as I'd like on the macro-scale. On the micro-scale (which is decklist level) decks have changed significantly over 2022. In March, the Murktide lists were effectively standardized, whereas today they're anything but, reflecting a need to evolve and grow as the deck became established. The same is true for Hammer Time. Many other decks have evolved as new cards entered the format, most notably Crashing Footfalls moving from a Temur tempo deck to a four-color control deck thanks to Leyline Binding. Thus, decklist dynamism is high, indicating health.

However, the maco-scale overall metagame is not so rosy. Comparing the metagame from the Lurrus of the Dream-Den ban to the Yorion, Sky Nomad ban shows that lots of decks rose and fell in position across online and paper play, which is quite dynamic. But throughout that period and continuing onto today, the metagame has been dominated by UR Murktide. Having one deck be better than every other is natural, however the degree to which that has been true this year is troubling and limits the ability of the overall metagame to grow and change. There's also the issue that the biggest changes have been ban driven rather than evolution driven. That's not inherently bad, but it's not great either.

Therefore, Modern scores well in dynamism, but not as well as I'd prefer to see.

Modern's Competitiveness

This is the big stumbling block. As alluded to above and frequently mentioned in the metagame articles, Modern's top table have been far less competitive than in previous years. Both 2020 and 2021's metagame's had their own issues, but at least the top decks changed month to month and their metagame share was reasonably close. 2022 has been a year of outliers, particularly online. Online has a small playerbase and is more prone to follow-the-leader metagame moves, but the same thing was happening in paper. This Modern is very clearly dominated by Murktide and Hammer time and everything else is following in its wake. Rakdos Scam may be joining them, it's too early to tell.

On an event-by-event basis, the picture is technically but I'd say not actually better. Any deck can win any event. However, it has to do so pushing through seas of Murktide and Hammer, with 4-Color Omnath variants or Scam piling on depending on the month. The no deck has consistently overperformed for more than a couple months according to my data, but the top few decks in every month are so overrepresented that it leaves very little room for anything else to compete. There's also the issue that many of the top deck today are the same as they were at the end of 2021.

Modern is a format where almost any deck can win. However, the ability for any deck to win is severely hampered by a small number of decks. Whether that counts as highly competitive or non-competitive is ambiguous.

Modern's Diversity

If I count diversity as number of playable decks and archetypes, Modern is quite healthy. The average number of unique decks in my metagame data (both paper and online) is around 65, with an average of around 20 making it to the tier list. There are pure aggro, combo, and control decks represented, with numerous sub-archetypes as well. Aggro-combo is a little more represented than others thanks to Hammer Time and the Underworld Breach decks, but overall, the metagame is quite diverse.

However, on a card level, things aren't great. True to our pre-Lurrus ban analysis of Modern pillars, there are more decks taking advantage of Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer than any other by a long shot, or between 27%-36% depending on source. In fact, the only nonland card that sees more play is Lightning Bolt. The next most popular build-around card is Urza's Saga at 22%-26% of decks. There's a lot of overlap between Ragavan and Saga decks, but the point is that Modern's deckbuilding choices are being squeezed by a small number of cards. That's not inherently bad, but it's not inherently good either.

Thus, I must again say that Modern diversity is good but not great. How good depends on the perspective employed.

The Issue of Fun

However, all the objective measurements and definitions in the world won't mean anything if players aren't having fun. Of course, see my opening statement that fun is completely subjective, and therefore I can't really use it as a measure of format health. There's nonetheless an important fun-related issue to bring up.

In the course of writing these data articles I peruse a lot of Magic social media. It helps spark ideas for my own articles, but also fills in the blanks of many developments, trends, and deviations I see in the data. Numbers tell me what happened but not why. Only people know the why. In doing so, there's been heavy polarization surrounding opinions on Modern.

In any year or metagame, there are those that love it and those that hate it. Guaranteed; no exceptions. Most opinions will fall somewhere near the middle. I haven't seen that this year. There have been a large number of players extolling this Modern metagame. There have also been a large, but not quite as large, number condemning this metagame as the worst ever. What there hasn't been is many in the middle. This is a polarizing Modern which players either really love or hate. And it all comes down to whether or not they're ok with the precedent set by Modern Horizons.

Play It Again

If that sounds familiar, thank you! That means you read last year's State of Modern article. This is the same objection that players had last year, and it won't be going away. As I said then, and maintain now, Modern is the most interactive it's ever been. That's something that players have whined about forever, and it's finally been fixed.

It just took free spells to accomplish, which isn't what many of the aggrieved wanted. They meant everyone utilizing the 2018 Jund-style interaction best suited for fair-leaning formats, not the Legacy-style free interaction that can actually keep down increasingly powerful linear strategies.

I'm Unmoved

I'm not very sympathetic to this objection. The lesson from Pioneer is that adding more removal to a format doesn't make it more interactive, nor push it towards midrange-on-midrange gameplay. Tempo is king there because even with increasing numbers of playable removal spells, something can still sneak through and win.

It takes a lot more effort to interact with mana than threats, and so in formats where players have to pay mana for everything, the threat decks have the advantage. The evoke elementals have shifted the playing field in interaction's favor, and that's a good thing. It wasn't going to happen any other way.

I'm also unmoved by the "rotating format" complaints. Modern has always been a rotating format by the definition of decks losing viability as new cards are printed. All anyone has to do to see this is look at the year-to-year metagame data on The average lifespan of a deck is two years. For example, Eldrazi rose in 2016, was a strong deck in 2017, and by 2018 was falling from the metagame. The only exceptions are Burn and Mono-Green Tron. If you don't want to update your deck, play either of those decks. The Horizons sets didn't make Modern into a rotating format. They just made its status as one more obvious.

Salving the Wound

There's no putting the genie back in the bottle or snapping Pandora's Box shut again. Modern has, and I'd argue needs, the free spells from the Horizons sets, and Wizards will make more Horizons sets regardless of the objections. However, they could be made more palatable. I agree with the critics that Modern's cost has increased a lot over the past few years. All the critical spells from Horizons are mythic rares. This sold the sets, but it now means that cost is rising due to limited supply.

I therefore advocate for another Modern Masters set with a focus on Horizons staples. Horizons isn't going to go away, and Wizards cannot be dissuaded from making more (I blame Hasbro), but it could be made cheaper and therefore more palatable.

Modern's Complicated

Modern is neither especially healthy nor unhealthy. The factors pointing in one direction vs another effectively offset and it becomes a matter of perspective how to evaluate them. From my perspective, Modern is on the healthier side of the spectrum, but there are problems in the metagame. It isn't exactly pressing to deal with the issues, but at some point there will need to be action taken unless there's a dramatic metagame shift. I'll be explaining how next week.

2 thoughts on “State of Modern: 2022 Edition

  1. Just as a data point, Modern is completely dead in my area. People are trying Pioneer. There is a greater chance of both Legacy and Pauper being played at my local stores than Modern.

    1. I’ve heard this before. The problem is that there’s no consistency. Formats rise and fall in popularity all the time and in no pattern I’ve ever determined. In the past, when other areas were seeing Modern fall off, my area was growing. When Modern in my area was declining, others were growing. Right now, Magic play at my LGS across the board is down thanks to a lot of players leaving the area. The only ones who know the exact state of popularity between the formats is Wizards, and the only thing they’ve said on that recently is that paper Standard is effectively dead.

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