Easily the biggest bonus I get from doing the Modern Metagame Updates (next one's out next week) is watching decks grow and evolve. Magic is not a static game, and even in relatively stable metagames such as Modern, decks are constantly adapting to exploit edges and/or deal with new threats.
January is no exception, and the deck that has shown the most development by far is Jeskai Underworld Breach. Breach itself is something of the card of the month, having managed to worm its way into a lot of decks in January. However, its most common home remains Jeskai Breach, though the deck now takes many forms.
Among the escape cards from Theros Beyond Death, Underworld Breach has had a strange history. It was the first to be banned (in under two months since release) thanks to being fantastically broken in Legacy, but everywhere else it was overshadowed by Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. It was always compared, and not unreasonably so, to the busted Yawgmoth's Will, but never managed to achieve that level of power.
The problem has been that the context of Will is very different to Breach's reality. Will was legal at a time when fast mana was omnipresent, but Wizards has learned from past mistakes, and now such acceleration is quite rare. There are far fewer options (in non-Eternal formats) to power out a huge Will turn. Breach also can't get back lands and requires cards to exile, limiting its utility. The difficulty of using Breach versus Will meant that Breach has never lived up to its billing as the next Will.
A Singular Home
That isn't to say that Breach saw no play in 2020-2021. I remember seeing many players try to make various Breach combos happen at various times. However, they never really went anywhere. The combos were too susceptible to graveyard hate, too all-in, and/or poorly optimized. Sometime in late 2021 into 2022, a new version utilizing Grinding Station and Urza's Saga emerged. This one started gaining traction and finally became a regular part of the metagame when Ledger Shredder released. It remained the most common version until very recently.
The number of white cards played maindeck has varied, but the deck has always been called Jeskai Breach anyway.
The deck's plan is to use Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Saga to prep for the combo, with the former providing mana and fuel while Saga improves Grinding Station. From there, the deck can either just win with the aggro plan or use Shredder and Emry, Lurker of the Loch looping Mishra's Bauble to find Breach, dump their library into their graveyard, and win with Thassa's Oracle.
In the hands of a master, this deck is a machine. The multiple nonoverlapping gameplans make it hard for opponents to effectively attack the deck. There's the Ragavan tempo plan, the Saga/artifact value plan, and the combo plan, and no clear way to tell which one the opponent is going for until it's too late. The deck can also shift seemingly effortlessly from one plan to another to dodge the opponent's counter. Simultaneously, every gameplan can work with any other one, making this a true whole-greater-than-parts deck. However, this praise just serves to soften the following blow.
While this version of Breach has been the most successful, it has never set Modern on its ear. In fact, it's been a pretty minor player overall. The deck tends to do much better online than in paper, but still tends to hang out in mid-Tier 3 to low-Tier 2. Last month it cracked Tier 1 online, but that's thanks entirely to all the outliers. The trend for most of 2022 was for Jeskai Breach Combo to show up in force to win a Challenge, then disappear for a week before repeating.
The issue is that all the aspects of Breach Combo that make it a good deck also make it a very hard deck to play well. Knowing when to shift between which plan, and more importantly how to sideboard in every matchup, is extremely important, and not easy to learn. The masters make it look easy, but it isn't, and many unfortunate players found that out the hard way.
While I appreciated the power of Breach Combo, I've never considered it much of a player or a metagame threat. It has the same popularity problem as Krark-Clan Ironworks. The deck might be a demon in the metagame, but that doesn't matter if it sees little play. A deck that requires mastery to function will only be played by masters, and consequently won't impact the overall metagame much. Given that Breach doesn't have the Ironworks timing weirdness and tournament length issues, I figured that it would remain a curiosity more than a threat.
I don't know why, but starting in late December, Breach began to show up in far more decks than before. I'm inclined to blame Aspiringspike popularizing the move, but it also might be coincidence. Izzet Prowess may have been the headliner, but any red deck can have Breach in it these days, even Grixis Shadow. That said, Breach Combo has evolved more than the other decks, and in an unexpected direction.
The First Adjustment
For the first week of January, Jeskai Breach seemed to be chugging along as it always did. Around the 12th, something changed, and players started running an entirely new version.
While hardly the first time that someone paired Breach with Grapeshot, the above deck represents the first time I had seen this configuration. The idea was to primarily be a straightforward Ragavan tempo deck most of the time, while having a combo kill available with Breach. That meant giving up the Saga package, but in exchange, having no contextually dead cards.
This version will naturally fill its graveyard with Breach fodder, but A-Dragon's Rage Channeler also ensures a continuous stream of food. There's no way to generate mana, but in a pinch, cycling Bauble will do the job to find Grapeshot and win with four lands. Alternatively, a few Breached Bolts might prove all that's necessary.
Immediately Moving On
This variant lasted about one weekend before being dumped. It appears that it was designed for SCG Con New Jersey, and with that event in the books, Jeskai Storm Breach's play cratered. I'm not certain why, but I suspect that after actually playing the deck, most players decided that Grapeshot wasn't necessary and simply dropped it.
This deck isn't planning on an actual combo kill at any point. Instead, it intends to use Breach more like Snapcaster Mage on steroids and just out-value the opponent. A solid strategy. However, not so strong that it has rendered Combo Breach totally obsolete.
Where Things Stand
At time of writing, I haven't seen any Storm Breach decks in the data for over a week. It was probably too cute to survive. Meanwhile, Value Breach and Combo Breach are showing up in comparable numbers online, with Combo being slightly more popular in paper. I can't tell if this is a case of two completely separate decks emerging, or if one will eventually consume the other. I do know that it has split Breach's player base and will be lower in the metagame standings than in December.
Value Breach is a far easier deck to pilot well than Combo, though the ceiling is much lower. So it's likely attracting a lot of players who couldn't hack Combo. Still, the lower ceiling has kept it from placing as well as the Combo variant, and the deck is far more vulnerable to disruption. It only has the one central plan to attack, compared to Combo's three. I'm more afraid of a good Combo player than the average Value player, but I expect to see more Value than Combo in the near future. In paper, anyway.
Fighting the Flood
With Breach decks on the rise, players need to be ready to fight back. The obvious answer is graveyard hate. Emry, Channeler, and Breach itself all need cards in graveyards to do anything. Players know this and have been playing hate against Breach since it came out. It isn't working, and for very predictable reasons. The problem is that Modern players have become complacent. The Dredge Cycle is in full swing.
Hard vs. Soft Hate
The ease of playing Abnormal Endurance and Relic of Progenitus-type cards maindeck (thanks to Saga) has made players think that they're playing enough graveyard hate. The tale of the tape says that isn't true. Despite the prevalence of the above cards, Dredge is seeing a comeback, and will be Tier 3 this month. The reason is simple: players are reliant on soft hate rather than hard hate against decks where hard hate is necessary.
In this context, hard hate signifies cards that permanently remove the graveyard from play, like Rest in Peace. Soft hate is one-shot removal. The former completely guts a graveyard strategy; the latter, merely disrupts. There's nothing wrong with disruption, but graveyard decks can navigate around and through soft hate, while hard hate must be answered.
Against Breach and Dredge, the timing of the hate is critical. Too soon, and it will be too easy to rebuild. Too late, and it's too late. With hard hate, you just slam down the cards and hope it sticks.
Breach decks have always had options for building up a graveyard, then protecting it with A-Teferi, Time Raveler, removing Endurance from consideration. It has been very convenient for players to rely on soft effects, but it makes it much easier for graveyard decks. More hard hate is necessary.
The Right Tool
Of course, the right tool for the job is always necessary. The best hate card will always be matchup-dependent. However, given how all the Breach decks are set up, I'd recommend the following three cards, in this order:
Sanctifier en-Vec: I've slagged off Sanctifier en-Vec for not being hard enough in the past, but this card is the best tool for the job against the Breach decks. Yes, it only removes some cards from the graveyard, but that's usually enough. Against Value and Storm Breach, the red cards are the only threatening ones. Removing red cards makes it significantly harder for Combo to actually combo off. It can't be Spell Pierced, and Breach only plays three-to-four answers. More importantly, Sanctifier also shuts down the Ragavan plan, which all the decks share. You always want the card that does the most, and that's Sanctifier. As a bonus, it completely clowns Dredge.
Rest in Peace: The definitive hard graveyard hate card, Rest in Peace is the best there is at totally hosing down graveyard strategies. The main problem is that is all it does. Value and Storm Breach are, again, crippled by this card, but Combo will just employ Saga value to win. There's also a lot more enchantment hate out there than there used to be too.
Leyline of the Void: While largely replaced by Dauthi Voidwalker, Leyline is much better against Breach decks because it doesn't die to A-Unholy Heat. It's also nearly immune to Prismatic Ending. The problem is that it is terrible when drawn.
Beat Back the Flood
The lack of hard graveyard hate in Modern is letting all the Breach variants get away with their weaknesses. Sanctifier in particular has been falling off, to the point where it isn't any longer a universal inclusion in Hammer Time. Players have grown complacent, and the graveyard decks are creeping back in. One-shot removal is fine against decks looking for graveyard value, but not good enough against the real graveyard abusers. Don't just lose to Breach if you don't have to... let alone to Dredge!