“New Decks Are Bad:” Overcoming Metagame Inertia

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Modern's metagame is as stable now as it has ever been. That is an odd opening, but it's true. From 2016 through 2020, Modern was constantly churning as cards redefined the metagame. Since the companion debacle, things have settled down significantly. Pioneer is in the same boat. In fact, in its short life, Pioneer has been inclined to stabilize quickly following any disruption and then resist change until the next major shakeup. Players seem to prefer to build their deck once and then not change a card unless absolutely necessary.

This is strange, because conventional wisdom says that settled metagames are the most open and vulnerable to attack. When all the best decks are known, it should be easier to identify and exploit their weaknesses with a solidly-built rogue deck. Which may (or may not) be true, but I don't see it happening very much. Every month there are many interesting decks in the metagame data, with few if any ever making a noticeable impact on the wider metagame. I have a theory as to why.

Standard Disclaimer

To get it out of the way, yes, sometimes innovation isn't actually possible. In Tier 0 situations like Eldrazi Winter and Hogaak Summer, the top decks are so powerful and resilient that there's no way to innovate around them. In certain others, top decks are covering for each other's weaknesses. Modern saw this back in 2017 when Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Shadow. E-Tron was very strong against the midrange decks which preyed on Shadow, a deck which in turn beat up on the combo and big mana decks that crushed E-Tron. Both decks were strong enough to take on random targeted rogue decks, and so innovation was suppressed. It happens.

I do not believe that either scenario is happening in Pioneer and Modern. Despite being a statistical outlier for a full year now (as will be seen in the metagame update next week), UR Murktide is quite beatable, and is far from a true Tier 0 deck. Rakdos Rock is the most popular deck in Pioneer, but it's only recently taken that title. There's no evidence or suggestion that decks are covering for each other in either format. While it's true that Modern Horizons 2 is more powerful than other sets, plenty of decks get by without its cards. There should be room to innovate and attack either format.

Pro Tour Aftermath

Last week, I noted that the Pro Tour results suggested that everyone was misreading Pioneer as an aggressive format when it's actually a defensive format. While I didn't expect players to suddenly change their minds and follow the pros' lead, I did expect to see some changes to how players build their decks. Players normally at least copy the Pro Tour decks, which in turn normally means of week of format disruption and brewing.

As far as I can tell, that didn't happen in Pioneer. The decks that are winning now look unchanged from what was winning before the Pro Tour. No deck is fully identical, but the variation between lists looks the same as it always has. Meanwhile, results have roughly the same decks in the same ratios now as before (at time of writing, anyway). Any shifts in the standings appear to be based on the Pro Tour numbers rather than changes in the weekly events. If the Pro Tour had any impact on players decisions, it's very hard to find.

Case in Point

I specifically highlighted Takumi Matsuura's take on Mono-White Humans to illustrate how the Pros saw Pioneer differently. Since the Pro Tour, there were a few decks that followed Matsuura's lead the day after, but that's it. Everyone else has stuck with Brave the Elements and being highly aggressive rather than taking the defensive line.

Having tested Matsuura's take, I think that while there are some oddities in the build, it's very solid. In a grindy metagame I'd cut Hopeful Initiate before Dauntless Bodyguard, and Sword of Forge and Frontier didn't do what I wanted it to do, but the principle was sound. Skrelv, Defector Mite was much better than anticipated and overall, I felt that the Rakdos and control matchups were much improved. So, why aren't other players seeing the same result?

Metagame Inertia

I postulate that players are not, in fact, seeing results different than mine. The problem is that metagame inertia is preventing any major changes. For those who either haven't taken or don't remember high school physics, inertia comes from Newton's First Law of Motion and is the principle that an object at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. Every resting object has a quantifiable amount of inertia that must be overcome before it will move.

Applying inertia to Magic, a metagame that has settled will remain settled until its inertia is overcome and changed is forced onto it. A churning metagame will continue churning until metagame friction forces it to stop. This implies that it is much easier to keep a churning metagame churning than to take a settled one and make it move. In turn, this implies that it's actually easier to meaningfully innovate in dynamic, churning metagames than in stable ones, defying conventional wisdom.

New Cards Prevent Stagnation

While I'm not going to do a full scientific proof and case study (not without a big research grant, anyway), but it would explain several aspects of Modern that have never fully been explained. The first one is how Modern turned from stable, to unstable, and then back again.

Prior to 2016, Modern barely moved from year to year. Unless a deck was specifically banned, its viability and deck composition would remain largely untouched. 2017 saw Modern enter a period of continual instability and churn as decks rose and fell in viability and were constantly being reinvented. This was largely thanks to new cards, with Fatal Push, Omnath, Locus of Creation, Teferi, Time Raveler coming from Standard-legal sets, as well as both Modern Horizons sets.

Following MH2 in 2021, things have dramatically calmed. Modern has received new cards, but they've largely fit into existing decks and so haven't generated the shifts from earlier. Thus, it can be argued that only Wizards had the necessary force to overcome Modern's inertia and create change. Before the big printing fest, metagame shifts and changes were up to players, and no individual player had enough power to really shake things up themselves. Wizards is in another league and can overcome format inertia at will and did for about five years consecutively.

A Frustration Explained

Furthermore, this postulate would go a long way towards explaining something that has otherwise defied explanation. In March 2022, UR Murktide more or less exploded to the top of Modern's metagame as a statistical outlier. Next week, the February 2023 update will still have Murktide as an outlier, closing the loop. There has never been a truly satisfactory explanation for this dominance other than players just like playing Murktide.

If I look at the situation as dictated by inertia, it starts to make more sense. The Lurrus of the Dream-Den ban lowered certain decks' power and left others intact, including Murktide. Later in the year when Yorion, Sky Nomad was banned, it took out more of Murktide's competition without affecting it. The players that had been playing Murktide could continue to do so, and as time has gone on, more and more players have gravitated toward the deck without having any need to change. Thus, the inertia on deck choice built up.

Wizards' printings have reinforced this inertia. The biggest pickups since 2021 have been the channel lands, which fit into the existing decks, particularly Wrenn and Six decks, effortlessly. Ledger Shredder was a natural fit in Murktide and few other places. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker supercharged Indomitable Creativity decks but didn't create them. Leyline Binding caused a small burst of diversification, but that's largely subsided. Modern hasn't been shaken up to the extent of earlier eras since MH2.

What Causes Metagame Inertia?

If my idea is true, then every metagame is going to naturally move towards settling. This certainly feels accurate since there will always be the best decks in any format, and they'll eventually be found. At that point, the ability to maneuver in the metagame will be somewhat limited, and the pressure to fully innovate rather than optimize and tweak will lessen. It's a bit like how waves in a tank of water will eventually dissipate unless the water is stirred up again.

However, there is a human aspect that must be considered. Human beings, as a rule, prefer stability and certainty to change and uncertainty. Even those people who claim to like change (myself included) aren't quite as open to it as they'd care to admit (guilty as charged). Players like more settled and predictable metagames and actually like playing their deck repeatedly rather than making new decks, again more than they'd like to admit. Therefore, while there are natural reasons for metagames to settle, players are going to encourage the settling of a metagame and resist change because it's easier than adapting.

Recent Example

I've mulling over this idea for some time, but a recent deck brought it into focus for me. On February 17, this deck won the Modern Challenge 32:

I really like the idea of this deck. Chancellor of the Annex as a way to disrupt the opponent's opening while pitching to Solitude or Shining Shoal is genius. It's not like this deck will realistically cast Chancellor. It's far from a perfect plan, as Chancellor is dead outside the opening hand and Shoal isn't aways useful, but this is a very interesting and unique deck which you'd expect the community to embrace.

That's not what happened. While the linked Reddit thread called it the biggest flash in the pan ever, on Twitter and elsewhere, I saw players deriding the deck as a pile of janky junk that just got lucky and benefitted from the best players being away at the Pro Tour. All without actually testing the deck.

While there are many reasons why players might have reacted this way, I'd wager that if this was 2020, the reaction would have been more positive. That metagame was far more volatile than 2023's, and so players didn't have their current inertia, leaving them more open to change. Now that things are settled and inertia has built up, the thought of something new and innovative is less welcome.

Overcoming Inertia

The Modern and Pioneer metagames have proven to be resistant to change. Metagame inertia is almost certainly a strong factor behind that resistance. Human nature, and internet culture as well, reinforce the belief that change isn't actually possible, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is hard to fight, but if players want more dynamic metagames, it needs to happen. There's no way to know if or when Wizards will shake things up for us. Thus, the solution is to keep more open minds and be more willing to try new ideas, rather than the knee-jerk "it's new and bad" reactions I've been seeing lately.

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