March ’23 Metagame Analysis: A Fable of Outliers

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March's data shows that a small number of decks are dominating Modern to a degree I find concerning. Given how UR Murktide has been an overwhelming metagame force for an entire year, this strongly indicates a stagnating metagame. I'm working on a full article examining Modern's health, but for now I'm focusing on what happened in March and how.

Unpacking the Big Five

There's no getting around the population data: UR Murktide, 4-Color Creativity, Hammer Time, Temur Rhinos, and Rakdos Scam (for the rest of this article, the Big Five) are the most popular decks in Modern by a lot, and across play mediums. Creativity makes a solid claim as the best overall deck in Modern, as it had the best average points among the Tier 1 decks in both paper and online. This is quite surprising. Modern has had one or more statistical outliers since this time last year, but never so many, nor so consistently.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Murktide Regent

Paper actually included another outlier in Amulet Titan, but I don't think it counts. It wasn't close to outlier status online, unlike the other decks. This is because Amulet's paper numbers are driven not by the overall metagame but by a single source. For reasons unknown to me, Star City Games attracts Amulet players. It always has. I always input the SCG data into my spreadsheets last so I can watch and see how it changes the numbers. This time I watched SCGCon Charlotte's results move Amulet from below Burn to outlier territory. It's not the same as other decks.

The MTGO Trends

As I mentioned in the data article, I know how these decks achieved their huge populations but not why. When the Big Five are the decks that show up in the large events far more than any other deck, of course they're going to beat out everything else. Therefore, the first question to ask is if I should have seen this coming. Was there an upward trend with these decks that predicted this outcome? Let's check the graph:

Not what I expected at all.

Well, Murktide has been on a gradual upward trend, which isn't too surprising given its history. Hammer Time hasn't recovered despite Mill falling off in March. Scam is volatile, so there's no way to know what happens next. On net these three, which had been the top decks for a while, fell. Thus, any upward trend was driven by the other two decks.

Both Creativity and Temur Rhinos spiked hard in March. Creativity was 4.91% in February rising to 9.27% in March. Rhinos was at 3.08% in February and skyrocketed to 7.98% in March. That is quite shocking. I knew both decks were up in March, but I didn't know how strong the spike was. Therefore, these two are the decks to focus on.

The Paper Trends

What about paper? It had been healthier from an outlier and general data distribution standpoint before March. To have suddenly become arguably unhealthy is quite shocking. What does the graph show?

Something very surprising, apparently.

I knew that Murktide was relatively down, but I didn't know how. It's one thing to have access to all the data; it's another to be able to visualize it. Murktide and Hammer Time have clearly fallen off significantly in paper while Scam is fairly stable. It's been up and down, but just barely. Again, the overall trend was driven by Rhinos and Creativity.

The increase isn't as dramatic in paper. Rhinos was at 4.09 in February, increasing to 5.61 in March. That's a decent bump, but not anything like what happened online. Creativity was at 5.20 and rose to 8.21, notably having been trending downward previously. That's significant, but still lower than Magic Online, which leaves paper's concentration as a bit of a mystery. The overall spread of the rest of the data isn't much greater despite the higher population and lower unique decks. However, overall lesson is that the movers in March were Creativity and Rhinos.

Rhinos Rising

That Temur Rhinos (formally referred to in this column as Cascade Crashers) is doing well is not surprising. It's been a consistent strong performer for two years now. The main hiccup was when Leyline Binding convinced players that 4-Color Rhinos was the way to go. That surge has subsided, and the Temur version is back on top. This is the advantage of being a more focused list.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Crashing Footfalls

The merits of Temur Rhinos vs. other versions are somewhat old hat at this point. What is relevant today is that Temur's very focused manabase and gameplan make it a perfect metagame tool. In a field where other fast aggressive decks are down and Creativity is rising, Rhino's maindeck Force of Negation proves fairly meta-breaking. Couple that with playing Blood Moon either main or side, and I suspect that the rise of Rhinos was a direct result of Creativity's own ascent.

Creativity's Conundrum

It's a strange thought that Indomitable Creativity is making a play for the best deck in Modern. Murktide has always been more popular, but Creativity has the better win rate. 13 months ago, I accused the deck of being a pretender, and here we are now. I stand by that analysis, as it was all true at the time. For Creativity to rise, something needed to change. And change something did.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki

In a card, the change was Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. Two creatures and a Faithless Looting for three mana is pretty good as-is, then add in treasure making and suddenly Creativity could consolidate a lot of slots into one card. This adoption let Creativity transition away from racing to Tinker for a fatty, a strategy that wasn't working, to playing a long, more controlling game. If the optimal strategy was racing out Archon of Cruelty, then Jund Creativity would be on top.

Instead, 4-Color Creativity is making waves and is the current driver of the metagame. It gets to threaten Creativity without having it, while still advancing a clock thanks to Fable. This gives it a Splinter Twin-like tempo drain, while playing a decent control game. Thus, it can just wait for the moment to strike or win the game while the opponent is distracted.

Time to Reposition

Consequently, I think that some of Creativity's rise is being facilitated by opponents playing poorly against it. They're still largely focused on the old, straightforward plan, and don't really appreciate how different the deck is now. When the current plans for fighting the deck clearly aren't working, it's time to reposition and adjust. I think players need to adjust their focus from Creativity itself towards Fable, to the point I think it's more correct to name Fable with Necromentia effects than Archon.

The Wider Metagame

As for the wider metagame, the only deck that consistently challenges the Big Five is Burn. This isn't entirely surprising, as in my experience Burn has at-worst even matchups against all of them except Hammer Time. Any deck that's careless with its life total is going to fall to the fire, and Creativity in particular can be loose. I'd expect Burn to remain the best also-ran deck in Modern for the time being.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Tasha's Hideous Laughter

As for the rest of Modern, there are a lot of solid decks that simply could not hang with the Big Five consistently. However, that hasn't stopped them from winning events. Both Mill and Tron won Challenges in the past week, which highlights the weird paradox of Modern's statistics. The Big Five puts up absurd numbers and dominates the field, but they don't actually win events. As far as the stats go, there's been a solid case for calling Murktide Tier 0 for a while, but since it rarely actually wins events, it can't be. The struggle with this paradox of decks dominating field but not actually winning events is a major focus of my present research on Modern's health.

Metagame Opportunity?

Given that the Big Five constitute ~40% of Modern, and with Burn and Amulet ~50%, this seems like as close a time as any to try metagaming. Normally, metagaming in Modern is a very bad idea. The field is too wide to accurately predict what will be played at any tournament. However, the actual competitive field in this Modern is narrowing, possibly significantly. This suggests that this is finally the time to really bend a deck towards the narrow metagame.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Stoneforge Mystic

I'm not outright opposed to the idea. A ~50% of hitting one of seven well-prepared-against decks is decent odds and certainly better than most metagames. However, that still leaves a 50% chance of missing entirely. I'd further ask how exactly the metagaming will work. Just building a focused sideboard is definitely fine. Bringing a deck that is great against the top decks and nothing else seems suspect. For one, what single deck is great against those seven, wildly different decks? For two, is it worth the risk of missing? Thus, I'd say that, contrary to my usual advice, some metagaming is justified in the current Modern.

Finance Corner

As always, we'll close out this column with some financial advice. With Modern stabilizing, so are staple prices. There's still good demand for them, but we're not seeing much upward pressure on prices. There is actually more likely to be downward pressure as players settle into their decks, stop switching, and thus stop buying new cards. Down the road, there will almost certainly be new upward pressure once instability returns, but for now I'm forecasting gradual decreases.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Indomitable Creativity

The exception has been Creativity. That card spiked in February, and while we're down from the spike, the deck's sustained success is likely to keep demand high. It's still on the upward price trend that began in 2022. Given the chatter around the deck, including this article, there should be plenty of arbitrage opportunities for the Creativity staples.

Money-Making Monkey

The wildcard in the next month will be Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. It's being reprinted in March of the Machines' bonus sheet, and that's going to drive both demand and supply, just as when Tarmogoyf was first printed in Modern Masters. That caused a significant price spike. This might suggest that this is the time to stockpile Ragavan in anticipation of a price spike, but hold on. This is 2023, not 2013, and the supply and demand forces won't necessarily play out the same way.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Tarmogoyf

MM1 was opened in large numbers, but it was still a non-Standard legal set and had a relatively higher price point. The number of players was also smaller back then. Therefore, MOM is very likely to be opened more than MM1, which translates into a large number of new Ragavans. Thus, I have to believe that the supply of new Ragavans will be at least as high as that of new Goyfs was ten years ago.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

On the demand side, 2013 Goyf and 2023 Ragavan are similarly metagame-defining threats. At the time, it was said that opening 'Goyf was the gateway to buying into Jund, and that's what drove the price spike. Having opened Modern's flagship creature, curious players decided to buy into Modern, which was still only two years old. The format is more mature no, and at this point, most players have made up their mind about buying in, so the impulse to join off opening one card is likely lower. Moreover, Modern is more expensive these days. The average price of a deck is about $900, which would have bought a high-end Jund deck back in the day. Thus, given uncertain demand and a supply increase, I'd actually expect the price to fall after the reprint, as opposed to Goyf's which ended up rising.

Waters Calming

I haven't seen anything in MOM that's going to dramatically change Modern. There are plenty of interesting cards and interactions to discuss next week, but probably not anything to shake the hold of the Big Five. The data I've seen from April is following March's lead. I therefore expect to be discussing the same trends in April's article. See you then!

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