June ’23 Metagame Analysis: Ringing In

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Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth has been more impactful than I expected. Of course, my expectations were set low enough that it isn't a low bar. Still, the metagame is certainly changed as a result of LTR. How much and for how long is up for debate, and that will the focus of this article. Modern's metagame is at a crossroads between a major improvement or heavy bannings. The fallout from LTR will be the deciding factor.

The Big Story

As mentioned in the data article, the big story is the rise of 4-Color Control alongside Rakdos Scam and Living End. These events are actually just one event, as they're result of LTR becoming legal. The new set directly impacted Control and Living End, and the influence of those two are the main driving force behind Scam's rise. I'll discuss what happened on MTGO to each deck before putting it all together. Paper is still mostly unchanged, though that's likely due to lack of data. The events that did happen followed MTGO's pattern.

4-Color Control

The apparent biggest winner is of course 4-Color Control, since it jumped from Tier 3 to Tier 1. Every reader is saying that it is entirely thanks to A-The One Ring. That's not entirely true. It is certainly true that Ring is right at home in 4-Color and it's even on-theme for the "money pile" deck, but that's missing some very important nuance and jumbles the order of events.

The card that initially drove 4-Color's rise is actually Delighted Halfling. The first lists I saw after LTR became legal had didn't always have Ring, and if they did, it was not a mainboard four-of. However, they were all running a full set of Halflings. 4-Color has always been mana hungry and clunky, so a mana dork that makes all the legendries uncounterable and doesn't die to Wrenn is exactly what that deck has always wanted.

Halfling smoothes the curve better than other options for 4-Color specifically. Its most important spells are all legendary, and except for Wrenn and Six are all fairly expensive. It has desperately needed Utopia Sprawl and/or Abundant Growth from the beginning, but without Yorion, Sky Nomad there wasn't room. Now it can run Halfling, and as a bonus, an uncounterable draw engine in Ring.

Living End

I missed Living End getting any cards from LTR. I knew the land cyclers existed, sure, but somehow not that they cost one. In fairness, landcyclers are nothing new, and they haven't been relevant to Living End in years. It's an easy thing to overlook.

Oliphaunt and Generous Ent specifically have been effortlessly incorporated into Living End. It makes sense that the on-color creatures would be, in retrospect. They've allowed Living End to get aggressive about cutting lands, with some running as few as 14. 16 is far more common from my observations.

This has stirred a lot of new interest in Living End, especially since the new cards are otherwise draft chaff. Whether Living End's recent success is down to the influx of new players or the landcyclers have made the deck better is not currently known. The Living End player at my LGS says that when the deck is running well it feels better, but I've watched him flame out more than pre-LTR, and he's on 16 lands.

Rakdos Scam

Scam's direct boost from LTR is of course A-Orcish Bowmasters, but I'm not certain how much of a boost it actually was by itself. Immediately after LTR became legal, Bowmasters was everywhere. It was the chase non-mythic, after all. However, it fell off sharply after a few days because it just wasn't getting many triggers. Outside of Living End, no deck drew a continuous stream of cards.

That changed once Ring started seeing more play (more on this in a bit). Once nearly every slower deck started jamming full sets of The Ring, Bowmasters made a resurgence, but not a full one. It's not actually punishing enough to really counter Ring, but it is decent value. For that first week, Bowmasters was in almost every deck, but now it's limited to just Scam and some rogue decks.

However, the surge in Scam started before Bowmasters started to actually be decent. Scam is one of very few decks with maindeck graveyard hate these days, and when Living End started picking up, Scam benefitted greatly. Between Bowmasters and Dauthi Voidwalker, Scam was best positioned to fight Living End and did. Now it's hitting both that and Ring decks.

How It Unfolded

Immediately after LTR released, there was a surge of 4-Color decks powered by Halfling. Living End wasn't doing anything new, and the slew of other decks playing Bowmasters obscured its impact on Scam. After a couple of days, the excitement wore off, and the number of 4-Color decks fell. They didn't stop playing Halfling, but there were fewer showing up in the results.

After about a week, things started changing. Ring had been seeing play up until that point, but it was fairly limited. I don't know if MTGO had supply issues because the few paper results I had to work with showed plenty of Rings, but I wasn't seeing online Rings until June 23 when it more or less just exploded. Every slow deck was suddenly running Ring. 4-Color was the big one, but everybody was doing it.

Concurrent with that surge, Scam really took off. It had been on the lower end of Tier 1 for most of June, and as a result of the surge in Rings, it just exploded. Murktide still had a solid lead going into the last week of June, but Scam had an amazing final weekend. Living End was in the middle of Tier 1 and the increased interest let it gain distance from competitors, but it didn't really change position. 4-Color just made Tier 1 the last weekend.

About That Ring of Yours...

At time of writing, Ring hasn't really changed either medium's metagame. The top few decks from May are still the top decks in June. True, 4-Color is a real deck for the first time since Yorion, Sky Nomad was banned, but that hasn't affected the overall metagame. Paper's metagame looks entirely unaffected, though that might just be down to lack of data.

Assuming that this is a real effect (rather than caused by card shortages), I believe that the apparent lack of impact is deceptive. As a colorless artifact, it can go in any deck that doesn't mind casting four-drops, and so it has been. I'm not kidding: I haven't seen a non-aggro deck that hasn't at least tried to make Ring work for them. It hasn't stuck in all cases, but that hasn't stopped players from trying.

Thus, the impact of Ring is being spread out over the whole metagame, and is consequently very hard to see. When every deck is playing a card, it's almost the same as if no deck was playing that card. If it's good in every slow deck and every slow deck is running it, none of them have any real advantage over the others. Thus, the card is omnipresent without being impactful.

Does It Change Games?

Speaking as a Burn player, I think Ring is a trap. Players think that getting protection for a turn and drawing cards will save them against Burn. It doesn't, unless paired with Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. Ring fogs for a turn, but then on upkeep Roiling Vortex and Ring's damage triggers happen and I throw a lot of burn into their face for the win.

Against Burn, Ring just prolongs the game. Unless the opponent was ahead on the board prior to playing Ring, it doesn't actually change what happens, just how long it takes. The exceptions have been when Sheoldred or A-Omnath, Locus of Creation are on board and I don't have Vortex, so I was going to lose anyway. In all other cases I just had to be patient and win anyway.

While Ring's damage trigger is a problem for many of my opponents, a bigger one has simply been that they're leaning way too heavily on the protection trigger. Frequently, they act like they're getting a four-mana Time Walk, which isn't the case. It's just better Aven Fogbringer. I'm still able to untap, kill creatures/planeswalkers, and add to my board. It's a speed bump that didn't change the board state.

On Omnipresence

Of course, not being good against Burn isn't a reason not to run a card. Every deck is trying it out, and it's even sticking in some unexpected places. In fact, the only decks where I've never seen a Ring are Burn, Hammer Time, and Creativity decks. Given that there really aren't deckbuilding restrictions, players are getting shades of Oko, Thief of Crowns, and the ban calls have started.

Some of this is obvious hyperbole. Ring does not take over games by itself as effectively as Oko did. It's a decent draw engine, but it is more expensive and doesn't affect the board. To really take over games, it needs help. Lots of help. However, a card like Ring getting played everywhere is something to watch. It falls into the Once Upon a Time camp of maybe not too powerful, but definitely quite prevalent.

Ban Risk

It is far too early to say if Ring is an actual threat and needs to be banned. It's only been fully available for about two weeks at time of writing. There's so much excitement over Ring (which is rather ironic given the story) that everyone wants to play it everywhere, even if their deck doesn't actually use it well. Right now, the omnipresence can be chalked up to New Card Excitement more easily than being too good.

If this continues for several more weeks, then there's something to said for a Ring ban. The New Card Sheen will have worn off, and players will know if Ring actually belongs in their deck or not. If I'm still seeing Ring everywhere by then, I'll be more amenable to the ban crowd's arguments. Right now, I'm insufficiently impressed by the card to think it's too good.

Financial Corner

And now it's time for a gaze in the Financial Crystal Ball. The market is currently dealing with the massive influx of LTR Collectors cards opened as a result of trying to find the serialized Ring. There's considerable downward pressure on a lot of card prices, and that's unlikely to subside. There's high demand for Ring, which is keeping its price up, but also indications that the demand is slackening. Prepare accordingly.

Outside of the highly-played Modern cards, there are unexpected cards doing well. Lord of the Nazgûl is the big one, with the price for even the non-foil version being quite high. I'm guessing that Commander is to blame, because I haven't seen them in Modern at all. At this point, I think any opportunity for gain with the mainstream cards is over, and it's time to look for opportunity in the more obscure cards.

Closing the Book

June's big story is now over; it's time to see what July holds. While there's no way to say for sure, it will certainly turn into a referendum on Ring. We'll see how it holds up once the excitement is over.

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