There are 4,303 combatants here in Virginia. This is a gigantic hall (two halls, actualy), and combined with all the judges, event staff, and spectators there is likely over 5,000 people here today. When seemingly infinite things are going on all around, how do you know where to focus your attention? What should we be watching out for and pulling from the mountains of words, data, numbers, decks, etc. that are out in full force today? Don't worry, folks, I've got you covered.
The overarching themes of Modern are openness and variability. This format more so than any other has a freedom of deck choice and play style. Looking at the data from Pro Tour Born of the Gods, barely any deck can claim that it commanded over a tenth of the field (and if you carve further into sub-archetypes of the top two decks, nothing was close to over 10%). The mantra we hear over and over is "Play what you know." This lack of a "best deck" has some repercussions.
First off, it drives pros nuts. If there isn't a best deck, it's harder to decipher what the metagame will be for a given tournament. What decks will show up? What specific card choices will people make? These questions are easy when there's a king of the hill to dethrone. But in a format like this one, you can't expect to see any particular decks at all throughout the tournament. Even if something is 15% of the field, you might never run up against it. Pros, who prefer to have everything figured out beforehand, have to make a choice: Are they going to dive fully into a linear strategy that might blow up in their faces, but might also reward them greatly? Or will they hedge and try to have a near-even game against the majority of the field and try to outplay the competition?
For example, the Ad Nauseam deck is a strong, dedicated linear strategy. The deck attempts to ignore what the other deck is doing and just win when it casts
Other decks similar to this are Storm, Little Zoo, Affinity, Living End, UG Hexproof, and the straight combo version of Splinter Twin. However, a choice like this has its caveats. These decks can have specific bad matchups, and if you run into them a few too many times, you will likely finish poorly. Though it's possible you avoid these bad matchups, many people aren't willing to roll the dice and take that risk.
Instead, such people play a deck that is more reactive, and more malleable to what the opponent is doing. WUR Control, GB Obliterator Rock, and Melira Pod are all made to adapt to what's happening on the battlefield. Though this means the games are often tougher on average, because there are fewer auto-win matchups, the percentages across the entire field is generally better because there's no silver bullets that can wreck your day (think Creeping Corrosion for Affinity, Rule of Law for Storm, Leyline of the Void for Living End, etc.).
This idea of silver bullets leads perfectly into the second big question of having a broad format: Is it better for your sideboard to be specific or generic? Jim Davis wrote about this in a great article, "The Right Stuff," Star City Games published this week. Davis argues that because there are so many decks to account for in Modern, the lazy way of sideboarding doesn't work as much as in previous formats. Usually, if Affinity is a tough match for you, you just throw four Shatterstorm in the sideboard and call it a day. But Shatterstorm is only good against that one deck, and you might never see the robots the entire weekend. If you don't, you just wasted over 25% of your sideboard. Similarly, Patrician's Scorn can be an "Oops-I-Win" against UG Hexproof, but what other matchups are you going to side into a Patrician's Scorn? (Hint: the answer is likely "none.")
The article argues, and many agree, rather than sideboarding cards like Shatterstorm or Patrician's Scorn, play something like Wear & Tear. Though the split card doesn't make you automatically win either match-up, it shores up both of them and you don't run into the problem of the narrowly tailored sideboard cards that aren't applicable elsewhere. The closer you have to fifteen cards that all matter over the course of the tournament, the better. Again, you're more likely to have to outplay your opponent that way, but if Storm isn't going to show up in huge numbers, maybe Rule of Law shouldn't be bulking up your sideboard. Even though Magic's Michael Jordan, Jon Finkel, admitted his pet deck Storm is basically dead to a Rule of Law, can you even to play the enchantment this weekend?
So this weekend, while mulling over all the data, all the players, all the decks, look out for what is being rewarded in both the main deck and the sideboard. Are linear or malleable strategies being rewarded? And what about focused or broad sideboards? Both focused sideboards and linear strategies can be evidence of a settling format. If people can correctly decipher what will show up, it's easier to go with your own game plan, and spike your opponent's. There has been a lot of talk that the top decks in Modern are "figured out." Though the actual lists vary greatly, it often includes Storm, UWx Control, Birthing Pod, Zoo, and Splinter Twin. If this is true, look for sideboards tailored to defeat these decks. If not, look for sideboard hedging. And even if it is true, that's a large number of decks that are all vying for Tier 1 status.
The funny thing about betting is, sometimes gambles pay off. This current Modern format only has one large tournament under its belt. The release of Born of the Gods, the banning of Deathrite Shaman, and the unbanning of both Wild Nacatl and Bitterblossom have only begun to show their effects. There is only so much that you can actually determine and predict. Sometimes you just got to roll the dice and take your chances. However, there's a caveat to that as well.
As the Pro Tour showed, Modern is a format that rewards preparation. The people who finished at the top of the field were players who'd logged thousands of games, and knew exactly what to play and when. If there's a thrid thing you want to look for this weekend, don't be surprised if the top of the standings is not populated with all the top pros, but the pros and grinders who've put the most time into getting this format right.
So settle in to your couches, your beds, your desk chairs. It's going to be a grueling weekend spread across two days (and two event halls)—with pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows, and more physical Magic combatants than we've ever seen before. And I have no doubt that the victor will have answered all those questions right: Linear or malleable strategy? Broad or narrow sideboard? And the big one: Have you prepared enough?
It's a Magical World, Hobbes ol' buddy; let's go exploring.