Setting the Scene – The Modern Metagame

Posted in Event Coverage on August 27, 2016

By Craig Jones

This weekend the European Grand Prix train pulled into Lille. Eager Magic players showed up at the Lille Grand Palais for a chance to go home with up to $10,000 and earn an invite to PT Kaladesh later in the year. Their weapons of choice this weekend – Modern constructed decks.

In contrast to the constantly rotating Standard format, Modern has a card pool that stretches back to the introduction of the Modern card frame with 8th Edition in 2003. That gives the players 13 years of cards to choose from. But don't be fooled into thinking this is a staid, unchanging format. Players making that mistake were steamrollered by the Eldrazi menace earlier this year. While the banning of Eye of Ugin has kept the tentacled monsters in check, Thought-Knot Seer and friends are still a regular part of the current Modern metagame. And now there are new Eldrazi theats as Emrakul, the Promised End has entered the fray. One of the stories we'll be keeping track of this weekend is seeing how recent sets Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon have impacted on the Modern metagame.

The Modern format has a distinct flavour of its own. The larger card pool allows for stronger and faster linear strategies than Standard while there is no Force of Will to play the fun police/safety valve* role that defines the Eternal formats. To stop things getting too degenerate and unfun Modern uses a banned list to keep overly oppressive strategies in check.

*Select as appropriate, likely determined by how much you like islands and the colour blue.

The critical turn in Modern is turn four. This is the turn where most aggro or combo decks will kill you if left unchecked. Some strategies can kill even faster, but this requires an exceptional hand and doesn't happen very often. In general, any successful Modern strategy must either finish or force interaction with an opponent before turn four.

The other defining feature of Modern is the sideboard. There are a lot of brutal hosers in the format.

Looking to swarm your opponent with a horde of cheap artifact creatures? How about you have a bunch of useless rocks instead thanks to Stony Silence.

Thinking of using your graveyard as a resource? Rest in Peace, mutha*****!

Oh, and do you have anything in your deck that only requires red mana to cast after I turn all those pretty non-basics into mountains thanks to Blood Moon?

That's the trade-off with linear strategies. The synergy makes them powerful, but also leaves them vulnerable to being shut off by a single card.

So let's look at that Modern metagame. Before the weekend I engaged in a little research on what decks and strategies we might expect to see this weekend. Fellow coverage writer Corbin Hosler pointed me in the direction of the Modern Nexus where they keep a nice ranked list of the Top 10 decks in the metagame.

In the week preceding GP Lille the Modern metagame looked something like this:

Rank Deck Name %
1 Jund 9.80%
2 Affinity 6.20%
3 Infect 5.70%
4 Burn 5.50%
5 Jeskai Control 5.20%
6 Dredge 4.70%
7 Eldrazi 4.50%
8 Death's Shadow Zoo 4.30%
9 Merfolk 4.20%
10 RG Tron 3.80%

These are the decks players have been playing to some success in the Magic Online Competitive Leagues. After some hunting, I dug out some lists of decks that went 5-0 and I'll give each a brief overview on what makes them tick.

Jund (jayk123, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Chief Planeswalker Mangler Bloodbraid Elf might still be on the banned list, but Jund is coming back into a little bit of a resurgence at the moment. Efficiency is the key here. Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are efficient ways to interact with an opponent to pick key threats out of their hands before they materialize. Lightning Bolt, Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse are efficient and versatile answers to those threats if they reach the table. Tarmogoyf is an efficient threat—usually arriving with the stats of a monstrous finisher yet only costing as much to cast as a lowly Grizzly Bear. Overseeing it all is the powerful planeswalker card, Liliana of the Veil.

Eldritch Moon brought a new addition in Grim Flayer. Because of Tarmogoyf the deck already cares about getting multiple card types in the graveyard (notice the presence of Tarfire, Seal of Fire and Mishra's Bauble in the above list as cheap ways to get additional card types – Tribal, Enchantment, Artifact – into the list). The delirium-hungry Grim Flayer fits in well with this strategy and is another highly efficient threat.

Jund might not be as flashy as some of the fancier decks, but it is reliable and durable – good at disrupting an opponent while being resistant to disruption itself – and will likely show up in some numbers this weekend.

Affinity (cicciogire, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Robots! Robots everywhere!

The name, Affinity, is a relic of the past when the deck used to beat down with Frogmites and Myr Enforcers. The strategy is still the same – beat the opponent to death with a swarm of cheap artifact creatures. Cranial Plating is capable of inflicting a hideous amount of damage for its mana cost. The deck is vulnerable to sideboard hate and as such its fortunes vary depending on how many cards other players are willing to devote to beating it.

Infect (FelixLeong, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Infect relies on the interaction between infect and Giant Growth-type pump effects. Infect deals damage in the form of poison counters. 10 poison counters are enough to kill a player. As this is half the 20 that would normally be required to kill a player through regular combat damage, this makes every pump spell effectively worth double.

The game plan is simple – summon a turn one or two infect creature, send it through and pump it to lethal with cards like Become Immense. This might sound fragile, but it's fast and backed up with disruption in the form of Spell Pierce. This is one of the decks that can kill before turn 4 with a perfect draw.

Burn (AlfredoTorres, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Or you can just go straight to the face with 20 points of burn damage. This is as straightforward as they come – rush out of the gates with a turn one Goblin Guide or Monastery Swiftspear and then throw burn spells at the opponent's face until crispy well-done. There's not as much interaction here. The gameplan is to hope the opponent keels over on zero life before they can enact whatever strategy they're trying to pull off, although Skullcrack can be a nasty surprise for anyone trying to gain life to stay out of range.

These decks often exist on a continuum with zoo-based strategies. Some might have more creatures and lead off with Wild Nacatl.

It might look a crude strategy but it can be effective.

If in doubt, burn their face off!

Jeskai Control (h0lydiver, 5-0 MTGO league)

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The aggressive nature of Modern coupled with the many potential angles of attack has meant the format can be a little hostile to typical control decks. The recent unbanning of Ancestral Vision was done to give the control strategies a little more help.

Because of the hard-hitting nature of the Modern format, one of the things a control deck needs is the ability to slam the door and finish off an opponent before they get a chance to come back into the game. Enter Nahiri, the Harbinger. In perhaps one of the greatest meldings of function to flavour, Nahiri was summoning up Emrakul to wreck things on the Modern tournament scene long before we even knew that was what she was up to in the Eldritch Moon storyline.

While ostensibly a Jeskai control deck of efficient removal and countermagic, Nahiri gives the deck an addition one-card combo finish. Play Nahiri, tick up her loyalty for two turns, then summon up a hasty Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to smash the opponent. You might not get the extra turn cast trigger, but that doesn't matter when the opponent is taking 15 hasty damage to the face and having their board demolished by the annihilator trigger.

Dredge (Skite, 5-0 MTGO league)

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One of the worst-kept secrets going into the tournament is the re-emergence of dredge. It's been wrecking the competitive leagues on MTGO for the last week or so. Insolent Neonate, Prized Amalgam and Haunted Dead are cards from the recent Innistrad sets that give the dredge strategy a little more oompth.

This is a graveyard strategy. The aim is to get a card with dredge into the graveyard and then start loading up the ‘yard with goodies. Bloodghast comes back with every land drop and brings Prized Amalgam back with it for company, putting the opponent under constant recurring pressure. Conflagrate can also flashback from the graveyard to finish things with a bang.

We'll likely be covering this deck in greater detail at some point over the weekend.

Bant Eldrazi (HUNK545, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Eye of Ugin might have gone away, but the tentacled Eldrazi monsters are still around. Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher both hit hard and fast and Eldrazi Temple is still around to hurry them into play. The blue-red Drowner of Hope version that took down the last Modern Pro Tour has switched to a Bant shell. Now it's merely good rather than utterly busted.

Death’s Shadow Zoo (MynameisSylar, 5-0 MTGO league)

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This might look a little strange from the list, but it's essentially a very fast creature aggro deck backed up with the Become Immense/Temur Battle Rage combo to do ridiculous amounts of damage out of nowhere. The signature card is Death's Shadow, a one-mana rare from Worldwake Death's Shadow is as big as the player's life total is small. You'll often see the players piloting this deck do a lot of damage to themselves from shock lands, phyreixan mana and cycled Street Wraiths in the early game in order to grow a Death's Shadow to game-ending proportions.

This is another deck that can kill before the critical turn four as Brad Nelson demonstrated at a recent StarCityGames Invitational.

Merfolk (riprage, 5-0 MTGO league)

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Merfolk are the perennial fun police of older formats. Older versions used to rely on a reasonably fast clock backed up with disruption to prey on decks trying to pull off fancy combo-type shenanigans. The main strength of the fishfolk nowadays is the cumulative benefit of all the lords. The deck can potentially play 16 creatures that give all other merfolk +1/+1 and are handily merfolk themselves. One fishy folk is a minor nuisance. Three or four and they start to hit hard.

RG Tron (SIN, 5-0 MTGO league)

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And finally we have the big-mana ramp deck. In this case the big mana comes from assembling the UrzaTron. Get Urza's Tower, Power Plant and Mine in play and you have three lands that tap for 7 mana. What can you do with 7 mana on turn 3? Summoning Karn Liberated is a good start and will ruin your opponent's day.

The aim with this deck is to assemble the three pieces of the UrzaTron as quickly as possible and then overwhelm the opponent with 6+ mana-cost threats hitting the board 3 to 4 turns earlier than they should. Tron is capable of overwhelming most opposition if it assembles the trinity of Urza lands on turn three or four. If the deck fails to do this, or those Urza lands are turned into basic mountains or islands, then things get a little rough…

The projected metagame is perceived to be a little hostile to big mana Tron strategies at the moment, so it will be interesting to see how player's tweak the strategy to cope.

And that's a quick look at ten of the decks we expect to see in action at Grand Prix Lille. This isn't anywhere close to the full Modern metagame. If I had to cover all the decks I'd likely still be writing this piece come the end of Sunday! What we'll endeavour to do is bring you the more interesting decks as we see them in action over the weekend.

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