It was only a few weeks ago that the banning and unbanning announcements shook the Modern metagame to its core. The safe deck choices were either no longer safe, or no longer possible. There were strong ideas about what the format would look like at the Pro Tour, and much speculation about times to come, but no one actually knew. Now those times are upon us. With this Top 8 underway, and many Pro Tour lessons learned, what happened in the broad sense, and what will Modern look like going forward?
As expected, Abzan decks performed well in various incarnations. But there were many surprises. The Splinter Twin deck, despite having a mediocre showing in the Modern rounds, put two people into the Top 8; and Amulet Bloom has proven itself a real thing. But there were two larger surprises during every Modern round leading to the Top 8: Burn and Infect.
Six different players in the Top 8 said either Burn or Infect was the deck they were most impressed with this weekend (other than the one they were playing). Aggressive strategies were rewarded all weekend by players preying like carrion birds on Abzan's rhino-shaped hide—Burn and Infect had the biggest bites. For this tournament, players were unprepared for those decks to actually be good. But they won't make that mistake going forward; these two decks can kill you, hard and fast. However, before sleeving up your Skullcracks, make sure to know what this weekend means or doesn't mean for Burn.
Though a great deck for this tournament, as Top 8 competitor and sixth–ranked Lee Shi Tian said shrugging, Burn might be just a "good metagame call." Aggressive strategies are often disproportionately favored at the Pro Tour, especially in a format this new. So many reactive Abzan decks were wasting time casting Lingering Souls, while Burn was just killing them. Though it's possible that turn one Lava Spike will still be good going forward, if the format's prepared for it, Burn is eminently beatable. The sideboard cards against them are slam dunks, and the ways out of Burn's board to combat such strategies just dilute the deck's concentrated goal.
This might be the same situation with Infect. Basing a strategy off 1/1s like Inkmoth Nexus, Glistener Elf, or Blighted Agent—no matter how many pump spells you run—is a glass cannon. Infect isn't as one-dimensional as Burn, so it will likely stick around longer, but much of its success was in the surprise factor of both turn three poison kills and the sideboarded turn four damage kills. Some decks here had sideboard Damnations, which could just as easily change to Night of Souls' Betrayal, for example. It's possible that neither deck is a great choice going forward, despite the awesome performances this weekend.
In the "in-it-for-the-long-haul" caste of decks, Abzan is just as solid as people expected. Coming into the weekend, "Siege Rhino is good" was the only idea set in stone. Even before Birthing Pod got the axe, players were suiting up Pod-less Abzan decks because of the mighty 4/5. But there are distinct iterations and sideboard and main deck choices to muddle through with Abzan.
The common Abzan deck, chock-full of Liliana of the Veil, Abrupt Decay, and Inquisition of Kozilek, is certainly one way to go. It propelled both No. 11 Eric Froehlich and Jesse Hampton into the Top 8. But the Face to Face Games & Brian Kibler deck eschewed all those cards in favor of ones like Wilt-Leaf Liege and Loxodon Smiter. Both are awesome, but in different expected metagames. So how do you choose between these builds?
The Wilt-Leaf version is built to destroy the mirror. Using Wilt-Leaf Liege and Gavony Township to make Lingering Souls tokens, Siege Rhino, and all the buddies bigger is pretty awesome. So if people start packing the standard, removal-heavy Abzan control builds, then the Face to Face version is a great choice. You haven't lived until you've cast everything in your hand but Wilt-Leaf Liege, then watch your opponent cast Thoughtseize.
But, if you just looked at the Top 8, and saw the two copies of Blue-Red Twin performing well, you might be scared to play it. Twin destroys this deck. And here comes the odd speculation part, so stay with me.
Most players here today don't think Blue-Red Twin is actually well positioned in the metagame at all. But if you just look at the Top 8, you'd think it is. Both the Top 8 pilots Jelger Wiegersma and Antonio Del Moral León nailed the draft, and did well enough in the constructed portion to push through to the Top 8, then the Abzan decks were out of the Top 8 before they could destroy either of the Blue-Red Twin.
So here's the question: because 25% of the Top 8 is Twin, will the Grand Prix attendants pack more Blue-Red Twin, even though the amount of removal-heavy decks should probably hate it out? It's clear many players have a fondness for Twin, so will the mere appearance of the deck in the Top 8 make it a "top deck"?
If players think so, then the [autocard]Liliana of the Veil[/autocard/ Abzan builds look much better. All the discard and removal from versions like Froehlich and Hampton's tear Twin up. It's tough to say. Overall, Splinter Twin pilots had a bad win rate, and yet two of them are here. This result will likely shift the metagame in some fashion.
Either way, one thing is certain: Lingering Souls is awesome. It blocks Inkmoth Nexus; it breaks stalemates in the air; it creates advantage off the Liliana +1 ability; it's the best thing to hit with Tasigur, the Golden Fang; it's a being of pure value. So winning the Spirit war goes a long way.
You can win the war with Abzan, but you can also do it with a deck that was slightly ahead of its time this weekend—White-Black Tokens. No. 13 Stanislav Cifka and company came in this weekend knowing much about Lingering Souls. Using cards like Zealous Persecution, and as much as eight targeted discard spells, the deck tries to get air supremacy early and keep it until the smashy conclusion. The pilots did not convert this weekend, but with the continued rise of Lingering Souls, this definitely is a deck to watch.
There is one last wild card in the format: Golgari Grave-Troll. The guy did not make a showing this weekend, but that's not for lack of trying. Many players told me their stories of trying to get something going, but it was too inconsistent. With the short time frame between knowing the card was legal and the beginning of the Pro Tour, players opted for a more consistent, more polished deck.
But that doesn't mean the Grave-Troll deck isn't out there. I wouldn't be surprised if it some incarnation showed up soon at a Modern Grand Prix and starts turning heads. This a call to arms, brewers: Bring me some Golgari Grave-Troll.
There were a lot of lessons from this Pro Tour, containing clues to where the metagame will be headed next. If you read the bones right, you might scry yourself a good finish in the upcoming months, or maybe even at Grand Prix Vancouver a mere two weeks away.