The one thing a person can say with a degree of certainty about all of the great Magic formats and metagames is that they are always changing and evolving over time. New cards and strategies blaze a new trail and old ones fall out of favor or find themselves comfortably living out their days on banned lists, but the show must go on.
Pro Tour 25th Anniversary was interesting to watch play out last weekend. I loved that the tournament was a team event and incorporated both Modern and Legacy into the mix alongside the traditional Standard. Personally, I’m more interested in Modern and Legacy than Standard, so it was a pleasant change of pace to watch the formats I most enjoy play out on the biggest stage of the game.
I think it’s safe to say that all players, whether they were slogging through the battle themselves or watching from home, witnessed a good show and have lots of new decks, strategies, and ideas to mull over before they take what they’ve learned and venture into the newly blazed territory.
Today, I’d like to focus on Modern. I could write about any of the three formats, since there were major innovations taking place across the board, but Modern is the one that I think is the most compelling and most important.
The thing that struck me about watching Modern PT coverage and results was the dominance of combo decks. It’s a format that I’d describe as dominated by decks built by Johnny but finely tuned and piloted by Spike. Where are the fair decks? It’s hard to survive when Johnny and his axe chop down the door. So, what do we as fans and players of the format need to do to venture back into the depths of Modern?
Predictably Comboriffic Modern
In a world where we can look up whatever we please and have content beyond the time we have to read it there are bound to be those who say, “Modern played out pretty much as expected.”
Graveyard synergy decks like Hollow One, Ancient Stirrings decks like KCI and Lantern, and those pesky Humans are not exactly a well kept secret in the format. Not by a long shot.
The decks that the numbers tell us are “the best decks” performed exactly the way that we expected them to: very well.
A Pro Tour always has a unique effect upon the larger meta trends in Magic because a tournament of “the best of the best” will always set trends and confirm presumptions. In the case of Modern, lots of people knew that these hyper-aggressive and synergistic combo decks put up great numbers and were great choices, but seeing them dominate at the Pro Tour cements these facts. The success of these “best decks” at the Pro Tour reinforces that these are the best decks and will inevitably lead to their percentages growing in all tournament play across the board.
It boils down to this simple idea: If the pros at the PT couldn’t find anything better to do in Modern, what are the chances that another holy grail is still out there waiting to be discovered? It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but it does mean that if it exists that it will be quite the knight’s quest to figure it out.
Sure, I’ll keep questing and you’ll keep questing… but when it comes to picking a weapon for a Grand Prix, PPTQ, etc. the majority will bring a proven and trusted weapon to the battlefield.
I’ve always subscribed to the concept that players should play what they are most comfortable with, what they enjoy, and what they can play the best. Yet, I know that given the climate, the top tier of the metagame will reward an enthusiastic pilot more than the rest of the field. It doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t play your favorite deck. It just means that you may be disadvantaged in a countable, predictable way, given the power level of the top deck choices.
The Best Combo Decks in All the Land
The thing that makes the combo pillar so strong right now is that it is littered with powerful cog spells that help these decks chug along consistently. Cards like Faithless Looting and Ancient Stirrings, with a tiny investment of mana, provide tons of palpable advantage.
Let’s look at the graveyard decks first.
Ben Hull, 1st place in Modern at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary
Hollow One was a known best deck going into the tournament and I don’t think that its performance at the PT will gain the deck any detractors.
It’s consistent, it has nut draws that are almost impossible to defeat, and it side steps graveyard hate in a way that most Dredge decks cannot.
Jacob Nagro, 7th place in Modern at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary
The B/R Vengevine deck will likely be a popular strategy to acquaint yourself with in the coming weeks. It’s sweet. It’s exciting. And most importantly, it is powerful.
The deck pushes the power of another busted Magic card, Bridge From Below, to generate value on the battlefield.
It’s clear that Faithless Looting has become one of the “power cards” in Modern. It doesn’t just filter draws for card disadvantage. It creates board advantage by filtering cards into the graveyard where they will have the most profound effect on the game.
Putting a Bridge from Below, Bloodghast, or Vengevine into the graveyard is actually better than drawing a card… it is certainly better than being down a card. Either way, the math on the equation is favorable every time a player is able to get those key cards into the zone where they can do the most damage.
A deck like Vengevine Bridge is obviously hit harder by opposing graveyard hate, but in the abstract the deck is also faster and more deadly when the opponent doesn’t have the answer. Either way, it is further proof that the format is moving away from “all those decks in the middle” and that savvy players have moved on to directly inserting themselves into playing decks that will fare well in the combo-centric winner’s metagame.
KCI is another important storyline in understanding what Modern is and where it is headed.
Benjamin Stark, 2nd place at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary
KCI is one of those decks that is difficult to play but extremely effective when played well. It has been winning tournaments left and right and I don’t see that trend slowing down anytime soon.
Every tasty stew or brew needs a good stir to get all of the ingredients to mix together well to achieve maximum flavor. Ancient Stirrings is that faithful wooden spoon in so many great Modern and Legacy decks.
The ability to siphon through five cards and choose the best one for 1 mana is a great rate and these artifact combo decks (KCI, Affinity, and Lantern) don’t mess around. Finding that one key piece and having mana left over to deploy it is often the difference between winning and losing.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the future of these two important cogs, Ancient Stirrings and Faithless Looting, in Modern. Not surprisingly, speculating about bannings is the normal narrative that I’d expect to see coming out of a Pro Tour, no matter the format.
I’m less interested in predicting the unpredictable DCI than I am in simply playing the game. And what the Pro Tour results have taught me about playing Modern is that these two cards are at the center of the format and everything either flows through or against these two powerful lynch pins.
If I’m brewing, I’ll want to be thinking about how I can use these cards or at least be aware that I’ll have to find a way to compete with them. Either way, the analysis that I take away from watching Modern at the PT is that Looting and Stirrings are on another level in terms of the tactics they foster in terms of generating consistency and raw power.
I can’t talk about busted Modern decks without also spending a few words on Humans.
Thiago Saporito, 3rd place at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary
“But, Brian, Humans is an aggro deck, not a combo deck.” I agree.
There are two things that I believe to be both true and useful when thinking about what the Human deck does:
- The deck is ridiculously efficient and synergistic. It reaches critical mass quickly if you cannot or do not interact with it.
- It has built in ways of protecting itself from other combo decks in the form of Meddling Mage, Thalia, and Freebooter.
It combines elements of several decks into one effective package.
- It has a fast and straightforward clock like a stompy deck.
- It has tons of built in synergies and ways to generate different types of tactical advantages like a combo deck.
- It has multiple ways to interact with other linear decks like a hatebears deck.
Humans may not be a traditional linear combo deck but it is as effective and has many built in fail-safes to protect itself from decks that would prey on a more traditional beatdown deck. Humans is the predator that has been designed to hunt down and destroy other Modern decks.
The scary part is that, of the decks it was designed to prey upon (Storm, Ad Naus, and Burn), most have been pushed to the back burner of the format. Is this a testament to the viciousness of Humans, or are B/R Looting decks and KCI just better weapons? Or both?
I’m not sure that I can answer that questions, but it also likely doesn’t matter in the scheme of things moving forward. I think it is pretty clear that we can now see a picture of the Modern metagame that has these three pillars at the top and the lower rungs will simply have to adjust.
Gabriel Nassif, 5th place at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary
I’ve never heard of this “Nassif” character, but I like his style. I predict big things from him in the future.
Leave it to a true master of the game to bring a more elegant weapon into the scum and villainy of an already extremely broken Modern metagame.
In a metagame that has been slip-sliding further and further toward moving all-in on powerful combos and interactions, U/W has risen up as “The Answer.”
Wrath of God effects are very good against many of these top decks since the opposition focuses on creating a horde of value on the cheap and using it to quickly pressure.
When you look at the 75 that Nassif put together, there is a way to configure this deck post-sideboard to make it become the most effective against each of the major combo pillars. White has always been the “sideboard” color in Modern with powerful anti-synergy enchantments such as Rest in Peace and Stony Silence to rely on.
It is very telling to me, as an observer, player, and fan of the game, that the Top 8 finishing Modern decks at the Pro Tour fit into one of these four cliques: Looting, Stirrings, Humans, or U/W Control.
For anyone who was waiting or looking for a clear picture of how the format looks, I don’t believe the PT could have painted a clearer image. The meta appears to have been a crucible of the trends we’ve been observing for months fused into one concise representation.
I believe that processing and understanding these trends is absolutely critical to moving forward and figuring out what to do next. If you cannot beat these decks, it’s going to be a long month or so, since these strategies (confirmed winners) will likely grow their meta percentage. The key is to practice these matchups and to formulate new plans and strategies to be effective in the direction the meta has shifted.
Beat ‘em or join ‘em, but don’t be fool-hearted enough to ignore or underestimate them again. We’ve got new pillars to look at and now it’s time to figure out how to knock them down again.