The Three Levels Of The Modern Metagame

Get on Todd Stevens’s (Modern metagame) level ahead of SCG Louisville! Where will your deck of choice fall?

#SCGKY is the first individual Modern Open of the Dominaria era, so today I wanted to discuss the different levels of the metagame to get you prepared to battle this weekend. If you’re not sure what I mean by “levels,” think of different Modern decks as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, with each level representing a different one of the inanimate objects. We’ve had two Team Constructed Opens so far after the release of Dominaria, which are usually filled with the top decks of the format as people want to choose safe decks that won’t sink the team’s chances. That’s not always the best choice to spike an individual tournament though, as we’ve seen time and time again under-the-radar decks rise up to take home a trophy when the weekend’s right. So what’s the right choice for #SCGKY this weekend? That’s the question I’ll try to answer today as we break down the different levels of the Modern metagame.

Level 1: Five-Color Humans, Affinity, B/R Hollow One

The default level of the format lies in the linear decks that have been dominating Modern for a couple months now; Humans, Affinity, and B/R Hollow One. Any of these decks are a solid choice to bring to the table and they must be considered among the favorites to win the trophy this weekend. These were the top three decks as far as sheer numbers in day two of both #SCGATL and #SCGBALT, so if you don’t decide to play one of these level one decks then you need to have a good plan ready for them.

Humans completely dominated #SCGATL, taking ten out of the 28 day two slots as well as four copies in the Top 8. It then won the tournament and was the talk of the format heading into #SCGBALT the next weekend, where everyone had it directly in their crosshairs. The result? Humans still tied for the most copies in day two at four, but only had one finish in the top 16. That finish was first though, by Alexander Ferzola, where he defeated both myself and Ross Merriam, with us playing decks we believed to have favorable Humans matchups, the last two rounds to take home the trophy.

My point here is that even in a tournament filled with decks designed to beat Humans that it walked away with a first place finish. It’s a testament to the deck’s consistency, speed, and disruption. I expect Humans to be the most played deck yet again this weekend, and it’s a great choice if it’s the deck you’re honing in on.

Everyone thinks their Affinity matchup is better than it is. Everyone. It’s the kind of deck that wins most of its game ones and just tries to get there in a sideboard game to take the match. That said, if you win game one then you only need a 30% win percentage in the sideboard games to be a favorite to win one out of two. This is what leads people to think they have a better Affinity matchup than they do, because even though most other decks are favored after sideboarding, Affinity wins plenty of matches because of the strength of their game ones. It’s also been doing just fine recently, with two copies in the top 8 of #SCGATL as well as three more in the top 16 of #SCGBALT the following weekend. If you’re not playing Affinity, you should probably be more prepared for it than you are.

The buzz around B/R Hollow One has certainly lessoned after the back-to-back Team Constructed Opens, and therefore it’s flying a bit under the radar right now. This is particularly strange after having the second most pilots in day two of #SCGATL and tied for the first in #SCGBALT, and considering three of the four day two pilots in Baltimore made top 16. More and more people are putting ways to interact with Hollow One and Gurmag Angler into their decks, but even still there isn’t a more explosive deck in the format. Burning Inquiry is also always one of the scariest cards to play against on turn 1, and with the resiliency of Bloodghast and Flamewake Phoenix, B/R Hollow One is still one of the best decks in Modern.

Level Two: Jeskai Control, U/W Control

These are the best control decks of the format and are built to grind down the linear decks on level one. That plan doesn’t always happen of course, which is what makes the level one decks so good, but these are the matchups they don’t necessarily want to get paired against. After the dominance of the level one decks at #SCGATL, the control decks showed up to fight the level one decks at the top of the standings at #SCGBALT, with three copies in the top 8 and another right outside of it. Other decks that could fit into level two are Mardu Pyromancer and Jund.

The first deck everyone points to when picking a deck to beat Humans is Jeskai Control. It has a bevy of cheap removal spells to lessen the strength of Meddling Mage as well as Snapcaster Mage to cast them again. Even though it has answers to everything in the format, Jeskai Control still struggles at times when they draw the wrong parts of the deck against the wrong opponent. Sometimes it has all creature removal against a combo deck game one or draws too many counterspells against the creature deck. It also has mana requirements that truly stretch the manabase, as casting Serum Visions on the first turn followed up by Lightning Helix on turn two and then Cryptic Command on turn four is basically impossible. This strain forces Jeskai Control to play an abundance of dual lands, which sometimes will enter the battlefield tapped, making the deck too slow or can cause too much life between fetching and shocking to stabilize.

Jeskai Control is still filled with incredibly efficient spells which makes it one of the most powerful decks in the format when the cards line up correctly. It also matches up well against both Humans and Affinity, and therefore I expect it to be a popular deck at #SCGKY. It’s the defining level two deck and is second only to Humans for what I’m worried about beating this weekend.

U/W Control is very similar to Jeskai Control except it trades power for mana consistency. It doesn’t have as good of cheap removal without access to Lightning Bolt or Lightning Helix, but instead can attack the opponent’s manabase with the help of Spreading Seas and Field of Ruin. The loss of red also makes the deck slower overall and therefore it relies more on sweepers to catch back up. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is the new addition to the deck I’ve been seeing a lot of recently online, similar to Kazu Negri’s Jeskai Control list above, and it’s been very impressive off the bat. U/W Control is built to beat the level one decks due to the amount of sweepers and exile effects in the deck, but it also has a good matchup against Jeskai Control since it minimizes the effectiveness of the removal spells from Jeskai and can attack their fragile manabase, which helped it place two copies in the top 8 of #SCGBALT. However, U/W Control has been known to struggle against many fringe decks in the format due to the slow speed and lack of versatility with the interaction spells.

Level Three: G/X Tron, TitanShift

If you believe that most people will be on level two, and therefore playing decks with an abundance of interaction to try and defeat the level one strategies, then the best place to be is with the big mana decks on level three. These decks have been struggling overall in the format lately because of the dominance of the level one decks, but after seeing plenty of level two decks succeed at #SCGBALT I’m intrigued with the big mana decks. These are the “first or dead last” type of decks that have the power to spike tournaments when the cards and matchups line up correctly, but can also be out of the running almost immediately. Other decks that could fit into level three would be Amulet Titan or G/R Land Destruction.

How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t that long ago that Tron decks were dominating the format at #GPOKC, but there was a grand total of zero copies of any Tron deck in the combined day twos of #SCGATL and #SCGBALT. This isn’t as big of surprise in the Team Constructed Open structure, as players are less likely to take risks when choosing a deck. Dan McCaulley finished fourth in the Modern Classic at #SCGBALT however with G/R Tron, splashing for Kozilek’s Return and Blood Sun. The current Modern format is incredibly fast right now which doesn’t bode well for the Tron decks, but it’s still hard to compete with the better hands Tron can provide. Plus, the more interaction people play to slow down the level one decks, the better the outlook is for G/X Tron.

TitanShift has a similar story to G/X Tron. There was only one copy among the day twos of the last two Team Constructed Opens, but it fared better in the individual Modern Classic at #SCGBALT with two copies in the top 8. The addition of maindeck sweeper effects like Anger of the Gods or Sweltering Suns is becoming commonplace these days with the prevalence of Humans and Affinity, and Dale Smith even opted to maindeck two copies of Obstinate Baloth. Even with that, I wouldn’t say TitanShift is a favorite against those two decks and certainly not against B/R Hollow One, making the level one decks a pairing you want to avoid. Titan Shift does match up well against the level two decks as well against G/X Tron, but with the poor level one matchups as well as struggling against the next category of decks, Titan Shift doesn’t look to be the best bet to spike #SCGKY. If you want to be on level three I’d recommend G/X Tron or Amulet Titan, barring you have hundreds of reps in with Amulet Titan.

Wildcards: U/R Gifts Storm, G/W Hexproof, Burn

These are some popular decks in the format that fall between the defined levels. They’re incredibly linear and are light on interaction, similar to Affinity and B/R Hollow One, but they don’t have the same dominance or metagame share as the top three decks. Each one of these decks has good and bad matchups between the level one and level two decks, which is another reason why it’s hard to categorize them. These are dangerous decks that I expect to see at the top tables of #SCGKY. Other examples of wildcards would be Ironworks Combo or Elves.

Storm was the defining deck in Modern before the introduction of Humans into the metagame. While it’s still the most consistent turn three deck of the format, the effect of the dominance of Humans on Storm can’t be understated. Not only is the most popular deck in the format your worst matchup, but also the level two decks filled with interaction that are built to beat Humans also have favorable matchups against Storm. There are still plenty of other linear decks with minimal interaction as well as big mana decks to prey on, however, and Storm does exactly that. I don’t think this is a good weekend for Storm still, as I mentioned earlier I’m expecting Humans and Jeskai Control to be popular choices, but there will be a time again where this deck is the top dog on Modern. The more people sleep on it, the faster that day comes.

G/W Hexproof is in an incredibly unique position in the metagame. It’s generally favored against the three level one decks which has led to it seeing tons of success at the World Championship as well as various Grand Prix in the last couple months. However, not a single copy made day two of the recent Team Constructed Opens and since it’s not built similarly to the other level two decks I didn’t want to place it there. G/W Hexproof also has a couple of problems going for it right now. First off, it’s simply not a consistent deck due to the low land and creature count. This makes the deck mulligan quite a bit more than other decks in the format, and therefore you have a high number of non-games where you never get started. Secondly, most players respect the power of the deck now and have dedicated sideboard slots such as Engineered Explosives, Blessed Alliance, or Settle the Wreckage for the matchup. Even with these inconsistencies, G/W Hexproof is generally favored against the level one decks as well as Jeskai Control, making it a good dark horse pick to spike #SCGKY.

Finally we have Burn, which is the overall most consistent deck on the SCG Tour in my opinion. Not only consistent as far as game play, where every game looks basically the same, but also in appearance at tournaments. Even though I’m sure it’s probably happened by now, I don’t recall playing in a fifteen round Modern Open without facing Burn at least once (and I haven’t missed a Modern Open in the almost three years now I’ve been playing on the SCG Tour). I expect more of the same this weekend, and if you’re not playing Burn, then make sure you have a plan for the matchup. As far as matchups go from the Burn side, it feels under-powered compared to the rest of the format these days in my opinion. It hasn’t received any upgrades since Monastery Swiftspear in Khans of Tarkir (not counting Inspiring Vantage) while the rest of the format has been getting stronger. The strength of Burn is that it punishes any opponent who stumbles while being incredibly consistent and not stumbling itself. This means that you have a chance in basically every game you play with Burn, while mostly losing to your opponents’ really good hands. If you want to play lots of close games and hope your opponents stumble a little more than you do all weekend, then don’t be scared to throw some burn spells around.

So there we have it! The three defining levels of the Modern metagame as well as the popular decks that don’t completely fit in one space. Of course this isn’t a complete list of Modern decks that you could face at #SCGKY, but that list would simply be too vast to cover. The level one decks have been having a great deal of success recently and any of them would still be a good choice to play this weekend. Level two picked up quite a bit of steam at #SCGBALT and I expect that trend to continue at #SCGKY as people try to beat the level one decks. This means that we’re getting closer to the right time to pick up a level three deck, but I still doubtful we’re quite there yet since both the level one and the wildcards are filled with bad matchups. Speaking of the wildcard decks, any of those linear decks can spike the tournament if the matchups line up right, but getting through a field of Humans and Jeskai Control will be difficult.