Every week I expect Modern to stagnate and every week the metagame surprises me. There’s always an answer to whatever the current Public Enemy No. 1 is, whether adjustments to a given deck or a new deck to take that weekend’s tournaments by surprise. The only question is whether the new deck is something completely unknown or a return of an old staple.
Recently it’s been the latter, particularly the return of Bring to Light Scapeshift. It’s appeared in the Top 8 of Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO) Challenges as well as a recent Modern Super Qualifier after months of being essentially a non-factor in the metagame. Whenever a deck experiences this kind of sudden resurgence, I always look to dig deeper because it usually reveals significant metagame trends that you can take advantage of.
This instance is no exception. I’ve isolated three key factors that have allowed this deck to re-emerge in the Modern metagame. Whether or not you plan on playing the deck in the coming weeks, these factors are critical in understanding the current metagame trends. So let’s look a little deeper at what’s going on in Modern.
1. The Rise of Grixis Death’s Shadow
Ever since Corey Baumeister’s victory at the SCG Invitational last October, Grixis Death’s Shadow (Lurrus) has been among the most popular and successful decks in all of Modern. But for a while that just meant that it was the most popular of what I like to call the lean midrange decks. These are the interactive decks that play a relatively low curve and have a more aggressive gameplan, as opposed to bigger midrange decks like Four-Color Control. Grixis Death’s Shadow is firmly in this category, along with Izzet, Rakdos, and Jund Midrange.
So for several weeks Grixis was one among many of this category of deck. In December, however, Grixis took over and is now far and away the most popular lean midrange deck in the metagame. It’s so dominant in the category that I’m now surprised when the other decks show up at all.
Ultimately, I think Grixis Death’s Shadow is simply a better deck than those other options. It has the best combination of raw power, mana efficiency, and versatility because Death’s Shadow gives you another excellent one-mana threat that can dominate the battlefield and Drown in the Loch lets you answer a threat on the battlefield or on top of their deck. I expect its popularity to stay consistent in the coming weeks, and that’s a good thing for Scapeshift players.
Bring to Light Scapeshift offers some unique problems for Death’s Shadow players. It can play all the best removal for Death’s Shadow, Dragon’s Rage Channeler, and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. Moreover, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is nearly impossible to interact with. Alpine Moon works on paper but is straightforward to answer for a deck that plays both Prismatic Ending and Teferi, Time Raveler.
And lastly, having Valakut as your win condition puts the Death’s Shadow player in an awkward position where they have to manage their life total carefully. Losing to a Dryad of the Ilysian Grove into two Lightning Bolts to the face is easy to avoid, but it comes with a cost of not applying as much pressure with your Shadows. There are risks to both sides. You either choose to play aggressively and hope they don’t punish you, or play conservatively and give them more time to turn the game around normally. Most bigger decks don’t have the ability to produce significant direct damage, making this squeeze much easier to manage.
So despite Grixis Death’s Shadow being a better deck, I’m happier playing against it with Bring to Light Scapeshift than a deck like Izzet Midrange that doesn’t get itself into burn range very often and has Murktide Regent to dodge red removal and Prismatic Ending. I don’t think the matchup is a slam dunk for Bring to Light Scapeshift, but I’ll always side with the deck that forces the other player to make difficult decisions.
2. The Decline in Linear Strategies
One thing that Death’s Shadow is great at is punishing linear strategies. The combination of pressure and versatile disruption is the classic recipe for taking down combo decks of all stripes, so it’s no surprise to see linear decks decline as Grixis Death’s Shadow has picked up. And that trend is music to the ears of Scapeshift players everywhere.
On the surface, this statement may seem strange since Scapeshift is often found in linear strategies itself. But linear decks aren’t all built the same. In general, I think of them as two-dimensional, with the dimensions being speed and resilience. By this I mean that the fastest linear decks tend to be the easiest to disrupt, while the slowest ones tend to be the hardest to disrupt.
This dichotomy is important to understand because in a matchup between two linear decks, speed carries the day. Neither deck has much disruption to speak of, so resilience isn’t that important.
Scapeshift decks, in the world of linear strategies, have been about as far to the resilience end of the spectrum as possible. Their matchups against other linear decks like Sultai Infect or Gifts Storm have typically been quite poor. With Grixis Death’s Shadow being so popular, those bad matchups have been pushed out of the metagame, and even if they are replaced with mediocre matchups, it’s still a good thing for Bring to Light Scapeshift because it’s an improvement.
In this case we’re seeing more attrition-oriented decks and lean midrange like Grixis Death’s Shadow, which are fine matchups for Scapeshift decks, because what they lack in speed they more than make up for with resilience. As I noted earlier, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is nearly impossible to interact with. And now that they have a Triome-heavy manabase, the five-color lists have enough Mountains to win without Dryad of the Ilysian Grove or similar effects. Eventually, Valakut and Mountains will take over the game, giving the linear deck inevitability.
In linear matchups, inevitability is largely irrelevant, because the Scapeshift player can’t stop their opponent reliably. Scapeshift decks need metagames where that late-game power is an advantage, and that metagame has emerged over the last month in Modern.
3. The Consistent Presence of Solitude Decks
By Solitude decks I’m mostly referring to Azorius Control and Four-Color Control. These are the fair decks in Modern that are trying to play a long, attrition-oriented game whenever possible. I thought they would recede a bit when linear decks got more popular in November, but surprisingly they maintained a steady presence that has continued to the present. As it turns out, the addition of Solitude, Prismatic Ending, Counterspell, etc. has given these decks such a versatile suite of answers that they’re able to succeed even in unfavorable metagame conditions.
But as I noted earlier, Valakut is a tough card to play a long game against. It may be the best late-game card in all of Modern. And even with cards like Spreading Seas as a nominal answer, eventually it will take over. And the Bring to Light variants also have Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor and Wrenn and Six as great late-game threats as well. So if these decks are strong enough to compete against the rest of the format, that provides Scapeshift decks with a consistent presence of solid matchups to prey on.
Decks like Azorius Control or Four-Color Cntrol rely on their plethora of cheap interaction to stop players with more aggressive gameplans, but a strategy like Valakut dodges most of that removal, save for Dryad of the Ilysian Grove. And with Triomes now giving the deck a high Mountain count without compromising your ability to cast spells, Dryad is a must-kill threat, yet not one that the Scapeshift player is relying on to win the long game. This is the perfect squeeze because it means the control player has to leave in enough removal to consistently answer Dryad, and that stops them from potentially transforming into a more aggressive strategy after sideboarding.
In a format as dynamic as Modern, having positive matchups that you can count on showing up is super-valuable. Metagaming in Modern is a tricky proposition because decks rarely take much more than 10% of the metagame, so even if you’re right about what shows up, there’s a lot of variance in the pairings you get in the tournament. You have to take more of a long term approach, knowing that Modern, while still dynamic, is more consistent week to week than Standard. Bring to Light Scapeshift has a consistent slice of the metagame that it’s happy to play against week in, week out.
The Future of Bring to Light Scapeshift
With all these trends going for it, I expect Bring to Light Scapeshift to stick around as a solid player in the metagame, and even increase in popularity. For fair decks that means you’ll want to be able to close the game out before the inevitability of Valakut takes over, and you’ll also want to pack cards like Alpine Moon and Spreading Seas to help out in the matchup.
This of course makes Urza’s Saga worse, since it takes splash damage from players trying to combat Valakut. So I would avoid any Saga deck other than those based around Colossus Hammer, which is simply one of the best decks in Modern regardless of the current metagame conditions.
If you’re looking to jump on the Scapeshift bandwagon, the one thing I’d watch out for is a return of linear decks. If one or two of them figure out how to consistently beat Death’s Shadow, or a rise in Scapeshift causes Death’s Shadow’s popularity to taper off, the metagame could be ripe for the fast linear decks that prey on Scapeshift players. You should have at least a few weeks to cast your Bring to Lights before things get bad, but get in the habit of monitoring the metagame so you get out before things turn south.
In a broader context, I think what we’re seeing is a natural ebb and flow between a more fair Modern metagame and a more unfair one. Certain decks like Grixis Death’s Shadow and Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) are omnipresent, but the rest of the metagame oscillates between linear strategies and non-linear ones. A few months ago we were in an unfair or linear point in the metagame and now we’re firmly in a fair part of the cycle. I suspect this dynamic will continue until the format gets another big shake-up, so if you’re the kind of player who frequently switches decks, checking whether the metagame is at a fair or unfair point in the cycle should be step one of your deck selection process.
So while I expect Bring to Light Scapeshift will stick around for at least a few weeks, eventually we’ll turn back towards more linear decks and the deck will once again fade into the fringe. It’s not a new Tier 1 strategy that will stick around even in an unfavorable metagame, but now that it’s shown how it can succeed in a favorable metagame, it should pop up periodically when conditions are favorable for Valakut and the Mountain tribe.