Pro Tour Bilbao’s just two weeks away. Soon, all eyes will be on Modern, the now-beloved alternative to Standard and Legacy. And perhaps for the first time as a true replacement for those formats. Wizards has shown us unequivocally that they plan on supporting this format whole-heartedly—with tournaments; with reprints; with heavy-handed (and largely successful) banlist management. Among the many paying attention to Modern, a good chunk have begun wondering about what may actually go down at the PT. Today, I’d like to add myself to their ranks.
This article expands upon and analyses Jason’s Pro Tour predictions from earlier in the week and proposes some original ones. If this article gets you thinking, please join the conversation in the comment section!
Addressing Internal Predictions
In his December metagame update piece from earlier this week, Jason made a few Pro Tour predictions of his own, with which I agree to varying degrees. He touches on some crucial issues, though, so I’d like to offer my takes on those predictions before presenting my own.
The idea here, of course, is not to tear into Jason. As a highly critical person, it’s my nature to dissect the ideas of others—especially ones of those I respect. I found Jason’s thoughts helpful in framing my own thoughts about the Pro Tour. They aided me in examining its possible outcomes from a second perspective, which I consider integral to developing a holistic view of the format and of player opinions. Seeing where other players are at about Modern is also something Wizards pays close attention to, and can in turn can help us make accurate banlist predictions or even metagame calls.
“The Field at Large Will Be Highly Diverse”
True, but I believe the Pro Tour will appear less diverse to spectators than it is in actuality, and the tournament itself is also likely to be less diverse than Modern itself at that time.
Think way back to the last Modern Pro Tour. PT Oath of the Gatewatch featured a relatively diverse field, but coverage was dominated by Colorless Eldrazi mirrors. Indeed, the teams that “broke” the format won the most, and therefore earned the most airtime.
To be clear, we don’t have a deck like Colorless Eldrazi on the horizon. But Modern’s still a play-what-you-know format, and I bet the teams who prepare better will do better and garner the most visibility. These players are also likely to be on the same deck or two, as disagreement within teams on which deck to play sort of goes against the whole idea of teaming up in the first place (although it does occasionally happen).
As for the field itself, some element of its diversity is bound to come from the fact that less experienced pros are likely to misunderstand the meaning of “Modern is an open format.” I’ve seen plenty of great players, also format newcomers, fall into the trap of putting too much stock into the idea that you can play anything in Modern by expecting to do well with any random deck by virtue of being great players. Some then chalked their losses up to variance and quit Modern; the more productive among them learned from their mistakes and have since had success by intimately getting to know one or two decks.
Come to think of it, we just saw Brennen DeCandio fall into that very trap at SCG Columbus, bombing with the utterly fringe Mono-Green Devotion. Brennan justified his choice by arguing that people are now running Field of Ruin over Ghost Quarter (something that first of all isn’t true and second of all isn’t enough to suddenly make this bad deck playable), betraying his lack of reps in Modern. Not-so-coincidentally, Brennan is one of the format’s most vocal critics in today’s pro-Modern climate, attributing his failures there to the supposed matchup lottery. I can see other qualified players buying into a similar mentality and registering some off-the-grid deck, to an extent artificially buffing the tournament’s diversity.
“The Top 8 Will Reflect This Diversity.”
With this point I totally disagree. The best-performing teams are likely to make it to the top and be on the same thing, yielding a Top 8 of a couple of well-prepared teams. Combined with the birthday paradox, the likelihood of this scenario makes me believe the Top 8 might feature at most five different decks and is more likely to feature four.
“Storm, Shadow and Lantern Will Be Played in Higher Numbers”
Storm, Grixis Shadow, and Lantern Control certainly seem like some of Modern’s best decks to me. I’d even add Eldrazi Tron to the list. Between these four decks, so much archetype ground is covered that the arguments for playing anything else really do fall into niche territory. For reference, that’s fine with me—if there’s ever been a format to feature decks that win by finding and exploiting a niche, it’s Modern. But Storm, Shadow, Lantern, and Eldrazi Tron make up the framework that needs to be cracked.
That said, I’m not sure I agree that these decks will be played in higher numbers. I think Jeskai Tempo will be a huge favorite among pros, as it represents what that community has consistently endorsed since Modern’s beginnings. In my eyes, the pros’ frequent beefs with Modern over the years have in part been influenced by Jeskai’s historically poor standing; now that the deck’s a real contender, I expect pros to flock to it. Part of their gravitation to Jeskai has to do with convenience. The skills integral to decks like Jeskai—grinding out opponents; navigating battlefields; balancing life points; remaining aware of in-deck resources—tend to translate very well from other formats like Standard or Legacy, and most pros play other formats. Compare Jeskai to a deck like Lantern Control, that has highly specific lines inherently and that adjusts its lines significantly depending on each matchup, and it becomes apparent that players coming from other formats would immediately discount it, or at least be less excited to put in reps with it.
Jason puts Storm and Shadow into similar categories, alluding to their Modern-nicheness. But he argues that pros are likelier than your average other-format-goer to indeed learn the ins and outs of these highly specific decks. I think he may be overestimating how much time pros who primarily play Standard or Legacy will actually want to invest into Modern for this tournament, and underestimating the tangible emotional barriers specific decks like Lantern can pose for newcomers. If a given pro is having relatively sustained success with a deck that requires of them a more familiar skillset, I think they’re likely to stay on that deck and tweak it for the anticipated metagame.
One deck I do expect to be played in higher numbers is Tron, which includes both Gx and Eldrazi variants. Tron decks are relatively straightforward with a shallow learning curve, and they produce “free wins” in some of Modern’s most fundamentally understandable terms: “turn three Karn.” Pros with a lot on their plate are likely to be drawn to the raw power and approachability of the Tron archetype, as well as its inherently favorable matchups against the Ux control decks unendingly advocated for by pros for years.
All that said, I do think Storm, Shadow, Lantern, and Eldrazi Tron are the decks to beat, and expect at least two of these decks to be very accomplished at the Pro Tour. I just don’t think they’ll be played in direct accordance with their actual power level, which incidentally mirrors their current metagame share.
“Humans Will Underperform”
I agree with this assertion overall, but take issue with some of the logic behind it.
Jason writes that “Modern is a format that rewards linearity and explosiveness,” and notes that “Humans can’t really boast either of those things.” On the other hand, I find Humans to be extremely linear, if not quite as much as something like Burn—its games only fail to play out the same way each time because of the deck’s many unique spells and lack of consistency tools. Still, barring some minor variation in terms of board-dependant sequencing, Humans tends to play its game each game, with little room for pilots to adjust their gameplans.
Nonlinearity, when possible, actually benefits strategies. The recent success of Shadow decks, Affinity, and Jeskai Tempo all attest to that—attacking from multiple angles, and boasting the ability to choose which angle to attack from at will, are indeed keys to success. It’s just that nonlinearity generally comes at the cost of proactivity, as adjusting one’s gameplan tends to be more reactive; proactivity, I’d say, is indeed tremendously important to success in this format.
The distinction between proactivity and linearity, hinted at in Roland’s article on fairness, can certainly be tricky to pin down, since the two components tend to walk hand-in-hand. A second cost of nonlinearity is focus, which I plan to cover in detail in a forthcoming article; sacrificing synergy to attack from multiple angles can mean a drop in proactivity or consistency, both crucial components for Modern success. For more on the importance of these parameters—proactivity, interactivity, and consistency—check out my Three’s Company article from September 2016.
So I’d rewrite Jason’s sentence to read, “Modern is a format that rewards proactivity and explosiveness,” which in my mind are synonymous terms. Of course, Humans itself is quite proactive. But then, I agree with Jason that Humans is unlikely to experience smashing success at the Pro Tour. How come?
Humans’s strength lies in its ability to proact and interact simultaneously. Deploying threats like Reflector Mage or Meddling Mage interferes with an opponent’s gameplan while developing one’s board state. The deck’s issue is a consistency one: without smoothing tools like Serum Visions or even Collected Company, Humans has no way to ensure it hits the right disruption for the right matchup. Reflector does very little against linear combo decks like Storm or Lantern, while Meddling embarrasses in the face of multiple cheap removal spells out of Jund or Grixis.
Similarly, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben offers nothing against creature-centric decks, and the same goes for Kitesail Freeboter. Many a Humans game is lost to drawing the wrong disruptive threats for the matchup, and that’s not even accounting for the variance inherent to running Aether Vial (the card blows against removal-heavy decks, where we’d prefer another threat; late Vials contribute very little to a given game; removed Vials can totally screw hands depending on them).
If Humans indeed underperforms at the Pro Tour, as I think it will, it will be because of its consistency issues. I’m inclined to believe few experienced Modern players will pick Humans at all, as they will have recognized these issues in testing. If anyone plays Humans, it’ll be the deck’s die-hard proponents (is Collins Mullen qualified for this Pro Tour?) or players who don’t play a lot of Modern (or at least haven’t tested very much). I doubt such players barrel through Day 1 unencumbered.
I’ll just kind of rattle these off and open the floor to the readership in the comments.
Storm, Shadow, Lantern, or Eldrazi Tron Wins the Most
This isn’t such a bold prediction, but I want to make absolutely clear that I think these four decks have the most going for them in this metagame. I’d be surprised (albeit pleasantly) if one of them (and am leaning towards two) didn’t put multiple copies into the Top 8.
Meanwhile, I expect BGx decks to underperform. While Abzan and Jund have been gaining shares overall, and now combine to form a superarchetype that’s the number three most-represented “deck” in Modern, the linear—especially big mana—slant I think the PT will take should keep them away from the winning tables.
The same goes for synergistic aggro decks. Let’s get real: these decks kind of suck right now. Jeskai’s on the up, and Shadow’s likely to be a big hit in Bilbao. Company and yes, Humans are the big losers here. I think Affinity is the exception to this rule, and expect that deck to edge out other synergistic aggro contenders as Storm will other linear combo options.
Unless something truly broken appears, I just don’t see Wizards banning cards after this Pro Tour in light of reactions to their previous Modern bans surrounding Pro Tours. Even if one or two decks perform much better than others, I bet the company writes it off so long as medium-sized events maintain their diversity—which, by the way, they are likely to. In this way, Bilbao may end up a statistical anomaly as Worlds does. People have their Modern decks now and love them, and the big financial incentive to play the “best deck” will be gone after the Pro Tour. Besides, Modern shifts enough that the “best deck” is unlikely to remain so for long, at least in obvious terms.
On the subject of bans, Wizards may look to shake up the format another way. The playerbase has become increasingly vocal about certain cards on the banned list, namely Stoneforge Mystic and Bloodbraid Elf. I think if fair, three-color midrange decks besides Shadow have a poor showing as I’ve predicted, Wizards will look to unban one of these cards. Both coming off at once is pretty unlikely in my eyes, as Wizards has always been conservative with their unbans. They may also want to keep the format how it is if they believe it has generated enough interest on its own, since unbans are unarguably a limited resource at their disposal with which to inject new life into Modern.
No matter what the future has in store for us, I’m psyched for Pro Tour Bilbao, and so are most Modern players I know. I’m not looking to be vindicated with any of my predictions—I’m just so excited that I can’t help but write 2000 words about it. If you share my enthusiasm, drop me a line in the comments.