I’m getting spoiled with all this Modern event data. November brought us the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier circuit, nonstop StarCityGames Qualifiers, and a massive North American Grand Prix in Pittsburgh. Those data-Scrooges at Wizards even started releasing MTGO League decklists! Between crunching those numbers, speculating about the new Grand Prix promo card, and sitting back to watch the Pittsburgh action, it’s been a fun month for Modern and an exciting time for the Modern metagame. Today, we’re going to dive into November’s data to see what changed from our October breakdown and where we are headed in December.
January is approaching, which means Oath of the Gatewatch spoiler season, innovations and testing before a Pro Tour, and a banlist announcement on January 18. Cue the groans and salt. If you’re like me, you’re probably (definitely) tired of every single Modern article speculating about the upcoming announcement. There’s more than enough Modern content to keep articles on the format itself and not opine on everyone’s personal (often unsupported) vision of the banlist. This paragraph is the last time I’m even going to mull that announcement over today. There are ample Modern events in December and January before the 18th and we need to keep our eye on the metagame during that time. Besides, without a clear understanding of the format, it’s impossible to critically weigh-in on banlist issues.
With that in mind, let’s ban the banlist talk for the rest of the day and dive right into the dynamic and evolving Modern metagame we enjoyed throughout November. I promise we’ll do plenty of banlist talk in January!
Tier 1 Decks
As I talked about earlier last month, the RPTQ scene was a winner’s metagame of skilled players who already prevailed in previous tournaments. Coupled with the GP Pittsburgh data, this has narrowed the tier 1 field relative to October, where it was much more open. We’re currently tracking only five decks in November’s tier 1, down from nine in October. The RPTQs had a big influence here: with stakes and player-skill high, we were more likely to see tiered contenders and not upstart weirdos. This makes the tier 1 decks we do have even more important, because it suggests a level of staying power other comers-and-goers might lack.
Data-wise, it’s been a good month for metagame analysis. In light of Wizards’ decision to release League data to the masses, even if just a small sample, our Top Decks dataset has the highest event N we’ve had in months. November saw about 100 paper events, which is right on track with October’s 107 and September’s 103. By contrast, MTGO numbers are way up from previous months: roughly 50 events with over 350 decks, as compared with the 30 or so events and 200ish monthly decks since the Daily switch. We’re still going to apply our weighting to MTGO numbers when calculating metagame-wide shares (a value derived by comparing the current number of MTGO decks with the number of decks during the MTGO heyday earlier this year), but that variable is less severe now than it was in October.
Based on this, here are the tier 1 decks for November. As usual, these are the decks you can expect to see at tournaments, strategies you must prepare for and test against if you are to enjoy success. Although these are prevalence-based metrics, their shares are suggestive of high performance levels: you’ll have a great shot at the top if you sling one of these Modern mainstays.
|MTGO %||Paper %||Major Event
Day 2 %
With one upstart exception, this is familiar Modern territory. Jund, Twin, Affinity, and Burn all stick around as format pillars. For its part, RG Tron keeps a hold on tier 1, something that should surprise no one given the combined levels of Jund, Abzan, and fair Grixis decks floating around Modern these days. The only anomaly (or maybe not, depending on your faith in the deck) is the continued tier 1 presence of Amulet Bloom. The combo/ramp hybrid posted impressive November numbers despite being on the radar of many players and its supposed vulnerability to hate.
We’ll talk more about those individual decks soon, but first let’s look at their trajectories over the past few months. Some of these fluctuations are well within expected variance. Others are more pronounced.
|Deck name||Meta% change|
(Oct. to Nov.)
Thinking through high-level format trends, Burn, Affinity, and Jund have all wobbled around since August. This is expected behavior for established Modern decks: they will naturally ebb and flow depending on other builds in the metagame. By contrast, RG Tron and Amulet Bloom have enjoyed consistent upward mobility from summer until today. These decks aren’t necessarily format pillars (less so with the eternal RG Tron), but they are quickly making a name for themselves as tier 1 regulars to be respected. As for Twin, UR Twin’s share reflects the overall URx Twin picture, with a summertime downtick getting reversed in the fall.
Following from this, here are the big tier 1 narratives to keep in mind when reflecting on November and looking ahead to December.
- URx Twin stays on top at 11.8%
Traditional UR Twin is the only discrete Twin representative in tier 1, but the URx Twin collective remains the biggest player in Modern. Alex Bianchi even added Jeskai Twin to the list of usual suspects, making a strong case for its viability in GP Pittsburgh. URx Twin strategies currently make up 11.8% of the format, with UR Twin leading at 5.5%, Grixis right behind at 4.2%, and Temur plus Jeskai rounding it out at 1.4% and .7% respectively. That’s an exceedingly healthy combined share for a top-tier deck. We’ve seen Affinity, Jund, Abzan, and Burn at similar levels this year alone. Twin’s November presence regulated troublesome linear decks like Affinity and Infect, and you’ll need to expect lots of Twin if you plan on sleeving up for Modern before 2015 closes. Twin’s persistence also suggests the deck remains an excellent choice if you aren’t sure what to play, with all variants enjoying comparable viability.
- Jund endures
Despite dropping 1% from October to November, Jund remains a strong Modern contender and the preferred color pairing for BGx mages. I’m more hesitant to combine the BGx variants than I am to merge Twin ones (the difference between Bolt/Kolaghan’s Command and Path/Rhino is massive), but between Jund (7.7%) and Abzan (3.9%), BGx Midrange sits right behind Twin at a net 11.6% share. Jund remains the BGx strategy of choice due largely to Lightning Bolt‘s power against all those aggro decks across the Zoo and Burn spectrum. Path to Exile is not what anyone wants to be doing against turn one Wild Nacatl. Jund also has access to both Blood Moon and conventional Fulminator Mage-style land removal, another edge over Abzan in a ramp-centric metagame (see Tron and Bloom below). If you’re playing Modern in December, expect to see Jund wrecking synergy-based strategies and setting the bar for grindy midrange. Jund players: know your metagame before configuring your 75! Bad choices will leave you unprepared for Modern’s deep tier 2.
- The linear shift from creatures to ramp
From October to November, linear decks shifted from the creature-based Infect, Merfolk, and Affinity to ramp strategies like RG Tron and Amulet Bloom. Those big-mana decks saw a combined 1.9% jump from the October period to November. At the same time, Infect, Merfolk, and Affinity saw a collective 2.4% drop. Although it’s hard to prove players consciously changed decks, the numbers and the overall metagame narrative are very suggestive. Tron and Bloom are excellent against Jund, which was perceived as a major policing force throughout the month. Although both decks struggle against Twin, so too did some of the decks whose shares they stole (Affinity and Infect). At least with the ramp decks, you’re blanking all the removal players were so keen to include after October’s uptick in Zoo-style decks. Merfolk is more of a mystery: the deck should be going crazy in a Twin and Jund-heavy metagame. Perhaps the Merfolk players were worried about their chances against the remaining tier 2 creature-based decks? Merfolk’s own decline was the smallest of the group at only -.4%, so my guess is that this is just a temporary downshift. It’s up to you to play into this switch and prepare accordingly, balancing a healthy fear of ramp decks with a respect for the remaining creature-based contenders. Also, don’t forget Burn. The Nacatl and no-Nacatl versions picked up a .2% scrap from the declining decks and remains a serious powerhouse in Modern.
- Amulet Bloom sticks around
This is the first metagame update since we started our website where Bloom has been tier 1 in two consecutive months. Some players missed this movement because they were too focused on Top 8s and not on more holistic metagame data. Michael Sigrist and Allison Nakazora Abe barely missed the Top 8s on breakers at Pittsburgh and Porto Alegre respectively (both secured 9th instead). Add to that Bloom’s prevalence on MTGO, where it was November’s most-played deck online at 8.5%, its RPTQ share earlier in the month at 7.3%, and its collective Day 2 share at 5.1%, and it’s clear Bloom has put up tier 1-worthy numbers in the past month. Do not ignore this when choosing your deck or sideboard! With Bloom on a two-month hot streak, Blood Moon is more valuable than ever before. So is Twin as a deck-choice. Similarly, you need to know what cards to remove, discard, and counter when playing against the deck: “but Bloom is so fringe!” doesn’t cut it anymore. There might have been a time where you could hope to “wing it” through the matchup or outright dodge it. That time is not today, so don’t be caught unprepared in December.
Right after Pittsburgh closed, Patrick Chapin wrote an article for SCG Premium entitled “Twin and Affinity, For A Change?” Even if you can’t read it behind the SCG paywall, the title’s implicit irony still captures most of Chapin’s argument: in Modern, all that’s old is often new again. Today’s metagame update underscores this point. As we’re about to see, our tier 2 is wilder and wackier than ever, but tier 1 is mostly unchanged and stable. This continued stability is a promising sign of both format health and Modern’s ability to regulate powerful strategies as they arise.
Tier 2 Decks
Whenever the tier 1 field narrows, the tier 2 field almost necessarily expands. That’s never been more true than in November. Our October update saw an impressive but still manageable 11 decks in the tier 2 bracket. November? Try 15. Although this is a staggering array of viable strategies, it shouldn’t be too surprising. A narrow tier 1 makes it easier to metagame around most-played decks and pick something with strong positioning. That’s exactly what we see in many of the tier 2 decks, many of which directly go after tier 1 bigshots and all of which are great choices as you head into December tournaments.
|MTGO %||Paper %||Major Event
Day 2 %
|Grixis Control / |
Diverse fields pose numerous challenges for metagame analysis, not least of which is deck classification. Wizards is notorious for grouping decks together in its Day 2 breakdowns for Grand Prix events, and although this has gotten a lot better recently, it’s still present today. For instance, Grixis Control and Grixis Midrange were shamelessly lumped into one category by most deck classifiers on both Wizards and other sites. Knightfall poses similar challenges (spread between Blue Zoo, Bant Company, and a more straightforward Bant Combo list). We also see this in Burn and Zoo, where Wizards seems to classify anything running Nacatls as a Zoo deck. I do my best to straighten this out using expected values from the other metagame stats and checking if share differences are within expected variance, but it’s a tricky business overall.
With those hurdles in mind, here are some quick hits for November’s tier 2 decks.
- Zoo hybrids are real.
Between Naya Company, Gruul Zoo (the Burning-Tree Emissary lists), certain Knightfall builds, and a host of Collected Company-less Naya lists that aren’t even on the above table, the many flavors of Zoo make up about 6.5% of the format. That’s a notable increase from the 5%-5.5% of October, and potentially includes some of the Affinity/Merfolk/Infect downshift we saw at play in the ramp-deck rise. Wild Nacatl is a driving force behind this uptick, and it doesn’t even include Burn’s increasing adoption of the Cat in their own maindeck. Bring sweepers, don’t forget those Bolts, and make sure if you are playing a non-Zoo aggro deck you are doing so for a very good reason. That said, don’t read too much into the notion of a collective Zoo share: playing against small Gruul Zoo lists will be a different experience than dueling the Company builds.
- Grixis evolves.
Earlier this summer, Cryptic Command combined with Kolaghan’s Command to drive Grixis Control’s breakout performance. Then the metagame got linear and Grixis mages remembered why many players were avoiding control to begin with. Since then, Grixis decks have evolved to adopt more midrange elements, including maindeck discard and Liliana of the Veil, while simultaneously ditching the Cryptics. I’ve grouped both the Grixis Controls and Midranges on the table to capture the different ways you might encounter this color pairing over the next month. This lumping also acknowledges the nomenclature conflicts I’ve seen surrounding this deck. Given Midrange’s upswing, I suspect many of those “Grixis Control” decks showing up in GP Day 2s should have been named something else.
Other quick hits include the fall of UW Control from tier 2, the return of Ad Nauseam, and the relative abundance of decks trying to play noninteractive Magic (Bogles, Living End, Elves, etc.). I’m also not 100% confident in classifying Knightfall as a tier 2 deck because there’s little consensus on what separates “Knightfall” proper from other lists, like Zoo, just splashing for the combo. Until other tournament reporters sort this out, we’ll lean towards a more open definition.
Metagame Predictions for 12/1 – 12/31
I’ve been on a roll with the last few predictions, and I was pumped to see the November metagame play out almost exactly as I expected it to. That said, we hit a little (okay, maybe not so little) snag this time around which I’ll talk about in a moment, but last month’s predictions were still in two-for-three territory. Let’s see how it turned out!
- Infect moves to tier 2? Yes!
This was one of my more confident predictions and I’m glad the metagame delivered. Between Twin’s rise and the format’s increasing awareness of creature-based aggro, I struggled to envision a scenario where this deck stayed in tier 1 through November. Following this theory, Infect took a huge hit between the two months, dropping 1.3% from 5.3% to 4.0% by the end of November. Infect is still a great deck and a strong choice for certain tournaments (hint: know your metagame!), but it also doesn’t have format-wide positioning right now.
- Zoo stays in tier 2? Yes!
Gruul Zoo has never been tier 2 in Modern, and its meteoric ascent from September to October might have heralded a frightening shift in the Modern aggro scene. We’d already seen Burn lists jam Wild Nacatl alongside their Eidolons and Swiftspears, and for a moment it seemed like the Cat was going to carry more aggro lists to the top. Thankfully, this never materialized. A combination of fair (Jund) and unfair (RG Tron) decks organically teamed up to beat back the Zoo tides.
- Amulet Bloom moves to tier 2? Nope.
I had too much faith in Modern sideboards, and too little faith in Bloom, when I made this prediction. November made me pay for that confidence, with Bloom not just staying in tier 1 but increasing its share by 1.2%. Whoops. This highlights Bloom’s increasing relevance in Modern and its continued status as a legitimate tier 1 player, not just a random outlier. Perhaps Modern players will take the deck more seriously now and kick it out of the upper levels, but it’s equally possible Bloom is now prepared to handle that pushback and stick around. Either way, be ready for Bloom in the next month.
With no major set releases in December, or even large Modern events (a mere four rounds at the SCG Invitational hardly count), it’s difficult to make meaningful and dramatic predictions for the next update. Instead of forecasting something too far from the beaten trail, tempting as it is to gamble on Faeries or Hatebears/Death and Taxes, I’m going to talk about a possible shift that will be more important for players at serious events.
- Burn will surpass Affinity as Modern’s most-played aggro deck
After a few months of Affinity dominating, players are finally fighting back with Twin and better sideboarding choices. To me, Affinity’s November decline signals a wider drop away from the robots and towards other aggro decks. Burn, particularly Nacatl Burn, is the perfect replacement to pick up the metagame-share pieces, something we’re already seeing in the small Zoo and Burn increases this month. Modern players continue to rediscover Nacatl’s value, and Burn pilots are no exception. Between the traditional lists and those packing in the Naya beatstick, Burn should be able to regain ground lost by Affinity, capitalizing on players being too heavily geared against artifacts. The Burn vs. Twin matchup is also much less certain the brutal Affinity vs. Twin contest, and with Exarchs and Mites back in the game we’ll expect to see more linear-minded players going with a better anti-Twin option.
This was a longer metagame update than some of the previous ones, but with all the different format dynamics at play, it seemed an appropriate length. Are there any other metagame observations you’ve had? Any tier rankings that don’t align with your own Modern experience? Decks I’ve missed or given too much credit? Thanks for reading and I’ll see all of you in the comment section!
Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.