Last weekend was Grand Prix Columbus, and as the first individual Grand Prix since the banning of Faithless Looting and Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis in August, its results give us a great look at how the metagame is recovering from the traumas of the past year.
The format's new menace, the midrange Sultai Urza, Lord High Artificer/Oko, Thief of Crowns deck, was the most-played deck in the event and ultimately took the trophy, but that only tells one part of the story. ChannelFireball published a look at the metagame share by deck in the event and on day two, so I used these to calculate conversion percentages into day two and the Top 8, and they provide some great insight into the metagame—and conclude that the best deck in Modern might be Five-Color Humans.
The numbers show that of the major archetypes, Eldrazi Tron had the best day two conversion rate, with 13 of its 37 players making day two. It was the fifth-most popular deck, tied with Green Urzatron. Combining these decks into one "Tron" category would actually make them the most popular, exceeding Urza's 69 decks, but with only nine of their players making it in, traditional Tron decks did decidedly worse on day one. That said, they did fare much better on day two, putting two copies into the top 8.
It's likely that the worst Tron players, which are now even worse off due to the London mulligan giving the deck even more decisions, simply fall by the wayside, while the best of the best demonstrate the deck's true power and consistency. As to why Eldrazi Tron did not break into the Top 8 I can't be certain, but it did finish as high as 10th place. It's been one of the best-performing Modern decks on Magic Online, winning the last three Modern Challenges in a row, so it's certainly a strong contender.
I wonder if my argument about weak Tron players could also apply to Burn, which might show a similar disparity in the skill of its pilots. It's not so mulligan-decision intensive, but it's simply the most accessible deck in the format in terms of price and its straightforward game plan, and consequently one of the most popular, second only to Sultai Urza with 51 players. It was also one of the very worst performing decks in the field. With only seven copies in day two for a 13.7% conversion rate, it was it second only to Amulet Titan's 11.5% for worst deck in the field. But two of those seven players made Top 8, cutting through the day two field!
My testing for the event was entirely on MTGO playing Urza decks, and I played against an inordinate number of Burn decks (which is also the cheapest Modern deck on MTGO). They were a real struggle to beat with any sort of consistency, with many games feeling all but impossible to win. Burn also has some notoriety for smoking Tron decks, so I can imagine it had a veritable field day on Sunday, and going forward should be a very strong option for its best pilots.
With 25 pilots, six making day two, Humans fell in the middle of the pack in terms of popularity and conversion percentage, but it blew away the field in terms of ultimate Top 8 conversion percentage. A third of the day two players, and a full 8% percent of total players who picked up Humans made Top 8, and from that perspective it was by far the best choice for the weekend. For comparison, there were 657 players in the field, so the average player had a 1.2% change of reaching Top 8. Anyone who registered Humans was 6.66 times more likely than average to make Top 8, quite an advantage. Compare that to 5.4% of Tron players making Top 8, 3.9% of Burn, and only 3% of the metagame share leader Sultai Urza converted.
The question is, why is Humans suddenly so good? What changed? The answer is the simple one, and it goes back to Faithless Looting. For its entire life it has really been only used for unfair strategies like Dredge and Reanimator, but it was never truly broken. Then Hollow One came along and pushed it a bit further, but it truly became a problem with the printing of Arclight Phoenix last year. From the printing of Unclaimed Territory in Ixalan through much of 2018 Humans was the dominant deck in Modern. Then the metagame started fighting back with decks to beat it like Azorius Control, and led to a shift of Aether Vial decks from Humans to Spirit decks better suited for beating control.
This paradigm was ended by Arclight Phoenix. The Lightning Bolt-fueled deck, which played Plague Wind-on-a-body in Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, was a nightmare for tribal decks of all stripes. It made life for decks like Humans and Spirits impossible, and eventually all but eliminated them from the metagame. At the turn of the year I even wrote an article titled "Lightning Bolt is the Best Card In Modern" that explained how these tribal strategies were suffering.
These aggressive, disruptive decks were key for keeping the most unfair decks in check, so in the absence of Humans and Spirits, we saw Krark-Clan Ironworks combo take over the metagame and earn its banning, but afterwards Arclight Phoenix still remained. Then came Hogaak, which supplanted both Arclight Phoenix and Dredge as the best Faithless Looting deck.
The shift toward Hogaak and its recurrable creatures meant that Lightning Bolt went from being the format's premier creature removal spell to mostly ineffective as removal. It was certainly no longer the best card in Modern. Now we've come full circle, and it makes perfect sense that Humans is again free to rise to the top of a metagame left completely gutted by Hogaak and Faithless Looting.
Their departure did not bring the metagame back in time, but rather left a shell of it behind. The pillars left holding it up have been the other best new strategies from Modern Horizons, with various Urza decks breaking out after the banning as the new metagame leader. It's only natural that some of the most popular and successful decks in recent weeks, including last weekend, have been specifically decks with supposedly strong matchups against Urza decks, and Humans fits that category. As an aggressive deck with plenty of disruption, it's one of the best strategies for exploiting Urza. Urza does't contain a ton of disruption and removal of its own to disrupt Human's synergistic side, but it falls prey to the disruption Humans offers.
Humans is also benefiting from the lack of Lightning Bolt in the post-ban metagame. The Hogaak ban didn't magically bring back all of the old Lightning Bolt decks, and in fact the banning of Faithless Looting also destroyed the previous best Lightning Bolt deck, Izzet Phoenix. Jund decks have been at a low, and with Burn and Tron so popular doesn't look too attractive. Grixis Shadow tends to not even play Lightning Bolt anymore. That leaves Burn as the only true Lightning Bolt deck in the metagame, and while it has a good game against Humans, it too is susceptible to Human's disruption and potentially to dedicated sideboard hosers like Auriok Champion.
It all adds up to Humans looking like a great choice right now, and that's not even considering some of the upgrades Humans has received since the last time it was at the top of the metagame. The best of these is actually a sideboard card, Collector Ouphe, which is not a Human but as a cheap creature is a perfect fit into the suite of hosers that Humans typically employs in the sideboard. It's a perfect replacement for Stony Silence, both because it's a threat, and because it can be put down by Aether Vial—even if it does turn off afterwards. It's a perfect way to fight back against Urza decks, turning off a large portion of their cards and especially stopping Engineered Explosives, which is typically their best hope for staving off Humans.
Plague Engineer has also found its way into the typical Humans sideboard, offering a nice hosers against other tribal strategies, including the mirror match, which might make it an increasingly important card if Humans starts to pick up in the coming weeks.
Additionally, Modern Horizons gave Humans more options for its mana base featuring Horizon Canopy, and the deck now typically plays six of the effect, with Sunbaked Canyon and Waterlogged Grove as options. Adding more value to the manabase makes the deck even harder to grind out, and it's a real benefit to the strategy.
Humans also recently gained a new tool from Throne of Eldraine in Charming Prince. It's not a groundbreaking four-of, but it has earned space as a two-of that adds a nice dynamic to the deck. It does its best work with its Blink effect, imitating Phantasmal Image in its ability to get more mileage from enters-the-battlefield effects. It offers additional utility with its scry ability, which makes it a nice two-drop curve play to help set up when there is nothing to blink. The life gain is just a nice bonus, an afterthought until it isn't, but it's especially nice as a maindeck Burn hoser because Phantasmal Image can copy it for more triggers.
Humans isn't the only deck to benefit from the new metagame, and the sudden success of a few other archetypes points to the same phenomenon. Sharing the same 33% day two conversion rate were Infect and Devoted Druid Combo, each putting exactly five of their 15 players into the second day. That puts them second only to Eldrazi Tron as the best-converting major archetypes of the weekend. Both of these decks are susceptible to Lightning Bolt and its accompanying strategies like Jund, but their fast and proactive strategies exploit removal-light decks such as Urza and Tron.
The biggest outlier of the event was Naya Zoo, which put two of its three players into day two, making it technically the highest-converting deck of the weekend.
The tiny sample size for an archetype that's essentially a rogue deck at this point doesn't say too much, but it makes sense that a Zoo deck would be perfectly positioned. The lack of Lightning Bolt in the metagame means conditions are ripe for its aggressive creature-based strategy to wipe out unprepared opponents, while it uses Lighting Bolt of its own to beat the part of the metagame weak to it: an ideal combination. The deck is definitely worth a deeper look and I wouldn't be surprised to see a revival of similar Zoo strategies
Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern and Eternal formats and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.