Pro Tour: Fate Reforged was a defining moment in the evolution of the post-Treasure Cruise / Birthing Pod Modern metagame. In the weeks and months leading to the Pro Tour, the Modern format had been the focus from the Pro community, while the pressure of the competitive Pro Tour environment made it a crucible that forged excellent top-tier winning decks that are proven to be great starting points for anyone playing Modern.
The Top 8 decklists from the Pro Tour will be widely publicized and discussed, but there is plenty of other quality information available that is also relevant to the texture of the Modern metagame going forward into the spring. Now all decklists that finished 6-4 or better in the constructed portion of the Pro Tour are available. Taken as a whole, these decks provide insight into the Modern metagame at the Pro Tour, and there is great technology in the individual decklists.
After the Pro Tour I began by looking at the "Standings by Format" and looking for players with an exceptional Modern record. Roberto Esposito, Tyler Hill, and Nam Wing Chun stood out from the rest as the only players with 9-1 records. I discovered that all three of these 9-1 players at the Pro Tour piloted hyper-aggressive archetypes. Each of these players represented one of three different archetypes: Affinity, Infect, and Burn.
Hyper-aggressive decks that blur the line between combo and aggro have always been strong in Modern and they continue to perform well. All of these decks have a solid proactive gameplan that, with the right draws, is capable of killing anyone.
Today I'll explore the gameplan of each archetype while highlighting some of the similarities and differences between them. In order to determine its metagame positioning going forward, I'll examine each deck's general strategy and how it matches up against other decks in the field.Affinity
Affinity at its core is an aggressive creature deck. It's built on various synergies interlaced with one another, which at times gives it a very combo-like feel. Consider that Mox Opal and Etched Champion require two other artifacts for Metalcraft, Thoughtcast benefits from any number of artifacts in play for its Affinity cost, Glimmervoid has an Artifact requirement, and that Springleaf Drum, Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, Signal Pest, and Steel Overseer are only effective with other creatures. All of these powerful cards lean heavily on other artifacts and creatures, and to support them Affinity plays an assortment of very cheap artifact creatures that fuel the deck: Ornithopter, Memnite, Signal Pest, and Vault Skirge. These help produce mana with Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal as early as turn one, wear Cranial Plating, and form an army for Steel Overseer and Signal Pest.
Affinity is a mixture of highly-powerful cards, dependent on the fuel cards, that are fundamentally weak otherwise. Affinity is capable of explosive draws that are nigh-unbeatable, but at times it draws too much of one part of the deck. Too many power cards and it's slow, clunky, and perhaps unable to do anything at all, while too many fuel cards lead to an anemic draw that fills the board with cards that don't actually do anything.
Affinity has a very robust game plan that can fluctuate between going wide with a swarm of cheap threats and going big with Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager. Either of these cards pair particularly well with Inkmoth Nexus as a pseudo-combo kill. Arcbound Ravager gives Affinity a source of constant options and adds an extra layer of strategic complexity to the deck. It allows for aggressive all-in plays that attempt to end the game quickly, while at other times it's best to be more modest. Thoughtcast helps the deck fight attrition battles, while Steel Overseer is best over a longer game. Arcbound Ravager plays well against removal spells, while Cranial Plating helps the deck maintain pressure against board sweepers. Mulliganing, long-term strategizing, and combat math are all at the core of high-level Affinity play. Affinity is often called the hardest deck to play in Modern, but it's also an archetype that has always been a contender, and it looks to be a contender for a long time ahead.
To its discredit, Affinity is quite weak against opponents that play a critical mass of Affinity hate cards including Stony Silence, Ancient Grudge, Creeping Corrosion, and Kataki, War's Wage. All of these cards are beatable, but they each present unique challenges to Affinity, and navigating them is a challenge. These sideboard cards offer limited utility against other archetypes, so to some degree opponents must explicitly dedicate sideboard space to Affinity.
Looking at other decks in the Pro Tour metagame, the average was around three cards in each sideboard dedicated to Affinity, though in each case it was the most flexible option against the field and not entirely dedicated to Affinity, such as the three Stony Silence in Jesse Hampton's Abzan sideboard being good against Tron, the three Ancient Grudge in Wiegersma's Splinter Twin sideboard stopping Spellskite, or the three Smash to Smithereens in Tian's Burn sideboard being great for Batterskull. This is a modest and certainly beatable amount of hate cards to be facing. Given Affinity's low-profile finish at the Pro Tour, I don't expect it will draw an unreasonable amount of attention going forward, and perhaps opponents will even scale back hate, which is something I can't condone. Affinity should be a very fine Modern option going forward.
Affinity is strong against other line decks that don't offer up much disruption of their own, and it's fast enough to race these decks its fair share of the time. Affinity tends to be strong against Abzan decks because of its speed and efficiency. The move away from red and Lightning Bolt have made BG/x decks unable to make effective tempo plays in the early game and far fewer ways to disrupt important creatures like Steel Overseer and Signal Pest. It is forced to rely on Abrupt Decay, which doesn't even kill manlands, and Path to Exile, which gives tempo back to the opponent. Affinity is somewhat vulnerable to disruption on one of its key components, like Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager, so Thoughtseize and especially Inquisition of Kozilek are among the best tools in Abzan's arsenal. Abzan will be forced to rely heavily on sideboard cards, most likely a few Stony Silence and a sprinkling of Creeping Corrosion, so it's important to have plans against these cards.Infect
Unfortunately the Pro Tour coverage doesn't have Tyler Hill's complete decklist, so in its stead here is Tom Ross' decklist, which was the versions played by many other teammates like Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and Jon Finkel:
Infect is essentially a Stompy deck that mixes creatures and pump spells. Infect effectively doubles the power of pump spells, making the strategy somewhat degenerate. Compared to Affinity, it relies less on synergy and is more focused on executing one core plan. This focus brings it greater redundancy, which equates to greater consistency, and a greater power level, which in this case means it's a bit faster and more likely to win the game in the early turns than Affinity. For Infect, turn two kills are possible and turn three kills commonplace.
Infect also has access to blue card selection and disruption, allowing it to function something like a Fish deck that measuredly applies a mix of pressure and disruption in the form of Counterspells, particularly after sideboard. The fact that Vines of Vastwood has various modes, as a buff effect that combines with Infect creatures, as a Counterspell against opposing removal spells, or both together, is a strategically powerful aspect of the deck in that it forces the opponents to play a certain way and even forces opposing action on their own turn, lest they be blown out by Vines of Vastwood.
Infect is at its best against decks with little to no interaction, and even better against decks that can't muster blocking creatures. It's excellent against combo decks, for example the Amulet of Vigor / Summer Bloom deck is an excellent matchup, as is Storm, because these opponents offer little interaction of their own, and their game-ending combos aren't necessarily faster than an undisrupted Infect draw. They are also vulnerable to sideboard disruption from Infect.
Infect tends to be strong against Abzan, and like Affinity it's a huge winner in the movement away from Jund and thus Lightning Bolt in BG/x decks. Tectonic Edge and Fulminator Mage do contain Inkmoth Nexus, and the deck has tons of blockers, with Lingering Souls being a particular problem. Zealous Persecution is also potentially brutal from the sideboard. Infect does have all the tools necessary to handle these problems with careful play, with things like Pendelhaven to stop removal, and Apostle's Blessing to get around blockers, but it's important be aware of these dangers.
Across the board, Infect is likely to face relatively low-impact sideboard options, most likely generic creature removal or board sweepers. There simply aren't dedicated Infect hate cards, and even the most specific answer of Melira, Sylvok Outcast was effectively banned out of mainstream play by the banning of Birthing Pod. Perhaps the single best sideboard card against Infect is Spellskite, which can absorb pump spells, but Infect is likely to have numerous outs to the cards. I recall doing a video on Sultai Infect with a list I found where all 15 of my sideboard cards could answer Spellskite.
On the other hand, Infect is vulnerable to traditional forms of creature removal, and unlike Affinity it doesn't have any sort of individual robust threats to rely on. The sideboard cards Infect is most likely to come up against will overlap with creature removal cards that would also come in against Affinity, like Pyroclasm and Anger of the Gods. Ancient Grudge can be a great option because it destroys two Inkmoth Nexus or Spellskite. I'm particularly fond of Darkblast against both of these archetypes.
Like Affinity, Infect also had a below-the-radar performance at the Pro Tour, eventually finishing outside the top 8. People will have it in mind, but combined with a historic lack of regard for the archetype, the low profile finish at the PT, and the lack of great dedicated sideboard cards, it should have plenty of room to operate going forward. The quality of an Infect deck is likely most dependent on the metagame, but with the removal-heavy Jeskai Flash mostly absent from the metagame, and with the success of Abzan and linear combo decks, Infect should be well-positioned.Burn
Yam Wing Chun's 9-1 record highlights a group of team MTGmintcard players that did quite well with Burn, including Lee Shi Tian and his 8-1-1 finish that earned him a Top 8 berth, along with and 8-2 finish by team member Kim Song-Eun and a 6-4 finish by Huan Hao-Shan that earned him a Top 16 finish.
In its own way Burn, like Affinity and Infect, is a hyper-aggressive deck that borders on being a combo deck. Burn lives based on the "Philosophy of Fire" that states it needs to deal 20 damage win the game, and all of its cards provide some portion of that 20. It has been referred to as a "seven card combo deck" in that seven 3-damage burn spells will kill the opponent. This makes burn cards incredibly redundant and interchangeable, and thus quite consistent. In Modern, Burn decks get a special edge because most opponents play with fetchlands and shocklands that cost them life points. Burn decks aren't as fast as traditional combo decks nor as fast as Affinity and Infect, but they certainly are reliable and difficult to disrupt.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Burn decks is that opponents have a hard time interacting with Burn in a meaningful way. Most Counterspells in the metagame are either inefficient like Cryptic Command, ineffective like Remand, or situational like Spell Pierce, leaving just Spell Snare as effective disruption. Burn spells can't be destroyed by the creature removal, so creature removal is of limited use against the deck, and the cheap costs and haste of Goblin Guide and Monastery Swiftspear mean they will have often already made their mark when removed. Discard is reasonable, but Thoughtseize is quite unimpressive given that it costs the opponent a mana and two life, and because burn cards are so redundant.
The biggest enemies of burn are dedicated sideboard hate cards like Leyline of Sanctity and Kor Firewalker, and in maindeck life gain cards like Kitchen Finks and Siege Rhino. The banning of Birthing Pod drastically reduced the number of Kitchen Finks in the metagame, but Siege Rhino was simply everywhere at the Pro Tour, in nearly a third of the decks at the event! This maindeck lifegain is certainly a hurdle, but it's manageable given that the Burn archetype has already evolved to overcome some amount of opposing lifegain. Skullcrack and Flames of the Bloodhand are two examples of cards that fit Into the Core Burn plan while mitigating the impact of opposing lifegain. To fight sideboard hate, one of the best options it to splash white, green, or both, to broaden access to disruptionion like enchantment removal.
With a strong draw Burn can stay on pace with combo decks, and its best draws with a turn one creature and two burn spells on turn two are capable of winning on turn three, but turn four is more likely. There are sideboard options that help give the Burn deck an edge, like Molten Rain. Burn is effective against Affinity and Infect because many of its burn spells also serve as creature removal, but it normally can't simply race these opponents without disrupting them. Burn is traditionally quite strong against BGx decks like Abzan, because Abzan has little way to interact with Burn, but Burn can be vulnerable against large creatures like Tarmogoyf and Siege Rhino if it can't end the game quickly. Looking Ahead
Hyper-aggressive decks are at the heart of the Modern experience. In such a wide-open format with a very high power level, being proactive is of utmost importance. Time and time again it is the most proactive decks in Modern that are the most successful. The success of Affinity, Infect, and Burn at the Pro Tour, along with the success of other focused, proactive decks like Splinter Twin and Amulet Bloom, prove yet again that staying proactive is the most reliable way to approach Modern. These archetypes will continue to be successful and are among the best decks to be playing in any future Modern event.
Share your thoughts in the comments. What do you know about Affinity, Infect, or Burn? What other hyper-aggressive strategies are there? I'll try to answer any questions!