The release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths will mark a full year passing since War of the Spark. The set was brimming with incredibly powerful cards and accordingly made an immediate impact on Eternal formats. The subsequent release of the paradigm-shifting Modern Horizons, followed by Core Set 2020 and Throne of Eldraine, made it clear that War of the Spark was no outlier, but the beginning of a new era. If Theros Beyond Death and the now fully spoiled Ikoria are any indication, things are not slowing down soon.
These sets and their incredible cards have been a traumatic experience for Eternal formats, which have seen their long-established metagames repeatedly uprooted by each release of new cards. Modern has been hit especially hard, but after suffering through "Hogaak Summer" and four rounds of bannings since, the format now looks as healthy as ever.
A look at the online Modern metagame numbers shows a huge variety across the top-performing decklists. The most popular deck, Bant Snow, currently holds just over 6% share of the metagame, followed by a slew of others including Temur Urza, Gruul Ponza, Mono-Green Urzatron, Eldrazi Tron and Burn around 5%, and with Jund, Dredge, Humans, and Amulet Titan all around 4%. Add those up and it's still less than 50% of the field, which contains at least 10 other archetypes holding a share of 1% or more, and countless others carving out their own fraction of the field (R.I.P. Affinity).
It's a metagame that looks something like the one Modern promised to be and where it has been at its best—a format where seemingly any strategy is made possible by its massive cardpool, and is potentially competitive in the wide-open field. Last week I wrote about some of the creative new strategies that have broken into this open metagame, but this past weekend brought us more successful new approaches that can't be missed.
In addition to another Modern Super Qualifier, last weekend featured the Modern Showcase Challenge, the culmination of weeks of Modern Challenge and Preliminary events, and the most competitive Modern event yet since the hiatus on paper events and the boom of Magic Online.
Making it all the way to third place was one of the coolest Modern decks I have seen in years: a nearly mono-blue draw-go counterspell control deck, a throwback to simpler times and a perfect example of the diversity of the metagame.
This deck is built in the mold of the classic blue control deck, a strategy rarely seen anymore, revamped for 2020 with the help of some great new cards—most importantly a green splash for Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath as its finisher of choice. The card has slowly taken over every format as one of the best cards from Theros Beyond Death, including the Bant Snow deck that's currently on top of Modern, and this deck applies it similarly but in its own take on control.
The deck is based around a massive countermagic suite, including the versatile Archmage's Charm and Cryptic Command as major payoffs for going so deep into blue. With the ability to disrupt almost anything the opponent can present, it backs up the countermagic with plentiful card drawing to grind out the opponents. It even provides a home for Fact or Fiction, which has yet to make a real impact on Modern since being reprinted. Add in a set of Mystic Sanctuary, which can be accelerated by Growth Spiral and re-used by Cryptic Command's bounce, and you have a nearly endless engine of disruption and card advantage.
To help fuel its spells, the deck turns to Wildness Reclamation. A single Nexus of Fate can be found in the decklist, but beyond that, Wildness Reclamation is used for completely fair applications, like to untap after escaping Uro or to just help slip in a card drawing spell. Composed entirely of instant-speed spells besides Uro and Reclamation itself, it's imperative that the deck keeps mana untapped during its opponents turn, and Wilderness Reclamation ensures that.
Beyond Cryptic Command's bounce and the critical inclusion of Ice-Fang Coatl as a blocker, the deck does struggle against resolved permanents, against which it uses Uro to do a lot of heavy lifting. This deck wagers that even if it can't deal with everything, Uro can come down to help clean things up, overpowering anything small the opponent can get down under countermagic. It's aided by a set of Thought Scour to help find and fuel it, while Fact or Fiction will almost completely enable it.
The deck's sideboard addresses the deck's issues handling resolved permanents with efficient answers like Aether Gust and Dismember. It also includes more proactive countermeasures against troubling strategies with hosers like Ashiok, Nightmare Muse and Collector Ouphe.
As far as its metagame position, it seems this deck is riding the same wave that has led to the success of Bant Snow, but taken to an extreme. By sacrificing its white cards like Path to Exile and Supreme Verdict, it's weaker against creature strategies, but is very well suited for combatting everything else. It fights through other control decks, like Bant Snow itself, midrange decks like Temur Urza and Amulet Titan, and true combo like Neo-Brand, which is on the rise with two copies in the Showcase Top 8. Resolving expensive spells against a card like Remand is a lesson in futility, and I imagine that during its Top 4 run the blue deck frustrated countless opponents who felt helpless against its unending stream of countermagic.
The strong position of a blue counter control strategy in the metagame is also apparent with the appearance of another surprising blue deck in showcase Top 4: Mono-Blue Tron.
Mono-Blue Tron isn't a new Modern strategy by any means, but has always played second fiddle to green versions and has never broken out beyond a tier 2 strategy at best. With its own large suite of countermagic and card advantage, backed by massive threats enabled by the Urza lands, it applies its own version of the blue draw-go game. Seeing it suddenly put up a big finish is yet another indication that blue countermagic is now at its best in Modern and is on the rise as an important facet of the metagame.
Another new rising star is Modern is a reboot of the Mardu Pyromancer deck, which now has a few great results in Preliminary events.
Mardu with Young Pyromancer broke out over a year ago, and it has changed a lot since, including getting rid of its namesake along with the build-around Bedlam Reveler in favor of more potent new tools like Seasoned Pyromancer and (especially) the recent pickup of Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger. The card has revitalized Jund into a major archetype, and it's filling the same role here as a card advantage-generating, nearly inexhaustible finisher.
In a significant departure from the original lists, the deck has added Stoneforge Mystic and a package of equipment. In some ways it fills the same two-mana threat spot as Young Pyromancer did, but immediately generates card advantage with its trigger while generally being more powerful with its immediate threat of an equipment, for which Lingering Souls provides plenty of bodies to equip.
Much like the blue countermagic decks, Mardu also seeks to deal with nearly everything the opponent plays, just with discard and removal spells. The deck previously rose to prominence for its ability to cut through creature decks, but it's now better balanced with more proactive elements to help attack the current metagame heavier in control and combo decks.
There seems to be a surprise in every Super Qualifier Top 8, and last week's Modern event revealed a promising Goblin tribal deck with a combo focus.
The deck is designed to exploit the ability of Grumgully, the Generous's +1/+1 counters to negate the -1/-1 counters of persist creatures. Murderous Redcap has a long history in these sorts of engines, and it excels in a deck that can utilize its Goblin status. It creates an easy combo kill with Skirk Prospector as a sacrifice outlet, which can alternatively generate infinite mana from Putrid Goblin, with Pashalik Mons adding a kill. Sling-Gang Lieutenant adds a sacrifice outlet with a self-contained kill, and even without any combos is a strong addition to the strategy.
One of the key cards that has made Goblins competitive in the past year is Munitions Expert, which fills the key removal role Gempalm Incinerator has occupied for Goblins throughout history. It helps to round out a deck by giving it the capability to play the full spectrum of Magic game plans, from a true combo deck, to an aggressive creature deck, to a midrange deck that wins through attrition, leveraging the card advantage cascade of Goblin Ringleader.
It can play an even more robust midrange deck when it gets access to its sideboard, which could be mistaken for that of a creative Jund player. It's full of removal spells and hosers, including some nice tribal options: Tarfire, Goblin Trashmaster and Goblin Cratermaker. Chalice of the Void stands out as a high-impact surprise that the deck can get around at any number with the help of both Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls.
Prowess decks aren't anything new, nor are splashes into other colors (there are blue versions with Stormchaser Mage), but not until this week had I seen a Gruul version, which made a Top 8 run in the most recent Super Qualifier earlier this week.
I caught wind of the deck on Facebook, where its pilot Kenan Diab posted about his finish. I met Kenan early last year battling for the Top 8 of a PTQ at a MagicFest, where he beat my Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck with his Mono-Red Prowess version of the Phoenix archetype en route to winning the whole thing. He apparently has stayed the course with Prowess, but has taken the deck in an interesting and innovative direction.
The main addition is Tarmogoy, one of Magic's all-time great creatures, but one currently at a low in Modern. Its downfall was linked to the rise in Fatal Push, but in the current metagame that card is few and far between, with Death's Shadow decks a rarity. Now looks like a great time for it, and it's a natural inclusion here combined with the diversity of spell types the deck already plays. It adds a powerful threat to the deck alongside Hooting Mandrills, which is quickly enabled by the deck's cheap spells. This same package of green creatures is used in Legacy Temur Delver of Secrets decks, and I assume it does similar great work here.
Green really pays off in the sideboard, where it opens up access to what's rising as one of Theros Beyond Death's sleepers, Klothys, God of Destiny, whose exploits I wrote about last week. It's not really ever going to turn on as a creature in this deck, but it looks incredible here as something like a completely asymmetrical Sulfuric Vortex—and it's even harder to remove. Fueling it will be an almost non-factor here, with plentiful cheap and free spells to keep it going until the opponent is dead.
The typical plan against Prowess (beyond trying to race it with combo) is to load up on creature removal, stop all the creatures and turn it into a weak Burn deck. Adding more creatures with the green splash is a good transition against this. Klothys acts as a perfect capstone that will beat opponents through any number of removal spells.
Modern has changed a lot over the past year, but it looks as balanced as ever with a great diversity in strategies. While it seems like each new set brings cards more powerful than the last, the metagame continues to be able to adjust. Ikoria looks like it has the potential to fundamentally change the game with its companion cards, but the metagame is in great shape to absorb the impact and hopefully will continue to be Magic's healthiest format.