At the moment Modern is pretty balanced. The best decks have a similar power level to one another. In this type of format being able to metagame and predict what other players will show up with to a tournament is important. Sometimes players will play a deck that they are familiar with or have the cards for no matter what, but a deck with a lot of recent success is bound to see an uptick in play.
At the World Championships, my aim was to choose a deck that was strong against the popular decks at that time. I was one of the eight players who showed up with a version of Abzan Midrange. Abzan and Jund can punish a large variety of the format with a combination of lots of removal, discard, and in the case of Abzan, Lingering Souls. Abzan performed the best for me in testing leading up to the World Championships, but I knew that even Abzan had its bad matchups. At that time, I thought that Abzan's bad matchups had a pretty low chance of being major players at Worlds, but I was wrong. I ended up playing against two Scapeshift and one Abzan Company deck, and these pairings cost me the potential of making Top 4.
In retrospect if I had known what I was going to be playing against I would have played a different deck, or at least had different cards in my sideboard. As it was I was kicking myself and in many ways felt helpless. Abzan was the most popular deck at Worlds and I believe that in many ways players played it thinking the choice was safe. Personally I never recommend making a deck choice because it is safe; without taking a risk the big payoffs aren't there. Decks like Scapeshift and Abzan Company have immediately become much popular since Worlds while Abzan sees even less play than Jund at the moment.
What makes a deck like Scapeshift have such a strong matchup against the midrange decks of Modern? Let's take a look at the version Oliver Tiu made top four of Worlds with:
This is not a classic version of Scapeshift. Previously, the most popular version of Scapeshift decks involved Bring to Light in a four- or five-color deck. The version Tiu played is a combination of the Breach Titan deck and Bring to Light Scapeshift. This version is straight red/green, which makes the manabase much more consistent than the four-color version of Scapeshift, and while it runs Primeval Titan and Summoner's Pact there are not any copies of Through the Breach.
Not playing Through the Breach may seem weird for a deck like this. I have heard red/green Breach players say that Through the Breach is the most important card in that deck, and it can help create some very explosive draws. The issue with Through the Breach is that without Primeval Titan in hand the card does absolutely nothing. With a Primeval Titan, Through the Breach allows you to play the Primeval Titan one turn earlier and give it haste, so without it, the deck essentially becomes a bit slower, but in exchange it is much more consistent. What card has taken the place of Through the Breach? The answer is the namesake of the deck: Scapeshift.
With six Primeval Titan, two Summoner's Pact, and four Scapeshift, there are more win conditions. With the Breach Titan deck there was more of a vulnerability to not actually having a single win condition at all during the course of the game, as sometimes you just don't draw one. There is also the issue of opposing discard; Tiu's version is less vulnerable to discard. The main way a deck like Abzan aims to fight Scapeshift is with discard and having a fast clock, but that normally doesn't cut it.
Besides Scapeshift, another deck seeing more play since Worlds is Abzan Company.
Shota Yasooka has eight one-mana dorks along with two Wall of Roots — that is a lot of mana creatures, but while that may result less business spells, the deck doesn't run out of gas easily. Having lots of mana creatures means the deck is significantly faster, powering out Collected Company on turn three.
Yasooka has the traditional Abzan Company infinite combo, and with three copies of both Viscera Seer and Melira, Sylvok Outcast, he is likely to find that combo quickly. Having a combo like this built into your deck provides a lot of not only free wins, but is something the opponent needs to respect for the entire course of a game.
Since a lot of my testing for Worlds was done on Magic Online I was less prepared for Abzan Company than I should have been; Abzan Company isn't played as much on Magic Online since there isn't a way to gain infinite life when you have to manually click through the sacrificing of Kitchen Finks repeatedly. This is a flaw of relying on Magic Online too much.
The other innovation Yasooka made is the addition of Distended Mindbender in the sideboard, a card that's become more and more popular in Standard. Now it is making a splash in Modern. There are some pretty nice creatures here to emerge off of; a typical start of turn-one mana dork, turn-two Kitchen Finks can lead to a turn-three emerge Distended Mindbender sacrificing Kitchen Finks, and few decks that can beat that draw. Distended Mindbender is so good there is actually an argument for playing it maindeck, but enough Modern decks can play their whole hand out super fast, so I like having it in the sideboard.
The last deck capable of preying on Abzan is Bant Eldrazi. This matchup is winnable from the Abzan side but it definitely favors Bant Eldrazi; at the moment Bant Eldrazi might be the most popular deck in Modern.
This deck has been around for a few months now and continues to put up strong results. The sideboard is where you can play specific hate cards, but the maindeck plan of simply playing a quick Eldrazi creature is good enough that the deck has game against every Modern deck. There really aren't decks that completely blow out Bant Eldrazi, which makes it an appealing deck choice. On the flipside, the deck mulligans a fair bit looking for ways to cast a turn two Thought-Knot Seer.
Brian Braun-Duin's sideboard is a bit unusual, featuring four copies of Chalice of the Void and two Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Elspeth, Sun's Champion is a real mirror breaker and another great card against any midrange deck. Chalice of the Void is a niche card capable of destroying combo decks. However, I would leave the Chalice of the Void at home in favor of a card like Stubborn Denial in the current metagame. Overall though, this list is strong and tough to hate out.
Abzan has lost a ton of popularity since Worlds as these types of decks continue to remain popular. This has opened the door for some strategies that are actually bad against Abzan to be much better deck choices as the format is coming full circle.
This past weekend in Orlando, Infect popped back onto the scene in a big way. Infect is an archetype that preys on decks like Scapeshift that are a bit slow and don't have a ton of interaction. Infect was a perfect choice for the Open and Brad Carpenter won the whole tournament with the deck.
Infect is still doing its thing — the list and deck idea hasn't really changed that much. When Jund and Abzan don't see as much play, Infect will be a nice choice. Infect is favored against Bant Eldrazi and is still hard to play against. The fast combo decks are where you want to be as soon as the format starts slowing down a bit. Carpenter met David Sharfman, who was also playing a fast combo deck, in the finals… this is not a coincidence. Sharfman was on one of the scariest decks in the format, Goryo's Vengeance.
Rest in Peace and Grafdigger's Cage try to keep this deck in check, but sometimes they aren't enough. Even in matchups where Goryo's Vengeance is not a viable plan Through the Breach is an option, so the deck has two angles of attack. Collective Brutality is a new innovation, providing another discard outlet, exactly what the deck is looking for. Expect to see Collective Brutality in this deck moving forward. Sharfman played not only playsets of Faithless Looting and Serum Visions, but also four Sleight of Hand in order to ensure he found what he was looking for.
This deck is all in on getting an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Griselbrand into play. Nourishing Shoal and Worldspine Wurm have been cut to free up space for other cards. This is a similar list to the one Yuuya Watanabe played at Worlds and I expect this version of Goryo's Vengeance to see more and more play. Since a lot of fat got trimmed from the deck there is even room for a couple Lightning Bolt, and the deck can realistically survive until casting a Through the Breach. Also, Through the Breach plus Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is just unfair let alone when you get to Goryo's Vengeance Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
Modern is a format in constant flux; one deck is good one weekend and then players are prepared for it the next. I believe that is something we are seeing with the Scapeshift deck. It was the perfect choice for Worlds, but isn't in nearly as good of a spot in the metagame anymore. If decks like Scapeshift see less play Abzan will definitely be able to creep back into the format. I'm interested to see what will happen next!
Thanks for reading,