Magic Online is on the cutting-edge of Magic. It brings together players from all over the world and enables them to play 24/7. The constant iteration means the metagame moves fast, so the best decks quickly make themselves known and are replicated while the weaker decks fall out of favor. There's really no better place to look to gain better understanding of the trends in competitive metagames.
This past weekend Magic Online was even juicier than usual because there was both a Standard and Modern Magic Online Championship Series event – which invites the top online grinders and all Gold and Platinum pro players so it's as competitive as events get – and the results are full of all the latest technology you would expect. There were also the usual weekend Challenge events, which give some extra insight into Modern and a look at Legacy and even Pauper.
The biggest story from the Standard MOCS was the tremendous success of White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift. The deck made it all the way to the finals of Pro Tour Ixalan and showed the world its power, but it has always struggled at actually maintaining a foothold in the top tier of the metagame. Much of what has held the deck down is the card Abrade, and backed by the pressure applied by Mono-Red and Temur Energy it was difficult to beat. The bannings would have seemed to be a big help, but red becoming even more popular than before continued to keep it from the metagame.
Now, with Mono-Red having dwindled to an all-time low, it's the perfect time for the deck to strike. Grixis – both midrange and control – has been in decline in favor of blue-black versions, which means even less Abrade. There has also been an increase in Sultai Snakes, which the God-Pharaoh's Gift deck is strong against. As icing on the cake, there has also been an increase in aggressive white-based aggressive decks, which tend to be easy pickings for the GPG deck.
White-Blue God-Pharaoh's Gift put up one 7-1 and four 6-2 finishes in the MOCS, but what stands out even more is the players who chose to wield it, including pros like Owen Turtenwald and Paul Rietzl. The deck is the real deal, and there's a good chance we'll see it put up big results in Seattle this weekend.
Another version of God-Pharaoh's Gift is a red-blue version, which can use Combat Celebrant to get extra triggers from God-Pharaoh's Gift, which allow it to legitimately combo out with multiple copies, made even easier with Vizier of Many Faces. In addition to the combo kill, the deck also employs a board-control combo of sorts when it combines Warkite Marauder with Fanatical Firebrand or Walking Ballista.
The most surprising result of the MOCS was the sole undefeated 8-0 list, a Red-Green Dinosaurs deck complete with Regisaur Alpha and Ghalta, Primal Hunger. It's a lot to unpack – Commune with Dinosaurs is a fantastic card and maybe Regisaur Alpha is more of a midrange powerhouse than it has been given credit for and could be better than Glorybringer in the metagame – but I think most of the success of the deck comes down to how well it was positioned for the event. One, the Red-Green Monsters strategy tends to be strong against Blue-Black and Grixis decks, and those made up a large portion of the field. Two, the red-green deck was packed to the brim with hate against God-Pharaoh's Gift, with not only a set of Abrade, but two main deck Thrashing Brontodon.
Thrashing Brontodon has usually be relegated to sideboards, but the online players on the cutting edge of the metagame have been increasingly moving it to the main deck. It's a versatile card, starting with its massive 3/4 body that holds up very well against red creatures and removal, and that dodges an unpowered Fatal Push or trades up with Vraska's Contempt. As a Naturalize, it's very useful for hosing God-Pharaoh's Gift in game one, but also finds use against Search for Azcanta and Torrential Gearhulk from Blue-Black-X decks, Ixalan's Binding from white, and Aethersphere Harvester or the rare Heart of Kiran from aggressive decks.
Thrashing Brontodon isn't out of place in the Dinosaurs deck and didn't draw any heads there, but three copies in _Batutinha_'s 7-1 Sultai deck, which eschewed Jadelight Ranger, is the real sign that the card is main deck material.
Last weekend's result aside, _Batutinha_ has a track record of success in Standard, and Thrashing Brontodon received another endorsement when the then top Competitive Standard League Trophy holder Matt "YUGIOHPLAYER1942" Foulkes streamed it in his Sultai deck last weekend.
Humans was the most popular and one of the winningest decks at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, and it left the event looking like the clear best deck in the format. The deck quickly lost steam after the announcement a week later that Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were unbanned in Modern. This was taken as about the worst news possible for Humans, because the resulting rise in Jund and blue control, both full of removal spells, are exactly the types of decks it doesn't want to see. Not a single player chose to wield Humans in the MOCS finals, which was full of Jund, and it was taken as a death knell for Humans.
As it turns out, that analysis was far from correct, because while Jund and Jace control are indeed unfavorable for Humans, the unbans didn't change the fact that Modern is incredibly open and diverse, and the unbanned cards have far from taken over the metagame. In short, Humans was the best deck before the unbans, and because the unbanned cards were overhyped but have undeformed expectations, Humans remains the best deck.
Humans crushed the online Pro Tour Qualifier the weekend before last, both winning with an incredible undefeated run through 13 rounds, and placing in the Top 4. In the MOCS, it was the only 8-0 deck, and was two of the five 7-1s, one of them TCGplayer's own Steve "sturvedog" Rubin.
There's also the fact that Humans has a wealth of quality cards that allow it to adapt to the metagame, and it has been able to adjust by adding additional card advantage elements like Dark Confidant, Dire Fleet Daredevil and even Whirler Rogue to fight back.
Besides their own presence, the midrange and control decks using the unbanned cards have also arguably made the metagame even better for Humans overall, because they have brought about an increase in decks like Storm and Amulet Titan that prey on them but struggle against the disruptive and aggressive Humans deck.
In other Modern news, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa made it to the finals of the Modern Challenge last weekend, playing none other than a Cruel Ultimatum control deck. He's famous for his prowess with control decks – he made a name for himself with Cruel Ultimatum by bringing it to the Top 8 of an Extended Pro Tour and has been one of the few players to have success with the card in Modern. He's been seen on occasion playing it online over the years, and he's back at it again with an updated list.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor certainly played a role in Wafo deciding to bring the deck back out – while Opt is another great new addition – but otherwise the deck is complete with all of the best control cards one would expect in such a deck, complete with his signature Think Twice, which helps the deck actually hit the seven lands it needs for its haymaker.
I'm not suggesting this deck has broken the format or anything close to that, but it shows that there is still a lot of work to be done towards finding the best home for Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
Pauper is full of many of the most efficient spells and creatures in Magic's history, but being restricted to commons means there aren't many powerhouse plays that take over a game by themselves, and games tend to be long, grindy games of attrition. Breaking that paradigm are combo decks, which direct the excellent enablers in the format towards a specific end, and they've been seeing a lot of success lately.
I presume that the weekly Pauper Challenge on MTGO is the largest recurring Pauper event in the world, and it's definitely where I look to see what's going on in the format. Last weekend had the incredible result of two combo decks reaching the finals, with another in the Top 4.
The finals slots were held by Pauper's premier combo deck, which combines Tireless Tribe and Inside Out to create a creature with 21 or more power, and sends it past blockers with Shadow Rift. Nearly mono-blue, the deck uses all the best blue card drawing in the format and makes great use of Gush, which nearly singlehandedly generates enough fuel in hand to discard to its combo. It also makes use of Pauper's most powerful counter, Circular Logic. It has all of the makings of a great deck and would even give many a Legacy deck an honest run for their money. You can see the deck in action here.
The metagame is clearly shaping up to be one where combo is very effective, because reaching the Top 4 was another combo deck, one that I've never seen have so much success.
The idea here is to enchant a land with a way to make extra mana, either Fertile Ground, Utopia Sprawl or Gift of Paradise and then animate it with Wind Zendikon. Freed from the Real can then enchant it, creating an infinite mana combo by repeatedly tapping for two mana and untapping for one. From there, Train of Thought can draw the entire deck, eventually leading to Viridian Longbow killing the opponent with infinite activations, or bouncing all the opponent's permanents with Capsize, which can also combine with Abundant Growth to draw the deck.
What's amazing is that the deck doesn't rely on all the best blue spells, and only uses Preordain to help set up. Where it excels is in some other aspects, especially Trinket Mage holding the deck together by finding Lifespark Spellbomb as an alternative to Wind Zendikon, or the Viridian Longbow to kill. Train of Thought actually seems like a great blue card in its own right as a powerful source of card advantage, especially because the deck has a heavy ramp element, so it converts the extra mana into cards. Part of this ramp element is Arbor Elf, which generates extra mana with Utopia Sprawl and Fertile Ground here just like it does in Modern.
Tying everything together is Drift of Phantasms, which can dig for Freed from the Real or for Trinket Mage, which can then convert into the other parts of the combo. There's also the nice touch of it being able to convert into Gift of Paradise, in the case that the ramp aura aspect is missing. It can even find Capsize. I've used Muddle the Mixture to assemble the Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry combo, so I can attest to how strong a transmute card like this is, and even though Muddle the Mixture was a bit better to cast, Drift of Phantasms could theoretically be a fine blocker, and even holds Viridian Longbow. Against some decks, going infinite may not be necessary, because the synergy between Freed from the Reel and Viridian Longbow could be enough to win the game with just a few extra activations a turn, and Drift of Phantasms is an awfully robust body to hold it.
A card that was once a Legacy mainstay has been very quiet lately: Shardless Agent. It's surprising seeing that the Shardless Sultai deck that once used it was known for its strong matchup against Delver of Secrets decks, which are now by far the most popular in the metagame. It's still commonly played in Aluren, and I ran into Caleb Durward in a match when he was using it in a funky brew with both Mesmeric Fiend and Kitesail Freebooter, but it just had a big finish alongside its old friend of Ancestral Vision in a Bant Stoneforge Mystic deck.
I don't really have any thoughts on the deck itself, except that it looks sweet but I'd be hard-pressed to play a midrange Legacy deck without Deathrite Shaman, and I'm taking it as a sign that Shardless Agent is creeping back into Legacy.
What are your thoughts on the Magic Online trends I described today? What trends do you see? Share in the comments, and I'll answer any questions.