A lot of things changed with Splinter Twin (and to a lesser extent Summer Bloom) getting banned. The top predator in the ecosystem suddenly vanished, leaving every other deck in the format to adapt and create a new metagame.
I've been testing Modern extensively in preparation for Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch (which I will be playing in when you read this) and today I would like to share with you what I expect to be the ten most popular decks in the Splinter Twin-less metagame, including what each deck's good and bad matchups are across the field. Then at the end I will explain, based on this analysis, which of these ten decks are the best-positioned right now and why.
I expect there to be four primary Tier 1 strategies that each comprises between ten and 15 percent of the metagame. I also expect there to be six Tier 2 strategies that each comprise four to seven percent of the metagame. Aside from these ten decks, I don't expect any other deck to comprise more than three percent of the metagame, but I will briefly list the Tier 3 decks toward the end of the article, each of which I expect to comprise between one and three percent of the metagame.
Let's start with the Big Four that are head and shoulders above the rest…
I expect Jund to be the most popular variant of this archetype in large part because Lightning Bolt's stock greatly improves relative to Path to Exile now that Deceiver Exarch is no longer an important creature that needs to be killed. I do still expect some amount of Abzan to be played, but the perception currently is that Jund is better. I believe Abzan is better-positioned than Jund but that it will take time for people to realize this. Jund is better against B/x Eldrazi and Infect while Abzan is better against Affinity and Burn. Abzan is also favored head-to-head against Jund. Since Jund, Affinity, and Burn collectively represent a much larger portion of the metagame than B/x Eldrazi and Infect, I suspect Abzan will outperform Jund even though Jund will see more play.
Jund has a lot of 50/50 matchups but not a lot of bad matchups. It has trouble with Tron, Jeskai, and Abzan, but it has good matchups against most of the aggro decks and can hang toe-to-toe with nearly any deck in an attrition fight. With the banning of Splinter Twin, I expect Tarmogoyf to overtake Snapcaster Mage as the most widely played creature in Modern.
While I expect BG/x Tarmogoyf decks to be the most played archetype for the foreseeable future, Burn is the litmus test of the format. Just as "Can you beat Twin?" used to be the defining Level 1 question of the format, now I expect it to be "Can you beat Burn?"
Many popular decks in the format fail this test: Infect, Tron, B/x Eldrazi, Scapeshift, Reanimator, Storm, and Living End each fail "the Burn test".
Decks that have a good matchup against Burn include: Affinity, Ad Nauseam, Abzan, and Melira Company.
Jund and the Snapcaster Mage decks each have 50/50 matchups against Burn. Burn is generally more popular than it should be and it keeps a lot of decks in check.
If we divided up the format in a different way, treating Abzan and Jund as different decks, treating UW, Jeskai, and Delver as different decks, and MonoRed Burn and Naya Burn as different decks, Affinity would be the #1 deck of the format. There isn't much variation between Affinity decks. Lately Master of Etherum has made a comeback and Thoughtcast tends to ebb and flow in and out of Affinity lists, but there is less variation between Arcbound Ravager decks than there is between any other Tier 1 archetype in Modern.
Affinity is good against Burn, Ad Nauseam, Merfolk, and B/x Eldrazi. It has a tough time against Snapcaster Mage decks, Abzan, and Melira Company, though it's only far behind against the Snapcaster decks. In general Affinity has 50/50 or better matchups across the board because it wins most of its Game 1s and will win easily against anyone who doesn't pack an adequate amount of Affinity hate in their sideboards. A couple of Ancient Grudges and a Nature's Claim won't cut it. You need Shatterstorm, Stony Silence, and ways to deal with an army of cheap fliers capable of holding a Cranial Plating. My prediction for the next card to get banned from Modern is either Inkmoth Nexus or Mox Opal.
This is a more controlling Snapcaster Mage deck, but you can also play a more aggressive version with Delver of Secrets. Or you can play Esper Control or 4-Color Control.
For years now Snapcaster Mage has been the marquee creature of the format. With Splinter Twin getting banned, however, it is unclear what will happen to all those Twin pilots. Will they maintain their allegiance to Snapcaster Mage and play one of these other Snapcaster decks or will they abandon Islands altogether in favor of Lava Spikes, Tarmogoyfs, or Arcbound Ravagers?
My guess is that we will see a combination of these things happen. Non-Splinter Twin Snapcaster Mage decks will see an increase in popularity as will the other Tier 1 decks. A lot of people are discounting Snapcaster Mage right now and I think this is a big mistake. You don't go from being the most widely played creature in the format to completely off the Tier 1 radar just because a key card in one of your most popular decks is removed from the format. I would be very surprised if Snapcaster Mage was in less than ten percent of the decks at Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch. He may not be king, as I expect Tarmogoyf to take over that title, but he is still easily Top 4.
Ad Nauseam, Tron, and the Chord of Calling decks are tough matchups for Snapcaster Mage. Delver variants are better against Ad Nauseam but worse against Burn and the BG/x Tarmogoyf decks and so I do not expect them to be as popular or as successful as the more controlling/midrange builds. Jund in particular is one of the best matchups for Snapcaster Mage since countermagic trumps discard in the attrition battles.
I expect Jeskai to be the most popular Snapcaster Mage deck because I expect Lightning Bolt to be overly popular in the short term. Straight U/W may be a close second and Delver of Secrets could surge in popularity if Burn falls out of favor and/or Affinity gains even more momentum.
Tron has some of the swingiest matchups in the format. There aren't a lot of close games with Tron. It runs over BG/x Tarmogoyf decks, Eldrazi, Bogle, Snapcaster Mage decks, and Storm, but it barely stands a chance against Burn, Ad Nauseam, Infect, or Reanimator. Tron is a coin flip against Affinity and Chord of Calling, but every other matchup is a blowout against or in favor of Tron.
I suspect Tron will be a popular choice mostly due to its favorable matchup against Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage decks. It goes bigger than these midrange strategies and thereby trumps them. Eldrazi are the newest addition to the format, so if those are overly popular in the short term, things could bode very well for Tron. On the other hand, if Burn and Infect are as popular as I expect them to be, the road could be tough for Tron.
Infect is great against Tron, Eldrazi, Ad Nauseam, Scapeshift, Bogle, Abzan, and U/W Midrange, but it has a very tough time against Burn and Chord of Calling. If it can dodge the Burn matchup though, it has the potential to outperform every other deck in the format. It does have a lot of coin-flip matchups though: Jund, Affinity, Merfolk, Reanimator, and the midrange Snapcaster Mage decks. It also has a terrible matchup against Delver of Secrets, but I don't think Delver of Secrets is especially well-positioned right now, so I don't think that will be Infect's demise. If Infect loses out it's because it got burned to the ground or because it lost too many coin flips. Let's just hope it doesn't have to face Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus.
Merfolk is easily the least respected Tier 2 deck in Modern. It routinely puts up numbers and proves its popularity yet no one wants to rank it higher than Tier 3. I have lots of respect for the fishies and am fully aware that if you overlook this matchup you could easily find yourself Drowned by Spreading Seas and Overrun by Merfolk lords.
Merfolk beats the BG/x Tarmogoyf decks and the Snapcaster Mage decks, though it loses to Affinity and Chord of Calling. It has a lot of coin-flip matchups, but any deck that is favored against the Top 2 midrange strategies of the format (Goyf/ Snapcaster Mage) requires respect. It's a slightly less swingy version of Tron. A few of Tron's favorable matchups are coin flips for Merfolk (Eldrazi, Storm, Bogle) but some of Tron's bad matchups are also coin flips for Merfolk (Burn, Ad Nauseam, Infect, and Scapeshift). Given that I expect Burn to be more popular than Eldrazi, I would play Merfolk before I would play Tron. I doubt popular opinion will agree with me though because Tron wins in more spectacular fashion than Merfolk.
I expect Eldrazi to be more popular than is warranted in the beginning since it got the most from Oath of the Gatewatch. It went from being a fringe strategy to a legitimate contender and a lot of people aren't sure how to adapt. Thought-Knot Seer in particular is a huge boon for this deck.
With that said, B/x Eldrazi has a very tough time against Burn and Affinity, which should in and of itself spell disaster to the deck, but it also has trouble beating Tron, Infect, and Storm. Thought-Knot Seer helps a bit against Tron, but the fastest creature decks of the format are still a big problem.
It does have a good matchup against Abzan, Bogle, and the midrange Snapcaster Mage decks. While straight Burn is tough, it has game against the heavy creature-based versions of Burn that border on being Zoo decks. If for whatever reason Burn decks move in that direction, it could mark an uptick in Eldrazi stock.
I really don't see Eldrazi taking off though as long as it has so many bad matchups among Top Tier decks. Still it's able to hang with half of the best decks, which makes it a better choice than the majority of Modern decks.
There is also Abzan CoCo as well as Elves, though I suspect Kiki-Chord will be the most popular in the beginning. Elves has a lot of good matchups against the top decks, so I could easily see it being a dark horse.
Melira Company doesn't really have any bad matchups. It is good against Burn, Merfolk, Eldrazi, and all the Snapcaster Mage decks and it's a coin-flip against Affinity, Infect, Ad Nauseam, and the BG/x Tarmogoyf decks.
Kiki-Chord is better against Ad Nauseam and Infect but slightly worse across the board against most other decks. Its "coin flips" are closer to 45% whereas Melira's are closer to 55%. Regardless, both are comparably well-positioned and poised to perform well this weekend. And as I said, don't sleep on Elves either.
Most people have Scapeshift or Reanimator ahead of Ad Nauseam, which may prove true in terms of initial popularity, but I doubt that will last long; Ad Nauseam is the only pure combo deck of the format that is favored against Burn (and that is huge!). It's not great against Affinity or Jund/Abzan, but only slightly behind in those matchups. It's great against Tron, Scapeshift, Bogle, and most non-Delver of Secrets / Snapcaster Mage decks. It's also pretty terrible against Infect, which may be a big reason why more people haven't chosen it over Scapeshift or Storm. It's my pick for best pure combo deck in Modern though.
Honorable Mention goes to Tribal Allies:
Affinity is the best-positioned deck overall. It beats Burn, Merfolk, and Eldrazi. It's only bad against Delver, Abzan, and U/W Snapcaster decks (against Jeskai and Grixis it's a coin-flip). Abzan is less popular than Jund, U/W is less popular than Jeskai, and Delver of Secrets is barely playable. So basically Affinity is either even or favored against nearly every deck seeing play right now.
Given that Affinity is so popular and so well-positioned, Abzan and U/W Snapcaster Control look real good. They are bad against Tron and Infect but have exceptionally good matchups against Burn, Affinity, and Jund, which accounts for a lot.
Tron, Eldrazi, and Merfolk are each favored against BG/x and Snapcaster decks. That's the main draw for each of these decks. Between these three decks, Merfolk has the better matchups against the rest of the field, making it in my opinion the strictly better choice than the other two decks right now.
Chord of Calling decks are also well-positioned, especially Melira Company. Like Affinity, they don't really have any bad matchups among the widely-played decks in the format.
So to recap, the five best-positioned decks in Modern right now are:
If you know your deck and tune it for the expected metagame outlined in this article, you have a strong chance to do well in your upcoming Modern tournament. As much as metagame analysis and picking the right deck is important, there is plenty of room for play skill and originality to win the day in Modern. If you want to win at Modern and have fun doing it, follow this simple recipe:
Have a plan. Play your best. Be you.