Preparing for Success in a Vast Modern Meta

The post-Faithless Looting Modern meta is, no doubt, diverse and the discussions on which decks might be considered “top tier” have remained mostly unsettled.  Pros have often voiced opinions on these types of environments being ‘bad’ for competitive Magic as such diversity makes it difficult to select, test, and tune decks for an event.

If you’ve played the game for more than a minute, you’ve likely realized that Magic is, in some ways, just a series of calculated guesses.  By this I mean that you could have made the most optimal decisions all day long and still lost all of your matches in a nine-round event because you’ve lost the match-up lottery or drawn poorly.  The players with repeated success in the game are those that make the best deck choices to increase their odds of winning and make the fewest mistakes playing them with informed expectations of the field.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that the work you do outside of the tournament outweighs the choices you make during it.  Assuming you don’t punt every game with a critical lapse of judgment, knowing what to expect from your opponent based on the information you’ve gathered in research of the meta leaves mere variance to determine your fate.

Take for example an opening game against an unknown opponent.  Let’s call them “Doug”…

Doug is on the play and keeps seven cards.  On his first turn, Doug plays:


Doug scrys two cards back on top.

You are playing Grixis Death’s Shadow.  With this opener, what do you do first?


Your hand seems to be daring you to play the fetch land, crack for a Steam Vents and cast Serum Visions to set up your next few moves in order to eventually cast a Tasigur with Stubborn Denial for protection.  This would likely be the right move in a vacuum but, knowing what you’re up against, may result in an untimely demise.

With just two cards revealed by your opponent, you should be able to narrow down your enemy to one very likely archetype; Neobrand.

Neobrand [5-0 by Tales36]

Creatures (18)
Allosaurus Rider
Autochthon Wurm
Chancellor of the Tangle
Laboratory Maniac
Simian Spirit Guide
Wild Cantor

Spells (28)
Eldritch Evolution
Serum Visions
Life Goes On
Nourishing Shoal
Pact of Negation
Summoner’s Pact
Lands (14)
Botanical Sanctum
Breeding Pool
Waterlogged Grove
Yavimaya Coast

There are plenty of decks that play Serum Visions and plenty of decks that play Botanical Sanctum but Neobrand is, perhaps, the only deck that runs both of them together.

Given that Neobrand’s “MO” is to combo off as soon as possible with Allosaurus Rider and Neoform to locate Griselbrand and draw your entire deck (via. Nourishing Shoal and Autochthon Wurm), leaving the doors open for your opponent to do so would be unwise…especially when you’ve got a perfectly good answer in your hand in Stubborn Denial.

Obviously, at this point in the game you won’t have Ferocious active so your opponent could merely pitch a Simian Spirit Guide to pay the cost or simply counter it with a Pact of Negation that they have no intention of ever paying for but you have to consider the cost to doing so with an understanding of their deck in mind…

Doug’s Turn One
7 cards in the opening hand – 1 land – 1 Serum Visions + 1 draw (from Visions) = 6 cards left

Doug’s Turn Two
8 cards (after draw) – 3 (to cast Allosaurus Rider for free) – 1 additional land – 1 Neoform = 3 possibilities to have a Simian Spirit Guide or Pact of Negation

Without ANY available interaction, your odds of winning this game are 0%.  Though not a given, keeping mana up for the Stubborn Denial increases those odds significantly AND should effectively put your opponent too far behind to recover should they walk into your trap and expend all of their resources to attempt the combo.  Since you’re a deck packing likely three more copies of Stubborn Denial and plenty of discard spells, picking apart their hand and stifling future combo attempts for the remainder of the game should be no problem after that.

If you have a vague understanding of your opponent’s win condition (Laboratory Maniac), you may consider Lightning Bolt as an alternative option.  Unfortunately, with a hand of 50-some cards, your opponent is certain to have the Pact of Negation ready to deal with your removal spell when it matters most.  As good as it would feel to kill the Maniac to cause your opponent to deck themselves out instead of winning the game, it just won’t work…

Now that’s a pretty specific example and, unless you’re playing Grixis Death’s Shadow against Neobrand, you likely won’t care much about that scenario BUT the whole point is to illustrate that Modern is so complex that players that hope to compete at a high level are tasked with an understanding of interactions between any two of the 100+ decks in the meta.  That’s a lot of information.

Now consider that a new archetype shows up in 5-0 results nearly every other week.  What could you possibly do to account for the Owling Mine, Twiddle Storm, Jeskai Ascendancy, 5C Elementals, and GR Shamans of the world!?

The obvious answer is to play your deck as often as you can to test and tune against the entire field.  Not only is this unreasonable for the average human based on the amount of time that it could take to do so, it also leads to a problem I like to call the “tuning paradox”.

The Tuning Paradox

Ok, this is admittedly the most ridiculous name I could have come up with for this but I thought it would be more fun that way.  Please imagine a Twilight Zone-esque theme song leading into this section.

Imagine that you are testing a Devoted Company deck and begin with a very reasonable sideboard packing a few answers to some of the archetypes that you expect to see most.

After running through a few leagues and facing a disproportionate amount of Burn (bad match-up), you determine that you are “tired of losing to that stupid deck” and decide to do something about it.

You hop back in and beat up on Burn for a while until the latest Chromantiflayer meme deck knocks you out.  More changes…

If you had unlimited time and no shortage of entry fees, you may go through this process 200 more times resulting in something very different than the original set of 15 cards.  These are ridiculous examples, of course, but the point is that there are 100s of decks in Modern and you only get space for 15 cards in your sideboard.  It would be impossible to account for everything and you shouldn’t try to.  Instead, understand that your nightmare matches might just have to remain that way so that you don’t have to make sacrifices to everything else.  If you’ve determined that one of these blindspots is a common choice for a weekend’s tournament, perhaps this deck is a poor choice.

The Top Tier and Recency Bias

Modern Meta Data on MTG Goldfish

Heading into a weekend event, understanding the top tier is the best route to planning for your likely foes. When this isn’t clearly established, look to identify trends in results.

The decks that have made deep tournament runs rise to the top of the results feeds and, as a result, are much more obvious choices for players who are looking for a quick an easy deck choice.  This certainly doesn’t mean they are bad choices.  Those decks are there for a reason, and often represent a potent linear gameplan or fast combo that functions independently of what your opponent is doing anyways.  Consider how your deck choice fares against the top ten or so most represented archetypes.

But to really make a competitive choice, however, I’d say you have to carefully consider not only the most represented decks in the format, but what is likely the response to them.  For example, if Dredge had a great weekend with 4 decks in the last GP top 8, playing something that relies on the graveyard would leave you susceptible to the hate that is introduced to the meta to deal with that problem.

Furthermore, if a deck was well-represented last weekend, there is a good chance that you’ll see more of that coming up so be prepared to face those builds.  Recency bias occurs on a weekly basis in Modern and the latest GP winner is often a topic of conversation following the event.  The headline “Titanshift Takes down Roanoke” is easier to remember than the fact that there were 12 Mardu Death’s Shadow list in day two for a player who is only willing to do surface level research.

The point of this article, however, is that these trends are often difficult to identify.  The more viable decks there are in the format, the more the top tier gets diluted by results.  There will always be a most-played deck mathematically, but consider the metashare of that build.  In terms of Modern results, anything over 8% is a pretty high representation rate and, as you can see from the graphic above, Burn currently accounts for 16.45% of the latest Modern results.  That’s very high.  Its not uncommon, though, for the most played deck in Modern to be 5-6%.  If that is the case, its likely that the next 5 or 6 decks are within one percentage point of that share.  You must consider this when assessing a meta.  Assuming that data is an accurate representation of your event, 5% equates to less than ONE match in a 15 round event.

Now, there are issues with this.  The biggest being the fact that WoTC posts just one copy of each 5-0 decklist when they release their bi-weekly data dump.  This means that every viable archetype is likely to be represented exactly once.  Combine that with multi-day tournament finishes and your data is a bit compromised.

Players often lament the loss of the old format to MTGO result posting method.  Years ago, WoTC would select a random sampling of decks from dailies (the equivalent of Leagues back then) and you might see 80% of those results represented by a single archetype.  This gave players a better look at the actual balance of a meta-game but WoTC argued that this promoted ubiquity in the meta game because players were deterred from playing anything but the deck with the best results.  There are merits to both versions, but I personally prefer the current method and honestly believe that its done a good job of diversifying the meta.  It leads us to the conundrum I’m addressing right now (difficulty identifying the decks to beat in a meta) but with an informed strategy on how to assess that environment, the players that are willing to do the work will rightfully be rewarded for it.

While your FNM meta-game will not likely mirror the types of decks that appear in weekend tournaments because these events tend to attract a more casual play style, the MTGO League environment does a good job of representing the more competitive side of Modern and supports a demographic that is more likely to travel for a Magic event.  If you can afford it, I would recommend testing only in events that require an entry fee (queues, leagues, etc) as players play much more carefully when something is on the line and are likely to save the experimental decks for open play rooms.


To sum it all up, you’ve got to keep your sights on three main topics:

  • Familiarize yourself with the decks in the format.  Come up with strategies to identify them based on the types of lands they run and their early plays so that you can adapt your gameplan accordingly.
  • Do not fall into the trap of over-tuning to try and account for every single strategy in the format.  Sometimes you’ve got to accept your bad match-ups as losses if it means that you can increase your odds against other, more likely opponents.
  • Study the results.  Understand the highest performing and most represented decks and predict the decks designed to react to them whenever possible but don’t put too much stock in posted results.  Do your own research in similarly competitive.

Most of all.  This is a game.  Have fun and learn from your losses but accept them as lessons learned.

Always shake your opponent’s hand.