GP Las Vegas and the Ironworks Conundrum

With Grand Prix Las Vegas in the books, it’s time to reexamine the metagame. 2,779 players in a single event provides a valuable data crucible. In theory, such an event would produce results very similar to the “real” Modern metagame. In theory. Reality is chaotic, and has given us something far more interesting to dissect: the continued success of Kark-Clan Ironworks.

GP Las Vegas: Placings

Players have had months of looking at data, just as I’ve been doing, to innovate and brew. I was hoping that players would show off just how vast and unexplored Modern is, but was sorely disappointed.

The Top 16

Deck NameTotal
Mono-Green Tron6
Ironworks3
Humans2
Grixis Death's Shadow1
Jeskai Control1
Bant Company 1
Hollow One1
GW Company1

That is a lot of Tron. It’s been a long time since any Top 16 was dominated by one deck to this extent. Worse, they’re pretty stock mono-green lists. So much for innovation. Tron hasn’t been performing recently, but it definitely came to Vegas looking for redemption. Ironworks was a distant second, despite winning the event. Which was in itself surprising, as back-to-back performances are rare in recent Modern, especially when they necessitate facing some very poor matchups.

The Top 32

The Top 32 continues the narrative of the Top 16, with midrange taking a beating. However, that’s not because this part of the field is overrun with predators. In fact, this is where midrange should have thrived.

Deck NameTotal #
Humans6
Mardu Pyromancer2
Hollow One2
Ironworks2
Thopter-Sword1
Mono-Green Tron1
Esper Gifts1
RG Tron1

Where Tron dominated the Top 16, Humans rule the Top 32. Midrange is again largely absent, and half its representation consists of rogue decks. Apparently, this is where the interesting brews ended up, though not in numbers. While Humans succeeding is not that surprising, the extent of its representation is. Humans did well at Regionals, but prior to this, it was an also-ran. Its return to prominence reconfirms the deck’s resilience. Jeskai’s absence from the Top 32 and single representative in Top 16, coupled with Tron’s dominance, suggests that Jeskai had a target on its back in Vegas.

The Winning Deck

On top of all the Tron, Ironworks was back in force, winning for the second GP in a row in the hands of the same pilot. Who was playing almost the same deck in both events. It is tempting to see this as a clear endorsement of Ironworks’s power and potential in Modern. I definitely want it to be true, so I can yell about Ancient Stirrings being too good again. However, that’s not fair.

Matt Nass is running very hot this season. Remember, he also made Top 8 with Ironworks in Phoenix, and luck is going his way. On paper, Grixis Death’s Shadow takes Ironworks apart, but Ben Friedman had some very anemic draws to lose in the semifinals. The deck’s staggering success may just be Matt Nass’s. Remember, he’s a dedicated Ironworks enthusiast and a high-rated Pro, and the metagame isn’t particularly hostile to Ironworks. I’m willing to give the deck the benefit of the doubt unless its success streak continues with another pilot.

Dissecting the Data

On its face, this result is exactly the opposite of what I predicted for Vegas. It certainly appears as though players showed up expecting Jeskai to be huge and played the deck that preys on slow blue decks. This in turn allowed Humans to flourish, though the presence of anti-decks kept Humans from rising as high as Tron. However, I must caution that these data do not include anything about the starting population or even the Day 2 metagame. If Jeskai was a significant portion of the metagame, then the earlier interpretation is likelier correct. If it wasn’t, then this result could a function of representation of other factors. To those of you who attended GP Las Vegas, I’d love to hear your insight in the comments.

Another Possibility

That hedging aside, it’s very clear that midrange did not have a good weekend. This may be a reaction to its success in previous weeks, but it more strongly speaks to how powerful Tron is despite its recent unpopularity. Part of this is certainly a lack of preparation for Tron. Looking through the decklists, most sideboards are packed with one-ofs, which indicates hedging. Rather than focusing on known matchups, players were trying to be ready for anything.

Furthermore, even within these hedged sideboards, the card choices are intended to be general cards rather than specialists. For example, Relic of Progenitus rather than Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace. This is okay if, as was fully possible at this event, every round is against a different deck and the sideboard response is dramatically different for each, but that strategy will never be as powerful in specific matchups as playing the most powerful hate. Stony Silence says to Ironworks, “remove me or die.” Disenchant says, “wait for a replacement.” If the hedging I see in the Top 32 is representative of the field, then I’m not surprised that decks that require surgical answers, like Tron and Ironworks, excelled.

The New Combo King

Matt Nass aside, why has Ironworks done so well compared to Storm in recent months? The decks are very similar strategically, and Humans is known as an anti-combo deck, yet Ironworks has captured two GP trophies while Storm struggles outside of StarCityGames events. A tale of the tape doesn’t explain this disparity, but looking at the wider context of Modern does.

Iron and Thunder

On paper, Storm has many advantages over Ironworks. The first and most obvious is speed. Storm reliably combos off on turn three, while Ironworks goldfishes wins on turn four. Storm is built around mana acceleration in the form of rituals. The turn three Storm kill involves a cost reducer and Gifts Ungiven, though there are many permutations. When the stars align, it can actually win via Grapeshot on turn two, though if Storm is going off, it’s usually trying for a functional win with Empty the Warrens.

Conversely, the engine, fuel, and keystone of Ironworks is Krark-Clan Ironworks, a four-mana spell. It must resolve to combo, and the only mana acceleration available is 4 Mox Opal. While Ironworks is mostly cantrips, the odds of going off early are low. The deck also only plays 18 lands, which leads to hands that can never cast four-drops.

The second advantage of Storm is in-game resilience. Storm plays a lot of redundant combo pieces, and can cobble together a win despite multiple Thoughtseizes and counterspells, absent enemy aggression. It needs a critical mass of cards to win, but Storm isn’t overly picky about which cards.

Without its namesake card, Ironworks can’t go off. Getting it discarded or countered is devastating. Furthermore, Ironworks is far more vulnerable to hate. Both decks are vulnerable to anti-combo hate like Eidolon of Rhetoric or Damping Sphere and graveyard hate like Rest in Peace. However, Ironworks is additionally vulnerable to anti-artifact cards, including speed-bump extraordinaire Ancient Grudge and game-ender Stony Silence.

The Humans Factor

The tale of the tape is minor compared to the metagame context, and that is where Ironworks noses out Storm. Humans was built to destroy Storm, and months of tournament results confirm that it does. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is the headliner, but she is manageable with Baral or Electromancer. The real killer is Meddling Mage. Mage naming Grapeshot often guts Storm, as that’s often Storm’s only win condition. The typical Storm deck has Remands, which are weak at best against Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls, and recently a singleton Repeal and Unsubstantiate for interaction. Given Humans’ fast clock, there’s almost never time to find an answer and unlock the win.

Ironworks doesn’t have that problem. It can and does play the very relevant Engineered Explosives as maindeck interaction. Sweepers are very good against creature decks, and all the disruptive creatures cost two, meaning one Explosives gets them all. Ironworks also has the versatile Pyrite Spellbomb as backup. Having a better gameplan against Modern’s best deck is a huge plus for Ironworks.

Metagame Context

On the flipside, Thalia is far more potent against Ironworks than against Storm. It can be hard enough for Ironworks to get four mana; five is often implausible. On top of that, Thalia’s tax makes feeding eggs to Ironworks and buying them back mana-neutral at best.

But Thalia isn’t as pressing  a problem for Ironworks as it used to be: Humans also exists in the wider metagame, which has led to pilots trimming Thalia. Most lists now only run 3 Thalia to fit in more utility creatures, benefiting Ironworks. Thalia isn’t that impressive in Modern because there is far more removal than in Legacy, and decks don’t depend on one mana cantrips to function. With Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, and Fatal Push being very common cards, Thalia is annoying-but-not-devastating against control and combo decks, and mostly irrelevant elsewhere. One fewer maindeck Thalia translates into a noticeably decreased chance to draw her against Ironworks, which then translates into wins for the combo deck.

Furthermore, the effect that Humans is having on the metagame is making it more favorable for Ironworks. Looking through the Vegas decklists showed that nobody was playing Stony Silence. This is huge for an artifact combo deck. Ironworks’ sideboard is built around defeating Stony; that’s how devastating it is.

Stony has disappeared because players aren’t scared of Affinity anymore. The rise of Humans alongside Affinity has allowed Mardu Pyromancer and Jeskai Control to rise and feed on them. Both decks play enough creature removal to make specialized answers against Affinity superfluous. In turn, this frees up board space that usually goes to more general answers. Because Humans is so prevalent and metagame-defining, players opened themselves up to Ironworks.

The Difficulty Dimension

There is one last thing to consider: how difficult is it to combo with these decks? The power or positioning of a deck is irrelevant if players can’t access it when it’s hidden behind a high skill wall. For example, prior to Summer Bloom‘s ban, Amulet Bloom was capable of winning as early as turn two. However, it never had a metagame share to match that power, because it was very hard to play well. The basic gameplan was understandable enough, but actually pulling it off required non-obvious play patterns and long-term planning. Therefore, Amulet was severely underrepresented relative to its power.

Storm is a relatively simple combo to understand. Play lots of spells, accumulate mana, kill opponent is easy to understand. Executing the combo is also relatively easy: rituals, Gifts Ungiven, repeat. Having either Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer out makes the combo easier to execute, but isn’t necessary. Thanks to Gifts, it is also tough to fizzle, and losing individual pieces isn’t a big deal because they’re redundant.

With Ironworks, there is a lot more going into the combo. First and foremost, Krark-Clan Ironworks must be in play. Second, access to Scrap Trawler makes things far more manageable. It is possible to just naturally chain cantrip artifacts and win, but that is far riskier and prone to fizzling. Also, most decks are like Nass’s, and only win via recurring Pyrite Spellbomb; only Trawler allows for that. Third, once the combo begins, there is far more that needs to be tracked: quantity of mana and of which color; draw triggers; Trawler triggers. Players also have to keep track of which artifacts are being sacrificed to optimize Trawler chains. Then, there is the timing of the Trawler/Myr Retriever loop. All these factors up the skill level of the deck, and therefore its entry barrier relative to Storm’s.

The Place of Combo

Despite its apparently sound positioning, I don’t think Ironworks will have a particularly notable impact on the overall metagame. Stony Silence is so crippling that if Ironworks becomes a problem, the answer will immediately follow. While fighting the enchantment may be manageable, the deck’s difficulty is more hobbling to its potential. I cannot imagine that players will pick up the deck in great numbers. Therefore, I suspect that Ironworks will have high-level success for a while longer, but then eventually fade away.

Between a host of StarCityGames events in the next few months and the return of the Core Set, Modern may be due for an upheaval. Players have reacted to Humans being on top, and at Vegas, they reacted to that reaction. I’m hoping that my next metagame investigation shows movement away from the current dynamic equilibrium and towards something new.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

9 thoughts on “GP Las Vegas and the Ironworks Conundrum

  1. One really important thing is that approx 1000-1500 people dropped round 2.

    Literally every single person who I knew from San Diego who was playing, myself included, dropped. At the time I was 1-1. I know many 2-0’s dropped as well.

    They gave us all refunds and a golden pass to the next GP.

    I’m guessing people on brews were more likely to drop because they knew it was unlikely to be worth keeping in when they could just bow out and get a refund

    End of round 4 there was maybe… 500-600 seats taken by the main event

      1. Someone kicked over their power supply. All the computers crashed and they lost the data for the event. There was a 3+ hour delay between round 2 and round 3.

        As an apology they offered refunds and all attending players got a golden ticket to their next GP

  2. Fizzling with KCI isn’t as easy as it seems in my experience. I might’ve missed it, but Storm needing to stick a creature to really go off is pretty problematic in a field where most will be gunning for humans. Storm can and will go off without cost reduction, but it’s clunky and if it fizzles, that’s usually it.

    Conversely, I’ve tried to go off on turn three with KCI, fizzled, tried again the next turn, and succeeded because fizzling doesn’t leave kci as emptyhanded, as it seems to leave storm; Baral/Electromancer are pretty unlikely to make it to the next turn, whereas Ironworks is like a ritual+past in flames that stays in play and can’t be path/bolted.

    I don’t know how it would’ve worked at the GP, but plenty of players do the wrong stuff against KCI, after they stick a Stony or RiP; thinking they’re on easy street….meanwhile, KCI can just sit there and cast artifacts and work toward a big turn. It’s similar for Storm, but it can’t do the same with rituals that KCI does with its artifacts.

    1. Even without a creature a good Storm player can still find a way to string enough rituals to go off. You might also be surprised how often Storm can/has to go off several times. As long as the pilot plans ahead and doesn’t gut their graveyard the first time, it is very possible to Storm off with Past in Flames in the graveyard or having drawn the second one despite having no creature. It’s just harder and more stressful.

      Ironworks does have an easier time of it since the fuel is all cantrips. However, you’re also right that nobody had the right cards against Ironworks at the GP. Even when they did, most don’t know how to correctly speedbump Ironworks, as the finals demonstrated. Now that the deck is out there and players are actually taking notice, it will be much harder for Ironworks.

      One other point is that, as long as it doesn’t hit all the win conditions, Surgical Extraction is ineffective against Storm. Having KCI or Scrap Trawler Extracted, for most lists anyway, is game over.

  3. Using a hypergeometric calculator and averaging between draw and play, the chances of Eggs having a Mox Opal turn 3 is about 39%. Considering they also have Ancient Stirrings, a turn 3 kill isn’t actually that unlikely, as the only other card that’s a must is KCI and the whole deck is cantrips. Of course it is less likely than Storm but not by a super significant amount.

    On a separate note, the Storm vs. Humans matchup is actually very close. Perhaps 45/55 or even 50/50. Mage naming Grapeshot is actually not good enough, he gets bounced then the kill happens.

    I think the real reason Eggs is performing so well is that it’s near impossible to hate out. Sure, there are cards that they can’t win through, but they all lose to Nature’s Claim and family. It’s similar to Grave-Troll era Dredge, as any hate your bring in will be outnumbered by their anti-hate, so the best solution is just ignore and race.

  4. Living End player here. How do you see Slaughter Games in the current meta?

    On turn 3 with SSG on the play it should be fine, but turn 4 on the draw seems like a wasted SB slot. 1 Chewer MB, 3 Chewers SB is necessary to have a chance against KCI I feel.

    Do you think people should run more artifact hate in their SBs right now?

    1. Slaughter Games is as it always has been, mostly irrelevant. Against most decks it doesn’t really do anything because it’s slow and doesn’t affect the board state. There are a small subset of decks where it is devastating, but those decks are so rare that it has never been worthwhile.

      Ironworks is one such deck, and Slaughtering Scrap Trawler or KCI itself usually wins the game. However, unless you expect a lot of Ironworks or similar combo decks, it just isn’t worth a sideboard slot. There are better ways to beat those decks and have uses elsewhere.

      As for artifact hate, yes, you should always have artifact hate, it’s always been my belief that every dec that can’t beat Affinity with its maindeck must have artifact hate. I don’t think its about quantity, however. KCI is a very weird deck and it’s not about how many artifacts you destroy but timing the first one right. It is possible to stall the combo by hitting KCI or Trawler at the right time, but that time isn’t always obvious so you need practice. For that reason I don’t think Ingot Chewer is best if you’re against KCI, Affinity is another matter, but I also don’t know if you want Krosan Grip.

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