Seeking Some Company for a Broken Metagame

So. Eldrazi is everywhere. The metagame is warping around the colorless menace, driving out interaction. Linear aggressive decks sit comfortably atop the field. This is unhealthy and probably won’t last, either because answers will be found and the warp will disappear, or because Wizards will mollify Reddit and take action April 4th. However, that doesn’t help us now. What will is, instead of worrying or whining, recognizing that Modern has a defined metagame for one of the few times in its history, and this gives us as players an opportunity for Old School Metagaming.

Noble Hierarch banner

A Lesson from History

Defined and constrained metagames are nothing new, not even in Modern, where many format-defining cards now languish on the banned list. However, when you think of defined metagames, you most commonly think of Standard. The smaller card pool has long meant only a few decks can really contend and that the metagame will become known, if not “solved,” between set releases. This is not a bad thing, at least if you’re not the sort that tries to play weird combo decks and laments Siege Rhino is just too good when your deck isn’t viable in the first place. Many players like the subtle tweaks and positioning changes that take place over a Standard season as tech is discovered, answered, discarded, and rediscovered. This is what kept Standard so popular for so long. But sometimes, one deck would rise and dominate Standard for its entire two-year life cycle. In these cases, opportunity arose.

BitterblossomNow, I am not talking about the Affinity or Cawblade eras. If you buy that Standard becomes rock, paper, scissors then those decks were dynamite, and were banned as a result. What I am talking about are Standards like the Lorwyn era. Faeries quickly rose to the top and was cemented in place once Bitterblossom was printed, and it was only rotation that knocked it off its perch. However, there was plenty of space around that deck for other strategies to thrive, and they did. At various points 5-Color, Gruul, Merfolk, Dragonstorm, Elves, and many other decks I’ve forgotten were perfectly viable and matched Faeries. Rather than being oppressive, Faeries provided definition and constraints to the format. If you recognized what they were, you would be rewarded.

For me, the best example of this comes from waning months of LorwynAlara Standard. Going into Regionals that year, everyone knew 1/1 fliers defined the format. Between Bitterblossom and Spectral Procession, Standard was overrun by token strategies with Faeries getting the nod as the most powerful due to Mistbind CliqueSpellstutter Sprite, and Thoughtseize. Every other mainstream deck was either looking to sweep up tokens (5-Color’s Firespout and Volcanic Fallout), get under them (usually with Great Sable Stag), ignore them (red decks), or simply win the token war (Ajani Goldmane in BW Tokens). I and a few other players, however, realized you didn’t have to fight the token war on the token decks’ terms. You can’t go over 1/1s that fly and you can’t go wider than Bitterblossom, but it was possible to go through them once you realized that the best evasion available was trample. After that, the possibilities for brewing opened up.

As a result of understanding the format being defined by 1/1 fliers, I played what may have been the best positioned deck of the tournament: Bant Crashers.

Bant Crashers, by David Ernenwein

Creatures (21)
Shorecrasher Mimic
Rhox War Monk
Vendilion Clique
Noble Hierarch
Jhessian Infiltrator
Rafiq of the Many

Artifacts (3)
Loxodon Warhammer
Behemoth Sledge

Instants (14)
Path to Exile
Bant Charm
Cryptic Command
Broken Ambitions

Lands (22)
Treetop Village
Yavimaya Coast
Mystic Gate
Flooded Grove
Seaside Citadel
Brushland
Forest
Plains
Island
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Noble Hierarch into Shorecrasher Mimic followed by Rafiq of the Many was game over for Bitterblossom. Add counters for protection and artifacts to give more trample and chump blockers never looked more… like chumps? (Had something there and lost it). If all else failed you just went under everyone with Jhessian Infiltrator or used lifegain to turn the Blossom into your win condition.

I never lost to Faeries or 5-Color and only fell once to BW due to a game loss caused by a misplaced Tidehollow Sculler pick. I didn’t Top 8 thanks to an additional loss to a Demigod of Revenge deck and an Elves deck that did Top 8 running the combo of Elvish Archdruid and Umbral Mantle, but I still think I made the correct deck choice. Don’t fight on the same axis as the rest of the tournament or focus on beating the best deck. Instead, identify the unifying thread of the metagame and attack that to get the best results.

Taking the Metagame as it is

How does that nostalgia trip to 2009 help us in 2016? Here’s the lesson: metagames defined by certain cards, or decks, have unifying themes. To beat the field, we attack the theme itself. I did it by negating blocking. The Elves player used an infinite combo to kill before the… not “slow,” exactly, but the “methodical” decks of the day got going. If we look at Modern right now, I will argue there is a similar unifying thread and an opportunity to exploit it. Take a minute to look over the Top Decks page I linked last sentence and Reality Smashersee what the top five have in common, I’ll wait.

Do you see it?

No, not the linear part: that’s not shared with Jund. Look deeper.

See it?

They all win fairly. Every single deck is trying to win by attacking with creatures over multiple turns. Granted, most of them do it in very unfair ways, but all of them win by attacking. This is in contrast to “true” combo decks that win by drawing a specific card or sequence of cards, or “true” control decks that win via card advantage. This means if we can make combat damage irrelevant, we blank most of Tier 1. The question then becomes, how do we go about accomplishing that? Sheridan gave us one solution yesterday and the Top Decks page gives us another clue:

Abzan Company, Paul Bradford (1st Place Denver SCG Regionals)

Creatures (30)
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Spellskite
Aven Mindcensor
Birds of Paradise
Eternal Witness
Fiend Hunter
Kitchen Finks
Murderous Redcap
Noble Hierarch
Viscera Seer
Voice of Resurgence
Wall of Roots
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Melira, Sylvok Outcast

Instants (8)
Chord of Calling
Collected Company

Lands (22)
Forest
Plains
Swamp
Gavony Township
Godless Shrine
Horizon Canopy
Overgrown Tomb
Temple Garden
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Sideboard (15)
Archangel of Thune
Burrenton Forge-Tender
Fulminator Mage
Orzhov Pontiff
Qasali Pridemage
Scavenging Ooze
Spike Feeder
Abrupt Decay
Path to Exile
Kataki, War’s Wage
Linvala, Keeper of Silence
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Thanks to the persist/Melira/Anafenza combo, Abzan Company completely negates nearly all other Tier 1 decks’ win conditions. Melira also turns off poison. I suspect this is the reason that it is currently in sixth place on the Top Decks page. I also suspect it is going to stay there rather than rise for two reasons:

  • Jund’s removal package is very good against this deck in general and the combo is easy to disrupt with said removal
  • It’s a fairly difficult and slow combo to pull off.

collected companyCollected Company and Chord of Calling help with reliability but not the speed problem, making this combo occasionally unreliable. Abzan does have a good backup plan, just like Pod did, of getting big with Gavony Township and swamping the opponent. The problem with that right now is it’s just slower than the other aggressive options and Eldrazi and Affinity don’t really give you the time to durdle around with +1/+1 counters. There’s a reason GW Hatebears isn’t played right now. The deck is good, the stats don’t lie, but I think we need something more to really take advantage of the metagame.

Kiki Chord is certainly an option as well, though as Jeff Hoogland explained, it is also very difficult to play well. The other problem I have with Kiki Chord is Collected Company‘s absence. Company really is the best card draw spell in Modern and if I’m going the route of fast combos to race Eldrazi, I want to increase my chances of finding my pieces as much as possible. This points me toward Company itself, which Kiki Chord can’t run. I also like building a little forgiveness into my decks and powerful card draw fulfills that role exceptionally. Yes, you miss sometimes, but at least you’re getting cards that aren’t part of your gameplan out of the way.

Never Fight Fair

Over the past week, both StarCityGames and ChannelFireball attempted to see how well Splinter Twin would have kept Eldrazi down. The results were interesting, particularly for the purposes of this article, because they showed Eldrazi really isn’t set up to deal with a two-card combo except by racing (which, admittedly, was often enough). Yes, none of the test decks were really optimal for the situation but that’s not the point. What’s important is they identified another significant weakness to exploit: Eldrazi doesn’t interact well with fast combos, in this case a two-card instant win combo at instant speed. Unfortunately, a true Twin replacement doesn’t exist but we’ve highlighted one that comes close before:

Knightfall, Trevor Holmes

Creatures (28)
Geist of Saint Traft
Noble Hierarch
Birds of Paradise
Steppe Lynx
Tarmogoyf
Voice of Resurgence
Loxodon Smiter
Knight of the Reliquary

Enchantments (4)
Retreat to Coralhelm

Instants (7)
Path to Exile
Remand

Lands (21)
Breeding Pool
Hallowed Fountain
Temple Garden
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
Sejiri Steppe
Gavony Township
Horizon Canopy
Ghost Quarter
Windswept Heath
Misty Rainforest
Forest
Plains
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Knightfall got a lot of hype when Retreat to Coralhelm was printed and almost no discussion since. The problem it had prior to January 18 was the Retreat to Coralhelmcombo was a worse version of URx Twin. If you want to win your deck should be the best possible at what it’s doing, not being different for the sake of being different. Since then everyone has been justifiably skeptical that you can set up a quick combo when Thought-Knot Seer is everywhere.

But what if the combo is made to look less threatening? Fair value decks are very strong against aggro decks when they’re able to keep up, which is why they’ve dropped off so much. But UW Titan showed me having good value creatures, with a powerful card advantage engine to supplement them, can beat very fast aggro back when Zoo was big. Taking this lesson, and some inspiration from a deck Stephen Fachs showed me, led to this:

Knightfall Company by David Ernenwein

Creatures (28)
Knight of the Reliquary
Noble Hierarch
Lone Missionary
Voice of Resurgence
Eternal Witness
Vendilion Clique
Flickerwisp
Court Hussar

Enchantments (3)
Retreat to Coralhelm

Instants (7)
Collected Company
Path to Exile

Lands (22)
Breeding Pool
Hallowed Fountain
Temple Garden
Sejiri Steppe
Gavony Township
Horizon Canopy
Ghost Quarter
Windswept Heath
Misty Rainforest
Forest
Plains
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The advantage of this deck over most other Knightfall decks is you don’treally need the combo. The deck that inspired me was just a value Bant Company list that could have, but Flickerwispelected not to, run the combo. The fundamentals that made that deck work are still present. You play a solid value game using your enter-the-battlefield creatures and Collected Company and sometimes just win with Retreat to open a hole for a gigantic Knight to swing through.

There’s a lot of potential here, but I’m still not satisfied. UR Eldrazi can make far too many blockers for Retreat to work its magic, not to mention tapping down our fatal Knight with Drowner of Hope. On top of that, Knightfall isn’t quite the “I Win” button that Twin was. I liked the fact that, provided you survived the initial aggro onslaught, the value plan gradually pulled you ahead until you eventually won the game. I also liked the fact that Flickerwisp is insane against Eldrazi and Affinity, but this deck isn’t quite the metagame bomb I was looking for.

Hybridize to Survive

It’s almost cliche to go from mentioning a combo deck’s weaknesses to then talking about hybridizing the deck to close them. Cliches aside, it’s a good approach and, furthermore, given how I’ve set this article up you should have seen it coming. The stock Knightfall and Abzan Company lists already share a lot of cards and their non-combo gameplans are virtually the same. Why not merge them? Knightfall requires a lot of fetchlands anyway, so even the manabase shouldn’t be a stumbling block.

Abzan Knightfall by David Ernenwein

Creatures (28)
Birds of Paradise
Noble Hierarch
Viscera Seer
Voice of Resurgence
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Spellskite
Eternal Witness
Fiend Hunter
Kitchen Finks
Knight of the Reliquary
Murderous Redcap

Enchantments (2)
Retreat to Coralhelm

Instants (8)
Chord of Calling
Collected Company

Lands (22)
Forest
Plains
Swamp
Island
Gavony Township
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Breeding Pool
Horizon Canopy
Overgrown Tomb
Temple Garden
Marsh Flats
Verdant Catacombs
Misty Rainforest
Windswept Heath
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At the cost of some maindeck toolbox creatures, we have an additional, faster combo to complement Melira. The manabase definitely needs work but Birds of Paradise tends to cover up those weaknesses, especially when Lightning Bolt saturation is low. The best part is Knightfall’s combo staying relevant even when not going for the win. Knight is a huge threat on its own, and Retreat can generate considerable mana advantage with Birds and Hierarch, enough that it Meliramakes me wonder if there’s some additional thing you could fit in to take advantage of all the mana you can make with this deck. The additional fetches and scrying also make hitting combo pieces or your search engines easier.

Is this list optimal? Almost certainly not. Is it well positioned? Probably. The Melira combo is very good right now, despite the graveyard hate (much of which is in the Eldrazi sideboard), and adding some robustness appears to have improved the Jund matchup as well. That said, my current testing has also showed it is very hard to play, so if you’re going to go this route, you definitely need to commit to it. Also, I’m worried I’m being inefficient about this. Maybe I should just stick to known plans rather than falling for the danger of cool things. I also can’t overstate the deck’s vulnerability, just like its predecessors, to graveyard hate. Despite these reservations, there is definite potential for decks like this to take advantage of the linearity and aggressiveness of the Modern metagame.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

When most of the metagame is trying to do the same thing, even if in different ways, an opportunity exists to target that one thing. Whether it’s make 1/1 fliers or aggroing you to death so fast it should be illegal, a defined and constrained metagame creates openings intelligent deckbuilders can identify and exploit. With a very aggressive metagame, and interaction at a low ebb, infinite combo decks are very well positioned to take down tournaments. This situation is unlikely to last, so I advise you to get out there and start tinkering before we are forced to start doing fair things fairly again.

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.

11 thoughts on “Seeking Some Company for a Broken Metagame

  1. Hey David,

    Good read, one thing I feel is being heavily overlooked is the way the meta will shift to react to Eldrazi. I’ve been testing/playing Collected Company since the card was spoiled and as much as I love the decks, modern is moving towards more and more creature hate to combat the Eldrazi decks. Board wipes (actually got Terminus’d multiple times last night), Ensnaring Bridge and Blood Moon are going to be in full effect. With GP Detroit in just 2 weeks I’m really torn where I want to be as playing something heavily creature based just feels like I’m going to get next leveled by the people prepped for Eldrazi.

    This is the deck that’s taken up most of my time spent playing modern over the last 8 months. The initial shell is based around the Tay Jun Hao’s list that top 8’d GP Singapore featuring both Collected Company, Chord of Calling, Fauna Shaman and the angry Goblin.

    http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/coco-kiki-chord/

    While it performs fine against Eldrazi, often out-valuing them if they’re not just sitting on the Turn two 8-15 point swing.. we’re poorly favored against the decks metagaming to beat Eldrazi. I’ll probably continue testing this list and I feel well positions against Affinity, Eldrazi, Infect, Tron, Jund and Abzan Company however I’m having a ton of second thoughts at the moment.

    Also, here’s my current Knightfall List that I’ll be testing for the GP –

    http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/tempo-knightfall-1/

    1. I agree. I think that Kiki Chord is not well positioned at the moment simply because of how hostile the anti-Eldrazi decks are, which is why Collected Company is so important at letting you rebuild after boardwipes. If you’re struggling I would advise you to alter your playstyle and intend to play a much longer game and avoid committing very much to the board. Also Mistveil Plains is surprisingly powerful with all the Tutors that Chord runs, you might try that.

      I like the idea of your Knightfall list, but given the low creature count I would try to play more protection for them. I’d cut the Remands for a full set of Stubborn Denial to really protect your Knights and Goyfs. Also, is Dismember really better than Path? Your manabase is damaging enough as is, do you really want to take more?

      1. Over committing isn’t the issue. When people are meta gaming to dominate creature decks no amount of Collected Companies are going to give you the advantage against decks like Scapeshift, UWx control with access to 8+ MD board wipes or a quality hand from Lantern Control.

        4 Denials are just dead unless you have a Goyf or Knight already sitting at 4 Power not to mention how bad they can be in specific matchups. Remand lets you actually cycle to Combo. The issue I currently have with Path as a card is ramping Eldrazi, I’m back and forth on it at this point.. Dismember is less mana intensive on a 4 color deck where white and red are your splash colors.

  2. This is a great article. It brings something old that players can see from the past as well as several new lists that are both fun and competitive. In a never ending stream of Eldrazi articles, this was a breath of fresh air. There should definitely be more articles like this one. Well done David.

  3. Strong article, David, and good point in bringing up Knightfall. I suspect the reason why it dropped off the map was because the BCx Eldrazi Processors deck was a miserable matchup for it (4 maindeck Relics, and sometimes even more ‘yard hate on top of that), but now that deck has been replaced by the URC and mono-C rushdown variants. I think that Geist of Saint Traft and Knight of the Reliquary are problematic cards for Eldrazi to begin with, and having the threat of a instant-win combo looming over their heads only makes it worse. Definitely a deck to explore.

    1. No sure about Geist unless you’re planning of going a Bogles route with him (which might be very good right now) since there are so many creatures running around, but I agree that Processors’ drop off gives decks like these a much better chance than before. I think this deck and the Twin experiments show that allowing decks to cut interaction is generally a bad thing, but since this is the world we’re in now might as well take advantage.

      1. I guess I should mention that when I talk about Geist of Saint Traft, it’s because Eldrazi tend to go “all-out” on their attacks, and that’s a big part of what makes them so dangerous. Leaving blockers back for Geist slows down their aggro game, and thus buys you a bit of time to breathe. Furthermore, a Geist + Worship strategy (probably out of the sideboard, as it’s a tad clunky to be in the main) is a free win against either deck.

  4. If I were playing in a GP soon, I’d be playing an Ensnaring Bridge deck. Probably 8Rack, as it’s way less taxing to play than Lantern Control. 8Rack seems to do pretty well to aggro decks, and tends to crush combo lists. If you can dodge GR Tron, which seems easy to do in this meta, then Jund is the only deck I’d worry too much about.

    1. I’d be careful with 8Rack. A regular at my LGS played it for months and he had to dedicate most of his board space to be reasonable against aggro. In game one if he didn’t draw Bridge he almost always lost. You are right about it crushing combo and midrange. Not saying that it isn’t an option, but know what you’re getting into and prepare your sideboard accordingly.

      I’d advise you to go with GB Rack so you have access to Ancient Stirrings to find your racks and Bridges more consistently.

  5. BGx is actually a very favorable matchup if you’re on Abzan Company. It turns out the 1-for-1 decks struggle with a CoCo/Eternal Witness deck that also plays 3 Gavony Township.

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