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
|Grixis Death's Shadow||1|
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 Name||Total #|
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.
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.
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.