Greetings all, today I’ve like to talk about the current Modern metagame and the reason we have seen radical changes to it in the last 6 months.
What sparked this article was a tweet from Paul Rietzl:
The big secret to magic is to make the commonly played interaction not work well against your deck. That's true in basically every format.
— Paul Rietzl (@paulrietzl) April 16, 2018
This tweet was recently used in other articles to talk about the UW and Turbo Fog decks that emerged from Standard because of their ability to dodge cards like Fatal Push, Abrade, and the like, but today I’d like to look at it as it applies to Modern. The fact of the matter is that for the longest time, Lightning Bolt was the arbiter of the format. With the advent of Fatal Push, aggro decks should have disappeared from the earth. However, in the current Modern metagame, it seems like aggro decks have actually increased in popularity. Decks like Hollow One, Bridgevine, Humans, and newcomers like Hardened Scales Affinity and UWx Spirits decks have all been increasing in number and experiencing success at all levels of competitive magic. I’m suggesting now that the reason these decks have experienced success is that they all make common interaction not work well against them and that this point explains many of the changes that have made the Modern format the way that it is.
The Advent of “Rietzl Aggro”
First off: let’s name the terms of discussion. I’d like to introduce the terminology of “Rietzl Aggro” to the framework of this article. A “Rietzl Aggro” deck would be an aggressive deck that takes advantage of traditional removal spells. For example, Hollow One’s large threats like the Empty Boy himself and his Delving brethren take advantage of the popularity of Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt. Vengevine’s ability to be constantly recurred, alongside Bloodghast, Flamewake Phoenix, and Gravecrawler challenge one for one removal in productive ways. Additionally, cards like Bridge from Below, Greater Gargadon, and even Viscera Seer can get value out of creatures even if they’re being removed or attempting to be exiled. While traditional 187 creatures have always been okay against removal, cards like Stitcher’s Supplier, Arcbound Ravager, Arcbound Worker, Hangarback Walker, and to some extent Walking Ballista actively disincentive killing them because of their trigger on death. These cards all are a reaction to the prevalence of Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt. Because of this, I’d classify Hollow One, Bridgevine, and Hardened Scales Affinity as “Rietzl Aggro.” However, I’d like to retroactively introduce “Rietzl Aggro” as soon as Oath of the Gatewatch (the aforementioned 2016) made an appearance. Matter Reshaper, Thought-Knot Seer, and Reality Smasher are all threats that challenge your opponent to play unique subsets of removal and interaction in order to achieve success. Additionally, a deck like Affinity would not be something I’d describe as Rietzl Aggro because it does not feature the same resilient creatures, and, provided people are appropriately sideboarding, falls victim to many popular Modern cards. However, Affinity decks that are playing more copies of Etched Champion, Karn, Scion of Urza or ways to fight through Stony Silence like Ghirapur Aether Grid creep closer to Rietzl Aggro. The determining factor in choosing a deck that fits “Rietzl” standards might be that it experiences success BECAUSE of its resilience to disruption, rather than success in dodging disruption entirely.
An Aside on Path to Exile and the Resurgence of Control
Now, there’s a glaring hole in my analysis so far: Path to Exile. Path to Exile so far addresses all of the problems that Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push cannot answer and that, I believe is a large part to the success of UW Control in the last few weeks. Additionally, I believe the inclusion of Terminus also clearly addresses the recursive threats, the triggers on death, and the large threats at a cheap cost. In order for aggro decks to adapt here, they need to make their board presence and their resource development remain after a Path or a Terminus. The Bridgevine decks do this through using sacrifice outlets to keep their threats in the graveyard. The Hardened Scales decks do this similarly with Throne of Geth and Arcbound Ravager being able to load up counters onto something like a Walking Ballista to use their board state one last time before the sweeper or removal spell interrupts their plan. You’ll notice these answers aren’t as clean as the ones I’ve written above and that’s in large part why UW continues to succeed. If you’re considering playing a deck that is weak to Path to Exile or Terminus, I’d strongly consider how you’d like to plan for those cards when deckbuilding and playing your games. For example, sometimes not returning a Bloodghast or a Flamewake Phoenix is important. Additionally, Mike Sigrist pointed out manipulating the top of the library with something like Burning Inquiry if your UW opponent taps out for Jace. In all likelihood, they’ll have a Terminus on top of their library and they won’t be able to time it correctly. Making control decks sequence awkwardly is a useful part of planning in Aggro decks. Humans has a lot of play against the UW decks because of cards like Meddling Mage and Gaddock Teeg that can lock certain cards out of the equation. In my testing, if Humans can establish Medding Mage on Path plus Gaddock Teeg and never attack with either, they basically put the UW deck on needing to play to a 1-2 outer, which is a great place to be in.
Rietzl Midrange and Rietzl Combo:
Building on the argument of ‘Rietzl’ as a stylized approach, decks like Tron, Eldrazi Tron, Bant Eldrazi, KCI and even Ad Nauseam are all variants of Rietzl Midrange or Rietzl Combo. I say this because they are hard to interact with and present threats that are not commonly answered by the format. A few weeks ago, Ari Lax discussed ways to utilize graveyard hate and land destruction hate in Modern and basically concluded that there is no perfect hate for the Urza Lands because of their ability to rebuild and play midrange games in the face of disruption. Tron’s presence in Modern has always thrived because of the relative inability to interact with the gameplan of enormous creatures. The corner cases of success come from decks that might play all colorless creatures to invalidate Ugin or decks that can put light pressure on Tron while presenting a disruptive clock. Despite Modern being a diverse format, you will notice a lot of similar cards that are difficult to interact with. Similarly, KCI has experienced success because of its ability to beat many different and unique forms of hate. Cards like KCI manipulate the way the stack works because mana abilities can respond to Split Second making traditional hate cards like Surgical Extraction and even Extripate completely useless. Again, think about winning in the face of disruption rather than trying to avoid the disruption, Tron can beat a Damping Sphere or a Blood Moon and KCI can handle multiple pieces of targeted removal with relative ease once beginning to combo. When discussing this article with my friend Steven, he put it very succinctly: “there’s a reason decks like Naya Blitz, Atarka Red, and the like don’t have much carry over success from Standard into Modern. Their problem is that they only have one plan and that plan can be disrupted.” He went on to talk about the inconsistencies of decks like Burn and other singularly linear plans which really concretized by understanding of this theory I’m proposing. Basically, if you build a deck without the rest of the format in mind, your plans will have varying degrees of success unless you can find a common weak point in everything they’re doing. Whether it’s an aggro deck, a combo deck, or a midrange deck, any deck has the capabilities to change its plans to line up better against an expected metagame and the best decks are capable of formulating a plan to slip through the common trends of the format. This might even go so far to describe why we see so many random decks succeed in Modern. Looking at what makes these Spirits decks from GP Prague and SCG Baltimore succeed might give more insight into what changes Modern is going to need to adapt to next.
So what does all of this mean: Fatal Push and Lighting Bolt do not address the concerns of these new “Rietzl Aggro.” The implications of this are threefold: firstly, if you’re playing an aggro deck, you’ll note that the successful aggro decks are beating commonly played removal. Secondly, if you’re playing a reactive deck, you’ll experience success by leveling the ‘Rietzl paradigm’ and playing interaction that addresses the loopholes in the format. Thirdly, once the interaction by successful reactive decks becomes common, the aggro decks need to react appropriately or get lost in the dust. However, because of the depth of Modern and the constant narrative of “you can play whatever you want” you’ll still be inundated by decks that are anywhere from 1 to 3 levels behind the most recent developments in the metagame, which may make them better or worse depending on which direction you’re going. This is in large part why it’s often more successful to be playing a proactive deck than a reactive deck. Wizards can likely never truly make control answer everything, lest it become too powerful and decks that try to answer everything now (think something like the old Mystical Teachings deck) will get run over because of how clunky they are and how messy the mana gets. One fantastic element to the color pie is that each color specializes in answering certain problems and no color (for the most part) has an answer to everything. This is partly why Phyrexian mana is so inherently busted. Giving any color the ability to counter a 1 mana spell, deal 1 damage or give a creature -5/-5 or protection from a color contorts the balance that Magic was built on and causes serious problems. Hopefully, Magic will adapt and get more powerful while still maintaining each color’s strengths and weaknesses to maintain balance to the game. It’s important to know that these decks don’t simply emerge from nowhere. Hollow One existed after Hollow One was printed. Bridgevine was improved by Stitcher’s Supplier and Supreme Phantom is what made people reexamine spirits, but, the reason decks succeed is based on how they match up with their opponents and that’s where beating your opponent’s plan becomes of the utmost importance.
Hopefully, you’ve found this article interesting and can use this analysis when building for your upcoming tournament. If you have any questions or want to talk about this further, feel free to message me on Twitter @mtgzach or message me in the comments. Until next time!
Tags: Zach Cramer
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