Are “Top Tier” Decks Truly The Best?

Every format has its share of top decks – Legacy had Miracles, Modern had Jund (and currently Death’s Shadow Aggro), and for the moment Standard has Mardu Vehicles. But are these top decks truly the best and most optimized decks that could be played in said format? Just because public opinion calls a deck good, does that mean it actually is truly a top deck?  Well today we are going to explore just that, diving deep into meta game analysis, and present some very interesting findings based on such notions.

So I got the idea to write this article from a post on MTG salvation. Someone on the Modern forums was discussing why just because a version of a deck had not been played very much, many felt it lacked the ability to contend, and just because a deck was or is played very often, does that mean it is actually the best deck? Basically what was discussed, was that the overall opinion of the public is not what makes a deck actually good. Adding on to this, I’ve also personally found that just because a deck shows up often on MTGtop8 or other various meta sites, this does not always correlate with the deck actually being a powerful contender. While this notion may be obvious, it sometimes seems like a lot of people really overlook it.  Yes it is true that in general a deck’s popularity will at least some what correlate to its power level, it is not always the case. In fact there are a plethora of decks, top tier, mid tier, and underplayed that have cropped up throughout Magic’s history which don’t follow this idea at all.

So without further ado, let’s explore some of those decks in each format:


First let’s discuss some examples in Modern, which seems to have the most prevalence of this trend. While decks such as Jund, and Infect have always remained top contenders in the Modern meta game, and it is fairly safe to say that they are truly powerful decks. There are many strategies that are either over or under represented in terms of how powerful they are considered. One example being the recent insurgence of Death’s Shadow Zoo. The deck has always been a fairly popular deck in Modern since its creation, however only recently – after the banning of Gitaxian Probe – has it found a spot as one of the very top decks in Modern. Previously players were all playing the same list (with Gitaxian Probe), the deck did fairly well, but never absolutely crushed the meta game. Popular opinion deemed the list well optimized, and considered the deck a good deck, thus the vast majority of lists began to remain fairly stagnate – all playing the same Probe driven strategy. However the banning of Probe forced players to rethink the entire structure of the deck, and doing so has launched the strategy into previously unimaginable power levels. Essentially what happened with Death’s Shadow Zoo, is that the deck was doing well and had an accepted list, so no one was inclined to significantly change it until they had to. But then, when they did, an entire new and even more powerful strategy was discovered which had been hiding within Modern’s card pool the entire time.

Another example from Modern is EldraTron. This deck only recently saw its creation, however almost all of the cards in the deck have existed in Modern since the original Eldrazi onslaught. Everyone had been previously playing Bant Eldrazi, and then someone thought of the idea to combine Tron lands and Eldrazi Aggro, and thus EldraTron was born and slowly refined. Only now catching on… The power of the deck had always existed, but the vast majority of players were not as inclined to play it, as Bant Eldrazi, and previous incarnations of the deck did well.


Eldrazi Aggro is a good example of a deck that’s popularity has over extended its power level. When this deck first came out I remember some people actually freaking out, while nobody ever went to such extremes as calling the end of Legacy as we know it, there definitely was some discomfort in the vastly shifting meta. Don’t get me wrong, Eldrazi Aggro is a very powerful deck, but its power is only held in the correct meta game. The deck was a Miracles predator, it absolutely destroyed the counter top strategy, and thus meta games that were ripe with Miracles were also amazing opportunities for Eldrazi to begin taking over. However Eldrazi also struggles against many of Legacy’s popular decks such as BUG, and some combo strategies. So while the deck is very good under the right meta, it does not just auto win as many players and its popularity would claim. In fact much of its popularity can also be attributed to its cheaper price, which allowed for many new players to enter Legacy.

Death and Taxes is a deck with a very humble story. It was shamed and laughed at back in its years of infancy, people said it just wouldn’t work. But its creator, who goes by Finn on various MTG forums, continued to develop it. Eventually over many years, the deck did in fact catch on, and people realized how good it truly was against much of the Legacy meta (which can become quite infested with super fast combo from time to time). Death and Taxes really helps to serve as an example of how hidden strategies can exist in formats for years, and even be laughed at, and then only be considered powerful once adopted by a vast majority of players.


While I could go on and on about examples of this in Standard’s history, I’m not going to bore you all with that. However I will say that the Future Future League, run by WoTC R&D department has publicly stated multiple times that they do in fact find very powerful decks that never end up catching on in real life meta games. The Future Future League is essentially a simulated meta game that WoTC staff creates and tests in to make sure that cards are balanced, and to see what variety of powerful and fun strategies could end up existing. Most recently I recall this being discussed slightly vaguely, but thoroughly in the Magic the Amateuring podcast a few months back.

Meta Game Trends – Just because a deck is top8’ing a lot on MTGtop8 does not mean it is the best.

Again this one seems obvious, but a lot of players kinda pass it up. Even I myself, when first starting out, used to think decks that top8’ed all the time were just simply the best decks to be playing. While yes this does correlate often with a decks power level, it is not always the case. For example MTGO’s meta games differ vastly from real life meta games. This is due to differences in price and player preferences between them. Personally I have found MTGO to harbor a lot more aggro decks than real life meta’s do. Just because of this alone there are going to be more aggro decks, especially on sites like MTGtop8 that are making it into high positions on tournaments. Sometimes even a mid leveled deck can appear to be doing very well simply because of the shear volume of players that are playing it. While of course this is definitely not always true, it is just food for thought that players should probably be aware of.

On a side note, the more I look into it, MTG meta game trends have really started to parallel a lot of marketing theories, and social trend theories. If you want to learn more about this, I suggest checking out books such as the Tipping Point. But basically what these explain is that all trends follow a specific pattern (Innovators to early adopters to the average person to laggards), and Magic’s meta game actually seems to kind of follow this same pattern. While it is a bit of a stretch, these ideas can actually be quite elegantly applied to magic as a whole.


Essentially where I’m getting at with this, is that just because a deck is or is not popular that does not mean it is bad or good. In fact popularity of a deck has much less correlation to its true power level than it does to entry price, meta dependency, and just simply deck selection. Sometimes lots of people just like playing cool strategies that are good. But that doesn’t mean that they are always the best. Basically what all of these examples begin to show is that even the most “resolved” of formats are not actually truly resolved, and decks that we all perceive as the best could in fact just only be good because of other decks that are popular, or even simply just because people like playing them. So if you wanna play a rouge strategy but are concerned about it not being that good, you never know, it could end up being the next Death and Taxes or Death’s Shadow Zoo of its format, and just because you decide to play one of the established “top tier” decks, don’t always expect to win every tournament you go to, because that top tier status may not be as telling of a decks power, and more of its level of popularity than previously thought.

I hope this article was helpful in some way to you. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns please feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

And as always, happy gaming everyone!




Sylvan Studies Team
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