Breaking Down Modern

Get a handle on the current Modern metagame before Grand Prix Detroit by reading two-time Grand Prix finalist Ari Lax’s detailed breakdown of the format’s major players.

Very little has changed about Modern since this article. Two new decks are now major players, but really they are more spinoffs than truly new archetypes. Scavenging Ooze is good; Young Pyromancer might be good.

There’s your updates.

What has changed is focus. More people are actually basing their deck decisions on consecutive results instead of whatever they feel like doing that day.

So instead of a full breakdown of the format, I’m going to focus on the things that matter the most.

Mana Efficiency

First, read this awesome blog entry by Brian Kibler.

At the first Pro Tour featuring the format in Philadelphia, Modern was about speed. The best decks that came out of that tournament were a turn 2 combo deck (Empty the Warrens Storm) and a turn 4 combo deck with counterspells that won mirrors (Splinter Twin). Wizards did not let this last long.

Standard lately has been about outrunning the removal/threat race. Falkenrath Aristocrat the problem? Play some Curse of Death’s Holds, Tragic Slips, and/or Lingering Souls. Hexproof win last week? Time for Tribute to Hungers and Liliana of the Veils. Thragtusk an issue? Well, yeah, I guess so. Playing the deck that had the best win rate one week could easily be a terrible idea the next (as I learned at Montreal/Quebec City).

Modern now is (mostly) about mana efficiency, with a few very specific exceptions for big trumps. This is why:

There are a huge number of mana-efficient answers in the format that are nearly universal. Sure, you can’t Thoughtseize or Mana Leak a land and you can’t Path to Exile or Mana Leak a Thrun, the Last Troll, but that’s just one of your cards. You really can’t build your deck to fully dodge any of these cards except Path to Exile. Even Lightning Bolt just goes upstairs and gets Snapcaster Maged back.

And let’s talk about Tarmogoyf.

It doesn’t necessarily beat the other two-drops. Young Pyromancer gums up the board pretty well, Scavenging Ooze eats all the Goyf food, and Dark Confidant or Snapcaster Mage find you the removal to win the fight. In exchange, Tarmogoyf dies less to Lightning Bolt.

The problem is that past two mana there just isn’t a creature that stands up to Tarmogoyf in combat.

Threes? Nice Kitchen Finks or Loxodon Smiter. Knight of the Reliquary might have cut it a year ago, but Deathrite Shaman and Scavenging Ooze are Tarmogoyf’s BFFs and eat all the lands for it.

Four? Umm . . . yeah, I’ve tried to find anything. The best I’ve found is Hero of Bladehold.

At five you finally have some contenders, but they are all on the back of flying alongside haste, lifelink, or hexproof. They also have the secret ability of "gets destroyed in mana efficiency against Path to Exile, Mana Leak, or Remand." Instead of paying five mana for a Baneslayer Angel, you can just cast your two-drop and one-drop that are in your hand that would have been live had they been there four turns ago.

Notice how this jump also lines up poorly with the turn 4 combo kill barrier (or turn 3 if you count getting Karned as basically dying).

Notice how five mana is one after the point where they can start Tectonic Edging you.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t play five-drops in this format. I’ve played Thundermaw Hellkite, Baneslayer Angel, and Sigarda happily (Kiki-Jiki doesn’t count). I’m just saying that if your deck isn’t well centered on good one- and two-drops, you need a very good reason to be showing up with it.

Basically, the old Zvi Mowshowitz paradigm applies; if it costs four or more mana, it better win you the game. Splinter Twin, Birthing Pod, Karn Liberated, and Olivia Voldaren. Ajani Vengeant, Supreme Verdict, and Huntmaster of the Fells are barely there in this format and basically matchup conditional.

The Big Seven

According to mtggoldfish.com (an awesome source for Magic Online metagame and financial market stats), these are the seven Modern decks boasting over a 5% metagame share. Percents are eyeball rounded to the nearest half a percent because any more accuracy is really irrelevant.

G/B/x Midrange – 12% (Jund with/without white 7%, G/B Wrapter 5%)

How to Lose to This Deck

Fold to a Thoughtseize. Notice how the real combo decks in this format are things like Splinter Twin and Living End that are hugely redundant, Tron or Scapeshift that kill off a single topdeck, or Pod decks that can play a fair game against Jund without missing a beat.

Play all creatures that lose to Liliana. Notice how you see lots of Kitchen Finks, Loxodon Smiters, and Voice of Resurgences out of the creature-heavy decks.

Be a combo deck that folds to Abrupt Decay. Sorry Storm (or at least the Pyromancer Ascension / Goblin Electromancer lists). At least Splinter Twin has Spellskite and Mizzium Skin.

Be a combo deck that loses to Scavenging Ooze (if the Jund deck plays it). Again, sorry Pyromancer Ascension / Past in Flames Storm.

How to Beat This Deck

Have built-in redundancy. Thoughtseize revealing two of card A, two of card B is not great.

Have answers to Tarmogoyf. Your own Tarmogoyf is a semi-reasonable one.

Don’t fold to a Liliana. That card is actually at an all-time low, especially with Snapcaster Mage moving towards flashing back Lightning Bolts. It’s far easier for U/W/R to line up lethal burn on a Liliana while discarding irrelevant cards and maintaining parity than the previously U/W Geist of Saint Traft decks.

Do something powerful or bigger than Jund. Just matching them doesn’t cut it if you want to win.


Seriously? You aren’t playing Scavenging Ooze? Only a bit over half the lists over the last few weeks have. That can’t be right. You don’t necessarily want four, but zero is not right.

Pod – 12% (Melira 8%, Kiki 4%)

How to Lose to This Deck

Mess around. Pod is combo or Stax. It will punish anything that lets it do its thing.

Fail to respect their ability to just beat you down. I’m undefeated with Pod against G/W Hate Bears because I am actually a better creature deck than they are. Leonin Arbiter is a 2/2. Restoration Angel is a 3/4 flier.

Don’t understand what their deck is representing, especially against Chord of Calling. Oops, I’m dead is not where you want to be.

How to Beat This Deck

Put a clock on them. Phyrexian mana is a real cost, as is cutting removal for creatures compared to other midrange decks. The Pod curve is also higher since their three-drops usually are "free" due to Pod and there is value in a toolbox.

Fight them mostly on the creature level. Drawing two Torpor Orbs and a Damping Matrix is a clear road to death by Finks, but Pillar of Flame does some good work.

If you are an attrition deck, be ready for Voice of Resurgence and Kitchen Finks as their plan to grind you out. Hallowed Burial was a very targeted answer.


Melira has better spells. Thoughtseize versus Negate is the big one. Kiki has way better creatures. Killing them with a single turn of Poding is the big one. The choice is yours.

For more, I made some videos with these decks fairly recently: Kiki Pod and Melira Pod.

Most of what I stated in those and in the comments holds. If you like words better, look here for some Kiki Pod info.

Affinity – 11%

How to Lose to This Deck

Not have instant-speed removal that kills land creatures. Abrupt Decay, I’m looking at you.

Die to a creature with protection from all colors. This is shockingly hard to not do.

Not have a fast way to interact with their cards. Doesn’t matter that your Loxodon Smiter is a 4/4; their guys are however big they want if Steel Overseer keeps untapping.

How to Beat This Deck

Wizards (Kataki, War’s Wage) prints (Stony Silence) these (Ancient Grudge) cards (Creeping Corrosion) for (Shatterstorm) a (Shattering Spree) reason (Hurkyl’s Recall).

Kill actual everything they play. U/W/R has a good start with Electrolyze, Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage, and Supreme Verdict.


Oh look, more video!

Oh look, an awesome article from fairly recently about the deck!

Tron – 10%

How to Lose to This Deck

Think you can contain them once they Tron up. You can’t stop Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

Fold to Pyroclasm. Dying some of the time to this card is ok and something you may be able to accept. All of the time is not.

Fold to Relic of Progenitus. Again, Storm, looking at you.

Think you can Blood Moon them and it means the game is over. Since Grand Prix Kansas City, I am better than two to one to beat a resolved Blood Moon with this deck.

How to Beat This Deck

Kill (Molten Rain) their (Sowing Salt) lands (Fulminator Mage). Tectonic Edge is good enough some percentage of the time but not all of it.

Remand them back to 2006 while attacking. See also: Delver of Secrets.


Ooh, more video!

Ooh, more Cedric! If you want more up-to-date videos, I’ve heard stories of a new sideboard plan over here. [Editor’s Note: Shhhh . . . I’m trying to win a Grand Prix here, Ari!]

U/W/R Control – 8.5%

How to Lose to This Deck

Die to Electrolyze. Getting two-for-oned might be passable. Three-for-oned is not.

Die to Mana Leak. I really can’t think of a deck that does this because they are all bad.

Die to Celestial Colonnade. Abrupt Decay, I’m looking at you.

Die to Snapcaster Mage. Aether Vial is not good value. See also why Merfolk is no longer a reasonable Legacy deck.

How to Beat This Deck

Play threats they can’t Path or Bolt then beat their counters. See: Scapeshift floating three (or four with double counter up), Karn with Urza’s Tower open, Loxodon Smiter followed by Domri Rade.

Do something super messed up. See: how every Legacy deck beats W/U/x Midrange in that format. I’m unsure if the equivalent exists here, but I’ve also seen people playing with Hedron Crab and not targeting themselves.

Counterflux is a super awesome card. The "can’t be countered" clause comes up a ton in a format where blue combo and Dispel exist.


Think Twice is an embarrassing Magic card to play in this format. I have killed way too many people because they thought Think Twice any time before turn 6 was an on-curve use of mana.

As I mentioned above, the addition of Red to this deck has really changed how it interacts with Liliana of the Veil. Understand how that fight actually works if you play either this deck or that card, specifically how the +1 ability is pure attrition and doesn’t actually put you ahead.

Delver – 7.5% (U/R Hoogland Delver 5.25%, RUG Delver 2.25%)

How to Lose to This Deck

Die to Electrolyze. See U/W/R section above.

Don’t have a way to stop a Delver of Secrets. People in this format had a year of reprieve from that card thanks to Deathrite Shaman. It’s time to remember that turn 1 three power is a really fast clock.

Be soft to Remand. Also known as "can you play two spells in a turn?"

Focus on creatures.

How to Beat This Deck

Kill their creatures. Lightning Bolt is the single best card against these decks. Pyroclasm is a close second. If they have Tarmogoyf, Abrupt Decay comes to mind (yay, something good to say about that card!).

Ignore Remand. Supreme Verdict is a real breaker here. Also, Lightning Bolt. Also, Abrupt Decay if you can handle Mutavaults.


This Grand Prix is just long enough away from the last one to make this not an obvious breakout choice. People in the past two weeks have figured it out on Magic Online. As I mentioned in an article a couple weeks back, you are almost always the control against this deck. Tron and big spells might not be good enough on the draw, but two Groves and two Pyroclasms is insane.

I don’t know if Young Pyromancer is better than Spellstutter Sprite, and apparently no one else does either. A week ago Magic Online seemed to think it was. Now they don’t.

Twin – 6%

How to Lose to This Deck

Be a non-interactive combo deck. Or just combo in general. Counterspells plus combo kill really dominates the mirror.

Have expensive interaction. Their cards are all one-mana counters and enters-the-battlefield Rishadan Ports. Mana is usually the choke point against them.

Die to Blood Moon. This is one of the few decks where Blood Moon is good; try not to let them do that to you.

How to Beat This Deck

Layer the interaction. Spellskite AND Linvala, Keeper of Silence AND Path to Exile. Thoughtseize AND Liliana of the Veil AND Abrupt Decay.

Have better interaction and your own combo. Gifts Ungiven was the original way we beat this deck, and while Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite loses to Boomerang, Iona, Shield of Emeria doesn’t if you can keep their guys off the table first (or Terastodon their lands if that’s more your style).

Force them to have it on turn 4 every game, don’t lose immediately to their interaction, and have a bit of interaction. R/G Aggro and Burn are shockingly good in this matchup.


60 percent of the time, it works every time.

U/W/R Twin feels like it could be awesome in some configuration. The lists that are being used now are just bad.

I’m finally zeroing in on what deck I want to play at this event. The list is down to a distinct two front-runners and two maybes. Another four decks are playable but not exceptional enough to play. The hint I’ll give you is that two of these seven decks aren’t in that group of eight passable options.

If you haven’t started figuring it out already, you probably should. The format is way too awesome to pass up.