If the rising snark in my articles wasn’t an indicator, I’ve been waiting for something to come along to really go off on. Here we go!
Brennan, Modern is a pretty good competitive format. If you think it isn’t, a reasonable explanation is that you are just bad at Modern.
You probably aren’t bad at playing an individual Modern deck. You are actually just bad at the format as a whole.
But I’m here to fix it! Here you go.
Step 1: Play a good deck.
Step 2: Build a good sideboard.
Wow, I’m a genius. Tell Danny I want extra tokens with my check this month as a bonus for this hard-hitting content.
I could spend two thousand words talking about why Brennan is wrong, but that isn’t useful. How about instead I tell you how to be right?
Brennan says sideboarding sucks in Modern because you have to “sacrifice a dozen matchups and can’t play cards that matter like Standard.”
You can customize fifteen slots in Modern to cover the same thing. It’s called overlap.
Once you climb the hill of “play a good deck,” you shouldn’t have to make huge shifts to remain good throughout a match. Your Counters Company deck’s one Burrenton Forge-Tender, one Kitchen Finks, and one Kor Firewalker are all good enough speedbumps to make your good deck beat their Burn deck. But Burrenton Forge-Tender lets you answer Anger of the Gods, Kitchen Finks lets you shave a hatebear and grind out Jeskai or Death’s Shadow, and Kor Firewalker is just there to send a message.
- 4 Arcbound Ravager
- 4 Ornithopter
- 2 Master of Etherium
- 4 Steel Overseer
- 3 Memnite
- 2 Etched Champion
- 4 Signal Pest
- 4 Vault Skirge
If we believed Brennan that Josh’s “overall gameplan was to dodge as many decks playing Stony Silence as he could,” we would see direct ways to beat Stony Silence. Instead our way to beat Stony Silence is a couple of Ghirapur Aether Grids that also cover Lingering Souls, mirror matches, and other stuff and a couple of Thoughtseizes that cover combo. Honestly, even if you fade Stony Silence, they might have Izzet Staticaster (you can’t beat that one) or Kozilek’s Return (also really good when your plan is Etched Champion) and not have to throw away slots for other relevant matchups.
That’s how you get cards like Temur Battle Rage showing up in Grixis Death’s Shadow sideboards. Gotta clock combo sometimes, gotta beat Elves sometimes, but there’s no chance the answer to both is Pyroclasm or Countersquall.
You can make mistakes here easily. If you try to sideboard in Temur Battle Rage against Merfolk to beat their go-wide strategy, you are going to have a bad time because their go-wide is different from that of Elves. Or if you fail to sideboard for Empty the Warrens against Storm. Or if you assume Rest in Peace is going to beat Grixis Death’s Shadow. Or any of a million other things.
All you have to do is think big-picture enough to cover everything, but think small-scale enough to beat everything. Easy, right?
Let’s look back to a tool I made last year to do that: the Manageable Modern Grid. There are definitely updates to be made in the wake of the banning of Gitaxian Probe, the printing of Fatal Push, and just a year of general format progress, but the overall archetypes are still good to go.
This is a great first exercise.
If you are behind against them Game 1, odds are you aren’t good against them over a match. Their sideboard is going to be better than yours. They likely have true bad answers to cut for better ones that play the same game. Your sideboard cards are going to be worse because Thoughtseize.
If you lose to exactly Thoughtseize and discard or Liliana of the Veil, Leyline of Sanctity is the card for you. Splash applications are Storm and Burn mean it is a pretty high-value card worth the extra slots for more copies.
If you are losing to removal, there are three scenarios.
The best-case scenario is you can get all of your creatures into range of being good against removal. Noble Hierarchs are fine, as they trade even on mana, three cost stuff that gets crazy in a hurry is fine because it strains their Fatal Pushes later on, and anything two-for-one is good.
If that’s the case, you just need cards to make that shift and have answers to their threats. Force them into the midrange role and then beat their cards that break midrange mirrors or let them attack. This has been the Toolbox plan basically forever: hatebears out, Path to Exiles and good threats in. You do need more removal now that every threat is a giant Zombie Fish or Avatar, but Reflector Mage is an easy way to get that.
If you can’t get all of your things into that range, you need to just swing for the fences. Find a single card or two that hopes to override their grindy plan.
If the issue is that their removal hits something special to your deck, I have bad news. You aren’t fixing it. Either rebuild your deck to not lose to that, do something crazy, or wait until their deck changes to not include the removal spell you care about. Or, back to point one, play a good deck.
If you are another grindy deck, one thing worth noting is that if you are always the control, you can’t afford to clunk up your deck. Thoughtseize makes it too easy for them to get rid of your early spells, leaving you with a virtual mulligan. If you can apply pressure and make them play reactively, then these cards get way better. This is why Geist of Saint Traft works and Keranos, God of Storms doesn’t.
Hate enchantments can do some work, but they are conditional. They are all super-conditional on the specific lists, draws, and sequences that occur. If you have them, consider if they are good, but don’t assume or overload on one angle.
One specific card to worry about is Lingering Souls. This card is a mess for a lot of decks to deal with, but you can’t put cards in your deck that are bad if they don’t have Lingering Souls. Izzet Staticaster is fine if they have Noble Hierarch and/or Dark Confidant to tag and Engineered Explosives is generally fine.
Good Overlap: Some hate enchantments, Leyline of Sanctity, sometimes low end sweepers, two-for-one bodies, spot removal.
The same broad strokes apply as with Black Midrange.
Hard-to-answer cards are great. Just be aware that Supreme Verdict is a card, making certain heavy hitters not matter. Replace Leyline of Sanctity to beat Thoughtseize with one of the millions of anti-counter cards to beat Negate. An exception or two: Countersquall isn’t common these days, but Spell Queller can be. If that’s the counter range you care about, don’t lean on Dispel.
When in doubt, go low. Beat them on mana inefficiency or spell mismatches early. If you go long, Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage, and Supreme Verdict answer random stuff too easily if you let them. Generic discard is great too, as they generally are spread thin on answers, letting you punch holes and get in position easily.
Hate cards are pretty horrible. Freeroll ones like Relic of Progenitus are better than nothing, but still not actively good.
There aren’t as many Jonathan Sukenik four-color Lingering Souls piles, so the weird card to watch for is Geist of Saint Traft. This isn’t a huge issue for combo, as it involves tapping out, but it’s another reason to play aggressively against them. If you see this card, having answers specifically for it isn’t the worst. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is similar.
Most of their other weird cards are just planeswalkers or creatures you can go under or ignore if you play to the main plan. Jam hard, jam well.
Good Overlap: Discard, countermagic, two-for-one bodies, any way to get blank removal out of your deck.
Big Mana is a weird category to approach, and probably the one that Brennan’s view of the format applies most to. If you aren’t good against Big Mana in Game 1, it takes a lot to swing the matchup.
Big Mana is good because the broad-spectrum answers aren’t good against it. You beat it by being faster, which they basically can’t beat, or having hate, which sometimes they just jam through. Even worse: the hate that matters is all over the place. Stone Rain effects are okay but not great and suck elsewhere. Sometimes Surgical Extraction is a good backup to Stone Rains, and sometimes it isn’t. Blood Moon is okay but beatable, and very deck-specific to play in the first place.
Pay close attention to the metagame here and aim for the specific versions you expect to see. The 1% of the time a maniac shows up with Amulet and you play against it and their deck doesn’t self-destruct is just life, just like the percentage of the time they go Attune with Aether into Longtusk Cub and everything is horrible.
Good Overlap: Stony Silence sometimes, kinda discard, specific countermagic, Blood Moon. Losing is also an option if their deck is bad right now.
- 4 Sleight of Hand
- 4 Serum Visions
- 4 Gifts Ungiven
- 4 Desperate Ritual
- 2 Opt
- 3 Remand
- 3 Grapeshot
- 4 Manamorphose
- 4 Pyretic Ritual
- 1 Noxious Revival
- 2 Past in Flames
This is a big one right now. How do you beat Storm without spewing sideboard slots?
Traditional combo is a very self-cannibalizing archetype. The mirror matches are very lopsided and the same general cards are good across the board. As a result, preparing for the number one combo deck often covers you against all combo decks.
Counters are generally better than discard, as they often force your opponent to spend a lot of resources on “going off.” The exception is playing against Pact of Negation, but that’s rare and often you can counter something along the way to cripple those decks.
Graveyard hate is relevant against most combo decks, but almost every deck here has some way around it. Some is good, but only graveyard hate isn’t.
Cranial Extraction effects are also good, but they are slow. There also aren’t a lot of other matchups these effects matter in, especially now that Scapeshift has cards other than Scapeshift. Only spend slots on them if you are really trying to beat up on combo and if you can cast them in time.
Weird hate permanents don’t hit every combo deck. Only lean on them if they hit the specific deck you care about or if you already had it. The exception is Rule of Law effects, but those are basically only good against combo.
Right now, the weird card to play around is Empty the Warrens. Have a sweeper versus Storm. Most of the other combo decks don’t have a similar weird card, or at least one that requires such a different approach.
Good Overlap: Hard counters, good clocks, sometimes Cranial Extraction effects, often graveyard hate, right now a couple of sweepers. Spell-limiting effects also hit this whole archetype. Covering one combo deck often covers all combo decks.
This category sounds like it should have similar issues to Big Mana, but in practice you can beat most of the Modern linear decks with normal gameplay. You don’t need that many Ancient Grudges to win.
Lantern Control and Krark-Clan Ironworks are both spell decks that lose to counters. Affinity is a small creature deck that is better than normal against sorcery-speed sweepers.
Etched Champion is the specific card that needs an answer from Affinity. Kozilek’s Return is pretty awesome, but any Wrath works, as does discard.
The big issue with Lantern Control is that you need a density of stuff. It doesn’t all need to be Stony Silence slam dunks, but you can’t let them Thoughtseize or Pithing Needle your one thing out of the way. Fortunately lots of stuff matters here. Negate, graveyard hate, take your pick. Just make sure there’s a lot of it and a spread.
Dredge is a different beast. You do need graveyard hate to beat Dredge, and a lot of it. Often those cards overlap elsewhere. The key is splitting them to spread your overlap. To cite my Grand Prix Las Vegas sideboard: one Grafdigger’s Cage for Collected Company, one Nihil Spellbomb for fair matchups, two Surgical Extractions for combo, and two Anger of the Gods for creatures made up my six cards. It also helps that the answers cover each other’s backs: two Grafdigger’s Cage or two Anger of the Gods won’t be as good as one of each.
Or you can just beat Dredge because their deck is slow and uninteractive. At least that’s how everyone beats me when I play Dredge.
There isn’t a third linear category in Modern…. yet. When that happens, we will see how this adjusts.
Good Overlap: Sweepers, small creature answers, hard counters, and spreading your specific answers. Kolaghan’s Command is also a hit.
- 3 Birds of Paradise
- 3 Eternal Witness
- 4 Devoted Druid
- 4 Kitchen Finks
- 3 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Viscera Seer
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 2 Voice of Resurgence
- 1 Tireless Tracker
- 3 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 4 Vizier of Remedies
Their deck is all creatures. Kill their creatures.
Okay, don’t be all kill spells. Kill their relevant things, and don’t let yourself get tied up in a card advantage fight. You won’t win.
Option one to dodge the card advantage war is some engine. Get bonus cards repeatedly and beat their two-for-ones.
Option two is to only kill their stuff that really matters and kill them. Combo does this best, but until U/R Gifts Storm, it has been hard for combo to slot in removal unless their combo is removal like Living End. If you are really fast, you can kill them before they set up hate, but Spell Queller makes that harder. If you are a Big Mana maniac, good news: only Todd Stevens will show up with relevant hate!
Option three is to kill their stuff in bulk. You need to level your sweepers to the threat, however. Sometimes that means Anger of the Gods to beat Kitchen Finks. Sometimes that means Supreme Verdict to beat Knight of the Reliquary. Figure it out, or don’t.
Graveyard hate does something against their stickier threats. Similar to Black Midrange, some is fine but more than some is bad because the second Rest in Peace doesn’t kill whatever carries Gavony Township counters.
Overlap: Grafdigger’s Cage, sweepers, hard-hitting threats, additional spot removal, a graveyard hate spell or two.
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 3 Mayor of Avabruck
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
Which one has better art? If you don’t play actual Wrath of God as your sweeper, spend a bit of time thinking about if you can reasonably play something one-sided.
Flavor text on your Lightning Bolts is in bad taste. Try to keep your other removal consistent.
Original art on your giant blockers is best. Kill their cards that make their cards too good to block.
Beat them by ignoring Aether Vial the majority of the time. Kill their stuff, let them flood.
They probably have one stupid card you can fumble a game into. No good answer here; just play the games and don’t punt.
Overlap: Kill stuff, play better creatures, don’t punt.
Kill their stuff. Do it cheap. I won’t waste your time.
Good Overlap: I hear Fatal Push is a good card.
Bulky Midrange / Prison
This was the newest archetype last year with Skred Red and W/R Prison being flash hits, but it hasn’t solidified in an obvious way. Death and Taxes kinda lies here, but it’s a creature deck. Eldrazi Tron does too, but it’s kinda a big mana deck.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Just don’t lose to their hate card. Plan your sideboarding to minimize the chance of that happening. Sideboard down on incidental one-drops against Chalice of the Void. Sideboard so you can play with one basic off a Blood Moon. Basically, build your decks better.
Overlap: It’s case-specific, but you don’t need anything narrow. Don’t screw it up.
You can prepare for most things, but like in any format, you can’t prepare for literally anything. People do weird stuff.
For the third or fourth time, the answer is to play a good deck. Do something powerful.
To use a classic Day quote: “If they are trying to do almost any strategy, the best counter is to go [redacted] kill them.”